Scraping The Barrel 003
calm Saturday afternoon seems like the best time to engage in another bout of Scraping the Barrel—it’s the first fully free Saturday I’ve had in about a month, and since my Sundays have been spent covering open hours at my workplace, I’m fully fine with taking a day and probably part of the evening off to listen to music, even if some of this stuff—perhaps all of it—I will grow to loathe, hate, and despise. But as always, perhaps I might like some of it. And so I grab the top disc in the pile and…
Ah. Mambo Kurt. We meet again.
You know, parodists and humorists in music get a bad reputation, a terrible one at that. I’ll take Tom Lehrer over god knows how many neo-emo dorks, for a start. Allan Sherman was no fool, and he was one of Bill Cosby’s early patrons, that’s more than most can claim. Weird Al? C’mon now, he’s outlived eight million different trends, created some of the most entertaining videos ever made and, as much as he made his name with specific song parodies, is also one of the deftest reinterpreters of genre conventions you can find. It wasn’t for nothing Devo said “Dare to Be Stupid” was a better Devo song than even they had ever created.
Mambo Kurt doesn’t fall into this category, and neither does his album Organized Crime. There was this ‘ha-ha, funny’ Grunge Lite album years back where all sorts of Seattlish things were reduced to synth goofs. There’s that Richard Cheese dude turning Rage Against the Machine songs into ‘groovy’ lounge singalongs. But Mambo Kurt beats them all out, and not in a way that I think is good for him, them or any of us. In an earlier review of this album for the All Music Guide, where I was more positive, I said that this album was worth listening to once. Now that I’m listening to it twice I am annoyed. But hey, if you want whiningly-sung cheap-keyboard-played covers of “Hells Bells” and “Basket Case” and “The Number of the Beast” and “Killing an Arab,” you know where to turn. Sure, it’s always good to puncture assumptions of quality, but two to one says the only person who willingly listens to any of these more than once is Mambo Kurt himself. Listen, react, and then sell this on, and never ever talk to anyone about it again.
And so to something called the Utility Project, which is suffused with a certain aura of importance. It, or he, or whatever, has rather nobly-minded goals with this album or record of events or whatever it’s supposed to be, entitled 1’32” for no immediately apparent reason. It’s packaged in that cardboard/Firepress/hand-hewn/made by Mennonites/hearty toil of the earth fashion, so as to let you know it is not slick or fake or evil or bad or anything like that. No, good HONEST music this! And the liner notes, why, they make it all the clearer—for as they boldly state, “YOU are now participating in the Utility Project. These songs were created human statistics [explained elsewhere as using individuals’ birthdates for rhythm, birthplace for ‘guitar sound,’ etc.—ed.] in lieu of traditional composition techniques. This disc has traveled from person to person on a potentially endless journey. Please keep it going.” No UPC code, but a website to register on, like those dollar bills with stamped URLs on it you see every so often. Why, it’s even been released in part with the help of the Indiana Arts Commission and the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana, so clearly all is good.
Except it isn’t, which could be guessed. See, either this was nonsense kerfluffle designed to parody liner notes about math rock or the like, or this was serious and therefore the results would be unlistenable. It turned out to be the latter, because based on the descriptions in the liner notes it must now be made plain to all—the Utility Project has single-handedly determined that most people are made up of utterly BORING statistics, thus creating BORING songs. Their birthplaces and birthdates and grocery lists and heating bills and whatever else went into this produced songs sung by a pseudo-quirky dullard who sings in a strangled falsetto every so often (hearing him go “Your ass is hanging out” at one point is a fine, direct way to quench lustful thoughts should you be troubled by an excess of same) and creates short and fantastically useless indie-rock songs that take the chaotic mélange of MX-80 Sound and does it COMPLETELY GODDAMN WRONG. Stop singing about pieces of pizza standing on their end over dull-ass beats and indie rock arrangements that make it sound like the worst of 1985 never went away—or, alternately, that prove that Robert Pollard has done more harm than he’ll ever know. I snapped at “Chocolate Carnivore” and pondered ways to rip out the vocal cords of the singer plaguing me, but I continued on doggedly, so that way I could ‘enjoy’ the topical reference to avian flu later on the album. Once or twice a song almost worked—almost. I have suffered so you will not. The liner notes invite you to contact the Utility Project so they can write a song about you. Please don’t.
