Mahjongg refers to their music as “irritainment.” A take-off on `agitprop,’ it’s the Chicago outfit’s word for their musical outlet for teaching the `warnings and revelations of the almighty God Kontpab,’ or so says their MySpace page. As far as the teachings of their God go, I’m a little lost, personally, but “irritainment” still works as far as an accurate description of who Mahjongg is and what they do. They aren’t so much annoying or obnoxious as they are provocative. For a dance band, they don’t let the hooks come easy; they provoke, they poke, they jab, they surround and taunt. Their music creates an itch within the listener, one that spreads and infects and causes one’s limbs to shake and writhe. It’s nervous dancing, but it’s dancing all the same.
Throughout the course of the band’s second full-length Kontpab, the “irritainment” remains constant. There are very few moments of straight ahead hooks or simple melodies; Mahjongg chooses not to put things in simple terms or give easy answers. Even their liner notes offer few answers—just a tracklist, recording information and the band’s name printed in large block letters, as if from a rubber stamp or stencil. This isn’t out of character for the group, as their debut RaydonCong2005 featured minimal information, mostly a collage of newspaper clippings and a paragraph of courier font mish-mash. This time, they merely removed the clutter and left only the bare minimum, letting the music speak for itself.
What the music itself says isn’t all that explicit either, yet offers heaping amounts of groove where deciphering fails. Much like Talking Heads, to whom the group is frequently compared, Mahjongg approaches post-punk with their ears toward the exotic. African rhythms permeate their dirty dancepunk grind. Leadoff track “Pontiac” builds beats on top of beats, circling in a lengthy exercise in rhythm. It’s not until track two, “Problems,” in which a real hook appears, but what a hook it is. Woozy analog synths blurt out a tweaked melody, juxtaposed against a prettier twinkling harmony, which, when combined, sound truly sublime.
An aggressive polyrhythmic clash drives “Tell The Police The Truth,” a screeching, clanging wreck of awesome. Though its odd mix of time signatures and lyrics about coming clean to the cops may make for a baffling punk rock soup, the song becomes more incredible with each listen. “Those Birds Are Bats” is as close to a straightforward hook on this album as Mahjongg are willing to offer. It’s an extremely catchy song, but there’s a catch, namely tons of hissing clicking and static noises obscuring the song to some extent. Still, given the strength of its pop hooks, it’s an easy obstacle to overcome. Nonetheless, it’s a prime example of the group’s unwillingness to let music be easy.
With “Mercury,” synths and drums flex and throb, snap and bump, giving way to an eerie vocal lead soon thereafter. Mahjongg saves the true thrill for last, Kontpab going out with the final, epic explosion of “Rise Rice.” The song builds and escalates for eight and a half minutes, rising in intensity and culminating in a badass dance anthem that rivals most in terms of pure energy and immensity. As the album comes to a close, there are no more answers than when it began, just a great s et of songs, and the irresistible compulsion to dance out the itch.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.