At various points in history, it’s been de rigueur for guitar bands to rebel against the perceived snootiness of guitar noodling — trills and triplets with serif flourishes, seemingly playable by people with freakishly large and dexterous hands. For instance, Brit punks in the 1970s and ’80s, with ramshackle barre chords and studied sneers, were rebelling against the disenfranchisement of the working class and the incoming threat of Thatcherism. But they were also just really sick of prog and glam rock. And while I’m a huge fan of tentpost noodlers like Yes and Genesis and Crimson and the like, I can see it: After a bunch of years of Peter Gabriel dressing up as a mushroom and Ziggy Stardust sporting extreme eyeshadow, and practically everyone playing their guitars like they’re doing harpsichord solos at a Baroque salon, you might want to cleanse your palate with something a little less… decadent.
That era of prog rock was probably the apex of noodling, but it mutated its way into ’80s and ’90s pop music in the form of the post-Hendrix epic guitar bridge, courtesy power-dudes with long tresses and severe names: Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Slash. But they were certainly different from its noodling predecessors; where bands like Genesis and Yes were informed by fantasy, performance art and some holdover psychedelic hippieism, those fellows’ fretboard dexterity was an overt expression of virile hypermasculinity. A tweaking solo, high up on the fret, was basically a peacock spreading its wings.
Noodling mostly died down in rock with the early grungers (read: Nirvana, who, like their punk predecessors, were bucking what they correctly perceived as wankery). But it’s here that an interesting psychic transference occurred. As the prevalence of guitar noodlers dipped, the prevalence of vocal noodlers rose, mostly in the form of Mariah Carey. “Vocal noodling” has an actual, in-the-dictionary definition — melisma, a now-critically overused term that nobody even knew existed before then-Slate pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones started using it in his columns. Mariah, with her sprinting runs and staggering range, was using her pipes to flashily noodle, and eventually became a quintessential practitioner of it; I imagine you could probably transpose some of her early songs to a Moog and sound pretty close to something off Foxtrot. I’ll never forget first hearing the outro of “Someday,” off her debut album in 1990, when she hit that freakishly high note and skipped around it a little bit like she was bending the strings. Steve Vai, seriously, suck it up.
But with the (flawed) democratization of sound and style thanks to the internet, there’s been a concurrent noodler’s liberation front. Crossing over into instrument ‘wankery’ is no longer fraught with the stigma that it once was, and it no longer carries the same meaning. For one, the genre of math rock revitalized the noodle and made it headier, albeit somewhat more insular. And in the wake and tradition of scrappy art-noodlers like Hella, Battles and — daresay — Animal Collective, there is an open place for people like New Yorker Marnie Stern, who both shreds and noodles with stunning virtuosity (and whose frequent use of the word vagina on her blog and at shows reframes the often male-associated concept in a gender-neutral light, too). Another example of noodler’s freedom is D, the fourth album by Austin band White Denim, who have built a career on finger-tappy funk that benefits from its inherent scrappiness. Like Stern’s last album, Marnie Stern, White Denim has traversed their way through various stages of noodle to settle on a sound that expands their grasp of guitar frippery into a broader, serener pop sound. It’s a lesson in soloing — epic trills don’t have to be about sexual primacy, nor must a flashy noodle stand on its own outside the context of the song. My favorite track, “Burnished,” is built on a repeating riff that tickles up the fret and bends until it embeds like a radio chorus; counter riffs lie behind it, while the vocals lie soft and neutral in the cut. There is a Yes-worthy bridge, touche to that. Despite its ’70s pedigree, though, the 40 years behind it prop it up into present tense; as the riff has been neutralized, the wank has been exorcised. I feel okay about listening to guitars again.
Gang Gang Dance is a New York art band in the tradition of our most iconic, descended from Talking Heads and Sonic Youth in both heart and borough. Of course they sound nothing like either, but they’re one of the few post-9/11, pre-third-term-Bloomberg bands left in Manhattan whose untethered experimentalism honestly captures our spirit and tension. Their music, rattling with tin percussion and synth gleam, peels away the cosmetic prostheses of mondo-condos and digs up the pure ecstasy beneath the skin of the streets. With each new album, they plunge into the grit and emerge wielding a beating heart. How do they keep the revolutionary spirit intact when there’s now a bourgeois gelateria and accompanying clientele situated right next door to Max Fish? I think it’s their corporeal way — there’s some mystical intrinsic oneness between their beings and their music, wrought by jam session and no boundaries. Their long notes and spaces, extendo-length songs and ability to feel out the terrain as they go comes from a place of instinct, impulse, and enthusiasm. Eye Contact, their new album, capitalizes on that, an overwhelmingly warm devotonal to the kinetic physicality that crackles between band members Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw and Jesse Lee. If they’ve held New York’s beating heart aloft before, this is Gang Gang Dance becoming our circulatory system. We need them as they need us.
Never making it too easy, weeks ago Gang Gang released “Glass Jar,” as their first single; over 11 minutes long, it sits in galactic drift for a good half of that before congealing into any real structure. While its synth twinkles are gorgeous, I frankly didn’t have the patience when it dropped to really feel it. In the context of the album though, as an opener, it’s a hearts-full mission statement. Bougatsos, kewpie soprano pure as ever, sings I care for you like a brother/ I’m there for you like a mother while a deep bassline keeps her afloat. For a song about unconditional love, they were right to be generous with its length, and “Glass Jar” cushions the rest of the album, which is threaded together more tightly than any in their past. Actual jams, their signature provenance, still feather out into tendrils, but structurally they’re going for arcs, influenced by dance music and underscored by references to the cultures that comprise NYC. British raves and Bhangra, soca and dancehall, R&B and cumbia, Arabic pop and reggaeton all come into play, whether through samples or allusions. They are one of a handful of long-running bands popular in the indie circuit that has never seemed impervious to the diversity of our city, yet they have never felt like they were appropriating… more like open. On “Thru and Thru,” Bougatsos approximates the high trills of Bollywood ladies, studied paeans rather than odes to the Other; “Chinese High” nods to big-resort dancehall but slips in some guitar bends and echo effects culled from the stoniest of yacht rock dudes. Their sense of adventure on Eye Contact is honed to a brilliant point. And to further enter the album in the canon of great downtown works, they’ve named a tender lullaby “Sacer,” after their friend and collaborator Dash Snow, whose tag still blankets the LES (plus a toilet in the ‘Bunny’ bathroom at Fish) nearly two years after his death.
