The Ex-Hustlers – Dirty Haiku

The Ex-Hustlers
Dirty Haiku

Sometimes it’s the music reviewer’s lot in life to feel like a 10th grade English teacher who has a stack of papers to grade: you know your job is highly arbitrary, probably influenced way too much by your biases, and arguably irrelevant. Most of the grades you give out are probably not exactly glowing, but you try to remain as objective and positive as you can. After all, you’re analyzing something that someone (ideally) put a lot of work into and probably takes some amount of pride in. You’d rather be reading Hemingway (or listening to the Beatles), but you keep reading or listening just in case you might find something surprising. Plus, it’s your job, and it’s not exactly without its perks.
Because seven out of 10 discs that slide into your mailbox are mediocre at best, you try to reward an honest effort. Happily, Portland’s Ex-Hustlers earn points on this part of the checklist. Their somewhat middle-of-the-road aesthetic, dubbed by some as “indie pop with a head cold,” borrows heavily from the camps of Pavement, Built to Spill, and Guided By Voices, but is enthusiastic and altogether sincere. Vocalist Matt Howell has the standard indie rock voice, perfect for the way he talks/sings his lyrics with Stephen Malkamus’ phrasing, though most are noticeably free of the latter’s wit and obscurity. Lines like “I can tell by your eyes and the bumps on my skull that you and I would be wonderful” or “I’m drunk and I’ve got a time machine” are delivered with no sense of irony from these stone-cold romantics. In short, it’s evident that the Ex-Hustlers have had some troubles with their girlfriends, with nearly every song here being some form of tribute or plea to a former lover. Criticizing this makes me feel like the teacher who dumps on a student for writing about his parent’s divorce, however.
Honestly, you can easily get burnt out on indie rock albums. Let’s face it, everyday it gets harder to do something interesting with two guitars, bass, and drums. Displaying musical talent really isn’t enough, and the extra margin has to be made up with personality or simple blind ambition. And while this is potentially the easiest factor to bring under your artistic control, as it depends little on technical proficiency or skillful innovation, it’s the missing factor for most artists. The Ex-Hustlers are a solid band, but solid bands rarely steal headlines.
Still, some of these songs are darn good. The Ex-Hustlers have an excellent grasp of the soft-loud dynamic, use deft tempo changes and write great angular guitar melodies. They’re not completely without their quirks, either, and make ventures down some well-worn indie side roads, with the country-tinged “RE: Telekinesis” and the acoustic guitar and moog coda in “(love theme from) Lick the Lake.” Still, nothing here is particularly distinguishing. Music shouldn’t be a restrictive process, and you shouldn’t be afraid to make the loudest, most obnoxious sound you can imagine. Heck, the Butthole Surfers have had a long life largely doing only that. I’m not saying you have to rewrite the Book of Rock, but it never hurt to try to put your own stamp on it. At 55 minutes, Dirty Haiku reads like a five-page essay that could have said everything necessary in three.
In the end, it’s hard, and potentially hypocritical, to grade another human being. Especially when considering that most music reviewers, to my experience, are either failed or struggling musicians themselves. No doubt, I give the music critic profession too much credit. Reviewers don’t have the same kind of suffocating control over someone’s future as a teaching professional, and I doubt a bad review stings like getting back a research paper covered with red ink. So, I grudgingly drop the Ex-Hustlers in the B- to C+ category and feel dirty for doing so.