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Full-Spectrum Blues: The Self-Denial of James Blake

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

James Blake does not sound like he wants to party anymore.

This is a drag, as just six months ago he seemed like England’s foremost fireworks salesman — a fun dude with a Loki streak, parlaying subbass-excavating mindsex and synth-chord magic tricks fit to dazzle both voracious eaters of electronic music and dabblers whose primary parlance was rock. In late 2009, the lithe, London-based producer was wrapping up his music studies at university when he began applying his formal training to dubstep; the first song he unleashed publicly was a remix of “Stop What You’re Doing,” by bass scion Untold, translating a somewhat formal bit of dancefloor-ready UK garage into an astonishing, four-minute electro-aria with build and movements. Two EPs and a couple singles later, he had forever shifted bass music’s path with alien textures and an uncanny knack for fortissimo, inadvertently transforming a genre that was on the fast track to the trash bin for its increasingly redundant, testosterone-juiced wobble. (“Bro-step,” as it were.)

The British music media, with its endearing (and enduring) capacity for hyperbole, leapt right on that pony, adorning Blake’s music with names like ‘post-dubstep,’ and ‘post-everything.’ More descriptive adjectives, it seemed, failed to convey exactly how far he takes us past the particular space-time in which presently live; perhaps we all just should have jumped into a wormhole and called it a day. But that works, too — the CMYK and Klavierwerke EPs felt like a slider-journey into his brainspace and fans stateside went bazonkers, too. The EPs inspired worldwide ‘best new music’ boners and capped top 2010 lists outlet-wide.

 
Even with his super-human impulses — including an a cappella outro and a Feist cover that gets everyone’s panties in a bunch — against the backdrop of his Megaman tendencies, the album just feels wan.
 

The single “CMYK” was the best. Over the summer, my friends and I slammed it like a narcotic, nerdily sitting around in living rooms and just zoning out on its seraphim-invoking brilliance before scrambling to hit the replay button once more. Taking wispy samples from Aaliyah and Kelis, he hid fragments of pop songs within a pop song, scissoring RNB into wispy confetti before he swept it under a majestic chord horizon. The title was appropriate — Blake’s chords and melody were so voluminous they seemed to suggest synesthesia, shades of cyan and magenta informing his notes. Even now, after coming up on a year of listening to that track at least monthly, the thrill of it never diminishes. It remains huge.

Nonetheless, Blake hasn’t yet gone balls-out maximalist, but he doesn’t shy away from big gestures. On his eponymous, debut LP — as with parts of Klavierwerke — he generally hangs up his hat and guns for minimalism, substituting RnB samples for his own voice, which veers between blue-eyed soul (Robin Thicke would not be mad) and blue-eyed blues (Ben Folds?). The sample-dumping is certainly a function of passing trends, which in British dance music evolve at mind-spinning speed; around CMYK time, it was de rigueur for English producers to have their way with buried RnB.

I spoke to Blake last year between the release of CMYK and Klavierwerke for a profile in The FADER, and he alluded to his focal shift. “CMYK was the EP where I’ve gone through those moments in R&B that everyone remembers subconsciously,” he told me. “The second EP is where I got really bored of doing that and wanted to sample my own voice and feel like I was part of the production instead. I’ve sampled my own voice before, but these tracks are really introspective. They’re recordings of me playing piano and singing at home in Enfield on my own. It definitely has its own place in time.”

He carries this tradition on James Blake, which is rife with gingerly played piano riffs, needle-drop rhythms and only the slightest hints of bass here and there to punctuate the glacial palette of his voice, which on the whole, sounds painfully lonely. However strange, though, even with his own vocals, frank and pained — judging from the lyrics, often self-deprecating, he appears to believe he may be an asshole — it feels like we’re getting less of him. Like he’s proffering his most vulnerable self but immediately wishes he could take it back. Even the album cover (above), an abstract photo of Blake that captures him midway through a headshake — no, no, no — feels like an exercise in self-abnegation, his face blurred out, no ego, just wisps and blue.

Electronic music fans, I’d venture to guess, generally accept the fact that most people on earth would prefer to listen to music with vocals, appealing to the fundamental human instinct for speech. Relating to a track is potentially easier when the intent is direct. On James Blake, he doesn’t bother himself with metaphors much, opting for simple lyrics about love and heartbreak — Why don’t you call me/when we both know/what I am/what I am, what I am, for example, with certain parts pitched-up so that he can sound as though he’s dueting with a lady soprano. It’s ostensibly straightforward, but as though to throw us off with his hardened exoskeleton, he constantly he punches holes through his vocals so they fade in and out, just vapors, pocking up his careful, crystalline harmonies.

Even with his super-human impulses — including an a cappella outro and a Feist cover that gets everyone’s panties in a bunch — against the backdrop of his Megaman tendencies, the album just feels wan. His first works experimented with how space could be infiltrated by avalanching crescendos, which he’d occasionally rescind for quirky side-timed in-jokes that felt like mischief. He perfected the art of the pause, stopping a skittering synth build out of the blue for just long enough that we started to feel uncomfortable, before smashing it back on our skulls, an extra dollop of sub-bass on top. It’s serious music — I can’t not compare his tactics to some of my favorite classical composers, like Scriabin and Gyorgy Kurtag — but that shit had deep funk, and it had clear DENOUEMENT. Truly, if there’s ever a way to tell a complete story with an almost entirely instrumental song, this dude can do it. But whether he just got bored with making big bass excursions or not, this inverse — devalved space to see how much tune it can devour — feels like he’s experimenting himself into conventionality.

None of this is to say his first LP is not an accomplishment, particularly in the context of his newly inked stateside deal with Universal Republic — the US has likely not had an artist this brilliantly avant-garde on a major pop label since major labels started morphing into Dubai-sized mondo-conglomerates. And this album will certainly help him spread his wings to a larger audience. But it still feels like he cleared out the richness to make way for self-sacrifice.

Yesterday, I listened to Blake’s record directly after downloading a soca track called ‘Wine to the Side,‘ by Benjai. It’s coming up on Carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago, and for the next month Caribbean party flavor will be bubbling out from studios not just across the islands, but from London and Brooklyn. I hope some of the generous joy and celebratory excess seeps into Blake’s window from the streets.

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Docs of Perception: Visual Records and How We Hear Music

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

A still from the author's FlipCam video: Taylor Momsen performing with her band in 2009.

For better or for worse, so much of how we hear music is processed through how we perceive the musicians.

