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Bass-ment Tapes

Three New CDs Turn Lo-fi's Snap and Crackle into Jiggy Indie Pop

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 4/17/2002

For years, particularly during its early-to-mid-'90s vogue, "lo-fi" was synonymous with "homemade." Tape hiss and muffled drums, long the last-ditch option of folks who couldn't (or, in the case of the cassette underground, chose not to) afford anything better, were a badge of authenticity. And with the popular breakthrough of Beck's "Loser," recorded on an eight-track recorder in a living room, it was also a way to be heard by a potentially wider audience, albeit through a layer of surface noise.

But recording technology changes even faster than musical styles, and inexpensive digital recording devices such as ProTools have ensured that "homemade" doesn't automatically connote "sounds like mud." As any fan of contemporary dance music is aware, bedroom recordings frequently sound as good as or better than expensive studio productions, and lo-fi has become a deliberate aesthetic choice rather than a cross to bear.

Even so, lo-fi's muffled-and-proud sound has always brought to the table that "homemade" feel--a cozy haphazardness, like a teddy bear with stuffing sticking out of its arm. Or, if you prefer, the washed-out photographs that adorn Live at the Holiday Sin, the third album from New York's Elizabeth Sharp, aka Ill Ease. A highly regarded photographer whose work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, Sharp took the cover shots in an abandoned section of Atlantic City, N.J., near the motel where she lived and made Sin in just over two weeks. (She also overdubbed parts at a friend's house nearby.) As with her previous albums, Circle Line Tours and Live at the Gate, Sharp, a former drummer for New Radiant Storm King, built her songs from the bottom up: drums/rhythms come first, other textures and atmospheres next, and lyrics last.

The results are something like a cross between Solex and the solo albums of Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker. Solex's jaunty, cheeky grooves and Tucker's straight-ahead garage stomp both serve as useful reference points for Sharp's warbling voice, trash-can drums, one-finger keyboard melodies, and thunking bass lines. But Sin is darker than either. Its parts seem to waver and continually shift focus. The muddy nature of the sound itself is partly responsible. But Sharp is also a canny, at times startling arranger, and the album's sonic soft focus gives her abrupt leaps a naturalistic quality, as when she replaces the quietly obsessive, nursery-rhyme xylophone melody of "Ruler of the Ho-dom" with a snarling Keith Richards-esque rhythm guitar (and then replaces that with a claustrophobically echoing piano), or throws disconcerting "Yeahs!" and a discordant keyboard into the background of "Me & My Babysitter."

And though Sharp writes lyrics last, Sin's words are as obsessive and arresting as its music. As you might expect with an album this cozy, the best moments are its most intimate. "Babysitter" is a blunt, shockingly funny bit of foreplay ("You can touch me here/ And I'll touch you there/ I'll only take off my panties/ If you take off your underwear"). "Ho-dom" repeats "I should have fucked you when I met you/ I should never have left you" like a mantra. And "The Static's Beat" is a wicked singsongy dissection of one-night stand. Its flannel-sheet textures feel like the morning described by the lyrics: "You're so easy to pick up/ You're so easy to put down/ I don't really care if you go home/ Or if you want to stick around . . . Come on, give into the temptation."

If Ill Ease's direct lyrics cut through her circling soundscapes, Andrew Broder, aka Fog, does exactly the opposite. A 23-year-old from Minneapolis who is best known as the editor of the scabrously funny hip-hop satire zine Life Sucks Die, Broder, like Sharp, has chosen his alter-ego moniker well. His debut album, Fog, is as dense and hard to navigate as its namesake. This works to his advantage. After years of scratch DJs giving commencement addresses with their hands, here finally is a willfully inarticulate turntable album. Broder may scribble and scrape his vinyl collection, but the party he's rocking is the one in his mind, where early Sebadoh and recent Radiohead have somehow become hip-hop touchstones. Like England's Hood, or the radical indie-hoppers in the Anticon collective, Fog creates brooding, lo-fi textures spanning the densely monolithic ("Smell of Failure") to scrappy post-emo rock ("Fool"). Sometimes Broder caterwauls like Lou Barlow after shock treatment, but he's far more articulate with other people's words and sounds: "Now that you've heard that, you understand what I'm saying to you when I say that I don't understand him," a woman mutters in one sound bite. That says it all, really, whatever it is, exactly.

Frank Sisti Jr., the Queens, N.Y., resident who records under the name Kid America and the Action Figures, also makes music that bends hip-hop roots into unlikely shapes. In this case, Sisti bypasses sullen adolescent alienation by a few years, going straight for the giddy heart of childhood. And I mean giddy: The 20 songs on Bandy, his self- released debut album (available via www. othermusic.com), recall the sugar-high spirits of sampladelic masterpieces such as the Avalanches' Since I Left You and De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. The difference is that Bandy's sugar high seems to be sugar-fueled. Not only is the fidelity as thick as the last spoonfuls of milk in a bowl of Froot Loops, the album has been constructed equally from classic funk breakbeats and children's records.

The results are similar to early-'90s rave fliers: innocent on the surface but underlined with a mischievous--not to say sinister--sensibility, captured best in the title "Rainbows Are Ludes." That's the only time Kid America lets his cover down so broadly, though; mostly, he merely confuses old school with preschool and Saturday-night fever with Saturday-morning cartoons, to highly entertaining effect. "Bandy (Intro)" cuts between sped-up hip-hop brags ("Tape decks pause/ Shit in your draws/ Comin' to your town like Santa Claus," followed by a child saying, "I like Santa") and amusement-park standbys ("Attention, parents: Please do not leave your child unattended while riding the ride. Enjoy the ride, kids.") until you can't tell one helium-delirium quote from another. "Muffinman (Traditional)" cuts up different versions of "Do You Know the Muffin Man" like a toddler Grandmaster Flash rocking a pair of Fisher-Price record players. "Dancin'" is the throw-down party jam the Brady Bunch might have made had eldest brother Greg not been so busy writing songs about ponies never running or his younger sibs' changing voices. (Greg also never got his hands on a sampler, alas.) And there's plenty of sci-fi-futurismo wow-and-fluttering that marks the kid-friendly likes of Raymond Scott's Manhattan Research Inc.. "Fan Club Theme" is a nearly wordless foray into those dynamics, apart from a kid marveling, "That's crazy!" It's hard to disagree.

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