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Let's Talk This Out 

BARR attempts to understand everything

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
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Brendan Fowler's not fucking around when he declares, "I'll fully talk this thing into the ground" on the title track of his new record Summary. Recording under the name BARR, Fowler makes a gangly, conversational art-rap that wants to squeeze "this thing" — the sweet, messy process of being young and alive — into words, words, words. In the hands of a less generous or honest soul, this goal could make for self-indulgent music. Fowler's philanthropic commitment to talking it all out — boys and girls, friends with problems, art, music, and the courage it takes to care about stuff — is funny, dark, and affecting enough to transcend the normal boundaries of "alterna-rap" and "spoken word"; two terms that describe his work but are also usually shorthand for "lame."

"I'm kind of time-deaf," the Berkeley-born and Los Angeles-based Fowler admits by phone. There is some timing in his flow, though, sort of: It's a talkative, vaguely rhythmic version of conversations people have late at night on fire escapes or in dorm hallways, when either intoxication or youth makes it feel absolutely imperative to wrangle everything into words immediately. He has momentum, if not rhythm exactly, and he runs headlong toward naming every experience and comforting everyone. "I wanted to be as direct as possible," he says, "but I don't have melody."

Fowler's minimalist backing band makes up for his lack of melody. Loping, jazzy drums and spare piano work lay a catchy warmth beneath Fowler's awkward rambling. Album closer "Context Ender" has Fowler looking into the ragged process of caring about music and chiding a friend who's gotten too pretentious to listen with faith. He starts with a murmur over simple, autumnal piano chords: "I don't even know how to hear it, I don't listen, I'm not even sure what it sounds like; I mean I know it has a sound that sounds like something, I'm just not sure what." The downbeat chords continue, along with a repeated quarter note that becomes increasingly driving as Fowler gets worked up over failures of understanding. His climax is a rhetorical smackdown referencing Massive Attack in a dorm room in 1998; it's bitter and touching and passionate.

Summary's most affecting song is "Untitled," a plea from Fowler to an addict friend to quit before she dies, as she claims she wants to via text message. Over a sparse, swinging jazz-rock arrangement for piano and drums, Fowler talks urgently, sounding alternately bewildered, encouraging, scared, and fed up, understandable reactions to begging with a fucked-up loved one: "I just don't want that call. I cannot take it again, I've already had that call, actually it wasn't even a call: It was an overwhelmed, unprepared arm around me saying, 'Yes, he did, I'm sorry.' There's no way in hell that I'm letting you put me through that."

Fowler is willing to chase his issues down dark alleys on disc, but he's relentlessly upbeat elsewhere (he's been given the "posi-core" tag before) and his manic devotion to creativity swings far outside music. He started the free, fancy art mag ANP Quarterly (backed financially by clothing company TVCA) with pro-skater/art dude Ed Templeton, his visual art has been shown in reputable galleries, and he has a pretty goofy top-10 list posted on the Web site of the venerable ArtForum. Last year he toured with Xiu Xiu and his childhood friends Animal Collective, remaining in the L.A. art scene while getting big indie-rock exposure. But he's not split over his expressive outlets: "I've figured out a way to do the same thing in both avenues," he says. "I wouldn't put a record out with a gallery or a silk screen on a record label. I feel blessed to be able to do both."

About The Author

Frances Reade

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