Relying on wealthy patrons to support your artistic vision is hardly original: Shakespeare had Queen Elizabeth; David Bowie had Prudential Insurance Company of America (which snapped up every back-catalogue bond he issued last year). So when a libel suit over a song on Little Red Songbook landed British techno-perv Momus and his Michigan-based record company in a bit of legal trouble, he simply invented the term "patronage pop" -- if not the concept behind it -- in order to pay for the lawyer fees. But Momus didn't seek a single sugar daddy; instead, he offered to write a pop portrait for anyone willing to pay him a small fee ($1,000, American). "You don't have to be an aristocrat to get a piece of the action," he explains on his Web site, "just digitally literate." The double-CD result is called Stars Forever. And while some of his patrons -- there are thirty in all, including indie-pop notables, hipster record stores and plain old regular folks -- got a bang for their buck, Momus may have overextended himself a bit.
Disc one is vintage Momus, a solid offering that's worth the double album's asking price. Momus has always been equally fascinated with off-kilter sexuality and Japanese culture, and this effort gives him plenty of space to explore both. It helps that his fans include people like Steven Zeeland, an author of gay military erotica -- perfect fodder for the lascivious, if straight, Momus. Other highlights include "Akiko Masuda," a funky mishmash of Japanese and English lyrics written for a Tokyo-based graphic designer. Later, in "Natsuko Tayama," Momus reimagines a shy Japanese girl as a superfly superstar, to charming, lingering effect.
But by disc two, the performer's recurring and longtime flaw -- an inability to judiciously edit himself -- becomes increasingly problematic. Momus has a tendency to ramble lyrics (Oh, he has so much to say!) over sometimes uninspired melodies. Even "Keigo Oyamada," written for electronica star Cornelius, seems to lack the focus that characterizes Momus's best efforts. The songs on Stars Forever too often have a slapdash quality that makes them more interesting as a parlor trick than something you'll crave more than once.
Momus's songwriting ability is more consistently realized on his work with Cornelius's onetime girlfriend, the Japanese pop ingenue Kahimi Karie. Her delightful new album, K.K.K.K.K., is an amalgamation of songs written and produced by Momus and various Sino-pop dignitaries. On first listen, however, Karie comes across as the typically shy little flower of giggling girlhood that we've all had more than enough of by now, thanks to various Japanese imports over the decade (Momus's recent paid efforts to immortalize shy, giggling Japanese girls notwithstanding). But Karie's album is clearly more than just another piece of disposable pop fun.
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Karie brings a chirping, breezy energy to "One Thousand 2Oth Century Chairs," a title that could just as easily belong to a MOMA exhibit as it does to author Momus, who joins Karie for vocal duties here. Karie nails Momus's sophisticated pop sensibilities with an effortless but unmistakable force -- something he can't always bring himself to do on Stars Forever. Even with material like Momus's nerdy "The Symphonies of Beethoven" (lines like "Let's get in the mood with Dr. Robert Moog" are a bit much), Karie more than meets the material's challenges. Elsewhere on the album, in "Qu'est-Ce Que Tu Veux?" and "Kahimi Karie et Moi," she unfurls French pop instincts that could have come from Serge Gainsbourg himself. The latter's clever melding of Galaxian sound effects with a horn section is priceless. The album's best moment, however, is on a remake of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come," which is transformed into a smart electronica-cum-reggae number thanks to producer Kenji Toakimi and programmer Tsutchie. It's a piece of reverse engineering worthy of Karie and her cabal of pop-music time-traveling friends.