You’d be hard pressed to name an artist whose career works are as polarized as Rafter Roberts. And I’m not just talking about the types of artists he works with, who range from indie rock stalwarts like Sufjan Stevens and Rogue Wave to Christian lo-fi outfit Soul Junk to the no-wave of Kill Me Tomorrow to the Fiery Furnace record that made everyone really, really upset. I’m talking about the separation between the music he makes for his enjoyment and the music he makes to pay the bills. Roberts keeps himself fed by making music for commercials, really high profile ones for big companies. And yet his “rock” work, so to speak, is something much less commercial, bizarre, even.
For several years in San Diego, Roberts has been playing guitar in cuddly pop group Bunky, who are both weird and charming on their own. But when attempting solo work, the material is much more outlandish, a far cry from anything you’d hear in a Nike commercial. His new album, Music for Total Chickens treads a line between Lightning Bolt’s noisy thunder and The Microphones’ four-tracked folk symphonies. Tracks shift from affable, joyous folk to painful bouts of feedback and digital destruction to off-kilter indie pop. And given that Roberts’ voice is so humble and pleasant (much like that of Phil Elverum), his human presence among such clutter makes it all the more confusing.
Music for Total Chickens may sound a little intimidating, and no matter how you approach it, it’s going to come off a bit confusing. Nonetheless, there are countless pleasures to be gleaned from this release. In spite of its overwhelming distortion, opener “Encouragement” is actually a fun little song, combining self-help lyrics with Deerhoof-like noise pop. “Tragedy” revs up with driving rhythms and falsetto “oohs” before descending into a swaying folk breeze. “Your War” and “Unassailable” are back-to-back curiosities of messy, chaotic beauty. The former ends with group sung vocals, quite similar to yet another Asthmatic Kitty artist, while the latter is more of a building, exotic epic rocker. And then there’s the kicker; “Boy,” which clocks in at around four minutes, is the longest track on here, far eclipsing many of the other bits and bites of songs on this fragmented gem, and also marking a stark contrast with its moody balladic nature. My personal favorite is “Merchandise,” a loungy, pretty tune about, curiously enough, not giving into capitalist impulses (no, it’s not a Fugazi cover). Who knew?
Yes, Music for Total Chickens is a mess; it’s not really meant to be anything else. Sonically agonizing moments are juxtaposed with delicate melodies, and all the while, the gentle, unassuming Rafter sits in the middle of it all. This record shall prove, above all else, just how diverse a musician Roberts is. You don’t get this kind of artistic mayhem in a Citibank ad.
Deerhoof – Apple O’
Lightning Bolt – Wonderful Rainbow
Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.