Does the world need another online review of a record you will either like or dislike if or when you hear it, regardless of what anyone else thinks? At a recent event in London, Everyone’s A Critic, it was suggested unpaid bloggers/writers can lack the intellectual or historical background to know what they are writing about, and that “real” criticism isn’t just whether the reviewer likes or dislikes the subject matter; if the critic is not paid, content is reduced to the hobbyist amateur and becomes mere publicity, the dreaded “exposure” which is promised in exchange for working for free.
Yet how many of us are willing to pay for online content, and how many expect music for nothing? Twenty years ago it was unheard of to read or listen to free content – if you wanted something, you had to pay for it; content did not appear out of thin air. Today many online magazines with commercial advertising do not pay the writers on the basis that they cannot afford it; this is surely a ruse to profit from unpaid labour, and just as offensive as offshore tax avoidance, but where is the public outrage?
Zouch, “stoking the independent spirit of artists and writers”, does not pay for content but advertisements are minimal; it is more of a “public space” and less of a money-making enterprise. Writing for no pay for an indie is just about bearable if the contributor is willing to accept they have little commitment to the overall endeavour and admit that the only motivation can be vanity, with the dim hope that some intangible good may come out of it in in the future.
Things are somewhat different in music, but not much. Most musicians are barely remunerated for downloads or streaming, and if you’re not a superstar you’re almost automatically in the margins. JP Olsen, a stalwart of bands like the Beetkeepers, Burn Barrel, and The Malefactors of Great Wealth, has been described as “one of the greatest character-study songwriters America has ever had”, but still remains very much an underground figure.
However there may be artistic benefits from not being a major label concern. As part of The Malefactors of Great Wealth’s project “You’ll Never See My Face In Kansas City” you could buy a limited edition handmade wool mask “proven to confuse and repel strangers”, not the type of move a mainstream recording artist may be permitted to try. Awards Banquet, Olsen’s new band with Tyler Evans and Rob Heath, has perhaps sensibly found its’ home with Columbus label Scioto Records, who have a track record in “discovery and experimentation”. If “experimental” for most equates to unlistenable, If Not Now Then Summer is low on the difficulty scale by being accessible but non-mainstream in its distinct sonic texture, opening up the “white space” in the music through measured, minimalist production. The album perhaps requires the listener’s patience due to its understated nature, but the noticeably clear separation gives a pure aesthetic sound.
Playing precisely and subtlety requires great skill, and Awards Banquet have mastered this to great effect. “The Bishop” pumps oxygen into a chain-smoking, probably-alcoholic, character through light witty pop and hints of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys. The freneticism in “Ghost Character: The Explanation” is pulled back with expert restrain, and the delicate “Tart Like An Apple” hovers cinematically, perhaps gaining from Olsen’s background as a film-maker to “cue the visuals”. The first side of the record shimmers like a Californian summer, with the “peace-loving” Manson family leisurely kicking back into the shuffle of “(What Have You Done To Me?) Ohio” and “Dion’s Pillow” floating ethereally in small town dreams.
Summer is flipped on its head by side two into a more direct but less hospitable Berlin techno-winter. “The Deranger” and “Thank You Robert Kidney” are pressurised studies in kraut-rock; “(I Always Wanted To Write A Song) Tonight” and “The Ron De Vous” distinctive downbeat celebrations. The disarming spoken vocal by Jerry DeCicca in the closing bubble-gum of “Every Sucker’s Got A Good Friend” suggests the listener is not going to get any easy answers. If Not Now Then Summer may be idiosyncratic, but when so much music in the mainstream can seem indistinguishable, it stands out as a highly unusual, highly original album.
A recommended listen.
If Not Now Then Summer is available from Scioto Records here.