Michael Monroe,
A Band in My Own Mind
(Solar Power, 2000)

How important is your destination, and how important is the way you get there? How much of your voyage is process, and how much result? Walking up Kilimanjaro surely differs from taking an SUV to the top, but at journey's end, are the summits really two different places?

A test case for these questions might be A Band In My Own Mind, Minnesotan Michael Monroe's travelogue of live tracks assembled from several shows. This voyage starts off enjoyably with the atmospheric flute and relaxed cadence of "Life is a Mystery," whose lyrics elegantly intertwine with the music and effectively express the philosophy of living in the moment.

After the song ends there's a brief statement by the host of the live radio show from which this recording was culled; he describes Monroe as "one guy, and all the technology since 1970." Monroe uses a combination of MIDI guitar synth and continuous loops, allowing him to create the sounds of a variety of instruments, as well as record on-the-fly backing tracks. Thus the solo Monroe often sounds like a group of musicians, or at least a well-programmed synthesizer, a fact which he emphasizes in his liner notes. Still, these arrangements could just as easily be performed with a few fellow musicians. Once the approach's novelty value wears off, the listener returns to the songs themselves.

As such, Monroe fares reasonably well. "Follow Your Happiness" is a bouncy tune that uses multiple vocal loops to build an entertainingly multilayered a cappella song. Monroe's lyrics and pleasant vocals throughout offer true if sometimes tepid explorations of some well-worn philosophical paths. "Here Now" features catchy reggae rhythms that work surprisingly well, even if the lines "I don't worry about insurance / except when I drive my car" set up a philosophical notion of living in the moment, but only within certain limits -- without really exploring it.

Several tracks here do seem particularly weak. "You and I" is a trite description of a couple destined to be together, combining uninspired instrumentation and words. "Daddy Come Dance" recycles tired tropes of fathers too distant from their daughters, and progresses glacially along on basic guitar chords until the listener is bored into submission.

However, Monroe's live if somewhat sterile ventures are generally more successful. The lengthy "Twice in One Day" is a later high point, with a reggae-flavored midsection of meditative lyrics enclosed on both sides by ethereal synthesizer and flute, concluding in an elegant fade out.

A fine close, except that Monroe instead inserts a throwaway demo song as the last track, made during a chatty radio interview. This technically obsessive novelty is vaguely amusing once but increasingly annoying with each repetition, and has no place where repeated listening makes it a liability.

Why this emphasis on technique, on how he got there? Monroe may consider his MIDI skills critical to his voyage, but in the end, Monroe's processes don't seem to make elemental changes to his destination, to the work itself. As demonstrated here, process and product often remain distinctly separate things. To this listener, Michael Monroe's A Band In My Own Mind ultimately revolves around the basic skills of its creator, who fortunately assembles a mostly successful mix of tunes and performances highlighting his comfortable, middle-of-the-road brand of guitar-based folk.

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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