For instance: Clean young Justin Bieber is never meant to be filmed or photographed in anything less than a crystal-clear, super-high resolution, so that we may fully understand and revel in the ungodly perfection of his creamy visage. Never Say Never, the biographical film charting his path from baby drum prodigy to savior of the American economy, is out next week, and in the trailer, even childhood home videos are fairly clear, Bieber having been born in 1994, on the cusp of the age of widely accessible digital video. Blame it on the trappings of technology, but the implication is that the specific essence of a specimen so angelic cannot be captured with anything less than the laser-edge of technology — the images must reflect the purity of the music. Even photographer Terry Richardson, who’s been laboring in the rote trenches of washed-out, high-contrast for years, recently reached a new height in his career through Biebz, capturing his pearly beauty for the cover of Love magazine’s androgyny issue. Mirroring how it takes supercomputers to capture the pure timbre of his singing voice, Justin Bieber is what high-res film is made for.

Stephen Morris in a still from "Joy Division"

But can you imagine watching, say, Joy Division in HD? So much footage exists of that short-lived band, thanks in part to the journalism background of Factory Records mastermind Tony Wilson. All of it seems rendered in washed-out tones, a dreary lens through which to experience their damaged-goods darkness courtesy clunky television cams. In live footage, fallen brethren Ian Curtis is never not grainy; he’s preserved in time as an unreachable brooder, his despondent low voice jarred only between bouts of his jerking dance moves, angular movements thought to have been affected by his epilepsy. Three years after he committed suicide in 1980 — and his remaining bandmates copped synths and started New Order — the first commercial camcorders dropped, offering VHS and Beta options to parents in suburbs and germinating the era of citizen music journalism that would, 25 years later, GRIP THE WORLD (internet). You could say those video-cams were Tumblr’s great-grandparents.

Visual medium — and its quality — shapes our perception of music far beyond time-stamping its technological limitations. I’m neither Luddite nor nostalgist (hate both, actually), but there’s a very special aesthetic aspect to the graininess of those early punk vids, captured on bad cams by devoted fans and documentarians risking conflict with beer or wayward mosher. The scrappiness of old punk flicks, film crapped out with age, is immensely appropriate for the the fuck-all attitude of the music, a sort of ‘70s/’80s sepiatone for the progenitors of the punk wild west.

I recently Netflixed 24 Hour Party People again, spurred mostly by a desire to see how they depicted the early days of rave. I haven’t gotten that far yet (yo, Steve Coogan is mad annoying!), but I do appreciate the way they interspersed archival footage of bands like Sex Pistols with the fictionalized bits on 35 mm — it gives it an air of authenticity and most importantly adds to its energy, the crackling of ancient black and white clips conducting the kinetic tipping point of the tunes. Another film, the recently re-released Don Letts documentary Punk: Attitude, seeks to teach the history and philosophy behind punk through interviews with people like avant-garde filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who knows from the medium) and Henry Rollins (who apparently thinks your mom is not cool). But where it best attains its goal is through the old footage: provocative Johnny Rotten flashing gleaming sneers, gargantuan Joey Ramone bopping around with an ADD fire under his ass. The most remarkable aspect of this stuff is that even on celluloid (or Beta) the feel of those years is not diminished, its lightning spark of ideation captured forever.

Sometimes those of us whose careers in music criticism predate rampant music blogging grouse about the dilution of the craft (not to mention the dilution of our paychecks). With so many personal tumblrs by ostensibly non-writers and “music dissemination sites” that emptily just throw up a track and keep it moving, there is anxiety that, as an art form, long-form, intelligent criticism is going the way of the magazine (in a toilet shipped in from 1993). While this may or may not be the case, it’s hard to argue against the preservationist value of vast numbers of computer-enabled fan-witnesses capturing historical experiences (assuming they leave their homes). The relatively low expense of tiny portable digital video cameras is augmenting the archives. For instance, if I hadn’t had a FlipCam, how would you be able to see my awesome footage of Gossip Girl Taylor Momsen’s band performing at her birthday party in 2009? The angle might be balls, but as long as the internet exists, future generations can witness the actor who plays her dad in the front row. It is preserved in amber.

Archiving, preserving and translating (yes — criticism!) musical moments like this is important, no matter how raw the material. There’s certainly a constant stream of new punk docs and rap books (a recent favorite) and old dance DJ fanzines (wishful thinking) dropping at any given moment, and each has its place and era that converges its visual elements with its very presence. Each unearthed piece grants us a fuller picture and better understanding not just of the mindset behind the music but of the sociopolitical circumstances that made it happen, the way technology impacts culture, and how we will experience it in the future. The same as the Nightclubbing ladies documented what went down at Max’s and CBGB, or Glenn OBriens TV Party got busy with the artier Soho/Village earlies, little babies today are taking their digicams to MSG or Cake Shop, filming next month’s buzzbands or tearfully faraway shots of Bieber’s coif and footwork. It’s all important. Whether for Altamont style mega-docs in 2032 or for unearthing lost gems we don’t yet know about, history will sort itself out. For now, it’s our technological imperative to stay clicking.

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The Long Shadow of Kate Bush

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Though not quite as elusive as Sade, the god Kate Bush is something like a unicorn in the music world. Breaks between her albums have felt like eons for megafans — four years between Hounds of Love and the Sensual World, four more ‘til The Red Shoes, and a punishing 12 more before the double album Aerial (2005), during which we wondered if she’d just decided to pack it in. Of those 12 years, she spent nine of them making Aerial. Bless the artist who takes pains and patience. After a press flurry around the record and a couple interviews in which she debunked notions that she was a weirdo recluse because she didn’t show up at star-flecked parties, she returned to silence.

Bush is best known for her wispy fantasy scapes — “Wuthering Heights,” “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting ” — but as she’s gotten older, she’s refined her gift at unearthing the interlocution between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Aerial’s best track, “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” was a plaintive tale of doing laundry that doubled as a paean to the thankless domesticity of lonely women everywhere. It evoked the conceptual sculpture of Yoko Ono in its simplicity and sadness, and somehow made Bush even more elusive — she’d spent those 12 years raising her young son Bertie, and her tale was told with the profundity of someone who could relate. I’m not of the notion that having a child automatically turns a woman maternal, but Aerial’s meditations on motherhood were practically bleeding uncontainable love — and there’s nothing more ordinary/extraordinary than that. More joy/you bring me/ so much joy/ then you bring me/ more joy, she sang on “Bertie,” a nigh-Catholic devotional that acted, too, as an incantation. This week, the NME reported 2011 will likely see Bush’s first new music in five years. Somebody send her a bouquet of flowers, and let us pray, too, that she continues to invoke the sacred nature of the mundane.

