If you’ve seen Bela Fleck in concert more than once, either by choice or by force of family who believe this singular artist to be the only point of overlap in your respective muscal interests, then you’ll begin to notice that parts of his concert routine resurface across shows. To the extent that a musical exchange can be scripted, these are, with the most notable example being that of the “virtuoso duel,” in which Fleck’s pitted against a fellow musician in an epic bluegrass shred battle. This alone would be enough to capture the interest of most audience members, and is the point at which I usually start checking Twitter on my phone, but he usually adds in a cute little twist to boot–the challenger is presented as a college educated, formally trained product of the system, while Fleck boasts a mere high school diploma to his name (nevermind that it was from a prestigious performing arts school). Inevitably, Fleck defeats his nemesis, demonstrating the superiority of good old fashioned street smarts and personal discovery over the rigid discipline of the conservatory method. While Bela Fleck’s not exactly your average front porch banjoist, his broad point is a decent one–education is no substitute for true vision and creative inspiration. Keith Hampson dropped out of high school when he was 16, and soon every class on his imaginary schedule read “music.”
Power Animal emerged from the ashes of Hampson’s failed attempt at normalcy, and like some real life rehash of Fight Club, I imagine him stepping into the cave of his own muse and finding comfort there. Throughout our exchanges, Hampson dropped subtle and no doubt unintentional hints that he’s not exactly swiming with the main stream. Days went by between e-mails, followed by an apologetic note to the tune of, “Sorry I kinda had to ‘half-ass’ the bio. I don’t have much computer time.” Given that I receive 15 e-mails a day from douchy Australian teen-rock bands with a $10k publicity budget and 4 music videos for their only song, it’s refreshing and ever so slightly jarring to hear from someone who exists mostly in the pre-digital era. Moreover, he makes a point of noting that every current member of Power Animal (all eight of ‘em) is from Northeast Philly, an area of the city supposedly bereft of musical culture, thus making Power Animal an odd singularity of its kind. Unlike Brooklynites who might drop out of CUNY to absorb the rich music scene around them, sensing tangibly that “something’s happening” and wanting to be a part of it, Hampson’s withdrawl is to a self contained space in which ideas and isolation fuse to form something original, emotive, and enormously enjoyable. Fans of compositionally obtuse musical collectives with a thorough grounding in pop (Broken Social Scene, Akron/Family and Cuddle Magic all come to mind) will dig this 7-inch.
I know summer’s winding to a close, but if there’s room on your iPods for just one more vacation mega-jam, let aptly titled A-side “Summer Came From Nowhere” be it. With a simple repeating melody, floating synth lines, and a breakdown tag complete with distorted cheers, this song’s become my charm against the impending winter months. Power Animal shuns any traditional notion of instrumentation for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that toys with cacophony but never goes so far as to loose its hard-earned momentum. The group’s eight members are encouraged to play “every suitable instrument they [can] get their hands on other than guitar,” and if possible, all at once. Clocking in at under three minutes, “Summer Came From Nowhere” is almost a prelude, an in-your-face introduction that boldly stakes claim to the musical territory it inhabits. Taking a page from 80s pop, new wave, and even prog rock, it so thoroughly overwhelms the senses that the transition into B-side “The Turn Around” is an almost welcome reprieve.
We’re ushered into the song by children singing, “Hello, buddy just turn around” and then dropped into what I’d imagine a Books / Sufjan Stevens collaboration might sound like, but with more intensity than either of these two artists could ever put down on wax. The similarities between “The Turn Around” and the musical style regularly employed by The Books go well beyond critical comparison or mere homage–there are some direct quotes and rhythmic motifs that have been lifted almost unchanged from the original tracks. But far from being reprehensible, it’s intriguing to see an artist sport influences so recent and give them a sense of urgency and vibrance unheard on the original recording. Beck lifted the strings on Serge Gainsbourg’s “Melody Nelson” for his album Sea Change, not because he didn’t think anyone would notice, but because he had something to contribute to Gainsbourg’s musical sentiments, and the most efficient way of accomplishing this is to take the idea, quote it, and expand upon it. So too is the case with “The Turn Around” and its Books samples or Sufjan Stevens horn melodies. Like everything else Hampson writes, it’s the collective effect of these voices, coupled with some little man sitting on his shoulder shouting “GO!!! GO!!! GO!!! GO!!! GO!!! GO!!!” that makes the resulting pastiche a substantively new experience.
While nowhere near as epically famous as they deserve to be, Power Animal pulled off a successful U.S. tour this past Spring, and has a brand new record under their belt. If you have any interest whatsoever in music, I suggest you pick up a copy of People Songs, courtesy of Waaga Records and iTunes.
Summer Came From Nowhere
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem116/01 Summer Came From Nowhere.mp3
The Turn Around
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem116/02 The Turn Around.mp3