If any of you happen to run into Mahjongg, tell those guys they just made my shit list. I requested this album thinking it was going to be a cake-walk. I mean, hello, I totally reviewed Raydoncong back in 2005 (for the now defunct Suburban Horror, may its soul rest in peace), and I think I pretty much had it nailed. I figured I’d dust off a brilliant chestnut about “Gang of Four + Afro-beat,” toss it together with some crap about radical politics, and BAM! I’m back on the couch watching reruns of The Office with my fiancée before you can say “agitpop.”
What the fuck, Mahjongg? Where did all the guitars go? Sure, they’re still there somewhere, buried in the mix, engineered beyond all recognition, or flaring up like an unexpected rash, but they’re very seldom front and center. The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger continues to propel the band in the direction indicated by 2008’s Kontpab, toward increasingly electronic textures and dance-hall structures. Don’t want to take my word for it? Check out the album’s centerpiece, “Grooverider Free.” It’s a nearly 10-minute club-thumper with a neon-synth opening that drops precipitously off into a drum-and bass second act. And in spite of the enchanting Ministry shout-out in the lyrics, I’m not certain I hear a single guitar in the entire song.
As on previous records, the percussion is the most important element here, and the vast array of percussive instruments the band utilizes — from traditional kits to bongos, drum machines to God only knows what other improvised ephemera — helps to give the album much dynamism and variety. What’s really cool is the way that differing musical traditions can blend together within the same song, as on closing track “LA Beat,” where a circular tribal rhythm is overlapped with the more modern sound of a heavily treated electronic kit.
Leftist politics still figure into Mahjongg’s lyrics (see the throbbing “Wardance” for the most explicit example), but by and large the vocals serve more of a rhythmic function than a signifying one. Human voices, when not speaking in foreign tongues, are often buried or distorted. And there’s a lot of people contributing vocals this time around. Almost every track was made with the help of one or more collaborators, including such notable Chicagoans as Jeneane O’Toole of The 1900s and funk punk legend Bobby Conn (and if you’re not familiar with the latter, then you owe it to yourself to watch this performance). While the preponderance of contributors could have muddied the water, the group’s sound is so elastic that everyone just seems to blend right in.
So while I resent Mahjongg for making my job harder, I can’t argue with the final product on display here. The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger cements their place at the forefront of contemporary dance music. The songs are funky and immediate, but display a global consciousness that puts them in a class of their own.