Posts from April 1999
The mode of the music changes, the city quakes, or at least those blocks of primer-than-thou office space quake that house the HQs of worldwide record companies. The reason, apparently, is MP3 technology, which you all know about and most of you use, and which has been the subject of acres of ruminative, pessimistic music biz newsprint over the last year.
Business reactions to MP3s aren’t what interest me (they’ve mostly been laughably ineffectual, as far as I can see), nor the economic consequences, nor even the theory that MP3 is going to democratise the production and distribution of music and open all our minds to amazing new, unsigned talent (not likely, in my opinion – small record companies are useful and will remain so precisely because they act as quality control, not as a block to the new). What interests me, rather, is the way MP3s will accelerate current trends in the way we’re listening and relating to music.
The shutdown of the Chain Reaction label leaves its various artists to fend for themselves, without the cover of CR’s austere aesthetic: skeletonised house, ultra-repetetive processed dub, and of course the literal cover of those lovely but irritating metal tins. Some Chain Reaction bands had already found the label restrictive, of course, notably Porter Ricks, who decamped angrily to Mille Plateaux to make their eccentric and marvellous second album. Some, you imagine, will be lost without the label: both lesser talents like Substance and artists like Vainqueur whose slow, gaseous music was so perfect for Chain Reaction that you can’t ever imagine it appearing under any other banner.
And some people always rather stuck out anyway. If I’d had to pick a Chain Reaction band destined for a wider audience, it would have been Monolake, whose Hongkong album was both one of the jewels in the label’s crown and somehow vastly different from anything else CR were putting out. Mostly that was down to the sound’s immense richness. This was a different type of jungle music, with field recordings from the Far East integrated into teeming thickets of sound: Monolake’s tracks were abustle with digital life, and the semi-familiar samples (crickets, commuter trains, the patter of rain) gave you a way in. With this self-constructed tropical zone riding on the bounciest basslines ‘ambient’ music had encountered since the Orb’s commercial glory days, Hongkong was a nourishing treat.
Sad to report, Interstate is a great deal less successful. Those compulsive rolling basslines are mostly vanished, for a start, and with them the serenity that permeated Hongkong: Monolake’s music is now several degrees itchier, digital beats and pulses skittering across the surface of every track here, never letting the listener relax but never pulling them into the rhythmic maze like the best/most hypnotic Chain Reaction techno did.
This makes Interstate in some ways a sight hipper than Hongkong, and lo-and-behold the quaint samples have also mostly dropped out of sight. A jittery aesthetic of tics, blips and complex beat micromeshes is indeed where listening electronica is more or less at right now, but Monolake’s album already sounds a bit dated, like something 808 State might have produced three or four years ago if they’d bought a couple of Oval records (and the cheap-looking cover most certainly doesn’t help).
Dated-ness needn’t be a fatal vice, of course: this kind of electronica, even after almost fifteen years (probably more), still has a snippy pride about its claims to futurism. But ‘dance music’ as a whole has never been more backward-looking than it is today, so if Interstate had the sounds and ideas to match its Kraftwerk-allusive title nobody would care about its slight lack of ‘originality’. By and large, though, it doesn’t. Monolake’s other great weakness, you see, is their lack of attention to texture – there’s nothing particularly sensuous about their sharp, pinched beats, nothing you could wallow in like you could in their Chain Reaction work. What you’re left with is the occasional admirable idea or pleasantly melodic moment (the lazy Amazon sounds most like their old stuff, Ginza comes as near as anything here to rhythmic compulsion, Terminal is sweetly kitsch in places) amongst a slew of very average ones. What’s particularly distracting is the way you can hear the process at work: on Amazon and Abundance, for example, Monolake have obviously got hold of the same kind of bouncing-ball rhythmic algorithm Aphex Twin sometimes uses, and they deploy it again and again to increasingly annoying effect.
In truth we’re not talking here about a bad album, just another disappointing one – certainly there are many less pleasant, more bombastic or pretentious or banal ways to spend an electronic evening. Interstate is also a transitional record, certainly – though its rigorous approach did techno a lot of good, offering the version of minimalist dance music which had most thoroughly cut ties with Detroit, it wasn’t perhaps a sound to build careers on. It’s just a shame that the most promising techno act of recent times now seem so directionless.
It’s half-past nine on a weekday night in central London and I’m watching a band in a bar. The sign on the door might say “Blues Bar” but apart from the odd introductory lick there’s little here Son House or even Eric Clapton would recognise. What this enthusiastic bunch of unfashionably grungey looking twentysomethings are playing is plainly Rock: a smattering of originals amidst mostly canonical cover versions – a lengthy Prince, an endless Doobie Brothers. It’s loud (far too loud to be background music), every now and then there’s a solo, people ignore it but seem to like it being there. This is Live Music in its purest commodity form: people choose ‘here” to drink – in an area where every next building is a bar – because they like the idea of Liveness, not because they like music. The actual music is almost irrelevant: the band don’t seem to have a name, their original songs don’t get names either (and barely need them). The only reason the music isn’t completely irrelevant is because it’s trying so curiously hard not to be noticed: the band know very well that by playing “Long Train Coming” or “Purple Rain” or “Hey Joe” they will get no reaction other than a polite clap, so that is what they do.
