Long after the revolution became the soundtrack to commerce, "techno"--or whatever name one wants to give to noise made by man and his machines--remains the misunderstood music; what's bleep-bleep-bleep to others is still blah-blah-blah to most. Even now, electronic music makes the top of the pops only when it's packaged for the radio-friendly mainstream, tarted up like Gwen Stefani, and used to sell this week's hot-selling widget during commercial breaks (cf. the Ford Focus is being touted as "Detroit Techno"). The only time someone breaks out of the dance-club ghetto is when the knob-twiddler steps out from behind the turntable and keybs and acts like a rock star; in the year 2001, we still like to put a face with fame, even when it looks like Moby or Norman Cook. The underground still seethes with the pulsating thump-thump-thump of the future, flourishing out of sight like a plant beneath a grow light in a closet, coming out only when appropriated by superstars in need of spark and flash to revamp a moribund muse. The world might have embraced Madonna when she slinked out of the limo last year sporting a cowboy hat and phat, phuturistic phunk, but there were plenty of people around the world who knew better: The Music she called her own was, to a large extent, on loan from a 30-year-old Swiss-born Frenchman named Mirwais Ahmadzaï.
A year after its release overseas, Mirwais' solo debut Production finally arrives Stateside; no doubt Sony felt the need to road test the music, and the Music, before importing the boy to pop radio (two singles from Production are being released--one to modern-rock, another to CHR), which is the exact opposite of a sure bet these days. Like Norman Cook (d/b/a/ Fatboy Slim), Mirwais worked the pop side of the street before heading back into the clubs; for a little while, he slummed it in folk-pop band Juliette et les Independants, which no doubt accounts for Production's penchant for incorporating alternahit samples (the moaned intro to the Breeders' "Cannonball" seethes throughout the opening cut "Disco Science") and softly strummed acoustic guitars (the sudden appearance of one on "Naïve Song" wonderfully, thrillingly humanizes the mechanical, repetitive beats) and loads of vocoder (yup, he's the Euro Frampton).
You might be tempted to complain about the inclusion of "Paradise (Not For Me)," which showed up on Music; cynics will gripe about using second-hand product to sell the unknown commodity. But keep in mind this disc's a year old, predating Music by several months; in Europe, it was the hint of things to come--Madonna as coy Eurotrash, whispering French and stammering English over ambient grooves, laconic strings, and vocoder gibberish. "Paradise" is, in truth, a better fit among these songs: It's in no hurry to hit the dance floor, no rush to break a sweat. Besides, Mirwais is also part of the, ah, tradition that brought you Giorgio Moroder (he of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" infamy) and Black Box and Daft Punk and even Air; play Production for your ma, and she's bound to insist they called it "disco" back in tha day.
Production, at times, feels like a producer's demo reel, bounding from style to style (and, dang it, substance) like a man showing off his bag o' tricks; it has the attention span of a dog on crank. The album whispers ("V.I. (The Last Words She Said Before Leaving)," a redo of an old Serge Gainsbourg track) before jumping off the couch to break a sweat (the clang-and-bang "Definitive Beat"), but just when you think he's all whiz and bang--a man with too much time and too many toys--you stumble across "Junkie's Prayer," with its synthostrings and short-film samples and startling ability to sound at once playful and mournful. It's almost a character study told from two points of view: one man riding a high (a clear, sweet voice sings, "We want drugs/We want love/We want sex/We want fun") and another about to hit bottom (a deep, distorted voice moans, "We want drugz-z-z-z/We want to die/We want love to dive in and die"). Rare is the electronic product with something to say, but Mirwais ain't interested in just liberating your mind: Free your ass, and your brain will follow.