Pumice
Spears / Yeahnahvienna
2005 / 2006
B / B



deconstruction needn’t be so theoretical, and pop deconstruction needn’t be so precious, tongue-in-cheek, and awkwardly cerebral. Sometimes things fall apart. Sometimes the subtexts slip out like debris shaken from a structure cracked by time and negligence. Nothing thought, nothing planned.

Perhaps deconstruction is the wrong word for such a process. That term assumes a human mind, acting with surgical skill, involved in a reversed act of construction as deliberate as the original creation. With this in mind, the sluggish post-pop of Pumice isn’t so much deconstructed as decayed. Operating as a one-man band, Stefan Neville of Pumice has been exposing the bloody guts of pop for over ten years. A Shrimper cassette warped to the point of unintelligibility, Pumice strangles the DIY indie sound of the early 90s, effacing the snotty undergraduate glee until only the lonely, paranoid undercurrents implied by bedroom recording remain.

On the cover of the first two Pumice albums available in the United States, a torrent of water carries away instruments and equipment. Flooding is an apt metaphor. It captures both the free-flowing emotion and seemingly random collisions apparent in Neville’s best tracks. While Spears and Yeahnahviennna don’t achieve the exalted, sad-sack beatification of 2003’s Raft, both albums add to an impressive lineage of glorious desolation and downcast hope.

Taken together, Spears and Yeahnahviennna produce a blurry portrait of Neville’s months in 2004 as an artist-in-residence at Museumsquartier in Vienna. Unified by “Abominable”—the only track to appear on both albums—they speak of the isolation of a traveler, redolent with unfocused nostalgia and misspent moonlight in an unfurnished room. “Abominable” comes in two styles: a crunchier, faster version on Spears that edges on angst and the sparse, paralyzed ballad found on Yeahnahvienna. With lyrics that would raise eyebrows if not for Neville’s unassuming slur—“can I be free / Of the abominable black sickness that comes outta me”—“Abominable” establishes the resolutely introspective tone that characterizes both albums.

Neville plays as if thinking about something else, in stops and starts, his bursts of color and charm followed by long doldrums that although grey, rarely become dull. When animated, as in “Brawl” he demonstrates considerable technical skill and a knack for songcraft unmatched by his rivals in the New Zealand underground scene. Though his lyrics are rarely decipherable beneath the fuzz, and his voice is untrained and ragged, his vocal melodies are achingly beautiful, the proper accompaniment to sloppy chords and scattered beats slathered in hiss.

But Neville is better known for his extended chord organ excursions. Both Yeahnahvienna and Spears feature their show-stealers. “Teas Tasting Fair” finds a handful of droning chords trudging with drunk-footstep drumming and strained soaring vocals, creating an ecstatic minute of music somehow stretched to ten. In “Hawkwind”—two versions of which bookend Spears—Neville engages in screechy cassette cut-ups and subterranean sound effects, creating a piece submerged in sewer ambience, pop only by the bleating organ’s association.

Multiple versions pervade Pumice’s career. Rare is the cut that only sees the light of day once, unless it serves as little more than a brief palate-cleanser. Neville does not disguise the unfinished nature of his music. Each song undergoes regular revision, and each recording merely represents a song’s concept filtered through that emotional moment. A wonderful critique on the polish and professionalism afflicting even up-and-comers, Neville’s technique reveals his songs far more slowly and organically, allowing them to evolve and eventually conglomerate into a whole greater than any single recording.

So it goes with Spears and Yeahnahvienna. The two are like mirrors placed on opposite sides of the room, with Neville seated between them with his humble array of rundown instruments. With one album, but not the other, a curtain covers one mirror, limiting the listener’s perspective on Neville’s work. But when both are heard, light bounces madly between the two, spawning a multitude of images that shrink to a sad, black vanishing point.


Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2006-04-04
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