Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Shlohmo - Vacation EP
Friends of Friends, 2012

As I am currently on vacation (well, sort of: I haven't gone anywhere and I'm still doing work, I just don't have to go into campus or teach this week), this seems like an appropriate confluence of subject matter and state-of-being.

I picked up Shlohmo's Bad Vibes last year on something of a whim; a few reviews compared it to the stuff coming out on Brainfeeder these days, which was enough to get me to at least take a look (sort of like how the letters MBV in a review are almost guaranteed to get me to give something a listen), though it already felt like I was up to my eyeballs in woozy deconstructions of r'n'b and hip-hop spliced with IDM. I came to like Bad Vibes quite a bit, though--it made it onto my Albums of the Year list in the Honourable Mentions category--partly because it served as such an able foil to other albums that caught my fancy last year. It was blurred and bleary, true, but it was also quite warm and inviting. Thinking about its sound, I always come back to the word humid: rust and moss slowly accumulating over a world while thick, damp air rests on top of everything.  This is in many ways the antithesis of something like the Weeknd's House of Balloons, whose music is so clean and stylish even at its blurred-est and bleariest. Nevertheless, there was a link in the way that both Shlohmo and the Weeknd took various of-the-moment signifiers and forced them into the service of distinctly personal visions (that Shlohmo recently remixed Drake's "Crew Love," a song co-written by and featuring the Weeknd, draws some attention to this shared approach).

The humidity hasn't decreased on the Vacation EP, and if the material here is not miles away from what Shlohmo was doing on Bad Vibes, there are enough new wrinkles here to keep things interesting and to suggest development. While he doesn't abandon the dying machinery sound palette that has such emotional resonance, nor the blues and r'n'b inflected guitar playing (though it's used sparingly here), Shlohmo pushes vocals to the foreground on Vacation. Whereas on Bad Vibes the vocals often sounded like they should come covered in a bedsheet with eyeholes cut out and some cheap chains to shake, here the vocals are at times more in line with what UK bass music has been doing over the past half decade and at other times a call back to turn of the millennium glitch, seemingly lifted from a volume of Clicks & Cuts. Lead-off track "The Way U Do" is in line with the former, an r'n'b vocal pitched up and disembodied, never quite able to say something, to make a connection, but present to do some of the heavy emotional (and melodic) lifting. Indeed, the foregrounded vocals of "The Way U Do" work to make it feel something like a 2012 version of "The Great Gig in the Sky," a comparison not quite as ludicrous as it might seem on the surface. "Wen Uuu," on the other hand, is in line with the kind of music Milles Plateaux used to put out, the syllables sliced, diced, and reconstructed beyond comprehension--if there is a contemporary analogue for it, "Aidy's Girl's a Computer" might come closest, though the vocals in "Wen Uuu" are clearly and recognizably human.

Beyond Shlohmo's more upfront work with vocals, though, Vacation's tempos feel quite a bit more sprightly than those found on Bad Vibes. These tempos are paired with arrangements that often feel quite busy and full (though not in a bad way) when compared with some of the more skeletal tracks on his last album. This doesn't always work out--for all its glitchy vocal work and magical backing (it sounds like an entire environment coming to life in a rainstorm and singing for you), "Wen Uuu" doesn't do a whole lot, content to unspool its way to a reverb and echo drenched retreat into the fog--but when it does, as on the second half of "The Way U Do" when the two vocal tracks merge and duet in a satisfying payoff (and one that's not far from the ground Burial explores on Kindred), Shlohmo's skill as an arranger becomes clear. The way that he constructs his tracks is quite similar to BNJMN, whose Black Square I like quite a bit.

