By Less Lee Moore
“I want to make you feel paranoid in a good way. There’s something seriously fucked about workout tapes from the mid ’80s, and just about everything obscure on beta tape. They make me feel awful, but really good and curious at the same time. With this Tobacco stuff, I’m trying to translate that feeling.”
—Tobacco, September 26, 2008, Interview in Kotori Magazine
The contradictions inherent in being both a music lover and a music writer frequently lead to a profound tension between pure enjoyment and the need to explain and categorize every song that weaves its way into my ears. One persistent classification has been “music that makes my mom nervous.” Although I have empirical knowledge that Born Innocent by Redd Kross is one such album, I have never been brave enough to test out other potential contenders like Nirvana’s In Utero or anything by JG Thirlwell (the cover of Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel’s Nail was enough to send her into apoplexy).
Certainly Tobacco‘s Maniac Meat would introduce my mom to an entirely new dimension of nervousness.
Not a band, but a person (one member of the collective known as Black Moth Super Rainbow), Tobacco is a somewhat ambiguous figure who often refuses to show his face in photos and avoids interviews. Listening to Maniac Meat, his latest offering, elucidates why this mystery is effective: the music itself gives us plenty to chew on. Anything else would be a distraction.
Tobacco utilizes analog synths and tape machines, the somewhat archaic and iconoclastic symbols of a pre-digital, pre-Autotune age. Yet Maniac Meat is not acoustic, folky twaddle.
With many of the songs Vocodered to the point of unease—a feeling akin to carsickness is frequently evoked—Maniac Meat manages to sound incredibly modern, even futuristic. Not like jet packs, however—it’s more like the Hadron Collider or human cloning: we’re not quite ready for this yet. But it’s here and it demands our attention.
Tobacco’s music is bizarre, but less off-putting and decidedly more seductive than death metal. For example, Sunn O))) might try and force you to “run to the toilet in terror” but you don’t actually want to listen to them. Maniac Meat is uncomfortable and even unpleasant in a way that is much more immediate than drugged out trips like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma or the theater of the grotesque created by bands like Coil. Yet rather than alternating between major and minor chords, Tobacco layers discomfort with melancholy to draw you in. It’s queasy listening for the new millennium.
The songs have verses and choruses, but twisted so the choruses are instrumental only. What lyrics can be deciphered amidst the intense distortion seem to focus on food or eating, which seems strange considering how nausea and hunger don’t often coincide. “Don’t eat the berries,” warns opening track “Constellation Dirtbike Head,” while other songs discuss licking, lollipops (granted, getting sick off of said lollipops), milkshakes (made of arms and legs, natch), “Mexican Icecream,” and of course the maniac meat named in the album’s title.
Do not misunderstand: for all of its unsettling, disturbing qualities, Maniac Meat is a thoroughly captivating album, rife with pop sensibilities and chock full of melodies, including, but in no way limited to “Heavy Makeup,” “Overheater,” and “Creepy Phone Calls.”
The strange song titles on Maniac Meat are not some affectation; they actually fit the feel of the songs. Describing what the songs sound like is a bit trickier. The jarring yet comforting “Lick The Witch” evokes images of lowriders bouncing up and down interspersed with a melody obscured by a grating noise that sounds like looking at something through a box fan.
“Heavy Makeup” seems sort of normal (by Tobacco standards) until the second iteration of lyrics becomes so distorted as to be completely unintelligible. Later, it interrupts the soothing qualities of a somewhat desolate-sounding instrumental break by veering off a cliff into something which resembles a pit of slow-motion industrial drills and sirens but doesn’t quite sound like either. The vocals then return with an extremely disturbing and distorted vengeance.
Okay, but what does it sound like really? “Sweatmother” almost sounds like Throbbing Gristle with its stark synth backbeat and sleazy, sinister vocals but it’s decidedly thicker than the former’s music, and with a hip hop-inspired, no-vocals chorus
The similarly hip hop feel of “Mexican Icecream” includes spooky vocals which are reminiscent of Air but transformed into something that sounds like a roller coaster ride as opposed to a bar filled with hot French men smoking Gitanes. The surprisingly suave keyboard chorus of “Motorlicker” also suggests Air, but more like the disquieting 10,000 Hz. Legend album than their more accessible stuff. (Tobacco has actually remixed Air’s “Sing Sang Sung” from Love 2.)
As far as influences or collaborations, what seems to be getting Maniac Meat a lot of attention is the appearance of Beck on two tracks (oddly, the very Beck-sounding title of “New Juices From The Hot Tub Freaks” is not one of them). “Fresh Hex” is definitely fresher than anything Beck’s done in years (which begs the question of who exactly is helping whom here). There’s also “Grape Aerosmith,” with its post industrial/proto house vibe, complete with dripping noises, grinding saws, and as always, that unmistakable undercurrent of a melody peeking through. (Neither song sounds like Beck, by the way.)
Maniac Meat often manages to be quite groovy, too. “New Juices From The Hot Tub Freaks” sounds like music made for dancing (or at least break dancing) complete with an extremely bouncy bass riff and a crisp drum fill. You almost have to laugh at a song title like “Unholy Demon Rhythms” until it ventures into the territory of sheer funk about halfway through.
Although Maniac Meat is only about 42 minutes long, its 16 songs are so dense it almost feels like too much at times. The last few songs are a bit claustrophobic, although the last track “Nuclear Waste Aerobics” is a great closer, anxious and danceable at the same time, and in another one of those great contradictions, it leaves us wanting more.
The dichotomy between pure pop and ugly noise makes Maniac Meat something you have to hear to understand and to appreciate fully. It’s a different kind of creepy than I’m used to enjoying: not so much a horror movie score, but the soundtrack to an extremely strange dream. “Love and hate the way we feel,” hisses a line from “Six Royal Vipers,” and nothing could be truer about this album.
With Maniac Meat, Tobacco has successfully translated his desire to feel awful yet good and curious at the same time.
You can listen to and download the track “Six Royal Vipers” here.
Tobacco will be touring the US this fall (with Junk Culture and Dreamend):
Thursday, Sept. 9: Washington, DC @ DC9
Friday, Sept. 10: Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church
Saturday, Sept. 11: Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
Thursday, Sept. 16: Northampton, MA @ Iron Horse
Friday, Sept. 17: South, VT @ Higher Ground
Saturday, Sept. 18: Boston, MA @ Middle East
Thursday, Sept. 23: Toledo, OH @ Mickey Finn’s
Friday, Sept. 24: Ann Arbor, MI @ Blind Pig
Saturday, Sept. 25: Kalamazoo, MI @ The Strutt
Wednesday, Sept. 29: Greensboro, NC @ Artisika on UNCG Campus
Thursday, Sept. 30: Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506
Friday, Oct. 1: Knoxville, TN @ Square Room
Saturday, Oct. 2: Morgantown, WV @ 123 Pleasant Street