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Pop Pathology

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Pop Pathology

In Bobby Conn's dark but accessible weltanschauung, apocalypse is just around the corner--and his job is to wave it on home. The 32-year-old Chicagoan cropped up on the local radar screen about five years ago, staging elaborate performance-art infomercials (complete with weepy testimonials) for something called the "Continuous Ca$h Flow System," which encouraged flagrant, orgiastic accumulation of debt with the goal of crashing the economy. And his second full-length record, last year's Rise Up! (Truckstop), was a lushly orchestrated, fitfully funky dreamscape that threaded together Armageddon prophecy, conspiracy theory, race-war propaganda, and indie-rock ennui with playful implications that the end of the world as we know it might not be such a bad idea. It sounded like the record Charles Manson might have made if he'd had musical talent, a sense of humor, or any skill whatsoever at sublimation.

On his latest release, an EP called Llovessonngs (Thrill Jockey), Conn turns his attention from international affairs to interpersonal relations. "I think it's pretty mean-spirited, because it is about love songs," he says. "Those songs of bone-crushing desperation are really chilling." Take Badfinger's "Without You," one of two covers on the four-song record: "If someone sang that to you, you'd expect them to be under a court order. That's pretty much how I hear all love songs. I think they generally say more about the pathology of the person singing. They're always written in terms of the singer's needs and wants, and there's something contradictory about that." In the spirit of that contradiction, the cover of the CD version features an endearing cartoon that would seem to represent Conn on bended knee in front of his collaborator and girlfriend, violinist Julie Pomerleau, while the cover of the vinyl version is an homage to Harry Nilsson's 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson, whose own hit version of "Without You" colors Conn's bleak take on the tune. Like Nilsson, Conn stares blearily past the camera, looking hungover and housebound in a black bathrobe; unlike Nilsson, he can't be bothered to hold the robe closed.

Conn's fascinated by the way pop songs stick in the mind, where they serve as shorthand for our deepest feelings. "I always think of a really good pop song as something that creates a visceral response without you having any choice in the matter. That's what I'm always trying to get at--stuff that makes my skin crawl," he says. "As I wanted to get more and more extreme, I realized that noise and extremity just isn't extreme anymore. It really takes something like 'Without You.' To me that's far more shocking and horrifying than most 'extreme music' because the sentiments involved are so wrongheaded and so manipulative and so disingenuous."

But don't the layers of metacommentary--howling lines like "And I don't care about anything / 'Cause I'm giving up" over a funky guitar breakdown and a mini gospel chorus, or singing "talk is cheap" over a flutter of priceless la-la-las--diminish the animal-brain charms that make the form so insidious in the first place? Not if you do it right. When I comment to Conn that his records have grown progressively catchier, he says with a smile, "I've tried to make each one more insipid." But easy listening isn't quite the right term for something like "Virginia," a startling stretch of lusty Eurofunk sung in French (a language Conn doesn't speak) and capped off with a mind-boggling freestyle rap by singer Virginia Montgomery. Or for Conn's rather ballsy, mostly falsetto cover of Caetano Veloso's "Maria B," which begins "Everybody knows that our cities are built to be destroyed."

But even extreme insipid pop eventually loses its edge, and Conn has begun work on a new full-length, titled Requiem, which he says will be his last as the polyester Antichrist. "Some of the ultraparanoia of the last two records has been mollified by the warm, loving reception that I've received in the past two years from people," he says. "It's become increasingly hard for me to keep up that sort of megalomania that's served me so well in the past. In a certain way, I'm sad to see it go." Llovessonngs, although it didn't come out until this week, was meant to be a "summer fun record...a sort of diversionary tactic to distract the world at large so that I could work on what I'm working on now. Requiem. The final chapter, the final installment, the denouement, the coup de grace. In the timeline that I've laid out for myself, or that's been laid out for me, depending on how you look at it, my birthday in the year 2000 is pretty much the end for Bobby Conn."

Conn's concept, while interesting on record, is best appreciated in his live performances, where musicians gathered from the jazz, improv, and avant-rock sectors tend to turn in stellar performances of unlikely arrangements while Conn pushes his voice and considerable charisma to the breaking point. On Friday at Lounge Ax, he'll give his newest material a run-through with an eight-piece band that includes Pomerleau, Montgomery, bassist Darin Gray, and percussionist Michael Zerang.

Postscript

In less culturally sensitive times, when Egyptian grave robbing was a perfectly acceptable avocation, no fashionable European household was without a knickknack or two from the tombs. And not all the previous owners of these objects wound up in museums: less important mummies were chopped up into more souvenirs or just dumped. Pretty horrifying when you consider the trouble the ancient Egyptians took to ensure the preservation of the body and hence the afterlife of the spirit. Some would say the desecration continues today: pop culture has always had a special place in its heart for lurid, cartoonish notions of ancient Egypt, a tradition to be explored this weekend by Chicago's best masked garage band, the Goblins. As drummer Beau Grumpus explains, "Though one might not expect freedom fighter Paul Robeson, electro funkster Egyptian Lover, and Danish metal god King Diamond to have anything in common, it's amazing how the land of the ancient kings inspired them all to greatness." Steve Martin's "King Tut" is on the set list, of course, and so are the two tunes on the Goblins' new picture disc, "Return of the Pharaohs" and "Go Down Moses." The free performance is Sunday at 2 PM at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum; the museum's recently renovated Egyptian gallery will be open.

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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