Friday, August 24, 2012

Ear, Nose & Throat

This is the long version of something I wrote for the Village Voice in 2003. The voice, the drum, and the guitar are probably my three favorite noise-makers. And I'm always interested in why people are attracted and repelled by certain sounds. It's a cultural thing. It's a physiological thing. It's a political thing. It is many things. It's an ear thing! Anyway, I like to think about voices. And singing. And style. And anti-style. As a fan of out-rock and experimental sounds I have learned to appreciate tones and timbres that the average passive consumer of (Western) traditional songcraft might find repulsive. I'm also always on the lookout for non-Western styles of singing that are new to me. It can take a lifetime to grasp the many ways there are to carry a tune. All on one little planet. A lot of people think of death metal growling as unlistenable. I, on the other hand, hear the first step in the evolution of a folk style that is still in its infancy. But I'm a glass half full kinda guy when it comes to music and art. This piece is devoted to a certain Western style of singing that novelty-wise can be found on records going back to the turn of the century and that became an almost standard style in underground and experimental and alternative rock circles. The funny voice! In hindsight, I should have included more Japanese examples in this thing. I make it sound like a completely North American phenomena. The penchant for the high-pitched helium style in straight rock and not so straight rock is, of course, a worldwide thing. As is the operatic metal falsetto. Oh, I could have gone on and on. My Village Voice thing doesn't really have a "point" per se. That Rapider album just got me thinking about all the years that I had subjected myself to squeaky white dudes who couldn't really sing all that well in the traditional sense.

Ear, Nose & Throat
Rapider Than Horsepower "Stage fright, Stage fright"
by Scott Seward

Wackiness and weariness often walk hand in hand where rock and roll singers are concerned. A listener's own personal threshold for whims,  quirks, kinks, and vocal contortions, and their willingness to follow an "inspired" performer from point abba to point zabba, is subjective enough as to make one man's pork soda delish in every way, and another man's frog brigade merely soggy to the touch.
So if you're down with Primus & Zappa, but find Bungle & Beefheart anathema, and "novelty" and "joke"
(mainstream terminology) and "arty" and "visionary"  (underground terminology) are either pejoratives or superlatives  --depending on your aural intake valves and your own view on the whole half empty/half full life question thing-- thrown at any disparate baggypants crooners whose nasalities and tonsorial gymnastics range on the taste scale from acceptable to acquired, then it's safe to say that your invisible lines are drawn, your gradations calculated and where you stand (or sit) depends largely on answers to questions fine-tuned and measurable only by doctors of musicology trained in Rorschach and voice.

