E Ruscha V's 'Who Are You' Could Have Benefitted From a More Patient and Rigorous Approach

On Eddie Ruscha's first album as E Ruscha V, the good ideas are stuck to the bad.

Who Are You
E Ruscha V

Beats in Space

2 March 2018

Anyone who's picked up an instrument or fiddled with GarageBand can understand the difference between playing music for yourself and composing it for an audience. It's similar to the difference between the voice you hear when you sing and the one you hear when listening to a recording of yourself. The pleasure you derive from the physical sensations of singing has little to do with how your voice sounds.

I'm not sure if Eddie Ruscha, who is best known for making experimental dance music under the name Secret Circuit, understands that distinction. Seven of the nine songs on Who Are You, Ruscha's first album made under the alias E Ruscha V, feel like rough drafts, as if Ruscha went straight from the brainstorming phase to finished product, making sounds without considering how they work together. His emphasis is on mood rather than melody or rhythm, and his intention appears to be evoking feelings rather than ideas, to make it appear as if a song's parts are moving without outside assistance.

But, often, the songs don't feel like they're moving at all. "Roots and Branches" seems conflicted with itself, as a spare and elliptical guitar melody becomes overwhelmed by countermelodies and a variety of tones that appear, move between stereo channels, disappear, then reappear again. The sounds are mixed in a way that makes nearly all of them perceptible, and the effect is confusing. Sustained tones and reverb effects suggest open space, but the number of sounds and the way they are arranged creates density and chaos.

Ruscha's problem is articulation. Many of his songs have a half-defined sense of atmosphere, melody, and texture; they're less than the sum of their parts. He seems to test sounds against each other without removing the ones that don't fit, and the result isn't subversive or bracing — the sounds and rhythms are too calm for that — just muddled. The good ideas are stuck to the bad.

The question, then, is: So what? Why listen to an artist who can't distinguish between form and function? Ruscha answers that question on the album's two best songs, "The Hostess" and "Who Are You", and reveals what a more patient and rigorous approach might have produced.

"The Hostess" opens the album with a few good ideas and doesn't clutter them. The first is a series of melodic phrases that have the warm, curious tones of a marimba. They vary slightly as they progress, shifting the song's foundation and keeping it a little unstable. Then, plucked guitar chords enter and slowly overtake the song, their volume increasing and suggesting a climax that never comes. Lacking clear percussion, the song feels weightless, remaining just out of reach until it slips away. But this liminal quality creates a sense of coherence. You understand what the song's pieces are working toward.

"Who Are You" produces a similar, fleeting sensation, as sounds seem to enter by chance, coming and going as they please. Once again, your attention alternates between a few melodies that rotate, converge, and separate. It's easy to imagine the song has not been composed, but, rather, is a chance meeting of elements that have arrived in the right place at the right time.

More often than not, Ruscha can't recapture that feeling of spontaneity, and the line between insouciance and sloppiness is small but important. If you're on the right side, it looks easy. If you're not, you look careless.

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