Bougatsos, for all her vocal slipperiness, is always the center of Gang Gang, feminist/artist/muse holding it all together (like a mother, maybe). For a certain subsect of New Yorkers, it’s impossible to speak of her without a sense of awe; she’s the patron saint for local weirdos, art connoisseurs, and anyone with a refined sense of the outre. In her capacity as Gang Gang’s singer, she makes sublime use of the guttural, her yelps approaching the elevated passion of only a few vocal innovators in pop music — Bjork, Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim, Kate Bush, Yoko Ono. As a visual artist, she’s refashioned mundane aspects of everyday city life — streets signs, “For Sale” placards — into sanguine feminist statements that challenge concepts of the vulgar. (Bonus bits: under-heralded fashion icon with a phenomenal Long Island accent not heard with the kind of rare aplomb since Cyndi Lauper did the Pee Wee’s Playhouse theme song.) So on Eye Contact, she remains the challenging locus, and with her subversive tenderness and power, translates it into an inherently feminist work — not by mission statement, but by mere existence. Someone, maybe Bougatsos or guest singer Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, whispers It’s gonna be all right on the sensual slow jam “Romance Layers”; whether reassurance to love or to self, the sentiment resonates on the album as a statement of acceptance and openness. And maybe therein is the crux of these dudes, New York City all-stars, the secret to how they can keep their cool in a malleable town that’s ever-friendlier to the filthy rich: to make do, do you.
Men lie, women lie, and money allows you to lie even easier, but poverty doesn’t lie. And Mobb Deep represents poverty. My plan was to literally rage against the machine. — Albert ‘Prodigy’ Johnson, My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (with Laura Checkoway)
One of Prodigy’s most compelling traits as a rapper has always been his subtle volatility. He delivers his smoky brogue, bent at 45-degree angles by a Queensbridge accent and dialect, in unfailingly smooth tandem with the beat. But his lyrics generally bite and snarl, built on tension, street tales and veiled shots. In Mobb Deep raps, the sun may not come out tomorrow. As Prodigy observes in the duo’s most famous track, “Shook Ones Pt. II,” I’m only nineteen but my mind is old/ and when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold.
Prodigy is a New York treasure, both in his talents — he’s easily one of the top rappers and lyricists the city has ever produced — and in the way his life reflects the city’s narrative. His excellent new autobiography, released last month, sheds light on both the grit that shaped him and his own personal golden era of rap, when Jay-Z was still beefing with Nas and independent record labels released the best albums out. Mobb Deep fans will recognize the generally poverty-wrought tales of robbery, stick-ups, and other bad behavior in the Queensbridge Projects, 41st side, during the ’80s and ’90s, when the entirety of New York still had its cockles up. But a far larger spectre looms over the book: Prodigy’s devastating sickle cell anemia, which has afflicted him his entire life. He’s a diminuitive man, small in stature, but he’s always had an intimidating demeanor — an attractive face with a permanent scowl embedded in it. As he writes in My Infamous Life, dealing with the pain associated with the disease shaped him to be “one moody motherfucker.”
And arguably, it’s what shaped him to be a great rapper, a man who can believably encapsulate pain, whether his own or that of his enemies. One of the best rap videos of the early oughties was “Mac 10 Handle,” off Prodigy’s solo album HNIC Pt. II. Though at the time Mobb Deep was signed to G-Unit Records, the chorus was not exactly a 50 Cent-style pop banger. In homage to the Geto Boys, he rapped in a guttural cadence, I sit alone in my dirtyass room staring at candles/ high on drugs. Grimy and filmed with acute visual detail — including a quick shot with several votive candles sitting inside an empty pizza box — it was the story of a man on the verge of some sort of destructive breakdown, paranoia, and retaliation on his tongue. The lyrics were homicidal, but with P sweating and boozing in a lone freakout, there was also a distinct suicide vibe emanating from the clip. Crazed from a deadly combination of drug abuse and vengeance lust, the video was filmically terrifying, and it turned out to be one of the first really important viral rap videos in an age when YouTube was just a baby. You could almost smell the sweat, whiskey, and rank mustiness in the room where Prodigy looked like he’d been holed up for weeks, tweaking out. In the parlance of New York grit, it felt more 1978 than 2008 — but that was a testament to Prodigy’s permanence, longevity, and icon status.
Yet nearly 20 years since Mobb Deep’s inchoate first album Juvenile Hell, Prodigy truly seems like a new man. In early March, he was released from New Jersey’s Mid-State Correctional Facility on good behavior after serving three years for gun possession charges. (While Prodigy expresses remorse for his behavior, he also reminds us that his case was a banner one in furthering the evidence of New York’s ‘Hip Hop Cops,’ aka a special NYPD Task Force created especially to target and imprison rappers.) He’s been on a low-key but effective media blitz since his release, promoting his book and solid new mixtape, the Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP, downloadable for free here. At a recent appearance at Powerhouse Stadium, Prodigy seemed almost gentle. Though traces of the frown were there, here a man who’s clearly reflected on his life and, even if in some small way, has come to peace with it. He elaborated on some of the lighter aspects of his book — clubbing at Bungalow 8 with Lindsey Lohan! Seeing a UFO hovering above his crib! — but the most intimate points were the ones that stuck. He detailed his decision never to wear the diamonds, chains, or gold of his youth after realizing it contradicted the people he wanted to represent; he spoke movingly about telling his children that he was going away for a bit. All the while, the signature gravel in his voice rumbled. It was real — and that’s all we’ve ever wanted from him.
