How not to rhyme

Wax Tablet
By PORTLAND PHOENIX MUSIC STAFF  |  April 24, 2014

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>> Listen, how weird are you willing to get for your art? If you’re anything like Nicholson Baker, South Berwick resident and internationally acclaimed serious writer, the answer time and again has been pretty effing weird. Baker put out a book last fall called Traveling Sprinkler, a sort of sequel to his quietly rad midlife-crisis novel and poetry-appreciation opus The Anthologist of 2009. The protagonist of that story, a late-middle aged man named Paul Chowder, is a flabby, self-flagellating poet in the midst of a existential breakdown — he’s drinking too much, his girlfriend has split, and he’s unable to write a simple introduction to a modest anthology of rhyming poetry which is his charge, leaving him desperate and broke. (Quick digression: During a particularly curmudgeonly opening chapter, he also writes, one of the more satisfying lines we’ve ever read in a novel: “Don’t chirp at me, ye birdies.” Whoo!) Anyway, Baker brings Chowder back in Traveling Sprinkler, this time to wax about his love of music. Decent premise for a sequel, sure. But we didn’t expect him to record a companion album with the novel, an utterly ridiculous 12-song doozy of quirky, largely straight-faced “pop songs” written, sung, and performed in the character of Paul Chowder.

Listen, we haven’t read the book yet, so we’re largely steering blind here. But if a 57-year-old novelist Auto-Tune-singing that “love is an amazing magnet” over some chilled-out electro beats doesn’t sound applicable to your life, we have no idea what would. Or take “Balance Transfer,” in which Baker describes the banal frustrations of a financial transaction — muck that up with some dynamic noise and you’ve more or less got a John Maus song. Sure, maybe it’s not “listenable” in the way people describe most music, but there’s something pretty special about how dumb and pointless Traveling Sprinkler (the album) is, and we only use those terms with the highest regard. Of course, Baker has a history of going off-script. Remember: this is the guy who followed up The Anthologist with House of Holes, a collection of tongue-in-cheek, fantasy erotica (imagine a XXX The Cat in the Hat and you’re close). No doubt the novel should be tackled first, but visit nicholsonbaker.bandcamp.com to give the weirdness that is Traveling Sprinkler a whirl. Or if you take the recommendation less literally, make your next album a sculpture.

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