Monday, July 23, 2012


Erika Spring - Erika Spring EP
Cascine, 2012

Let's talk about fashion for minute: as an awkward, bookish, young white male, my understanding and conception of fashion is, to be far too generous, limited. Nonetheless, I do understand--or at least I am able to project--a certain sense of the signifiers of fashion, like glamour. Glamour seems to me to reside somewhere in the 1980s, to be most at home in the postmodern metropolis of global capitalism. The hollowed out subject that exists within this evocation of wealth and leisure (perhaps best exemplified by Christian Bale's performance of the cypher Patrick Bateman in American Psycho--and isn't it Bateman more than any other of his roles that suggests the origins of Bruce Wayne/Batman in his current cinematic form?) looks out from the screens and mirrors of capitalism into yet more screens, reflections reflecting back to (and on) themselves, and glides through the cities whose buildings are a perfect match for their subjects. Thus, glamour becomes a way for consumer capital both to s(t)imulate desire and to enjoin enjoyment. Given this (a big if: as I said, my knowledge and understanding of fashion is beyond limited; this is seen through a glass very darkly, if at all), the endless return to the aesthetics of the 1980s in the current moment makes a great deal of sense: what is the iPhone and its attached oediPodal (to borrow a word from Mark Fisher) operator if not a kind of perfection of this sense of glamour?

Erika Spring's solo debut is nothing if not indebted to the aesthetics of the 1980s, with the drums of its slick pop (she namechecks Bateman-favourite Phil Collins twice in a recent interview), synths that split the difference between banging electro and gauzier, 4AD-style dream pop, and--especially on "Like a Fire" and the Eurythmics cover "When Tomorrow Comes"--some particularly retro touches with the basslines and vocals. All of that doesn't necessarily sink the EP, as Spring is undeniably talented at these kinds of breathy, dreamy songs, but the most overtly retro moments are the weakest. "When Tomorrow Comes" is a well-written pop song, but it's not particularly subtle, and its inclusion here pushes the wrong buttons in terms of authenticity. It might not be intended to act as citation--indeed, in her interview with The Fader, Spring claims that "when I heard 'When Tomorrow Comes' the words just got me. . . . and I just wanted to say them--I just wanted to say the words"--but it feels like it, causing the spectre of pastiche to loom around the edges of the project.

Of course, others have noticed this and see nothing wrong with it. In her review for Pitchfork, Lindsay Zolandz writes that:
Spring gets points for reappropriating 80s synth pop and Kaputt-style soft rock in a context that's utterly devoid of ironic scare quotes . . . [She] displays a genuine interest in replicating the texture and aesthetic of the music she grew up with. The elements of pastiche are woven smoothly into her sound, which dances gracefully on the edges of past and present, of waking life and dreams.
There is, Zolandz seems to be saying, an inherent value to non-ironic replication, and while this isn't incorrect, it feels like a pretty hollow victory (though postmodern irony is certainly beyond tiring at this point). The reference to the critically acclaimed Destroyer's recent album Kaputt is important here--rather than reappropriating sounds and tropes of 80s soft rock, Spring's music reappropriates a reappropriation of those sounds; in the procession of simulacra, we're pretty far down the line at this point.* It's also calculated, though, and speaks to a cultural phenomenon that Mark Richardson discusses in one of the best pieces of music writing I've read in the past year, "the subtle Tumblr-ization of indie; music-making as re-blog." Richardson summarises the appeal of Tumblr as a further step in the purposing of pop culture in the construction of identity, an "intesif[ication]" of the same impulse that lead former generations to draw on binder covers, but now:
allowing us to re-purpose richer media. Not to mention making the whole process so much easier. So instead of scrawling a constellation of bands onto a blank notebook, you can instead host the band's music, post their videos, and present their most compelling photos. You can actually become a broadcaster of the media, rather than just commenting on it, and you can do it all with just a couple clicks of a mouse. The person posting can say, "This is me" with a click or two, and the media itself becomes part of the person's identity, not just the association with it.
 This is why the reference to Kaputt rather than to the actual (or original) sources of those soft rock sounds--even if those earlier sources are the intended references by Spring--makes so much sense. Like a .gif of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that is reblogged, the transaction that Richardson characterises as "Remember David Lynch? I do, too," the cultural analogue in which Spring's statement of musical identity makes sense is Kaputt and its rhetorical "Remember the 1980s? I do, too."**

