How Bad Can It Be?: One Eskimo, “All Balloons”

Written by How Bad Can It Be?, Music

Singer-songwriter pop aimed squarely at adults meets animation geared to the Playhouse Disney demographic. Yeah, nothing could possibly go wrong with this one.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that in popular culture, innovation engenders imitation. When something works, for whatever reason, elements of it will invariably show up in subsequent cultural product, sometimes as recontextualized bits and bobs, sometimes as entire setups with a fresh coat of paint and the names changed just enough to avoid a lawsuit.

What keeps the game fresh — what keeps the culture alive, really — is that the chain of antecedent is endless, and often indirect, and if you follow it long enough you come to some insight about the human condition. It’s easy, albeit reductive, to look at the current crop of vampires-in-high-school books and see them all as simply ganking Stephenie Meyer’s steez, for just so was Meyer influenced by Buffy, and Joss Whedon by the X-Men, and so on back into the mists of causality.

But the larger truth is that Meyer and Whedon and even Bram Stoker were all drinking from the same well, all telling the same human story — that our interpersonal relationships, the very thing that sustains us and gives our lives meaning, have always the potential to go horribly awry such that we use each other, we hurt each other, we drain each other dry; and that this horror is felt most keenly by the young, to whom it is new, and who have not yet mustered adequate defenses against it. In other words, nobody would have bothered ripping off the Twilight series had Meyer herself not been part of a larger cultural moment, if the books — their considerable flaws aside — didn’t strike some chord truer and purer than the brassy ka-ching of the cash register.

Here’s what this has to do with the new record by the UK group One Eskimo (their P.R. materials insist on spelling it One eskimO, but I have a rebel soul and will not be constrained by the orthographical conventions of The Man; also “One eskimO” looks really, really dumb); In itself, nothing. The eleven tracks on their debut are fair-to-middling triple-A singer-songwriter pop. It’s not particularly innovative, but neither does it derive so specifically from any single source as to constitute imitation per se. Frontman Kristian Leontiou, who hit the UK Top Ten with “Story of My Life” back in 2004, has the same package of sensitive-guy lyrics and steelwire voice as, say, James Blunt — though he never quite erupts into Blunt’s lethal honk — but that combination is common currency among a certain class of white Englishman, amongst whom it signifies something passing for “soul” (see also: Mick Hucknall), and does not in itself constitute evidence of a rip-off.

The music, though, is only half the story. Because One Eskimo is a full-on multimedia project, and the missing piece is the “visual album” that provides the band with cartoon stand-ins and the album with a storyline. And there, my friends, you’ve got the 800-pound Gorillaz in the room.

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Is it a fair comparison? Hard to say. But it is, I think, a useful one; and, given that the very animation house behind Gorillaz also had a hand in One Eskimo’s visual album, it’s irresistible to ask. The Gorillaz project has certainly been innovative, not to mention massively successful, and it’s easy to imagine marketing executives pining for another one of those.

The larger cultural impact point here, of course, is one that’s been with us since the twinned births of recorded music and the moving picture. Music is just so goddamn big, too big and too wild to be adequately conveyed by conventional photography, too profoundly stimulative of the imagination to constrain with realism. And so animated cartoons have been a congenial fit with music, from the earliest Silly Symphonies to Fantasia and Yellow Submarine to a-ha; the medium allows for levels of abstraction, expression, and iconography unavailable to conventional representational film, bringing the emotional affect of the song front and center. Figures can stretch, transform, levitate, burst into flame, or crumble to fragments as the feelings of the moment demand. And, of course, cartoons make a perfect vehicle for the larger-than-life personas that musicians like to project — whether we’re talking stylized doppelgangers, or an out-and-out alter ego.

Gorillaz has taken the latter concept about as far as it can go, creating — with music videos and Jamie Hewlett’s artwork — a façade of fiction that never cracks. You’ll never see a Gorillaz video wherein the “real” Damon Albarn comes crashing out of the Paperverse to collapse tearfully in Dan the Automator’s living room. The Gorillaz characters have a vast and fully-realized backstory, dense enough to encompass a 300-page “biography.” One Eskimo doesn’t aim quite that high. In fact, judging by the website materials, they’ve barely aimed at all — because for the life of me, I can’t imagine who the target is…

Little Feather [is] a young woman Native whose tribe has given her a deep sense of joy and compassion for all things … She glides through life like a feather on a soft breeze. She loves to dance, to flow, and to move like music. To her, all things have a music of their own and she can dance to both a guitar or a quiet brook with equal joy.

Also, she loves you berry much.

Frankly, this stuff reads like the back-of-the-box text for My Little Pony; the animation, too, has a sweet, rounded edge, and looks to be pitched to young kids. But the record itself is straight adult contemporary — all Spanish guitar, piano, and polite trip-hop beats. “Simple Day” (download) sums up the One Eskimo sound, with its acoustic instrumentation, mellow and slightly melancholy sound, and concrete, observational lyrics. It’s pleasant and well-crafted, as is the animation. It seems almost a pity to point out that the one really adds nothing to the other. Whereas Gorillaz makes perfect sense because the outlandish bravura of the animation is matched by the gonzo energy of the music, One Eskimo just leaves me scratching my head, wondering what this is and who, exactly, it’s meant to be for — wondering who, precisely, heard this Dido-as a-boy disc and thought it needed the Banana Splits treatment.

One Eskimo is currently touring the States, and I hear they put on a pretty good show; perhaps not coincidentally, when they play live they leave their cartoon selves at home.