The best track on Vacation is its final one, "Rained the Whole Time," though. Bringing back the guitars over a beat that calls to mind Disco Inferno's "Summer's Last Sound," Shlohmo largely does away with the vocals here while offering one of his most compelling productions. In the middle of the track, the song undoes itself--the drums dropping into a straight 4/4 before becoming a lone snare and then disappearing entirely--sounding like an r'n'b slow jam forced to go so slow that it comes apart at the seams. Without its beat, the song is at once weightless and impossibly heavy-limbed, a nicely disorienting effect. The reentry of the beat offers a jolt of energy and momentum before the song undoes itself once again to close, the pauses and hesitations of the beat giving way to that same lone snare and finally nothing.

Vacation is not a perfect release and at only three songs (plus some remixes on some versions), to have "Wen Uuu" feel so underwhelming is a disappointment. Nevertheless, "The Way U Do" is a strong update on the template laid out by Bad Vibes and "Rained the Whole Time" suggests just how far Shlohmo can push his sound. I wouldn't be surprised if Shlohmo makes a Cosmogramma style leap on his next full length, but given his name, modus operandi, and the tinkering on display on Vacation, Shlohmo seems more likely to take a path similar to that of Four Tet, gradually subsuming larger and larger amounts of sound under his own identity. On a slightly larger scale, this feels like one of the most obvious and fruitful cross-pollinations from Los Angeles' beat scene and the UK's post-dubstep milieu yet, connecting with Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder at the same time that it nods to Burial, James Blake, Kode9, BNJMN, and others. It might not be a tropical paradise, but you could do worse than to spend your vacation in the world conjured up by Vacation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Burial - Kindred EP
Hyperdub, 2012

New music from Burial is rare. In the four and a half years since he released Untrue in November 2007, he has released nine collaborative tracks and four new Burial songs: "Fostercare," from 2009's 5: Five Years of Hyperdub and the Street Halo single last year, which included the title track, "NYC," and "Stolen Dog." The release of this single brings that total up to seven with the title track and b-sides "Loner" and "Ashtray Wasp," or just over half the number of tracks on Untrue.

I make this point not to find fault or criticize. To say that Burial's sound is distinctive would be an understatement: for all that artists have attempted to imitate his omnipresent crackle and hiss, his ghostly, androgynous vocal samples, and his syncopated, aqueous drums, there's something that Burial's music brings to the table that is uniquely his own. His name has become shorthand for a certain palette, so familiar at this point, in much the same way that My Bloody Valentine or Boards of Canada have become widely used shorthands for certain combinations of sounds and emotions. What's amazing, then, is that given the relative paucity of his output over the last few years, and given the similarity in terms of sounds and elements that Burial's music has favoured since Untrue, that familiar palette and the emotions it evokes still resonate.

Without ever seeming to change, Burial's music has developed over the past few years, becoming more nuanced and subtle while avoiding any hint of insularity, which would be death for his sound. His music is intimate as a touch or a whisper, but as elusive and ephemeral as a shared glance as you pass someone on the street. The tension between the titles of the songs on this single--"Kindred" points to togetherness and community while "Loner" signals isolation, alienation even, on top of loneliness--is a perfect encapsulation of his music.

This tension between community and isolation is reflected in his rare statements about his music and the purpose behind it. He's talked about making music that reflects his sense of London, a city full of "distant lights, down the end of your road" and how his songs need to be "faith restoring somehow to me." He constantly refers to the idea of his music glowing, of its appropriateness for:
when you come back from being out somewhere; in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you've still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It's like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark.
Taken together, these ideas all form the Burial aesthetic: unidentifiable voices heard through the walls, late-night walks in the rain, glowing angels watching over us.

Kindred is Burial's biggest leap forward since Untrue, a release that finds him working with the developments in bass music over the past two years without abandoning his signature elements. The upfront and aggressive drums of "Kindred" might be relatively free of hiss and hard and menacing as jackboots, but they're recognizably Burial, resembling more than ever the fishbones he's referenced when discussing drums. Similarly, "Loner's" first half, although ostensibly one of Burial's most club-friendly moments is full of odd touches: the mix seems inside out, the vocal samples trying to escape the bright arpeggiated line that dominates the track, the drums occasionally skipping or stuttering, explosions of ghostly hum and fog-like hiss disrupting the momentum. When the unaccompanied vocals sing out at the end of the track, it's a relief from the crushing, driving music that's come before. Their eerie melody is shaded with ambiguous meaning, at once comforting and hopeful and forbiddingly alien.

