By Jeff Moses
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Irony is the alternative musician's path of least resistance. Asked to describe the driving force behind experimental Brooklyn band Enon's fabulous new album Hocus-Pocus, band member John Schmersal doesn't hesitate: "We were trying to get back to having more time to watch TV and play video games."
Sometimes, however, irony comes equipped with a sincere lining. "I like the old ones," Schmersal offers. "I'm still using an Atari 800. So I like to play Necromancer and Archon." It's a pastime that reveals as much about Enon's music as it does its recreational preferences.
There are moments on Hocus-Pocus when you wonder whether you didn't accidentally turn on shuffle mode.
The contrast between songs startles. Enon's three members -- songwriters Schmersal (guitar) and Toko Yasuda (bass), along with Matt Schulz (drums) -- range widely, augmenting the impression of diversity on Hocus-Pocus by dissolving one track into the next, much like a DJ's mix tape. When the dreamy electro-pop of the first track "Shave" gives way to the second coming of New Wave in "The Power of Yawning," the record's extremes are already apparent: soprano vs. tenor, keyboard vs. guitar, slow vs. fast and, ultimately, Toko Yasuda vs. John Schmersal.
But it's the space in between that's most interesting: the distorted bottom end that burns some of the sugar off of Yasuda's "Daughter in the House of Fools"; the open-throated male vulnerability of Schmersal's "Candy"; the risky passing of the baton between them on "Starcastic." And if you listen closely, through all of Hocus-Pocus' hairpin turns, you start to hear the common elements that tie the record together: the crackle of a cheap Casio at full volume, bass clipped like a new cadet, low-tech bleeps and bloops from the Tronera. It's the sonic landscape of the Atari age.
Whether critics regard Enon's mélange of styles as a sign of productive tension or the sort of "creative differences" that can break up the band, they inevitably zero in on the contrast. Schmersal, for one, isn't sure why.
"I think it's crazy, because there have been lots of records that have tried to be varied," he says. "This is certainly not the first record that has different kinds of songs on it! It's a shame that right now things are much more homogenized as far as styles are concerned. Maybe our record looks very strange in comparison to the other records that are coming out."
Much like the songwriters' previous bands -- most notably Blonde Redhead for Yasuda and Brainiac for Schmersal -- Enon has proven an elusive target for critics seeking to define their sound. Yasuda is happy to make music that resists categorization.
"It's a good thing, I think," she volunteers, discussing the band's commercial potential. Schmersal isn't so sure: "As far as the nuts and bolts of selling records goes, I guess we're not the people to ask about that."
Then again, you could say that about almost everyone in the industry these days. When music makes the headlines now, it's usually because someone is being sued for stealing it. To a startling degree, people have become more interested in the medium than the message. Fans download songs because it's easy. Whatever else you want to say about the Recording Industry Association of America's strategy in suing its target market, at least it has the virtue of restoring the psychological cost of music consumption. Time was, you had to labor long and hard to decide which record to take home. A mistake could ruin your day, week or month. But the process of deliberation and the gap between purchases made the music you liked sound sweeter. The triumphs took the form of albums you bought, hesitantly, for the singles, only to discover that other songs were even better. In destroying this simple pleasure, the rise of file sharing and its legal substitutes has irrevocably changed our feelings about music.
Schmersal and Yasuda are old enough to remember life before the Internet explosion. They still obsessively take field trips to the record store. It's an activity that used to be as instinctive as breathing for music fans. But, if you believe the news reports on the recent RIAA lawsuits, it's destined to become as quaint as playing Defender.
For Schmersal, though, the record store is still the measure of music consumption, even when he is remarking about how things have changed. "There's so much music," he says. "It's really boggling when people ask us to nail down some influences. You go in the record store, you're excited and you want to buy records, but you can't necessarily remember what you like anymore for some reason. So you end up fishing through the bins. I feel like I should just write up a big list of things that I like. But it's so hard now. You get asked and maybe you'll spit out three. And if someone were to put those three names in the computer . . . it's kooky."
After lamenting the fact that he hasn't had the money to do much shopping of late, he excitedly notes that "Toko went and got the Mars Volta record." It may not be the most earth-shattering confession, but it still speaks volumes about the band's priorities.