One Ring Zero:

Paul Fischer

One Ring Zero,
As Smart as We Are
Soft Skull Press/Urban Geek Records, 2004

I often feel that the only thing separating my life from the movies is not having a soundtrack to accompany it. Looking around on the subway, strangers wrapped safely in sound, I wonder what it is that they’re listening to, what it is that they’re mumbling – how it is that they orchestrate their lives. In this day of iPods, with a play-list for every mood, it would seem that the options are endless. And yet I walk around day after day in silence, unable to match a sound to the thoughts in my head. Or at least, I did until seeing One Ring Zero perform at The Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, when suddenly, I couldn’t help but smile as I realized I had finally found my score.

Fronted by Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp, One Ring Zero’s music seems right out of a fantasy Catskill-Land prom where instead of standing nervously on the sidelines, these otherwise unlikely rock stars take center stage. With their magical mix of instruments from Claviola to Theremin (not to mention their cute suits lifted off the pages of a bar mitzvah album), they worked pure wonder on the stage. It was as if I had awakened in a dream world. In my fantasy, their musical sets would have been punctuated with adolescent dance floor games -- in reality, these clever geeky guys surrounded themselves with literary stars including Paul Auster, Rick Moody and Jonathan Ames, who had contributed works to the project and read pieces in between songs.

The concept for the album As Smart As We Are was simple: Hearst and Camp invited their favorite authors to contribute lyrics. The result is a witty cabaret-esque collection of songs penned by Auster, Moody and Ames as well as Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem and Myla Goldberg, among others. While One Ring Zero may be the first band to raise their lyrics to such literary levels, they’re hardly strangers to the fiction world. After dropping off a CD at Dave Eggers’ Brooklyn bookstore, Store, the band quickly became a fixture at readings organized by Eggers’ journal, McSweeney’s. Hearst and Camp went from playing between readings to playing with the readings and eventually the idea for the album was born. Rick Moody was the first author to contribute lyrics to the album. After him, the rest fell into place.

This quirky collection of songs which tells tales of hermaphrodites and Jesus to Golem lovers is scored to One Ring Zero’s signature circus-klezmer tunes. Their assembly of odd instruments – most strikingly the Theremin – gives the music an otherworldly, cartoon air that is timeless in a way that could only be modern. Designed in the 1920s by Russian scientist, Leon Theremin, the instrument is played not by touching but rather by waving one’s hand across an electro-magnetic field that creates sound. The result is striking to watch, and hear: a haunting croon that brings to mind the sound of an elderly aunt singing in the kitchen, or perhaps just scalding her hand on the matzoh ball soup – wails, rising and falling in ways that would make even the Kotel proud.

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