23 Jan 2017

Albums of 2016: Xiu Xiu's Plays the Music of Twin Peaks


A note is struck and
carried on a nightsea wind
for twenty-five years.


A year ago, I posted an essay about Twin Peaks and Xiu Xiu’s live performance of its soundtrack. It’s a piece of writing of which I’m still very proud. A few months later, the band announced that they would release a recorded version of the project on Record Store Day. The resulting album, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, follows the structure and texture of the live show very closely, and certainly my inclusion of it in this list is testament to my enjoyment of and subsequent engagement with that performance. Still, what more could I have to say about Xiu Xiu and Twin Peaks?

In the earlier essay, I described the music of Twin Peaks as somehow vacant, suggestive of empty rooms and empty stages, but also of characters as empty vessels: like Laura and Audrey, ideas or images of girls, waiting to be filled with meaning, desire and blame. I described Jamie Stewart—along with Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me—as an uncomfortably real body, materialising at the centre of that dreamy vacancy. But that was an essay about live performance, and this is an album review, and one that reminds me of the fact that, for those familiar with it, the Twin Peaks soundtrack will never be totally vacant. Each track is replete with iconic scenes and indelible images from your favourite TV show. The soundtrack contains the images, in a very literal sense, in that the ‘frame’ of the television sits within a space vibrating to the rhythm of those famous themes. Of course, in many of the scenes, the images also contain the soundtrack: via jukebox, record player, rock band, etc.

On stage, this subtraction of Twin Peaks (as set of images/icons) from Badalamenti’s soundtrack is offset by the interpolation of the band in the centre of the frame, imposing a liveness that is anathema to David Lynch’s approach to music. By creating a studio record on the basis of this live show, the already vacant soundtrack is doubly emptied-out of the precise mental images that accompany the original tracks. Since it is a recording, the bodies of the musicians are also necessarily absent; moreover, only four of the twelve tracks feature discernible sonic bodies in the form of vocals.

Even so, all studio recordings re-create a fantasy space within which their various elements can cohere. On this twice-erased canvas—a palimpsest on which the soundtrack’s iconic locations are legible only in ghostly form—Xiu Xiu mark out boundaries and horizons with a crude grid of thick drones and thin drum machines, and populate it with a new set of protagonists: vibraphone, piano, voice, heavy guitar. And just as Xiu Xiu the live act were exposed in their irreducibility to Badalamenti’s and Laura Palmer’s unreal perfection, so this record exposes a great deal about Xiu Xiu the studio act, or the modes and motifs of their musical fantasies.

19 Jan 2017

Albums 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

Albums 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. Xiu Xiu — Plays the Music of Twin Peaks
4. Beyoncé – Lemonade
5. Rihanna – ANTI
6. Michaela Dennis – Miracles
7. Chrysanthemum Bear – Prophecy
8. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
9. Frank Ocean – Blonde
10. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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