sound patrol 6-30-05
A bumpy journey, in the Fog
Writing about Gertrude Stein’s long and difficult The Making of Americans,¬†literary critic Richard Bridgman likened the author’s technique to that of a novice driver: “Periodically there are smooth stretches, but these are interrupted by bumps, lurches, wild wrenchings of the wheel, and sudden brakings. All the while the driver can be heard muttering reminders and encouragements to herself, imprecations, and cries of alarm.” So it is with the output of Andrew Broder, who records as Fog, which is sometimes a band containing other musicians and sometimes Broder’s alter ego.
Broder, a 26-year-old Minneapolis native, started out as a hip-hop DJ, graffiti artist, and occasional music journalist. His self-titled debut, which he released on his own Dinkytown Records imprint in 2000, was reissued by the prestigious indie label Ninja Tunes two years later; soon thereafter, the British press went gaga over his distinctive blend of turntable pyrotechnics, psycho-collage samples, and glitched-up folk. Fog’s follow-up, 2003’s Ether Teeth, showed the iconoclastic auteur moving even further from his hip-hop roots and closer to a kind of sui generis singer/songwriterism. Brutal, scary, and sometimes frustratingly cryptic, Ether Teeth was like a homegrown Kid A, a gloomy exercise in experimental bricolage, Teutonic beats, glacial piano riffs, and slacker self-deprecation — it wasn’t always an easy ride, but it yielded many pleasures for the patient passenger.
Fog’s newest full-length, 10th Avenue Freakout,¬†is by no means a concession to mainstream tastes, but regular rock fans will probably find it more accessible than Broder’s previous efforts. It contains actual oh-my-God songs, many of which boast recognizable verses and choruses, and Broder’s voice, an affecting amalgam of Mr. Rogers and Kermit the Frog, seems like a vehicle for communication rather than just another element in his cut-and-paste exorcisms. Although his lyrics still resemble surrealistic shards more than they do linear narratives, they’re consistently memorable and often quite funny, in a nightmarish way: “We baptized our supersized babies in embalming fluid” (“We’re Winning”); “The eye, a spoof of God/The day, a crippled wolf/Were you born to be a sprinkler system in a thunderstorm?” (“Hummer”); “Sentences beaten senseless/By babies wearing sunglasses” (“The Poor Fella”). Scattershot references to neon-pink werewolves, woolly mammoths, and pteranodons contrast effectively with artless observations, lines that come off like staticky fragments from a late-night cell-phone conversation with your dysfunctional best friend: “I’m rotten at keeping touch,” he admits with touching matter-of-factness on “The Rabbit,” “but I miss you very much.”
Embellished with clarinet, trumpet, cello, and saxophone, 10th Avenue’s 13 tracks vacillate between effervescent chamber-pop and rattletrap free jazz, folktronic freakouts and luminous art songs, skittish beat pastiches and free-association ramblings. “Song About a Wedding,” surely the most beautiful song in Broder’s catalog, yokes Satielike piano frills with minimalist bass, a wistful clarinet, and tinkly glockenspiel as Broder’s double-tracked self-harmonies complete the mood of wry romanticism: “Walking on guilelessness’ sturdy stilts/Through guiltlessness’ beaming streets/I’m a tiny crab/In a tidal wave/I have no complaints/And I too have you/To complain about it to.” Somewhat weirder but no less lovely is “The Rabbit,” a queasy concoction of acoustic guitar and rusty thumps that suddenly erupts into a glorious falsetto chorus midway through — it’s as if the members of E.L.O. were kidnapped by a cabal of avant guerillas. The closing track, “The Hully Gully,” begins with vinyl hiss and live drums, weaves in a dorky sample from an old dance-instruction record, subsides briefly in a dolorous organ wash, and then combusts in a full-out skronkfest of bleating saxophones.
Like Stein, Broder is an erratic chauffeur, but the bumps, lurches, and wrenchings along the way remind you how far you’ve traveled, how singular your destination.