Vol. 31 Issue 4 Reviews

Irwin Chusid, curator: Interesting Results: Music by a Committee of One

Compact disc, 2004, Sonic Arts Network; available from Sonic Arts Network, The Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, London SE1 0LN, UK; telephone (+44) 20-7928-7337; electronic mail info@sonicartsnetwork.org; Web www.sonicartsnetwork.org/.

Reviewed by Andrew Fletcher
Fenham, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

CD CoverIrwin Chusid has been described (by music critic Robert Christgau) as “a tedious ideologue with a hustle,” which is believable after listening to this. The Hoboken-based “landmark preservationist” is responsible for salvaging these lost or overlooked musical gems. This album’s consistently outlandish twists and turns betray an obsessive tenacity in Mr. Chusid’s research, reminding me of a retrospective John Peel.

Interesting Results “celebrates the individual,” and particularly the DIY phenomenon heralded by the emergence of inexpensive home-recording devices. Mr. Chusid has selected 12 recordings by “outsider artists” spanning America and nearly 40 years. Some of these musicians are beginning to emerge, blinking in the light of publicity (partially through Mr. Chusid’s hustling), and names such as Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore sound increasingly familiar. The album has twin pop and folk centers, but with a heavy dose of “other,” each track bound to the rest by a defiant sense of rampant individualism.

Most of the artists represented here remain untroubled by the shackles of conventional pop or musical sensibilities. Elaborate multi-tracked home productions sit comfortably alongside scratchy live recordings. Many are considered “ahead of their time,” possibly a polite term for “unfathomably idiosyncratic.” But factors such as location, poverty, or simply a reluctance to engage with the music industry also contribute to their obscurity. The single factor these tracks all share is an overbearing sense of guileless eccentricity. This lack of self-awareness is key, infusing the music with a carefree joy that permeates the album, making it not only an intriguing listen, but also delivering it with a smile.

Ariel Pink kicks off with a slice of lo-fi pop, evoking garage recordings and the complex set of angsty relationships that come with that particular lifestyle. Aside from roping the indie-fraternity in with a relatively mainstream sound, he also exudes a certain punk aesthetic. This is also found in the following track, Nothing, by Peter Grudzien, which is equally slapdash, but this time, addressing existential values in a heartily whimsical manner. Lucia Pamela’s Hap-Hap-Happy Heart sounds like an alcoholic southern belle on uppers, and is infused with an addictive jubilation. And Harry Merry’s strange, quirky organ song, Hoydenish Ambrosial, lives up to its title, evoking unbridled, almost maniacal jauntiness. Less sympathetic reviews would liken this to a soundtrack for bedlam.

Each track is connected by its sheer disconnectedness. Yes, Ariel Pink evokes FM pop and Lucia Pamela sounds a plausible character—the music here is not contrived—but it is difficult to draw comparisons with other genres, let alone between tracks. It’s as if the artists have never heard music, yet worked it out all on their own. Granted, this isn’t true, but many of these tracks betray a certain idiot savant quality.

Chris Butler is manic, whilst Petra Haden’s a capella music results in a bizarre, yet effortlessly dynamic, track—and sounds more human than Björk. Shooby Taylor scats impressively through Indiana and the vocal theme is continued in Bob Vido’s Boo-Bah-Bah. The next three tracks are aptly unhinged, yet maintain an assured sense of coherence. B. J. Snowden’s Drug Free is disarmingly sincere. Indeed, it is the earnestness in most of these tracks that demonstrates their sense of meaning; even if their message is unclear (Y. Bhekhirst’s Hot in the Airport is pretty oblique). The album ends with an epic by R. Stevie Moore, asking Where do I Come From? before flying away on a whimsical odyssey through increasing distraction and innocence.

Every track warrants mention because they all stand out. Mr. Chusid’s intention is to showcase the best in DIY and individualist music. In his words: “Nobody works in a vacuum. But some musicians are too single-minded, stubborn, anti-social, or dysfunctional to be team players.” The idiosyncrasy demonstrated here pinpoints the message that music cannot be quantified, or boxed into cosy, genre-specific categories. These are a motley crew of musicians and amateurs, who aren’t contriving to be pioneers, doing it differently. It is this aesthetic that breathes life and imagination into contemporary music. This is the drive to create, crystallized on the fringes of the industry, yet filtering through to inform the mainstream.

There is nothing on this album that sounds either produced, or even arranged, on a computer. In this respect, Sonic Arts Network (a UK organization created by electroacoustic composers, and counting Karlheinz Stockhausen as Honorary Patron) has strayed from its usual fare of electroacoustic and high-concept work, in favor of a more organic approach. Computer music is thus conspicuous by its absence, deflecting the focus onto those musical elements often sidelined by a concentration on processing and human abstraction. This acts as an apt reminder of the outer vestiges of the cyborg binarism, which is appropriate, since the trend these days seems to be focused on blurring the boundaries within, rather than exploring the full extent of this terrain.

This collection brings new meaning to the word “exclusive.” The term, far too often slapped across an album as a quick-fix sales-upper, has drifted into the realms of cliché. Here, however, it is reclaimed and recontextualized to mean “outside” of established production sensibilities and “beyond” accepted industry conventions. The works here are exclusive in the ironic sense, some being so strange that you would be hard-pressed to find anything similar anywhere else. In this respect, Mr. Chusid’s efforts have paid off with a rewarding and intriguing listening experience, showcasing human foibles and ingenuity in equal measure.