That late capitalism no longer sells products but lifestyles (in a Tumblr'd and Pinterest'd age, it might be more effective and appropriate to say images) is not a new proposition, but the consumption of these images and the cultivation and purposing of media in the construction of an image via social networking seems part and parcel with the sense of glamour I tried to describe above. The continual "re-blogging" of 80s aesthetics across cultural formats feels like an obvious fit in this context. In his opening monologue in American Psycho, Bale's Bateman details his rigorous, fascistic regimen to control his image, and his constant readings of popular music like Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News turns those objects into further screens and cyphers, marketing slogans and yuppie ideology acting as depth, as subjectivity, the cultural counterpart to his ruthlessly disciplined body. On Spring's EP, "Like a Fire" and "When Tomorrow Comes" are the songs Bateman might like, finding in them mirrors of his anomie, his murderous materialism, his amoral desire for exposure regardless of the absence of those sentiments in the music. Their musical signifiers are trappings of his ideology: the synth bass of "Like a Fire" combines with the glossy keyboards and plastic guitars to perfectly reblog the 1980s as an image as much as a sound (moreso even than her take on the Eurythmics' song), the triumphant upsurge of the song's chorus evoking music videos as much as music. 

Ultimately, what saves the EP are its first two songs and closer "6 More Weeks." Though these tracks work with a similar palette to the rest of the EP, they are more ambiguous, with inside and outside becoming confused. I can't help but be reminded by Kate Bush in some way. "Happy at Your Gate" is all cool glamour, but its seductive, breathy atmosphere is also charged with a nervous momentum, a tension carried over by the harsher keyboards of "Hidden," reminiscent of Broadcast's The Noise Made By People and the gloriously downer pop of "Come On Let's Go." Indeed, the repeating pulses throughout "Hidden" make clear that her mention of Terry Riley and Philip Glass in The Fader is not just attention-grabbing namedropping. If "6 More Weeks" isn't quite to the level of these two songs, it at least feels a more able synthesis of the avant cool chill of the likes of Broadcast and Stereolab and 80s synth rock than either "Like a Fire" and "When Tomorrow Comes." Or, put more simply, if the latter are pastiche, the former feels like a step away into a more personal vision of how to use these styles. Given this, it's doubtful that anyone will label Spring's EP revolutionary, but it is smart and endlessly catchy; on a warm summer night, it can be an ice cube on the back of the neck.

*As Baudrillard writes in that essay in reference to the recreation of the Lascaux caves, "It is possible that the memory of the original grottoes is itself stamped in the minds of future generations, but from now on there is no longer any difference: the duplication suffices to render both artificial."
**Though as something of a tastemaker given his status, isn't Dan Bejar's statement with Kaputt closer to "Remember the 1980s? I do, too, and they sounded like this"? Thus, musical "re-blogs" of that sound confirm Bejar's memory as the true memory of the 1980s, almost retrochronically creating the decade and its aesthetic in Eliotic fashion.

