Image by Chuckumentary via Flickr
The new Negativland album is quite different than all their other albums — if absolutely forced to pick a comparison, it might be something like Dispepsi jammed through Points. If you’ve heard those albums, you can imagine that’s an odd combination, and yet, the two seem to be just about equally good reference points.
Part of the differentness of this album comes from the fact that it’s more-or-less a Mark Hosler solo record with most of the other members of Negativland making a few appearances — hence the “Negativland Presents” on the cover and spine. Different it may be, but it’s not a departure; it’s still very much a Negativland record. The elements of found sound and collage are there, but in the context of songs. Dispepsi is a pretty good reference for the songs; the sounds, however, as well as the lyrics and artwork have a very definite homemade quality and feel like Points — like the at-home recordings on that album, there’s a personal quality to the material on Thigmotactic, even though the lyrics are mostly taken from cut-ups, dream journals and articles — though one of the songs, “Virginia’s Trip”, is from a poem Mark’s grandmother wrote.
Some of the songs even have an alt-country feel; particularly “Extra Sharp Pencils” and “Rancho Pancho”; the latter is taken from “stolen lyrics from a 1940’s cowpoke song”, modified to be about a gay relationship, though not in a funny way — the lyrics are genuinely moving. “I sigh and cry for my lothario, he’s such a gay caballero. As we rode together I longed to speak. My heart was strong, but my Spanish was weak, so we just listened to toads in the creek.”
The lyrics have great imagery; some of them remind me of Rennie Sparks’ Handsome Family lyrics — the ones of the ilk of “Stalled” or “Tesla’s Hotel Room”, where it’s just a little slice of existence. As for the sources, I’m not sure how much were written as lyrics by Mark and how much were taken from other sources — but between the two, it’s clear that Mark’s got a great ear for what makes an outstanding song. And the decision in the lyric booklet to transcribe all the samples and put them in the lyric sheet as normal lyrics gives a cool feel to reading the lyrics (though, the liners would be an essential part of the package anyway — each song is illustrated by a visual collage by Mark as well; many of which I got to see in person at the Negativlandland touring show). Thigmotactic illustrates that Negativland aren’t just handy with splicing tape; though they don’t choose to show it off a lot, they’ve got a real skill with song structure as well. Even though, on paper, Thigmotactic sounds like it might be a fans-only side project, it actually turned out to be an essential Negativland release.