Saturday, September 21, 2013

retro rap

"Let's take it back to straight hip hop and start it from scratch"

At Daily Swarm, A Rational Conversation's Eric Ducker chats with Spin's Charles Aaron about Eminem's retro-rap flashback to vintage Def Jam with new single "Berserk" - a "Rick Rubin-produced cut" that pays "homage to the type of jams that Rubin was making in the mid-1980s with the likes of  Run-DMC and LL Cool J."   The video and the song are verily a citation fest --giant boombox nodding to "I Can't Live Without My Radio", microsample of  Ill -era Beasties ("kick it"), a hint of 86-87 "get a little stupid"-izm with "question is are you bozos smart enough to feel stupid?", references to Kangols, "vinyls" and Public Enemy. Not forgetting the riffage, via Billy Squier.

Aaron:  "It was a surprise to hear another sample of the “The Stroke” in 2013! I mean, the first thing I honestly thought of, in terms of Rick Rubin producing (or “reducing”) Eminem was that it was a repeat of Jay Z and “99 Problems” – another Billy Squier extravaganza. I love the energy... but I feel like the music could’ve gone in more interesting directions if they wanted to nod to the 1985-1986 era Rubin/Def Jam sound."

Another 21st Century Squier-stravaganza was Dizzee's "Fix Up Look Sharp" from ten years (TEN YEARS!) ago, i.e. shortly before "99 Problems".

Aaron, again:  "As a man of a certain age, it reminds me of LL Cool J’s Radio, which they’re nodding to in the video with the giant boombox. For others, it’s the Beasties, and for others, it’s “99 Problems.” Regardless, that sound has made a gargantuan footprint as far as crossover rap is concerned – it’s the sound Russell Rush and Def Jam dreamed would turn hip-hop into the new rock & roll for America and white kids (which actually happened beyond Russell’s wildest, drug-induced imaginings). So, unless Eminem acknowledges all that in a more, I don’t know, meta or self-aware away with, say, the lyrics, then it’s just kind of a halfway look."


Friday, September 20, 2013

ghost hop

T R I S H  is  a 25 minute long, six-track tribute to the late  Broadcast singer Trish Keenan, recorded by Odd Nosdam,  and combining "Nosdam’s distinct, sonically traversing, occasional hip-hop sound with, at least on the title track, samples of the lady herself" (Tiny Mix Tapes). Listen to the title track here . There is also a backwards version of the whole EP, "h s i r T".

Thursday, September 19, 2013

this is the time for reenaction

A piece at The Quietus on reenactments in art and in music.

With Jo Mitchell and Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard interviewed, it's something of a reenactment of the last third of the first chapter of Retromania.

Which is sort of, kinda, not really, acknowledged in this paragraph:

"Simon Reynolds covers art reenactments of musical events in his book Retromania, and rather sniffily he concludes that "no matter how much research and preparation goes into reenactment, it is doomed to be an absurd ghost, a travesty of the original". And yet the motivation of the conceptual artists themselves doesn't appear to be about nostalgia at all. The ultimate goal is surely failure, because the attempt to recreate a carbon copy of an event is - and will always be - a futile one."

What's particularly amusing about this is that the third sentence is more or less a reenactment of the Retromania quote from the first sentence -- but with the alleged "sniffiness" removed. 

There is much talk about "failure" as an explicit aim with reenactments (again, rather familiar if you've read, or indeed written, Retromania).

Of more interest is the stuff on The Musical Box who reenact The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway with Genesis's blessing. The Quebec quintet managed to get hold of the original slideshow used on the 1974 concert, which suffered from technical problems and poor ticket sales. They also faithfully recreate the costumes, the choreography ("the show was less spontaneous gig than scripted rock opera so most moves were choreographed"), and the stage positions of the musicians in Genesis.

Jeremy Allen writes that "the motivation to re-enact a concert that so famously floundered is unusual enough to grab one's attention, but then the mind boggles when you start to consider the complete immersion required, the effort researching equipment and learning the parts and the untold hours spent assiduously perfecting what is essentially an illusion. The players in The Musical Box would have had no memory of the show on account of being too young to have seen it, so any charge of sentimental yearning for halcyon days must surely be a false one."

