splendid > reviews > 4/9/2002
Transistor Six
Transistor Six
"Johnny where's my purse?"
Blackbean and Placenta

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "The Neasdon Poisoner"

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If you follow art, you may be familiar with Frances Castle; she's part of the Stuckist movement, and is known for her paintings of "soft fury (sic) monsters with hard pink genitals, based on the people she meets and monsters in general". If you don't follow art, don't worry -- you may not be able to comment cleverly on Castle's CD booklet illustrations, but you'll still enjoy the music, which is as gloriously, defiantly peculiar as anything you're likely to hear this year.

Castle assembled these songs using a four-track recorder and a PC (in itself an iconoclastic move, given the capital-"c" Creative world's general Mac-centric attitudes), culling bits and pieces from ancient folk and country records and adding the tentative output of elderly instruments. On paper, it's nothing that hasn't been done before, but there's an intangible quality to Castle's approach that makes her work wholly different from the other sample-based projects you've heard. When she's at her most accomodating, she knits snippets of well-aged music into loungy melodies, then slaves her Frankenstein tunes to bristling rhythms that combine drum machines, turntable crackle, bird and animal noises and other environmental sounds (including, on her version of the Iditarod's "Our Condolences", an absolutely maddening creaking-door sample, likely scavenged from her PC's "sounds" folder). Vocals are applied as needed, either by Castle or one of her collaborators. Imagine Tipsy's Trip Tease as reconceptualized by Solex, and you'll be hacking away at the above-water bit of the iceberg.

However, while these pieces might be considered pop songs in the absolute broadest sense of the term, they're actually something far more insidious -- mutated, ramshackle shadows, capable of fooling the naked ear but not the mind. There's more sonic "machinery" built into these songs than there needs to be, suggesting hidden purposes and advanced functions beyond our ken. You'll detect this aesthetic in pieces like the discordant "The Neasden Poisoner" and the somnolent "Old Oak Tree", both of which practically scream "Dismantle me!" -- suggesting that if you only listen closely enough for long enough, the music will divulge a strange and marvelous secret. Dig too deep and before you know it, you'll be spending all your time poring over magazines, underlining words, cutting out articles and sticking them up on the walls of your garage, basement or garden shed.

Beyond her flair for dense sonic collage-making, Castle displays a finely-honed taste for narrative absurdity, which is ably indulged by her collaborators. "Little Joe Your Head's Too Big", for instance, is the best song ever written about a disproportionately large cranium. Over an exotica-tinged drone, a thrumming bass line and a rhythm track crafted from squelches, squeaks and clattering bits of metal, guest vocalist Steward delivers the macrocephalic protagonist's tale of woe; apparently, in addition to the whole oversized noggin issue, he's plagued by radio signals from outer space. Along similarly peculiar lines, Jesse Todd Dockery turns in a pair of his trademark quizzical narratives, "Real Life Hand Transplant" and "The Tree Frogs of Kentucky", the latter of which closes the album on a suitably mysterious, philosophical note.

It's Sexton Ming, however, who truly brings the house down. Over "I Collect Plastics"' trebly silent-movie music loop, he growls quasi-nonsensical (and often pants-wettingly funny) lyrics in a working class accent, half-heartedly singing along with the background tune. If you can get past lyrics like "One up the bum / No harm done / I've got a plastic Action Man / And a polythene Dalek suit / Oh, to be a chemist / at the Scotland Yard / I'd hit my head and I'd break my legs and I'd cover myself in lard" without being moved, you don't deserve to own a CD player.

Of course, a lot of indie rock fans who claim to be into "new and challenging sounds" will be utterly lost in Transistor Six's mixed-up world. If your idea of pushing the envelope is slightly off-key background vocals, or if you like your music neat and tidy and devoid of cluttery extra idea bits, "Johnny Where's My Purse" will probably be a bit too chaotic for your tastes. And that's fair; like much Stuckist art, the disc has more to do with actually having ideas than polishing their presentation, and its rough-edged charm is better suited to explorers than musical day-trippers. Though it can be amateurish, childish and willfully obscure, "Johnny Where's My Purse" is also one of the most joyous listening experiences you'll have this year, for it truly revels in being weird for weirdness' sake.



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