Neil Cicierega makes music I would have played on Media Are Plural when it was a radio show. His Mouth series of albums (Mouth Sounds, Mouth Silence, Mouth Moods and now Mouth Dreams) feature mashups of songs primarily from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, with an eclectic list of other found audio and older music thrown in.
Cicierega manages to combine these sound waves into music that is distinctly his own. These aren’t the sort of spliced-together tunes meant to poke fun at the similarity of pop songs. This is audio collage, parts of other music extracted and rejoined to create a work that bears no resemblance of the original.
My partner and de facto Media Are Plural photo editor, Ronan, is a big fan of Cicierega’s, and they suggested I write about Mouth Dreams, which released Sept. 30. Furthermore, they told me to do no reading about the album and to track how each song made me feel. Now I see why they requested this of me.
I present to you my journey through Mouth Dreams. The album is below for your listening pleasure, and I recommend you listen along. I haven’t listed all the elements sampled in each song, but you can find such a list on the album’s Wikipedia page.
The amount of soul and feeling this man has put into retuned samples of the jingle from 90s Yahoo! commercials is incredible. I can imagine this album will be a masterpiece if what follows is as well done as this. I’m impressed right out of the gate.
Mouth Dreams (Intro)
This is a fairly minimal track, but intro tracks generally are. The song samples and remixes the intro from The Twilight Zone but sets a much different, more bizarre tone. When the voice tells me that I’ve crossed over into Mouth Dreams, the excitement I feel is palpable.
As an aside, I love when the “intro” is not the first song, and for no clear reason. Later, the outro (referred to here as an extro) is also not the last song but the third last. Much of this album plays with formal convention – he is literally tearing apart and reconstructing songs – but it’s nice to see a light touch like this in the order of the songs.
When I say Cicierega makes music I would have loved to broadcast, I’m referring to tracks like this. You recognize the parts of the song but know right away what you’re hearing is unfamiliar. The seagulls give that much away. Then the vocals come in over the boom-boom-clap of Queen’s We Will Rock You and it’s not Freddie Mercury but a sailor asking you who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Ukuleles, guitars and laughs follow. Eventually Mercury does show up, but not like you’ve heard him before. This is high art in the age of remixes, in the era of chopped and screwed tracks. This is the moment you reach into the hole expecting to retrieve your golf ball, only to be sucked in by the Looney Tunes.
Just a Baby
Cicierega has edited this song’s bizarre lyrics flawlessly, making it sound as though Johnny Cash delivered them that way. It was hard not to laugh, until the chorus any way. The melodramatic music of Hoobastank’s Reason combined with a female vocalist I don’t recognize pleading “baby, baby, baby, ooooh” makes me feel oddly melancholic. I should not be laughing. Except Johnny Cash just sang “I shot a traaaaain” and that is hilarious to me. I would love to hear someone actually cover this song, and if I were in a band, I would pressure my bandmates to do it until they obliged or kicked me out.
Another aside: I’m impressed at the high quality of these songs. Audio collages often suffer from quality issues because of the process through which you isolate vocals. (I can’t imagine Cicierega got the masters of these files.) From what I know, you just mess with the equalization until you’ve removed the non-vocal elements. But there’s always some frequency overlap between vocals and music, so you lose some vocals and have trace amounts of music left over. That’s not the case here, and it’s mildly unsettling. But also kind of incredible.
There’s 26 songs and they can’t all be bangers. I suspect part of why I dislike Superkiller is how little patience I have for the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. It really does mesh well with Superfreak though. No song on Mouth Dreams is egregiously long – this one is just less than two and a half minutes – so I have no problem waiting it out and seeing what comes next.
I want to go back to Superkiller. This is a disturbing song. It’s difficult to hear what the vocals are saying at first, so I tried to listen closer. Whatever words were once being communicated are now inaccessible to the human ear. The presentation is creepy, but in a way that makes you want to try to figure out what’s happening.
As it pulls you into this world, it abruptly switches to a new one without warning, like you accidentally dropped the remote and changed the channel from the show you were watching right as things were getting tense. Unfortunately, the remote switched the TV to a public-access station currently broadcasting subliminal advertising for a cult. It’s just a sample from The Partridge Family’s C’mon Get Happy repeated far more times than is comfortable or necessary, with increasingly disturbing sounds overlaid upon it. And just when you think it’s about to take a new direction, it re-enters the loop. The remote is broken and there is no going back, neither to the previous station nor the friends and family you once loved who rejected the teachings of The Enlightened One. I most certainly will not be getting happy.
