Set your phasers to fun!
(MuscleWorks Inc., 2010)
I wasn’t sure what I was listening to the first time. I kind of figured I was in for something unique, considering that James Ferraro, here going by “Jim,” was one-half of weirdo noise duo Skaters. I wasn’t expecting a neon prismatic ADHD-fest filtered through the synthesized plastic American culture circa 1985. And I mean synthesized, as in synthesizers. Lots of ’em. On Air, as a monument to excess and mass consumption, revels in bubbling noise and bleeps and blurps that overtake one another, flitting in and out of standard compositional tropes and testing the definition of song. Instead, this is more song cycle, a composite whole exploring laziness as reflected back at us through television and radio. Indeed, “Remote Control Under the Couch” sets the pace with a synth playing a repeating ascending scale that receives minor accoutrement through its six-minute-plus runtime, as if the person on the couch can’t bother to lift a finger to switch away from the monotony, because he can’t reach the clicker. Similarly, “Green Popcorn,” despite its obvious inedible appearance, suffices as nourishment for the unfortunate layabout, and thus the track burps and farts at us in stubborn bored defiance. I’m serious, the track burped and farted at me.
I took this in, and wondered, “Is he messing with us?”
And then I started considering that Ferraro was neither disgusted nor enthralled by what he was reflecting, and instead was serving to document a strange microcosm of American existence. He’d taken a step back and pretty masterfully concocted a collage of “found” programming as such, equally favoring television and radio, and let it do its thing – you either resonate with it or you don’t (and if you don’t, you’re probably annoyed by it). And instead of creating a record that sounds like a single composer imposing his will on his medium, On Air plays more like a curatorial endeavor, an attempt to preserve cultural idiosyncrasies at a specific time. So when I say that, for example, “‘S.O.S.’ sounds like the lead-in music to a hard-hitting news program,” the prepositional phrase “in the 1980s” is implied at the end of it.
But there’s also a rudeness to it, other than the “Green Popcorn” incident, that’s sitcommy at its core and delivered with a playfulness that’s actually more subtle than I’ll likely let on. It reminds me of the rudeness purveyed on episodes of Full House, on which Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s character, toddler Michelle Tanner, spouted hip nonsense for the sake of cuteness, inspiring “Aww!s” every time Michelle referred to an adult as “dude,” or doing … er, other stuff like that (I didn’t really watch a lot of Full House). But Ferraro injects a precociousness that should be out of place but isn’t on an experimental synth record, and he plays the styles so straightfaced that you can’t help but smile at their accuracy, despite some lo-fi recording techniques that slip into dubbed-VHS territory at points. It’s like he’s a child TV star that gets to dress up as a musician – giddy with the access he has to all the popular stuff (electronics, music, clothes, cars, etc.) – but one whose cognitive framework has been deconstructed at the molecular level and is held suspended and barely connected by opposing magnetic fields.
So On Air relives pop culture anomalies across a broad spectrum and plays like that lazy dude finally grabbed the remote and decided to flip around. We get incidental music for PBS science programs (“Heaven’s Bathroom”), cheapo sci-fi (“Zapped By Something Strange in the Night”), and sitcom theme music (a la Full House! “Moonshocked Dudettes”). “S.O.S.” sounds like the lead-in music to a hard-hitting news program, and “On Air,” recalls the nostalgia for the 1950s, rockabilly, and pompadours that littered corners of the 1980s. “Pleiadian Channel Surfer #1,” “#2,” and “#3” each exist as literal trips through the dial, where pieces of communication and melodic snippets surface for mere seconds before disappearing into a formless wash (although the “lazy dude” here is an alien from the Pleiades star cluster, presumably observing Earth through its transmissions).
Perhaps in an effort to distill the concept of the record down into song length, Ferraro presents “Angels of the Night,” essentially a master class of On Air in miniature. Within three minutes, the titular doo-wop song gets interrupted, not even a minute in, with a spun radio dial and a surf number, with some sort of exclamation as the song shifts. Of course, somebody gets wise and goes back to “Angels” after another brief moment. But it all drops out in the end, and we’re left with planetarium ethereality in the form of stellar synths (a tactic used more than once on On Air). But it all works in this weird way, and the unexpectedness of what Ferraro presents makes for truly compelling listening. So what if he’s messing with us? It’s pretty obvious he’s embracing his muses at some level instead of crafting a hateful ode to their obnoxiousness, and as such there’s quite a bit of fun to be had parsing the results.
RIYL: Speculator, The Stray Cats, Emeralds, Dylan Ettinger, Power Pill Fist