Specifically: “What is the purpose of formal pop-cultural criticism?”
By which I mean: “Why write about music, movies, books, TV shows, etc.?”
With the corollary: “To and for whom is such criticism written?”
It’s a loaded line of self-questioning, one which cuts right to the heart of the whole pop-critical endeavour. Professional music journalism and film criticism à la Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Roger Ebert; TV blogs ad nauseam; New York Times book reviews and bestseller lists—the whole analytical shebang. What’s the point of it all?
For my own part, I prefer to think of formal pop-cultural criticism (as opposed to the intensely comparative, historical, and minutiae-obsessed brand of academic theses and dissertations) and its attendant value judgments and implicit mercantile recommendations as a byproduct of compulsive pathos. That is: a need to share with all and sundry which extends beyond in-the-moment social media status blurbs and flash-form tweets. Hence the sometimes-coherent jumble of opinions filtered through personal experiences and presented as reasoned arguments—a medley of considered explanations for subjective reactions to sensory and cognitive stimuli, provided in hopes of engendering similar responses within others.
Simply put: “Here’s a thing that I like/dislike; here’s why I like/dislike it; here’s why I think that you would like/dislike it, too.”
The objective, then, is less to provide an impossibly impersonal and objective pro/con critique or to craft a thinly-disguised buyers’ guide to the Next Big Things than to use a creative work as a means by which to examine an idea—to explore and explain the perceived significance(s) contained within a given album, book, film, television serial, or what have you.
Accordingly, the role of the pop-critic is that of adept surrogate and hyper-aware proxy. Artist-authors want their work to be entertaining, poignant, and relatable; critics help to explain how it is or isn’t so, mainly by putting the work in context and pointing out subtle details which might otherwise go unnoticed. In doing so, the critic is writing not only to an audience comprised of fellow listeners/readers/viewers/experiencers, but also to the work in question, and to the artist-author thereof. It’s a matter of deconstruction and reconstruction, of picking apart and putting together, extracting and evaluating, interpreting and intuiting, commiserating and reciprocating. In the best of cases, it’s less an authoritarian appraisal than a conversation between equals, one which proves enlightening, cathartic, and constructive to critic, reader, and author-artist alike.
Which, without (much) further ado, leads me to the impetus for this whole “intended purpose and audience of pop-cultural criticism” spiel: an email from one Damien Verrett—who, in addition to his role as the lead singer and guitarist of the Sacramentan math-pop/rock quartet The Speed of Sound in Seawater (reviews available here and here) and as producer/vocalist in the digitally-affected pop duo Mansion Closets, has also begun penning and performing solo compositions under the moniker So Much Light.
Principally, the aforementioned email was designed to announce and promote the impending August release of So Much Light’s debut full-length, Supine/Spellbound, and was fairly generic in that regard. Release date, production details, promo link, etc.—the significance of the email lay not in what it contained, but what it left out.
Contrary to common practice, Verrett wasn’t spamming scores of music bloggers with an electronic press kit for his new musical endeavour, nor explicitly requesting a quotable review from an authoritative tastemaker (as many critics might view themselves to be). Rather, he was asking for another set of ears. Less “Hi! Could you post an article about my new album?” than “I made a thing! Could you give a listen and let me know what you think?”
Granted, I could be mistaking good manners and reflexive humility for something far more significant—critics do tend to read into things overmuch—but that lone gesture was enough to inspire the above (perhaps overlong) rumination on why we critics do what we do, so there might very well be something to it.
Either way, album review: do let’s.
Recorded in three separate cities, produced and mixed by Robert Cheek, mastered by Doug Van Sloun, and boasting orchestral arrangements by Town Hall’s Jesse Kranzler, Supine/Spellbound is a remarkably well-made for a solo debut from a relatively young musician. Instrumentally, So Much Light’s melodic core of fleet-fingered acoustic guitar heroics borrows more from the folk-tinged confessionals of Owen’s Mike Kinsella than the heady dueling riffs of Tera Melos. Likewise, the relatively laid-back contributions from A Lot Like Birds’ rhythm section (bassist Michael Littlefield and drummer Joseph Arrington), combined with the aforementioned arrangements by Kranzler, skew more towards languid chamber pop than frenzied math rock—as well as make the whole thing feel like a solo effort in name only.
But I digress. Semantics and presentational differences aside, Verrett’s lyrics still hew fairly close to the hopeless-romantic musings of his earlier work with The Speed of Sound in Seawater, including the regular appearance of modernized mythologies and extraordinary goings-on. Haunted ruins? Temporal anomalies? Vampire hunters? Demonic tomes? Check, check, check, and check.
Just so: the wink-and-nod meditation on horror-movie romance in “Abandoned Hospital Island” sets Supine/Spellbound off at a strong and steady pace. Impelled by arrestingly intricate acoustic riffs and runs woven around and through understated percussion and bass, Verrett recounts a Hallowe’en ghost-hunting date gone eerily awry, his character’s initial attempts at puffed-chest bravado and flirtatious gallantry eventually proving about as effective and reassuring as a half-gone match in a dark and drafty hallway—particularly once the sought-after spirit decides to make itself (and its unholy intentions) known.
