Mr. Oizo: The Church

The French producer of the grotesque, Mr. Oizo (pronounced Wahzo) has been around for about 15 years, but many people may have first encountered him last week, with the release of the music video for “Ham”, starring John C. Reilly. That video, directed by Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric, starts out as an extremely on-the-nose parody of Black Friday, but by refusing to let up on the gas, Wareheim manages to bring it to an interesting climax in the form of a Mexican Standoff, a la The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The video is at once strange, annoying, compelling, and obvious, which makes it a perfect vehicle for Mr. Oizo’s music. His new album, The Church, is his first for Brainfeeder, but it’s very much in tune with his methods for the past decade, taking the electronic sounds of the moment—in this case, trap, post-dubstep, and electro—and warping them in a fun-house mirror. Oizo, whose real name is Quentin Dupieux, has been compared to his fellow Frenchmen, Justice, many times in the past, and there’s definitely something there. But his music also bears thinking about in relation to newer artists; now that PC Music has emerged, Oizo almost feels like a long-standing, supervillianous nemesis to that candy-brite collective.

Does that mean that Dupieux has long been ahead of his time? Certainly. His music exists to disturb the natural state of things; he makes use of the dissonance of Inga Copeland but substitutes her icy cool for off-the-wall juvenilia. His love of the puerile is probably the most obvious element of his sound. Take “Dry Run”, which, though it bears some resemblance to “Turn Down for What”, substitutes that ubiquitous mantra with the goofy-voiced and terrifying plea to “scream for daddy.”

This kind of cartoonish menace appears many times throughout The Church. “Mass Doom”, a standout here, could soundtrack “Adventure Time” if the show were produced by the Joker—a sense of foreboding lurks within its impossibly cartoonish sound effects. “iSoap'”s got a nice groove which soon gets torn apart by a brassy loop plaguing you with its endless repetition like water torture.

The best tracks on the record are the ones confident enough to place their weirdness in the foreground. With the bizarro trap of “Bear Biscuit” (which even includes some DJ Rashad-like sampling at its tail) and the straightforward thump of “Ham”, Dupieux seems to put all his cards on the table and the result are the two most compelling songs on the record.

But what’s most frustrating about Mr. Oizo is that, despite all his rule-breaking, his songs quickly start to feel shallow, as if he’s run out of ideas. “Memorex”, the shortest song on the record, is one loop and a squeaker for the entirety of its running time, and once you get over their more irritating aspects, most of the songs here feel just that simple.

Then again, striving for anticlimax is a form of the avant garde. The title track ends the record, and when cloaked in words, Mr. Oizo’s aimless clowning becomes explicit. The song tells the story of a group of friends who get bored and steal cars. Many times throughout the song, it feels as if the group will do something terrible, particularly when the music drops and they go to the church. But nothing especially violent happens. The track is all suggestion. Despite the genuine fear that Oizo manages to build-up with this and other tracks on The Church, he does it all through the power of suggestion. Nothing ever really happens.

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Ty Segall: $INGLE$ 2

Ty Segall‘s 2011 singles compilation collected material he recorded and released between 2007 and 2010—25 loose ends from his “scrappy upstart” beginnings. His songs weren’t especially complex, but they hit their marks and made an impact. His crazed performances were undeniable. Sure, the recording quality was pretty crummy, but you could say the same of the Oblivians‘ and Reatards‘ early records (and Segall’s demos stand up alongside Soul Food and Teenage Hate). It was easy to root for him on those early outings—the fresh-faced punk screamer unleashing his inner demon and making songs promising enough to make you wonder where he’d go next.

His trajectory from there—following Melted in 2010—isn’t as easily summarized. After signing to Drag City, he generally moved in a singer/songwriter direction, but still kept releasing one-off rippers on labels like Castle Face, Goner, and Permanent. And now, his prodigious output is what he’s best known for: Segall has released a lot of music, heaps of stuff, to the point where it’s hard to keep track of it all, and he’s refused to conform to a single style or aesthetic. Sometimes, he’ll sing in a detached croon (“Fine”) and trigger full-on folk nostalgia with his acoustic rambles (“Gold on the Shore”, “The West”). Elsewhere, he transforms into Mr. Hyde for blasts of vicious, blistering rock’n’roll (Slaughterhouse). So when presented with a compilation of singles from his past four years, the first question is which version of Segall will get top billing: the lizard-brained Kiss/Black Sabbath apostle or the sentimental balladeer.

Thankfully, $INGLE$ 2‘s 12 songs avoid pigeonholing. Segall brings the fuzz and fury, but the aggression is cut with tracks like “Falling Hair” and “Children of Paul”, the plaintive Goodbye Bread era B-sides. If his previous singles compilation showed an artist asserting his garage punk dominance, this is the teenaged wrecker all grown up and ready to prove that he’s capable of much more.

