A short interview with the ‘rising’ (now-‘risen’) musician Julia Holter toward the beginning of the year sparked a brief but intense discussion among TMT staff. In particular, her snide remarks about small-time musicians who “just, like, [puke] into the microphone” generated some edgy debate. One staffer felt that it perfectly encapsulated the problem of “anti-intellectualism” in America and even suggested that critics, often being failed musicians themselves, self-interestedly invest in the “de-skilling” of music when they tout said mic-pukers; another, by contrast, criticized Holter’s explicit reliance on 19th-century academic/capitalist assumptions that the value of art is determined by work and time. It’s an old and probably irresolvable debate: Does giving so-called ‘folk art’ the time of day water down the pool of genuine cultural talent (there aren’t enough scare-quotes in the world for this debate) or does it subvert larger, repressive power structures? Any TMT frequent-flier can probably guess where the majority of the staff fell on this spectrum. But my favorite part of this debate is that it’s always already confounded by the ever-steepening curve of technology and access. Let’s oversimplify and say that computers were designed to make work more efficient; it follows, then, that — insofar as we subconsciously tie art into capitalist rubrics, work and time — ‘valuable art’ is easier to produce than ever. Which Holter — or, I dunno, Joanna Newsom — would say is nonsense: Work and time are still important, even if they’re harder than ever to see (or hear). What happens when they become inaudible?
Part of the fun is that, in many respects, they might as well be — which is why these days interviews that establish an artist’s theoretical or processual backbone are being milked for all they’re worth. But in regards to all the signifiers that used to mark out folk art, game over; lo-fi is forevermore a ‘choice’ rather than a ‘necessity.’ The only reason this might bother us is if it bruises some deep-harbored gossamer of Authenticity — that we actually prefer the textures, energy, dilapidation (and so on) of “de-skilled” music because it feels like it comes from a more genuine place. The concern actually has some amusing symmetry with high-modernist anxiety about work and time; the widely available GarageBand, for example, makes authenticity (via a “tape hiss” FX filter, perhaps?) as easy to ‘fake’ as the amount of time and work necessary for a tricky time-signature change. But I’m certain Stefan Neville, also known as Pumice, understands the sentiment. He’s a pebble still-skipping from the early-90s New Zealand independent music explosion. But while Pumice may be a relic of a time when DIY music had to sound this way, his moment to moment approach to the aesthetic feels more important now than ever before. The gastric low-end in “Smell the Towel” that seems to emanate from some mucous internal organ excepted, a mic-puker Neville is assuredly not; however, Pumice’s body of work, especially 2007’s decade-rattling Pebbles, stands as a firm testament to the sonic multiplicities that emerge from the active de-skilling of music. Even if lo-fi is a choice, it doesn’t, he seems to argue, have to come off as a gimmick or a bid for authenticity: It is worth choosing simply for the glorious destabilization and infinitesimal scrutiny it can provoke.
If we have to discuss talent, through, Neville’s is the illusion of synchronicity; he stitches together unwieldy elements without, typically, stitching them to anything familiar. The persistence of “Ready to Rot” is unfathomable; the percussion, cascading somewhere between jazzy and barbituate, seems ready to eat shit at any given moment until it almost seems to develop a curious sort of self-referential logic, like the movement of a deep-sea arthropod. How it served as an effective metronome for Neville’s multi-octave shanty is anybody’s guess. There’s a similar confluence, a similar uncooperative cooperation, at work in the first few seconds of opener “Hey Crap Crab,” which unflinchingly torque the same part of your brain that listening to windshield wipers and a turn signal simultaneously might tug at. It’s not particularly clear how much ‘work’ or ‘time’ went into these few seconds — certainly not compared to the brainy interdigitation of, say, Deerhoof — and that’s partially because it seems to have been produced by happenstance. Your first thought will be that perhaps Neville couldn’t decide between three or four different rhythmic frameworks, so he glommed; then you’ll ask if it wasn’t a tape recorder (maybe; again, we’ll never know) snapped on inside some awkward fraction of a beat; then the multiplicity hits, a once-sharp and angular note mashed widely and imprecisely against the wall of the song’s fidelity.
