by Michael Alan Goldberg

The Robot Ate Me Tues May 20

Meow Meow

There's nothing inherently wrong with injecting sorrow and gloom into rock 'n' roll. Truly, some of the best, most memorable tunes ever written are of the wrist-slashingly morose variety, and we all need those cathartic moments every now and again, right? However, in the hands of phonies (which means about 98 percent of the music business) such "misery" is really contrived, utterly banal nonsense: Yet another wretched nu-metaller howling about broken homes, or some weenie emo kid whining about how the indie chick split because she liked the other guy's cardigan better.

But on They Ate Themselves, the debut album from the San Diego quartet The Robot Ate Me, frontman Ryland Bouchard displays skilled mitts capable of transferring despair into music that's genuine and grippingly gorgeous. Imparting a grievous voice that quavers like a new widower kept awake in the wee hours by the devastating emptiness of his bed, Bouchard pilots the San Diego quartet, which also includes bassist RJ Hoffman, drummer David Greenberg, and multi-instrumentalist William Haworth, through songs rife with despondent, moribund imagery.

"A couple people in my life passed away last year, and so I was obviously focused on the topics of death, alienation, and trying to be alive in what is sometimes a fairly sad and silly world," Bouchard explains.

Yes, these guys are emotional eaters, but it's TRAM's unorthodox and oddly uplifting experi-bedroom-pop constructions--ones you might find on a Neutral Milk Hotel or Flaming Lips release--that keep the group from getting too bogged down in the mope-mire. Accordion, toy pianos, typewriters, and power tools commingle with guitars and drums for a nuanced sound that embraces the innocence and playfulness of a child even as it confronts the bleak realities of adulthood.

"I look to music for comfort and happiness so I wanted things to sound warm and happy, even if I wasn't at that point mentally," says Bouchard. "It really is just too much to listen to sad-sounding music about sad things, and happy music about happy things. I love the contrast--upbeat sing-along songs about eating people, and sad, quiet songs about eating chocolate sprinkles and ice cream."