It's on "Ashtray Wasp," though--which Scratcha DVA previewed a few minutes of back in December--that demonstrates the amount of progress present on this single, as it synthesizes the new and the old and suggests just how potent Burial c.2012 is. The track begins with a nice, excitement generating buildup that sounds like "classic" Burial--the hushed, shuffling drums joined by an attention grabbing vocal sample. After a few movements, though, the track really takes off in its second half. The gently knocking rhythm and synth pulses that open up into a beautiful world of Four Tet-ish twinkling and truly warped vocal sampling is both unbelievably virtuosic and arresting. It's my favourite moment here; I can only hope that Burial chooses to develop this particular strand further at some point.

Not everything on Kindred is perfect and not all of Burial's experiments work, but that's what is so exciting here. When one of these developments clicks--like the euphoric moment that starts "Kindred" and recurs throughout or the eruptions of hiss and fog that periodically swallow these tracks up--it sounds genuinely thrilling, an artist delighting in his own power. What's more, it changes the tone of the most frequent question surrounding Burial's music--how far can he take this sound?--from incipient weariness to anticipation. The Quietus knew this back in December when they said "Burial gets better with each release by becoming more and more like Burial." It turns out that identity and the music that surrounds it is more rich and varied than anyone expected.

Back in 2007, Burial talked about his music--and music in general--having a kind of social function:
You see people and you're disconnected from them, they mean fuck-all to you, but other times you can invest everything in someone you don't even know, silently believe in them, it might be on the underground or in a shop or something. You hope people are doing that with you as well. . . . It's easy to fall away and fuck up and for many people there's no safety net. Sometimes one tune can mean everything, it's like a talisman. . . . When you are young you are pushed around by forces that are nothing to do with you. You're lost, most of the time you don't understand what's going on with yourself, with anything.
In the face of this confusion and loss, music offers a haven, a place of solidarity. In 2012, with a world of precarity and austerity being all that we (but especially youths) are commanded to expect, Burial's music seems more important than ever.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Gonjasufi - MU.ZZ.LE
Warp, 2012

The past five years has seen something of a renaissance when it comes to musicians doing things to and with the human voice. Part of this has been spurred by the UK bass music scene and its obsession with bent, warped, and stretched vocal samples, voices turned into fractals or halls of mirrors, the syllables refracting off each other. As David Bevan pointed out a few years ago, "there seems to be a new musical vocabulary emerging, one centered around the way vocals are being manipulated to create moods and atmospheres defined by their amorphous, often spectral nature. Ghost voices." Bevan goes on to trace the predominance of this musical vocabulary first to Burial and then "from T-Pain to Kanye to Todd Edwards to Prefuse 73 and on back, with stops along the way for Luomo's Vocalcity, the KLF's Chill Out, Kraftwerk's vocodered melodies, King Tubby's dub, and Steve Reich's tape experiments." The focal point of this new style, for Bevan, is James Blake, about whom I've written before, but he rightly points out that this is not entirely a new phenomenon--Alvin and the Chipmunks and experimenting with a two-speed tape deck when I was a kid primed me on the fact that recorded voices could be altered in strange, sometimes thrilling ways, and Cher's "Believe" was basically an infomercial for voice manipulation software (in her case, the now-dreaded Autotune). 

All of this is just to say that large portions of very disparate genres have spent the last few years exploring the ways that the voice can be cut up, processed, and reassembled into something new, along with what that manipulation does to our understanding of music and to our relationship with the source material. In the midst of all this vocal wizardry, Gonjasufi's 2010 debut A Sufi and a Killer was a revelation. Without any tricks, Gonjasufi turned in a commanding performance anchored by his incredibly distinctive vocals. Charred, cracked, broken, wheezing, and wailing, his voice was like a skeleton in the desert sun (that a remix album was called The Caliph's Tea Party makes perfect sense). The music backing him, a mix of Brainfeeder-style beat science, psych rock, raga, hip-hop, and off-kilter pop, worked to highlight his singular voice, offering him odd melodies and varied environments to croon, rasp, and rap over.

