The Robot Ate Me
Fri March 25
Solid State
898 SE Ash

Okay, so to start things off, we're toe-tapping to an upbeat ragtime 78 LP while gleefully gussying up for a multi-national genocide ball. Along the way, we: sneak a brief glimpse of what appears to be the son of God fucking Adolf Hitler in the back of a steam-filled car; hear a heavy-handed propaganda commercial for something called the "Republican Army"; pause for a convoluted playtime with Barbie, George Bush, and God; nap conveniently through the Holocaust; and then finally decide to scrap all of our plans for a sunny, stress-free holiday. And we're only at halftime. This is the kind of record that optimistic people might call "challenging." Very optimistic people.

With their sophomore full-length (recently reissued by 5RC) On Vacation, San Diego's otherwise unassuming three-piece The Robot Ate Me have managed to create one of the most consistently frustrating pop albums I've ever weathered. Split indulgently into two disparate 20-minute volumes, On Vacation begins as a compelling pastiche of coarse, artfully mingled samples culled from what sound like pre-WWII pop LPs--collages that are then seamlessly augmented by indistinguishable live instrumentation into a subtly absorbing decoupage. This ambitious introduction proves deceptively promising, however--a misunderstanding that's quickly cleared up the minute vocalist Ryland Bouchard opens his mouth. Throughout On Vacation's desperately over-reaching first half, Bouchard lazily struggles to contrast images of Nazi Germany with ham-fisted, offensively glib allusions to modern conservatism and the religious right. At just over the 20-minute mark, the band seems to realize that they've run their convoluted concept well into the ground, and decides rather randomly to trade it in for a considerably less laborious pop record--feebly uniting the two with seemingly unrelated twin title tracks. And from the onset of disc two, The Robot Ate Me miraculously transforms from over-extended experimental pop band to an adept, safe-as-milk indierock machine--a little on the bland side, sure, but at least engaging, and more importantly, within the band's reach.

Still, it's this mutual disparity between the discs that's ultimately so frustrating: on one side, you've an oppressively clunky concept record atop a really interesting musical premise; on the other, you've got skillfully crafted pop songs over relatively vanilla indierock. Properly blended, On Vacation could have been one of this year's most compelling records--but deliberately estranged as they are, it's just terribly exasperating.