Sunday, September 30, 2012

flying lotus: until the quiet comes (warp)

Listen again to the opening seconds of Cosmogramma. Now do the same with “All In,” the opening track of Until the Quiet Comes, Steven Ellison’s fourth record now as Flying Lotus. Everything you need to know about the difference between these two records is contained there, each album’s essence potently distilled. If you like what you hear in the latter case, well then good for you. But if you don’t mind, I’m going to reserve my right to be seriously disappointed.

Because Until the Quiet Comes is the negation of everything that made Cosmogramma great. It is relentlessly beige. It is “mature.” It is a chai latte. It is loungetronica. It is David Sanborn. It is Nora Jones. It is über proficient. It is no longer the sound of the future. In its obstinate blandness, it is a surprisingly arduous listen even though it only lasts 45 minutes. It is coming straight from Warp to a cocktail bar near you and, soon after that, a Starbucks. It is the sound of an artist in retreat from the shadow of his own success.

What’s more, Ellison knows all of this. Because that was exactly his intention. Here he is in an interview with Britt Brown in the most recent issue of The Wire: “I like the idea of pulling back,” he says. “I made this really grandiose kind of statement, now I wanted to make this quiet statement, trim all the fat and just get a small, tight story out of it, instead of trying to tell the story of the birth of the universe.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

internet club: vanishing vision (hexagon)

Here’s what we know. Vaporwave is a form of appropriation art. Its major exponents — INTERNET CLUB, New Dreams Ltd., Computer Dreams, Lasership Stereo,VΞRACOM — all tend to work with glossy corporate mood music, dredged from the nether regions of the internet, which they then reframe (sometimes obviously looped, pitched, and screwed; sometimes not) in an intriguingly ambivalent gesture between endorsement and critique. Sometimes the effect is genuinely sublime. Often it remains vacant and grotesque. But in either case, the act of repetition and recontextualization produces an ontological shift: what started off sounding a hell of a lot like muzak turns out to be about it instead. The banal is imbued with a kind of ironic distance, and it is this distance that gives vaporwave its peculiar critical function: its “aboutness.”

That’s step one. In step two, vaporwave isn’t just “about” muzak or the acoustic experience of capital. It doesn’t just stage a moment of either approval or condemnation. In step two, what vaporwave is “about” is precisely the impossibility of the critical task itself. What it stages is the profound ambiguity of the music it takes as its source material: that moment when you catch yourself humming along to a pan-pipe cover of Billie Jean as you wait to be connected to the call center, and, to your horror, you notice your own pleasure. In one of the first pieces to attempt to theorize the genre, Adam Harper wondered whether vaporwave involved “a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” His answer: “Both and neither.” Undecidable.

In this respect, vaporwave is doing nothing more than dramatizing a logic that we have already seen play out in reverse. It is the product of a culture, in other words, in which the music/muzak distinction has already collapsed. It was as long ago as 1984 that the Muzak corporation first started using original artists’ material to lubricate the exchange of capital. Since then, it hasn’t looked back. Today, it offers “multi-sensory branding solutions” for everything from retail outlets to restaurants, healthcare, and finance. Muzak’s website trumpets the fact that the corporation experienced “unprecedented growth in the first decade of the new millennium.” From a catalogue of nearly three million songs, “more than 100 million people hear Muzak programs each day.” The “indie electronic” playlist, for instance, offers a diverse daily diet of “electronic-based music drawing from house, techno, IDM, indie pop, downtempo and other styles from the club and lounge scene.” “Artists include: Fever Ray, Cut Copy, Junior Boys, Matthew Dear.” The Pop Underground hasn’t been underground for a long time now. Today, it’s simply the soundtrack to a different kind of shopping experience.