Essentially a modern riff on the Judgment of Paris, “Coarse Gold Girls” applies its elaborate acoustic guitar and reserved kitwork to overactive hormones, inconstant hearts, and ill-fated romantic pursuits, the proud Hellenic deities and all-baring contest of the original myth replaced by comely passers-by and private heartache on the part of Verrett’s retiring narrator. Next up, “That Hollow Home” comes down with an even heavier case of sad-sack whinging, its slick guitar and subdued rhythms set front and center for an ennui-ridden rumination on the inevitability of physical decay and the relativistic pointlessness of willful inertia, a dour load eventually lightened by Kranzler’s buoyant string arrangement in the outgoing chorus. Such orchestral accents perform a similarly effervescent function in “90’s High School Party”, their pleasantly drawn notes providing a soft and uplifting counterpoint to Verrett’s pointed guitar and maudlin-to-macabre tale of post-teenaged obscurity and unrequited affections.
Listing heavily to short-and-straightforward pop-and-rock, “Firecracker Kid (Tonight at the Bronze)”—yes, dear readers, that is a titular allusion to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—finds Verrett once again pitching woo at yet another fictionally-framed femme fatale (SEE ALSO: werewolves, manticores, sphinxes, etc.), his steady strums initially matched by propulsive percussion and eventually settling into light finger-picking for an ominous, vocally-doubled chorus.
Sticking with the eerie and otherworldly, “Goblin Scrawl” offers an unsettling, baroque-inflected warning about an infamous book of spells, Kranzler’s vibrato- and pizzicato-heavy orchestrations dancing about Verrett’s airy admonitions and repetitious finger-picking.
Cutting back to upbeat pop—and, oddly enough, to plain-vanilla reality—“Jared’s Going to Love This” plays out like a musical birthday card, Verrett’s sunny lilt and looped-and-layered guitar corresponding with equally peppy percussion, Rhodes synth, and a rousing crowd chorus. It’s more than a bit saccharine and twee, but it’s easy to imagine that it brought a pleasantly embarrassed smile to its intended recipient.
“Chiarina” finds Verrett & co. returning to chamber pop form with a string adaptation of the eleventh of 19th century German composer Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9 № 11. Lyrically, “Chiarina” seems to serve as a nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—rather, to the Karloff-led filmic adaptations thereof, all mated monsters, stitches and sutures, and fatalistic angst.
Whereas The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s epically-entitled “Dinner and a Movie on a Post-Apocalyptic Earth: 12 Bottle Caps, Successfully Repopulating the Human Race: Priceless” (off the 2010 Red Version EP) treated the listener to a romantic tête-à-tête set against the irradiated backdrop of Bethesda Software’s Fallout 3, the cowpoke cadence and would-be pacifist pioneering heard in So Much Light’s “Hitching Post Bound” appears to take a page or two from Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption. As nerdy and fan-fictional as that may sound, it’s par for the course for Verrett’s slyly referential and casually reinventive songwriting. In both The Speed of Sound in Seawater and So Much Light, Verrett regularly finds his inspiration in extant mythologies, tweaking familiar set pieces and embodying established characters in order to vicariously explore and expand upon his own emotive experiences. Really, it’s a trick as old as storytelling itself, and one which Verrett routinely uses to great effect, harvesting a given narrative’s existing sympathies and seeding its fertile plotlines with bits and pieces of his own personal history. Granted, such offhand adaptations may not break new narrative ground, per se, but their meta-textual depth is doubtless an improvement on the non-specific confessionals and paper-thin anonymity of the standard pop balladeer.
Rounding out the album, “The Suburban Spellbound” puts both Verrett’s and Kranzler’s instrumental contributions on full display, their deftly mated pizzicato, arco, and low-lying winds eventually emboldened and accelerated by Littlefield and Arrington’s late-developing rhythms. Lyrically, “The Suburban Spellbound” acts as something of a summary-cum-thesis statement for Supine/Spellbound. Specifically, its self-aware blending of the magical and the mundane—of spell-casting and star-charting in the midst of a sleepy subdivision—echoes and exemplifies Verrett’s fascination with the interplay of the ordinary and the extraordinary. The operative lesson being that a hint of the supernatural can help the individual to better absorb and appreciate the nuances of a given personal narrative; moreover, that even the most fanciful of fictions is grown from a kernel of worldly matter, and can serve as a means to better understand its essential substance, its underlying significance.
That’s what fiction does; it’s why we read and write such tall tales in the first place. Like Verrett, we use others’ stories to tell our own, all the while looking for reflections and refractions of our own lives therein, the trappings of fiction keeping reality safely at arm’s length ‘til such time as we—or someone else—can make sense of it all.
Self-released on August 3, 2012, So Much Light's Supine/Spellbound is available for purchase via Bandcamp.
Audio Reviews (July 31st, 2012)
Tags: beatbots, audio, reviews, so much light, supine/spellbound, sacramento, bandcamp, damien verrett, the speed of sound in seawater