This warding-off of the spectre of nostalgia recurs repeatedly through the piece, gets almost frenzied  in the final stretch.
But surely even if not part of the mindset of the artists, it feeds into the bottom-line viability of these event in terms of their ability to draw audiences? Not just with the rock audience ones like The Musical Box's, but the art world ones too. Getting bums on seats, selling tickets.

And you can of course be nostalgic for something you didn't witness or experience. That vicarious, second-hand nostalgia is one of the most interesting syndromes to me, and I say that as one who has succumbed to it at times. It blurs into but it not the same as an interest in History or antiquarianism. It has a much more wistful / wishful tinge to it.

To me though the most revealing thing about the reenactment trend is that it is a distilled form of the  essence of the wider, sprawling retromania phenomenon:

Once, music made history.

Now, music comments on that history; or it's a replica of that history-making sound.

In the process, it forgoes the possibility of even connecting with current history-in-the-making, let alone intervening in it.

"originality is a red herring", or, Reenactment Art part 203

At The Comics Journal, an interview with Josh Bayer about Bayer's "covers comics" project, which writer Brandon Sodeberg describes thus:

"Rom recreates, panel-by-panel, stories from the Marvel space-knight book from the eighties, locating the still vital energy of this work, while also shaking off its relatively square and mainstream-courting tics. It’s the difference between say, the Kingsmen’s mealy-mouthed though radio-friendly version of “Louie Louie”, and say, Black Flag’s grinding, raucous reinterpretation."

Some Josh Bayer quotes from the piece:

"There was no master plan when I began Rom, though in some ways, I feel like “covering” or feeling free to appropriate is something I’ve been leading up to for years. I’ve always been excited by the idea that originality is a fucking red herring. People talk about being original like it’s so beneficial to everybody, but it isn’t. I remember a Kathleen Hanna interview in Maximum Rock & Roll where she was like, “People say that I sound like Poly Styrene but I don’t take that as a negative thing. I’m not into the novelty of the new.” I really love that phrase, “the novelty of the new.”

[Well, I love Hanna's rhetorical sleight, where a preference for innovation over reiteration, the original over the copy, comes to seem sneer-worthy. Those silly, shallow seekers of mere novelty!]

"... My Rom stories are loose adaptations. I change the names of all the characters except Rom, usually. I call the Dire Wraiths [from Rom] Verminous Knids after the villains from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator because they are really, really similar. I’m willing to get things wrong and I’ve found out that a fuck-up can be much more interesting. It fits with my aesthetic of scraping together the book with scraps of bubblegum and shoelaces."

I guess Shakespeare worked with other earlier dramatist's storylines and old legends and historical tales and so forth, so why not?

The original


The cover version


Two earlier posts on retro-izm in comics -- Daniel Cowes and the vintage / mid-century aesthetic in illustration and graphic novels, and a post picking up on some parallels drawn between retro-rock and the comix world by Marc Singer of I Am NOT The Beastmaster

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Struck by the incongruous vintage aesthetics of the dude who invented tumblr in this New York Times profile:

I don't like screens very much very much,” says David Karp, founder and chief executive officer of Tumblr, the popular microblogging platform. “Big bright monitors drive me nuts”; screens in the bedroom are “gross.” He takes his rule seriously, for in Karp’s newly renovated loft, in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn, screens are scarce, as is, for that matter, anything particularly shiny or smooth. It is, instead, a dedication to all that is aged, rough or both: ancient bricks, weathered concrete, blackened steel and reclaimed oak. While Karp designs the future, his personal aesthetic is worlds apart from the Star Trek flight deck or the Google campus that form our usual idea of what is to come. Karp doesn’t believe, he says, that the next century is necessarily about “more screens covering more surface area.

