Overlooked in the Aughts is an ongoing feature focusing on some of the best albums from the 2000s that haven’t quite received the attention they deserved. Today’s post: Parts & Labor’s Mapmaker.
Back in June, music writer Christopher R. Weingarten extolled the pains that have befallen music journalism at the 140 Characters Conference. Among many of his excellent points, Weingarten made one particularly insightful comment on the type of music that receives coverage in the hyper-speed online mp3 blog economy:
It’s not the music that’s the best, it’s the music that most people can stand. The music the most people can listen to. If you let the people decide, then nothing truly adventurous ever gets out and that’s a problem.
Weingarten’s words are particularly strong when it comes to his personal narrative. He’s not just a journalist trying to keep afloat in these turbulent and confusing times of music news: Weingarten also happened to be in one of the most adventurous bands of the decade, and one that still hasn’t gotten its proper due.
Brooklyn’s Parts & Labor began in the early part of the decade under the tutelage of noiseniks Dan Friel and B.J. Warshaw. These were the days before Brooklyn became synonymous with obnoxious hipsters and rapid gentrification, and this duo worked with a cast of drummers on a sound that morphed elements of no wave, gutteral new age noise, hardcore punk, lo-fi electronica and Phil Spector-worthy pop hooks. Things really gelled when the duo convened with Christopher R. Weingarten and the rest is in the music.
Though Parts & Labor’s 2008 album Receivers might be their most fully realized record, 2007’s Mapmaker might be the most visceral album in their cannon. On Mapmaker, Parts & Labor play to the strengths of their group chemistry and sonic dynamics, all while carefully balancing the oft-obtuse aural influences in their cannon and some fist-pumping pop to make a set of songs that really seem to move beyond sound encoded onto an mp3/disc/vinyl.
The album opens with Weingarten’s signature blistering, chaotic drumwork cutting through electronic beeps, blips and something that sounds vaguely like my ear-piercing morning alarm on the stunning “Fractured Skies.” Mapmaker ends with the six-minute slow-burning anthem “Knives and Pencils,” a swirling celtic-inspired wall-of-sound that deftly displays the band’s ability to make powerful anthemic music. Sandwiched between these tracks are a dizzying array of tracks that skillfully juxtapose ear-splitting noise against a power-pop backdrop.
It’s hard to really pinpoint why Parts & Labor haven’t gotten the kind of exposure a band of their caliber should be fighting off. (Note: Receivers managed to push the group into the limelight with a little NPR and Rolling Stone coverage, but even the band’s usually emphatic supporters such as Impose Magazine hardly made mention of the album.) The band’s sound might be one of the most inventive of the decade, and even at their noisiest, most off-putting seconds, there’s a real gem of song-craft that can be heard loud and clear. They’re one of the most vibrant bearers of the beloved DIY-and-underground-and-alternative culture out there today, as Friel and Warshaw make no bones about hiding their political idealism and social critiques in their song lyrics, and are forthright supporters of new and burgeoning community-minded bands. And they helped carve out a certain Brooklyn and worldwide art-punk aesthetic that pushed fellow comrades-in-arms such as TV On The Radio, Battles and Deerhoof (note: true, they’re not from Brooklyn, but they share a cross-country communal mind with many of the same Brooklyn bands) into their respective statuses of fame and fortune.
So what gives? One could really waste days, months and years trying to think up excuses for why Parts & Labor are continually passed over with each astounding new release. It’s the kind of thing that turns a great band into a cult favorite and then a practical legend. The same that was said about, say, Dinosaur Jr. or Mission of Burma, back in the day are so easily applied to Parts & Labor that I could seamlessly write a chapter on P&L in an Our Band Could Be Your Life for the Aughts (copyright pending!)
Whatever the case, Mapmaker is something of an overlooked gem from this decade, as is Parts & Labor themselves. Weingarten would go on to leave Parts & Labor sometime after the record came out to pursue a career in, yes, music journalism. Soon after, the band expanded to include Joe Wong on drums and Sarah Lipstate on guitar and record the excellent Receivers. Changes in the lineup no doubt factored into an ever-evolving sound, and will continue to in the future as Lipstate recently left the band. Where these kinds of lineup changes and the constant struggle against critics that practically ignore the band would drive other groups to the end, Parts & Labor seem to soldier on with a strength of mind. Even though societal criticism and paranoia of potential doom-and-destruction of the world fill the group’s lyrics, there’s a strong sense of optimism and perseverance that pervades each and every Parts & Labor song. It’s a kind of tune they play well, one they seem to take to heart and one they will hopefully play for years to come.
Parts & Labor – “The Gold We’re Digging”: