Tuesday, February 17
meet next life - ISAN
(Morr Music, 2004)
IDM is elusive. The name itself is the most notoriously laughable genre descriptor in modern music – the first two letters stand for Intelligent (presumptuous, self-limiting, meaningless) and Dance (for the most part, blatantly and ontologically false); their only contentful connotation is that this is electronically-based music. Which is appropriate enough: the use of electronics for creating and manipulating sound is – besides a tendency for non-danceability and occasionally willful unobtrusiveness (hence the term "ambient," which was at one point essentially synonymous with IDM, but has been out of vogue since Moby’s misappropriation of it) – just about the only constant in the genre. Still, there are discernable trends and motifs – the genre, such as it is, possesses a sense of historical progression. Currently, for instance, many of its practitioners (discounting those who make what one might reasonably call intelligent dance music, now labeled microhouse) produce sonorous, languid, dreamlike, even sweet pieces that often incorporate, or at least gesture toward, organic elements (i.e. actual instruments) within an essentially beat-oriented framework.
This kind of music – the work of folks like Boards of Canada, Mouse on Mars, Múm, Nobukazu Takemura, and Manitoba, to give examples from Scotland, Germany, Iceland, Japan, and Canada – has, as I say, a characteristic elusiveness, at least for me. I sometimes find that my reactions to albums by these artists vary substantially from listen to listen, so that a record that had struck me as remarkably beautiful would on rehearing seem, well, nice enough but perhaps rather dull. Although understandably frustrating, this fleeting quality seems somehow necessarily inherent to the style, which succeeds most when at its most delicate and fragile. More substantively, there is an intrinsic paradox at play in these artists’ rather ineffable ability to fashion warm, evocative, empathetic, and unmistakably human music via highly abstract, technology-centered means. This, it seems to me, makes the genre a profoundly personal one: to move beyond the "oh, that’s pretty" response and find the deeper emotional resonance that the best of this music can offer requires something of a surrender, and doubtless not everyone will be able to find it in the same work.
Which makes albums in this style difficult to endorse unequivocally, and makes me hesitant to recommend meet next life, the undeniably gorgeous new record by English IDM duo ISAN, as glowingly as I intuitively feel I should. I can say, perhaps objectively, that the group belie their mechanical moniker (it’s an acronym for "integrated services analogue network", or something equally banal) with the gentle warmth and approachability of their music. With from a broad but cohesive palette built around analog synthesizers and an array of percussive sounds including bells, clicks, whirrs, rattles, gurgles, and other onomatopoeia, each track offers a carefully constituted balance between drone, melody, and rhythmic elements. Stylistically reminiscent of the artists I mentioned above, though sans the more idiosyncratic and perhaps forward-looking elements of each, meet next life serves in some ways as a summing up of the directions that melodic ambient electronica has taken in the last seven years or so: from the childlike playfulness of "Willowy" to the shoegazing swells of the majestic "Gunnera" to the centrally-positioned acoustic guitar of stunning opener "Birds over Barges."
In places, ISAN can sound a trifle stodgy – in the sense that a few of these pieces recall the mid-to-late nineties era, before IDM had been fully liberated from drum loops. And as with many of this ilk, a number of tracks might be criticized for a lack of a strong compositional structure. But these are quibbling complaints. The goal here is neither stylistic innovation nor formal songcraft, but rather the construction of sonically interesting mood pieces. Due to the benignity of the moods evoked – serenity, contentment, bemusement, wist – it feels incongruous to describe this music as profound. But there can indeed be a marked, quiet depth to these emotions, and if so it is invoked in the clarity and cohesion of these apparently simple but often elaborately layered pieces. It will take at least a few more months of listening, as well as corroboration from other listeners, to determine whether meet next life is the unassuming synthetic masterpiece it seems to be – but for me, right now, it offers everything I want from an "I" "D" M record. And maybe best of all, I’ve gotten substantial enjoyment from it with every listen.
Transfiguration of Vincent by M. Ward
This album was released nearly a year ago now, but I’ve only lately come to appreciate the full extent of its subtlety and specialness. Essentially modern folk music with a healthy dose of indierok sensibility, though they approach the converse in a few places, Ward’s songs feel simultaneously of their time and divorced from time entirely. As conveyed by his rough, understated voice – which recalls Will Oldham or a young Tom Waits – and rootsy, bluesy guitarwork, augmented at times with fuller instrumentation, they’re just about impeccable. Standouts include the brilliantly simple sad-sack anthem "Vincent O’Brien" ("he only sings when he’s sad/and he’s sad all the time/so he sings the whole night through") and a startling reworking of Bowie’s "Let’s Dance" – but really the whole thing hangs together very nicely.