After a relatively low-key release in the latter half of 2011--the 9th Inning EP--Sumach Ecks returns with the mini-album MU.ZZ.LE (at just over twenty four minutes, the ten songs here fly by). Gone is some of the eclecticism of A Sufi and a Killer, but in its place is a renewed commitment to the element that really defines Gonjasufi: Ecks' blasted vocals. There were times that A Sufi and a Killer ended up in a kind of sub-Tom Waits territory (especially on a track like "She Gone"), but MU.ZZ.LE sticks to the psych and hip-hop ends of his sound. One welcome addition to Gonjasufi's soundworld is Ecks' wife, whose strong voice serves as an intriguing foil on "Feedin' Birds" and "Skin." Overall, MU.ZZ.LE plays like a consolidation of strengths rather than a radical reinvention, but when your strengths are as unique and intriguing as Ecks' are, it makes sense to stick with them. 

Aside from the aforementioned "Feedin' Birds," the highlight might be "Timeout" with its subdued, though oddly doom-laden and portentous, organs and prominent drums that underpin one of Ecks' best vocal performances. "The Blame" is the closest to a pop-friendly moment on the album, matching sweeping, almost cinematic organ and keyboard swirls to an intense half-sung, half-mumbled tale of paranoia and misery. "Blaksuit," meanwhile, brings back the junkyard guitars of A Sufi and a Killer standouts "Kobwebz" and "Kowboyz & Indians" along with that album's distorted vocals. "Feedin' Birds" is far and away the peak here, though, with Ecks and his wife combining to deliver a moment as odd and mysterious as anything that's appeared on a Gonjasufi release. 

Shedding most of the high-powered guests who helped produce A Sufi and a Killer (The Gaslamp Killer, Flying Lotus, and Mainframe) in favour of a largely self-produced effort (Psychopop assisted on three songs) makes MU.ZZ.LE a much darker listen than Gonjasufi's debut. The music shimmers like the heat around his Mojave Desert home even as the production coats everything in thick, murky swamp water and a layer of dust. Just like his debut, though, the primary takeaway from MU.ZZ.LE is that there's little else out there that sounds like Gonjasufi. Listening to him seems to suspend time, to alter the very room that you're in. Less than twenty five minutes of new music is not enough; I can't wait for his next full-length. If MU.ZZ.LE is any indication, it'll blow minds one craggy-voiced pronouncement at a time--a Sufi and a killer indeed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Porcelain Raft - Strange Weekend
Secretly Canadian, 2012

I remember a couple years ago, when Porcelain Raft's music started making the rounds on mp3 blogs, thinking that the music he made was very pretty. That, above all other adjectives, was the key: pretty. There were other words that could be used, and most of his songs had interesting things going on beneath the surface, either structurally or melodically, but they were all pretty. I even marked one particular song of his as being quite good, one that I legitimately enjoyed and would gladly listen to on a fairly regular basis. I could never remember, though, which of his songs that was: this twinkling, sighing song with the big acoustic strums powering it? That other wistful, swooning song with different echo-y drums? There weren't that many of his songs out there, but zeroing in on the one I liked proved surprisingly difficult.

It wasn't so much that his songs all sounded the same; rather, the method of delivery rendered songs that were quite different in a homogeneous style that failed to allow differences to register beneath the gloss of prettiness. The kind of sighing, wistful melodies favoured by dream pop (and by Porcelain Raft in his dream pop) don't take much persuading to slide over into anodyne, anonymous pleasantries, and Porcelain Raft's melodies seemed to have taken that as their starting point. Blame nostalgia and thick coats of reverb over everything, blame computer speakers and low fidelity sound files, blame the burden of good and tasteful influences, but Porcelain Raft could never really make an impression on me. His music was pretty, the analogous adjective to describing a person as "nice."

