Replica Figures by John MOuseRelease date: February 19, 2018
In October, I had a conversation with John MOuse, when he was just starting work on Replica Figures. When I reminded him about the title of his previous release, The Death of John MOuse, his reply did not surprise me:
“I honestly thought time was up for the whole John MOuse thing.”
John MOuse (aka John Davies) is a writer. Writers don’t just stop writing. Ever.
As we talked over Skype, I could tell that something in his outlook had changed. John MOuse was uncharacteristically excited about the new project- which at the time didn’t have a title, but it had a purpose. He was deep in thought about memories and fascinated by them. How we are able to store the imagined archives of our lives on our flabby little bio-hard drives? Why do some stay and others fade? Why do we hang on to some memories and try like hell to discard others? Replica Figures evolved as a self examination of the concept of memory, and the impact on John MOuse’s life. In the process, MOuse’s musical also focus changed. This was going to be a minimal album, recorded quickly, and using as few instruments as possible. The result is a lyrically/morally/musically challenging album. And it’s a delight, especially in the dead of winter.
John MOuse’s fifth full-length release is an album that explores memories from several sides. Old memories, good memories, decayed memories, imagined memories, and the things that trigger memory (smells, photographs, old letters, places). There has always been a tinge of nostalgia on every John MOuse release. But on the new release, he approaches memories with the precision of a psychiatrist (or a psychiatric patient). The tables keep turning across the album. MOuse is a cunning writer, with a cutting wit- but also with a heightened sense of perception and empathy- qualities that are both a blessing and a curse, as portrayed across the eleven songs on Memory Replicas.
Sweet Baboo (Steve Black) has played with and/or collaborated with Gruff Rhys, Cate Le Bon, and Euros Childs. He was also a member of John MOuse’s original band, JT Mouse. Black was the primary engineer and collaborator on Replica Figures. From the start, MOuse wanted the music to be an atmospheric backdrop and knew Black would be the perfect collaborator. On Replica Figures there is a greater emphasis on lyrics than his previous albums. The drums are all programmed and inorganic, not live (which is weird, because Sweet Baboo is one of the best drummers in Wales), and the number of instruments is limited to the bone. There’s piano, bass, piano, acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and treated drum machine. The end result is musically painterly, and Black’s production is both understated and brilliant.
The album opener, End of Mankind, is one of the more “rock” songs on the album and a great one to kick off Replica Figures. The song is filled with grim imagery that is counter-balanced by Sweet Baboo’s poppy melodic genius. A story that MOuse reads on a moving train, unfolds- a prostitute gives birth to a child while smoking crack, then she drops it into a garbage bin, to finish having sex with her client, before stabbing him in the chest. And according to the police, the woman at the center of the story, had no memory of these gruesome events.
That’s a lot to unpack.
But while reading the story, images formed in MOuse’s head of the scene, where they became buried as an unfortunate, uninvited, and painful memory that he now has to carry around. In contrast, the music is punctuated by poppy organ riffs and MOuse’s deadpan spoken word delivery. This is a theme that persists throughout the album. And it’s both smart and innovative.
Despite the gloomy opening track, MOuse’s caustic sarcasm pops and grooves in the follow-up track, Boogaloo. A nostalgic song that name checks cultural icons from the 80’s and 90’s like Andre The Giant and Andre Agassi, naked Barbie dolls, riding in cars without seatbelts, and eating microwave dinners. This is definitely one of the jauntier tunes on the album and celebrates innocent childhood memories and definitely one that I can relate to. The piano riff is catchy, and the cultural references will make you smile (depending on your generation). The music sounds like 1970’s generic pop- which is sort of the point. Yeah, we grew up in the 1970’s. It was fun and shallow.
John MOuse can be upbeat and downbeat in a variety of ways. He is definitely not a cliche. The Fire Burns is another one of the more upbeat songs on the album. It’s about chopping wood and then sitting in a chair, watching the fire burn. This is song about simple chores and memories of eating soup and just sitting in front of a fire on a cold day. A simple memory. A simple act. Trivial, yet significant in the greater picture of life. The guitar work is nimble and the song is short. The lyrics are less of a narrative than just a quick snapshot that sticks in your brain. One to revisit on cold winter days- which is exactly what happened to me as I listened to the song.
The musical synergy and minimal arrangement MOuse and Black developed comes to life in, what I consider the top track of the album, Memory. This song sounds so much like a long lost Velvet Underground song it’s hard NOT to like it. The rough and rolling electric guitar riff and the lyrics are so Lou Reed this song will make music nerds smile. MOuse’s baritone vocals address the main theme of the record: Memories are there, whether you want them to be there or not. A simple piano riff augments the melody in the tradition of a late 1960’s pop tune.
“Memory, memory, why won’t you leave me alone?”
I think we’ve all been in a place where we wished we could erase memories.
Bunkbeds and Broken is the closest song on the album to the classic John MOuse sound- and it would fit well on any of his previous releases. The chorus and hook are clean and catchy. An acoustic guitar jangles, there’s a heavy bass riff. Like every other song on Replica Figures, the song is all about the lyrics- rambunctious fun and dysfunction, a tribute to the good memories from our your younger self.
One of the self-imposed parameters of Replica Figures was to keep the arrangements as minimal as possible. This album is not sparse, it’s uncluttered. The bass and drum machine are prominent, but there is enough space to hear the subtle keyboards, and the guitars are bright.
