Niko Et La Berlue
here is something awfully safe about so-called “freak-folk” music. Even in the midst of their greatest cacophony, the Animal Collective sound rather cute and will certainly sleep well tonight; Devendra Banhart often comes across as a street busking lost soul with the visions he needs to share with the world, but his acoustic guitar melodies fall asleep around the garbage can fire. With many folkies whom are sold as “freaks,” there is little sense that everything will fall apart around the artist who believes that he or she sees a perfectly sound and rational world while running naked in the streets. But then again, critics’ tags are always entertaining for being so vague and lazy.
However, the question about what places the “freak” in such music arose while cleaning the drool, half-eaten paste, snot, paint-covered handprints, and used diapers out of my stereo speaks after playing the Uské Orchestra’s Niko Et La Berlue. Niko Uské can first come across as a charmer, but the “innocent” sounding children’s music he devises has a sinister undertow. Mouse on Mars, whose IDM makes post-structuralism literally sound like kindergarten, issued the Belgian’s latest album on their Sonig label (the American edition is set to be released this January). True to his label bosses’ sound, our man has a childlike awe of technology and camp. However, this grown man’s work often literally sounds like it was improvised by pre-pubescents led by a frustrated teacher. Such manic energy is shared by few I’ve heard save Jad Fair’s tourette’s seizures, the spooky delirium of the Residents, and the ear-shattering tomfuckery of DAT Politics.
The music could arguably be “folk” as it employs sounds typically heard in Western children’s music that generations have heard: lopsided melodies, whistles, toy xylophones, vocals sung to the highest of pitches or through mimicking English-speaking animals, and off-key horn blurting, to name a few. Uské mainly indulgences in some form of backporch blues on a piano or banjo while he tosses in melodies that walk with the wrong shoes on the wrong feet, along with digital micro-edits splattered about and disjointed time signatures that are roughly a beat behind. The effect is worth a chuckle for one song, but if dragged across an entire album, it can all be a bit much. Uské’s freakishness itself is still an oddity that nags one’s curiosity, no matter how repellant he is.
Opener, “Elle Et Un Théatre De Bambous” is an accurate harbinger of the madness within. Uské begins by sounds very cute and family-friendly as he “ooh-wahs” over delicate plucks on his guitar. And then he sings. Our man resembles Mickey Mouse singing at a cathouse after his 10th shot of Absinthe. He mutters out the melody rather than shouts, as if to not frighten the kids. A vaguely bluegrass hootenanny then stumbles in, while Uské hops around the room and knocks down several pieces of furniture. Again, everything’s just adorable, so far. The title track then follows where he futzes around and throws his fingers all over his strings and drum machine, while randomly blowing a toy horn like a one-man band struggling to not be upstaged by that damn monkey on the accordion player’s shoulder. “Un Tintamarre Bleu” is a dandy blues march that emerges from a din of goose imitations and other mallard calls. However, “Le Fantôme Des Doux Matins” is where the creepiness sets in. It is explicitly children’s music with its chirpy flute melody for tykes to mum along to, but Uské gets impatient and smacks around everything within reach—letting one to believe that we may have an adult who clearly needs psychiatric help. And there are still eight more songs to go.
Despite the wildman indulgence, Niko Et La Berlue grows redundant over time. Uské typically starts off by bludgeoning the listener with cartoons of noises for a few minutes until a sublime and musically coherent breather kicks in, and then the ruckus is back. The lack of focus sinks much of the album. God knows what he does live onstage, but it’d probably not be something to take the kids to… unless a picture of Dadaist Hugo Ball in his cardboard robot suit is tacked on their bedroom wall along with Spongebob Squarepants and Kim Possible.
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2005-12-06