Kyle Andrews – Robot Learn Love (REVIEW)

August 16, 2011 3 comments

At some point back in the days of moon shoes and Gak, I was in a bedroom band by the name of The Spitting Camels.

Don’t ask me how that band name was clever, funny or relevant to the 1990s.  It was a shitty idea from a collective of Airwalk-wearing kids with shitty ideas.  We had a shitty secondhand drumset and a shitty recording mechanism that doubled as a karaoke machine.  We recorded on shitty cassette tapes.  We “sang” — warbled, rather, in the tittering (lulzword) at fart jokes sense — parodies of songs like Oasis‘ “Champagne Supernova” and Savage Garden‘s “Truly Madly Deeply.”

I believe the Oasis parody went something like this:

Beans are black and you are white/farts blow out the candlelight/where were you when we were eating beans?

And Savage Garden got a considerable more penile treatment:

I wanna pee with you on the mountain/I wanna pee with you in the sea/I wanna pee with you forever/until the pee runs down my knee

Turns out, no one had any musical talent, even if the songwriting bar would prove set high by the time every three-note Ke$ha clone rolled out.  After the inevitable in-band brawls broke out and every kid’s divergent downward spirals into candydust seas of Pixie stick addictions, the Camels disassembled, having only birthed a lone cassette sample of pee and fart jokes into the bedroom music industry.

Years later, in high school, I adopted the rap moniker Hi-C and dropped a couple 8-bit freestyles into a computer mic once used to play the original Rainbow Six on a 56k modem (AKA the original dubstep), which the Nickelodeon generation — the real Nickelodeon generation, word to Doug and fuck a Fairly Odd-Parents attention span acid trip — should fondly remember for those few but fateful footsteps heard coming down the basement stairs when mom wanted the phone-line free for grandma, but the pixels around Pam Anderson were only teasing the top of a nipple.

Hi-C may or may not have dropped a couple bars with a certain One-Take Jamarcus over a Super Mario Bros beat:

My name is Mar-i-o and/I’m a million coins rich/I’m the one that you can’t touch, so/shu-u-ut the fuck up/BITCH!

After my falling out with Atlantic Records following that hit single, and a long-winded legal battle with Keiser B for stealing my concept album centered around a downtrodden urban individual out in the “middle of the Nap” pressed into “trappin” and “killin” that, in the album’s close after his dreams of one day making it to Broadway are dashed, proves he “ain’t no fuckin’ role model”, I finally retired as a musician.  Unless you count a few harmless forays into Fruity Loops sampling Half-Baked soundbites, and more than a few shower solos that don’t sound half-bad with high water pressure and a glob of body wash in the left ear canal.

Oh, wait, the album review.  Right, right.  Autobiographical tangents.  Where in the state capitol of hell is the relevance?!

Bedroom pop.  Shamelessly self-produced sound.  Your misshaped macaroni painting you can’t help but smile at anyway, the torn coloring page book that dared draw outside the lines.

I guess that’s how I’ve always thought of Kyle Andrews, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  Freshman year of college, I happened upon this All Things Go Night Drive mixtape that featured, amongst artists like Sufjan Stevens, Electric President and Jens Lekman, some dude I had never heard of named Kyle Andrews.  And a little diddy called “Amos in Ohio”.

Shit.  Rocked.  My.  World.

Almost without hesitation — I was broke as shit as a college freshman, so obviously, monetary decisions always came with a little hesitation — I went out and purchased Amos in Ohio, Andrews’ debut album.  It was great.  It was everything I had hoped it would be from the title track.  It was catchy, it was unabashedly gleeful, it was synthy in all the right spots, twangy in others, and altogether the kind of adorable soundtrack that colored my walks from dorm to campus.

It was bedroom pop at its finest.  Low-budget, lo-fi eartoast, buttered by the refrain of the title track: everything’s fine, but I think I’m losing my mind/In Cleveland, in Cleveland.

In the five years since his debut album, I don’t think any artist has evolved as much Andrews, or covered as much ground.  His 2007 follow-up EP, Find Love, Let Go, was an acoustic 180, a more melancholy and introspective effort than his smiley face debut.  2008 saw the release of his second album, Real Blasty, which hearkened back to the mood of ‘Amos’ but layered on a couple dozen more synths and more than a few manslaughter charges on electric guitars and cymbals.  2010 brought his second EP, Kangaroo, which felt like a cross between Find Love’s acoustic approach and Amos’ simplistic glee.

I enjoyed all of these efforts on their own merits.  They accomplished exactly what Andrews had set out to do with each.  They were diverse, they were ambitious and they never got gun-shy; Andrews broke out every instrument and electronic effect short of a vuvuzela in that four-year span, and even then I’m not sure it wasn’t just tucked into the background of a bonus track.

But they were all bedroom pop.  It was a label he couldn’t escape.  For all the kangaroo costumes and guitar solos, he couldn’t shed the same label the Camels and Hi-C reveled in so many years before him — even if the quality bar between the three was the difference between the Orange Iguanas and the Red Jaguars.

