Skinny Bones’ stunner Noise Floor defines itself by what it isn’t. Such a claim is seemingly puzzling and polemical, but it’s ultimately a product of comprehensive creative self-contradiction. The record is a considerable achievement in songwriting and production because neither process could possibly be separated from the other once the record starts playing. In other words, in Noise Floor dependent opposites both constitute and undermine each other.
First let’s consider the genre. “Folktronica,” or whatever scrabble cheating compound you prefer, is paradoxical in the conventionally opposite stylistic assignments of its component parts. Each respectively stands as flannel nostalgia and bass-cannon hedonism at the polar ends of current trends in pop music. Skinny Bones isn’t attempting to resolve these differences (which on the record are of course more subtle than their mass culture analogues), but to constantly break down the recognizable traits of one with the other.
This genre mash is not merely fodder for finger painted classification, but has an immediate impact on the music itself. It allows Skinny Bones to juxtapose stylistic realism and symbolism. The core of the songs still function with folk immediacy, with a prominent voice confessing the collective conscious in even phrases and refrains over cyclical chord progressions and ruminative tempos. This core is then subjected to an implosive orchestration of dissociative, processed micro layering. That very voice is stratified into pitch-shifted pluralities. In other words, the folk foundation is singularly unidentifiable, composed instead by compounded, electronic reflections of itself.
This method extends beyond the voice, as I don’t think a single sound is directly transferred to tape, so to speak. Guitars, drums, and synths are endlessly cut up and (yes, it was inevitable) collaged. The most extreme and impressive application is the schizophrenic intro to “Sleep In,” in which a finger picked guitar is simultaneously realized as hiccups of sound fragments spread across speaker-space, effectively reconstituting the right hand in the digital stereo mix.
The culminating conceptual brilliance is in the found sound interludes. With these sonic blips of non-contextual conversation, domestic rummaging (including of course the creaks of an actual floor), and city dwelling, Skinny Bones turns the seemingly mundane, non-performative moments of life into sonic narratives. The intricate artificiality of electronic montage presents the most intimate and seemingly ‘real’ moments of the record. It’s no coincidence, especially in light of the lyrical concern with photography, that Skinny Bones uses the correlative “phonography” to describe this technique – the vocal personae and the actual performers alike seem mired in Barthes’ punctum.
What of the lyrics themselves? “Wanderlust” conjures its speaker’s place in terms of other cities. But this difference is expressed less in geographic and more in psychological terms: Jamaica Plain is not Berlin or San Francisco because of the memories and desires those cities represent to him. Interestingly, JP is the subject of its own song later in the record, one that seems to supply its own memory-making moments. (Damnit, now I have to remember songs discussing fleeting memories). Indeed, for Jacob Rosati’s characters moments are only realized in their passing, and meaning is only felt in its absence: one guy weighs “…what we’ll gain / And who I’ll give up,” before commanding himself to abandon the situation entirely. The ironic, sudden end to Noise Floor seems to conclude that the recognition of “now” only fits to destroy it. The fixed form of the thematically deferred lyrics then becomes like the interior of the recurrent car motif, stillness defined by the “blurred trees” passing outside the window. For characters seemingly searching for ‘true’ experiences, they’re all fairly obsessed with escaping and/or hiding.
The title of the record literally refers to the quantification of incidental noise in the transfer and collection of sound. But beyond decibel mapping, with all the disruptive linguistic connotations of ‘noise’ the title also references the implicit categorization of intentional against non-intentional sound, and thus figuratively alludes to the subjective nature of aural perspective. In this way, the title frames Noise Floor’s exploration of the vulnerability of writing, performing, and hearing a record in absolute terms. The union of musical content and form blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and between experience and desire/memory.