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Cotton Candy - Top-Notch & First Rate

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Artist: Cotton Candy

Album: Top-Notch & First Rate

Label: Teen Beat

Review date: Apr. 30, 2010

Top-Notch & First Rate would be an unwieldy record if it weren’t so fleeting. Mark Robinson’s debut album as Cotton Candy (joined by Evelyn Hurley) is perhaps his most unapologetic record. When his group Unrest took a janglier turn in the 1990s, they seemed to offer a somewhat Anglophilic, urbane alternative to what American indie guitar music could be, without drowning in phasers and fuzz. (It’s no wonder they ended up on 4AD.) In 1992, when they released the seminal Imperial FFRR, it sat on the opposite end of the spectrum from the year’s highest-profile indie LP, Slanted and Enchanted. Unrest’s music was brittle, crisp and syncopated. The guitars were unvarnished, the vocals sharply melodious. You imagined the band might wear lab-coats. There were drum machines. Pavement, of course, offered a drawling, slurred, and crackly slather that found more immediate favor. But, in a way, Unrest’s shelf-life has proven longer; at the least, the pendulum is swinging back in their direction. Their modular, clinical approach — particularly as the laptop replaced the 4-track — and the post-punk pedigree of their references nearly makes them visionaries. Not that bands these days play songs like theirs, they just sound like them. Find me a Pavement knock-off in 2010.

Compared with Flin Flon, Robinson’s slightly artier and less tensile group formed in the wake of Unrest’s demise, Cotton Candy is decidedly bubbly. There are several forays into full-fledged electro-pop, culminating in “Sincere Pretension,” a cascade of crying synths and android breaks. But there are also examples of Robinson’s attention to detail: the clean, rapid-fire jangle that propels the jaunty title-track and the web of pinprick notes spun around the Orange Juice-channeling “Imagine That!” These songs are breezy, uncomplicated -- and unfortunately rare; the 28-track whole of Top-Notch & First Rate is cluttered with interstitials.

It’s a masterpiece of niggling interruptions: the recurring snippets of some aw-shucks announcer at a small-town Battle of the Bands (that curiously includes a new group also named Cotton Candy); the blink-and-you-miss-it ode to the space race with ogles of Casiotone, vintage astronaut interviews and the Star Wars theme; the jigsaw montage of earnest radio performers mugging through the 2000th-plus episode of something called “Unshackled,” (devoted to the saga of ... Mark Robinson); and, most pervasive, the duo’s whimsical, stripped-down iterations of jingles, ranging from the blandly national (Carnation Instant Breakfast, The Clapper) to the goofily local (Thompson’s Clam Bar and YouTube-barnacle Jhoon Rhee Self-Defense), all of them short and predictably disruptive.

Though it’s packed with advertisements, Commercial Album this ain’t. When the Residents offered 40 original compositions each limited to one minute -- the constraints of a jingle -- it was a bold act of detournment. A medium of mass communication was being twisted against itself. Whereas the Residents weird out the jingle, Cotton Candy makes it even more banal. It’s telling that one of the longest track on Top-Notch & First Rate is a three-and-a-half-minute ad for the album itself. Full of snippets, needle-drops and ironic-bold claims (ex. “the most anticipated album of the decade”), it exhaustingly over-promises on an album that under-delivers.

By Bernardo Rondeau

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