I mostly bring this to your attention this week because of an impending live performance: M. Ward will be bringing his stylings to Philly’s Trocadero this Monday, 23 February, along with fellow songsmiths M. Jim James of reverb-happy cunchry-rockers My Morning Jacket and M. Conor Oberst "of" Bright Eyes.
Talkie Walkie by Air
Nobody combines abject silliness and utter relax like Air. Maybe that should be an odd combination, but actually the two work in tandem: Air’s records are so loose and breezy and unconcerned, the silly just slides in effortlessly, along with the kitschy, the earnest, the smooth. Maybe it’s all the same thing. Much is made of the band’s Frenchness, and certainly that explains a portion of their unique sensibility. (Though not really their music, which – albeit nodding to synth-schmaltz pioneers Jean-Michel Jarré and Jean-Jacques Perry and the lounge playboy savoir-faire cultivated by Serge Gainsbourg – draws far less from traditional Gallic song forms than from American pop auteurs like Bacharach and Wilson, and the film scores of Hollywood and Italy.) Air evoke, though, less another place than another time – specifically, the 1970s. Their hi-tec is reactionary. Their futuristic is, inevitably, retro.
Hailed as one of the defining acts of late-90s electronica despite the fact that their music doesn’t sound particularly electronic, Air kept company with the cream of the Parisian house scene, though they failed to have surnames that were quite as funny (compare: "Dunckel and Godin" vs. "Bangalter and de Homem-Christo" or "Zdar and BoomBass.") A handful of stunning singles (collected on the swell Premiers Symptomes) led to the beloved 1998 debut LP Moon Safari, which is still their crowning achievement – beautifully, unassumingly crystalline in concept and execution. 10,000 Hz Legend, the eventual follow-up (not counting the fan favorite Virgin Suicides soundtrack) was largely misunderstood. Branching out from the coy simplicity of their debut (which largely skirted recognizable vocals), Air let their full weirdness shine through, and despite impressively broadening their approach and collaborating with the likes of Beck, most were stymied by the record’s experimentation and lack of focus.
Now, three more years down the line, Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin have returned with their third full-length. Thankfully reining in some of its predecessor’s excess, while not quite returning to Moon Safari’s state of grace (perhaps reassuringly), Talkie Walkie falls squarely in the middle of Air’s catalog. Which makes it a remarkably comfortable album. "Venus" sets the tone, kicking off with a two-chord piano vamp, some handclaps, and a little acoustic guitar; barely straying except to add some hazy synth organ and, eventually, some distant strings and bells. Further along, amusingly-named instrumental "Mike Mills" has some vaguely Bachian keyboard lines amidst Bacharachian acoustic swirls; the sweet "Biological" is built around a lazy banjo figure, and "Alpha Beta Gaga," the album’s most kinetic moment (not very) features some inspired whistling with string orchestra accompaniment. It’s all very organic – even the occasional electronic flourishes (like my favorite moment, an unexpected squelchy breakdown two minutes into "Surfing on a Rocket") fit smoothly into place. And the songs are as blissfully simple as the arrangements. Talkie Walkie is the rare kind of record I could pretty easily listen to all day long (which is basically what I’ve been doing, and I’m not sick of it yet.) Truthfully, it’s kind of hard to talk about without spoiling its prettiness. But listening to it, and I think, if I were Air, that I should take this as a high compliment thinly veiled as damningly faint praise, requires no effort whatsoever.