A little over one year ago, Katy B was a slight mystery. In Spring of 2010, the London songbird began popping up as the guest vocalist on tracks by producers orbiting Rinse FM, the then-pirate radio station known for blazing the newest trails in dance music. Materializing first on a cover of Inner City’s “Good Life” transformed into a UK funky house bass whomp by Rinse boss Geeneus, the lithe power of her voice was striking; that track’s a dance classic, the kind of sacred cow one imagines new producers should never touch, and yet she held her own with a gilded warble. Google-Image her then, and you’d find a slightly unkempt white girl in light-wash denim and a hoodie — in other words, your typical college student, a soon-to-be graduate of Goldsmiths, who majored in pop music. In 2008, she’d come in on UK funky in its nascent stages, releasing a collaboration with DJ NG under the moniker Baby Katy that sounded even wispier and more mysterious, but other than her raw talent, there was no indication that she was en route to pop stardom. Baby Katy was refreshingly average.
Fortunately, the UK’s had a long-running love affair with around-the-way girls. Rinse FM was afforded its official broadcasting license last June after 16 years of operating underground, and with its rise, Katy B ascended, too. As a celebratory gift, the station unleashed “Katy on a Mission,” her first official single as a solo artist and the initial entry in a repertoire filled top to bottom with love laments and party-yearning. Produced by longtime dubstep hero Benga, a fact that will get dance fans flocking regardless of who’s on the hook, her presence was transformative, a helium and distinctly feminine presence atop bass oscillations in a genre largely thought of as a dude annex. “Katy on a Mission” was like a meditation prayer to rave DJs. This right here I swear will end too soon/So I sink into the tuuuuune, she crooned, a window into the troubled thoughts of a club girl who might die if the party ends. Nightlife problems… universal concerns. Feel it! It was an instant hit, capping at five on the UK pop charts and number one on the indies. She donned doorknockers.
The syncopated patterns and R&B leanings of UK funky house had been ushering in the return of the true-blue dancefloor diva for a solid year at that point. But even after genre linchpins like Crazy Cousins and Meleka’s “Go” or Paleface and Kyla’s “Do You Mind” (a Brit radio staple later covered by The XX), no one vocalist had broken out as a godhead. Katy B has high-profile producers from arguably the most innovative dance radio station in the Western world –an advantage to be sure — but more importantly she has the emotional believability and the right club queen chemistry that turns showgoers into superstars. Magnetic Man, the supergroup comprised of Benga, Skream and Artwork, officially mainstreamed dubstep in Britain last summer with their debut album (out in the States last week). But even with their formidable composer’s braintrust, it was clearly Katy B’s sweet soprano that elevated the group into megastardom, her R&B-honed vulnerability softening all that sub-bass and junglist’s aesthetic. “Perfect Stranger,” their first single together, hit so hard the BBC demanded an orchestra collaboration. If Magnetic Man’s deep-level dance music sometimes felt too self-serious for hot-stepping in the club, Katy B’s etherealism paradoxically brought it down to earth. But even with the almost-comical ad lib something, something, something, which reminded us that she was still a recent university grad, her boy-love on “Perfect Stranger” aspired to something higher. Your energy when you touched me/ lifted me off the ground, she sang. Your words to me are like music.
“Perfect Stranger” landed on her first album, Katy on a Mission, too, which dropped this month, but it’s possibly one of the low points on an album packed with bangers. The producers kept in the cut to give her the ultimate vocalist’s proscenium, and the album is an endless cycle of heartbreak-rave-heartbreak-rave, of meeting dudes and getting hurt and dancing it off and meeting more dudes. It’s the quintessence of the twin pillars of the classic diva house era: What is life for if not love and dancing? Katy B’s range is exceptional, but it’s her fundamental understanding of this rubric that transformed her from disheveled sprite to shiny, be-dimpled dancefloor princess. Whether this will usher in another era where free-spirited female singers reign the danceclub is debatable, but at the moment Katy B is enough.
If dark hallways and creaky staircases terrify you, it might not be just because of some pseudo-Freudian fear of womb-exit — there might be some residual fear from the sounds of film composer Alan Howarth, who has been imbuing fright in the mundane for decades. As a sonic companion to revered filmmaker John Carpenter, he’s been soundtracking the moments right before every character gets murked for so long, the horror-score genre seems like it would barely exist without him. Starting in the 1980s using old analog synthesizers, he’s underscored the excitement in Escape From New York, given the fright to every Halloween movie and created fourth-dimension effects for Star Trek and Poltergeist. It’s not a stretch to say that, for ’80s babies who grew up immersed in American pop culture, Alan Howarth is our consummate boogeyman.
Last week, Howarth played a landmark performance in New York as part of the ever-stellar Unsound Festival, which brings “advanced” (its word) and out sounds to those willing to work to get into them. He played some of his classics solo — including Escape from New York’s edge-of-seat chords – before snuffing the lights and linking up with the experimental drone band Emeralds for a quite frightening interpretation of some of Halloween’s tension music. It was pitch dark, and I think there was fog, but it might have been my mind playing tricks on me.
A true legend, Howarth took time out to discuss fright music, strange sound contraptions, being a “flower power guy,” and working with Snoop, Dre, and Nate Dogg.
Riff City: You seem to have a really good grasp on the psychological effects of sound, particularly with your scores. Some noises just sound universally creepy. How did you develop that? How you know what’s going to freak people out?
Alan Howarth: We are our own best subjects for testing out what works. I spent many decades with electronic music. A combination of discord and texture are used at the climax of a tense moment. The other key point is to allow for silence and quiet moments to set up a big event.
RC: Have you ever scared yourself while composing horror scores?
AH: Sure, I get scared sometimes when it is actually working well with little thought or effort. This is a sign that you are on the right track. When composing for film, the timing of the scene dictates the composition and the flow. We also use “stingers” to accent big scares. A stinger is a very loud, sudden event, often made of percussion and tense soundscapes that pop on after a set up of quiet tension.
RC: Is it possible that you, with your extensive resume, have a favorite piece you’ve done? A personal accomplishment/triumph over evil, perhaps?
AH: My collaborations with John Carpenter speak for themselves. I just scored the last Brittany Murphy film, Something Wicked. It will be a feature release later this year. It is my latest and greatest to date. It is more of a thriller than a horror show, but it uses many of the same techniques as a horror show.
