Going back to at least Sung Tongs, the dominant themes in Avey Tare and Panda Bear's lyrics have been responsibility, familial love, and a desire to work toward self-improvement. These aren't new ideas for pop music, but they are difficult things to express in song without coming across as unbearably hokey. Animal Collective circumvent this tackiness in part by investing every sound with an intense generosity rather than just leaving the sentiment to the words being sung. "Brother Sport" in particular is a big warm hug of a song, and would feel loving and supportive even if Panda Bear were not singing lyrics encouraging his brother not to descend to depression following the death of their father. Cynics may grumble, but anyone in need of this sort of earnest, full-hearted empathy will find it here as the music gradually shifts from a gentle exhortation to move on from a state of mourning to a celebratory climax merging elements of rave, psychedelia, and folk jamborees. On a good day, "Brother Sport" is a joyous romp, but in times of trouble, it's profound and life-affirming song, rejecting self-defeating despondency while showing a deep respect for the agony of loss. --Matthew Perpetua
This video is only further proof of the progression of vinyl, as the format takes on some kind of odd living dead quality - having died, we can now fondly and nostalgically look back on its heyday as if it were somehow over and yet in that very act continually renew its existence. I'm not sure if I like this. What is being valued here? Mere hard goods fetish? Some kind of pale simile of something like a unique piece of art? The concept of the long-playing album?
What is clear from this video is that whatever is actually being pressed (i.e. music) into this viscuous black goop is not the focus, rather the thing itself. What is most fascinating is how perhaps the most fundamentally violent industrialisation of music - it's transformation into an object of mass production with the advent of the record - is now being recalled fondly. Pre-post-industrial (i.e. pre-immaterial) forms of labour take on a residual craft aesthetic, we see people and coffee cups and signs of life amongst what is really, just a big fucking factory like any other, literally stamping out more of the same day in, day out. I'm not sure if the workers there get the same kind of fluttery, Wes Anderson film feeling viewers are copping when they look back upon 'vinyl manufacture' as some kind of quaint, even slightly magical process.
Clearly this isn't going to go away, but for one all I can say is bring on the digital. Wave goodbye to the container (at least in discrete, fixed and bounded form) and you begin to realise what's really at stake, musically and of course financially: music.
My iTunes play count / Last.fm profile / personal music surveillance devices tell me that I have listened to Bear in Heaven's 'Lovesick Teenagers' 10 times, and their album Beast Rest Forth Mouth about 7 times, since I downloaded it barely three days ago. Little about the album is wearing off as I approach double digits, those towering, jarring choruses seem only higher. The music is soupy, swirling, brooding, a mixture of bedded-down indietronica synths, proggy, choppy guitars, whining boy banshee vocals and ingenious pop structures all clocking in at about 4 minutes - a list that looks completely fucking incongrous when you read it out but is also a list of everything I love and basically a list of things that this band somehow manages to perfectly melt together every single track. Like Home Video actually worked out how to not make things so creepy or Sunset Rubdown c.Random Spirit Lover gave up the circus. If you've bothered reading to this point, you'll realise - like I just did - that I have nothing witty or significant to say about this music. I just really fucking love it.
Props to Harvey, shout out to Pitchfork, bring on more GIF album covers!
6AM UPDATE: A far more pleasant little twitterer has decided to soundtrack 'Weatherman' with its sing-song call. Goosebumps.
But it's not just visual, patina, for our experience of music and sound in general often has a rich sense of the patinated, perhaps owing to the fact that recording media are inevitably objects in the world, subject to the physical vagaries of time and wear. Analogue media, to be sure, have a far more immediate sense of age than their digital counterparts, and I think part of the resurgence of tape and vinyl in music making and consuming has to do with this romantic idea of patina - these are formats that we know have lived.
Chillwave, to me, seems, in part, to be about surfacing the experience of sonic patina in the sheen of its sound. Not only do a great number of bands circling around this putative genre specifically reference cassette tapes, the 90s, and other such signifiers of time in their band names and song titles (and even their release strategies), but so too does the music itself have an overwhelming sense of being of a particular time. I'm not talking about the idealised thematic images of a particular era/childhood (beach, surf, weed, skating) which undoubtedly abound here, nor is it the reference to musical styles from a particular era (grunge, surf, 60s pop, punk), it's rather the evocation of the very electrosonic horizon of a certain past.
Washed Out, I mean, is evoking memories of the sound of childhood formats and media experiences. Take 'Clap Intro', whose looping piano sounds like it is coming off the back of some warped, beaten videocassette recording of an old Saturday morning cartoon, whose magnetic heads have stretched and defected from the incessant playback of juvenile fixation. Add to that a hazy admixture of other not quite so identifiable but highly visceral sounds from 'back then' and you get what Daniel Krow calls "warped nostalgia" or David Keenan, more intellectually, "hypnagogic pop" - music that reaches back to 80s (I'd also say 90s, but whatevs) mass culture and somnabulistically reimagines the memories.
