Review: Cosmonaut by Space Weirdo

Where do I start with this album?  People think the Open Culture initiative cannot produce music that is at the same level as commercial releases. Well, if they wanted proof otherwise, I would point this release on Jamendo as strong evidence that we have progressed to a level where excellent music can be produced without “commercial” interests being involved.
Cosmonaut is described as being about “Weird encounters between alien intelligences, all of them cunning, all of them with hidden agendas…”  With these words, German Ponte and Pablo Chavarri send the listener on a journey through a sonic space that at a minimum is unique and entertaining, and ultimately is engaging in a manner that very few recordings can engage the listener.

The first things I noticed on listening to this album were all of the elements that went into make it:

  • Pop cultural references through quotes from Gillian Anderson, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Cleese, and even a Voder demonstration from the 1939 World’s Fair, and more.
  • Mixing of musical styles: mostly straight pop / rock, with a little electronica, ambient, alternative / grunge mixed in for good measure.
  • A vocalist that sounds partially like David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame.
  • A steel / pedal guitar sound that was familiar, but I couldn’t place (and it was driving me nuts!). I finally realized the pedal guitar sound I am reminded of is Ken Ramm’s Euphoria project.  A personal favorite of mine for quite a long time now.

It wasn’t until I had listened several times that I started to appreciate what this recording accomplishes.  It takes ideals and desires and mixes them into a world of science and science fiction in a unique way that reveals the distortions of society.  A few tracks exemplify this:

  • In Channel 9 the narrator is surrounded by people that have found fame through reality TV, and participating in “paid advertising”.  The narrator decides that his path to fame on Channel 9 will involve a gun.  While not stating what he is going to do with the gun, one is left to imagine what it takes to be on Channel 9 where “It’s a perfect world, if you get the right angle.”
  • Farewell, Mary sets the scene of the perfect afternoon under a cloudy sky (light, fluffy clouds), riding a cycle taking the curves into the future, flying along.  Nothing is certain, but there is always the discovery of what is around the bend. (Note: this song’s lyrics are in French, sung by Celia Marqués & Eva Kirschner. I’m interpreting this based on a Google translation of the lyrics, which certainly lose something of the nuance of the words.)
  • Strange Charm: a love song to a quantum.?  The ground where science and emotion merge.
  • Lucy is a multi-layered song about the near death of the muse (“Lucy is dying.  Her malady’s known; / She’s been for decades neglected…”), and shedding of commercial intersts that have corrupted artistic perception.

These four songs, along with another four make a strong statement that is rare in todays music.  And yet, if you aren’t into the “message” behind the songs, you can easily listen to this collection and just enjoy it.

So, as with everything, this recording isn’t perfect.  So, where does it fail?  Well, there two things that jump out at me: (a) it’s too short, (b) the license.

To the first point: I really wanted to live in this world longer.  I wanted to see the world through the eyes of Space Weirdo, I wanted to have my perceptions mixed up, challenged, and expanded.

That being said, it may be for the best that Cosmonaut is not a longer release.  First, it has stood up extremely well to multiple listenings (I’m tracking through it now as I write this review for the 2nd or 3rd time today, and I am still enjoying it, even after listening to it probably a dozen times over the past couple of weeks).  I haven’t found a weak track amongst the eight in this release.  And honestly, I would rather have a poignant, pointed, well written and performed release than anything where I will want to skip even one track.

And besides, there is another release on the Space Weirdo website: Automata.  While I’ve only listened to it once, everyone should hear the “lost track” from Automata, it’s extremely enlightening for those who don’t know about the “Amen” break.

This brings me to my other point: the license.  Space Weirdo has chosen the “no derrivatives” form of the Creative Commons license.  Given the amount of loops and samples being used all over this release it seems somewhat hypocritical of a group to decide that it shouldn’t be used as the basis for someone else to build a new work on.  (I can understand why there is some trepidation in dropping the “no derrivatives” clause, but there are a lot of reasons to do so, as I’ve written about elsewhere.)

So, this is a major, major thumbs up for Cosmonaut and Space Weirdo.  I hope to hear a lot more from them in the future.  The only qualm I have with this release is the license,  which does not allow derrivatives. This seems slightly strange since much of this recording is based on loops and samples that the band themselves have used in a derrivative form to produce this recording.

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