RC: They Live, which you soundtracked, is having a renaissance right now — Jonathan Lethem has written a book about it, and it’s remarkable how its themes still resonate with us. Do you remember, in the process of making that film, how its themes/images influenced you? Did you have any idea how prescient it would be?
AH: Carpenter is a genius in this way. All of his work is timeless, and will be viewed for many generations moving forward. The They Live story has homeless in tent cities, government collusion with unseen forces, an average guy hero — we can all relate to this today. It is what we seen on the TV now. The score is essentially a blues score, with a twist of Howarth/Carpenter electronic sounds and textures. It was also created when I got my Synclavier Digital Audio system, so we integrated our analog synth orchestra with wonderful hi-quality samples that make a very broad pallet of instrumentation. I also created many of the alien sound design elements for the film. I had done extensive sci-fi sound design for major features, so it was a natural flow for me.
RC: Maybe one thing that people don’t know as much is that you worked for Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Warren G. How different was working on their videos from, say, working with John Carpenter? Did you know Nate Dogg (RIP)?
Yes, for a time I was a go-to guy for these guys. Dre was my main contact, and he brought Snoop and Warren G by. I would create the soundtrack elements for their music videos on Murder was The Case, Dre Day, and many others. They would have a small movie set up before the tune started and they loved what I came up with. I had big guns, amped-up car effects, and when they found out I had done the Halloween music, they had me add tension scoring under the scenes. This was 1991 to 1995 when I worked with them. I did work with the late Nate Dogg. He was actually a very mellow guy in the studio, paid attention, and just wanted me to amp up his videos. It was a great time to be around these guys. One time we had the posse in to overdub dialogue for a party scene in one of the shows. This was the only time I got a little nervous — there was plenty of drinks and smoke in the air, but they were all cool and did a really authentic party for BG for the show.
RC: How did you initially link up with Emeralds?
AH: Last October I was invited to perform my horror movie score for the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Poland. The theme for this year was horror music, and having composed scores with John Carpenter in the ’80s, it was a great opportunity to revisit this great music created on the analog synthesizers of the day. While there, I also performed with a French band, Zombie Zombie, who actually plays our scores live as a performance. I played with them on several themes that Carpenter and I created. It was lots of fun, and we are playing again in Paris and St. Petersburg in May. Backstage, I started a conversation with Steve and John from Emeralds. Turns out they are from Cleveland, Ohio; I am actually from the same town. We made a plan to work together in some form at first meeting. They tend to go for harder, noisier soundscapes, in my opinion.
RC: One thing about your music is that it’s pleasurable to listen to outside of any accompanying visuals. When you’re scoring or sound designing a film or show, are you thinking at all about it as a standalone work?
AH: No, we were focused on making music to serve the film. In fact, Carpenter was really surprised that I wanted to make a soundtrack album for Escape From New York; he didn’t think anyone would listen to it outside of the movie. I think we sold 80,000 copied of the vinyl in the ’80s. After that he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Go figure, people really like our stuff.” Time has proven that the music still stands up; this is the real validation of the scores. Halloween III score has certainly out lasted the original film. I like that one a lot.
RC: What was your first inspiration for sound effects and design? You’ve done sound effects CDs, but did you ever listen to those creepy Halloween sound effects records from the ’70s and ’80s?
AH: Many of my original inspirations for the sound design for many of the films come from my own personal experience. As a kid in New Jersey, I can remember being scared of the dark, thunderstorms, loud noises, and big dogs. I also used to hear music in washing machines, cars on the road, trains, and the woods out back. Just by learning to be a good listener, I was already set up for this. When I was growing up, I was an art student, and thought that I would wind up as a painter in fine arts. Music was a hobby. The big change was when Rock and Roll bit me. I was a child of the ’60s and a Flower Power guy in the ’70s. I loved The Beatles, The Who, King Crimson, Genesis, Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. I formed several “original bands” where we experimented with early synths, echoes, and phasers and jammed almost daily.
I am now putting these jams out, one of the bands is called PI Corp. We released “Lost in the Cosmic Void” on vinyl this past fall. It is only in Europe currently. Later this year, I will release some an earlier project called “Braino.” These tapes are really interesting, and contain many of my original sonic experiments that turned out to be things I used in the ’80s films.
RC: Do you ever feel like you’d want to score a really cheesy, over the top romantic comedy, just for the contrast?
AH: You know, comedy is the hardest scoring to do, because there is no accounting for what is really funny. Would like to do it, but cheese productions don’t think of me as a candidate for their composer. They are thinking about their old college buddies.
RC: What’s the craziest contraption you’ve used to capture a wild effect?
AH: When I was developing sound effects for The Hunt For Red October I wanted to record underwater sounds, I rented a hydrophones for the take, but it sounded too tinny for my needs. So I wound up using expensive studio mikes with condoms stretched over them to make them waterproof. It worked great. I went recording in swimming pools and off Long Beach [California]. I got some great tanker ship propeller effects from an underwater perspective that got used for the submarine propeller cavitations effects.
The craziest place? Recording effects for Star Trek, I was recording sounds for starships and shuttles at the Skunkworks for Lockheed. I was in top-secret facilities recording hypersonic wind tunnels and advanced aero devices. A few times they would allow me to be in the hallway, but not in the room were the sound was being made. I would hand them a mike on a long cable and one of the Skunkworks guys actually went into the area.
RC: It’s fascinating that you’ve done pieces for amusement park rides. What’s the difference between composing for a film and composing for a real-time experience? Is there one?
AH: The biggest difference from film to amusement parks and video games is the interactivity factor. A scene in a film is a fixed length. Take a film scene with a monster lasts for a certain period, let’s say 30 seconds. In an interactive version, the same monster scene can last as long as the player has the attention to fight the monster, this could be minutes. How do would you make the soundtrack a variable length, the answer to this is in controller software that can play several different sounds on cue, based on the action the player and monster take during the scene.
RC: Do you feel like tones can alter consciousness?