But Kate Bush’s literary/starry-eyed side has not been laid to rest — those early albums impacted countless musicians and still do, from Bjork to her collaborator Antony & the Johnsons to rapper Big Boi, who’s expressed his desire to work with Bush for more than a decade. The latest inheritors of her legacy, it seems, are more bent on reflecting her intense corporeality. I think about this whenever I bump “Mother Protect,” one of the first singles from Swedish band Niki and the Dove, soon to be stateside stars thanks both to an upcoming release on a natty indie label, and to general awesomeness. “Mother Protect”’s stripped down beats and ponderous electronics brood and let vocalist Malin Dahlström’s cracked wail ball out. Dahlström’s got Stevie emotion and Siouxsie swag, but the track’s dreamy modes are all Kate, down to the half-key transposition of the climax and what appears to be a pan flute but is probably just a synthesizer with a rad patch filter. Though it doesn’t feel derivative (and it’s a bananas-great song), it’s encouraging that Bush’s methods of emoting are imprinted on Niki & the Dove’s DNA, and that of her latest legacy-babies — Dahlström, Zola Jesus’ firestarter Nika Danilova, Brooklyn’s Laurel Halo, off the top. Bush taught the art of wringing poetry into a new romanticism that never adhered to the obvious or overwrought, and her wholehearted embrace of womanhood was, and is, empowering. It’s the notion of being unbridled, expressed through impressionistic lyrics and the act of gaining strength through femininity — and it’s a testament to her nuance, depth and fearlessness that it lives on.

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Rap, R&B and Rave Juice

A return to glitter and glowsticks for Kelis, Kid Sister, Diddy and more
By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Kelis, as ever, was the harbinger. Trends pioneered by the deliciously attitudinal singer six years ago are still being jacked by pop starlets today, so when she ditched her signature inter-galactic R&B for an Ibiza-ready cabana trance album in early 2010, we should have known a sea change was coming. Partly co-written by dance-music magician Guetta (we’re just calling him Guetta now), Flesh Tone was an unexpected left-turn into fancy-fromage rave territory. Her alto cracks liberated from the antigravity chamber of her previous records, she soared free over borderline-commercial house beats. Strobes pulsed. Neon glistened. It was, in many ways, a logical direction for her — after working with the Neptunes, most moves within the rap/R&B arena probably feel pretty lateral. But it also foreshadowed the next twelve months of rap, R&B and pop, when we saw what happens when musicians stopped popping bottles… and started popping glowsticks. When T-Pain’s on his coffee break, what else are you gonna do?

In a mainstream America that’s generally been inhospitable to big-room dance music of a European genesis (underground pockets notwithstanding), this was a curious development, so some of the subtler touchstones were easier to grasp. Kanye West sampled Aphex Twin on “Blame Game” — a YouTuber’s shout-out to his Daft Punk/French touch phase of yore. His sister in platinum album sales, Nicki Minaj, had two (almost three!) thrilling drum n bass beats on Pink Friday, which were joyously celebrated by the fealtiest of proto-junglists and revivalist heads. Honorable mention goes to Rihanna’s awesome, dubstep-inflected Rated R, which was released in late 2009 to a relative chorus of indifference — it set a template that Britney’s about to follow, two years later, with low-end wobble on her forthcoming album produced by the likes of fopple-headed Brit superstar Rusko.

 
At the very least, something about celebrating blacklights and rave juice seemed less gauche in this economy than waiting for your waitron to deliver your $350 champagne with a sparkler in her cleavage.
 

Diddy was game, too (obviously). New York’s favorite over-tweeting CEO’s still the kind of fellow who shows up to a party with a 40-person entourage and a bottle of Ciroc (nee Moet) in hand, so sonically, an R&B album with rave undertones isn’t off brand. Last Train to Paris, released under the egalitarian moniker Diddy Dirty Money — a syntax win, if awkward — was one of the best of the crop, traversing a loose romance concept with even looser oonce-oonce undertones. “Yesterday” had subtle allusions to trance; “I Hate That You Love Me” is punctuated with late-’80s house piano. Though some were cynical about his making-the-bandmates Dawn Richard and Kalenna, Last Train to Paris sounded like an outlier in a Bad Boy’s empire, the least self-conscious music he’s released since the shiny-suit era. Glitter, it seems, suits him.

Parsing the whys and wherefores, though, was a little trickier. Pop music is a type of artificial intelligence; its first instinct is self-preservation. Dance music of the Euro persuasion has indeed spilled majorly into the mainstream (thanks a million Pauly D, ha). Since global big-room DJs like Guetta, Tiesto and Deadmau5 now make $980-11 trajillion a gig, hopping on that train is a pretty cushy way to play out major label food chain alphaness. The yen to dance seemed to be a statement of a new type of decadence. Although most rappers’ lyrical obsession with ecstasy and other club drugs piqued somewhere in the early-mid oughties, the beat resurrection felt like the germinations of a value shift. At the very least, something about celebrating blacklights and rave juice seemed less gauche in this economy than waiting for your waitron to deliver your $350 champagne with a sparkler in her cleavage. Or maybe it’s just that sweat is back, people!

At any rate, last week a mixtape emerged that brought it all back home. Kid Sister, the ebullient, hyper rapper from Chicago, released the extremely enjoyable Kiss Kiss Kiss and did what she’s always done: rapped over club-oriented dance beats. It signaled that the new crop of raving pop icons has reached the end of the möbius strip: Kid Sis helped to kick off the current dance-rap epoch with 2007′s “Pro Nails,” which hit 21 on the ’08 singles charts with a little assist from Yeezy. On Kiss Kiss Kiss, Kid Sister bests everybody, agile on varying dance styles of from mostly newer tracks. She assumes the role of an upbeat diva on a Paradise Garage-invoking pop song, is serious and instructive on a Chicago-style footwork track, and becomes a drawling rap boss on a boomeranging track with Texas rappers Paul Wall and Bun B. Her diction is glossy and pucked, as though she’s perpetually smacking bubblegum, and her personality matches the burbling electricity of the jacked-up synths. She’s a dancefloor lightning rod, and embodies why more and more artists are being drawn towards club production — it’s the kinetic nature of the synths, the heartbeat thump, the propulsive energy. For dancefloor fans, even cheesy club music can evoke a corporeal response (witness otherwise rational people involuntarily fistpumping in Jersey Shore solidarity — it happens).  Whether the radio will acquire the taste for rave sticks is anyone’s guess, but for now, let us commence getting loose together.

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Why Musical Miscegenation Still Causes Indie Rock Shock

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

On January 6, Just Blaze tweeted the slang spelling of “that’s racist” to an apparent shut-in who was bewildered by the fact that his crates include a band of riotous electro-punks (Crystal Castles) and Italy’s finest big-room rave production duo (Crookers). The underlying premise, as Blaze apparently interpreted it, was that @Mickeus thinks it’s a curio when a hip-hop DJ/black man enjoys “stuff white people like.” In actuality, it would be more absurd if he didn’t — it’s Just’s job to have crates that shame the most thorough, OCD record-collecting nerd, not to mention the fact that he’s made a ridiculous number of songs that seep out the same nuclear energy of Crystal Castles and Crookers.

But that tweet highlighted the fact that a lot of people apparently still have a hard time with “musical miscegenation,” the strange and enduring notion that it is remarkable, odd, or shocking when certain types of music, or musicians, intertwine. The dynamic doubles when rap and anything resembling indie rock mix up; a collabo can induce the blogosphere to collective palpitations/lockjaw/hypothermic shock.

Dom and Gucci Mane

Case in point: Last week, the blissfully lethargic pop band DOM, from Worcester, Massachusetts, released a remix of their terrific song “Living in America,” featuring the eccentric Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane. At the beginning of the song, which is submerged in psychedelic effects, Gucci’s signature ad-lib “‘sGucci!” is screwed down, so that it sounds like he’s singing it in the same key as DOM’s eponymous lead singer. After Dom gets in a cheeky chorus about how living in America is “so sexy,” Gucci somberly shouts out various cities and ladies across the nation. Locked together in tandem trippiness, it’s obvious why a mushmouthed trap rapper was drawn to a mushroomed-out, rust belt redhead.

And yet, across the wilds of the internet, some people typically reacted as though they’d just downloaded the offspring of a three-legged unicorn and an actual pegasus. To be fair, some of the shock stemmed from the fact that Gucci Mane is a quite famous rapper whose first hit, “Icey,” dropped in 2005, and DOM is a scrappy indie band whose debut album will be reissued on Astralwerks next month. But there was also an underlying current of otherness in the mix — those stuck on the impossibility of two weirdos from different genres and, presumably, incongruous lifestyles working together.  They shouldn’t be together, or so the thinking goes, whether because of a perceived difference in values or archaic perceptions of race-mixing and/or the total shock that, you know, rappers have the internet, too.

What’s even stranger about this reaction is that indie rock and rap collaborations are increasingly commonplace. Think back to August of 2009, when Jay-Z astonished the Pitchfork set by showing up at a Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn (Beyonce’s sister Solange is a friend and fan of the band). His attendance (and subdued swaying) generated enough waves that MTV called him up for a quote: “I hope that [indie rockers] have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit,” he said, “so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music, because it can happen, because that’s what rap did to rock.”

Not sure if it’s made better music, per se (ugh), but Jay’s Williamsburg Waterfront wish has come true — Kid Cudi worked with with Ratatat and MGMT; Lil B hopped on a beat made by Salem; Kanye West borrowed a Bon Iver song for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Almost one full year after Jay hit up the Grizzly Bear jam, I saw Harlem’s Jim Jones perform a full set backed by the band Snakes Say Hisss at Death By Audio, one of Williamsburg’s scummier punk venues. He did “Ballin’” and “Salute,” his diamond-crusted earlobes glinted at a crowd of 150 kids slipping in beer, and Dame Dash stood stoic in the back. That moment was, admittedly, quite absurd, although it had more to do with the fact that Jim Jones himself is quite absurd, and presumably rich, and Death By Audio is, again, somewhat grody in the way that it’s imperative for all DIY venues to be. But why did it seem like such a big deal that he was even there?

Certainly part of it stems from the trenchant whiteness of indie rock during its ‘90s heyday mixed in with the era’s false dichotomy between “real” and “commercial” rap in some kind of essentialist megabrew. Lines were drawn, genres congealed, radios adhered to formats. But one of the defining facets of the ‘90s was the trend of rock bands like Sonic Youth collaborating with rap groups like Public Enemy (to all the under-25s, that’s Chuck D doing the ad-libs on “Kool Thing”). In a relatively progressive era compared, the Alternative Nation was open and genre mixing was super-cool, at least until the proto-Juggalos came along. (Don’t get me wrong, though: Biohazard collaborating with Onyx was an awesome idea.) Are people still so scarred by the crappier cuts from the Judgment Night soundtrack that rappers and rockers rolling out together seems like something to gawk at? Has anyone ever heard of Aerosmith collaborating with Run-DMC?

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that indie rock, at this late stage in the game,  retains shreds of its origins as an inherently defeatist culture, shoegazing and self-deprecating at any opportunity.  Even as many of the biggest indie rock bands take paychecks for soundtracking commercials — and Pitchfork’s been seriously reviewing rap records for at least a half-decade — the idea persists that the genre’s still about slack underachievement: the privileged antithesis of materialism. Clearly, some internet babies are still living by tenets set by Gen X. Pavement reunited, after all. But rap’s whole foundation, the Homeric brag, is diametrically opposed to that, so the biggest culprit in indierock shock is that the perceived winners  (or perceived materialists) in the music game are actually deigning to get down with them. This feeds into the whole issue of wealth and celebrity — just gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Gucci Mane’s got a fancier paycheck than DOM does, and certainly more people know his name. But the internet at its greatest as a democratizer, however imperfect. As more rappers and label wonks and managers and friends and cousins are exposed to an increasingly broad pool of music, seemingly off-the-wall collabos will stay pouring in.  Not all will be as perfectly paired as DOM and Gucci. Never a fan of the blasé, but in this case, people need to chill.

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Introducing Our New Riff City Blogger: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

We’re excited to announce that Riff City will return this week with a stellar new writer: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. Julianne is AlterNet’s Culture Editor, and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Formerly the Executive Editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBESPIN, The New York Times and various other magazines and Web sites. She will write about music, culture (and all the intersections they imply) in this space every week.

Look for Julianne’s first post this Wednesday!

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2010: The Rest Is Noise, So the Noise Must Rest

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

1. This will be the last you hear from me for a while. I will always be grateful to Thirteen.org for letting me write this column. It’s become difficult to keep at it though. I don’t process enough new music to opine on a weekly basis. Of that new music, I haven’t been listening with anything resembling bigger picture, worthwhile copy-generating type ears. This space deserves a critic who actually made it through the Big Boi album.

2. All this became apparent to me a month ago, after the Kanye West album leaked. It was a Tuesday morning, and I had nothing to post for Wednesday. It occurred to me, maybe I should attempt to write about West’s “epic” and “ambitious” and 10.0-rated album — what so many critics considered to be not just the year’s best, but a real pop music landmark. It occurred to me I should probably have an opinion about this record.

3. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t like the Kanye West album. That I might be the only writer I know who didn’t like the Kanye West album; that I could potentially “put a bullet in” the Kanye West album, or show how the Kanye West album existed as the vessel by which Kanye West intended to collect critical praise for 2010′s Kanye West As Performance Art piece; that Kanye West could have put out anything that week, and critics would have praised it, because albums are the locus for assessing an artists’ “art”; that very few music writers have the bureaucratic acumen to place a “review” of an artist’s performance art; that as albums become the symbolic product of Music Celebrities, they become mere ciphers in themselves. The ideas shot out my fingers like lightning bolts. I had puns in spades.

4. Except I had only listened to the Kanye West album maybe eight or nine times tops. Not as much time with the record as I would have liked, but there was this issue of a deadline. (I don’t know how I wrote about music every day five years ago. Or rather, I do know. My process involved a lot of snakes and bucket hats.) I had Something To Say about Kanye West though. What mattered was that I had listened to the album enough to have Something To Say.

5. Then, for whatever reason, probably procrastination, I decided to walk around my neighborhood listening to the album one more time. It was only in motion, that ninth or tenth spin, that the record opened up for me and began making sense. I began liking it a lot. One could reasonably argue it’s the second- or third-best Kanye album of all time. Not my favorite album in 2010, but it’s quite good.

6. Despite that! Despite coming to the realization that, when I wasn’t converting sound into copy, I actually found the Kanye West album pleasurable, I attempted to write a negative piece. It was remarkably easy to write. I played the combo role of Guy Who Likes Kanye West As Performance Art 2010 and Guy Who Hates The Kanye West Album. So much of the pre-existing press about The Kanye West Album was how good it was in spite of Kanye West As Performance Art 2010. The lane was open. My internal monologue ran something like this: Even if I like the album, I still take issue with the way the album’s goodness felt like a foregone conclusion — for reviewers, the least noteworthy thing about the album. This album’s stock move is mediocrity delivered with conviction. To call it “excessive,” meanwhile, would be missing the point. It is excessive by design. This is Kanye being “ambitious.” How do we know? Because Kanye told us that’s what it was months ago. The vocoder solo at the end of “Runaway” is this album’s Rorschach test.

7. Sidenote: I am still waiting for some kind underpaid soul to make the distinction between Kanye West the excellent hip-hop producer, and Kanye West the just average writer of vocal melodies. I would attempt to write this piece myself if I knew I could be paid at a rate higher than whatever some 14-year-old makes working his first job at White Castle. This is not the reality of any music writer’s situation though. A piece like this would mostly serve Kanye West, and people who want to make music like Kanye West, and to a much smaller extent, people who are interested in the tics of West’s music. Not anyone else, at least immediately. It would start from the premise that Kanye West can, in fact, get much higher. It would start from the premise of wanting good music to be better music. Music in this piece would not serve as mere fodder for Ideas Inspired By Music. It would be technical as fuck. There would be no “takeaway.”

8. Instead you get something called “cultural criticism.” And cultural criticism on the internet is mostly a parlor game. It can’t afford to be anything else. It is entertainment for smart people with day jobs.  A lot of that entertainment? Pretty entertaining. The ideas it produces are often meaningful on their own. There are Good Guys doing good things. Most of it is noise though — digital artifacts from the conversion of sound to text.

9. But right now I feel like I’m not one of the Good Guys. I’m dangerously close to becoming another noisemaker. Another person on the internet who writes about music he hasn’t fully processed — not even “about” music but “in the vicinity of” music. I am in grave danger of being slightly more full of shit than everyone else. My best idea about music this year is to stop having ideas about music. As for Kanye, I am glad I didn’t pull that trigger.

10. No one speck of noise does an artist in; rather it’s the slow, suffocating accumulation. Apples and mangos, but cf. M.I.A.’s MAYA LP. In the spirit of year-end listmaking, many critics have attempted to give this thing a reappraisal. Great critics actually. Brandon StosuyZach BaronSean Fennessey, Rob Harvilla. These are the Good Guys. Friends whose work I take seriously. For context: If Kanye’s year was a p.r. coup, M.I.A.’s was non-stop calamity. These critics contend that her numerous p.r. catastrophes colored her album’s reception; that there existed a herd mentality among other critics, who took the opportunity of MAYA to rate M.I.A. and not her music;  that the non-stop internet coverage and counter-coverage of said p.r. catastrophes made it impossible for people to approach the album on strictly musical terms; that, as these malformed opinions proliferated, most people couldn’t even hear the album. Six months later, listening to the album with fresh ears, they only want to make one point: Maybe MAYA wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.

11. These reappraisals come from the greatest possible place — wanting to explain misunderstood music. They encourage us to reassess the musical merits, the sounds and gestures themselves — to take advantage of the fact that, six months later, the storm of noise has passed and it’s a lot easier to hear the thing itself.

12. It’s tricky though. In defending M.I.A. this past year, the Good Guys inadvertently helped propagate the noise, too. The noise is impervious to cancellation. This is also M.I.A.’s worst record by far: some great songs, but half-baked and unfocused for the most part. Which makes me worry that the worst p.r. snafu M.I.A. could suffer yet would be for us to suggest that MAYA is anything but beneath her. This is the woman who gave us Arular and Kala. She can get much higher.

13. I drag you through the best of my RSS and Twitter feeds to ask a rhetorical question: If it was going to take six months for the noise to pass, and if the album’s music could withstand the noise anyway, we probably should have just waited to weigh in. Right? We probably should have sat this one out, at least at first.

14. But that’s unfeasible. We are all working for somebody. We are in the business of creating at least a little bit of noise. To my knowledge, there is only one legitimate critic in the game who can get away with waiting six months after an album’s release before putting finger to keyboard. Bob Christgau is all signal power; tellingly, his column is buried deep in the social entertainment subdomain of msn.com.

15. Which makes a piece like this — the kind of piece I write when I don’t have anything to say — the noisiest of all the noise. Can’t condone it. The best thing I can do right now is just shut up. Hence the farewell. Public safety slogans, at least underground, suggest, “If you see something, say something.” On the internet? Maybe don’t.

