My acquisition of i am spoonbender’s debut full length album sender/receiver and two of their eps, teletwin and Shown Actual Size, came directly out of a longstanding affinity for the late, great, all-girl pop darlings, cub. cub split up in the mid 90’s and while Lisa Marr kind of disappeared into the ether, Robynn Iwata moved to San Francisco and joined Dustin Donaldson’s eclectronica act, and proceeded to make rhythmic and atmospheric movies minus the pictures. I found out about IAS in 2000 via Brave New Waves and learned even more through the free MP3 sample site Epitonic, where I first heard “Stopwatch Static”, a spacey, downtempo track from sender/receiver. This sort of errant electronic music was what I was looking for more of at the time, and IAS fit the bill perfectly. I became rather determined to add them to my collection, and it literally took years to pin down some recordings, even in our multitude of indie CD stores in Toronto. Actually I think teletwin and sender/receiver I picked up when I saw them perform live, supporting Shown Actual Size in 2002 (or maybe ‘03) before a crowd of dozens. Their live show looked like a twisted version of the Hilarious House of Frightenstein set, and their various mocked-up telephone microphones were utterly ingenious.
sender/receiver is almost fully instrumental, at times calling upon the prog-rock of the 90’s, the post-punk of the 80’s, and even a bit of funk from the 70’s to fill out its soundscapes. “Reality Dealer” enters with aggressively, with stop-starting guitars and a mitten full of buzzing and warbling effects. “Hair Is Real” is equally frenetic and alien sounding, building up intensity for a minute span. A plodding drum in “Ears Are Merely Human” slows the pace, but the intensity level remains high, with some seriously agitating elect-fx. Iwata makes herself known for the first time, in a duet of sorts with Donaldson on “Replaced By Toys”, a rhythmic trance that flows nicely into the aforementioned beatback “Stopwatch Static”, still easily my favourite IAS track. “Slow Metal Fires” hollows things out, with a chamber-spheric mix of odd rhythms and haunting sounds. “What Does The Water Think” essentially calls down the mothership, electronics emulating a theremin, while “The Teeth’s Loan & Trust Co.” is an unnatural extension of the previous track. “Spirit Photography” almost doesn’t exist at first, only building up a creepy atmosphere before unleashing “Waking Dream Seance”, which wouldn’t seem out of place in Eraserhead. Track 11 (”she keeps her secret”) is four seconds long of dead space, while the closing track “Mr Knife, Miss Fork” brings the album to an all-encompassing, 9-minute finale with an almost unlistenable segment of scratches and static that’s like being tortured by your headphones. Is it safe?
sender/receiver remains an interesting and unique album, but I can’t fully say that I like it, but I don’t dislike it either. My favourite tracks are the two notable tracks with vocals and the rest I find challenging, sometimes in a good way, more often not.
The teletwin ep I’m more attracted to simply by design. A solid black CD case with a peek-a-boo spine reveals the album name and title and a repeated stick figure with a fork for a head, black on yellow. IAS has a strong design component to them, with some very impressive iconography (despite their use of a fork in their imagery instead of a spoon). The EP features 6 songs, each of protracted lenght making this ep almost as long as sender/receiver. It’s opening salvo is a six and a half minute reworking of “Stopwatch Static” into “Clocks Grow Old”. Given space to breath, it transforms into another entity more haunting, sombre and, in a way, beautiful. It segues directly into “Infinity Limiter”, a 4-minute minimalist electronic composition that feigns a build-up, like a staircase to nowhere. “Where Do Words Go?” find itself looking down the barrel of a surprisingly decent electroclash pop song, but one about 2 minutes too long. “Eskimo Horizon” (strangely retitled “Frozen Dog Futurist” in iTunes) finds the return of the wonky electronics and the aggressive, crunched out bass riff, but it continues to work its way through to subtler pastures, weaving a landscape of sonic textures and experimental manipulations rather than an entirely unified song. “October Blurred By” sounds like an extracted soundtrack from an 8-bit Commodore64 game, and may actually be their best vox-free track, while the 12-minute, This Heat-style excursion through “they dont have mirrors” endeavours to leave you unsettled by the end of your journey, if you can make it.
Shown Actual Size found IAS pulling themselves out of an electronic-ambiant art-instrumental ghetto, instead building its three songs around lyrics. “I Went And Had My Knives Sharpened” and “Remove-Installer” are a whip-crack pop tracks with the 7-minute “Re-Dial Meant ‘Remember’” all feel together like Kraftwerk/Brian Eno inspired, with modern touches, and a bit more cohesiveness. “Re-Dial..” is the first extended length track that actually uses it’s time as a benefit, crafting a full-bodied song that is subtle but actually a worthy listen throughout. Unintentionally I kind of left IAS behind after this EP, though I did enjoy the journeys through their works, very little of it left an impact or demanded to be replayed. It would seem that Shown Actual Size was moving the group towards more message-inspired music, rather than just sound scapes, but I didn’t keep tabs on them after when their second and third full-lengths appeared in 2004 and 2006 respectively, although I seem to recall downloading their “Buy Hidden Persuaders” freebie album and finding it to art-rock for my palette. While something I might want to revisit again in another 5-7 years, I think I can safely remove these from active duty.