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#22: Dragging an Ox through Water - Sparrow Command
"freak folk" music may be something that seemed like another blip in time for other people who followed indie music in the mid-2000's, one that produced a handful of artists that became much bigger names (Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom) before promptly disappearing. but the hype train around that music happened to hit just around the time i turned 18 and went off to college and it spoke to me way more as a kid who grew up in the rural Midwest than anything else happening at that particular moment did. like all over-hyped things, it all came and went and descended into self-parody pretty fast... but my favorite album of that time was the self-titled album by the band Akron/Family (unfortunately produced by noted rapist Michael Gira). that album was cobbled together from various little experiments and songs done in FL Studio by the band members and combined electronic textures with folk songs in ways that seemed really adventurous, strange, and unexpected to me at the time. it felt like music of the future to me. it was heavy, deep music that seemed to come from of a lot of pain and felt like the total opposite of the sort of accusations that this kind of music was all just a quirky affectation of rich hipsters slumming as folkies that plagued artists like Devandra Banhart. unfortunately Akron/Family seemed to very suddenly lose a lot of that heartbreaking existential angst and became a fairly mediocre hippie jam-band, a transformation i will never truly understand. and that seems to be what most people know them for now! that honestly hurt me a lot, because that first album still stands to me as a really important album in my life, and a great pieces of work from that era that isn't well-remembered.
but maybe we'll all resigned to our own sort of irrelevance at this point. i discovered Dragging an Ox through Water (aka Brian Mumford) through the song "Snowbank Treatment" on a mix a now-deceased music writer friend gave to me. the backbeat of the song is a lo-fi drum machine thump and very dry, squelchy synths that almost sound like they coat everything in a sort of sticky syrup. it's still basically a folk song, largely because the electronic parts sound just as weathered as the acoustic guitar and the singing, like they're all coming from one source. Brian Mumford sings in a warbly, croony tremolo that sounds almost half-whispered and just adds to this feeling of the music being stuck some sort of liminal space without really resolving anywhere fully. it's direct music from the heart, but it's also tense music with some kind of world-weary irony attached to it. indie superstar Bon Iver is also well-known for doing this sort of folk/electronic mix of styles and trying to mix that kind of folksy sincerity with sonic experimentation, but his experiments are so much more slick. compared to Brian Mumford he sounds like a confidence man, a Christian prosperity gospel cult leader, drenched in so many layers of reverb and bombast that i really truly have a hard time believing in anything he's singing. Dragging an Ox's version is so much more restrained, maybe rickety and lo-fi but very cutting and ironic. i believe what this guy is saying what he feels because there's no reason he wouldn't be.
"Snowbank Treatment" is somewhat of an outlier on the (still good, but not as good) album The Tropics of Phenomenon that came out on in 2008, and it doesn't qualify for this list anyway. but Mumford's follow-up 2014 album Panic Sentry is pretty similar, admittedly without the sort of banger that fused all parts of his sound together as successfully as "Snowbank Treatment".
but - "Sparrow Command", the third track, has slowly gained a lot of resonance for me. and that's because it feels so much like a statement of intent in so many different ways. it's a low-key country-folk song with acoustic strumming and a peddle steel guitar with a little pulsing synth textures in the background. the synths blinks like little lights, filling out the void of space that the other instruments leave, showing what still makes his sound unique even when it's more muted. the melody is simple series of phrases, restated almost like a very bitter mantra. in some ways it sounds like a fight Mumford is waging against the abyss. he's trying to revisit the same point from as many angles as possible, so that you really understand why exactly he's saying what he's saying, constantly pushing back at you or anyone who might be hostile or misunderstanding of what he's doing.
a lot of indie music often has the "undergraduate literature degree" syndrome and uses lots of cutesy, flowery abstraction and literary allusions that either don't have a particularly coherent sentiment behind them... or if they do, they have a regressive and boring one. that really isn't the case here. all the nature imagery is very vivid here, and somewhat ironic by how it illustrates a larger dynamic that's going on here. it pushes you closer and closer each time to getting at the heart of the matter, but before pulling back and never really giving you any kind of easy catharsis.