"He is an apparent paradox: a high-tech design leader with a home and possessions that display little affection for anything postwar; frankly, most of the 20th century seems suspect to him. Nothing in his home looks particularly futuristic, or technological, at least as we’ve usually understood those terms. A house may be a machine for living, but Karp says, “I don’t want our house doing very much.” It’s a quiet space, with few distractions; one feels that stone tablets might not be entirely out of place. The newest-looking machine in the house is the metal carcass of a classic 1969 Honda CB160 motorcycle, apparently in the midst of a living-room repair job.

"The apartment is built with “analog technology,” says John Gachot, the principal designer, who worked with Karp on the renovation.... “It’s mildly steampunk,” he adds, pointing out a few of the details, like tin ceilings and brass screws, at least “in the sense of looking backward.” The materials and methods are genuinely old: the reclaimed oak that dominates the living room comes from an old dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and the brick and concrete have aged with the building.... Karp’s home is about as different as it is possible to be, style-wise, from the tech palaces of the West, or the smart homes of the 1990s that were once supposed to be the future.

"In the popular imagination, tech leaders don’t live this way. They inhabit some kind of indistinct place, defined less geographically than temporally, for the technologist is meant to live slightly ahead of the rest of us. One imagines Google’s Sergey Brin spending his days encased in advanced wearable technology, orbiting the earth in a driverless spaceship, landing only to introduce humanity to new products from the mother ship. On the West Coast, the credible technologist simply must use devices and materials more advanced than the masses use. One wouldn’t want to be caught lugging around an old Dell laptop, or, God forbid, a BlackBerry.

"Karp’s style may not fit the public’s idea of homo futurus, but it is perfectly consistent with the image of New York’s tech industry. "

Changing the subject slightly, I must say I don't understand the cult of tumblr, why it is that some people seem to rate it so much  more highly than Blogger.  Anything I'd ever want to do with a tumblr, I could do just as easily on a blog, it seems to me.  What are the other benefits? You can have a long string of sycophantic sign-ons trailing at the end of your piece, positive reinforcement a la Facebook likes? It's easier to quote other tumblr posts?  As far as I can see, that just encourages a sort of pointless  recirculation of opinions.  At best, annotation becomes the primary mode. I suppose the idea is that it is sociable, collegial, egalitarian in some way; participating in a conversation, a polylogue, rather than stating your case, essayist style.  But you can do all that with blogs too, link and answer back, or extend another's argument. Blog neighbourhoods are more like constellations of monads, of one-person magazines. There is a distance between each blog and its neighbour, one's that's easy to cross, but wide enough to encourage a certain aura of enclosure that recalls the singular-vision fanzine and that subtly encourages bigger and more definitive statements. You say your piece. Whereas the porousness of tumblrs, the mutual interpenetration of text-flows, seems to work against developed arguments and in favor of quickfire comebacks and "yes but" type responses.

These textual nibbles are unsatisfying, I find. I dislike also the way tumblr posts look: the layered / staggered comment upon comment within quote within quote  effect. Unpleasing to the eye, hard to follow (not as bad as trying to follow an argument on twitter, granted). The tumblrs that do look good, revealingly, are the ones devoid of any kind of commentary:  the purely image-based ones (in some cases not even having captions to identify the illustrations or photographs). But these too often seem to fall into a mode of reposting cool old images (of mid-century architecture, or space age sixties fashion, or synthesiser porn, or vintage s.f. book covers...) that other tumblrs have posted. Often dozens or scores of other tumblrs reposting the same image!  Where is the curatorial added-on surplus value in this activity, when you haven't even sourced or scanned the image yourself, gone digging in the crates or the thrift stores?

Either ironically or appropriately, given Karp's taste, much of the content circulating in tumblrs  consists of  analogue-era stuff, from the age of print magazines, pre-e-books, images recorded on film and celluloid, albums with cardboard covers and artwork.  (Which is the core of Retromania's argument of course: "we live in the digital future, but we're mesmerised by our analogue past", as the blurb from the compact edition of the UK paperback puts it, the edition with a cassette on the front).

