Chicago freaky-dance group Mahjongg have gotten a little dancier since their excellent 2008 K Records debut, Kontpab. Back then, the group swung through genres at the drop of the proverbial hat, swapping between clanky kraut-rock, dancehall grooves, skronky indie pop, and the like without any lack of swagger. Their punky attitude towards electronic dance music is a sight to behold live (the four musicians switch between noise-making tools), but equally impressive on record, the vitality and raw energy palpable. That’s still true on The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger, but the genres have become a little more consistent.
“Gooble” kicks off the disc with the expected bleeping and blooping. The synthy poly-rhythms pulsate, immediately proving dance-worthy. The fuzzy, barely discernible vocals, presumably courtesy of either Mbulu or Bobby Conn, the two featured guests, are gleeful and rapid, maniacal howling and hawking following soon after. The synth-drums, swanky guitar, and possible saxophone squawking all wiggle underneath what sounds like a chant of “Marimba! Marimba!” The vocals get a bit goofy, but if you’re not grooving to this even a little bit, I’m worried.
Next up is “Miami Knights”, which gets a dash of female vocals courtesy of Jeanine O’Toole, an interesting change of pace to the typically masculine rush and tumble of the group’s music. O’Toole’s voice gets the vocoder treatment, roboticizing things. The beat underneath is frantic, anxious, a stark contrast to the lax, smooth vocals. The bassy male robot voice that enters the scene late in the track sounds more in place, though, setting things further off-kilter.
“Grooverider Free” is the revision of 2008’s “Free Grooverider”, a protest track of sorts about the pot possession-related imprisonment of London drum and bass DJ Grooverider. The track gets an expansion and remix of sorts, with contributions from serendipitously weird Chicago experimentalist Rotten Milk.
Sample-heavy “Wardance” kicks things into another creepy, robotic gear. Vocoded lyrics that seem to be “I am the engine, the bringer of the blood, no one gets out, I’ll take you down” emanate from the frenetically mechanical rhythms. The driving beat and goofy, themed vocals combine for a fun ride without a ton of substance. The movie-sample outro is a bit unnecessary, but adds to the scenic quality of the song.
The slick, mechano-grooves of “Devry” sound like a perfect backing track to a commercial for the Institute of Technology of the same name. This is the closest to genre experimentation that the album comes to, the robot-voices now hulking over a near R&B fluidity. “LA Beat” brings back the hyper-activity, the wall of Chicagotronics (as the group is fond of calling their sound) sparkling and kicking around. The counter-rhythm of the guitar that slinks in between the blocks of electronic rhythm makes for an incredibly dance-friendly addition to the wall. The simple, blipping “Whoop” has the clearest set of vocals, the Casio rhythms hovering around without falling flat.
The Long Shadow of the Paper Tiger is extremely danceable, its rhythms and grooves backflipping and rushing around in circles. But the vocoded vocals get a bit taxing. The lack of genre flip-flopping shows a band more confident in what they know they can do, but it also means a less dynamic album as a whole, resulting in an album full of both ups and downs.