Our Brand Could Be Your Life

1.

Belgian metafictionist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, like many of his postmodern peers, focuses the attention of his novels not just on their immediate stories but on how stories in general operate: the ways that truth and artifice intersect or overlap, and how narrators can bias narrative or vice-versa. In Bodega Bay’s debut LP Our Brand Could Be Your Life (which features a track named after Toussaint’s The Truth About Marie), the group takes a comparable approach to music, its members concerned not only with the album’s music itself — the art or the “actual” — but also the larger culture of the Brooklyn indie and DIY scene within which the album is situated. The band takes things one step further though, working on both a commentary and metacommentary level: their music might at first appear to righteously belittle Williamsburg culture, but it’s also simultaneously mocking its own righteousness; every critique the band makes is somehow qualified or parodied upon delivery; lines, meanwhile, are delivered in tones of combinatorial earnestness, mock-earnestness, and downright irony. Their debut record is, in effect, the epitome of meta-modern, hyper-self-awareness, occupying that “uneasy realm… where ironic and sincere expression co-mingle under the cover of fog.” 

Sussing out the intricacies of the band’s cultural and political stances under such a fog, then, requires some sort of context within which to work,[1] and Our Brand provides just that: it’s a thirty-three-track LP of distinct geographic and temporal location, written for and by the Brooklyn music scene of 2015. That, despite relatively small recognition nationally or globally, Bodega is able to fill up Bushwick venue Palisades for their release show is telling: their fanbase is made up primarily of Brooklynites who can understand the group’s Big Apple references (“Wall Street woman just steps onto Four train… Grits her teeth at Bowling Green man” from “Yuppie Take a Cab”), shouted diatribes (corporate venue bashing on seventh track “Webster Hall”), and overall attitude of NYC ambivalence. Within this Brooklyn (geographic) and millennial (temporal) context, trend words and cultural references can be effectively deployed, with confidence that they’ll be properly received. That said, finding out the band’s actual positioning can be nevertheless difficult and labyrinth-like, even for ostensible insiders. Our Brand’s midway point “Your Brand Could Be Our Life,” for instance, samples marketing guru William Arruda (“Being the best you can be means you need to know what makes you exceptional. You need to know what makes you stand out”) in a way that some writers have claimed is ironic or anti-capitalist, but those descriptors don’t quite do Bodega Bay’s stance justice. After all, on OBCBYL the band is succeeding at exactly the thing they’re mocking — finding a niche topic (deriding the Brooklyn music scene to Brooklyn musicheads) and exploiting that niche to serve as an identity for the band — in a word, branding. Bodega’s aesthetic choices fulfill a similar end: at their Palisades release show, the stage was lit by the same shade of magenta that graces their album cover, their stickers, even singer Joe Wakeman’s feather boa. (Frontman Ben Hozie might sneer “How many 33 ⅓ ’s would you have to publish every quarter to please the cultural consumer,” but the record itself is packaged with a faux-33 ⅓ booklet.) Just as the band self-describes their mission as “critique and reverence for rock tropes,” so too it goes with corporate life, cultural commodification, and information oversaturation — they’re comfortable with simultaneously embracing and calling out the absurdity of modern society. When they sing on “Second Row Center,” “I criticized you for sleeping in the cinema, but I was sleeping too,” it’s a decent metaphor for the band’s general approach to societal critique, where sleeping serves as a stand-in for some kind of general cultural dormancy or ignorance — an ignorance which can be as blissful as it is comatose. Even when their critique seems most polemic (“Everyone on train is also looking at smartphones or looking at smartphones on the ads. Wall Street woman pulls out second smartphone. She’s taking pics of all smartphone ads”), it’s also tongue-in-cheek: in a recent interview, band member Nikki Belfiglio (samplers, vox) noted that her phone had gotten her “out of some big jams,” to which Hozie (vocals, guitar) replied that she didn’t need to “defend [her] smartphone usage.” There’s clearly more at work with Bodega than nostalgic, kids-these-days lamentation or “Goodbye To All That” city sickness.

[1]  To note one prominent example: Even late night liberal satire broadcasts, though far from being paragons of subtlety, are frequently mistaken for serious by conservatives, a lack of context being the ostensible explanation.

2.

All this post- and meta- commentary gets complicated quickly (there’s a reason meta-metafiction has been regarded as a trap). It also risks accusations of pretension. Luckily, at their Palisades show, drummer Aiko Masubuchi provided the necessary Dionysian counter-ballast to any over-cerebralism, her performance so raw and immersed, borderline-ritualistic and engaged, that even her mere visual presence at the back-center of the stage gave the show a certain defiant, transcendent energy.