So, two albums wherein ‘humor’ was allegedly present. And now a third. And in fact, the worst.
Miller is the name of the entity who created this, full name Mike Miller—we see him on the cheap-o cover playing a keytar. We see him on the back of the disc with said keytar coming out of a porta-john. The album’s name is Complete Buffoonery. His website is called—I must pause for a deep breath to steel myself—mikemilleratyourcervix.com…
My gentle readers, a pause at this point—after my last column, Momus suggested elsewhere that the only way I can make my seething hatred of morons who waste my time on a musical level still potent, given I wish hot flaming death upon most of them and that therefore there is a danger in repetition, was to “be totally exaggerated, so that it's pure Tom & Jerry, with some inventive sight gags involving cheese wire, dynamite and razor blades.” I’m perfectly fine with this suggestion, so imagine, if you will, Mr. Miller, suspended by cheese wire above a million rusty, tetanus-laden razor blades, with some dynamite about to explode, shred the cheese wire, and send Miller, wackily, to his doom. That’s me to the side with the bow tie and the impish grin.
…and now, some of the song titles from Miller: “Domino’s Blows,” “Spooning Arm Placement,” “Master-Baiter,” “Mullet,” “Hirschsprung’s Disease” (which rhymes with ‘can’t eject my feces’).
Oh you stupid stupid stupid STUPID MAN.
There are full lyrics reproduced for all these. There are liner notes EXPLAINING EVERY SONG. Here’s a winning line from “Master-Baiter”—“That labels me a genius, king of keenness, a keen and cunning linguist, intent on finding my calling, besides Rock God and alcoholing.” The liner notes for this song claim that someone told Miller once that he didn’t in fact write dirty songs, but just wrote songs that people take them dirtily, and therefore Miller was inspired to write this song in turn.
Oh, the music. Well, the keytar apparently isn’t just there for show, cause that’s the first sound you hear once you start listening to it, that or some other keyboard close to it. All of a sudden the Mambo Kurt album is the new Loveless in comparison. It’s like this guy heard They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng” and thought, “Hey, I can do music like that,” except he can’t even sound one-millionth as brilliant, no matter how much ‘quirky’ ‘new wave’ sonics you can apply to songs about how a guy hung like a horse can sexually satisfy a landmine victim. Oh, it’s REALLY supposed to be about love, apparently. No, no it isn’t.
The guy’s voice is the type of thing I expect to hear from whoever opens for the Barenaked Ladies these days. For all I know he probably does. The hyper-dorky arrangements…Jesus fucking god, it’s really obnoxious to hear that once or twice he actually can nail a winning little tune and then not know what to do with it. Anyone who accuses Erasure-style synth pop of being too twee hasn’t heard this. The whole thing EATS EATS EATS. And as for the actual song called “Mike Miller…At Your Cervix,” as the liner notes say, “In my teens, I was a big fan of rap music. Back then, it was all about the rappers telling you how great they were.” Yeah, they sure don’t ever do that nowadays, do they! Glad to see you’re in touch with the times!
* ignites dynamite, makes a goofy gesture to camera, enjoys the screams from the razor pit *
Anyway, now time for People. For such is the name of this duo, and their self-titled album begins with and mostly continues in the vein of stop-start/female-vocal/ male-vocal-interjection herky-jerk indie/lo-fi/rambling/ time-change oddballrockalong ranting.
Ah, art. Or at least yet another duo in the somewhat-vein of the Fiery Furnaces. Haven’t I been down this road?
It must be said that after the atrociousness of the Miller album this is kind of a breath of fresh air, and singer/guitarist Mary Halvorson has a nice low-key voice to go with the rambling and spastic performances—drummer dude Kevin Shea less so but he doesn’t sing as much and the squeaky falsetto is kinda appropriate. So while I’m not set on fire by this album neither am I chilled by it, and while I’ve read short stories that are shorter than some of the song titles on this album (seriously—the ninth song’s title begins “The townsfolk were agitated and perplexed. People looked stunned by the expanse of the sky…”), the songs themselves crash along pretty quickly and sometimes surprisingly beautifully. Shea’s drumming perhaps too obviously acts as a contrast to Halvorson’s guitar and singing, to the point where you’d just want to hear her rather than her and him, but it gives the performances a clear enough calling card. I don’t need to hear it again but after all the other albums it’s like sunlight after a hurricane. The liner notes make Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhollow’s fairy tale seem coherent, mind you.
