19 Jan 2017

10 Records of 2016: Deerhoof's The Magic

I saw Deerhoof perform back in November and, while their new album didn’t feature too prominently on their setlist, its title—The Magic—struck me as a particularly appropriate designation for their show. I don’t mean this in any banal acclamatory sense—that it was a ‘magical evening’, or that their playing was ‘magical’, etc. It wasn't just that the performance produced the kind of astonishing effortless joy that we would might describe as ‘magic’ (although it was a phenomenal show). It's more that, for me, the band seemed to evoke the aesthetics, the mechanics and the performative vocabulary of stage magic as a genre: the world of illusionists, conjurors, escapologists and hypnotists, frilly sleeves and blow-dried hair, dry ice and lasers, big-budget live magic in all its cheesiness.

There are three precise ways in which Deerhoof’s live show reminded me of stage magic. Firstly, Deerhoof gigs are now dance gigs: their grooves, especially from the most recent four albums or so, are totally irresistible. Treguna mekoides trecorum satis dee: their music gives life to inanimate bodies. Yet rather than furnishing a venue with interlocking flows and thermodynamic currents of rhythm and counter-rhythm to ride, in the manner of most dance music, Deerhoof’s music takes possession of individual limbs and pulls them in different directions. Theirs is a malevolent school of enchantment, with a mischievous streak, recalling the clichéd ‘voodoo puppeteer’ in children's cartoons, or the twinkle-eyed hypnotist who has audience members clucking like chickens. While a lot of dance music invites you to move with the music, or even grants you extraordinary powers of super-strength, lightning speed or flight, Deerhoof’s music takes hold of you and forcibly moves you around. It is trippy, not just because it takes you on a physical trip, but because it will leave you tripping over your own feet.

Secondly, their live performance exudes a theatrics of magic spectacle. In Deerhoof shows, noise becomes a barely containable force to be conjured up, compelled into musical obedience, and then let loose onto the audience. Although their songs evoke a phantasmagoria of musical styles, clichés and references, in their live shows these are always at risks of breaking down into generalised chaos. The band’s frequent time and tempo changes, abrupt shifts between songs, and twin guitar parts that career in and out of synchronicity lend a feeling of palpable danger to the live show, with the four musicians forming a magic circle around the demonic noise of their creation, wielding their instruments like wands in an attempt to bend it to their collective will.

15 Jan 2017

10 Records of 2016: ANOHNI's Hopelessness

Long-term readers of this blog will know that there is no artist whose work I return to more obsessively than Anohni. As such, she’s the artist who forces me to break my own rules most flagrantly, when it comes to discussing consecutive albums in terms of a ‘career arc’: that ubiquitous one-size-fits-all narrative that I’d usually consider a reductive, insightless crutch.

Anohni’s work—with Antony & the Johnsons and now as a solo artist—has always had a strong conceptual identity and purpose, as suggested by her strident interview statements and her proximity to the art world. For me, the explicit positioning of Hopelessness as a ‘political’ record—a collection of ‘protest songs’—has only clarified the political potential inherent throughout Anohni’s previous work. Indeed, I hear Hopelessness as an album about Anohni as activist: revisiting the political potential of her work as it has evolved across ten years, weighing this potential against the demands of a catastrophic present, and using it to articulate a rich and radical theory of politicised hopelessness.

At every stage, the crucial element has been Anohni’s physical presence (as voice) within the worlds of her songs. As an unmistakable, entirely singular vocal presence, Anohni can never appear on her tracks as ‘this-or-that type of voice’—she can never simply ‘fit’ into a genre or style, and therefore always retains her queerness within the space and time of the song—but this also means that her music is perfect for thinking about voices-as-such. On Hopelessness, Anohni’s voice appears and acts on each track in a different way, performing a variety of different ‘protest’ tactics, while simultaneously speaking to the value and limits of certain forms of queer/gendered knowledge, in relation to broader political imaginaries.

