Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

18 February 1994

Steve Fisk/Pigeonhed

Like an orthographic loop, the phrase "Steve Fisk cut tape" pops up throughout the credits to the Northwest cassette bricoleur 's arithmetically questionable Over and Thru the Night: A 10-Year Retrospective 1980-1987 (K). Known in various circles as producer of Screaming Trees and Beat Happening albums, and as keyboardist for rock instrumentalists Pell Mell, Fisk has been cobbling together discombobulated DIY cassette projects since, presumably, 1980. Over and Thru the Night skims the cream of his crop--or at least the more melodic cream that didn't end up on 448 Deathless Days , his 1987 SST collection. Full of wonderful, mysterious, funny, and dire cut-up compositions, Over and Thru is actually nothing more and nothing less than good, old-fashioned pomo pastiche. And that's alright.

In fact, with its televangelists, Ronald Reaganisms, late-'60s rock stars, film-noir nobodies, goofy motivational samples, and low-techno break beats, the disc often sounds downright nostalgic. It's an album of strange terrain and fractured aural geometries, in which a salesman's lament--"I don't belong in this world"--sums up a decade's worth of domestic misery. In "One More Valley," Fisk transforms an evangelic invocation--"One more trial, one more tear, one more curve in life's road. One more mile to go"--into high ironic slacker gospel that sounds no less triumphant for its purloined origin. Over and Thru the Night is redolent of that peculiar '80s subgenre represented by such decomposers as John Oswald, Negativland, and the Tape Beatles--with roots extending backward into the groundbreaking mixology of Grandmaster Flash, Trevor Horn, and Adrian Sherwood. It's music as found art, spunky scrap-heap productions and pop pranks meaning everything and nothing.

"But exactly what," you ask, "makes a man cut tape?" Well, does the name Lorena Bobbitt ring a bell? Talk about bang for your buck, underground pop's abuse of appropriative strategies not only makes the music strange (again), it downloads upscale production techniques and sticks it to the paternal powers that is. "Copyright infringement is still your best entertainment value," asserts Fisk's liner notes--although he requested that his more obvious sources not be cited. Potential plaintiffs will just have to buy the disc themselves.

Steve Fisk takes a great sampled leap forward on Pigeonhed (Sub Pop), the eponymous psychedelic-Seattle-soulman project he's spliced together with tricked-up and treated singer Shawn Smith (of the bands Brad and Satchel). Like Ween minus the self-loathin or Scritti Politti in plaid, Pigeonhed floats in a soul, funk and hip-hop soup brimming with deep-water dubwise ambience. Fisk and Smith conjure the moods, the sonic auras, of singers as diverse as Prince, Bobby Brown, Hall and Oats, Bowie, and your favorite Bee Gee. The tape cutter can afford to be less cryptic about his sonic sources, since they come primarily from Sub Pop's vaults. Love Battery's "Day Glo" provides the intro to "Salome," which owes at least as much to "I Am the Walrus." Half of "Special Way" started out as Soundgarden's "Little Joe," and Kim Thayil's blunderbuss guitar splatters all over the place.

Smith's vocals, altered from track to track, transcend the lyrics' fabulous blandness ("This is what love's about/Ooo, ain't it so," indeed). Mostly, though, Pigeonhed is haunted by what garage-sale mainstay Ray Conniff heard as "ghost tunes," whose patterns insinuate themselves into listeners through almost subliminal pulsations. The Conniff comparison isn't all that outside. Pigeonhed is a masterpiece of mainstream pastiche, a weird, moody paean to universal AOR. A haunted tag sale of an album, Pigeonhed is truly (please stop me) a cut above.