Dntel Dumb Luck

[Sub Pop; 2007]

Styles: IDM, homemade indie-electro
Others: (James) Figurine, The Postal Service, Boards of Canada

"The man of a thousand faces" is a tag most often used in reference to Lon Chaney, the superb silent silver screen legend, due to his to his exceptionally eerie ability to immerse himself completely and seamlessly into a variety of disparate acting roles. Putting rings under his eyelids to give that perfect stare, adding or losing pounds depending on the character body type, harnessing his limbs for long shoots or wearing prosthetics until his body was battered, Chaney also often chose to portray society's misunderstood "monsters," divining sympathy by depicting outcasts most of the world had long forgotten. His passion for acting "was in makeup and the art of pantomime" and the challenge of giving an untapped spirit and sentimentality to those many would otherwise find loathsome. He was a legend and could be considered one of the world's first method actors.

The music world's answer to this 'man of a thousand faces' may very well be Jimmy Tamborello, who uses the different monikers of James Figurine, The Postal Service, and Dntel to flitter between IDM, electro-pop revisionism, indie jangle, and fun sampling and sound manipulation. While Chaney preferred to master his craft alone through endless imitation and experimentation, Tamborello welcomes the help of friends with each release. With Dumb Luck he has assembled an impressive list of guest vocalists: Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Ed Droast (Grizzly Bear), Markus Archer and Valerie Trebeljahr (Lali Puna), Andrew Broder (Fog), Grant Olsen and Sonya Westcott (Arthur & Yu), Mia Doi Todd, and Christopher and Jennifer Gunst (Mystic Chords Of Memory).

A stellar supporting cast for sure, but Pure Luck is still Tamborello's baby. Besides the chronic compulsion to collaborate, Tamborello's past work is characterized by an almost prurient distaste for the 'simple' or 'straightforward,' and this album is no different. Restless trickery is the name of the game, and while many would argue Dntel might not be all that interesting without the added flourishes, I would have rather taken my chances with letting the songs speak for themselves without the added bells and whistles (and sketchy cuts and blips) this time around. The problem with many shape-shifters is buying into their various acts wholeheartedly, and while Tamborello achieved this feat rather convincingly up until now, he seems to have shortchanged the method this time around.

The album's high point comes early on. Ed Droast appears on "To a Fault" and provides stretched and swirling vocals that can, for once, be compared to Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine. The tune is surprisingly groovy, with a middle break of slow drone that features Droast's voice pushed both manually and electronically before jumping back to the infectious bounce. Elsewhere, Mia Doi Todd's return into the Dntel fold is great, due in part to the singer grabbing the song by the short hairs with a spotlight-grabbing vocal and a wonderful change of pace provided by electroclaps and lovely noodley guitar. It is the rare treat on Dumb Luck where singer and song match up perfectly.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album's tracks fail to live up to either of these two standouts. "The Distance" (with Arthur & Yu) is pleasant but ultimately a throwaway, as is "Natural Resources" (with Broder), which is at best an unsuccessful experiment in seeing how many disagreeing noises you can fit in a song without annoying the listener. Likewise, the Mystic Chords Of Memory-abetted closer, "Dreams," sails along prettily enough and builds into a lightly-layered stew but is largely and regrettably unmemorable before descending into a tacky decline of superfluous sounds. The Conor Oberst-sung "Breakfast in Bed" isn't bad, but it's just plain bland. His quivering voice and kitchen-sink lyrics have always been his calling cards, but here the effort comes across sounding somewhat phony.

Frequent Tamborello muse and indie "It Girl" Jenny Lewis is called upon to provide her baby-doll voice to the backdrop of gentle strums and channel-surfing noises on the fey, whimsical "Roll On." Again, it is what it is, but it isn't much. Every song on this album offers escapism and attempts to push some sort of envelope, but you could probably say that about every song on every album ever. As always, there is a hell of a lot going on within the confines of each song, but I'll be damned if I can remember much of it. What a lot of it sounds like is a more electronically-inclined Broken Social Scene with the unpredictable hooks being replaced by unpredictable (and unnecessary) bit parts. If you think that is what has been missing in your listening life, then by all means go for it, but you deserve better. I would have settled with Dumb Luck being "strangely compelling." Unfortunately it is not even that.

Ultimately, Dumb Luck is like James Cagney trying to portray the chameleonic Chaney in the 1957 loose biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces: the acting is adequate enough, not spectacular, but without jumping into Chaney's skin like the master did with his portrayals the performance rings hollow. Wrenching heart and inspiration from this mish-mashed musical genre is a complex problem, but not an impossible one. Some acts, including Tamborello and co. before with Life Is Full of Possibilities and Give Up, have managed to imbue "indie-electronica" with plenty of sincerity and endearment. Throwing sounds and guest vocal contributions at a wall and recording whatever sticks seems the facile solution here rather than a well-thought out plan, and any fool with arms can throw. Dumb Luck is an album that desperately tries to be spontaneous and carefree but eventually ends up sounding stunted and alienating. Stunted and alienating is all well and good if that is what a role calls for, but Dumb Luck is covered so thick with a patina of artificiality that it is hard to feel much emotion about it at all, even the pitiable reaction to a pathetic yet engaging brute.
1 Dumb Luck
2 To a Fault
3 I'd Like To Know
4 Roll On
5 The Distance
6 Rock My Boat
7 Natural Resources
8 Breakfast in Bed
9 Dreams

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