Carly Ptak and Newagehillbilly
Carly Ptak and Newagehillbilly raise their concept-album games, and make their escapes
Published: May 2, 2012
Price We Pay
From Stevie Wonder’s “Travelin’ Man” to Brian Eno’s ever-evolving oeuvre to Pavement’s “Box Elder” to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” popular music has been informed and improved by notions of escape: escape from reality, escape from society, escape from poverty, escape from marital abuse, escape from self. Two new albums from Baltimore-based underground artists—Heresee co-curator Carly Ptak and MT6 chief Alex Strama in Newagehillbilly mode—tackle the idea of “escape from self” from two very different angles.
“What year is it?” Strama moans groggily at the outset of “Battlz,” three songs deep into Price We Pay (MT6 Records). It’s an apt question, and the answer makes Pay a unique entry in the Newagehillbilly canon. If stylistic continuity isn’t something one expects from this project’s catalog as a whole—Strama veers between varying extremes of rock, noise, punk, and unclassifiable experimental extremism—individual albums tend to boast a reasonably consistent sound. Written and recorded between 2006 and 2010, Price We Pay collects mismatched pieces that nonetheless form a stark, confessional puzzle. “Blize” rattles and shimmies and Tarzan-cries in outer space, except outer space turns out to be a psychotic episode waited out in an attic full of bats.
The distressed hup-two-three vocals, corroded keyboards, and thrashed snares of “Vacation” hearken back to Broken-era Nine Inch Nails and Cex’s Maryland Mansions phase. The acoustic folk reverie of “Believe” stops just short of hippie whimsy; on “Calendar,” Strama layers mad-libbed, robotic raps over preprogrammed, exclamation-mark synthesizers; “Battlz” suggests the missing link between Lync and Love As Laughter. “Reason”—the nearest Price We Pay comes to a bona fide polemic—trades in cliches bearing a ring of truth and a pang of deja vu (“lights and shows, and overpriced fuel, to feed the fire within,” “the reason they give, is not answer enough”) if only because political, cultural, and societal delusions are mostly static. Like almost every other song on this album, “Reason” transcends the bounds of temporality, resonating in such a way that it could have been written at any point during the past 10 to 15 years. The mawkishness of the record’s “serious demo” vibe makes it the most vital, arresting Newagehillbilly recording yet; at the same time, it places the auteur front and center in a new way.
Do not attempt to argue with vinyl fetishists about vinyl’s supposed hi-fidelity dominance as a musical format; you won’t just lose, you’ll walk away with a migraine. A common defense of vinyl insists that, by default, the turntable’s stationary nature encourages a deeper level of listening than iPods, boomboxes, and car stereos. People who believe this don’t actually employ the phrase “communing with sound,” but they might as well. Go ahead: Respond, reasonably and cogently, that vinyl exclusivity discriminates against music fans whose lives don’t permit pockets of peace, quiet, and stillness. You’ll be wasting your breath. Like most underground labels, Heresee is a proud member of the vinyl-industrial complex, issuing releases in partial-vinyl or vinyl-only editions. The most recent album from Nautical Almanac—Carly Ptak’s way-out duo with partner/Heresee co-founder Twig Harper—was a wax-only affair.
Wonder Now (Heresee) happens to be the first LP-only release I’ve come across—OK, my review copy was a CD-R, natch—that actually lends this argument some credence. You really shouldn’t listen to this album while working out on the StairMaster or shopping at Costco or swearing openly in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, or anywhere near a television set blaring Law and Order reruns or wary canines or overexcited children. You wouldn’t consult your therapist while at the ball game, would you? That’s important, because Wonder Now is an undeniably therapeutic affair.
Ptak, a licensed hypnotherapist, spends side A performing groundwork that feels equally transporting and symbolic. “The Finiteness of Infinity” opens the album with a spread of paralyzing tones and bells exploded by an alarm clock, implying a bridge from a dream state to waking life. The racetrack bettor frenzy of “Paroxysm of Ecstasy” and the twittering recorders of “Life of Luxury” suggest aspiration and high anxiety, respectively, while “Innovator Imitator”—all worn encouragements and stage whispers—is a Miller Time lullaby for harried adults, flattering the unconscious all the way to the edge of unconsciousness.
In their solo and collaborative recordings (as Nautical Almanac), Ptak and Heresee co-founder Twig Harper tap into what might be described as an unreality of collective experience, a creative space where bits and pieces of our previous understanding—mass-produced, natural, and otherwise—are projectile-vomited back at us in compelling, if confusing, ways. This sort of perception remixing can soothe and comfort just by existing, by offering alternatives to workaday noise; steady drones can accomplish this too. But on “All Ways Different,” Ptak shiatsu-massages away stresses and tensions by leading with her voice—a lulling, elastic thing that melts into yearning held syllables and shifts to quizzical analysis and convincing vectors—a tape recorder, and minimal bells and effects, easing the listener into a state of relaxation.
For anyone familiar with hypnosis, there’s some predictability to her method—exhalation, gentle phrasing, a curious and replenishing positivity—but here a flattering panoply of entreaties cycle in and out of earshot, collage-like. Before you can seize upon and internalize any one, two or three more have come and gone like ghosts in the night. And just like that—just like that—Wonder Now is over, and silence feels more profound, and the day has a slightly different complexion than it bore when you first set needle to vinyl.
Carly Ptak performs with Nautical Almanac at the Metro Gallery May 5 as part of Videopolis. For more information visit themetrogallery.net.
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