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.

9 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Grimes's Art Angels

There’s a scene that’s common to horror movies of the supernatural variety. A protagonist arrives at a strange location, perhaps lured by weird sounds or local rumours, or the readings from some scientific device. Venturing towards the source of the disturbance, through an abandoned building, forest or cavern, they suddenly arrive at a captivating scene. Perhaps there are glowing coloured lights or webs of pink ectoplasm. Perhaps there are arcs of books and candlesticks suspended in the air. Perhaps there’s a silent audience of a thousand woodland creatures, similarly captivated. And at the centre of all this, there’s a ghostly figure or figures — perhaps a woman or a group of children — in glowing pale attire.

The protagonist, along with the camera, watches the figures in their self-absorbed state. Perhaps they are weeping or singing or playing. Perhaps they are repeating some tender scene, over and over. Perhaps they are drifting, lost in thought, murmuring some half-forgotten phrase. The protagonist is mesmerised by the beauty and sadness of the scene, and cannot help but approach the figure. Suddenly, their head whips round and their eyes lock onto the camera — big and black and empty — lips stretching into a snarl, raised hands revealing claws. The idyllic vision curdles and collapses around the protagonist as they turn and run, the ghostly figure giving chase. It is then as if the whole landscape is trying to prevent their escape: books flying off shelves, gnarled roots grasping at ankles, clouds of bats billowing from possible exits. And the ghostly figure is suddenly everywhere, reappearing at every turn, constantly both behind and in front of the fleeing protagonist; the brambles are her fingers and the moon is her eye. And from that moment on, the ghost is no longer consigned to a gothic set piece, but can appear anywhere: under the bed, on the telephone, in the mirror of the school toilets, on a television screen, in dreams.

For me, this pivotal moment captures the shift between Grimes’s previous album Visions and Art Angels. As someone who writes a lot about voice, I can’t write about Claire Boucher’s music without focusing on her unique vocals, the way they are produced and positioned within the tracks. On Visions, the vocals dwelt within the extraordinary alien environments of the tracks without disturbing them. Wrapped in reverb and set far back behind the solid bass stalagmites and fleshy outgrowths of synth, we’d glimpse the ghostly Grimes skipping in circles with a sisterhood of dopplegangers, reclining by a moon lake, talking to trees or humming sweet hexes. The voices were indistinct and the melodies tripped in closed roundelays or meshed in airy canons. The spine-tingling terror of ‘Oblivion’, with its ‘See you on a dark night’ refrain, came from the feeling that the distant vocal was being overheard: a voice carried on the wind, bearing dark threats in its childlike chant.

8 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Carly Rae Jepsen's E·MO·TION

A few months ago, I wrote an angry post about how the album review as a literary genre is incapable of talking about pop albums, and how this was reflected in the reception of Carly Rae Jepsen’s E·MO·TION. In compensating for the lack of a single authorial genius to whom all the tracks can be linked, the critic instead demands a larger-than-life diva whose iconic personality is imprinted on every track, making each album a new chapter in a career of mythic proportions. Jepsen was criticised by a few reviewers for failing to provide such a coherent personality. At the time, I critiqued this criticism while acknowledging that the reviewers were simultaneously positioning Jepsen’s very ‘lack of personality’ as a persona in itself: an Everygirl, relatable if a little ‘boring’.

I now believe that this very lack of a single iconic persona is actually fundamental to the success of this particular album. E·MO·TION is a genuine all-killer-no-filler pop record; every song constitutes its own complete little drama. The album is bursting with those tiny moments that are the reason I love pop songs so much: the bridge, chorus or coda that pushes a song from being a statement or slogan to being an event. Artists of a more iconic stature than Jepsen are able to put out whole songs as gestures. These gestures are made meaningful through the combination of the song-as-sign and the artist’s current iconography or mythology as context. Hence, someone like Rihanna or Madonna can include a song of this-or-that style on her album as a statement-in-itself, just like pastiching a certain aesthetic in a video or stage performance. Even Robyn, who similarly lacks the media presence of certain other pop divas, adopts this approach more than Jepsen. Possibly the closest thing to a stylistic ‘costume’ on E·MO·TION is the unmistakably Hynesian ‘All That’, but the breathtaking re-entry of the bass in the final chorus (with its new stepwise motif) easily prevents this track from functioning as an interchangeable genre cipher.

7 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: easyFun's Deep Trouble EP

Given the amount I’ve been listening to the PC Music label this year, I thought I might have to include their Volume 1 compilation in this list, even though I’ve only listened to it through once. There are plenty of incredible tracks on there; however, their inclusion together on a single release invites a particularly annoying response that is common in the label’s critical reception, whereby every release is lumped together in terms of a single ‘project’, which we are invited either to approve of or disapprove of. Happily, the label released another record this year — easyFun’s Deep Trouble EP — which exemplifies a lot of what I love most about this music, which often gets left out of the debate.

