Growing up on a diet of pizza, beat tapes and Yo! MTV Raps, Jonnie Common and Jamie Scott could have been brothers. As lanky, bespectacled ‘90s kids, they both blasted boomboxes in their bedrooms and casually indulged youthful fantasies of becoming Scotland’s breakout hip hop act. Not much has changed. United as CARBS, the boys now mash ‘za during recording sessions, idly plotting the overthrow of Glaswegian club culture.
Not-quite-pop, not-quite-rap, CARBS blend the diet-phobic visual aesthetics of The Pizza Underground with glitched-out, wobbling Gobby-esque beats and the deadpan wit of infamous British spoken-word grumblers-turned-pseudo-rappers John Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith. The result is a weird, distinctly Caledonian take on electronic hip hop that’s like the sonic equivalent of an acid flashback: hypnotic, oddly nostalgic, and equal parts awkward and hilarious.
CARBS formed within Scotland’s Save As collective, a loosely organized group of electronic musicians from across Glasgow who came together partly to distance themselves from the city’s dominant club scene. The duo define Save As as a “network of pals and likeminded musicians” who collaborate on music that might never develop within the confines of a normal promoter/act agreement. Common and Scott started working together following such a collaboration with a third party; while it didn’t pan out, they recognized their musical chemistry and shared sense of humour. “Our working moniker was ‘Kid & Plaid’ but that was never a serious contender,” Common explains, answering my predictable question about the duo’s name. “When I suggested CARBS, it was a half-joke… Everybody loves carbs no matter how bad they are.”
CARBS’ debut Joyous Material Failure dropped on Sept. 12. The album’s packaging is appropriately tongue-in-cheek: each CD is printed to look like a cheese pizza and ships inside a miniature limited edition pizza box. It’s a cheeky reflection of the album’s carb-o-licious lyrical content, which features songs like “Pizza Time O’Clock”, “Salty” and “Fat Back to the Future”.
In some ways, Joyous Material Failure is an ode to the past, to throwaway culture; in other ways, it’s an escape to something new. “There’s something about being in your mid-20s, and feeling like you don’t write with the same abandon, or the same reckless adventurousness that you did five or ten years ago,” Scott said. “Writing this CARBS album was a fun exercise in forgetting all my creative trappings, experimenting with new ideas, and generally letting my consciousness empty itself out.”
Despite their upbeat sound, CARBS’ debut recalls the sadcore aesthetics of bedroom rappers like Lil B and Yung Lean. In the video for “Life Drawing”, Common raps in a thick Glaswegian drawl, “Adverts hurt my ears / Fast food hurts my tummy / Luxury luxury, your body is emptying / Luxury luxury, your body was created empty” as zoetropic images of he and Scott glide through an ephemeral landscape of spinning pizzas, scrolling Twitter feeds, and pixelated Sega Genesis menu screens. The album is densely packed with cultural references, from Resident Evil 2 (“Infinite Ammo”) to Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (“Waterworld”). Common and Scott’s lyrics deftly combine irony, humor and melancholia, all underscored sharply with a deep-cutting sarcasm: “I’ve been out every single night this week to the bitter end / This many nights makes me feel like / My grandfather facing a month of funerals” (“James Special”). It’s a strange blend, but it works and it’s good—like a late-night meal assembled drunkenly to stave off the next morning’s hangover.
While CARBS is just a side project for Jonnie Common and Jamie Scott (until recently, Scott was in a two-person band called Conquering Animal Sound, and Common has an eponymous solo project), Joyous Material Failure gives listeners a taste of the music that collectives like Save As make possible. It may not be the meatiest record out there (and given their band name and album title, I think they’ve embraced this) but with their clever, dry-witted lyrics and eccentric, gelatinous beats, CARBS have proven that they’re more than just empty calories.