What a tone shift. We went from one of the most distressing pieces of audio I’ve ever heard to an upbeat and pleasant song in which a nice man sings about Chili’s baby back ribs. Surely the commercial wasn’t this much of a banger. By the way, if I told you there was an unsettling song followed by a pleasant one and that one of them sampled Marilyn Manson, you likely wouldn’t guess it was this one. I can’t believe how pleasant he sounds here. I can’t believe I like this. In my intro I mentioned that a lot of mashup songs look to juxtapose pop songs to demonstrate how similar they are, but here, none of this music belongs together. Yet Cicierega pieced it all together such that it works.
And we’re back to unsettling. Who knew old-school Green Day vocals were so scary when stripped of distorted guitar and a beat led by crash cymbals? Aerosmith’s Dream On proves to be too minimalist a track to hide the pain. Another Mouth Nightmare.
I should be clear, words like “unsettling” and “disturbing” have negative connotations and are usually used pejoratively, but that’s not how I’m using them here. These are songs I am not only familiar with, but songs I have intentionally listened to before. That they could be rearranged such that they cause me to feel disturbed is nothing short of incredible.
Combining vocals from a song by a hard rock band inexplicably still making albums in 1998 with music from a grunge band from 1997 has produced music that sounds like it’s from an early-2000s group trying way too hard to be Creed. The two jell well but produce something unholy. I feel kind of gross listening to this one. Especially when the chorus kicks in with a reversed sentiment: “I don’t miss you, baby.”
This track is just lighthearted goofiness and feels slightly out of place in terms of mood. I think it serves as a bit of a palate cleanse though. Sleepin’ only samples Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy, and really just the line where the singer admits to sleeping with his clothes on. I’m thankful for this repetition though, compared with Get Happy earlier, and it did elicit a laugh. It brought me back to a positive headspace after a couple of uncomfortable songs. The emotional roller coaster that is Mouth Dreams rolls on.
Drunken Dean Martin comes through with an auditory disaster on track number 11. I’ve never heard the state of being black-out drunk so accurately rendered in music before, and certainly not by remixing vocals of someone who I presume was sober. This song is mildly scary, but not as terrifying as some that came before it. I just hope Dean and the equally drunken chorus backing him up got home okay.
Where Is My Mom
I don’t understand this song. A slower version of the vocals from Stacy’s Mom sit upon music from Where is My Mind by the Pixies. The dream angle doesn’t seem to exist, although it’s possible I’m missing something. Maybe it’s a daydream. I’m confused but I’m going to keep rolling.
Fredhammer and Limp Wicket
Somehow putting Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer under Fred Durst whining makes the latter significantly more endearing. And that’s despite the fact he keeps saying the word “nookie,” which is apparently the name of the original song. I’m embarrassed to say I was vibing to Fredhammer. Then some ridiculous Star Wars song gets involved and ruins everything. I believe that is the demarcation point at which Limp Wicket begins. (I’m doing one writeup because these songs blend indistinguishably.) The lyrics seem to be gibberish and occasionally the name of a Star Wars character that rhymes with previous sounds. I don’t know if it was a rap originally, but Cicierega brought in record scratches (I’m assuming from Nookie) that serve only to irritate me. This song makes me incredibly mad. Until Fred comes back and tells me he did it all for the nookie. Then I can’t help but laugh.
I love the non-musical sounds associated with films and TV from the 70s to the 90s. Wikipedia’s entry on Mouth Dreams refers to the sampled noises as “production buffers”. I assume that my view of this song is deeply coloured by my unusual affinity for these sounds, and I’m impressed someone could spin a whole song out of them. This would have been in heavy rotation on my old show. I probably would have dedicated an episode to this auditory aesthetic. I suppose I could write a post about it, but I’d rather sit back with the listeners and enjoy. This is the song of the album for me.
I don’t remember Inspector Gadget or Payless Shoes among the cast of The Outsiders, but it has been a while since I’ve read the book or seen the film. Another bizarre track that I appreciate more than I assume normal people would. I also have to say the transitions from Cannibals to The Outsiders to Johnny are incredibly smooth, even for an album in which all the songs bleed into one another. That’s one of my favourite musical techniques and it’s doubly impressive given that this is literally a collage, not an ongoing recording by one band. This isn’t just iTunes cross-fade, this is a mélange.
At least Cicierega has the decency to put booing sound effects over this rickroll, which I must admit is almost not annoying when delivered over Johnny Cash’s Hurt.
The only song I knew about before listening to Mouth Dreams was the mashup of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer and Owl City’s Fireflies. And yet, I was still not prepared. My brain does not accept what I have heard. When the vocals came in, my only reaction was “… huh.” What was produced was incomprehensible. But it is also an absolute banger that is better than either original. This is like when a friend told me to try dipping a French fry in my Frostie for the first time. I never would have done it on my own, but lo, there is genius to be found in the minds of fellow humans.
