A pioneer home-recorder and a spiritual godfather of musicians like Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard and the Microphones’ Phil Elvrum, R. Stevie Moore has been making and distributing his lo-fi pop under the radar of the music industry for over 30 years. Despite having been born and raised in Nashville, the son of a Music Row studio musician, Moore’s work has little to do with the polished sounds of people-pleasing, radio-friendly country; musically, he’s more influenced by the Beatles or the Move, with a bit of the anarchic spirit of Zappa or Syd Barrett, and his production methods—part Joe Meek, part Mr. Microphone—can generally be described as willfully primitive. Despite abundant songwriting talent and sufficient industry connections (his uncle was president of Atco Records, for example), Moore has chosen to remain peripheral to the music business, a fringe figure content to make music as a hobby rather than a profession.
It’s important to stress the choice involved, because despite the nominal presence of Irwin Chusid, musicologist and author of a book on outsider music, and despite the hint of victimization in this album’s title, and despite such song titles as “I Hate People”, Moore’s work doesn’t sound like art therapy the way, say, Daniel Johnston’s or Jandek’s does, and Nevertheless Optimistic lacks altogether the voyeuristic buzz that can come from peering into the workings of a insane mind. True outsider art is fascinating because its makers seem compelled to make it, which allows us to marvel at the mystery of inspiration and of their motives while elevating them beyond suspicion. But Moore’s work does the opposite: it demystifies inspiration and makes it seem accessible to anyone with a tape recorder. Ultimately, this may be a more important achievement. Not only does his rejecting fame and money become an act of integrity rather than sheer irrationality, but his songs are allowed to hew closer to their original moments of inspiration, allowing listeners to glimpse a different moment in the creative process and have that process itself become worthy of aesthetic consideration. As technology makes it easier and easier for people to make their own music, all that’s wanting is the individual’s belief that he can and should.
But if you have no interest in process as product or in becoming more self-sufficient in your entertainment needs, you might find Moore’s hobby music a bit diffuse. The first two tracks, which give a hint of what Moore would be capable of if he embraced standard production values, provide the most customary listening pleasures: “Hug Me”, recorded with Shimmy Disc honcho and joke-concept-rock aficionado Kramer, finds Moore singing a succinct and jovial love song in a genial country-gentleman baritone, and “Dates” is an engaging XTC pastiche that suitably includes that band’s guitarist Dave Gregory contributing much of the backing track. These tracks are so conventionally pleasing that it sets up for a bit of a fall when we hear the much more characteristic hiss-filled song sketches that makes up the rest of this collection.
While these songs usually feature some melodic highlights, often in the form of a surprising bridge or chorus, they don’t quite skirt the typical lo-fi pitfalls—replacing real drums with unimaginative drum machine parts, the unnecessary repetition of verses, the absence of compelling solos, badly mixed vocals, and an indistinct fuzz around every potentially killer hook. When the lyrics are especially strong, or the haziness suits a particularly insular mood the musician is shooting for, these drawbacks can be overcome, but on these songs, that’s generally not the case. Moore’s words tend toward in-joke obscurity (as on “Wayne, Wayne” and “One Moore Time”), which is actually preferable to his more accessible jokes (as on “Blues for Cathy Taylor”), which just aren’t funny. On “Back in Time”, “In My Own Quiet Way”, and “Love Is the Way to My Heart”, he shoots for a middle-aged poignancy with some rather anodyne platitudes more befitting something considerably more mainstream than this. You listen to slightly eccentric troubadour types for idiosyncratic and surprising lyrical turns, not for homiletic clichés—that’s what Norah Jones and Adult Contemporary radio stations are for.