By Martin Dickie
Allowing yourself to be overcome by the new wave basslines, gothic ablutions and Gregorian disco of his Ronseal-inspired A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material, it is worth noting just how coherent John Maus’ vision has been.
Befriended by Ariel Pink at the California Institute for Arts and an early member of his Haunted Graffiti stable, Maus has forged a similarly lo-fi route through solo releases that include three studio albums, two previously collected compilations and a clutch of demos made available through his website. The present collection spans his career since 1999, but cleverly reinforces and extends the themes of his last project, the critically successful (and much more imaginatively-titled) We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, released in July 2011.
While both artists drench their recordings in gloriously ghostly reverb, Pink at times takes his jangly LA pop and blues way, way too seriously. Maus’ feudal post-punk, on the other hand, is peppered with wry nods towards a nostalgia-rich ’80s of half-recognised synth stabs and organ riffs. Despite hailing from Austin, Minnesota, his sound is cheekily British, heralding the industrial grind of Cabaret Voltaire, Bauhaus’ vampirism, and an ethereal and Bowie-evoking vocal style.
You’d think it’d be the other way around. Proud owner of a PhD in political philosophy from the European Graduate School in Switzerland, you’d be forgiven for assuming Maus’ music was meta-physical and meandering. Not so; few of these rarities clock in at over three minutes and all are knowingly awash in campy smoke machines and melodrama: “Well I still love the girl from Bennington”.
What’s also striking is how strong this collated material is when stood next to the artfully crafted Pitiless. Nearly all of its tracks, from the aforementioned ’Bennington’ to the fast-paced ‘Castles in the Grave’, with its irreverent glam riff that sounds like a bagpipe on amphetamines, wouldn’t be treading water on his previous long-players.
‘No Title (Molly)’, originally released on a flexi disc as part of a Domino/Ribbon Music Record Store Day promotion, is a driving, Field Music-esque anthem. Opening track ‘North Star’ is a fine companion piece to Pitiless’ thoughtful ‘…And the Rain’, while album closer ‘I Don’t Eat Human Beings’, with its unexpected and unironic guitar riffs, could be either a cast-off from Merriweather Post Pavillion or the B-side to Dire Strait’s ‘Brothers in Arms’.
The disc’s highlight among many highlights is ‘My Hatred is Magnificent’, which surfaced originally in 2008 but anchors this collection between the rollicking aural assault of ‘This Is The Beat’ and the melancholic sneer of ‘The Fear’. It is a soaring, cathedral-smashing, adrenalin-fuelled alien abduction that mournfully relents at the end of a criminally short two minutes 57 seconds.
One of the collection’s most intriguing moments is his 1999 effort ‘Fish with Broken Dreams’, which is barely a foetus of the John Maus sound. It begins with the artist’s vocals and top-end piano keys very high up in the mix and ends with a dizzying and nightmarish carousel-ride, with not a reverb pedal in sight.
In terms of value for money, there is only one real dud – 2003’s ‘Lost’ would be better if it stayed that way – however, only two songs here have never been released before. Nine were available on John Maus’ website last year; this could be considered something of a B-side collection to Pitiless, but I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s for die-hard fans only. Those new to John Maus could be just as successfully immersed in his unique sound with this album as those who discovered it previously, despite nothing here quite equalling the relentlessly brilliant ‘Quantum Leap’ from Pitiless, which frankly is one of the singles of the 21st century so far.
Overall, it is a worthy addition to his canon and more than enough for his new swathes of fans, post-Pitiless, to sink their teeth into before its follow-up album proper.