My girlfriend would find Misbegotten Man unlistenable. She doesn’t get Deerhoof, won’t listen to Captain Beefheart and man oh man does she despise the Shaggs, and really you can’t enjoy the Brooklyn duo People without a passing appreciation for those three acts’ modernist deconstructions of indie rock, the blues and sixties psych, respectively. So I’m forced to file People alongside Gorguts, Henry Cow and other bands I can only listen to on headphones after my lady has retired for the evening.
I can sympathize with her. The prevailing feel of Misbegotten Man is one of grand self-sabotage, with the delicate guitar work and sing-song alto of Mary Halvorson (guitarist with Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant and avant-jazzbo Anthony Braxton) clashing magnificently with drummer Kevin Shea (Storm & Stress/Coptic Light) and his free-jazz arrhythmia. Occasionally, Shea crosses over into straight timekeeping, or Halvorson plays a prickly improv rag, but for the most part there’s no communication between the two save for the odd synchronized vocal line. Where People’s debut found the perfect balance between form and chaos, Shea’s restlessly creative drumming on Misbegotten Man seems untethered, almost aimless.
Shea’s lyrics suffer from the same problem. A line like, “Culled within a hydrologic fortress of smart-metered metabolic extremes/ It was a credible sweat of accidence migration and vernacular reprieve” from “Misbegotten Man in Perpetuity (Zapped by an Unremitting Supernaturalist)” is at once brilliant and meaningless, fodder for Halvorson’s cooing and the rest of our head-scratching.
Taken by themselves, Misbegotten Man’s constituent elements — Halvorson’s pretty, oddball art-rock compositions, Shea’s prodigious drumming skills, and the elliptical poetry that stuffs each track to the gills — are awfully impressive. Throw them together and they flop around in a whirring jumble of percussion and big words. Pretentious? Maybe, but there’s a sense of whimsy about the whole project that prevents most of the eye-rolling before it starts.
In fact, the silliness almost obscures the subversive rhythmic tomfoolery of Misbegotten Man, which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how hard you like your envelopes pushed. Really the biggest frustration with Misbegotten Man isn’t that it’s too willfully unconventional — we need more challenging music. It’s that People has emptied its bag of tricks after first track. By the end of the album, we’re left with the same question we came in with: Is this refreshing, important music or pointless cacophony? I know how my girlfriend would feel about it. On with the headphones.