Our Brand Could Be Your Life retains some of that carnal drive but aims to be immersive in a very different way: as a cultural rabbit hole which, when experienced, is not unlike delving down a long chain of hypertext. “Cultural Consumer III” samples “Moonlight Sonata” while “Cultural Consumer V” borrows its vocal cadence from the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize,” then cuts to an excerpt of The Doors’ “The End.” And the album’s title itself is a spoof on the Michael Azerrad book on eighties punk and indie, Our Band Could Be Your Life. Elsewhere, the LP’s references are internal, self-consuming and cannibalistic rather than external and hypertextual: the record is introduced by a robotic female voice on opening track “Performance,” which announces repeatedly “Welcome to Bodega Bay”; that song’s amelodic attitude-punk is then followed by one of the prettiest and most immediate pieces of music on the thirty-three-song LP, “Bodega Bait,” which, clocking in at forty-two seconds, spends the entirety of its time in self-reference to its short length (“This is new Bodega song / It’s not going to be very long… There’s no time left to sing along”). Masubuchi’s mallet-tom-snare setup and Hozie/Wakeman’s chant-sung lyrics keep the group primarily rooted in mid-60s Velvet Underground with a touch of George Harrison guitar (Beatles references in OBCBYL include the lead work in “Yuppie Take a Cab,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” lyrics on “XVII,” and the vaguely Abbey Road-descended “Cultural Consumer” suite at the end of the album).

Usually I would feel somewhat self-conscious about picking apart references like this in an album. There’s a well-known tendency among rock critics to show off the depths of their musical and cultural knowledge by pointing out all the supposed references and influences a band is pulling from — a tendency that has long angered or bewildered the artists being written about, who often turn out to be completely unaware of the “influences” they so (supposedly) admire. But Bodega Bay’s music seems to invite this kind of analysis. When I interviewed the band back in May, they spoke at length about how music and music criticism currently exist in a sort of feedback loop, facilitated and altered by the Internet. What’s interesting about Our Brand Could Be Your Life is that it seems specifically built to be deconstructed piece by piece, reference by reference, influence by influence, as if the band is anticipating, preempting, and being informed by, music criticism in the same that way MFA-style critical analysis has notably altered fiction writing. (As further evidence of this critical influence, note “Ode to Drum,” on which Hozie notably mocks post-Butlerian/Freudian academic analysis by singing  “Beat it with a stick. That’s a phallic instrument.”)

3.

A large percentage of the review up to this point probably sounds as much like lit criticism as it does music criticism, which is partly because a large deal of OBCBYL is devoted either to referencing outside literature (Marie, Komunyakaa,[2] Booth Tarkington) or playing up its own literary attributes. In fact, the lyrical prose exhibited on some of the album’s cuts stands with the best of any release this year (from halfway-point “Ode to Drum” comes the gorgeously sublime, utterly unforgettable opening stanza: “Northside highrise APTs. Stick up like rack toms. Lights flick off and on. Lights flick off and on. Looks like Denver skyline. All this glass.”). It also puts them in a small pool of contemporary [3] rock artists who are capable of writing brilliant stand-alone lyrics (In a recent Grantland interview, Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles listed himself, Craig Finn, John Darnielle, Andrew Savage, Alex Levine, and Courtney Barnett as encompassing almost the entirety of this pool. The list is obviously limited in scope in how it defines quality lyrics, but it’s not that dramatically removed from the truth). At the very least, Bodega Bay deserve credit for avoiding the low-hanging fruits of rock lyricism —  love songs and sentimental, angsty bildungsromans. They’re more interested in speaking about culture than they are about themselves, more likely to proclaim original and relevant societal commentary than they are to churn out clichéd aphorisms masquerading as intellectualism.

All of this — the commentary and metacommentary, the floor-to-ceiling wall of references, the sheer lyricism of the verses — makes listening to Bodega Bay exciting. There’s a palpable thrill to chasing down all the band’s cultural-literary allusions and trying to figure out just where and how they’re driving their ideological stake in the ground.  But there’s also a point where it feels like too much focus is granted on the meta-music, the clever jabs and high-brow allusions, rather than the music itself, which, on OBCBYL, occasionally falters (and with none of their live antics to save them). The chant-sung, quasi-protest style of vocal delivery is an effective way of making form follow content but can start to grate on the ears when delivered in too high of doses. Their most melodic, musically enjoyable tracks, meanwhile (prominently, “Network,” “Bodega Bait,” “Realism,” and “16×9”), are also their shortest, as if the group is ashamed of accessibility or purposefully avoiding easy entrance points. But to what end? Despite being a “critique and celebration” of rock and pop tropes, Our Brand is not, somewhat disappointingly, a “pop” record in the general sense: it’s often overly amelodic and sonically confrontational, which works well when combined with appealing grappling points (think the combination of musicality and noise that makes White Light/White Heat so effective) but when left without, can border on hard-to-handle.  So-called “difficult” music has the potential to challenge the listener, expanding his definition of acceptable sonic palette and forcing him to be more flexible with his taste in an almost didactic, Aristotelian sense. But OBCBYL never really crosses that threshold into pedagogically experimental, nor would its makers claim it to — after all, it’s a “reverence and critique” of pre-existing genres, and therefore its occasional difficulty seems to lack purpose. (And with thirty-three tracks, even as short as they are, some kind of conciliatory compromise made towards the listener is especially necessary. While these efforts are certainly made on OBCBYL, they’re arguably not made enough.)