Friday, July 20, 2012


While re-reading Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s excellent Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, I came across this humourous (and true!) passage:
When the cubes of ice intended for a refreshing lemonade (or a more severe potable against academic malaise) melt while we are explaining to a student who has telephoned that his or her "C" is only a letter, a convenient form explaining nothing deeply relevant about his or her psyche, we grasp a notion of the arbitrariness of form.
If there is a solution to this problem, I'd love to know it. On a slightly more substantial note (though not much of one), Baker's book is excellent not only because of the quality of his argument, but also because it is filled with passages like the above that demonstrate his lightness of touch even with his most complex material (this passage appears in the midst of his definition of the strategy of "mastery of form"--exemplified by Booker T. Washington's mastery of the minstrel mask, enabling him to sound "back and black" to whites). The combined effect is to tun what could be a slog into a rather enjoyable read that balances impressive readings of texts with some heavy duty theorizing without sacrificing the author's character and personality. 


Com Truise - In Decay
Ghostly International, 2012

Pre-fame (or at least pre-first major release) odds'n'sods collections are often revealing for the wrong reasons: they tend to show up that a band or artist hadn't quite figured it out yet, either still on the way to the sound that would garner attention or overtly in debt to others. Something like the Verve's Wigan Demos, for example, showcase a band that isn't fully in command of the hypnotic repetition that they would exploit to such mindbending effect on A Storm in Heaven. My Bloody Valentine's Ecstasy and Wine, on the other hand, is a fine release that hints at the leap the band would make a year later with "You Made Me Realise" and Isn't Anything. Some artists, though, have made a splash through careful selection of early works into mature statements, like Aphex Twin's seminal Selected Ambient Works 85-92, or Boards of Canada's Twoism and Hi Scores EPs. The latter group is a particular touchstone for the kind of music that Com Truise (the best celebrity-derived band name since Jackie-O Motherfucker, and a notch ahead of Joy Orbison) makes--both in his primary guise and under his earlier Sarin Sunday moniker--and it's not surprising that In Decay suggests a kind of reservoir of this music that Com Truise can dip in and out of as needed. If this collection is not quite the equal of Boards of Canada's early releases, it's a worthy followup to last year's pretty good Galactic Melt and 2010's Cyanide Sisters EP.

For the majority of songs here, this is Com Truise as usual: hard-edged synth lines and glistening arpeggios perfect for driving in your Testarossa through some neon lit 80s cityscape. It's gleaming and hard, but stylishly so, and there's no doubt that Truise is a master of tone and shading (this is perhaps nowhere as evident as on "Data Kiss," the high point of the collection to these ears). I mentioned in my write-up about Galactic Melt that the album was at its best when the songs were left to spin their wheels and head out into space, usually in the form of an extended coda to the song proper which puts the focus on the prettier and more evocative sides of Truise's sound. The same trick is in effect several times on In Decay, and again it results in the most arresting moments. First track "Open," for example, spends its final moment in the kind of dreamy, warbling music that has the right to children. "Stop" ends in a similar way, trading in one of the album's hardest and best grooves--sparser and more aggressive than some of the other tracks--for another tour through those time-faded tones as they drift in and out of tune. The references to Boards of Canada don't stop with the codas, though, as the title of "'84 Dreaming" calls to mind "'84 Pontiac Dream" from The Campfire Headphase (the songs themselves don't share too much of a resemblance). Other influences are hinted at on In Decay, with perhaps none so clear as the Peter Hook-esque bass that opens "Dreambender" like a deliberate nod to "Transmission," though the remainder of the track is much more New Order than Joy Division.

Beyond the traces of influences, though, there are surprises on this record that hint at previously unforeseen affinities between what Truise does and other genres and new directions in which his sound could grow. In the former category, "Colorvision" opens with a groove that's almost reggae, and it is surprisingly less of a misstep than one might think. "Yxes," after its laugh/groan inducing sample, starts out like a moodier, goth-ier take on Com Truise--all industrial-nodding bassline and haunting theme--before ending up in a hard-driving drum machine-driven coda. "Smily Cyclops," meanwhile, splits the difference in its opening section between Truise's usual electro and arena rock, threatening to turn into "Jukebox Hero" at any minute. The latter category is perhaps best heard in "Klymaxx," which rides a massive bassline and some house-y arpeggios to a nice mid-song breakdown, but it's the glitchy percussion and vocal samples that are its most effective element. Similarly, "Video Arkade," though largely undistinguished in its first half, opens up in its midsection with the advent of some of contrail-like synths high above the bassline which manage to the make the melancholy implicit in its bed of pitch-damaged drones real. 

