Music: All ears 

You hear plenty about outsider artists these days — self-taught, often obsessive individuals whose distinctive styles seem to come out of nowhere — but with a few exceptions, not much attention is given to this world’s musical side. A new compilation from France, Musics in the Margin (Sub Rosa), aims to change that by corralling American near-stars Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis with a handful of French and Belgian music-makers whose work is equally unusual.

As lyrics are often a big part of this stuff’s interest, non-Francophones will be at a disadvantage, especially when a performer like the one known here as David engages in a lot of chatter with his audience. Sometimes the chatter is musical in itself, as in recordings by MC Speedy and Konstantin Raudive, whose verbal tics and tape-radio manipulations would be at home on a program of avant-garde composition. Jacques Brodier would fit there as well: His homemade contraption, called a “Reality Filter,” picks up many radio broadcasts at the same time, weaving them into eerie soundscapes. Treats like this make up for the disc’s more trying moments, like the 12-minute polemic by Galaxia that ends the disc by trying to squash an epic history of socialism into folk-song form.

Galaxia’s tirade isn’t nearly as catchy as the opening track of Peaches’ brandnew Impeach My Bush (XL), on which a heavy drumbeat glues together three unsubtle themes: one anti-war, one prosex, and one calling for Congress to make Dubya very uncomfortable.

Most of the politics on this deeply screwy record are a little less overt and a lot more pornographic. Imagine a college performance-art piece put together by gender-studies majors and deconstructionists, all of whom are horny and obsessed with tech-funk. If that sounds unappealing, imagine that somebody in the group is actually a dance-floor whiz and can set all this stuff — inversions of hip-hop misogyny with lots of graphic instructions about how to please a woman — to catchy beats. Peaches, a woman known to wear a beard, isn’t likely to get into the mainstream anytime soon, but she nails her niche.

The Fiery Furnaces sounded a lot like outsider artists on their last record, crafting pop songs around tapes of their grandmother’s rambling storytelling, but they sound more like a regular band on Bitter Tea (Fat Possum). That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of weirdness going on: Turn-on-a-dime style changes, toy pianos, and ray-gun noises swim around the often not-quite-singing voice of Eleanor Friedberger. Personally, I’d like a sequel to the grandma thing, but this is fun, too.

Who is more outside the cool world of pop music than an author? Sitting at home behind a keyboard is not conducive to crafting one’s stage presence. Fortunately, a Brooklyn band called One Ring Zero came to the rescue a while back with As Smart As We Are (Barbès Records), whose lyrics were penned by big names Paul Auster, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood, and more. The effort was likely not completely altruistic: ORZ’s sound, a decadent cabaret cloud wrung from instruments like the metallophone, bass melodica, and claviola (I won’t even mention the power drills and kitty litter) is an esoteric pleasure that surely got more exposure than it would have thanks to the highbrow association. Now that the NPR world has been introduced to the band, ORZ will follow up next month with Wake Them Up, for which they wrote their own lyrics.

Finally: As one of the few things less fashionable than a claviola is tap dancing, incorporating tap into indie rock doesn’t sound like the brightest of ideas. Weirdly, it works for Tilly and the Wall, whose Bottoms of Barrels (Team Love) uses dancer Jamie Williams as a percussion instrument. The effect is less vaudeville than flamenco, though, with pounding tap-a-taps upping the music’s emotional ante, lending drama to songs that are already pretty high in it. The band’s singers strain at the outer edge of their vocal ranges, like kids for whom nothing in the world is more important than making you understand what they’re saying; the songs are like nuggets of optimism dredged from a scary lake. Optimism may be awfully square, but here it sounds like fun.   

More by John DeFore



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.