Postmodern Trash by SARNRelease date: February 6, 2017
Label: Deathbomb Arc
The world is on fire and at this point we’re just grooving on the ashes. Postmodern Trash by SARN is the appropriate soundtrack.
Let’s twist, baby.
It’s been five weeks since I started working on the review of Postmodern Trash, by a northern California slacker/hipster/poet/warlord named SARN. The problem was, every time I sat down to write, I’d strap on my Sennheisers and just… listen. The music was too cool. So cool that I did not want to be distracted by multi-tasking. Or writing. Or shit. I just wanted to listen. That’s always the sign of a great album.
SARN demands your attention (in two very different ways).
First, SARN, as alluded to in the album title, is a postmodern poet. Current events are just a freeze frame in the evolution of the human condition. Second, the album slams. The line-up is small and the arrangements are deceptively minimal. But when John Vanderslice is the producer, every note and chord sound huge and twisted- sometimes beautifully, sometimes severely. The sound is expansive and challenging. SARN is a badass.
SARN is a songwriter, and a talented guitarist, but when he goes into the studio his swagger dials up to 10. He flips from happy, to angry, to sad, to funny like he’s flipping through TV channels. The music goes from folk ballad to full on noise/electronica. SARN is an observer. Each song could be a page from his diary, or about the imagined lives of the people that live in the houses SARN passes when he takes the dog for a walk. Always watching. Always listening. Always twitching.
Because life is all about the shuffle.
SARN listens to everything. That’s probably why Postmodern Trash is such a genre-bender.
“I’m always searching out new music and I listen to pretty much everything I come across for at least a few seconds, whether it’s via Twitter, friend recommendation, music blog or maybe something I overhear teenagers talking about on the bus- genre doesn’t matter. I end up skipping over most stuff but it’s worth the effort to me. The soundtrack to my life is a never-ending shuffle in which songs skip from one to the next every 5 to 10 seconds and every so often I stumble upon something great…and that’s when I let the song play through.
I think this practice definitely played a role in the varying genres on this album. I also tried exploring different song structures, mixing that up as well. I try not to write about a subject or do the same type of song more than once. I have to keep pushing forward and challenging myself. Create it, release it, move on…”
The result of this process of active listening and absorption is like a Jackson Pollack painting. Seemingly random strokes and splatters are actually premeditated constructs. Forget the micro-genres, when you mix more than a few, it’s all post-rock.
Do you need reference points? Or a compass? Or a reason to keep reading?
If you like Atlas Sound, Avi Buffalo, Elliott Smith, Emperor X, Pulco, Stephen Steinbrink, or Violent Femmes, then you should go download Postmodern Trash. Now.
SARN has always written solo. Then one day he wondered what it would be like to expand the songs he had imagined in his head and put them down on tape, so he called John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone Studio, in San Francisco. This began a creative partnership between SARN and the engineers and session musicians associated with Tiny Telephone, that’s spanned three releases over the last two years. Each of the releases has been a next-step in SARN’s songwriting approach. And if Postmodern Trash is just the next chapter, SARN is writing a fucking epic book. John Vanderslice is editing/producing every page. The pairing is perfect.
For most of the four-day recording session, SARN and drummer Andrew Maguire recorded the songs live. The keyboards, synthesizers (Rob Shelton), slivers of electric guitar (Carly Bond), other oddities, and bass clarinet (Adam Hirsch) were overdubbed. SARN provided his collaborators with lots of space to be creative, because they get it, and his song structures leave lots of spaces. In the background, Vanderslice, Hirsch, Bond, Sami Perez. Laurence Wasser, and Mitch Calbert sculpted the sounds that flowed into the control room. Vanderslice applied a range of studio effects in real time with a painter’s touch. And it shows.
From the opening track, ‘Space Cadets’, the arrangements at first seem sparse and simple. Acoustic guitar, synth-bass, keyboards, and drums, bounce along. The snare is walloping, while SARN softly tosses off lines lines like, “my legs are numb…go fuck your cereal, I can’t feel my tongue.” It’s a day in the life story (and the day is not going well) set against a seriously tweaked musical backdrop.
‘Space Cadets’ sets a theme that runs across all of the songs on Postmodern Trash. Anxiety, vulnerability- the need to persist through another relationship, another hot day, another death, another piss are some of the recurring themes. However, SARN is defiant when absolutely necessary. The music amplifies these different emotional vibes across the span of the album.
“I’m twitching and my nerves are flared-I’m so anxious I could rip my face to shreds.”
‘Valiant Stream’ is a downtempo song about the process of growing into a stereotype and the endless pressure to conform to your expected role. The finale involves taking a piss in the street. It’s hardly a simple narrative, it’s a complex theme, and the sonic blanket tossed over the mix by Vanderslice uses echo on SARN’s vocals to great effect. It also has one of the best lines on the album:
“All the frat boys whistled, and the liberal chicks, with their hairy pits, they raised their fists.”
SARN is always watching. Always listening, like a trained anthropologist. SARN is anti-anthemic, the lines he tosses over his shoulder are profound, because they are real. One of the best examples is ‘Headband’- a tribute to the days when we could be young and completely irresponsible. Or stupid. Or in SARN’s words, “unfuckwithable.” It’s both a cynical and endearing song about kids getting into trouble for dumb reasons and being chased by the police. Petty badass punks that hide behind cars while still managing to be quite concerned about their looks. The hook line in the chorus, “Wait, don’t forget your headband, it’s your signature look,” is a look that makes people nervous- and gives the kids a sense of empowerment. The refrain that closes the ‘Headband’ is both brave and ominous as SARN quietly repeats, “Beware of us.”