3 Jan 2017

The Night Mail's 2016 Dispatch

I wanted to give a short update on my activities over the last year. While this blog has lain pretty much dormant since last January, I have still had a fairly busy year with regard to music writing and I've begun a couple of projects that I hope will make their way onto this site within the next few months.

1. Live music as theatre/ritual

My main project this year has been developing a theory of music theatre that incorporates all live music performance. The impetus for this came from a short catalogue essay I wrote for a showcase of British music theatre companies at the Music Theatre Now meeting in Rotterdam. Having been challenged to characterise a national 'scene' on the basis of a diverse group of artists and companies (working with rock, pop and electronic music, as well as classical vocal and experimental styles), I attempted an inclusive definition of 'music' and 'theatre' that would allow me to think about the differences between musical performance genres and the meanings that they variously assign to the music therein. It is also a   reaction against another attempt at such a definition that I encountered this year: in Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi's book The New Music Theater. The text was greatly aided by my fortuitous reading of Richard Schechner's performance theory, and infused with my palpable relief at finally having finished  Alain Badiou's Being and Event.

The resulting essays, which I have published on my other blog the biting point, could constitute the very first elements of a far bigger project. They are primarily designed to provide a flexible framework for talking about any kind of musical performance, from a very particular perspective: one that I consider under-theorised. Like most of my academic work, it proposes a theoretical frame designed to aid the discussion of specific musical phenomena that nevertheless doesn't rely on traditional musical analysis or a musicological background (which, for me, has always been incapable of really engaging with the things I love most about the music that I love most).

I initially split my music writing between these two blogs according to genre ('popular' and 'classical'), but the music theatre essays have as much to say about pop music as they do about classical music and opera. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the more significant divide between the two blogs is based on recorded music (this site) vs live music (the other site)—although this too is far from strict. At any rate, the music-as-theatre theory is designed to serve as a complement to the theory of recorded music that is still being developed on this blog.

Here are links to the essays:
  1. Staking a Claim: Music Theatre as Provocation (Catalogue Essay)
  2. Surveying New Music Theatre in the UK
  3. What is Music Theatre?
  4. What is Music Theatre Actually? (A Theory of Musical Performance)
  5. Logics of Musical Worlds (A Theory of Musical Genre)
2. Music and (Queer) Failure

I've spent this year engaging with some of the canonical texts of contemporary queer theory (Halberstam, Edelman, Muñoz), which has proven a revelatory experience for me on a personal level. In addition though, these texts have suggested a number of fruitful ways to think through my own musical tastes, and various 'gay' or 'alternative' aesthetics in music more generally. The discussions of failure and utopia in these texts supports and enriches my existing interest in performative negativity (fragility, humiliation, masochism, failure) in relation to some of my favourite queer artists (e.g., Xiu Xiu, ANOHNI/Antony & the Johnsons), while clarifying certain questions about how we might conceive of a 'successful' musical act or identity, within genred fictions as well as in musical discourse and systems of judgement.

I'm excited to begin developing a theory of primarily gay male music in relation to queer failure, that would allow me to talk about most of my favourite artists and think through my massive predilection towards a certain tradition of gay pop. I also think that this approach allows an examination of a specifically musical queer aesthetic among gay performers who are less easy to discuss in relation to their appearance onstage, their subversive gestures/iconography and their music video aesthetics (the non-sonic dimensions usually privileged by performance/cultural theorists).

Moreover, I think an investigation of the song act in terms of the possibility of success/failure—and therefore also a notion of the 'ideal' or 'utopian' conditions of musical action—can be used to characterise a particular sonic aspect to the 'alternativeness' of alternative music, in relation to the hegemonic rules/laws/desires of genre.

So, perhaps more of this in the months/years to come…

3. Ten Albums of 2016

I still periodically feel the desire to turn this blog back into a normal, up-to-date music blog that discusses and reviews music as it is released, not many months later, and features short posts rather than huge essays. And then I think: who am I kidding? It's not so much that I find it hard to write short articles to short deadlines; it's more that I think there's far far too much of that around. The more I read music reviews, the more I balk at the banal and often destructive narratives that they rely on in order to make their takes seem substantial. In a way, it's fascinating: more so than any other mainstream art critical discourse, music reviewing borrows from and reproduces raw ideology. I know I obsess about it (and one publication especially), but I think it's a critique that is rarely made and one that I'd also like to develop over the next few years.

[To take one example, Pitchfork's supposedly whimsical but actually exasperating 'Thank You Note to Everyone Who Didn't Release an Album in 2016' post… because the most important thing for Pitchfork is absolute control over the master narrative of 'our musical moment' (a master narrative whose apparent dramatis personae are handily listed in the article). It is this master narrative, or musical history in the making ('it was a good year for music', etc.), that is the primary product of Pitchfork as an enterprise. It is a narrative whose figures are mythic giants like Rihanna and Beyoncé, and James Blake and Arcade Fire, but whose meanings and import is dictated by the Pitchfork writers as witnesses. It is these faceless writers and not the famous protagonists who have the story to tell—always the same story, the story of Western art, the story of the creative individual, the story of romantic love, the story of the human story, the story of telling one's own story, the story of here-we-are-now-in-the-present-being-human-story-universal-story-of-everyone-has-days-when-they-feel-like-this story. And the real purpose of this story is to deflect the guilt these people rightly feel because their job effectively entails legislating on which creative expressions/human labours/personal testimonies are incrementally 'better' or 'worse' than the others. Because we can't do musical tribalism anymore: we can't write zines saying all disco is terrible or all rap is bollocks, and we can't just say 'I hate the way this sounds, I think it's shit'. And yet we still have to review and quantify and rank, as if we don't all believe in the relativism of all value systems and the arbitrariness of personal taste and the impossibility of objective judgement, etc etc. And so, we end up writing an open letter that may as well be addressed 'from all music fans', thanking the music industry in general for not making more music, because the stuff we got was so important and historic… (To quote the actual letter, the year was 'cluttered', because 'a staggering amount of huge artists released major albums'). I hope that, in 2017, all those artists release an album a month so that  the Pitchfork writers are so inundated that they can't possibly wring it into another boring 'This was the year in music' narrative without very obviously picking and choosing, and thus drawing attention to their construction of certain market-determined categories that need to be attacked ('huge artists', 'major albums'), and undermining their whole 'musical creativity = universal-liberal-humanism' schtick which pretty much prevents them from saying anything interesting about any music!!!]

Anyway, I'm happy with my own slow and deeply partial approach to music criticism, finding something to say about the music that seems most meaningful to me, to introduce these meanings (that I consider valuable) into the reader's subsequent experience of that music. On this basis, there are a number of albums from this year that seem to me to be bursting with valuable (and beautiful) meanings, and which I subsequently wanted to review. Still, I didn't manage to write any album reviews last year, so instead I want to repeat what I did last year and write ten reviews over the next month or so, for…

my ten favourite albums of 2016, unranked:::

1. ANOHNI —  Hopelessness

2. Deerhoof — The Magic
3. … 
[I will list the reviews here as soon as they are published. I hope to post them all before the end of Feb 2017! Watch this space…]


Thanks to everyone who read and shared articles from 2016—and all the best for a hopeful New Year…

31 Jan 2016

Impossible Girl: Jamie Stewart as Laura Palmer

N.B. This post doesn't contain major spoilers for Twin Peaks or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. However, it may not make much sense if you haven’t seen them. Content warning: sexual abuse/rape/abortion


