Three Best Repetitions of 2014

  • Myriam Gendron, Not So Deep as a Well
  • Protomartyr, Under Color of Official Right
  • Joanna Gruesome, Weird Sister

 

Most of the music I listened to in 2014 fits into one of two categories. There was the music I heard only once, whether at a show, listening on the radio, or following a link on the Internet, and of which I kept only the memory; and there was the music I listened to at home, repeatedly: LPs and CDs and cassettes and mp3s that I own and return to again and again.

Protomartyr. Photo by Angel Ceballos.

Each category is timeless. Timeless, in the case of the former, because the listening occurs in a single instant that immediately fades; and, in the case of the latter, because the listening repeats over time, such that the experience comes to be made up of several instances, rather than any single one.

What interests me most is the music I heard this year that fits into a third category, music that enables a rare kind of listening that manages to capture the single instant and to preserve it without sacrificing its singularity. This kind of listening partakes of both the fleeting feel of the concert and the permanence I associate with familiar recordings. Having this experience requires two conditions: there has to be a distinct moment of discovery, and there has to be a means of knowingly returning to that moment. It’s a kind of listening I want to call repetition, thinking here of how Walker Percy, in his essay “The Man on the Train,” uses the term to refer to a search into the past to find meaning. I managed a few repetitions in 2014, and three in particular seem worth highlighting.

One Saturday morning last April I turned on the radio in my kitchen to listen to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet show on WFMU. I listened for a half hour or so while making breakfast. At some point, Davison played a song by the Montreal singer-songwriter Myriam Gendron. The song, as Davison explained in the break between sets, was called “Solace,” and it was from a record on which the singer had taken poems by Dorothy Parker and set them to music. I wrote down the name, then turned the radio off.

I listen to Davison’s show most Saturdays. Most of the time I’m not looking to make any discoveries. Usually I’m content to let the music be ephemeral, to simply listen to the boom box in the corner with the busted antenna that only gets a signal when the toaster is plugged in and to let whatever figures of subtle beauty might emerge from it pass by. For whatever reason, though, I decided to make a note about Gendron.

I found the album, Not So Deep as a Well, on LP from Feeding Tube Records in Northampton, MA. At that time I was about to move, and I was torn between ordering the record right away—which, given that it was a limited pressing, I was especially eager to do—or waiting until the next month, when I’d be in my new apartment. I didn’t want to order the record and then have it lost in the mail, stranded between addresses. I ended up buying the record and including a fidgety, anxious note with the Paypal transaction, requesting that the seller hold off on sending the LP if they didn’t think they could do so before the end of the month. As it turned out, Feeding Tube shipped it out without delay.

I’ve listened to Not So Deep as a Well a number of times in the past six months. It’s a fine record. There’s a moment on side two, on the song “The Red Dress,” a moment in each verse when Gendron’s voice rises to a high note, lingers there for a few beats, then descends step-wise into the next bar. There’s nothing so spectacular about the music surrounding this moment. Still, it is a moment of quiet but intense beauty, and one that brings me back to that Saturday earlier this year when I first heard Gendron.

In June I traveled to Montreal myself to cover the Suoni per il Popolo festival for the Brooklyn Rail. My second day in town, I ventured outside the Mile End district, where I was staying, to catch a show headlined by Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts. At the show I was struck by one of the opening acts, a band from Detroit called Protomartyr. One song in particular stood out. It sounded uncannily familiar; I was convinced I’d heard it play during the end credits of the Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive, which I’d seen a few weeks prior and which is set, in part, in Detroit. Subsequent Internet searches could neither confirm nor deny this, but they did turn up the song itself: “Come and See.”

It wasn’t until August that I picked up the band’s latest record, Under Color of Official Right. The cover image is a close-up of a dog baring its teeth, and brings to mind the lyrics to a song on side two called “Scum, Rise!” As with all the lyrics on the album, it pays to quote them at length:

The Wayne County Stank Dogs will
play in the open air there
The suburban fathers will be
in the city center
The sports bar exploded
and everyone died now you know
how it feels to be alive
SCUM, RISE!

The bleak scene, the sports bar and the suburban fathers and the injunction to draw some falsely positive lesson from catastrophe—the dogs of Wayne County are there and they see it all, a mute Greek chorus, omniscient and vicious. Protomartyr is a band that wears its Detroit origins proudly—though pride might not be the word—drawing from that city’s ills the material to form a far more sweeping indictment of the nation as a whole. The ironic opening lines of “Come and See” make that indictment clear: “Have you heard / the bad news? / We’ve been saved / by both coasts.” In these lines there is a powerful sense of both injury and defiance, a sense that I picked up first seeing the band outside the U.S., and that becomes clearer each time I listen to the record.

While at the record store buying Under Color of Official Right, I also picked up the album Weird Sister by a band called Joanna Gruesome. The name seems less a mean-spirited dig at the indie pop singer Joanna Newsom than an instance of Internet-age comments section prankster-ism—the album’s cover art features Raymond Pettibon-esque illustrations of, among other things, a little kid sticking her tongue out. As I lifted the record from the stacks to take a closer look, the guy next to me told me that it was good and I should buy it.

I was on the fence; but for the stranger’s endorsement, I might not have bought the record. I knew of the band only from my friend Ben having sent me a link to the video for “Sugarcrush.” The video left an impression, to say the least. It opens to a clanging diminished chord, with a visual of the band’s name unspooling on a roll of toilet paper (one letter per square). As the major chords kick in along with the pretty reverbed voices, the visual assault ramps up.

There’s commercial kitsch and glitz galore: A stuffed poodle leaves a gem-studded turd, a clip art cheeseburger sprouts eyes and a mouth. Around the two-minute mark, as we’re watching a pizza fly down a wormhole, that diminished chord kicks back in and we go from sugar rush to sugar crash. Out pops a grainy figure with a drawn-on dick; a single sperm flies across the screen to collide with an egg, which explodes. The video ends with an old photograph, a peaceful suburban setting of a girl in the front yard—and a planet, suddenly falling to crush her.

The album makes good on the video’s promise. The record is pressed on clear vinyl with a bright green splotch; it recalls nothing so much as the fake vomit you’d find in a joke shop. Though a 12-inch, it plays at 45 rpm, appropriate given the hyperactive mood throughout. I don’t know whether the band’s music is meant to be of a piece with the hyper-banal instant gratification on view in the “Sugarcrush” video, or if, by embodying this aesthetic, it aims to attain something greater. Part of me feels ridiculous for even wondering. After all, there is something to the band that intrigued me enough to want to dig deeper.

I realize that the more I listen to these artists, the more the instant of my having discovered them will fade from my memory. Still, for now at least, listening to them is such a dear experience to me because it remains contingent on my having discovered them. All listening is like this: contingent on a chance occurrence. In a concert setting, where the music emerges and then is gone, this is self-evident. When we listen to the music we possess at home, we delude ourselves into thinking we have overcome this contingency and have attained permanent access.

But here’s the thing: vinyl warps, CDs get scratched, even Spotify is not immune to failure. And yet, with a repetition, we get to have it both ways. We get to return to the precise, fleeting moment of discovery. We get to savor, not the illusion of permanence, but our awareness of the ephemeral.

Contributor

Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.

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