Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

the binary marketing show escapes easy classification.

June 24, 2009

I often wonder at the sheer number and variety of genres and sub-genres. In my more cynical moments I am convinced that obscure genres are the products of a conspiracy between musicians and writers attempting to make unoriginal or unbearable music appealing to college students or habitual Myspacers. Admittedly, I fall into both of these categories, but I have never been the type of person who refers to a band with a phrase like “my new favorite post-Marxist-futurepop duo.” When my cynicism temporarily resolves itself, I realize that frenzied sub-genre creation has its roots in unique music: Bands make original and progressive music and listeners try to classify that music with the vocabulary at hand. Self-described as experimental noise pop, Brooklyn’s the binary marketing show seems difficult to place, even with hundreds of sub-genres to choose from.

Their latest album, pattern, opens with “shape of your head,” a piece that adequately demonstrates the major elements of the binary marketing show’s elusive sound. The song begins with a swirling and sweeping soundscape—a mix of electronic drum samples and acoustic percussion, a short, bell-like loop that seems to have escaped from Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and ethereal choral voices—that gives way into a more driving drum beat and what one later recognizes as their signature guitar sound. This guitar sound, an element in most of the album’s tracks, is especially striking in “la boheme,” where the guitar picking exudes solitude, like a post-modern interpretation of the musical score from an old Western film. The guitar playing is minimalistic, thriving on repetitions of a scant riffs, its clean sound colored by just enough reverb to hint at deliriousness.

In fact, “minimalistic” is an apt adjective for the entirety of pattern. Many of the songs are built around the repetition of a particular loop or musical theme, and the overall arrangements are sparse. Acoustic drums are relegated to simple timekeeping and the use of the snare drum is rare. Minimalism is especially noticeable in “white template,” a song that moves the listener into, out of, and through an unearthly soundscape of tom patterns, electronic noise, and repetitive guitar picking. On this track Bethany Carder’s vocal delivery reminds me of Alanis Morissette, if Alanis were more indie and bothered and had better music to sing over. Some songs, such as “628 hertz,” contain only one lyrical phrase, plaintively repeated throughout the piece. Even the album title itself hints at the band’s affinity for minimalistic compositions.

The band also has an impressive ability to make seemingly incongruous elements hold together, although only barely. It is not uncommon to hear harp loops, harmonica, bells, dub-style horns, and synth drones. “trust and candor” begins with a quick ukelele chord that quickly cuts into a breakneck conga loop layered with bird sounds, mariachi-style trumpets, acoustic drums, and the idiosyncratic vocals of band members Abram Morphew and Carder, whose vocals play share space on nearly every track. My favorite song on the album is “fear,” a folk-pop tune that starts off with a church organ dirge and choral vocal layers. But the song heads up-tempo and its catchy melody is backed by a ukelele sample. The whole piece rises in energy, its zenith a sort of restrained angst.

The precarious arrangements certainly warrant calling the binary marketing show an experimental band. However, they are akin to other great experimenters—Grizzly Bear, Modest Mouse, Talking Heads—in that their eccentricities make them engaging and captivating. It is when the songs are barely holding together that I find myself being held rapt by the songs. The music begs a critical ear while at the same time also rewarding trance-like listening.

So how does one classify the binary marketing show? Indie-Experimental-Electronic-Minimalism? Really-weird-but-endearing-and-sometimes-powerful? Yes, those all work. Although, more simply, how about: “really good”?

Buy it here. –Max Thorn

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Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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