For the Records | Cultivating a Garden of Trash on Neil Cicierega’s “Mouth Moods”

For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.

Most of the albums on this list have taken a little digging to find. If not by continued interest in the artists I already love, or by suggestion from a friend or friendly algorithm, then I’ve had to go frog-kissing to find them, digging into lists, mining for paydirt. Pitchfork’s year end lists have been especially helpful here. But go back far enough and you’ll find a time when I just had to let those songs come to me, a process more akin to turning on the tap, holding your cup under, and taking what comes out.

But just because I’ve left a lot of this music behind doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten it. Instead, more often it stubbornly occupies my brain like the lyrics to Barenaked Ladies “One Week,” ready to be recited on command 20 years later if need be. In the ‘90s, radio defined the boundaries of my musical world. As close as those boundaries were, the ecology within them still felt dense and diverse, but an embarrassment of riches can eventually feel like just an embarrassment.

There are whole areas of my brain that are simply landfills for pop culture, spilling over with otherwise useless quotes from sitcoms and commercials, radio jingles and station identification call letters, an endless procession of top 40 songs, everything my eager mind imbibed before I learned to start cultivating my own tastes. I fly over it now like a landlocked gull, looking for some bit of poetry or humor to swoop down and pick from its white styrofoam casing.

In the wrong light, these musical memories are like a crassly conceived amusement park built over an unspoiled natural wonder, a landscape of cheap thrills and a never ending supply of corn syrup, look close enough at the picture and you’ll find me there, biding my time during commercial break. In a more generous light, they provide a shared experience, a memetic language that allows me to connect with others, a garden built from trash. Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Moods is the best example I have of such a garden.

The “Mouth” in Mouth Moods refers to Smash Mouth, who’s turn of the 21st century superhit “All Star” is so catchy, vapid, quotable, and of-its-time that it has become the urtext of much of Neil’s work and an entire subculture of the internet that has chopped, screwed, remixed, slowed down, sped up, and contorted it in every possible direction divining, destroying, and deifying its awesome commercial power. Mouth Moods is preceded in Neil’s catalog of mash up albums by Mouth Sounds, which features samples of “All Star” over the entire record, and Mouth Silence who’s defining feature is that it is completely devoid of any samples of “All Star.”

It’s an understatement to say that Neil is pedantically committed to the joke here. But the headline joke is really only the smallest part of Neil’s power. His mashups across his albums stand among the most expertly crafted and edited of any released. They come together with an uncanny cohesion like in the way Hans Zimmer’s “Time” theme from Inception creates a bed of swelling drama and uplift under the vocals of the Village People’s disco hit “YMCA.” The new track created by these disparate parts is an entirely new third thing. You may choose to find humor in the blending of forms, but you may also find, like me, a moving tribute to the LGBTQ rights movement. All the better that it uses such iconic and well-known source material. The magic of the transformation is a grander spectacle.

The power of these tracks may come from the fact that Neil more often starts from the thematic as opposed to the sonic. Mouth Moods’ opener “The Starting Line,” the title a reference to some of the first lyrics of Cake’s “The Distance,” mashes up a number of iconic song-starting musical and lyrical phrases. This of course includes Smash Mouth’s iconic “All Star” opening lyric “Somebody once told me,” but works in Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It,” C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now,” and even the opening chant from “Kung Fu Fighting” to create the ultimate album opener.

In fact, most of the tracks on Mouth Moods contain some sly joke or overarching theme in addition to being sonically interesting. Take for instance “Bustin’,” which remixes Ray Parker, Junior’s Ghostbusters theme to create a new narrative where Ray seems to cautiously admit his desire to have sex with ghosts. Or there’s “Annoyed Grunt,” which borrows non-verbal utterances from Home Improvement, Disturbed, Korn, and others to create a rich tapestry of regressive male gibberish.

Late ‘90s radio rock like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit seems to be of particular interest to Neil. This works especially well for me, since I can personally relate to this awkward musical legacy. Neil unearths these tracks like a suppressed memory, dragged out finally to be confronted and forgiven. In the album’s final showstopper “Shit,” the spiritual sequel to Mouth Silence’s final track “Piss,” Limp Bizkit’s “My Way,” (which already brings together rap-rock, the Mission: Impossible theme, and a nod to Frank Sinatra), weaves in and out of Spice Girl’s “Wannabe” and Santana’s “Smooth” to turn Fred Durst’s confused self-empowerment anthem into a powerful statement on one man’s irrepressible dream to take a dump standing up.

Scatalogical humor aside, these are thinking man’s mash-ups. They contain understated humor that rewards closer listen. A song like “Tiger,” which takes Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and ends every line with Tiger, or “Wndrwll,” which reduces Oasis’ “Wonderwall” to dadaist-baby-talk, pokes at the fabric of popular songwriting itself, reminding us of the formulas these cultural monsters are made of, and giving us the joy of storming their impenetrable intellectual property gates, and hacking into our own memories in the process.

Of course, we’ve been storming these gates for some time. Neil’s lineage has a rich history that goes back to turntablism and mixtape culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the Aughts, Girl Talk mixed rap, rock, and pop with uncanny precision creating danceable bangers from a host of tracks that often retained their cache of coolness, mostly featuring rap tracks that add strutting party bravado over a host of unimpeachable rock and pop licks. By comparison, Neil more often starts from the defiantly uncool. While some of his tracks succeed as party anthems, most are nerdy delights better suited to headphone listening.

Neil’s nerdy lineage is also indebted to Weird Al. Weird Al’s 2014 release Mandatory Fun was a kind of comeback moment as he used the internet to its greatest possible effect, slowly releasing videos for many of the songs. But while Al is smart enough to market with the internet, he’s not a phenomenon born of the internet, but of the record industry. Even if his wordplay is on-point, his approach feels outdated, especially when one can open YouTube and find a hundred spoofs for every chart-topping hit. Neil’s copy/paste approach on Mouth Moods is the work of an internet native with a deep understanding of meme culture, where referents are sourced from originals and not recreated, and where meanings are more mutable and additive. If I’ve seen such mash-ups of similar quality on the internet, I’ve not seen them presented so cohesively in the full-length LP form, which may account for some of its freshness. If Al is an LP artist using the internet’s short attention span for its strengths, Neil is the inverse, an internet artist using the LP form for its prestige.

It’s worth noting that while still Al surfs his parody on the crest of the charts, it’s often on music that fails to even reach my radar. The most recent radio sample on Mouth Moods comes from MIA’s 2007 hit “Paper Planes,” but it’s a relative outlier among samples mostly pulled from the late ‘90s but that infrequently reach back into the ‘70s and ‘60s. This means that Neil is on my own particular FM wavelength. Neil would have been entering high school when I was leaving it. The references on this album are his own trash heap. It just so happens that trash looks a lot like mine. By cultivating his own garden, he has done me a great service. | Mike McCubbins

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