International music of mystery

Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 am
You never know what you're going to find just around the corner once you really start looking. For example, music lovers in and around the Detroit area -- and the world, for that matter -- have been beaten about the ears with the crunching chords and "I-was-there-when ... " reminiscences about the Stooges-MC5-Grande-Seger-Nugent axis of Detroit's rock city rep. Further, try telling anyone in any European capital you're from Detroit and you'll be grilled about your personal relationship with Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Carl Craig et al.

You're not likely to be asked whether you've brought news of the aesthetic and entrepreneurial works of Bloomfield Hills resident Matthew Jacobson -- "aesthete, magician, sometime gambler and bon viveur." And, as if that weren't enough of a curriculum vitae, graphic designer, notary public and, most important to our purposes, record label head who designs all of his own, amazing record covers.

But that's their loss and your gain, if you've had the name of Jacobson's record label, Le Grand Magistery, whispered in your ear. For, as much as any of the aforementioned Motown calling cards, Jacobson's releases signify another true spirit of Detroit: Internationalism, and the largely overlooked role of more than a handful of Detroit indie musicians in the spreading of the international pop gospel.

Last week marked the release of All Done With Mirrors, Le Grand Magistery's deb ball of sorts. In its 19 tracks, listeners can find the label's true alchemy, idiosyncrasy and American-mass-culture-be-damned joie de vivre. From the pure blissed-on-bummed pop of Sterling Heights' Shoestrings to more songwriterly, narrative affairs from Mr. Wright, the multilingual groove of Ninian Hawick and the aching, metropolitan love jangle of Louis Phillippe -- whose "She Means Everything To Me" proves that St. Etienne and the Cardigans have no monopoly on radio-ready, bittersweet love songs -- All Done With Mirrors provides a virtual lounge where continental meets lo-fi and disparate strains of pop DNA meet for Coca-Colas and espresso.

But, musical travelers and Rosetta Stone readers should look first to the tracks by legendary British pop misanthrope Momus. For, it was Momus (aka Nick Currie), already 14 years into a singular recording career that had both critics and fans alike smitten, that set fan and then New Yorker and recent Parsons School of Design grad Jacobson's label in motion. Momus' first release for the label, 20 Vodka Jellies, is a collection of songs written for Japanese Shibuya-kei singing divas Kahimi Karie and Poison Girlfriend.

The uniquely Japanese pop-culture aesthetic of Shibuya-kei is most familiar to Americans from the critically hip works of Cibo Matto, Pizzicato 5 and Buffalo Daughter. These artists and a handful of others build on the idea that pop will eat itself, expertly grafting what we dismiss as kitsch, fashion, lounge culture and other flotsam of a hyperactively trend-dismissive culture onto the body of Euro-cabaret-tinged pop music. The stripped-down versions of these concoctions that appear on 20 Vodka Jellies find the gooey center to be confections that luminaries such as Serge Gainsbourg would sell their last Gauloises to pen, and artists such as the Jazz Butcher and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker have labored their whole careers to approach.

This weekend's performance marks Momus' first appearance in Detroit and should offer the ideal introduction to his cheeky musical subversion, as he'll also back up Karie, to boot.

Momus' latest release for Le Grand Magistery, The Little Red Songbook, finds the artist layering on the baroque electronic sheen all by himself. In keeping with the commercial magic that typifies Le Grand Magistery, the final third of Little Red Songbook features karaoke versions of the preceding songs.

So, look further around your own backyard -- you're invited to the soiree. Cleanse your palate, warm up the vocal chords and sing along. It's OK, just do it with style. And when you're belting out the chorus and the vocal hook, don't forget to stand up and tell 'em you're from Detroit! Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]