To wit: Are you now or have you ever been a Rush fan? Does the sound of Billy Corgan, arguably the most successful novelty singer since Tiny Tim, make you wince or cringe? (For me both. And not just
because he reminds me of that little kid from childhood who wants to go down to the basement and show you his weewee when all you really want to do is look at his big brother's stellar collection of Creepy magazines thereby inciting a riot of mental expletives in your head along the lines of: "He's such a jerk. Why did we have to move here? I hate Mom and Dad!" But also because he reminds me of that same kid years later pretending to like the same bands that you like even though you know that he could never understand the greatness of a Wire Train or an Aztec Camera.) On a scale of 1 to 10, whose effluviant proboscisity is most comforting to you (ten being a dangerous level of adenoidal immersion)?
Joe Walsh. Leon Redbone. Jad Fair. Jimmy Dale Gilmore (who is known in  Austin, Texas as "Ol' Lonesome Nostrils")? That dude from Sunny Day Real Estate?  Needless to say, a full battery of tests in a clinical setting could easily determine your nose to ear compatibility quotient as well as your tolerance for various keens, yips, mewls, grunts and whimpers. You might be surprised by the differences found in the predilections of your average Victoria Williams fan, Kristin Hersh fan, Shakira fan and Buffy St. Marie fan.
Of course, there is a scale and then there is beyond the pale. Your Ubu difficulty ratings in the
95th percentile or higher. The yo-yo snorts and warbles of Beefheart borne from the unholy croakus behemoth known as Howlin' Wolf as well as the glory glory glottalujah upheavals and "I'll be damned if I didn't go and get a bullfrog stuck in my throat and now it's dead and I've been trying to cough it up for years now to no avail" glossolalia of Bobby "Blue" Bland. The burbling, bubbling insanity-is-just-around-the-bend laughing boy creepiness of Napolean XIV.  He of the one-hit wondrousness and who inspired legions. From Dr. Demento's radio persona and reason for being to that goofball who used to be in Mercury Rev before that band discovered the cure for insomnia. The art-dunked pro-weirdo sounds of people like ex-Homosexual, Brit D.I.Y.  legend, Ebay gold standard and Johan Kugelberg-touted L. Voag. Whose early 80's The Way Out solo elpee is riddled with mysterious guitar tunings and off-key high-pitch yelps. His sound would unwittingly become the template --along with that of Ohio-bred dub house legends and precursors to everything, Pere Ubu, not to mention the archival late 70's/early 80's work of buckeye gods Ron House & Mike Rep, and come to think of it Ohio-lamenting Canuck and man of a thousand whines Neil Young-- for a large portion of modern indie stuff too weird or geeky to be called punk. Hah! Imagine being too geeky to be called punk. That's really, really geeky. Which is why I dig stuff like the new Rapider Than Horsepower album. Cuz  they iz freeky and they are through being cool. Cuz I'm sick of people who still wanna be Iggy's dog. (Ironic cuz Iggy is the biggest geek of them all. But then so is Lou.) My quirk standard is easy to suss: I like people who used to KNOW Zappa and the people who Mike Patton thinks are cool. And I like Geddy Lee but not Primus. It's that simple.  Rapider's music is as far from the curdled musings of abstemious longhairs obsessed with titty jokes as you would like them to be. But then that particular brand of Uncle Miltie-in-drag pursed lip meanness probably went to the grave with Zappa anyway. At least as far as most music is concerned. The "everyone is icky, stupid and foul" aesthetic is unfortunately an American tradition that goes back to Cotton Mather and gets picked up from time to time by people like Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute. But the more open-ended Beefheart microverse is where the out-there kids aspire to live. Right next to Uncle Sonny on Saturn.  Bizarre beats straight every time. The wank/prog shifts in tone and time in Rapider's songs are melded with
the betterer and newerer leaps in whimsy innovation brought to you by folks as close or as far away from each other philosophically as you would care to argue: Modest Mouse, Devendra Banhart, or maybe even a faint whiff of the twee-no/lo-ramshackle-fi of sea salt-seasoned siltbreeze loons from the 90's like the Shadow Ring or Alastair Galbraith. Impeccably timed hoots and group hollers and even a
cheerleader-style shout-out that spells the band's name and which grows more and more desultory with every passing letter. Shaggy enthusiasm and twisty guitar lines: the Meat Puppets and Fraggle Rock converge on the same hallowed ground. And that voice that shakes and breaks and cracks. A
voice that is my idea of idiot fun but that might just be a deal breaker for those enamored with a lower register or attempts at sobriety. Or for those people who insist that they were terrified of circus clowns as children and who prefer the cackle/croon/growl/spit takes of a Mr. Bungle. There are moments on Stage fright, Stage fright, where they seem to bottle the poetic essence of ex-Zappa pal Wildman Fischer. He had that inimitable way of taking a line like "Jimmy Durante is coming to town" from his tune "Jimmy Durante" and giving the word "is" an extra push up the cliff until it gasped for breath at the summit of deranged inflection. I might be so bold as to say that Rapider Than Horsepower ARE the "is" from "Jimmy Durante". Others might disagree and say that surely they are the babies from the line "screaming babies" in Eve Libertine's deathless reading of "Shaved Women" by Crass. It's possible that they are both these things.
Rapider Than Horsepower are Sal, Mike Dixon, Mike Anderson and Rob Smith.
I don't know where they are from or who they are. They should move to Ohio if they don't live there already. Their song about caterpillars goes "POP! Tttttt POP! Tttttt POP!" Their song about babies is
called "Rock Against Mapquest." In another song called, "Lick Me on the Face, It Feels Funny" there is a great line about C.L. Smooth & L.L. Cool J. Stage fright, Stage fright is less than 25 minutes long and is part one of a projected 2-part series. They amble and stumble and make a racket. They aren't that funky but they make really silly songs and sounds with their mouths. They could do a killer cover of "They're Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa" if they wanted to.  


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