[2]  Seventeenth track “Ode to Drum” is a reference to the poem of the same name by Yusef Komunyakaa, in which a hunter skins a gazelle and fashions its hide into the head of a drum. The poem was included on John Tchicai’s jazz record Love Notes from the Mad House, which makes it a nice tie-in to comments Ben Hozie made to Rare Candy last spring: that “rock music isn’t a pop cultural thing anymore,” that it’s become the “equivalent of guys with ponytails getting together to play jazz.”

[3]  This is in no way meant to imply that past rock artists featured smarter lyricism; quite the opposite in fact seems true: rock lyricism of the past thirty-some-odd years has been far brainier and more beautiful than the rock music of the preceding thirty years.

4.

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a hundred-something-page philosophical work, devotes itself to defending the importance of beauty and examining the origins of modern “beauty-blindness,” arguing that modern culture often sees beauty as superficie rather than essence,  a distraction from, rather than embodiment of, truth and honesty. One could potentially make an argument for a certain degree of “beauty-blindness” in Bodega’s production, in fact, someone already has: in her review for Pop Matters, writer Maria Schurr drew attention to the record’s (lack of) production value, which she saw as detrimental to the album’s overall quality and listenability (for the record, this sentiment isn’t shared by me). In fact, the (lack of) production value seems deliberate: on the Bandcamp liner notes for OBCBYL, a single-sentence disclaimer announces that “All sounds” on the record were “recorded with a Mac internal mic in Garageband.” It’s true that I’ve seen these kinds of disclaimers on a lot of records recently, for a whole host of recording techniques — Ty Segall’s recent Fuzz LP, for example, was emblazoned with a giant neon sticker advertising that it had been recorded on a cassette four-track. And all these disclaimers seem to to be serving a somewhat more sinister function than might appear at face value, taking advantage of the well-known phenomenon that expectations affect experience, often inversely. The higher hopes a listener holds going into a listen, the more likely s/he’ll end up disappointed. By signaling (or even, arguably, boasting) to potential buyers that a record has been self-recorded on subpar consumer equipment, not only has the artist garnered some sort of homespun authenticity/credibility, s/he’s also effectively lowered expectations for the record’s sound quality.

And it’s certainly worth being generally skeptical of low fidelity music, as Schurr seems to be.  I’ve long been an advocate of lo-fi music because its rise to popularity increasingly means that indie music consumers are more open-minded about occasional white noise or clipping or poor mixing, which in turn helps open up industry doors to artists with shallow pockets. It’s also made music consumers more flexible in general about what music “should” sound like, in a similar way that an experimental record functions, broadening a listener’s art-appreciation horizons. But low fidelity music has also become deeply fetishized as more authentic and more real than its hi-fi peers, and this to me seems potentially problematic: I’ve written about this before for Dingus DIY in an article called “Scuzzy and Sincere,” essentially attacking the issue on its home court — Dingus is, after all, a website which fetishizes the shitty-sounding, the self-recorded, the clipped.

But here on Our Brand Could Be Your Life, none of this seems to me to be an immediate problem, in part because I’ve heard (much) less polished production before, in part because Bodega Bay appears to have a clear conceptual reason behind their decision to record on a laptop: it ties in with the digital-millenial-modern, anti-corporate-influence angst that OBCBYL is so intent on channeling. Moreover, low recording costs means the band is freed up to record this many (thirty-three) tracks without plunging deep into debt. What I do wonder, however, is if Bodega Bay has fallen into a similar-but-different type of trap, shunning instead melodic beauty and listener accessibility for its association with glossy, commercial music. The band is clearly aware which of the album’s cuts are the catchiest — with the substitution of “Israeli Girl” in place of “Bodega Bait,” all the highlights I mentioned in section three (“Network,” “Bodega Bait,” “Realism,” and “16×9”) were used as OBCBYL’s promotional music. This might be a complete shot in the dark but that happens to be exactly where I am in regards to this record: un-illuminated as to why they chose to so actively play-down the record’s most melodic and accessible moments.