Fast-forward a few years to January of this year and Porcelain Raft's first album (after a number of EPs), Strange Weekend, comes out. Curious to see if an artist who seemed to have some real potential--if he could ever get over the hump of "prettiness"--had capitalized on that potential, I decided to give Mauro Remiddi's music another chance. At ten songs in thirty four minutes, Strange Weekend is not a taxing listen. As with previous Porcelain Raft releases, there are some genuinely striking moments, though, worryingly, things haven't got any less "pretty." The loop that underpins "Is It Too Deep For You?" nods toward hip-hop and witch house before the song opens out into a windswept vista in the bridge, one of the few overtly pretty moments that doesn't feel forced. "Unless You Speak From the Heart" is a classic pop song seemingly made for lazy summer days that shows off Remiddi's strengths as an arranger, every sound placed for maximum impact. Strongest of all is opener "Drifting In and Out." Probably the best song I've heard from him, its forceful drums and zipping synth lines provide a propulsive thrust behind Remiddi's featherlight, androgynous falsetto. The guitar line that comes in at the end of the song is a particularly nice touch, shifting the entire song through a relatively small addition.

Unfortunately, that guitar line is also the first hint of what for me becomes a disappointing trend. Though Porcelain Raft presents all the signifiers of dream pop, spiced up with some bedroom pop and chillwave flourishes that place him firmly within contemporary indie, the omnipresent prettiness (seriously, would a sharp edge in a song kill him?) and its attendant anonymity connect much of Strange Weekend in my mind to second tier Britpop and alternative bands of the late nineties who exchanged personality for generic, swirling production flourishes. The beats, acoustic strums, vague electronic adornments, and whispering falsetto vocals formula--one that is supposed to signal intimacy, sincerity, and emotional immediacy--was already cliche before Porcelain Raft existed as a project, and here there's a very real sense of a cliche being deployed in an extremely literal-minded way. All of this is amplified on Remiddi's ballads, which predominate. Much of the middle section of Strange Weekend is devoted to power ballads, essentially ("Backwords" and "The End of Silence" being the worst offenders), and "Pictures," while impressive in one sense as it approaches a kind of platonic ideal of a dreamy ballad, is not a song I can ever imagine wanting to listen to: nothing is out of place, everything sounds perfect, and the whole song ends up going by without making any impact on me whatsoever.

I've vilified this idea of "pretty" music throughout this review, but I'm not opposed to pretty sounds. Indeed, there is quite a lot of music I enjoy that would best be described as pretty. The problem I have with the prettiness of Porcelain Raft is that it's a cheap, unearned prettiness, a conscious decision to employ a certain musical language that has very obvious signifiers in place of building more personal, idiosyncratic expressions of the emotions that those signifiers have come to represent. If Remiddi's music in some way transcended the kind of rote dream pop moves out of which it is built--or circumvented the expectations that his sound sets up within the context of those sounds--he would be treading on quite fertile ground. As it is, I can't help thinking that his recreation of what 4AD and Creation were pumping out in the eighties and early nineties might be a source of endless inspiration for him--as Simon Reynolds has claimed, for today's musicians, the 1980s seems to be the equivalent of the 1960s for musicians of earlier generations--but it makes for a fairly dull listening experience for me. The bands that Porcelain Raft's music references were never pretty for the sake of pretty, but that seems to be the end goal on Strange Weekend. Nitsuh Abebe talked about this in one of his "Why We Fight" columns, the idea that "Beauty can--and should--be something you create, not default to." He expands on this idea, claiming:
[W]e listen to raw visceral noise when we want to, and swoony pleasantries two hours later, when the mood has changed. But vitality and new ideas can fit into either one of them. And those are things worth demanding even from our "comfortable" listening. It's not like being challenging is incompatible with being beautiful--as far as I can tell, the two tend to go hand in hand.
There's a strong EP buried in Strange Weekend--take the four or five best songs and I'd say Remiddi is on the verge of really having something when he finally releases a full-length. For such a short album, though, too much of it is forgettable to allow it to have any chance of making an impact. Remiddi is clearly comfortable with a certain style and approach to music--and he may yet end up with something quite interesting by sticking with that approach and becoming ever more himself--but I can't imagine why you would reach for this over Remiddi's influences, or even over his contemporaries (Atlas Sound's Logos does much of what Strange Weekend wants to do, but with better songs and results, in my opinion). For Remiddi, I'd say it's time for a mood change, time for some vitality and new ideas. In an ever-rising tide of pleasant, pretty music, Porcelain Raft is drowning in its own anonymity.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II
Southern Lord, 2012