AH: I began looking into the frequencies we currently have as “standard” for music tuning (A=440 HZ) and this choice actually arbitrary. My research, that started with a study of acoustic resonance in the Great Pyramid and Mayan temples, then I found these same precise frequencies in the songs of whales, dolphins, birds, and actual tuning of the first tuning fork invented in 1711. Mozart, Handel and many of he composers of the time composed their inspired great works with their instruments tuned to these frequencies. This has led to the rediscovery of natural frequencies that can affect the body, mind, and spirit in subtle but still powerful ways. If one were to retune their music to a setting where A=424, this will put the music into a frequency range that the performer or listener is already naturally tuned to. It makes the music less stressful and often induces inspiration. Ra Music is great for inducing creative or inspired thoughts.
I have started a project called RA Music. This is a study of Natural Frequencies that occur in nature and the universe. There is a feature on the Web site where you can upload any music file and have a free listen to what your favorite music sounds like converted the RA Music.
The same day enterprising young code-wranglers were dismantling The New York Times’ $40 million paywall for 4Chan bragging rights and uninterrupted Mark Bittman, a rock band from Oxfordshire was quietly revisiting the quaint and plaintive art of the print broadsheet. Rewinding the concept of the ‘street team’ to the era in which diminuitive boys disseminated papers while wearing checkered caps (job uniform), the experimental ensemble known as Radiohead planted newsboys and girls in 50 cities across the world, each wielding a stacks of their one-day-only newspaper, The Universal Sigh. It was an unexpectedly steampunk move for a band so insistent on pushing forth the modes of the music industry; four years ago, for instance, Radiohead envisioned a futuristic, sliding-scale internet, infamously offering In Rainbows downloads for the can’t-beat-it price of basically whatever you wanted. Sometimes their tactics have rankled –– when Napster was still just a babe, myself and other renegades, toiling outside the system in the uncharted topography of Portland, Oregon, were infuriated by their guerilla tactic of spraypainting the Kid A logo on sidewalks and under bridges. They were appropriating an element of hip-hop!!! These days, creative marketing in music is par for the course, even a matter of survival. And, as Bandcamp can attest, Radiohead has been a scarce example of real vision in a landscape with a paucity of it.
In that way, Radiohead’s newspaper is also ironic: They’re bucking the constructs of one dying industry by utilizing the physical relic of another. Misery does love company, after all — or maybe it’s just that Radiohead loves ephemera. And who doesn’t? As CDs were phasing out to make way for the infinite horizon of the mp3, one constant worry among collectors and Luddites was that liner notes would vanish and album art would be relegated to impotent, micropixelated .jpgs — victims of technology’s constant miniaturization. The response, of course, was that everything old developed a new sheen; vinyl collectors have flourished, the 7-inch record has enjoyed a vigorous renaissance and there is even a burgeoning crop of cassette purists out there both releasing and collecting tracks only on acetate. (As someone who still has quite a few old tapes from the 1990s purely on packrat status, I must ask of you: Why?) Radiohead, with their newspaper — along with both spectacle and added value as they say in the SEO biz — created something special, a unique personalized experience in these days when fans practically expect mouth to mouth from their favorite artists. Go to designated spot, pick up newspaper, snap a pic, end up on the internet.
More importantly, the album, The King of Limbs, would feel empty without its stark short fiction, poetic sighs, screenprinted graphics, the word ‘infinity’ stamped backwards between stalactites and sequoias; plus fairy tales about God, desire and magpies. The album blends Thom Yorke’s light-in-a-clearing voice with an almost equal balance of sanguine instruments and raceway electronics — they don’t sacrifice form for style, but beyond the breakbeats and pedals, it’s evident they’re itching to get back to the land. It doesn’t middle, but feels vaguely noncommital – not because its short length, but because of its relative ordinaryness, musically speaking. On the other hand, the broadsheet’s tactile qualities — read it in PDF form at Stereogum, but visualize newsprint — clearly iterate a life cycle. Trees are chopped so that newsprint may be made and Radiohead can print photos of trees upon it. (There is also an essay about trees, and the climbing of them, by Robert Macfarlane, the travel writer.) As ever, Yorke’s weeping-willow qualities make the album’s center, and here his mournfulness seems to come from his standard esoteric place — alienation, despondence, hopefulness, too. (Unless we’re meant to take the lyrics literally in which case, Magpie, dog, give the magic back.) But as a full package, the whole affair takes on a yesteryear-yearning that seems both a little out of character (other than the yearning) and yet another savvy move into the future.
Contemporary R&B is not generally aspiring to the arcane. For decades, it has identified with the emotional, vulnerable, political — the stuff of club quavering and lovemaking. It rarely dips its toes into obscure territory, for a genre so vast and encompassing. There have certainly been dalliances with the weird — R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, while self-aware, handily takes that cake — and outre, as with Georgia Anne Muldrow’s stuttering, feminist psychedelia, or D’Angelo at his most pitch-shifted and layered. But for the most part, populist communication is at the top of the value set.
House of Balloons, the new mixtape by The Weeknd (aka Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye), is slouching towards an altered zone, so to speak. A concept album with a traditionally R. Kelly structure — song titles and emotional resonance loosely refer to the show, the party, the afterparty, the hotel lobby — the vocals would be straight pop if they weren’t sausaged in burbly, haunted beats that sway and drag with an ominousness that dissociates from the sext. The melodies are so submerged in cavernous beats and effects that it comes off like a droll retort to auto-tune. Tesfaye sounds like Lloyd in a dystopia, but the samples suggest Beach House and Siouxie Sioux fandom, too — though, above all, it sounds like his biggest influence is oxycontin, half-lidded come-ons light with the ache of feeling no pain. One of the best, most Lynchian tracks nestles the chorus, I always want you when I’m coming down, between samples of a paranoid, speedy whisper and a cell phone. You can almost hear Laura Palmer lurking around the corner — it’s borderline gothic and certainly perhaps cognizant of the current demand for heavy submersibles in off-kilter music, drag-house and the like. Since Balloons was unleashed on Sunday it’s been posted on sites as diverse as the indie scion Pitchfork and hip-hop stalwart 2DopeBoyz. But The Weeknd’s also likely headed for bigger leagues; those blogs originally copped it off the Twitter of none other than Drake, whose producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib may or may not have something to do with the project. (In true Twin Peaks style, Tesfaye is purposefully cryptic about his identity and the nature of the music. So maybe The Weeknd is Bob?) While Drake himself dabbles in longing when he’s not crooning about his swag, whether by success or general nice-guy demeanor, he could never sound quite as convincingly on the verge of a delicate breakdown as this dude. The music is almost nihilistic in its total committal to feeling good. Like The Weeknd’s appeals for love, sex, drugs, are simply distractions before the end of the world.