There’s always music in the air. But what is this music? You put a quarter in the jukebox at the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks and out gushes Angelo Badalamenti’s caustic R&B (‘I’ll see you in my dreams’—Bobby Briggs). Or his fishtank jazz, a murky suspension of vibes and itchy snares (‘Isn’t it too dreamy?’—Audrey Horne). The machine seems to be loaded with dream music.
            You stop in at the Roadhouse for a beer with the truckers and the bikers, and you’re serenaded by the vapourous vocals of Julee Cruise. No swaggering rockabilly or country music here; only reverb-drenched ballads that drift at the speed of clouds. Such is Cruise’s apparent stature as a local artist in Twin Peaks that we hear her records playing even in isolated log cabins far out in the neighbouring forest.
            Badalamenti and Lynch’s iconic soundtrack penetrates deep into the lives of the residents of Twin Peaks. Cruise’s is the Voice from Another Place that lulls the town into its deep, deep sleep.

*


Live music is completely different to recorded music. It is essentially an entirely different art form, and to conflate the two—or to force the two into a relationship, and make that relationship the object of evaluation—is to ignore the particularity of each. Few artists demonstrate this fact as clearly as Xiu Xiu.
            The singing of words can constitute the performance of utterance itself: sudden, spontaneous speech acts, like the explosive ‘Good God!’ with which Jamie Stewart bursts onto the first track on his band’s first album, Knife Play. But the singing of words can also constitute a re-singing: the singing of a song already sung, reading from a script, following instructions or a series of ritual actions. We hear the original song, we hear its re-performance, and we hear the gap between the two.
            When Xiu Xiu play live, Jamie Stewart performs the effort in singing someone else’s song. This is the case even when he is performing his own songs: the impossibility of reproducing those original solitary outbursts (nocturnal rants in bathroom mirrors, gnashing voicemails sent to dead numbers) in front of a crowd of spectators, demanding that same contouring of suffering, the same poised play of sweetness and excrement.
            Most of all though, we hear the effort in singing borrowed lines, stolen identities. Stewart’s intense vocal style is often most pronounced on his recorded covers (the Tu Mi Piaci EP, ‘Fast Car’ on A Promise, and especially the recent Nina and Unclouded Sky). Onstage, that strain in his voice appears also in his face and body as he forces each phrase from his throat, gargling vowels and squeezing out loose globs of faltering pitch, eyes white and flickering, neck craned, drenched in sweat. The labour required for each utterance is immense; even then, his vocals hang awkwardly in the air, sounding unnatural, wrong.
            To presume to sing someone else’s song, to embody someone else’s vocal self. Drunken karaoke without a backing track, whispered under one’s breath in the street, on the bus. To be insufficient and unworthy of these notes, these words, this beauty. And for these notes to be, in themselves, similarly insufficient and empty.

12 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete

Few prospects are more exciting to me than a new Oneohtrix album. For an artist whose medium is so broad — collages of collages of diverse electronic and experimental textures, undisciplined by the demands of beat and pulse — it is always astonishing how distinct and distinctive each new album turns out to be. Garden of Delete is even more mercurial than its predecessors. My experience of listening to it is akin to riding the most expertly engineered ghost train in existence; you’re swung round corners and dropped down chutes, glimpsing flashes of forms and faces, before emerging into a chamber of blinding strobe lights. And yet, like that great ghost train of a movie, Inland Empire, each twist and turn is also an expert feat of psychological engineering, systematically demolishing your sense of orientation, leaving you raw and exposed to the album’s horrors and its beauty.

Garden of Delete is also a perfect title, since this is an album on which the principal voice is always in the process of being deleted. What I love about Oneohtrix is that he remains interested in the song form, even though most of his voices have already disappeared, disintegrated or dissolved. In much of his work, the voices are still felt: present in their absence, never far away. They appear fossilised in samples, they are glimpsed in billowing stacks of synth vocal pads, they glitch through the cracks of his compositions as clipped vowels or consonant clicks. In many cases, we can sense the recentness of their disappearance, as if entering an empty room that was only just vacated. Perhaps it’s in the reverberations of a conversation that still ring off the walls, or the impression of a body, a handprint on a window, a shadow that refuses to dissipate. Hence, while the voice at the centre of the song — its ‘subject’, like the subject of a photograph — has disappeared, the logic of the track remains song-like. The material, for the most part, cannot develop on its own in the manner of a beat-driven track or a classical composition; it remains attached to the absent voice at its absent centre, and thus collapses or fragments. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’, etc.

