It's been eight years since the Tannis Root folks (the Raleigh T-shirt company probably responsible for your coolest band shirts) put out Freedom of Choice, a double LP of New Wave covers by alternative artists. As the album's title indicates (besides being a nod to Devo), the compilation also benefited Planned Parenthood. This time around, under the aegis of the Beasties' label Grand Royal, Tannis Root designer Bill Mooney decided to test the creative mettle of a group of artists (Beck, Pavement, Air, Tortoise's John McEntire) by sending them a Roland Groovebox and letting them have their way with it. As Mooney explains, the Groovebox is a unit that combines the 808 and 909 drum machines, the 303 bass machine and "a library of vintage and more recent synthesized sounds," effectively eliminating the need for a band by allowing the composer to program a band's worth of parts. The Groovebox could also be used to trigger samples. Each band or artist was sent a unit, and, as a perk, they got to keep it. (Mooney had originally planned to send one Groovebox around, but after first artist Beck had it six months, Mooney contacted Roland and got a box for each artist.)
The real coup for Mooney and Grand Royal was the inclusion of electronic music pioneers Jean Jacques Perrey, Gershon Kingsley and Moogster Dick Hyman. Perrey and Kingsley (French and German, respectively) had met in New York and collaborated on a tape collage LP and early synth works (the "Baroque Hoedown" for Disney). Kingsley went on to compose for advertising; if you remember the old Maxwell House coffee ads--the little blips as the coffee starts to perk--that's Kingsley. He also created the Jeopardy! theme. Hyman made weird '60s synth records and continues to be in demand--he's done scores for Woody Allen films. ("He's known for being able to play piano in any style," Mooney adds.) Being the most technically proficient, these old pros mastered the box and had their pieces back quickly. (Hyman sent his back in a week on a flash memory card.) Kingsley updates his percolating 1970 classic "Popcorn" with "Popcorn 1998," using samples from the original. Hyman's beatless, cold, abstract string piece is a far cry from his '60s Moog days. (There are a couple of teasing synth blips at the piece's end.)
Some bands seemed "at home with the Groovebox," and some seemed overwhelmed. French post-popsters Air, as you'd expect, deliver a cool song, "Planet Vega," while Tortoise's John McEntire comes up with a nifty little Stereolab-esque number with a catchy retro melody line. Pavement's "Robyn Turns 26" features a Malkmus vocal as well as a disquieting lag in the drum program that is way cool. Sonic Youth, no surprise, delivers two minutes of crackles and fuzz, and Beck goes for the Giorgio Moroder thing on his "Boyz." (Beck, who'd sampled Dick Hyman on Odelay, had originally turned in a track strikingly similar to Hyman's track, "Glass Slipper.") Cibo Matto sounds like Cibo Matto and Sean Lennon sounds like Kraftwerk.
Mooney's fave? Will Oldham's (as Bonnie "Prince" Billie) "Today I Started Celebrating Again," ironically the most melodic, vocal-intensive track, proving that "the band in the box" is no substitute for emotion.