Your Friend Gumption

[Domino; 2016]

Styles: folk reclamation, tractor engine drone pop, an ambient childhood
Others: Alan Lomax, Courtney Barnett, Tom Waits


What does a song look like? Not on the page, in the squiggle speak privy only to conservatory cousins and Eric from Music Theory 101, who played violin in Coal Chamber tees, smiling. What does a song look like when it’s being a song?

Songs are alphabet, if music is language. Songs are melody and harmony, bricks of distinct, fixed pitch that interact, hug. In his ongoing study of what makes numbers hum, Musimathics, Dr. Gareth Loy says: “Music is a delicate balance between what is familiar and what is surprising. If we care about the interest of our listeners, we must become students of interest and look for ways to increase the likelihood that the choices made on our behalf are interesting, because without interest there is no music, only noise.”

Songs can’t be noise. Noise is the unwanted. Noise breaks and doesn’t build.

If the songwriter is chasing music as a language, the song is part alphabet and part currency: canvas and brush. But somewhere on the canvas is the scrape, an imperfection in paper; somewhere in the brush is an unclipped bristle, a bald spot. Somewhere in our imperfect tool set is noise. Blow up your melody, see how it works: what does a song look like with noise in it?


The first instance of Taryn Miller’s voice on her 2014 EP Jekyll/Hyde is a cry. It’s a halcyon alto, and it maintains a presence above the sonic crowd: it flies. Its immediacy is natural and inherent, in the repeated “you know, you know” of “Bangs” and the incisive “I’m shaking for another body” that slips out of “Jekyll/ Hyde.”

There is no immediacy on Gumption. “Heathering” is the thesis single, the drone you can see. Thirty seconds of false-start acoustic strum and metronoming drum machine precede a human voice. Miller sings in the same alto, but this time as a part of the whole canvas; she is obscured and celebrated. And then another drum machine, rattling around out of time before it’s banished, quick as it came. I don’t know what “Heathering” is about. I listen and I re-listen, and the song doesn’t help. Resolution and settlement are replaced with a buzzsaw synth that subsides into a stacked chorus of Miller’s voice. Five seconds later, the chorus distorts and folds into the machine, a human voice in noise.

“To Live With” banishes voice entirely, stacking ambient synth on top of running water. Somewhere a million miles away in the song, there’s a maybe-electric guitar, wheeling into chaos and then bottoming out. There’s more computer noise and then nothing. The next song. The water was recorded at the Miller farm in Dexter, Kansas, part of a collection of field recordings Miller made. The synth and guitar (?) and throb was recorded in Brooklyn. Duality pervades Gumption. City and country. Natural, machine. Personal, abstract. Song. Noise.


“Heathering” isn’t about anything. It’s a song, and all it’s about is it being a song. What does it look like? I tried. I whittle and reduced and wheedled it into a language unfit to talk about songs. We say you can write a song, like you can write the letter “W” or your name. But you can see that written language, the simple curve of letters. What could a song possibly look like? On Gumption, it’s the cycle, a circle of the noise and the voice eating each other.

The duality of Your Friend’s art isn’t meant to be exceptional: we understand that all songs should account for two views, two voices in the same instance. On the title track, Taryn Miller sings, “No one ever ages quite like how they envision/ We’re all just conversation.” That duality haunts Your Friend’s art, a self looking at a self, recoiling and reveling in the new, the grotesque, the envisioned.

Literal self-maintenance (looking, destroying, rebuilding, re-seeing) is where an art of duality leaves us, and it’s where Taryn Miller’s voice sounds most sublime. On the album closer (the last sound from the mirror), there’s machine glaze, then the sound of pigeon wings scraping against the walls of a cage, another found field recording. And when it sounds like the bird might escape, Miller sings and re-sings “Who will I be in the morning? ” It’s the sound of a voice searching, feeling out the song. It’s the artist not knowing what will happen when she opens her eyes the next time she opens her eyes.

“I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.” Transformation is scary, we understand, especially when it’s involuntary, when Mr. Hyde is staring at us from our eyelids. Art is transformation. Songs are noise. Voice is gumption.

Links: Your Friend - Domino

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