Bittersweet Symphony

Howard Hamilton III insists 'Pure Energy' isn't just pure sugar

Sure, his debut album was called Baby's First Beats. And his followup, Pretend Hits, came wrapped in aggressively cute Yoshitomo Nara cover art. And his trademark sound features simple iBook and four-track beats that exude quirky charm. Nevertheless, Howard W. Hamilton III, the one-man band better known by the nom de disc Busy Signals, is a bit tired of being lauded for his music's bubble-gum innocence.

"I get all these reviews that the songs are sugary and sweet, but what I want to get across is that there's also a lonely and dark side of it," Hamilton says. "I mean, my lyrics are all about me being bummed out. It's really very cynical."

Hamilton's real skill lies in the ability to be slyer with his cynicism than your average catharsis-rocker. After a few listens to Pure Energy (Sugarfree), a newly released collection of Busy Signals B-sides, remixes, and rarities, it's the irresistible beats that stick in your head. Only later, while you're absently and blissfully singing lines for the thousandth time, do you finally realize phrases like "You don't kiss me no more/ You just put your lips on autopilot" are not, in any sense of the word, happy. By then, however, Hamilton's uniquely odd songwriting has worked its magic. "I like tricking people like that," he says.

For Hamilton, the ability to work his way into the hipster subconscious is just the latest step in a long, strange journey toward something resembling local rock fame. After coming of age in Cleveland's mid-Eighties punk scene and serving a stint as a Babes in Toyland roadie, Hamilton developed an interest in lo-fi hip hop and electronica, which, as legend has it, inspired him to sell his 1963 Ford Falcon and buy a four-track and sampler.

With the eventual release of Baby's First Beatsin early 2000, he joined like-minded Twin Cities artists such as Sukpatch and Triangle in an emerging indie dance and electronica scene that's more famous in Japan than it is locally.

"I think everybody's just a little bit behind the times here. You know, normal kids are just getting their groove boxes for Christmas," Hamilton says. "I'm kinda hiding out here, just waiting for something to happen."

Of course, Hamilton hasn't just been sitting around thumb-twiddling in the interim. His original duo, Saucer, brought smart dance music to local fans looking for alternatives to overdone big beat. And since going solo, he has produced three Busy Signals albums, crafted tracks for frequent collaborator Har Mar Superstar, and gained plenty of critical kudos for blending club-worthy beats with a savvy pop sensibility. It's this combination that distinguishes Busy Signals from the army of laptop DJs mixing tracks in their bedrooms.

"A lot of electronic musicians couldn't write a regular song," he says. "I spend 24 hours a day thinking about making music--taking notes on everything I'm thinking about and trying to swirl it into a song. I can sit around making backing tracks all day, and maybe one of a hundred will be good enough to put lyrics to." The rest of those backing tracks help Hamilton pay the bills: He sells them on eBay to aspiring rappers. ("I'm finally starting to get these random checks in the mail that I don't even know are coming," he says.)

The songs that made the cut on Pure Energy are evidence of Hamilton's high standards, with musical hooks that are simple but invariably creative and catchy as hell. The deceptively transparent lyrics do indeed deal with loneliness and frustrated desire, yet they do it without self-pity. Pure Energy stands out if only for the previously unreleased "Better Books" and the R&B-tinged, Har Mar-voiced "Friend of a Friend," both of which encompass everything that doesn't suck about IDM. Two of Pretend Hits' better offerings are also included: "All the Young Designers" appears in its Madchestery original form, and Triangle gives "The Freeway" a pleasant trance-style remix.

As with most hodgepodge collections, there are a few missteps (notably the unmemorable title track). But, as a whole, Pure Energy is a potent dose of the prolific Hamilton's peculiar charm. According to him, the record is also a conclusion to this particular stage of Busy Signals: For future performances, he plans to add his guitar back into the act and craft new songs that are a bit more friendly to live shows.

For now, though, Hamilton--who's headed out on tour with indie-poppers the Shins throughout April--is as satisfied with musical life as any self-described shut-in songwriter can be.

"I have this feeling, right now in my life, that [making music] is what I'm here for," he says. "I'm not going for rock superstardom here. I just wanna be a page in history between Sebadoh and electronic music."

 
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