Something about the tumblr format seems to discourage substantive and sustained commentary.  Blogger can do the fragmentary, the quippy quick comment, but it also lends itself to essays, or even books (Phil Knight's "blook" on the Stranglers for instance). But tumblr seems to be closer to twitter:  it's a data-snacking model of textual consumption, a wisecrack / rapid-retort mode of textual production.  There are exceptions of course:  Eric Harvey and Tom Ewing will now and again stretch to several paragraphs. But I have far fewer favorite tumblrs  than I do blogs;  I can barely recall any tumblr posts, whereas there's plenty of blogposts that are engraved on the memory.  Like twitter, like Facebook, tumblr emissions seem to evacuate themselves from your consciousness with extraordinary speed. The dea(r)th of the "event post" is part of a general, insidious pulverisation of time that occurs under the digital regime; a ceaseless flow of discourse-dust, eddies and whorls of inconsequential prattle.

However there must be something going for tumblr, judging by the devotion of its users (reminiscent of Apple product line patriots).  So I thought I should at least have a go using one, if only to complain from a more informed, first-hand, experiential viewpoint *.  However I got turned off big time during the initial start-up process and went off to do something else. Will probably return when I'm less busy and see if I glean what the advantages are to what I suspect is just the same-old-shit-in-a-shinier-can. 

*  Although in a sense I already have a Tumblr in that my "posting cool old shit with minimal annotation" impulses are catered for at Hardly Baked.
Andrew Parker finds a couple of interesting quotes in a keynote speech given by Tavi Gevinson, 17 year old blogger / editor, at the Melbourne Writers Festival

What if, when you’re in a mood, when you feel sad and stuck, it’s just more therapeutic for you to write down someone else’s words than your own?

"Most of the work I have to show you is other people’s. Most of my world is a composite of the worlds of others’s.

This is very in line with the "everything is a remix" / Steal Like An Artist / Brain Pickings view of creativity as really curativity  - self as tumblr, tumblr as self.

I asked Andrew what he thought of those statements of Gevinson's and he replied:

"Teenagers are always seeking material with which to build their identities, but I don’t recall it ever being so conscious. All I knew was that I wanted to hear more music, watch more films and read more books than I could access. Furthermore, I didn’t care what anyone thought of my collections and never bothered to flaunt them. If anything, my collections were a way of accessing the best things the world had to offer (as far as I knew at the time), whilst rejecting everything else. Without wishing to insult my high school friends too much, none of them provided the intellectual stimulation that I found in books, albums and films. This insatiable hunger for stimuli also demanded that I reject anything that wasn’t original. However, despite the breadth of original works in my collections, I never believed that I could ever be completely described by a composite of these works. It’s not that I was better than these artists, just that I wasn’t quite like any of them and therefore must have been unique.

"If I were to attempt to create a work of art, I would endeavour to be sincere and then assess the originality of the finished work. Only once I was satisfied that I had produced something worthwhile and original would I bother presenting it to anyone. So far the world remains untroubled by my efforts.

"I would be horrified to discover that I could only think in terms of other’s works and that all my works were mere collages. And yet for many young people it seems to be a source of comfort, perhaps even validation".

That struck a chord with me.  Certainly when I was 14, 15, 16, 17, I was ravenous for any source of mindfood I could get my hands on, via Berkhamsted Public Library (and the inter-library lending system, when the local couldn't supply my needs), plus the town's bookstores, trips to London to Dillons and such like, and also what the school library contained.  Whatever arty or weird films might find their way onto BBC2.  And then music as well, John Peel, the small but surprisingly hip record store in Berko, and then music papers.
And at that stage, being very impressionable and impressed by stuff, my early efforts at creativity were extremely indebted  (comic sketches and pieces that were very Pythonesque / Palin-esque / Coren-esque; drawings and cartoons and watercolours that were somewhere between Dali, Gilliam, and certain Punch cartoonists whose names I've forgotten; s.f. stories, or scenario-outlines, that were clearly marked by Ballard and others; later on, premature stabs at music journalism that were frightfully Morley-esque/Penmanoid).   But I was never in any doubt that the goal was to get beyond being a composite of all this stuff I was stuffing into myself.  Both conviction and confidence dictated that this was the righteous target and also an attainable target. I recently came into repossession of a bunch of old diaries and other teenage writings and was struck by the precocious Napoleonic complex, the obsessive drive towards originality, the belief in uniqueness.