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Jared Ellison: DFA Records’ Vintage Synth Prodigy

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Jared Ellison

DFA Records, the West Village-based label of LCD Soundsystem, the Juan Maclean, Hot Chip and others, has a complicated romance with vintage synthesizers and analog equipment. Denizens of the label’s bunker studio believe that the old stuff just sounds better than the digital counterparts. Tracking down the right vintage gear is worth the price point. That said, there is the issue of maintenance and repair. Parts are scarce, and aside from a few Angelfire/Geocities-type websites, schematics are often non-existent. Many people who knew how to fix these things have already passed away. With any antique repair, you are risking destruction of the thing itself.

When I needed new reeds in my Wurlitzer, a friend of mine at DFA recommended I use the label’s “guy.” (“Having a guy” is, I’ve found, something producers like to brag about.) Jared Ellison was introduced to me as the “New Gavin,” a reference to Gavin Russom, the modular synth wonk who performs as Crystal Ark and tours with LCD Soundsystem. Compared to the wizard-like Russom, with his long hair and beard and deep stare, Ellison is very normal-looking. He is trim, clean-cut, punctual. Clear-frame glasses, Adidas Samba sneakers (I forgot to ask whether these were vintage), and a pointy right ear are the only hints of possible eccentricity. He is 22 years old.

Last Friday, I spent the afternoon with Ellison in his small closet-like workspace at DFA. It had the feel of an unfinished basement: cold grey lighting, cement floor and walls, some basic wooden shelving and a small table where Ellison performs his operations. The room was cluttered with rack gear, disemboweled synthesizers, effects pedals, keyboards, and drum machines, though from the plastic drawers and well-labeled cardboard boxes, I sense there is an organizing principle. On the agenda today was not a repair but a modification: A popular electronic act had asked Ellison to retrofit their Korg MS-20 synthesizer with a MIDI controller.

Ellison grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. His passion for electronics, I learned, was bred in the bone. “My grandfather was in the Signal Corps, in World War II,” he said. “Radar and radio. They were the communications department in the Army. He was also a ham radio hobbyist, which is what these guys did when they came back from war. War and ham radio. All the people who were building synthesizers, a lot of those people were involved in the war.”

Ellison tried to tell me about his grandfather climbing a tree, wrapping wire around an oatmeal container, wrapping more wire around the tree, wrapping even more wire around another oatmeal container — all this apparently to create a battery-less AM radio — but I didn’t quite follow. “You also need this special galena crystal that you order in a magazine,” he added.

In high school, while his classmates were buying cars, Ellison spent a summer job’s worth of money on a Tascam reel-to-reel eight-track. “I came back to school and I was like, ‘Yo! I got this sick eight-track!’ People were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that is.’” A stint at guitar camp helped him realize he didn’t want to go to music school, so he moved to New York to study Architecture History at NYU.

“They have a good but bizarre music tech program,” Ellison said. (What’s bred in the bone…) He took a class with API founder Saul Walker, who designed the first 12-track recording console. He worked at WNYU radio station, where he engineered live recordings for Kurt Vile, Marnie Stern, Bruno Wizard from the Homosexuals (“he cursed on the air live, which is bad”), Zola Jesus, and Jandek. Helping out the DJ Tim Sweeney one night was how Ellison met Gavin Russom, who was a guest on Sweeney’s Beats in Space program. Russom turned Ellison on to Electronotes, a must-read electronics newsletter from the ’70s available only in mimeograph, and introduced him to Ears, the world-famous New York-based repair shop run by Jeff Blenkinsopp, who took Ellison on as an intern.

When Sweeney saw him fixing a turntable at the radio station, he put Ellison in touch with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. “James was like, ‘Oh, yeah? You can fix things? You can fix turntables? You can do synthesizers? You like synthesizers? Alright! Here’s your office. Here’s your computer. Coffee machine’s upstairs.’” Everything happened naturally but, Ellison insists, accidentally. He was still just a senior in college.

At DFA, he began fixing Bozaks, the heavy rackmount, rotary-style mixers preferred by the label’s DJs, and moved onto more complex repairs: keyboards, synthesizers, d/a converters, drum machines. One pressing repair was on an Eventide Harmonizer. This is the processor that helped create the wooshing snare sound all over David Bowie’s Low LP; Murphy wanted to create similar drum sounds for his latest album, This Is Happening.

I was excited to see Ellison at work. He pulled out a Korg MS-20, which is shaped not unlike a sewing machine, from an unassuming suitcase, and placed it on his workbench. The MS-20 is a portable modular synthesizer, and has appeared on Aphex Twin and Daft Punk records, among others. Ellison unscrewed the casing, then pulled apart the two sides — which made me flinch, as if he was splitting apart a person’s sternum. He explained the various parts of the circuit, the difference between current and voltage. As best he could, he told me how he planned to install the MIDI controller — which wires would interface with the keyboard, and where the input slots would peek out from the back. “A lot of what I do here is drilling holes in really expensive things,” he said.

It would be unfair to say he’s made breathless by well-designed circuit boards, so let’s say Ellison deeply admires the craftsmanship: how resistors line up perfectly, how wires coil around constituent parts in neat, maze-like ways. Thin plastics, cheap pots, surface-mount constructions, in contrast, made him grow silent with a melancholy I can’t quite describe.

Before I left him to finish up his work, I asked Ellison if circuit designers ever leave secret messages for other circuit designers, or for whoever might peek inside their machines. A few came to mind immediately. Sequential Circuits keyboards, he said, often have Sanskrit written on the boards, or mandalas, “or some kind of Bodhisattva.” New York’s Electro-Harmonix, who build popular effects pedals, “have a cryptic message about the band Pussy Galore.”

“What is it,” I asked.

“‘Listen to Pussy Galore.’”

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Ariel Pink Revisited

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Today I begin a project I’ve been meaning to for a while: relistening to albums I reviewed years ago, and reevaluating my opinions. It’ll be an occasional thing, or a mini-series, I can’t decide. What pushed me off the diving board here was a screening of Jackass 3D this past Sunday. A good friend of mine had brought his friend, who is a Pitchfork videographer, to the theater, and after a handshake this was the first thing he said to me: Two years ago, Pitchfork.tv was in the middle of shooting a performance of L.A. lo-fi artist Ariel Pink, when Pink launched into a rant, roughly: “So who the fuck is Nick Sylvester? And why would you let him compare my debut album to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” I had given the record, 2004′s The Doldrums LP, a 5.0; this is considered a low rating.

