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This Article is a Mess But So What? -or- The Year in Fuck-You Art Rock

By Christopher Alexander | 27 December 2005

Some would argue that what makes music so good is that, on some level, you can ignore it if you wish. This wonderful, perfect thing that is a song and all its components – melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre – are simply too abstract to be fully absorbed in the same way as visual stimuli. A painting, for example, is a simulacra of real, tangible things that the viewer can see in real life at any time: landscapes, people, nipples. Even at its most abstract, from the prospective-damning “Nude Descending a Staircase” on through Pollack’s solipsistic scribbles, most viewers at least have a basic understanding of color that they don’t have for pitch; I mean to say your average person could probably describe colors as “grey,” or a shape like “circle,” but in most cases the only way someone can identify “B flat,” “C major” and “six-eight time” is if they’ve spent at least some time studying music. People understand artists, sculptors and writers to possess identifiable tools — brushes and paints, marble and clay, word-processors and thesauri – to try to recreate life as artifice. Musicians have the same tools, too, but when was the last time you heard someone say, “sing this apple,” or, “that song doesn’t sound anything like my mother”?

So I think it’s pretty god damn remarkable that, for all its abstractions, most people understand a basic melody, can hum the riff from “Whole Lotta Love,” can act out the sun breaking through the clouds to “Also Spack Zarathustra.” Even if they can’t tie it into cultural and artistic norms that produced it, they can enjoy it; likewise, even if they don’t appreciate Van Gogh’s inner torment, they can see that the “Starry Night” is a well-done painting. Interesting, then, that the more abstract art gets the more it confuses people (an aside, the champions of abstract art speak in language that most people use for music; they speak of its flow, energy and rhythm). Concurrently, music becomes “difficult” once the abstractions of melody and rhythm are abandoned and the sounds of actual objects (what avant-garde composers call musiq concrete) are introduced, or when instruments try to literally replicate things found in real-life (a great example of this is much of free-jazz and even bebop trying to replicate the overstuffed cacophony of New York City).

Words, while more abstract than the things they are meant to convey, aren’t nearly as abstract as music is. Again, people are taught to identify words with objects or feelings, so when someone says “I feel sad,” you know what the feeling “sad” is attached to, and you also know that I means she’s talking about herself. Lyrically speaking, the poetry that is sung over much of pop music trucks in feelings: declarations of love, desire, happiness, loneliness, et cetera (which are hard to put into words, which is why there’s metaphor, repetition and music, oh thank god for music). Straight narrative can be a bit trickier, but lyrics generally stay out of the way of the music. Sometimes it’s vice versa, as is the case with Leonard Cohen and to a lesser degree Bob Dylan, but in either case they are meant to compliment each other, to elevate the emotions imbued in each other’s work.

Take operas, or, closer to the intentions of this piece, rock operas. I have no idea what the libretto is for Bizet’s Carmen, nor have I ever really been able to explain borderline self-parody that fuels Tommy, but it doesn’t stop me from liking either. Even without formal training on what makes a good or bad “aria” (which, honestly, I don’t remember much of), the one sung by Micaela in Act Three is stunning in its evocation of pain and sadness, the money shot of the high C being both awesome and cathartic. I can understand the words to Tommy (in one sense) perfectly, but nothing can stop me from breaking out the hand windmills for “Christmas Morning,” “The Doctor,” or fuck, even “Pinball Wizard.” As for the words, the “See me/Feel me” section is simultaneously aching, jubilant and tense, thanks to Townshend’s use of suspended chords on a simple ascending bass line. They perfectly compliment each other, as if neither can survive without the other.

*****

Extended narrative (I balk at calling these subjects “rock operas”) came back in a big way in ’05. The most obvious example is R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” “Trapped in the Closet” is basically one long song divided up in “chapters.” It revolves around two chords, and the melody is simple and nondescript, which focuses the listener’s attention on the hilariously convoluted soap opera to develop. Kelly’s melodramatic pacing and the painful attempts to top each chapter’s closing plot twists (or, as the kids would say, “wtf?” moments) makes this novelty old very quickly (I gave up after “Chapter 3”), but in my heart of hearts I can’t bring myself to criticize it. As a pop event, it’s certainly legitimately fascinating, and as a pop song it’s simply way too silly to take seriously.