Still, I dunno: what if I were to argue that the time signature is just ‘swinging’? That, in other words, there is some pristine ‘kernel’ underneath the fuzz, underneath the externalities, maybe even underneath the imprecise playing? The best thing about Pumice is that his tangle slaps the listener on the wrist for such thinking. He schools, or deschools, his listeners about lexical or mathematical models that strut like they precede nature; the models’ sexiness notwitstanding, they are always puny next to the ugliness and grit of nature itself. Music like this can’t help but sound biological, which is why, despite its variety (bony-limbed kitchen-sink punk clatter flush against endless drones), Neville’s project feels unified, or at least unparsable. And on PUNY, his fifth-grader-with-Tourette’s track titles are particularly rich with excrement, insisting these songs are antikernels, the wrung remains when the body has absorbed all that it recognizes or needs.
But it turns out that those track titles might be overcompensating for something. The twinge on PUNY is that it contains some of the first Pumice songs to which his signature aesthetic (rather than simply embodying the song) seems to have been applied — which is to say the songs occasionally follow the ‘kernel’ model. Take the lengthy closer “Cuachag Nan Craobh,” which is positively anthemic in climbing the rungs of the Western major tonal scale. Even though it’s slathered in the same glorious, ringing feedback that so much else of Pumice’s is, the melody underneath is crystal clear simply because the scale is so tattooed to our brains that it feels like it runs through our blood. The central conflict is how the highest note, which ought to bring out the proverbial lighters, repeatedly fails, whammied flat and uncertain, occasionally cutting out of the mix. The effect is heart-wrenching, but think about it: For the first time, Pumice seems to be measuring the distance between his songs and our expectations rather than letting them collide randomly in the air.
The notion that there is now a degree of order at the core of Neville’s work also applies to, and is even explained by, a nearly imperceptible shift in PUNY’s token drone track, appropriately titled “Trophy.” Superficially, the song is not that different from its equivalents on other recent albums: huge, expanding, and contracting layers of accordion or somesuch free reed aerophone, some parts purely textural, other layers more melodic. Like previous drone centerpieces, it’s nautical in some ineffable way. But besides the fact that Neville jumps in so soon — its 12 minutes begin 11 into the album — there’s a much deeper longing in the song itself, a profound harmony and peace to the chords and the swirling melodies that buys fully into the mythologies of the sea, the literary sea of The Awakening, that earlier pieces always seemed to problematize and fray with a tickle-turning-scrape of restless dissonance or the accumulating dread of a storm. Its duration seems less an act of investigation and more an act of prayer.
Which in itself would forgive whatever qualms I might have about the dissonance on this album occasionally seeming to obfuscate a core prettiness for the sake of DIY authenticity; I don’t look too hard at press kit mumbles about “personal crises,” but it’s easy to imagine circumstances that might get Neville grappling for the things that are constant and grounded. But the groundedness also creates some gorgeous moments. “Hump Piss” is practically a Fleet Foxes song, though with, you know, a soul. The breezy “Covered in Spiders” has to be among the most accessible songs Pumice has produced, all suspended fourths and drunken choral lilt through which the piercing mess of guitars arcs with a sort of cleanliness, and I can’t bring myself to berate its good will. But there are other places where Neville is his own best saboteur: “Stink Moon” — which is otherwise loping, spacious (dude knows how to handle empty space), and buttoned-down with piano — gets bombed early on with 15 seconds of feedback. The feedback, though thrilling in its own right, neither impedes nor returns to dominate the identity of the track, which makes it feel more like a manner of gatekeeping than an ‘idea.’ The satisfaction at being amongst those who make it through to the other side threatens to supplant the sonic satisfaction, but there’s nothing artificial about it; if anything, it’s flat-out welcoming. Pumice has, after all, already validated ‘choosing’ lo-fi for all the dense and cerebral reasons. On PUNY, he’s taking steps to validate it for the old, culturally-associative reasons, for the warmth and the human exchange. And he’s never been such good company.