Review: Rusty Santos – Outside Versus In

Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy Dec. 1, 2003
Rusty Santos is a different kind of lo-fi singer/songwriter and, in a genre increasingly overcrowded with half-hearted troubadours, this may be one of his greatest assets. Unfortunately, on his self-released Outside Versus In, it’s also his greatest curse.
On the record, Santos almost entirely avoids one of the lynchpins of the singer/songwriter genre – the acoustic guitar – and instead defines an asymmetrical patchwork of tracks with multiple layers of vocals, samples/found sounds, keyboards, electronic percussion, and poorly recorded guitars.
The end result, given, is different and, like the lo-fi exercises of Barlow and Callahan, has a kind of busted charm. But, unlike the best of what you hear when listening to the strangely addictive Forgotten Foundation or Sewn to the Sky, Santos’ record frequently falls flat, exuding less an air of care-free experimentation or raw, unfiltered expression than clunky lo-fi noodling.

The best – or worst? – example of this may be the very first song on the record, the sample-heavy title track. On it, Santos gets things rolling with enough disjointed and ill-executed noises to constitute not one but several awkward openings. In less than a minute, we hear a drum roll being sped up on tape, some random bleeps over a reverse loop, a few game show keyboard burps, and then – in near-isolation – a countdown sequence that sounds like it’s being pumped out of a vintage Casio.

Santos then enters, singing over a detuned shuffle on guitar, his sometimes shrill voice being double-tracked over lines like “Outside versus inside / Help me, I’m lost / I can’t make up my mind.” Before that shuffle goes anywhere, it’s back into the random keyboard noises and the random loops, which may or may not make reference to the beginning of the song.

If placed correctly, a track like this could do well in breaking up the cohesiveness of a record, providing the listener with a sonic breather or throwing some unexpected flavor into the mix. Here, it’s a strange first step in a record that is consistent only in its inconsistency.

Some tracks fare better, but only a little better. “I Am a Loner,” though introduced with a very-familiar keyboard bounce, makes good use of vocals and much-needed harmony from contributor Miho Aoki. Though hampered slightly by a goofy handclap electric beat, “Two Ducks to the Wind” has a fun and almost childish playfulness to it. Like “I Am a Loner,” “Grass Roots” tries to make the most of multiple vocals and dissonant guitars, though to more comic effect. (Sample lyric: “Everything’s become incorporated / Everyone is masturbated / Hey Speed Racer, get up to speed.”)

“Karasu Crow,” which doesn’t wind much past the two-minute mark, uses some strange vocal filters and Wild Love-style keyboard washes to interesting effect. But, more often than not, it’s difficult to find the best moments of the material, which is not really engaging unless you take an active role in diving into it.

“Conspicuous Minimalist” completely loses track of an interesting line on acoustic guitar, sinking into a mire of whiny vocals and so many disjointed layers of guitars it’s tough to remember where the verses begin and end.

“Reflexive Proof” tries to pull a smirk from the listener, one is led to believe, through its use of a ridiculously out-of-place Old School hip-hop beat. A couple of interesting keyboard bridges aside, the song never gets off the ground. The crazed pseudo-recklessness of “Bibimpop” is just plain goofy, with Santos intoning things like “There’s no veggie barbecue” over disconnected guitar, keyboards and percussion. Outside Versus In then ends with “Feel Radio Signals,” which, after eight minutes or so of wandering around, finds a tune to stick with and then loses it before it develops into much more than, again, lo-fi noodling.

Though he is clearly schooled in the ways of the lo-fi tape manipulator – the method as well as the reflexive, often tongue-in-cheek humor – Santos does not really add much to the canon here.

For those who like their singer-songwriters to take neither the singing or the songwriting very seriously or stoically, there’s some interesting experiments on the record, things that point to how soundscapes can be literally cut and taped together using atypical sources. All in all, though, Santos may be better off picking up that acoustic guitar, as predictable and obvious as it may be, and hammering out more of a foundation before hitting the record button next time.

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