Pitchfork Archives

May 8, 2003

Prefuse 73: One Word Extinguisher

Prefuse 73
One Word Extinguisher
[Warp; 2003]
Rating: 9.1

Up to now, Scott Herren -- the shy, lanky Atlantan responsible for Prefuse 73's fabulous glitch-hop debut Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives -- hasn't made his name as a purveyor of confessional music.
The closest he ever came was the laptop catharsis of Delarosa and Asora, which had no secrets to tell; rather, its intricacies of meter and texture gave your head something to do while your guts spilled out over it. Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives was hard-edged and fast-cutting, immersed in early rap techniques and sensibilities; it didn't express feelings, it steamrolled them. But One Word Extinguisher shows a range of emotional grappling usually foreign to instrumental hip-hop. It's clear that Herren was coming back to the studio night after night not just for skills and thrills, but for a measure of solace.

"The never-ending battle" is what Herren calls the break-up that lasted for the year-plus during which this album was in production. "I locked myself in my room working, disconnected the phone, bummed out as fuck," he told me in March. "You can't talk to anybody, you feel like shit, and it's the only thing you have to express yourself." A year of unspeakable suffering channeled into sixty ripe minutes: in the hands of anyone else, this could be torture.

The sorrow sparks with a sweeping wail of queasy ahhh's that carry stunted hopes for a soon-to-be-doomed relationship. Vocal scraps and a blood-curdling scream announce the descent of the mask of hip-hop rage, as an eightfold synth-scribbling bomb drops right into "The End of Biters", the first of several sucker-punching cutfests in the illustrious tradition of the edit record. Next comes Diverse's self-absorbed "Plastic", a screed that rails with righteous indignation against "pop trends and predetermined top-tens." All this over-the-top rebuke is obviously an escape from something.

Things begin to come into focus as "Uprock and Invigorate" bounces in with its edges exposed. Warm, fretless bass, flitting Rhodes, drizzling sawtooth, and a brittle snare intent on stocking up and locking down with every passing bar: everything is absolutely on point. But beneath the surface lies a hint of tension between the percussive exoskeleton and its syrupy core, an orderly contest of soul-versus-machine that momentarily eclipses the sense of loss.

The rest of the album projects this kind of tension into a giant battle of the sexes. "The Color of Tempo" mangles its feminine samples with a virile beatbox pattern; "90% of My Mind Is with You" breaks up heavy panting with a deliberately difficult, meter-defying beat, and ends with a series of mournful, defeated R&B samples. There can be no more doubt when, on "Female Demands", a girlfriendish voice casually tells Herren to "fuck with the beat here" only to be throttled by digital effects; the rest of the track feels like a giant damaged gynorcism. Before we know it, we're desperately trying to forget her, bumping with another woman who croons "you... you... you..." on the offs.

Meanwhile, straight meters are often sprinkled with triplet ligaments, propelling the beat with an uncommonly light touch. But Prefuse's rhythmic sophistication isn't just about alternating threes and fours -- as the lesson goes, it takes two interlocked meters to make African music. While Herren rarely tries to stand up in two meters at once, he often relies on the juxtaposition of mildly divergent rhythmic feels within the same beat, proving his mastery of some of the subtler tensions available to the instrumentalist.

Many tracks seem like tricks to distract us from the ongoing devastation. Sooner or later, it sinks in that we're in the company of an emotional fugitive, sealed in a room with machines whose perfect control, he is convinced, will allow him to avoid the inevitable emotional reckoning. Through scorn and bombast, through distraction and self-parody, through the sheer weight of craft, this Prefuse tries to wear his sorrow down, to crush himself, to explode the emptiness. A thrilling listen, but how could such a mission succeed?

I'm not sure how he did it. There's a glimmer of hope in the open restraint of "Choking You", a sawtooth shuffle scattered with chirpy, chalky bits. Another late track calls a gender truce, as a skeletal crunch frames some lightly doctored female vocals, giving a cold, sweet impression, like melon rinds left out in the rain. And the last track -- in spite of its metric and sexual duplicity -- gives a baffling promise of balance. Unexpectedly, the music becomes its own consolation.

