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May 30, 2003

The Kallikak Family: maturing through sonic invention

On May 23, 2007, Andrew Peterson claims he will experience the most important day of his life. How exactly he knows this is beyond me, but it is a typical sentiment coming from Peterson, whose musical creations often playfully distend or displace time, to both hilarious and intriguing effect.

For instance, during last week's Hyde Park Music Festival, while performing with Devin Sandoz, he mixed sounds recorded from the audience earlier that evening over Sandoz's wistful vocals and guitar. The sounds were tweaked and distorted, and ranged from subtle static textures to samples that were obviously lifted from before. This was like lifting an aural mirror to the crowd, creating the eerie impression that we were, in fact, intent on listening to ourselves, on applauding our own applause.

Peterson once called the owner of a bar in which he was supposed to be playing later that day, and had an exchange something like this:

Peterson: Hey! How are you?

Owner: I'm fine. Are you ready to play tonight?

Peterson: What do you mean? I'm playing right now!

Owner: What?

Peterson: I'm playing right now! You're in my show!

Owner: What are you talking about?

Peterson was actually recording the conversation, and subsequently played the recording that night, integrating the practical joke into his performance.

It is not only his ludic musical ethos that distinguishes the Kallikak Family, his solo project, from other Hyde Park bands. It is his uncanny ability, like the Microphones, the Notwist, and, for that matter, Radiohead, to synthesize experimentation and pop song structure into a palatable whole.

This knack is at the forefront of his most recent album, The Vineland Social Maturity Scale. A companion piece to his previous two albums, Vineland again touches lightly upon issues of normativity and mental illness. The most superficial proof of this is in the actual packaging, on which an elaborate list of actions that supposedly constitute maturity are printed. Peterson did not come up with them himself. In fact, they are drawn from a "manual of directions" which was used by the Training School at Vineland. Their ideas of normal behavior range from the exacting ("opposes thumb and finger in grasping or picking up as opposed to grasping with whole fist and palm") to the seemingly arbitrary ("holds up head voluntarily [unassisted] with trunk erect for... about a minute").

Peterson's way of confronting these queer, pre-war conceptions of normalcy has been quite varied. On the one hand, he takes the position of the marginalized other, as on his first album's eponymous song, where he sings "I'm not as feeble-minded as your notebook says/my mind is not so quick to forego tenderness," conjuring the pathos of one Deborah Kallikak.

But on the other hand, one could take the stamp on the cover of Vineland, which reads "devoted to the interests of those whose minds have not developed normally," at its word. After all, Peterson's genius is a delirious genius; his voice, for instance, is always plaintive and vulnerable, as though he is worrying that it might give out at any moment. Furthermore, his lyrics are most often a kind of surreal poetry, as on "One Familiar Person," when he sings, "grasp with thumb and finger/the lake of fire inside the singer."

These beautifully bizarre vocals mix perfectly with Peterson's acoustic guitar and electronics. Although I cannot be sure about their source, fuzzy recordings of cut-up voices often underpin his songs, and he sometimes adds a thumping drum machine to the mix.

"Hands Clenched," for instance, utilizes a stuttering beat, harmonica, multiple tracks of acoustic guitar, growling bass, and Peterson's croon to perfect effect, creating what might be called "industrial folk." Then again, perhaps that description is too pat, for the song is so good that it sidesteps the common sentimentality of the latter and the austerity of the former. Instead, it makes for a ballad of a richly heterogeneous texture.

On "Shopping Mall Sun," a new, and perhaps even better version of the classic track from the first Kallikak Family album, myriad clicks and clangs from disparate sources (some sound electronic, others organic) combine with a huge, warm synthesizer hum and a guest female vocalist to great effect. Just when you think the mix is going to spiral out of control, Peterson's pop sensibilities rein it in.

With Vineland, Peterson says he has completed a trilogy of thematically linked Kallikak Family albums. His newest material seems to venture into more experimental terrain, but hopefully he will be mindful of his songwriting ability and see that it does not stray into the realm of the masturbatory, as experimental music so often does. If "Royal," the last track on the album, is any indicator, then his more abstract output will be as compelling as his previous material. This strange soundscape, with its wooshing cymbals, persistent bass line, twangy guitar, and muted voice samples, is an intoxicating aural experience, bringing to mind such disparate artists as Iran, Pole, and Keiji Haino.

If you are interested in hearing the Kallikak Family's music, please contact Andrew at email@uchicago.edu. Whatever negligible price he's currently asking for his CDs, I promise it will be well worth it.