lo-fi

Passive Regressive: Superman Revenge Squad Band’s There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time Reviewed

Superman Revenge Squad - There is Nothing

I suppose most generations want to pin down some sort of identity for themselves, and many have claimed to be lost or blank or useless. So sometimes I wonder if it is actually a peculiarity of my generation (those born in the early to mid-eighties) to feel particularly infantilized, impotent, and inauthentic. Surely others, including the punks of ‘77 and the fabricated cohort of Douglas Coupland’s Gen-X, have felt powerless and disenfranchised. But then I come back to just how self-aware, but self-defeating many of my generation seem to be; we have a sense of our own dearth of maturity and originality, which holds us in fearful stasis. We relate to one another through shared trivia and measure our worth in inconsequential, obscure details that only render us clever around our immediate circle of friends. The idea of wasted time weighs heavily on my mind, and has done for most of my life. This chronophobic dissatisfaction with how life turned out, paired with a lack of control over any of it, leads me to rehearse and remember negligible things, especially from the realm of popular culture, just so I can cling to something that allows me a pathetic sort of mastery and belonging. So much of my anxiety comes from cultural surplus, the acute unease of being always a curator, never a creator. I’m ashamed of how tragic I felt in discovering that I still know all of the words to Savage Garden’s “I Want You,” but that any other memory of my fifteen-year-old experience is virtually non-existent.

Ben Parker, formerly of Nosferatu D2, now recording solo as Superman Revenge Squad Band, has created an album that eloquently articulates these anxieties and musings with an alarming degree of accuracy. There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time terrifies me as much as it comforts me to know that someone else is having these thoughts. Parker’s music itself is lo-fi and acoustic, which is fittingly unassuming. The album rambles, occasionally pauses, and then ends prematurely at under twenty-five minutes. The record is regularly punctuated by gentle drum fills and cymbal shots that propel the album forward whilst also sounding like small ripples of struggle against time, short bursts of energy to fend off the tide. Parker’s vocals are steady, even, and unrelenting, matching the percussion beat for beat. His lyrics are hyper-detailed, and often delivered in a blur of tumbling, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, paradoxically making them more universal for those in thrall to the tyranny of trivia. We all have our own versions of these stories, filling in the blanks of what amounts to an existential Mad Libs.

Parker’s opening track is the sentiment of Orlando’s “Just for a Second”1 writ large. “Lately I’ve Found Myself Regressing” kicks off with the proclamation of “I’m so indie I could die/I like to underachieve and call it DIY,” and parses the experience of failure, including how it feels to attempt art in the ever-available, ever-expanding glut that already exists. The song effectively encapsulates a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, which theorizes why the moderately gifted feel so disappointed and stifled in the mass mediatized world2. The song ends on a slightly more hopeful note with the near-sigh of “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of this is a waste of time.” “Paulie in Rocky Three” is another track that speaks very specifically, almost uncannily, to my own paranoid anxieties about information overload. Singing “I don’t remember stuff that matters” over minimal acoustic guitar, Parker speaks poignantly about the bankruptcy of cultural capital. Though his reference points differ from mine–my Rocky III would be Back to the Future, my “Billie Jean” would be “Bizarre Love Triangle”–I feel the same disconnect with the reality of my life and my personal memories, which exists in concert with my propensity to hoard even more “useless” information to guard my identity. His over-cluttered jumble sale of a brain is Bowie’s warehouse in “Five Years,” but crucially without an apocalyptic need for any of it; we hoard because we can. Our intimate knowledge of other people’s fictions keeps us from creating our own. And as we are constantly told that this kind of memory shouldn’t be meaningful–that it is pathological, regressive, and infantile–we only feel more insecure and inept.

This type of “childish” knowledge, which is of apparently no consequence in the real world, continues throughout Parker’s record. “Kendo Nagasaki,” a song which first appeared on a 2009 release, follows the trend which sees British wrestling recently cropping up in music as a nostalgic, albeit kitschy, love and touchstone for UK musicians of a certain age (see Luke Haines’s album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations On British Wrestling Of The 1970s And Early ’80s, and the Giant Haystacks reference in Manic Street Preachers’ “Me and Stephen Hawking”). Parker employs this kind of memory whilst contemplating rage against self-pity and disappointment, and the petty schadenfreude that tries to alleviate feelings of inadequacy. He switches between speaking and singing tautly of being the angriest dog in the world, a David Lynchian reference that resurfaces as the title of the last track, a song first recorded in 2008. Whilst the gritted paralysis of Lynch’s comic strip dog is surreally humorous, Parker’s final song on the album is a bittersweet analysis of a sour relationship. The two-note guitar rhythm ticks away with the monotony of lost time, echoing the frustrated repetition of lyrics. The song builds into a rolling melody underpinned by surging strings as Parker admits defeat: “I’m the angriest dog in the world/But you will always be my master.”

