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Review: Agitation Trips – Institutions

The significance of politics/social awareness in art has been widely debated for some time, often favoring the side of “all significant art is inherently political”. Whether it’s intended or not, music and lyrics have a way of moving and influencing people that cannot sociologically be denied. Keeping this in mind, do songwriters/musicians have an obligation to acknowledge this power and use it wisely? In a world of increased worldwide connections and a tense political climate to boot, the seemingly “wholesome” aspect of non-didactic art might come off as a bit myopic and selfish these days. Perhaps art for arts’ sake had its place in a simpler time (whatever that means). That being said, it’s difficult to believe that escapism in art will endure during a time when we should be more engaged in our material surroundings than ever. 

When I reached out to New England-area artist collective Agitation Trips’ founder Christopher G. Brown (of Vary Lumar, The Difference Engine, Passive Witnesses) for a short blurb on the origin of the group’s moniker, he had this to say:

I thought of the idea of Agitation Trips when listening to an episode of the podcast The Dollop about Albert Parsons, a Leftist who went on speaking tours throughout his life that he referred to by the same name. We can be a better society, and if a bunch of musicians in a small area can continue to spread that word, we will.

The group’s premise is to collectively (and remotely because, you know, quarantine) arrange one song per month with proceeds going to charity. A single member of the collective is assigned at the beginning of each month to offer a rough track demo, as well as the recipient charity for that month. Brown himself is no stranger to putting together compilations for charity, having led the charge on other New England-centered charity compilations such as last year’s We’re In This Together and the We Are Not Trump series. And despite the debut single “Institutions” being borne of a demo Brown recorded, Agitation Trips is far from a vanity project for him (or anyone involved for that matter) as the focus and modus operandi of the group is geared more towards the celebration of collaborating and working together for a bigger cause. 

The collective kicked off their mission at the very top of 2021, releasing debut single “Institutions” on this past New Year’s Day. Considerable nods to the more recent work of Jarvis Cocker are felt pretty strongly throughout, although the unique timbres of vocalists Brown and John Greene (Fifth Business) manage to avoid any tendencies towards blatant Cocker-isms. The hazy indie-pop atmosphere is punctuated with some unexpected upright bass, competing melodically with pearly guitar lines to create a sense of unease in an otherwise chilled-out soundscape. The unease is likely intentional; judging by the pointed lyrics we are not meant to be lulled into any sense of security. Lines such as “Oh my dear/In case it wasn’t clear/You’ll have to wait a couple of years/To get what you want” are clearly meant to be straight from the pedantic mouth of some out-of-touch Republican senator, made even more clear by the later response “Why is it a shock/That everyone’s abandoned all the institutions that/You held so high?”. Even if something more directly influenced the lyrical content to “Institutions”, one can very easily glean a more universal message that shines an indicting light on politicians silencing marginalized voices.

The track is currently available for purchase on their bandcamp page, and proceeds will be directly donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org). Since January, Agitation Trips has released two more singles for charity for the months of February and March; the funeral jazz-inflected “Cadaver’s Lament” and the noisy punk endeavor “Pandemimonium”, respectively. A new single is also slated for release on April 1st as well, following a trend of releasing on the first of the month which should continue for at least the remainder of 2021. Music fans with broad tastes should take note given the wide gamut of different local musicians involved; this revolving-door lineup lends itself well to the palpable diversity of the three thus-released singles. Much like the weather of New England, if you’re not a fan… just wait a month.