In order to appreciate Negativland's latest CD, Thigmotactic, it is necessary to understand the band's complicated history. They must be explained, even though being defined or labeled is probably the last thing Negativland would want. Nevertheless, picking up a copy of Thigmotatic without any background would lead to great bewilderment.
Some have called Negativland “merry pranksters,” due to their often humorous sound collages. Simply put, the group deconstructs music, taking apart individual sounds, adding unconventional instruments (using everyday objects), then putting everything together in a seemingly haphazard way. The key term is seemingly, since much of their material contains a central point, from mocking those in authority to exposing quirks in human nature. Since 1980, founding member Mark Hosler and a rotating group of singers, musicians, (many of whom hold jobs outside of music) and graphic artists have created audio collages, art, and videos meant to provoke and entertain.
Negativland helped establish the “mashup,” also known as the “cutup” or “bastard pop” movement in the increasingly sophisticated ways they could chop up sound loops and clips, then rearrange them in a unique — and often amusing — way. For example, the title track of their 2005 album No Business contains snippets of Ethel Merman singing “There's No Business Like Show Business” (both the original and bizarre disco versions!) spliced together to sound as if Merman were enthusiastically endorsing thievery.
While humor figures prominently in much of their work, Negativland also likes to challenge listener's beliefs. In their 1989 release Helter Stupid, the 18-minute title track addresses the music censorship furor of the mid-80s. The track features sound clips of news reports sensationalizing the “blame music lyrics for rising suicide and murder rates” controversy.
Demonstrating that the debate has raged on for decades, snippets of The Beatles' “Helter Skelter,” along with sound bytes from various John Lennon interviews, are interwoven throughout the work. After all, serial killer Charles Manson cited “Helter Skelter” as instructing him to kill. Negativland's opus argues that rock music will always be controversial, but that lyrics are, to use one of their repeated loops, “just words.”
My introduction to Negativland occurred while listening to Tim Baker's Radio Clash podcast. During one episode, Baker played the band's unique take on The Sound of Music's “My Favorite Things.” Julie Andrews' cheerful vocals are rearranged to extol the virtues of “schnitzel on roses” and “nose cream on kittens.” But then she remembers her “dog bites,” and then she feels “so bad.” This clever mashup left me in stitches, and I never forgot Negativland after that.
This lengthy introduction brings me to their new CD, Thigmotactic. Unlike previous albums, Negativland leaves sound loops in the background, emphasizing band members' own vocals and original lyrics. This approach results in sounding like Beck but with less sophisticated lyrics and melodies.
Reading the CD booklet gives an indication of the “homemade” quality of the songs; for example, the instruments listed on “Lying on the Grass” include “cheap plastic keyboards” and “fancy plastic keyboards. “It's Not A Critique” uses a “crummy stuttering disco loop,” while “By Truck” lists “scattery synth noises,” “electronic thunks,” and “milk commercials” among its elements. The songs are less overtly political on Thigmotactic, although “Richard Nixon Died Today” could be interpreted as such. With the word “crook” repeated various times throughout the track, the narrator proclaims the notion that Nixon died “plain poppycock,” that “we'll see you again.” Perhaps the lyrics stress that political corruption will always exist?
My favorite track, “Rancho Pancho,” playfully tweaks traditional country by layering vocals (recorded by a “crappy Norelco Idea Capsule mini-cassette demo,” according to the liner notes) while playing a “smashed-up acoustic 12-string guitar with 6 strings missing.” The lyrics display typical Negativland humor, the singer drawling that “I sigh and I cry for my Lothario, he's such a gay caballero.” Although the protagonist's “Spanish was weak,” he still yearns for “the man I love. He no speak-o my gringo lingo, but why oh why did Pancho go?” Weird, provocative, and humorous — these are all qualities of Negativland's sound.
These tracks puzzle the listener — did Hosler intend to parody traditional pop and and folk? Are Hosler, as well as the other members of Negativland, sincere in their eccentric lyrics? Knowing the band's postmodernist outlook, the group may have intentionally produced this confusion, to force people to rethink what exactly constitutes “music.” The CD booklet artwork, containing various collages, accompanies each song, further obscuring the lyrics' meaning.