One way of thinking about vaporwave then is as a response to the death of canned music: an act of mourning as much as celebration, and a dramatic demonstration of the fact that the music/muzak distinction has always been unstable at a time when it’s less stable than ever before.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

YYU: TIMETIMETIME&TIME (beer on the rug)

Beer on the Rug is one of the most interesting labels to have emerged in the last year or so. Early releases from the likes of World Series, The Arcade Junkies, Midnight Television, and (a little later) Boy Snacks were all in that Ariel Pink, James Ferraro circa Night Dolls With Hairspray region of ultra lo-fi hypnagogia. But the next wave of output, beginning with Laserdisc Visions’ New Dreams Ltd. in July 2011 and continuing on with albums from Napolian and Computer Dreams, Macintosh Plus, and, most recently, 情報デスクVIRTUAL took the label into different territory entirely. All of a sudden, there was less emphasis on grime and far more on gloss.

Where hypnagogic pop was concerned with hazy and degraded re-productions of and odes to vintage pop, this new breed of artists — while still looking to the past for their raw material — seemed to be far more interested in re-using and re-purposing: re-branding, to use an appropriately corporate term, the sonic lubricant of commerce for the purposes of the musical underground. An act of appropriation and recontextualization. Sometimes the raw material is looped, restructured, pitch- and/or tempo-shifted. But sometimes it can be virtually impossible to detect the presence of the artist at all. And the effect is an intriguingly ambivalent gesture somewhere between valorization and critique.

The term being bandied around for this stuff is vaporwave. It’s by no means limited to Beer on the Rug, but the label is certainly a major hub for it. It’s these artists, most of all, who have brought the label attention. And as a result, I really wasn’t expecting their latest release, TIMETIMETIME&TIME by Californian artist Ben Straus a.k.a. YYU to sound like this.

various artists: new weird australia / fallopian tunes: gloss & moss (nwa)

Ours is a curator culture. That’s pretty clear by this point. Everyone’s doing it: not just galleries, festivals, labels, and websites like this one but, most of all, you, your sis, and the guy/gal behind this little doozy: on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Spotify, Pinterest, and all their myriad siblings and offshoots. Confronted by the information ocean, taste is the hottest commodity around. Presumably that’s why the activity of curation is increasingly being outsourced to mathematics too? Algorithms mean $$, people! YouTube and Amazon are the paradigms here. It’s all about getting ‘relevant content’ into that sidebar. Hells yeah I like catz! And I think I’ll have that new Sound Studies Reader while I’m at it.

Not everyone’s comfortable about such developments, of course. This recent piece on Pinterest and the curatorial manufacture of desire (I’m paraphrasing!) includes the following little screed from Choire Sicha, co-editor of The Awl: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot,” he writes, “I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in a practice of curation. Call it what you like: aggregating? Blogging? Choosing? Copyright infringing sometimes? But it’s not actually curation, or anything like it…” Ironic really, given The Awl’s own mission statement: “We believe that there is a great big Internet out there on which we all live, and that too often the curios and oddities of that Internet are ignored in favor of the most obvious and easy stories. We believe that there is an audience of intelligent readers who are poorly served by being delivered those same stories in numbing repetition to the detriment of their reading diet.”

Sicha can put the curator on a pedestal all he likes, enforcing this supposed distinction between “actual curators, of like, actual art and whatnot” and the rest, but the fact remains: The difference between such activities will always be one of degree rather than type. Etymologically, the word ‘curator’ derives from the Latin curare, meaning to ‘oversee’ or ‘care for.’ Curation is fundamentally an act of gathering, on the one hand, and of love, on the other — whatever the scale, whatever the format.
But curation is always also creation. It’s just that what’s being created here isn’t ‘content’ so much as connections. Connections matter. A compilation like this one, for instance — jointly curated by Matthew Spisbah of Melbourne label and collective Fallopian Tunes as well as the band Yolke, and Stuart Buchanan, one of the founding members of Sydney’s independent radio-station FBi 94.5 and now of the increasingly formidable New Weird Australia — is the product of a whole series of prior curatorial and connective acts...