Formica Blues
Mercury Records
rating: ****

Somewhere in the electronic landscape between Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps lies a musical terrain from whence Mono hails. Like these other outfits, Mono's modus operandi is the combination of emotive female singer plus tricky techno loops. Instead of gloom or grit, however, Mono plays with smoky jazz, classical and pop elements. Martin Virgo -- whose resume includes work with Nellee Hooper, Massive Attack and Bjork -- constructs the sonic tapestries here, from the harpsichord-on-scratching whirl of Life in Mono to the jump jazz collage of "Hello Cleveland!" String bass, music boxes, electronic beeps, breakbeat fills and hammered dulcimer all make appearances in Virgo's wide-ranging craft.

Vocalist Siobahn DeMare is the perfect counterpoint to Virgo's aural madness. Her voice is tender and breathy on "Life in Mono," then powerfully wry on "Silicone." In "Slimcea Girl" and "High Life" the duo take an unlikely turn into '60s pop, where DeMare sounds eerily like Dusty Springfield crooning over a sea of horn dubs and synth flashes. Her mantra of "I survive despite you" on "Playboy," backed by fat bass beats and string swells, is just begging for dance floor remixes.

Far from being a second-generation electronica effort, Mono's debut stands up alongside the best releases of the past year. Their flexible sound may even help their chances on the pop charts.

-- Beth Winegarner

This article was originally published in BAM magazine.