Banjo or Freakout
Banjo or Freakout (Rare Book Room Records)
Considering how well produced Banjo or Freakout’s self-titled debut is, one assumes auteur Alessio Natalizia must’ve buried the vocals in the mix because sound trumps sensibility. Yet, even in the most commercial pop a nonsensical lyric works as well as one that parses. When Banjo or Freakout succeeds, it plays to Natalizia’s strengths, artfully framing simple melodies with layers of mostly guitar-generated noise, never mind what he’s saying.
Not surprisingly, the best moments here are instrumental (or at least non-lyrical)—the distorted electric guitar breaks on “Black Scratches” or the acoustic guitar on “Go Ahead,” which rises from the vocal muddle to provide a welcome focus. Because Natalizia neither projects nor enunciates, these tracks deliver through ambiance as opposed to vocal expressiveness or lyrical content. Indeed, as aural sensation, the album yields its greatest pleasures, weaving fragmented electronica and guitar-driven indie rock around Natalizia’s pop structures. Because he relies so little on lyrical content, the bridges and the codas stand out from the verses and the choruses, as on the end of “Can’t Be Mad for Nothing,” which incorporates Natalizia’s falsetto into a gorgeous wall of sound.
Yet for all its thoughtful fusion of overdriven guitar and melodic pop hooks, “Black Scratches” might benefit from a little intelligibility. On “Go Ahead,” the conflict between sound and sensibility (“Want to see what it looks like / Setting yourself on fire”) adds to the overall effect. Elsewhere, what lyrics we can puzzle out don’t add up to much. Consequently, when the music doesn’t hold our interest, the burden falls on the words, and the songs founder. “Fully Enjoy” remains an exercise in faux electronica and noodly guitar, while “From Everyone Above” builds for two-and-a-half minutes without arriving anywhere.
Ultimately, Natalizia’s songs might offer more—not that they should “mean” anything, but he could frustrate us with some artful nonsense. Taken on its own terms, as a fusion of the ambient electronic (and largely instrumental) pop he produced as a member of Walls with conventional pop formalism, this debut succeeds, but only up to a point. If Natalizia underestimates the importance of the lyrics in pop, he underestimates the form itself. After all, even the most meaningless pop signifies, and nonsensical songs don’t get by on sound alone. By risking intelligibility, Natalizia only stands to gain.