Return to Mono - Framebreaker

Owain Paciuszko 01/02/2011

Rating: 2/5

This debut album from San Franciscan trio opens with the fuzzy synth pulse of Song of the Beast, a lively mix of neatly processed electric guitars, a production line of beats and vocalist Tanya Kelleher's slinky vocal, a combination of gnarly Grace Jones euro-pop and arch Kate Bush theatrics. It all slots together quite nicely, though by the same stroke its too even a mix to really grab the attention as anything other than start-of-the-night dancefloor backing music.

Far more enjoyable is the dopily upbeat percussion of the title track, matched by a burbling anthem of synths, whilst Kelleher gurns her words like a disco Joanna Newsom, occasionally squeaking 'I get up again' and it's a twee and optimistic statement that fits this light-hearted track like a cheesy grin. Meanwhile Doomsday Device has a pointed dainty synth line like 8-bit harpsichords, complimented by the inclusion of Alan Lin's violin, but the production shift doesn't really evolve from there, content to pitter-patter like a half-formed Goldfrapp demo.

The Promise has a hyperactive glitchy fluttering beat and twinkly early Bjork-like arrangments, enhanced by Kelleher's voice seemingly doing a very deliberate imitation of her vocal style. There's something purposefully artificial about Return to Mono's style that can keep the listener at a distance, there's a slightly sultry electro-grunge vibe to Seeker Circuit that's diluted to a dull shine by the shimmering production. Similarly Xruzt is a particularly forgettable track lurking aimlessly mid-way through this eleven track album.

It becomes disappointingly clear as this record continues that all the ideas were front-loaded, with each new track deploying familiar tactics and its electro-pop styles becoming increasingly wearying. 'You're causing trouble/Here in my bubble' sings Kelleher on Black Swan, a track that sounds like a lazy Soulwax remix. The record trundles on through the exotic squelch of Dreamer which recalls Garbage's Bond theme The World is Not Enough, and on a related side-note Kelleher occasionally works as a nanny for Butch Vig's child. There are also intentional swathes of Beth Gibbons in Kelleher's delivery here, she expresses some ability across this record as something of a vocal chameleon, her range is impressive if unfortunately derivative. Whilst the track's overall trip-hop leanings feel particularly dated, and perhaps that's the biggest flaw that begins to consume the band as this record continues; it starts to sound like a succession of homages.

Penultimate track Caterpillar has a clunky mechanical rhythm, that acts as a dull production line for the song on top of it, turning it into a dreary slog instead of an empowering march, whilst closing track See You On The Other Side endeavours to create a more intricate and subtle atmosphere with its slow, careful opening turns to the more familiar beats, synthy burbles and stutters, though Kelleher coos in the background.

There's a danger with electro sometimes that it can become an artificial and superficial affair, unfortunately the efforts to enrich the sound have resulted in tracks that sound like clones of more accomplished recordings. That's not to say that Return to Mono are a bad band, they just need to find a more original and unique voice, instead of trying on a series of costumes as they seem to be doing here.