June 29, 2011

Douglas Martin knows nothing about your so-called Balco investigation.

Just like the word “steroids” when determining the legacy of certain baseball players– or the video for “Piss on You“ when assessing the career of R. Kelly– it seems as though no write-up about John Maus can be completed (or even begun) without the mention of old friend and collaborator Ariel Pink, especially now. Just a year ago, the man born Ariel Rosenberg had just released his most focused, most immediate, and best record (Before Today, on indie label 4AD). In addition to crystallizing and streamlining everything good about his music, Before Today had allowed him to tour the world, accept his status as “the godfather of chillwave” with a bemused shrug, and disrobe every women’s costume shop mannequin for wardrobe ideas from Seattle to Spain, from Georgia to Germany. With Pink’s influence and profile at an unprecedented peak, it’s easy to assume Maus is struggling to get from under some sort of shadow, the Barney Fife to Pink’s Andy Griffith.

Though there’s definitely a kinship found in both artists’ usage of cheesy sonic touchtones (and, more often than not, very similar chord progressions), Maus’ stone-faced gothic synth-pop certainly comes from a different place than Pink’s cheeky, subversive take on AM Gold. Love is Real— Maus’ last full-length album– was delivered in 2007, which is virtually a lifetime ago, even for the warped-tape-obsessed, obscure-as-fuck vinyl collecting dwellers of the under-underground– also known as the type of outre guitar music nerds who have a Google Chrome bookmark for Altered Zones (present company included). Being as though Pink was still considered an outsider cult hero in 2007, Love is Real felt fresh and invigorating, with its blurry synthesized textures, whirring tape hiss, and copious reverb still untouched by trend-chasers and bandwagoneers. Of course, we all know the history: the sound was scooped up by a new generation of musicians in two years and picked over by the vultures in three.

So, with Maus returning to the picture after a layover that would have killed the career of a lesser musician, the question is this: how do you reinvent yourself when trendy kids have turned a style you helped create into music-as-a-fashion-statement, their soundtrack for buying plastic wayfarers at Urban Outfitters? John Maus solved his problem in two steps: 1) He went widescreen, just like his buddy and most recognizable reference point. 2) He became what is suggested in the title of his album.

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is a pitch-perfect title for a man who hasn’t released an album since the second Bush Administration. His full-length output has stayed consistent in quality if not prolificacy, and Pitiless Censors delivers an incessantly replayable bounty of tunes, highlighting his compositional and technical skill as a musician, his attention to detail as a producer, and even his ability to generate a wide range of emotions as a songwriter.

The jokey affectation Maus sometimes applied to his voice on his earlier efforts are still on the record, but with the semi-glossy facelift his recordings have received this time around, he sounds more like an ominous presence than the guy from work who would bullshit his way through bad karaoke tunes in order to make everyone laugh during happy hour. “Quantum Leap” and “And the Rain” benefit from this the most, with the former being coupled with demisemiquavers played on vintage keyboards for a quintessentially 80’s feel, and the latter carrying the ting of melancholy with its descending chords. Being a former music student at Cal Institute of the Arts, Maus naturally displays his dexterity instrumentally, using the echo of his voice as a compositional element on opener “Streelight” and navigating his analog synths through the trickiest of time signatures on “We Can Break Through”. “Hey Moon” is a ballad that delivers a sense of romance completely foreign to Ariel Pink, a starry-eyed walk through the moonlit streets perfect for holding hands and kissing– far from the hardcore pornography of Pink’s most transgressive work.

Kicking off the final third of the album are two songs that alternately serve as hallmarks in the world of Maus. At first, “Cop Killer” can come across as a hilariously ironic riff on the Body Count tune of the same name, but further listening gives the song an entirely new life. Whereas Ice-T energetically sings and shouts over the template of 80’s hardcore, using volume and catharsis to get his point across, Maus’ version is incredibly morose, with him using a deadpan baritone over a downtempo, dramatic tune with spooky backing vocals. After a while, the frosty detachment of his murder fantasies paints him as truly frightening, emotionless to the point of sociopathy. The very next tune, “Matter of Fact,” is a plodding number with a central lyric (“Pussy is not the matter of fact”) that’s ironic without being even remotely funny being delivered over what is the least interesting musical backing on the entire album. Even being the pitiless censor of yourself isn’t a foolproof errand.

Whenever people put an album, a demo, a mix, or any piece of music together, they always say the first track is always the most important. I’ve always disagreed with this bit of advice, because the closer is just as necessary to a full-length piece of music as the opener. Maus finishes Pitiless Censors with the lead single, the most important song on the album, and the best foot forward of his entire career. Most bands of Maus’ milieu tend to bury their melodies underneath a spate of distortion or a brick wall of noise, but what makes “Believer” truly special is that Maus buries melody underneath melody, hiding the towering vocal melody underneath a blaring synth line almost destructive in its glossiness. Throughout the four minutes of the song, a palpable sense of optimism is instilled even before the vocals come in and the tension builds, rising all the way to its soaring, fist-pumping chorus. There’s almost a supernatural quality to the song, sounding like the theme music of a forgotten television show about an all-powerful, mythical being. In short, “Believer”– at least in my opinion– is one of those songs that make you feel more than human just by basking in its aura, a perfect song, and a perfect way to end one of the finest records released this year.

MP3: John Maus-“Head for the Country”
MP3: John Maus-“Believer”

MP3: John Maus-“Quantum Leap”

JOHN MAUS – Head For The Country (Official Video) from Upset The Rhythm on Vimeo.

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