Negativland – [Album]

Thursday, 28 August 2008

For the last twenty-nine years, Negativland has successfully weathered lawsuits, scrutiny both political and personal, hatred, envy and adulation as well as inciting anger, unease and revulsion in every corner of the musical landscape with which they’ve come into contact. That’s no small feat for any band, but what the group has achieved becomes totally unbelievable when you realize that they’ve done it without uttering a single original word; the audio has always been composed of a pastiche of samples that drive the songs. They have, in effect, simply held up a mirror to expose their subjects’ follies, foibles and faux pas and forced people to gaze on their own imperfections—while gaining notoriety, infamy and a few bucks in the process. Their output has occasionally been easier to respect than it has been to listen to, and while their ‘shadowy men from a shadowy planet’ image was once part of the band’s appeal, it has also had a dehumanizing effect as time has worn on. At this point, their cultivated anonymity is less shadowy and more faceless. This is the problem that now-illuminated singer Mark Hosler and Thigmotactic seeks to remedy; in one swift and incisive gesture, Negativland has, for the first time, been presented to listeners with a face and a voice of its own.

There’s no debating that Thigmotactic is a Negativland release. From the bracing orchestration that opens “Richard Nixon Died Today” forward, all of the sonic elements that have characterized the band’s records since the group’s first appearance in 1979 weigh in in vintage, classic form. Archly synthetic, plastic sounding song structures and instrumentation that blast forth like frogs from a dynamite pond and are complimented by winding, “borrowed” audio snippets from sources too numerous to mention swirl together in this radioactive stew that, for the first fifteen seconds, will be a stinging shock to the system of listeners both uninitiated and established fans for the same reason in both cases: each track is uniformly (and massively) crass, garish, tacky, intrusive and totally hilarious for it rather than being aggravating.

Because Hosler’s voice is at the center of each track, those aforementioned trappings are now relegated to the position of tapestries that frame him. There’s no doubt that he sticks out. There are often moments on the record that feel as if the singer has been Photoshop–ed into an existing Negativland image. Elsewhere, it seems as if he's enjoying a freestyle karaoke session (as on the acoustic “Extra Sharp Pencils”), or sitting in on a drunken basement session replete with off-color jokes and noodling goofiness.

Is that a critique on Negativland’s creative powers? Absolutely not—in point of fact, because the band has been so high-concept for so long, hearing them be more human is something of a revelation.

Unlike most records of its type, Thigmotactic actually firms up as it progresses. As they fall into some fine folk-pop nonsense in tracks like “Basketball Plant,” “Two Light Bulbs Flickering,” “By Truck” and “Influential You,” Negativland reveals a sardonic and heretofore obscured songwriting ability in its own right. Not unlike Beck’s early recordings, the band knits together no-wave cacaphonies driven by mind-expanding weirdness and folkie songwriting that work together rather, than sitting at odds with each other.

While no one was sure if they could ever expect anything like Thigmotactic from Negativland (how could they? The band has always followed its’ creative whims without apology or explanation), long-time fans have always silently hoped for a record like this to surface. The band isn’t one hundred percent comfortable in this form, but with their history of taking the piss out of everyone else for so long, it’s incredibly gratifying to hear these critics of culture put at least one of their own necks on the line.


Negativland – Thigmotatic is available now. Buy it on Amazon.

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