Thursday, November 18, 2004

Review - Jandek on Corwood

Artist: Jandek

Posted on Thu, Nov 18, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Jandek is the worst musician to have released more than 30 albums. This is not opinion; this is fact. It doesn't mean he's my least favorite or that his albums are unlistenable – though mostly they are. Being the "worst" has always seemed to be part of his goal. If not, why not learn something about tuning the guitar and playing basic chords before pressing that first album?

Very little is known about Jandek. The few "facts" that have been printed suggest his real name is Sterling Smith and that he lives in the Houston area. Since 1979 he's released more than 30 albums on his Corwood Industries label, and has conducted two known interviews, one with SPIN in that magazine's 1985 debut issue and one more recently for Texas Monthly. His album covers range from blurry photographs of a tall blond man to in-focus shots of home furnishings and musical equipment. The music began as acoustic meditations; these have branched out into electric rock and spoken word. Completely breaking with Jandek tradition, he's alleged to have recently performed live, though unannounced, at a festival. With the DVD release of this intriguing documentary by directors Chad Freidrichs and Paul Fehler – in which Jandek does not appear, but has allowed the use of his music and photos – he's enjoying his highest profile yet. Will the shouts of "sellout" drown out his untutored musical din?

No words adequately describe Jandek's music. Most of it does sound like an incompetent band tuning up unsuccessfully, but for those adventurous or foolhardy enough to stick around, a certain order establishes itself. The lyrics are mostly doom-laden; the vocal delivery is arch and ponderous, circling the intended note with a stoned-out conviction. ("YOU didn't ask WHY" could be Bob Dylan circa his 1974 Before the Flood tour, where he took to screaming the last word of every line.) The backing music is usually an untuned guitar – electric or acoustic – strummed with a vague sense of empathy. (It's never the insensitive strumming of an ADD victim.)

The "professional commentators" – author Richie Unterberger, critic Douglas Wolk, radio DJ Dr. Demento – interviewed in Jandek on Corwood don't try to make too great a case for his existence or relevance. Unlike the failed 1993 Half Japanese documentary, The Band That Would Be King, which this film resembles in structure, there are no hipsters trying to outdo one another in the underground credential department. No one here wishes to destroy the mystery, so they are careful with how they process the little information they do have. They know the truth is surely more humdrum than any beautiful-loser/societal-outcast fantasy they imagine, and the modest sense of humor throughout keeps things humming along. (The DVD features additional album-by-album commentary that explains the differences between these bewildering releases without resorting to cheap gags or snotty one-upmanship.)

By film's end, you do have a sense of who this Jandek character might be and you probably don't want to delve any further. Except maybe to pick up an album or two and inflict it on your friends, who will either need to see this film immediately or have their phone disconnected. The choice is theirs.



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