Robert Sotelo Botanical

[Nicey; 2018]

Styles: DIY synth pop, minimal songs, digital folk music
Others: John Cale, Powerdove, Banny Grove, Brian Eno, Colleen, Jib Kidder, Bernice, Ai Aso, Sandro Perri,

Los Angeles-based label Nicey Music has been making space in the underground for a special kind of work over the past couple of years. Nicey artists and affiliates explore a set of sounds and affects that have been cast aside by the presumed limits of what’s “in.” Alongside Robert Sotelo in a weird knotty network, artists like (Nicey founders) Banny Grove & Grape Room, Jepeto Solutions, Mega Bog, Toulouse Control, Julius Smack, Jennifer Vanilla, Wizard Apprentice, and Midnight Sister (among others) have formed a small constellation in the DIY realm that is unabashedly mining the zany, the trivial, the kitschy, and the cinematic to point to alternative modes of expression. The argument being put forward is not that those around them are “too serious,” it’s that playful affects are just as viable for socially and politically conscious meaning-making as the superficially more self-serious affects surrounding them.

Sotello’s latest nicely contributes to this war against our aesthetic presuppositions. Ostensibly produced as a time capsule to be found in “the Future” — here defined as the time “when everything else is forgotten” — Botanical brings a retrofuturist image of the present itself, ironically painting our world in a way that’s as quaint and lively as it is cold and mechanical. With his “comically minimal counterpoint” and overly calculated arrangements, Sotelo treads the line between whimsy and indifference. His ascetic minimalism meets the delight he takes in his own melodies to give rise to a persona that is all too well-composed. Sotelo appears as a trimmed and mannered gentleman, biding his time alone without a care: wandering through his garden, playing his Yamaha synth, singing his song.

It’s a lightly wistful character that reminded me of the anachronistically dressed John Cale who sits on the cover (and sings in the grooves) of Paris 1919. Or the awed and exhausted Eno who wanders amidst “the moors,” “the briars,” and “the endless blue meanders” on “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Whether my linking of these characters is due to my own ignorance and my inability to distinguish accents from the United Kingdom (Sotelo lives in Glasgow), or this sort of untroubled gentleman persona is an tangible and malleable trope in the region is beyond me. What it presents, however, when ironically deployed — as it is here in Sotello’s incomplete portrait of the present — is a functional escape that makes its missing components quite apparent.

Because Sotelo’s character is one so casually distant (“Daily food delivery/ Set up camp, do as you please”) and absurdly orderly (“Food must be stored/ Tidied away/ Bed will be made/ Dishes are done/ … evening stretch”), his position in the chaos of the contemporary world does not appear as one of ignorant neglect, but of quixotic proportions. His dead-end musing that “formula are mostly theory based” (“Medal”) is tossed up as little more than an odd thought to chew on in the intellectual crisis of the post-truth era.

Nicey’s mission statement states that they believe in “the power of music to create actual joy and positive change,” which I take to be true. But like his label mates Banny Grove, the sort of “actual joy” (or, here, perhaps it’s more often a sort of apparent joy taken in one’s own melodramatic longing) that is intended to stir “positive change” is delivered with such intensity that it, in-and-of-itself, begs the question that we must have something greater to concern ourselves with. All this is not to say that serious and direct critique is not an admirable option. But as an alternative, I find this much more interesting and fruitful than so many artists who produce what amounts to shallow, superficial, and ineffectual responses to contemporary crises, even if their work carries the defensible sheen of Serious Reverence to The Issues at Hand.

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