Shoebox Electronics

[5 December 2006]

By Sarah Feldman

One of rock music’s most consistent pleasures is found in that practice known in technical parlance as “fucking things up”. Sure, rock is (or can be) an art form, a more or less fluid set of standards for differentiating “good” from “bad”, and, yeah, it’s an emotional outlet, catching resonances that tend to get lost in less time-sensitive forms like poetry or visual art. But the thing that really marks it off from other expressive and artistic modes is its visceral power, inseparable from the element of surprise, that blast of newness and nowness that calls the body and the ear to attention with a force halfway between discomfort and recognition.

That surprise shouldn’t be confused with formal criteria like originality, since it doesn’t necessarily offer anything that hasn’t been offered before. But it does mean a nod to that notion of creative destruction, the exchange of perfection and clarity for immediacy and intensity—that’s always been the genre’s chief apology for its own existence. It’s what audiences must have got when the Velvet Underground started layering fuzz and feedback over their music, back when deliberate distortion was actually a shock to the ear, the sound of all that screeching metal and white noise scribbling over some pretty melody or catchy groove like the sound of a billfold of crisp hundreds going up in flames.

Of course, these days not much is that unsettling anymore, either in the overlay of static or in that other conventional tool of disruption, the chaotic bridge sections where song formulas are temporarily suspended in a collision of drum-and-electric thrash. In the wake of the 1990s mainstreaming of indie rock, of bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth honing fuzz to a fine-tuned knob on their electronic palettes, something to add a splash of intensity or inwardness to carefully constructed rock songs, at a time when a bit of feedback can put a marketable “alternative” edge on any piece of radio-ready power-pap, there’s no real shock to that sound, no genuinely unsettling sense of destroying something so nearly beautiful.

Which doesn’t mean that contemporary bands haven’t discovered sounds with comparable effects, new ways of blending pop grace with arty unease. I’m thinking in particular of a certain kind of lo-fi electronic outfit in which synthetic noise functions not as background sound lending texture and ambience to a more or less traditional rock song (a la Broken Social Scene-style megabands and perhaps most “freak folk”) nor as the central disturbance around which song-like structures are added as reinforcement (no wave, the more extreme regions of experimental), but as a kind of periodic static that infiltrates and disrupts the central message much as distortion mush have for those groups testing its limits in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I should note that I use the term electronic kind of loosely. The albums listed below are probably not what most people think of when they think of electronica. They have more in common with a certain brand of introspective, hum-and-strum folk than any new wave or electropop or ambient sound. The thrust of the music is instead more navel-gazing, more just-me-and-my-lonesome-guitar confessional, but something keeps getting in the way of that mellow, cathartic grief. The songs tend to pit sparse vocals, bolstered by a folksy tune, against sounds that are sometimes merely unfamiliar and unmusical (field recordings, kitchen sounds) but are more often in some way discomfiting or alienating (heavy-duty industrial sounds, broken-down electronics). These are bedroom recordings for those who, though seduced by their promises of intimacy and sincerity, are sceptical about the real possibility of achieving those things in a performance art and maybe a little embarrassed at the self-importance of it all. In the end, the electronic aspects of the music come off not as an addition to the stripped guitar and vocals sound, but as further subtraction, some gloss or warmth or cushion removed from a music you thought was already as barren as it could be.

Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles
In Xiu Xiu, the antagonism between song and instrument set up by lo-fi/electronic dichotomy is given the starkest possible light. Here, the noise element is a more or less constant presence that can answer or contradict the vocals but always falls short of joining with them. Unlike the prototypical metal or punk vocalist, singer Jamie Stewart never lets the machines speak for him, never lets his lyrics ride the swell of noise, never uses its convulsions as support for his spastic, irregular voice. A song like “Crank Heart” may use its screech and blur of background sound (created by a combination of shrill, tinny video-game tones and the heavy, dully blaring beats of a shitty keyboard rhythm) to describe the same panic Stewart mumbles and shrills under and over it, but the effect is always one of conflict, the voice caught in the grinding of some incomprehensible gears, sometimes railing against it, sometimes giving in, but never in any case giving the impression that this is what Stewart intended when he sat down to make a song.

