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Wowed by Flutter

The sound of bad tape decks gone good



Wow and flutter seem like things you’d want in your tape deck. Wow in particular sounds like a very desirable quality in a sound recording, the kind of thing that Phil Spector might have mentioned he was after in his wall-of-sound production techniques. You hear something really good, you think “wow,” right?

But they’re not. With analog recordings, wow and flutter are the result of small fluctuations of tape speed in the tape deck caused by parts that aren’t perfectly round, components that don’t fit perfectly together, and motors that don’t play back at a perfectly constant speed. If you want to get technical about it, wow is the low-frequency fluctuation caused by the pinch roller, flutter is the high-frequency one caused by the capstan. Wow, owing to its lower frequency, is the less obvious of the two. When it’s loud enough to hear, wow makes your favorite recording sound like a high school science film that’s been soaking in fryer oil since the ’50s. Then you know your deck is due for a service visit and maybe even a date with the dumpster.

The Portland band called Wow and Flutter, though, is something you do want in your tape deck, unless you’ve already got the bad kind (digital recordings do not generally contain measurable levels). You want Wow and Flutter in there for weathery days when you don’t feel like going anywhere, and in your car stereo when you’re planning a drive on a lonely highway where you won’t pass another car for miles. Or on your personal disc player if you’re going to be out walking around, remembering old lovers and staring up at snow falling in soft pyramids around streetlights.

You’re not going to want Wow and Flutter if you don’t feel like relaxing. Their fifth full-length album, Names, just released on the (also) Portland-based Jealous Butcher label, is the sound of either forgetting or blowing off everything you were planning to do with an early start on a Saturday and sitting around drinking tea instead. Macramé. Cross-stitch. Reorganizing photos and putting them into albums. Anything cross-legged on a clean carpet. You know the sound? Chiming clean, laconic tempos, pleasantly downbeat minor-key songs and smooth but characterless vocals singing lyrics you don’t pay much attention to. There’s cello. You know how it is with a band that has a cello. It makes you think of bath beads, not beer. What are they doing playing at Jay’s? Not struggling to be heard above the ambient din, hopefully. Give them a break. Bouncers, please charge a $5 quietness deposit for anyone who looks like they’re there for a rock show.

The go-kids who want to party should bear up this Sunday and check out Har Mar Superstar, aka Sean Tillmann, diminutive howler and rock dynamo whose previous band Calvin Krime and solo act Sean Na Na should already be reasonably familiar to local indie rock fans. For a guy with such awful taste in band names (Sean Na Na? Sheesh!), Tillmann is usually very clever in his music, always busting with ideas and apparently ready to give anything a try if it looks like fun.

And Har Mar Superstar, his debut long-player on the Kill Rock Stars Label is a frickin’ hoot, man. It’s like a bunch of “urban contemporary” R&B artists decided to have an oh-darn sale on overstocked clichés and Tillmann showed up the night before and snapped ’em all up wholesale. Lots of cooing vocals and “oh girl” factory-outlet irregular vocals over beats provided by the Busy Signals, among others, but the rhymes themselves are often funny in a cynically updated way. Juvenile humor in music is seldom the basis for a lasting listener interest—usually you listen to it a couple times, laugh and get over it—but you have to hand it to Har Mar for recycling pop-culture detritus into rhymes like this one: “HyperColor tells me where my baby is hot/’Cause I can see her sweatpants getting dark in the crotch.” Dumb in a clever kind of way, clever in a dumb kind of way. That’s Har Mar Superstar. That’s entertainment! 
Har Mar Superstar plays with The Pattern this Sunday Night at Jay’s Upstairs, 10 PM. Cover TBA.

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