"The poets are such badasses," Zapruder says, when asked if he sees the project as a way to deliver poetry to the masses. "Most of them are better known than me. The idea that I could give something to them, introduce people to their work, that's incredible."
As musician-writer Scott Pinkmountain says in the book's introduction, "these are poets who understand that the big grabs — Love, Family, Confession, Death — can no longer be approached directly in a convincing way. Today's audience is too savvy, too wary of manipulation and sentimentality. These poems instead stake their foundation on the minutia of accidental revelation, trusting the details of life to point out the bigger picture."
We, as the music listener, hear this in the subtlety of a track like "Book of Life," created from Noelle Kocot's story about a monk and a phoenix meeting in the woods. At one point, the monk gives the phoenix a squirming worm — hence the shellacked bowl of gummy worms portmanteau at Curiosity Shoppe.
There are slightly more literal interpretations in songs such as the deceptively upbeat string-heavy "Storm Window," based on the poem by Mary Ruefle, which tells a story of a sedentary couple — "She sat writing little poems of mist/he in his armchair/reading blood-red leather novels/their three-legged white cat wandering between them/24 champagne glasses sparkle on a shelf/never a one to be broken." It's about empty domestic harmony, so Zapruder created the portmanteau with that cheery Ebay bear holding an empty bowl. The found object is eerily revealing.
The project's title came from Zapruder's brother's poem "Opera," which ends with the line,"still riding your bike under pink hi-fidelity thunder." (The object represented here is a red bicycle reflector.)
One of the more arresting combinations is for the song "John Lomax: I Work With Negroes." The object is an old voltage meter. The poem, written by award-winning African-American author Tyehimba Jess, and subsequently the song, are about John Lomax, who "discovered" fabled blues musician Lead Belly in the 1930s.
The theme throughout is of the racism of exoticism, the way Lomax exoticized Lead Belly. "Racism that's couched in admiration, this condescending accolade," as Zapruder describes it. "So the idea [for the voltage meter] was that he's constantly measuring and evaluating — but also, Lomax brought all this stuff in his car on tour, hundreds of pounds of equipment, so I thought maybe he had one of those."
The piano-driven song is brief, just a minute and 35 seconds, but shifts from quiet plea to deep gravelly question mark, and back again, using multiple vocal backing tracks.
The songs often deviate, in tone, and in tempo. As a whole, it's an impressive, if difficult listen. There are so many layers, so many twists and turns. They don't have expected pop hooks, there isn't a whole lot of repetition. Zapruder lets the songs wander, as if he's creating a melodic new method of storytelling, occasionally dipping into child-like wonder. He builds songs in a Jon Brian-esque style, with Elliot Smith-like sensitivity and raw ache in his vocals, treading ever-so-lightly over tracks of electric guitar, drums, synthesizers, and in some cases, marimba or brass horns.
The actual songwriting process was quick. He wrote half of the them during a solo 10-day residency in a Napa cabin. The recording of said tracks took considerably longer — nearly three years, beginning in December of 2008. The Oakland resident hopped around with the songs in mind, recording some vocals in his own studio, some instruments at Closer Studios in San Francisco, and New, Improved in Oakland (where tUnE-yArDs and her ilk record), and mixed at Tiny Telephone.