"Sparrow Command" is, to me, an ode to stubbornness. it's about someone who is so painfully aware that he doesn't particularly fit in with any particular space or have any power in this world in any real substantive sense. So imagines himself as having command of nature in a real way...only to later acknowledge that that's a projection too, but one that serves a purpose. because the fact is that you don't really know anymore than he does what's going on. it's about recognizing the fundamental absurdity of the reality you're presented with as an outsider who is trying to blaze their own path and not even accepting the framing you've been given at all... because that framing is meaningless and irrelevant.
in a decade where indie artists take up less and less of the cultural landscape, and command an increasingly less interest, discourse, and resources, i see it as a sort of rallying cry for forging your own path in spite of the hostility and disinterest of the world. the first two verses repeat the lines "you ain't never seen me and i don't know who you're trying to be". when i was thinking about the repetition of this line, i suddenly remembered the lines "you never really understood me. you never really tried" from Kate Bush's song "The Big Sky". in that case she clearly calling out the press for all the ways they ignored and belittled what she was trying to do with her music and treating her as a joke. in Mumford's case he's not even in an ecosystem that would focus on his existence long enough to really be misunderstood. he lives entirely outside that landscape - not even really seen that much as an artist at all, so far from any kind of larger zeitgeist or relevance that being that way would be totally alien to him.
even if you're some sort of outsidery indie musician, it's really hard to ignore how the sort of bastardized mix of mainstream pop culture and capitalism haven't infiltrated into everything. no matter what space you are in, it's likely that there's someone with much greater stature out there, with much greater commercial potential that you're always supposed to compare yourself to. and there's some great big corporate force to align yourself with that wants you to put on every mask possible, and align yourself with power as much as possible. and this ends up filtering down to person to person relationships, and how we construct and love one another... creating false desires and expectations for how things are supposed to happen in our lives. which then making rifts between us and tear us away from our natural environment while substituting a heavily constructed and fabricated one in its place that will never serve most people.
in the forth verse, Mumford sings:
I don't command nothing
but I imagine myself with the rats and the weeds
a one way alliance
go stepping through the lots in the night with me
I'm a wolf with a mask and I can't hear anything
over my rubber hide and a penchant
for bumping high amplitude low frequencies
he shows some candidness here. he knows his alignment with nature might be a one-way projection, he's not one who thinks that all nature is his best friend. but he knows that it protects him, and he's going to do what he's going to do anyway to protect himself. he's going to make his silly electronic folk because it's clear that that the world outside doesn't seem to particularly know what it wants from him anyway.
in the fifth verse he sings:
out in the twilight
there's a spine in the heart of the weeds
a coward between worlds
making salve from names of the stories getting cleaved
you ain't never seen me and I don't know what you are
Do you know how the names got rigged? tell me
baby won't you whisper like a man for me?
the way i read this line is he's talking about people and artists who have been destroyed and forgotten by the establishment, and their work is often later butchered and used to fuel whatever movement that is in vogue of the rich and the powerful farther down the line (i.e. "freak folk"). someone is always there taking your work and shaping it into something with more commercial potential. there's always a man in a suit there hiding behind all your high-minded outsidery romanticism.
underneath the midnight moon
got the names rigged up in the seams
a crack beneath the midnight moon
run a line thru the light for demands you can mean
I can see what you mean when you mourn for the nameless
charging up all your stones with the moon
taking sides with invisible war machines
i read this as the futility of inventing narratives and investing yourself into something that at the end of the day, isn't going to matter because it'll be rolled over by something new. you're putting your identity deeply into a construction of something that is unstable, and putting you on the side with powers who contain all sorts of invisible, unseen harms beneath them. i think about this when i think about twitter, and how people are quick to jump behind defending companies like Disney for doing what is supposedly in their interest as a feminist, or anti-racist, or whatever - but masks all kinds of invisible harms behind it.
there's a line in this song: "I can move the cursor, but I can't remove the curse all alone." in the universe of Dragging an Ox through Water, digital and analog spaces seem very much connected to each other.
the last line is of the song is the phrase "when the night comes burning down thru the breeze" repeated a few times, as what's left of the song seems swept away like a wind by the blinking synths in the background.
today the music publication Tiny Mix Tapes tweeted out that it was going on indefinite hiatus. while i found the tone of their writing at times both maddeningly insular and also somewhat reactionary, and can't say i often like to read their reviews... it is not a good sign to see so many outlets that actually covered some sort of independent music, with their own unique character disappearing, or at least receding into the background.
it's a particularly dark time for music, and it's hard to exist as any kind of outsider without being forced to turn your art into some kind of entrepreneurial monetization scheme. if you want something better, you have to put more active support behind who are actually trying to envision something better - not just climbing the ladder and aligning themselves with power. that's why i find the great stubbornness of "Sparrow Command" so cutting, and so resonant at this point in time... far beyond the usual folsky "back to nature" stuff, plugged-in and with irony and gristle and wit... but still very much understanding the need for something deeper and more fundamental. which is where we need to be.