My Robot Friend: Dial 0

Apparently, NYC's My Robot Friend (aka Howard Robot) boasts an arresting stage presence (resembling a Tron-like character lit up like a Christmas tree, MRF prowls the stage powered by a neon-lit 30-pound battery pack)—I wish the same could be said for his Soma debut album Dial 0. Certainly the concept is promising enough—eclectic, high-energy electro-pop influenced by B-52s, Devo, and Soft Cell—but the material sometimes grates. The cute robot-pop of “Problems” is so contrived it verges on annoying, and a cringe-inducing cover of Blondie's “Rapture” makes one wish Debbie Harry would invade the studio and wrest the microphone away from whatever chorus is desecrating the original—a shame, too, considering the piece might have been bearable minus the vocalizing.

An even greater shame is that the disc starts off so promisingly. Merging glockenspiel rainfalls with squalling guitars and an electro-rock-steady grind, MRF's cover of Luna's “23 Minutes In Brussels ” pumps mightily but the song ends too quickly and, unfortunately, much of what follows occupies a lower tier compared to this strong opener. Even so, “Dial Zero” is a decent enough stab at Devo-styled electro-punk, though MRF's vocals lack the manic shrillness of Mark Mothersbaugh's. Elsewhere MRF hands the vocal reins to Antony Hegarty (of Antony And The Johnsons) for the pre-teen electro-pop of “One More Try,” the vocal style both histrionic and Ferry-like in its croon, while Autojulie 3000's violin and Jay Kauffman's classical guitar enhance “Dead” and the otherwise lyrically inane “Electric Pants” (“Can I have this dance / In my electric pants?”) respectively. What's frustrating is that for every positive, there's an accompanying negative: the Zombie Nation-produced “The Cut” wends a strutting techno route but a deadpan vocal delivery (“Figures never stop / Touching you, touching you”) verges on monotonous, and a rambunctious funk groove in “Swallow-Rap” (“I swallowed everything you gave me”) is undermined by MRF's vocals and Crasta Yo's rap. Dial 0 shows that Howard Robot possesses strong production skills but the album's juvenile sensibility is ultimately off-putting.

October 2006