Nathan Brown squats over an open 8-track cartridge, quietly nursing Marty Robbins’ No. 1 Cowboy back to health. The tape is a gift of appreciation for my having driven to Fort Worth to retrieve my 8-track player, which he has also just refurbished.
The player was a rescue, a relic from my days as a janitor. The family of a deceased orthodontist had placed it among the other detritus from the vacant office in the expectation that I toss it in the dumpster with the rest. Alone in the night outside the building of dental offices, I stashed it in the trunk of my hulking Crown Victoria until, unbeknownst to me at the time, it should be placed in Brown’s caring hands.
I had the player restored to working condition specifically because RTB2, with Nathan Brown’s help, released We Are a Strange Man on 8-track and only on 8-track. The move befits the persistently, if congenially, iconoclastic duo. Moreover, the 8-track era, encompassing half of the ‘60s and ‘80s and all of the ‘70s, has always been held in penultimate regard by Becker as the moment of crystalline rock, roll and soul on which all else pivots. I imagine his band’s name on a black, bulky, plastic tape cartridge elicits no small amount of Becker’s delight.
The nascent resurrection of the 8-track format is, I think, a concerned minority’s last grab at tactility in a world that is surely drifting toward the immaterial — images that never quite become people, pages that rarely become paper. It is a world in which possibility holds tyrannical sway over actuality. So there is a certain pleasure in Marty Robbins become incarnate in ferrous tape beneath a plastic sarcophagus.
Nathan Brown asserts 8-track as a format whose quality surpasses all others, and the endearing thing is you can tell he really believes it. This includes vinyl, which he says demonstrates a dipped equalization, and CDs, which he says have an equalization, like 8-tracks, that is flat, but flat “in the wrong way.”
I have always been vulnerable to suggestion. If someone says my coffee tastes like citrus, then, I’ll be damned, it tastes just like citrus. If you tell me my wine has a hint of Tuscan strawberry, then I taste it as sure as I have tasted anything. (I neither know nor care if strawberries actually grow in Tuscany.) It is little surprise that I sat listening to We Are a Strange Man on my newly restored player and I could hear it: perfection, just like Brown promised.
Releasing an album solely on a nearly obsolete medium is a move only a band like RTB2 could accomplish well. Singer Ryan Thomas Becker’s evolutionary theory of song – a title so intriguing it should be an actual book someday – lends itself to the act of producing music to which few will have access. Becker’s ethic is based on the belief that a song is never finished. In Becker’s world, a song can grow, morph, have mood swings, throw a tantrum, stop and think.
While three new songs comprise the tape’s first program, the majority of songs on We Are a Strange Man are remnants from Becker’s back-catalog of solo – Uncomfortable Index Fingers, Neighborhoof – and RTB2 releases – In the Fleshed. Nevertheless, I can testify, that is of trifling reassurance to RTB2 fans without an 8-track player. Those songs are recognizable, but grown and turned into a new light with new contours, new faces. They include a soulful rendition of “Sarahs in Cars” that would make Sam Cooke weep and the “musical masturbation” version of “When Hammer Hits Stone,” a once-criticism that Becker owns and, strangely, in which he takes a cheeky pride.
The album bears the marks and crags of its haste. It is rangy and dirty and entirely suited to RTB2’s nervy grit. Becker’s guitar threatens feedback on every pause. Grady Sandlin’s drums scatter off the walls of his living room, where they staged the recording. No attempt has been made to polish, no doubt an intentional act of negligence.
RTB2 plans to release an album in the “normal” manner in the near future, and many may be tempted to pass over We Are a Strange Man as a novelty release between projects. But the material is original, unrepeatable snapshots of songs on a particular day and in a particular mood. Nathan Brown, who released the album on his 8-track label, Dead Media, is clear. He is not interested in creating novelty, but in recreating a customer base for a format he sincerely enjoys. RTB2’s album plays like a vigorous justification for Brown’s enthusiasm. So scour your parents’ closets. Beat the bushes of Saturday yard sales. Get a player and get an 8-track before every last molecule becomes a pixel.
RTB2 – We Are a Strange Man (2011 – Dead Media)