Faking the Books
ali Puna is one of the myriad groups putting out consistently intriguing material without taking the final step toward a defining masterwork. Their first album, Tridecoder, was often sterilized by their Stereolab-worship, and though they progressed towards a Teutonic amalgam of their own with Scary World Theory, they were still hampered by peculiar translation barriers. Often the lyrics came out deadened and awkward, as though misled by a translator fond of cruel pranks (the title track and its allusion to the ‘cookie monster’ was particularly strange). On their newest album, Faking the Books, Lali Puna move one step closer to triumph. They touch greatness at several points, if never truly digging their nails in and grabbing hold.
Opening with the gorgeous stuttering vocal samples of the title track, Lali Puna establish the same vague working area as previous works, but there is a distance in the similarity. It’s as though you’ve just met a good friend’s identical twin, and he’s posing as your friend. His voice sounds different, and he parts his hair wider of center. He doesn’t use the same expressions, and there’s a gleam in his eye that tells you something’s up. The driving organic rhythms of “Call 1-800-Fear” remind of much of the first album, but just as you become accustomed to its propulsive thrust, the drums fade into quick-stepping electronic beats and a solemn piano muffles the song into a deep restless stirring. “Micronomic” uses a similar mechanical breakdown to cool down its squelched sax blurts and lively drums.
Perhaps the greatest difference is Valerie Trebeljahr’s improved emotional range. At times in the past, she was content to play the heroin-dead heroine, reclining with sang froid and cold Germanic grace into an emotional deadpan. On many of Faking the Books’ best songs, Trebeljahr reaches beyond this detachment to an impassioned query, giving the album a greater sense of depth and development. Suddenly, even in the face of vague uncertainty, Trebeljahr seems more confident, more willing to put her ego on the line and risk a sullen retreat. “Geography-5” finds her alluring and come-hither, and since the song is built upon one of the album’s simplest arrangements, her voice is the necessary focal point. Atop a simple bass-drum part and twilight chimes, she sweats out a sexuality that doesn’t bring to mind black leather, dog collars and torturous candle wax. On the gorgeous closer “Crawling by Numbers,” she similarly warms up the chorus with a beautiful reach—the juxtaposition of her voice with the song’s dirgeful strings making for a mesmerizing finale.
For the first time, Lali Puna’s control doesn’t seem so absolute. It’s possible that they aren’t cooler than you are (though it’s still likely). A few cracks have spread in their frozen facade, and that sudden vulnerability, glimpsed in the desperate “Do you?” on “Alienation” and the minimal aquatic squiggles and tribal drums of “Small Things,” makes the group that much more compelling. They work under the protective hush of simplicity at times, and this sparseness allows the broken-nosed shatter of their more propulsive material the intended effect. They aren’t there yet, but the maturity on Faking the Books serves as notice they may only be one album away.