On that note, we come to our first record of the instant exegesis: Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta. The band’s first record, De-Whooshed in the Whirly-Zoom-Zoom, or Coked-Out in the Champagne Room, or whatever the fuck it was called, (Ed: De-Loused in the Comatorium, released in 2003] was a concept album that fused the “fantastic adventures” of a comatose Cerpin Taxt with unrelenting, needlessly aggressive post-hardcore by way of Can and early Genesis. Not that anyone but the most devoted and least time-constricted fan could come to that conclusion on their own, thanks to the inscrutable and willfully difficult lyrics of lyricist Cedric Bixlar-Zevala. That in and of itself would’ve been no problem had it not been the music: punishing, over-the-top and needlessly busy. When there was a noticeable groove, such as on the eleven-minute “Circatriz ESP,” the band sent it careening to the ground with sudden and capriciously placed extended passages of outdated electronic effects bubbling and whirring.

No one I talked to over the age of nineteen could make any sense of it; those who did meet the age requirement told me of the record’s “depth” and “experimentalism,” how the record “challenged” the listener and was trying to “progress” the medium forward. Many of the band’s critics labeled them “prog,” which the band and fans took to be shorthand for “progressive” and responded accordingly: “how can any innovative, forward-thinking music not be progressive?” What no one could answer is what lay beneath those depths, how treading on well-worn ground with analog technology was “experimental” for anyone other than knob-twiddler himself, what the listener was expected to get out of the challenge (as if listening to pop records was now akin to fucking jogging), and how “innovative and forward thinking” could it really be if it reminds so many people of a throwback to the seventies? Further, could a record really be that “deep” if its entire substance is relevant only to its creators?

Frances the Mute answers all of those questions, and they are, in order: nothing; it isn’t; nothing save an appreciation of the musicians sheer virtuosity; it isn’t; and of fucking course not. Frances the Mute is an impenetrable and exhausting listen, clocking in at seventy-six minutes and about four Motrin IB. All of the flaws of the last record are amplified here. Scratch that, all of the everything on the last record has been amplified. There are no breaks between songs (save the morass of outdated synth noises and found sounds, which actually serve as welcome respites from the proper songs), a recipe for indigestion that the band excuses as a way to fuse their record with cinematic aspiration. “There are no pauses between scenes in a movie,” they exclaim. [This is, incidentally, not really accurate: while motion pictures are certainly visually contiguous, there are also defined rest periods between scenes such as establishing shots, musical interludes, fade outs and cutaways. One of the best and most effective is when the soundtrack dips in volume.] The band is fond of brandishing their cineaste leanings, bragging in one interview that they’d love to be for Felini what Nirvana was for Sonic Youth. Fine: Frances the Mute plays like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Its needless obscuritanism strives for profundity when the band’s instincts appear better suited for the Super-Bowl Half-Time show. The band performs simply to dazzle, and all of its dense and elaborate construction serve as mere hot-dogging.

According to the band’s online bio, the overarching narrative is based on a diary that deceased ex-bandmate Jeremy Ward discovered while working with cars, in which a man attempts to discover his true family. The album’s artwork includes the song’s lyrics, which sounds like an uncharacteristic key to lucidity until one actually reads the damn thing. The album’s inaugurating verse reads: “The ocean floor is hidden / from your viewing lens / a depth perception / languished in the night / All my life, I’ve been / sewing the wounds / But the seeds sprout / A lachrymal cloud.” Oh boy.

The keys to anything at all happening in this story occur in the album’s final minutes; "And in the corner of their eyes, fled sister L’ Via / now the pieces went floating, reflecting all at dusk / conceived from the stabbing, was Vismund Cygnus.” Oh, so those people really are characters? To the best of my knowledge, Frances the Mute does not come with the bio; lines like “Oh mother I’m looking for…,” or “Only these names I clutch will bring me to my home,” or “an abortion this lineage of bastard mastication” fail to elucidate anything in the story proper.

