The Russian Futurists
(Upper Class; 2005)
By Aaron Newell | 22 October 2007
Pitchfork’s Nick Sylvester recently got it right in his “Track Review” entry on Thom Yorke’s “Last Flowers." The Riff Central Rainman roundaboutly addressed an e-phenomenon that is stealthily turning music fanaticism into a hollow-leg-and-heart glutfest —- a bottomless, must-hear-everything-once consumerism that our precious filesharing can inspire in even the most meditative listener. Sylvester wags: “‘Hear it first’ trumps ‘hear it best’ trumps ‘maybe sorta have a relationship with a song like you did when three CDs and a few cassingles were all you had.’" Meaning: today it’s more important to be the guy who strokes his nostril and lectures “have you heard the new Radiohead songs? They’re pretty interesting” than the guy who can say “This song reminds of when (meaningful life-moment goes here like how I met my girlfriend at a Yo La Tengo concert and how she gave me the new comp for my birthday to remind me of that and therefore “Autumn Sweater” will hopefully always make me happy).”
Now all you Hiponioners with your fingers on your back-button triggers slow your scroll. The gripe is that internet criticism can be great for the very reason that independent music can be great: no worries. “We” can write whatever “truths” we want because we don’t have to fret about insulting diluted corporate advertisers that cover our overhead because we don’t really have any overhead (or diluted corporate advertisers). “We” can write what we want because our readers all sing in the same choir, “Our” choir, and thus no one’s objecting to a round of circlejerk when the subject matter is the “power” of “indie everything” as long as we all cast our strokes broadly enough (not necessarily a paint metaphor). “We” are “Us” and “They” are “Them” and “We” should therefore only really worry about what “We” think because “They” don’t get “Us” anyway.
Our sophisticated weaponry against “Them” is a quiver of “our records”: spite-tipped joints like Picaresque, Before the Dawn Heals Us, I Am A Bird Now, and even Arular. To these records, “They” respond “So what? This is ok, it’s weird, but it’s ok” and “We” b-boy up like “AHA! SEE? You’re so two years ago," but then turn around and shelf the groundbreaking album and listen to it only on days when our cred or confidence has received an ironic Chuck Taylor in the crotch.
Poll: how many net-critters still have Arular (the “wow” album that it truly is) shining face-down on their desks, ready to be played at any moment? Or how many have bewilderingly suffered a lapse in the knee-jerk, involuntary need to play Picaresque? In the past three weeks, have any of you simply had to hear it now?
Sure, maybe you had a poor, disadvantaged friend ask you to play it. A near-former friend, sickly lagging behind in the new-release race, begging of you: “I gotta hear that new Decemberists record, man, I gotta know if it is that good, you gotta play it, you just gotta…” I would bet (and I know I’m not alone here) that the standard reply to this is: “yeah, ok, you should definitely hear it, it’s great” accompanied by one playthrough/”fix," a prompt reshelving, and a 180 return to downloading those Madvillain remix eps. Your friend, having finally ticked the album off his list of must-listens, stops shaking, says something like “Wow, I’ll never forget that poor Engine Driver guy," and then forgets that poor engine driver guy, twitches, curses, and runs off to find someone who has the new Ellen Allien.
My point: if we are indeed supporters of “honest” and “meaningful” music, we do an awful lot of trading-card-level torch-bearer-disposal. Especially when our torch-bearers are adamantly exalted by “Us” as the penultimate purveyors of “honest” music by artists who sincerely “pour their souls into their art." How did we get to a point where, instead of latching on to our dear bands for dear life forever truelovealways, we play virtual-knockdowns, or shred the albums in our spokes until they no longer make any noise? Do we realize that our trading cards are, at their very bases, actually made up of (if we believe ourselves and the artists, which we do) months of hard work, soul-searching, epic pursuits of the perfect rhyme, various forms of in-band bickering over musical minutiae, perseverance through stolen gear and, in the very best cases (Funeral, The Sunset Tree, Either/Or, Personal Journals) blood/guts/boogers diary exposure? No we don’t. We binge/purge/repeat, soulseeking an assembly line of recorded, digitized catharses. If music was food we’d all be morbidly obese from a gluttonous intake of empty calories. Q: “Was it good?” A: “Yeah it was great” Q: “What did it taste like?” A: “…”
Please note: I am not saying any of the above-noted albums aren’t worth sinking ones cavities into. I’m saying the exact opposite: they all are. For being wonders of creative writing (Picaresque) or edifying a new voice in indie (Arular) or bringing a sonically-pleasurable challenge to popular gender concepts (Bird Now). These are all unquestionably worthwhile artistic goals. The problem, however, comes when certain works-of-art become record-collection bling, obtained to be admired from afar —- to be appreciated more so than related to or involved with or remembered. To be gazed upon, rather than listened to and, therefore, used rather than loved. This happens either because the record itself, while objectively formidable, is tough to access on a personal level (see the three above, there always being the party asshake-exception for M.I.A.), or because the record itself has been thrust into the Pantheon of Must-Hear by “Pop Critic” and “Consumer Peer” alike to the effect that having a subjectively-genuine personal experience with it becomes impossible, since it seems like everyone is having the same experience, and you/me, indie pop fan, don’t want our precious listening to stink of sloppy seconds.
