(formerly posted on the Yahoo! Music site)
Like Hooverphonic and the Sneaker Pimps, Mono rode the wake of Portishead's acclaim to a quick flash of trendy success. This London-based duo, featuring wispy chanteuse Siobhan De Maré and keyboardist/programmer Martin Virgo, released its debut album overseas in late 1997, but was otherwise unknown until a few months later, when the song "Life in Mono" came to prominence via the Great Expectations soundtrack. Mono's album, Formica Blues, was issued in the States shortly afterwards.
"Life in Mono" leads off the disc, and is easily the highlight. An attractively lush (if synthetic) production, the song draws power from its elegant chords and De Maré's blankly wistful vocal, evoking some imaginary French spy film from the '60s. This widescreen cinematic quality is the album's most striking motif, recurring notably in the slinky "Silicone," "Penguin Freud," the instrumental montage "Hello Cleveland" and the dulcimer solo in "The Outsider." Elsewhere, "Slimcea Girl" nicely echoes Burt Bacharach with its jazzy saunter, flecks of sampled trumpet and majestic chorus, while "High Life" mixes soul and Brian Wilson into a similar pop pastiche. However, the remainder of the disc is more Monotony than Mono, trapped in formula and padded with overgenerous track lengths (and trivial instrumental fragments between songs). There's even an inferior second version of "Life in Mono," remixed by Propellerheads. Worst of all is "Playboys," an aimless one-line groove which drags on for nearly seven minutes. It's a shame that the material is so uneven, because Virgo's arrangements can be quite imaginative.
Is Mono a one-hit wonder, doomed for immediate obscurity? Perhaps not, if Virgo and De Maré can rise beyond stylistic dabblings toward a true identity of their own. But judging from Formica Blues, this may be too much to ask.
1. Formica Blues 1997
This well-crafted but hollow debut mixes languid rhythms, layered synthesizers and Siobhan De Maré's breathy coo, reflecting both trip-hop and cocktail influences. If all the songs were as focused as the hit single "Life in Mono," this could be a fine album, but as is, these melancholy tracks are often overlong and uninvolving.