Maher Shalal Hash Baz make folk on the outer edges, but in doing so have also crafted an incredibly powerful statement about music, participation, and emotion.
In This Is Your Bain on Music, Dan Levitin's recent book on the neuropsychology of music, the author asserts that the performance of music by a group of "experts", or professional musicians, for an appreciative public is, evolutionarily speaking, such a recent idea that our brains' architecture has not caught up. That's why we still move to music, even when it's performed on a stage; that's why we have to train ourselves to sit expressionless at a Classical music concert. Truth is, music's always been participatory -- a group of amateurs expressing emotion imperfectly, through a group of instruments or voices. And Maher Shalal Hash Baz's music has always been in the service of a conscious return to this primitive architecture, a celebration of participatory music through a carefully constructed artifice of imperfection.
First of all, let's get away from the conception of any recorded material as amateur, or truly "naïve". Anything recorded, produced, mixed, and finished is almost by definition a polished product, no matter to what lengths the artists and engineers go to impress otherwise upon the listener. At the beginning of "A&U", the guitar hesitates. Was it a mistake? It starts again. The slip becomes an integral part of the song, and on subsequent listens to the CD you come to cherish this signifier of music's limitation: the art is not quite able to convey one person's emotion to another. This is also why Tori Kudo's vocals, half in Japanese, half in a broken, heavily-accented English, are so central to the experience of listening to Maher Shalal Hash Baz. It's essential that we can't understand half of what he's singing; the impression of spontaneity is heightened by the music's insistence of capturing a moment's fleeting thought.
Maher Shalal Hash Baz have, in the past, polarized critics, and there's no reason to think their new CD won't do the same. I don't know if I have any chance of success in this, but here's the part where I try to persuade you that, regardless of what you think of the group's previous work, L'Autre Cap is the first truly great album of 2007. These 27 tracks are in turn joyous, cacophonous, and irretrievably messy; but through it all, sparks of melody and consonance remind us, ever brighter, how vital and positive music can be.
With an album that runs (typically for the band) to a whopping 27 tracks, it's no surprise there's a widely varied sound on show. The band puts forward a more upbeat rock sensibility on songs like "A Big Hug" (over too soon), a demented 45-second stomp that packs in more punk attitude than Green Day's heaviest riff. "Dove" marries a classic Beach Boys riff to Kudo's unnatural voice, wavering out of tune with the accompaniment and a wail of dissonant brass. And on "Misaki", the band veers to dark, "Wolf At The Door"-style art-rock gloom; electric guitars play resounding, low notes that sound almost like demonic bells.
The closest the album comes to an actual folk song may be "Portland Town", with the repeating verse structure of a real folk song. But Kudo's Japanese-accented English undeniably emphasizes the "other" not usually represented in Western folk songs; and a slight electronic effect warps his voice, an added emphasis to the wonky dissonance of the twisted marching band background. But the centerpiece of L'Autre Cap, and the perfect encapsulation of Maher Shalal's take on folk music, is the nine-minute "Moving Without Ark". The cycling melody, Biblical references, and unsettling premonition of Judgment Day slowly unfold to a dissonance that becomes charming over the course of the song.
What's even more impressive is the sense of unhurried musicality these tunes exude. The easy jazz breakdown of "How Long Will You Forget Me?" is all bassoon, supplemented only by slight, twittering effects (think squeaky string tremolos, swell treble tinkles, and the scratching of the wrong side of a bow on strings). The effect is endless space, as the track fades slowly out.
Well, even after all that, it's pointless to believe Maher Shalal Hash Baz's experimental folk is going to appeal to everyone. But there's plenty to appreciate in this innate, irrepressible melody that strains and strains against the atonalities of the wandering horns and guitars. I like to think Tori Kudo's music is more than the impression of amateurism -- it's a mechanism for celebrating (and demonstrating) music's resilient appeal, over amateurism, and over surface dissonance. And in that endeavour, L'Autre Cap is a resounding success.