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Album Review: Exray’s – Trust a Robot

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There exist many rock artists who have made the successful drummer-for-drum machine swap. German krautrockers Can used a human/machine combo on 1971’s Tago Mago, the Young Marble Giants went exclusively mechanical on 1980’s Colossal Youth, and, most surprisingly perhaps, Sly and the Family Stone’s use of the “funk box” on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On was one of the first rock albums to prominently feature a drum machine. Today, San Francisco’s Exray’s is making quality use of the charmingly cold machine on the lo-fi end of the rock spectrum. The duo’s sophomore LP, Trust a Robot, is defined — similarly to early Magnetic Fields — by its amalgamation of crude recordings, literate themes, inventive pop arrangements, and the drum machine’s opaque aesthetics.

Chief songwriter Jon Bernson and Michael Falsetto-Mapp boldly eschew the overall space rock spirit and intensity of last year’s raucous debut LP. While there are some very basic electronic elements connecting the two albums’ lineage, Trust a Robot’s loyalty to a subdued recording style and gizmo de-sophistication is an unexpected twist. With the menacing, synth-fueled instrumental prelude, “Something Else”, the duo leads by example, trusting their robots to set the album’s tone. “You Can Trust a Robot” — marked by cheap synthesizers, Bernson’s detached singing, and the pushing exhalations of mechanical air — finds the band at their dingy best, fusing tiny bursts of brightness into the song’s moody, minor-laden circuitry. “Yellow Light” is a sparse bit of keyboard-driven crawling R&B, taking major cues from Hot Chip (even channeling Alexis Taylor’s singing style). Similarly, “On Reality” noodles with space and cut-rate toys but adds more traditional keys and synths to give the track an air of pseudo-sensuality.

Though it’s hard to separate Exray’s’ literary mechanical state from The Magnetic Fields’ earliest work, the San Francisco duo keeps it interesting, sexy (mockingly and genuinely so), and clever. And there is no questioning the duo’s melodic originality in the face of like-minded predecessors. By changing styles successfully (and from such a dramatically different plane) and taking major creative risks so early in their career, the Exray’s are another reason to keep a constant ear perked to San Fran’s fruitful art-rock scene.

Essential Tracks: “You Can Trust a Robot”, “On Reality”

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