I love this shit - most probably because it's the first mediatic genre I've come across that specifically aestheticises the dominant formats of my own youth. It just can't not be made by late Gen Ys that were growing up in the late 80s and 90s, people now in their 20s who lived their entertainment youth through walkmans, videotapes, and cassettes. By its very definition, this music is has a time-limit, it 'wears thin' quite literally, and I think that's something to embrace rather than premeditatively dismiss as just hype or "vaguely retro sound".
The question is, will Gen Zs be musing over tracks in ten years time that are full of the artefacts of digital encoding and compression?
But then, again, I wonder if the obverse move - which Shaun kind of points to but doesn't necessarily partake in - is just as much of a tendency in music writing as the one of ceaselessly coining pseudogenres? i.e., the "I'm above / this music is above pigeonholing" thing is itself a kind of snooty music writer stance and/or a kind of shortsighted 'this music is unclassifiable' Romanticism, which I'd argue is difficult on a few levels - Shaun and others, please take umbrage if you feel like it.
Firstly, when does the music ever speak for itself? Isn't the very definition of the musical something that can't describe itself? And doesn't everything we hear already come through some preexisting filter, be it personal taste, peer group, social status, etc., through to more structural things like economic and social processes? For example, even my very selection of Washed Out's High Times (another chillwave contender) to download last time I visited an MP3 blog is because I'm already contained within a particular personal and social milieu which says indie music is worthwhile, because I was looking for something a bit calmer to listen to whilst I studied and the tags on it said 'Lo-Fi' and 'Synth-Pop', and then even because I'm a middle class kid with access to broadband and the affectation of having a 'personal' taste that defines me through my pseudo-consumptive practices. I'll stop there, but the point is that I don't really think, sorry Shaun, that the music can ever just write itself onto our imaginations, free of some greater context. Genre is just one of these contexts, just more visibly codified.
Second, isn't the role of critics precisely to describe and contextualise a given bit or bunch of music? I think we can't help but acknowledge that criticism will always constrain and frame music in a particular way, it's just more how we go about doing it that is the question.
And to that, I guess if you said that this shitty genre coining is probably not a great way of doing this framing you're probably right, but in another way I kind of see something playful and kind of democratic about it. Clearly the writers using these terms don't actually think they are consecrating entire genres in the traditional sense - as an entire, definable class and movement of music with its own conventions, rules, styles and adherents - and if they do then they need to have a good look at themselves. Instead, I think genre here just becomes a kind of analogy for describing the sound and style of a band - chillwave, for instance, is a fun way to describe some kind of gauzy, lost in time melange of synths, samples and effects, that all sounds like its playing from a fifth generation videotape dub - which is helpful for listeners and often has a pithy and evocative kind of resonance when the right terms are put together. And to the extent these sub(sub)genres are outside of far more monolithic and determining terms like 'indie', 'rock', 'hip hop' and so on, I think there's more room to move here.
In the end, too, I guess these throwaway pegs also become their own litmus tests for a band's sticking power - if they can transcend their putative handle, then they're good enough to keep going. All the other ones that die as quickly as labels like bloghouse, chillwave and so on are as ephemeral as the label itself - necessarily 'of their time' - and neither do I really think that's a bad thing. Indie has become pop in that way, and why not?
Boards of Canada - Dayvan Cowboy
Earthgrazer, Wyoming, 1972
"Listuuuun, I been drinking"
I guess most artists probably write their songs in a kind of odd toss back and forth between music and lyrics, lyrics and music. Come up with a nice line, or a nice melody, fit the words to the sound, the sound to the words. Whatever, I have no exact idea.
The thing that strikes me with Destroyer's 'Bay of Pigs' - an epic(ally quiet) ambient disco number that clocks in at just under 14 minutes - is that Dan Bejar has really just let this song write itself, there's almost no causality. Like he really was drinking one night and decided - 'hey, I know how to revive my flagging artistic cache: I'll devise a sprawling, spacey song that's as casual as it is profound, as lethargic as it is groovy, as aporetic as it is layered, and I'll do it without any apparent template'. I defy someone to tell me how Bejar actually started to write this song, what came first, second, third, so on. It just seems fall out of sky, every minute peppered by some divine synaesthesia of voice and sound: "As apocalypses go that's pretty good, sha la la wouldn't you say" as a Roland blurts a trance line; "Say a prayer for the light" as a starburst of synths appears; "Now shut your mouth" as the music quietens after a funk out. I'm not going to go on. Only someone either utterly tanked or utterly genius could have devised such serendipity, where everything is connected but no one is in the driver's seat, in part because of just how long this thing is, like he fell into a stupor and forgot to stop playing for another five minutes, like "the tide comes in the tide goes away / Oh the tide comes in, yeah the tide yeah the tide", like the final minute or two reprises almost exactly the beginning as if the song were some cosmic Mobius Strip in which the secrets of the universe glittered like so many synth stars amongst its ethereal drone.
Michael Jackson - Billie Jean (VBR Remix)
The materiality of Michael Jackson; the aesthetics of digital audio degrading.
The materiality of digital audio; the aesthetics of Michael Jackson degrading.
Hey it's me.
Hey baby, what's going on?
I'm just leaving the club right now.
So how was it tonight?
Good, the DJs were alright.
Oh good. You wanna come over?
Yeah I'll be there in about an hour, I'm gonna go for a drive.
Hey can you get us a couple of bottles of wine on your way?
Okay, I'll see you soon.
Okay, I love you.
I love you too.
[Phone snaps shut; car ignition; sombre strings]
The new iPod Every song you've ever owned In your pocket Records record vinyl cds cd tapes tape cassettes cassette 1st generation commercial advertisement ad spread magazine
"One function of the sonic hauntology of Ghost Box and Mordant Music is to remind us of how it was a public service ethos that gave rise to something like the Radiophonic Workshop. The sleeve designs of Ghost Box’s Julian House frequently make associations between the paternalistic, educationalist impulses of the postwar, pre-Thatcherite period and the Weird fictions of the likes of Arthur Machen, suggesting that, far from being stuffy and dreary, it was public service which could provide breeding conditions for the Weird (by contrast with the relentless pursuit of market share which afflicts today’s BBC and, instead of producing diversity, ends up in monotonous populism)"
Philip Brophy has put up an article on Jackson’s Ghosts, written in 1997, the same year the short-film/long-clip was released and it’s sufficiently brilliant (as with much of Brophy’s writing) to spur me into some belated musings on Jackson, none of which are too brilliantly constructed.
The first is a point of contention with Brophy’s claim that “Michael Jackson’s sense of his own being” is “something which most of us will only ever ridicule rather than understand its fundamental otherness”. I think this is only true for the more cynical types, myself included, who usually declare little or no sorrow at the news of Jackson’s death in what seems like an almost desperate attempt to flash their non-fan-of-Jacko credentials and thereby separate themselves from the gullible grieving masses. Such people almost certainly tend to ridicule any and all aspects of Jackson’s ‘being’, a suitably wide term that might reference his style, body, dress, deportment, voice, manners, morals, behaviours, quirks and, of course, music (though the latter, strangely, is almost universally sacrosanct).
They contrast with the majority of people I’ve spoken to about the death, fans of widely varying levels of intensity (from barely to fanatically), who want always to cut Jackson some slack. This tendency isn’t solely a function of his passing, though of course it’s now more pronounced than ever. As this describes the great majority, I’ll switch to the inclusive pronoun: We seem to have internalised Jackson’s 'otherness', in many ways. It may be by rendering it a didactic mirror for the excesses of our era, domesticating it into a kind of harmless Peter Pan fantasy, ‘looking past appearances’ to find the black artist or King of Pop of our dreams at his core, or more simply just accepting it. Such acceptance, of course, plays off against the widespread cultural fascination for Jackson as a symbol of decay, and media outlets were so happy to indulge this desire as to continue into gruesome descriptions of his autopsied body – missing hair, bruised, undernourished, etc. ‘Look,’ chorus the media, ‘before you lies the corpse of the fallen king! Recoil!’
But – was he not already a corpse? At what point did Jackson actually exist as a flesh-and-blood being? The kneejerk (and inversely racist) answer is to say sometime around when he was still black and his nose hadn’t fallen off, but in terms of the Jackson we know, that’s just as questionable. Jackson was, from early childhood, a sign – nay, spectacle – more than he ever was a human, a great cultural cipher, sending to do our bidding across sexual, racial and other trajectories and whose actual body, which lay underneath, would eventually manifest the remainders of such toil. Mark Fisher calls him an accelerant angel of capitalist production, “plugged in from the start into the media landscape”. And indeed, if anything, Jackson’s corporeality lived in our flesh, not his, in the kinaesthetic, somatechnic, liquid way we absorbed his image and the various sounds that pinged off his recordings – for his words were only the beginning, so much more of Jackson’s hits are taken up sonically by corporeal tics and subvocal gestures, they come to us strangely alive, but, like the Jackson character of ‘Thriller’ and, indeed, ‘Ghosts’, and, again, ‘Billie Jean’ (should I go on?), it is forever the product of an apparition, an absent presence - it is the rotting flesh of the living dead that we feast upon.
