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Friday, April 18, 2003

++ The Return To Immediacy

++ When rock critics get together, it's usually to swill cheap beers back at the bar while the band rages on. Last weekend, though, over 100 music critics assembled at Seattle's Experience Music Project to talk about popular music in terms academic, journalistic, and in between. It was the second of EMP's now-annual Pop Conferences; under the direction of organizer Eric Weisbard and a program committee that included Ann Powers (EMP), Robert Christgau (The Village Voice), Kelefa Sanneh (The New York Times), Greil Marcus, and others, the event was a resounding success. Presentations ranged from historical overviews (Tim Lawrence's "Reconsidering the Underground: New York Dance Culture in the 1970s and Beyond") to unusual juxtapositions (Daphne Brooks' "The Real Slim Shady: White Male 'Songbirds,' Black Feminist Rock Criticism, and Jeff Buckley's Alterna-Boy Shuffle") to gleeful shit-disturbing (Sasha Frere-Jones' "The White Noise Supremacists, Part Two: The Erasure of Labor, Blackness, and Popular Culture From Independent Rock").

It's not easy to sum up the Pop Conference, and that's not only owing to the inevitable post-session beer-swilling. To be honest, it was one of those you-had-to-be-there kinds of things. Most academic papers, after all, hold up better on paper than being read aloud. Greil Marcus's keynote address, "Instant History: One Nation, One Century, One Song" was a ruminative essay on music, culture, and nation-building that fixed in the memory about as well as Dylan's voice fixes upon a given note — which is to say, it slipped and wriggled and slid from view with each new phrase. And the weekend's most entertaining panel, a Wheel of Fortune-styled discussion helmed by the editors of Ego Trip, distinguished by topics like "Which White Critic Here Thinks He Knows More About Rap Than Us? (Answer: All of You)," was simply untranscribable. (For an approximation of the mayhem, though, imagine a hundred or so rock writers singing along a cappella style to Missy Elliott's "Work It," and you're halfway there.)

So I don't have any grand takeaways for you, I'm afraid. But I did return eager to dig into the stack of records and CDs sitting next to my desk. With good music writing cropping up all over the place, it's tempting to spend all my time reading. The only risk is that the more criticism I read, the more meta-critical my own writing becomes (cf. the last few weeks' obsessing over critical authority, which, useful as it may be, is much less fun than the music it purports to address). In fact, if anything, EMP left me feeling anxious (when am I not, of course) about the incompatibility between "serious" music criticism and the speed with which new music keeps coming out. The academic in me wants to step back and theorize; the journalist and DJ in me wants to finger the pulse of popular music with only a beat or two of lag-time.

So with no further ado, a run-down of some of the better releases from an already very good year.

++ The Bug, Pressure (Tigerbeat6/Rephlex): Kevin Martin's music is nothing if not heavy; as one half of Techno Animal he has masterminded some of the darkest, meanest dub/metal/breakbeat noise ever set to vinyl. On his dancehall project The Bug, he emphasizes the sheer massiveness of his sound by pocking it with gaping holes, mapping out a staccato hopscotch path across an uneven field of hardscrabble silence. Martin's riddims, forged out of bent bedsprings and scrap metal, aren't that different from the bashment anthems compiled on Greensleeves' rhythm albums. In fact, without getting too far into a discussion of roots and authenticity, one of the exciting things about The Bug is the way it builds on "street" music like dancehall without feeling the need to nice it up.

One can imagine any number of "intelligent techno" producers prettifying dancehall and losing every shred of urgency in the process, but if anything The Bug dirties it to the point of unrecognizability, caking tightly wound riddims in distortion, overdrive, rust and oil and caulk and dust. Of course, as brilliant as Martin's riddims are — and they are nothing if not brilliant, each one a mean-spirited slingshot to snap you straight into the heart of the fray, lithe bullies celebrating the beauty of menace — they'd fall flat were it not for his vocalists. Roger Robinson and Paul St. Hilaire offer full, measured orations recalling LKJ, while Daddy Freddy, Toasty Taylor and Wayne Lonesome shout themselves hoarse, spitting out toasting so burnt it's carcinogenic. "Killer," featuring He-Man and the Rootsman, drizzles grizzled death-rattles over a chorus of dying machines, pile-driver beats and air-raid sirens. Could there be a more appropriate soundtrack to the events of this year?

++ Monobox, Molecule (Logistic): Thanks to Logistic Records, which recently released Dan Bell's fantastic mix, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, Paris is enjoying a minimal-techno renaissance. Detroit's Robert Hood — Underground Resistance affiliate and founder of M-Plant — appeared last year on the Post Office compilation on Logistics' sublabel Telegraph, and now he resurfaces as Monobox with three overlapping releases: a CD, a double LP, and a 12-inch single, each of which offers varying track listings.

Is Hood the Italo Calvino of techno? In his liner notes, he sounds like it: "Imagine throwing a handful of nano-machines the size of dust particles over an empty plain of land," he writes. "These nano-devices could be programmed to perhaps build a city. It would appear as if by magic." Metaphors of cities and cells and artificial intelligence, of course, are so rife in electronic music as to be considered pollutants, but Hood's approach is distinguished by the fact that his tracks really do unfold like thinking machines evolving in real time.

