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The Boston Phoenix Mono Tones

The pleasure of "Formica Blues."

By Charles Taylor

MARCH 2, 1998:  In terms of the music made by the British duo Mono, the more significant part of singer Siobhan de Mare's lineage isn't her father, Tony Meehan, who was the drummer for the early-'60s British group the Shadows, but her maternal grandfather (now a Jehovah's Witness), who was the buffed and oiled guy you saw striking the gong at the beginning of films presented by J. Arthur Rank. On their debut album, Formica Blues, Mono (de Mare and keyboardist/producer/knob twiddler Martin Virgo) make soundtrack-style music that, at its best, is atmospheric enough to be able to do without images. (Although in fact the lead track and first single, "Life in Mono," has found a film and images that stand up to it. It's played in the closing credits of Alfonso Cuarón's superb -- in my opinion -- Great Expectations, over a montage of the exquisite paintings done for the film by Italian artist Francesco Clemente.)

It's a fair question why, at this point, anyone should care about another British band making atmospheric, soundtrack-derived pop. That question comes to mind particularly during the moments (like "Silicone") when de Mare's vocals are almost indistinguishable from the distanced soul mannerisms of Portishead's Beth Gibbons. There's no justification I can offer for Formica Blues -- and none needed -- beyond the pleasure it gives, and the smoothness with which Virgo has blended his acknowledged obsessions: '60s pop, soundtracks, trip-hop, and drum 'n' bass.

Odd, unexpected frills turn up throughout. A harpsichord plays in the background of "Life in Mono"; you can hear dub breaks at the beginning of "Slimcea Girl" (the title refers to a '70s brand of British low-cal bread). The sound is surprisingly varied from cut to cut. "Life in Mono" has a stately, almost formalized feel. "Slimcea Girl" wouldn't be out of place among the numbers Burt Bacharach and Hal David composed for Dionne Warwick in the '60s; and it's easy to imagine "High Life" as a hit for the Supremes. (On the album's closing cuts, Virgo takes over for some trip-hop excursions on which de Mare is used mostly as vocal window dressing.)

The mood and the emotion of Formica Blues, though, are all of a piece. A review from the British magazine Echoes, after describing Mono's sound as "John Barry, Juliette Greco, Françoise Hardy . . . Astrud Gilberto . . . Jerry Goldsmith, Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot . . . cheap raw fags, cheaper red gut-rotter . . . Avengers . . . black roll necks . . . Jean-Paul, Simone, Albert . . . ," concluded, "Right, that seems to be everything." Almost.

What distinguishes the album from a shopping list of mid-'60s cool is the enormous affection de Mare and Virgo conjure up for the period they invoke. It's the lack of irony or distance in that affection that are the key to understanding this band. They see no reason why the styles of music suggested by the artists in that list above can't be as valid a vehicle for expressing emotion today as 30 years ago. That's why they don't bother to separate out the muted Bacharach horns in "Slimcea Girl" from the trip-hop and drum 'n' bass touches. This is music that rejects the notion that dedication to a retro style marks you as an archivist.

For all the atmosphere of Formica Blues, it's to Mono's credit that the album sounds like a collection of songs rather than musical settings. For now, "Life in Mono," which was haunting the radio months before this album was released, can stand as the song that sums up the band, a declaration of intent. And it's a song defined more by an absence than a presence. As it begins, with a harpsichord playing over a languid, submerged beat, DJ scratches, and the slightly menacing swell of strings, you could be anywhere, an overly bright coffee shop at two in the morning, or a formal ballroom as the lights dim and the orchestra goes into a slow dance. The location keeps blurring, shifting before you can get a fix on it. De Mare's vocal, so high and evanescent that a breath could shrivel it, seems to float to you from around corners or out of alleyways. It draws you forward, but you can never get close to it; it moves on before you can reach the spot it emanates from. "The stranger sang a theme/From someone else's dream," she sings, the words seeming to define the spirit she and Virgo are trying to capture in their music, themes that called to them from "someone else's dream" (a movie?).

As the song goes on, de Mare becomes more the pursued than the pursuer. She comes to embody the romantic cool she and Virgo hold most dear. She functions in the song the way Gwyneth Paltrow does in Great Expectations, a vision so haunting and so beautiful, you can believe someone would spend a lifetime pursuing it. That's what's beneath the surface of "Life in Mono" and at the heart of Mono's music: sophistication as a veneer for the deepest, most keening sense of longing.

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