Thank goodness for the In Betweeners. For all us old foges still wary of this newfangled ‘electronic music,’ it’s nice to have a few bands here and there to hold our hand while we wade into the shallow end with our water wings on. To lead those of us with terminal rockism towards the flickering LCD monitor glow, it’s necessary to have a few artists that will meet us halfway, mixing in safe, comfortable, ‘actual’ instruments to make us feel at home before hitting us with the subliminal digital trickery.
Which is where a band like Midwest Product comes in: one of those acts that’s not a rock band, not yet an electronic act. One peek at the liner notes says all you need to know, as all three cats listed are right-slash utilitymen covering both an old-fashioned musicmaker (guitar, bass, drums) and the willfully mysterious task of “electronics.” What that information translates to is a solid base of organic drums and bass guitar with a walk-in closet’s worth of keyboard gizmos playing hopscotch over the top and through the holes.
Sure, it’s not an entirely groundbreaking formula, but I rather enjoy how Midwest Product falls smack dab in the middle between the rock and electronic leagues. With their predominantly instrumental arrangements and now-it’s-live/now-it’s-Memorex drums, the more recent or remixed work of Tortoise springs to mind, albeit with less vibra-phoniness smoothing out the rocky edges. A varied effort, Specifics swings from the shimmery guitar atmospherics of “Reminder” with its restrained electronic twinklings and machine buzzes, to the almost entirely circuit-based “Alternator,” a twilight exploration of microhouse’s sweeps and clicks.
But it’s the in-between stuff that hits harder; songs like “Still Love in the Midwest” and “Vitamin” that skillfully straddle genre boundaries. Most strikingly, the three boys of Midwest Product know that computers still can’t replicate the deep groove of a bonafide rhythm section, and the bass of Drew Schmeiding and drums of Chad Pratt create a solid continuity for the knob-twiddling antics of Mr. Ben Mullins. Throughout the album, Mullins’ drum loops and lower-end synthesizers do a nice happy frolic with the output of his fellow band members, generally avoiding the crowded-elevator toe-stepping that all too often occurs from these sort of man/computer collabs.
A warning, though: due in part to its instrumental nature, Specifics might not quite have the goods to win over the guitar loyalist crowd, as the album’s fifty minutes have the usual electronic album side effect of not planting enough head-sticking melodies to prevent its fading into background music for casual listeners. Even the dark synth-pop of “Pigeons,” the one vocal-fortified track here, isn’t quite jingle material and disappointingly resorts to the tired vocoder trick, a device that hasn’t been scary since Superman III and hasn’t been kitschy cool since Moon Safari. Recording for Michigan-based electronic label Ghostly International isn’t going to help win over the rock hordes either, as Midwest Product will most likely be marketed as six-string escapism for the laptop crowd, rather than vice versa.
But Ghostly International is also based out of the woody landscapes of suburban Detroit—though, between us, don’t tell Ann Arbor I called it a Detroit suburb—and the moniker Midwest Product is more than just a (um, not especially) catchy name. For Detroit, with its Rock City status and decidedly retro ‘automobile’ industry, might just be the right place for a successful merging of the electronic with the electric, from which Middle America can be gently nudged towards a Tron-like future. To appeal to Joe Midwest, you’ve gotta have a backbeat that rattles the hatchback, and by providing such a feature alongside their electronic musings, Midwest Product has downright Moses potential.