The best part of Postmodern Trash is that the lyrics and the sonics in each song ricochet off one another in unexpected ways that sometimes work with the tide of the music, or at abstract angles against it.
Remember, it’s all about the shuffle.
‘Interlude’ is a great example of the collaborative approach SARN takes in the studio- it wasn’t his notebook when he walked into Tiny Telephone, it’s a short riff that he came up with and it’s beautifully, and minimally played. An acoustic guitar, Rob Shelton’s stealthy keyboard work, and one short verse were recorded live, while the Tiny Telephone engineers worked the dials:
“Sunshine, you don’t ever listen
You heard my last album
Told you “go tell it to…”
This ain’t any different
Done being passive
Shut up about it.”
Simple lines. When life is weird- you write about it. Simple words have power.
‘FFS’, throws another curve into the mix- it is an emotionally sad and sentimental song about loss- amplified by another brilliant arrangement. SARN strums the guitar, there’s a bass clarinet, echoed piano, and stereo shakers for percussion. It’s a song about not understanding why things happen. “Suddenly you’re gone and I’m swimming in confusion.” ‘FFS’ has the simplest arrangement on Postmodern Trash, but it’s also one of the most beautiful because it completely deconstructs grief.
Given all of the above, SARN is actually a pretty funny guy. I talked to him on the phone once and he made me laugh. ‘Too Much Art’ frames his humor perfectly (no pun intended, honestly). A descending single note guitar riff leads a rap about every pretentious art gallery event you’ve ever been too. There’s a lot of distracting noise in the background, a distorted kick drum, and a more than a spoonful of precise cynicism. Very few people can get away with this. SARN can. Remember, he’s a badass. He raps about a conversation with an artist, and at the end of the conversation comes to the conclusion that some times, maybe there are might too many artists in this world. ‘Too Much Art’ is one of the most hardcore, yet understated songs on the album. The electronics aren’t ambient, they create an environment- and then SARN walks in the door.
Lyrically, SARN’s songs are narratives telegraphed as 3-minute songs. The words and scenes on Postmodern Trash wander and ramble like your imagination when you’re out taking the dog for a walk, looking into the the windows of other people’s houses, imagining their lives. In one house they’re listening to police radios, hearing descriptions of themselves, like in ‘Headband’. In other houses they’re sitting on the couch with their dogs, with their tongues hanging out, suffering from the heat (‘No Shade’). And in others they are quietly grieving (‘FFS’). Sometimes you wander across someone taking a piss on a basketball court (‘Valiant Stream’).
SARN can turn a phrase. Simple observations are his best lines:
“Have you ever noticed there are no trees in the ghetto?”
This simple question with a very complex set of answers. ‘No Shade’ hints SARN’s socio-political worldview. The song starts with a solo acoustic guitar that sets the stage of heat and hopelessness before the seething anger sets in and the tempo picks up. “It’s so hot that I can’t think right, I’m self-diagnosed with a case of brain is fried,” is sung against an aggressive drum line, with keyboards and ambient sounds scattered around at the edges. This song showcases the interplay between SARN’s songwriting, his collaborators, and John Vanderslice’s engineering. A simple synth-bass line, pounding drums, and a very well-timed drop out with a declarative “Fuck it,” send you into the urban blast furnace, where you sit and sweat, and just try to make it to tomorrow.
Admittedly, ‘No Shade’ was the most challenging song to write, but it helped shape the other eight tracks.
“That was the first song I started writing for the album and the last I finished. For the majority of the time I was writing the album, all I had for ‘No Shade’ was the first verse and guitar riff, guitar lead-in to chorus and the chorus- about 1 min worth of music. But I think that piece of music shaped the record, stylistically. It kinda became my point of reference when writing the other songs on the album.”
‘No Shade’ is the perfect lead-in to the next track, ‘My Socks’. This is perhaps the strongest song on the album in terms of content/context and sound. A traffic stop turns into racial profiling, that turns into a fatal shooting. And as the blood runs out, the last thoughts of the victim are, “Have you seen my socks?” This kind of imagery is real, timely, and honest. The music swings between rage and sadness, several times. The opening to ‘My Socks’ rocks- mostly because of the vocal delivery, as SARN screams (which is sort of a loud whisper), “We’re so mad, we don’t give a fuck about your badge.”
‘My Socks’ has a lot of starts and stops, has a driving beat, some very fucked up electronics, and killer transitions. The guitar is electronically detuned, the drums and bass follow hard on SARN’s heels as he swerves back and forth between rage, confusion, and sadness.
My personal opinion- the only problem with Postmodern Trash is that it’s too short. Nine songs clock in at 24 minutes. The closer, ‘Trail Marks’, is a beautiful send-off, a simple guitar line, a distant piano, clarinet, drifting feedback, and vocals that will bring you back from your last panic attack. You come out of the wild, but you know eventually you’ll be going back in. The song was recorded live with Rob Shelton on piano. It is a very nuanced and organic performance. When it finally ends, I’m waiting for the next song. But that’s it. SARN slips off down the trail. He keeps the shuffle going. It’s all about the shuffle.
Postmodern Trash is the first album to go on my Top 10 list for 2017. Because I keep waiting for that next song. Also because Postmodern Trash is lyrically and musically the most compelling mix of sound, art, literacy, and politics that I’ve heard this year. Postmodern Trash has a heavy sound and a series of complex narratives that are fully realized by imaginative arrangements and some very exceptional performances.