Joe Steinhardt is looking for answers. In the mustard stains on his shirts, in the pages of history books and even within his own somewhat grotesquely portrayed body, Steinhardt wants to find a tangible solution to his existential doubts. The man behind Modern Hut isn’t making music—he’s crafting a kind of Beautiful Mind-esque map to figure out where his tangled emotions lead. Unsurprisingly, it’s ultimately fruitless. Steinhardt casts an inconceivably wide net, grasping at anything remotely stable to pull himself up from his crushing middle-ground apathy. On “America” he pleads, “Can someone out there in America tell me what’s wrong?” But that’s the problem with asking the audience: you’ll never actually reach everyone.
Steinhardt is making music too, technically. Generic Treasure is a nervously rushed collection of sparse bedroom folk, but the album plays more like an audio book set to music than any sonic exploration. It’s appropriate that Steinhardt’s first words on the album are “Life’s been so mid-tempo these days/that I don’t even know what I’m trying to say,” on the doggie-paddle-paced “Mid Tempo.” With the droll, monotone storytelling of labelmate Jeffrey Lewis and the quiet sorrow of the Magnetic Fields, Steinhardt finds his focus not in the hollow twang of his six-string, but in the words that float by that twang.
Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Steinhardt’s day job is as the co-founder of New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records—a label Modern Hut might sound out of place on, if it weren’t such an obvious choice. Rather than the raunchy reverb walls of Kicking Spit, or the buzzy pop of Shellshag, Modern Hut’s sound is firmly in the realm of thoughts-before-music antifolk. “Time” is the biggest example of this: With words crashing into each other and Steinhardt rushing, lengthening or just dropping off syllables to fit them into the tempo of the song, time seems to be the last thing on his mind.
“History” ebbs and flows like an acoustic lullaby, as Steinhardt’s voice cracks in pre-pubescent nostalgia while album closer “Moving On” is a downtrodden look at the future, where riffing background guitars sound mockingly out of place. The high point of the album is the hand-holding co-ed duet, “Life,” featuring Screaming Females‘ Marissa Paternoster, whose sharp, aggressive vocals jarringly compliment Steinhardt’s sad-sack mumble. It’s here that Steinhardt’s mellow folk and timid vocals find their place, bolstered by Paternoster’s paradoxical presence.
With tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “You can dig through his remains/and you can analyze his art,” Steinhardt is a master of wordplay, or at least good at creating intensely specific feelings via universally dull thoughts. But this is not a fun album. The doubtfully optimistic “Just Pray” closes with Steinhardt dead-panning, “Sometimes I think that I was born without a taste for life.”
The moral of the Generic Treasure is that that there are no answers. There’s no posturing here. From the beginning, we’re given very little false hope or indication that this is anything more than one man’s creative drop in the bucket— it presents itself as universally unimportant. Steinhardt made an album of intimate moments, but scoffs at their irrelevance with his dripping self-deprecation. The album a treasure, yes, but unarguably generic too. It’s an impressive rehashing of everything that’s been said before, or a rare blood diamond you bought with a coupon at Target.