So many of us flock to genre, and in turn, its stultifying effect on the music underground. It seems silly, really, worrying about some singles subscription series where 12 guys hover over broken mics, howling another man’s blues, taking refuge in pigeonholes. Especially when there’s music like Pumice’s Quo out there, an album made of the same rough-hewn pieces that bends in the direction of genre and tradition, but never completely bows.
Personality outranks character, if the personality is worth knowing. Music rendered, as with Pumice, in a lower fidelity, certainly has enough characters to go around within its ranks, but it’s the artist with a personality that’s going to need to rise to whatever challenges characters can offer; it’s that personality that’s nudging the artist in its possession out of the safety zone of familiarity, where the character is forced to follow the script as written. Stefan Neville, armed with exceptional guitar abilities and a messy-not-sloppy barrage of instrumentation, says all that needs to be said on that particular struggle for creativity within dire times, through this memorable set of droning, buzzing pop songs. Hailing from New Zealand, it’s a given that Neville’s got solo Syd’s broken frame balladry in his repertoire – there’s a couple of decades and dozens of masterworks for unique, forlorn singer-songwriters from his land, and a lot of them understood this mindset as well. He’s also got a desire to ramble, usually to the benefit of his material, and this is where his personality comes in, offering a look at solo recordings that aren’t content to treat typical rock music with a dull, Luddite coating.
Tracks, like opener “Pumice Quo,” build off of a fractious language of barbed guitar platitudes, hyper-composed into a cinnamon blast of Middle Eastern twang and glam-rock shuffle that doesn’t lose anything in its marriage. But rather than playing to celebrate the collision of styles, Neville elaborates on the strengths of both, moving the piece into more abstract terrain while maintaining a single stream of thought. He’s also thinking about how to treat those multi-tracked vocals so that they saturate the track with overmodulated dirt, and how to make it so that guitar’s distortion sounds like it’s turning to dust in the speakers. There’s stuff up these cracks that aches with early rock desperation, and other junk that’d fit well on a Kicking Giant cassette from way back when. He’s got a Beefheart jones that evidences itself on “Whole Hoof,” and a knack for the woe-is-me lo-fi flatline (the kind that footnotes like Bugskull and Refrigerator used to make) on the moaning “Dogwater,” given its biggest push forward by a repeated sample of Neville attempting some doo-wop harmonies. But he’s just as adept at fingerpicking, and his reliable folk artistry carries some of this material where others couldn’t take it.
Anyone can play music. Anyone can learn it well enough to repeat a lesson, or create revisionist artifacts that add up everything the artist likes about a time, minus everything they find regrettable about it; those same three chords, played the same three ways by everyone else already. The personality behind Pumice is too busy linking everything he likes about music into a creative, substantial whole. While music beneath him slips into an anonymous zone of hyper-limited edition and digital anonymity, where everything someone makes is worthy of release, Neville looks for ways to have fun with his skills and keep things interesting. It’s pretty much what makes Quo the memorable spill it plays out as.