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Review: Emperor X, Western Teleport

Emperor X
Western Teleport
[Bar/None (2011)]

The music on Emperor X‘s (aka C. R. Matheny’s) Western Teleport is full of tensions and conflict: the mix of acoustic guitar with electronica elements, of human interest stories with science fiction (tractor beams and cylons! alternate universes!), and the dead serious emotional content with a boyish vocal delivery and timbre similar to that of They Might Be Giants.

His lyrics follow a similar pattern to that of, say, Bon Iver, where sonically the words make complete sense, but become less clear when reading:

“Hold up!” the  congregation sang.
“Revival! Hosanna!
We have no systems left  to shock,
and we’re awestruck!
Raise your hands, because  there’s hope
that we’ll hold them back at La Brea
where we can  cope and attend with an influx of new refugees” [from “Sig Alert”]

On “Don’t Think of Her,” what sounds at first like a guy just trying to focus on his life (“Don’t think of her, study for the LSATS …. / Don’t think of her reading on the L train”) alternates between these everyday details, the dark (“Don’t think of her kicking at the topsoil”), and the nonsensical (“Don’t think of her fists in the facemask”). On any given song the balance is greater than the sum of the parts. Matheny’s main lyrical skill is not so much his ability to slip in words like “aplastic” but rather that he’s able to keep your mind occupied with visceral imagery long enough to slip in lines chosen for pure aural pleasure or emotional response.

This tension is borne out again in the electronica elements overlaying with the acoustic guitar. His melodies and songcraft have always been solid, but now there are no moments where the music devolves into pure experimentation. Not far beneath the machinery of drum machines and synthesizers is a guy with an acoustic guitar singing in a subway. The album is a cyborg, a mix of organic and computer, rational and emotional at the same time. It’s his most accessible album.

In more ways than one: unlike previous albums, Western Teleport won’t get buried in the ground with GPS coordinates posted to the Emperor X website.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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