Aug 7, 2013

Music Review: "Stop Pretending" by Default Genders

By Ian Cory

In all of the coverage I have read of Stop Pretending, there are usually about three sentences about the music and four paragraphs about the socio-political implications of the lyrics of “On Fraternity.” As a politically minded person who tries daily to be a good male feminist ally, this makes me very happy. It’s not often, in either the mainstream or independent circles, that a song is able to spark such a massive and extensive discussion of feminism that includes direct and transparent communication between the artist and their critics.  On the other hand, as a music critic, the lack of discourse around the vehicle by which James Brooks’ occasionally great, occasionally well meaning if somewhat poorly worded, political views are expressed, is a bit of a disappointment for me. Especially since Brooks’ growth as a songwriter and producer are part of the reason we’re able to dissect his lyrics so thoroughly.

Like his work under the name Elite Gymnastics*, the four songs on Stop Pretending draw from a myriad of stylistic takes on pop music. There’s a palpable sense of distance between the underlying pads and the listener, which suggests equal amounts of influence from the current chillwave scene as well as Japanese experimental pop artist Susumu Hirasawa. The Hirasawa connection is made even stronger by Brooks use of 90’s electronic breakbeats and vocal pitch manipulation. A lot of this sonic aesthetic can be seen as an extension of Brooks’ well-documented love for anime, specifically the soundtracks of Joe Hisaishi. Though nothing on Stop Pretending comes anywhere close to the level of compositional involvement of Hisaishi’s work, there is a similar sense of aimless melancholy, especially on the instrumental track “Omerta.” On the tracks with vocals Brooks’ voice, clear of the effects and hazy obscuring that were such a huge part of the Elite Gymnastics sound, has an understated frailness to it that recalls the mid 2000’s emo scene at its least histrionic. Unlike that somewhat ridiculous period of pop music history, Brooks flatly refuses to engage in any obvious melodic catharsis, never stepping out his lower register towards the heights that the material sometimes points towards. This gives the songs a sense of resignation and exhaustion at their best, but just as easily could be read as boredom and disinterest at its worst.

Perhaps it's for the best that Brooks didn’t heighten the drama any further given how much controversy has sprung up around his attempts to convey his disgust with patriarchy in the punk scene. For three out of four songs, Brooks conceptual approach goes off without a hitch. By pushing his vocals to the forefront of the mix and speaking plainly, Brooks makes it impossible to ignore his accusations of hypocrisy and misogyny in punk music. Even on the EP’s instrumental track, Brooks is able to comment on the way that silence and codes of honor can prevent people from questioning or changing any of the problems in their environment. For the other two songs that do have lyrics, what makes them work is that they feel distinctly personal and tied to Brooks’ own experiences.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that his biggest misstep comes when he tries to describe the experiences of others. Although the majority of “On Fraternity” is focused on the way that Brooks feels about the way people treat survivors of assault, in the opening line he describes precise physical symptoms that someone other than him is feeling. While the intentions behind this song are pure, it's dangerous territory to presume to relate to or understand how someone in such an extreme position feels, and it was right for the multitude of people** who called Brooks out to have done so. I can say from personal experience that few things have helped me grow more as person than being called out for my shitty behavior and emotional arrogance. As dudes trying to help challenge the patriarchal structures of our surroundings, we’re inevitably going to slip up and say things that we shouldn’t and we’re hopefully going to have those mistakes shoved in our face for a long time. This is a good thing. This is a valuable thing. In this sense, I’m actually glad that Brooks wrote “On Fraternity.” Not only is it the most engaging song on Stop Pretending on a musical level, balancing ear piercing harsh noise with an infectious groove and vocal melody that actually benefits from its limited range, but by fucking up, Brooks now has an opportunity to take in the criticism and grow both as an artist and a human being. Silence can hurt, but sometimes by shutting up and listening, we can make sure that when we do speak up, we know what to say.

Grade: C+

*During the period of time I spent writing this review, Brooks has already changed the name his new project from Dead Girlfriends to Default Genders. With such a vast array of titles to go under, he’s a shoo-in for this year’s Wu-Tang Clan auditions.

**There has been a lot written on both sides of the conversation, but a good summary of a variety of the view points on this can be found in Spin’s roundtable discussion.

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