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Against the machine

Top photo (left to right): Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place and Half Japanese (handout photos); above: Foxygen (Cara Robbins)


Against the machine

The ‘hit factory’ hasn’t sapped the individuality of these musicians

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of Big Brother’s tools for opiating the masses is the versificator, a machine that cranks out popular songs brimming with lowest-common-denominator sentimentality.

Orwell’s fiction is now reality.

In 2015, the journalist John Seabrook published The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. It revealed that a handful of Oz-like wizards have come to dominate the pop-song industry by perfecting a clinically (and cynically) efficient, assembly-line means of song production that gives music consumers increasingly wired for instant gratification exactly what they want.

There remain, however, musicians of such endearingly cantankerous individuality that they can’t help throwing wrenches into the machinery’s well-oiled gears.

Two of them, Jad Fair and Rob Crow, have been at it for some time. Their latest efforts suggest that they have no intention of letting up.

Fair’s is Hear the Lions Roar (Fire), his 16th long player with the band that he co-founded over 40 years ago, Half Japanese. Crow’s is You’re Doomed. Be Nice (Temporary Residence). His first with his ensemble Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, it doesn’t sound all that different from what he was cooking up in the early ’90s with his debut band, Heavy Vegetable.

Both albums sound chaotic at first. Fair favors not only garage-rock production but also speak-singing lyrics that sound as if he improvised them at the mic, lyrics that alternate between summarizing B-movie plots (giant leeches, zombie hippies) and extolling childlike optimism as a life force.

“Do It Now” and the title track urge listeners to “keep [their] hands on the plow” and to “celebrate the good stuff” respectively. “On the Right Track” acknowledges wine’s capacity to gladden the heart. And deceptively simple rhythms propel a sound that’s equal parts joyful noise and noisy joy.

Rhythms help define Crow’s chaos too. Unlike Fair, Crow almost never settles for simple time signatures. When the drums aren’t delivering herky-jerk syncopation, the guitars are, their staccato-like stutter occasionally exploding into heavy-metal barrages that release the tension resulting from his obsessively unpredictable chord progressions.

His lyrics aren’t as innocent (he indulges mild vulgarity), as optimistic, or as decipherable as Fair’s. But at his hookiest, Crow’s hookier. “Rest Your Soul” (turbo-charged power-pop) and “Paper Doll Parts” (an amalgam of catchy song parts) provide a crash course in instant out-of-left-field irresistibility.

Neither Half Japanese nor Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, however, come close to the machine-frustrating machinations of the Californians Sam France and Jonathan Rado, better known as Foxygen.

Their 2014 album … And Star Power was a sprawling 82-minute project that sounded like David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, The Incredible String Band, early Pink Floyd, and The Velvet Underground thrown together in a bag and slammed against a wall until nothing remained but shards for France and Rado to mix and match into a fascinatingly kaleidoscopic whole.

By contrast, their new album, Hang (Jagjaguwar), comprises eight discrete songs and clocks in at a svelte 32:31. Yet France and Rado still wear their influences on their sleeves, adding Donna Summer (“America”), August Darnell (“Avalon”), Meat Loaf (“Rise Up”), and—when France sings in his lower register—Scott Walker (“Upon a Hill”) to their chamber of echoes.

The snappy use of a 40-piece orchestra gives the proceedings a ’70s vibe, but both the orchestra and the vibe are France’s and Rado’s servants, not their masters. As an imaginatively rich declaration of artistic independence during a time of nearly smothering homogeneity, Hang couldn’t sound more contemporary.


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  •  Wilebo's picture
    Posted: Sat, 01/28/2017 12:50 pm

    Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws. Andrew Fletcher