The 90s were a difficult time for those looking to combine a love electronics and the craft of songwriting. The rise of underground techno suggested that vocals and traditional structure weren't necessary while the reactionary grunge movement knocked anything with a synthesizer off "alternative" radio in the US but the success of Portishead opened a new door that allowed songwriters access to the American market. The caveat: their music was labeled as trip hop. There was a time when trip hop was, at least in my mind, a fairly specific genre during the first half of the 90s when it directly involved the hip hop inspired Bristol Sound. Over the course of the decade the term diversified when bands like Hooverphonic and Morcheeba revealed similar stories about sneaking their music onto major labels by convincing A&R men that they could sell to the trip hop crowd.
Producer/instrumentalist Martin Virgo had a solid background in the genre working as a session musician on albums from Massive Attack and Bjork before forming Mono with vocalist Siobhan de Maré but the tone of the project echoed a decidedly more pop approach exemplified by other late 90s trip hop acts. The band's sole album Formica Blues produced four singles including the Saint Etienne-esque "Slimcea Girl" but "Life In Mono" is their finest, if perhaps darkest, moment. Equally bringing together Virgo's passion for all things John Barry and Phil Spector with drum 'n' bass inspired beats the song had the unique quality of sounding dated and futuristic on the first listen. A decade later it simply sounds timeless:
: The song's inclusion, reportedly at the suggestion of Robert De Niro, on the soundtrack to Alfonso Cuarón's Great Expectations helped make the song a radio hit in the US two years after it's initial release but my first exposure to the song was the Propellerheads instrumental remix which used the originals Barry flavored guitar to turn the song into a proper James Bond dance track. More recently former Spice Girl Emma Bunton used "Life In Mono" as her most recent album title and included a faithful cover of the song which I'm sure was not inspired by a karaoke version being available.
Despite their moderate success Mono didn't survive after rifts between the two proved to be too great to bridge. Siobhan de Maré has since worked with Robin Guthrie and Martin Virgo seems to have slowed down as reports suggest he is spending his time with a rightfully unsigned jam band. Sigh...