Archive for the ‘Experimental’ Category

The front page of his bold bright-on-black website welcomes you with the following: “You’re finally home, my fellow weirdo.” He might as well have rolled out a red carpet for a dweeb like me.  Basic Printer (Jesse Gillenwalters) and his color-blocked universe hail from Nashville’s underground, where he has developed a small but mighty following for his catchy experimental pop with electronic twiddly sound bits.  True to the tone of the album, he succumbed to his id and set it free a week early. HAHA YEAH is 26 minutes of bright vocals over earwormy rhythms as he explores relationship drama and emotional blockage, an experience he describes as a “temper tantrum” of emotional immaturity.

The album makes an interesting choice by tossing medical terms in with its robo-imagery, giving this pop a bit of iron and gristle.  The first track is called “<3 MECHANICAL HEARTBEAT <3,” pre-emoji hearts included. This tune laments the speaker’s defensively cold heart with a pretty vocal.  Boppy “TOURNIQUET,” references tying wounds and “razors in her mouth.”  It’s a little metal for the bedroom pop but I’m not mad about it – these medical references give his candied synth an edge. But HAHA YEAH gets more dark than gooey. “EVER SINCE YOU MOVED (DOWN THE STREET)” uses its mechanical voice for a fizzy buzzy confession and then lets VGM sounds express the shame and panic that the voice cannot.  Even the end of “PATIENT ROLE” slows itself down and darkly declares that “we are conjoined,” the weightiest medical word of the tune and one that shifts its sadness into what feels like a want of control. 

“PATIENT ROLE” ends up being a stand out track.  It has this mellow descent that is so smooth and beautiful while also being powerfully desperate.  A hip hop interlude from A. J. Crew slides smoothly through extended covidian metaphors.  But the biggest draw for me is how Jesse’s cutie-pie vocal wraps around my vena cava.  We get moments of his raw insecurity coming through: “Tell me/I need to know I’m needed/I need to know I’m healthy/I’m begging for empathy/know me.”  It warbles through my mellow and pokes the buttons in my needy spots.  I like the way his voice goes high.  Get it, Mariah.

HAHA YEAH reveals a lot of turmoil in eight pop tracks.  It comes to a begrudging, maybe even petulant conclusion that makes it hard to know if its voice is maturing or just yielding.  But what it does most successfully is toss in eggs and sugar to bake these contradictions into funfetti cake.  It’s a worthy choice for the repeat button, I think.

Basic Printer WebsiteBasic Printer BandcampBasic Printer Instagram

A Summer Among Sparks

Posted: September 7, 2022 by Kat Meow in Experimental, Los Angeles, Pop, Sparks
Gorgeous

Sparks!  Sparks, the ever-morphing pop duo of Ron and Russell Mael, has seen enormous resurgence.  I am of that resurgence.  The Edgar Wright documentary The Sparks Brothers is a relatable primer for these obscure titans, and a well done doc in its own right thanks to its combination of warm storytelling and slightly warped animations.  It was meant to invite in curious millennial music kids like myself who have been hearing Sparks on the periphery of our attention for years.  From the jump you can see why they are icons.  It’s like they’ve always been there, but the nostalgia machine hasn’t been feeding them back to us like they have been Bowie and Freddy.  Perhaps it’s because you couldn’t sell Sparks as nostalgia if you tried.  They aren’t of an era because they are of all eras.  I also think images of Ron Mael’s unnerving yet seductive face unlocked a core memory for me, like big sis had MTV on while I was playing Legos and it branded his mustache onto my unconscious.

But I really found Sparks through FFS, their 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand.  I had maybe a couple weeks to vaguely research them before they played a packed house at Terminal 5, excited by what little I managed to learn.  The show was unreal.  I mean these old-ass dudes were full of pure energy.  And Ron’s face!  I remember his intense concentration looking like fury, until he stepped up from his keyboard and finally delivered some tall and skinny dance work of his own.  I fell in love, but I kept putting them off – their catalog was too daunting to start, and time moved on.  

Fortunately The Sparks Brothers acts as a guide to different eras in their sound, while also highlighting key songs that best exemplify different eras of their music.  So I went further on the journey this summer with the film’s guidance.  So far, I can boast repeated listens to Kimono My House, Introducing Sparks, No1 in Heaven, Terminal Jive, Angst in My Pants, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, Lil’ Beethoven, and Exotic Creatures of the Deep.  I also returned to FFS.  Here are some songs that exemplify what I love about Sparks that didn’t get the Edgar Wright treatment in the film.

Equator (Kimono My House – 1974) – The struggle of a protagonist whose lover said she’d meet him at the equator.  It’s desperate and at times exhausting.  Russell keeps his bluesy falsetto so far up in the stratosphere it becomes breathless.  Each repetition gets more panicked, and the backing femme vocals sound like they’re mocking him.  Poor sap.  Unbelievable piano rock.

