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Default Genders - Main Pop Girl 2019 Music Album Reviews

The wonderful second album from James Brooks’ project uses breakbeats, samples, and beautiful rave-pop motifs to tell stories about the bruising power of memory.

Over the past decade, James Brooks basically built a new sound from scratch. As one half of the duo Elite Gymnastics, he submerged jungle rhythms and delicate vocal melodies into shoegaze-y distortion. In 2014, after the duo split, he released Magical Pessimism 2014, his first solo record under the name Default Genders. The project showed promise, even though Brooks raised hackles with “On Fraternity,” a song from the point of view of a stalker that many considered in poor taste (the fact that Brooks initially used the moniker Dead Girlfriends—in reference to feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin—didn’t help). Five years later, Brooks has emerged with his second album, Main Pop Girl 2019, an astonishing leap forward that uses distinct rave-pop motifs to tell stories about the bruising power of memory.

Brooks spent several years in Minneapolis, Minn. and has written many songs about the lives of the city’s young down-and-outs. At times, he chafes against the cultural boundaries of a city that “hates us more than it loves Prince, white rap, black tar, and the Replacements.” But you can tell he’s enraptured with the rhythms and textures of the Midwest. His characters take drugs, fight, and fall in love in dive bars and chain stores. The effect recalls the romantic blue-collar narratives of the Hold Steady, or Billy Joel if he grew up with serious opinions about JRPGs. On “reverse chronological order (part 2),” which borrows its protagonists Brenda and Eddie from Joel’s classic “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” Brooks shows a remarkable eye for detail; he zeroes in on Eddie passed out on the couch, with “a flickering light that persists through the night, and an audible hum/‘Ocarina of Time’ droning endlessly on from the dusk until dawn.” But the tragic couple isn’t drowning their sorrows in bottles of red wine, they’re using heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Brooks zooms in even further on “Christmas Card From a Scammer in Minneapolis,” which nods to a Tom Waits song using a different kind of laborer. Brooks enjoys taking a scalpel to the sad-sack classic rock canon. Over plangent keys and a loping break, he wrings pathos from a character who we first encounter as they cut the tags off stolen clothes in order to sell them at a thrift store. This mundane life offers us a window into something larger. The protagonist remembers a text they got from an old roommate on the day of the 35W bridge collapse, which killed 13 people in downtown Minneapolis in 2007: “Not trying to make it a thing, just want to know that no one I know is buried underneath/That giant pile of debris they keep showing on TV.” By dialing in on small moments, Brooks captures the widescreen panorama of a city dealing with tragedy.

There’s little precedent for this kind of songwriting happening over jungle rhythms. In the late ’90s, breakbeats shifted so quickly from their dark, underground origins to a soulless, advertiser-friendly boondoggle that there wasn’t much time for anyone to explore a middle ground. Today, breakbeat revivalists like Special Request and Skee Mask typically focus on summoning the rough-and-ready sounds of jungle pioneers Metalheadz and their ilk. Brooks, instead, summons an alternate timeline where breaks became an established part of the pop toolbox, a conduit to music that’s as fragile and intimate as it is danceable.

Case in point: “Secret Garden .NUXX,” a Bruce Springsteen cover in the same ecstatic-melancholy register as Elite Gymnastics’ inspired remix of Korallreven’s “Sa Sa Samoa.” Brooks recently described his approach as similar to fanfiction: If he likes two things, he’s not afraid to write a crossover. In terms of emotional horsepower, what could more affecting than peak ’90s rave and the Boss' lyrics. This isn’t empty kitsch, though. There’s a deeper idea about the freedom of information running through the veins of this record. In a recent Q&A, Brooks wrote, “a lot of my favorite art came out of spaces where gifted artists fearlessly operated in direct violation of copyright law,” citing “early hip-hop, jungle, UK hardcore, Burial, mashups, [and] rap mixtapes” as examples. He’s also describing the renegade currents of the filesharing era, a time when he says “the internet could feel like one big pirate radio station.” It was a short-lived period of profound creative autonomy.

As these things become increasingly impossible to pull off online, we end up with artifacts like Memories...Do Not Open, the Chainsmokers album “about” nostalgia that doesn’t actually point to anything specific about the past. Brooks fights the sanitizing influence of copyright law by filling his records—released for free on Bandcamp—with references and covers. He wields nostalgia like a humming live wire rather than a sepia Instagram filter.

It all comes together on “Black Pill Skyline,” another spin on a chestnut from the classic rock canon. Brooks described the song as something “[Bob] Dylan would make if he was an extremely online millennial who’s really into the Beastie Boys.” He sings, “We don’t live on borrowed time, we stole it,” as both the chorus of the song and the thesis of the record: The past is constructed. One of Brooks’ core concerns is the way nostalgia crystallizes around memory like an oyster with a grain of sand, transforming people and places into twisted personal sculptures. “Family is like the air we breathe,” Brooks sings. “You can see that it’s inside you/All you have to do is bleed.”

All this pop theory powers the beating heart at the center of Main Pop Girl 2019 about how alternate histories are inseparable from our identity. “Sophie”—a revamped version of a song from Magical Pessimism 2014—is a song that Brooks has said is about gender identity. “Today somebody told me they want the old me back,” he sings on the chorus, “Somebody had to hold me back.” Brooks connects a transformation with the mutability of memory. “I had a dream that I was 15 and I could see everything that was about to happen/And I could stop it,” he sings. The memories we treasure are samples lifted from the archive of the objective past, and they can be manipulated and rearranged. The exes, dead friends, and old selves that populate Brooks’ songs are fluid and alive, like Springsteen transformed into a rave diva.


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