If Portland Music Awards were still a thing (RIP, Best Music Poll), we’d have a new odds-on favorite for Best Pandemic Song.
Previously, the judges were leaning towards the Spose & Ekoh team-up, “Cooped Up.” But their analogy-fueled irony just doesn’t quite capture the late-pandemic ennui as aptly as the latest from Custardpaws and Mr. Freezy, the long-time absurdist duo of Jeff Badger and Blair Wells.
While Spose & Ekoh try to make the best of it – “It’s just a day in the office making songs for me” – with a catchy chorus, Custardpaws and Mr. Freezy have crafted a singular and bouncy plea of desperation: “All I Want To Do (Is Leave the House).” With Daft Punk’s flair for repetition and mix of digital and organic disco flair, the song is instantly relatable. For those starved of human interaction, starved of stimuli, these desires have become basic and primal.
The allure of escape is undeniable.
“I been thinkin’ it’s time to check out,” insists Badger. “Now I just want to disappear.”
And the animated video they’ve crafted for the song, full of cut-out ostriches and a duet of pig and trout, is truly weird. Without a physical escape, maybe they tried other planes of existence. (Who hasn’t?)
The track is the stand-out from the pair’s third album, “Window Weather,” and it is but the best example of some pretty inspired songwriting, a series of productions that explore the many moods of isolation and constraint. Similar to the 2020 pandemic works by Britta Pejic and Spencer Albee, “Window Weather” is schizophrenic in its approach, a jukebox of genres. A costume closet.
What separates this work, though, is cutting surrealism, like too-bright lights in a gallery of pandemic scenes. They may all feel cliche now, but Custardpaws and Mr. Freezy force us to reexamine things. It allows us a detachment from these experiences, a way to make the boring and mundane equal to the enormity of more than 500,000 dead and seemingly unending months of altered existence.
So the friends we haven’t seen in 12 months become our “Secret Friends,” with the digital whirs and beeps of Erasure’s dance-pop blending into TV on the Radio’s organic burn. For this song’s animated digital accompaniment, Badger riffs in charcoal, dark figures peering through blinds and book pages fluttering in the wind. “Assistant Manager Blues” is a Delta piece from the perspective of an “essential” worker who’s just about had it. And living with small children becomes “Don’t Make Me Come Up There,” a new-wave piece that drops into a strutting bass riff and reinvents dad rock.
“Let’s renegotiate this deal,” Badger vamps.
The duo even breathes new life into Zoom jokes with double entendre of “In the Air,” which sounds not just a little like the French electronic outfit Air: “Can you hear me? Am I coming through? Do you understand? … When you were breaking through/ And I was still on mute/ Did you still hear?” Somehow, it doesn’t make you want to smash things.
But in the record’s final third, a more aggressive tone appears. “Contact Tracer” is ’90s grunge, with spiky guitar tones that would be a jarring change if not for a general expectation that things would get more Zappa at some point. “Why did it happen to me?” Badger shouts. Does this quarantine really matter? Was any of this my fault?
The closing “Conception Bay” toys with that weird sea shanty infatuation that happened for a couple of months in exploring these questions further. “Perhaps we’ve gone too far from shore,” Badger posits. “Perhaps we should set a new course/ Admit we’ve failed.”
It’s definitely hard to argue when he finishes by saying the whole thing “feels like the end of the world.”
Of course, it’s not. For most of us, life goes on. We still need groceries and we still have to go to the dump and we still have to pay the rent and we still need to show up for the team Zoom. Or to open. Or to close. Custardpaws and Mr. Freezy maybe do the most insidious thing of all by normalizing the pandemic and making it simply part of the landscape.
If you’re looking out the window, this is what the world looks like. It’s weird, and still more than a little disorienting, but you might as well get used to it. This is what songs are about now.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Family Banned Records, “Bohemian RapCD” — Portland’s nascent hip-hop label puts out a compilation album, featuring Myles Bullen on Side A and Unique Unknown on Side B. Watch out for Eyenine on the opening “Penguin Dreams” and the crooning Riga Tony on “Wasn’t Ready for You.”
• Zeme Libre, “The Initiative (acoustic)” — The first single from “Forever, Waiting,” Zeme Libre’s upcoming fourth release, a flute cuts across a guitar strum and presents vocals mixed right to the front. This band has a little Rusted Root to them for sure.
• The Leftovers, “On the Move (Deluxe Edition)” — Kurt Baker has been busy while Spain’s been in lockdown, getting his iconic trio more robustly onto streaming services. This release from 2007 now has a bunch of demos and acoustic versions, even a live version of “Back in the USSR,” which is absolutely sneering.
• Golden Oak, “Islands” — A bluesy guitar gets paired with a four-on-the-floor beat and this duo’s signature vocal combination. There are definitely some strong notes of Head and the Heart here, with lots of opportunities for singalong.
• Eric Bettencourt, “From the Wreckage” — Bouncing back and forth between Austin and Portland over the past year, Bettencourt hasn’t missed a beat in his progression as a songwriter and bandleader. This is a nuanced and layered bit of Laurel Canyon rock, every instrument in its place.
— Sam Pfeifle