11 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Joanna Newsom's Divers

Of all the artists to emerge in the mid ’00s, under the vague ‘indie folk’ umbrella, Joanna Newsom’s music has remained the most consistently interested in actual (Anglo-American) folk traditions. This is not merely a result of lyrics that pastiche traditional verse styles, or her dogged preference for acoustic instruments; it is more to do with a modality of the musico-poetic voice, which distinguishes Newsom from the parallel ‘singer-songwriter’/‘acoustic’ tradition that emerged from the ‘rockification’ of the ’60s folk revival.

At the same time though, Divers follows 2010’s Have One On Me in its exploration of the grey areas surrounding this far-from-perfect distinction. While Ys (2006) cast Newsom as epic poet, whose 16-minute sagas swept up a hearthside shadowplay of supple strings, the later two albums mix different verse forms, different voices, different types of storytelling. Nestled at the centre of Divers are two simple folk songs, the traditional ‘Same Old Man’ and the original ‘The Things I Say’, which nevertheless perfectly captures the off-kilter simplicity of a good folk tune. The inclusion of these strophic numbers (a single tune, functioning as a placeholder for successive lyrical stanzas) grounds Newsom’s vocals in this folk modality; these songs are voice-led, but vocal ‘expression’ is nevertheless subordinated to narrative flow. Songs like these decentre and universalise the singing ‘I’; the folk tune is a ‘commons’, free for all to occupy and use.

10 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Micachu & The Shapes' Good Sad Happy Bad

The best gig I went to last year was Micachu & The Shapes at The Windmill, Brixton. They’re always fantastic to see live, but this was new territory: a set of frayed and fried punk-rock miniatures, each suggesting an elegant three-chord economy (if those three chords were chosen at random). The onstage dynamic was captivating: Mica Levi stumbling from song to song as if in a trance, Marc Pell constantly on her tail, while each new number was crowned with a riff of sonic flotsam and jetsam from Raisa Khan’s sampler. My memory of the music at this gig in no way fits with the music on their subsequent release: Good Sad Happy Bad. However, the feeling of dissociation from that night — between the garage rock noise and the weird sampler jingles, between Micachu’s murmured vocals and the thronging, ecstatic crowd — is intensified.

Good Sad Happy Bad is certainly the most underrated album of the year; every track is its own disorientating little enigma, and it took me many listens to begin to get my bearings. In terms of the relationship between voice, melody and the song, the album is utterly fascinating. The Shapes reprise some of the experiments of the first few waves of post-punk artists, in terms of deconstructing the song form: playing with the moment when speech or vocal sound becomes singing, and when background noise becomes accompaniment; seeing how far sonic elements can be separated from each other and still remain in a musical relationship. When does the song become a song? How does language become lyric? Can the voice just will it into being?

The album feels ‘improvisatory’, but in a very specific way. Listening through the tracks, I get the impression of Micachu’s vocal as a kind of lab rat, being introduced into a sequence of experimental apparatuses, each in its own locked chamber with one-way mirrors. With each new track, she finds herself in an unknown and artificial environment — a mobile environment, with floors and walls that won’t keep still, platforms and surfaces shifting with machine-like indifference — and she has to find her footing, stay upright, improvise some way of avoiding being crushed or drowned. Like so much of the band’s music, each track feels like a little DIY harmony machine: wheezing and whirring, powered by motors from old toys and held together with stretching and buckling guitar strings. Unlike their previous records, however, on Good Sad Happy Bad there’s no remote control. Instead, the vocal has to navigate its way through this sequence of artificial environments like a character in a platform game, dropped into a new level with unfamiliar physics or controls and expected to make it through intact.