Scratchy metal vocals pair surprisingly well with soft rock. I’m unaware of anyone else who has mixed these elements, but the success achieved here should inspire others to do so. I hope that what they produce is longer, as the minute and a bit that this song runs if inadequate. This track is ridiculously funky and I could listen to music like it all day.
I remember hearing a few years ago about artists heavily influenced by old-school jazz who were mixing in elements of rock and hip hop to create a modern sound. I assume their music would sound similar to this.
Most of these tracks make me wonder how Cicierega figured out the elements he used would go together so well. Maybe he chose at random a song often heard in Looney Tunes shorts and The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl, but if it was random – if this whole album is just random pairings – how did he consistently achieve this level of cohesion? Pick any two ingredients at random from your kitchen and mix them. The result will not be good, and likely not edible. You can spend all day trying to find the right ratio, but for most pairings of two random elements, no ratio exists such that they are palatable, let alone delicious. I’m no Metro Boomin, but I imagine the same heuristic holds true for music. Even if you don’t aesthetically enjoy the result of the mashup, one must admit that indeed these elements cohere.
I go all pseudo-academic and then he hits me with a pun song. Whatever, I’m leaning into it. Using a clip of Super Mario Bros. mainstay Wario’s iconic “wah,” Cicierega deftly weaves together Edwin Starr’s War and the Spice Girls’ late-90s hit Wannabe, blurring the lines between pacifist ballad and girl-power pop anthem. Wario’s “wah” stands in for “war” and “want” to … I don’t know man. This is just good-old low-brow bizarre humour, and I love it.
Pee Wee Inc
It’s been a while since Mouth Dreams caused me to feel terror. In the first sign something has gone wrong, the laugh switches from Wario to Pee-wee Herman. Carnival music provides the discordant backdrop to the vocal track from Gorillaz’s Feel Good Inc. Again, I will not be feeling good here.
This pairing evokes the worst elements of a carnival: the creepy clowns, the abrasive man who guesses people’s ages without their consent, the cheap-sugar overdose that combines with high-speed rides to induce nausea, the ever-present stickiness, the screaming children, the sensory overload that leads to a breakdown. I feel the perspective is of a parent who is desperately calculating how many more of these events they’ll have to go through before their kid ages out of them. The horrible laughter toward the end (this time from the Gorillaz) is the icing on top. Cicierega was cruel to make this hell ride last two and a half minutes when the Wario song is less than one.
Placing a song that begins with the lyrics “An old man died the next day” (and that later elicits the mood of a high-speed getaway) after that carnival nightmare was an inspired choice. Like hitting a mental reset button. This is another legitimately enjoyable tune that combines elements that have no business being together. Who knew Alanis Morissette could sound so good over funk that is simultaneously futuristic and retro? I think the Knight Rider theme is doing a lot of the work here to set the mood, but damn can Alanis sing.
Mouth Dreams (Extro)
Fittingly, the extro evokes the unholy mood of so many of the preceding songs. Uncomfortable sounds (which Wikipedia says will “spell out ‘DO NOT TRUST SHREK’ backwards and in Wingdings” when analyzed in a spectrogram) blend slowly into the devil himself singing part of Smash Mouth’s All Star. This is the only track to feature a Smash Mouth sample, which is unusual for Cicierega’s Mouth series, as usually such a sample is in nearly every song. Instead, psychological torment is the most common guest star.
Who knew that a bit of the ol’ Ludwig van could impart such epic qualities upon Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time. I guess since this comes after the extro it’s meant to represent one of those dreams where you think you’ve awoken but the walls start melting or your mom tries to flush you down the toilet. Although this is more upbeat. This is like when you have a nightmare and you try to go back to sleep so you can whip the villain’s ass, armed with the knowledge that you can destroy all that which is your creation. This is music that pumps you up.
The final track feels like a waking dream, even more so than the rest of the preceding chaos. The vocals from Weezer’s Say It Ain’t So have a drowsy quality to them evocative of a drunk friend singing while you’re trying to go to sleep after a party. The snoring sound effects demonstrate you’re the only one who is still awake, and the only one bothered by this late-night musical outburst. The song speeds up as you eventually find a way to fall asleep despite the disturbance, which of course causes uncomfortable dreams.
In the Hall of the Mountain King is the perfect track to underscore the annoyance while still successfully evoking terror. That might just be a me thing, but I can’t stand that song. The clip of a dial-up modem firing up is much better, a true classic, and I’m thankful it’s the sound that awakes us from an experience that will be haunting our dreams for the foreseeable future.