Mr. Oizo: Lambs Anger (pt. 2)

lambsanger

Dear Matt:

Well, this was an aesthetic experience. What a pity that website is getting torched. Such a loss.

I must congratulate you on your expert guidance into the world of Quentin Dupieux. This could easily have been a disaster — there’s something perverse about recommending an album that parodies French house, when the recommendee’s experience with that genre is basically limited to Daft Punk’s Discovery. But Lambs Anger worked for me. And I think part of the reason why it worked was because because Rubber got me into the right headspace for it.

I actually watched Rubber in its entirety, because how can you not? Metafictions like this are catnip to me. (See also: Mulholland Drive, Holy Motors, Adaptation). I came for the self-reflexive genre critique; I stayed for the unexpected joy of watching a weirdly sympathetic anthropomorphized tire blow shit up.

Still, that opening is the lynchpin of the whole thing, isn’t it? I think it’s especially notable that our self-aware police lieutenant frames the movie as an homage rather than a satire. (I’m sure the two can overlap. In this case, though, they don’t.) Rubber observes that much of what happens in movies happens for the sloganistic “no reason.” But, instead of suggesting that there’s something wrong with that, the movie concludes that it’s the natural order of things and indeed, that it’s the “most powerful element of style.” And then, Rubber proves its point by being incredibly fun to watch.

I’m quite certain that there’s something similar afoot in Lambs Anger. You mentioned in your assignment that there’s an element of piss-taking in what Mr. Oizo does. (And, frankly, if he is just punking the scene, it’s working. Have you read the Pitchfork review of this? Daaaamn.) But, as you well know, that’s not the whole story. Dupieux has mastered a concept that I like to hammer on about: the qualities that make a thing patently ridiculous or flawed can (and in many cases, should) be construed as positive to the overall experience of that thing. (I’m going to link to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” again, because any opportunity etc. Though I should stress that Dupieux’s self-awareness disqualifies him from inclusion in that category right from the outset.)

That notion of just owning your idols’ ridiculousness is the explicit theme of Rubber. In Lambs Anger, it’s more implicit, but it’s still there. It is also the theme of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, which is an album I only invoke when I’m in a really good mood.

A final observation: at one point in Rubber, there’s a bedraggled hitchhiker walking along the desert road. Upon investigation, I discovered that he’s the co-composer of the movie’s score, and a member of Justice — who you referenced in your post. He’s also wearing a Yes t-shirt. I am going to allow myself one of my occasional lapses into mysticism and take this as a sign that your next assignment needs to be another prog album.

Guess.

Which.

One.

— Matthew

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Mr. Oizo: Lambs Anger (pt. 1)

lambsanger

Dear Matthew:

Sorry for a third straight week of bleeps and bloops, but bear with me — this one is somewhat time-sensitive.

This is another multi-part assignment. But don’t worry — the parts are pretty small. The first part of the assignment is to watch this:

That’s the opening scene of a 2010 film called Rubber. It’s about a tire that comes to life and starts killing people with its mind. It was written and directed by French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, and it’s a better summary of his approach to art than I could ever hope to write myself. You see, in addition to making films, he also makes music under the name Mr. Oizo (pronounced ‘oiseau’, as in the French word for bird), and this week you’ll be listening to his 2008 album Lambs Anger.

If the Rubber clip and the blatant Luis Buñuel reference weren’t enough to spell it out, Dupieux deals heavily in the absurd and the surreal. His only real ‘hit’ was the 1999 track ‘Flat Beat’ — the video, directed by Dupieux, features the yellow puppet and de facto Oizo mascot Flat Eric, who graces the cover of Lambs Anger. Dupieux eventually fell in with the Ed Banger crew, a French record label and loose collective of electro producers who rose to prominence in the mid-2000s (mostly on the backs of the band Justice). His early music was already pretty left-field, but when he joined the Ed Banger roster, his sound shifted noticeably toward more club-friendly four-to-the-floor electro sounds — but his surreal sensibilities became even more pronounced.

That’s what’s so fascinating about Dupieux as a producer: he really does know how to make good dance music, but it’s always done with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek its a wonder he can still talk. His entire career, especially since joining Ed Banger, has essentially been about taking the piss out of the genre and its fanswhile still producing outstanding examples of it. His production is ridiculous to the point that it feels like he’s playing a game of chicken with the scene, seeing how far he can go and still have people call it dance music. (I love it, obviously.)

