Friday, June 28, 2013

"The Best Albums of the 1980s"

FACT published a list of the 100 best albums of the 1980s. There's no arguing with it, simply because it's so bizarre, so idiosyncratic, that only the most die-hard listeners could claim to have heard most of what's on it.

That is to say, it's a hell of a lot more interesting than, say, the Pitchfork 1980s list. Because it's not trying to do the same thing. A list like Pitchfork's suggests a canon. These are the records you've gotta hear if you want to understand alt-rock. They're the universally acknowledged classics.

But not "universally," of course, because your average record-buyer doesn't know or care who the Cocteau Twins are, much less Coil or Nurse with Wound. So what does the list do? It reaffirms the "indie" community--put sharply, the community of Pitchfork readers. It tells them what they already know.

FACT's list doesn't really fit with this kind of self-affirmation. If it's trying to make a point, it's about deliberately upending any kind of alt-rock "status quo." The top 7 items on the Pitchfork list aren't on it at all, for Christ's sake (in one case forcing it to place Sister over Daydream Nation, delightfully). The idea is to shuffle up the list of classics, to force readers to re-think the decade.

So the list's insufferable last words are "25 years later, the rest of the world is still catching up." What makes the list more than an instance of cooler-than-thou hipsterism is the subtle suggestion that in another 2 or 3 years it'll be time for another completely different list, which will be just as arbitrary. It introduces itself as: "very much a story as seen from the vantage point of 2013." This is a list that admits that one of its items (Ragas with a Disco Beat) is very likely a hoax, not recorded in the 80s at all. It's a send-up of the entire notion of a fixed canon of albums; a lot of good albums, but just as many might have been chosen instead with equal validity. Mostly, it's the chance to check out a lot of new stuff. (Certainly I'd rather hear about The Units than hear the praises of R.E.M. for the umpteenth time.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lars Iyer and the Death of Modernism

When a writer begins his manifesto with "Once upon a time...", you can tell he's not all serious. Iyer's manifesto, if it weren't obvious from its title ("Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss"), is a joke. It's a great, long joke; I like the line about the "bones of animals that had ceased to exist."

But it's not a joke about literature. In fact, it's not really about "literature" at all. Take a look again at Iyer's list of authors: "Kafka, Lautreamont, Bataille, Duras." And later in the essay: "Diderot, Rimbaud, Walser, Gogol, Hamsun, Bataille and most of all Kafka." Forget Diderot, he's a kind of red herring, as is Gogol to an extent. Look at the others. Who are they? They're the High Modernists, the pantheon of literary modernism. There's a reason you don't see Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and the like: they're not modern.

Iyer's not talking about "literature" in his send-up of the cult of the author: he's talking about a very particular type of literature that began to develop in the 19th century and had its full flowering at the beginning of the 20th. It's an antisocial literature: it's books that are either ignored or banned, authors that live in exile or spend time in jail. It's Bataille and Duras, whose works resemble pornography. It's Blanchot, who wrote about both of those authors, whom Iyer has written two books about. For some it's the greatest work of its time, or of all time. It's modernism.

But another thing about the manifesto: it's not really a joke, or not a normal kind of joke. That is, if you laugh at it, "you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself, laughing helplessly at yourself, laughing to the verge of tears" (as it says at first section's end). In laughing you're forced to remember just what's been lost: the greatest literature of its time, and perhaps the last great literature. Look at the word "modern" in "modernism": meaning, "of, relating, or characteristic of the present...contemporary" (Merriam-Webster). When you give up modernism you also give up the innovation it represented: its desperate, halting attempt to come to terms with a strange new world. Lose modernism and you lose the present.

Then Iyer gives three great close readings of three great contemporary and near-contemporary (Bernhard: 1931-1989; Bolano: 1953-2003) authors. I don't want to dismiss the readings or the authors, but I have to point out something strange. It emerges when he talkes about Vila-Matas and Kafka:

"The structures of religion had collapsed for Kafka, leaving him in the realm of allegory, but for Vila-Matas, even the structures of allegory have collapsed, even the structure of narrative itself have fallen into ruin."

