ips,” the first song on Blanket Music’s 2002 sophomore effort Move, depicts an overly-serious, self-styled pop-culture expert—“a smart and decent guy / With stifled creative energy…although he doesn’t mean to condescend / Sometimes he just sounds mean”—and offers him this rejoinder: “we could all loosen up a little / Opinions are overrated…shut up and sway your hips.” By advocating tolerance and blithe receptiveness amid the often-caustic culture of persnickety (by implication, indie) tastemakers, Blanket Music set an uncannily apt keynote for a charmingly unpretentious record. That’s not at all meant as an underhanded slight; rather, a suggestion that properly appreciating the album’s delights involved transcending the sort of smug scenesterism it so suitably skewers.
Cultural Norms’ opener, in stark contrast, seems to come down on precisely the opposite side of the hips-vs-hipsters question. “You Shouldn’t Have Said That,” a scathing, bizarrely personal tirade against rock critics, is both morbidly hilarious and a little too grimly menacing to laugh about. Reminiscent of her space holiday’s similarly vitriolic “Meet the Pressure,” it’s particularly at odds with the band’s characteristic earnest good-nature. What are we to make of these erstwhile hip-swayers’ admonishing us that “regretfully the law dictates your minimum sentencing is execution at the hand of our mild mannered bass player by way of guitar string”? Despite the song’s obvious tongue-in-cheek nature, and the feeble reassurance (or is it?) that “the band doesn’t issue warnings,” it establishes an apprehensive tone for what’s to come, seemingly defying us to take it seriously while tauntingly refusing to show its hand.
There are other indications that Cultural Norms is intended quite seriously. From its broad lyrical scope and willfully eclectic musical approach to the highly amusing, detail-crammed sleeve drawing by frontman (and Hush records honcho) Chad Crouch, the album distinguishes itself from earlier Blanket Music releases and presents itself as a piece of rock-record craftsmanship. Indeed, it is effectively a concept album, albeit whose concept is a little evasive at times. Like John Vanderslice’s Cellar Door or a mid-period Kinks album, this is a collection of mostly first-person character sketches, topical vignettes that draw specifically from various facets of American contemporaneity. The roll call includes an obsessive mp3 downloader (“Filesharer’s Lament”); an apathetic serviceman ("A Soldier's Story"); a teenaged Atkins diet sufferer ("I'm Fat," featuring chorus lyrics coincident to Weird Al's "Bad" parody); participants on a "Survivor"-style show, rejoining reality ("Back to the Grind"); a Grand Theft Auto obsessive ("Digital Pedestrians"); and a self-satisfied dollar store manager (“Keep the Prices Down,” whose sing-along corporate-speak chorus, complete with glockenspiel, is the album’s catchiest.)
Unlike Mr. Crouch’s earlier lyrical portraits—“Hips,” for instance—which always seemed convincingly drawn from life, those on Norms, although enjoyably detailed, come off as fairly one-dimensional. The individuals they present are not of interest in themselves, but merely as types, emblematic of modern society; the songs are not so much character pieces as they are vehicles for social comment. This is understandable; more disconcerting is that it’s fairly difficult to discern what, precisely, that comment is. The narrators are all fairly laughable, one might even say pathetic, with their simplistic obsessions and all-consuming foibles (a function, admittedly, of Crouch’s one-sided depictions), but it’s hard to conceive of this as an exercise in wholesale mockery. But it also doesn’t seem that these folks are particularly being celebrated as worthy individuals in spite of their socially-dictated foibles (they may or may not be allowed some self-awareness, but rarely more depth than that). Perhaps we are to take this as a blithe, True Stories-style celebration of (American) mediocrity. “Of Thee We Sing,” the album’s most solemn and sincere moment, and should-be statement of purpose, which is weirdly sequenced as the penultimate track, offers some patriotic platitudes to roughly this effect—“land that we love, you are complex, you’re not stupid”—but also cautions: “we’re not alone, not the world’s not as flat as our TV screens.” There’s a point in there, but it’s never made emphatic.
This is a bit academic—after all, there’s no mandate that indie-poppers render their socio-political rhetoric unambiguously or even consistently—and more so since there’s little incentive to stick around for message-deciphering. Despite the album’s clever craft (or perhaps because of it), Blanket Music have fallen shamefully behind in their popcraft. Without altering their loose-limbed musicality and comfortably shambolic sound, they dabble in new stylistic directions—disco drums here, swaggering big-band saxes there, a tinge of Cajun accordion—that are rarely as winning as their customary faux-tropicalia. More problematically, Crouch’s unimpressive voice—whose potentially off-putting rough edges had in past been pleasingly tempered by a pair of female harmonists, since downsized—is not at all helped by his lackadaisical (bordering on bored) singing style, odd propensity for adding syllabuhuhuls, and alarmingly clumsy lyric scansion. Some songs’ words and melodies seem so mismatched it’s hard to believe the awkwardness wasn’t intentional—and in at least a couple cases it seems as though Crouch forgot to compose a melody at all.
That’s a pretty harsh thing to say—perhaps I should be wary of retribution by bassplayer—and I’ll clarify that despite its shortcomings Cultural Norms still boasts a handful of growers, and it’s really not all that hard to listen to. And hey, its musical patchiness reflects the complexity of the subject matter. In fact, maybe it’s an object lesson in critical tolerance. A celebration of mediocrity, indeed!
Reviewed by: K. Ross Hoffman
Reviewed on: 2005-01-12