Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 (TVT)
Spookey Ruben

By Bob Bahr

If you are familiar with the records of XTC, a highly skilled English pop group that hit its stride in the 1980s, then you are quite prepared for Spookey Ruben, a pop dynamo from Toronto. This is delicious pop, the kind that sends you on a sugar bun and occasionally smacks the charts upside the head with a big hit. Not that chart success is the issue here. This album is deeply weird; Ruben seems like the kind of eccentric, basement-studio musician that doesn't give a rip whether an album catches on or not. He won't be crushed if Modes of Transportation Vol. I doesn't take off. Here's a toast to his next album, even before I've aptly described his first release.

Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 is a whimsical, well0orchestrated work of modem pop that strikes the same chords as XTC's deceptively sweet tune-smithing.

Ruben adds a lofi feel (though the production is clean and professional) and a musical perspective that is inclusive of international musics, folk, dance, hip-hop and the Beatles. He has managed to subvert dark chords into bright pop (like the better songs of New Order) and made drum machines sound down-home and relatively organic. Lyrics are light yet faintly political, with a tricky undercurrent of cynicism — "Wendy McDonald" is about fast food, but it dodges back and forth between economics and fun. Not as cerebral or original as They Might Be Giants, Ruben is a child of various influences, a sonic name-dropper of synth tones and partial melodies that you almost recognize. The tempos vary, but they rarely dip below a stridently strummed ballad. Ruben plays almost all of the instruments himself, and recorded quite a bit of it at his home.

Strangely, what would serve as hooks often failed dig themselves in, perhaps due to the odd twists and turns that Spookey Ruben's melodies often take. The catchiest bit on the album may be the syllabic chorus of "Wendy McDonald," and I can't imagine America singing along with it. Other parts of the album are just downright odd, like the unaccompanied ticking of a stopwatch at the beginning of "Donate Your Heart to a Stranger. ." — for 43 straight seconds.

Critics love eccentric pop solo artists. They are fun to listen to, and they stand out from the formulaic dreck that. pours from major labels. But the public rarely warms up to them, or even discovers them at all. Spookey Ruben may deserve better, but he also may need to meet the pop audiences halfway. Modes of Transportation Vol. 1 is some thing to be proud of, but if an album roars in the middle of a retail forest and no one hears it, does i it even make a sound?

dreamy, surreal rock