Shorthand Phonetics‘ newest garage rock opus is out, and I do mean that literally, as it is titled “Cantata no. 6 (Assistants of Assistants) in Varying Keys, Op. 25 for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar, One Drum Kit, One Tenor and Additional Voices Where Appropriate.” I would give a full review, but I am credited with two lyric contributions (“Dirk Nowitzki vs. The Heat,” “The Bachelor Party, or Standing Next To”) and one musical contribution (“Overture”). I’ll just say this: it’s no-holds-barred lo-fi garage-rock that is some of Ababil Ashari’s best work yet. If you like restraint or subtlety, however, you might apply elsewhere.
Some sounds are divisive, whether intentionally or not. If you’re into Nick Cave, Grinderman, The Raveonettes, Tom Waits or anyone else of the “life’s underbelly is gorgeous” ilk, you’re going to be super-down with Mr. Lewis and the Funeral 5‘s Delirium Tremendous. Their lucidly-named album is a rollicking, swinging tour de force through inviting, burlesque-style darkness. It’s like the seedy New Orleans you see in movies. Special shout-out to the tone-setting stomper “I Found Love on the Highway” (opening lyric: “Well, there’s murder and cheap can beer all along the highway”) and the cover of the Kinks’ “Alcohol.” It does start to run together toward the end of the hour-long length, but you will definitely be in a different mental place by the time you get there. I would wager they think that’s success.
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.
Okay, if you tuned in yesterday, you saw me tackle Shorthand Phonetics’ Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value. I said the songwriting was awesome but that the album was too long because the vocals were difficult. For those of you looking for the promised treat at the end of the last review, here it is: Shorthand Phonetics’ Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit is an album that’s one-fourth the length of Errors and totally instrumental. Basically, everything good about Errors is here and none of the bad.
The rock that Ababil Ashari so aptly writes is displayed in unadorned splendor here. There’s no lyrics or vocals to get in the way; just pure songwriting. Ashari strays from his pop-rock idiom some and moves toward Explosions in the Sky post-rock, but it couldn’t be more pleasing. For the post-rockers in the room, standout track “Act II: Middle, c. Your Dexterity Modifier is Just Right / Captain’s Armband / Display of Badasstitude” is much closer to Unwed Sailor’s optimistic melodies than Explosions’ moody ones, but not enough people know of Unwed Sailor. There is an awkward rock solo at the end of the song that doesn’t fit, but for the most part, there are glorious melodies that fit perfectly in the context of the song throughout.
But, like Errors, there are some incredibly poignant quiet moments as well. “Act II: Middle, b. XP From a Sage Expy (Terrific Speech 3) / Ease In (Taking a Level in Badass)” is strikingly well-composed as a minimalist piece. The fact that it segues perfectly into the aforementioned instrumental rock track is awesome.
It’s worth note that the entire eighteen-minute album plays as one song; it’s also worth note that there are composition skills at work here that go beyond “I can write eighteen straight minutes of music!” There are musical themes that are advanced, repeated, modified and re-introduced. There is ebb and flow of mood and emotion. This is, simply put, a classical piece of music in the rock idiom (just as the far-too-clunky title espouses it to be).
The only thing that I can really compare this to is The Programme, a Tulsa band that died an early death after releasing the best instrumental rock concept album about time travel that I’ve ever heard. And that’s high praise, because the Programme has often sat in the “favorite band” seat in my head. There are still weird, idiosyncratic moments in this release (like the weird and annoying feedback of “Sad Panda Dies…”, although when considering the epic moment that comes after the feedback, it can be admitted), because it is a Shorthand Phonetics release. But this is easily the best Shorthand Phonetics release I’ve ever heard, because it plays to every one of their strengths and eliminates all of the weaknesses. This is epic, fantastic, inspiring music. If you like epic rock’n’roll, instrumental rock, pop-rock, or generally exciting music, you need to check out the epic Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit.
My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).
See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).
Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.
The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.
That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).
To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department. If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.
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.