The Ambiguous Basement

Take a look at Tempo Maps, the new book of poems from Greenfield’s Daniel Hales, and you quite literally won’t know where to start. That’s because the book has two covers. Whichever way you start reading, you’ll face another challenge in the very middle of the book: the text is upside down from the middle to the end — or is it the other beginning?

“Having two possible points of entry gives the reader more chances to participate in making meaning — and to have fun with the book,” Hales explains.

Tempo Maps is another of Hales’ ongoing flirtations with ambiguity. The book is also unclear on whether it is, strictly speaking, a book. In the back, you’ll find a 46-track CD of instrumental musical interludes and Hales reading his work. Options abound. “I hope hearing the poem recitations and music adds more dimension and sonic texture to the book by offering the reader/listener one more way to experience it … I suppose you could also see some poems as footnotes to the songs. If you have synesthesia, or wish you could try it out for awhile, this is the book/CD for you,” Hales says. “I recorded most of it in my driveway and backyard, and I consider all the ambient sounds my mic picked up — passing cars, slamming doors, peepers, crickets, wind, an idling eighteen-wheeler, a dying smoke alarm, a freight train — to be as much a part of my ‘minor symphony’ as the musical instruments.”

It makes sense that Hales would combine music and poetry. He’s a busy musician as well as a writer. Though you can also see him in the band The Frost Heaves, he’s currently occupied with a mostly solo effort, this one called The Ambiguities. Hales describes the band as “more of a solo hip-hop-inflected side-project. With the Frost Heaves, I suppose I aspire to lyrics that are closer to poetry, and the speaker in those songs is often some version or other of a ‘me’ or someone similar to me,” he says. “With The Ambiguities, I want to ‘contain multitudes,’ to try out a wide range of voices, characters, personas.”

He’s tried them on a very physical way for some time, performing Ambiguities gigs in masks and costumes. “This has helped me open up wider,” Hales says. “If you’re going to call yourself The Ambiguities, you better have some real ambiguity in your arsenal. Especially [with] singing dance-oriented music, it helps me to get into a groovier zone if I leave me at the door and slip into intense, amped-up personas like three-souled shape-shifting dragons, cocky MCs, and funkadelic sex machines.”

On Jan. 31 at the Rendezvous in Turners Falls, The Ambiguities celebrate the release of a new EP, The Basement Suite. The Suite — chiefly concocted, no doubt, in the far reaches of Hales’ basement, where much of his musicmaking occurs — is not much like Hales’ other recent efforts. There are elements of moody ambience in the music of Tempo Maps, and elements of pop songcraft in Contrariwise, a Frost Heaves album of tunes made to accompany a stage production of Alice in Wonderland. The Basement Suite is a far more unhinged affair, full of loops and beats, a careening, humourous sense of lyric-writing (see “shape-shifting dragons and funkadelic sex machines” above), and vocal stylings that range from croon to whine.

The whole “funakedelic” thing surfaces particularly in a track called “Ambiguity Spew,” a groove-heavy ’70s-inspired turn. “I can only take a small percentage of credit for the super-funk of ‘Ambiguity Spew,’” Hales says. “The bed track is lifted off a disco album from 1979, thus all the vinyl crackles in the track. It’s a short instrumental intro that I’ve loved for years, and I finally decided I had to come up with words and a melody for it.”

He quickly adds, “Since I don’t want to get sued by anyone, ‘Ambiguity Spew’ is going to be a free online track, with all the proper acknowledgments.”

Things get crazier yet with “X Formation,” a manic tangle of playground antics. In fact, if you feel as if you’ve just been insulted by a bratty kid, Hales considers that a success. “That’s exactly what I was going for. I ended up doing three vocal tracks for that song because the first two just weren’t snotty enough.”

And the taunt factor is straight from the mouths of kids. Since Hales’ day job is teaching English at a residential center for kids with emotional and behavioral challenges, he’s got a sizeable collection of such stuff from which to choose. “‘X Formation’ and ‘Honk Honk Rattle Rattle’ are both rewrites of common schoolyard taunts and rhymes that I’ve heard from various students over the years, but I altered the words to make them much more absurdist, political, and/or inappropriate,” Hales says.

With source material like that, the album is a liberating romp, one in which Hales seems to be breaking new ground in his artistic endeavors. He’s taking a break from such heady stuff as purely literary pursuits. “Sometimes I want jams that have booty shake and brain candy,” Hales says. “I like a lot of trip-hoppy down-tempo music, but I often wish it was riskier, weirder, and funnier. I don’t think there’s anything more liberating and fun than trying to create the music you wish would be banging when you walk into a dance club.”•

The Ambiguities celebrate the release of The Basement Suite Jan. 31 at the Rendezvous in Turners Falls.

James Heflin

Author: James Heflin

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