Monday, November 26, 2012


I was listening to Pink Moon the other day--a late discovery for me, something I'd heard of but never really listened to until I got to grad school, and even then didn't really take to until the second year of my M.A.--and thought that for as good an album as it is (great songs, interesting arrangements, possibly the most perfect overdub in history [the piano line in "Pink Moon"]), it's an even better guitar album. Besides the fact that John Wood's production is a textbook example of how to record an acoustic guitar (it really is a joy just to hear that tone), Nick Drake is in brilliant form as a guitarist: not quite as freewheeling as some of his earlier work (like "Man in a Shed," for example, or much of Bryter Layter), but in full command of his talents, liquid runs mixed in with great chord work and lines that split the difference between chiming and droning ("Road," one of my favourite pieces of guitar music, being the best example of that). In fact, for all its simplicity--a guitar and an equally resonant male voice--Pink Moon achieves much of its singular power because of the inventive guitar playing. The circular chord progression underneath "Parasite" is an absolute necessity for its emotional content to hit at the right level and in the right places, a point that's often overlooked in attempts to ape Drake's sound and aesthetic.

Of course, there have been some successful copies of his work. I say copy rather than extension or development, because the song I have in mind--"Round the Bend" by Beck--is essentially a photocopy of "River Man," probably Drake's signature tune (interestingly, that's not Beck's only "borrowing" on the album: "Already Dead's" verses indulge in a bit of plagiarism at the expense of the Foo Fighter's superior--and wonderfully shouty--"I'll Stick Around"). The deliberate evocation of Drake's most recognisable song (prior to Volkswagen introducing a whole generation, myself very much included, to "Pink Moon") is a key part of the retromania-fest that is Sea Change. As an album, it feels mannered to the point of suffocation: a "serious," "mature," "artistic" work, Sea Change is very conservative in its template of sad man plus slow acoustic guitar songs. The best tracks are the ones that steer furthest away from this--"Round the Bend," obviously, but also "Paper Tiger" (the only track with a real semblance of life), "End of the Day" (with its gestures to some kind of casiotone country), and "Sunday Sun" (in its distorted climax)--but even they are indebted to specific strains of the past. That's not a problem in an of itself, but when that debt is figured as some kind of guarantor of authenticity--either in the sense that the music of the past was somehow "real" music in a way that today's music falls short of (e.g. rockism and calls for the return of rock), or that the emotions that the artist wishes to convey can be presented in their "realest" form in a style of the past (e.g. yearning and 1950s ballads)--the retromaniacal impulse becomes one of tail-chasing stagnation, curatorial consumption rather than creation. 

I've not followed Beck's career all that closely since Sea Change--in fact, I gave the album to an ex-girlfriend and never bothered to get it back--but what has popped up on my radar has fallen into this same kind of retromania. His record club project, while great fun for its participants I'm sure, (the recording sessions certainly seem like they were a blast) is perhaps the most damning example of this: track for track covers of "classic" albums (something that the Flaming Lips have also gotten into as they've settled down into increasingly less interesting work), without even the wink and nudge of the Moog Cookbook or Camper Van Beethoven's version of Tusk. Was this retromaniacal turn an inevitability for Beck? Hidden in his gleeful appropriation of junk culture and slacker attitude, was it a time bomb waiting to appear?

Certainly, by Mutations (named after Os Mutantes), Beck's urge to cite, to curate and to copy, had already begun to overwhelm him, parody clearly slipping into pastiche (a transformation completed in toto on Midnight Vultures). "Nobody's Fault But My Own" is the best of Beck's sad sack mopey ballads, but its sitars and Orientalisms are already as caught up in some period piece vision of the late 1960s as anything Oasis ever did. The real turn on Mutations is one toward "craft," and specifically songcraft as understood to mean very conventional and traditional notions of guitar driven music. Odelay's collage may have been a dead end, but it was also a force that managed to counterbalance the guitars and the reliance on folk, blues, and country throughout. For all its craft, Odelay is a different kind of self-conscious from Mutations, one that is equally exhausting and stifling in the end, but that also feels comfortably of its time (even if that means it sounds surprisingly dated in some ways today) in a way that its follow up abandons. Or rather, doesn't abandon, but rather reveals to be irrelevant: Mutations' influences--tropicalia, bossa nova, 1970s singer-songwriter music--is as up to the moment current for 1998 as are Odelay's influences for 1996. The difference is that Mutations is about its influences. Not doing anything with them, not transmuting them, but instead making them very apparent. They are the surface and the content, the purpose of these songs. Mutations, despite its title, changes nothing. It has the good taste to cite accurately and completely.

