Sunday. It’s that special day of the week when the kids of Warsaw, Indiana dress up in sweaters that their grandmothers bought them and go out to eat at the Pizza Hut in the K-Mart shopping plaza. The kids who aren’t at Pizza Hut are either smoking weed while laughing at that “METH IS DESTROYING OUR COMMUNITY! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?!?!?!” commercial on 107.3 or are sitting at the Boathouse Restaurant, dressed in skinny-jeans and a Christian-hardcore band’s t-shirt eating an 8 dollar French onion soup as an appetizer.
Beer. It’s that special invention, which has been used for many purposes. In the old days monks used it to help themselves get closer to God while they fasted. Today, if you go to the Time-Out Inn, you’ll see a more modern beer in action as it inspires people to put quarters into pinball machines. Maybe there is something about the neon flashes of the 1980’s game machine, which momentarily lights up people’s lives, something about the 8 bit sound blasting out of those speakers, which only becomes apparent to a person after they’ve had a few PBR’s in them. Maybe there is an aspect of God, which can only be found after throwing back a few beers.
These two ancient inventions of man – Sunday and Beer – come together in Invisible Robots’ debut album “Sunday Beer”. The “Psychedelic Art-Rock Superstars”, more commonly known as Invisible Robots, have been stomping around the grimy underbelly of the Warsaw music scene for a little while now, often frequenting Mad Anthony’s. To get a feel for what kind of vibe Invisible Robots dish out look at how the band has described “Sunday Beer”. On their Facebook page, “Sunday Beer” is dubbed a “magnum or at least standard condom sized opus”. I think this quote illustrates the sort of humor the band achieves with their dirty, lo-fi, folk-rock style.
The sound of the album is downright filthy. Everything was recorded on a 4-track in some basement and Nate White’s vocals sound like a mix between the Tom Waits of Mule Variations and a broken down tractor: metallic, puffing and raw. This recording style and vocal delivery could scare the faint of heart away, but when one begins to dig down into the lyrics, the musical atmosphere surrounding the subjects seems to fit quite well. The aura is grimy, the drums are nasty and distorted, the electric-acoustic guitar and the bass bite. This kind of atmosphere has an interesting punk-folk-rock kind of feel to it. For those listeners who dare to truly listen, “Sunday Beer” is a funny attack on everything you thought you knew about the disgusting basements of rural Northern Indiana.
Perhaps what people notice almost immediately with “Sunday Beer” is how difficult it is to understand the vocals. In fact, in preparing for this analysis I had to go through each song and attempt to transcribe out the lyrics into my notebook (Invisible Robots lyrics). If you look through my notes you’ll see that there are some lyrics I just couldn’t figure out. This muddled delivery of the lyrics is something that can be seen in punk (e.g. the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Crass, etc) and thus helps to give “Sunday Beer” a similar in your face feel to it.
While trying to understand the lyrics (which are first-rate btw), the listener gets the feeling that something really incredible and unique is going on. But because the lyrical delivery is difficult to make out, you just never know 100% what that unique thing actually is. It makes the listener want to keep coming back for more, with the hope that maybe at a different time, on a different day, all of the superb lyrics will be revealed.
The brilliance of the lyrics really stands out in a few songs like “Diner with the Flystrip Above the Grill”, “Disconnected Buttered Toast” and “We are Invisible Robots”. “Diner with the Flystrip Above the Grill” describes a scene almost as disgusting as the sound of the song, with a chef who’ll “cook you up an omelet and then shove it in your face”, a handicapped waitress without any sort of job or retirement security, and a smoker who doesn’t give a damn if it harms the kids eating at another table. This great scene serves as a microcosm for the dysfunction of small-town life in Northern Indiana. The diner is dirty, like the public lakes of Kosciusko county, and the average customers are absentminded and simply “listen to the weather”. These kinds of customers can I guess be compared to the citizens of Warsaw who are so far removed from any sort of major development in the outside world, that the term “the Arab Spring” is as foreign as the Chinese Language. “Diner” is one of those all-too rare songs, in which the musical atmosphere and lyrical descriptions come together and create something outstanding. And furthermore the song’s themes and criticisms lend themselves to a great amount of worthwhile interpretation.
But to look into Invisible Robots’ lyrics only through a socio-critical lens would leave out a great deal of the band’s humor, which is one of the most endearing qualities of this album. Look at the song “We are Invisible Robots” for example. I can’t help but laugh every time I hear the line “Believe in us like Santa Claus / like Isaac Newtown’s earthly LAAAAWWS!”. The delivery of the word “laws” turns a fundamental set of scientific laws into a ridiculously exaggerated cry. Also juxtaposing the childish belief in the fictional figure of Santa Claus with the scientific reality of Isaac Newton dances with absurdity and is just simply hilarious.
The album, through its lo-fi production and its lyrical themes, also really demonstrates the small-town Northern Indiana identity. One song, which directly ties the band to Warsaw, Indiana is “Zebra Lady”. Nearly anybody over the age of 20, who grew up in Warsaw, Indiana knows exactly who the Zebra Lady was. She was an eccentrically dressed old lady who drove around Warsaw, Indiana on a scooter with a stuffed Zebra tied to it. When she died in February of 2011, the Times-Union published a nice little article about it (http://www.timesuniononline.com/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=232&ArticleID=53316&TM=7703.328). Invisible Robots’ homage to the Zebra lady is, much wilder than the “nice” article from the Times-Union. “Zebra Lady / Make me Gravy / Give me Rabies / Raise my Baby”. Invisible Robots had a good time making these songs and the fun humor really shines through.
There is much more humor sprinkled throughout the rest of the album particularly in songs like “Crazy Girls Can’t Hold Their Liquor” and “Mr. Man with the Florida Tan”. But at other times, the humor seems to move into a deeper realm, where social problems and fundamental frustrations with small town life break through. “In the Boring Bar” humorously travels through boredom and surrealism, but at the end of the song he is “in a crypt: A tomb-like bar” where his “soul is dry”. In a similar way, the song “Psych Ward” is very funny, but subtly adds lines of discontentment, which can lead one to interpret the song as a metaphor for the small-town identity.
In all, Invisible Robots have created a smart, funny and dirty album with their debut release “Sunday Beer”. Although some songs on the album are long and too repetitive (e.g. “Canned Reactions, Static Factions”, “I’d like to go to Delaware” and “Zebra Lady”), overall the themes and the gritty sound of the album are very well done. It is also a shame that some of the lyrics are difficult to decipher, because the listener feels like he’s missing out on something brilliant. But perhaps this is a kind of symbol for the Warsaw artistic scene: it is at times difficult to get to the bottom of, but there are important things going on.
Check out Invisible Robots on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Invisible-Robots/171613096201159
And get “Sunday Beer” on iTunes, Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Sunday-Beer-Explicit/dp/B005EX5JSG) or for the cheapest option ($6.75) go to their CDbaby site (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/invisiblerobots)
November 6, 2011