I, as a rule, have not been a fan of demos, scratch tracks or other unfinished work. It is sort of like someone opening the oven door 20 minutes, spooning me a ladle of hot cake batter and asking if I think there is pastry promise. So much can happen and change between inception and completion that I feel like proffering an opinion may make me part of the process in a way that, without formally inserting myself into the project, may taint and dilute.
I was recently asked to listen to a home recording project that very much brought this to mind and, in many ways, made me ask myself if I was being wrongheaded in this approach.
In all fairness, I’m unsure as to what level of completeness the project, titled Interrobang and recorded by local musician Micah Swenson (Edison Project, the Favors) is actually in. The song attached to this column is called Tell Me What to Say. He may see it as a fully-formed piece or a collection in some as-yet-undefined point in its evolution.
It, in many ways, works as both.
It is either a quirky, sometimes primitive and certainly engaging collection recalling the lo-fi movement of the 1990s or the foundation for something ambitious with Beach Boys sort of potential. What it feels like is something in-between, a kind of personal musical laboratory where Swenson is working out ideas and concepts – ranging from prog to pop to soulful ballads – as sort of a catharsis project.
There were elements I found jarring. The bass, the instrument most often associated with Swenson, is often too high in the mix, guitar tones are sometimes uneven and Swenson’s insistence on forgoing natural drum sounds in maddening. That said, there is also much that is miraculous.
Although often remembered as either a sideman or equal partner on a larger musical team, when left to his own devices Swenson is a miraculous lyricist. His way with a musical turn-of-phrase, particularly when describing the balance between hope and hurt that is romantic longing, is incredible. So too is his deep-rooted understanding of arrangement, a hallmark of many previous Swenson-related projects. He is a clearly a puzzle master, putting seemingly disparate pieces together in a way that makes the song feel instinctual and natural.
What’s interesting is although I don’t know if I have been served the aforementioned unfinished confection or a carefully crafted piece intended to be consumed as is, I’m not sure I care. I find the rawness of these songs just as appealing as the idea that this might be something more.
What it reminds me of is not work finished or unfinished, but that thing most significant about music. It’s about the joy of creation and, in letting this album out into the world, spreading that joy. Think of it as Jackson Pollock painting, messy and perhaps a little chaotic, but as much about how it was created as the final product. That is worthy indeed.