Zammuto (Temporary Residence, 2012)
originally published at Dusted Magazine
What if the life cycle of contemporary culture has been so truncated in the age of mechanical reproduction that the outrage-to-classic story of a Rite of Spring is no longer possible? Given overwhelming competition from its primary delivery mechanism, a new piece of “serious” art is lucky for whatever little multi-tasked attention we give it; thus, if it is to make an impact, it must alienate us and draw us in at the same time, in minutely calibrated kilter. It must be both challenging and generous, like the best kind of teacher.
That’s all complete bullshit, obviously, but it’s the sort of sub-theoretical dross to which one might be driven by Zammuto, which is a maddeningly difficult record to account for. Zammuto is a record that is frequently beautiful and also stubbornly ugly, by turns idyllic and disruptive, a cockeyed interrogation of pop conventions, a quirky little soft-shoe on the unexpectedly thin line between genius and incompetence. (See? There we go again.) It showcases Nick Zammuto’s preternaturally good musical sense, convinces you his aesthetic values are roughly aligned with a standard most of us can agree on, just in time to drop in something totally contradictory. “Nobody who layers guitar patterns so sublimely could possibly think this vocoder patch is authentically pleasing to the ear,” it whispers to you. “And yet here we are.”
The Books – Zammuto’s initial claim to fame – was idyllic and disruptive, too, yet somehow easier to collapse into a packaged statement about art and sound and voice. Zammuto has none of that act’s refined squareness, none of its ambiguous reverence for the material being manipulated. It makes a huge difference, of course, that here the material in question is mostly Zammuto’s own voice (and admittedly, at one point, a sassy robo-voice that sounds like Siri covering Kreayshawn). Where The Books was benignly postmodern, this is purely and archly modern, incorporating R&B skitter and slimy DFA club-funk instead of filmstrips and field recordings; there’s none of The Books’ patchwork framing, none of the implied quotation marks. Zammuto is a fringe indie-rock album, not an art installation. (Hence the temptation, as above, to ascribe it an artist’s statement it doesn’t need.) It’s immediate, when it’s annoying and when it’s enjoyable.
Go figure, the most enjoyable parts of the album are hard to separate from the most annoying: the full presence of “Yay” after it assembles itself a few channels at a time; the lush avian string swarms coursing through the otherwise tepid “Idiom Wind”; the revoltingly auto-tuned lyrics to alternate-universe club jam “Too Late To Topologize” (“whoo-oo, you’re my tax return / whoo-oo, you’re my 1099 / yeah”). Listen long enough, though, and the lull and the disruption come to a strange equilibrium, which suggests there’s something worthwhile – more genius than incompetence – in the challenge. Zammuto’s refusal to act in accordance with what he clearly knows is maximally pleasing may come across as an insult, but somehow, to his credit, it feels like a personal insult rather than an abstract one.back