[27 June 2002]
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Glasgow’s Own Rhinestone Cowboy
After years of juggling his two careers of musician (first as bassist with Belle & Sebastian and later with side project turned primary vehicle Looper) and writer (1999’s novel Nalda Said), Stuart David has devised an unusual way to merge his dual passions into one singular project. Well, sort of.
Over the course of two fine albums, Looper have established themselves as purveyors of breezy, seemingly effortless, lo-fi electronica. Employing the bedroom composer’s arsenal of programmed beats, samples, and primitive synthesizers, David, along with wife Karn and younger brother Ronnie Black, added their own blend of spontaneity, lighthearted humor, and gleeful experimentation to an otherwise largely somber genre. As suggested by spoken word tracks such as Up a Tree‘s “Impossible Things #2” and The Geometrid‘s “My Robot” as well as “Spaceboy Dream” from Belle & Sebastian’s The Boy with the Arab Strap, David has long been interested in finding an outlet for his prose as well as his lyrics. He was finally able to fully indulge that muse with the release of Nalda Said, a well-received story about an isolated, secretive, and possibly unstable young man. David has now chosen to coincide the release of Looper’s third album with his second novel—the former serving as a sort of soundtrack to the latter. In an effort to blur the (sometimes already barely perceptible) line between art and life, the book’s cover depicts David dressed as his novel’s titular character Peacock Johnson replete with handlebar moustache and Hawaiian shirt. Furthermore, the press release goes on to promise that during Looper’s ensuing tour the entire band will portray characters from the book. If this limited bit of information brings to mind Styx’s career ending Kilroy Was Here album and accompanying rock opera debacle, I, for one, can assure you that you are not alone.
If you believe everything you read, the idea for the project came to David via an American tour bus driver they once employed known simply as Evil Bob. Bob related the story of a failed attempt to break into the music business along with Glasgewian Peacock Johnson. David subsequently contacted Peacock to develop the tale into a novel but a public debate ensued when Peacock felt he was not properly credited for his input. Peacock went so far as to hack into Looper’s website to tell his side of the story before a settlement was reached. Whether these events actually transpired or are the result of an overactive mind and overzealous marketing department are anyone’s guess (but my money is on the latter).
The Peacock Manifesto is a relatively slim volume told from the point of view of Peacock himself. Peacock’s sole mission in life is to turn Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” into a dance song and the fact that he knows absolutely nothing about music isn’t about to stop him. Peacock flys to Chicago to meet Evil Bob who is tipped as the man who can help turn Peacock’s dream into reality. When it turns out Bob is equally clueless about music, Peacock is forced to partner with him more out of fear of having his idea stolen than simple camaraderie. The transcontinental petty criminals then embark on a journey across America in an attempt to see their idea to fruition. In typical road trip fashion numerous unforeseen mishaps occur including brushes with the law, Karaoke, and Graceland. First they travel to Portland to meet up with a would be producer who takes them for DJs. In a drunken phone call home Peacock boasts to his wife about their chaotic but lucrative set. When he realizes he no longer has an excuse to not invite her to join him they travel to Los Angeles to meet her and simultaneously find a credible producer. Bev (portrayed by Karn David) has a Hollywood fixation and an unpleasant disposition. When it becomes clear that her priorities, as well as temperament, significantly differ from Peacock and Bob’s, entirely new forms of disaster follow.
Aside from excessive use of a certain expletive and the unfathomable use of the word “wee”, the book is light yet compelling. And don’t let the fact that it’s written in working class Scottish colloquial put you off (be thankful he doesn’t resort to Irvine Welsh-like phonetics). Though not the most original of idioms (it frequently reads like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles featuring a techno version of Spinal Tap), it nevertheless manages to entertain as well as provide some (perhaps exaggerated) insight into the inner workings of the music business. The story is relentlessly linear and character development is minimal but the fact that our narrator is not exactly enlightened serves to explain the situation somewhat. The tough guy demeanor may not exactly appeal to the indie rock demographic but if you want a light yet entertaining read look no further.
While The Snare is ostensibly intended as a musical accompaniment to The Peacock Manifesto, their similarities do not seem readily apparent. While the novel is a black comedy, the album seems to have no such, however subsumed, levity. The disc is a darker affair than previous efforts, relying on trip hop as well as urban influenced beats. The band attempts to conjure a moody film noir atmosphere by utilizing horns, upright bass, and electric piano as well as David’s newfound deep, throaty singing voice. Add to this a prominently featured hammer dulcimer on a number of tracks, which bears an uncanny similarity to Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident” sample on Portishead’s “Sour Times”, and the result is an album that lacks its own distinctive voice. Tracks like “She’s a Knife” or “New York Snow” in particular (or any of them really) end up sounding like a cross between Missy Elliot and John Barry though I can’t imagine them appealing to fans of either. Looper appear to be grappling with the difficult third album syndrome by attempting a change in direction and, I’m sorry to say, the results aren’t always pretty. It’s always admirable when a band makes an effort to expand their palette (even though many of their fans only appreciate the move in hindsight) but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Looper are looking backward rather than forward for their inspiration.
Just what the disc really has to do with the book is another matter altogether. Aside from the band continuing to dress the part on the cover, I’m still really not sure. The lyrics are vague enough not to directly reference the book or its plot and the song “Peacock Johnson” is no exception. Evil Bob is credited with playing saxophone and various other instruments, but as far as I’m concerned his very existence is still debatable. The album’s highlight, though, the closer “Fucking Around”, sticks out like a sore thumb. After a typically dreary opening the song launches into a (very Belle & Sebastian) flugel horn and bouncy electric piano. While the song’s lyrics could easily refer to Peacock and Bob, I much prefer to think they apply to Looper’s slightly more unstructured working methods and their subsequent results. “Fucking around / Don’t get excited we’re just fucking around We’re only messing about here / We’re only having fun”. Perhaps what Stuart David really needs is a little more fucking around and slightly less reliance on elaborate concepts.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/looper-snare/