For a collection of odds and ends, $INGLE$ 2 works remarkably well as an album. To my ear, it’s sequenced better than Twins or Manipulator, which makes some sense: the tracks are presented in chronological order, which makes for a natural narrative, each of his short-lived modes transitioning into his next. It also helps that there’s no filler to speak of—any A-sides already found on Drag City albums have been omitted in favor of B-sides and rarities. The only track that previously appeared on an album is “Hand Glams”, but the single version is another beast entirely, and, with the addition of vocal harmonies and a psychedelic warble, a far more interesting one at that.

It’s almost hard to believe that Segall’s scraps are this strong—take “For Those Who Weep”, a Twins era B-side that ranks as one of the best songs he’s written. It was a sign of things to come from Sleeper—warm acoustic material that sounds classic, the sort of thing you could have seen the Byrds covering. On the other end of the spectrum, Segall delivers “Fucked Up Motherfucker”, which, with its vicious churn and Steve Mackay-style sax, deserves a place in the spotlight instead of getting lost in the shuffle as one-twelfth of Castle Face’s Group Flex II book. Segall even breaks the trend of covers that feel like hollow throwaways. (The low point of Slaughterhouse was the Segall Band’s version of Captain Beefheart’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”.) His ramped up version of the Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Femme Fatale” excels in this comp’s context, as does his stomping rendition of the Groundhogs’ “Cherry Red”. The album ends on a high note with “Pettin the Dog”, a predictably vicious GG Allin cover (made G-rated for WFMU, with a more radio-friendly title).

Segall’s most recent album, Manipulator, was at times a frustrating listen. It was quite good on a song for song basis, but it often felt safe, and Segall’s mix of thrilling and somber was muddied. All of which explains why this compilation is so welcome. In addition to rounding up odds and ends, it’s an important LP in its own right. Don’t be fooled by how tacky the two dollar signs look in that album title: $INGLE$ 2 is the best Ty Segall album that got released in 2014.

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Slim Twig: A Hound at the Hem

Slim Twig is a young man from Toronto named Max Turnbull and, among other things, his work makes the case that Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” might well be a cultural high-water mark. He’s by no means a novelty act, however; Turnbull takes underground art seriously and literally, releasing spooky, risen-from-the-grave albums like A Hound at the Hem that feature multi-layered, sophisticated pop songs mired in misdirection and haunted-house trickery.

When he was the toast of Toronto a few years ago, Slim Twig was an intriguing cultural cross between John Waters, Vincent Price, and Gene Pitney—high-minded, campy, and playful enough to draw us into his surreal world of rockabilly blues and horror. A precocious theatre kid at the time (his parents are filmmakers Ross Turnbull and Jennifer Hazel; he himself played Ellen Page’s love interest in The Tracey Fragments), he took as much care of his visual persona—a nattily dressed, pompadour-sporting crypt-keeper—as he did his music. However divisive, he was Canada’s great grey hope for an unlikely moment, shielding us from the restless, driving spirt within.

His work has drawn comparisons to wily shape-shifters like David Bowie, Suicide, Nick Cave/The Birthday Party, and David Lynch, all of whom have certainly drawn power from the same hair-raising darkness that feeds Slim Twig. He recorded A Hound at the Hem in 2010 but shelved it in favor of a more palatable album called Sof’ Sike. Apparently Hound’s edgy, mind-altering textures were a bit much for anyone accustomed to the comparably direct, accessible releases he’d dispatched up to this point. For all of his slick grit, nothing seemed to spook him and his business associates as much as the enigmatic A Hound at the Hem, which, after a small self-released run in 2012, is finally reaching a wider audience via DFA

The record starts so beautifully with “Heavy Splendour”‘s soothing string arrangement by Owen Pallett and executed by St. Kitt’s string quartet. But the progression deliberately goes awry. Turnbull’s penchant for dramatically off-kilter musical flourishes and gestures means that an infectious pop progression is often perverted and unsettled; some kind of howling, dissatisfied specter possesses each song’s eerie  soundscape.

A Hound at the Hem has been framed as a call-back to Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier’s 1971 masterpiece Histoire de Melody Nelson, which is a loose but orchestral concept record inspired by Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita. Turnbull’s adaptation of his source material is distorted and murky, barely articulating notions of ill-advised romance before reflecting them in a funhouse mirror. He adopts different voices, calling and responding with himself, as he utters mostly indecipherable lyrics. Rather than firm intent, he primarily conveys foreboding attitude and an outsider’s cold-as-ice swagger. On “Clerical Collar”, he sounds like Jim Morrison fronting a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, strains of “L.A. Woman” seeping through with a creepy choir of low and high voices emerging during every chorus.

