Oh, Sub Pop. For one of the best record labels in the world, your fans have pretty closed minds. You started out as the masters of innovation in the ‘80s, putting out Nirvana’s first record two years before they changed pop music and inventing indie-rock clichés before they came to define the best music of the 21st century. Over time, you’ve become one of the best, although less innovative, labels around, producing great acts like Beach House and Avi Buffalo. So, yes, your status as a guitar-rock label has won you fans, critical love, and cred. What happens when you try to expand your horizons?
Well, if the reaction to Sub Pop’s newly-signed act Spoek Mathambo influences them, I wouldn’t say Sub Pop is going to try something new anytime soon. Their Youtube video for “Put Some Red on It,” the best song on Mathambo’s new record, has 69 likes and 55 dislikes. For a Youtube video, that’s the equivilant of a bomb. Commenters say it’s awful. Commenters say it’s out of tune. Commenters say it’s the worst thing Sub Pop has ever released. Commenters don’t know what they’re talking about.
To be fair, later Mathambo videos on the Sub Pop channel have higher ratings, but the initial reaction says a lot about indie culture. Why do the same people who praise Beach House for being different than the mainstream attack “Put Some Red on It” for being different? Father Creeper is an extremely well-done album, one that experiments with sounds in a way that other Sub Pop acts would never dare to. I do love plenty of Sub Pop bands, but they don’t exactly have a wide-range. Even Avi Buffalo, who I considered the best new group of 2010, tend to stick to a specific sound. Spoek Mathambo, meanwhile, does so many different things on Father Creeper that it seems like a career-spanning compilation album. Even pinning down a genre is tough. It’s, for the most part, an electro album, but it’s also rap, and there’s an absence of electronic drums. And there are guitars. Lots of guitars.
The opening track, “Kites,” is confusing. It’s rock, electro, and rap’s love child, and that love child is bi-polar. At five-minutes long, this track leaves a lot of room to grow on you during your first listen. I quickly became accustomed to the sound at around two-minutes in and, by the end of it, I’d already gotten to love the originality and sound of the song. It’s followed by “Venison Fingers” which, despite being shorter (two minutes and forty seconds), has a lot of dynamics that are easy to miss on your first listen.
Strange dynamics and mixing of styles can often turn out to be a mess. Like a lot of things in music, this type of experimentation can often seem like an attempt at tricking the audience, and getting them to see you as an innovator. Spoek Mathambo does it well, though, because his lyrical themes (often very dark and disturbing, as on the closing track, “Grave”) and vocals fit the bizarreness. This isn’t an album that is weird for the sake of weird; it’s weird because it wouldn’t work any way else. Every song has meaning and, for once, the sound is shaped by the meaning, and not the other way around.
Sub Pop will probably continue putting out some of the best guitar music around, and I applaud them for that. But, Father Creeper shows that they’re capable of more. Maybe, eventually, the next big thing will, once again, get their start at Sub Pop.