Emperor X Western Teleport

[Bar/None; 2011]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: oshkosh bebop
Others: Mountain Goats, WHY?, Superchunk, Max Tundra

Huzzah! After a six-year wait, Chad Matheny has finally, finally returned with a proper follow-up to 2005’s criminally overlooked mouthful Central Hug/FriendArmy/Fractaldunes (And the Dreams That Resulted). At the time, Matheny seemed unstoppable: his cartwheeling voice — like Yoni Wolf’s Dungeon Master sidestep in spirit but closer to John Darnielle’s explosive oaths in execution — captured and continues to capture private degrees of information age miasma with scrubbed-raw sanguinity. No surprise that as portable technology proliferated, so did its linguistic access points for guys like Matheny; these days, it’s almost more symptom than quirk. Once upon a time, I’d’ve pegged Emperor X’s exuberance “summer music” in a flash, but somehow the timing of this long-overdue, autumnal memorandum is apropos: it evokes things familiar, comforting, and protective — an ode to an era and mindset in which independent music was exciting more for its convergences than its divergences.

Because, musically, Emperor X is (with no backhandedness, none but the most neutral observational notation, intended) the sort of artist that Tiny Mix Tapes used to champion regularly. He lends himself to bald-faced RIYLing and brief but abstruse Christgauian paragraphs, which is to say, we’re compelled to respond to his music in kind. We are unified in being small, soft, pink things that react to stimuli with a histamine rash of words. Matheny is also a dying breed of technicolor pop craftsperson, a literal one-man band whose makeshift Mobile Spaceport/recording studio’s paraphernalia is tied to his limbs with strips of ribbon. Keyboards spoil the surprise before a song even begins, and drum machines get ambitious and polyrhythmic long after everything else has peaked and packed away. Early in Matheny’s career, merely finding a locus to describe as “the song” was a joyous task in itself;but by the time he’d recorded Central Hug, his songwriting was just too piquant for that game.

Although Western Teleport doesn’t contain anything quite so subversive-by-way-of-regressive as Central Hug’s “Shut Shut Up,” which told the story of a suicidal teen through the eyes of his younger brother, Matheny’s definitely playing to similar strengths — getting his listeners too giddied-up on his helium melodies to always comprehend his words’ gravity. “Defiance (for Elise Sunderhuse),” released last year on a memorial EP for a teenage car accident victim, spits a line that in different circumstances might’ve been detached cynicism: “We’re told that we’ve learned a great deal/ And we’re told that your loss is collateral cost.” And when he mentions the text-feed wasteland that’s “where we’ll raise our kids,” he’s not acting like anyone has any real choice about it — his actual phrase is “stochastically inevitable.” Elsewhere, “Allahu Akbar,” named for the Islamic null comparative, is more accidental-paternalist than jihadist: he slips a little too easily from the fundamental (“send us rain”) into the technocratic (“send us high-speed rail”). But, you know, emphasis on “accidental”: the song ends up sounding like the work of someone who’s won too many politico-environmental arguments by skimming Wikipedia. Its phraseology, e.g. the calcium carbonate in which the speaker’s people are apparently encased, sounds like it should be meshy with hyperlinks. If he seems to be extending his arm to point a finger, the finger always ends up facing him. Meanwhile, economists, anarchists, and the Inuit are joining hands and singing until the politically-charged becomes meaningless.

Most of the album is far too private, too ritualistic to be even mistaken for soapboxy. The recurring chant of “Erica Western Transport” — in abbreviation, “don’t think of her” — evokes both fistfuls of calendar pages from back when that was our relationship to the past and an almost haunting ‘pink elephant’ effect. He gets stuffed with his typical gadget-gargle (“don’t think of her accessing her comsat”), grounds himself in a particular culture of failure-to-launch ‘99%’ existentialists (“don’t think of her; study for the LSATs”), pokes fun at the sharp contrast between his regressive mentality and adulthood’s mundane self-flagellation (“don’t think of her running in an old t-shirt/ Don’t think of her. Go get some exercise”) and only gently hints at subtext (“don’t think of her family’s confusion”). There’s also a camera whose shots need decoding; arguably the whirlwind serves to collapse different possible topical scopes (like, is murder involved here, or is this a breakup?) into a heaving, poignant shrug, but I think Matheny’s real craft, by juxtaposing so many redolent images (here’s another: “don’t think of her Tasered in the ruins”), is to draw attention to just how little matter there is between one’s brain and the outside world.

When I’m being a grouch, I don’t always appreciate that Matheny’s aesthetic hasn’t been in cold storage for six years (like how “A Violent Translation Of The Concordia Headscarp” could easily be a Dodos tune), though, all told, Western Teleport is an absolute victory lap for the punchiest axis of his 2005 sound. But, like its name, it is short, short, short, even by Matheny’s standards, and the shucks here is that it might have been better if it were shortened a little bit more to EP length. Some of the slow songs here have emotional heft — “Compressor Repair” (“Not in my skill set/ That’s why the floor’s wet”) beautifully snags the dead-eyed, un-Googleable conviction that our moods rub off on our technological riggings — but more of them feel like drawn-out versions of the same template than those stratospheric (mis)alignments — Central Hug’s perplexing slow-surf pileup “Coast to Coast,” Tectonic Membrane’s Reich nod “Intracellular” — that made former albums feel spread-fingered and Complete. So maybe this one’s a tad incomplete; I can delight in this sort of memorandum anyway if it promises what an EP tag would have more overtly: that Matheny the musician has got as many cylinders going as his songs do, that he isn’t going to make us wait six bloody years in this wasteland again.

Links: Emperor X - Bar/None