Any student of literary modernism knows how bullshit this is, and it's weird that Iyer tries to pull it off. None of the modernists trusted narrative, Kafka least of all: there's a reason he never finished published his novels (which are in a sense anti-novels), the same reason that his short stories are full of "dream-like" twists and punctures of reality. It's the same distrust of form that leads Faulkner to abandon normal narrative form in his masterpieces, opting for a chaos of retellings; it's the same distrust that leads Mann to his all-engulfing irony, Rimbaud to a chaos of images (Illuminations), Beckett to "minimalism." In seeing the ruin of narrative, Vila-Matas is making himself a good modernist.

In fact, the distrust of literature forms a good part (maybe the main part) of the literary modernism Iyer mourns. To build something new (to be "modern") you have to destroy what was there before. Benjamin writes (in "The Destructive Character"): "Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere." The modernists knew literature and doubted it. Bataille's obscenities, Kafka's black humor, Beckett's void were all ways of being sub-literary.

Near the end Iyer says, "Don’t be generous and don’t be kind. Ridicule yourself and what you do." But this brutality, this abnegation, is the first impulse of modernism. All that has gone before is suspect. To distrust modernism is, for Iyer, the greatest way to keep living it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Game of Thrones

When Peter Jackson pulled Lord of the Rings off of its very thin pages (nearly bible-thin, in the copy I have) and onto the screen, he got rid of a  few things. Tolkien's charmingly quaint prose, for one thing. More importantly: the book's ending.

Frodo returns, at novel's end, to the Shire. His home. When he gets to the Shire, he finds that his enemy Saruman has ransacked the place. So: he's saved the world, but to do that he had to abandon the place nearest to his heart.

There's is the idea of a "tragic collision," which at least one prickly old German philosopher believed was central to Greek tragedy. A tragic collision happens when you have to choose between serving your family and serving your country, say--or in Frodo's case, saving the whole world or protecting your own little corner of it. When you have to decide between several sets of demands of equal validity.

Tolkien cleans things up--Frodo kicks Saruman out, rebuilds, and lives happily ever after--and Jackson pretends nothing ever happened.

In Greek tragedy, you get one big tragic collision and that's the story proper. The tragic hero makes the choice, suffers the consequences, and the curtain falls. In Game of Thrones, you get one collision after another. And the idea starts to come through: that tragic collisions aren't these things that occur very rarely in certain horrible circumstances but rather a condition of normal life. Everyone is at some point, or at several points, required to make a choice that goes against their normal loyalties. There's never an easy answer, and sometimes there's no clear answer at all. Existence is tragic.

At least one critic has labelled Game of Thrones "cynical." Certainly the series is full of liars, torturers, villains of all stripes, and even the heroes are far from ethically perfect. There's not a concrete hero-villain division. I'm not sure that it's cynical, though.

There's a scene early in Mad Men (ssn 1 ep 2) in which Betty Draper's daughter walks in with a plastic bag over her head. Betty Draper is furious, and reprimands her--for taking the bag off of Betty's dry cleaning. The fact that her daughter is wearing a suffocation hazard over her head doesn't even bother her. And the function of this is to remind the viewer that this is a different time, that we know things now that people in the 1950s didn't. (In this particular scene there's an obvious parallel with the characters' discussion of divorce, which also seems dated.)

GoT can't have this relation to history, and not only because it doesn't take place in a real historical setting (its setting is, besides its fantastic elements, a composite of quite a few  historical points). I mean, this is a quasi-medieval time period; it's got to feel distant. Mad Men already feels recent; its writers had to work to remind us how foreign its characters' attitudes were. GoT has to do the opposite.

Hence the lack of archaisms in speech (no "thee," no "thou"), hence the irreverence of so many of the main characters (they don't love feudalism any more than we do), hence the way the show elides all the big differences that might obscure the similarities (e.g. we see Tyrion reading mountains of books, but not the scribes laboriously copying them out by hand). GoT doesn't turn the characters into these divine, mythic figures (as in a lot of shitty high fantasy), but it doesn't let the viewer feel superior to them, either.

Much has been made of the constant sex throughout the series, for instance. But take for instance the way the show moves from, say, showing Tyrion (a sympathetic character) in bed with prostitutes to using the not-sympathetic (as I see it, anyway) Littlefinger to show the brutality that underlies the prostitution. Many films and many TV series create voyeuristic pleasure from ethically troubling situations; GoT forces the viewer to question that pleasure.

