"When I was young, the art world was where you went to be a failure," says a mysterious audio sample opening the first track from ENMITYVILLE, a new album by Portland “post-rap” artist BRZOWSKI. “It was a chosen profession. You chose to be a failure.”
For a Portland artist that’s been working in a genre as long as many of its most passionate adherents have been alive, this should sound like some next-level irony. But those familiar with BRZOWSKI’s work will recognize it as the artist staking out the terms of his philosophy, which has long dwelled in themes of negativity, independent thought, D.I.Y.-ism and the slow, methodical destruction of harmful norms.
It’s impossible to approach a record by BRZOWSKI, a/k/a the Portland artist Jason Cornell, without talking about his dedication to the project, which, now dozens of releases into an 18-year career, is approaching something like legacy status. Cornell’ has rapped through countless waves of evolution within American hip hop (to say nothing of countless eras of faddish interest by enterprising white dudes getting hyped on trends for a year or so). Boasting over a thousand performances between here and Europe and collaborating with Portland artist and label impresario Moshe and his Milled Pavement imprint, Cornell has made BRZOWSKI a legit name, fusing indie and “backpacker”-style hip hop with an appreciation for punk and metal’s dystopian aesthetics and lyrical themes. His signature grit and gravel delivery is here welcomely decipherable, as producers 80HRTZ, Chryso, and C Money Burns’s skittering beats and measured production leaves plenty of room for him to maneuver.
In this 12-song barrage, newbies would be best-served bouncing to track ten first. Titled “Ordinary Monsters” and featuring A-list guest vocalist and Portland chanteuse Renée Coolbrith on the chorus, it’s as pop-ready a track as we’ve heard from Brzo, its string section and brooding bassline widening the sonic chasm for a screed against social media that doubles as one of the album’s best performances. “Who’s following whom in the cynical orgy of bad taste?” He spits over a welcomely doom-level heavy drum beat trudging toward Coolbrith’s all-too-brief appearance. “I watch semi-formed opinions bandied about with abandon / Keep jaw wired shut it’s not worth offending every mouthbreather, I need to turn that candle on its end and see where the middle lands.”
Via punk perhaps, BRZOWSKI is a notoriously fierce and energetic performer. But the relatively stolid, reflective production on a few of ENMITYVILLE’s tracks can sometimes fail to set him up. “Some days I can’t imagine any way out of this / some days my work boots are full of lead,” attests the labor-critical ballad “Leave It All Behind.” But there’s a little too much studio silence in the quiet, rolling melody, and the rage ends up sounding more canned than bottled. Brzo seems to work better when the world around him is as busy as his thoughts.
That issue is fixed on busy bangers like “Fall Zone Pink,” where, as if lifted from a Minor Threat song, a buzzing discordant guitar buried low in the mix anchors a boom-bap rhythm played by appropriately weathered-sounding drums. BRZOWSKI spits ravenously over the din. “I’m here to make a scene and hollow a bowl from my skull for birds to drink from,” he issues in a characteristically intense, verbose passage. “I wanted your face to look the same forever / Wish for a likeness to present itself in a marble slab,” goes the chorus, the jarring vowel sound of slab a smart illustration on an emotional rhyme gone wrong. On the quasi-industrial “Lachrymimosa,” he decries the decay in social fabric writ large. “The value of interaction a depreciating asset,” he notes, later implicating his own role in the deterioration, as a death-rattle bassline churns below the verses.
Cornell has seemed dead set on naming the limitations of the bleak and deeply problematic world for nearly two decades. That may sound like a grim existence, but in times of intense darkness, artists committed to articulating negation and the failure of systems can appear like a beacon of light. When you think about it, it’s still a fine life to choose.
BRZOWSKI | ENMITYVILLE album release | with Ceschi Ramos + Stay on Mars + Spoken Nerd + Quiet Entertainer | Aug 26, Sat 8:30 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | $8 | www.space538.org
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