Ninian's Wake

Sonic adventurer John Crozier follows 40 years of pop's past into an ingeniously messy future

Trolling for examples of the affirming majesty and mischief of God's bald truth, I stumble upon the obvious: the platypus. That beaver-tailed, duck-billed, egg-layin' lil' feller crouched on the open page of my American Heritage Dictionary begging me, with a doughy Shmoo-like gaze, to take him home. Find me a better example of the wondrous machinations of the unknowable cosmos, and I'll give you elves, the Fat Boys, the Mickey's Big Mouth, a short series of Polaroids I am not at liberty to show you. Or maybe I'll play you "Scottish Rite Temple Stomp," a 1996 single by Ninian Hawick, a pop platypus of New Order dance-pop, Johnny Marr jangle, James Brown drum break, and Glenn Branca bellow--which happens to be the foulest love story ever told. It's a love between a boozy Scottish lass and a hearty punk-rock boy--haggis love.

One day the lass in question (singer Heather McElhatton) saw a boy pass by on motorbike. He was dressed in leather and he had the kind of kilt she kind of liked. "And he asked me to his cottage for some haggis and some tea/And he asked if there were any more at home who look like me/And we did the Scottish Temple Stomp and this is how it sounds to a bee/1, 2 , 3, 4." Then noise. Screeching guitar noise like no noise you have ever heard in your alt-rock-scarred lives. Is that how it sounds if you're a bee? I don't know, but it's beautiful. No person who's ever collected mail in Minneapolis--as Crozier has--can claim responsibility for pop this playful, this screwy, this fun.

The sound of a billion bees played through as many Marshall stacks: Ninian Hawick's John Crozier (in a scene from the Minneapolis movie Snow
The sound of a billion bees played through as many Marshall stacks: Ninian Hawick's John Crozier (in a scene from the Minneapolis movie Snow

The brains, guitar, sampler, piano, and whistle behind Ninian Hawick's much-delayed debut album, Steep Steps (Grimsey), belong to John Crozier, and as any grizzled scene-wonk worth his increasingly pesky case of emphysema will tell you, John Crozier is a mutant. Former guitarist for the Funseekers, the Hang Ups, Muskellunge, and the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, Crozier is a genius of melodic possibility whose brilliance is matched only by his utter mistrust for writing (or singing, which he never does) immediate melodies. "I don't like things to be too pretty," he told me in a conversation last summer, and a vast majority of Steep Steps sees him test the boundaries of that belief.

Steep Steps is Crozier's apotheosis, an intentionally jumbled, happily meaningless record that I've been trying to categorize since last July, before finally giving it over to the barely fitting designation, "post-pop." Steps is post-pop because, though Crozier loves playing with the now voguish implements of sonic esoterica--samplers, electronics, and the like--he also loves great pop girl-groups, mid-'60s Kinks singles, Hüsker Dü, New Wave, and gay disco. The 41-year-old has been in love with rock 'n' roll since he was but an Iowa tyke hiding the transistor radio under his pillow to hear that one final Kinks song before mom came in and called lights out. The only thing he loves more than great pop is messing around with it, taking his store of memories into a home 8-track studio, disassembling them, and reconstructing the fragments into packages that bleep, blip, and tick like time bombs.

Keep in mind, this is no cutesy DJ Spooky-style "recombinant" inanity. Occasionally Crozier's creations are as abrasive as the sound of a billion bees played through as many Marshall stacks. Some of these songs are cold and frightening; hooks leap out of the roiling mix like whales in the North Sea.

The album's sentiments are just as gnarly. "Phrasebook Wands" sets a monologue by Crozier's pal Patrick Durgin on the ascetic's aesthetics of boredom to appropriately rigid Sisters of Mercy synth-goth. "Love," Durgin sings, "being only a varied series of attempts to retain a unique state, insults my sense of continuity." Even weirder is "Mon Récit," in which a wannabe Frenchie diva is nearly swallowed by a vortex of distortion, Moby-style ambient music, and lugubrious bass chortles: It's Phil Spector at war with The Blob.

But even these stylistic Hydras offer the occasional winks and nods to the Pop Gods: See how "Phrasebook Wands"' sunny dub-reggae keys, or "Mon Recit"'s evanescent sweetness rise out of the sonic blight.

Ninian Hawick doesn't so much reject the pop Crozier played in the mod-rock Funseekers and Byrdsian Hang Ups as much as relocate it to the great indoors of his basement studio. Local experimental wigs will file Croizer alongside tortoise-shelled post-rockers like Electric Company, and Ui. But that ignores Crozier's sense of whimsy (see the playful pastiche of "Ballad of the Oread"). It also neglects "The Minch," a maddeningly brief snippet of Thelonious Monk-like piano that has as much right being here as Kim Carnes would.

And that contrarian approach goes against my inclination that Crozier approaches his playtime as if he were the first guitar guy who ever twaddled a knob. He's drunk on the joys of playing with listeners' expectations, or evoking cinematic surprise--joys that are as old as '60s studio experiments like Revolver and "Be My Baby." Call it classic pop.

 
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