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Emperor X - Western Teleport

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Artist: Emperor X

Album: Western Teleport

Label: Bar-None

Review date: Nov. 4, 2011


Emperor X - "Erica Western Teleport" (Western Teleport)


Chad Matheny’s Western Teleport is about many things, perhaps too many for easy absorption. There are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There are brainy women. There’s floating anxiety. There are even scattered references to public transportation. Yet, at its bottom, this album by Matheny’s nom de plume Emperor X seems to consider the limits of intelligence when trying to make sense of the world. Matheny, a science teacher and one-time Physics Ph.d. candidate, wears his braininess on the outside, sputtering knotty poetry made of precise, logical, yet loosely connected observations. The point seems to be that all this knowledge falls short and feeling eventually takes over. “Don’t think of her studying for the LSAT / Don’t think of her accessing her Comsat,” he admonishes, in “Erica Western Teleport,” a love song so eccentric and specific that you end up falling for Erica a little yourself. The key phrase might be “don’t think,” a directive that Matheny is far too bright and curious to follow.

The result is an intricate, but convoluted kind of pop. There’s a buzz of feedback at the back of many of these percolating melodies, a sense they could turn feral at any given moment, that they’re held in check only by the intense concentration of their multi-talented ringmaster.

Like many very intelligent people, Matheny has his obsessions. Legally blind from an auto accident, he is unable to drive in L.A., and so has become fascinated with (and dependent on) public transit. The cover of his album shows an abstracted diagram of L.A.’s freeway system. His native terrain, then, is a pedestrian’s view of the western capital, a landscape pocked with crumbling overpasses, bathed in sodium glare and punctuated by empty bus stop kiosks.

To this, he adds a jarring overstrata of Middle East imagery. In “Sig Alert,” for instance, the settings are all in Southern California, but the action comes from overseas. Grenades fly on the 405, La Brea’s a refugee camp, and the rent is relentlessly due in Westwood, as Matheny observes, “We have no systems left to shock, and we’re awestruck, raise your hands up, ‘cuz there’s hope,” amid zings and zips of autoharp. The song, like many on the album, is upbeat in the midst of chaos, its clattering, jostling mix of sounds barely fitting into the space allowed. It’s a rush, despite the dark lyrics, and you have a sense of running headlong and ecstatic — perhaps to escape danger, perhaps simply for the joy of it.

There are some affecting slow songs — “Compressor Repair” constructs a touching metaphor for love using air conditioner mechanics — but the best cuts on this album reach for noisy, conflicted ebullience. None is better than “Allahu Akbar,” rising out of a haze of altered voice sounds into Western Teleport’s most infectious melody, its neatly scanning lines touching on Sharia law, IEDs, Tahrir Square and the tigress from the Baghdad zoo. The song climaxes in a heady list of demands (“Send us gold / Send us ice / Send us meteorites / Send us snow / Send us hail / Send us high speed rail”) as random and rapid fire as modern life can demand. The chorus, built around the Arab words for “God is great,” cannot help but conjure contradictory images. And yet Matheny delivers the words with a relentless positivity, the soaring musical line underlining a certainty that things will work out. It’s a great song, a thrill ride and, to my ears at least, not even slightly disrespectful to Islam. (The guys who hunt Dutch cartoonists and Salman Rushdie may disagree.)

Matheny’s voice sounds a little like John Darnielle’s, a comparison that is only reinforced by the intricacy and intelligence of his lyrics. There’s a lot to discover here, and even multiple listens may leave a listener short of a real grip on Western Teleport. Yet, even when you don’t understand fully what’s going on (is this song about L.A. or Baghdad?), the songs are catchy enough that you don’t mind. And maybe that’s the point, that the brain isn’t the only filter for this kind of music, that intelligence will take you only so far before feeling takes over. Either way, it’s a hell of a ride.

By Jennifer Kelly

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