From the tremulous warble of the musical saw that opens This Busy Monster’s new album, Fireworks, you know this is going to be a distinctly different listening experience. The fact that the saw peaks and then is followed by a plucked guitar and keys accompaniment, only to suddenly erupt in straight thundering rock guitars is par for the course for This Busy Monster, a band that is ideal for those who like a fair dose of art with their rock without having to resort to the often pretentious category of art rock.
Some indication of the band’s direction, style, and sound could be inferred from the source of their name: one of e. e. cummings’s most famous poems, “Pity this busy monster manunkind”. In cummings’s signature style of breaking down the barriers of text, line, punctuation, spelling, and grammar to reveal their internal structures and the manner in which our mind can still make connections in the out-of-the-ordinary, This Busy Monster seems to have found inspiriation (or at least kindred spirit) for their own project of breaking down sounds, challenging the idea of rock/pop instrumentation, and crafting poeticly obtuse yet oddly intimate lyrics and letting the imagination of the listener carry the songs to completion.
But don’t get the wrong impression. This isn’t a post-rock band noodling with noise and crafting soundscape compositions that have little to do with traditional song structures. This is a rock band, even a pop band that has the intelligence and guts to pull off true experimentation. According to their press materials, the band has steadily accumulated a critic’s list of supposed comparisons and influences. These include Built to Spill, Throwing Muses, The Birthday Party, Wire, The Melvins, XTC (!?!), and Jethro Tull. Far from me to break tradition, to this list I’d add They Might Be Giants (for the instrumentation and punchy pop sensibility), Morphine (for certain vocal tones on a few songs and the general feeling of dark emotional content on most of the tracks), The Meat Puppets (for psychedelic qualities), and The Billy Nayer Show (for general weirdness created in the field of pop).
It’s hard to really describe how This Busy Monster creates such an odd ambience in their music. The use of various instruments and slightly off-kilter, kitschy sounds is only the most obvious reference. The incorporation of ambient noises like dogs barking, doors opening and closing, and crackly voice recordings is another, but certainly not “what the band is about.” Even the carnivalesque atmosphere of songs like “Loup-Garou”, and “The Curious Sofa” are only part of the act, especially when compared to songs that almost sound like straight rock verging on punk on songs like “Issue” and “Unentitled”. Then there are the soulful tracks like “Swoon” and “Time to Sleep.” Perhaps the most impressive part of this circus is that even when each song sounds distinct and often at odds with the other tracks, it still manages to sound like one band putting together a total composition.
The major factor in this has to be the unifying force of Christopher Possanza’s lyrics and voice. In Possanza, contemporary music has another of its very artistic and individual personas. His voice has a distinctly troubadour quality, and his lyrical poetry is singularly engaging. Perhaps calling him an indie rock Chris Isaak would be drawing the comparison curtain too close, but I’m half-tempted. Wielding puns and alliteration in lines like “I want to say I hate you in Russian, but I can’t find the words / I hate to say it, I’m not rushing to forget you, or what you think I’m worth”, (“Unentitled”) or “Like an arrow I feel the thrum of you in my chest / And like an arrow you fly into a mess” (“Loup-Garou”) make listening to these songs fun and hold your attention, aided by the fact of Possanza’s smooth voice slipping through the lines gracefully. Other times the songs are a goofy swirl of psychedelic pastiche (“The Curious Sofa”) or mysteriously frightening, like the opening line, “You’ll have to forgive me for many things / I smoke ‘cause I can’t stand the sell of blood” from “Smell of Blood”.
As indescribable as the total package is, it’s definitely worth a listen. If you’re a fan of any of the bands in This Busy Monster’s list of comparisons, you’ll find Fireworks to be a gem. Or, if you’re simply looking for something that not only breaks free of the tight-knit industry hold that corporations have on pop music but actually challenges even indie categorizations, this is a band you need to own. This Busy Monster plays only very rarely, but they’ve embarked on a tour in promotion of Fireworks this spring with fellow labelmates Death Cab for Cutie and Little Champions. If you have the chance, catch them live. You just might renew your faith in music by doing so.