The Weeknd’s most obvious predecessor is The-Dream — though the pop charts have only been blessed by the gauzy vocals and gossamer love of that R&B superlover for a few years, House of Balloons is clearly shellacked in his sensibilities, full of bleary-eyed rubdowns with big hook aspirations. At times, it sounds as though the vocals were recorded from behind a waterfall — you can almost picture Tesfaye getting earnest on a tropical island, offering up a conch as a symbol of his love. But an antecedent more relevant to the Weeknd’s particular strain of DNA is Steve ‘Static’ Major, the singer/songwriter/producer who wrote the eeriest tracks in Aaliyah’s catalog and sang in the underrated R&B trio Playa, before he passed away three years ago on a Louisville operating table. Though minor keys tend to sound sadder and more distant, Static Major’s mastery of them transcended simple emotion into opaque obscurity. He made the singer sound untouchable and mysterious through pure melodies and modulation; it was a type of magic, really. The harmonies on Playa’s “Cheers 2 U,” for instance, remain some of the ghostliest devotionals in contemporary soul. (It also didn’t hurt that his writing cohort Timbaland was at his peak.)
On some level, The Weeknd recognize this. On the single ‘What You Need,’ there’s a sample of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” which Static Major wrote — though it could also be more of an homage to Zomby, the dance producer who flipped Baby Girl’s ‘float’ lyric into a certified jungle banger a couple of years ago. The Weeknd’s clearly beholden to dubstep, at least as it reaches critical mass — several tracks glom onto that genre’s telling low-end, letting it be the innovation for warbles and that would, on a beat by Darkchild or Stargate, sound fairly standard.
Incidentally, I first listened to House of Balloons on headphones, sitting on a bench sandwiched between a gun range and a pawnshop on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. That was weird. It was also the most plaintive moment of cognitive dissonance in a week full of it, soaking in the quiet weirdness of purple serenades from Canadians against a backdrop of two American symbols writ large. You’ve likely read loads of SXSW reportage by now, and I can confirm two universal truths about the music festival: 1. after it’s over you will never want to be around drunk people again in your life, and 2. every single one of those drunk people is packing in to see a handful of acts with the most buzz. This year, that included my once-beloved James Blake — whose several appearances I skipped with the admittedly churlish notion that I was not trying to see a piano recital — and Odd Future, the teen skate-rap collective whose homicidal/suicidal/rape-invoking lyrics are complicated by infectous, potty-mouthed joie de vivre. I was pleasantly surprised by Mellowhype, the weeded Odd Future sub-group whose Blackenedwhite LP was underwhelming — even though their music doesn’t smack with the same velocity as that of their cohort Tyler, the Creator, there’s no denying the crackle of their show energy. (Though their practice of rapping live over their own vocal tracks still discombobulates, even if it is to counteract Tyler’s asthma-related breath control issues.) And if you’re wondering why so many people at a historically rock festival went so loco over a shock-rap group, or even if you’re not, watch this crazy footage of Odd Future performing “French” at the Thrasher Magazine/Santos Party House show. The dude going Man on Wire is Hodgy Beats, and he lived to hit his next verse. So though their lyrics contribute another spoke to the rape culture, it’s a task to somehow reconcile your cerebral reservations with your visceral enjoyment. Honorable Brooklynite shout outs: Twin Shadow (always), Friends, AC & Dell (the new rap leg of NYC’s Trouble & Bass crew), and uh, Jamie xx, who DJ’d so many times it sorta felt like he lived in the neighborhood. Didn’t hear The Weeknd in any of Jamie’s sets, but it’s surely in the crates – he made beats for Drake’s next album, and pop gets a little more porous.
In 1995, a grunting, curly-headed Eddie Vedder banded together with fellow ‘90s man-scion Mike Watt and sang the lyric, The kids of today should defend themselves against the ‘70s. It was an impassioned treatise against becoming mesmerized by the halcyon nostalgia that prior generations had painted, and a call for youths to form their own packs. Vedder, unhindered by the oft-froggy latch in the back of his throat, belted it, exhilarated — he’s a protest singer at heart. He was believable enough that my alternating disdain for and dalliances with his band of baggy-khaki’d bros, Pearl Jam, experienced a brief and potentially unfortunate renaissance at the time. To this day, the chorus for “Against the ‘70s,” off Watt’s pleasantly syntactical first album Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, drifts up from my subconscious, materializing in full vibratic bleat to warn off some throwback tentpost or ideology. It is not a very “cool” thing to admit, but it is the truth.
Only now, for me, the sentiment is amended to 1990s fervor. The ‘90s deja vu moment has been hanging tough for a hot minute now — kids are all up in the club donning Spice Girls tees — but no year this millennium has felt so 1992 quite like 2011. Broader notes from the culture, for the point: Grunge redux came up heavier than usual on fashion week runways last month, spreading its mothholes to London and beyond. Aubrey Plaza’s character April Ludgate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation has become the modern incarnation of My So Called Life’s Angela Chase (deadpan as sincerity). PJ Harvey has a freaking new album out (it’s conceptual). And certain factions of music go full throttle back to the future, flannels and/or Boy London caps flailing in the wormhole. So while the distorted burble of guitar bands like Wavves, Yuck, and Golden Girls jackhammer for Dinosaur grunge; and gentler groups like Real Estate and Cults hold seances for the pared-down breeze of old-school Olympia pop parties; and house producers like Azari & III and MR INTL channel the triumph of Martha Wash piano house; the long train through the not-all-that-utopian Clinton era chugs along, stompy in Doc Martens (revived footwear) and stoic, as though time never passed. Drum n bass is back, y’all.