Pitchfork has Earth's new album, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light IIstreaming right now. Go check it out if you haven't listened to it yet! A "sequel" of sorts to their excellent 2011 album Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I (which only missed appearing on my Best of 2011 list because I forgot it came out last year--I kept thinking it was a late 2010 release), the music for this album was recorded at the same sessions as the first installment and continues Earth's evolution into something more than the house band to a Cormac McCarthy novel. Of course, they are excellent at exactly the kind of scorched-desert-and-violence vibe of McCarthy's work, as evidenced by Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method (supposedly influenced by Blood Meridian), Hibernaculum, and--to a lesser extent--The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull. Nevertheless, for a band with music as impressionistic and evocative as Earth, a change of scenery is a necessity. The Demons of Light albums offer just that--though the scenery is perhaps not a world away from where they've been. The second installment also joins the first one as having one of the best album covers in recent memory:

Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I

At this point Earth's music is so recognizably their own that it seems almost impossible for there to be any sense of surprise when listening, but Dylan Carlson's guitar playing continues to develop in terms of nuance and subtlety and the band's interplay becomes increasingly free and tight as the years go on. In a recent interview with Fact, Carlson talked about the progression from Demons of Light I to Demons of Light II, talking about an:
arc . . . from composed songs like "Old Black" and "Father Midnight" through to completely free [improvisations] like "Angles of Darkness, Demons of Light I"--the second album is a continuation of that title track in that it's all improvised. Also, the looser tracks remind me of Pentangle who had the folk chops combined with the jazz chops of the rhythm section. The whole project has this arc of composed to free; American forms to British forms, and then ends on a wildcard, "Rakehell."
Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II is every bit as strong as its predecessor, but while the basic formula for an Earth song hasn't changed here--repetition, impossibly slow tempos, and blues and country riffs expanded and mutated into something else entirely are still the name of the game--the execution has advanced to a new level on the Demons of Light albums, which Carlson calls "an interesting and ongoing quest of sorts." Lori Goldston's cello continues to add an intriguing dimension to the band's sound and serves as an able foil for Carlson's guitar even in its quieter moments. Also, Adrienne Davies drum performance throughout Demons of Light II is a marvel of subtle propulsion and heft, pushing the songs on even as the melody lines spiral out into increasingly abstract shapes. In a song like "The Corascene Dog," Davies doesn't appear to be doing anything, really, but that repeated fill and the shimmer of her cymbals makes sure that even as Carlson ties the chord progression in knots, the track never stops going. Just as vitally, on something like "A Multiplicity of Doors," it's Davies who makes sure that the band hits every one of those crests. Perhaps surprisingly given its improvised nature, everything here has a sense of not just travel, but arrival: at the end of a song some destination has been reached, some void has been crossed. Earth is forceful, purposeful, and at the height of their powers. Though Fairport Convention and Pentangle have been referenced by Carlson as influences on Earth's current sound, I think Lark's Tongue in Aspic/Starless and Bible Black era King Crimson is another apt touchstone (one Carlson confirms here).

