Striped Shirt Records STS105, 2011, CD album, 42m 51s, $10
(also available as DD, $name your price)
‘Avant pop’ is a term that has been bandied about at various times, in various contexts, and it is one that Diane Marie Kloba has applied to her own work, although there is no consensus as to what it describes. Regardless of whether her work has similar stylistic features to other artists who have been similarly labelled (and it has often been applied to electronic music), it is a good description of what she does. This is pretty avant-garde stuff, which, despite the prominence of electric guitar in its instrumental textures doesn’t sound like rock; and despite its experimentalism, there is a sense that it’s all about the songs, which are short and self-contained in the manner of pop songs.
The arrangements are built up from the core elements of Kloba’s voice and guitar with various articles of hand percussion, most manufactured, but some of it found. Sometimes there are some drums, bass, synthesiser, organ, another guitarist, but the texture feels very consistent: although it is quite varied, it’s stylistically coherent. This is Kloba’s fourth album, and although I’m not familiar with her earlier work, it’s clear that she’s arrived at an effective creative method and a mature artistic practice: the impression I get is that she knows exactly how to say what she wants to say, if only because her various meanings are conveyed in a similar manner across these thirteen songs.
There’s a very strong relationship between the way Kloba sings and the way she plays guitar. If singing is to speaking as running is to walking, then she walks fast, sometimes skipping or jogging, but never sprinting: at times this sort of melodic speech reminds me somewhat of Laurie Anderson, particularly on ‘It Rained’. She also reminds me of Anderson in her lyrics: not in the specific tenor of her language, but in the way she uses thoughts and ideas as big compositional blocks, like giant bricks of conceptual lego. I don’t believe that Kloba is in any way tentative, but the wavering character of her voice, and the power of her delivery, just short of full voiced, give the impression that she is feeling her way forward carefully, and there is a similar feel to her guitar work.
I’ve rarely heard a distorted electric guitar riff, like the one on ‘Diane Has Words’, delivered with so much rhythm and conviction, and yet so little of rock’s clichéd swagger. There is no posing in the playing, no milking of received gestures, but a back-to-first-principles approach that seems to find the instrument’s capacities afresh, as though it had shed its history and associations.
There is sometimes a roughness in the overall approach, which I read as a desire to avoid the automatic responses to received notions of musical competence: in a way it’s punky, inasmuch as the music is always in time and in tune, but it’s a different kind of rawness, one not deriving from an excess of energy like punk’s emotional overdrive. If there’s one thing that drives and saturates this music it’s sincerity.
Much avant-garde music shares with this album a cultivated naïveté in the way it presents its materials, thrust directly at the listener like the gifts of a child: the crucial difference is that in most cases this is a mediated and ironic strategy, a knowing and fundamentally defensive measure. In Kloba’s case her approach represents a committed and heartfelt search for the best expression of her endearingly positive meanings. The fact that her music doesn’t pander to our well developed conditioned expectations of what a nice pop song should sound like is a consequence of her desire to express precisely her own meanings, not the generic ones that are contained by the conventional vocabulary of pop and rock.
It may take some listeners a while to hear past the somewhat challenging surface of this music. Once they do they will find a probing, enquiring creativity that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, but also sweet natured, and motivated by a generosity of spirit. Kloba puts it better than I can in the lyric to ‘Ace The Place’: ‘I come from humble mumbling to bring you what I worked to find.’