The same thing happens with violence. Epic fantasy tends to take lavish battle scenes as bread and butter. When the show begins, no doubt some viewers are looking forward to precisely that. But not only are there relatively few big battles depicted: the series also dismisses their "heroic" nature. One can watch Lord of the Rings and finish with the (toxic) delusion that war is noble and grand; GoT only informs one that war is hell. You have to consider the underside to all these other fantasy series, and the reality of war in the real world (we're a nation at war, aren't we? on terror?).

I don't think Game of Thrones is cynical or nihilistic; I think it's very aware of the ethical difficulties its characters face and the sheer horror of its setting. It's about the difficulty of living a decent life in a brutal, ugly world. But it doesn't spell things out in unequivocal terms, and the ambiguity creates discomfort. That discomfort is part of the point.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cracked Actors

What really comes across when you watch this Bowie documentary (if you watch it; it's really only of interest to hardcore fans) is, besides that Bowie is obviously losing his mind, that Bowie's whole shtick has less to do, at this point, with the music than with the fact of acting, the concert as drama. He doesn't go on about his music, but he has a lot to say about his creation & destruction of personas, his various costumes.

That's his whole shtick at this point in his career (1975). He's tried on & tossed off several popular genres (the weird folk-pop of Space Oddity, the "hard rock" of The Man Who Sold the World), but more importantly, the albums that are distinctively his sound (Ziggy Stardust in particular) emphasize this self-distancing. It's  not just that Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane are personae, it's that they're temporary personae. E.g. in the album Aladdin Sane, you've got the title track, which obviously isn't sung by Aladdin himself because it talks about him in the 3rd person. And then you've got "Cracked Actor," from which the documentary draws its title, sung from the perspective of  a washed-out celeb (not Bowie himself), and then a preening parody of Mick Jagger in "Let's Spend the Night Together."

So where's the real element, where's the actor behind the mask? Because he can't just be a non-person who acts in interesting ways, that's not permissible for a modern celebrity. The press doesn't know what to make of him; the first clip in the documentary is about just that. They're confused, because Bowie doesn't know either--he's spent a lot of time developing the parts for his show, but not a lot developing his own part. This is the same year that Young Americans comes together, which is a big shift--instead of a plethora of parts, it's one big one, Bowie's "plastic soul" (a thankfully short-lived sound for him) and the persona that goes with it. The part  makes him good money--album sells like crazy &c.--but he's not satisfied with it. (outtake from this album titled: "Who Can I Be Now?")

The old law of criticism is that one shouldn't conflate the artist's biography with the work. Which works to a certain extent with, say, a novel or a poem, but with a rock song--especially a song by Bowie--the divisions don't hold in place. The essence of modern pop music is that the art is inseparable from artist: "Super Bass" means nothing minus Minaj, "Imagine" means nothing minus Lennon. So one can't resist pointing out that, as Station to Station comes out & Bowie takes on the crypto-fascist "Thin White Duke" persona, he's coked out of his mind & not eating & his marriage is falling apart.

Part of the interest in following Bowie's career (which, after the early 80s, trailing off pretty fast) is seeing the way he navigates the artist/art division & resists the intrusion of the press (which he can't do completely simply because modern pop stars are required to have their lives on display to a certain extent). It's an issue particularly relevant given the rising idea of a "personal brand" and developing a fixed & unified online presence which is continuous with one's career. (You are your own capital, &c.) Bowie overcomes this through an excess of personality: if he's got to have an identity, he'd might as well have three, or four, or a different one for every album. The press's desire to make a "personality" out of an artist, like the corporate world's desire to make a "brand" out of a person, is of course a matter of control; David Bowie is exceptional for the way he resists this control.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


That record labels still matter, especially in electronic music, is obvious (think of how frequently electronic music websites focus on labels) and important. The need for labels isn't what it used to be--it's trivially easy for independent artists to get their music on iTunes, Amazon, &c. without any sort of record deal, or to put their music up for free online (e.g.), so distribution isn't the big issue as it once was. Yet artists keep releasing on labels, even in cases where there's little to no possible monetary benefit (e.g. tiny white label releases that, even if they instantly sold out, wouldn't generate any significant profit).