Lambs Anger is Dupieux’s first full-length release on Ed Banger, and it’s probably the best jumping-off point for really getting into the Mr. Oizo headspace. Like his films, his music has a very strong sense of continuity to it — a canon, even. Repeated phrases and hooks, synthesized speech, Uffie, some of the most obnoxious techno music you’ve ever heard — Lambs Anger has it all. It even manages at times to actually be pretty listenable. It’s even got that rarest of rarities: a good hip-hop cover. This is peak Oizo.

I’m not going to lie: this is going to be a challenging listen for you, especially given what I know of your opinion of electronic dance music. But given what I know of your taste in art more generally, I think you’ll at least be able to appreciate the ethic with which Dupieux is approaching the genre. He’s making a new pair of clothes for the emperors of EDM. He’s drawing a musical moustache on the Mona Lisa. He’s the DJ of Dada.

Why?

No reason.

— Matt

PS: I almost forgot the third part of your assignment! After you’ve listened to the album, head on over to http://oizo3000.com, and just experience it. If you enjoyed Lambs Anger, great! You can download his EP Stade 3 for free from the website, and it’s a good next step. If not, poke around the website anyway — according to his Twitter, he’ll be shutting the website down for good soon. It’s a damn shame.

PPS: Even if the music doesn’t speak to you in the slightest, you might still enjoy his films. The aforementioned Rubber is a good start. If the music does speak to you, Id suggest checking out Wrong Cops at your earliest convenience.

King Crimson: Red (pt. 2)

red

Dear Matthew:

Okay, maybe there is something to this prog stuff after all.

Don’t get too excited. I wasn’t blown away like I was by the Baroque accordions. I wasn’t nailed to my seat like I was by Brian Eno. In fact, ‘Red’ and ‘One More Red Nightmare’ are the only two songs I was really, really into. But hey, baby steps, right?

If this album is any indication, I can definitely see why you suspect that NoMeansNo are King Crimson fans. Indeed, if you like the song ‘Red’, I suggest you immediately check out some of the proggier NoMeansNo, like Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? One of my favourite things about this project has been discovering the foundations, or in some cases, what are essentially early versions of more modern music that I love, and I can certainly see why ‘influential’ is one of the most popular adjectives used to describe King Crimson.

You might be onto something with intuitive appreciation of music. I mean, I try to have an open mind, but realistically, I usually know if I’m going to like a song with the first few seconds — or if I’m going to really like it, anyway. To use a crude metaphor, it’s a bit like sex appeal: you usually know right away if you’re attracted to someone, but it’s often hard to pick out a specific reason why. It’s intuitive. And sure, there are people you warm up to over time, but with the most compelling people, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s definitely a lizard-brain level of liking music, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much a band’s — to use a word that accurately conveys the idea I’m talking about but makes me want to throw up a little — brand affects how much people like them. Maybe a big part of why I could never get into prog was all of the pretense — the stuff you pointed out that King Crimson doesn’t do. Would I have liked them as much if I’d gone into the album not knowing that? I’d like to think so, but you never know. (In my own defense, I can usually put aside ‘brand’ considerations once I hear the actual music itself; generally the most it does is keep me from listening in the first place.)

One last thought: in terms of contemporary bands, your description of how the band as a Fripp-powered engine that looks completely different every time it’s reassembled reminds me a lot of Gorillaz. Gorillaz is, at its core, a Damon Albarn solo project with art design by Jamie Hewlett, but it features so many guest musicians and producers that every album almost sounds like a different band. Dan the Automator’s influence is all over the self-titled record, and Danger Mouse is definitely on display on Demon Days. (I believe Plastic Beach is produced by Albarn himself.) In fact, now that I think of it, this sort of band is actually pretty common, if not quite to the same extent: Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor, LCD Soundsystem is James Murphy, Queens of the Stone Age is Josh Homme, etc.

Anyway, congratulations — I didn’t completely hate a prog album!

— Matt

King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 2)

bleeptobleep

Dear Matt:

I’m afraid I am about to fulfil your fear about this response: that I may be entirely indifferent to the Micronauts.

I dunno, man. I’m at a loss. Remember when you didn’t like Godbluff, but you didn’t hate it either, and you kind of wished you had? That’s the situation I’m in with Bleep to Bleep. But, unlike Godbluff, this album doesn’t seem to me like the sort of music that’s even supposed to provoke a strong reaction. It’s the kind of music I tend not to have much to say about. It’s the kind of music that I might forget I’m listening to, and when I remember, I’m slightly annoyed. It’s the kind of music where, if it were playing in a store, I might leave sooner.

