Um Dada is a shimmering chameleon of an album.
At the crossroads of independent music and the avant-garde since 1973, Cabaret Voltaire took their name from the Hugo Ball nightclub where Dada tricksters parodied and attacked the stuffy halls of high art. Therein lies the key to Um Dada, the new album from the band’s co-founder Stephen Mallinder. What a truly great album it is. While it’s different in tone from his previous solo album Pow Wow, released over 35 years ago, it’s a continuation of the themes he explored there as well as throughout Cabaret Voltaire and in a host of other configurations.
In the intervening years, Mallinder has laid down an alarmingly impressive CV, with Off World Sounds, the record label he co-founded while based in Perth and home to Sassi & Loco and The Ku-Ling Bros, both projects he contributed to. More recently, along with the completion of a Ph.D., a number of academic publications and his professorship at the University of Brighton, there’s Wrangler’s two albums and multiple singles, Creep Show’s album and singles, a sole album from Hey Rube!, a live show Cotton Panic! with Jane Horrocks, as well as multiple other roles all different but linked by the same kind of attention to craft and detail that runs through Um Dada. His manifesto can be summed up, as he writes, by the understanding that “dance music is mashed between creativity, consumerism and capitalism.”
Mallinder notes that Um Dada is about play: cut and paste, lost words, twisted presets, voice collage, simple sounds– “things that have been lost to technology’s current determinism.” With this in mind, opening track “Working (You Are)” efficiently sets the scene with a tonal palette drawn from a range of leftfield electro-dance grooves. If Mallinder’s thesis is about drawing attention to the labor of play, this is a perfect example, a modular song where the various pieces slide over each other, landing as erstwhile verses and choruses but equally suggesting that a multitude of other combinations are possible. The title constitutes just about the only lyrics, spoken wryly in Mallinder’s gravelly deadpan throughout; the track’s work lies in the relationship of surface to depth, the digital sounds we hear and the analog effort undertaken to produce them along with, perhaps, the listening labor undertaken in the experience of pleasure.
“Prefix Repeat Rewind” continues the commentary about music-making and listening, and with the 808 claps, house chords and skittering synth lines, links the album to Cabaret Voltaire’s under-appreciated Groovy, Laidback and Nasty from 1990, itself an intelligent collection of left-field electronica. For all of his claims, admittedly made in the band’s early days, that any musical theorization occurred after the fact of music-making, the central lyrics of “It’s Not Me” directly reflects his Ph.D.: “There is no connection/ Person-to-person communication/ No conversation” speaks to his understanding that, “the shift to online technologies for cultural production and global consumption, although immersed in leisure practices, more significantly alludes to changing dynamics of power and knowledge.”
“Colour” opens with a charming bass drum and hi-hat loop over which soft synth notes, reminiscent of Lil’ Louis’ “French Kiss,” pulse and shimmer. As before, shifting modules of rhythm are mobilized, while the single word “color” is repeated, tweaked and modulated, an experiment in shifting resonances and tones before the snare appears and locks the groove firmly into place. Digital and CD-only tracks “Robber” and “Hollow” round out the album, with the former’s single lyric of “money talks” (or it is “monetize” – both are apt in an era of white-collar Brexit-informed trickery), appearing and vanishing over a pulsing bass-synth throb playing out like a remix to a track that doesn’t exist yet, but should. “Hollow” finishes things off with a double-speed hi-hat over a crisp drum loop, the melody dropping in between lyrics, and flitting off to make room for the scant vocals.
Um Dada is a shimmering chameleon of an album, smart, fun and forward-looking even as it draws upon a host of classic sounds, tones, rhythms and modes from across dance music. Yet it doesn’t linger nostalgically or set out to highlight the wizard behind the curtain. Perhaps the nearest methodological comparison would be with the generative musical experiments of Brian Eno, with the primary difference being that where his work is somehow anaemic and hygienic, Mallinder is organically body-focused with his explorations of rhythm. The original popular disdain for electronic music lay in the fact that the labor of composition occurred away from the public face of performance; it just seemed too easy to stand on stage, push a button and let the machines follow orders. The musician at the heart of this album has certainly set the machines off on their routines, but they do as directed. And what they’re directed to do is make great, infectious and rhythmically focused music.