September 14, 2014

Review: Cookies | Music For Touching

We spent more time than most in the first decade of this century watching Ben Sterling bend like a hinge over electronics in darkened rock clubs, the rhythm of the music and his duties on guitar for the visionary indie trio Mobius Band pulling him up while his obligations to punch pads on a sampler pulled him down. When the trio disbanded at the end of the oughts, we were more than a little disappointed, but that feeling was eventually ameliorated by a stream of 10" EPs that Mr. Sterling issued under the mildly ludicrous Cookies moniker starting in 2010. Finally, after life got in the way for a while, after Sterling patiently wrote and re-wrote the songs that would comprise it, Cookies issued last week the debut LP Music For Touching. It is a striking and rich collection of brilliantly conceived electropop, and proof positive that there are few songwriters -- at any sales level -- as smart as Ben Sterling.

It may surprise some that the set takes more cues from Prince or The Gap Band than the post-punk and post-rock that informed much of Mobius Band's work. Of course, given the four Cookies 10" records, those who claim surprise just haven't been paying attention. That aside, one need look no further than Mobius Band's swan song Heaven -- as well as certain of the cover tunes on the informal Valentine's Day EPs the trio still gives away for free -- for evidence of Sterling's affinity for more groovy and relatively conventional sounds. But it is a mistake to think that, just because Sterling's tastes have gravitated toward more traditional (or at least more traditionally listened-to) sounds and structures, that he has abandoned his marked yen for experimentation. The beautiful, languid rumination "The Dream" which closes Music For Touching illustrates that Sterling instead uses the latter to inform the former. The song works a slow R&B vamp, features some gloriously liquid guitar soloing, and lays both over minimal, clattering electronic rhythm tracks that gently remind of Sterling's bona fides as a former Ghostly Records signee. Maybe Sterling's aesthetic has always fed a conventional/experiemental duality, but it has never before been so purely expressed than on Music For Touching.

While the collection closes by fading into reverie, it pops open on the front end like a can of tennis balls. Staccato hand-claps and a foregrounded bleep establish a head-bobbing groove over which Sterling and vocalist Melissa Metrick coo from within the optimistic halo of young love gone right in "1,000 Breakfasts With You." That song claps itself out and is warmly met ("Hello. It's nice to see you.") by a robot voice introducing Music For Touching's second preview single, "Go Back." That joinder is the first of many snappy sequencing choices, the best of which may be where the primary descending three-note melody of the deliriously catchy "July 17" abuts the ascending three-note bumping bass line that drives the next tune, the funky -- and we do not use that word lightly -- standout "Crybaby." But it isn't just the sequencing of Music For Touching that makes it shine so bright; it's not even just the songwriting. During the four years it took to germinate the record, Sterling selected very arresting sounds, from the kalimba that provides the hypnotic counter-melody entering with the first chorus of "Spill Of Sugar," to the neon-dripping synth stabs and mind-scrambling baritone sax solo in the aforementioned "Crybaby," to the thick, Beatles-implying piano chords underpinning the title track.

We like to think of Mr. Sterling as the next generation's Daryl Hall -- "next generation" because he is that far ahead of the pack in terms of style -- but akin to Mr. Hall in his appreciation for substance, which is to say, actually substantial pop and, yes, even soul. As an aside, it's interesting to think how Sterling's arc as a songwriter roughly traces the rise of the music crit viewpoint known as poptimism, which rise itself tracks recent critical acceptance of music marked by glossy (even unrealistic) production and a distinct contemporary R&B influence. Clicky Clicky itself does not embrace the poptimist perspective ("rockism" forever! get off my lawn, youths! -- Ed.), and it will never aspire to be "in touch with the taste of average music fans." We expect Sterling would bristle at a reference to his music as poptimist, if only because, really, what makes music less fun than yoking it to some fairly bullshit intellectual name-calling. What we will say is that, while poptimism strains to make excuses for contemporary pop music, Sterling's only concern for pop or music is to make it smarter. While the above-linked article posits that poptimism stands in opposition to adventurousness, Sterling clearly carries with him that same sense of adventure that first manifested itself in the earliest Mobius Band music. Indeed, that adventurousness is even more intensified as a result of Sterling's sole responsibility for writing and producing all of Music For Touching. And it is what makes us such ardent fans of the musical places Sterling takes us. We are very eager to hear what comes next.

Music For Touching is available now as a very attractive 12" vinyl LP and digital download, both of which can be ordered via the act's Bandcamp outpost here. The vinyl edition comes with a "newspaper of companion images by Emily Keegan titled "Tools For Touching." Cookies fĂȘte the release of Music For Touching with a show at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn Tuesday; the night also features performances by Superhuman Happiness and The Great Void. Boston-area fans should set aside the evening of Sept. 24, as Cookies will be making a very rare area appearance at Cafe 939 in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. The Boston date is part of a short strand of shows Cookies will embark upon with tourmates Dawn Of Midi Sept. 22 that swirl through the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Full dates are below.

Cookies: Bandcamp | Facebook | Interzizzles | Soundcloud

09.22 -- Washington, DC -- The Black Cat
09.24 -- Boston, MA -- Cafe 939
09.25 -- Portland, ME -- Space Cafe
09.26 -- Burlington, VT -- Signal Kitchen
09.28 -- Hamden, CT -- The Space
09.29 -- Philadelphia, PA -- Johnny Brenda's

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