Hi Firey, Don’t Worry About the Future
Hi Firey is almost a parody of all things lo-fi and DIY. Recorded using a disconnected telephone as mic, and with effects ranging from the squeak on a chewed-up dog’s toy to ancient keyboards to what sounds uncannily like a tin of dry goods temping as a tambourine, this album can be hilariously literal in its effort to show the pop machinery breaking down right in front of us. “Kick the shit out of my stereo, just to make it play,” sings Firey on the opening track, and you can hear that strain behind almost every song thereafter, giving it a weird I-hate-this-stupid-song-but-what-else-am-I-going-to-sing? sort of intensity. “Let’s Go Nancy” follows that angsty scribbling-out to its logical conclusion. Beginning with an ordinary, perhaps unusually plodding organ and voice line, it dissolves halfway through into what sounds a bit like a garbage truck blowing up in slow motion: walls of sound built up and torn down in the same instant, the final throwaway lyrics extended and distorted almost beyond recognition (“Lehhhhhhhhhhhh….tz ggg-ohhhhhhhh…”), the rattle of random debris, then just the sound of the empty bins rolling away.  Yet for the most part, the disruption in Don’t Worry About the Future is quieter and more insidious than in more genuinely noisy groups like Xiu Xiu. The briefest effect throws a whole song off by spoiling its key moment; some slight subterranean hum quietly takes the notes apart. At the climax of “South Carolina 2” (an otherwise pretty low-key, melody-driven song about the end of a relationship), as the guitar climbs and the singer strains into his whining register, a funny thing happens. The music goes on rising to its emotional peak, the vocals still trying to tear themselves through the eye of a needle, but suddenly they’re accompanied by a single, buzzing note that sounds a little like the angry shrill of amp feedback, a little like someone blowing the shit out of a kazoo. It ratchets up the song’s tension to a pitch past holding and then shrugs it off with a giant raspberry.

Joan of Arc, A Portable Model of
The first full-length album from a noise rock band that developed alongside emo-core staples like Braid and Promise Ring, A Portable Model of, like Don’t Worry About the Future, takes quasi-pop songs and messes them up with the odd, well-placed effect too jarring to be subtle, too textured and emotionally ambiguous to be just noise. “The Hands” uses the periodic sound of a spring releasing to stand for the pent-up energy that results in random, maybe dangerous but probably just dumb actions like burning down Christmas trees. The alarm beeping underneath the surface of “How Wheeling Feels” carries along the song’s sense of a careering, for-the-moment-vaguely-pleasant distraction that might at any moment turn merely annoying. But on most of Joan of Arc’s songs, the chief source of disruption is singer Tim Kinsella’s voice, which also functions as different a kind of meaningful noise. The vocals are frequently over-the-top, not in the oversincere style of his Jade Tree (ex-) labelmates or even in the pseudo-panic of his early punk outfit Cap n’ Jazz, but with a careless, clowning irony. You have the sense that this must be some kind of detached art attack—you can just hear Kinsella posing, eyebrows raised, daring you to read between the lines. Yet there is, at the same time, an odd sort of effort behind them, something between a Springsteenian whiskey-and-cigarettes exhaustion and a power-pop whine, which makes all that irony sound confusedly heartfelt. One has the feeling, as on certain Microphones’ albums, that this is a postmodern answer to folk—sparse, naïve stylings adopted and extended until they show the breaks of contemporary fragmentation. The embrace of an unpremeditated, unmusical style seems tempered by a different kind of self-consciousness, as if the very idea of singing created a resistance that could not be met head-on but had to be tiptoed around with these cracked, half-finished vocals.

JefJef, JefJef
The music of JefJef (Jef Simmons) takes Joan of Arc’s ambivalence towards traditional vocals to the next level. Lyrics, where they appear at all, are sparse and elliptical, and anxieties about “faking it” abound: “I could never figure out if I was singing or not….so I decided to stop,” Simmons sings on “Sometimes”. As if to keep questions about genuineness and imitation at bay, JefJef relies heavily on unsung vocals, often replacing the melodic line with humming groans, whistling, grunting. For all that natural distortion, there’s not a whole lot of clear electronic modification going on in the album, though where it’s used, it’s generally pretty striking. In “Express”, for instance, the melody is carried by a wordless keening that echoes Simmons’ elongated, sitar-like guitar sound (created by splicing together several separate instances of post-strum harmonics). The effect—produced by a simple speeding up of the tape—is like the eerie, mush-edged language of a person singing in his sleep, words that sound familiar but have lost their communicative sense, the sound of close-mouthed grief talking to itself.

The Unicorns, Unicorns Are People Too
The Unicorns belong to the Fisher Price school of electronica, specializing in sounds that could either have been made with a three-note children’s keyboard or by hitting assorted objects with sticks. The Montreal band separated themselves from the glut of self-consciously twee pop with lunatic vocals (think Feels-y Animal Collective, though with less pep and more grind), simple, mostly scatological lyrics and rambling, campy melodies The bathroom humour is not exactly new, and when Nick Diamonds and Alden Ginger sing calmly and prettily about shitting and STDs, we may even be supposed to roll our eyes, but their use of it can at times be perversely apt at suggesting a disjunction between the form and content of emotions (“somewhere in the asshole of my eye there’s a muscle that relaxes when you cry”). This isn’t music that attempts to mean a whole lot, either in or between lines like “Lena Horne is not a unicorn. She’s got a great voice”, but it’s still a lot of fun in ways that can be weird for those of us who are used to having our pop pleasures firmly controlled within the bounds of avant-garde discretion. It helps that what might, in another context, be called genre-bending comes off on this album as happy confusion—the group moves without so much as an ironic wink from bluesy sadcore to bad rap to bubble-and-pop harmonies and merry-go-round music, all made more or less equal by a recording quality so brilliantly abysmal it could only have been achieved by a painstaking process of selecting for those mics and monitors that would most closely approximate a children’s plastic recorder. 

