Saturday, October 8, 2011


Up at Altered Zones you can stream Tim Hecker's forthcoming Dropped Pianos, his collection of piano sketches recorded during the same sessions that produced this year's Ravedeath, 1972. I strongly recommend checking out the stream: it's just absolutely gorgeous music from someone who, when he decides to make pretty music, is extremely good at it. The music itself is very evocative, and while not settled enough to be ambient music (has anything he's released ever really been ambient--I think his "power ambient" term might be closer to the truth...), it does a fantastic job of building a new environment for you out of its sound.

I was complaining about this on Twitter, but I guess I'm not through with this topic yet: I don't understand the fawning adoration that James Blake receives from so many critics. I think that his music, for all its supposed forward-looking trappings, is oftentimes boring piano music with some gimmicky electronic flourishes. The vocals that have been pulled and stretched are a neat trick the first time, and are interesting the second, but are tired by the third listen, for me at any rate (this is precisely why, no matter how hard I try, I find Burial's "vocal" tracks much less affecting than the tracks on which he buries those disembodied, androgynous moans like wraiths in the depths).

I know that cross-genre comparisons can be tricky, and I know that this isn't some teenage pissing contest (my favourite band could beat up your favourite band or whatever), but I find Hecker's music infinitely more interesting than Blake's releases so far. I'll acknowledge that I find Ravedeath, 1972 less interesting than Harmony in Ultraviolet and An Imaginary Country, but it's still a work that excites on a visceral, emotional level and also inspires me to ask "How'd he do that?!" Even knowing that the bulk of this album came from improvisations on an old organ in a church in Reykjavik does not always reveal how a sound is coming into being. Hecker's pushed the suites he's constructed on his albums since Harmony in Ultraviolet to impressive levels here: "Hatred of Music I" and "Hatred of Music II" really do seem to use their drones to suffocate the melancholy pianos underneath; "In the Air I-III" is twelve of the most engrossing minutes of music to emerge this year; and if neither suite (or the opening trio of "In the Fog I-III") quite matches the heights of "Harmony in Blue I-IV," they also cover more ground and expand Hecker's sound in often thrilling ways.

With Blake, I'm only ever inspired to wonder how he accomplished something--for all the supposed "soul" imbued in his music, I find it largely mechanical and stilted. That trope, too, Blake's soulful vocals, is disturbing: as Mark Pytlik pointed out in his interview with Blake earlier this year, "when people say 'soulful,' it feels like they're saying, 'Oh, it's a white person who can sing like they're black.'" The fact that Blake is an attractive, articulate, young white male seems to be of great comfort to a lot of critics. I don't think that Geoff Barrow's question--"Will this decade be remembered as the Dubstep meets pub singer years?"--is necessarily "a defense of dubstep--the gesture . . . [of] a purist, an elitist, or both;" I think it's a valid aesthetic question. Of course, Blake himself seems like something of a purist and elitist: speaking of contemporary artists gaining mainstream recognition for their take on dubstep he said "Those melodic basslines are insultingly simple and aggressive and annoying. That is now a valid genre, but it certainly isn't dubstep. It's turned into something else. That's cool, I'm happy about it. . . . It's just something different now." Blake is clearly interested in patrolling and defending the borders of dubstep at least as much as Barrow.

If, as Simon Reynolds recently suggested, "generalizing a bit wildly, black music seems to be what pushes the major structural aspects of music forward," does the mating of the largely white coffeehouse singer-songwriter tradition and dubstep really represent a move forward for either genre? Or is this a retreat, dubstep brought within safe critical parameters for which aesthetic criteria are already firmly established? Is it a coincidence that Blake's noteworthy covers--of Feist and Joni Mitchell--are of artists working very much in that singer-songwriter tradition, and that his biggest collaboration to date is with another singer-songwriter, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon? For all the talk of Darkstar's North being a sideways move for a genre that's been known as particularly restless and forward-looking, Blake's entire output feels equally sideways (if not retrograde). Now, I'm not suggesting that Hecker's Dropped Pianos is the future of music (it isn't), nor am I suggesting that his body of work is so singular that it represents some kind of vanguard (it's well situated within any number of genres and artists, like Fennesz for a start, and Eno to a certain extent), but it certainly feels more exciting to me than James Blake, and I'd have to agree with Altered Zones that Hecker is "truly one of the greats."

Incidentally, given Reynolds' recent comment that "the eighties is proving to be to this-time (i.e. 2000s + 2010/2011) what the sixties was to the actual eighties, i.e. near-inexhaustible resource" and the spectre of nineties revivalism looming ever larger, I was surprised to hear during my first listen to Bjork's new album, Biophilia, an explosion of drum programming that wouldn't have sounded out of place on something like Black Secret Technology and several beats that seemed to have been copied/pasted in from Homogenic ("All Neon Like" and "5 Years" seeming to be particular touchstones). I'm not sure how I feel about these things yet, but I will say that Biophilia is the first album she's released since Vespertine (back in 2001!!!) that I've actually enjoyed without having to force myself to like it because it's Bjork.


  1. Can you explain what you love about him? I'd love to hear your take on him.