(Or this GUTS contestant and Michael Phelps if you’re really not up in your Hidden Temple statistics.)

Robot Learn Love, then, is finally Andrews’ means of escaping the dreaded label of laptop pop amateurism.  It’s a complex, multi-layered concept album that meditates on love, loss, longing and lazer tag.  If electro-pop is your thing, this is the Cadillac of it.  As I’m a 23-year-old with no realistic aspirations of driving anything other than my four-door Saturn in the foreseeable future, I really have no idea if that metaphor still holds up.  But if there’s a better car that speaks to Andrews’ composition of blips, bleeps and every heartbeat in between, feel free to imagine that instead.

‘Robot’ opens with “Make Me Feel Human”, and a few WOOs courtesy of Andrews.  Immediately, it’s clear what this album is shooting for.  Hypnotic synths, skillful songwriting and the ever-looming presence of an electric guitar attack.  Part rock, part twang, part lament, part rage and almost all hope for a divergently positive reality — come and love me, with your rose colored hope, we can cope, all I want is a taste — Andrews builds a rocket ship of power guitars and robo-loops that serves to immediately set even the most metallic of feet to tapping.

Follow-up track “Heart U 4 Ever” is an admixture of acoustic strumming, synth bursts and power chords.  Sounds swirl and vocals diverge on the simplistic, but admittedly adorable chorus: you must think I’m crazy, but I think I’m gonna love you forever.  It’s almost too cute to work, but it does.

Track three, “Bombs Away”, was actually released (un-mastered) when I first previewed this album over a damn year ago.  The mastered album version, of course, sounds markedly cleaner, with richer effects and guitar riffs.  Laser blast sound effects are a huge plus.  Track carries a tremendous energy overall with a symphonic chorus promising tonight, I’m going straight for your throat, no you don’t even know what’s coming next.

It’s also worth noting, I guess, that a Doritos commercial has been sampling this track for a while now.  Holiday Inn got in on the same sampling effort for “You Always Make Me Smile” off Kangaroo.  That’s not an entirely relevant tidbit.  But it’s a tidbit.  And tidbit is a cool word.

Skipping ahead a bit, track five is the album’s lead single, “Lazer Tag For Imaginary Friends”, which MJF has had available for download for a couple of months now.  The track represents the entirety of the album perfectly, allowing a showcase for drums, guitars, basslines, synths and multi-layered vocals — the chorus was actually composed from a collection of folks who contributed their voices to Andrews’ creative effort via e-mail, the end product a synthesis of their individual contributions.  Andrews also gets the opportunity to demonstrate his completely underrated skill on the guitar toward the end of the song, which frankly doesn’t happen enough on his albums.  While I wouldn’t accuse Andrews of overlying on electronic accompaniment on a concept album about robots, he tends to hide his abilities behind blips and bleeps on other albums, and it’s a disservice to the breadth of his talents.

Other notable tracks include Lynx In Cages, which at this point is really just synth porn, but beautifully orchestrated and unlike any other electro-pop song you’ve probably heard.  Those riffs just scream come at me, bro!  “Complex” is another album highlight, more orchestral than other offerings on the album, which seems to shake its balled-up space gloves at those moments in relationships that more mirror calculus than cuddling.

Album closer “The Search for a Heart” is one of the more complete efforts on ‘Robot’, easily showcasing the best songwriting on the album — you chase yourself ’round the world, to prove where you’re coming from, the taste of hell on your tongue, you bent at every fork — and the power chords that kick in toward the conclusion of the chorus, capped with a brief 8-bit aerial attack, are absolutely lethal.  Nice electric guitar riff guides the song through its remainder, and Andrews employs nearly ever vocal trick in the book on this one.  Perfect closer.

Album itself does suffer from a few flaws, though.  “Bigger” is a spirited ode to climbing out of the recesses of relationships pronounced dead at the scene, but seemingly misplaced between energetic electro-blasts of “Bombs Away” and “Lazer Tag”.  “Turn the Radio Up” doesn’t do much for me even if it is — despite the apparently generic title — one of the better examples of songwriting on the album.  A bit too much echo/reverb and synthetic elements just don’t seem to join themselves as well to vocal counterparts here as they do on the rest of the albums, although I’m not going to album the legitimacy of the bassline toward the end.

Overall, Andrews manages to gain just enough studio time to shed the bedroom pop label without forgetting his lo-fi, laptop mic roots, and the product is a perfect mix of the two in a shiny, silicon suit of armor, a Mecha-Godzilla marriage of energetic electro-pop and introspective indie-rock (alliteration is completely my doing, however.)  This is a confident, engaging effort that blends multiple electronic elements with spirited vocals, intelligent lyrics and inspiring instrumental work well worth the mere $9.99 asking price.

Andrews may have moved on from the bedroom pop stigma, but he hasn’t forgotten what made his efforts feel so organic, special and…well, for lack of a better word, fun.  Though he’s working with more than karaoke recorders and secondhand drumsets, he still manages to stay true to his roots, even when staying inside the lines.

BONUS TRACK: Kyle Andrews – Complex (STRFKR RMX)