At times it seems like the words are trying to present pointillist imagery, like their cinematic heroes Godard and Felini, presenting striking visuals that furthers the narrative like a tone poem. That could explain extended passages such as this:

“Separating the mother from child

She can bat a broken eyelid

Raining maggots from it’s sty

And with the traces that she leaves

She will skin you out alive

All the children go grinding their jaws

The sweet smell of their toothless canals

And the dam she will break, make an ocean from this lake

As they siphon off all of our blood.”

Judging from lines like these, it would appear TMV’s chief filmic influences are Roger Corman and John Landis circa Thriller. It’s certainly non-linear, but so what? Is this meant to be terrifying? The impression one carries away from these stanzas is that they sound like instructions for a Pushead t-shirt.

You’d be forgiven if you lost the plot altogether, since, musically, The Mars Volta do it from the word go. A hushed and whispered passage lies submerged underneath echo and delay effects before a pause. What comes next? Why, manic polyrhythm percussion and angular guitar parts! How did you guess? In one sense, this is very technically well executed, which is to say the individual parts are difficult to play and are played well. However, at no point does anyone restrain themselves: all of the instruments are playing syncopated, thirty-second note rhythms while Bixlar-Zavala wails away. The result is like the musical equivalent of a gang-bang, eight men stroking their phallus while someone (the listener) attempts to focus on as much as she can. It’s humiliating for her, and it’s not much better for us, either.

It’s the first and most important rule of the rock band, of all bands really: music works when there’s ebb and flow. It’s why it’s so good: the way a melody is limned with rhythm; how some words and music sound inextricable from each other; musicians listening to each other, knowing when to cut back and when to step up. It’s broken throughout all of Frances the Mute’s seventy-six minutes. Even when they do calm down – as they do at about 4:00 mark in “Cyngus … Vismund Cyngus” – it’s ruined by a wash of ill-fitting effects. Even “The Widow,” at about six minutes (actually three, followed by interminable effects noodling until the track’s end) easily the most digestible dash of music here, has all the depth of your average metal power ballad with Bixlar-Zavala’s preening vibrato and completely ill-fitting runs of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.

Then there’s the song’s horn section, which speaks volumes about the Mars Volta. It makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the song. But then, neither does the avalanche of backwards reverb, or the sudden salsa breakdowns of “L’via L’Viaquez,” or any of the scores of cheap-sounding effects thrown onto Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar. So there it is: Frances the Mute is overblown, bombastic, pretentious, and arrogantly proud of all of those things. It doesn’t, however, sound the least bit thought out. For all of the instruments and notes piled on top of the other, it lacks any hallmark of craftsmanship, any attention to detail. There is no mis-en-scene, no building or dynamic flow whatsoever. Ideas don’t develop, they appear, magically, as if the thought behind any given musical passage is “Oh man, the kids are never going to know what hit them when we bust out this shit!”

I had this album on twice on my stereo while taking notes, and I caught my partner looking at the speakers with a confused expression. Kate’s into Franz Ferdinand and musicals. “Am I missing something?” she asked. “Is this just something that plebeians such as myself aren’t supposed to get?” I told her yes or no: yes, this is music that prizes its sheer difficulty, done intentionally to confuse, like an illusionist’s dramatic light show. But she’s not missing anything, for underneath those lights there is no center, no pulse, no heart. The Mars Volta attempt to make demanding music, and like all demanding children, should be ignored.

*****

The Fiery Furnaces and The Mars Volta are, on paper, flip sides of the other. Blueberry Boat is about as long as Frances the Mute, and equally as non-linear. Passages last for three minutes before crashing, sometimes discordantly, into a completely dissimilar song fragment. Both bands have two core members, write thematically linked albums, and exhibit an unfortunate interest in primitive digital equipment. Replace Led Zeppelin and arena rock with The Who and psych-pop as musical avatars, and, sound unheard, you’d have The Fiery Furnaces.

