By: Eric G.
Mark Robinson finally emerges from the shadow of various bands and pseudonyms with his first proper solo album. It's another batch of eccentric pop tunes played with surgical precision and recorded with sterile clarity. Robinson performs most of Tiger Banana on his guitar alone. Occasionally, electronic beats surface in the background, but they are far from showy, barely serving as metronomic pulses behind his sparse guitar lines. Each track begins with a delicate strum of only one or two strings of the guitar followed by Robinson's expressively boyish vocals, which translate freakishly obsessive lyrics.
Tiger Banana is a return to the clean pop of Robinson's darker Unrest days (particularly the Imperial period of 1992-93), although it's not nearly as emotive or graceful. Gone are the angular tendencies of the bass-heavy Flin Flon as well as the sleek, spacey pop of Air Miami. Robinson has made his simplest and most direct record yet. He sings with such stifled emotion, though, that it comes across very calculating. Every word is enunciated to an obnoxious degree. There are bursts of emotion, but they are so rare as to be shocking.
The electronics are as sparse as the guitar lines, resembling at times the primitive sound on New Order's first album, Movement. Robinson's often silly and puzzling lyrics remove what would be a dark cloud if the music were to be believed. Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups of Versus lend help to the proceedings on both guitar and back-up vocals, but this is wholeheartedly a solo outing for Robinson. It has his controlling fingerprints all over it- from the instantly recognizable jangle of his guitar to his unmistakable choirboy harmonies.
Robinson's long-time fascination with crisp, pure sounds permeates Tiger Banana. The production is so clean you could eat off it. "French Good Looks" encapsulates the crux Robinson's strict formula. The vocals tower over the repetitive and sparse guitar interplay. Keyboards are used sparingly and effectively, adding a certain level of emotion to Robinson's cold studio presence. The songs never sound busy. Robinson delivers his cryptic lyrics with a menacing emphasis on each syllable: "She knew everything/she kissed everyone/from her French beret to the back of my hand."
"Volunteering Conquering Fires" is far more playful, recalling the height of the indie pop explosion that Unrest certainly helped to define, but it's one of the few abnormally upbeat tracks. "Difficult Situations" evokes a warm nostalgia despite its serious demeanor thanks to some carefully placed keyboards. "Starfighter" is the golden moment of the record. Robinson's voice harmonizes so well with Toups' that it is obviously reminiscent of the dynamic Bridget Cross gave to Unrest's final two albums. The guitar surge is unexpected but no less glorious.
These are not instantly catchy pop songs. Tiger Banana requires patience and several listens for sure. Robinson tries to keep the melodies lurking beneath his weirdly formal performances, but sometimes he can't help falling into his old sugarcoated ways as on "Putting Up Good Numbers", which is propelled by a wash of jangly guitars and an actual drumbeat. Tiger Banana is a pop experiment that I recommend you participate in. You may not immediately warm up to its strange idiosyncrasies, but just give it some time- it's worth the trouble.