September 15, 2003

Iron & Wine: The Sea and the Rhythm EP


[Sub Pop; 2003]
Rating: 8.4

It struck everyone as a little weird that Sub Pop would be the one to issue Sam Beam's hushed folk debut. From a distance, Beam's lo-fi compositions sounded like a Harry Smith field recording plucked away by Nick Drake with Crosby, Stills & Nash on backup. But close up it was all about the poetry: concrete, ambiguous, and laced with tender irony. Since Beam compares himself to J.J. Cale, and I'd even compare his lyrical style to Beck's Apollinaire-grade symbolism on Mutations, maybe it's not so weird that he's on Nirvana's label after all.

"I think I work with the visual a lot when I write," the part-time musician and full-time Miami film teacher once said. And The Creek Drank the Cradle was unabashedly concrete, studded with disarming pick-up lines like, "The water's there to warm you/ And the earth is warmer/ When you laugh," and, "Needlework and seedlings/ In the way you're walking." Its songs also sank into little moments still warm with loss -- small enough to get inside you, but general enough to fill you with an after-the-fact numbness recognizable as love. Mothers lost sons, daughters lost fathers, lovers lost love, and each song somehow contained a bit of each.

Strikingly, the singers on The Creek Drank the Cradle keep losing their religion, too: outgrowing the bonds of belief, losing their fear of the Lord, letting their mothers' bibles burn. One of them even looks back to see a long-extinct love as a kind of unrecoverable faith: "Found your rosary broken to pieces/ Every night by the bed you'd kiss the beads." Still, the crucifixion is the greatest myth of loss we have, and it's no shock that a lyricist soaked in southern allegory should adapt it for his own purposes. There's even a defiantly un-Christian ring to resurrection one-liners like, "Frozen, the ground refused to die/ And the guitar rose again."

But while the textures, tempos, and diction of the five short songs on The Sea & The Rhythm EP are consistent with what Iron & Wine has been -- and probably will always be -- the theme of loss has itself gone. In its place, Beam pushes trembling expectation, ecstatic abandon, and plain-faced repentance. Now, not one of these faded songs screams old-time religion, but it seems fair to wonder if there is a little revival going on here. "Beneath the Balcony" is a loping folk ballad telling the grim story of a warrior reduced to begging while some kids wait out a storm and "make sure the king won't grant the dead man one more day." At this point, it's an ambiguous parable with a crypto-Christian vibe worthy of C.S. Lewis. But when the Mother Mary appears begging with Christ on her lap, there's no question we're dealing with a gospel story. The song ends with a kid crouched behind a garbage can "who waits for the king to come/ And holds his sweating hand." Salvation, anyone?

The super-sweet title track, a hymn to sensual connection, is driven by its rare present-tense setting, but still sags. It draws its force from an ambiguity (is the "we" here lover/lover or mother/infant?) all a little too cheaply bought by come-ons like, "The milk from your breast is on my lips." Maybe the singer gets off by playing baby Jesus with grown women. Or maybe I just had to get a Jesus reference in for every song. At least I won't have to try for the last two.

The next track is a parable of sin and redemption masquerading as a nursery rhyme. Some Mexican kid -- called, you guessed it, Jesus -- was born in a truck on the fourth of July. A mobile manger for an American nativity scene. With fireworks blooming above like a star in the East, this selfless little immigrant gives the singer the best playing card in his grubby little deck. Such a pure act opens a space for Beam's trademark muffled irony, the kind of brutal understatement common on the LP but up to now absent on this EP: "He never wanted nothing I remember/ Maybe a broken bottle if I had two." Jesus covers for the singer, lets him break a five-dollar bet, and generally assumes his sins. Then, in an oddly specific twist, when the singer succumbs to temptation by secretly eloping to Vegas with Jesus' sister, the beatific child-god is there to greet them: "Naked, the Judas in me/ Fell by the tracks but he lifted me high/ Kissing my head like a brother and never asking why." Unmistakably salvific.

The last track goes down easy but is extremely hard to digest. "Someday the Waves" opens with a man waking at dawn to look down on his lover's face in wonder. The chorus seems like a sober display of faithfulness ("You pick a place that's where I'll be") until some cryptic and perverse forbearance slips in, Matthew-style: "Time, like your cheek, has turned for me." This could mean a number of things: the singer is marking time by his sleeping lover's tossing and turning; the lover's pallid complexion means the singer is running out of time; or, as the lover has patiently taken a beating, the singer has simply gotten older. The next verse promises a pie-in-the-sky day of redemption when "every aching old machine will feel no pain," but neglects to follow through with a credible image of relief.