The strangest ‘90s moment of recent import, though, was watching Kathleen Hanna, late of Bikini Kill, speak at a Planned Parenthood Rally at Foley Square last week. While she did not perform her craggy wail and shredded-up warbles — her band LeTigre is on hiatus, though soon to release a tour film — it was a creepy reenactment of the kinds of things she was doing with her band in Washington DC in the olden days, like a time-space loophole that couldn’t be helped. But given the circumstances, it got me questioning the clarity of the rehash. The kids of today should defend themselves and whatnot, plus a little nausea. Still, if we all start markering up our skin with agitprop theses (“Pro-Choice,” to invoke Vedder in a Ten-era MTV clip) or flaunting our lady parts in blood art homage to the second wave, it’s cynical to totally indict the idol-mimicry of starry-eyed young love, even if the Pavement-worship does grode you out. I like all of the aforementioned bands, some quite a lot (perhaps not coincidentally, none of them sound like Pearl Jam), and the cultural trend cycle teeters upon itself so often it cannot help but morph into newness eventually. A couple weeks ago, I interviewed New Jersey producer Todd Edwards — a man credited with kick-starting the 1990s house music sounds that eventually morphed into UK garage, and whose original sound is coming back into vogue again. He told me he feels like almost everything is an uptake of an earlier genre, whether consciously or in homage, and that ideas “in the universe” barely self-generate. It’s a holistic way to look at it, generous of intent, and as long as we can sever ourselves from regressive fundamentals — at least these new guitar bands are more accepting of rap — there’s joy to be had in a woozy bit of flange pedal. At the very least, we can take consolation in the fact that ’80s lust is finally toast, grungy reverb and earnest slack swooping in to stomp out glammy excess one more time. Don’t even get it started on the ’70s.
East vs. West, NYC vs. Dirty South, BX vs. The Bridge — in this inchoate century and its ever-spinning Web-whorl, real-world rap boundaries have been tanked. Yeah, rappers still rep where they’re from, but the new territories are the Internet vs. the Internet, where battalions of bedazzled e-warriors gather for binary gang wars over whose verse is better, or who first commented on what post. (Even Ciara and Rihanna are beefing over Twitter.) Unlike the olden days, though, no one’s gonna mean-mug you if you bump beats from beyond your empire. Walk down any Brooklyn street and you’re more likely to hear Atlanta iceblock Gucci Mane bumping from multiple whips than tracks from any actual rappers from Brooklyn. Whether it’s information society giving way to global music culture, the total colonial takeover of major labels, or the equalizing force of great shazam Soulja Boy (and *Mims?), geographic divisors are relics of ancient times — when mixtapes were CDs you copped from a dude on Canal, instead of files you DL’d from DatPiff.
One of the last holdouts of rap regionalism was the UK, which spent the better part of the 20th Century trying to define itself against the cultural behemoth that is American hip-hop culture. They never quite popped off in the US on a broad scale, partly because we — or major label A&Rs — couldn’t get over the accents. (If it sounds xenophobic, note that it took until approximately 2005 for a vast majority of New York to even entertain the idea of a Southern rapper who wasn’t from Atlanta and/or OutKast.) So when UK rap really started defining itself on its own terms around Y2K with the highly local sound of grime, its practitioners naturally wanted it close to their chests, rapping over zero-gravity beats and flaunting council-houses-honed accents so deep and quick they were sometimes difficult for Americans to parse. It was a protectively regional genre, reflecting an East London that US stars could never specifically address. Some of us went in for it anyway, making dudes like eminently likable grime prodigy Dizzee Rascal a relative star in the early half of the aughties. But Brit rappers who even remotely nicked US styles got immediately used-binned, while grime’s heyday here came in waves, with stateside higher-ups like Diddy (er, mostly just Diddy) intermittently checking in and throwing down a lick for UK stars.
That’s what happened with Tinie Tempah, the skyrocketing London rapper who wasn’t shy about gearing last year’s hit single, “Pass Out,” to charts both English and American, embellishing dance-friendly synths with an Akon-approximating hook by producer Labrinth. (Diddy, duh, nabbed him for a remix.) But now that star aspirations come in global packages, Tempah’s quasi-concessions to form weren’t that outre, as he and grime peers like Wiley and Tinchy Strider skim a sound — or sound signifiers — recognizable to anyone in the Western world as pop hip-hop. Grime got translated by the international idea trade.
A more interesting example is that of Giggs, a brolic rapper with a quicksand-like baritone who’s either monotonous or hypnotic depending on your appreciation for willful sluggishness (I am obsessed with it). Born in a rough part of South London, he too came up on grime’s fireshot cadences. But his style taps the now sound of the American South, his delivery a slovenly drawl over nightmarish triple-time beats and trampolining bass. It’s a unique left turn — no other British rapper has ever sounded quite so proud to have Young Jeezy on his iPod — and through Giggs, it’s weirdly goth: dude creeping like a vampire through sludgy lyrics about roughhousing, gutter politics, and subsequent unapologetic balling. (People who are mad at the band Salem’s appropriation of screw music should try listening to Giggs — he sounds that way naturally.) Giggs never tries to hide his mushy brogue, but on his latest mixtape, Take Your Hats Off, he makes his Britishness into a lesser qualm — and not least of all because it’s hosted by Whoo Kid, the G-Unit DJ from Queens who’s a New York mixtape institution. Even more than on last year’s evilly great Let Em Ave It, Giggs is making overtures to Georgia, hopping on tracks with ATL party king Waka Flocka and enjoying the spoils of producer du jour Lex Luger, the almost-20-year-old responsible for the hammerhead sound of contemporary riot-rousing Southern rap. He’s really the first UK dude so blatantly bridging rap crosspond, and with the lethargic aesthetic of his voice — pudding to submerge into, menacing and mean — being so zeitgeistical, he’s certainly got a shot at our fancy. Giggs milks his timbre’s devil nature for the horror movies rap is apparently craving right now, too, sounding like lusty Frankenstein on “Monsta Man” and inflating his G status to fairy tale levels on the eerie “Wolf.” And yet, in another zeitgeistical twist, the first UK dude whose aspirations lean so American may not make it here anytime soon; British police keep canning his tours based on an illegal gun charge some eight years ago, including scheduled UK dates this March. Even so, Giggs is a reminder that in this ever-altering mind state, at least, you can’t keep the sound bound.