Pink has become more popular in the last six years, and his new album, Before Today, received a handsome 9.0 review courtesy Mark Richardson this past June. That Pink would have brought up my review of his debut years later implies, to me, that he thought I had somehow delayed his ascent. The nature of his music hasn’t changed much in six years, he might add, only crystallized. This coming Saturday, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti co-headlines Webster Hall.

So here I am. Reviewing the review, I see I couldn’t decide whether Pink was genius or if, by calling him genius, I was only saying that I was genius for establishing a framework to call him genius. Apparently I split the difference: 5.0 out of 10.0. The elements of Pink’s music — throwaway AM radio melodies; hissy, reverb-laden productions that simulated the decay of recorded artifacts; the recording as fragment, hinting at what it could be; a reappraisal of New Age — were far more enjoyable to mull over, I remember, than the album was to listen to. I thought these elements were born of poverty, or in service of persona, or both. Ariel Pink, as I thought, was a “crazy” guy, singing “normal” songs.

Not many people liked this record, I recall, but I would have been in good company — Simon Reynolds’, Mike Powell’s — were I to sign off. Pink’s record set off fantastic ideas about music and sound and how it is heard and composed. But the physical act of listening to Pink’s music left me nauseous. Looking at the original draft of the review I sent the site’s editor, on October 25, 2004 at 12:19 a.m., my last line had read like this: “I really don’t know if this is something I can slap a number on just yet.” The line was cut because, I was told, the site doesn’t like “fretting publically over the score stuff.” Sic.

I re-listened to Pink’s debut yesterday a few times. I hear decisions in a way I admit I didn’t at first, and I hear evidence of Pink asking himself the same question every recording artist asks himself in one way or another: How can I make the banal seem surprising again? There’s mouth percussion instead of drums. The bass is mushy and unarticulated, functioning more like a spread of sound than an instrument. Pink’s vocals are awash in all kinds of reverb, and his voice itself has a theatrical ‘sad’ crooner vibe to it, as if Pink is one of Nathanael West’s grotesques in The Day Of The Locust. There is strong hiss throughout the recording. It is dusty, mid-forward, woozy stuff, as if “rescued” from damaged cassette tapes. All these decisions work together to resituate Pink’s melodies, which are bright like commercial jingles that, in his songs, sound uneasy and melancholic. Therein lies the romantic quality of The Doldrums that, I think, excites Pink the most. These are complete songs for the most part, but fragment-like in the way he leaves his recordings unpolished, in the double distance he simulates between (a) the song and the disintegrated recording, then (b) the recording and the listener. The songs are echoes of grander times; these melodies, before they were put to work for some new kind of soap, were once beautiful and affecting. There was a time we didn’t just shake them off.

 
We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.
 

None of this means I enjoy listening to Pink’s music. The music still strikes me as cold and clinical and conceptual, indirect and dispassionate. There is an emotional distance in Pink’s music — even the more masterfully recorded, widely praised Before Today — that leaves me unsatisfied. His music communicates less as sound-music music (Sound Music), and more as set-of-ideas-about-music music (Idea Music). The balance might be 20% to 80%, let’s say, with the necessary wiggle room given the fact that this distinction is pretty arbitrary. Either way: Without a theory to go with it, I can’t hear Pink’s song.

And again, I don’t remember many other people hearing Pink’s song either. But in the last six years, since Pink came on the radar courtesy Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, a Theory has been developed. Building off ideas that Simon Reynolds threw out there originally, Britain’s The Wire called this kind of lo-fi music Hypnagogic Pop. The paragraph before the last one I submit as evidence of the vocabulary and ‘hip’ Theory that critics are using to make sense of a lot of popular lo-fi recording outfits. Both The Wire and Pitchfork credit Pink as the Velvet Underground influence for this movement of young artists who make music “refracted through the memory of a memory,” that “draws its powers from 1980s pop culture,” but is at heart ahistorical stuff because it is so self-absorbed: the way I remember it, or my memory of the Ducktales theme song, which is just as good as your memory of how the theme song went, and so on. And since most people I imagine are encountering Hypnagogic Pop songs via blogs and other recommendation sites on the internet, download links alongside Variations Of The Theory and sometimes Video Interpretations Of The Theory…

Well now! I will resist the temptation to ask, if only rhetorically, how much music has been created since then as performance of The Theory, now that it’s become The Way We Talk About This Kind Of Music. Especially because “half-remembered memory” is such a personal, inalienable right the hypnagogic pop artist exercises, there is technically no wrong way to make h-pop. You cannot fail. The signifier of memory, in this music, is its imperfection, the relative haziness and lack of directness in the music. As long as the h-pop or chillwave critic can discern elements of “memory” or “nostalgia” or “hazy, reverb-laden vibe” or “half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement,” no worries, we’ll take it from here. We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.

 
Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?
 

So instead I will ask whether hypnagogic pop is a rare triumph of music critics over musicians, meaning this: Is it even possible to make hypnagogic pop that is more interesting than (or as groundbreaking as) The Theory about hypnagogic pop? Will half-remembered Airwolf music ever be as good as the phrase “half-remembered Airwolf music”? How long till The Wire cuts a Theory for Mountain Dew Green Label?

When I first encountered Pink — or really any ‘difficult’ Mostly Idea Music type artist — I admit there is pleasure in figuring out what a song or an artist is “about.” What the artist wants to get across, etc. It can feel like an alley-oop, the way the Artist throws up the Idea Music ball and I, the Critic, slam it into the…hoop? (I don’t watch basketball; this is my hypnagogic take on the sport.) It is possible that other people — not critics — have similarly positive and completely satisfying experiences in sublimating music they don’t like via frameworks that allow them to understand how they could like it, until they have, in fact, “solved” said record like a math problem. I also think it’s possible that some people just like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and his disciples on simple “like the way this sounds” levels, without even entertaining the Idea Music side. So maybe the best question is: Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?

There is a song on Pink’s new record called “Round And Round.” It is considered his best song maybe because it’s his most direct; the sound-music element of “Round and Round” has higher footing with the set-of-ideas-about-music element, yet everything anyone has ever written about Pink still applies. He’s at his best — and I said the same thing about Animal Collective years ago — when he takes his ideas about music for granted and just writes Ariel Pink songs. There is nothing that “Round And Round” is “about,” so much as it is “about” “Round And Round.” Nothing but net. He doesn’t need the hoopla.

