By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
In the music McMahan has produced in the last decade, he has held firm to a fascinating practice of using more to produce less. In the past eight years he’s made four records. None of them, including his latest, has contained more than six songs. Despite debuting on Matador Records all the way back in 1995, the For Carnation had only two truncated releases: Fight Songs, a three-song EP, and Marshmallows, a six-song collection billed as a mini-LP. While there are five members in the group — McMahan is the only constant, and extra players are brought in as necessary — the For Carnation plays songs that often sound like they were created by a group half that size. “Emp. Man’s Blues,” the enigmatically titled leadoff track, is a perfect example. If the band’s core is to be counted, nine players are credited on the track, playing viola, cello, synths, keyboards, etc. You’ll hear drums, one quiet voice and a rising thrum.
Where the For Carnation’s past two records were â well in the orbit of McMahan’s post-punk and hardcore past, the new album is also informed by R&B, strangely enough; it sounds less like a band of grown-up punks, more like the Stax house band in repose. Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul comes to mind — only slower, quieter and more repetitive. Where R&B tends to find glory in ecstasy, McMahan’s songs find wonder in the approach to silence. Zen soul: “These phrases. These thoughts. Will come to mind. Of contact. The stated capacity. Breach of these terms shall not be known.” Whoa! Koan or contract litigation? You decide.
At the center of things is McMahan’s voice. It’s a whisper at half-volume, but that whisper is frequently the loudest thing in a given song. When McMahan betrays his vow of silence, you listen. There’s something here: beauty from detritus; a house built on burnt-out foundations; uniformly bad or odd song titles. (Think of the band’s name!) “Being Held” builds a groove from the ambient throb of low-grade feedback. On the album’s two duets, “Snoother” and “Tales (Live From the Crypt),” McMahan’s female partners — the Breeders’ Kim Deal, and Rachel Haden, formerly of L.A.’s That Dog — nearly forget to show up. McMahan, the loverman, is left virtually singing to himself.
Between Callahan and McMahan, one gets the sense that, though they come to opposing solutions to life, to love, to nausea, Callahan lives as an individual, a sardonic devil not bound by society, and McMahan lives as a phantom presence on the edge of it. This, of course, dooms both of them to the same fate: extreme solipsism. Again the compact disc spins, and one turns to Nausea. “She turns the crank and it begins again,” Sartre writes:
But I no longer think of myself. I think of the man out there who wrote this tune, one day in July, in the black heat of his room. I try to think of him through the melody . . . He made it. He had troubles, everything didn’t work out for him the way it should have: bills to pay — and then there surely must have been a woman somewhere who wasn’t thinking of him the way he would have liked her to — and then there was this terrible heat which turned men into pools of melting fat. There is nothing pretty or glorious in all that. But when I hear the sound and I think of the man that made it, I find this suffering and sweat . . . moving. He was lucky. He couldn’t have realized it.”
Coming at the end of Sartre’s novel, this passage records Roquentin’s breakthrough. He decides to abandon his nonfiction book of history and take up work on a novel, so that somewhere, at some time, someone might regard his life as “something precious and almost legendary.” Roquentin discovers that it is creative energy — in an obscure book, in the fading strains of a melody (“young and firm, like a pitiless witness”) — that sustains us.
Based on their persistent efforts to produce in spite of their less than accommodating world-views, both McMahan and Callahan seem to have come to the same conclusion as Sartre’s hero: Me me me; make make make. This is the only solution to existence’s elusive question: Why?
Perhaps it’s Callahan and McMahan’s narrow view of life — bounded by the creative self — that allows them both to so let down their guard, to let us in, to show us how scary and fragile and pretty a being can be inside the confines of an existentialist pop song.