A Portland Marriage Shall Be Defined as the Holy Union Between a Man, a Woman, and a Home Recording Studio
There was a time, oh young ones, when self-produced indie rock was supposed to be lo-fi. These were the years before CD-Rs and Pro Tools allowed every bored teenager to create his or her own symphonies. Back in the old days, there was the one kid you sorta knew who would lend you his duct-taped together four-track. Us music lovers worshiped the four-track. We lived for the hiss, the sometimes-inaudible lyrics, and the fact that you could hear the musicians’ friends opening beer bottles and taking bong hits in the background if we turned up the volume real loud. These were the days when Lou Barlow was thought to be a minor deity by releasing about a cassette a week filled with tinny acoustic demos, only to be outdone when we discovered Daniel Johnston. He sang into a children’s cassette recorder. Back in the day, we, as they used to say, “kept it real”.
Of course, “real” got boring real fast. Itself a reaction against the slick marketing of alternative rock (soon to be modern rock), the lo-fi revolution suffocated to death from its own rigid principles. After all, there was nothing inherently “authentic” about tape hiss and distortion, and nothing inherently phony about taking the time to actually fine-tune songs in the studio every once in a while. Even the lo-fi pioneers abandoned the orthodoxy. By the turn of the century, Guided by Voices were working with Ric Ocasek, the Flaming Lips were a full-on baroque pop outfit, and Beck released the collection of millennial funk jams. Suddenly, homemade indie rock became the last remaining refuge of truly grandiose pop music. Now, a full decade having passed since the release of Beck’s Stereopathetic Soul Manure, comes Viva Voce’s The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, the most “hi fi” sounding self-produced slab of indie rock I have heard in a while. Viva Voce, married couple Kevin and Anita Robinson, have managed to use limited means to create some titanic sounding recordings.
While the songs themselves are hit and miss, all aspiring home recorders should take a listen to The Heat Can Melt Your Brain just to realize how good a DIY recording can sound. “Alive with Pleasure” opens the album with an explosion, a crushing riff from Anita which pounds the ear drums before suddenly cooling down into a gentle acoustic strum. This sudden turnaround reveals the pair to be more than just another band out of Portland. There is something truly impressive about how Anita is able to transform herself from guitar shredding rock star into a quietly cooing songbird within seconds. “Lesson No. 1” extends Anita’s dominance in the band, as she sings a song of hopeful positivity in the face of some pending disaster. Kevin does not get his turn until the brilliant synth-pop driven “Business Casual”, an oblique attack on the corporate going-ons that the band / couple have been able to escape, which he then tops with the trip-hop flashback “High Highs”. Where the Anita-sung tracks mine the realm of rock and roll and all that is indie, Kevin’s numbers explore the possibilities of electronic sounds and more experimental approaches. This way, they are both able to shine without having to directly compete with their life partner.
But, in a very real sense, the two of them are competing, and this necessary competition is really the emotional thrust of the entire album. It is a truism, a cliche really, that being in a band with someone is like being in a marriage. While theoretically both bands and marriages should be a unity, the mythical “melding in one” experience, there are also inevitable clashes on key decisions. The essential unity of the group is threatened by an unavoidable clash over dominance. There is a palpable tension on The Heat Can Melt Your Brain which is doubled by the realization that the band could sink the relationship, or vice versa. This potential for strife, only heightened by Kevin and Anita’s sharing of lead vocal duties, adds to the tension just buried behind the surface of these shimmering pop songs.
Of course, the potential energy is there, as well as the fabulous production, but the album eventually falters. Kevin’s “The Center of the Universe” is a regrettable Flaming Lips rip-off, complete with awkward love lyrics, that sadly puts an end to a fine run of eccentric, genre-skipping songs. “Free Nude Celebs” and “Mixtape = Love” are great song titles, but beyond the always gorgeous production work, there is nothing to capture anyone’s interest in these midtempo snoozers. “They Never Really Wake Up”, thankfully, ends the album with a Yo La Tengo drone that provides a great downbeat reflection to the energizing opener “Alive with Pleasure”, and it does what a good closer should do: it allows the listener to have a gentle comedown back into the stressful world outside the headphones.
So The Heat Can Melt Your Brain falters a bit, but it still sounds better than just about any home recorded album you could name, and, in fact, better than just about any digital recording from the ‘80s. If their band / marriage survives, Viva Voce could have a large run of surprising, grand scale indie rock offerings in the future, and, if not, I guarantee that the break-up album will be absolutely killer.