But first: another short kvetch about music criticism

I think about half of what is written on PC Music is bullshit, and this bullshit is largely responsible for the pretty superficial way in which the music has been received. The entire label is reduced to a provocation, or a single conceptual statement standing in for an identifiable set of post-internet phenomena (this is compounded by the label’s iconography, including the image of black-lit cables on the compilation cover), and as a result, the huge diversity exhibited among the associated artists (or ‘avatars’) risks going unremarked.

This appearance of aesthetic unity has clearly been a goal of the label, given the way it presents itself. My favourite PC Music-related releases have actually been A. G. Cook’s various mixes (in particular, the ‘Radio Tank Mix’ for Tank Magazine), which reproduce the bewildering experience of his DJ sets. Like all mixes, these releases not only showcase influences and exhibit taste; they function as long-form theatricalisations of some of the label’s more oblique, object-like singles. This approach goes further than curation; as on a dance floor, the tracks are melted down and remade within a new context. This allows the artist to foreground certain elements of the tracks — unravelling the mess of influences, from European sentimentalism and kitsch, to East Asian alter-humanism and Black avant-gardism — that disappear behind the more overt cultural references and satire. Placed within a certain sequence of samples, remixes, covers and other detritus, these tight little bundles of contradictory elements begin to resemble one thing or another. Their irony or ambivalence is replaced by a kind of commitment. Most importantly, the mix creates a contextual frame for the vocal experimentation that can otherwise seem like a gimmick. For me, as with The Scene Between (see previous post), the success of these mixes relies on our refusal to hear the result as the smart-alecky posturing of a single hipster producer (or his private empire of signs) and instead allow the music to comment on, deconstruct and critique itself. Presumably this was easier before the day of superstar DJs, auteur producers and Boiler Room sets, but I’m sure it is still possible.

6 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: The Go! Team's The Scene Between

For all my attempts to expand my musical horizons over the last few years, my spirit genre remains indiepop. Perhaps it will always be thus; I feel a weird affinity for a certain set of sounds — or perhaps its more a relationship between sounds — that can still seduce me wherever they arise. The Go! Team had already explored this territory as part of the more multi-faceted retro fantasia of their previous albums (Rolling Blackouts’ ‘Buy Nothing Day’ and ‘Secretary Song’ are obvious precedents) but on The Scene Between, they’ve gone full twee. For me, the result is nine achingly poignant time capsules from my fantasy adolescence (a parallel universe that can be loosely dated around 10 years before my actual adolescence; it opened up around the time I first saw Donnie Darko in 2002, and collapsed in on itself around the time I saw the Pixies play Reading in 2005).

The Scene Between is a panorama of perfect structures. While the vocalist, instrumental forces and stylistic touchstones vary from track to track, the ubiquitous wall-of-sound production makes each self-contained construction seem to stretch away towards a single horizon. I’ve previously described the Go! Team’s distinct production style as a kind of mediating device — the equivalent of radio crackle or the frame of a television screen — which presents all of their channel-hopping transmissions as emanating from the same fantasy source. However, the application of this device on The Scene Between feels less knowing; rather than just acting as the glitter glue in a retro scrapbook, its primary role is in removing some of the personality from the individual songs, and helping them to appear outside of history and authorship.

5 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Beach House's Depression Cherry

Beach House remain the most inscrutable of bands: their music uncannily perfect but very difficult to write about. Nevertheless, listening to Depression Cherry as I rewatched Twin Peaks among the lonesome smokestacks and Grimm woodland kitsch of post-industrial Saxony (and after seeing Xiu Xiu perform their version of the soundtrack in Leipzig), I was affirmed in my belief that Beach House are one of the most properly ‘Lynchian’ of bands. It isn’t just that the talismanic title hook of the suggestively titled ‘Beyond Love’ is the distillation of every Julee Cruise performance in the TV show, nor that this moment always takes me back to the band’s quotation (back on Teen Dream) of the ‘Giant’ who appears in the middle of Cruise’s most pivotal cameo in the second season (probably the climactic moment of the whole series): ‘It is happening again. It is happening again.’

In pursuing the ‘Lynchian’ aspects of Beach House, I couldn’t help but return to the old cliché of ‘dream pop’, which I actually think is as good a route as any into Depression Cherry. We might ask what the term ‘dream pop’ actually means? Is it something to do with the indistinctness — the ‘soft focus’ — of the various elements (an imperfect visual analogy), or rather with the obtuseness of the lyrics? Does it concern a lullaby-like gentleness, mixed with some sort of surrealist dimension? As with the 4AD-style ’80s aesthetic that Beach House renovate, there is a particular dream logic at work here that relates to the way the voice inhabits and interacts with the rest of the track.

10 Records of 2015: Advance Base's Nephew in the Wild

This album was the soundtrack to one of the most beautiful autumns of my life, beneath the resplendent foliage of Plauen’s wide, quiet streets and sprawling Stadtwald. Like so much of Owen Ashworth’s music, it’s small-town music, but it’s the first time that I’ve ever really lived somewhere that fits this bill. Similarly to Sufjan (see previous post), Nephew in the Wild finds redemption in details, although this functions in a very different way.

