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 Stones use of the funk box on 1971’s Theres a Riot Goin On was one of the first rock albums to prominently feature a drum machine. Today, San Franciscos Exrays is making quality use of the charmingly cold machine on the lo-fi end of the rock spectrum. The duos 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 machines opaque aesthetics.
Chief songwriter Jon Bernson and Michael Falsetto-Mapp boldly eschew the overall space rock spirit and intensity of last years raucous debut LP. While there are some very basic electronic elements connecting the two albums lineage, Trust a Robots 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 albums tone. You Can Trust a Robot — marked by cheap synthesizers, Bernsons detached singing, and the pushing exhalations of mechanical air — finds the band at their dingy best, fusing tiny bursts of brightness into the songs 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 Taylors 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 its hard to separate Exrays 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 duos 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 Exrays are another reason to keep a constant ear perked to San Frans fruitful art-rock scene.
Essential Tracks: You Can Trust a Robot, On Reality