Lo-fi? Eccentric and uneven? Go figure.
Everything I know about lo-fi, I learned from Bee Thousand. First, every song should be different from every other song. Second, stop before you run out of ideas, even if the cut’s less than two minutes long, even if it’s “Hot Freaks” and could go on all day in some people’s opinions. Third, make sure that every cut has the force of personality—whether expressed in intelligence, melody, clever lyrics, or sheer physical energy—to overcome its technical limitations. And fourth, be Robert Pollard… at least occasionally.
By these standards, Philip E. Karnats—banjo, guitar, and trumpet player on Tripping Daisy’s last, weirdest and best album, Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb—acquits himself with reasonable grace. There are fuzz-rocking anthems, wistful bedroom meditations, rap-inflected chants, and electro-clashy synth extravaganzas. The songs all come in under four minutes—the vast majority are much shorter—and only a couple outstay their welcome. Staticky indistinctness, stream of consciousness lyrics, and canned drums abound, but from this low-rent murk occasional piercing beauties emerge. And, a couple of times, Karnats hits that perfect balance between don’t-give-a-shit four-track offhandedness and pop perfection, just like Pollard does.
Not that Karnats always—or even largely—sounds like the GBV frontman. Reference points like Lou Barlow (or even more fittingly, Eric Gaffney) also fit the bill, because what we’re talking about here is stylistically diverse, roughly produced, but extremely imaginative pop songs from his brain to yours, with very little intermediation.
Two of them are amazing.
Best of album is the bubbly, fuzzy, effervescently hooky “Early Bird Cartoons”. It’s got an insatiable eighth note bass that you can jump up and down to, a clattery drum beat, a squiggly overlay of distorted guitar sounds, and a melody that sticks immediately in your head and stays there, even if you repeatedly slap your ear to try to dislodge it. “She knock you down to size with those big black eyes / The fireworks in bloom / You know I’m right”, Karnats enthuses, and you don’t hear until the end that the owner of those big black eyes is roughly twice the age of the speaking character (“She was 32 / I was 17”). It’s pure pop, twisted in weirdly individual directions, the kind of thing you can groove to mindlessly, or turn over endlessly trying to figure out, and a direct heir to similarly odd songs by the Beatles, the Kinks, and other pop masters.
The second-best song is the lead-off track, “Too Much to Chew”, a ramshackle, beat-driven cut that, like certain early Beck tunes, is very close to hip-hop in the way it rides spoken chants over rhythmic cadences. The song is a celebration of slacker resistance, a litany of things the singer is unwilling to do (“Won’t lust / It only makes me hungry / Won’t learn / Just more to forget / Won’t read / The book’s much less energy…”) and ends in the observation, “I can’t take it / I’m so fucking bored”. The song is so infectious, though, that it makes nihilism sound absolutely appealing. You want to be there, standing on the sidewalk in the sun, detached and alienated and utterly cool.
The rest of the album alternates between fragile, slow-moving surrealities (“Learn Defeat”, “1000 Girls”, “...And It’s Beautiful”) and distorted all-out rockers (“Sue Blue”, “Iggy’s Protégé”, and “Sick of Walking”), with some fine moments, but nothing like the early standouts.
Two great tunes, an album’s worth of intermittently arresting sonic experiments, personality and energy to spare… it’s a good effort, and well worth building on.