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!
Well the first thing you need to know about this song is that it’s an absolute breeze. Apart from that metallic grill synth push you hear in the chorus – perfectly embedded nonetheless, and gradually less grating – everything else in this song just flows along real nice and smooth. Of course there’s some interesting minimalist sections that keep the song interesting, like from when “He said...” rolls off Estelle’s tongue. But the guitars are almost loungey, there’s a bunch of ‘ooo’s in the background and that drum, dude it’s just a simple rock beat! And girl’s voice, real nice. Got a tiny few British pebbles in it to make its purr unique enough.
But the funniest thing is when I first heard this song – and I still think this most of the time – I thought it was actually a Kanye West song! Because no matter how nice she is, Estelle just doesn’t have the presence to fill out a song as great as this, and her main event somehow seems to take backseat to the ‘feat.’ dude and the flawless production. I guess that’s because the ‘feat.’ dude is, yeah, Kanye, and he just saunters into this whole thing all cocksure and smooth as, dripping money and self-props, even as he (as always) finds it necessary to explain himself to his detractors. But not even Ye’s sometimes suffocating self-awareness could possibly overtake this track. The whole thing just slots in behind itself, taking its own ride on a transborder flirt in such a slick and catchy way that it really does summon pop’s duality of transience and memorialisation.
I feel like I am just way underqualified to talk about r’n’b/hip hop, let alone pop rap, but damn T.I. just makes such great tunes! It’s not just in the excellent choice of Timberlake for emoting the chorus and the totally-obvious-yet-still-sweet digi-clap/HEY! moment and all the sophisto production and shit, but also it’s his really great flow. It’s just so palatable, the way it’s so structured but still flows across lines but then with tiny little punches. Like the dis/enjambment in this little bridge...
No more stress
Now I’m straight
Now I get it,
Now I take
Time to think
Before I make
Just for my family’s sake
... Is just great. It inputs some kind of error/flow tension into his songs that’s well appealing. And the way this flow works on Whatever You Like is funny – it’s like this metronomic, tennis-court rhyming sways back and forth between seemingly discrete lines until sex becomes money becomes possessions all wet and slippery until they all dissolve into this pop fantasy of nothing in particular or, y’know, whatever you like.
Imagine the tacky and yet still somehow alluring emotiveness of Coldplay multiplied to an orchestral level. That is basically 'Viva La Vida'. They are a band that never really quite knew what they were doing, that could never properly seize on their ability to conjure swelling emotion and turn into something greater than its immediate affective borders – I’m not really sure if this song changes that, but at the very least it stretches the immediacy of their appeal to such a limit that it (almost?) breaks through into something greater, something like pure pop. Rock instruments morphing past their electricity into woodwind! Ostentation becoming a universal good will! Bloated stadium rock meets artful orchestration! And it can only help that Chris Martin is uttering some utter bullshit about Joan of Arc over this sweet yet martial music, because it means you concentrate on the sound, on the highs.