Parker uses more rapid-fire spoken delivery for “I’m Gonna Go To Bed and When I Wake Up I’m Gonna Be Someone Else,” a track that also first released in 2008, and again in 2009, in more lo-fi versions. It reminds me of a gentler Art Brut, and is a brilliant analysis of looking back at yourself and realizing that you weren’t as pathetic as you imagined you were; your only tragedy was being average. “Flavor Flav” is an excellent example of the analogical, tautological trap many of us cannot escape. Parker uses highly specific references to Public Enemy and REM in 1993 to express his thoughts on his fraught relationship; they’re apt, astute comparisons that position the listener who understands them as an insider, but they also display the sad hollowness of resorting to these kinds of allusions. We use extensive analogies to express ourselves because the lives of exceptional others smother us and crowd out our own formulations and conceptions of ourselves. We’re the sum of our cultural consumptions, and it doesn’t measure up, so as Parker concludes, there’s “just a box of old records/a box of old books/and us.” The precise observations of how we occupy and move through time keep coming. “A Funny Thing You Said” addresses the way we grow older, but don’t grow up, and “We’re Here for Duration” embodies the melancholic ennui that surrounds the attempt at making art. When Parker softly sings “I listen to the Afghan Whigs for two hours/and I wrote a song like this,” leaving you to wonder whether this is a failure or not.

There is Nothing More Frightening Than the Passing of Time is a pithy musical exploration of the nagging apprehension felt by those of us who can’t tell whether we’re wasting our lives stranded in the mediated and vicarious, or whether our waste is what binds us to others, with no less meaning than other “worthier” pursuits. In one of David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World comic strips, the lone speech bubble says, “If everything is real, then nothing is real as well.” This remark gets at the kind of twisted hope this album offers. Maybe an analogy is always another analogy. The fact I used footnotes in this post only amplifies my incapacity to express myself in my own words, but perhaps demonstrates what I was trying to say better than I could have otherwise. Superman Revenge Squad ultimately functions in much the same way.

1 “Just for a second/you lowered your defenses/and confessed what the world had guessed:/‘Deep down/I fear I might actually be unremarkable.’”

2 “I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives — maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on.

That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tapdances on the coffee table like Fred Astair or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an ‘exhibitionist.’”

Purchase the album via Bandcamp.

Lately I’ve Found Myself Regressing – Superman Revenge Squad Band

A Funny Thing You Said – Superman Revenge Squad Band

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Many Poetic Returns: Parts One Through Three of Jack Hayter’s The Sisters of St. Anthony Single Series

Jack Hayter The Sisters of St Anthony

In this post-everything digital age of endless archives and curation, is it possible still to lose things? Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and it is to him that lo-fi folk musician Jack Hayter turns for his subscription series of monthly singles The Sisters of St. Anthony. To look at him in a perhaps more positive manner, St. Anthony really becomes representative of memory. He aids you in remembering where those lost things are, he is meant to help you recover things. And these wistful, often visceral, emotions suit Hayter well. His vocals are a bit broken and worn, and since his first release on Audio Antihero, the wonky, wonderful Sucky Tart EP, he has been pushing the boundaries of folk sounds to continue telling acoustic tales of the sublime mundanity of life. Whilst his first solo album, Practical Wireless released on Absolutely Kosher Records in 2002, was a study in fragility and gentle melody (including a stunning cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl Another Planet”), this latest subscription series (or time release capsule of an album) picks up further cues from the ragged edges of Sucky Tart and the fusion of folk and electronic elements found in his work with Dollboy. And of course, Hayter’s knack for storytelling emphasizes the most human of inclinations: remembering in order to make sense of the world and your place in it, recovering in order to recover.

The first song in the series is “The Shackleton,” which is both about a Cold War airplane named after the ill-fated (and let’s face it, ill-pated) explorer Ernest Shackleton, and about the loss of Hayter’s girlfriend from adolescence. Hayter writes of the connection between the distinctive drone of the aircraft and his memories:

…their sound, more than anything, reminds me of being 15…out in the woods with Sally at 4 a.m., with the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction and the wrath of her parents.

It begins with sliding synth noises, but quickly moves into the softness of a nostalgic raconteur. Eventually the song melts into adolescent confessional as Hayter gives a beautiful, plaintive voice to the tragic yet funny machinations of teenagers’ inner dramas; his voice curls and keens like gales trapped in the husks of empty buildings over the lines, “Graham has dumped me/God, I’m so sad/Sure he’s alright for a laugh/Though he’s a bit of a twat.” The musical motif of this section returns as Sally makes a similar, yet poignantly different confession at fifty years old. Cold War tensions and paranoia add a layer of both “Heroes”-like romantic desperation and the bittersweet sadness of unfulfilled futures. (For more beautiful themes of haunting and the Cold War uncanny, track down Dollboy’s instrumental Ghost Stations.)

The second track, “Farewell Jezebel,” starts off with some spare acoustic guitar as Hayter introduces the titular character in a stance of illicit defiance. After the cheeky little line, “We’ve all been had/But no one ever had us quite like you,” the song kicks into a rambling, sunny tribute to a very human character. She may have vomited in her handbag, but she also lived beyond the pithy, “respectful” clichés of memorialization. Hayter’s brilliantly detailed, visually narrative lyrics demonstrate the limits of polite, socially accepted acts of remembrance; as he sings, “No one writes upon a gravestone anything of use.”

