If, as some have argued, the computer is the new guitar, Folktronic is the perfect soundtrack for our technophiliac age. Once upon a time, folk musicians lived in mountain shanties and toiled in coal mines, cotton fields, stone quarries and factories; these days, they might very well be crunching code for dot-coms or, in the case of Momus (né Nick Currie), making satiric synth-pop records. In one of the many long and erudite essays on his Web site, the NYC-based Scot and self-proclaimed "minor god of mockery" describes the concept behind the "plastic folk" of his new CD: "What if folk artists started emerging who sounded more postmodern than Cornelius or Pole?... What if you could hear today the country music of the year 2059? What about the Japanese music of 2049?"
For answers to these questions, you need look no further than the 20 tracks on Folktronic, futuristic genre-fucks every one. "Appalachia" is a buzzy, baroque romp about an "electronic mountain girl." "Smooth Folk Singer" is a greasy blues shuffle ("the way you folk's gonna drive the world wild") propelled by a primitive drum machine and an obnoxious Casio. In "Mountain Music," banjos duke it out with synthesizers as the singer name-checks Johnny Cash, Dylan, Beck and Grand Ole Oprah Winfrey. "Finnegan the Folk Hero," which lifts the melody from Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," celebrates the heroic feats and untimely death of a Web designer, martyred like a latter-day John Henry, Steel-Driving Man. Elsewhere, we find a spirited defense of the teenage emperor Heliogabalus, a vaudevillian tribute to Momus' penis (recently immortalized by Cynthia Plaster Caster) and an imagined altercation with folk-music archivist Alan Lomax. Make no mistake: Like most concept albums, Folktronic is a profoundly geeky exercise.
Unlike his peer and sometime collaborator Stephin Merritt, Momus is seldom capital-R Romantic. His touch is clinical, not sentimental, and he tends to aim for the gray matter instead of the gut. Despite these brainiac tendencies, his songs can be quite moving in their own freakish way. On Folktronic's closest approximation to a love song, the strange and beautiful "Handheld," a Macintosh sings a tender ode to its "favorite human device" -- "Recharge this little cell, my heart," it trills, tentative, metallic, endearingly imperfect. According to Momus, "It took a whole day for me to get the computer to sing its one-verse cameo, but it's worth the work. For me, it's a song that marks the moment when we pass the baton to artificial life forms of our own making and salute them as our equals. And where there's equality, there can be love."