Chad Matheny and my high school chemistry teacher have very little in common. My teacher, Mrs. Hall, was often completely incomprehensible. She had a severe lisp, an uncompromising Southern accent, and a speech impediment caused by a freak accident involving a Bunsen burner (I shit you not). Matheny makes brilliant lo-fi pop music under the name of Emperor X, and he may have released one of the year’s best albums. Both actually happen to be high school chemistry teachers (again, true story), but Mrs. Hall’s recorded output is far less impressive. As far as I know, at least.
Emperor X seems to be pioneering a musical style that combines the most effective elements of lo-fi recording, analog electronics and formula rock. His clunky-titled proper debut, Tectonic Membrane/Thin Strip on an Edgeless Platform, weaves through all-out guitar rock, acoustic power-pop, and boop-y dance tunes. But it’s clear that his loyalties lie most closely to indie-pop, that gracious style wherein verses and choruses are strewn about, guitars are often jangle-y and always cheap-sounding, and melodies are gentle and emotive and usually sung by Ben Gibbard. Coincidentally, Gibbard’s Postal Service is largely responsible for (sort of) popularizing the concept of stripped-down electronic indie-pop, but Emperor X’s rock roots give his songs a far more powerful energy than Gibbard’s band(s) could ever deliver.
Rightfully, the majority of Tectonic Membrane can’t be described as “electronic.” “Constantly Constantly Radio’s On” and “Garbage Shaft Floor-by-Floor” are straight-up garage rock, and while the latter is unabashedly keyboard-heavy, the drums are the work of one man rocking out on an actual set. Drum machines are reserved for tracks like “Florencia Tropicana,” wherein a constant flutter keeps the beat in motion through sections of synth-driven boops and crunchy guitar riffs.
Matheny’s greatest strength is engineering each song to be so elaborate that the electronics and the lo-fi touches run together. What sounds like a fake sound effect in “Laminate Factory” is really a looped vocal “ah” keeping time to the acoustic power-pop riff. The beat in “Filene’s Basement” is so subtle it could be any number of looped effects, but is most likely just Matheny drumming on the wood of his guitar. His use of effects is extravagant, but the production never borders on soupy. The acoustic guitar in “I Want a Baby” is echoed to a ridiculous end, but it fits the song perfectly. It seems especially appropriate when the song bleeds into an echo of the album’s opening track.
Most importantly, the songs are fantastic. With the exception of “Unworthiness Drones” and the second half of “Intracellular,” both of which are random noise collages, Matheny writes to a beautifully precise pop formula. To the same extent that he shatters pop conventions in his production, he embraces them in the structure of his songs, keeping solid vocal melodies in the foreground and cheap-sounding guitars as a mere supplement.
If this all sounds like a lot of crap to pick out of one man’s technique, it’s only because every aspect of his method is present and deliberate. Matheny’s graceful love-hate relationship with the classic-rock song formula is at a perfect balance on Tectonic Membrane, and this equilibrium is what sustains the album. Come to think of it, understanding equilibrium is probably a good skill for a chemistry teacher, too.