I guess that’s partly why we were prepared for his death, in a sense, to be a fan of Jackson is to worship the very process of (corporeal) erasure that commodity production and consumption demands (feel free to insert Marx’s definition of capital). It is a way of aestheticising the kind of zombie stomp (Jackson leading the way) we all make throughout the littered landscape of popular culture, the way in which we degenerate along with our idol. For we have only ever known Jackson through the signs of his degeneration, which are ours. It's all very circuitous.
That’s why, in a sense, I struggle to see Jackson’s aesthetic as a transgressive one, which is what Brophy seems to be agitating for in his 1997 piece: “He has left our world where plastic surgery is frowned upon, race must be black or white, music is required to be pure, and video clips are excluded from the cinema”. Giving kudos to this is basically kissing the feet of a mutant, shape-shifting late capitalism and the fundamentally unanchored, ambiguous qualities of signs – be they textual or corporeal – it relies upon to extract profit.
Nevertheless, that last quote from Brophy does return us to the point, and I’ll try to bring it together here – that is, at what point did Jackson leave us? 25th June 2009? Or sometime in 1997? Or any other relevant date? Or, just as pertinently, did he ever leave? You’ve probably heard from at least one grieving pop singer or family member or corporate executive attached to Jackson some variation on the theme of ‘he lives on in his music’. Perhaps the most shameless was from Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, the conglomerate that were putting on Jackson’s upcoming tour. Phillips said that the company had "more than 100 hours of footage that could be turned into live albums, a movie and a pay-per-view special. He was our partner in life and now he’s our partner in death". It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but Phillips’ post-mortem synergising contains a statement more profound than he realised – Jackson has always had one foot in the grave so to speak, and as such, nothing much really changes in terms of commodity production. Perhaps no icon other than Jackson can more fully express the ambiguity of the mourning of a celebrity; we live our relationship to the media figure through the para-social interaction enacted by media consumption, and to the extent that the filmclip, memorial TV special, signed poster, CD, news report, and so on remains (is explosively reanimated, even), then Jackson is still alive, we become his flesh more than ever.
He was dead for so long; he will never die, but even this is not comforting enough – what, then, do we mourn?
The distinct pleasure is hard to describe, but there's nothing like having the windows down, sound peaking above the barely adequate dashboard speakers, screaming your lungs out (Animal Collective's 'Grass' was always a favourite pick, probably because it was already unhinged). What it all comes down to actually, is experiencing the ecstasy of hearing your own voice seemingly becoming that of the songs, as you feel your mouth move to the words but hear (mostly) those of the recording. The overtones of your own voice are sonically present just enough for you to convince yourself that it is indeed you that is co-producing that beautiful, skilful sound.
I guess you're reading this and just think, 'wow, what a sad guy' - and yes, I guess it does seem delusional, idealistic and even solipsistic. But I don't quite feel like I'm consecrating my own farcical vocal talents or the genuine ones of whoever I'm singing along to, rather worshipping the way in which music comes to life in the bodies of all those involved, be those of the car, myself or the artist.
Though I might claim otherwise elsewhere, music really doesn't exist (or is only a fertile possibility) until it is heard, and music isn't heard until it is played in the heart of both giver and receiver. So driving along highways karaoking to the latest chart topper (or indie jam) of course is a telling symptom of modern times and all that produces us, but there's a spirit inside it that speaks to nothing other than the promise of music as something we all share, even if we're alone.
When I used to drive, every now and then I would pull up next to a fellow convert, blissfully (dangerously?) unaware of their surroundings as they mouthed whatever it was they were listening to. It's always an odd feeling, this - you can perceive them singing, you know they are listening to music, but no sound escapes from their auto-bubble and makes it into yours, save sometimes for a bass hum. Often you also have no idea what it is that they're singing along to, unless its you're a particularly good lip-reader. But you still know they're feeling it (anyone that spontaneously externalises song is), which is all to say that 'music' isn't content, let alone even sound, but event.
Do you know what I'm saying here? You have 'heard' music when you see fellow commuters singing along, but no sound, you don't even know which song. Like me, you probably feel good whenever you catch someone doing this - it's a strangely innocent activity, and completely uninhibited. What you are feeling is music.
I always do my best to smile knowingly/approvingly when, inevitably, the singer glances over to your car and finds themselves caught in the act. I probably look like a raving loony giving them a big toothy grin, but upon receipt of the smile the fellow convert's look often turns from embarrassment to camaraderie. It's important to keep the faith.