As on almost any roundup of non-album cuts, a few of the songs here aren't particularly memorable or just aren't as effective as other songs by the artist. This is most often the case in the first half, which feels much more like a return to familiar ground or a dry run for Galactic Melt (large stretches of the run from "Dreambender" to "Alfa Beach" blur together, though Haley is too strong a craftsman to leave the songs entirely without distinguishing features). Worryingly, this ends up making Truise's sound seem more limited than I necessarily think it is, as the more appealing second half can at times fall prey to what Simon Reynolds calls "hyper-stasis . . . the restless roil of micro-genres that keep emerging but never quite take-off." I'll wait to hear Com Truise's next official step forward, though, rather than condemning the project based on a clearing out the cupboards release.

In the past, I'd compared Com Truise to Neon Indian, but if there's any connection between the music that Seth Haley makes as Com Truise and that made by Alan Palomo, I think it's with the latter's Vega project more than with Neon Indian. Both guises allow synth obsessives room to run wild, though they retain their pop smarts while doing so. Given, as Reynolds claims, that the 80s serve as some sort of inexhaustible well of cultural material to draw from in the current generation's eyes, Truise's music feels timely as much as it feels retro or nostalgic. His dogged faithfulness to analogue synths, big, gated snares, and electro is allowing him to carve out his own niche in what was an already over-saturated scene a few years ago. As the chillwave class of 2009 sees its members disappear into mediocrity or move away from chillwave, In Decay feels like something of a retrenchment, a reminder of the core aspects of that sound that were (and are) effective and valuable rather than just gimmicky.

It's interesting to think of this music as a kind of cultural time capsule, an encapsulation of a certain sense of connectedness with a particular era in the past. When New Wave, Darkwave, Coldwave, and early industrial are replaced by another set of hip touchstones, what will the results of these influences have told us about this decade? With the benefit of hindsight, will this be revealed as simple revivalism, or will it be pinpointed as a moment of birth (or pre-birth) of something new? Neither In Decay specifically, nor Com Truise's music more generally, can answer these questions, but I can't help wondering if chillwave had a chance to move beyond Reynold's hyper-stasis, and if that chance still exists.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Deep Time - Deep Time
Hardly Art, 2012

A fun thought experiment: what would Stereolab sound like if you subtracted the krautrock, the lounge, and the bossa nova? The easy answer, of course, is nothing, really. But to keep this going a little further, what would replace those sounds? Assuming that this un-Stereolab band would play to the same strengths--a certain rigidity healthily coexisting with a kind of bounciness and a singer whose voice and style best suit a flattened sing-song--and without logical pairings for its exotica fetish, it's probably safe to assume that the new influences would hail from the dubbier sides of post-punk.

On their self-titled debut (actually the band's second album, after being forced to change their name from Yellow Fever), the duo Deep Time does a pretty good impression of what the band described by that thought experiment might sound like (and on "Gold Rush" they don't sound a million miles away from actual Stereolab). The bass lines are slightly more reggae than dub--closer to the Police, say, than to PiL (especially on "Clouds," with echoes to these ears of "Roxanne")--but the guitar clangs and crosshatches its way along just fine, eschewing chug for starkness and winding melodies (often following bass and voice) that gesture towards surf, while the touches of organ that creep up throughout suggest an American take on Clinic and Broadcast (perhaps most obviously on "Coleman"). Singer Jennifer Moore doesn't have Laetitia Sadier's Gallic charm, but her phrasing is remarkably similar to the Stereolab frontwoman's (a definite plus in my book), and the way she manages to pull lines apart into clipped syllables and yelps serves as an immediate hook over the tightly wound music.