Tied to this is the rise of tiny artist-run labels, of which there are more and more. Of course, musicians have been starting their own labels for ages--Ian Mackaye founded Dischord back in 1980, for instance, and 4AD (1979!) is a sort of weird example of this, being co-founded by a very hands-on producer--but that
was as much a distribution thing as anything. If there's not a label, you can't get the music out.

But now anyone can get the music out, label or not. So what happens is that labels function less to distribute the music and more to create a story around the music. A key example would be Basic Channel, whom I've written about previously from another angle. Basic Channel wasn't a group, it was a label--or, rather, it was a label started by two people, Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald, to release only their own music. And it wasn't the first label they started: at around the same time they had Main Street Records, which also only released their music, but focused on much more traditional house music. And there was Chain Reaction, a "sublabel" of Basic Channel which released music by other people (notably Porter Ricks and Vladislav Delay). So you've got this weird situation where there's a label that only releases music by one artist yet somehow has a sublabel that's releasing stuff by other artists who, by the way, are all extremely indebted to the stuff that came out on the parent label years earlier. And there's yet another sublabel for solo, dancey stuff by Moritz Von Oswald, and a sublabel for the duo's reggae releases (which nearly outnumber the original Basic Channel releases), and yet another sublabel for their reggae/dancehall reissues.

So what we have is a set of record labels that exist not for the sake of releasing music but of organizing a narrative. Each label has a unique aesthetic. And what this does, which is what I find fascinating about the whole thing, is that it shifts the framing of the music so that the label, not the individual artist or individual piece of music, is the piece of art. The label itself, the set of releases, becomes the unit for critical consideration (& labels begin to be known for distinctive art as much as distinctive music, because it's a total aesthetic package).

The line between artists as creators and artists as curators, as collectors, is just completely blurred. I could name probably dozens of examples (Italians Do It Better, Hyperdub, and Perlon all come to mind), but I'll look at just one here, which is Kevin Martin. Martin's earliest music was very aggressive, industrial-ish stuff under such aliases as GOD and Techno Animal; toward the end of the 90s he began releasing music under the alias The Bug, an alias he still uses, which was still very harsh & aggressive but chiefly influenced by reggae and dancehall music.

Artists using different aliases to divide up their projects: that's happened literally as long as techno's been around (& indeed, Martin created yet another alias for his slightly more peaceful collaborations). What's more notable would be that the most recent of Kevin Martin's new projects began not with a new alias but with a new label. And that Martin is fairly vocal about the importance of labels in getting into music, and that he's curated various compilations going all the way back to the 90s. Even his original music works in curatorial terms: his latest project, Acid Ragga, is about mashing up acid house & reggae, just as his previous work as The Bug was a combination of contemporary dubstep & 80s dancehall. Creation itself becomes a kind of curation, a very conscious splicing together of past works. And it works, in Martin's case, because he's damned good at finding exciting stuff to reissue and borrow from.

Monday, June 3, 2013

"Ya Hey"

It's  got all the standard Vampire Weekend tricks--catchy hook, drums mixed high, classical piano bouncing in and out, staccato guitar, plus the choir and autotune that suggest that band has a higher budget this time around, or at least that they're going for a slicker sound. The drums sound big & dumb & expensive (compare the sound of, say, "The Kids Don't Stand a Chance"), but that opening bassline makes me forgive it.

At RapGenius one can read that the song references reggae, Catholic ritual, the word "yahweh" ("the name of the Jewish God," although Christians would presumably argue he's theirs too), Outkast's song "Hey Yah," the story of  Moses & the burning bush, Richard Hofstadter. (Also: that Ezra Koenig is a fan of RapGenius.)

What's really striking, though, is that in this seemingly serious song you've got the chorus broken up by this ridiculous vocal effect, which is speaking a scrambled version of this word (the tetragrammaton) which religiously observant Jews are prohibited from saying. & one could no doubt pull this into a theory about the song's inner tensions et cet. but really why bother (although if one did, probably also worth looking at the line about the dj mixing reggae & the Rolling Stones)? What the chorus really makes clear is that Vampire Weekend are making fun of themselves, dropping silly sounds into their "serious song. It's the same impulse that makes the hook of another of their singles nothing more than "baby baby baby." The sound of a band refusing to "grow up" for their "mature" 3rd album--noting, "it's bad enough just getting old."

