Perhaps the Ergo Phizmiz phenomenon is better known in England/Europe, but I hadn’t heard of him until a promo copy of “Things To Do and Make” landed at KiC headquarters. A quick online search reveals the rich career of Mr. Phizmiz over the last decade, who looks to be a well-admired fellow working as a multimedia composer, artist, and sound art archivist. If you’re interested in exploring his work, he releases a substantial portion of his output directly to Archive.org and Free Music Archive, where just a few clicks will yield many hours of Phizmizian glory.
While most of his previous work focuses on plunderphonics, collage, and bizarre cover arrangements, “Things To Do and Make” is what he considers his first recorded foray into pop music. It’s an incredibly catchy album that I’ve found myself playing many times over. In its way, though, its brand of “pop” belongs to your eccentric great uncle. Ergo’s “pop” manifests through deep influences from vaudeville music and late-era Tin Pan Alley arrangements, while his lyrics and even his accent deliver the project with a whimsical attitude redolent of the Canterbury scene of the late 60s. Phizmiz also reveals himself to be a capable multi-instrumentalist, using a wide range of acoustic instruments with confidence (and occasional electronic supplementation from drum machines/synths/samplers). Many string and keyboard instruments are featured, and I also hear a lot of wind instruments, from clarinets to low brass to tinwhistles and slide whistles. While a lot of songs are very short—half of the album’s tracks are around 3 minutes or less—many of the longer compositions feature well-played instrumental passages.
Ergo is a great vocalist, too, and he’s filled many of these arrangements with layers of satisfying overdubbed vocals. Vocal melodies generally move quickly, creating rich layers of bizarre vaudevillian rhymes. The straight mid to uptempo rhythms found through most of the album sustain the carnival atmosphere, but harmonically, Phizmiz stretches out with experimentation closer to the Canterbury vibe: half step motion like that of the verse endings in “Busby Berkley,” or the meandering faux-Baroque falsetto lines of “The Dapper Transvestite,” wouldn’t have been common in the early 20th C. pop this music expands upon. Some songs seem to come from more of a 50s or 60s rock & roll approach, like “Dirty Shower Honk Stomp” and “Late,” but my favorites point toward older influences. Homemade instruments and junk percussion frequently appear, punctuating a lot of arrangements with toy squeaks, jaw harps, and slippery low-tuned plucked strings.
One doesn’t hear many people this far North of Syd Barrett continuing to expand on the potential of vaudeville songwriting, but Phizmiz has proved to me with this record that there indeed remain “things to do and make.” And I’d highly suggest exploring Phizmiz’s many online recordings, as they’re clever and beautifully conceived on their own, while also contributing to a rich overarching career quest toward music that can be both touching and fun. Related to his pop music efforts, one can find similarly chimerical instrumentals in excerpts from his music for operas and plays, and amusing “utility music” applications of his pop music made to solve problems like repairing or comforting household appliances, or musically addressing irritating neighbors. The next Phizmiz pop release looks to be titled “Look, Do and Listen,” which seems to have been released last year. I don’t see any ordering information for it online, but if anyone knows of a way to locate this record, feel free to mention it in the comments—I’d love to give it a workout on my turntable.