Review: Tiny Masters Of Today’s “Skeletons”

Jun 23, 2009 1:05pm

If you think music by teenagers has to follow strict rules and always go for the most sugar-coated pop dynamic, you need to hear Tiny Masters Of Today.  The Brooklyn band is built around a brother and sister pair.  Ada is thirteen.  Her brother Ivan is fifteen. Pop history has been littered with frequently nauseating family acts from the Cowsills, to Hanson to the Jonas Brothers, but this isn’t one of them.   Along with a drummer named Jackson, the three make a punk-driven mish-mosh fueled by simple guitar riffs and chunky beats.  Often they rely on repetition.  Often their lyrics are spoken.  They are always covered in multiple layers of distortion.  At their young ages they have managed to summon hipster cred by making friends with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s drummer, Russell Simins.  Go to their myspace page and you will find that they are actually friends (and not in the myspace quotationed sense of the word) with many hipsters, both old and new.  
“Skeletons” is their second album.  It clocks in at just twenty-six minutes.  Aside from perhaps some fancy electro effects, it sounds like it was made by kids.  It also sounds like a natural exercise done for the sake of the art.  If this were really an engineered exercise in earning a lot of cash, the album would be more accessible and polished.  The fact that this one sounds like three kids rocking out with few pop aspirations makes it all the more appealingly authentic.  I doubt this album could go platinum, especially in the narrow-minded modern pop universe. This is a sonically striking record.  It sounds like a little Karen O and a little Jack White getting remixed by the Go! Team.  Sure, the instrumentation is rudimentary at this point, but if you give these kids time and they will grow.  Here, they are definitely making the best of their available tools.  What’s even more amazing is that this album is said to be self produced by the band.  Pat McCarthy (who has worked with R.E.M. on some of their more experimental records) is listed as the album’s engineer.
The record begins with “Drop The Bomb,” a dizzying collection of tweaked beats, mixed with some cool electro-clash components and a pulsing one-note guitar pulsation.  Ada repeats the words, “Drop the bomb, man!” and “Bring it down!”  It’s repetitive, but fun and explosive. (No pun intended!) At 2:24 it doesn’t wear out its welcome, either.  
Next is the war-minded, “Two Dead Soldiers.”  The cartoonish lyrics about battle can be deceiving.  This band was political from the start.  (One of their more famous previous tracks was a song called “Bushy,” about their dissatisfaction with old W.)  If you think that kids this age can’t be truly political, think again.  Especially in Brooklyn, you can find many kids their age who are just as politically aware and engaged as their parents.   On this track, Ivan tells the story of two soldiers who blind each other.  One gets the feeling that he wants to make his lyrics as child-like and innocent as possible to undercut the statements about the violence of war.  It’s all about initially seeming innocuous while questioning authority. Then, during the chorus, Ada comes in and shouts out the rally cry, “Can you hear me in Brooklyn?  Can you hear me in Brixton? Can you hear me in Kingston?”  It’s not the most eloquent form of protest but this too will improve with age.    Next, Ada sings the title track about “skeletons in (her) closet, darkening (her) days.”  There’s a playfulness about this.  Her singing voice is out of the Ari Up school of punk vocalization and the backdrop once again brings to mind the dusty soundscapes of the before-mentioned Go! Team.  Next is the album’s thesis statement.  “Pop Chart” is the single and it can be seen as an angry slap at acts with transparent motives “aiming for the pop chart.”  The chorus says it all.  “It’s all about the money/ So rich it isn’t funny. / Forget about the ghetto, / You’re aiming for the pop chart.”  The point is that it shouldn’t be about the money.  It should be about the joy of the experience.  
  “Real Good,” despite what I’m guessing is an intended grammatical error in its title is perhaps the most appealing track on the album.  Over a head-bobbing groove, Ada sings about a guitarist named Johnny who “played that guitar real good.”  (Is this their modern answer to Chuck Berry?)  Ivan’s guitar chording is basic, but what many bands don’t understand is that sometimes less is indeed more.  There are no fancy tricks here and the track is all the better for it.  It’s just a fun song!
  At 3:41, “Big Stick” is by far the album’s longest track.  Amid a display of ominous beats and scratches, Ada shows off what is perhaps a Riot Grrrl-in-training side by repeating the lines, “Got a big stack. / Gonna hit you with it, hit you with it!  / Got a big stick.”  It’s a sonically dynamic piece which should (but probably won’t) get a few spins in hipster clubs.   
“Monkey In The Middle” is a statement of teen angst.  Especially when Ada sings, “Sometimes I feel like a tiger in a cage – hey! / ‘Tiger eats trainer’ always makes the front page – hey!”  When you are young, it’s good to have such creative outlets to explore your feelings.  Such liberating outlets are always good in that regard because as you get older, you realize that on a certain level the angst never really stops.  (Sometimes, the pressures of adult-hood make those feelings worse!)
   “Big Bass Drum” plays like a lesser but still appealing re-visitation of “Big Stick.”  This time, instead of a “Big Stick” Ada now talks about banging on her “Big Bass Drum.”
  The point of “Ghost Star” is lost in its beat-poet like lyrical randomness.  (“Destructive automotive / When I’m mad at you. / Ghost Star / We love you.”)  Ada’s vocal delivery is a tad off key but with too many recordings today being pitch-perfect to the point of determent, from a cred-perspective, this is refreshingly real.  It will turn off some listeners but those people aren’t this band’s intended audience.
  “Understandable Honesty” is a playful dance-rock groove.  Once again, they are questioning authority and are wary. Ada sings, “If what you believe is only what you read, / Then every little plant and seed will turn out to be weeds.”  The message is to take everything with a grain of salt and don’t forget to think.  It’s a bold set of lyrics coming from a thirteen year-old. 
The album closes with “Abercrombie Zombie.”  The opening of this song with its repeated, “Oh my god, we should totally go on Wikipedia!” is quite polarizing, but once the song is fully set off, it proves to be a worthy track.  Ada sings, “Abercrombie Zombie / You’re a lucky girl,/ But you’re so conceited / You think you own the world.”  It sends a good message.  No matter how rich or popular you are, don’t forget, you are no better than anyone else.  It’s a call for respect.  
  There will be cynics out there who question this record’s validity.  Get over it! Did they get help from adults?  Of course they did at some level!  If they didn’t, this record wouldn’t exist.  (They are signed to Mute, no less!)  What this record shows is that not all teenagers want to hear or be like the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus.  This is a rally cry to all the artsy hipster kids to be heard, too.  It’s a subset that the big labels rarely give a voice and that makes Tiny Masters Of Today all the more special. 
  When I was in eighth grade, I remember there were two bands formed by my classmates.  Both of them were quite decent.  One was a glam-rock band and the other was a punk band doing Minor Threat covers.  If those bands existed then, there’s no question in my mind about the validity of this band.  Give them credit where credit is due.  They may not be the best band technically yet, but more skill will come with time.  In the meantime, their artistic vision and all-around likability is worthy of a strong endorsement.  These kids hopefully will make records for years to come.  It will be interesting to hear how their sound changes as they mature. 

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