“Mutato Muzika is headquarters for Devo at this point. We’re located on the beautiful Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, in a fluorescent circular green building that looks a little bit like a spaceship. That’s where life after rock and roll takes place. We’re kind of like the subversive extension in the sense that a lot of our clients don’t know that we were ever in Devo. That works to our advantage at times … [l]ittle do they know, our clients, that [the music] would be through the filter of Devo. Our subliminal messages would be fully intact, and attached on like antioxidants working their way into the system.”
– Mark Mothersbaugh in an interview with The A.V. Club
There are a couple different ways that spuds my age go about gestating all of the radiated Mothersbaugh we un-consentingly consumed as children: we ate it before we ever heard “Whip It” or Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo; we were fed “The Baugh” by the spoonful through Mark’s soundtracks to Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats, Rocket Power, and even those McDonald’s VHS takeaways (purchasable for only $3.59 or FREE with a small vanilla ice cream cone or Diet Coke!).
Some spuds crap out the waste well-digested — case in point with Indiana’s The Coneheads, who lovingly titled their 2015 debut L.P.1. aka “14 Year Old High School PC-Fascist Hype Lords Rip Off Devo for the Sake of Extorting $$$ from Helpless Impressionable Midwestern Internet Peoplepunks L.P.” Others retch it out upon coming of age: New York’s Palberta and Los Angeles’s Odwalla88, both offering minimal, sporadic heaves. Others, more well adjusted perhaps, accept their skewed ears and daffily cynical hearts and absorb the flavor, integrating their tastes but carrying with them the knowledge of the world of subversion available to those who get hip, act cool, catch a wave, and ride it. Under this umbrella, Brooklyn’s Cloud Becomes Your Hand take the hipnezz of the New New York Cool School (my term, which consists of, idk, artists like Parquet Courts, Ava Luna, PC Worship, and Guerrilla Toss) and inject it with the compositional sensibilities of Zappa, the synth selections of Tyondai Braxton, and the technical chops of NYC jazz kids, which, I know, sounds unpromising.
No-wave sounds seem to run thick in the New New York scene. In the documentary Blank City — centered around the late-70s no-wave film movement that ran parallel and analogous to the music scene — New York filmmaker and sax-punk pioneer John Lurie (Lounge Lizards) recounts, “I hid the fact that I knew how to play the saxophone… nobody was doing what they knew how to do… technique was so hated.” No-wave arose from haste, desperation, and an attitude of distaste for iconization and marketability; technical mastery was not only beside the point, but was adverse to the no-wave ultimatum.
The presence of no-wave in the New New York Cool School (which, I should mention, is more gaseous and diffusive to only reside in Brooklyn or even NYC alone) is of a different sort. The NNYCS treats no-wave as a matter of competent integration through pastiche, no-wave par excellence being yet another musico-historical moment to be summoned and referenced. As a friend Logan notes to me, bands like Ava Luna seem to do it with the utmost precision, including just the right amount of reference to James Chance, Mars, or Theoretical Girls at just the right time, never fully alienating or confronting a more moderate-tempered audience. They perform a subdued and submerged quotation of antipathy likely to boil up from the underground (e.g., “Review: Ava Luna, Welcoming but Weird in Infinite House” in The New York Times).
On Rest In Fleas, Cloud Becomes Your Hand founder and composer Stephe Cooper adopts no-wave’s anti-music ethos through more unlikely means. It’s the sort of thing that happens when conservatory kids get the music squeezed out of them and they’re forced to find it again. Through tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, winking deception, and fine-tuned technique, CBYH achieve an anti-musicality that is all too musical.
And this should not overshadow or even be taken as contrary to the fact that Rest In Fleas is an overwhelmingly sensory and compositional album, its highest ambition being to access the fundamental mechanisms of pleasure that music can provide: expectation and suspension/(ir)resolution (e.g., the playful deconstruction of meter in the intro to “Garden of the Ape”), motif and development (e.g., the thematic material in “Aye Aye”), extreme variety in timbre and instrumentation (e.g., the sudden clarinet in “Bridge of Ignorance Returns”), the unfolding of complex but interpretable forms (e.g., the quick tossing between themes in “hermit”), and cultural/social appeals by way of genre and style (i.e., constant musical reference to psych-rock and indie). All of this is laid out quite bare by Cooper’s dry recordings and precise arrangements, which make Rest In Fleas an indulgent album in a way that a lot of contemporary maximalist or otherwise transcendental music forgoes.
The key component to the sublimity contained on Rest In Fleas is the constant dynamic of expectation and the subversion thereof: the primacy of the cogent moment as it is woven into the whole, never fully resolving. Well-illustrated by its title — a play on words that is at first cheap and immature, then necrosocial and concrete — Rest In Fleas plays like it’s delivering an unending joke consisting only of punchlines (with the frequent comedic callback). In the disjointed opening to “Garden of the Ape,” the band mechanically pauses between each phrase— as if feigning a breath — forcing a listener to cognitively reconstruct the disfigured surf-rock pulse and riff. As soon as the passage resolves, two Mothersbaugh-ian miniatures interject absurd pizzicato strings and MIDI organ, neither of which are to be heard from again.
A similar knack for whimsy is displayed lyrically on the album’s title track. Cooly beginning with strummed acoustic guitar and understated monotone vocals — comfortable among those of Parquet Courts — a voice immediately states, “My teeth are eyebrows/ My head is an apple/ I live in the sewer/ And I drink my own vomit.” As though built through Mad Libs, the lyric’s construction and phrasing suggest continuity, but the imagery summoned is putrid and absurd (a slimy NickToons monster perhaps). For all the flash and tomfoolery though, Cloud Becomes Your Hand don’t seem to assert their superiority. By adopting somewhat dweebish aesthetics (I think of the black short-shorts and bright-red energy domes in the video for “Whip It”) CBYH stay grounded. Every prank is in good fun. Every sleight of hand is revealed.
Flashback. Visiting my sister and friends in New York last New Year’s, I saw Cloud Becomes Your Hand share a bill with (aforementioned bands) Ava Luna and Palberta at Secret Project Robot Art Experiment in Brooklyn. I left the show excited about CBYH, who were then new to me. A couple of months later in Los Angeles, I played a one-off show with a drummer from Brooklyn who I hadn’t met. I mentioned to him that I was out in New York months earlier and that I caught a CBYH show. As though disinterested or underwhelmed, he asks, “What’d you think of those guys?” Only after a somewhat boldly affirmative response and then some further exchange was I alerted (by a friend nonetheless) that he (Booker Stardrum) was their drummer. Sly guy, but upon hearing Rest In Fleas, Booker’s gesture is apt with the deceptive beat flipping and chaotic invention presented: never settling, never allowing surety or some comfort of stasis. The nuclear, grinning jostle brought forth by CBYH takes part in a tradition of fidgety antipathy. CBYH fulfill the duties of any proper upstanding Brooklynite buzz band, all the while crossing their fingers behind their backs.