So why did I give Frances the Mute a 4% and Blueberry Boat a 94%? Because the latter record is fucking fun, that’s why. What is humorless self-importance in Frances is whimsy and mischief during Blueberry Boat. The narrative is equally as obtuse and nonsensical, but where TMV’s records attempted to be adventurous and fantastical, the Furnaces’ songs were adventurous and fantastical: during “Chris Michaels,” a jilted lover steals a credit card and crosses the globe, eventually finding herself on the wrong side of the Bombay army; “Straight Street” is a business trip from hell, complete with a “rented Hyundai with two flats and no windshield”; “My Dog Was Lost but Now He’s Found” is really about looking for a lost dog, who’s been “found” in the pews of the local church. It boasted strong, memorable songs, and invited further listening. It existed in its own world and connections were there to be made on repeat listens, as Mike Barthel’s blog so painstakingly documented, but the very idea, language and carnival-like mix and mash of the music was all really, really silly. The difference was that the Furnaces were in on their own joke, insouciantly copping to ripping off “Rael” while The Mars Volta wanted to change the course of rock music.

There were just as many people, among them my astute colleagues here at the Glow, who felt the exact opposite about Blueberry Boat. This absolutely bewildered me. What I heard as a joyride others took to be a chore, an unforgivable constraint on their increasingly limited time. When the words and changing motifs reminded me of absorbing and deciphering The White Album and “I Am the Walrus” as a fourteen year old, others came up empty handed and frustrated. What I likened to the subversive and sophisticated children’s stories of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seusss, people felt was as insurmountable a fit of pique as Moby Dick or Finnegan’s Wake, a work they felt hectored into absorbing and pissed-on when they didn’t like it.

Imagine my heartbreak, then, when Rehearsing my Choir proved them all right. The slim volume of people who defended it found themselves on slippery, inarguable ground: it’s a good record, you just have to pay attention to it; it recalls elements of classic radio drama and This American Life more so than a pop or indie-rock record; it’s the kind of record that’s good to think about and discuss, not necessarily, say, to play a party or when you’re washing the dishes. While parts of this are true, as an apology it’s rubbish. The album is capital-A Awful, as catastrophic, inexcusable and principally unlistenable a train wreck as, I don’t know, The Monkee’s Head movie (that that, Jack Nicholson), or Neil Young’s Old Ways, or In a Metal Mood by fucking Pat Boone. It’s horrifying to a fan, like when in high school when the New York Mets would win ten games in a row only to go on and lose the next fourteen.

Siblings Friedberger could’ve taken two cues from The Mars Volta to soften the blow. Frances the Mute was mostly recorded with their touring band. The Fiery Furnaces as a live entity are a force to be reckoned with, a whirlwind of songs, fragments, goof-offs and segues that has left no person I know unconvinced. Rumor has it that the live versions of snippets from Rehearsing My Choir are back up to par, but as near as I can tell, Matt Friedberger does the lion’s share of the music on record. This means that every song boasts the same keyboards and drum machines, with a bizarre predilection for one sound that fuses percussion with a Jew’s harp.

The other thing that The Mars Volta did right is, for all of the pretenses of fusing cinema and music, Frances the Mute is indisputably a rock record, with long rock songs played on rock instruments. The apologists are right when they say that Rehearsing My Choir at times sounds more comfortable as a radio play than a pop record. This goes a long way in explaining its creative failure: it frequently sounds as if Friedberger himself is unsure what he wants the album to be. “Seven Silver Curses” reads a lot better when looked at from this angle, all dissonant chord changes and weird, blocky chords; but then a melodic interlude comes barging in and disrupts the flow. “The Wayfaring Granddaughter” is the inverse of this, a pop song with a narrative erupting from nowhere.

None of this would be that problematic were it not for two flaws, in ascending order: a dearth of hooks. Blueberry Boat got away with its chicanery on the strength of the child’s melody of “Quay Cur,” or the Keith Moon impersonations of “Chris Michaels.” The list is endless, really. Rehearsing My Choir has its moments, but they’re fleeting: the beginning of “Slavin’ Away,” portions of “The Wayfaring Granddaughter” and “A Candymaker’s Knife.” The majority of the songs are only there to support the narrative, however, which leads us to the fatal flaw, the album’s basic conceit: the band’s grandmother, Olga Sarantos.