Goofing Off (Introducing Sparks – 1977) – Fuck being in fashion.  Sparks put out an ode to the wonders of the weekend in a rock and roll klezmer tune.  Klezmer.  Twenty-plus years before Gogol Bordello made it cool. After a blistering guitar solo, the song comes to a triumphant close.  Are they even Jewish?  Who cares.  

My Other Voice (No.1 In Heaven – 1979) – This song could mean anything.  Maybe it’s Ron referring to Russell in a loving tribute to the power Russell gives his lyrics.  Or maybe it could be a metaphor for someone’s emergent new self: “you’re so independent but that’s gonna change real soon/with my other voice I can destroy this room.”  Either way, the simple beat and heavenly synth atmosphere make this one a triumph of the Giorgio Moroder era of Sparks.

Young Girls (Terminal Jive – 1980) – This one messed me up, because on the first listen it was a really sweet bubblegum song with gentle vocals, until the lyrics set in, and dear god.  Yeah, it’s just like that Oingo Boingo song.  But whereas Danny Elfman merely liked offending people, Ron was often performing a social criticism.  He traveled in the same scenes as all the other 70s rockers – many of whom were shacked up with children – was anyone else in the machinery of pop questioning it?

Instant Weight Loss (Angst In My Pants – 1982) – I hear this as a great-uncle to Cut Copy’s first album, Bright Like Neon Love.  The drums have this delicious skip in its rhythm, this kind of double-tap *howdoyado* that gives it a little hip along with its breezy keys.  In typical form, the lyrics tell of a man who is willing to pull some wild Christian Bale weight loss/gain antics over a woman.  

Serving Face

Nicotina (Angst In My Pants – 1982) – A dramatic post-punk opera song about a sentient cigarette meeting her horrifying fate.  ‘Nuff said.

I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car (Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins – 1994) – The inner monologue of a simp being barked at by his desire. Russell’s fay spoken-word shines against the dark 90s techno as he reflects on being someone’s dirty little secret. What old-Hollywood power player inspired this?

Suburban Homeboy (Lil’ Beethoven – 2002) – Ron and Russ have never once in their life given a fuck.  This sprightly pop track is anything but “homeboy” as it comes from the perspective of every upper-class WASP that ever wore a du-rag.  Omnomnom, archetype schadenfreude.

I’ve Never Been High (Exotic Creatures of the Deep – 2008) – Sparks is illustrated as a band that didn’t spend their yesteryears nose-deep in powder.  But rather than being haughty, this tune is wistful, even regretful, of never having been damaged enough to publicly circle the toilet because of addiction.  It ends with a wry poke at how it might have garnered them more public attention: “then I’ll be something, then I’ll be something/look there’s a camera, smile and say cheese.”  After all, self-destruction sells records and builds legacies.  Isn’t that screwed up?

Police Encounters (FFS – 2015) – Written as FFS alongside Franz Ferdinand, this one is just fun fun fun.  But the references to elder cultural figures feels so out of place.  Albie and Pinter plays?  Feeling like P.T. Barnum?  It occurs to me that this song might be a period piece, with a character regretting leaving Harlem because he’s being pursued by cops.  It makes me think Ron’s voice stepped into the mind of someone brown or black who ventured too far south of 125th street while trying to get a little culture.  You can marinate over the setting and the protagonist’s thirst for dangerous women while the “bomp bomp diggy diggy” becomes your inner rhythm.

Iconic

It was sometime back in the early 00s when I got into King Crimson. I got to see them live with John Paul Jones when I was a Zeppelin die-hard and JPJ was touring behind The Thunderthief (2001). I got to hear the rhythmic daymare of Thela Hun Ginjeet for the first time in my life. The mix of strange and almost discordant rhythms did more to get me dazed than the contact high and warm pocket vodka. I remember being completely entranced until the song ended and I finally shuddered back to life. At the time, I also was discovering Zappa, and knew their common link was Adrian Belew. Young Lions, the first album I landed on at (thanks good ole Mr. Cheapos!), ended up tucking itself into the folds of my hippocampus in my Personal Museum of Eternally Beloved Music. This album is a mission of optimism with claws, set to vaguely jungle-ish rock drums and Belew’s unbelievable shredding. After now twenty years, whenever some Facebook chain email crosses me asking for my top fives or tens or “I listen to this when,” I instantly see the white-pink hue of my copy of Young Lions.

