It keeps getting harder for me to distinguish clear lines between what is a band and what is a person, and what is a project and what is a moniker. There are so many ways to take credit for one’s music, and so many ways to share that credit with others. Collaboration, for me, remains one of the most interesting paths one can take when trying to finish a piece of music. It takes comfort to open something up to outside input, especially in and at a time when it’s never been easier to record by yourself.
Mandarin Dynasty is the project of Mike Sherk, except when it’s not. Feedback Time features contributions from at least nine other musicians, and the list of band members 2004-present on the Mandarin Dynasty website details another ten more. So while Sherk writes most of the songs, the recorded performances end up a little bit out of control. Feedback Time is the Sherk’s third Mandarin Dynasty record, following 2014′s Perpendicular Crosstalk and 2005′s Sea Legs, and the first to feature Zach Burba of Iji as a primary collaborator. All the collaborators Sherk brings in pull the album in strange, strange directions. Feedback Time is maybe the most playful record I’ve heard all year.
Burba sings the record’s first lines, “Saxophone on every song / Green foil hangin’ low / With a ceiling I could touch / This is how it’s gonna go,” and I’ve since imagined the entire record played by a room of people wandering in and out of a low-roofed party. The sax, of course, kicks in with the chorus. The rhythmic motives of “Second Storey,” form a beautiful parallel to Iji’s “Cruisin USA” and quickly dissolve into half-time. Shrek keeps interrupting himself on “Mouth of the Party”—each vocal phrase interjects and cuts the one before. Everybody is in the room, having fun.
Liner notes become essential on a record this deep with collaborators. It’s hard to tell, without knowing voices well, who sings what and who plays with whom. The instrumentation varies wildly, as do the vocal styles. It’s a great credit to Sherk’s songwriting that it’s flexible enough to bend to wildly different voices and strong enough to still sound like his own. Mandarin Dynasty has now cast itself across ten years and some twenty people. That’s a lot of time and a lot of space.