Maher Shalal Hash Baz L’Autre Cap

[K; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: indie rock, experimental
Others: Tori Kudo, Red Krayola, Syd Barrett

Indie rock scenes -- especially in indie rock towns -- are never about just music. They're about the sense of accomplishment that comes with hosting a house show, the sense of community that comes when you host a benefit show for the guy who busted his jaw doing a kegstand at your house show, and the sense of defeat that comes when the jackass townie who runs sound at the benefit show venue demands an extra cut of the door revenue because he had to spend an extra 25 minutes soundchecking your perfectionist French horn player (whose horn, and not the venue's monitors, needs repair). You make music not to vent your emotions or shift modern artistic paradigms, but because you smoke too much pot and you'll go up a waist size if you don't find something to do while you're stoned other than eat barbecue chips. There is that one guy in town who fronts a band and tries to vent his soul and shift modern artistic paradigms, but everyone just patronizes him. He talks with a reporter from the weekly music paper about passion and social justice and Dadaism (he's in his seventh year as an art history undergrad at the local university) and Albert Ayler, but no one who buys the guy's CD really hears that in the music. When the weekly music paper reviews the CD, the writer (kegstand guy) makes some vague remark about the music's "passion" but spends the rest of his limited word count to cataloguing all 47 instruments used, rehashing the influences listed in the press release (Justin Timberlake, Stephen Stills, Albert Ayler -- the record actually sounds like Doug Martsch fronting a high school marching band), describing guitars as "blaring," drums as "crashing," and bass as "solid," quoting the tagline from the band's MySpace page ("A sound too human to be called art" -- lifted from the weekly paper's last write-up of the band, back when they included a five-person transvestite choir), and mentioning that the act puts on a live show that's "not to be missed."

As much as the music thrives, critical discourse -- that act of communal self-reflection, the desire to ask "Where the hell are we going and what the fuck are we doing and is it even worth it?" that persuades many a potential burn-out to get a grip, give up the dream, and find a job with health insurance -- is nonexistent. Because that's for pretentious Pitchfork types, man, and Pitchfork won't give any of our local bands a grade higher than a 7.8. Internet's killing the scene, man. When it's really just alerting people to other don’t-give-a-fuck indie scruffs who possess the marketing foresight to wear Native American costumes, give themselves a nine-syllable name, and feature 51 instruments on their latest album. Critical discourse doesn't matter much there, either.

So I'm excited to hear perpetually inept indie-popsters Maher Shalal Hash Baz singing about "suspended anticipation that makes our heart sick" over truncated guitars that stab like broken PBR bottles. To hear, in other words, form mirroring content, to see that this band's widely touted don’t-give-a-fuck demeanor is a façade to mask a deep-seated give-a-fuck creative mind.

It's this sense of suspension, of a modest daydream deferred that animates L'Autre Cap. Famously inept, MSHB try their hand and fail at funk ("A Big Hug"), doo-wop ("Joab"), the blues ("Portland Town") and everything in-between here. But they're having the times of their lives failing, finding strength in the fact that they're failing together, reveling in their shared inadequacy. Making this record a bit like a microcosm of an indie rock scene.

Which is why it's an effective work. Its blatant amateurism is disarming; we have to stop and question our presuppositions, and not in a radical, just-heard-John-Cage-for-the-first-time way, but in a healthy, introspective way. L'Autre Cap is the rare indie rock album that forces us to do a bit of theorizing, that makes us realize that this stuff isn't just about good songs and good times but about considering what makes a good song and what makes a good time. Listen closely, please.

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