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Existential Funk

Photo by Bernd Bodtlander

Stripped of the security of a past, the hope for a future, the existentialist mopes. “O, the detestability of human existence,” he thinks. “O, to be stuck in this interminable now, all skin and bone, slogging through the air of the present.” Or, to restate: Life sucks.

In Nausea — the first explicitly existentialist novel — Jean-Paul Sartre portrays the dissolution of a fictional French writer, Antoine Roquentin. Sequestered in a small town with few friends and a book of history to write, he experiences an intense philosophical crisis as he struggles with the bounds of human existence. In his attempts to reconcile himself with reality, Roquentin enters a state of persistent nausea, both literal and metaphorical. And in the cafés where he enjoys what little social contact the small town offers, he listens very carefully to records. A waitress, Madeleine, “turns the crank on the phonograph”:

. . . there is no melody, only notes, myriad tiny jolts. They know no rest, an inflexible order gives birth to them and destroys them without even giving them time to recuperate and exist for themselves. They race, they press forward, they strike me a sharp blow in passing and are obliterated. I would like to hold them back, but I know if I succeed in stopping one it would remain between my fingers only as a raffish languishing sound. I must accept their death; I must even will it. I know few impressions stronger or more harsh.

And that was just some obscure old ragtime record! What would Roquentin have thought if it was Smog he was dealing with?

“Dress sexy at my funeral, my good wife,” Smog sings on his latest album, Dongs of Sevotion, “for the first time in your life.” His voice is low, laconic, half-dead. The drummer’s hits are jazzy yet indifferent; guitars are attended to but barely so. The song’s narrator goes on to request that his beloved make an announcement to the assembled mourners:

Tell them about the time we did it

On the beach with fireworks above us

On the railroad tracks

With the gravel in your back

In the back room of a crowded bar

And in the very graveyard

Where my body now rests.

Smog — a.k.a. Chicago’s Bill Callahan — descended like a dark cloud onto the happy valley of indie rock in the late ’80s. As with many musicians starting up at the time, he utilized 4-tracks and cheaply dubbed cassettes as a lifeline to a life in music. Today, however, where once he used the 4-track’s limitations to build a scary intimacy into his songs, Callahan uses an orchestra, bringing a highly arranged grandeur to his dour sarcasm. He sits comfortably (but fidgeting) in the company of people like Elliott Smith and Lou Barlow of Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion — musicians once accused of being adherents to low fidelity but really studio rats all. While Smith and Barlow have moved on to major labels, Callahan still records for the Chicago indie Drag City. One loses count, but Dongs is at least his seventh full-length in a decade.

Smith, Barlow and Callahan often come across as borderline pricks, especially in their opinions of women and loved ones. Of the bunch, however, Callahan is the worst by far, taking the gilded desperation of Nick Drake, melting off the gilt and trading in the gold for a piece of ass. Callahan just seems like one of those guys whose self-hate masks a far greater distaste for the world at large. One imagines he’s quite cruel to lovers and exes.

His songs, though, they’re wonderful. The lyrics are funny in the darkest ways and dark in the funniest. And when the lazy players who usually back Callahan retire (or get fed up), evil machines take over: Half of these tracks contain loops and synths that resemble malevolent respirators. They are sounds that remain as afterthought, floating on air.

The best song here is called “Bloodflow.” It sports a beat like a sped-up, slowed-down human heart: “Hold on hold on with a grip so tight/It dams my blood makes my head feel light/Hearts will start and hearts will stop/And the blood will flow until we drop.”

Sartre would be proud.

 

In his e-mailed epistle, an unnamed Touch & Go Records publicist writes, “You could quote me on this: Fuck Smog!” He also offers up the new self-titled album from his label’s alternative to Smog: the For Carnation, a project led by Los Angeles’ Brian McMahan. No stranger to ridiculous band names, in the mid-’80s McMahan was teenage guitarist for a powerful Louisville, Kentucky, hardcore band called Squirrel Bait; in the early ’90s he was front man for the even better, less classifiable Slint, whose long, steady songs, interesting time signatures and soft, enigmatic vocals interspersed with guitar flameouts brought to mind the sound of grinding beef. The immediate impact of both Squirrel Bait and Slint was small, but their ever-widening gyre often seems as if it has sucked in the entirety of indie rock. Palace Brothers, Gastr del Sol, Tortoise, and a substantial part of the rosters of Chicago labels like Thrill Jockey, Drag City and Touch & Go wouldn’t have existed without these bands, nor would many of today’s artier strains of hardcore and punk.

 

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.

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