Too often, concept albums come off like attempts at critique-proofing—canny, cowardly clusters of shticky songs to which you can't say nothing because the pieces justify the whole and if you're not feeling it, well, you just don't get it, man. But Matmos have a whole discography full of heady recordings that show what happens when you grab hold of an idea, however goofy, and see it through. To name a few highlights in the Baltimore by way of San Francisco duo's 20-plus year career: a record full of surgery audio ("A Chance To Cut Is a Chance To Cure"), the Bjork beats made up of the sounds of ice cracking that they coproduced ("Vespertine"), and 2013's "The Marriage Of True Minds," an album culled from ideas and audio they gathered via complex, psychological experiments on their friends.
It helps that Matmos don't take themselves too seriously. The choo-choo train disco of 'Steam and Sequins for Larry Levan' off "The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth of the Beasts" immediately comes to mind, along with the duo's live shows, which are dominated by batty, bouncy improvisations and stunts such as crafting a song based on the live unspooling of packing tape. And then there's the slob and snob sort of thing they've got going on with their public personae wherein Drew Daniel dresses idiosyncratically casual, like most of the group's fans, while M.C. Schmidt sports a tailored suit and looks like some reserved but raring-to-rage-out Christopher Isherwood character.
Matmos' latest, "Ultimate Care II," is a record made from the sounds of the duo's washing machine—a Whirlpool brand Ultimate Care II edition, to be specific. Here, the washing machine is a drum machine and sequencer and sampler and more: water fills up the machine and stands in for some slow-burn synthesizer line and the steady, growing rumble of the machine mimicks the patient, percussive build of house music. Some of what makes up "Ultimate Care II" is easy to spot: the clicks of the knobs as the settings are switched, the rumbling of the machine itself, the speedy drip of water, and so on. Others are more oblique: coursing water manipulated to sound like frayed electronics; plucky drumming that is the result of the washing machine's body swinging around wildly. And at other points in the cycle—the record is 38 minutes long, the average length of a wash—you're just hearing the machine do what it does, which is both hypnotic and tedious, with little pretense to this being music—though it remains music in the everything-is-music John Cage-ian sense. And there are truly mysterious moments—a trombone-ish wailing which, it turns out, is a finger running along the shiny metal top of the machine. It's a haunting squeak-honk that recalls, say, free jazz or the elephantine skronk of outré trap music.
The record is fueled by the tension between the natural, soothing sounds of water flowing and the cold, mechanized thump of the washing machine. Water bubbling and splashing is inherently relaxing. Whether that is something we've been taught because of new age music and waves crashing chill-out CDs or because we are about 60% water, the sound of water hits us on some primordial level, is unclear. But "Ultimate Care II" capitalizes on these connotations and introduces a calming effect to this otherwise jagged, spazzy music. Think of the way water interrupts songs such as Can's 'Sing Swan Song' or Arthur Russell's 'Corn #3.' I'm also reminded of that infamous DJ anecdote in which DJ David Rodriguez back in the seventies teased requests for Eddie Kendrick's 'Date With The Rain' all night, by playing a sound effects record of a thunder storm for 15 minutes before steadily mixing Kendricks' much-loved track, teasing and assuaging the crowd all at once. The calm before the dance party storm.
The washing machine, meanwhile, is fundamentally a stress-inducing convenience of modern life. Save for, say, Mr. Fingers' iconic 1986 track 'Washing Machine,' which introduced a minimalist edge to dance music with its warm liquid synths and its cylical song structure, and the scene in John Candy comedy "Uncle Buck" where it sounds like he's fucking when he's really just struggling with a washing machine, it's kind of a bulky, decidedly not-fun object. "The washing machine serves as an appliance and acts as an element of prestige," Jean Baudrillard wrote in "The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures," first published in 1970. "All kinds of other objects may be substituted here for the washing machine as signifying element. In the logic of signs, as in that of symbols, objects are no longer linked in any sense to a definite function or need. Precisely because they are responding here to something quite different, which is either the social logic or the logic of desire, for which they function as a shifting and unconscious field of signification." Some of that academic baggage is flopping around inside of "Ultimate Care II" as well—capitalism, consumerism, waste, and status but it's all filtered through exploratory fun.
And so, "Ultimate Care II," a clever party record made up of washing machine sounds, is a lot of other things too. Among them: a rejection of electronic music seriousness—be it EDM DJs' demi-god gimmick or the slack thump of tasteful indie-skewing dance—by two guys who have earned the right to be serious and stodgy but don't wield it; a celebration of rhythm, found anywhere and everywhere, even in the big loud thing in your basement and a playful counter to the decadence of melody; a record in praise of functionality—a machine that washes clothes is being used to also make music—function twice over; and an album tinged, it would seem, by a musical expression of gratitude for all things, even household appliances we're stuck with. There is significance in even the most quotidian bullshit such as washing one's clothes.