Petomane: The Rock Machine Turns You On
“The Rock Machine Turns You On” – Ah! Wonderful. I tore off the Seranwrap and ran to my tourne-disque. It’s been years since I last heard Moby Grape – I couldn’t wait to hear those chiming guitar lines again.
But no, this is a different “The Rock Machine Turns You On”: it merely shares a name with the late-sixties CBS Records compilation. And it won’t play on your tourne-disque either. So what century is this?
This is the new album by Petomane. Thank Christ. No, thank Chris. Thank John too. And Martin: he played guitar. The title is a red herring, but also a double-bluff. There’s nothing like Moby Grape on here – Petomane seldom rocks out – and it’s no more machine-tooled than most music of our age. But the irony really grips the nuts of the second half of the title. It is confusing: is Petomane trying to turn me on? You recall the origin of the group’s name, from Le Pétomane, the fin-de-siècle French “fartiste”. Does he raise a laugh as a prelude to passion? In the same way, the group Petomane also frequently wrong-foots the listener. “You’re too young to understand that reference”, sings the voice of “If I Could Take a Moment”, but this voice of experience is never world-weary, whether coming on or dropping out; you’ll find us dancing around the chaise longue to the brittle breakbeat of “The Sadness of Sex”.
When does a kiss become a bite? Petomane’s second album skitters around this nebulous poser with ten songs of heavy emotional ache. The group’s first album, Top Trumps, established the confusion of time lines that suffuses their sound, and they continue to exploit the nostalgic power of a synth wash. This is landscape scouted out by Boards of Canada: the evocation of a non-specific time of youth, of endless possibilities. In Petomane’s hands this becomes a deep topography in music: the group maps this territory, but always with the suspicion that the singer might be reading the map upside down, and soon enough it becomes clear that we are navigating Belfast with the street plan of Basingstoke.
The album opens with “Turn On Genius” which is mixed as if to replicate the sound of the disco on the Poseidon Adventure: the dancefloor is on the ceiling, underwater, and just as you think that your dance partner will show you a Lionel Ritchie-style good time, he pirouettes and you realise that it’s actually Gene Hackman dressed as a pissed-off priest. Petomane’s sly moves are executed with confidence: “Soledad Miranda” finds the vocal mirrored by a taut guitar line, both in the upper register. This is no high-wire act but a group in full flight, the tone is relaxed, assured, and compassionate.
The album’s climax is sustained over two songs: “Photocopy Rockin’” and “Gainsbarre”. If the first of these doesn’t rock out, it still fucks shit up, with Higgins singing like Bela Lugosi’s Dad. The erotic francophilia of the final song is surely the apotheosis of the Petomane sound, where the three-way preoccupations of books, sex, and drink meet – wine-stained with foxy light-foxing.
Devotees of their work will be thrilled to find that Petomane can produce music that matches the highpoints of their previous two releases. (These highpoints are, in my opinion, “The Dark Night of David Soul” from first album, Top Trumps, which I’ve written about previously, and “The Scrivener”, from stop-gap compilation Recycling Proficiency. The latter song combines Herman Melville and Joy Division to give a heady surge to polite refusal.) Such pinnacles are matched on the present album without any sense of artistic stagnation. With repeated listening, the irony of the title crumbles in places to reveal complex substrata, and Petomane’s The Rock Machine Turns You On turns out to be music of sufficient emotional force to accelerate coastal erosion.