I took one look at the brown corduroy and turtleneck/clean cut blondeness/retro sixties cover of the Acid House Kings’ Sing Along With and thought to myself, “These folks are Swedish, aren’t they?” And indeed, they are. They’ve got that Scandinavian perfect guitar-pop thing down and thank goodness for that, since I was looking for an album I could actually enjoy a lot out of this batch of review fodder and I seem to have finally found it. Lots of gentle reverb on the vocals, acoustic guitar strum and electric guitar twang, winsome but not cloying singing, soft strings and piano adding to the arrangements, even a bit of polite disco on songs like “Tonight is Forever”—all of that and it’s not Belle and Sebastian, always a plus in my book. Instead it’s the latest manifestation of that vein that produces bands like Eggstone or (over in Norway) a-ha or Kings of Convenience (or of course those fellow Swedes what are famous, Them Cardigans Folks), something inexpressibly clear and open somehow. God knows whether it’s the mountains or the winters or what.
If the quartet has killer moments, it’s when everything gets quieter—whether throughout a song or right at a key moment, as on “Do What You Wanna Do,” when towards the end it goes down to Niklas Angergard’s singing and a bit of rhythm, rendering everything somehow inexpressively beautiful. Then there’s the subtle tweaking of Julia Lannerheim’s singing on songs like “This Heart is a Stone,” working what sounds like a bit of auto-tuning to create a subtle contrast, somehow, with the good-timey vibes of the song. Something about Sing Along With hits an unexpected spot with me, suggesting everything from the first Mojave 3 album to the Wedding Present’s calmest moments to other things I can’t put my finger on immediately, but with its own, just distinct enough beauty. All that and there’s a bonus karaoke DVD as well.
Fenton’s real name is apparently Dan Abrams, assuming this is a one person band, and Pup is his album. It has a blue-themed cover, all trees and sky, and it starts off with kinda melancholy guitar loop stuff…so I might actually end liking this as well, because not only does it look like something that might be on Kranky, it sounds like it as well. And so the ten-song collection proves, being a series of meditative, contemplative recordings that won’t surprise anyone with an ear for the kind of restrained psychedelia that, indeed, Kranky and other labels helped to bring to wider attention in the nineties. Pitched somewhere between, say, Roy Montgomery’s explorations and Brian Eno’s ambient peaks is not a bad place to be at all for Abrams and his work.
Admittedly in a way it’d be nice if there’s more surprises on this album—nothing leaps out at a new way of rethinking these kind of sounds and method of composition, at least on first listen. But at the same time, while I don’t think Fenton has created something truly unique yet, there’s just enough…just enough… of an atmosphere to Pup that promises more in the future. It could be the way that the loops provide the base of the songs while extremely subtle changes in the other guitar parts keep it from being pure repetition. But all I know is that when the hushed, drowned beauty of “Neon Giraffe” plays, distant chimes and then crisp acoustic tones and more all coming together, or similarly when the backward-masked guitar moans on “Wageless” slide into a gentle acoustic fantasia, then I’ve found something good without expecting it. Two good albums in a row now, not what I would have expected!
From a pseudo-Kranky album to a real one, namely Brian McBride’s When the Detail Lost Its Freedom. Happily, this is exactly what I want to hear, being a Kranky freak in earlier days. Seriously—at one point I owned everything they’d ever put out, and I still have just about everything. But their seemingly perfect track record got bruised the day they released Godspeed You Black Emperor’s stuff and since then I have been wary. But McBride essentially releases a parallel to the Fenton album, except this time it’s a halfway point between Eno’s ambience and In the Nursery’s carefully orchestrated beauty—maybe less cinematic as such but with the same sense of scope (and if you’re going to call tracks “Overture (For Other Halfs)” and “The Guilt of Uncomplicated Thoughts,” why not go all out?). Heck, he even caught me off guard when he sang on a track—I wasn’t expecting that!
