Like R Stevie Moore has known for so many years, the sound and feel of old VHS tape can conjure some magical sensations in the subconscious. While the ambience of a TV humming in the next room, apparently without volume, is enough to raise a feeling of almost imperceptible unease in anyone, it takes great skill to hone that vague notion into a set of managed emotional peaks and troughs that leave the listener genuinely affected.
Moore seems to have passed on at least the basics of this skill to his sonic progeny Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and artists such as Mac DeMarco, Gabriel Bruce and now Sam Flax (named for an American office supply chain it would seem) are taking this purposeful backward glancing, burying a stash of David Lynch doom just beneath the surface, spicing with ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll cabaret vibes and producing albums that vary in quality but all maintain that VHS-pop aesthetic.
Flax’s record, when narrowed from the pack, is overly long and trades a little too much on sound and style over song and substance. While it may have taken many years for Flax to put this set together it occasionally feels like a sadly shallow affair, the San Franciscan’s strained voice often skimming across the surface of these low-res pop tunes fairly inconsequentially.
When it works and tune weds tone it’s a beautiful thing. ‘Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself’ which earlier this year was given the evocative retro-fetish video treatment, is a looming goth of a tune, lip curled, hair in a pompadour, ludicrously nonsensical chorus lyric (you’ve seen the title) reverberating cod-sagely in the ears of the listener.
‘Backwards Fire’ too is a shining moment. It veers away from the steady analogue telly feel of the rest of the record, shunning fuzz and hidden memory triggers for a shaggy acoustic guitar, gleaming riff and girl group melody reminiscent somehow of The Temptaions’ ‘My Girl’. Yet, again the chorus lyric “Yeah she’s a backwards fire/Eyes like a wire” is declared with obtuse pride despite its content.
There are flashes of drum machine glam that the early ‘80s woulda been proud of – the handclaps and harmonized falsettos of smooth disco flirt ‘Child Of Glass’ (even the title recalls Hazel O’Connor) and the Bryan Ferry-suited day one drum machine purr of ‘Almost Young’ perform that role effortlessly.
There’s plenty of variety then, despite the whole record working within relatively narrow parameters. Whether Flax is able to wrest glory from among his similarly styled contemporaries and end up in such a revered position as the legendary Mr Moore is entirely dependent on what comes next from the strangepop troubadour.
In the meanwhile this is a relatively tasty bite of an emerging though perhaps not exactly ever-evolving genre.