Vundabar’s ‘Smell Smoke’ Makes You Dance Your Way to Cynicism

Courtesy of Vunderbar's Bandcamp,

By Miguel Hernández Mercado
Bu News Service


During Vundabar’s record release show this month at the Sinclair, a would-be crowd surfer made it atop the crowd during one of the least climactic parts of a song.

The silence before a punk guitar storm, the band stops playing as front man Brandon Hagen asks him, “What are you? Just lounging?” and then resumes.

Their sets are full of little jokes like this. Hagen might wear a weird cowboy hat, or they might repeat their nonsensical inside jokes until they start being funny, or they might bring out stuffed toys for the crowd to rip apart.

A prankster’s lightheartedness lies at the core of Vundabar’s music, even though you always end up dancing more aggressively than you thought you would. It’s supposed to be fun. Every song invites sing-alongs and have cathartic, heavy sections. What’s not as obvious, especially  if you ignore the lyrics, is the dejected side—the deep cynicism underneath the joyful façade.

Cynicism is throughout the record they just released, “Smell Smoke.” In it, Hagen—the main songwriter—settled into a lyrical style first set in their previous albums, “Gawk and “Desert Diddy.” There he imagined a blind man stuck in a desert, the only one pure enough not to drink the sand because he couldn’t see everyone else doing it.

“He only understood because he couldn’t understand,” sang Hagen. The imagery—while bizarre—gives form to familiar anxieties of our times like consumerism and lack of individuality. “Smell Smoke” is full of such surreal tales of cynicism—dark, cartoonish scenarios that awaken our angst.

“No People to Person” is one of them.  At the middle of the album it conjures a forsaken and empty world where there’s no one left to drive the one mysterious vehicle left, an “American machine.”

The playful guitar and vocal delivery of the verses reminds me of the ironic, black-humored songs of Syd Barrett in the early Pink Floyd days (“Jugband Blues,” “Bike”) but darker. “I think they seeked a drink / They found not enough to drink, but to drown.”

The words offer no respite or hope from this apocalyptical view of society. But the heavy instrumental part where you might expect a chorus encourages a visceral sort of release and balance the verbalized melancholy.

That’s when the crowd might get a bit wilder.

Hagen recently talked about how his songwriting was affected by his time taking care of a terminally-ill loved one. Two of the songs seem to address this directly.  

“There’s nothing that’s poetic about a bed sore,” opens the album’s second song, “Harvest.” “Hospital receipts / they make a coffin seem so cheap,” sings Hagen in “Big Funny.” These lines bring the whole album back to earth. It’s not an imaginary society that’s messed up—it’s ours. “Big Funny” brings up health care and the “government job” following you around the block for proof.

Not all of the songs are that deep though.

“Diver,” a simple tale about a disappointed deep-sea diver whose attempt at escapism failed, is followed by “$$$,” the singular message that money is evil. “$$$,” which opened some of their sets before the album was released, doesn’t need to be too clever to succeed. It has Hagen’s unique voice—equal parts mockery and pain, high with a hoarse edge. It builds suspense on a slow tempo and ends rocking hard in double time. The drum, bass, and guitar dynamics that make Vundabar sound full and versatile get full-blown here.

You don’t need to distrust capitalism to enjoy it.  It might help, though.

The record closes with one of the cartoonish tales, “A Man Loses a Hat.” Out of Vundabar’s discography so far, the arrangement here brings out Hagen’s vocals more than any other song. The restrained track lets him sing soft for an entire verse and bring subtlety into his delivery.

You’re really listening now. The song is about a man who loses his hat, the same one everyone else wears, and starts doubting everything. Before coming to any realization, however, he sees the same hat on sale and buys it. He’s back where he started.

The song reminds me of my own cynicism and how society pushes people towards conformism. But for the moment, while I listen, I’m just happy it hasn’t completely happened to me yet. So let’s have fun.

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