One other band looms large here, though less because of a similarity in sound and more because of the lessons learned over the course of its career. Spoon has managed to turn simplicity and space into virtues, using negative space to amp up the power of their rock in a minimal take on early rock and roll and rhythm and blues filtered through a post-punk sensibility. Deep Time sound like they've learned many of these tricks already: for as focused as their songs are (there are no wasted seconds on this album), they're also rough and raw, letting space help them fill the room. There are a few moments in which this backfires--even at their most demo-like, Spoon's songs sound immaculate, the guitars pristine in their raggedness, whereas the guitar on "Homebody" sounds plastic and cheap, rather than wiry. Similarly, though the minimalist palette is refreshing, a few other textures, or at least some different deployments of the same textures, would go a long way toward making this record a little more immediate and its songs a little less homogeneous. The messy harmonics on closer "Horse"--almost "Hey Joni"-ish--are so striking precisely because they play on the ear in a way that nothing in the previous twenty seven minutes has.

However, these shortcomings don't detract much from what is an intriguing album. The way opener "Bermuda Triangle" shifts from stark chords to loping verse to lush chorus is a masterful bit of arranging and really sells Moore's vocal whoops. Her way with a melody is even more apparent on "Sgt. Sierra," on which her voice keeps sliding around where it would seem natural to head, saving what might otherwise be too straightforwardly sweet and schoolyard rhyme-ish with an injection of subtle tension that balances out the music's organ-led garage flourishes. And, despite my complaints about the guitar sound above, "Homebody" has one of the album's most emotionally powerful vocals, with the chorus sounding like an alternative-universe version of a Fiona Apple track. "Gilligan," on the other hand, is the most straightforwardly radio-friendly song on here (is that idea even still a thing in 2012?): a little too slick and anonymous compared to the rest of the album, it trades the idiosyncrasies that bring the others songs to life for a catchy, spiky indie song. By far the longest song, "Horses" gives the band some more room to stretch out in and is the better for it, suggesting that there are possibilities for the future in a slight unwinding that keeps focus on the duo's impressive interactivity. 

Post-punk derived bands are never in short supply, and, with Prinzhorn Dance School's very good second album Clay Class already mining similar territory this year, it's tempting to write off Deep Time as a solid album that, if you're inclined to enjoy this style, is worth a listen but otherwise isn't worth making a fuss about. What I find intriguing about this album, though, is its ability to fit into an unoccupied space in an otherwise crowded milieu. The borders of that space are easy to sketch out, somewhere within the rectangle defined by Stereolab and Spoon, Broadcast and Clinic, but knowing them doesn't render Deep Time's sound ineffective, nor does it mean that the duo is incapable of surprise. This is not cookie cutter post-punk revivalism that pretends it's still 1979, though that period is obviously an influence on the music. Like their Austin brethren Spoon, Deep Time are working by subtraction, stripping out of their music what's not propulsive, and making more interesting music because of it. They might not have a classic in them yet--and they might never develop to that point--but there's more than enough going on here to merit keeping an eye on Deep Time.

Monday, July 9, 2012


I apologise for the lack of updates lately. The work that I get evaluated on/paid for has to take precedence over this blog sometimes. I do have a few long things in the offing, though, that will hopefully go up within the next week or so, and I'm working on a few reviews to have up in the meantime. For now, I'll offer some food for thought about criticism, via a few passages that have me thinking about what it is I'm trying to do here and why. 