*A dude from New York whose all-points-namechecking hit ‘This is Why I’m Hot’ was a black hole inverse of regionalism, and therefore just a little bit hilarious.
In pouty Swedish vocalist Lykke Li’s latest video for “I Follow Rivers,” a hirsute man wanders determinedly across a barren plain, half-desert, half-tundra. Li, shrouded in complete quasi-burqa, trails him frantically, at one point tossing off her platforms so that she may chase him faster, bare feet against the snow be damned. On one hand, it’s a bit reminiscent of the recent film The Way Back, wherein a group of gulag escapees trudges across Siberia to freedom (in three extremely long theater-hours). On the other, though, it’s a study in masochism, a snapshot of the great lengths average humans will go to for love or the idea of it. For her tenacity, Li is rewarded with a tentative kiss, but meets it with the look of someone who knows she’s about to lose it. Her voice, normally light-pitched and precious, has a cynical resonance to it in this song; she milking the alto over a tambourine hit, conjuring the darker parts of old Ronnie Spector songs. The sky is dim, foreboding. Cut to a scene of the ocean.
Li’s latest, super-subtly titled Wounded Rhymes (out March 1), is a break-up record, in the same way that it’s a record about a woman struggling against the misogynist vagaries of the industry. The darkness in the early singles certainly come from her own restlessness — one of the qualities in her that’s galvanized her fans, from die-hard music nerds to the fashion people who book her for gigs (sidebar: the last time I saw Li live, she was DJing an in-store in the Meatpacking during Fashion’s Night Out, aka the Manhattan County Fair).
But there’s a cultural imperative at work, too — a Swedish sense of brooding that betrays some outsiders’ concept of the country. As Magnus Betner, Swedish comedian, told the Telegraph last year, “Part of Sweden’s problem overseas is that everyone thinks we’re like Abba and Ikea.” The statement was in the context of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (haven’t seen it, but that New Yorker jam on Steig Larsson was great), but the Abba aside was telling: While visions of POÄNG chairs might populate your imagination (and your apartment), the general grey moodiness filters into music in ways you might miss. Think, for instance, of Ace of Base, arguably the country’s cheeriest export after ABBA. You think their tin synth cowbells were all rainbows and kittens? Check the lyrics to “All That She Wants,” which everyone presumes to be a bubblegummy declaration of joy, but is actually about a woman who sleeps around to fill the void.
A few weeks ago, I met up with Gothenburg-based art-pop band Little Dragon at the little hotel where they were staying over on Rivington. The air was frigid, and the counter-melody from “Sta Upp,” from their forthcoming third album Ritual Union, was lodged in my brain. It’s a triad chord that sounds like it was played on the metallic marimba setting on an old synthesizer, and it butts up against itself uncomfortably, nearly dissonant but still pretty enough to be a great hook. On a bed of midtempo drums, it sets itself up for singer Yukimi Nagano’s glimmery, jazz-and-Badu-leaning mini-warbles. Flying like a heroine to the moon. Soundwise, it’s an embodiment of the off-kilter broodiness Betner spoofs, and of the cognitive dissonance you can mine in the most commonly karaoke’d tracks by Ace of Base. Drummer Erik Bodin explains it thusly: “The darkness, the moodiness. That’s Gothenburg business. The whole church culture of it, too — it’s still [based in] the idea that you shouldn’t stick out, that you shouldn’t be somebody special,” he says. The socialist imperative, perhaps. But the band is named after Nagano’s bouts of anger in the studio, and Little Dragon works both around and within its formative culture, writing sweet, baubly songs that play around with form, yet performing very subdued, even sedate live shows that are often so controlled it overshadows the simple beauty of their music. “I don’t know what brought that moodiness out,” says Nagano, “But I think it’s maybe the history — it has to do with the climate, people having to live in this darkness on potatoes and meat and spirits.”
Fellow Gothenburg band jj couches its moods in a more typically maudlin package, wrapping shoe-shuffling pop melodies in precocious delicacy like towheaded basement Enyas. Beyond their propensity for covers and proclivity for rap — they first became known for a twinkly cover of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” — the duo often follows a template that feels vaguely more British than Nordic. Specifically, the ghosts of C64 bands haunt their songs, which aren’t teenagery enough to be annoyingly twee, but still have the toe-tippiness of people who are crushed-out, depressed about it, yet cannot figure out why. The sun sets early in the winter months, and the melancholy is pervasive, but when we register the sonic cues of sadness — mushmouthed vocals, minor keys — it tends not to be as shocking or thought-provoking as when malcontent shares a bed with a bright hook. You can take it from Ace of Base, but for a less obvious example, there’s jj’s labelmate ceo (aka Eric Berglund, who has a similar beef with capital letters), who dresses up his anxiety in heart-bursting, pom-pom squad-ready chords, as on ‘Illuminati’s modernist identity crisis. Berglund’s an alumni of Swedish music scene heros The Tough Alliance (TTA to the devoted), and in the bad-vibes-cloaked-in-good-times genre, he’s an old pro; that band may have come up with the most infectuous Swedish pop since ABBA, but notoriously played shows that came off more like violent performance art, lip-syncing to their own songs while swinging baseball bats and antagonizing their audience. Riots, the legend goes, ensued. And maybe that’s the purest expression of the dark thread influencing pop culture in their home country — jubilant violence representing the disconnect of a wealthy, balanced society with an undercurrent of unspoken depression. As Nagano says, ‘We definitely have the darkness. We can feel that when we’re in America, when we’re making jokes. You say something very seriously that sounds harsh and people will really believe you. You have to say no, I’m just joking. It was a joke.”