Looking back at his career arc, the later Beck's subsumption in overt retromania seems inevitable. One Foot in the Grave, his lo-fi folk album from 1994 (the phase of his career most obviously referenced by Sea Change), is designed to separate out a certain strain of his music and present it in its "authentic" form, "bolster[ing] his neo-folkie credibility the way the nearly simultaneously released Stereopathic Soul Manure accentuated his underground noise prankster credentials," as Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it. As a poster child for a certain form of indie rock's postmodern 1990s, an artist who was considered both cutting edge/hip and commercially viable, Beck seems like a useful signpost for investigating what happened to so forcefully propagate retromaniacal culture in the 2000s. The various phases of his career, for example, are an obviously different kind to that of Madonna (another postmodern artist who straddled the cutting edge/hip and commercially viable realms) or David Bowie (certainly a modernist [at most, a "limit-modernist," to use Brian McHale's term], whose "characters" explore an idea of persona that no early twentieth-century modernist would be uncomfortable with). It seems to me that a more careful and patient reading of Beck's oeuvre might reveal some points toward the definition of a retromaniacal artistic temperament, which might be a useful tool for analysis and criticism going forward.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Mouse on Mars - WOW
Monkeytown, 2012

Now this is more like it! I will admit to being underwhelmed by Mouse on Mars' first release of 2012, Parastrophics. What their record label describes as "a life-affirming and constantly surprising album which is crammed with ideas, exuberance and sheer kinetic energy," I found to be kind of a slog. For all the talk of songs in "compulsive new shapes, full of glitter, intrigue and addictive detail"--not to mention "an elegance . . . which speaks, whisper it, of maturity" while being "as playful as ever"--Parastrophics just isn't a fun listen for me. And if I can't have fun by (and while) listening to Mouse on Mars, what's the point of putting on music in the first place? Thankfully, WOW delivers the goods in spades (if nothing else, and there is much else, the cover of WOW is gorgeous compared to that of Parastrophics). Indeed, I sincerely doubt that I've had more fun with an album this year. Certainly this is the only album that has compelled me to laugh out loud in public while listening. It's frantic and ridiculous and conjures up images of hilarious machines run amok. Misters St. Werner and Toma even seem to realise some counterbalance was needed to Parastrophics, as the press release that accompanies the album notes "You can almost feel the tension being released" and positions WOW as a burst of creativity, "a spontaneous reaction to all those hours of studio labour" involved in the five year gestation for the followup to 2006's Varcharz.

Ostensibly a club record--and, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the track, an engagement with bass music's developments since 2006--WOW really is sheer kinetic energy, a blast of primary-coloured rubber band textures and the wobbliest, squelchiest bass possible that twitches and stumbles over itself in its headlong rush only to turn a somersault and suddenly reappear, smiling and heading in the opposite direction. That might not be enough for the kids looking for a drop, but it's awfully hard not to find the movement grin-inducing, the sense of spontaneity liberating, and the good-times vibes of it all infectious. Thus, the moments of off-kilter bump and grind on "APE" feel less out of place than joyous reminders that you have hips and should be using them, and the push-pull, stop-start groove of "VAX" proves as hypnotic a headknocker as anything coming out of the Brainfeeder camp while also sounding like half a dozen arcade machines and a full cast of cartoon characters got together for a night on the town. Indeed, the songs start to resemble a Scooby Doo-esque haunted house after awhile, with disembodied voices and cheesy sound effects coming from every direction, and the album's better for it. 

If WOW is in any way a response to bass music (or, and I do hate the phrase, Mouse on Mars' "bass music album," which sounds much too genre tourist-y), it is so only obliquely, more a reminder that the elements that in the last few years have been bolted onto dubstep's frame or smuggled into DJ sets via house or funky or what have you have always been a part of Mouse on Mars' sound. The pounding, repetitious ecstacy of "HYM," for example, is one of the better re-applications of house music I've heard, and, balanced by its aquatic wobbles, feels like a cheeky literalisation of the intersections between dubstep and house over the past few years, until the two elements combine with a loping downtempo melody line that becomes an album highlight. The mile-long and taffy-thick vocals on "CAN" might call to mind Burial's patented vocal manipulations, but he's never been this demented, never sent his listeners off into a funhouse full of helium while strobes flash the colours of the rainbow. With its glamourous surfaces, "PUN" suggests BNJMN's Black Square or SBTRKT's self-titled album, but everything is just a little too busy, too frantic, too willing to spiral out of control to be anyone other than Mouse on Mars. Similarly, if the video game bleeps and bloops of "DOG" recall something that Zomby or Joker might have released a few years ago, they're equally indebted to classic Mouse of Mars from 1995's Iaora Tahiti or 1997's Autoditacker. At this point, it's almost tempting to see Mouse on Mars as their own continuum, quite separate from the hardcore continuum (see also this), but equally likely to loop back around in new permutations and configurations.

