Vending Machine – The Chamber from Here to There

Vending Machine
The Chamber from Here to There

Did you ever make or receive a cassette compilation of shoddily dubbed songs, which, from overuse or inattention, contained many noticeable recording imperfections? Maybe it was the seventh time you’d used the same tape and you hear previous songs bleeding through, or possibly you just were careless and only got incomplete versions of certain songs and didn’t completely erase others, with random bits and pieces missing and showing up where they don’t belong. But, warts and all, this tape still became one of your favorites because of the strength of the songs it contained. In time, you became enamored with even the misplaced squeaks and squonks that didn’t belong there, to the point that the songs wouldn’t sound right any other way. If you can relate to this description, Vending Machine has made an album for you.
The second solo release from Robby Grant, one half of funk-rockers BigAssTruck, The Chamber from Here to There has the random patchwork feel that is guaranteed to inspire some and annoy others. A true believer in the hit or miss art of spontaneous songcraft, Grant has stated that with this release he made more of a concerted effort to play in time and write actual songs instead of the “bits” that comprised his first solo effort, 1998’s Unleavened Bread. And the results are really quite listenable.
Almost coming across as a super lo-fi early Talking Heads album, with Grant yelping out nonsensical lyrics with all the sincerity of David Byrne while song structures evaporate into hidden choruses and time changes, the peculiarities and imperfections are the strengths of The Chamber from Here to There. Case in point, the opening “Happy Customer” chugs along with snappy strummed acoustic guitar and understated drums with lyrics to the effect of “if you receive something from a vending machine, if it exceeds all expectations, you’ll have a happy customer,” before breaking into a demented chorus of “Hee hee hee ha ha ha”s. Needless to say, when not inspiring the songs are certainly entertaining. In many ways, the thrown-together nature of the recording has much in common with the earliest Beck recordings, where humor played as big a role as technical proficiency. Also reminiscent to Beck are Grant’s ruminations on the seemingly inconsequential events of everyday life.
“Taped Over Tape” is actually about having your favorite tape taped over, just as “Sand it Down” seems to be recounting a typical day for a 6-year-old, watching time creep by, wishing the mail came twice a day, and wondering where certain noises come from. Other songs border on the downright bizarre, with the funky psychedelic groove of “8 til Late” as an apparent homage to a nearby store where you can get your ears pierced and “a friend of a friend got stabbed in the face” though “it could happen any place.” Similarly strange is the sincere piano balladry of “Natural Neighborhood Chair,” recounting the tale of a girl named Cassandra who made a potion that turned one of her friends into a tree stump that the local kids use as a chair. So, while Grant isn’t exactly writing protest songs, his vision is still infinitely more interesting than hearing some overly-emotional kid scream about injustices that he doesn’t understand.
Still, Grant does head down some almost unlistenable side-roads. “Chocolate Guitars” is a quirky funk workout about looking for chocolate guitars that were stolen by “some evil imp,” with pleas to keep them away from heat and out of the sun to prevent their melting. The tuneless tip-toeing chord progressions of “Together” bring to mind Captain Beefheart’s more random sounding arrangements, with indecipherable lines like “all in a line eeor, shade a rhythmic day together eeor.” It’s possible that some listeners will have their patience tested at various stops through the album’s 16 tracks. That’s not to say that Grant can’t incorporate fairly conventional sounds into his mix, with the solid garage band hooks of “Grunt Once” finding favorable comparisons to early Jonathan Richman recordings, just as the sing-songy folkiness of “No Context” provides a more straightforward detour.
The sum effect of the Vending Machine listening experience is surprisingly easy to digest. The songs are fairly catchy, altogether original, and completely memorable. Like that poorly recorded tape, the quirks and imperfections actually become endearing. With the content of his lyrics, you can be pretty sure that Grant isn’t holding anything back, and thereby, you can be equally sure that this is probably the exact album he wanted to make. While he may not be changing the world, or even the musical climate, you can be fairly sure he doesn’t have any misguided pretenses in his songwriting, either. And that’s where the appeal of The Chamber from Here to There lies. The album bleeds personality and authenticity. Of course, some people do have annoying personalities…