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Spotlight on: Featuring... by Internal/External

Cover of Featuring by Internal/External

Internal/External, Featuring...

Some Velvet Sidewalk's Paul Schuster is the mind behind Internal/External. After experimenting with electronic music, he asked some of his musically-oriented friends to add their own personalities to the songs he had come up with. The result was Featuring..., an amazing selection of the surprising things that can come from collaboration.

Some of the highlights come from the expected places. Lois Maffeo's soaring voice melds with Schuster's electronics perfectly on "Hope" and Calvin Johnson's (Beat Happening) choice of melodica for accompaniment on "I/E" is unconventional, but that equates everything that Johnson has stood for musically. Carrie Brownstein's (Sleater-Kinney) guitar playing on "The Skin" smoothly underlays Schuster's Some Velvet Sidewalk bandmate Al Larsen's channeling of a welcome Lou Reed vibe. Schuster's solo "N.W. Instrumental" is a high point, as is "Townes van Zandt," a slam poetry offering from Sue P. Fox.

On the downside, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) attempts to rap and falls far short of the mark and Tae Won Ku's contribution to "Talk Too Loud" makes it into a dance tune that is simplistic in the wrong way. The inscrutable "I Knew Them" has Slim Moon (owner of indie label Kill Rock Stars, the musical home of Some Velvet Sidewalk and many of the contributors) offering a spoken word riff that can just barely not be heard under the groove laid down by Schuster and K.O.'s theremin. The inability to make out the words leads to a level of frustration that results in the song being skipped before its end, when the words finally make sense--or rather finally show themselves to definitely not make sense. It seems that this must have been the intent as it doesn't happen on any other track, but the producer should, in the future, pay more attention to balance between words and music.

Joseph DeRouselle, though he appears on two tracks, does not make a significant impression and his offerings, "Secret Adversary" and "Ornery" are best delineated by the contributions of his female collaborators. "Secret Adversary" features co-Newlywed Angie Hart appearing to yearn for B-52dom. Her backing bursts in a Valley-speak accent annoy more than they entertain. Conversely, Kanako Wynkoop and her silky lilt raises "Ornery" above the more pedestrian effort it undoubtedly was originally.

A collection like this is by its very nature uneven, especially when the guest artists are allowed free rein to experiment. The upshot of this is that the high points of Featuring... are stratospheric but the low points--due to Schuster's consistent quality of backing material--aren't allowed to reach the depths that they could have. This keeps the level of quality pretty well above average across the running time of the disc and makes the debut album from Internal/External a solid listen.

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