Popular records (“victims”) thus suffer the symptoms of the circuit: when things are dubbed “must hears” and the dubbers are obeyed, the “natural process” of falling-in-love with a record is circumvented. And while I’ll be the first in line to spit nasties at the horn-rims who says Picaresque isn’t one of the best albums of the year, there’s a reason why Emperor X’s Fractal Dunes… and Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs are double-digit spins ahead of any other album on my ipod’s Most Played list. I both admire and love these albums. When Chad sings, “Just shut up, you’re not dying inside,” or Andrew croons, “We have survived to turn on the history channel,” I’m like “yeah dog, that’s my boy." Meloy’s characters are interesting, M.I.A.’s biography is great, but, in the end, given conflicting opportunities to spend time with either a person or an institution, my natural listening tendencies lean towards the person. The ipod play-counter doesn’t lie, despite how fervently I’ll clobber you with reasons why Picaresque and Arular are both so great.
Now, that introduction was (apologetically) necessary to contextualize how I feel about Our Thickness. This is not a “great” album, automatically worthy of key coffee-table placement next to the latest McSweeney’s and a San Francisco Lonely Planet. Instead, Our Thickness is a great album (hear a sincere sigh, picture a goofy smile, make the offer to copy for friend). You will keep a burn of this album in your glove compartment, another at your boy/girlfriend’s place, and your retail copy under your bed, on call to make your mundane, lonely daily chores and ironing (I hate ironing) just-barely sufferable.
How? Why? Most importantly (and least-obviously) it’s because of Matthew Hart’s writing. Hart’s words have always been overlooked; they’re usually mixed low into the master track, nuzzling and cuddling the instrumentation, eschewing the normal lead/support role that a vocalist has with his backup. Contrary to the singer-songwriter norm, Hart’s voice is never the sole star of his works. His vocals are role-players, diplomatically sharing space with the numerous elements that make up his lush melodies. This approach results in a listener-friendly, best-friend lo-fi “feel," which works wonders due to his stunning ability to turn a gorgeous tune from a junkheap mixture of synth, antiquated sampling equipment, and a small littering of live playing. The only problem is that the end result tends to be so distractingly-pretty that the listener can easily overlook the artfulness of Hart’s writing, and the fact that he’s actually dropping some of the best-thought-out, cynically-confessional songs in experimental pop. To wit:
“Paul Simon” says: “There’s this one word / It’s called ‘comfort’ / it’s the strangest, most dangerous place I could hide.”
“Sentiments vs. Syllables” sums up your “likes” “you knows” and “ums” when it warns: “If I word stuff far too vaguely / It’s because things don’t mean much to me lately.”
“Hurtin 4 Certain” purposefully slurs: “The way bourbon disturbs the words I’m wording, it’s a drink, it’s a sip, it’s the iceberg’s tip.”
And, finally, the absolutely crushing, tear-jerking album closer “2 Dots on a Map” laments a slowly fading relationship in two perfect lines: “We’re two dots on a map and it seems that without fail / Those inches in between us are really miles when drawn to scale.” Also, and please excuse this, but holy living fuck at the way the drums interact with the chimes and female vocal samples to make me cry.
Anyway, if those sad little lines (when sung by Hart’s trying-so-so-hard-to-be-happy voice) don’t draw you close and cause you to relate, you spend too much time on the internet.
Hart’s musical staples include: chunky MPC drums chopped into chugging rhythms that may or may not get bitten by DJ Premier on the next Gangstarr record, layered bubbletape-sweet licks of melody, just a little bit of acoustica to flesh out the already-rich sampler-sound, and Rogue Wave-y/Elliott Smith-y vocals mixed low into the track that nuzzle into the instrumentation and are nearly always stalked by a faint, fuzzy synth line. And, just for the record, apparently numerous bottles of red wine and an isolated, woodstove-warmed log cabin in Northern Ontario also helped make this record the melancholy masterpiece that it is. The result is that every song sounds like a classic Motown bridge looped and voxovered, Smokey Robinson sprinkling his Clowns’ Tears all over the record.
And when I say “melancholy masterpiece” I mean “beautiful, melodic progressive pop bombast with realistically contemplative lyrics," not “Damien Rice." Opening track “Paul Simon” beams with the lusty horns from its namesake’s “Late in the Evening." “Still Life” has been intermittently flaunted by blogs like Stypod, webnymph, and razorbladerunner since November of last year. You can also get it right here, but don’t just yet; once you hear those strings I’ll never get you back. We also have “Our Pen’s Out of Ink” up for grabs, which you should, as its gentle piano loop, overheating piston drums, classic blues-soul hook (complete with doo-wopping back ups), and “Testify!” verse structure combine to make it one of the year’s best moments. Or maybe that’s “Hurtin 4 Certain” —- I always get them mixed up, as they’re both perfect.
When you think “best albums of the year”, what comes to mind? What’s the criteria? The task of the “noble” critic is point out the challenging records that broaden a listener’s horizons, expand the listener’s palate, make the listener want to learn more about the diverse pop world it grew up in. The pummeled, humbled, emotionally-drained critic, on the other hand, doesn’t really give a shit about his responsibility. All he wants to do is say “get this, do yourself a favour and pick this up." He’s probably already annoyed you with his preachiness in a heartfelt attempt to convey exactly why the record is important, or why it will last longer in your Tuesday-to-Tuesday rotation than a purportedly ‘essential’ record, or why it might just hold your attention long enough to render you apathetic to the two or three critically-notable two-players that might slip through the cracks while you spend two months of quality time with a songwriter that leaves his pinot-dripped diary pages in your headphones. And while he acknowledges that his efforts might be self-defeating, and while he knows he’s contributing to the same kind of oozing gush that leads to sickly overexposure, he still can’t help himself. So do yourself a favour, because…