R Stevie Moore
Lo Fi Hi Fives
, August 8th, 2012 08:00
The inherent difficulty with writing about outsider music is that taking a song, an album, or a live show on its own terms becomes next to impossible. It's a paradox: very often the art is made in a way that seeks to slip the net of mainstream relations of production and distribution which stress extra-musical irrelevances, but this choice itself diverts attention back towards the productive process rather than the music. As a result, the debate around the subject ends up focusing on tangents, especially the question of which criteria should be used to define an 'outsider' in the first place.
Broadly, though, the vast majority of the outsider music encountered by anyone likely to be reading this will fit one of two categories. The first might be epitomised by someone like Jandek. It rejects industry standards of listenability – melody, harmony, tuning, clarity of recording, emotional coherence – to produce artefacts which undermine conventional wisdom about the desirability of those things and, in doing so, reveal the act of social construction by which 'music' comes to be identified in the first place. Opposed to this one finds musicians who, rather than being alienated by what they encounter on the radio, are moved by it to the extent that they refuse to allow it to be mediated on their behalf by conventional channels of distribution.
This notionally 'pure' pop music is what R Stevie Moore has been doing since the late 1960s, although it's only recently – thanks in part to the attentions of outsider-aping insiders like Ariel Pink and John Maus – that he has broken cover. Having not taken a great deal of notice of Moore's emergence, this is my first real meeting with his work, and, listening to it, I feel a little as if I've stumbled into pop music's uncanny valley. All the tropes of American AM radio from 1960 through 1980 are there, and mostly in the 'right' places, but it's precisely the slightness of the discrepancy between what Moore does and the commercial artists he responds to which makes his work so radically different from theirs. It's as if someone has broken into your flat and moved every object on the walls a few millimetres to the left, coincidentally into the places in which they should probably have been in the first place.
Perhaps I'm speeding ahead of myself a bit here. Perhaps I'm assuming that you're a bit more up on this than I am, and that I should have stated earlier on that Lo Fi Hi Fives is a 'best of' Moore has compiled with the assistance of fan and O Genesis head Tim Burgess. Perhaps, though, I've got licence to write candidly about being a newcomer to this, because this album might very well find its way into a lot of ears similarly lacking in previous exposure to Moore, ears belonging to people who are going to spend a substantial amount of time trying to figure out what it is that's so peculiar about his music. Better, maybe, to try and describe this strangeness, or these strangenesses, than to talk about whether or not this project works as an adequate reflection of Moore's body of work.
It might be the utopianism. Moore and Burgess have chosen to open the collection with 'Pop Music', one of those meta, Lou Reedian statements of allegiance to the transformative power of the radio. The gesture reminds you that this is the handiwork of someone liberated from cynicism, of an individual singularly determined to make pop music according to their own interpretation of its charter. Of course, there are artists who stand just on the industry side of the border between insiders and outsiders – Super Furry Animals, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices – similarly guided by the notion that only musicians and fans (and certainly not A&R or marketing) truly understand what pop music should and can do, but their decisions can only be laudably 'brave' defials of commercial logic rather than the truly free acts they aspire to.
Moore, superficially similar both melodically and in terms of arrangement to all of the above, has worked genuinely unencumbered by any form of answerability and it shows. Over and over again, he ignores commonplaces about what 'works' in favour of a song's internal requirements, meaning that solos end up much longer or shorter than one would expect, refrains outstay any welcome a label-hired producer would be willing to extend, and instruments drop into the mix unheralded to play distracting countermelodies which are, nevertheless, sheer expressions of the pleasure to be found in making. In Freud-speak, Moore is the id of pop: his songs are collages of the pay-offs of others shorn of legwork and deference. Like those trompe l'oeil Sunday dinners you find in sweetshops in Blackpool or Scarbrough, even the cabbage turns out in the end to be candy.
The risk might be that such an approach flattens music into a white-out of 'good bits', but Moore's melodic nous is far too sharp to allow that to happen. 'Dutch Me' – its title arguably a pun on the mainstream's representation of sexual neediness – works Walker Brothers-like romantic angst through a clip-clopping beatbox and various echo units into something one could reasonably describe as a brilliant soundtrack for a terrible night in Las Vegas. Right on its heels, 'Big Mistake' extrapolates the augmented chords pop is supposed to leave to its muso antagonists into something alternately spooky and plaintive, before cutting it apart with bizarre half-bars of busy folk-rock reminiscent of Pentangle or Fairport Convention. 'Hurry Up' is a Joe Jackson song unbound, while 'You and Me' appropriates Lennon-McCartney harmonic cunning to the cause of bedroom recording in a way which aligns Moore to GBV's Robert Pollard.
With Moore, it's possible to write about the music and the eschewing of standard productive processes at the same time, for the very reason that his songs so often seem to be correctives to those moments in which pop has failed by trusting its market research over its instincts. Each track here is like a counterfactual history of a style, a nod to what might had been, had those put in charge of commercial music's dissemination not been so frightened of making mistakes. I'm not personally convinced by the presentation of Moore as an icon for the contemporary avant garde – the Wire cover still strikes me as strange for the same reasons that I don't really believe Ariel Pink – but he's certainly capable of telling a better story about the past than the normal hagiographies are.