Prinzhorn Dance School: Clay Class

DFA, 2012

Prinzhorn Dance School‘s self-titled debut was one of those rare records that genuinely, and successfully, escaped critical dissection. Definable or vaguely describable, sure: it was minimalist, nostalgic post punk. But it defied nuanced explanations of potential importance or relevancy in the zeitgeist of 2007. Similar to MGMT’s Congratulations, Prinzhorn Dance School seemed to elude any substantive analysis beyond “It’s different, and I like it” or “It’s different, and I don’t like it”. However, as a band, drummer/guitarist Tobin Prinz and drummer/bassist Suzi Horn weren’t copping out, and their album didn’t feel like a conscious avoidance of the mainstream microscope.

Prinzhorn’s songs were impervious to the critical eye because, for the most part, they weren’t really songs at all, rather sketches and blueprints of hypothetically grander expressions – principled exercises in the repetition of words, phrases and noises that sound interesting through a funnel of southern English, set to a backdrop of mechanically fundamental drum beats and strings. Those exercises were largely successful as well: foundations of kick drum, one-note bass and twangy guitars could be left in your head for weeks, and you could find yourself unconsciously muttering innocuous phrases like “lawyer’s water jug” in a demure Brighton accent, over and over and over again. It was scattered, it was lengthy, it was jarring and it was different; but everything about Prinzhorn Dance School was dangerously infectious. It was brilliant.

It’s been half a decade since most audiences have heard a peep from the band though. Early single “Seed, Crop, Harvest” offered a preview of what was to be an album of slightly built-up, more guitar-driven arrangements. It was encouraging. While generally retaining the same three instruments (drum, bass, and guitar) in the band’s canon, “Seed, Crop, Harvest” is arguably Prinzhorn’s first fully realized “song”. It isn’t a disciplinary drill in vocal staccato or striking contrasts between positive and negative space, but a nice whole piece of music complete with verses, refrains, guitar solos and a finale – application, not experimentation.

But an album of material similar to “Seek, Crop, Harvest”, no matter how thrilling, carries with it the burden of substance: if and when Prinzhorn decide to start writing actual songs, those songs can (unlike their debut material) be picked apart by their audience; if the songs on sophomore full-length Clay Class aren’t very good, then Clay Class may simply not be very good, no matter how minimal or idiosyncratic it is; and if Clay Class isn’t very good, then maybe Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz aren’t very good songwriters in the traditional sense, regardless of their technical mastery of deconstruction and sonic shaping. Unfortunately, when viewed within this context, Clay Class suffers from a melange of quality in terms of both having interesting things to say and finding the right words to express them.

Though starting out strong with the floor tom-heavy, head-bobbing rhythm of “Happy in Bits” and the high-energy basal rocker “Usurper”, the duo’s steadily illuminating inclination towards dry, vaguely slowcore instrumental accords can quickly grow uninteresting, and it becomes increasingly difficult, amid the never-ending swell of static bass lines and nadir guitar work on tracks like “I Want You”, to find a graspable moment, emotionally or intellectually. The distinction of Prinzhorn’s music is its penchant for plodding metronomy, deceleration and outright silence, but on their debut it was balanced – even endeared – by the duo’s ability to craft some of the most memorable word groupings in contemporary music. On the bulk of Clay Class, I didn’t find myself hanging on many – if any – of Prinz and Horn’s deadpan-delivered words.

This record finds them attempting to not just enunciate but also sing a good portion of the album’s lyrics; and not just sing, but sing about more conventional topics like life cycles and failed interpersonal relationships. Therein may lie Clay Class‘s greatest detraction, because although it’s clear Prinzhorn are trying to bring the subject matter down to earth, their approach to songwriting somehow remains as opaque as it ever was; as a result they’ve made several deceptively profound stylistic leaps that audiences may not be able to make with them. Instead of experiencing little bits of hysterical titillation in response to a verse of absurd yet perfectly-placed stereophonic two-voice syllabic utterances, the listener is trapped by an urge to decipher whatever it is Prinzhorn Dance School may actually be talking about, and the particular words Prinzhorn happen to apply this time around simply aren’t as captivating.

However, that’s the worst of it. Lyrical colloquies aren’t everything; and besides, what good is experimentation in the arts if it’s not applied to rooted custom. With tracks like ultra-dim shout marathon “You’re Fire Has Gone Out” and the entrancing “Sing Orderly” balancing substance and texture more gracefully than anything else in their catalog, Clay Class feels more like a mixed bag than a misfire because it is (a) uncompromising in its commitment to applying, as a musical creative shorthand, the edginess that Prinzhorn explored on their debut and (b) a fascinating collection of songs replete with the kind of quirky and personal abstractions that place Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn apart from the bulk of modern recording artists. It’s just that their music is no longer undefinable and, as songwriters, they’re no longer untouchable.

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