Pitchfork: Review of Metronome – Take Down
With the debut of his new project Metronome, Mikel Rouse reaches the rarified level of production ambition he first achieved in the ’80s, as he weaved together classical, electronic, and indie rock.
by Seth Colter Walls
AUGUST 1 2016
New York’s 1980s club scene boasted famously cavalier attitudes regarding genre convention. Composers worked in rock venues, improvisers experimented with turntablists, and few musicians derived more joy from the era’s stylistic permissiveness than Mikel Rouse. Using the then-new LinnDrum machine, he painstakingly programmed Quorum—a complex, thumping percussion opus that was promptly adopted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (and is still used today). He also fronted a melodic indie rock outfit called Tirez Tirez, which opened for Talking Heads and saw its final recordings distributed by IRS Records.
At the same time, the composer led a contemporary classical group, Broken Consort. This quartet drew clear inspiration from the minimalist-meets-rock energy of the Philip Glass Ensemble. But Rouse worked rewarding changes on this inheritance, even toying with approaches to atonal writing that were generally considered antithetical to minimalist trends. Overall, Rouse’s polyglot catalog of recordings from this decade still holds up; the Tirez Tirez albums remain in need of reissuing.
Now Rouse is on another hot streak. While some of his pop-song collections from the ’90s and ’00s strained to balance his hooks with his polyrhythmic play, recent albums like Recess and Boost/False Doors have displayed more cohesion. And on Take Down—the debut of his new project, Metronome—Rouse approaches his production duties with greater ambition than at any point since Quorum.
The opening track, “Habibi Lossless,” combines several Rouse hallmarks to stirring effect. His tenor voice and slide guitar both offer indie-folk comforts, while drier pitched percussion lines swerve around seductive electro-pop beats. Over the course of the 10-minute song, minimalist phrases of varying length cycle through the arrangement, creating cross-rhythms and a swirl of melodic information. Still, the center always holds. This attractive but mercurial structure is also suited to the lyrics, which hint at a romance interrupted (if not fully extinguished).
Longing for an affection that may already be lost is not novel subject matter. But Rouse’s musical evocation of this psychology is ingenious. The vocals take care of the present-tense melancholy, while the madly cavorting instrumental activity represents all the mental what-ifs and counter-arguments that rebel against a discouraging romantic prognosis. Toward the end, a slow vocal-and-guitar refrain is paired with blissfully untroubled techno programming; in addition to being a druggy juxtaposition, the compositional choice creates an affecting portrait of someone trying to dance through pain. Naturally, this strategy hits a dead end, too, and Rouse’s narrator can be heard expelling some exhaustion as the song concludes.
Solitude and romantic discord are themes that appear elsewhere on the album, though nothing else on Take Down is as heavy as the leadoff track. Songs that push vocalist Claire Karoly forward in the mix have a buoyant quality: “Habit” contains a synth-driven theme that draws from new wave, while the breeder-dissing “Growing Pains” has a middle-aged punk’s rejectionist spirit.
The composer doesn’t take any guitar-hero solos, but his range on the instrument is evident across all of these winding pieces. He threads playfully funky licks throughout “Ambulance Chaser” that go well with the song’s teasing vocal performance. On a track like “Side Myself,” Rouse can begin with acoustic, Delta-blues accents before turning to some exultant electric accompaniment during the climax. More than any lyrical or conceptual through-line, it’s this consistently well-judged mixing of parts—with elements and strategies culled from dance music, rock, and classical forms—that gives the album its unity.
There are scattered suggestions of an overarching concept, here and there, as is common with Rouse. He calls this album a “soundtrack to America’s future,” and so a particular song’s narrator may broach concerns over personal money-management issues, or class inequality, that are apt to sound timely not only now but in years to come. Yet those fears are never more than sketched, leaving these lines to impress more strongly as the stray worries that can be part of life as it’s lived, disappointment to disappointment.
Take Down isn’t as interested in any systematic critique of contemporary culture as it is in the idea that a frustrating circumstance might be bettered through some surprising new choice. Whenever the cynicism of a lyric threatens to make a song seem too cloistered, a new harmony or vocal cadence has a way of throwing open a window and letting in a new vibe. After growing up in those protean New York clubs of old, it’s as though Rouse knows full well that whatever room you’re in can be made to host the sounds you need to hear at any moment, conventions be damned.