It starts with this pulsating stomp with bells on its ankles, that give me visuals of bonfire parties and hunting predators. This song always sends me deep into the stories in my consciousness and push up fruits of lush colors and imagery – sometimes a cavewoman lover shimmying for her beau, other times eyes in the bushes in the quiet blue darkness; a stalking foot of a carefully moving something. The driving stomp careens into a solo with a some instrument that I have no fucking idea what it is (probably some genius machination Belew does with pedals and pixie dust). It sears as much as it sings, stomping along with rhythmic grunts and twittering flutes, until the entire jungle erupts in natural rapture. It is a masterpiece of sound and joy and it moves me every time.

From there Pretty Pink Rose takes over. A guitar-crazy wailing pop smash, (the album’s one single and video), Pretty Pink Rose is just a good honest rock song. Total shoulder shimmy danceable. I won’t pretend to understand the lyrics, but they’re Bowie lyrics so they work well on their own just by sounding beautiful, nevermind what world-shaking political meanings Bowie may hide in there if you have the patience to search. “The left wing’s broken, the right’s insane” was one of the easily reachable bits to grasp, and rings even more frustratingly true the further we live through history. Other lyrics call up images of the Russian monarchy and seem to bite. Man, I don’t need to know what the hell the song is about, but the hooks in this song are so fun to sing along to, it doesn’t matter.

Humor me a personal story: There was a long time I didn’t pull this album out for a listen. I’m a sensitive soul and the universe decided to backhand me. When I was about 19, traveling the country with Led Zeppelin fans, I took my all Adrian Belew CDs on one of the coolest music adventures of my life (which I shall save for another post). My copy of Belew’s Op Zop Too Wah was with me, and it was super special. It had been gifted by another Belew fan on the internet with the caveat that I must one day pay it forward to another person who might like it. It was precious cargo, cargo that came with a mission. I wanted to make sure I had a few uninterruptable listens, and flights to and from Ohio were as good an opportunity as any.

So naturally, the airline lost my luggage.

When my bag arrived home 9 hours after I did, it was unlocked and all my beloved CDs and CD Walkman were gone. Heartbroken. I couldn’t bear to replace them, even though members of that Belew group sent me replacements and sympathy. But I felt so fucked up about it that I couldn’t really enjoy them without thinking about the violation of some chode stealing my stuff. And I always felt bad having never been able to complete my mission of paying a Belew CD forward. I sort of just blocked it out like it would be forever sour.

It took me until the darkness of 2020 to be able to see the light in this album again. In one of my many moments of deep orange panic, watching the world fall apart in front of me, I started singing “Looking for a UFO” at the top of my lungs. “Somebody will have to fall out of the sky, somebody to show us how to survive. Wouldn’t that be nice?” It sure felt like it. It came out of me randomly and at full volume like a cry to the gods (in the form of a catchy pop song). After all, it is three and a half minutes of upbeat but desperate hope when everything felt hopeless. Why not call upon the aliens? “I wonder what they see on earth. Do they see the hate and hurt? Or do they see the Christmas lights and mirth, and hear songs of peace on earth? Well maybe they would know, a way to make it so.” Maybe they do! Maybe we do, too. I confused the hell out of my neighbors, but I was happy.

One of the weirdest slam dunks on this album is I Am What I Am, which is a jam-along with cult radio evangelist Prophet Omega. I have always had a personally embattled relationship with spirituality, and this beat and monologue would make me scoff at the same time as “I am what I am, and that is all I am, and I am it” became an arcane mantra I would jot down in my notebooks in college. It’s this narrative of self-acceptance and living in the moment that is really engaging and healthy and light, although the guy also seems a little more than eccentric. I’ve since learned that Omega is some kind of legendary cult figure in Nashville music, and you can download his sermons/buy stuff about him from Genuine Human Productions here:

Genuine Human Productions Bandcamp

“Men In Helicopters” is an assault on poachers, and to some larger extent, the sins of our consumption. Belew’s rage is unfettered and raw in its biting lyrics. “Wouldn’t it be odd, if there really was a god, and he looked down on earth and saw what we’d done to her? Wouldn’t it be just, if he pulled the plug on us, and took away the sun?” I can hear a little extra breath in Belew’s rage, as if mentions of copters come with a snarl, a desire for justice. It gives you a push.

I always listen to this guy start to finish – there’s so much more to get, whether it’s the vaguely ethereal cover of “Not Alone Anymore” of the Wilburys, or “Phone Call From the Moon” or Belew’s personal cover of King Crimson’s “Heartbeat.” It’s a powerful album that more people ought to know about it. I could go on, but I won’t, because this review is already long. But I will say this:

DO YOU WANT A COPY OF OP ZOP TOO WAH? Help me complete my mission. I will send you a copy of Op Zop Too Wah on the condition that you one day pay another Belew album forward to someone else. Help me solve the mission I started 20 or so years ago in the primordial ooze of the internet. Reach out to me on Instagram! Cheers!

https://adrianbelew.net/

Adrian Belew’s Facebook

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