Musical Family Tree

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SmallBox Presents MFT EP IN A WEEKEND #6: Consumers (Ben Bernthal, Duncan Kissinger, Emily Watkins)


SmallBox and Musical Family Tree present:

EP 6 :: Consumers

(Listen while you read!)

The latest EP in a Weekend, recorded in mid-November 2013, is one of those rare instances in life when the stars seem to line up just right, everything comes together smoothly, and all the pieces lock into place almost too easily. As usual, we've assembled a strong-but-wide-ranging lineup of Indiana musicians to see what they can create together in a three-day studio sprint. And I'm happy to report that the trio of Consumers (Ben Bernthal, Duncan Kissinger, and Emily Watkins - along with engineer Ryan Koch at Arkbarn) made the whole thing seem effortless and fun while still offering some of the most interesting sounds to come out of Indiana this year.


Consumers turned out to be a great mixture of people and talents, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the members' previous musical output. Due to the EP in a Weekend series taking a lengthy break since The Wasted Gaze EP back in April - mainly thanks to MFT's frenzy of activity around the Listen Local series this summer and the New Music Showcase in October - it was imperative that we selected musicians who would work well together and challenge one another. I've known these three artists individually for a while, so I was hopeful that they would approach their collaboration with the spirit of melodic expressiveness, experimentation, and ingenuity that has defined each of their past projects. Needless to say (as you can see in the BrainTwins-produced video for "Latitude" below), they have surpassed even my highest expectations.



The EP opens the same way the recording session began: Kissinger strikes up a steady beat on electric tabla, soon joined by warbling autoharp and buzzy guitar, and you can almost literally hear the group settling in together and getting comfortable. "For the Moon" is an instant indicator of what we're in for on the rest of the EP: lots of interlocking vocal lines, gently psychedelic textures, laid-back vibes, and a surprising lack of a "rock and roll aesthetic" - but this turns out to be for the best. The unusual choices on the EP make its sounds and ideas infinitely entertaining and puzzling. As Bernthal explains it, lyrics on "For the Moon" were devised using "a series of surrealist writing games similar to exquisite corpse, the game in which one writes a word or line, folds the paper so it cannot be read, then passes it to the next person."


As the frontman for Accordions and a member of the Hammer Screwdriver tribute diaspora, Ben Bernthal is a poet and songwriter with a distinctive voice, a consistently positive attitude, and ideas galore. He arrived at the studio with a car full of gear, including a timpani, an organ, electric autoharp, a bag of pedals, and "Value World Casio keyboards" among other instruments that mostly made it onto the recordings. This wide range of instrumental textures helps set the album apart, and it adds a glowing majesty to the recordings that makes them both woozy and timeless. Add to those strange sounds the unique methods the group employed to compose lyrics (the lyrics to "Personally Engraved" are adapted from an Alice Fulton poem) and chord progressions ("Gross Domestic Product" used the notes on a scale, ABCDEFG, to create keyboard cord clusters based on words like "DEAF DAD" and "BAG DAD"), and you've got thirteen densely-packed minutes of compelling music to explore.


(Snapshot of goods purchased by the group on a trip to Target, during a break from recording) 


Emily Watkins is a former member of Margot and the Nuclear So and So's, but her musical skills go way beyond that, as evinced by her cover of Gentleman Caller's "I Am On Fire" with Andy Fry and JB Andrews on the Nine Different Kinds of Gone tribute album, not to mention her outstanding work with United States Three at a few recent live gigs. Watkins has always been the kind of artist I've wanted to hear in a solo setting, and her contributions to the Consumers EP make me eager for more of her work. She has a fantastic voice with enough personality to make each listen to one of her songs a singular experience, and on the EP, her vocals are perfectly complimented by the keys, strings, organs, and orchestral percussion that float in and out of the mix.


As a whole, the Consumers EP displays an abundance of intelligence, playfulness, experimentation, and sincerity, all characteristics that I would definitely use to describe the musical wunderkind that is Duncan Kissinger. He is perhaps is the "wild card" of the group this time around, even as he gels smoothly with the rest of the band. On a casual listen, it can be challenging to pinpoint his specific contributions on the EP, but this also speaks to Kissinger's knack for blending with his collaborators and creating hypnotic sonic textures that draw the listener in, strengths that are also apparent in his excellent solo work as Skin Conditions and as a guitarist in Hotfox


(L-R: Watkins, Bernthal, Kissinger)


At only four songs, the EP feels refreshingly brief and replayable. "Latitude" washes the listener away on waves of autoharp, gentle timpani, and lullaby-style vocals which combine to give it a dreamy Pet Sounds-ish vibe. On "Personally Engraved," lightly plucked electric guitar line is complimented by high-pitched moog and the three Consumers rapidly chanting lyrics together until their unity dissipates on a fragmented "chorus." "Personally Engraved" is one of the EP's high points, and it reveals more beauty and complexity with each listen. 


"Gross Domestic Product" is an exercise in combined textures, utilizing as many as six keyboards at once to create a droning symphony of Casio tones. It even includes ping pong balls inside a piano, John Cage style. I'll go ahead and say that again: ping pong balls inside the piano. But it still manages to stay poppy, even with some very far-out chord progressions. Watkins's plaintive vocal line is a bit reminiscent of classic-era Stereolab, a comparison that rings even more true with the stuttering organ beat and glassy vibraphone that accompany her voice. Like other moments on the Consumers EP, "Gross Domestic Product"'s lyrics were a collaboration that incorporated the "exquisite corpse" method of combining disparate lyrical lines to create a new, weirdly synchronous artistic statement.


Throughout the weekend, the band members discussed their disillusionment with corporate "consumerist" culture, and this discussion seems to have influenced the entire affair (even down to the band name itself). Consumers (the band) are thoughtful and playful, but they are also expressing earnest criticisms of the world we all live in and share. Throughout the EP, lyrics and themes surface to make listeners contemplate just how effectively our culture has turned us into mere eaters, drinkers, purchasers, and consumers of goods instead of the complex, emotional, imperfect human beings we once believed ourselves to be. It's a question worth asking, and, like the EP that brought it forth, worth repeating endlessly until we see its inherent beauty and significance in the larger world.


EP in a Weekend MFT Page

Consumers MFT Page


Video trailer for EP #6:



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