When you’re an indie-rock musician and start becoming so interested in non-rock styles like drum ‘n’ bass and hip-hop that you yearn to include them into the music you create, there’s at least three routes you can take. One is to replace rock entirely, to switch over to a new genre, which is always risky, unless you’re some kind of jack-of-all-trades wunderkind. Another is to take one genre and just put it on top of another, graft one to another. This could work but usually doesn’t; you end up with an awkward, way-too-obvious sound, like the horrid metal-rap hybrids.
The third way is what Burnside Project take, and do genius things with, on their debut full-length The Networks, the Circuits, the Streams, the Harmonies. They take the more subtle approach: do what you know and are used to, but let your new tastes and interests infuse themselves into what you’re doing. The result is melodic pop-rock songwriting that relies heavily on dance rhythms, samples and electronic sounds.
The Networks, The Circuits… could have been made as a straightforward rock album and would have worked, yet by replacing the standard rock drums with beats, throwing in lots of keyboards and samples, and shifting everything around so the music sounds like it’s continually refreshing itself, Burnside Project make their music more surprising, more unique, and more revitalizing. And they do it all seamlessly. What could sound unnatural sounds exactly right. The disparate styles naturally meld into one style: Burnside style.
The New York City-based Burnside Project started as the one-man project of songwriter Richarad Jankovich, became a duo of Janovich and Gerald Hammill, and is augmented here by an assortment of guests, making the album feel like a party. The most noticeable of the guests are the vocalists. Five songs are blessed by the presence of Shannon McCardle of The Mendoza Line, while the song “Ouija Case File” gets extra depth from Johnny Cohen’s distinctively off-kilter voice. Hub Moore (ever-beloved by me for his role in early Hal Hartley films), ld Beghtol, and others show up as well.
If the diverse sounds and collective effort make the album feel celebratory, the songs themselves have a more melancholy feeling, like heartfelt poems about the scattered joys and pains of our modern world. Though the album starts off with Jankovich doing a somewhat tongue-in-cheek rap a la Steve Malkmus, a style he slips into in a few other places, the singing overall accentuates a certain introspectiveness. Even when the lyrics are abstract, as they nearly always are, they’re filled with feelings and ideas about the complexity of relationships, personal and societal. Allusions are made to various present-day phenomena, like technological omnipresence and corporate misdeeds, echoing the album’s past-meets-future musical style and broadening the worldview (in a personal-is-global sort of way).
The liner notes have an essay from author Rick Moody, writing under the name Tyrone Duffy, which gives a stream-of-consciousness summary of the moods and ideas of the album more creatively and articulately than I can. Yet his words, brilliant as they are, seem redundant next to the music, which is filled with radiant depth and layers of feelings and meanings.
“I know the truth / I can see it in your eyes,” goes a line on the album’s third track, “Assessing Your Performance”, and the album overall also betrays a sort of wisdom about the world around us. Not a know-it-all, definitive-truth sort of wisdom, but a certain awareness of the sadness lurking in the hearts of everyone everywhere, and the release that comes from creating art and having fun with friends.
On the deceptively titled “Only Ordinary”, McCardle repeatedly sings, “I know what I told you, and I never said I would understand,” over tuneful guitar and a drum ‘n’ bass flurry. The song’s seeming simplicity is the perfect illustration of why The Networks, The Circuits… is such a joy. One line, some repeating sounds, and a mix of odd samples here and there add up to a song that you could dance to without thinking about, or get lost in thought over without ever thinking of dancing. Burnside Project’s music is fun, catchy and exciting, yet also intelligent, moving and perplexing. That mix is more than unique; it’s a treasure chest.