One of the most interesting stories coming out of the Michigan music scene these days is that of Ann Arbor's flashpapr (spelling accidentally intentional).
Invited into existence to open for Labradford in 1996, flashpapr began as a guitar-violin improvisational project by regional indie-citizen Fred Thomas and the then very young (15) Jacob Danziger. Shortly thereafter they added Danziger's Commie High orchestra-mate Zach Wallace on stand-up bass, and the trio, while not exactly a booking agent's dream, found themselves getting asked to perform with some regularity. Benefits and basement shows aside, though, the project was more about their developing friendship (none knew the others at all, at first), and the exploring of an aesthetic: a sonic landscape sculpted from maudlin Appalachian guitar twanging and free jazz-ish string drones in rhythmic chaos.
The sound of this, the original incarnation of flashpapr, was not unlike listening to an old, creaky gate swinging open and shut in the wind, maybe an abandoned factory, maybe a dried-up farm. You're either the kind of person who can listen to that sort of thing all day long, or you'd probably leave one of the group's shows after five minutes. In 1997, flashpapr went into the studio with a new member, ex-Morsel guitarist Geoff Streadwick on drums (and behind the board), and recorded a remarkable full-length vinyl LP, Pain Taped Over (Forever). The band's excitement about the record, though, was crushed even before its release by the tragic death of Streadwick, a victim of a furnace leaking carbon monoxide.
Flashpapr regrouped and pressed on, releasing Pain on Thomas' Ypsilanti-based label, Westside Audio Lab, to great local acclaim. It drew easy comparisons to the Dirty Three, the Palace Brothers and Ornette Coleman. But flashpapr was not a band striving to be placed in a critical niche, and didn't even seem to be striving to exist in any sort of conventional public way. The band would only perform in public when asked, never soliciting exposure itself, thus keeping the music as an expression of the relationship between the members, their understanding of one another and the evolution of their lives.
And then they got a crazy break. Warren DeFever, the creative mastermind behind His Name is Alive and the prolific producer of countless bands and HNIA spin-off projects, caught flashpapr at a show — and, in what can only be described as one of those mini-Hollywood moments of opportune musical magnanimity, invited flashpapr to record its next album at his Superfun home studio in Livonia. For a group of young, passionate and independent-minded artists, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
By this time flashpapr was a foursome again, now joined by Mt. Pleasant native-Ann Arbor refugee Ben Bracken on laptop computer sounds and guitar. The quartet toiled in the studio for more than six months, ultimately abandoning the improvisations for intensely crafted songs and an approach to unified album structure that would have to be called conceptual (and yes, I mean that in the Pink Floyd parlance). The result: a newly released CD called Do What You Must Do (Westside Audio Lab). And it's glorious — depressing as all hell — but glorious.
On Do What You Must Do, flashpapr makes music out of the happenstance, the banality, of everyday, small-town Midwestern grayness. Sustained chords in sensible keys modulate and linger in reflective stares, broken by sudden awareness of room noises, impressionistic traffic and little sisters. Lyrics describe dirty kitchens and tacit longings for intimacy with family, and the musical and vocal performances are simple enough to elicit empathy in the I-could-do-that-(but-I-don't) kind of way.
It's classic rock for shoegazers, in the best sense of both terms: working-class artistic ambition combined with a validation of shyness and self-alienation as resistance to the speed, intensity, dysfunction and disconnectedness of the greater outside world.
For more info or to order Do What You Must Do directly, contact Westside Audio Laboratories, P.O. Box 970021, Ypsilanti, MI 48197, or e-mail [email protected] hotmail.com.Neil Dixon Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer who left his heart in Ann Arbor. Send comments to [email protected]