For fans of ’90s trip-hop, early Beck, glitchwerks, the poetry of John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, and music as people 30 and older probably treasure it, Squanto represents a sonic totem. “Ten was the last great album-album!” screech some of my friends with developmentally challenged palates back home, also from the Rust Belt, also born in the 1970s, also sexually/professionally/spiritually frustrated. Writing about music for nearly 15 years has made me tired of music. Squanto, the nom de guerre of Fort Worthian Rickey Wayne Kinney, has perked me up a little. This is a pretty big deal for a couple of reasons.
The first time I came across the 30-year-old’s one-man electro-pop project was this summer at The Boiled Owl Tavern on a random weekday night. Maybe it was a Tuesday. It was probably Tuesday. That’s the only night I get to “go galavanting all over creation” (my wife’s term). Watching him convulse onstage –– holding the mic up to his screaming/singing/rapping mouth with one hand, his other twisting the millions of knobs on the soundboard in front of him, his only instrument, his chestnut-brown ponytail quaking –– brought me back to my Rust Belt youth, circa the late 1980s, desperate to align myself with certain, choice cultural artifacts to distinguish myself and also shape my identity while broadcasting my worldview. What does Squanto allow me to say? That we’re all screwed. Screwed, screwed, screwed. And we don’t even know it.
My mythical too-tight Squanto cardigan sweater (that I wear to family gatherings and to the bar and to Target, even in summer) also says: 44-year-old eardrums can take only so much guitar-rock. It’s time for something different.
The most aesthetically bankable attribute of Squanto’s music is its newness. It’s familiar but perhaps unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Though traditionally arranged (verse-chorus-verse), it packs the gut-punching power of Sun Ship or Kyle Gann’s Disklavier work. Allow me to underline a point I made above: Squanto is highly recommended for the music lover who has either grown tired of loud guitars or wants to take a break from them.
For you, I humbly submit Color TV Death. Recorded at The Swamp in Justin with Grammy-winning producer Jordan Richardson, a.k.a. Son of Stan (Oil Boom, Bummer Vacation, The Longshots), Squant’s debut recording is brilliant but dark, a trillion butterflies and flowers forming the 7-inch silhouette of a two-dimensional Glock. The same darkness that reigns over Color TV Death is the same nihilistic melancholy that permeates Clarence Ashley’s “Coo Coo Bird” and Tricky’s Maxinquaye. A total eclipse of the art.
The EP is deeply spooky. The hollow flute-like two-note whistle that changes color slightly and lords over the tinny, banging calypso beat of “Frontiers” is as discomfiting as looking at a bunch of tiny holes or the nub of a severed limb –– you can’t un-see that stuff the same way you can’t un-listen to that melody, a melody that Kinney calls and responds with. (Now that Clarence Ashley reference is making sense, right?) More than cosmetic, the effect is perfect for Kinney’s bloody valentine: “Your love was slaughtered by the spear of destiny,” he sings, his yawning voice wracked with an unearned grief (trés postmoderne). “Insight was plucked by the glean of another man / Bullseye came cawing across leagues of open sea / We’ve placed our corporation’s logo on your sleeve.”
Color TV Death can easily be classified as “punk.” “Data Bent” is as in-your-face as anything Little Richard did in the early ’50s or the Ramones in the early ’70s. Kinney’s ch-ch-ch-chopped vocals tap dance across a quicksilver rhythm established by what sounds like a rusty tin can being splashed with steely brushes. It’s industrial but lighter than air, the frame of a skyscraper made out of crystal. The song doesn’t have any freight in the hold, but that’s OK –– all the blood is in your brain, anyway, especially after turning off all of that Fort Work rawk. The “solo,” near the end, consists of the buzzing you get from pressing your finger against the head of cable jack connected to a hot amp.
“Punk,” yes, but Color TV Death could also be filed under “Folk,” “Hip-Hop,” or “Blues.” The album exists outside of time as we dwellers of the year 2015 know it. On what may be perhaps the artist’s most popular (locally popular, of course) song, leadoff track “Sunshades,” the skipping snare/kick-drum combo plods along to an undoubtedly intentionally chintzy, siren-like synth line –– straight out of Zardoz or A Clockwork Orange –– conjuring up everything from Gary Numan to Cannibal Ox. By the time the nearly eight-minute song reaches its midway point, the chopped and looped chorus, “I got my sunshades on,” becomes a juicy hook to which a person, presently a 44-year-old one beaten down by music, can bob his head.