[16 July 2003]
PopMatters General Features Editor
There are a few hints that Thomas Truax might aspire to outsider artist status: (1) he sings songs about a private fantasy world (for which he also writes a fictitious newspaper) that are by turns whimsical and downright creepy, (2) he plays homemade instruments (e.g. the Hornicator, the Triwave Generator, the motorized Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel, which sounds like twigs snapping in a burning campfire), and (3) he has an unhinged singing voice, a throaty, timbre-less snarl that is equal parts Jello Biafra and Jandek.
But one can’t really choose to be an outsider artist; one simply is one by virtue of the spontaneous, non-reflexive nature of what one creates, which operates by its own sui generis logic. Truax’s work, while idiosyncratic to say the least, remains grounded in essentially collaborative structures, which permit his accompanying musicians to provide supporting instrumentation that doesn’t seem like guesswork, while inviting his audience to engage with that material at a level beyond that of baffled curiosity.
The album sounds like a work of performance art captured on disk, more a document of something one has missed than something one has bought into by getting the album. As performance art, it must be best seen live, where the charisma required to attempt quirky role-playing on a public scale can only help hold an audience’s attention, win them over into trusting his musical instincts, and put his quirky, difficult songs across.
Every track on Full Moon Over Wowtown is crowded with unsettling, semi-musical sounds that seem appropriated from wind chimes, ice cream trucks, broken music boxes and ‘50s science fiction movies. But for all that surface weirdness, the album remains at heart largely conventional, more a studied theatrical presentation of strangeness than the real thing. It’s obvious that Truax has taken some care to evoke specific frequently unsettling moods: the instrumental “Lunar Tic” conjures a mad scientist’s laboratory; “Shooting Stars” is a relentless march powered by a yodeling vocal hook, and “Prove It to My Daughter” matches lyrics about being hypnotized to a predictably nightmarish soundscape of echoing whines and sinister faux snake-charmer kazoo playing.
Throughout, Truax’s penchant for ascending diminished seventh chords contributes to the queasy feeling haunting this record, the tension mustered is often left unresolved. Much of the guitar on the album seems as though it were recorded through an over-compressed acoustic pick-up, which produces an almost claustrophobic intimacy with Truax’s playing while limiting its dynamic possibilities—it always sounds crisp and loud, even when the mood would seem to call for some subtler shadings. Though the recording makes the music sound oppressively close, with the different sounds piled up like so much junk in a dumpster, the subject matter forces listeners to keep a certain distance, preventing the identification and vicarious indulgence most pop music intends to invite.
Instead these songs work like elliptical short stories, positing scenarios we can admire for their autonomy, for their ability to compel our attention independent from emotional investment. As such, the songs are daunting, alien and forbidding, at first, dense with details that seem inscrutable. If repeated listenings don’t entirely clarify matters in obscure songs such as “Escape from the Orphanage” and “Drifter of the Mind” which offer paradoxically puzzling truisms like “Nothing’s fresh as milk drank straight from the udder” and “Sexual maturity and social maturity are separate entities”, they at least acclimate us to their obliquity.
But as difficult as most of the album is to assimilate, the last two songs go down rather easy. These areFull Moon over Wowtown’s most spacious tracks, the only ones that allow all the kooky sound effects appropriate breathing room. The penultimate, theramin-saturated “She’d Close One of Her Eyes” seems to draw inspiration from the laconic talk-singing of late-period Leonard Cohen to tell the tale of a troubled relationship. The concluding song, the drum-free dirge “Ocean Orphan”, finds Truax slowly intoning morbid lyrics about returning to the sea, lulling us into a kind of soothing stupor, a welcome respite after the prior demands placed on the sympathetic listener. But Full Moon over Wowtown remains much less malleable, much less amenable to a listener’s needs than the average album—you can’t shape it to suit whatever mood you happen to be in, instead you must surrender to it and let it affect you in its specific way on its own terms. Otherwise, you will tune the record out completely.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/truaxthomas-full/