If nothing else, originality seems like a useful delusion, a motivating mirage. Something to aim for.

postscript 9/21: Andrew transcribed some more of Tavi's  speech:

“I wouldn’t have a public life, a creative life, I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now if not for the internet. Something about that has always made me feel a little impure. Not only because what I do wouldn’t get exposure in a pre-internet world, but also because I wouldn’t even be doing it.”

“Every cool thing I know about, every band or movie that means anything to me I know about from the internet. So part of what worries me is that all of my references are traceable, everything I do or say could be tracked down and exposed as being heavily influenced by a book I’ve written about before. I’ll never seem like Bjork.”

“So I’ve begun to understand the danger of trying to find justification for bad things happening in your life by believing that you will one day make it all into a wildly popular show on HBO and feel validated by the whole world. Because what if you write a show people hate or what if you write a show that doesn’t get made or what if you don’t ever write a show, not even for yourself because you just don’t have it in you.”

“But this is not about not being creative, original, ambitious or finding release. This is about a certain kind of creativity, originality, ambition and release. This is about fan-girling.”

“I don’t think that not feeling special should feel like a failure, especially when you’re still trying to figure out who you are and what you like. Instead it can make you feel like part of the greater chain of being. Not in a conformist way, but just in a way that is kind of comforting.”

“I kind of just decided that I don’t care about being original or unique or having an artistic identity or having to stress out about any of that. I just want to be happy. And being a fan can be the most happying thing you can be because you feel connected to other people and you realise these feelings pass through all of us and they have for years and years and years, and it will be okay.”
Our God Is Speed proposes this as the Retromania Theme Song

The sound is totally retro but lyrically, I'm not sure what it's about.

Did remind me of this anthem of the one-man time warp cult, though

BTW, do check out this Our God Is Speed post about Tacita Dean's JG, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty,  and Ballard's short stories  "The Voices of Time”and "The Terminal Beach". Wence comes this quote: 

"Typically the island inverted the geologist's maxim, 'The key to the past lies in the present.' Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future".

Monday, September 16, 2013

cassette nostalgia and lost purity

An interesting, and interestingly self-contradictory, "meditation on the merits of the cassette tape," by Nick Sylvester, originally posted at Pitchfork on the eve of Cassette Day.

Although Nick vows not to bang on about the lost tactile tangibility of the format, or its analogue-smudgy "warmth",  he does nonetheless assert that "there’s no format more human than the cassette. No format wears our stain better. I have not encountered a technology for recorded music whose physics are better suited for fostering the kind of deep and personal relationships people can have to music, and with each other through music. This sounds like nostalgia... but I don’t think it is. I’m talking about new music, on cassettes, in 2013. No audio format keeps me more focused on listening to the thing itself, without the distraction of having a web browser right in front of me, without the baggage of an ersatz music news cycle, the context upon context, the games of the industry. Music released on cassettes doesn’t feel desperate or needy or Possibly Important. It tends not to be concerned about The Conversation. It resists other people’s meaning. That’s what I like about the cassette. It whittles down our interactions with music to something bare and essential: Two people, sometimes more, trying to feel slightly less alone."

So it's the idea of a format that, while stained with our individual humanity, is uncontaminated by the Larger Discourse About  Music (including, but not limited to, the game of hip). A longing for a pure form of listening and direct, unmediated response to music.  Unmediated not just by the Music Media, but by the distorting prism of one's own self-reflexivity and self-consciousness.

This becomes even more clear when Nick reflects on his career in music reviewing (which started in 2002) and how that rapidly led to disenchantment.

