THE ANNOTATED MIXTAPE, #21
Because the vinyl renaissance of recent years has been LP-centric—and original pressings of vintage LPs accordingly expensive—singles bins still brim with overlooked salvage. I paid one dollar for the Pictures 7˝, persuaded not by the record store sticker ambitiously name-checking the Sea Urchins, Orange Juice, Tricky, the Field Mice—a hard sell for a buck!—but by the sleeve’s blurred monochrome photo of bare trees, field, stone wall: all signifiers, I suspected, of sensitive, post-adolescent yearnings the yearner hoped might’ve impressed Alan McGee. “Renewal” begins with a drum fill recorded so poorly it sounds more like a cheap drum machine, and immediately a rollicking, delicately-picked Stratocaster riff and nearly-buried bassline spring forth. Two-finger Casio SK-1 chords texture the choruses, and some guy—the one playing everything except drums—sings softly about how he doesn’t “want to go home tonight,” etc. It’s all as tame and wary and plagiarized as I’d imagined it would be—six years passed between purchase and the bored Sunday afternoon I finally played the record. When I did, I maybe loved most the audible clicks of someone pressing the Tascam Portastudio’s buttons at the ends of overdubs; and the vigorous, almost-out-of-tune guitar strumming; and the distortions where the cassette tape wrinkled after too many takes, too many bounced tracks: all the presences of the shy-but-fervent disciple, the dude so moved by admiration for his records that he wants to make one like them, though he can’t quite pull it off. My friend Rebecca and I once locked ourselves in a bedroom for several July weeks to record our own earnest attempts at melancholy popsongs, capturing them on tape as soon as we believed we’d mastered the notes and chords: thankfully we didn’t have the money to press a 7˝ ourselves. I can assume so much about the Pictures’ equipment and instrumentation because it sounds so much like ours did.
“Renewal” is, if charmingly sincere, derivative and deservedly unknown—the record’s bland titles render it virtually un-Googleable, and it’s absent from Discogs.com, a website that catalogs even the obscurest vinyl. Indie kitsch, its pretensions to truth and beauty founder beneath vapid music and lyrics. I can’t help recalling Susan Sontag’s famous denotation that camp’s “essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” The song’s clumsy rendition of the basic gestures and clichés of Byrds-jangled, early-’90s lonely-boy British indie-pop attempts to meet that scene’s specific expectations: of course, the record also contains a photocopied booklet conspicuously similar to the Sarah Records inserts, and venturing the same serious-but-breezy delivery that Sarah’s Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes achieved. “Style without substance, youth culture has reached a complacent plateau,” the booklet’s writer warns, oblivious to how this statement condemns the accompanying record.
Still, the insert dedicates Interior Monologue to “the ones who believe that these things matter, because they do,” and somehow I can’t disagree with that sentiment: my favorite records, not unlike this one, are those that probably shouldn’t have existed, often made by people with only the shakiest command of their music, and far more passion than the means to articulate it. It’s hard to get excited by a record with such a low risk/reward ratio, but nevertheless I’ve played “Renewal” about twenty times this morning: the song’s appeal resides not in how easily it can be overlooked, but in how familiar it already sounds, as though I’ve been listening to it for years.
Joshua Harmon is the author of Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, Scape, and Quinnehtukqut. The Annotated Mixtape (essays) and History of Cold Seasons (short fiction) will be published next year by Dzanc Books. Cascading Failures, a chapbook of new poems, is forthcoming from Greying Ghost.