Review by Reed Burnam
The Bionic Mouth
While some listeners may find the ModelTalker vocal system to be an unnecessary focal point in the music itself (it has a very distinct sound), it largely blends into the overall mix after a few listens, and is surprisingly effective at getting Abramson’s point across despite the occasional indecipherability of the lyrics themselves. And when taken in tandem with the music on The Bionic Mouth, it becomes inseparable to the overall experience of the album.
To tell the truth, one likely might not know the difference upon first listen, as Abramson’s compositions are quirky and eclectic enough to come off as intentionally over-digital, a type of bedroom electro-pop outing steeped in a lo-fi aesthetic and sporting a Stephen Hawking-esque vocoder on top of it all.
This vocoder (more accurately a ModelTalker vocal synthesizer) is one of the album’s more memorable aspects, and is the method by which Abramson is still able to sing for the record, becoming in effect the bionic aspect of The Bionic Mouth. A vocal synthesizer software that uses segments of recorded speech to emulate the spoken word for those losing their voice due to ALS, Abramson utilizes ModelTalker to pepper The Bionic Mouth’s eleven tracks with vocal expression that sounds both organic and abstract at once, lending the album a certain futuristic quality that escapes mere novelty (Abramson’s website also reports that he may be the first musician to ever use the ModelTalker for music purposes).
Comprised of mostly covers, The Bionic Mouth is a pretty interesting listen, both for the points above as well as the song choices, which run the gamut from holiday cheer (Christmas standard “Have Ur Selph a M3rry Lil Xmas”), to roots blues (Leadbelly’s “Black Girl” – known elsewhere as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”), bizarre interpretations of nasty-core hip-hop (2 Live Crew’s “C’Mon Babe” and what seems to be a reworking of T-Cash’s “Spread Ya Legs” – here dubbed “Bend Your Knees”), to 80’s post-punk classics (The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now”), and 60’s hit parade pop (The Osmonds’ “A Little Bit Country”, with guest vocals by Abigail Grille), as well as the University of Michigan’s school fight song “The Victors” (UMich is Abramson’s alma mater). And of course, what collection would be complete without the addition of a digitized version of the national anthem of these here United States, which doubles as Abramson’s Hendrix moment vis-a-vis the included ModelTalker version of “The Star Spangled Banner”.
Aside from the covers, Arbamson’s album contains what seem to be four original tracks: the slightly rock-ish and somewhat brooding “Shalom” (featuring guest keyboard by Ron Newman, a professor of music at Michigan State), the upbeat electro groove of “Praise”, the jazzy, downtempo lounge of “Vapidity” (with guitar help from Gary Lintemuth), and “Pyrate Phunk”, a more experimental piece that zigs and zags through a clearing of differentiated cyber-sounds, leaving one with the sense of walking down a long mirrored corridor. Though differing substantially from song to song, what all of Abramson’s tracks hold in common is a sense of composition, coupled with a knack for element and vocal placement. That all these tracks were produced so painstakingly using non-standard equipment is just icing on the cake; The Bionic Mouth has enough going on within its borders to keep you interested, and the songs are variegated and colorful.
The Bionic Mouth’s standout moment comes with Abramson’s cover of “How Soon is Now”, in this context literally enough to stand the hair up on the back of your neck. A stripped-down and thoroughly encapsulated version of the classic song that defined a generation, Abramson’s version funnels the primal drive of the original’s plaintive appeals for human affection and buries it in an added layer of significance given his condition. Computer-generated distortion slides into and out of the simple, pressure chamber electro beats and the uncomplicated yet effective sound effects he’s layered into the mix, aping one of the most famous guitar riffs of the 80’s in a way that sounds both dated and fresh at once. Through his ModelTalker, we hear Abramson’s digitized vocal strains mouthing Morrissey’s original lines, repeating “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does”, and voila, we have another lens into the heart-wrenching emotion underscored in the original, the pain and joy of living that every one of us experiences in our own way and time. A great, idiosyncratic reworking of the song that someone should email to Johnny Marr already.
In all, The Bionic Mouth is unlike much else you might hear any time soon, and well worth a listen. Do yourself a favor and check this one out.