I originally discovered Shorthand Phonetics via demo…shoosanddo fonechikkusu!, which was a collection of Neutral Milk Hotel-ish fuzzed-out indie-pop jams. Since then, Ababil Ashari’s sound has headed all directions, from minimalist instrumentals to shrieking garage-rock. Some of it is brilliant; other experiments are not so successful.
Thirty-four Minutes with Hide and Tsubasa continues pushing his boundaries outward. “Don’t Mind Us. We’re Perfectly Normal, See? Perfectly. Normal.” ends with a mellow section that segues straight into the morose “Have I Told You About the Ngbaka?” That is, until that song explodes into one of the heaviest sections of music I’ve yet heard from Ashari. “Neuroses” has a rhythmic, patterned guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a math-rock tune. Other tunes experiment with surf-rock sounds and Sigur Ros-esque epic rock, both to good effect.
Ashari is becoming a very strong songwriter, as he is clearly studying many different types of music (or reinventing the wheel brilliantly). He still has to work on reining in his vocals. When he keeps them under control, as on the closer (“‘You can regret the past and you can be depressed about the present; But you don’t know anything about the future and fuck! […] That’s exciting.'”), they are completely tolerable and even enjoyable. When he dissolves into a shrieky mess (“C’mon!!! Be Insane With Me!!!”), it’s just supremely unpleasant.
Thirty-four Minutes With Hide and Tsubasa is a good garage rock album. It aspires to be more than that, and Shorthand Phonetics is working toward making that so. It’s not quite there yet, but there are some really good tunes here.
Unhinged, inhibition-less power-pop/garage rock that shows loads of promise.
When my friend Annie introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterwork In the Aeroplane over the Sea, I didn’t understand what was so great about it. I missed the significance of it because I was in the wrong mindset when I listened to it: the album is not something to be listened to and enjoyed. No, Aeroplane is something you get; something you experience. Two years later I discovered “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1” on my own, and that began my NMH love affair.
My love affair has made one thing clear to me: the reason that Neutral Milk Hotel is a hard sell is because the music is unlike anything else. Jeff Mangum’s songwriting is over-the-top without a hint of irony or humor. The overall loudness, the ridiculous distortedness, the wild vocals and lucid lyrics are not for effect – they are the only way that Jeff Mangum can portray what he wants to portray. He’s not loud cause he wants to be, he’s loud because the songs require it. It is completely unrestrained, and as a result sounds completely jarring and amateurish on first listen.
If Neutral Milk Hotel were a planet, Shorthand Phonetics is a spaceship traveling towards it. Ababil Ashari (the man behind SP) is still quite a long ways away from being in orbit of the planet NMH, but he’s definitely headed in that direction.
Shorthand Phonetics is also completely unhinged emotionally and mu sically. Jeff Mangum turned his angst and lack of inhibitions into psychedelic diatribes; Ababil Ashari turns his into biting sarcasm and viciously hooky guitar lines. Jeff Mangum’s acoustic-centric material is much more ‘indie’ than Ababil’s electric-centric power-pop, but the spirit is shared.
The winner on Shorthand Phonetics’ latest collection of demos is “Magic is Away for the Season,” which blasts out of the starting gate with an adrenaline-fueled guitar riff and rapid-fire lyrical delivery. There are absolutely no inhibitions anywhere in this song; Ashari lets it all hang out there, and the song is much the better for it. The song blurs the line between trashy garage-rock and curt power-pop; the production values, brash vocals and fuzzed-out guitar lines are total garage rock, while the melodies and the chorus are total pop. The song is incredible – both the lead guitar riff and the vocal melody will play over and over in your head for a long time after you hear the song.
“Magic is Away for the Season” is easily the best track here, as it encompasses everything that Shorthand Phonetics is, musically and emotionally. The rest of the tracks here show promise but fall short in areas. “Goodbye Juria” has a great chorus but suffers from several vocal catastrophes in the bridge, while “Theme to a Powerpoint Presentation” has an even more infectious chorus than “Magic…” but has to get through passable verses to get there. It’s still a good song, but it’s not the complete package like “Magic…” is. The wonderfully named “It’s Not That She is Nothing, It’s Just That She’s Not Everything” is an acoustic track that careens wildly from one extreme to another, dragging the listener on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not comforting music to listen to, but it is definitely incredible songwriting.
I’m usually all for people cleaning up their acts, getting better recordings, and working on their vocals to make them more round and full. I’m going to go completely against my normal standards and say that I want to keep Shorthand Phonetics making music however he wants to make it. Although some die-hards would murder me for this comparison, the flamboyant amount of passion and energy poured into the sound is only rivaled by Neutral Milk Hotel. Am I saying that Shorthand Phonetics is as good as Neutral Milk Hotel? No. Very no. But are many of the characteristics that make me love NMH present in Shorthand Phonetics? Very yes.
Although it may take a bit of getting used to, I’m thoroughly convinced that any lover of pop music will be unable to resist “Magic is Away for the Season” and Shorthand Phonetics in general. I can’t wait to hear more music and hear how the sound progresses – maybe Ababil Ashari will be the next Jeff Mangum. Who knows?
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.