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(Shrimper; US: 1 Apr 2003)

Shrimper, a small label based in Southern California, tends to release introspective home recordings, giving what might otherwise be the work of a host of localized cranks and outsiders the semblance of a genre. One imagines that Shrimper’s creators of so-called “bedroom folk” (e.g. the one-man bands Dump and the Mountain Goats, and in this case, the Boston duo Joy) don’t set out to work within a genre, but rather intend to express their personal vision with means limited enough to minimize outside intrusion. That so much of it inevitably sounds the same suggests how little authentic individuality is to be had, even in our culture where the idea of one’s holy, inviolable uniqueness is virtually worshipped (what better to make that unique person’s shopping choices seem crucial, as sanctified expressions of his soul?). But it is perhaps to these musicians’ credit that their work is ultimately generic. Because they must reject all the accepted conventions of communication to avoid the taint of influence or the restriction of social context, real expressions of individuality are generally inscrutable. To really reach the zero degree of pure individuality, one must adopt a rigor akin to legendary recluse Jandek’s, and make music so uncompromising and inaccessible that only masochistic zealots in pursuit of pure otherness can tolerate it.

Joy has nothing so radical in mind. Their brief CD (under 30 minutes) is made up of slight acoustic slivers of songs embellished with Graham Nash style harmonizing and the occasional guitar-generated sound effect. The lead vocals have the careful, pretentious enunciation of someone who takes himself very seriously, and while that isn’t exactly a fault, it does have the effect of undermining whatever power the words might have unadorned. He sounds something like Matthew Sweet pretending to be Nick Drake: all faux-earnest, vulnerable and feathery, with the stilted phrasing of a low-fi Cat Stevens. Joy’s fondness for overtly poetic imagery frequently feels forced, arbitrarily incongruous, giving the whole album an MFA seminar flavor. The lyric sheet is rife with strained, risible metaphors (“My legs are flopping squids beached upon your burning bed” from “Magma Pump”; “The monsoons behind your glasses edge into the godforsaken air between our faces,” from “Little Breaths”; “My mood flickered around the room with blood on its teeth and a crazy look in its eye” from “Change & Adaptation”; “I’ll be the most durable ornament you ever stuck to your emotional refrigerator,” from “Untitled”) that are startling for their unguarded awkwardness. However, in this genre, such a proof of unedited sincerity may be what listeners crave, as it sends a furtive thrill akin to reading an adolescent’s diary. One tends to feel protective towards something so frail and innocent. Criticizing Joy, begins to feel as insensitive as heckling at a junior high talent show.

But if one refuses to adopt a patronizing attitude towards Joy, then one might find it difficult to keep down their precious treacle. While they often find inventive ways to harmonize, the effect remains showy in a way that undermines the intimacy the low-fi recording otherwise garners for them. The arrangements begin to seem as self-conscious and florid as the poetry, elaborate for their own sake when they could be carrying some of the freight of signification. On “Change & Adaptation” they quicken the tempo and throw some distortion on the vocals, which, though it adds some much-needed variety, fails to mean anything. At their best, as on “My Favorite Parking Lot”, Joy simplify both their language and their melodies and drop in a well-placed wah-wah guitar lick to allow the ruminative emotion they appear to be after to come across unhindered. “Garden State Parkway”, too, is pleasant in the way the lyrics are for the most part observational rather than confessional.But more frequently Joy seem insincere, and the moods and ideas tentatively posited seem mere pretexts to justify their launching into another round of yodeling histrionics. Of course it’s not fair to question their sincerity, and it may not even be an appropriate aesthetic criterion. But the excellence of many of Shrimper’s releases often seem to rely upon it, and those who look to this release to continue that tradition may come away disappointed.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.

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