The first, from Robertson Davies' excellent novel The Rebel Angels,  is Arthur Cornish's statement of his ambitions to Maria Theotoky:
"I am going to be a patron. . . . Of course Uncle Frank put some money in the hands of living artists, and spotted some winners and encouraged them and gave them what they want most--which is sympathetic understanding--but he wasn't a patron on the grand scale. . . . [which is a] great animateur; somebody who breathes life into things. I suppose you might call it a great encourager, but also a begetter, a director who keeps artists on the tracks, and provides the power--which isn't all money, but any means--that makes them go. It's a kind of person--a very rare kind--that has to work in opera, or ballet, or the theatre; he's the central point for a group of artists of various kinds, and he has to be the autocrat. That's what calls for tact and firmness, but most of all for exceptional taste. It has to be the authoritative taste artists recognize and wants to please. . . . You're taken aback because I lay claim to exceptional taste. It's queer what people are allowed to boast about; if I told you I was an unusually good money-man and had a flair for it, you wouldn't be surprised in the least. Why shouldn't I say I have exceptional taste?"
The second comes from Giovanni Tiso's blog Bat Bean Beam (a real treat if you haven't checked it out before), the obviously applicable "An Essay on Criticism:"
So is disliking anything at all bad in itself? Again it's hard to say but there may be something of a clue in the first line of the song. "It's okay to not like things." It's not good or fine. Merely okay. We don't really endorse it, but if you must, then at least try not to be a dick about it. . . . 
Do many people really feel that the problem with the internet or society in general is people hating on the things that they like? Who does that anymore? Are there even any genuine snobs left? Are there cultural critics willing to argue that, say, reality television is bad for its public and for society, and that if you watch Police Ten 7 you just might be an arsehole? Or is it true on the contrary that even the most derivative or exploitative manifestations of mass culture have been almost universally subsumed under the rubric of taste, concerning which, as we have known for some time, there can be no dispute? . . . 
Everything must pass through the social networks, therefore everything must be liked . . . If all goes according to hype, soon there will be no publishers nor editors and so the logic of this social layer, that is to say of efficient consumption, will be alone in governing access to information and ultimately most forms of culture. It's the future we bought, the future we agreed to. It plays in chunks of sixteen seconds to the sound of an upbeat tune.
The final comes from K-Punk, perhaps most clearly articulated on his site in this post (and from which I'll quote for not having another source handy), but more fully developed in the final chapter of his book, Capitalist Realism:
Nothing could be a clearer illustration of the famous failure of the Father function, the crisis of the paternal superego in late capitalism, than a typical edition of Supernanny. . . . 
Rather like many teachers or other workers in what used to be called "public service," Supernanny has to sort out problems of socialization that the family can no longer resolve. A Marxist Supernanny would of course turn away from the troubleshooting of individual families to look at the structural causes which produce the same repeated effect. 
The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to [be] based on rejecting. In a culture in which the "paternal" concept of duty has been subsumed into the "maternal" imperative to enjoy, it can seem that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children's absolute right to enjoyment. . . . The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of "gatekeepers" to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want. The concrete question is: if a return to the paternal superego--the stern father in the home, Reithian superciliousness in broadcasting--is neither possible nor desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenege or educate? . . . 
Late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. . . . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. (When will there be a Channel 4 programme called "You Are What You Read?") What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about "feeling good." To tell people how to lose weight, or how to better decorate their neo-liberal burrow, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement  is to be oppressive and elitist.
While not necessarily identical, and while not necessarily always in agreement with each other, these three examples point to an important function of criticism, one that I'm increasingly feeling that I could do a better job pursuing in my writing here. I can't make claims to exceptional taste--if I could, why would I have not only bought, but enjoyed the soundtrack to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (and I can't even lie and say it was because of Madonna's awesome "Beautiful Stranger;" I wanted to hear R.E.M.'s cover of "Dragging the Line")--but I can probably do more talk about the wider implications of the cultural objects I discuss and review. After all, as Lukacs notes in "Class Consciousness," in the undeveloped proletarian consciousness, issues of culture "occupy an almost wholly isolated position in the consciousness of the proletariat; the organic bonds connecting these issues with the immediate life-interests of the proletariat as well as with society as a whole have not even begun to penetrate its consciousness." If what I write on here is to do any good, obviously I need to start pushing beyond my own isolated position.