The singing voice of Azeda Booth is lush with life. It's always the easiest cliché, but this voice is angelic, it is a golden shaft of light piercing the stained glass windows and coming to rest upon the altar. It's impassioned yet ethereal, on the brink of evanescence, and it breathes through the wings of a thousand butterflies. And, above all, on lines like this:
How can you bring yourself to love me
when a hope can die like a body can?
Does it make you weak
when you hear me speak?
From the opener, 'Ran', the voice is ultimately elegaic, mournful, pierced by an unidentifiable sadness. It is this admixture of insistence, purity and melancholy that makes her voice a wholly beautiful one, one that absorbed me from the first line.
Though the details are incidental, a note on how I came to Azeda Booth. It was through the meeting of two things: first, I absolutely loved Women's eponymous debut from 2008 and was hungry for more. Second, a friend had recommended anti-folk trio Little Teeth to me, so I hopped on the Absolutely Kosher site to order their album. Whilst there I noticed In Flesh Tones, the debut from Azeda Booth, a band, the little blurb informed me, that featured two members of Women! With that nugget I was sold. I didn't even head to the band's Myspace or download the sample track, I just chucked it straight into my order. Weeks later, the albums arrived, and whilst Little Teeth was good, it was grating and patchy in parts; I found it was In Flesh Tones that I would return to almost daily as time went on, seduced by the strangely sensual nature of its science, the hazy and distant atmospherics juxtaposed with Feels-esque percussion and experiential glitches, but most of all, that voice. Oh (last line, 'Ran').
The hypnotic quality of the album, its gauzy emotional landscapes, were only heightened for me not knowing anything at all about this band, save for the fact two of Women played in it - but the sounds here were so divergent that I could barely draw a line between the two acts. I was without anchor, and I confess, all the more blissful in my ignorance. The songs had weird titles like 'John Cleese' and 'Numberguts', that seemed to suit a punk band more than this detailed, intimate electronica. It was all a happy anamoly, but I knew one thing, and that was enough: I was in love with her voice.
Nearly a year had passed with In Flesh Tones, and I hit up webzine cokemachineglow, as I often do, to find about the latest leftfield releases and read the kind of brilliant, insightful commentary the writers offer on the music. I see that Azeda Booth has released a new EP, Tubtrek. Since I had long formed my own special relationship with the band and was safe in the knowledge that whatever the reviewer said about them would do little to dent or divert this affair, I decided to read the review before listening to the EP (which is freely available, it turns out) - something I almost always never do. The reviewer was a little worried that the cluttered quality of this recording was a sign of faltering from the band, whom he also admires. I continue on, and get to this:
"the band’s two primary strengths, which were on ample display throughout Tones, were its use of traditional rhythm instrumentation in non-traditional arrangements and Jordon Hossack’s voice twinged androgynous."
Jordon Hassack? Jordon? 'Androgynous'? I 'twinge' myself - it couldn't be? Hang on, there are women with that name; one particularly plastic specimen, but I suppose many others beautiful and waifish and everything like the 'flesh tones' of the body whose voice I had found so pretty listening to Azeda Booth. A slightly panicked trawl through blog posts and other reviews ensued, but the seed had already been planted.
Of course, it would emerge in the course of my research that indeed, the luscious voice I had been hearing on In Flesh Tones was that of a man, Jordon Hassock, who has an uncanny ability to hit those kind of high, 'head voice' notes in soft and fragile tones that we so often associate with female singers.
Certainly, I could have just made all of this some kind of knowing account of how Azeda Booth cleverly subvert expectations we have when it comes to the gendering of vocal style in pop music whilst still managing to articulate an authentic and attractive voice - placing the band in the history of popular androgynous stylings the likes of Antony Hegarty, David Bowie, etc. And this is certainly true.
Or I could get really aesthetic on the whole thing and just return to my initial musings on the ghost of the recorded voice, and conclude with something like, 'Azeda Booth shows that the voice still has an emotional after-life even beyond the recording, even beyond the particular identity markers (in particular, here, gender) of a voice'. And this, in the end, I think is probably true.
But to end here, on either of these points, would amount to little more than a slight, a pitiful sidestepping of what's really the matter, because the revelation, and its consequences, is far more personal than this philosophical posturing. Because the nub of it is about what I have to come to terms with as a listener, as a man who had fallen in love with another man, or his voice, and as someone who most often wanders through his life, infinitely tolerant and compassionate in words, but securely heteronormative inside. For all my professed enlightenment about sexuality as performance, the funngibility of sexual codes, the queering of the voice, I still clung (still do?) to the principle that what hits me first is what it is, that what sounds like a woman is a woman, and moreover that her being a woman grants me a more romantic relationship to the music. It's easy to be anti-essentialist in theory, much less in reality.
