Panther Secret Lawns

[Fryk Beat; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: avant-disco, funk-punk
Others: The Mae Shi, Jamie Lidell, Ariel Pink, DFA

If electro-clash taught us anything, it’s that kids playing sloppy disco on shoddy Danelectro guitars wears thin fast. Computers, sequencing, and other technology involved also gave me an overdue appreciation for meticulous and challenging arrangements for live instruments, by producers like Quincy Jones and Giorgio Moroder (see Filmore’s review of [Cerrone->] for a further example of what’s so great about disco). But the longer these traditions of pilfering continue, it’s inevitable that even through that imitation, scrawny pale kids will develop a stylistic stamp of their own. And that’s where Charlie Salas-Humara, a.k.a. Panther (formerly of The Planet The), steps in.

Secret Lawns defies both the sloppy-chic and computer-perfect camps with its schizophrenic bedroom interpretations of dancefloor decadence. The reality of his fractured soulfulness is actually quite introspective, far from feel-good, and you’d be hard pressed to dance to tracks like the minute-long, herky jerky “Here We Stand.” Beats are rarely consistent enough for prolonged ass-shaking, and his lyrics are too bizarro to ignore. Unlike most dance music's emphasis on rhythm, his layered, upper-range vocals are the glue holding everything together. In fact, his stuttering rhythmic perplexities sound like Beefheart’s Magic Band at a disco, and despite all artsy posturing, Panther deeply embraces this sense of experimentation.

In addition to the fact that abrupt, oddly metered time changes and hints of atonality have no place in a club atmosphere, Secret Lawns is, as the title vaguely suggests, a contradiction of something private and public. The album art showcases three split personalities of Salas-Humara: showman, tortured, and looking at the camera, surprised to see us staring back at him. On one hand, he’s like a bratty little kid, constantly filling space and begging for attention by way of kitschy, faux-soul vocals. On the other, he’s left to his own devices, and his home-produced style reflects a kind of personal singularity, again not typically designed for the dancefloor. The duality of mad scientist versus flat-out arrogance works very well for Secret Lawns, and ultimately Panther’s fractured funk is a lot of fun and surprisingly accessible for music with such experimental leanings.

It will be interesting to see Panther mature as an artist. I can’t help but wonder if he’ll eventually shake off the self-fulfilling zaniness that harkens back to Pure Guava-era Ween. Songs like “Tiger's Touch” and “How Well Can You Swim?” suggest the makings of the next great force in production, while other songs are left less polished, suggesting something not so commercially-minded. Regardless of what the future holds, Secret Lawns is catchy as hell, and -- although pompous -- it’s always balanced out by a refreshing sense of freewheeling self-expression.

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