So that's why the album's alright, basically, not as strong as the debut but y'know. & of course Discovery was their best, but I digress.

New Mount Kimbie

Mount Kimbie released Cold Spring Fault Less Youth and Hyetal released Modern Worship (or if they haven't, they're going to, they've leaked), & they're both artists who released first a string of great singles, then instrumental albums (Crooks and Lovers and Broadcast respectively) in that weird post-dubstep continuum where the artists can't really be categorized because they have different goals and reference points and yet you've gotta group 'em because otherwise how the hell are you going to organize all this crazy shit that's coming out all the time, album after album, much of it very good, some of it even great (as the first Mount Kimbie album was, and we'll see abt these others in time), it's downright confusing. It's a time of artists, not movements, and as soon as a genre is named (footwork, future garage, synthwave &c.) it either dies down to boring formulas surely even the producers don't care about or splits to a million different impulses, hybridizing with everything it touches (so that for instance one half of Sepalcure, another of these post-dubstep guys, in this case from Canada, is also Machinedrum, an idiosyncratic footwork producer whose album Room(s) got a fair bit of deserved hype), or sometimes even doing both.

What's interesting here is that Mount Kimbie and Hyetal have both added vocals to their tracks on their 2nd albums, & that in both cases roughly the same thing happens--that is, we don't get songs (no boring verse-chorus-bridge, none of those godawful "hooks" some "musicians" insist on writing) and we don't get the typical "Dance Track feat. Diva Vocalist" b*llsh*t either (not that I have anything against House, but c'mon, it's 2013). Often the vocals are just completely unintelligible, and the singing not particularly competent (not just that the singer clearly hasn't taken lessons but also that they're not mic'd properly & so on).

Of course Mount Kimbie have done this a bit before, notably on "William," where you have these vague vocals for the song's middle section, which fades onto a peaceful instrumental beat, so that the vocals seem not so much a centerpiece as an interlude, a kind of textural digression. "Digression" really being the word for the vocals on the new album. The vocals don't guide the songs, but they aren't "just another instrument"--they become a particular sonic event. Here you should also notice that there's a lot more guitar in this album. Why? Because Mount Kimbie is injecting "humanity" into its album, fusing their laptop dabbling (the new sound of garage rock, really: it's a lot easier/cheaper to get together around a MacBook than find a practice space, and a lot easier in say an urban environment like, oh, London) with the more conservative electric guitar noodling that a million amateurs are doing in their shabby home studios. The first track is called "Home Recording."

This all adds up to an album which is really self-conscious, in a provocative way, about its  means of production. Because this is part of the reason post-dubstep is so idiosyncratic, and why the other electronic music genres developing lately are: the producers are isolated. They're doing this at home, by themselves, with one or two collaborators or none at all. A lot of producers try to efface this fact, some escape it entirely (e.g. James Blake, with Mount Kimbie the defining post-dubstep artist, used to tour with them even, has embraced r&b, which is a sound all about going into a studio, hiring session musicians, and so on; only, he's on his own, so he plays all the parts himself, with lackluster results mostly). What makes Mount Kimbie exciting, besides that they have all the skills necessary for making great electronic music (mastery of texture, rhythm, pacing) is that they're upfront about how their music is made. It's not amateur music pretending to be professional music, it's amateur music which takes that amateur status as the basis for its existence. It's the same trick Burial pulled off, in a different direction--the sound of Burial is basically the sound of a person hearing pirate radio broadcasts & fuzzy cassette mixtapes & imagining the rest of the sound from there, hence his use of rain noise (which replicates both radio static and his own environment when hearing the stuff), video game samples, and so on. Mount Kimbie use white noise as well, but it's the environmental white noise any amateur musician recognizes from using a cheap mic in a room w/out soundproofing.
So that's what I dig abt the new Mount Kimbie, and wut makes it more exciting, I'd say, than a million slick dance albums by producers who've mastered sidechaining (or for that matter robot-headed producers who inspired the whole sidechaining thing, & most of the others soundz of EDM, but have now retreated to late-70s/early-80s excess & retreading disco tropes that were much more lively the first time).