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Turning on to Digitata's blippity ballads

Digitata is a local trio specializing in half-live, half-electronic music, and as such, their music reminds me of cyborgs. Specifically, cyborgs having sex. I'll explain.

There's always a weird dichotomy that arises when an artist chooses overtly nonhuman elements to flesh out their baby-makin' music. Smooth rap is a case in point--Missy Elliott can get anyone's blood flowing, but Timbaland's beats? They're like the wide-open North Dakota prairie--and what NoDak tourism advocates call "mysterious" and "evocative" is really just empty and lifeless. Singer and pianist Maggie Morrison has a gift for exciting her audience's nocturnal impulses as she gasps, whimpers, growls, and wails her way through Sexually Transmitted Emotions (Totally Gross National Product), Digitata's eight-song debut. The difference here is that Digitata's robotic texture (courtesy of Ryan Olson's Yamaha RS-7000, lovingly dubbed "the Box") manages to sound every bit as yearning as Morrison's vocals do. The result is a luscious sort of electronica that strives, like Pinocchio and Lieutenant Commander Data, to be real (amorous, even). At the heart of their blippity ballads beats the unmistakable pulse of life.

So much so, in fact, that as the title of Sexually Transmitted Emotions suggests, Digitata's music has a way of infecting even its coldest surroundings with a little juice de vivre. Which is why one rainy Sunday not long ago, as I found myself dozing off to the album's Luscious Jackson-inspired closer, "Sea Scandal," I was unruffled when a car alarm began to scream outside my bedroom window. Rather than interrupt my little reverie, the incessant bleating fell in time with the beat of the song, and as it gently rocked me to sleep, my last waking thought was, My god, that's the sexiest car alarm I've ever heard.

That's saying something, my own Toyota-philia notwithstanding. That such an abrasive and inhospitable sound could fade into the wallpaper, and even stir the loins, is a testament to Digitata's aesthetic: jarring laptop IDM made sensual. Like love songs for Autechre fans.

Such was not always the plan, the group tells me over beers just before opening a show at the 7th St. a few weeks ago. Morrison, Olson, and drummer Drew Christopherson are all part of the seemingly endless supply of hyper-talented musicians immigrating to the Twin Cities from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and their backgrounds hardly foretold a foray into dance-floor diva-ism. Olson and Christopherson both pull double duty in two local bands already, one punk (Building Better Bombs) and one hip-hop (Mel Gibson and the Pants). Morrison, too, has some decidedly nonelectronic cred on her résumé, having played keyboards for defunct rock bourboneers Kentucky Gag Order.

"We just knew that we wanted to play electronic music, and that we wanted to work with Maggie," says Christopherson, a boyish 24-year-old with sandy blond hair. "I was pretty shocked by the music when we started writing it."

Not that pairing live instruments with drum machines and sequencers is anything new, of course. STE's listeners aren't asked to tread terribly unfamiliar ground, and it will surely gain Digitata comparisons to other tripped-out bands with female vocalists, such as Morcheeba, Portishead, and Massive Attack. But their influences are more varied than that. "There's definitely a level of fun that we try to achieve that comes from hip hop," Christopherson says. Hip-hop fans apparently agree, as the band recently returned from a successful string of opening gigs on Atmosphere's Se7en tour. Not bad gig for a band that's only been together a year, and that up to that point had no product to hawk.

That's all changed with this new release, one that they're happy to get behind them. "I like our new songs better," says Morrison, who admits that her opinion is based on the fact that she gets to play more Wurlitzer on the new material. Olson agrees. "We know what we're doing now, we know where we're going," he says. "We can write a part now and just know that Maggie's gonna wail over it. So yeah, the new stuff is definitely better."

Considering the quality of Sexually Transmitted Emotions, that would be (ahem) alarming. Mothers, lock up your car doors.

 
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