Hand painted on blue construction paper
Rex Marshall was born to record music straight to a cassette tape. Or at least, I like to imagine that this was all in the cards at some point; that Marshall, growing up outside the Vegas strip, took in just as many cheap, warped Human League and Duran Duran tapes as wheezing Elvis impersonators. Marshall records under the name Mattress, and it's an apt moniker—his broken new wave songs feel both cheap and sturdy, dirty and lived-in. Marshall has released some of my favorite local records of the last few years, and has one of the most intense and vital live shows you'll ever see. I've called him a “toxic lounge singer” in the past, and I still think that holds true, but on this tape—a live session recorded for Jason Sigal's "Talk Cheap" show on WFMU, the longest-running free-form radio station in the U.S, in September 2009—Marshall makes the case that he's just a singer, period.
Over the course of the seven song WFMU Tape
, Marshall's range of tone barely changes. I mean, dude sings low
—even on faster songs like the guitar ‘n drums banger “My Reason,” Marshall's voice takes command over the music, like a deranged Alan Vega preaching to a city of zombies. But the mix here is smart, placing his vocals at the front and not even trying to hide his pipes in fuzz or synthesizer noise. Marshall is free to whoop, holler, mumble, and shout over the lean percussion and his own guitar playing. But best of all, the live recording captures Mattress' raw energy better than on his more reserved (maybe even over-thought) studio material. I enjoyed Mattress' last record, Low Blows
, but it's just a little too claustrophobic; on this session, Mattress is given room to breathe, and the immediacy of the tape is a more accurate reflection of Marshall's aesthetic than Low Blows
Some of the songs on the tape are skeletal and sparse, like the slowly-churning “Bad Times,” which sees Marshall crooning “there are so many songs about the bad times” over organ and drummer Chuck Wakins' barely there clicks and clacks. Others are more layered than his earlier work, but the cassette's seven songs are a perfect introduction Marshall's weird world. WFMU
catches Mattress in a good spot, with the recent addition of live drums adding subtle layers to his sound. You see, Marshall used to perform with nothing but a microphone and tape deck, and he would emerge from the stage, pop the pre-recorded tape into the player, and belt out the non-hits. In a story I wrote
two years ago he talked about wanting to fool the audience into thinking the music was “coming from my hands.”
“I just decided to put everything on cassette,” Marshall says between bites of sushi. “It's like, whatever, people sing with laptops, ya know? I think I can sneak a tape deck in and nobody will know. It's like this mysterious background music pumping out. Where's it coming from? It's coming from my hands! That's what I want it to look like.”
It's a wonderful image—I picture Marshall decked out in his suit covered in Christmas lights
, writhing on the floor, shooting sound lasers from his fingertips—but it's not the defining one for me. I'll always associate Mattress with his clunky cassette tapes.
Logo by Casey Jarman