The death of hypnagogic pop music, chill wave, fork gaze, whatever we’re calling it, is suddenly easy to fathom. Ariel Pink’s Before Today is maybe the most realized manifestation of all things h-pop. With “Round And Round,” the music has come close to realizing The H-Pop Theory, sans the H-Pop Theorists, which makes the ongoing promotion of it seem somewhat…unsatisfying. What are all these kids doing? Oh, the whole nostalgic-memory-half-remembered-throwaway pop thing? Been there! Derivative of being nostalgic! Whatever!

(Let’s quickly pass over the fact that the signifiers of hypnagogic pop are elements in thousands of great songs that preceded the term — songs that didn’t need the Theory in order for you to understand them. You’re encouraged to check out these two compilations. You’re also encouraged to listen to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest.)

Brian Eno. Last week, Warp Records released Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea. There exists a short promotional video in which Eno is interviewed by Dick Flash of Pork Magazine, a fictional music critic from the UK. In attempting to ask Eno about his process, Flash ends up talking more about Eno’s music than Eno himself ever gets a chance to. His ambient works, Flash tells Eno, are a “notional micro-climate, a place more than an event.” The critic figured out Eno a long time ago, in other words. We know what Eno is about. Does this makes Eno’s new album less pleasurable to listen to?

Small Craft on a Milk Sea sits surprisingly comfortably alongside the records from Eno’s ambient and experimental golden era,” Pitchfork’s Mark Pytlik wrote last week. “Others might argue that fit is a little too comfortable.” Eno you old coot! The nerve of this guy, giving us no “new music as set-of-ideas music,” just plain old boring “music as ambient-and-experimental-golden-era music.” I mean what am I supposed to do with this shit — just enjoy it?! 7.4!

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How To Dress Well, Or: When Songs Know They’re Records

By Nick Sylvester
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Listening to LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” again, I remember how startled I was at first by the vocals. There seems to be a lot of space between James Murphy’s mouth and the microphone. He is still singing, and it is still the melody, but if most pop vocals are 95% voice and 5% room, Murphy’s here feel about half and half. In major label releases, it is unusual to “hear the room” like this. Not in any pronounced or post-processed heavy reverb sort of way either, but to hear the silence around Murphy’s voice, the room itself. The performance feels more intimate all the sudden — voyeuristic even, to know that at one point in time, Murphy was in some room, singing these words. Musically, the effect is such that Murphy can now “get away” with such a sing-song melody as the one he has written here. The melody might have seemed too saccharine otherwise, or just not interesting enough, had he not drawn subtle attention to the fact of its being recorded.

My guess is that most recording artists have or at least feel this concern: negotiating, down to the sound of the floor tom, how much he or she wants the listener to be aware that Recorded Product X was, in fact, recorded. Sometimes it’s just a fleeting thing, a simple gag. An easy example is studio banter before or after a song, as in Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (“you fucking die!”) or any number of Spoon tracks. Another is Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells’ decision to brickwall-limit instrumentals on Treats. When the mix pinches in “Tell ‘Em,” the effect to my ears is that the recording can barely contain the song it supposedly represents.

When we listen to professional recordings, we are engaged in a suspension of disbelief that What We Are Listening To equals What It Actually Sounds Like. This is the fabric of the rug that’s pulled out from under us when, for instance, Just Blaze turns down the volume of the instrumental on the Game‘s “Church For Thugs” — a quick joke on normalization that I wonder might have kept the great “Church” from being on the radio.

A few weeks ago, a formerly Brooklyn-based lo-fi r&b artist called How To Dress Well released an album that, if this is possible, we might say is aware of its own recorded-ness. The album is called Love Remains. Tom Krell, who as best I can tell is a one-man band here, has a stunning falsetto, and a knack for affecting r&b melodies and unlikely cadences. Stuff you could easily hear on the radio. His songs tend to groove in one way or another. But his productions are aggressive, at times physically uncomfortable to listen to.

When his voice soars along in “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going,” it is accompanied by a fierce distortion caused from the vocal track clipping. Another song called “My Body” plays with the trope of call and response; we expect the response to come as an echo, an afterthought, of the call, but Krell’s are significantly louder, more distorted, and closer to the ear, as if the echoes are moving in like homing missiles. In “Suicide Dream 2,” the reverb trails of the vocals stick around for fifteen, twenty seconds, swirling in an imaginary, cathedral-like space. The melody is fleeting, immediately lost in reverb.

But that voice. It isn’t like Krell is hiding behind effects here, which is a legitimate suspicion in other instances of lo-fi. I was curious to find out how deliberate these decisions were, whether this was just a function of Krell’s studio naivete or if there was some kind of argument being advanced.

“A lot of it is straightforward and intentional. A lot of it is what believers in the importance of technical mastery would call wrong notes, or mistakes, or whatever,” Krell explained to me over the phone Monday. “I started really getting into the phenomenon of recording something and having the actual song wink towards its outside, or hint outside itself to the melody, which it seems to be indicating but never gives you in full. That frustration, that experience of the limit of recording is what I’m interested in.”

Raw, unmixed sound is ugly stuff — uglier than many people might suspect. Not just vocal tracks, pre-pitch correction, pre-processing, et cetera. The close-miked sound of a piece of wood hitting a piece of thin plastic — the sound of a snare drum — is ugly. An electric guitar creates an entire spectrum of frequencies, many of which have to be scooped out otherwise said electric guitar track won’t sound like an “electric guitar,” just a “bad electric guitar.” You could argue that commercial pop music is an ongoing Matrix-like attempt, with occasional “glitches,” to keep that ugliness at bay. The way the volume is usually the same throughout, for instance, even though we know that performances are usually more dynamic. The way the instruments stay out of each other’s way, even though we know sound is more textured, messier, more congealed. The way a vocalist sings clearly, directly into our ears, when we know, or knew in theory, that this is a sleight of hand.

“What [hi-fi recording] tries to do at all costs,” Krell put it, “is efface the act of playing and recording the production within itself. It tries to present itself as a finished product, a product without process.” His own efforts as How To Dress Well are, in contrast, an effort to create situations where, in the recording, there’s “an openness to sound. To the idea that sound is taking place,” Krell said, “And how special that is.”

Easy in the abstract. But it’s a process: To de-program decades of What Music Sounds Like, to un-learn the Western distinction between What Is Beautiful and What Is Noise. To get to the place where Krell’s production choices don’t strike some as mistakes and painful mishandlings, or even as deconstructions. Changes on this scale can only happen gradually, which is to say it might take a number of smaller, careful doses a la the vocals in “Dance Yrself Clean” before casual ears are more amenable. So give it just a little more time…

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