In The King and Jesus Ganged Up on Me, there’s a simple piano line, a limited and simple bass line, vocals, and a gauzy synthesizer. The lyrics are about doubting Christian faith, and the futility of arguing against dogma, with the refrain, “Everyone else is right.” Somewhere along the line the King lands on a football field in a helicopter. This is the shortest song on the album, but also one of the most poignant, and the imagery most abstract.
While I’ve been listening to Replica Figures for the past several weeks, every time the playlist landed on The Boxer, I was like, “Which one is this? I like it.” It was always The Boxer. Lyrically, this is a simple song- a man flags down a cab and rides in silence to his destination. The bass carries the melody, while an acoustic piano and a restrained, but heavily echoed, electric guitar, provide the atmosphere to this tale of loneliness. I can’t tell if the The Boxer is the cab driver or the passenger. Does it matter? It’s another passing memory. Some of them fade and some of them stick with you- even if it’s a trivial event.
The Boxer is one of the slowest songs on the album, but it’s also the most richly textural. The piano and electric guitar are as dark as night.
One of the most minimal songs on the album is “With These Hands I Will Rip Your Heart Out.” There’s a simple progression of piano chords, a bass, and a voice. It’s a song of regret, of finding out about children you never knew that you’d spawned. “Is that the man?” is a recurring line. About mid-way through the song a simple programmed drum line comes in. It’s almost imperceptible. The vocals become doubled and John MOuse sings a chorus and verse at the same time- the voices playing off against one another. The song has a live feel- like a person trying to work out their grief late at night on an old piano.
Memories often include past lovers as depicted in “Sue.” Flowers, cats, sex, death, are the memory triggers at play in this song. And there’s also a boy named Sue. The stripped down arrangement consists of single-tracked vocals and an acoustic guitar, which hew beautifully to the minimalist standard MOuse charted for this album. Lyrically “Sue” has the humor and off-kilter literary styling of a Robyn Hitchcock song, but this is also classic John MOuse territory. “Sue” evokes are bittersweet memories. Mostly sweet. Even John MOuse gets a respite from misery.
Notes and photographs are both triggers and carriers of memories. This is the theme of Magnetic Frames Stuck to the Boiler. You might find a picture or a letter that you have ALMOST completely forgotten about, that transport you back in time every time you stumble across them. Sometimes to a good place, sometimes to a painful place. In the next-to-last track on Replica Figures, this is the song where John MOuse confronts his memories and puts his cards on the table. You can’t live only on the good ones and you can’t block the bad ones. This combination is what makes us who we are, and maybe who we have been in the past.
Sonically, Magnetic Frames Stuck to the Boiler is one of the richest songs on the album. MOuse and Black stitch together some very minimal elements that blend an acoustic guitar, an unglamorized bass, layered vocals, atmospheric synthesizers, and a programmed castanet. This is a downbeat song. A simple piano line hangs in the background. As the song builds, it also brings you down into that soft, almost imperceptible spiral that ends in depression. The song and the emotions creep up on you, with an overwhelming effect. This is another of my favorites from Replica Figures.
The intro to final track of the album, “Gladiator Contender,” consists of a cheesy lo-fi organ riff with a classic drum machine calypso beat. This is an uptempo, but not an upbeat song. “Gladiator Contender” is about the painful grieving that takes place while a family member’s health goes into decline. You’re mourning their passing while they are still alive. Who is the Gladiator and who is the Contender? Watching a loved one simply drift away is a hurtful memory. Family members transfer some of their memories to you over the course of a lifetime- and in “Gladiator Contender” and now it’s your turn to carry them- both the good ones and the bad ones. This is a beautiful and mournful song. And it certainly leaves a mark, and maybe a tear, as the album closer.
In many ways, Replica Figures is both musically and lyrically the most expansive John MOuse album to date. He is a deceptively deep figure and the lyrics are literate. On his previous release, The Death of John MOuse we saw him as the happy clown. On Replica Figures we’re listening to an adult and experiencing one man’s real world, that could very much be our own. MOuse’s songwriting has not just matured, it has grown. The anti-rock/post-rock musical score are woven together with the lyrics in a way that makes the album both a challenging, yet rewarding listen.
Unlike his previous releases, which grew sonically more complex with each iteration, Replica Figures was conceived at the start to be as musically minimal as possible. There is very little studio trickery, no over the top riffs, no screaming. It was recorded in five fucking days. Very much like Euros Childs, the minimalism on Replica Figures exposes the complexity and vulnerability of the artist. Small sounds and simple recollections contribute to a bigger picture, like the brush strokes of an Impressionistic painting. Sweet Baboo’s musical contributions and mega-engineering skills create a haunting atmosphere. Replica Figures is a front row seat in the evolution of John MOuse’s writing, and we’re seeing him at the top of his emotional and artistic game.
Replica Figures is mostly a very downtempo and very minimal post-rock album, with a rich and thoughtful narrative- punctuated with jolts of cynical humor. The album was written and recorded with a sense of urgency, about a complex and relatable topic that takes a long and slow path through the brain.
The initial release of Replica Figures was released to backers of his pledgemusic.com campaign on 19 February 2018. The album will be available via johnmouse.bandcamp.com in March.