by JEFF ECHERT & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & e may, this minute, be living through the point at which music fully enters the Digital Age. Events like the giving away of Radiohead's In Rainbows, (and now part of Trent Reznor's new Nine Inch Nails album), though its momentum is not yet fully felt, place the average musician at the brink of a computerized precipice, a point at which there's no going back.
Portland, Oregon's Mus & eacute;e Mecanique believes firmly in the wedding of technological and human elements, but not quite in the cold, lifeless manner that your average computer user and his trusty microprocessor may represent -- and certainly not for reasons of promotion or marketing. Taking their name from a San Francisco museum exhibiting turn-of-the-century penny arcades and motorized marvels, primary members Micah Rabwin and Sean Ogilvie aim to bring back that fascination through music that expresses the allure of the mechanical -- a child-like curiosity with the intricate, the delicate, and the bizarrely beautiful. Or, as they put it, "An old fascination for the romantic quality of technology."
Ogilvie explains: "I used to live in the Bay Area, and I would go down to the museum with my daughter. What fascinated me about it was the human aspects -- the machines had imperfections that clearly showed they were made by human hands, not like a computer chip." This small collection of artifacts became the impetus for Mus & eacute;e Mecanique's sound, which now also draws inspiration from the quirks of Portland.
"We live in a really eclectic neighborhood," says Rabwin, "We're just a few blocks away from one of the oldest amusement parks in the country. [Oaks Amusement Park just recently celebrated its centennial.] It has a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel and a carnival. It's right next to the river, an estuary, and an old mausoleum."
This passion for the antiquated, the odd, and the extraordinary is central to the band's M.O., influencing its multifaceted sound that aims for an experience that is, in Ogilvie's words, "simple and elegantly imperfect." The band is exceptionally tight, with recorded tracks laid down live -- Ogilvie (who moonlights as a member of post-rock band Tristeza) and Rabwin have been playing music together since they were 14 years old. "We have a kinship that's very important to the songwriting," Ogilvie says. "We both enjoy things that are simple and clear and rich." Keen ears will detect a sonic similarity to the historic pop of Beirut or Neutral Milk Hotel (a compliment that, in this writer's opinion, is one of the highest a band can receive, and one that Mus & eacute;e Mecanique deserves).
The interplay between human and machine influences lyrical content as well. "It depends on the song, obviously. Most of what we write comes from emotional expression or personal experience. It's relatively simple stuff," Rabwin explains, shooting down my hope of unearthing some grand, sweeping literary project. But not all is lost: he tells a story that led to one of Mus & eacute;e Mecanique's songs, "The Propellors," saying that "someone gave us a stack of National Geographics -- basically, every single one since 1934. One of them was about the 50th anniversary of flight, and there was a story about Lieutenant Tom Selfridge, who was the first person to die in a motorized flight accident. We thought it was an interesting story, and we pretty consciously decided that we were going to tell it." The resulting track starts quietly, working itself into a crescendo, not of volume but of layering, adding instrument upon instrument. There's something disturbing, even eerie, about how dreamily such a song about a plane crash pulls you along.
For the band, performing at the relatively small Caterina Winery should prove to be an interesting challenge -- they tow around about seven keyboards for a live show. Rabwin explains, "Each keyboard is meant to emulate a different kind of sound -- one makes organ noises, another a Rhodes piano, another a Wurlitzer."
The band also incorporates instruments like glockenspiel and accordion into their lineup. Lately, they've taken to incorporating found song in their performances, playing a tape that they recorded while ambling along their hometown streets on a sunlit day. "We recorded anything we found interesting, edited it together, and we play it on cassette behind one of our songs," says Rabwin. The resulting m & eacute;lange is heady, yet reveals itself to the listener with ease.
There is hope to be found among the cogs and gears (resistors and microprocessors, rather), and Mus & eacute;e Mecanique is set upon revealing that positive side to its audience. "Technology can be so personal and connected to human elements," Rabwin muses. Combining warm, soulful arrangements with disparate machinery, Mus & eacute;e Mecanique is poised to reveal that golden harmony.
Mus & eacute;e Mecanique with Dane Ueland at Caterina Winery on Thursday, March 6, at 8 pm. Tickets: $5. Call 328-5069.