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Etiquette
The invocation of irony to explain away all that is rote or derivative in a piece of music is an excuse nearly as old and worn as David Bowie. So it’s refreshing, in a band like Owen Ashworth’s Casiotone for the Painfully Alone—a claustrophobic one-man electronica outfit centred around Ashworth’s thrift-store Casiotone—to find that the songs aren’t couched as apologies for either themselves or their genre. Ashworth’s choice of medium doesn’t seem subversive, exactly—he isn’t trying to break the bounds of electronica with his canned rhythms and dead keyboard tones, but is instead drawing on the pressure of the genre’s limits. The subject matter of Etiquette—from ex-girlfriends to lost treasures to failed rites of passage—is the usual guy-with-a-guitar fare, yet Ashworth seems to have good reasons for shunning the introspective singer-songwriter’s instrument of choice. For one thing, the electronic format brings home the constricted-yet-rootless tenor of the album in a way that acoustic guitar, with its resonant tones and nods to the rich folk tradition, just can’t get at. Ashworth’s frankly-stitled, jerked-here-and-there-by-the-beat vocals are raw, more wrenching and immediate than any alt-country naturalism.  In “New Year’s Kiss”, for instance, what is essentially a remix of “Ghost of Tom Joad” is stripped of its expansive, aching line of communal loss and longing and transposed onto the stale, narrow regrets of bad choices made “in the pantry against the pancake mix”.
 
The claustrophobic arrangements also evoke a social constriction that cuts to the heart of much of Ashworth’s work. Etiquette concerns itself with characters that, as the title suggests, are in one way or another hemmed in by the bounds of self-consciousness or good taste.  The narrator of “Nashville Parthenon”, not quite able to act on his feelings “when it comes to other men”, is left mouthing platitudes about friendship and old times. The free-falling narrators of “Young Shields” set themselves up as renegades making it up as they go, but are quick to realize the stale, demeaning realities that underlie their heady freedom when the money stops coming in from home. The strength of “Young Shields” is the strength of Etiquette generally. You can see right through it, through the characters’ desperation and bravado to the contrived intensities of stuttering drum, through that last, broken-off threat (“swear to God if they don’t get me out”) to the clumsily shredding guitar that ends the song more in confusion than conviction—but that doesn’t make it any less real.  If anything, the constriction of Etiquette becomes all the more pressing through its very superficiality, the strain of being held in place made all the more acute by the hurdles being so small, so negligible, that you know you ought to be over them by now. 

Broken Deer, Displaced Field Recordings
Like JefJef and A Portable Model of, Displaced Field Recordings is chiefly an album of amorphous guitar meditations, nicked off-course by subtle undercurrents. More wistful than desperate, the displacement referenced in the title is most of all that of nostalgia, unfinished histories. The album is modeled as an archive of old recordings: Songs are often incomplete; they can begin in the middle, and cut off suddenly. Sometimes we only get the a few chords, perhaps a sung note or two, before the tape sputters out. Like freak folkers Cocorosie and Devendra Banhart, singer Lindsay Dobbin often speeds up her voice to reproduce the high, crackling brightness of early gramophone recordings. Emphasizing the found music concept, the album even includes a cover of the “Blue Moon of Kentucky” mixed in with the originals. The visible mechanics of recordings are especially crucial here. Sounds are intentionally muffled or obscured by a high volume of white noise; the vocals in particular often seem to be wrapped in cotton batting. The recording seems to belong to an era in which time-stopping technology was unfamiliar, full of malevolent potential, as cameras were for Victorians who thought they could capture ghosts invisible to the human eye. “Faces on the River Side” features snippets of voice crackling in and out over the song, each long enough for us to catch its tone of ethereal dread but not long enough to make out what it’s saying. “It Creeps” is a sonic trek through an ancient, dilapidated house; creaking footsteps and the running monologue of the frightened explorer, layered over synth lines that hum under the floorboards with the not-quite-silence of abandoned places. Then, gradually, the background starts to take over: First you hear the tape turn and crackle inside the recorder, then the white noise becomes louder and louder, obscuring and finally obliterating Dobbin’s voice, as if the house had simply risen up and reclaimed its ambiguous silence.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/shoebox-electronics/