It's the last verse that adds an oddly appropriate twist: "Waking before you I'm like the Lord/ Who sees his love though we don't know." Sure, it's a simile, but if you think about it, Sam Beam would make a great Holy Spirit. With a full-length album out by next Easter, he's got this Jew's vote for American Jesus in 2004.

January 27, 2004

Erik Friedlander: Maldoror

[Brassland; 2003]
Rating: 8.3

In 1846, Isidor Ducasse was born to a French consular official in Uruguay. By 1862, he had graduated from a French boarding school, where he's said to have excelled at arithmetic, drawing, and Latin verse translation. He was known to his peers as a silent boy who wrote "bizarre and obscure" poems. At 21, he was described by his editor as "a big, brown-haired young man, unshaven, nervous, of regular habits, and hard-working," known to his neighbors for banging out verses at the piano. A year later, under the pseudonym le Compte de Lautr�amont, he published the Chants de Maldoror. His death in 1870-- at 24, the age of your humble reviewer-- went unexplained and unnoticed, fulfilling a line from his last book: "I know my annihilation will be complete."

That it was, until half a century later, when surrealists started gushing over his dark wit and transgressive logic. Maldoror excited Andr� Gide to the point of delirium, and Andr� Breton went so far as to call it "the expression of a total revelation which seems to surpass human capacities." Maldoror is the kind of prose work that only a poet could love, a lavish and rapt necrocopia, fleshed out with obsessive rigor in a spirit that can truthfully be called cruel. If it has a plot, it is the narrator's descent into savagery and madness as he decides to follow the thorny path carved by his evil twin, Maldoror. But the whole thing is a little too decadent and far too choppy to be paraphrased.

Producer Michael Montes, we are told, took the risk of making Maldoror the basis for an album of improvisations by New York cellist Erik Friedlander, his first solo release. The formula is simple: put a piece of Ducasse's text in front of the cellist in the studio, along with a few notes, and let him compose music to match it on the spot. It panned out, more or less, not because Maldoror was conceived as a series of songs, but because Erik Friedlander can do things with a cello that should have a reasonable listener fearing for her life. Rostropovich one second and Rottweiler the next, Friedlander is a credible threat, working over the poet's perverse logic with power tools. The results are surprisingly literal settings of the poems, some falling flat, some holding up to repeated listening as through-composed studies would. Others work better as scores to enhance the creepy effect of the prose excerpts printed in the well-designed (if maddeningly typeset) liner notes.

We hear a single detuned tendril blossom into a blurry wall of thorns, cautioning the weak reader to turn around before he reaches the gate. "For unless he bring to his reading a rigorous logic and mental application at least as tough enough to balance his distrust," warns Lautr�amont, "the deadly sins of this book will lap up his soul as water does sugar." He makes good on this promise immediately, with a passage commanding the reader to grow out his fingernails so he can skewer the heart of a prepubescent boy, "but not so that he dies, for if he died you would miss the sight of his subsequent sufferings." The wind starts up, but its tenor lament is interrupted by gratings and gnashings. "Then dogs, driven wild, snap their chains and escape from far-off farms," the poet starts in, as uneven figures come to the surface. "Suddenly they stop, stare in every direction with a fierce unease, their eyes ablaze... as elephants in the desert look up one last time at the sky before dying, desperately lifting their trunks..." Screeching octaves whine up at the moon, gasping for punctuation, sawing their own torsos with bitter fifths.

Dawn breaks suddenly, and it's time for some airier mind games. "O stern mathematics, I have not forgotten you since your learned teachings, sweeter than honey, filtered through my heart like a refreshing wave," pluck the arpeggios as they sketch a stream of open chords. Just as a halting melody surfaces, it gets swallowed by a honeydew froth, as math clears the air with "an excessive coolness, a consummate prudence, and an implacable logic." Not for long. A madwoman tiptoes in-- gnawing, scraping, sobbing, scribbling-- as if driven "like a poplar leaf blown along by the whirlwind of unconscious powers" toward a world "she glimpses again through the mists of a demolished mind." No sooner does she vanish than the poet begins a long slow metamorphosis, with an earthmelting drone offering up a fine bouquet of mud and mulch. "I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit." As the reader looks on in horror, the cello drops tendrils as its master turns to fungus. "Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation not yet quite plant-life though no longer flesh as far as my belly is filled with parasites," the poet declares proudly. "My heart, however, is still beating."

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