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V/A - Hilarity And Despair: American Answering Machine Tapes Volume #1

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Artist: V/A

Album: Hilarity And Despair: American Answering Machine Tapes Volume #1

Label: Sebastian Speaks

Review date: Mar. 15, 2006

I know a guy in Baltimore whose cell phone remains registered in Winston-Salem, N.C., his hometown. “One thing that has kind of become a perk,” he says, “is that when someone misdials my number I get a call from a stranger with a North Carolina accent. It actually is quite nice ... far less annoying than if I had a Baltimore cell phone.” Judging from the drawls and dipthongizations on Hilarity And Despair, a collection of “found” answering machine tapes, most of its selections are of Southeastern vintage, which lends even its more frightening episodes an eccentric, exotic charm (even if, like your reporter, you hail from the area). In mass media representation, Southerners are often insulting caricatures – here, they're fully drawn characters, as hung-up and lovable and hopeless as any other heroes.

By now, we all know how much fun this sort of scavenger hunt can be. To behold “found” matter is to assemble a story, or a number of contradictory stories, about how it got there and how it got lost. And we all know how elegant and pathetic people can be after the sound of the beep.

Many of these tapes hinge on domestic strain, professional despair, druggy delirium or humiliating loneliness. When caller and presumed recipient are on good terms, the messages often contain weird, intimate shorthand and goofy inside jokes, and it’s easy to remember that we are not the performer’s intended audience (and, if so inclined, to feel uneasy about this whole enterprise). Other recordings are indignant, clichéd rants, high-strung abuse for the absent and the non-reciprocal. Some of us never quite shake the assumption that we’re speaking in confidence when we giggle about sex and drugs, and that when we chastise our foes, we take our case before God.

Hilarity And Despair is of preservationist interest in that, instead of mysterious “voicemails,” it enshrines tiny, obsolete cassettes, and gives the format’s idiosyncrasies another glorious encore. Voices warp and dip underwater, or get cut off at inopportune moments. The awkward mechanical mediation lends another layer of charm, and makes the harrowing failures of communication (particularly near the end) that much more compelling.

From a dated medium springs timeless, riveting drama, the sort of drama that never broke it off with comedy. Behold the darkest, richest comedy record to come down the pike in many a moon.

By Emerson Dameron

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