On the first album he recorded with his band, The Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman droned 31 years ago, “I called this number three (insert interminable, sweaty pause here) times already.”
“I’m Straight” was his talk-singing declaration of drug-free romance, which cut through the snarky, Teflon-ironic fa?ade of late-seventies punk music with its startlingly unguarded, conversational delivery.
Brendan Fowler, nucleus of the band BARR, has become a modern analogue for Richman while achieving something greater on the second full-length release under that moniker, “Summary.”
Richman may have been among the first to break down punk’s fourth wall, but hyper-reactive members of the vanguard such as Fowler are prancing around in that newly unobstructed space with a vigor that threatens to make all art obsolete. While Richman’s most effective moments involved repeating one-sided conversations – be they confessionals, call-outs or declarations of faith in rock ‘n’ roll – Fowler tackles the same subject matter with a different lyrical approach, one that obscures his similarity to his predecessors due to the fact that it’s a genius-level revolutionary leap forward.
Just as a cubist painter attempts to capture different visual perspectives in one image, Fowler uses his scattershot verbiage to portray infinite perspectives on any given interpersonal moment or tortured mental pirouette. From syllable to syllable, he uses intonation and language to capture every aspect of a moment or thought, a device that masquerades as either schizophrenic or ecstatically deranged rapping. But a closer examination reveals a profundity of expression never before touched by the pop song. In Fowler’s pop, the refraction of light off the surface of a mental breakdown can exist side by side with the contour of a cell phone texting messages of despair.
For example, there is the song that looks at itself, “This Song Is The Single,” the first single from “Summary.” In perhaps BARR’s most complete and accessible moment to date, the song applies Fowler’s effortlessly flowing linguistic paint strokes to a picture of the form itself. After doing little more than reciting the titular refrain, Fowler wastes little time getting into it with just coming out and saying: “What is a song? A pop song?”
What follows is a brief surface-level laundry list of intellectual concerns about cover art and the appropriate length of a pop song, before the academic gives way to the primordial, spurting here and there concepts central to the idea of the pop song. “The air here dries out my skin but I still have a feeling/I am still filled with feeling/I just want to hold someone/I just want to hold someone .”
Cubism in painting seeks to place subjects in greater context by doing the same thing with pigment on paper. Constantly shifting perspective, voice, character and spirit, getting every single last drop of enlightenment and expression from the chosen subject is what Fowler aims for, and in doing so, certain universal truths can be wrung from even the most mundane subjects. “Summary” may be BARR and Fowler’s most perfect and groundbreaking attempt at using pop music as the medium for cubist expression.