The Ex - "Waiting" (Where's the Beat? Live in the WFMU Studios)
Thanks to the giant tourist trap of the Internet, it’s now pretty easy to get immersed in any genre of music. Within a few hours, one can assemble a complete library of, say, slack-key Hawaiian licks, and claim a certain ad hoc expertise. It is, on balance, a good thing, more information. But it’s easy to nestle into a niche, to ignore the formless bustle of the carnival at large. Descriptors such as “punk,” “noise,” “world” and “indie,” once used to peg anything that didn’t fit a certain set of specs, now refer to clinically precise marketing concepts. After the devastation of Clinton-era consolidation and the inflation of music-nerd social currency via innumerable MP3 blogs, there’s nothing left to “break” and nowhere much to “break” it. The world is a gentrified ghetto. Commercial radio is a crumbling fortress, college radio has lost its lungs to the blog boom, and most blogs are ultimately cloying and harmless, subject to self-indulgence, peer pressure and diminishing returns.
When nothing is forbidden, everything is cute, and nothing is terribly interesting. We may not long mourn the reverse elitism of the long-dead “counterculture,” but it’s weird that weirdoes don’t really challenge each other anymore. What sense of “eclecticism” remains often takes the oily form of Girl Talk hyper-consumption or Jack-FM wedding-reception kitsch. It has nothing to do with courage.
The word “dilettante” once meant “one who takes joy in stuff.” The Jersey City freeform station WFMU has long been a secret handshake among damaged dilettantes, the last remaining media outlet of its stature fully dedicated to anarchic dabbling. This two-disc comp, a gift for fund-drive donors, collects some of the more jagged live performances ’FMU has hosted in the last few years. The results accent the depth, breath and unpredictability that keep a few irregular souls interested in WFMU, while their more well-adjusted peers are catered to elsewhere. This is the last of trickster radio, an oasis for those who insist on creative instability.
WFMU has no “regular rotation,” so its programming reflects the personalities of its DJs. And it’s hardly a nonstop binge of risk and catharsis. The responsible melancholy of Monday afternoon host Irene Trudell brings in a glacial guitar-rock meditation from Slow Six. Roots-rocker Terre T (of the Cherry Blossom Clinic) recruits the plucky Canadian classicists Sloan and the smart-assed grunge vets Mudhoney. And Rob Weisberg’s assimilationist Transpacific Sound Paradise hosts the wily cabaret of Dengue Fever. Taken together, of course, this stuff creates a sense of epic variety, a landscape with no uniform attitudes or taboos. And its little flaws sound all the more intriguing in such pronounced contrast.
The strongest cuts on Where’s the Beat? are the ones that seem in constant danger of derailment, most often selected by Monday afternoon host Liz Berg and music director Brian Turner. Dutch art/punk salwarts the Ex ride a searing guitar hook through a torrent of boiling frustration. Psychedelic Horseshit’s pathological shuffle “In Our Dreams / What’s in Store” continually dissolves into bleached-out chaos. And the woozy stupor of Lau Nau sounds less like “freak folk” than it sounds like a music box in a microwave.