Flipping the Bird

With sparrows squawking in the distance, Fog subverts new-age music for the old-soul set

Sometime in the late '80s, I was reading a magazine in a bus shelter on Cedar and Lake. It was the premier issue of a probably now-defunct magazine devoted to "new music"--avant-garde composers, guys who play coffee makers over backward tape loops, that sort of thing. In the introductory notes, the editor reiterated the new-music principle that music can be found on construction sites, in quiet rooms, in bus shelters, anywhere. The same message is expressed in songs such as Billie Holiday's "I Hear Music," and famously tested by John Cage's "4'33"." Anyway, it had been drizzling when I started the editorial, but by the time I finished, it was pouring. Plus, it was rush hour, and at 18 years of age, I was impressionable. Yes!, I thought, the firmament (the ether?) has birthed a symphony. The traffic is playing along. Music is free!

These days, I bring a Walkman when I want music for the bus stop, so I guess my mind has narrowed. Somehow, though, Fog's new album, Ether Teeth (Ninja Tune), has me listening to birds. Birds, birds, they're all I have to go on. Their calls--taken from garage-sale records or maybe recorded with a mike aimed at the window--are an Ether Teeth motif. There's more bird here than in a Charlie Parker boxed set: robins, pigeons, cardinals--even the turntable scratches are more chirpy than scratchy. My first thought was that Fog mastermind Andrew Broder was putting us on with some kind of new-age parody. My second thought was that he's serious, and well, I love birds as much as the next guy (provided the next guy doesn't give a shit about birds), but if I wanted to hear them clucking away on my stereo, couldn't I just buy one of those Sounds of Nature CDs at the Relax the Back store?

But my third thought came yesterday while walking to the SuperAmerica, where "the ex-boyfriends are cowering" in my favorite Ether lyric. All around me, I heard birds (those pranksters), and I felt like a winsome nature boy. Not as happy as the Dove bar from SA made me, but happy nonetheless. What I am now is enthusiastically ambivalent. There are some very fine melodies here. Nothing as instantly appealing as "Pneumonia," the folk-hop gem from Fog's self-titled debut, but more memorable tunes overall. "The Girl from the Gum Commercial," for example, saunters with a frail loveliness that seems to have a distant cousin in Ipanema. There's also some inspired collage work that equally respects Prince Paul and some version of musique concrète. It's pretty, whether droning and clunking and sampling like a beatless DJ Shadow, or piano balladeering like a beat (as in exhausted) John Cale, with chord changes that know when to please and when to throw in the blue notes.

Andrew Broder of Fog, pictured here with the invisible sounds of music floating in ether around him
courtesy of Ninja Tune
Andrew Broder of Fog, pictured here with the invisible sounds of music floating in ether around him

But as I said, I'm ambivalent. At times, the album is overly self-conscious and precious, as when Broder sings, "One day a dump truck will dump two tons of kittens on me." (I love kittens as much as the next guy...) The album's sloppiness and bum notes don't always charm, and its embrace of patchwork multi-tracking sometimes lets any old rag join the quilt. Phone conversations, for example, and the whole last quarter of the album (everything after the contrapuntal winner "No Boys Allowed"), with its dull noodling, bush-league Elvin Jones beats, rock poetry that reads better than it sings, and, of course, bird sounds.

According to his bio, Broder is a fan of ambient group Stars of the Lid, who made a useful white-noise album called The Tired Sounds Of.... Might have been a good title for this album, too, though Ether Teeth does the job. "Erase, erase, erase," croaks a somnambular Broder at one point, in phrasing that I swear subconsciously references Neil Diamond's "Hello Again." Maybe it's the "Helpless"-like I-V-IV section of "What a Day Day," but the premature exhaustion reminds me of Neil Young, who started identifying with old men at 24 and could barely open up his beautiful, tired eyes a few years later. All of which explains why Ether stalls during the day and glimmers at night. I suspect it benefits even more from marijuana, which I considered verifying, but then worried that my review would conclude with something like "Oh my God, this is so fucking cool." Which I suppose it is.

 
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