There are songs that when you first hear them make you go, “What the hell?” I remember “One Night in Bangkok” coming over the radio one day when I was in graduate school in Syracuse: I was hearing it entirely fresh, with no idea it was plucked from a West End musical, and it seemed like nonsense verse from another planet, yet oddly compelling. I wanted to hear it again. I wanted to figure it out.
That can go both way, though. The inexplicable can just as easily seem random and stupid and lazy, dismissable with a vengeance.
This strange little song caught my ear when my son was playing the CD during a car ride. (We take turns, it’s only fair.) It begins with an acoustic guitar strum, and then Aesop Rock comes in rapping–in itself a novelty, rapping against folk music. But what the hell, is he really rapping about cutting off parts of his body and sending them to friends via UPS? Then Kimya Dawson, formerly of the Moldy Peaches and prominent on the “Juno” soundtrack, takes over, singing in her little-girl voice about being a little girl and working in a laundromat her parents owned, cleaning the dryer lenses and restocking the soap dispensers.
Do these things fit together? Does any of this mean anything? Kimya goes on to speak about how the year she “bottomed out” was the first year she lived in a house with a washer/dryer, and wonders if not having the community going to the laundromat provided was part of the reason. Aesop hints at debts that can never be fully paid (“I know I owe you more than I’ve kept”) as his motivation for wanting to share his teeth, arms, eyes, ears: “Wear ’em if you need a new perspective on a weird year.”
So perhaps both are talking about the same need for connection, both describing the slant ways we imagine and try to achieve it. The song ends sweetly, with Kimya nostalgically remembering watching her father mopping the floor at the laundromat, and how her “heart started with a quarter.”
(Off the record, let me just say this song works for me entirely on the level of metaphor. I have no nostalgia for laundromats, and could easily live the rest of my life without visiting one again. I hate the green light of them that makes everyone look ugly and the hanging air that makes you instantly feel exhausted and although I’m not a meticulous guy the idea I’m wearing clothes that were washed in in the same place as the clothes of some of those less-sanitary-looking other laundromat patrons grosses me out a bit. And yes, I am aware of the germ-killing properties of hot water.)
The rest of the CD mostly gets on my nerves: the folky stuff too cute, the rap stuff too free-associative, the combination odd for its own sake, like the ingredients in dishes at fusion restaurants. There is one other interesting song, “TV on 10,” where in the first section Kimya sings from the point of view of a passenger on a crashing airplane, and in the second Aesop raps about hanging out with his friends one night when he was a kid, flicking around the TV channels and hearing a news report that an airplane has crashed, an airplane on which the mother of one of his friends was a passenger. It’s a chilling treatment of the way tragedy can erupt so suddenly, the way a glimpse of a news story can become (as John Irving referred to late-night phone calls) a “burglar alarm in the heart.”
But then there are songs like “Alligators,” where Aesop describes seeing a porno mag for the first time and proceeds to expound on the variety of vaginas found therein. “Did you put this on so you could see how long I could keep an awkward smile on my face?” I asked my son in the car, as I drove with my eyes straight ahead. “You don’t think I have one too?” he answered. Which is its own kind of slant connection, I guess.