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Gross Net
Gross Net Means Gross Net Bernie Brooks , October 17th, 2019 08:37

Philip Quinn’s sophomore LP as Gross Net is a darkly romantic Brexit record that rewards repeat listens, says Bernie Brooks

As far as semi-cliché muso terms go, "grower" is one of the worst. At the very least, it's one of the most annoying. Not so much because of its uselessness, but because of its regular misuse. As in:

"Can you please turn that off? I hate that record."

"Oh, dude, I hated it at first, too. But it just hasn't clicked with you yet, you know? By maybe my eighth or ninth listen, I started to get it. It's a real grower."

"Yeah, I don't want to listen to it eight more times, man."

Often, when someone calls an album a grower, it's heavily implied that they've forced themselves to like a body of work that they initially didn't. People do this a lot. Fandom breeds this sort of thing. But that's not learning to appreciate the nuances of a difficult or off-kilter LP, that's masochism. For something to really work as a grower, the listener has to like it initially, at least a little. And there has to be a certain something about the record itself that compels them to listen again. And again and again. 

When I first heard Gross Net's new LP, Gross Net Means Gross Net, I wasn't totally sure what to make of it. Don't get me wrong, I liked it well enough straightaway. The richness of the album's varied experimental pop productions was immediately apparent and appealing, as was its vacillation between swooning romanticism and righteous indignation and anger. But it also seemed oddly, albeit purposefully, shapeless, like a town you don't know that's arranged in a peculiar way. I made a mental note of it and filed it with my other promos.

But 'Gentrification' - the record's swing-for-the-fences pop moment - had wormed its way into my head on first listen, as had a nagging feeling that I hadn't fully understood the album's architecture, that perhaps its twists and turns were less darkwave brutalism and more like an organic folly built on sand or the description of The Londoner club in Fred Vermorel's Dead Fashion Girl:

"You went upstairs and there was a small entrance, very, very unassuming. Then you turned right, then came to a door, on the level of the first floor. And then you opened a door that went out onto a balcony, and then you went downstairs into the club. It was very theatrical."

This is not a record of direct paths, and I found myself returning to  Gross Net Means Gross Net's spaces, wanting to know them, using its more hook-oriented moments ('Gentrification', 'World Of Confusion', 'Social Nationalists') as landmarks or mile markers. As I mapped it out, so to speak, its rich productions began to seem richer, as I realized that everything - each thudding kick, each ambient wash - was in its right place, or at least where it was meant to be.

Gross Net Means Gross Net is the work of Philip Quinn, formerly of Belfast's solid but often overlooked Girls Names. Quinn's Gross Net project feels like a completely different animal, however, rooted as deeply in bass-heavy electronic and ambient music as it is in the post-punk of Quinn's previous group's latter work. Gross Net revels in blending and blurring these traditions in ways that invigorate and disorientate and confound.

Take 'World Of Confusion', the album's first "proper" song and second track after a fake-out intro of pretty, nostalgic orchestral synths. It's a banger with a vocal hook that seems to invoke the paper-thin line between tragedy and statistic. For two-a-half minutes, anyway. After which, Quinn's plaintive vocals and synths lurk tensely, moodily atop a heartbeat drum for the remainder of its six-minute runtime. When such sonic metamorphoses in these shifting compositions occur, none are abrupt. Most are meticulously subtle. An inattentive listener might not clock that one is happening until well after it's happened - a by-product of Quinn's thoughtful craftsmanship, aided here by Liam McCartan and by Rafael Anton Irisarri's keen ear for mastering.

That said, Gross Net Means Gross Net relies heavily on the push-pull dynamic between propulsion and drift, as well as that of ugliness and beauty. When these calibrations are on-point, as is the case for the first three-quarters of the LP, they create an almost intoxicating listening experience. But when the balance is off, the album's energy flags a bit, as it does during the dirge-like 'The Indignity Of Labour', which follows the sedate, instrumental 'Damascene Conversion'. Taken on their own, both tracks are perfectly good, but strung one after the other, one begins to wish for the respite of a four-four kick. Thankfully, Quinn sticks the landing, closing the record with a darkwave jam, album highlight 'Social Nationalists'. But I wonder, would this pacing issue have been mitigated by simply swapping the penultimate and ultimate tracks? It's possible, but I'm quibbling here, anyhow. 

If you've not yet figured it out based on the title alone, yes, Gross Net Means Gross Net is a Brexit record. But I'm hesitant to call it that or to slot it into the "bad times equal awesome music" narrative. One of the stupidest things a music fan can say is, "Yeah, Trump or Brexit or whatever bad, bad thing sucks, but think about all the good albums we'll get out of it." I'd gladly sacrifice some protest records for a better overall state of affairs, and strictly speaking, in my forty years as an American, I can't recall any times I'd describe as "good". My feeling is that artists have had ample reason to protest before Brexit or Trump - I'm not sure why the socio-political situation would actively have to get worse to open the floodgates of great art. 

And if this is indeed a Brexit record, it's a late capitalism record even more so. Quinn excels at slipping a pill into every spoonful of sugar, at locating that specific point at which awareness of a problem and personal or structural powerlessness to do anything about it intersect, as seen here on 'Of Late Capitalism': 

"The poor will drown, I can barely lift a finger, Nature's not forever, yet we expect permanence."

In any case, one gets the sense that at this point Quinn's writing interests lie outside of himself for the most part. That if Brexit hadn't happened, if the rainforests weren't on fire, he'd be aiming his incisive pen at whatever horrifically stupid, self-destructive thing we as humans would be doing instead, and spinning that into a different, but no less compelling, work of art.