Here Comes [by] The Monolith
(Fortune Records, 2004)
Come to think of it, pop is pretty monolithic. Okay, actually "pop" has been used to describe so much diverse music that it’s virtually meaningless, but I’m talking here about something specific: pop in its "purest" form, like the musical equivalent of sunshine (and as Lesley Gore adds, lollipops and rainbows), or one of those Miyazake movies where nothing remotely bad ever happens. From its inception, which I would date to the late 1950s and early 1960s (the milieu of Brill building songwriters such as Neil Sedaka and Phil Spector-produced girl groups like the Crystals), through its refinement (and arguable perfection) later in the decade by masters like Brian Wilson and the Zombies; the work of janglers and power-popsters in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Big Star > the Raspberries > Cheap Trick > the Knack > Squeeze > Jellyfish. or something.) and a reflowering in the mid-90s with groups like the Beulah, Lilys, and the Apples in Stereo, this kind of pop has maintained a distinct set of signifiers and a characteristic attitude - optimism, essentially. [Curiously, since the post-Nirvana fallout of "tortured"/"sensitive" guitar guys, and the prevalent beat-basedness of chartable happy-music, pop like this hasn’t been all that popular, or at least best-selling, since the late ‘80s or so – but that’s another story.]
Here come(s?) the Monolith, a trio (with friends) from sunny San Francisco, keying in squarely. Any of the artists mentioned above would serve as an appropriate reference point for their debut CD, which if nothing else provides a magnanimous opportunity to play spot-the-influence (hey, dig that "And Your Bird Can Sing" guitar work on "Dandelion Storm.") Not that they’re simply copyists. The boy-girl vocals, chiming choruses harmonies, and unabashed melodicism that permeate the album may be oft-overplayed genre tropes, but this band wields them with a remarkable authority and judiciousness. Still, despite considerable internal experimentation and range, it’s nigh impossible to listen to Here Comes on its own terms, without thinking of its forebears – "Ruby," the disc’s most psychedelic moment, is not in fact a cover of the like-named Apples’ classic, but it stops just short; "Never Mind What You Heard" uncannily emulates Elliott Smith, "10 x Infinity," the indelibly hooky better-be single which is sine qua non for any self-respecting pop record, finds the group straying closest to Cars/Romantics crunchy New Wave territory. I doubt the Monolith would resent this characterization much – originality clearly isn’t their priority, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it makes them a difficult band to assess, apart from their undeniable competence. What should one want, in 2004, from canonically-minded purveyors of Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm?
Perhaps we can consider this in strictly utilitarian terms: just like make-no-amends dance music, which is only worth as much as its ability to get you on the floor, capital-p pop has a pretty specific purpose, and it’s not hard to quantify its effectiveness. Considering the tenacity with which some of these tunes have been coursing through my head this week, there’s really no question: the stuff works.
Likes… by Dani Siciliano
This debut effort from the longtime collaborator (and wife) of German minimal techno and micro-house producer Matthew Herbert is being billed as a singer-songwriter affair (or rather, a "song-based vocal album"), but I don’t think that will fool many people. The record’s first discernable vocal line doesn’t turn up until nearly three minutes into the album, and when it does neither its minimal melodic gesturing nor its few, repetitive lyrics capture much of the listener’s attention. By this point Siciliano’s voice clipped, fragmented, and otherwise manipulated, has long since been established as the building block and focal point of a deftly woven aural tapestry, which builds over the course of nine minutes from bleepy cocktail atmospherics reminiscent of early Mouse on Mars to a gentle, disco-derived thump. On this track ("Same"), as on the bulk of what follows, Herbert’s unmistakable sonic fingerprint is all over the proceedings, with Siciliano’s smoky, langorous voice providing melodic punctuation and serving as a distinctive textural element – much as it does on the always intriguing albums of Herbert such as Around the House – but rarely overpowering the subtlety of the production as a whole.
I don’t mean to suggest, however, that her billing as primary artist here is unwarranted. Despite their frequent resonance with Herbert’s production style, Siciliano developed these pieces in her own studio and worked with several producers to flesh them out. Besides, except for one inexplicable instrumental cut, the album is indeed an excellent showcase for her remarkably evocative pipes, which fall somewhere on the spectrum from Björk to Shirley Bassey. Appropriately, amid considerable stylistic range – from the punchy electro of "Walk the Line," to the Icelandic dreamery of "All the Above" – the dominant textural reference point here is probably Bassey’s noir-ish, jazz-inflected lounge (as exemplified, interestingly, in a torchy rendition of Nirvana’s "Come as You Are.") This also makes sense coming on the heels of Herbert’s most recent project, last year’s fascinating Goodbye Swingtime. Much as that project explored the relationship between Herbert’s trademark micro-electronic production and 1930s big band jazz, Likes… connects these dots with more vocal-centered song forms. As such, both serve as ideal introductions to the Herbert style for folks looking to branch out.
if i don't pick up
let it ring some more