I first heard Machine Translations on Triple J when the song 'Poor Circle' was getting some (but not enough) airplay. It was broad acoustic guitar with a foot-stomping chorus and electronica touches. I was hooked.
I became better acquainted with this unique band through later albums Happy (highly recommended, especially 'No Hip') and Venus Traps Fly, and I got to meet multi-instrumental frontman J. Walker when MT were on tour for a couple of shows here in Perth, in support of their new EP Wolf on a String. A Machine Translations album is a grab bag of styles where beautiful acoustic strummings sit comfortably with electronic experimentation, classical instrumentation, strange percussion, and vocal manipulation. Through it all, the songwriting is solid, and the lyrics are playful and thoughtful.
I was very pleased, then, that J. has just mailed me a copy of his 2001 album, Bad Shapes. It's interesting to listen to now, because it contains the seeds of directions that MT would take on later albums.
'Poor Circle' is the opener here, but soon you are soothed by the gentle strummings of "Rule Bound". A representative lyric: "Would you believe me/If I said that I was lying?" 'River of Darkness' is similarly gorgeous -- almost pastoral. The mood changes on 'Hateful + Stray', with its driving guitars and disorienting backwards lyrics.
On most MT albums, I find the experimental tracks the least interesting. There are a couple here: 'Tinsel Town' is a night in Casablanca by way of Leon Redbone. 'Arabesque' has the kinds of modes and rhythms you'd expect from the title, blended with electronica. The musicianship is first-rate, but it won't be these tracks I return to. It'll be 'Sit in the Sun', smooth and easy on the ears. Or 'Winter Coat', which finishes the album in bold and crunchy chords with sixths in just the right places and an unusual 7-beat structure.
Overall, a very worthy addition to the collection. A wide-ranging, well-crafted, and often beautiful album.
If you live digital, you can buy an etherware copy of this album here. Or you may want to start with 'Happy', which is more-widely available and also very good. If you've got to have the material object, try eBay, or contact me and I'll see if I can scam you a copy from a local record store in my travels.