"In hindsight, I underestimated how much the simple act of writing about music would rewire my brain and alter my relationship with it. I listened differently than before. The euphemism was “I was listening smartly.” But all that meant was I listened for good sentences. I read music like a text, but wasn’t exactly hearing it anymore. Deliberately misunderstanding something often made the writing better, and I did that a lot too. I abstracted music into ideas about music. Slowly the latter became more important to me than the music itself. I also became an incorrigible asshole, but that’s for a different piece. I never hated music, and I only loved writing about it. But I came to resent how I was listening."

I can't really remember a time when I didn't "listen for good sentences". Perhaps as a child listening to pop on the radio or my parents's classical records like Holst's The Planets or Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. But certainly long before I started writing professionally I was writing about it in my head, through being such an avid reader of the music press. And I do doubt that this "pure state" of response to music, even if it once existed, can be recovered. Sooner or later, some kind of rudimentary ideas about What Music Is, What Music Is For, "good music versus bad music" enters into one's consciousness and intervenes between one's ears and the sound-waves.  You acquire some sort of system of judgement and an apparatus for placing things.  And the only way to turn that mechanism off, once it's lodged in there, is through extreme states of intoxication. 

Certainly even in my most casual, leisure-time, non-reflective states of musical enjoyment, sentences - good, bad, or indifferent - seem to  form themselves whether I want them to or not, regardless of whether I'm trying to form them. And they don't interfere with my pleasure, they are inseparable from it. A lot of the content of these blogs (well, mainly Hardly Baked) since we moved to LA comes from sentences sparked by songs, old and new, heard randomly and without purpose or agenda on the car radio. I don't experience this stream of involuntary thoughts and partially-formed language as a deformation of response;  it feels much more like an enhancement.

Sylvester's issues with self-consciousness got worse when he started making music, playing in a band that started to get somewhere.

".... I felt anxious pretty much all the time. Everything seemed to matter, down to the shoes we wore on stage. I became intimately aware of all the ugly industry machinations.... If music had once been a writing exercise, now it was a hunger game, with strategies that changed by the hour and a never-ending supply of supposedly make-or-break moments that might–might–one day land us a mid-afternoon slot at some gobots music festival. The entire setup of the music industry-- from the gross amount of power publicists had, to the convenient myth that musicians need to tour tour tour, next level next level next level-- seemed to benefit everyone except the people making the music. I only saw the wires now. I felt myself becoming cynical."

He posits making music for cassette release and listening to music on tapes as an escape from ideology into immediacy, freeing music from both ambition and the ever-more entangled web of discourse.

"Cassettes are my detox. A way for me to sidestep everything about music that isn’t music. To get back to the very basic propositions of why I make and listen to music in the first place."

The very inconsequentiality of limited edition cassette releases is liberating:

"I tell my friends I’ll record their music and we’ll put it out on cassette, and it changes the entire energy of the session. There’s less pressure. It’s less of an event than a vinyl release. It’s “just” a cassette... There’s a feeling of impunity. It’s not going to cost anyone too much money. Everybody goes for broke."

This all sounds quite, well, ideological, to me. The acts of listening to music and making music framed in very particular ways. And this becomes fairly blatant by the end:

"... I like to think that people who adore cassettes are at least partly like me: Enormous fans of new music, overwhelmed by the speed and context and game of it all. People who want a community, not a social network. People who want the music, not the meaning. Cassette people, I like to think, want romance and fantasy. A person in a room, making music, putting it in cassette-shaped bottles for no other reason than these cassette-shaped bottles tend to find the people who need their music the most. Total romance and fantasy, all of this, I admit it. But music could use more of both."

Nick doesn't really want music in some putative state of purity, stripped off all the extraneous meanings and projections. (If you did want that, you could find perhaps most easily with the mp3s and streams and so forth of digitized net-circulated music, where sounds can be totally decontextualised and virtually authorless).  Nick actually wants music enwrapped in "romance and fantasy." The supplement of discourse, far from being superfluous and damaging, is actually a vital enchancement. Theory as the spice of pop life.

And the long, interesting, interestingly self-contradictory piece he's written is the proof of that. Because music has moved him to form sentences. A whole bunch of sentences.