Not everything on the album works, though. Five of its thirteen tracks are interstitial moments that link, preface, or conclude the more substantial songs. Outside of the glitchy, pretty "ESO," I find them to be mostly disposable. They do keep the momentum up, allowing the album to flow more like a mix than the collection of wildly disparate tracks that it is, but in the case of opener "SOS" and "BSD," the mood is marred by Dao Anh Khanh, a Vietnamese vocalist here singing (in much the same way that Damo Suzuki--a one time Mouse on Mars collaborator--sings during his most out there moments) in an invented language. Similarly, the closing two tracks, "WOC" and "CAT," are largely pointless, a letdown from the true closer, "SUN," which rides a hiccoughing (literally!) beat to a pretty--if twisted and disoriented--conclusion behind swooning and swooping chords and phone pad arpeggios. In the spirit of fun, though, you can't really begrudge the band a few missteps that sound like a band having a blast and letting ideas run wild.

In light of the six weeks the band spent on it and its much more obvious, lightweight content, it's tempting to view WOW as a less worthy album than Parastrophics, an album that doesn't mean as much, that doesn't really contribute to the conversation surrounding electronic music in 2012 in a significant way. This would be, in my opinion, a serious error. With its manic (and maniacal) energy, WOW feels like a catalyst to creativity, a reminder that two guys making weird, goofy techno music have managed to carve out a pretty distinctive niche for themselves over the last nineteen years. Indeed, WOW manages to contribute to the conversation precisely because of its charm--any engagement or response here feels lowkey, the result of the band hearing something they like and tweaking it to fit into what they already do, rather than grasping at relevance by making themselves over as an example of whatever style is hot (I shudder as I consider Mouse on Mars goes footwork). Without feeling the need to nudge things forward by self-consciously demonstrating their up-to-two-minutes-into-the-future cred, Mouse on Mars have managed to point out that most of the electronic music world hasn't really caught up to what they've been doing their whole career. As WOW ably demonstrates, they're waiting over here with a readymade party whenever anyone feels like joining them. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The Spaceape - Xorcism EP
Hyperdub, 2012

Twelve minutes and fifty two seconds. That's the sum total of Xorcism, the Spaceape's first solo release (available for free at his website), according to its run time. It would seem scant prior to listening, but, as the press release accompanying the EP notes, "Everything that needs to be there is here and nothing more." The backstory: the Spaceape, né Stephen Samuel Gordon, a vocalist whose powerful, resonant vocals have injected post-millennial tension into Kode 9's productions on two excellent albums (2006's Memories of the Future and last year's Black Sun) in addition to guest spots on Burial's first album, Martyn's Ghost People, and Redshape's Square among others, has for the last three years dealt with a rare form of cancer. Xorcism details this struggle across seven tracks, channeling the percussive, unsettling, ghostly presence of Haitian music in order to tell of his experiences. Harrowing enough on its own, then, but even more engrossing (and, somehow, braver) in the context of what's come before: label Hyperdub explains that
[t]his intense experience was behind the sonic fictions of bodily malfunction and radiation that surrounded The Spaceape's collaboration with Kode9 on 2011's Black Sun album. Relisten to the lyrics such as 'Black Smoke', 'Neon Red Sign' and 'The Cure' and you'll understand the context to this new batch of The Spaceape's solo material. 
The cover art--itself a still from the brilliant video for "On the Run"--perfectly captures the mood, suggesting the otherworldliness common to the Spaceape's words and voice and the darkness, pain, and terror suggested by the release's title.

