Aghast Agape EP

Dim Mak

illiam Gaddis’ Agapç Agape deals with the uncensored fears of a man on his deathbed, suffering from terminal cancer, addled by prednisone. As the nameless, faceless protagonist struggles to explain his thoughts, literally assembled and collated about him, he’s possessed by such a strangling, medically induced paranoia that he’s convinced of the belief that even his own ideas have been stolen, preemptively plagiarized. It’s the anxiety of a man confronting death with an inexhaustible passion for ideas and the will to publish them. As Gaddis’ most autobiographical and revealing work, it’s reminiscent of other last novels, notably Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, which bursts with countless tidbits and random literary effluvia, the products of copious research and an expansive intellect, works that reveal as much about the author as they conceal. Despite an unrealized vision, therein lies a novel centered on the protagonist’s fascination with the democratization of music via the invention and proliferation of the player-piano, who simultaneously holds forth on the Pythagorean spheres and their mechanization in the service of entertainment, while in the background Plato and Freud’s thoughts on the pleasure principle appear like a cracked and peeling wallpaper, and we’re left to find so much meaning in the title alone, astounded by a spiritual, selfless love for humanity. In this way, Agapç Agape is a stream-of-consciousness prayer, a work of art that invites the sort of soul searching that all creative people must feel within themselves in the service of their chosen art.

But like the case of the player-piano, perception becomes reality. Throughout New York on any number of subways you’ll find crowds, speaking to each other through cultural metonymy, a shorthand communicating our unspoken preferences by proxy through a complicated variant of wish fulfillment and conspicuous consumption combined with overall social anxiety, thereby completing those dreaded introductory conversations through self-conscious appraisal of those in the car, or elsewhere. The accoutrements range from fashion and haircut, to clues like a book by a particular author, popular (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) or otherwise (Gaddis’ more famous tome, The Recognitions), not to mention any other item that implicitly conveys status or taste. While these observations are by no means an ethnographic breakthrough, what these cues represent fits into an overall marketing schematic. The whole notion of Generation X, or whatever the corresponding moniker to the applicable demographic, has very little to do with identity and much more to do with what you buy, the debasement of art and the human person through the careful research, something Thorstein Veblen lectured on at the turn of the 20th century. Circumscribed within the marketing nomenclature are a set of values that ostensibly appeal to their target audience, and like groups, no matter how cynical they may be toward traditional marketing techniques, or how savvy they are as informed consumers, each group cuts a market profile to be sold and re-sold.

Since the late ‘90’s, those values have returned to a rock paradigm steeped in fashion and expression of ennui, encoded as either “post-punk” or “garage rock”, in the aftermath of the putatively anti-fashion grunge and the album rock disciples that followed. Flimsy notions of authenticity and credibility still get bandied about, but attempting to divine either is like trying to find the core of an onion: one peels and peels until nothing is left at all. This is part of what makes the Prosaics’ debut all the more puzzling—just as they break, the independent dance rock template is all but played out. From the nostalgic Factory Records clones foisted upon us, to the slate of faceless, perfunctory tunesmiths like Franz Ferdinand and The Futureheads (or their opposite number, Electrelane), this three piece becomes the unintended victim of the popular music press. With Aghast Agape, another EP from another New York band, there’s an image to realize and a reputation to uphold.

There’s nothing offensive about the record, but that’s saying two things at once. On the one hand, the musicianship is fine—the sound is dense and dynamic, brimming with promising portentousness—and the EP’s resurgence has proved itself a useful format for breaking several NYC acts; The Rapture, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol benefited from successful debut EPs. But on the other hand, how does this differentiate them from their peers? At this point, their music doesn’t sound like a departure from the indie rock that defined a generation of cynical music fans, but rather a dilettantish billet doux to their predecessors and a bland rehashing of what’s come since. And although it’s been said repeatedly of Interpol, their label mates-to-be, Prosaics are lyrically weak when the music is strongest. That old curmudgeon Archibald Macleish meant it when he said a poem “shouldn’t mean but be”. While there’s no pretense that this is the apotheosis of late modern literary sophistication, consider these juxtapositions: “Apocryphal lament / Familiarity contempt.” What does that mean? And an “ecumenical pose is struck?” Huh? As opposed to what, a “Jesus Christ Pose”? These five songs aren’t entitled, they’re labeled: “Teeth”, “Failure”, “Now the Shadow of the Column”, “Crawling”, and finally, “Tenants” leave little to the imagination as a collection of an unconvincingly half-poetic and didactical malaise reeking of amateur theatre and a call for submissions by the student newspaper. These sounds and these words are well-suited, but it wears like last season’s suit.

Those that have gone before them have suffered on their behalf—too much success comes at the cost of the aforementioned credibility (Interpol, YYYs, Rapture), whereas anything remotely challenging comes across as a failure to recapitulate proven techniques (Liars, TV on the Radio), thus narrowing the field of possibility in much the same manner a focus group finds that the children of Springfield want “a realistic, down-to-earth show that's off-the-wall and full of magical robots.” With so little room to develop without being declared stillborn, New York remains a dazzling birthplace in the ongoing trials of truly modern rock and the enduring focal point of the American punk Colossus. From Madison Avenue to L.E.S., to Greenpoint and Sunnyside, the cultural comb-over gets thinner and thinner, leaving little dignity for those who hasten to judge and less who fail to realize objective genius.

So perhaps the promotional army struck too soon. Matador recently announced that they have signed the band for a full length due out early next year, plucking a sweet plum from Dim Mak’s tree, and henceforth came the lazy comparisons to Interpol (whom they sound nothing like), and following from that the predictable critical dismissal. Following on the heels of a highly-touted, yet underwhelming release by Seachange, Matador continues to reconstitute itself as something other than the former home of Pavement, Guided by Voices, Liz Phair and a bunch of boring electronic acts that are allegedly popular in Europe. Audiences and tastes may change, but don’t you ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated? [From “Now the Shadow of the Column”—“…a Market untapped (nice work if you can get it],” indeed.) Meanwhile, we cringe, huddled in anticipation of what’s to come.

Reviewed by: J T. Ramsay

Reviewed on: 2004-11-22

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