This concept is such an obviously bad idea that it’s become cliché to use one’s elderly grandmother to describe how good an artist is (“Kanye West can sample my grandmother and it would still sound good”) or not (“even my grandma can rap better than Lil’ Wayne”). This is likely the joke, but it is irreparably flawed, not just for the fact of Santos’ voice – a jarring growl that recalls radio announcers more than play actors – but for the weird and untenable position of singing/speaking what ostensibly is her story by way of the lines being fed to her by Friedberger. Sarantos’ discomfort is noticeable – one cannot help but be reminded of the exploitative records of the mentally deranged that were popular in the early nineties, which surely is an unintended effect. It’s possible that an informal interview with her would’ve produced a better record, but it’s obvious that Friedberger relegates her to a part in the play.

It’s a damn shame, because truthfully some of the writing is quite good: “The Wayfaring Granddaughter” has a “gorgeous red brown hair black / when she turned fifteen behind my back,” a line that encapsulates time’s fleeting nature better than anything my twenty-five year old brain could think of. Later in the same song Eleanor speaks of dating two men named Kevin. “Two Kevins,” she begins wistfully; “You mean two jerks,” Sarantos corrects. The narrative features a lot of perspective switching between Sarantos and Elanor Friedberger, had it not been for Sarantos’ delivery would make for the same fun found on much of Blueberry Boat. Or had there been a melody. But still, on segments of “A Candymaker’s Knife” and “We Wrote Letters Every Day” the two vocalists sing/speak on top of the other, making a disorienting effect that almost works in the conceit’s favor. However, the effect is lost because the melody is obscured by Santos’ croak, and concurrently the narrative effect is ruined by the same artless stroke.

This story doesn’t even have a happy ending: Rough Trade has essentially told the band that Rehearsing my Choir does not count as a record in their contract, and have yet to give a release date to Bitter Tea, a record the band recorded at about the same time as Rehearsing My Choir. Had it seen simultaneous release, who knows? We could’ve all patiently ignored Choir as a necessary, steam-releasing experiment, much like the SYR records that Sonic Youth releases between proper albums. But the idea of a band – any band, including The Mars Volta – penalized because of a record they’ve made is far more horrifying than anything found on this weird, weird album.

*****

I quite disagree that anything about music is ignorable. One of the best things about it is how insidious it is, how you don’t notice when it creeps up and finds you when you least expect it. The thing is, you think you can ignore it, but really you can’t: you let the water in the sink overflow because you’ve stopped to stare, mouth hanging open, at your stereo speakers, incredulous of what’s coming out of them.

One of the chief complaints lobbed against these two records is that you have to (ugh) pay attention to them to understand. In a sense, I agree. The thing with the avant-garde is that it’s explicitly cerebral, literally meant to be discussed and not experienced. In one way it absolutely does move the medium forward – think of the great Sonic Youth and Godspeed You Black Emperor! records we’d miss without Glenn Branca – but it’s deeply unsatisfying, because we need to tether our innovations to the known world of melody, heartbreak and story. The problem is that these records aren’t avant-garde at all; they’re just cursed with their authors’ misconceptions that they themselves are doing something difficult. The difficulty here is the “concept album,” or rather albums that exist to prop an extended narrative. This is laughably untrue with Frances the Mute, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Rehearsing my Choir fares a little better, as much of the story is filled with charm and a (partially) understandable plot. But it lacks the key ingredient to a successful record: good songs.

Let’s take peek at a slide from 2005’s other indie-rock narrative record: “This Year,” from The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree. It’s a story about child abuse where no one raises a hand. “The scene ends badly, as you might imagine” is all John Darnielle (though he later fills in the gap in the devastating “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?”). We get set-up for the sucker punch in two ways: not inconsiderably the song’s celebratory description of jail-break – the narrator as a smitten, car-speeding, blotto seventeen year old – but chiefly one hell of a strong hook in the song’s chorus: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” The song’s bar-room friendly melody perfectly matches the feeling of determination and liberation possible in its words. There are defined characters, complete sentences and plot points. This is one hell of a song. There’s nothing even close to it on either of these albums.

The narrative is nothing new to the pop idiom; from opera to Appalachian murder ballads to The Notorious B.I.G., the song format has been used to tell stories that no book or play could ever do. People love a good story, but they also love a good melody, rhythm, singalongs and dances. Music can make time stand still, but these records only invite compulsive watch-checking.

*Christopher Alexander reserves the right to completely change his mind next week.