This is "pure" techno, but it seems less to impose a structure than to grow around an invisible trellis, like a mind structuring itself unconsciously around an innate language instinct. Even where the immutable 4/4 kick pounds unforgivingly, the tracks' other elements — machinic exhalations, starship startup sounds, atomic clocks and spring-loaded chords — build and breathe in such a way that suggests the infinity of freedom within fixed structures. But such structural concerns ignore the core of Hood's music, the fact that every tone and texture offers a surfeit of pleasure in its own right. You could lose yourself in the truncated cries of "Trade" or the blasts of static cycling out of phase in "Realm 4," and chances are you will.

++ Meteorites, Dub the Mighty Dragon (Rise Robots Rise): I was briefly concerned about this release's resemblance to the Neptunes, until the ever-astute Dave Stelfox reminded me to think for a moment about Meteorites' name. Are they really calling themselves chips off the astral block? If they are, the move's even cheekier than their stutter-butter funk, a springy R&B that's most definitely indebted to the 'tunes' sprightly tunes. Meteorites are a pair of Germans living in Barcelona: Max Turner, who has sung for Schneider TM and Gonzales, and Marcus Rossknecht. Rise Robot Rise, of course, is home to Jamie Lidell and Christian Vogel's Super_Collider project, which has somewhat notoriously explored the cluttered unconscious of R&B. Meteorites' funk, though, is of a categorically different nature — not murkily conflicted but clean, bright, spry and hyperdriven.

Like the Neptunes, the Meteorites specialize in rubber-band guitars, unsubtle sing-speaking, and fidgety rhythms shined up with the cocaine glow of recent dancehall. Even Turner's oddball vocals recall Pharrell Williams' — "Jump in vehicle/ Slap down me buckle/ Master milkman/ And now you make chuckle/ Milkman, milkman/ Sweet as honeysuckle." As for the dub of the title, it is related to the faded bluster of Two Lone Swordsmen, a reminder of the Murakami novel where men's shadows are severed, locked away, and left to die. Here, though, these poor, doubled devils crowd every beat, cram every cranny in the search for their hosts. The air is thick with gasps of desire and disappointment. Is there a metaphor here for the Meteorites' relationship to their mentors? Or are the Meteorites content to wander far from the locked gates of the city they left behind, over which peer the all-seeing towers of Pop? Only future albums will tell; for now, Dub the Mighty Dragon suffices as a masterful fairy tale full of doubles, mazes, and of course fire-breathing bass.

++ Various, Bis Neun (Areal): Jon of The Astronauts' Notepad recently wrote wondering how much more longer he'll keep swooning over microhouse. If his enthusiasm level is anything like mine, I'd suggest it'll hold out for quite some time, as long as kick-ass labels like Areal keep appearing out of the blue. Much to my chagrin, the German label has been churning for two and a half years now, turning out a baker's dozen of 12-inches ranging from itchy-glitchy acid-house tracks to delirious deep house. The fact that a DJ I don't know (Jan Erik Kaiser) mixed this CD of tracks by artists I've never heard of (Konfekt, Weltzwei, Metope, Undo/Redo, Basteroid) makes this my equivalent of a marine biologist's monster squid discovery. And boy, does this beast have tentacles: huge, suction-cupped bass lines swatting to and fro around inky tones that stare dully into the deep, and toothful, grinning rhythms that want nothing more than to swallow you whole. The shuffle of Profan, the punch of Festplatten, the sour-milk synths of Closer Musik, and the grind of Speicher all come together into one monstrous sound. Micro my ass!

++ Thomas Brinkmann, Tanks a Lot (max.Ernst): Thomas Brinkmann loves us. Why else would he have packaged this free mix-CD with the "Tina"/"Argo" 12-inch? The CD is subtitled "A Free Urus Martan Mix," leaving some room for interpretation: Is Urus Martan yet another of Brinkmann's ever-expanding roster of alter egos, or is he advocating the liberation of the Chechnyan region of Urus-Martan? Whatever the case, for the turntable-impaired, the unlucky collector, and the completist alike, this is an indispensable collection of Brinkmann's grittiest dancefloor material, seamlessly locked into a frighteningly efficient machine of pistons and drill bits in perpetual motion.

Standout tracks include the long-out-of-print remix of Depeche Mode's "I Feel Love," the ridiculous Markus Schmickler collaboration "Corvette," which carves engine growl into a voracious asphalt predator, and the melted organ boogie of "26 Chicky Boom." The whole thing is so inspired, so energetic, so mind-blowingly good, and seemingly so infused with a groove I can only call universalist, it baffles me that Brinkmann isn't on the lips of every music-lover in the Western world. You want rock? Brinkmann paints the blues black one pixel at a time. You want house? Brinkmann will burn yours down. You want techno? Brinkmann's mix is a machine that recodes itself with every bar. Tanks a lot indeed, Mr. Brinkmann. Who wants to sign the card?


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