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Cutting Ties with Cut Worms

Cut Worms. Photo by Caroline Gohlke.

Earlier this year, I was having dinner with a musician friend of mine. We got to talking about music, what we’d been listening to recently, etc., and my friend confessed that as of late he hadn’t really been listening to anything. Nothing aside from his own stuff and that of the bands he was in—that is, the bare minimum he needed to keep going as a working musician. As for everything else, he said, “I don’t know, man, I feel like whenever I hear music now, all I hear is component parts.”

For my friend, music had broken down. He heard only parts that refused to cohere into a musical whole—into a thing with greater meaning, or even any meaning at all. He was like Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos: 

Everything fell to pieces on me, the pieces into still more pieces, and there was no longer any concept to encompass them. Single words floated around me; they curdled into eyes that stared back at me and that I in turn must stare into: whirlpools they are, I grow faint looking down at them, they spin without cease, and to pass through them is to pass into nothingness.

The problem with Chandos, who in a letter to Francis Bacon is trying to explain why he has stopped writing, is that he can “no longer comprehend” people and actions with “the simplifying gaze of habit.” You evolve or inherit means of understanding the world, of relating its objects to one another, not realizing that it is the relationships between objects that imbues them with meaning. Should your means of understanding, of relating things to each other, become ineffectual—through fatigue or overuse, for example—then you’re left only with the objects themselves, devoid of meaning. Blank eyes staring back at you. Component parts. 

I’m feeling a bit Chandos-like myself as I write this article, which will be my last as assistant music editor. The subject of the piece is Cut Worms, the performing moniker of Brooklyn’s Max Clarke, whose debut EP Alien Sunset came out in October on Jagjaguwar, and whom I saw perform at Baby’s All Right on November 2. The record is very good, and the performance was also; graphed as a hyperbolic function, the twin ends of the curve would approach asymptotes of beauty and truth.

Normally my goal would be to describe the music, the person behind it, and the context in which it appears. I would try to paint a picture in which the image of a significant musical project might cohere. But the problem, per Hofmannsthal, is this: “I have completely lost the ability to think or to speak cohesively about anything.”

One may as well begin with the Baby’s All Right show. Baby’s is a South Williamsburg venue that opened in 2013. There’s a sizable bar area with sound panels on the wall cleverly disguised as framed paintings. A profusion of tropical house plants and the predominance of red in the color scheme recall the chintzy bar at the end of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, where Nick Cave performs and Bruno Ganz gets the girl. Capacity-wise, the theater in back is about as big as the Mercury Lounge, the chief differences here being less graffiti and a kitchen that serves bibimbap.

Ryan Sambol opened the show with a solo set. The Texan singer and guitarist held the attention of the sizable crowd with his smart, winking-aw-shucks shtick, like an alto Leon Redbone. The best of his songs, like the one he introduced as being about seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman at the Film Forum, only to realize the actor was dead, juxtaposed laconic humor and sadness, each amplifying the other, like Vic Chesnutt used to do. Sambol closed his set with a cover of Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” which was fine enough, except that in applying his distinct style of delivery to a song less free-flowing and intuitive than his own originals, the singer risked tipping the scales from showmanship to hokeyness.

Allow me the tidy fiction that after Sambol’s set I went outside and, while smoking a cigarette, pondered my approach to this article. In speaking to Max Clarke, which I did the following day, I raised a question I often wonder about: “Which do you feel better expresses what you’re trying to do,” I asked, “the live show or the album? If you were to identify one as being definitive, which would it be?” A bullshit question, maybe, but then that’s how these interviews work: interviewer and interviewee accept a bullshit premise in hopes of transcending the bullshit through sincerity and thus allowing a degree of insight. Anyway, Clarke answered:

My first reaction would be the recording, just because I’ve labored over it, and it’s gotten to a point where it’s as close as I can get it to what I’m actually after. With the live stuff there’s other factors that play into it, like however the sound is on the stage or how I happened to be feeling that night or if my voice is sounding good.

Rock music isn’t like jazz or classical music in that bands tend not to improvise live. More often than not, the song you hear live is the same song you can hear on record: the drum, guitar, and bass parts are the same; there are the same number of verses and choruses. The differences are what Clarke points to: circumstances that affect how the band plays the song as written, circumstances that recording allows you to control. So what then, from a critical, aesthetic standpoint, is the point of a live show? If you can assume the record expresses the artist’s intention, why are you seeing that artist live? You’re only going to see an imperfect reiteration of the recorded music, right?

Such were my thoughts as I smoked. Meanwhile, I spoke to a woman who didn’t know any of the bands playing that night but lived nearby and had decided to check out the show, thus touching on something Clarke said in expounding on his answer:

But I don’t know…some people really like live music in general, and they prefer to see an act live because it’s a fuller experience, but it’s hard to say because I obviously have never seen myself play live. But maybe it depends on the person. Like if you’re the type that likes to just sit in your room and listen to records and have it be a personal experience or if you like going out to shows and that atmosphere.

