Recently, I wrote an article on Lester Bangs for this website in which I criticized the continuing influence of what I felt was a highly overrated and misunderstood rock critic. This went over with the PopMatters audience like a klezmer band at the Nuremberg Rally, but one relatively tangential phrase that seemed to stick in craws much more than my main point was my assertion that being a rock writer is a largely passive activity. While I can certainly understand that such an assertion would upset quite a few folks who fancy themselves more active in their professions than I was suggesting, listening to the Barmitzvah Brothers‘ debut album, The Night of the Party, does little but bolster my confidence in my original claim. I can only urge all my doubters to put themselves in a position of being forced to wade through something so dire as this and then march yourself through an analysis of a piece of art that elicits nothing so much as monosyllabic, obscenity-laced responses.
A trio of men and women from Canada, the Barmitzvah Brothers are not so much a garage band as a basement band, for their irksome qualities are not noise that must be sent outside the confines of the house but defiant weirdness that can find no home above ground. That I am a staunch supporter of defiant weirdness does barely anything to mitigate my distaste for this group. I accept that venturing away from the oft-dreaded middle-of-the-road will lead to many more bad experiments than good, yet The Night of the Party seems like a repeat of a drearily familiar brand of nonsense whose recyclings have been taken far too seriously ever since Yoko Ono hitched her tired Fluxus act onto the unquestioned authority of John Lennon. The Brothers get partial credit for avoiding the dissonant screeching that Yoko tried to pass off as art so many years ago, and if they stuck to their childlike instrumental backing tracks, they might have something to recommend them. Alas, this is not what the band is really about.
For most groups, vocals get a bigger slice of the credit pie than they deserve, but here it’s excessively difficult not to focus on the tuneless sing-speaking of Jenny Mitchell, who drones her meaningless tales in a voice that triggers sensations not unlike having a nail encrusted with mucus being slowly tapped into one’s eardrum. Extended vocal technique, it seems, can extend too far, and Mitchell helps illustrate the gulf between being Bob Dylan and being simply untalented. As the album progresses, she seems to inch towards the minimal pleasantness of the band, or perhaps the listener becomes more inured to her sonic torture. After a silly monologue at the conclusion of the album, however, she leads the group into a free jazz bonus track that takes the low-hanging bar for the album and lowers it several miles beneath the earth’s surface. This is not an exaggeration. It is actually that bad.
But since the consideration of the musical merits of an album this bad is so monotonous, let us turn instead to its place in the grand mosaic of modern art. It seems safe to plunk this platter down in the postmodernist camp, and taking it as a representative of that movement, the question arises: given that postmodernism produces such loathsome products as this, should we continue to humor its conceit that they are saying now or have ever said anything that was worth the paper, celluloid, or disc it was imprinted upon? I do think that it is long past the point at which those of us who still value meaning draw the line against those who would turn every ounce of it into “meaning”. I will concede that John Cage and maybe a couple of other artsy-fartsy types have challenged the way we look at art and our relationship to the world. But there is high art that employs garbage in its aim to say something valuable, and then there is just garbage, stuff that calls for not a whit of rationalizing, philosophizing, or ironic patronization. It deserves to be tossed into the nearest rubbish bin, and such should be the inexorable fate of the Barmitzvah Brothers.