Pop music is a bitch. Once you start listening to it – and listening to it obsessively – it becomes inescapable: you can’t listen to anything else. And among certain sensibilities, pop music is hotter than ever. We appreciate more experimental bands when they go pop; far from looking down on it, we treat pop as a virtue. While a lot of interesting stuff can come out of more left-field bands dabbling in pop, we also fetishize it, crowding out true experimentation. At least this reviewer did. Then a band comes along like Strawberry Hands that makes you think again about why you listen to music in the first place.
Strawberry Hands, then, is not a pop band. They don’t make music for you: they don’t reach out and grab you by the lapels (or the cardigans, or whatever) and say listen. The duo that makes up the band, Jake Brunner and Jim Strong, make music for themselves. And this is refreshing.
Take “The Prettiest Song in the World”, side A of this 7-inch. Whisper quiet, almost burlesque sounding in its rhythm and harmony, with intersecting, cooing falsettos, the group has created a whole new kind of eeriness that is powerful in its quiet way. It is so creepy, in part, because of the conflicting tendencies they convey: on the one hand comforting and intimate, their music is also deeply anxious in a way that’s difficult to identify. You might call it a kind of resigned mourning. You get the sense that these guys should have laid down the soundtrack to one of those post-war European noirs, serving as the house band an empty salon that stubbornly refuses to close.
This is all my reaction to the music, of course, but perhaps my way of reacting to it is the whole point. Repetition – a main theme of Strawberry Hands’s work – leads to hypnotic impressions. Brunner waxed philosophic to me in an email about this:
“But even strict repetition is a kind of illusion. There are lots of composers that play with the idea of repetition and its inherent paradoxes. The thing about repetition in music is that people only think about the musical material, but they don’t consider the interaction of human perception with that musical material. That’s why something repeated many many times can take on a completely different character, like with Reich’s early tape loops, or with Satie’s Vexations which is a page of music played for like 8 hours.”
Clearly these guys have thought about their music. Even the texture of their sound is meticulously crafted. Though you might call the music lo-fi, this is really a misnomer: lo-fi implies some degradation of sound quality, whereas these guys deliberately morph their sound to their own tastes. It takes a little getting used to, but the warmth conveyed on “The Prettiest Song in the World” has a lot to do with the texture they create, which sounds like an exaggerated version of the sound you get from vinyl.
The self-titled B-side to this record is equally as haunting as the “The Prettiest Song”, and it re-emphasizes the importance that Strawberry Hands place on repetition – it is essentially a drum loop with various metallic-sounding samples, modified guitars and what sounds like a organ jumping in occasionally – but also, more importantly, on the way they manipulate their sound to create visuals through their music. “Jim is a painter and I think he really considers fidelity in the way he considers color or light in his paintings,” Brunner told me. “They’re very closely related.”
Attention to sonic texture is nothing new, of course, but usually bands find one they like and stick to it. Strawberry Hands, though, seem intent on fitting the texture to the given song, just as painters change the textures of their work. This can be disorienting – so few bands take these sonic liberties – but it also proves incredibly rewarding. These two songs demonstrate their ability to experiment with different qualities of sound to convey drastically contrasting moods.
I’ll leave with some words from Jake Brunner, who is far more eloquent about his music than I:
“For me I think that there’s something tragic and severe about repetition in music. It can lead to trances, to real ecstasy and a release from the bonds of material awareness, but I feel like there’s also this Sisyphean quality to it, this kind of no exit, eternal recurrence vibe.”