1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad
By J.R. Jones
When I was a teenager, my friends and I worshiped Cream–or as they arrogantly liked to call themselves, the Cream, meaning the royalty of England’s blues-rock musicians. We were all learning to play instruments back then, and we honed our chops on endless, shapeless jams of “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” We played rock ‘n’ roll for the same reasons teenage boys have always played it: to expend our limitless aggression, to burnish our fragile egos, and most of all, to get girls. But we also took a certain amount of pride in our musicianship: like our perpetually noodling heroes, we wanted to master our instruments. Guitar feedback isn’t very sexy, but controlled feedback–what could be sexier than that?
Punk rock changed everything. Suddenly Cream was synonymous with empty virtuosity, and jamming with flatulence or masturbation–both pleasurable activities, but nothing you’d want to do in front of an audience. (Unless, of course, you were really punk rock, and even then both would be cooler than jamming.) Eric Clapton might have been God in 1965, but by 1979 the messiah was Sid Vicious, who’d done his best work with a bass guitar when he was swinging it at someone. Punk proved that you could make compelling music with a minimum of technical skill; mastering an instrument would only inhibit your ability to express yourself. Like the folk movement of the 50s, it tore music out of the hands of the recording stars and handed it back to “regular people,” whatever that means. It offered a gospel of democracy, of empowerment, and by the mid-80s “DIY”–the admonition do it yourself–had spawned an alternate music industry that encompassed everything from hardcore to psychedelia to fey pop.
But a minimum of technical skill doesn’t guarantee compelling music, and after two decades the punk ethic has begun to generate its own pernicious arrogance. Nothing else could explain 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, an amorphous, self-indulgent “experimental” pop record by the Music Tapes. Julian Koster, who with his pal Robby Cucchiaro assembled the 41-minute collage of song snippets, tape loops, and sound effects over four years, is best known for playing banjo, accordion, and singing saw in Neutral Milk Hotel. In a press release for this bedroom recording project, Koster says the Music Tapes began as “a place inside myself to hide, and a way to share something with my friends. Because the Music Tapes were more ‘places’ than recordings to me, they didn’t have to follow the same rules and structures as the records I bought in stores.” Koster recorded much of 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad at his grandmother’s house, where perhaps he also scribbled the CD’s liner notes and grade-school artwork. The Music Tapes’ tour supposedly will include performances not only in rock clubs (they appear Friday at Lounge Ax) but in fans’ houses and backyards.
A few years ago the Music Tapes would have been just that–cassette tapes, sold for a couple bucks at live shows or put on consignment at the neighborhood record store. In fact, Koster’s high school band, Chocolate U.S.A., issued most of its work on cassette in the late 80s, through a mail-order-only tape-of-the-month club. But Koster is a lucky beneficiary of the hype currently engulfing the Elephant 6 Recording Company, a loose aggregation of psychedelic home-recording enthusiasts who met in Ruston, Louisiana, and later scattered to Denver and Athens, Georgia. The core Elephant 6 bands–Neutral Milk Hotel, the Apples in Stereo, and Olivia Tremor Control–are responsible for some of the best indie pop to emerge from the southeast since the days of Pylon, Let’s Active, and the dB’s, but with characteristic indie generosity, they’ve made their mythical recording company as inclusive as possible, slapping its logo on peripheral and less inspired bands like the Minders and the Gerbils.
Last year the North Carolina-based Merge Records released Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea to widespread critical acclaim; Spin recently numbered the haunting concept album among the best records of the 90s. In that band Koster is a sideman, but apparently its exalted reputation and the cachet of that little logo were enough to win 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad a spot on Merge’s summer release schedule. But this record wasn’t released–it escaped. 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad is a watery stew of tired melodies, fumbling banjo, blatted horns, banged piano, toy xylophone, singing saw, white noise, and wimpy narration that labors to mythologize the 1959 suicide of George Reeves, TV’s Superman. Koster shares with his colleagues an affinity for bizarre instruments and aural flights of fancy, but he can’t write a song to save his live.
I still believe the real measure of a band is in its stage show, and even the cream of the Elephant 6 crop have serious trouble finding their way around a guitar. Black Foliage, the latest CD by Olivia Tremor Control, is a spellbinding tapestry of song fragments and sonic experimentation, without question one of the year’s best records. But a few months ago, when OTC played the material at Lounge Ax, the opening act, Britain’s Super Furry Animals, mopped the floor with them. Neutral Milk Hotel was a ragged mess when it came through town to perform In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, its members tripping over each other and soloing on instruments they could barely play. Both these shows laid bare the utter presumptuousness behind DIY: I’m a trombonist because I’m here onstage blowing into a trombone.
What could be more American? Becoming a physicist might require years of sweat, discipline, and sacrifice, not to mention a God-given talent for mathematics, but any asshole can be an artist. During the 60s the creative writing program became a fixture at many universities, and hundreds of “little magazines” sprang up to accommodate the resulting tidal wave of mediocre fiction and poetry. Few of these magazines paid anything for the manuscripts they published, but they gave the amateur a chance to see his words in print without resorting to the ignominy of the vanity press. Indie rock has followed a similar path: during the 80s multitrack cassette recorders brought home recording to the masses, and indie labels–the musical equivalent of little magazines–sprouted like mushrooms. Now samplers permit us to play instruments without acquiring any musical skills, computers and CD burners are making digital sound available to amateurs, and with MP3 on the horizon we’ll soon have our own delivery systems as well.
Unfortunately, in a creative democracy people get the kind of art they deserve. Some 30,000 records were reportedly released last year, and for every masterpiece like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea there must have been a hundred pointless wank-offs like 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad. The lowering of our standards for “professional” pop music is more than just an annoyance: it perpetuates the already widespread exploitation of artists. With so many bands groping for their 15 minutes of fame, club owners can get away with murder, paying musicians in beer or not paying them at all: both employer and employee consider the ego gratification alone a fair wage.
It’s no coincidence that a monthly karaoke night has become one of Lounge Ax’s more popular offerings: karaoke allows regular people–whatever that means–to satisfy their hunger for the spotlight. But making music and being a musician are two entirely different endeavors: the first can be immensely gratifying, but the second requires talent, dedication, and a lot of tough decisions. The bond salesman who climbs onstage with three chords and an attitude may think he’s striking a blow for equality, but he might as well be Ginger Baker taking a half-hour drum solo.