#017: Fertile Desolation
e have not entered the tape renaissance. Tapes have never gone away. Long abandoned by the recording industry, its status as preferred portable usurped by CDs and MP3s, the cassette still marches forward, championed by the tiniest of the tiny start-up labels and, increasingly, those looking for an alternative to digitalization and the tyranny of flat formats. The recording technology is dirt cheap, reproduction is a breeze, and packaging is a blast. Cassettes elicit a fervor of fandom rivaled only by top-shelf vinyl.
Herein, cassettes shall have their day. Unfortunately, only a few will. Try as I might, I can’t cover nearly as many as I’d like. So if you run a label or know someone who does, and you’d like to submit tapes for review, please e-mail us.
Wigwam / Tent City
Wigwam / Tent City
[Not Not Fun, 2006]
Cutting a swathe across the U.S. of A, this split tape unites the grey confines of Kalamazoo with the arid oven of Tempe, Arizona. While it’s tempting to measure the difference in sound in terms of annual rainfall and Vitamin D exposure, the two sides compromise and converge somewhere in the fertile desolation of the Great Plains, that wordless expanse of factory farms and black earth.
Wigwam, a project from the owner of the great, inscrutable Tapeworm Tapes label, hails from Michigan, and his work centers on the misery of loneliness, the whimpers of strangers twisting in the wind. His modus operandi is mostly Michigan: fucked synths and gruesome crunch rule the day, but an aura of true melancholy—rather than stylized violence and nihilism—suffuses his side, transporting it from the jagged sky of the post-industrial peninsula to the crushing emptiness of the bread basket. Airy and found sounds, from woodwinds to rain recordings, feather through the stolid globs of noise, elevating Wigwam from the murk to a place just above murk, to greyscale rather than black, with a subsequent multiplication of emotional depth.
Tent City is involved with the operation of Gilgongo, an upstart Arizona label with only 7” output thus far, but there are no sole proprietors here. The chummy, social nature of the music is revealed by the wisecracks and laughter from folks in audience or in the band (at this scale, the two groups overlap considerably). Tent City’s music is relational as well, pairing exploratory, jazzy brass with the gentle faux-primitive rhythms endemic to free music nowadays. The tone veers from raucous to remorseful, cued by flatulent bass tones and the wanderings of the sax skronker. Gold stars to a saxophone played with real improvisational purpose rather than as a shallow, tip-of-the-hat gesture to free jazz (WWVV’s Gypsy Freedom being the latest example), and to a drummer with the confidence to dictate rather than react. Tent City bears the marks of a truly non-hierarchical band, in which any member feels free to step up and lead. The results are diverse and challenging, but imbued with joy and a sense of purpose.
[Fuck It, 2006]
Recent transplants to the Smell-centered LA scene, Night Wounds must be pretty nice folks, given the ease with which they’ve ingratiated themselves into the community. Their sound certainly fits with much of the fun-filled, spastic noise emanating from the SoCal sprawl. Night Wounds plays a jittery, paranoid strain of (very) post-punk, splattered with muffled vocals and insistent, simplistic drumming. The guitars jag and screech, based on rhythm rather than melody, though tuneful fragments remain. Bass appears for dramatic emphasis, leaving Night Wounds sounding rather thin most of the time, but better off for it, given that their work arrives in nervous bursts ill-suited to the fluidity of bass.
This tape is either too short or quite long enough, depending on the side. The first is potent and direct: a fierce blast of the sweat-addled and smoke-wrung, an energetic triangulation of No Wave, zine-styled punk, and contemporary noise. The B-side is more experimental, with experimental read as needlessly abstract and amorphous. The duo create decent soundscapes from looping, scraped strings and metal-sheet reverberations, eventually culminating in a distorted, percussive freak-out, but it’s hard not to view the piece as piss take weighed against the trim structures of the A-side songs, “Caving In” and “Her Appeal.”
Not knowing the direction the band is taking now, I’d say they’re best off working in song form. Clearly they struggle with the limitations of structure, but the further they stretch form without abandoning it, the better and more bizarre they’ll be. At this point, a good noise-rock band would be more distinctive than yet another free-noise outfit.
Whitman / Watching Him Die
Whitman / Watching Him Die
[Not Not Fun, 2006]
Not Not Fun is no stranger to this column, yet I have never mentioned the imagination and effort put into the packaging of their cassettes. Each tape is an arts and crafts project, an attempt to capitalize on the versatility of silk screening and the three-dimensional possibilities offered by cassette boxes. Previous editions have used burnt matches, fake knives, sea shells, and beads, and this tape features a denim wraparound strip stuck with a handmade pin featuring the Bic-ink cover art of the tape. Usually I omit these details because they distract from the music, but in this case, I’d rather focus on the visuals.
I want to like Whitman’s side. His perspective is interesting, pitting noise against traditional guy-and-guitar songwriting without relegating the noise to the status of cheap avant garnish. Both aspects of the music flow together, like separate snacks in a stream of vomit. So on one level I applaud Whitman, for his synthesis will not be easy to achieve, as witnessed by this effort. The problem with playing noise and indie folk simultaneously is that you end up playing neither. The mind can only focus on so much at any one time. The result is an impenetrable muddle. I suspect that later efforts will refine the process, and his output is definitely worth tracking, but he’s a work-in-progress for sure.
Watching Him Die makes noise involving mutilated vocals, and that’s about all I can say. I’ve heard so much that sounds so similar to this that I’ve given up distinguishing between the harsh, the black, the very harsh, and the very black. Call me burnt out.
But it sucks to be dismissive, and it’s hard to separate my over-saturation from my opinions, so check this out for yourself. The object alone is worth the few bucks.
By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2006-07-21