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The New Now Sounds Of Today!: Songpoems By Twenty-One Contemporary Artists

by Phil X. Milstein
I am grateful for many things in my life. I am grateful for my good health. I am grateful for Nancy Sinatra. I am grateful for a really tasty seafood stew on a chilly, drizzly winter afternoon. Above all, I am grateful that for as long as I live I will never again have to listen to the CD The New Now Sounds Of Today!: Songpoems [sic] By Twenty-One Contemporary Artists. It is that bad.

The New Now Sounds is an extremely high-concept production, for which Art Issues Press (affiliated with the magazine Art Issues) solicited song-poem-styled lyrics from a batch of their favorite visual artists, then commissioned the setting of them to music by a variety of composers and then recording artists. A handful of the songs were done by Magic Key Productions, a professional song-poem studio whose roots trace back to MSR itself, but Art Issues Press does not clarify exactly who is responsible for the others. Perhaps whoever it was requested anonymity.

The album is a collection of manifestly unfunny musical jokes. The troubles start right from the outset. Other than the vaguely experimental prompt of "What if ...," there is no point to Art Issues' premise, and thus no heart or center to the finished product. The lyrics are filled with a desperate irony that doesn't know why it's there, a misbegotten sensibility which can lead only to an annoying conclusion. Everyone involved tries so hard to be devilish, in the same way a junior high kid attempts to get the vice principal to inadvertently announce something dirty over the P.A.

The sniggering, self-pleased subversions at play here are a trifle more sophisticated than "Mike Hunt," but that's precisely where the next problem arises. The modest musical talents are not enough to make lines such as "And as sure as my guitar and laptop say Scanlan / Ed Ruscha's an American hero" or "Accident produced floating soap / Dangling on a spiderweb" rise above their innate limitations. The lyrics are about evenly split between those that try way too hard and those -- evidently culled verbatim from newspapers or menus or letters from home -- that seem like they were slapped together in a matter of seconds. I can't tell whether any of the lyricists are trying to capture the anything-goes nature of true song-poems, or are giving that source no consideration at all. Either way, what is clear is that the composers and musicians are unable to improve matters any.

The Art Issues conceptualists went awry in another important way. Their response to the typical music-genre checklist that a song-poet is given when buying his recording is the requirement that the songs on this album be in the style of a specific recording artist. Thus we are left with such ha-ha abominations as "'Anal Sadistic' sung by Abby in the style of Britney Spears," "'Menomenology' sung by Robo Mann in the style of Iggy Pop," and "'Photo Captions From Old National Geographic Magazines Arranged So Their Initial Letters Spell Out The Third Thunderclap From Finnegan's Wake' sung by Tammy Serna in the style of Linda Ronstadt doing Gilbert & Sullivan." If it weren't for the fact that not one of the recordings comes close to nailing a convincing simulation of the prescribed artists -- raising the possibility that only the composers, if even they, were informed of these soundalike notations -- this level of cleverness would be as suffocating as a plastic bag tied over the head.

The grandest fault of The New Now Sounds is that nobody involved seems to have taken into account whether any of this might be enjoyable in any way. I realize that listenability is probably not the intention here, but it is a vast waste to go to this much trouble for something that has no chance of delighting anyone save a few of those junior high kids.

The New Now Sounds is presented as a fine art artifact, and the first pressing of 2000 is numbered. Designer Bruce Licher usually does a great job turning mere cardboard into beautiful record packages. His work here is attractive enough, but the extravagance is overdone, and the package is complicated and difficult to use. Through the end of 2000 The New Now Sounds Of Today is being given away as a promotional premium for subscribing to Art Issues, but it is also available separately, and quite nearly a steal at $21 for a full 61 minutes of music. Contact Art Issues Press for purchasing information. (11-17-00)