Lovage
(Dan the Automator, Michael Patton, Jennifer Charles, Kid Koala)

w/ Guests
I-Spy, Wed Jan 9, $16.

You may recall Nathaniel Merriweather—Dan the Automator's character from Handsome Boy Modeling School, the project that Automator and Prince Paul revealed in 1999 with the rich and infinitely silly hiphop record So... How's Your Girl? Well, Merriweather is back, as is Prince Paul's character Chest Rockwell, though Chest is only back on record to introduce Merriweather's latest incarnation, Lovage. And while the Lovage record is not another Handsome Boy project, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By toes the Prince Paul line of stupid, twisted hiphop beautifully.

While he doesn't play any significant role in Lovage, it must be noted that Paul is a hiphop pioneer. His work on De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, for example, broke new ground in many ways, most notably in popularizing the between-song "skit." Paul's real legacy, however, is not the skits themselves, but the goofy, adolescent humor within the skits. And, happily, that humor permeates the actual music Paul produces, most commonly in the samples. Paul has held an important place in hiphop for years, poking fun at the institution's unwavering image-consciousness, and rejecting the standard "hard" rapper routine of toting lyrical gats and fluffing himself needlessly. Indeed, the hiphop industry has never known quite what to do with this much-lauded producer, who slings out samples of Three Dog Night and Beethoven's Fifth as willingly as others would rehash James Brown.

Paul makes records that are mini-movies: the story of a kid who has to raise $1,000 to finish his demo tape so that he can audition for Wu-Tang's RZA (A Prince Among Thieves); or a step-by-step instructional program from the "Handsonium Institute in sunny Palm Springs," whose "skilled instructors guide you down the catwalk to a brighter tomorrow." With Handsome Boy Modeling School, Dan the Automator--a younger producer whose credits include Gorillaz, Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon, Cibo Matto, and Cornershop, among numerous other projects--rightfully joined ranks beside his predecessor, shrugging off hiphop's rigid prescriptions and displaying genuine mastery. Indeed, there's so much beautiful junk to be found in both Handsome Boy Modeling School and Lovage that navigating either record is like pillaging a giant, off-limits hiphop scrap yard and coming out with more treasure than you can fit in your bag.

In deference to purists, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By is not exactly a hiphop record, and songwriting credits must go to two other artists who usually function well outside of the hiphop realm: vocalists Michael Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas) and Jennifer Charles (Elysian Fields). Kid Koala appears as well (as he did on Handsome Boy Modeling School), adding his turntable skills. In fact, Koala, with his adolescent obsessions and inordinately nimble DJ stylings, can also be considered an heir to the Prince Paul legacy. To round out the all-star lineup, the record culls comedic guest appearances from Afrika Bambaataa, Maseo (Plug 3 from De La Soul), and Damon Alburn (Blur, Gorillaz). The guests (with Alburn affecting a schmaltzy English accent) perform skits that make the record a whole, conceptual piece of lowbrow art.

But the core of the album is Automator's creation. Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By abounds with absurd humor, pulsing hiphop beats, and skillfully textured soundscapes. Automator's real intention in doing the record was to create a genre-hopping make-out album, which it is. Many hiphop purists will turn their noses up at the presence of Patton and Charles, just as many fled from Damon Alburn's unmistakably Brit-pop voice with Gorillaz. But with Lovage, Automator has outdone his Gorillaz project, which took itself too seriously while breaking little new ground. Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By goes everywhere--by turns serious, referential, and ludicrous--with Automator's expanding skills and clarity of vision. Charles is enchanting, relaxed, and mope-free, while Patton (a born comic who clearly understands the overwrought humor that propels the record) is always at his restrained, brilliant best.

The album opens with the characteristically tongue-in-cheek Paul doing an introductory skit as Chest Rockwell, laying out Lovage's intentions: "People wanna know what's the secret to Chest Rockwell's ability to pick up all these beautiful women. Is it your good looks? Is it that big bulge in your pants?" Said attributes aside, Rockwell explains that his secret ingredient is, in fact, "music to make love to your old lady by": "Barry White used to work. Shoot, even ABBA used to work, the way I was doin' my thing. But man, you put this on... the ho's just go wild!" The skit is delivered over a "romantic" groove that reeks of candlelit softcore porn. "You tried cognac," Paul says matter-of-factly, "you even tried givin' her some weed. Shoot, you may even have tried Ecstasy. But there ain't no sheer ecstasy until you've tried... [The music cuts out here, gratuitously]... music to make love to your old lady by."

From there, the make-out session gets underway. On track two, Charles offers a sultry lover's challenge: "Ask me, why do I feel my heart's on fire?/Why do I feel this strange desire?/Why do I feel I'm falling?" Together, Charles and Patton sing a lazy, soulful chorus, before Patton begins frying up the meat with an absurd mock rap: "Workin' your greasy spoon/Jukebox playing my tune... Blowin' up your balloon/ Playin' you like a bassoon." Throughout the record, Patton gamely runs the gamut of self-effacing butt-endedness. On "Anger Management," which begins with a romantic balladeer's strummed guitar for a backdrop, he breathily half-speaks and half-whispers in a lusty French accent: "My inner demons compel me to be here/Your cheeks are flushed like rose petals...." The sung parts betray Patton's opera-trained voice, and the listener appreciates his restraint. A swollen, Serge Gainsbourg-inspired chorus, delivered in crisp falsetto over a synthesized string section, almost sounds sincere ("And the music was like wind in your hair...") until Patton deadpans, "Why must God punish me this way?"--like it's from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Charles, by contrast, is Patton's (and Automator's) perfect romantic muse and foil. Her performance throughout the Lovage record is a far cry from her darker work with Elysian Fields, but even at her most ridiculous, she is beautiful and a bit haunting; the perfect ingredient for tracks like Lovage's remake of Berlin's "Sex (I'm A)."

"I'm a virgin!" she squeaks in a whimsical baby-girl response to Patton's preternatural "I'm a man" call, and her academic intelligence nearly belies the irony in her delivery. Charles sounds patently sincere most of the time-- committed to her lyrics, however extreme--which bolsters the album's overall humor. By the end of "Sex (I'm A)," Charles goes into a convincing simulated orgasm, only to follow it up with one of the funniest moments on the record: "Oh, you fucking piece of shit," she hisses, unprovoked.

With all of its wonderful ingredients, Lovage manages to be both sexy and completely over-the-top. The group's live show, which features all the record's key players, will be a rare and delicious treat. After all, there's nothing like real genius with its tongue in its cheek, save for real genius with its tongue in yours. And with Lovage, you practically get both.