LALI PUNA with STYROFOAM and OPIATE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, November 14), $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
when the fickle members of radiohead started ranting a few years back about Lali Puna's Tridecoder debut being their favourite album of the moment, it made perfect sense. Radiohead's Kid A disc was built around electronic bleeps and bloops but stayed rooted in pop music. Fans raved as though the moody Brits had reinvented music itself, but it was the kind of beguiling mix Lali Puna had long perfected.
The Munich-based quartet, fronted and formed by Korean-born, German-raised, English- and Portuguese-singing vocalist Valerie Trebeljahr and featuring members of Notwist and Tied + Tickled Trio, make man-machine fusion as straightforward as strumming on a guitar.
Mixing glitchy, ultra-minimal electronic clicks and rhythms with live instrumentation and Trebeljahr's deadpan, almost emotionless vocals, Lali Puna's music is defiantly modern but also very poppy and, most important, soulful.
There's uncommon warmth in Lali Puna's computer sounds, something most electro-pop dabblers have missed.
"I was never a huge fan of the real underground techno stuff, because I come from the indie scene here in Munich," Trebeljahr explains from home. Lali Puna make their Canadian debut tonight (Thursday, November 14) at Lee's Palace. "It was more the idea of techno that appealed to me. It's not pure, but I take what I can understand from each scene and mix them together.
"When I started, the idea was to take a bit of the four-to-the-floor element of techno and then try to make a pop song out of it. It sounds very complex, but it was pretty simple at the time."
The gap between Lali Puna and the rest of the glitch-hop set is best seen in their live sets. While mind-numbingly dull "performances" featuring someone hunched behind an iBook have become the established pattern for studio-based electronic artists, Trebeljahr and her band have drawn a firm line between the computer creations in the studio and their full-band live shows.
"Because so much of the record was created on the computer, we've had to include that onstage with us," she offers. "I didn't want to at first. I don't like too much of the laptop thing, with guys sitting behind their machines. It can look like you're checking your e-mail. We're actually on tour with Styrofoam and Opiate, who are both laptop acts, but they make it work somehow. Most people don't."
Tridecoder and this year's Scary World Theory disc are all about balance between electro and pop sounds. The records aren't so much electronic albums flavoured with pop but pop albums built around electronics, in part because Trebeljahr came not from the electronic music scene, but from the indie pop world.
"My first band was an all-girl group called L.B. Page that was totally guitar-based," she laughs. "We were six girls, which was quite difficult and also got us a lot of strange attention. Our first concert was in front of 350 people.
"I played keyboards, and when the band broke up it was just me and my little drum machines, and that really defined the sound of Lali Puna. Initially, there were no guitars or live drums, because I couldn't play them."
Eventually, Markus Acher, Christoph Brandner and Florian Zimmer joined up and the band started to refine the sound.
"We've been together since 1998 but are very much still a work-in-progress. Tridecoder was still an experiment for us, trying to figure out whether this would work. Now, the combination of the techno and song thing has become quite common, but when Lali Puna started, the scenes were fairly separate."
Collaborations with Tim Simenon of 80s cut-up crew Bomb the Bass and Andrew Weatherall's Two Lone Swordsmen project helped give Lali Puna a presence on the dance floor, but the club crowd hasn't exactly embraced the group's sleek fusion.
For her part, Trebeljahr says she actually feels closer to the minimalist bedroom hiphop of people like Dose One and Boom Bip than any thumping club music.
"I'm amazed by what people like Boom Bip are doing," she enthuses. "I can really relate to it. I understand hiphop a lot more through them than through someone like the Wu-Tang Clan.
"I think we share something -- not so much a sound, but maybe an approach to how we make music. That whole scene, for me, is the most exciting thing happening in music right now."
Fans concerned that future Lali Puna projects will have a hiphop bump to them needn't worry, but Trebeljahr is hinting at something of a return to her guitar pop roots.
"On our new 12-inch we're working with guitars, which is quite different from what we've been doing," she says. "We made a firm decision not to use guitars on Tridecoder. We just wanted the combination of drums, computer, keyboards and bass, and that really helped define our sound.
"Now there are also other groups doing similar things, and our tastes are evolving. I think Scary World Theory might have been as far as we could go with one sound, so we're altering it. What's important is that we aren't afraid to experiment."
OK by Radiohead
The nod. It's one of the great perks of being a rock star, the ability to turn your fans on to a book, a record or a film you like. Whether fans pay any attention is another matter -- does anyone care what the lead singer from Third Eye Blind listens to?
Radiohead, thanks to their own brainy art rock and their reputation for good taste, can make a band with just a few words of praise. Ask Lali Puna, who got a major career boost after casual compliments from the Oxford crew. Here are a few other bands Radionhead has been vocal about.
Sigur Rós The Icelandic space rock ensemble went from comfortable obscurity to object of global attention after playing a handful of shows with Radiohead.
Clinic Like Sigur Rós, Clinic had a solid core of fans, but nothing compared to the hype that followed some opening slots.
Warp Records During his post-OK Computer meltdown, when the sound of guitars would send him bonkers, fragile frontman Thom Yorke plugged the "intelligent techno" catalogue of Warp Records to anyone who'd listen.
Buck 65 Rumours started circulating last summer that the Halifax one-man hiphop crew was collaborating with Radiohead after he played a show with them, but Buck's been sworn to secrecy and ain't talking.