I don't write this as some kind of clawing confessional or as evidence of my now enlightened state ('If my outlook is heteronormative, at least I know it is' - I find this possibly even more offensive). I certainly have not resolved whatever issues the Azeda Booth revelation dredged up for me, and I am left wondering if my attitudes have at all been changed by this, or only momentarily shaken.
It's still an intense moment in my listening life, and I guess what I was most afraid of upon learning about Jordon was that the specialness of Azeda Booth - well, to be honest, the idea of Azeda Booth, whatever Azeda Booth means to me - might be tainted, that I would constantly be left psychoanalysing my reactions to the music or trying to pick out the masculinity or just being generally disoriented whenever I played In Flesh Tones. I think it's a credit to the band, and to Hassock's vocal ability in particular, that I have since had none of these issues, because when I hear those emerging strains of 'Ran' I find myself flung back into the otherworld that is their music, where, really, everything is nebulous but at the same time beautiful.
Wet strands of hair drift into pink hills and dales, the soft skin of a lover burbles about in electric tones, the feather doona is a pillow of synth washes, the burst of a marble's bounce coming closer to the wooden desk - pick it up, it's an iris. When I'm embedded in the flesh of this world, I tend not to think about the hands or mouths that crafted and breathed life into it, let alone whether they are man or woman. If, at times, I do wonder who is behind this, it is truly an angel I see, Gabriel, that eternal androgyne, whose sex might only be revealed as in a dream.
And I'm still in love with his voice.
(A cranky Aldous Huxley, 1944)
"Toward making a 'dead room' in the living room: patented acoustic building materials isolate the subject from city noise. Advertisement for Herringbone Rigid Metal Lath acoustic insulator, Architectural Forum, July 1923." (Caroline A. Jones, Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art)
I'd like to tell you about Swan Lake's new song, 'A Hand At Dusk'. It's metaphysical, it's mystical, it's going to save us all in slow movements from the very thing that kills us all in slow movements.
I first encountered this song when I played their new album, Enemy Mine, on my cd player. It's at the back of the album, so it was small time until I chanced upon it. The group always committed to at least one extra release post-Beast Moans, and what a good thing that is, because otherwise this song would not have been spawned from the dark, swampy millpond that is the transcendent creative triad of Dan Bejar, Carey Mercer and Spencer Krug. Beast Moans was so named, by the way, after Krug decided it sounded as if "a boar dying in a tar pit". What a slow and painful way to go.
So, anyway, back to the song. One of the most striking aspects of this song is that it doesn't feel as long as it 'actually' is (in terms of chronos) - go listen to it. Then come back and I'll reveal a secret.
It's over six minutes long! You'd never guess. That's because somehow the cosmos themselves turn slower as this song lapses (as in kairos). It's probably because they are listening to that haunting guitar (?) feedback in the background that sounds like angels colliding with doves high up in the grey clouds. Or that gradual, assured piano line that is as much about yawning gulfs between notes as it is about the chords actually struck. Pianos have these little thingscalled hammers and I like to imagine flecks of gold coming off the flint of the steel strings every time one of these notes hammer it, ever so softly, breaking it down until the floor is all covered with little glinting particles just like those you get in the bottle when you come back from Sovereign Hill.
"The Emperor Of Time Has Been Stationed
Where The Pavement Melts Into All Forms Of Light"
This line is this song's epigrammatic manifesto. 'A Hand At Dusk' chases this leviathan and lo and behold snatches him at the shore of the crashing sea. That means the ocean. Oceans are particularly interesting bodies of water because their magnitude is incomprehensible, the collected sound they make literally too great for human ears, but if we sit at the shore they can be at least apprehended.
If we gaze upon this ocean, we see that "There's A Hand At Dusk, In The Wake, In The Water, It's Mine (Mine?), Can You Take The Palm Of It?" This question is mostly rhetorical because you're not the one doing the action here, this song is the one working you over. But grab the hand, and travel along space and time, "Mountains And Peaks", "Books Of Maps",
"Can You Believe That We Will All Get Old?"
Think about that whilst the song builds to its middle section peak, before the sea comes crashing down with the realisation that, yes, we will, but at least we can still hold onto one another, and at least we still look good. And at least we can live and die over and over again all in the space of just six slow minutes.
