Pronto, the side project of Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, daringly ventures into the realm of musical experimentation on the new instrumental release, The Cheetah. This sophomore album is a collection of twelve synth infused, digitally crafted songs that create a mellow, atmospheric, and somewhat bizarre soundscape.
While Pronto’s debut release, All Things Golden, was defined by its 1970s pop/rock style, hints of folk, catchy hooks, clever songwriting, and strong vocals, The Cheetah offers none of those things. Although this doesn’t necessarily make it a bad album, it certainly doesn’t make it a great one.
Unfortunately, this is a collection of songs that, at times, borders dangerously close to Muzak land. That being said, amidst the mundane and lullabye-ish moments of this stroll into the land of wordless, electronic pop, there are some cool effects and catchy grooves.
The opening track, “Tectonics”, begins like a hymn and is played on a synthesizer with interesting dissonant harmonies. Sadly, the drums enter after only twenty seconds or so, and the track (filled with rapid fire, staccato synthesizer notes) turns into what seems like background music for an Atari game (but with a real drummer playing along)—not the most impressive album opener.
The first nice moment on the album comes with the third track, “Einladung”, which features smooth guitar work by Chris Girard that is complimented by dancing synth sounds and a drone-like bass line. However, it is the next track, “Catch the Martian”, that finally brings the album to life. Its upbeat, jazzy style is accentuated with sci-fi sound effects and some clever drumming by Greg O’Keefe.
The title track showcases Girard’s guitar work again. It is a gentle, lulling piece that would serve well for mood-setting music or as a backing score for film or television use (Truthfully, it would be perfect for something sappy like a Dawson’s Creek reunion show). While the song is soothing and pretty, the only thing that keeps it from being included on one of the relaxation CD’s sold at the likes of Walmart or Target is the absence of trickling water and distant thunder heard behind the music.
The only true “rocker” on the album is “The Monster”. This is the track that would later evolve into the song “Monster” from Pronto’s previous album. While the drum beat is energetic and the riffs are catchy, it only amounts to being a very early demo of what would later turn into a great fully realized song. This infant-stage recording will likely be of interest to Pronto fans.
As the album progresses, the tracks become more and more experimental, making use of new technologies and stretching the boundaries of digitally created sound and music. At one point, the voice of Bob Geldof is even heard speaking over the music and madness. This progression is understandable since the album itself is billed as being “the product of discovering new technological music-making tools, and documenting the resulting inspiration.”
Although this album may not appeal to the masses, being an instrumental recording of such an electronic and experimental nature, the musical talent and technological knowledge of Jorgenson and his crew are evident on The Cheetah and should be recognized. The music from this album doesn’t result from the work of a songwriter trying to create a radio hit or a catchy chorus. Instead, it comes from the work of a producer/musician exploring the possibilities of using technology to create music.
All that being said, The Cheetah isn’t a simple or easily digested album. You won’t find yourself humming a tune after a listen. The effect is more subtle, and the instrumental parts, though repetitive, are often interwoven and layered, requiring meditative listening to be appreciated. It is easy to imagine that listeners who are under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs could have an intense experience listening to the combination of swirling sounds and various instruments that create this unusual, textured style of music (though this author, in no way, condones such activity).
If you are looking for well crafted, pop/rock music with strong melodies and memorable lyrics, you should probably stick with All Things Golden. However, if you want to sit back, relax, and immerse yourself in ambient, trance-inducing sound, then The Cheetah could be your musical ticket to Zen.
*The tracks from the album were recorded between 2000 and 2004, and in addition to Jorgenson, Girard, and O’Keeffe, guest musicians on the recording include Rob Mazurek (cornet) and Noel Kupersmith (bass). The Cheetaha was released by Contraphonic as a digital only album and is available from all major music sites. An expanded version that included animated videos and visual effects from artist Michael Lascarides is available exclusively from Contraphonic.