You wouldn't think from listening to this record that S Prcss are a band ahead of its time. Their latest album MNML falls right in line with all the five billion other indie bands making arty, vaguely danceable post-punk with electronic elements at the moment. It was released by a label that's already put out records by similar bands Les Savy Fav and Enon, which makes it sound even more like a record slightly behind its time. The lack of attention that MNML has received in the music press since its release indicates that the market for this kind of music has long been cornered, to the point where a backlash almost seems inevitable. That would be unfair to S Prcss, though, because they've been making this music way before it became fashionable. Their previous album More Me energetically breezed through ten songs in less than a half-hour, as if the band just couldn't wait to show everyone all of the tricks they learned from their first Gang of Four records. This was way back in 2001, which isn't that long ago in real life but can seem like decades ago to a rock critic. This was before Williamsburg became the new center of cool, before the Providence scene developed its noise fetish, and before high school kids in Lubbock were able to convincingly shout "Who rocks the party that rocks the body?" without ever having heard a Slick Rick record. More Me was a great record that happened to be out of its proper context, and it sank under the radar rather quickly. The band's inability to tour behind it, due to the members living in different cities, didn't help matters much either.
Anyway, times have changed and so has this band. They've dropped the vowels from their name, dropped a member from the band (they now have a rotating spot for the bass player), moved to the same city, and gotten both artier and more tuneful. For the most part, the dissonant scraping that characterized the guitar playing on More Me has vanished. In its place is a style of guitar playing closer to that of U2's the Edge, with lots of single-note melodies run through copious amounts of delay for rhythmic effect. Guitarist Bob Doto has grown more comfortable as a singer, projecting at the right moments and layering his raspy vocals on top of each other to create exquisite harmonies like those on "Hiyah Is a Karate Chop." He also breaks his words apart to fit the rhythm of the song, placing emphases on unexpected syllables; for instance, on opener "A Boulder Tycoon or Enya" the word "experimental" becomes "Ex-pair…ee-men…tal." This makes his already cryptic lyrics even harder to decipher properly.
I mean, who the hell really knows what he's talking about in songs with E.E. Cummings-style titles like "The Geometric Is Written Is:" and "In Its Mouth a Murder. Oh MNML"? I mean, the latter song can be interpreted as an attack on dishonest people ("Et tu brute simulacra/Million times removed"), and "Our Bikes Are Silver. Her Bed Is Hers" ends with what could be a challenge to potential date rapists: "All you boys so in love: are you prepared to get off when she says to you, "get off," and tells you to go jerk off?" However, Doto almost always throws in a turn of phrase that throws whatever logic one tries to establish within the lyrics out of the window. Lyrically, the most direct moment on MNML is album closer "I Heart You," in which Doto enumerates everything he likes about a particular girl. That song notwithstanding, Doto's obfuscation is by no means a bad thing…and even if it was, moments like the Pixies surf-punk riff that drives "Boulder Tycoon" and the spaghetti-Western techno of "Geometric" will keep you too busy jumping around to really care.
The album's only weak spot is "Spring Garden Drive-By," the only song that drummer Daneil Mazone sings. It's a tone-deaf, super-referential shout-out to the Providence music scene that has the same momentum-killing effect that Kim Gordon's songs have had on recent Sonic Youth records (Murray Street notwithstanding). Mazone is a capable drummer, but someone might want to auto-tune her vocals the next time she steps up to the microphone. Otherwise, every track on MNML is solid, with even the brief instrumental jams serving as effective palate cleansers in between the "proper" songs. Of particular note among these interludes is "Random Factor/Start Code," which sounds like a typewriter and a video game having a war with each other. Maybe on future albums S Prcss can do more to incorporate moments like that into the "proper" songs. They don't have to completely segregate the noise from the music for the sake of accessibility. I'm pretty sure that with S Prcss finally functioning as an all-in-one-place band, they'll take a couple of steps away from the sterility that occasionally plagues MNML (its songs WERE written through the mail, after all). Overall, though, this album is excellent, and deserves so much more than to be filed away as just another genre exercise.