Music is bloated with tension. There’s the more ubiquitous tension that exists within music’s soundworld, such as crafted harmonic tensions that are "released" in order to drive the musical narrative (like when the chorus hits for the first time or when the instrumental climax is resolved into the main melody). Then there’s the less consciously acknowledged tension between the artist and audience, in which artist intension and audience reception are in a perpetual push and pull. It is in the latter spirit that I approach Avey Tare and Kria Brekkan's controversial debut release Pullhair Rubeye -- controversial because it was recorded "normally" but reversed in its entirety for official release. Yes, the album plays "backwards.” Like the Dada movement in art and literature, in which the cultural, discursive framing of the work was considered as important, if not more important, than the work itself, Pullhair Rubeye evokes a kind of tension that has less to do with the usual semiotic or lyrical quibbles and more to do with how meaning and significance are defined and also denied.
In fact, the tension is so pronounced that the reaction to Pullhair Rubeye is just as interesting as the idea of reversing what would otherwise be a relatively conventional album. With the word pretension slapped on any artist who tip-toes outta their safe musical dungeons, coupled with the lingering “But is it a classic, best of all-time LP?" mentality, Pullhair Rubeye has already met a considerable amount of dissent: It's weird. It's unnecessary. Gimmicky. Annoying. Why did they ruin their songs? What happened to the real album? Why couldn't they just release proper versions? Is this a joke? (All slight permutations of comments I’ve actually read.) I suppose reasonable reactions, but some of the abject dismissals of the album sound as if Avey and Kria desecrated something sacrosanct, something ultimately out of bounds even for the artists who created it. Pullhair Rubeye wasn’t meant to shock or annoy or provoke. As Avey best put it in a message board post: “…that is indeed the record, no tricks involved here, no concepts. We just really like it that way. Hope thats cool. Were not bummed. i hope youre not...”
So, is it spoiled to want to hear the “normal” versions of these songs? I guess that depends on who you’re asking, but I’d be dumbfounded if anyone could resist at least sampling what the album sounds like in its originally recorded version. Somewhat reminiscent of Francisco Lopez’ Buildings [New York], in which the listener is given a choice whether or not to break the seal to the booklet explaining the album’s background philosophy, Avey and Kria have unintentionally presented their fans with a similar choice. Years of cultural conditioning have ensured that we'll always hear Pullhair Rubeye as "backwards," no matter how many attempts are made to internalize the songs as normal (believe me, I've tried), so the choice made by many was predictable: as soon as the album leaked, fans with audio programs reversed the tracks and corrected the pitch/speed on several of them in order to hear Pullhair Rubeye as it was originally recorded. And ka-boom: a multitude of experiences are born -- some have only heard the original "reversed" version, some the "corrected" version, some both versions, and some have only read about it all.
And this is where the tension between the artist and audience becomes tangible. It goes beyond the mental work of, say, trying to figure out the artist’s lyrical meaning and into defining what is or isn’t music and how one might go about seeking out “the original.” And I fucking love it. It’s exciting and organic; it’s a needed WRENCH. Like The Resident's Animal Lover, an album manipulated to mimic the “animal noise mating patterns” of cicadas and frogs, as well as The Flaming Lips' four-disc musical monster, Zaireeka, Pullhair Rubeye has inadvertently unveiled the stale illusion of commodified music as some sort of exalted fetish object that should be preserved in its "original" state. Even more interesting is that, unlike Buildings, Animal Lover, and Zaireeka, Pullhair Rubeye doesn’t have a conceptual underpinning. Instead, almost as easily as deciding to pan an acoustic guitar to the left, Avey and Kria’s decision to reverse the entire album was a capricious, last-minute choice, a whimsy that has ultimately shaped everyone’s conception and opinion of it. What the final released version of Pullhair Rubeye becomes, then, is a source for exploration, based on your level of access and gumption.
Despite its relatively simplistic, direct approach (which is made apparent when listening to the "corrected" version), I have still yet to completely synthesize Pullhair on a musical level. There’s a lot to take in, especially after hearing both versions. But it’d be a shame not to give the backward version a real chance, just because you have access to the “corrected” version -- and I’m not talking about a play or two for kicks. Both versions have their own redeeming qualities, but it takes much longer for the backward tracks to reveal themselves. The structures, patterns, and melodies are jarring until your mind is able and ready to sponge in the sounds. And I can tell you now that the more you hear the “corrected” versions, the harder it will be to want to hear the backward versions (personally, I combine both albums, playing each track’s version back to back).
"Opis Helpus," for example, is among the standout tracks backwards. Its dynamic is completely dislocated such that the ending (which is toward the beginning of the "corrected" version) is the calm after rather than before the storm. Melodic and even singable, the backwards version piques my curiosity more so than the "corrected" one. It was particularly interesting to discover what sounded like an accordion backwards was actually an acoustic guitar forwards (and here I thought I always listened to the actual sound, not just its pitch relations and counterpoint). "Foetus No-Man" is another strong track backwards. With a predictable structure in its corrected (and slowed down) form, it's easier to get "lost" in the backwards version. The emphasis is on its warmth, not its precision.
"Who Wellses in My Hoff," a track about domesticity, and "Lay Lay Off, Faseiam," which features two oddball melodies over jerky guitars, are striking in both versions. Simple yet far from derivative, both tracks show tremendous growth for Avey's awkward melodic sensibility. They're catchy and accessible, albeit through that weird Animal Collective filter. The tensions and releases are subtle and inviting, and they're not jumping up and down for attention -- contemplative without being overly insular. "Sasong" is another exemplary track, but mainly in its "corrected" version. A beautiful song with a radiating depth in its “corrected” form, "Sasong" fails to reach any sort of intrigue in its backwards and sped up version, except for perhaps a fleeting, twinkling sort of textural glee.
Had Avey and Kria released Pullhair Rubeye as it was originally recorded, the most tragic part would be that the mental work involved on the listener's part would be reduced to simple good/bad judgment and would be appreciated (or not) based on arbitrary distinctions. The fact is: the idea of music as exalted has more to do with commodity fetishism than innate musical divinity. Music's not waiting to be written. Music's written. And whatever happens to "it" -- whether remixed, sampled, played in a car commercial, used to sell shoes, etc. -- is just as significant as the "original" version. With the current musical terrain as bland as it is, why not encourage music like Pullhair Rubeye, especially when it doesn’t have to mask itself in machismo or morbid imagery or atonality or arrhythmicacy? Pullhair Rubeye is significant not because of its aesthetic and non-conceptual disposition, but also for its dedication to instinct and brave novelty (in the best sense of the word). It's as much a dialog as a document, and the optional process -- which again was not intended, but expected -- is even more reason to take note. Yeah, yeah, perhaps the idea of reversing songs is "easy" and not very "experimental." But fuck technical proficiency and exclusionary philosophy. This is all about artistic intuition, and it's this intuition that has opened up our musical conversation into interesting areas.