What's especially impressive is just how much light is present in Earth's sound these days. They've always been able to conjure up angels of darkness, but they seem just as apt to give the demons of light a turn this time round. Carlson's guitar practically sparkles on drumless opener "Sigil of Brass," miles away from the crush of something like "Seven Angels" from 1993's Earth 2, and when "His Teeth Did Brightly Shine" launches in with a classically Earth guitar line, it's palpably redemptive and stirring (and as pretty as "Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine)"). Davies, in that interview with Fact, mentions that "Hex seemed to be created by almost 'impersonal' and 'external' forces, each album since then has felt progressively more intimate and personal," and I find this matches the distinct shift I've noticed from something like "The Dry Lake" to the Demons of Light albums. The band sounds like they are in the room with you--the production on their albums since their return has been uniformly fantastic--but the shadings, the lights and shadows, of their songs are more vivid than usual here.

It's been a little over a half-decade since Earth reappeared from almost a decade of silence. With a fan-funded Carlson solo album supposedly in the works and Earth operating increasingly as a collective, it will be fascinating to see where they head. I have to wonder how many miles are left in their current direction--when you've mastered playing slow, where do you go next?--although the move to improvisation seems promising. In the Fact interview, Carlson admits that he "do[es]n't know what exactly will inspire the next Earth album." I hope that that means we're in for another reinvention, even if it's not as radical as the one started on Hex. Given their track record, though, it's hard not to believe wherever they end up will be worth hearing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


-Lisa Gye, Half Lives


-Alain de Botton


"'There is no air in me,' the ship said. 'Nothing for you to eat. No one to talk to, since everyone else is under.'
Kemmings said, 'I can talk to you. We can play chess.'
'Not for ten years. Listen to me . . . I will feed you your own buried memories, emphasizing the pleasant ones. You possess two hundred and six years of memories and most of them have sunk down into your unconscious. This is a splendid source of sensory data for you to receive. . . . Relax and trust me. I will see that you are provided with a world.'"
-Philip K. Dick, "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon"

"The only thing worse than bad memories
is no memories at all"
-The Dismemberment Plan, "Spider in the Snow"


-Mark Richardson, "Taking Pictures of Taking Pictures: Dirty Beaches, David Lynch, Lana Del Rey and the Tumblr-ization of Indie"

"We never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself. Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read."
-Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act


In some ways, the above quotes frame a certain existential question that I've been grappling with lately but can't quite put into words. Part of it has to do with digital selves, archives, social networking, and the seemingly foolish (but actually quite profound, I think) question that keeps popping up on sites like Yahoo! Answers every so often about Facebook/MySpace profiles and death. Giovanni Tiso's elegant post on the way blogs end gets at some of what concerns me here. I've tried to write on this before, too, though I'm not sure that says even half of what I'm thinking about now. The other part has to do with a kind of general anxiety about the future, about (human) memory, about how we know ourselves.

Over the past few days, I've heard and read a few things that have given me pause. I can't resolve any of this right now, so here are some scraps of what I've been thinking about before bed, on the bus going to and from school, etc.

Graduate students are not part of the institutional memory. You leave and go other places and are forgotten about.
I'd like to say that I disagree with this statement, but I honestly don't know if I can. I'm not convinced that institutional memories are any less fragile than human ones. How many times has an advanced PhD student walked into the office and everyone waits for him or her to leave before asking "Who was that?!" Finishing course work seems a lot like becoming a ghost: you haunt the same hallways, but you're only visible at certain times, a partially reconstituted memory, a window into the past. The people who knew you and might invoke your name rapidly move out of course work themselves. Eventually, you stop haunting those hallways. You leave and go somewhere else. No one speaks of you--or if they do, they speak of you (and your connection to this place) only in the past tense. What happens when a ghost stops frequenting its haunt, stops haunting? Is anything left? Who remembers a ghost when it's gone? How does a ghost exist without a haunt?

Graduate students carry part of the very institutional memory that they are not a part of--I remember who sat in my cubicle last year and who is there no longer, for example--but it's never complete, and it's party to all the distortions, omissions, and erasures that plague any other memory. I never thought I'd forget the names and faces of the students in the first class I ever taught. I tried to remember them the other day, though, and I couldn't be sure that what I remember about them is true, or if it's just what I've told myself I remember about them.

