Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Salem's Water EP. Listen to "Redlights" from the record and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.
Though they may not agree, the best moment of Salem’s SXSW must have been at 2AM at the IAMSOUND party when the schedule ran so over that the club insisted on closing and they were unable to play their headlining slot. I saw them milling in the back of the club, leaning on a railing. They didn’t look especially sad, but I heard they were. I was sad to learn they have feelings.
Salem’s first record was a single called “Yes, I Smoke Crack,” that “yes” making it the answer to an apparently obvious question. The video for “Dirt,” from that record, featured a crying middle age woman sitting in her car slowly killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. At some point, a nude woman emerges from the gassy smoke and dances on her car. The first minute of the video is silent. It’s unclear if, at the end, the woman is dead. I read, or someone told me, that the dancer was a prostitute they found on Craigslist. I can’t imagine where they found the crying woman.
The first major press Salem did was an interview with Butt magazine. Butt is a Dutch gay men’s magazine. It is printed on pink paper. The interview was casual, with John, one third of the group. It’s fairly outrageous, running through his stints as a prostitute, a Chicago art student, a heavy drug user and a rap fan. At one point he says he routinely pulled in $2000 a trick, a claim the interviewer gently nudges against. “Isn’t that kind of rate more for highbrow prostitution?” he says. And John says, “Well, I’m actually lying; that, like, only happened a few times. But you just start out, like, ‘$2,000?’ and they either say yes or no. If they’re like, ‘No’, then you have to lower your rate.” He is so polite when corrected that his exaggeration seems good-natured and without misleading malice. It makes the rest of the interview’s lengthy forays into dark places seem like they contain a wet mix of fiction and truth, though the purpose and momentum behind all the tales must be strong and kind-hearted.
That the members of Salem seem perfectly nice and well-meaning is a surprising and possibly calamitous discovery. In the Butt interview, John expresses a displeasure and surprise that their band is occasionally labeled as “goth,” though he seems to have some inherent understanding of the bleakness they project. He prefers, though, to reference their influence and roots in juke music, a quick-paced and repetitive dance music that comes from Chicago, not far from where Salem has their roots in Michigan. But Salem’s music is slow. If juke is an influence, its mostly ambient, though they do have a strong interest in choppy electronic drum rolls. Salem’s songs are mostly too blunted to dance to, too stuttered. It’s like they listened to the Neptunes’ glossiest songs and then shredded them, stealing tiny parts and cribbing together a much darker puzzle. The bass may have bark like in hip-hop, the vocals may sometimes be rap, the hi-hats may glisten, but Salem sit in the dark distinctly outside the realm of pop music. Calling them pop is like saying a dog should pay real estate taxes because he lives in the house.
Salem’s Water EP is possibly the closest they’ve come to accessibility (even if their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” counted, it minced any shred of the original’s radio gloss). “Redlights”’ distinguishing features are a blistering guitar, hardly recognizable beneath a mist of electronic fuzz. Heather Marlatt sings and she’s got an easy voice, layered and light. Played clean, the song could double as a simple skeleton for bubblegum, but its grime is half the point. Or maybe the entire point.
I did get to see Salem play once during SXSW, at our space. They were booed off stage. That is, because, unfortunately, honestly, they were not good. But that “good” needs so many asterisks and quotation marks that it barely exists as a measure of worth. The show was outside, during the day. The smoke machine suffered because of the wind, its effects blown backwards behind the tented stage. The sound was crisp and when Jack rapped, you could hear it clearly, which is not a good thing. There was no slowing down the speed, no frying the smooth edges, no haze from which to emerge. Salem’s ingenuity comes in the invention of its own creation myth. Played clean, there is no mystery. Even if they feel no partiality to a hidden agenda, their music deserves a shrouding daylight does not deliver. Turns out the truth is a detriment to their story.
Salem did deliver one mystery, however, a ponytailed and kind of sweaty-faced woman on stage with them. She played no instruments, nor did she sing. In fact, after the first song she sat down. She was cool. She smoked and sipped from a Budweiser tall can. I later saw she had collected the free Levi’s® given to performers. And why not.