Of course, high concepts and compelling personal stories don't guarantee good art. Xorcism could have been nothing more than a curio--that guy from the dubstep tracks with the deep voice made a solo album--but the tracks here arguably work even better with the Spaceape's approach than his Kode9 collaborations. On those two albums, and the singles and one-offs he's featured on, the Spaceape proved himself to be a master of dread. What kept him from self-parody--which, for a man with as distinctive a voice as he possesses, would seem both all too easy and too quick to slip into--was his ability to reveal that dread is a layered emotion, a whole space or affect that enfolds and discloses a reality. The solemnity with which he enunciated his words, though, could be suffocating over the course of a whole album, the timbre of his vocals becoming a black hole, swallowing all light and air. Xorcism sidesteps this problem both through its brevity--the EP is ruthlessly efficient, pared to the bone--and its tempo, the full sprint suggested by "On the Run" the rule rather than the exception, allowing his vocals to stretch their limbs in a way that the pitch-black dubstep of Memories of the Future or the science fiction miniatures of Black Sun often denied.

For all the temptation to view this solely through the Spaceape's words and vocal performances, though (cf. Robert Darnell's excellent look at "He Gave His Body Over to Science" for Dummy for a nice write-up that avoids this), it's the music behind and around them that makes this release feel so striking and new. The weird, undulating vocals behind "Spirit of Change," for example, are as haunting as anything that Ghost Box has released, and the urgent, insistent horn parts that cycle through "On the Run" and "The Sound" ratchet the tension up to almost unbearable levels. "Up in Flames" prominently features a violin part that sounds almost Acadian along with its drums and bells, and as a literalisation of the Black Atlantic subtext to the release, it's a striking moment. Ultimately, though, the masses of drums throughout are what really drive these songs. Pulsing with rhythmic force, though infinitely more pliable than four-to-the-floor kicks or dubstep's half-step lurch, the drums shift and swirl and blur, all motion, energy, and heat. Where the Spaceape plays with his vocals are also thrilling moments--from the pitched-up and modulated backing vocals on "Your Angel Has Come" to the female (?) backing vocals on "On the Run," the juxtaposition of calmness and anger on the multitracked "He Gave His Body Over to Science" to the chorus of vocals that close out the EP on "Up in Flames"--highlighting his command, but also his versatility.

As a spoken word artist's EP, though, eventually it comes back to the words, and the ones intoned by the Spaceape throughout Xorcism are evocative and arresting. The opening stanza to "Spirit of Change" burns with apocalyptic fervour as it sets the scene of "a man / Looking up at a weeping sky / Rain splinters down / His burnt charcoal skin." The depiction of radiation therapy in "He Gave His Body Over to Science" is almost too stark to bear, full of invasive technology that attacks (and constitutes) a soul in a person, its chorus ("He gave his body over to science / He said from now 'I'll be compliant' / No change of heart or acts of defiance / He gave his body over to science") and the assurance that "It won't be long before he's a believer" offering a kind of Foucaultian terror. Ultimately, it might be the mantra-like lines of "Up in Flames" that stay with me most: a song that "rallies against man's complacency in a world we inhabit so briefly" according to the notes that accompany the release, the repetitive structure of the lines give its exhortations an uncanny power. Pick a song on the release and you're bound to find a line that grabs you, though, that shakes you and that makes the demons exorcised in these songs dance into life in the corners of your eyes.

Twelve minutes and fifty two seconds. It goes by in a heartbeat, except when it doesn't. Xorcism has the curious power to dilate time. In the moment with these songs, the intensity is almost too much, the words, the sounds, the details accruing too quickly and proving quietly devastating. No song seems like it will ever end--the spell is too powerful, too hypnotic for you to be released from its grasp. Then, as soon as it's begun, the song is over, the EP sprints on to its next tale, anxieties brought to light and hanging heavy in the air from track to track. In its singular world, Xorcism reminds me most of Gonjasufi's work. Perhaps too easy a comparison--intensely focused and meditative words paired with immediately recognisable voices--but one that I keep being drawn back to. I've often tried to describe the Spaceape (and sell him to friends) as a force of nature: his voice is something big, his presence is something that takes you over, that demands your attention and your vision, like a massive storm. That's doubly true here. The ghosts in these stories will hound you and chase you through your unconscious, equal parts frightening and carnivalesque. Nothing about Xorcism makes for an easy listen, but it's a rewarding one, the sound of an artist boldly asserting his identity by giving voice to his deepest doubts and fears in order to find some measure of spiritual reassurance. In so doing, the Spaceape offers up one of the most compulsively listenable releases of the year even as it challenges you anew with every play.