Formica Blues

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Caught like many other mid-'90s male instrumentalist/female singer duos were in the commercial slipstream of Portishead's success, Mono deftly steered clear of the trip-hop conundrum for the most part with Formica Blues. Certainly there was a certain shared sense of cinematic drama and haunting gloom that informs plenty of songs -- consider the Get Carter-sampling "Silicone," while "The Outsider" has an emotional directness Beth Gibbons would be proud of. The fact that lead single "Life in Mono" samples Portishead favorite John Barry and works with breakbeats didn't necessarily help Mono stand out more, for instance. But observations that Saint Etienne rather than the Bristol duo makes for a better role model are actually more accurate, and certainly on "Life in Mono" the keyboards and melancholy yet wistful singing of Siobhan de Maré suggests the likes of "Avenue" more than it does "Sour Times." Either way, like those groups, Mono works with a variety of English, American, and continental musical inspirations, and as such is able to find a balance between a particular style and a wide number of variations on the same where differing approaches suggest a range of deliveries. The use of David Sylvian's "Approaching Silence" to signal the start of "Penguin Freud" works very well, while the Pet Sounds-goes-splashy mainstream star turn of "High Life" gives de Maré a true in-the-spotlight moment worthy of Dusty Springfield. Then there are the elegant French pop kicks evident on "Disney Town" and "Slimcea Girl," the latter tinged with more than a little Bacharach and gospel both, and the polite but still noticeable dub turn on "Blind Man." The secret highlight is probably "Playboys," with both a full-bodied beat and a halfway-to-industrial instrumental break to recommend it, while the combination of de Maré's voice and subtle orchestration really hits the spot.

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