There is this loss in you that just is what it is. You leave, or you stay, and you watch everyone else leave. You can make a good life for yourself somewhere else, but maybe you never shake the feeling that you lost your home.
This next one is from the absolutely heartbreaking comic that Kate Beaton posted to her website about a death in her hometown. She took the comic down because there were some concerns that people might think she was making fun of the situation (though if you read it, you would never think that). I hope it goes back up soon. Here's all that she's left up:

Kate Beaton: http://beatonna.tumblr.com/post/17228188734/a-recent-death-for-my-home-town-it-made-an 

A little while ago, I was planning on writing a post about albums that grow with you--ones that you pick up early on and that shape your conception of life and how it works. The albums that you revisit year after year because they help you to reorient yourself, to try and make sense of life. I was going to talk about The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I, an album that, like a lot of things I love, is dominated by this idea of memory: memory machines that save our hearts from labour, old friends whose names you can't remember, the people we consider our personal heroes and heroines even if we never see them again. "The City," my favourite song on the album, gets at the same sort of thing that Beaton does in the passage I quoted:
So I'm not unsympathetic;
I see why you left:
there's no one to know
and nothing to do.
The city's been dead
since you've been gone
A little later, Travis Morrison delivers the kicker: "All I ever say now is goodbye."

Is this what life requires of us now? Is Eva Hoffman right: are we all nomads now? With global capital making life outside of its demands virtually impossible, "home" seems to be a luxury that few can afford. For years I've told people who ask me about my plans--"Where do you want to live/end up/settle down/etc?"--that I'll go wherever I can find work. Something about that seems less than satisfactory these days, and those lines from Beaton's comic seem to capture my feelings.

I've crossed the border a fair number of times over the past six or seven years. Whenever I do, I wonder if some bond is being damaged somehow, stretched and pulled taut, then allowed to snap back, only to be restretched a few weeks later. While I was at my parents' house over Christmas, I woke up one morning and couldn't figure out where I was. It's been my home since I was eleven. It has, to borrow from Bachelard, sheltered me as a dreamer and my dreams. I didn't recognize it in that first moment when I woke up.

When I left, my mother mentioned that it might have been the last Christmas they are living in that house--it's getting too big for them as they get older. Where would home be then?

[There is] [s]omething very interesting about this to me, the point where human memory becomes replaced by media. As of last week, she was the last person on earth who could tell you a story about serving in WWI based on her own experience. And now there are none. We have books and photos and websites but the imperfect human memory is no more.
From Mark Richardson, on the death of the last WWI veteran, Florence Green, at the age of 110.

I wonder how many people already assume, in their day to day lives, that media has replaced human memory. This isn't a new phenomenon, obviously. Commonplace books, journals, diaries, memoirs, recordings, home movies, all of these have proved supplements (or replacements) for memory. What's different now, of course, is that a machine selects those unforgettable moments for us--just like a machine tells me which emails in my inbox are important--collates them for us, and presents them for us. We've made a memory machine, just like the Dismemberment Plan said we would.

A few years ago, one of the more interesting Facebook applications (at least in my opinion) was a summary of the user's past year via a collection of the status updates he or she had posted over the previous twelve months. This was the kind of even-better-than-memory aspect that Facebook took to new levels with the new Timeline layout: a digital collection of you that presents itself as being literally unforgettable.

What's unforgettable in my life right now? What do I assume to be unforgettable (like that first class of students)? I don't have a single photograph of my home, my apartment, or my office. I don't have any photographs of the last apartment I lived in, or any of the apartments before that. I don't have a photograph of Oregon, even though I lived there for two years, but I do have some photos of California, where I went on holiday for three days with some friends (though none of the sites of my two most vivid memories from that trip). I don't have any photographs of my office in Oregon, nor the building it was in, nor any of the classes I taught in. Can I even say that I remember these places these days?