Misunderstandings, Set to Music

Goodbye, Cagoule World, Benjamin Shaw, Audio-Antihero 2014

by Matt Meade

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I don’t know what a cagoule (or Kagoule) is.  Even after looking it up, and finding out that it’s what the British call a lightweight anorak, I’m still confused.  And don’t even ask me what the record title is supposed to mean.  How are we supposed to know the meaning of anything anyway?  Isn’t language just a construct?  An inadequate one at that?  Isn’t that what Foucoult taught us.  Or Ferlinghetti?  I can’t remember.  I went to state school, after all.

But even with my sub-par education, I can tell that Shaw’s record is about the inadequacy of language.  The first song on the record, “No One,” begins with a recording of a group of children who are enduring a French lesson.  At least, I think they are children.  It’s difficult to tell especially since the instructor has a thick accent, the recording has quite a  bit of static, and the growing feedback (and Theremin?) keep us from hearing all but a few words.  Are they French children learning grammar? English children learning French?  Just a bunch of culinary students being fancy?

It’s the first of many reminders on the record that no one can understand anyone else.  As the French lesson fades away, as inconsequential to us as it is to the students, Shaw fires his opening salvo, “No one can love you.”  He speaks the line like it’s an accusation, like he really means it. Later in the song, he elaborates, saying that “no one can love you like I do.”  Nice save buddy, but you’re too late.  By the time he gets around to qualifying his statement, we don’t believe him.

How could we when we’ve already been reminded how useless it is to learn and use language at all?

The record is a bit of a patchwork of found instructional tapes and jazz zig-zags.  It’s a pastiche, of sorts, probably designed to work in contrast to the vocals that emerge out of the near cacophony and are mixed in such a way to mimic the effect having them whispered in your ear.  The fragile lyrics are close, as if that might make up for the fact that no one can ever really know or understand anyone at all.

Despite the fact that the record makes use of some pretty talented musicians such as Jack Hayter playing pedal steel (!) and someone named Broken Shoulder adding what is referred to as “Noise,” the general vibe of the 7 track record is that there is no band, there is only a character named Benjamin, who couldn’t even find a drummer to play with him, making use of synth and drum machines for the same reason he writes about burning bridges, and ending friendships.  It’s because Benjamin Shaw has trouble forming and maintaining relationships.  No one can stand this guy.  He’s on his own in his musical endeavors, just like he is on his own in the romance department, and in life in general.  But, don’t get all judgey and automatically think that makes him some kind of asshole.  No one can stand you either.  That’s why you like the record.  That’s why no one calls you anymore.  That’s why no one responds to all those facebook requests you have pending.

When the repetition of the drum machine and the over-saturated synth parts are stripped away, like they are at the end of “Break the Kettles and Sink the Boats,” Shaw is left alone, his voice more vulnerable and more clear than ever.  It is a moment that is earned both by him and the listener.

In the penultimate track, “You & Me,” the vocal runs almost seem to mock the idea of vocal runs and anyone who would bother to do them in earnest. The synth roars out like the engine on a bad race car simulator, impotent and fake. The violins and violas croak out notes just a bit off key.  This guy is too exhausted to play by any of your rules.  So exhausted, in fact, that he can’t be bothered to write a lyric other than as an algorithm, “So here’s a line about the system / And here’s a line that’s quite funny. / And here’s a pop culture reference…”  It is rare that a singer-songwriter shows this level of self-awareness, and this “singer-songwriter” (if you wanna be so bourgeois as to call him that) is fussing with the parameters of the pop song and re-examining the rules of what it is to be a singer-songwriter.  Even his lyrics are not him talking.  His lyrics are lifted from other places, a sentiment that will be echoed in the title track when he claims, “I haven’t the cards to make better words.”  He is tired of  reading from the script, taking the cues, and fulfilling all those expectations.  And rather than do that, Shaw offers a peek behind the curtain.  By doing so he calls attention to all those exhausting cliches you’ve come to expect, though Shaw is not so exhausted that he can’t turn his caustic humor inward, ending the song by offering “a lazy refrain: ‘like you and me.’”

And just like we didn’t believe him when he told his significant other that “no one can love you like I do,” we don’t believe him when he ends the record by telling us that “I’m not the problem / I’m perfectly fine.”  How could he be when his words are so meaningless, when he has so minuscule an effect on other people, and no one ever gets their point across.

The record builds to the final two songs which act as some kind of anti-crescendo.  They are the best and most complete songs on the record. Some of the early tracks are nothing more than curiosities and barely warrant a repeat listen.  It’s a bit of a slog to get to the good parts, but they are worth the wait, because there are several truly great moments and some very solid songs.  As an album it feels a little thin, and it helps to think of the effort as more of an overstuffed EP, rather than your classic Long Play record.  But perhaps that is one more way in which Shaw is playing with the form.  Using it for his own purposes.

It’s a record about mis-communication, after all, a record about not meeting expectations.  It’s a record about coming to terms with how cagoule the world is, whatever the fuck that means.

The digital album is available on April 21st.  You can download it, (or buy a Goodbye, Cagoule World stress ball) at the Audio-Antihero website: http://audioantihero.bandcamp.com/album/goodbye-cagoule-world

 

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