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rock nyc's Album Of the Year 2013: "Generic Treasure" by Modern Hut

Existential bummer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generic  Treasure is part of the extreme loner folk genre, and if that sounds scary it might be for good reason. Recorded by Joseph Steinhardt under the name Modern Hut, Joe has never met a note he doesn’t want to flatten, an inflection he doesn’t want to pass ob, he seems incapable of writing a melody without sabotaging it: it’s like Joseph is saying, you want pretty pop, I’ll give you pretty pop but then you’ve got to pay for it.

And pay for it we do, some of the most intricately arranged, gorgeous melodies you’ll ever hear are wrapped in acoustic strum and Eeyore  monotone as Steinhardt sifts through self-loathing and misanthropy in a world view so bleak the only thing that keeps it collapsing is the act of songwriting itself.

Steinhardt writes about three things here:

1. Hating himself.

2. Hating you.

3. Hating both.

On the very first song “Mid tempo”  he is overwhelmed by anhedonia , “If this guitar could talk I’d tell it to shut the fuck up”  Joseph claims and everything is encroaching on his territory, even the walls are inching in closer, and the one thing you expect from a song writer, the song, doesn’t work. It is a deep, unsettled nursery rhyme of nothingness; nothing is right, everything is lock stepped in a drear, “I don’t even know what I’m trying to say” he claims.

The next song is the only cover of  (his own song) For Science’s “Just Pray” an ode to agnosticism, which, along with “Time” seem settled onto nihilism, and to call it less than nihilism is to misunderstanding what it means to believe in nothingness,  in an end where even time has no meaning, where everything has ceased to exist.

We like to call this an existential bummer but where Sartre saw it as a philosophical position, Steinhardt sees it as a reason for acute depression where all effort is meaningless. The third song, “History” brings it all back home. With a strummed guitar and a counter guitar anchoring his voice, Steinhardt gets to one of the roots of his depression. It is one thing to say “I’m going to die therefore life has no meaning” but it is something else entirely to say : I’m going to die AND life had no meaning”. Seen through a media maze, Steinhardt has written a masterpiece of protest; nothing is honest or true, everything is undernourished, manipulated, lies, meaningless: a sharp sad trip ever downwards and a world with an inexcusable lack of contemplation: we don’t get it.

“History” is one of the great songs; within its three minutes plus in constitutes a worldview that is unique and true unto itself, it echoes through history, through generations to us. It means as much as it can possibly mean because it means everything. And, and this is important, it is a great song. Steinhardt’s voice is like Lou Reed only calmer, it is in a state of dissolve, the melody (wait till you hear the guitar break) is so strong it can’t be done anything with: it must stand on its own.

The album is very short, not quite half an hour, but it sounds large; it has a scope to its insistence. On “Life” Joe trades lines with Producer Marissa Paternoster and none of them are very happy: “I’m not proud of the things that I’ve done in my life but that’s alright because I will die.”

All of this is first rate, every song is perfectly written and performed, nothing is wasted, everything matters and with “Moving On”, Joseph has written an answer to his own “Headache”. In real life, Joseph married the girl who inspired his heartbreak but on Generic Treasure  he loses her, she’s become just a figure in a car, maybe it’s over.

But before we get there, the other Steinhardt masterpiece arrives, “America” . It starts like a fable, “I was living with cats and April” .”I was living with cats and April…” is among my fave first lines of all time, it is writing 101; you’re in the middle of the story before you know what’s happened and you have a clue to the narrator’s character before the first line is over. The relationship is on fault lines:  “she came over but she didn’t stay long” and soon dissolves into more self-recrimination, “if I could be more aggressive, less obsessive a little more possessive” he wonders and it doesn’t take long for April to agree “She said I had no direction…” but really, in a world where nothing matters, where time doesn’t matter, where we are killing time till death, in a world which has become one giant advertising campaign to get you to croak quietly, Steinhardt’s “Can someone out there in America tell me what’s wrong?”  feels like a fool’s errand.  “If I could be more like April, less enabled but a little more stable…” But he can’t.

This is an ultimate Steindhardt self portrait. It is the heart of the man who wrote “Fenway Lights” and “Colorado” –they are songs of self awareness bordering on suicide; they are songs with the inescapable self knowledge that this isn’t gonna work out and so what if it did.

Plus Generic Treasure is a blueprint for rock albums, it is how it is done: conceptually and musically unique it lives and breathe in a its own world and you can’t find it elsewhere. The songs sound what they are, from the same man recording at the same time (though they were actually recorded over a couple of years) and they fit together as a vision of life.

Or maybe not a vision of life but as a vision of life as viewed through the album. We are not discussing “Being And Nothingness” but “Nausea”, we are discussing art not philosophy and with art happy or sad is irrelevant. This was Nabakov’s great realization, and it informs that great man’s writing from “The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight”  to “Pale Fire”. In art, it doesn’t matter if good things or bad things happen, it is important that the artist fulfills a pattern because by putting order on the world, he proves in the miniature what god proves in the universal. If there is a pattern placed, who placed it? This is why Steinhardt’s subject matter is in sync with his melodies: on a song as great as “Heart” (a horrific metaphor) the act of applying order on loathsomeness makes it a thing of beauty. Every detail is perfect, the strum till you reach the plucked guitar solo is just enough to color your ears, to make you listen harder.

I am not denying Steinhardt’s sad persona (though I do believe it as close to a character as possible without being one), but I am denying that sad songs are the same as a sad life. The art of creation alone makes hope spring through the songs. Joe is a sublime songwriter and I had the good fortune to hear a lot of these songs as he worked his way through them and everytime I thought the track he sent me was complete and every time he would strip away a layer or tweak a line; in what seems to be haphazard folk by a stone cold singer with issues is revealed as an intellectual Rubik’s cube where the answer is always the same, how art deals with the finite.

Modern Hut has provided a morality tale where the moral is life is a disaster and that’s alright. It is the best album of the year.

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