I recently watched the movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The movie was okay; what stood out to me afterward was how it captured a time, not so long ago, when music sounded different for a reason. The reason being, it wanted to be countercultural—to rail against the pervading culture and its attending musical styles. More significantly, the kids who listened to that music—the punks, goths, queers and drag queens of Stephen Chbosky’s cult coming-of-age tale—did so because it spoke to them on a gut level. And it wasn’t easy for them to find that music. A subplot that runs the length of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the main character’s search to find a song he heard on the radio during a late-night drive. It turns out it was David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Heroes,” which would now neither be considered obscure nor hard to find. Today we have iPhone apps that can identify a song by simply hearing it, or you can always do a quick Google search of the lyrics. Then just type it in to Spotify and voila. We’ve effectively codified the entire back catalog of music subculture, to the point that it’s hardly considered countercultural at all.
“C’mon Stimmung,” from noise-punk duo No Age, would have certainly made it on one of the many mix tapes that are exchanged throughout Wallflower had it been released in the early ‘90s. It has everything a first-generation hipster would have looked for—abrasive, squalling guitars, snide punk vocals, some indecipherable lyrics and, buried somewhere underneath it all, a pure, pretty pop melody. And like the early-90s mix-tape culture, there’s something about “C’mon Stimmung” that sounds handmade, like carefully crafted sloppiness. (Stimmung is a German word referring to the tuning of a musical instrument.) A press release for the upcoming album states that No Age not only performed, recorded, and produced An Object themselves, but also prepared and assembled the physical packaging of the album, including jackets and inserts. An Object appears to be all about the physicality of music, about music as (ahem) an object. “C’mon Stimmung” takes on that quality, physical and visceral, something you can connect with on a gut level but still appreciate as a cultural artifact. And while it may be too late to be considered a countercultural artifact, the listener can at least appreciate the ideal “C’mon Stimmung” is striving for: to be an anthem for—as wallflower Sam put it—the island of misfit toys.
Beck is an expectation skirter. Who could have predicted he would release an entire album in the form of sheet music? Or an acoustic album in 2013? But Beck is also a chameleon, effortlessly adapting his sound to new genres. These dual tendencies have led to a few missteps in his career, but personal tastes aside, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Beck is still around, and people are still buzzing about him.
“Defriended,” both in title and sound, finds Beck in chameleon form. And while it’s tempting to accuse Beck of wagon hitching here, “Defriended” turns out to be an unexpected pleasure, full of warm electronic swirls and pretty melodies. The off-kilter time signature and frenzied synths sound like the makings of an instant Animal Collective classic, and the cavernous campfire melodies also strongly suggest that influence. The crystalline electronica blips and start-stop beats might even remind you of a certain hip-hop influenced electro-pop duo. But at the heart of “Defriended” is Beck’s voice, which, by the sheer virtue of its familiarity, makes the song inescapably his own. Beck has always sounded like your perennially sad-sack friend, oddly comforting in his Eeyore-ish-ness, and “Defriended” only proves how good Beck can be at being Beck—regardless of whatever stylistic garnish he chooses. If “Defriended” is meant to be a taste of the alleged proper follow-up to his last conventional album, 2008’s Modern Guilt, it’s certainly a palatable one.
“When a Fire Starts to Burn” is an apt phrase to describe the Internet wildfire that has been spreading in anticipation of Disclosure’s imminent debut release, Settle. It’s also one among a maelstrom of singles we’ve heard from the album, and easily the most immediately—almost cloyingly—catchy. Disclosure are a British electronic duo whose music, alternately described as UK house and UK garage, falls in the vein of Hot Chip and SBTRKT—both of whom Disclosure have toured with. Like SBTRKT, Disclosure leans heavily on funky bass textures and euphorically looped samples to create something lush, warm and weird. “When a Fire Starts to Burn” takes the pseudo-biblical words of an old-south Pentecostal televangelist and strings them along, evoking (as the music video highlights) the oddly complementary images of both snake-handling and neon-lighted rave parties. The math equation here is simple: add two disparate emotional associations and fuse them to elicit a novel listener response. However you’re inclined to respond to “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” it’s impossible not to be moved in some way by its ear-wormy synths and the inspiring meaninglessness of its message. The song marks a bizarre and equally pop-savvy turn for UK house music, bizarre and pop-savvy being very much compliments. For a genre that has consistently failed to cross over to a wider audience, “When a Fire Starts to Burn” is an exciting prospect.
Diplo dropped his 98-song “Endless Summer Playlist” t0day (Memorial Day). It’s contagiously fun has pretty limited artistic integrity. In other words, it’s perfect for driving around with your windows down, sitting by the pool, day-drinking, etc. If you’re into those sorts of things, this playlist was made with you in mind!
Happy Summer, y’all.
Of all the countless names of subgenres generated in the past few decades, intelligent dance music–aka IDM–has got to be the most loaded. The name itself is reactionary, an attempt to embrace the primal desire for physical movement while at the same time rejecting basically every form of dance music in existence up to its point. And while Boards of Canada are the legendary virgin-birthed gods of IDM, to call what they do “dance music” is a little misleading. Many of their songs have a beat, yes, but it’s hard to imagine dancing to songs like “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” or “1969″ without being an anarchical extraterrestrial colonist at a commune orgy some 5,000 years in the future.
It’s approaching a decade since these Scottish electronica stalwarts have released a full album of new material, 2005′s The Campfire Headphase. By then they were already considered living legends, but the heyday of Richard D. Jamesian IDM was already a good five years out. So Boards of Canada drifted to the background for a while, releasing just one EP. Now they’re back, in 2013, and independent music has long since embraced maximalist dance music and 90s radio popstar reboots. The purist sentiment of “intelligent dance music” no longer means what it did at the end of the millenium. So how are we to take “Reach for the Dead?” What significance does it have in 2013?
Like other recent 90s cult comebacks (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine, Daft Punk), Boards of Canada’s music sounds out of time and place. “Reach for the Dead” would have fit in well on any of Boards of Canada’s old albums, but that’s not to say it sounds old. “Reach for the Dead” has a dual tendency toward antiquated and futuristic; tapes hiss and crackle over some whirring synthetic drones, like an 8-track recording a transmission from a distant galaxy. Even the visuals that accompany the song–sand-swept desert and monolithic red-rock formations–suggest a martian planet. Though it doesn’t seem to evolve in its meandering five minutes, you have the feeling afterward that you somehow missed something about it–that the whole thing was some coded message requiring a subtle ear to decipher. However heavy-handed it may seem, the mysterious and labyrinthine marketing campaign for Tomorrow’s Harvest perfectly communicates what Boards of Canada is about, and has always been about.
Within hours of the debut of “Reach for the Dead,” a YouTube user had already reversed the song, seemingly without reason. But hearing the song in reverse offers an interesting commentary: “Reach for the Dead” is just as affecting and makes just as much sense emotionally going either way. There’s a strange symmetry to the song, an internal logic that only makes sense in its own world. As as result, “Reach for the Dead” sounds delicate as a spider-web but comes off as durable–so durable it holds up no matter how it’s stretched. By the end, “Reach for the Dead” is the thing doing the stretching; it manipulates not only your sense of time and place, but also identity. You become one of those faceless children on the cover of Music has the Right to Children. In 2013, lots of artists talk about being post-identity, post-gender, post-political, etc. But no band manages to incarnate that idea in the music itself better than Boards of Canada.