The final track of this first quarter of singles is “Sweet JD.” It begins with droplets of electronic sounds over sporadic glitchy percussion and other spasms of instrumentation. As Hayter intones “I’m always missing the beat,” the rhythms and sounds scatter about him like an overturned bag of marbles or a fistful of released balloons. Like an infinitely impossible cowlick, bleeps of synths spring up in unexpected places, yet they complement the soaring chorus of “Sweet John Donne loves you,” which references Donne’s poem of imminent loss, “Stay, O Sweet.” Halfway through the track, Hayter recites ghostly snippets of other Donne quotes about mortality and seizing life as the electronics spider over his voice, nearly choking it. By the time his voice comes back in for the final chorus, the music has risen into a jubilant hymn of love and affirmation of life in spite of all that threatens it.

These first three songs from the series are quite varied stylistically, but they all coax a meaningful presence out of absence, and build moving musical vignettes of retrospect and anticipated spectres. I look forward to the rest of the monthly installments. Is it still possible to lose things? Yes, but Jack Hayter reminds you that loss and forgetfulness can be valuable, too. Thoughts may escape you, but the dearth is necessary as some of the most important thoughts often come back to you as poetry.

Subscribe to the single series at the Audio Antihero Bandcamp page.

I Stole the Cutty Sark – Jack Hayter

Au Lion D’Or – Jack Hayter

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A Finer Whine: Benjamin Shaw’s There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet Reviewed

There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet album cover

When Tom Ravenscroft played Benjamin Shaw’s “12 000 Sentinels” on his 6Music show a few months ago, I was intrigued by the wry, abstract words and laconic vocal style. As such, it was an appropriate track for a DJ such as Ravenscroft. Though my full concentration wasn’t on the song because I was also at work at the time, it felt funny and pleasingly sad. Through the speediness of the Internet, I managed to purchase his 2009 EP, I Got the Pox, The Pox is What I Got, within minutes of first hearing “12 000 Sentinels,” and I subsequently preordered his first full-length album, There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet, which was released by Audio Antihero last month. To call Shaw lo-fi would be lazy, albeit convenient, and the term doesn’t encapsulate what his music and lyrics do to/for you.

This record is the audile equivalent of walking through the rain with a giddy amount of alcohol in your veins and a bum leg. Or navigating monkey bars made of Slinkies. Or performing children’s songs on a keyboard with depleted batteries. Or trying to thread a needle with melody while the end keeps fraying on you. The music is an endless dropping off, a cleansing cacophony, a perpetual winding down, lumbering on in circles of an ever more asymmetrical and meandering nature. For every right note there’s a wrong note or three, and the beauty of Shaw’s music is that it all works. All of it resolves even though your brain says it shouldn’t. Dissonance, wheezes, creaks, and static fill out the backgrounds with an ever-present hum of unrest even when the music itself sounds like a lullaby (for example, the instrumental “An Exciting Opportunity” sounds like short circuiting rain). Shaw creates a beguiling art on the ambivalent edges of adulthood, a place of drawn-out sighs and too much to cope with. His music and lyrics work together in a witty, measured fashion, where angst has ripened into a much finer whine.

After the brief introductory title track, Shaw displays his inventive lyrics on “How to Test the Depth of a Well.” I’m comforted by lines like, “So sit down with me on this fence/ cos if sorrow is money and money is rest/ then I’d call them tomorrow to get your bed ready for you.” One of my favourite songs is the saggy, defeated track, “Interview,” which flawlessly captures the atmosphere of job hunting. Shaw speaks for so many of us when he softly sings the frail lines: “I’ve got an interview tomorrow at ten/for a job I’ll hate.” Where he really mirrors my psyche is when he hopes to step in front of a pushbike or two, and concludes, “If I’m lucky, my head might land on the pavement, and my feet up in the air.” As friends will attest, this kind of thinking dominates my working life. He further explores the poverty of complacency in the penultimate track “The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines.” It features one of the best vocal deliveries of “celebrate good times, come on”; rather than a fist-pumping disco chant, it becomes a throwaway comment to append to staring into the abyss, half-muttered, half-exhaled. His specific brand of hope amidst the general dissatisfaction comes in the final verses as his broken voice reaches out: “I believe that it’s going to be just fine/If we keep our bodies full of lepers and our bellies full of wine.”

Shaw’s illustrations for the album cover and liner notes are perfect complements to the music with their combination of sketchy pencil drawings, wavering lines, and layers of seemingly incongruent images and textures. There’s something child-like about them, and also something quite twisted and morbid, not that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. The hunchback that graces the cover of both his EP and his album feels like a sympathetic shriveled soul that I could identify with.

For all of us pretend grown-ups slouching through life, knowing we have bad posture, but also knowing that we feel even more uncomfortable and tired in the shapes we’re expected to pull, Benjamin Shaw is our soundtrack. His music is a shrug, warming and absolving. All we can do is try, and that is all our soggy hearts can beat for.

Interview – Benjamin Shaw

The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines – Benjamin Shaw

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