Maybe this avoidance has something to do with beauty’s reputation as cheesy and superficial rather than meaningful and essential. Maybe it’s a type of preventative safeguard against failure; when ultimate beauty becomes the ultimate ideal, failure in achieving that beauty becomes terrifying (fully actualized beauty is, after all, one of its most difficult and rarely achieved qualities), and the easiest solution to this is to change one’s sights entirely — in Bodega’s case, away from the actual, onto the meta; away from the art, onto the commentary. So even when the band’s commentary and meta-irony triumphs with flying colors, there’s a vague feeling that maybe they’ve been playing a different game than everyone else. That they chose this alternate olympics is part of their brilliance and can be highly appealing to some; to others it might come as a turn-off.

(Which is partly to say that the anti-melodic tendencies on this record are part of a highly subjective preference for rock aesthetics over pop aesthetics, and the fact that I take an issue with said tendencies is simply a symptom of my taste. I’m not sure I can make a defensible argument for why melody-driven music is better than harmony-driven music, and I think the whole endeavor would be somewhat ridiculous. I’m more curious in this section, I suppose, why the band made this particular artistic choice than critical of it, because I have no solid foundation from which to construct a sturdy or meaningful critique.)

5.

Ultimately (an inherently reductive summation, whose consumer-guide prose makes me slightly bilious, and whose disclaimer here only heightens that sensation):

Our Brand Could Be Your Life is about what you’d expect from a promising band putting out a thirty-three-song, four-side album. It has some very strong tracks and some filler and a lot of cuts that hover between the two. It likely won’t blow anyone’s expectations out of the water who is already familiar with the band’s pre-debut repertoire, but certainly won’t dampen impressions either. It leaves room for a very strong sophomore release, but also provides fans with quality material in the meantime. Moreover, Our Brand is an important release for the independent music scene: every one of its strengths is a weakness of contemporary underground music — its strong prose and unique voice, its focus on urgent contemporary issues rather than generic WASPy angst, its inclination to talk about ATMs and text messages rather than crooning abstraction and seventies-washing its sound. And it deserves recognition for its mere conception, as an attempt to create an artistic statement about something in an increasingly fragmented culture while simultaneously being aware of how cheesy making artistic statements in general can be. 

Some final notes on Our Brand Could Be Your Life that didn’t fit anywhere else:

5.1

“Cultural Consumer I” is still one of the stand-out tracks of the year. That its subject matter gets expanded here into a five-part suite is risky (too much of a good thing, spread too thin, etc. etc.) but mostly pays off.

5.2

As much as this review has focused on literature, Our Brand pays as much or more tribute to the film world, especially the work of classic directors Welles and Tarkovsky; unfortunately I lack the expertise (or I suppose, equally accurately, the confidence) to work through these in a meaningful way.

5.3

One of the greatest difficulties of recording an album is putting together a record that is simultaneously varied enough to maintain interest and aesthetically cohesive enough to feel like a single, coherent work of art, stylistically the vision of a single artist or act. On a standard ten-track LP this is hard enough— at thirty-three tracks, like on Our Brand, this task becomes near-Herculean, and seeing how they try and pull it off becomes a fascinating endeavour in itself. Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs is so successful in part because it’s able to pull this off: despite constantly morphing in styles and genres throughout the record, Stephen Merritt’s deep baritone (joined by Gonson, Simms, Klute, and Beighton), dry humor, and quasi-alphabetical ordering helped tie the album together in a meaningful way. Partly, Bodega Bay attempts to pull an Elvis Costello on OBCBYL: consistency via, rather than despite, variation, identity through emphasis of encyclopedic qualities. I think it’s more accurate to say, however, that their music strives for consistency-as-consistency rather than variation-as-consistency, their foundational sound mid-60s Velvet Underground with White Album-Beatles trappings.

5.4

One of the group’s past kinks — the occasional tendency to call out obvious targets of attack (think Urban Outfitters) — has been ironed out on OBCBYL, to, I think, the audience’s relief.

5.5

An especially nice touch towards the end of the album is the cover of Milk Dick’s “Girls Have Needs” — a move which pays reverence to the once-ubiquitous tradition in rock of covering other groups’ songs but also adds meaningfully onto the original track, inserting a snarky spoken-word narration detailing an unstable, psychedelic-fueled relationship (“After that bad acid trip, and I lived in your subconscious for sixteen hours, I realized we could never be anything but apart”).

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