by Michael Goldberg
Monday June 11, 2001
The drive-away sounds of one man heading north
Some of us spend a fair amount of time listening to music while driving. Or walking. Or traveling by bus or streetcar with the outside world kept at a distance with the help of some kind of Walkman-like device.
I listen to music when I drive. Driving becomes something much more than simply getting from one place to another when you're listening to music depending, of course, on what your music of choice is. Even as you physically change location, the right sounds can take you to other dimensions.
Recently, I took a drive north. As I traveled from Sacramento to Auburn, one of those Gold Rush towns, my soundtrack was the first Neu! Album (titled simply Neu!). Back in 1971, when it was first released, I missed out. Thirty years later, finally seeing re-release after many years of unavailability, it has become a mythic work, so much so that at first I was both surprised and a bit disappointed. I didn't know what exactly to expect, except that the earth was supposed to move.
As is often the case (at least when I listen to music, especially by an artist or group I'm not familiar with), first impressions are the wrong impressions. Give it time, and it becomes clear that Neu! deserves the status of legend. It is almost entirely instrumental, mixing grooving guitar-heavy pieces with fanciful audio collages.
The group was clearly pushing at the edges of what "music," particularly "rock music," was, and taking it places where it hadn't been before. There are actually some conceptual similarities between what Neu! were doing and what the Grateful Dead attempted on Aoxomoxoa, so it's not so surprising that Sonic Youth, who cite Neu! as an influence, were also Dead fans.
Suburban Sprawl, RV Dealerships
As I drove up Highway 80 under a baking sun, with RV and auto dealerships whizzing by, giving way to suburban sprawl and then tree-covered mountains, the music, at times stately and processional, was a soundtrack defining a return to nature.
On a number of pieces, particularly track #3, which I think is called "Weineu See" (but don't take my word for it interpreting the handwritten scrawl of the liner notes is not easy), the guitar work is breathtaking. Some of it sounds like it's tracking in reverse. (Neu!, like everyone else, were also clearly listening to the Beatles at the time.)
I was meeting a friend at his new house in the backwoods near Grass Valley, and for the drive along two-lane and one-lane roads, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, I put on Disc Two of unwound's Leaves Turn Inside You. Immediately I was struck by the connection between Neu! and unwound, who got there by way of Sonic Youth so many wires connecting!
This idea of music as sound and sound as music, of drones and overtones punctuated, on occasion, by melodies that grab on and won't let go, was powerful in '71, and it's still powerful.
What you learn, when you leave the more "tamed" areas of the U.S. and head along those one- and two-lane roads, is that an Old West-like wildness is still alive. You find independent spirits who, whether by circumstance or choice, have staked their claim, sometimes in a funky trailer or Volkswagen bus, sometimes in a house overlooking acres of woods.
In a place called Rough & Ready, a biker you really wouldn't want to tangle with sat on a bench outside the "general store" drinking a beer. No need to keep it wrapped in a brown paper bag out here.
From Avant-Rock Experimentalism To Alterna-Country To Air?
I found my friend Lou's place, and after he showed me around, we got in his Durango and headed for Nevada City, another Gold Rush town. I had brought a bunch of CDs along (natch!) and the new Whiskeytown album, Pneumonia, seemed just right.
There's something about alterna-country when you're actually in the country. Ryan Adams, who already has an excellent solo album out, has a voice that really fits the oaks and pines we were passing.
We got to Nevada City and had some not-so-hot Mexican food, and then went in search of a record store (always in search of a record store!). What we found was a place called Yabobo that carries global goods, "world" musical instruments, clothing and CDs. Which is how I came to own two excellent Youssou N'Dour albums: Eyes Open and Joko (The Link).
There seems to be some disagreement about the new Air album, 10,000 Hz Legend. Some people like it; others don't. I fall into the former camp. For starters, the cover art is wonderful. You've got a view of this very modern building with a huge satellite dish atop it, sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking barren, unpopulated land that vanishes into the horizon; looking out from the building's window are two figures. The back cover shows some of the building's interior, where there is a synthesizer and a mixing board, two chairs and a grand piano. What we've got is this supersonic recording studio where the concoctions of these DJ producers are broadcast into the cosmos. Cool.
In the car, driving back down 80 toward Sacramento, the electronic-sounding treated voice announces: "We are the synchronizers/ Send messages through time code/ MIDI clock rings in my mind/ Machines gave me some freedom/ Synthesizers give me some wings/ Then drop me through 12-bit samplers...." A song about what the DJ/producers are doing, and how it makes them feel.
Bow Down Before Squarepusher
In Sacramento, I found a record store and bought a copy of Squarepusher's Budakhan Mindphone, which I had somehow missed when Warp released it in '99 (hey, at least I didn't have to wait 30 years, like I did with Neu!). I was picking my wife up at a motel on the border of Sacramento, where she was attending a conference. I got there early, and sat on a bench outside the entrance to the lobby. This was one of those roadside areas, just off Highway 5, where a lot of gas stations and low-end motels are located. I watched a shady duo walk off the road and head around the back of the motel, which had a number of buildings; they looked about nervously, as if they planned to break into a car if the coast was clear. All the while, Budakhan Mindphone filled my head, taking me further than my car had during the past few days.
Squarepusher, whose latest effort, "My Red Hot Car," is more of a dance-floor track (and whose new album, Go Plastic, is coming June 25 I can hardly wait), tend to produce electronics that mix jazz, dub and other sounds into wonderfully strange soundscapes. In fact, as I listened, I put down the biography of Orson Welles I was reading and started outlining the plot structure for a sci-fi story I hope to write soon. Squarepusher's "Fly Street" has that kind of effect on me.