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Maniac Beat

Tobacco finds fresh music at '90s dead-ends

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 6/2/2010

This april, at the Experience Music Project's Pop Conference in Seattle, Michael Mannheimer, an editor at Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., delivered a lecture titled "Big Wave Rider: Cassette Tapes, Inverted Nostalgia, and the Creation of Glo-Fi." The cassette-centric, low-fidelity, gleefully messy home-taped underworld that is alternately celebrated and defiled as chillwave, glo-fi, shitgaze, and loads more nicknames yet to come (Mannheimer suggested "disco-jangle"), have a special place in Portland, where DIY indie and punk have long distinguished the musical landscape. Carting a clunky boom box and laboriously inserting and cueing his sonic examples--the lack of digital instantaneity was part of his presentation's point--Mannheimer mentioned the 1980s frequently. Of course: that's when the cassette was king, and its hissy fidelity is a big part of the music.

Still, it's hard not to wonder why the '90s aren't brought up more frequently as a point of reference to this period--particularly since that's where the term "lo-fi" was popularized to begin with. It may be because when we think of '90s lo-fi it tends to be in conjunction with song artists such as Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and Girlysound-era Liz Phair, and a good deal of chill-fi-whatever tends to immerse in sound rather than merely get sonic dirt all over the verse-chorus-verse. Technologically, the mid-'90s are also when cassette sales fell off and CDs were in their imperial-bloat phase--something lo-fi was often cited as a backlash against--and when the overly perky early digital synths of the '80s gave way to both more sophisticated machines (particularly in dance music) and the revived '70s analog sound that came back into vogue via bands such as Stereolab.

But it may also be that the mid-'90s simply haven't been widely accepted as a cool reference point just yet. That's starting to change, though, and Maniac Meat (Anticon), the second solo album by Pittsburgh's Tobacco, is a good example of why. Not that Maniac Meat is exactly a chillwave album--for one thing, that group of artists is pretty recent, while Tobacco has been around for a while as the pseudonymous leader of psychedelic outfit weirdo Black Moth Super Rainbow, whose last two albums, 2007's Dandelion Gum and 2009's Eating Us, have gained that band a cult following. Maybe it shouldn't be "outfit": Black Moth Super Rainbow is a band only onstage, with Tobacco working alone in the studio. The signal difference between a BMSR album and a Tobacco one is that the former tend to be cuter and the latter more freaky.

That's certainly the case with Eating Us versus Maniac Meat. The former has rounder corners and more obvious song structures, even if everything is sung through a Vocoder; it also utilized the gauzy production hand of Dave Fridmann, who's worked with MGMT and the Flaming Lips, the latter of whom BMSR have opened for on tour. Tobacco might not like giving out his real-world info, but he knows how to work his mysteriousness to semi-commercial effect, whereas the artists Mannheimer highlighted in his EMP talk, well, record for cassette labels.

It's not that Maniac Meat is exactly short on '80s-redux, though. If a song title such as "Nuclear Waste Aerobics" isn't redolent of the leftover junk from the era that delivered The Day After and Jane Fonda's Workout, nothing is. But if one hallmark of chill-fi-whatever is that it's a homemade gloss on the high-sheen, arid production that got Patrick Bateman all hot, bothered, and homicidal, Tobacco is far more interested in the stuff that '80s kids grew up playing rather than hearing. Just listen to the cheap-and-chintzy main keyboard motif of "Mexican Icecream," which sounds like a $60 Casio with 100 preset sounds, each plinkier and less convincing than the last.

Still, that making-hay-with-the-leftovers aspect is very '90s, which is one reason it's not surprising to learn (via the press bio, it must be confessed) that Tobacco's favorite album is Mellow Gold, Beck's 1994 DGC debut and the source of the hit "Loser," the song that pushed lo-fi, however briefly, into the American pop mainstream. Beck repays the favor by singing on two of Maniac Meat's songs; moreover, he skips the relatively coherent style he's spent most of his last few albums on and goes right back to his earlier self, crooning into an echo machine over whinnying, rubbery synths on "Grape Aerosmith" and jabbering nonsense as needling keyboards, fuzz bass, and trash-can drums set the pace on "Fresh Hex."

If alt-rock and indie have a mindset, it's about hearing with a long memory (so, not pop) that's selective about dinosaurs (so, not classic rock). Maniac Meat, like Tobacco's previous work, picks from all over the past for inspiration; it's loose and loud, its heavy distortion signaling a joyous kind of info overload reminiscent of saturated cassette heads rather than digital input. And it turns a corner on incipient '90s nostalgia. It's funny to think that a period that, at the time, felt like a dead end can be a starting point, but stranger things have happened, and are happening, all the time.

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