This is Rock as something like, but not quite Muzak. The difference is that Muzak is rarely chosen, whereas Live Music tends to imply a conscious consumer decision. The people coming to this ‘Blues Bar’ want to be seen to choose Liveness, to choose Rock, but without any of its messy specifics or snarlier historical turns, with no angles or personalities. More vapid than any pop single you could name, this is music at its most middlebrow and competent, Rock as little more than a successful brand, a set of core values to be bought into.
It’s ridiculous really to expect a bar band to do anything more than churn out music by the yard, but what I always notice about them – and this one was certainly no exception – is how much they hate economy. Every inch of slack in a given song must be taken up, filled with exclamations, riffs, little licky flourishes and fills, the very stuff of Rock. Presumably the people behind the instruments either think this is how rock music should be played, or they’re desperately scared of appearing less than slickly professional. Despite this, the results sound wearyingly tasteful – for all their finickitiness, these bands never seem in danger of exploding into the monstrous rococo note-frenzies of the guitar virtuoso. (It’s a measure of how stifling I find middlebrow rock that I’d rather hear Yngwie Malmsteen, for a few minutes anyway, than a worthy cover of some old Lennon tune)
Pointless to waste so many words on a bar band? Of course, save for two things: everything I’ve written could apply to 90% of the rock and indie bands clogging up UK major label rosters (Step forward, Stereophonics!), and judging by the reactions of the people at the bar, there are as many people eager to be entertained by these spayed displays of homogeny as there are half-cocked musicians keen to take part in them. A good time was had by all.
‘(About a week after writing this I’m in a record shop, looking through the country section, and I overhear a couple of well-heeled student boys next to me talking. “Oh, “Blues?'” exclaims one, “I don’t like blues.” “I don’t like this stuff,” says his friend, “But I love hearing it in a bar.” “You’re right, that’s so cool“. ‘The problem is, of course, that I’m a monstrous snob – obviously the manifest destiny of any music is to be reduced to as basic a set of stylistic signifiers as possible and then settle into a comfortable twilight as sonic perfume.)
The reason – one of the thousands – I like pop is that it’s much tougher to use it like this. Pop’s great advantage is that it starts life absolutely ‘commodified’, utterly debased in any kind of Romantic artistic sense, and from that point the only way is up, baby. Pop carries no expectations, no social weight, no false dignity, and so it can have none of them stripped away. No flaccid tuppeny-ha’penny bar band is going to cover 187 Lockdown’s “The Don” or B*Witched’s “C’Est La Vie”, because those tracks could never attain the sort of sustained profile enjoyed by a “Purple Rain” (plus they don’t offer opportunities to show off instrumental chops!). The repertoire of the covers band is driven by their need to choose songs which elicit in their audience the pleasant tingle of recognition, followed by the warm
glow of having one’s tastes confirmed. The selection must provide the snobbish thrills of the connoisseur, but for an audience who likely as not don’t actual know much about music: the same principle guides 99% of exercises in musical polling. Pop, though, is ubiquitous (its flagrant availability defying even the most stunted, ‘petit bourgeois” snobberies) but also evanescent (so cocking a snook at the very notion of the rock ‘tradition’.). Paradoxically this makes it easier for me to take a pop song and find something personal and cherishable in it than it is for me to get anything out of, say, “Layla”. Of course, pop also is subject to revival and the indignities of the covers band, but only under the sign of retro. The rock covers band in general flails away under the misapprehension that there is a rock heritage whose flame they must keep and nurture; the pop tribute act suffers no such illusion. Soporific originals are almost compulsory in a rock bar band’s act, but unheard of from Abba tribute groups or Glam revival turns.
(This in turn fails to take into account the Rock tribute act, cf. Think Floyd, the Australian Doors, et al., so I’ll stop now. It’s not as if twentysomething aesthetes with more than a working knowledge of weirdo art-rock can approach pop in anything other than a dilettantish way anyhow, though in many ways that’s part of the seductive pleasure of
Velvet Goldmine and the Erotics of Pop
So here’s what I liked about Velvet Goldmine: there’s a moment when teenaged glam fan Arthur gets home after buying the new ‘Brian Slade’ record. He puts the record on the player and then lies on the bed, basking in the music, gazing raptly at Slade’s airbrushed, marbled body on the glossy inner sleeve. The scene is charged, muskily hormonal – you expect Arthur to flex like a whore and fall wanking to the floor (and don’t you worry, he does later) – but it’s not just Arthur’s inchoate sexual awakening that gives it this kick. For Arthur is writhing in the grip of a joyous deviance more specialised and just as potent, the fever of the pop fan as they listen to a record for the first time.