But at the same time, I’m comfortable with this, very much so. I got the hang of it early on and thought, “Ah, now how about dinner?” And so while various swoops of feedback all created from McBride’s guitar formed on “I Will” an interplay of almost cello-like sounds with an emphasis on the melancholic and sudden swirled echoes of higher tones lending an aspirational air to the track, I made salad and a sandwich and part way through took a phone call from a friend who had been in the hospital. But at least the music was appropriate for the mood in ways—had the soundtrack been that Miller crap, then clearly the universe was playing a joke on me. One last bemusing note—there should be no reason why McBride would necessarily want to look like an abused Billie Joe Armstrong with blonde hair in the album art, and yet such is the case. A mystery.
Liz Durrett, it turns out, is the niece of Vic Chesnutt, one of those guys I hear about but don’t really listen to. Which is not to impugn Chesnutt, but there are lots of things I don’t really listen to, and life goes on. Husk, which was produced by Chesnutt, collects a slew of songs written and recorded by Durrett from ten years back, which makes for an intriguing after-the-fact release at the very least. Knowing ten years back, I admit I was fearing some collection of sub-Sarah McLachlan/Jewel dreck, and had that proven to be the case my righteous ire would be unmatched. But the role models for 1993 to 1996 era Durrett would appear to be early Low (certainly the backing band, including Chesnutt, have a warmer take on that sound) and the underrated Moon Seven Times.
Great? No, not necessarily, but very good, certainly enough that I could see myself listening to it again—Durrett’s got a grand voice, warm and rich, yearning even, and if the songs tend to blend into each other as the album continues, there’s a subtle variety at points which helps, while the matching of her and, presumably, Chesnutt’s harmonies is a not-so-secret weapon on many choruses and verses that’s crucial. Possibly the killer track is the briefest and most distinct—“Captive,” with piano instead of Durrett’s guitar and a slight distancing on the vocal. The shift from that to the just trippily narcotic enough guitar figure opening “BC,” a song featuring a ghostly wordless backing vocal from Durrett’s grandmother, is a brilliant bit of sequencing. Without aiming to, Husk calls to mind a time and place for me that I had almost forgotten about, one I was happy to remember again. I can but guess her next album will focus on songs from the current time, and it would be interesting to hear the differences.
By this time, I admit, I was almost flabbergasted—four good to great albums in a row! How did I score with that? Then I saw the next album to come and immediately felt my good luck streak surely must end—when a band calls themselves the Punks, titles an album Thank You For the Alternative Rock and has among its song titles “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Beaches and Canyons,” I smelled a bad, bad joke coming in. And so it might be, though I’m not quite sure. Apparently this is something that Slim Moon of Kill Rock Stars participates in, maybe he’s the bandleader, maybe he’s just there. Maybe only a few of the song titles are listed because to list them all wouldn’t be punk or something. Maybe the whole thing is a parody of the Kills or the Liars, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe the one song called “Jean Travolta” with the violin and bicycle bells is a deep and cutting analysis of the state of the modern day music maker left castrated by the collapse of the industry and/or not being top 40 friendly enough. You got me.
And so something which back in 1988 would have had people going “Yeah, this is that Sonic Youth/Madonna side project, right?” here sounds like drony noises and the meaningfulness of things. I’d be theoretically fine with this except there is little else on here other than drony noises and the meaningfulness of things. Maybe it’s a Deerhoof side project, which I could readily believe except that there aren’t anywhere near as many good beats worth speaking of, to the point that where you do hear them all of a sudden it gets really good for a few seconds. There are bells and whirly synth noises and pinging sounds and presumably rebellion in an abstract sense, which is fine and all, I guess. After a while I stopped paying direct attention, figuring this whole thing was essentially the modern equivalent of Satie’s furniture music though without the explicit intention, and let it play while I edited photos for my Flickr account. I know where the important stuff is in my life.
The Strugglers end it all with You Win. The dude has a warm craggy voice. There are big building arrangements at points. Drama. Mm. It’s a classic rock Arcade Fire and therefore doubly annoying to me, except when they’re not as annoying and are just kinda heartfelt in a warm craggy way, but I’ve heard it all before and I don’t need more of it. I am tired and they had the bad luck to come last and be the most nondescript. Off you go, and off I go until next time. I need some coffee and dessert.
By: Ned Raggett
Published on: 2005-10-26