Performance Art Garfunkel #1: Unur (Modern Tapes/Genetic Music)

Posted by on July 10, 2013

Performance Art Garfunkel

Welcome to the first article in a series I’m calling Performance Art Garfunkel, a column which will focus on what it means to be a solo project in the 2010s, or whatever you call this decade, now that the computer screen doors have swung wide open and the singer-songwriter and his acoustic guitar have become almost synonymous with walking outside to smoke a cigarette in the middle of someone’s set. My hope is that we can delve really hard into lyricism and ask this question: are any of the kids we find in our dirty basements this generation’s Leonard Cohen? Or would this generation’s Leonard Cohen even write lyrics? And what are good lyrics anyway? When I pitched the idea to Dwight, it sounded like a fun concept, but the immediate issue I hit is that it’s insanely hard to say ‘check out this guy’ when you have that sort of precedent, so let me qualify any argument I’m going to make for somebody with this rambling first:

The novelty of making music these days is that you are making it in the age of the expanded color-wheel. There are more pixels now than there were in the 60’s. Leonard Cohen might have embodied ‘Dark  Blue’ but he did not embody ‘Dark Slate Blue.’ This matters, because a musician who sets out to describe ‘Blue’ in 2012 is not going to be as exciting as one who sets out to describe ‘International Klein Blue,’ but the musician who is going for ‘International Klein Blue’ is not going to resound as heavily with a wide audience as the one who’s going for ‘Blue.’ The point in this (sorry, this thing’s fucking with me) is that the Leonard Cohen we’re looking for isn’t going to seem like Leonard Cohen, and his lyrics aren’t going to be as overarchingly good as Leonard Cohen’s, but there’s a metric shit-ton of artists out there making music in their tiny slots of color, and Performance Art Garfunkel is going to focus on those little guys, living in their little crop of pixels somewhere on the mega-screen.

One more qualifying paragraph: I do not know who to write about. I had nobody in particular in mind. I love a lot of music and I go to a ton of shows, but I haven’t really been looking for lyricists at them, I’ve been getting drunk and having a good time. When I look for new music, I mainly look for stuff that is doing crazy things with computers and has no vocals at all. Really, I haven’t looked for awesome lyrics in contemporary bands since I was 20 and obsessed with the Silver Jews. So I’m thinking, these ambient wizards, these beatmasters, these artists who carve their niche in genre-music; they haven’t replaced singer-songwriters, they’ve taken the soloist mentality and made it evolve into something beyond lyrics. They don’t use lyrics because lyrics would take their aquamarines and turn them into greenish-blues. So PAG is going to look at those guys too.

I asked a few friends who run tape labels or set up a lot of the house shows in their towns for some suggestions, and the response I got was pretty much the same. Either no one really had any clue and was surprised that they didn’t, or they recommended their friend’s bands that had great vocalists but not necessarily original lyrics. One of my friends told me to listen to a band that sounded like the Mars Volta and sung in a different language, and for all I know they were probably singing “I love you baby, I love you so.” So it’s a tricky thing to talk about and we all have our own opinions and now it’s time to start. I’m going to start small because this intro took too long to write.

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Unur, Anyone (Modern Tapes/Genetic Music)

The first solo guy I stumbled upon that made sense for this article is a Chicago dude who goes by Unur. Aside from making cool gothy music, he also runs an awesome tape label with uncharacteristically well-recorded electronic stuff on it called Modern Tapes. He was cool enough to type up the lyrics from two of his albums and send them to me, even though he seemed surprised anyone was focusing on that particular element of his music. Which is fair, because on the surface it’s just dark Joy-Divisiony dance music.

Anyone has only 4 songs, but is part of a larger collection of eight that you can find on an LP through Genetic Music in Berlin. The very first song “You Still Blink” dives right in with the lyrics “I woke up fucking in a fever dream” and frankly, if that was what all the lyrics were like I wouldn’t like this music at all. And it turns out it kind of is, but to a different end that’s really goth. It’s not that the imagery floors you off the bat, and in some ways it seems like ambiguous poetry for a moment, but upon further inspection, the songs begin to occupy a particular frequency of the human experience. Here’s what I mean:

Unur - Anyone

“I woke up fucking in a fever dream your eyes gazed quietly like you never knew the reasons why.  Old ghosts stress the fleeing kind, you’d know if you’d listen to their sirens.  I stood slowly she slowly stood.  I stood slowly,  he understood.  I woke up fucking like a fever dream your eyes glazed quietly like you’ve never really felt the cold.  Everyone has ghosts of their own indigenous to what they know.  In the dark, you still blink.”

These songs aren’t trying to make you fuck, or brag about some sort of male conquest thing. Rather, it’s like every song was written 10 minutes after fucking someone you don’t know. I’ve been married for years and can’t remember shit but he totally hits the nail on the head. These are the most goth moments of your adolescence. You’re on drugs you aren’t good at doing yet. Or you are and she’s not. Or she is and you’re not. Or he is and you’re not. It’s funny that lyricists aren’t more obsessed with this moment, but it is a feeling that files itself in the subconscious while the conscious mind focuses more on repeating it.

“Her teeth tore cellophane and air pushed out of her lungs.  ‘I like this’ she wheezed.  His heart beat through chapped lips.  This can’t be real.  Over and over.  Slower and slower.  Distant voices somehow muttered something about being free.  This can’t be real.”

Sex. Totally dark Chicago sex too. Leaving the Dustbowl after eight beers at a show sex. Remembering your way home on bicycle sex. The brick buildings watch you swerving through the streets. The thugs yell something at her as you whiz by. Cold wind, yellow street lights,  shitty places to get a shitty taco fade by. You’re probably wearing a black hoodie and so is she.

 “I walked in once.  A hair in her eye.  The light stopped, but we knew better.  At night the time broke.  A paper chain with blood spots.  We breathed words. We took turns.  She woke up wide eyed, her breath was still air.  If I had known, where would i be?”

This one’s lost on me, but it’s a really cool song. It brings up another question about lyricism and taste, which is how do people respond to an insider metaphor, like “A paper chain with blood spots.”It makes you wonder what it is, and if something can make you question it then it’s probably got some artistic value to it. Bob Dylan does not make sense all of the time. Thom Yorke makes no sense ever. This is a case of using words purely for the imagery that they conjure. Within the context of an album with songs that can be interpreted, I think there’s more power to them, because otherwise you get stuck with acid-babble bout ascension and oblivion.

My favorite song on the album is the last one, “Panning,” which is by far the catchiest and coolest one musically. It also has the most words and I like it packed in.

“Semen samples served in degraded garbage bags, lady take your turn in the new bruise review.  Showing all pictures in a harried hurried cavalcade.  Press your lips to the pavement extend your tongue to the tracks.  We got here slow but the wait was worth the aftertaste the rails kicked out the cobwebs and the eyes went wide.  Bitten fingernails so your hands can do their work like an exhausted esophagus and a newly torn shirt.  The sheets have soaked through and your own fingers wrinkle sniffing at the skyline of the S-bahn lights.  Welcome to the future there’s a lot to unlearn.  Fingers follow printed ribs until someone takes a turn.  This is one for the history books let’s fuck for gold, somethings you will never know.  Somethings you can’t ever know.  This is one for the history books. Let’s fuck for gold.  Somethings you will never know, history makes strange bedfellows.”

So what is the difference between Unur and, say, R. Kelly if both are writing songs that are obsessed with sex? Well, for one thing, R. Kelly sings about love and pees on girls, but you know; R Kelly is trying to have fun and Unur already did.  R Kelly’s trying to put his key in your ignition but Unur’s been trying to fuck for gold.