A Hound at the Hem is a twilight zone of madness and provocation. As the album unfolds, Slim Twig rarely ever sounds like the same guy, each song (hell, each verse) presenting multiple personalities and tones of expression. Its hard-psych is ugly, alluring carnival music that warps and melts before us just as we begin to trust it. Through it all though, there’s an undercurrent of humor and fun; Turnbull’s active imagination stretches out for miles and he comes across as a twisted visionary on his most accomplished album yet.

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Richard Dawson: Nothing Important

Richard Dawson’s music often deals with death or disaster. The Newcastle singer-songwriter’s breakthrough album, 2011’s The Magic Bridge, features songs like “Grandad’s Deathbed Hallucinations” and “Man Has Been Struck Down by Hands Unseen”, as well as a “Black dog in the sky/ Who pisses and slobbers all over the world.” When looking for inspiration for his follow-up (2013’s concept piece The Glass Trunk) Dawson began with a database search for “death” at his hometown museum. The album’s a capella ballads, inspired by centuries-old news clippings, tell tales of mutilated horses, murder, and the moors. His latest LP, Nothing Important, is no less morbid in its talking points, but the tragedies described are less outlandish. The subject matter feels personal, often uncomfortably so, and Dawson always falls far from sentimentalizing or softening it.

The primary sonic forces on the album are Dawson’s brittle, crudely amplified nylon-string acoustic guitar—which recalls the timbre of UK free-improv giant Derek Bailey’s playing—and his fitfully expressive tenor voice, which, when not incited to the point of howling self-evisceration, evokes Robert Wyatt’s. On other albums Dawson has explored his disparate musical tendencies separately from one another: Experimental drones, folk sketches, imitation field cries, and free jazz diversions were relegated to separate tracks and even different releases. Nothing Important fulfills and extends the promise of this earlier work; incongruous stylistic elements are overlaid upon one another, and packed into unwieldy but tightly-wrapped packages (particularly, two dense, 16-minute long compositions).

The album’s lyrics begin with a birth, but the time stamp suggests that it is not Dawson’s: “I am born by Caesarean section at 9:30 AM/ In Princess Mary’s Maternity Hospital on the 24th May/ Sixty years ago today.” In a handful of lengthy verses—often fit to iambic rhythms and lilting melodies reminiscent of 16th-century madrigals—Dawson sketches painful but faint memories, including the death of a baby and an uncle who reappears as a ghost. The choruses are explosive, and derail easily (“I am nothing/ You are nothing/ Nothing important”). Running through a laundry list of mundane, still-life images maddens the title track’s narrator to the point of surrendering: “Why do they remain so clear while the faces of my loved ones disappear?” Eventually Dawson’s voice trails off, and the instrumental themes which hold the piece together reappear briefly—fatigued and sluggish—and fade. Full of unlikely musical juxtapositions and bizarre imagery (dark omens like “a barracuda chewing on a chrysanthemum” or “a forking hairline seam of superglue through the Black Gate”) “Nothing Important” is perhaps Dawson’s most ambitious and affecting composition to date.

“The Vile Stuff” is less nuanced: a slow-burning dirge based around a snippet of a sinister, raga-like melody. Dawson’s lyrics center on a group of classmates (“year 7’s”) who suffer dire consequences after sharing a Coke-bottled slurry of mixed liquors on a fieldtrip. The humor here is pitch black, similar to that of an Edward Gorey picture book: Dawson’s narrator and his fellow transgressors suffer fractured skulls and cheekbones, stab screwdrivers through their hands, and hop into bed with their teachers. The song culminates in a blistering cacophony of bowed harp drones (courtesy of Dawson’s frequent collaborator Rhodri Davies), funereal percussion and feedback—the sound is only as discordant and unpleasant as adolescence.

Nothing Important is driven by an ongoing conflict between entropic impulsiveness and an almost classical sense of beauty and order. The music is frequently caught in a tug of war between melody and harmony. In the guitar instrumentals that bookend the album, for instance, Dawson always runs the risk of letting a particularly effusive riff overwhelm the chords and rhythms, and topple the whole musical edifice into a series of fragmented stabs and melodic shards. The lyrics, meanwhile, alternate visions of despair, pain, and anger with moments of reconciliation and acceptance. The ritual drama of falling and picking one’s self back up again (taking “responsibility,” as Dawson prefers in interviews) plays out in every element of this music, and is key to its elusive power.

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