Fair enough. The risk you run with these critical theories is that they can lead you to radical conclusions, and these conclusions tend to run up against others’ actual experiences of reality. Let’s say I’m right, and the live show is just a watered-down version of the record. So what? Whatever the critical-aesthetic validity of my argument, one thing it doesn’t account for is the immediacy of the live show—its value as intangible experience. Or in other words: people like going to rock shows. They have fun at rock shows. Whether they are having a profound experience of art or enjoying a commodified bourgeois facsimile of art, who am I to say? Profundity is a heavy demand to place on music. And anyway, these days it’s all I can do to sit at home listening to bad late ‘70s Bob Dylan records. At least the bourgeois facsimile gets me out of the house.

Thus concluding my bout of fervent mentation, I deposited my cigarette butt in a smokers’ pole shaped like a cactus and went back inside for Cut Worms’s set. (I’m eliding the second set of the night by John Andrews; let this cup pass from me, oh Lord). Clarke and his band led off their set with six songs not on the EP and thus new to me. Live especially, Cut Worms’s sound nods to early rock and roll, with a bit of country twang. As Clarke said when we spoke, “I like the trappings of ‘50s and ‘60s [music], the beginnings of rock and roll and girl group stuff and Phil Spector and all that, just because I feel like those aesthetics were particularly pure, in the sense of just showcasing the song without too many additional frivolous tricks.”

Midway through the set the band retired backstage, and Clarke played three songs from Alien Sunset solo. They held up, but I missed the tight vocal harmonies on the EP. Finally, the band returned and closed with “Song of the Highest Tower,” also the last song on the record and possibly its best. Unfolding in four verses with choruses in between, no bridge, the song accumulates a quiet force over its six-plus minutes, like something off the Velvet Underground’s third record. And just as Lou Reed can compress the range of subjective experience into the lines “Sometimes I feel so happy / Sometimes I feel so sad” and somehow have it not sound banal, so can Clarke take a line as plain as “Everyone I see / Everywhere that I go / Well, you know it’s just how you feel / It’s not what you know” and imbue it with emotional weight. The band finished, the house lights came on, and everybody went home. 

Clarke started out playing guitar in Chicago punk band the Slaves. He began playing on his own after moving to New York, first performing with backing tracks and eventually meeting people and forming a band. He recorded the songs on Alien Sunset himself on an 8-track; a full-length album, recorded in a proper studio, is on the way. If I were writing for Pitchfork I might be able to use these incidental details to place Cut Worms in its own taxonomic box for the benefit of the connoisseur’s analysis. Writing for the New York Times I’d have it easier: I could just report them as relevant facts, though whether Cut Worms is prominent enough to qualify as national news is more than I can say.

Meanwhile, here at the Rail we try and keep things pretty close to the ground, focusing on the music and not getting too hung up on biographical detail, and while the editors’ taste guides some coverage, we also like to trust our writers’ sense of what’s important enough to write about. I’m confident arguing for the importance of Cut Worms, even if it means ignoring any number of other artists who are just as worthy of attention, and even if it’s hard to ignore that for my last piece here I chose to write about a white guy from Brooklyn. To the latter point, well, Chuck Eddy was fond of relaying David Lee Roth’s observation that all rock critics look like Elvis Costello. Sometimes bias is hidden; sometimes it’s overt.

Max Clarke, for his part, has a solid perspective on where he fits into the broader picture:

I look at popular music in America as one long thing, all the way back from the 1920s, show tunes and stuff, up through Big Band and the crooners, and up through the ‘50s and ‘60s, with teen idols and pop stars. To me there was always a song behind all of it: a good melody and some ideas that people can relate to. 

One long thing. A tradition that encompasses even as it is continually expanded and renewed. The name Cut Worms reflects a similar sentiment—the idea that we are part of a greater whole. The reference is to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. The cut worm forgives the plow.

Clarke says of the name that it speaks to the idea of “manipulating the past and turning it into something new.”

For myself, I’ve been thinking recently of the last of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The poem is an exhortation to Orpheus, and with him the reader, to see himself as of the world—or more, to actively become part of it, even if it's at the expense of your own subjective self. “If drinking is bitter, become wine,” reads one of the lines. If criticism requires that you stand apart from music, it bears remembering that there is a bigger picture into which both music and criticism are integrated. Rilke ends his sonnet urging his reader to speak, to voice his connection to the world. Me, I'm done talking for awhile. I'd rather take our columnist Steve Dalachinsky's advice and listen. You'll find me around town, at the rock show, standing under a speaker, dissolving into sound. 


Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is a writer, translator, and musician. He lives in New York City.


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