The Dots are as focused and as diverse a group as I can name. For over 25 years they’ve been releasing record after record of bizarre and colorful music. Even with such a voluminous catalog behind them, their output remains completely unique and peerless. Plutonium Blonde is a trance-like, somewhat awkward record that meshes their eccentric pop sensibilities with dark, aggressive machine music.
From the start it is obvious that this record is a move away from the jam-band tendencies that have popped up in the Dots’ music over the past couple of records. The album opener, “Torch Song,” is an aggressive and concise electronic nightmare that thrives on synthesized beats and cascades of blurry keyboard effects. There are guitars on this record, but they take a back seat to the electronic errata conjured up by The Silverman and Edward Ka-Spel. The emphasis on computerized music isn’t just a stylistic turn for the band, but a natural continuation of the themes that run through Ka-Spel’s lyrics. From the ’50s era model on the cover, the cracked mirror she’s holding, and the truncated image of a mushroom cloud inside of the booklet, to the themes of paranoia, isolation, and distress in the song’s words, it is clear that technology and its effect on mankind is a central theme on the record. When the odd guitar or errant flute emerges from the flux of noise, drone, and found sounds that populate the majority of these songs, they bring a good deal of comfort and relief. Whether or not that relief is necessary is something worth considering, however.
Some of the songs on Plutonium Blonde feature an approach to songcraft that fans of the Chemical Playschool series will be happy to hear. Stuttering tape collages, dark synth pads, organic burps, and quiet percussive elements swim by beneath Ka-Spel’s narratives on both “An Arm and a Leg” and “Oceans Blue.” The intensity and creepiness of the vocals harmonize with the brooding haziness of the instrumentation creating a strong synthesis of abstract, psychedelic sound and conventional song-writing. Both “Torchsong” and “Rainbows Too?” favor a semi-melodic, direct approach to creating atmosphere, but are also the first two songs on the album. Plutonium Blonde thus feels like a slow descent into unfamiliar waters, one that ends up with the crushing woe of “Cubic Caesar.” The song begins with a biting quip: “My learning curve was so acute it formed a perfect circle / My whole wide world was virtual so I sank back in my shell.” From there Ka-Spel utilizes a combination of dry, phone-like tones and half-dead, choking keyboards to spin a tale of slowly atrophying ideas and feelings. Martijn De Kleer’s guitar work is most successfully worked into mix on this song; he draws a blues-like desolation out of his strings that emphasize the loneliness present in Ka-Spel’s lyrics. The song reaches a climax as Ka-Spel muses over the safety of virtual reality: “I know that far away exists mysterious adventures / A life beyond / Uncensored where there’s nothing guaranteed / It’s not for me / Oh I’ll live with it.”
My only complaints about this outing revolve around a pair of songs that interrupt the slow descent I described earlier. While “A World with No Mirrors” and “My First Zonee” draw their lifeblood from the same topics found in all the other songs, the musical aesthetic on both are so different from everything else on the record that they seem almost entirely out of place. “A World with No Mirrors” is composed of acoustic guitar and flute and sounds pastoral despite its nocturnal and ambient ending. “My First Zonee” is, on the other hand, a jaunty piece that only emphasizes how difficult it is to use a saxophone on a rock record and not come away sounding cheesy. Were these two songs removed or replaced, the album might be exceedingly bleak and somber. Yet, I find myself wanting to skip past both in order to get to the meat of the record. “Faded Photograph” manages to lighten the mood without breaking the album’s continuity and so both the aforementioned songs seem just a bit superfluous. That being said, both songs stand well on their own and are nowhere near distracting enough to ruin the record. I suppose I’m simply more endeared to Ka-Spel’s darker creations, which is why Plutonium Blonde keeps me coming back. It is twisted, dark, and filled with a multitude of musical approaches that few (if any) other musicians have ever even thought of blending.