I love pop music, more and more every day this year in fact. 2009 is my very own Year of Pop. But it's not going to be trumpeted by this utter douchebag's apparent 'tribute' to that genre, nay MODERN PHENOMENON, that we call pop. Because there are about a million reasons why Ben Lee has it all wrong, why he neither understands nor loves pop music:
Pop, despite what some might think, is not so fucking obvious as this song. This song thinks it can perfunctorily summarise the entire genre whilst simultaneously operating in it's register. Observe:
I love pop music, this is how we do it
It’s politics you can romance to
I love pop music, sprinkle sugar through it,
Philosophy that you can dance to
(Started listening to the actual song to transcribe those lyrics, found an almost primal reflex within myself to instantly hit 'STOP' and was thankfully saved having to live out any more than the first line again by the joy that is Metro Lyrics)
THIS IS NOT HOW WE DO IT (this, however, is) - what the fuck does dude think he is doing reducing the utter complexity that is pop to this pithy little couplet? I can imagine Ben sitting there in his studio, writing that one down - I dunno, maybe it came to him in an epiphany whilst 'jamming' - and thinking to himself how supasmart he is, "Well done Ben," he says to himself (classic narcissist, we all remember), "you've cracked the code!!!"
Like, fuck, no way, pop music can hold in tension seemingly contradictory positions/affects?! Wow. Now I know that that's something I've banged on about here, but where Ben makes the obvious fuck up is that he thinks it's that fucking simple. That that's all there is to it. Tellingly, for him its a zero sum game; his lyric posits a kind of mutually exclusive equation - it's political and after that you can romance to it, as if there was no politics to the romancing itself, or no romancing to the politics, etc etc. But that's not even the half of it.
Coz like I said, the worst part is that he thinks he can get away with revelation of pop within pop - just not possible dude. The whole reason pop can work in paradox is because it is entirely surface but with a second side, like a surface that conceals another surface that is its mirror. I have no idea if that makes sense, but think of like looking down from a still boat at the sea, then looking up from under the water at that same spot. Kind of like that. So it's meanings are simultaneously clear and yet always completely hidden. It's like it's depth works through its shallowness, so some throwaway lyric about Kissing A Girl is politicised just as it is seemingly only romantic. But Katy Perry certainly didn't sing - "This is a song about ambivalent sexuality / Even though I sound like I'm kind of tolerant and/or experimental re lesbianism / I'm actually just a hetero scab / That cares more about turning on my boyfriend". NO ONE SINGS WHAT THEY'RE SINGING ABOUT IN POP. That's just not its mode of self-reference. This kind of shit actually nullifies its very force!!!
And where it really becomes clear (haha, like anything I write here ever is) that he has fucked things up is his fucking hubris in just casually throwing in completely fucking bare sentences like
"Our leaders have not committed to a plan of action on renewable energy
The food crisis is currently affecting a hundred million people world wide"
If pop is ever going to have political import or effect it's certainly not going to be through bashing its listeners over the head with such loaded and yet entirely boring (written like they are as gross little sound bites from some lazy left-wing politician's speech) statements as this. Because that's the entire fucking point of pop - sure it matters, its powerful and political - but it doesn't solve global hunger/warming/war, there is no material conditions to pop, it cannot propel or change these conditions, in fact it never claimed that it could or should. So why the fuck is Ben Lee singing about this stuff in a fucking pop song? And why so fucking obvious?
When it comes down to it, dude has completely and stupidly confused the politics of pop with Politics proper, and the artifice of pop with the manifestly explicit, the simple.
Listening to this song is to know what it feels like to play a song as a complete and utter document of itself - there is no depth, nothing but what it says and plays, and no conception of its own stupidity. Max aptly compared it to 'Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)' - and he is completely right. Both songs are so far stuck up their own completely megolomaniacal and solipsistic philosophising that they can't ever provide even a scrap of insight, all the more because they think they are peeling back the layers of the whole fucking world.
Plus you know you're fucked if Missy Higgins is on backing vox.
Final Fantasy, Meredith Music Festival, 13th December 2008
"[Antony Hegarty has] established himself as a purveyor of both constructed identity and heart-on-sleeve sincerity" (Joel Elliot on cokemachineglow)
The problem we face when it comes to Owen Pallett (for Final Fantasy live is just himself, a violin, keyboard, loop pedals and four or five amps to play said loops set up with the precision of roman columns behind him) is one of relating emotion through conceit and artifice. For our bleeding hearts want him to wear his own on his sleeve, to bare all rather than wrap it up. But the nature of his stage setup means that his performance is one of extreme concentration, Pallett plays with the reserve and detachment of a surgeon almost, as the orchestration of various song phrases and instruments (all evoked from just voice, violin, keyboard, itself quite amazing as he creates a miniature orchestra) overtakes any considerations of expression. The most wrenching manifestation of this was when he stopped on a pin, mid-song, to complain to the technicians about the audio onstage, in the middle of some beautiful, grand composition as if he'd just paused a video game.
