Every November is National Novel Writing Month and every February brings the RPM Challenge, in which some 1,700 artists or bands agree to use only that month to record an album of at least 10 songs or 35 minutes. But while the wretchedly nicknamed NaNoWriMo has produced by its own admission “a lot of crap” and a breakthrough novel in “Water for Elephants,” the RPM Challenge locally has been good mainly for some extremely interesting work that generates excitement for an artist whose next album will hopefully not be squeezed into 28 days of writing, recording and producing.
So it is with “My Metal Mother,” a 35.8-minute album by SchoolTree that has a release party Thursday at Precinct in Somerville’s Union Square. While SchoolTree performs as a full band at the release party, the album is all Lainey SchoolTree herself — writing, playing, arranging and sequencing.
SchoolTree (the woman) is a painstaking crafter of sound, if not an outright artisan of sound, as is obvious after a good listen to Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys’ “SteamShipKillers” or “Technicolor Radio,” the comedy album she put out with Niki Luparelli as The Steamy Bohemians. (And believe me, all the listens are good.) So it’s safe to assume that despite having only 672 hours in which to start and finish “My Metal Mother,” it’s as she intended. And that means “piano-driven songs featuring odd time signatures, sometimes unusual chord changes, synthesizers, vocal harmonies and big drums,” as she puts it, a melodramatic melange of “avant pop” or “electroprog.” Like Goldfrapp on Broadway. (Or, for slightly different generations, Tori Amos or Kate Bush on Broadway.)
In a way, the first minute of the first track is a pretty strong warning for some for what’s ahead. If you can take 37 seconds of unadulterated vocoder a cappella followed by a burst of music that you’ll swear you heard watching a terrible movie’s third-act montage on VHS in 1983 — well, you can take everything “My Metal Mother” can throw at you.
For me, barely. SchoolTree’s fondness for cheese isn’t something I applaud; not because I loathe the 1980s, but because there’s better, sharper flavors underneath the cheese that I enjoy more (and are less fattening). SchoolTree’s voice is simply beautiful, and it’s most beautiful simply. I gritted my teeth to get through the first track, “After You’re Gone” and smiled blissfully when the pure vocals and piano of “You Never Go Through” followed it. Too many other tracks are frustrating because there’s a viscous coating of synthesizer clinging to SchoolTree’s natural, exhilaratingly crisp voice.
One hates to be critical of an experience SchoolTree describes as “transformative,” though.
“It was an amazing and often painful exercise in subverting perfectionism, not eating or sleeping, and consolidating my roles as producer, engineer, artist and nutcase,” she says. “It almost broke my brain, but then it saved my soul.”
And most of the album works for me despite the artist’s craving to go wandering in diaphanous gowns through floral groves under starlit skies yadda yadda. (This bit of reductionism, in retrospect, is inspired by the track “The Orange Grove.” Its ethereal moaning causes me to moan a bit as well, but the song also has a super appealing dark streak, with lyrics reminding you, “Don’t wake the baby from its psychotic dream.”) The title track, referring to social isolation experiments performed on monkeys, is terrifically creepy as well.
Most of what keeps me listening is SchoolTree’s sharpness and wit. There may be an occasional lyrical clunker — she uses “sever” to rhyme with “forever,” but what the hell, so did Placebo — but her mordancy is so seductive it matters less than even the synthesizer overload. (See the band live and you also benefit from the fact that she’s totally hot.)
“Tell me that you’ll love me forever, tell me that you’ll always be mine. Tell me that our love never severs, not until the end of time,” SchoolTree sings on the standout track “Foreverish,” on which even the name is awesome. “Or until you change your mind.”
For those who can’t wait to hear what’s produced without the artificial deadline of a single short month, SchoolTree (the band) is onstage at an epic, three-hour show with comedy and music from Mascara, Molly Zenobia, Meff ’n’ Jojo’s Tiny Instrument Revue, Karin Webb, Mary Widow, Mary Dolan and perhaps more. The $8 show starts at 9 p.m. at Precinct, 70 Union Square.
This post was updated May 31, 2011, to correct that SchoolTree used vocoder, not autotune, on her album.