In addition, as in the case of the Sufjan album, the Pitchfork review of this record really pissed me off. One line in particular: the reviewer lists the ‘hallmarks of [Ashworth’s] sound’ as ‘twinkling melodies’ and ‘sustained minor chords’, even though there are hardly any minor chords on this or any Ashworth record. It may seem like I'm being awfully pedantic here, but this is important because, for me, one of the actual hallmarks of his sound is precisely this absence of minor chords. While the use of technical jargon is by no means necessary for music criticism, it seems a little perverse for a reviewer to choose to deploy a technical term like this in such an utterly erroneous way, and I think it suggests a rather cursory engagement on their part. (Perhaps I’m just aggrieved at the Pitchfork review for employing what is now my most hated review cliché: ‘[Insert album name] feels like a logical progression from their past work’. Euuurrrgh, ban this filth!)

What Ashworth does on Nephew in the Wild, as on previous records, is deliver concise epistolary stories within a kind of ‘deadpan’ sonic medium of organs, electric pianos and drum machines. I’ve described his previous project —Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — in terms of voicemail messages, on which the cycling of major key harmonies (or ‘pre-recorded’ progressions) added to a sense of detachment, or the performative ‘withholding’ of a composed message, suggesting currents of untraceable feeling beneath. While his Advance Base songs switch similarly between first-, second- and third-person perspectives, there is a greater sense of authority in the lyrics, which tends to shift the focus from the singing voice itself onto the people it describes or addresses (with the understandable exception of Jody Weinmann’s guest vocal on ‘My Love For You Is Like A Puppy Underfoot’).

4 Jan 2016

10 Records of 2015: Sufjan Stevens's Carrie & Lowell

This was a year in which a spate of overly biographical reviews nearly ruined certain records for me. As a listener, I have no interest in the actual biographies of artists. I have no interest in listening to songs about anyone’s actual parents, just like I have no interest in listening to songs about Matthew Barney or Andy Samberg. I find musicians’ biographies pretty boring anyway. A lot of them have fairly similar backgrounds and routines, and the more we obsess over their biographies in our reviews and features, the more we reduce the scope of each record to meditations on their careers, their ‘artistry’, the recording process itself: a horizon of interpretation that extends little further than the studio’s soundproofed walls.

More to the point though, I would argue that this kind of biographical listening is a doomed pursuit anyway. For example, none of the general listenership actually know Sufjan Stevens’s family, the purported subjects of Carrie & Lowell, just as none of us know Sufjan. Thankfully, we do not need to know them (or even try/pretend to know them) to understand, enjoy or value the music.

This is not to say that such records don’t play with the fictionalised biographies of fictional personas. No doubt there are parents on the record. No doubt there is a son who has lost his mother. We can listen for this son and this mother in consecutive songs and imagine their biographies in the silences between. However, this is not the real Sufjan or the real Carrie; these characters are already composites of the clues on the record (and perhaps in photos, interviews, press releases) and all the mothers and sons (perhaps our own, perhaps ourselves) that we know. Maybe, for real Sufjan, this record was an exercise in autobiography. There is still no way that this can be communicated to the listener in any meaningful way: songs are always fictions.

10 Records of 2015: Listening Through 2015

I haven’t attempted an end-of-year list like this since 2012. This may be because that was the last year in which there were at least 10 new records that had a significant effect on me. It probably helps that I listened to more albums this year, so the odds of finding ones I liked were higher. I think there have also been a few other factors determining my susceptibility to new music though, which are detachable from the sounds themselves. For example, I’m sure that my recent move to a small town in southeast Germany, living with my boyfriend for the first time, and all the other changes in circumstance that have accompanied this, have made me more open to new music (a new scene deserving of a new soundtrack), as well as leaving me with more money to buy it and more time to listen to it.

However, at the same time, my listening this year has been overwhelmingly determined by my research interests. As should be abundantly clear from the last few posts on this blog, I’ve spent much of the year working through ideas about the pop song and the place of the voice within it. Naturally, much of the new music that has really engaged me this year has provoked further questions or ideas in relation to these themes.

As a result of this, I’m not going to attempt a ranked Top 10 this year; instead, I will trace a few ideas through these albums, talking about each as it fits in with my train of thought. The resulting list — as much about me as a listener as ‘the music itself’ — is meant to be an articulation of my musical year, giving up on any pretence of general expertise or objective judgement. As an unconventional strategy, this is meant to reflect another key theme of my musical year, which is an increasing exasperation with online music journalism/criticism (especially album reviews (and especially Pitchfork)), and indeed pop music discourse in general. Inevitably, some of my particular 2015 bugbears will make cameo appearances as I address particular albums, but rather than introducing undue negativity to this list, my intention is really just to express how certain tiresome critical obsessions can stop us from talking about how exceptional the music really is.

So, without further ado…

...my 10 favourite records of 2015, unranked:::