The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast

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A review of the latest album by the San Francisco-based electronic music duo Matmos, arguing that it promotes a politically salutory "listening for context."


Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Wednesday, May 31 2006, 12:20 PM

“Rag For William S. Burroughs,” the penultimate track of the San Francisco-based duo Matmos’s new record The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast begins like many of their songs do, with a stuttering ensemble of beeps, squirts, clicks and rumbles, then slowly pulls the curtain back on an early twentieth-century player-piano groove.It sounds like we’re in settling in for a pleasant amble through the early years of the recording industry when a gun goes off, its sonic cone slowly narrowing as we recover from the shock of its intrusion. Instead of returning to the nostalgic textures from before, we hear footsteps, a fumbling with keys, a door opening, and then an extended collage comprised of office machine sounds, culminating in dense polyrhythms that call to mind Hollywood B-movies in which the restless natives dance themselves into a frenzy.

By the time the track has reached its denouement, twelve-and-a-half minutes in, one texture after another being lifted out of the mix until it’s reduced to a single, spare tip-tap figure, we feel like we’re returning from a long inner journey, wise with experience, but still unsure how it all adds up. It’s a tour-de-force, beautifully exemplifying what sets Matmos apart from the vast majority of recording artists because, no matter how engaging it sounds at any particular juncture, you’re still thinking about the reason why it sounds that way, the labor of joining that made it possible.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of listening to records. Either you concentrate on the way they sound, without paying much heed to the who, what, and where of their making, or you try to hear them in context. From an anthropological standpoint, music derives from pre-historic rituals that prioritized action over reflection, the body in motion over the mind at rest. Attempts to situate a particular song in a historical narrative or a map of contemporary cultural production therefore struggle against a deeply ingrained tendency to be caught up in the musical moment. This is why most people struggle to listen for context, at least until their ability to do so has been developed through a lengthy musical education.

It’s deeply ironic, then, that artists like Matmos, who are unlikely to reach a large mainstream audience, are the ones that make it easiest to bypass this pedagogical purgatory. Although M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel are intensely cerebral their music provides even casual listeners the means to escape immersion in a particular sonic landscape and crawl out onto the sunlit shore of contemplation, their newly grown limbs flopping awkwardly on the sand. Few musicians working in a pop idiom are so deft at interweaving text and context to the point where they defy separation.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to listen to a Matmos record on headphones in a night-dark room, spacing out in the best post-stoner manner. But it’s that approach to their music and not the context-sensitive sort that requires greater force of will on the listener’s part. There are two reasons for this. First, Matmos’s music is filled with sounds that alert our primitive mammalian brain to the possibility that we’re hearing something other than music. Dogs and cats that will blithely ignore everything from the Sex Pistols to John Denver perk up their ears in concern when Matmos comes on. And so do the dogs and cats within us. Second, it’s rare for someone to get a hold of a Matmos record without having already heard something about their compositional approach.

The band’s best-known album, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, famously deployed field recordings of plastic surgery in order to make music that sounds similar to the sort created with the sonic palette of computer plug-ins. But the fact that the record’s publicity preceded its reception guaranteed that most listeners heard it with the history of its production in mind. Their listening was always already a listening for. The same will surely happen with The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth of A Beast. As the names of its ten songs and the graphic inserts that accompany them indicate, this is also a concept album. Only the overarching idea here pertains, not to the origins of the sounds themselves, but to their subject matter.

The description of the album on the Matador Records website notes that Matmos created, “a series of ‘sound portraits’ of a pantheon of people that they admire,” adding that, “they gathered objects that were important to these people, made noises with them, and built melodies out of the noises.” That information alone is enough to shape our response to “Rag For William S. Burroughs,” alerting us to keep an ear out for biographical details, such as the gun shot, which conjures the time when he accidentally – or “accidentally,” if you take a dimmer view of his character – shot and killed his wife Joan in Mexico City, or the office machine sounds, which make us think of the Burroughs Corporation and its mechanical adding machines, which made his family’s fortune. At the same time, though, that information has the potential to limit our sonic imagination, bringing us back to the real-world context of the track’s two subjects, William S. Burroughs and Matmos.

Maybe that’s the point, though. If Matmos limits our listening in one register, it does so in order to expand it in the other. We can’t go as deep into the music as our Chet Baker-themed urges incline us, but only because we are encouraged to go deeper into the context that conditioned its production. To put this insight in more grandiose terms, Matmos does for the pop idiom what Bertolt Brecht wanted to do for plays, breaking down the sonic fourth wall that separates our bodily response to sound from the mental labor that has the power to place that response in context. Like Matmos’s previous records and those of like-minded artists such as Matthew Herbert, The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of A Beast won’t let us forget that we listen as subjects of a realm ruled by those who profit from maintaining arbitrary divisions between art and life. If they constrain our musical bliss, they do so in order to promote a bliss that will make the distinction between music and non-music seem reactionary. All we have to do is get up on our feet and take our first wobbly steps away from the sea.

Copyright © Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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