Something In The Basement

The crying of Lot 51: Hymie's Basement
Courtesy of Lex Records

Be your art, the teachers say. Live it. That's fine, but I prefer to pretend I'm living in it--preferably in someone else's. (The jungle gymnast in me would pick M.C. Escher, hands down. Or is it hands up?) I expect the same is true of the artists themselves. That's good news if you're Ansel Adams, Henri Matisse, or Aaron Sorkin: Your metaphysical abode is awash in dreamy colors, its inhabitants engaged in endless, witty dialogues about politics, morality, and baseball. But what if you're Kafka? Or Goya? Or, for the love of God, Anne Geddes, with all those damnable babies all over the place? Home--that's hell, handbaskets and all.

If home is where the art is, then Andrew Broder should be curling up on a lonely shantytown street somewhere between Hiphopolis and Punkrocksylvania. It's cold here, and the birds won't shut up, and aside from a few friends who come down for a weekend visit, it's a pretty lonely place. Inhospitable, some might say, but for Broder, the avant-savant behind the local group Fog, it's the perfect fit for his music--an amalgam of transcultural influences from graffiti art to folk music that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. Broder is an urban guy, dressed in hoodies and trucker's caps, whose music is almost rural with its campfire choruses, charming weirdness, and apple orchard scenery. It's perpetually on the outskirts of pop culture, zoned for development but lacking the big city's appeal of opportunity. And right now, Fogsburg has a population of one.

Of course, in the world outside his art, Broder isn't alone on the street. He and his wife Julie Wellman live in a two-story redstone in the northwestern reaches of the Warehouse District, surrounded by storehouses and highway overpasses--a tired old thing that's facing the onrushing condominium boom with little hope and less repair. "It's the only residential building around here," Broder tells me as we walk through his neighborhood, "unless you count the homeless people under the bridge." Between stops to gaze at melting snow piles, bird corpses, and numerous cubicle-factory buildings that wear their water towers like industrial porkpie hats, he explains why it's been so hard to find a home for his music.

"Basically, I thought I could be the weird kid on Ninja Tune," he says, speaking of the British trip-hop label that signed him in early 2002. "It didn't work out that way." Fog's self-titled debut contained just enough turntable scratching to turn the heads of Ninja Tune's loyal followers, the kids who drool over sample-based artists like Coldcut and trickster DJs like Kid Koala. But Broder's strangeness proved unpalatable for such folks, and Fog's follow-up, last year's Ether Teeth, enjoyed barely a third of the debut's sales. "People who like Ninja Tune's stuff listen to trip-hop, so they didn't really get into it," he explains. "And why would they?"

To be honest, Ether Teeth's merciless experimentalism was sandpaper even to those ears that weren't expecting silky trip-hop. Not so with Hummer, the EP that marks Fog's friendly departure from Ninja Tune. Broder returns to his quieter side here, gunning for the Will Oldham set like he hasn't done since the chilling Fog single "Pneumonia." The title track finds him singing as pretty as ever, shaking those old Thom Yorke comparisons and finally owning his fragile falsetto, which quivers like a musical saw when he asks, "Were you born to be a sprinkler system in a thunderstorm?" And "Cockeyed Cookie Pusher," a dreamy acoustic love song, lands further from hip hop than anything Broder's written. Funny that Fog should be hunting for a new home now, following its best release yet.

Fog's best release, mind you, not Broder's. That honor goes to Hymie's Basement (Lex Records), a collaboration between Broder and Jonathon "Yoni" Wolf (better known as Why? of the Bay area hip-hop group cLOUDDEAD) that was recorded last winter in the lower level of Hymie's Vintage Records, the East Lake Street store that's co-owned and run by Wellman. A Salvation Army piano that Broder bought for $150 scores the bulk of this record, filling in lush melodies between broken beats and Why?'s Beck-spoken apocalyptic verse ("Somebody told me when the bomb hits/Everybody in a two-mile radius/Will be instantly sublimated") or Broder's own character-driven poetry ("Did you hear the one about the day the moon fell to earth?/It had a crater exactly the size of a human head on it/And it landed on my head and now my head is the moon").

Broder says that Yoni Wolf is as close to a musical kindred spirit as he has on this planet. Both are Midwestern punks who found hip hop early on. Both mix genres into a whole new style of avant-rap. It's no wonder that a vault below a rare and collectible records store inspired their album; what's curious, though, is the absence of those records on their songs. Broder, nominated by a certain weekly for Best Hip-Hop DJ of 2002 (only to deny being a hip-hop DJ), once used turntables to launch his career, and now they're all but gone from the equation, replaced by pianos, pianos, pianos. Do I smell a "Best Hip-Hop Pianist" nomination?

And yet, even without vinyl samples, Hymie's Basement still evokes a sense of place, and the record has room to spare. Hell, it is a room: The title refers not only to the subterranean studio, but also to the musical entity that Broder and Wolf have become, and also to the sound of the dank underground space that birthed it, creating a whole new universe of colorful characters, existential dilemma, and poignant stories. At one point on the album, a man's bass guitar fills his van with water while he drives to a school dance, and he calmly calculates how fast he needs to drive in order to get there before drowning. It's those little details that make this place so extraordinary--the basement, the record, the people involved. Bless this mess, indeed.

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