Cutleri – We Sink Ships (avant-folk)

self released, 2012, CD & DD album, 1h 4m 19s

$10 (DD) $12 (CD)

I never know how much to consider the visual artwork when I’m discussing a release. On the one hand, I don’t want to do the artist a disservice by basing my description on anything extraneous to the music, but then the artwork does unavoidably affect how the listener hears the music, and the visual component is often a valuable creative accomplishment in its own right. Personally I enjoy the artwork attached to the music I listen to; even if it’s only digital, it still provides a handle that I can hang my memories of the sounds off. What I’m trying to get at when I write about music is its meaning, and in the case of music, ‘meaning’ can’t really refer to anything other than the experience of hearing it; what goes on neurologically when we hear music bypasses the linguistic and analytical parts of the brain (according to Daniel Levitin). So when I try to write analytically about music, I’m really writing about all the contextualising information, the stuff that makes us think we know what’s going on, that we know why this sound is happening, without which we can’t comfortably step back and let our brains get on with the pre-linguistic business of digesting the experience. That context includes song lyrics, the many associations of particular stylistic features (disco sounds ‘cheesy’, punk sounds ‘confrontational’, a particular sort of person often listens to mainstream jazz); the varying approach to conventional practices (production values, songwriting techniques and approaches to orchestration can all reinforce a single style or point to a fusion); and yes, visual presentation.

We Sink Ships is blessed with a very nice piece of drawing; you can see it for yourself so I won’t describe it in detail, but suffice to say the six figures appear to be some sort of mer-people, with their dorsal fins and tendril-like cranial appendages, and their faces are marked with a sort of melancholy, which seems to be justified for the three women by the fact that the three men are about to fall on them, and that they appear to be impaled on a stripy, curved harpoon. The men definitely have the best of it, but their mood seems no better than the women’s. What I find most interesting about the image is that it combines a wistful reference to mythology, with a certain sense of nostalgia (it looks a bit 70s), a stylistic affinity to, maybe, children’s book illustrations, and a sense of contemporary artistic practice (the figures have nipples, penises and pubic hair). It’s charming (self-consciously so), as ‘crafty’ as it is ‘arty’, and it is pretty much ahistorical; ahistorical is something a contemporary folk musician needs to be, unless they go down the road of historical re-enactment (or they’re unreflecting enough to be a ‘purist’), and I think it’s fair to say that this image conveys a set of artistic concerns closely related to those of the music it accompanies. I certainly feel no shame in admitting that I’ve let the mood of the cover inform my understanding of the recording.

Sonically, We Sink Ships is largely constructed from conventional materials: acoustic instruments of a sort typically associated with folk music are predominant, such as banjo, violin, guitar, harmonica and various types of percussion. There is a limited use of synthesisers (just on ‘Bug’ as far as I can hear), and some found objects are credited (typewriter, candlesticks, knitting needles and so forth), although the sounds they’re used to make are never noticeably aleatory or non-musical (I guess that’s the beauty of percussion though!) The playing is occasionally forceful, or idiomatically sweet, but it is as frequently arhythmic or deliberately tentative, and timbrally harsh or husky, although never in a way that jars or grates. There is also singing, breathy, atmospheric singing, often in harmony or counterpoint, that is rich and solid at times, and ethereally diffuse at others. Song form is an important part of the compositional approach, but rather than dictating and bounding the arrangements, structural sections seem to float in soundscapes whose atmospheric and affective discourses seem at least as much the point of the pieces as the lyrics and melodies. The phraseology roams the backwoods of American music history (with a definite hint of the English tradition, but possibly only via its colonial survivals), gathering a bounty from well trodden stylistic paths (blues, bluegrass, ‘traditional folksong’) but making  distinctive and imaginative use of it.

What Cutleri present us with here, is a music of gestures. Gestures are the building block of any musical style, but there are various things that make the specific gestures stand out here, or that point to the gestural nature of the music. Like the figures in the artwork, bodies rendered as decorative symbols, abstracted from the contexts in which we usually encounter human figures, the songs on We Sink Ships present the phrases and sections from which they are constructed without going to great lengths to conceal the artifice by which they are combined. Rather than burnishing their arrangements to make every note seem the ‘natural’, inevitable, necessary facet of an organic whole, like a slow-cooked casserole, they seem to love their ingredients too much to make anything more heavily processed than a well-dressed salad — this is the Americana of the salad bowl, rather than the melting pot. Folk music contains various ideas, various myths, around tradition, community, pastoralism and so forth; they are a part of any discourse that engages sounds like those on this album, but Cutleri’s engagement is a critical one. Their music is also full of references to the avant-garde: improvisation, absurdism and field recording are the most audible touchstones, and this is where the abstracted gesture belongs, as a stylistic tradition. When the stillness of a drone encloses and isolates a two bar vocal phrase, it re-frames it in the same way that Surrealist photography presents isolated body parts, or that Dada poetry isolates phonemes. Cutleri avow a debt to Fluxus, an artistic collective with explicitly neo-Dada concerns, and although their music doesn’t depart from conventional aesthetic practices as dramatically as much of Fluxus’ visual work (I’m not familiar with much of the music associated with the group, other than La Monte Young’s minimalism), I get the impression that they have a similar sense of their materials as signs attached, somewhat tenuously, to ideas.

This conceptual awareness notwithstanding, We Sink Ships is a work of approachable beauty: Cutleri are fortunate enough to be working in an era when it is no longer necessary for a conceptual work to be non-aesthetic or deliberately ugly just to make the point. Describing music as ‘avant-garde’ can tend to suggest, as well as a degree of artistic self-consciousness, a tendency towards obscurantism, self-importance, and a lack of humour; but Cutleri’s approachshows that ‘knowing’ is not the same as ‘arch’, and that irony is not incompatible with sincerity. Absurdist humour and self-effacing silliness are important aspects of the avant-garde tradition. Generosity, warmth, pleasing acoustic sounds, infectious rhythms, witty, down-to-earth lyrics and good tunes (of the sort on which the devil is popularly supposed to hold a monopoly) are all virtues that are conventionally associated with ‘traditional’ music, and We Sink Ships has all of them in spades. Old fashioned musicianship abounds, albeit in a context where it is not the ultimate arbiter of artistic value, and the album is one that satisfies on every level. Not just a piece of serious and intelligent art, but an effusion of shit-kicking tunes and a barrel of laughs.

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