But really this is just like his recordings - for all the sense in which Final Fantasy is adherent to that expectation us indie fans have for unmediated emotional sensitivity (come on, he plays the violin - meaningfulness guaranteed with string instruments) there is just as much in which this is wrapped up in fables and fallacies of Dungeons & Dragons (he said that He Poos Clouds was originally intended as "an eight-song cycle about the eight schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons"), fictional characters (impotent businessmen), obscure metaphors (the world's tallest tower as a monument to the dead) and history-crossing scenes (his EP Spectrum, 14th Century contains the line "I've a temper as shiny as any bling!").
And in this obscurantism, Pallett is a true romantic, at least in the way I think of romanticism. Because far from the popular idea of romantics as conveyers of direct, inherently human feeling, they were actually elevators - always looking for the nicest conceit to raise the emotionaly mundane to the transcendent, even in love it almost becomes an intellectual game.
And sitting there watching this set, I came to realise just how much this tendency informs Pallett's entire approach. It's like how his voice is so often put through an intercom mic, and sung at a kind of half-pace so that it lags behind the music, never quite fulfilling the sense of feeling that it hints at. And that way he covered Joanna Newsom's Peach, Plum, Pear - whereas Newsom made this maybe the only song where she pulls back the layers and layers of metaphor and simile for unbridled emotional expression (screaming 'I am blue' in a thousand Joannas), Pallett as it were re-Newsomifies it, singing it in an almost throwaway manner that once more covers up its emotion.
And it is in all this that Final Fantasy asks us to confront an uneasy experience, but one that I think is worthwhile: something akin to the denial of our desire just as it is being fulfilled perfectly.
So this whole auto-tune thing is definitly something close to the heart of the (con)temporary. It's been a tendency in pop music somewhere since the eighties I'd say, the robotisation of the 'natural human voice'. But that decade's robopop was wilfully inhuman, a kind of excess of synthesisation that evidenced more just a fascination with the technology rather than expressing emotional truth, so much so that artists like Tubeway Army and Gary Numan found that technologisation of the voice and music could stand for the same social process, one of social alienation:
Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It's the only way to live
Whereas nineties and millenial pop was focused more thoroughly on 'perfecting' the human voice, the use of digital and manual production technologies to make the voice sound as natural as possible, catch Avril Lavigne for this. This tendency reached its exhaustion point in Cher's Believe, the first track to use Auto-Tune software as a deliberate effect rather than attempt to 'naturalise' the voice - that distinctive pitch mangling on her vocals became a highly used effect ever since.
Nowadays, it's kind of like something of a mixture of these two tendencies, an attempt to simultaneously shoot for nature and effect, that energises a lot of pop music. R&B artists like Chris Brown (see Forever) use pitch correction to excellent effect, accentuating their soulful/soulless music by stretching out modulations, or deliberately over-correcting 'hey' and 'oh' backing vocals. There is a obviousness to this practice that means they are not concerned with 'covering up' their use of corrective software, but rather become virtuouso performers of technology. The human voice is found wanting, or more a base material to be input into a system with far greater fidelity and emotional potential. Not that this hasn't been the very axiom of pop since its conception; the human voice is always object as much as subject. Anyway, in this domain, the idea is that the technologised voice is perfect, not a substitute to 'complete' the human voice, but rather in and of itself beautiful, expressive, its own apex. That we have reached this juncture in our historical ways of listening is quite interesting.
The exhaustion point of this new tendency, I think, would have to be Kanye West's Love Lockdown. This is what marathonpacks calls the "grotesque performance of prolix, technologized amateurism", but I'd re-think that first (and def last) term. It's not so much grotesque as complete - the handing over of emotion to technology. It's as if West cannot deal with the messy grief that consumes him on 808s and Heartbreak, so he relegates (or elevates) this job to technology. Machines that can cry for us.
From the moment that stick hits the snare skin, Nothing Ever Happened doesn’t let up. The thing I love about this song is that there is just no fucking around whatsoever, lockstep bass and drum lines ensure it is 100% propulsion and the lyrics are spare, repetitive and to the point – exemplifying most of (the best parts of) the work on Microcastle. But this selfsame tendency is collapsed with noodling at the back end of the song, but it somehow doesn’t feel like noodling whatsoever! What a fucking awesome concept! I’ll just put this here again to point the way forward for all music – indie, pop, hip hop, polka, whatever:
"I wanna make songs that, like, a wider, younger audience can get behind. You know? A kid who just now is getting over My Chemical Romance or something. Or like, just now thinking, like, 'I wanna hear something a little more experimental.'" (Bradford Cox)
But not too experimental!