The Rock Machine Turns You On

Art rock trio Petomane craft a fine collection of pop tunes full of wit and graphic poetry

It seems unlikely that Petomane takes their name from a late 19th/early 20th century professional fartiste, but then stranger things have happened.

Admittedly, the legendary French farteur Le Pétomane could blow a tune or two, though his range was not as broad or his melodies quite as striking as those on The Rock Machine Turns You On, the second album from the trio of singer-songwriter John Patrick Higgins, guitarist/bassist Kofi Smith and programmer/producer Christopher Kasch.

Le Pétomane’s wind-powered version of ‘O Sole Mio’ may have slain them in the Moulin Rouge a century ago, but it didn’t have anything like the rhythmic drive of these songs, chiefly from Higgins’ pen.

Gently curvaceous melodies, infectious bass grooves and fat, snappy beats form the blueprint for these ten originals, while minimalist keyboards contrast with earthier – though always melodic – electric guitar lines.

Dreamy, slightly woozy keyboards open ‘Genius’, before a simple beat digs its claws in. Like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, Higgins’ often indistinct lyrics are trumped by the melodic contours of his voice. Raspy trumpet and synthesizer dabs color the background, while Smith leaves his signature with a singing guitar solo.

There’s a touch of 1980s New Wave pop about ‘The Stuntman’, a curious tale of jumping and falling that rides insistent dance beats and pockets of reverie. At just over two and a half minutes, ‘Soledad Miranda’ doesn’t loiter but still works its way into your brain, courtesy of an effective guitar vamp.

Likewise, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ is built on simple foundations, an acoustic guitar mantra providing the backdrop to Higgins’ tale of isolation. Here, and on the more upbeat ‘Photocopy Rockin’’, the singer probably owes a debt to David Bowie.

The latter number, with guitar to the fore, female vocal harmonies and irresistible hand claps could have escaped from a session from Bowie’s most persuasive, mid-1970s heyday.

A toy piano of music box delicacy announces ‘Ulster Tatler’, a driving tune whose melody is carried harmoniously by Higgins and Jen Goddard. The two combine again on the witty ‘Gainsbourg’, a bohemian Parisian fable. You can almost taste the Gitanes on the breeze as Higgins sings: 'So while I serenade the seraphim with celestial song, they know that down below is where I truly belong.'

There are echoes of David Byrne’s Talking Heads in the bass-driven disco-pop of ‘If I Could Take a Moment’, but more satisfying is the head-bobbing ‘The Sadness of Sex’, a rhythmically infectious number.

The sparse arrangement of the quietly sunny ‘Juno’, meanwhile, with propulsive drums and acoustic guitar fleshed out with a little background trumpet and low-key bass, is perhaps the most radio-friendly track on the album.

If the allusions to Le Pétomane and Bowie hold any validity, does this mean that The Rock Machine Turns You On is a tad artsy fartsy? Not a bit of it. These are wholly accessible pop tunes that etch themselves in the memory after just a couple of listens.

Higgins’ slurred lyrics are at times a little impenetrable, but when lucid, flashes of sharp wit and graphic poetry shine through. Not that Petomane take themselves too seriously.

The Rock Machine Turns You On is available to download now from Bandcamp.