Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Matmos -- The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast
Matador Records; 2006

After birthdays and holidays, many groaning children are made to write thank you letters to those who fattened their wallets and/or piggy banks. With The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt of Matmos have attacked a similar project with grateful gusto. The album's ten tracks serve both as aural biographies for and sonic tributes to individuals who the duo admires and by whom they've been inspired. With this subject matter, Matmos has created their most accomplished work -- an album that suitably balances concept and aesthetics.

Of course, Matmos are no strangers to concept records. 2001's A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure crafted IDM-styled dance tunes from samples of surgeries. On the 2003 album, The Civil War, the duo worked with more "traditional" musical instruments to construct their sprawling and beautiful interpretation of 19th century music. Both albums exhibited a profound knowledge of composition, as well as a keen sense for interesting sources. But at times the records sacrificed listenability for concept or vice versa -- rarely to the point of serious detriment, but the balancing act was still in the works. After producing portions of Bjork's last two albums and accompanying her on tours, the group seems to have things better sorted out.

The Rose Has Teeth opens with a passage by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, with various vocalists repeating the titular line over a dancehall shuffle of roses smacking tables, farmers shoveling cow shit, and wisdom teeth clicking. That might sound daunting, but it's surprisingly easy to sink into the laid back rhythm and mumble along with the chorus. Other tunes use samples of anonymous sex ("Public Sex for Boyd McDonald"), physically manipulated cow reproductive organs ("Tract for Valerie Solanas"), snails on the move ("Snails and Lasers for Patricia Highsmith"), and the clattering of various typewriters and tape recorders ("Rag for William S. Burroughs"). The human components of Matmos are also under the mic and enduring manipulation. Daniel is recorded masturbating to a James Bidgood porno for the drippy jazz tune "Semen Song for James Bidgood" and being burned with a cigarette by Germs member Don Bolles ("Germs Burn for Darby Crash"). Schmidt gets off easy by comparison, merely having to shave his head for the same song.

What's most impressive about this album is not just its source material or its subjects, but the impressive way the duo assembles all of the above. Avant-garde/musique concrete pieces can easily go wrong and bore listeners, regardless of the conceptual ecstasy. Matmos' musical foresight and painstaking editing make The Rose Has Teeth a compelling listen from front to back. "Germs Burn for Darby Crash" is a blistering IDM track, punctuated by stuttering samples of Daniel's pained yelp. The album's ass-shaker, "Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan," is a wonky disco number Levan himself would be proud to spin. Matmos flex their straight-up musical muscles -- again with more "traditional" instruments and additional players -- all over the record. "Semen Song for James Bidgood" layers eerie string arrangements with Antony's (of Johnsons fame) tearful pipes. The perky and jerky "Solo Buttons for Joe Meek" emulates Meek's surface-of-the-moon surf rock with the Kronos Quartet swinging along in the orchestra pit. The Rose Has Teeth manages to cram naughty funk ("Public Sex..."), smoky jazz ("Snails and Lasers..."), San Franciso booty bass ("Tract...") and delusional ragtime ("Rag...") without ever showing signs of fatigue. And the only track that might strain listeners' attention is the Burroughs tribute, which stretches upwards of 14 minutes.

With The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast, Matmos have again proven to be wise craftsmen capable of turning the ambiguous concept of musical portraits into full realized works of musical art. While their past efforts have also been excellent in a similar regard, the duo's latest work pours out the perfect blend of provocative melodies, rhythms, samples and concept. It's highly suggested that listeners spend time on Matmos' website, wherein they lay out how the album came together and more about the people who inspired such stunning work. Though they might not be able to enjoy this aural "thank you" themselves (as all but one are dead), fans new and old will likely feel compelled to whip out the good stationary after experiencing this record.

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