Obviously, I’m completely wrong about this: more on which later.

My favourite part of Bleep to Bleep was the track ‘Bleeper_0+2,’ a pretty straightforward noise track, with no beat. And that’s basically what I liked: it offered some respite from the merciless beat that otherwise pervades the entire album. When I started writing this post, I was worried that I would come off as hypocritical for critiquing the album’s sameness — the quality that you see as the source of its fascination — when I’m a fan of Steve Reich. But, there’s a fundamental difference between the Micronauts’ minimalism and Reich’s. Both employ ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns,’ as I (inadequately) defined minimalism three posts ago. But Reich’s obvious patterns drive the music towards gradual change. The Micronauts’ patterns do not. Bleep to Bleep changes constantly, sure. But it doesn’t go anywhere. I had a theory teacher once, who pointed out that Reich’s most substantial gift was knowing when a musical idea would outstay its welcome. I would not personally say the same of the Micronauts.

As I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy disliking things. My philosophy is that if I don’t find something to admire in a piece of music, it must say more about my liabilities as a listener than the musicians’ shortcomings as artists. There’s a reason I’ve chosen to think that way: it’s self-evidently better to like more music than less music. Selectivity is for chumps. And if I put the onus on myself to appreciate a piece of music on its own terms, rather than on the musician to produce something that I can approach on mine, I’m more likely to enjoy more music. Plus, I’m inclined to think that it might make me a more empathetic human being, which is a win for everybody around me. (It may also explain my increasing tendency to write about myself instead of the music that you assign. Sorry about that.)

I remain frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a way into Two Fingers or the Micronauts. The fact that these are artists that you love makes it worse because it confirms that they can inspire the kind of nerdy joy that is essentially what I live for.

So, I’d like to make a proposition. If we’re still plugging away at this correspondence in a year or so, maybe we can take a week or two and just look back on a couple of albums that we haven’t liked. Because, how gratifying would it be to find that we’ve become better, more open music listeners over the course of this project?

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 1)

bleeptobleep Dear Matthew:

Since we’re talking about minimalism, I have some more bleeps and bloops for you — literally.

Though the Micronauts is now just one guy (Frenchman Christophe Monier), it was a two-piece (Quebecker George Issakidis) when they recorded one of the most strangely compelling electronic albums I’ve ever heard: Bleep to Bleep. It’s like they set out to make a nice little techno jam to play at their next rave, but just didn’t stop. The album is literally just the same song for 45 minutes. (Or, to be more specific, four takes of the same song, broken up with two noisy interludes.)

That sounds like it would be awful, but the repetition becomes the most fascinating feature of the album. The definition of minimalism that you gave me last week was ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns’, and it describes the Micronauts perfectly. Monier and Issakidis are indeed working with an extremely limited palette — a drum machine, some very basic synthesizers, a sample of some strings and a smattering of miscellaneous percussion — and for 45 minutes, they build up an arrangement, then disassemble it, then rebuild it in a slightly different way, then take it apart again, tweak it, put it back together… they build and destroy, build and destroy, build and destroy for three quarters of an hour. It’s the same song throughout, and yet it’s never the same song for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s the musical equivalent of the Ship of Theseus. It’s riveting.

Keep in mind, too, that this was the late ’90s, so they’re working with the real deal here — they’re using actual synths and samplers and drum machines, they’re not just some kids messing around with Garage Band for an afternoon. So this is also a fascinating album if you’re at all interested in the technical aspect of electronic music production, especially before the era of the laptop DJ.

Now, this is definitely some straight-up ravey acid techno bullshit. Given your reaction to the dance music you’ve encountered so far over the course of this project, I’m not sure how you’ll react to it. It’s entirely possible that you’ll hate this album. Worse yet, you might be completely indifferent to it. But all I know is, I find this album totally captivating. And since you’re into a guy who makes music by looping slightly-out-of-phase recordings and swinging microphones over speaker cones, hopefully you will too.

— Matt

PS: After you give Bleep to Bleep a spin, it’s worth checking out the single that was released from the album — essentially, the entire album distilled into something you can play on the radio. It’s called ‘Baby Wants to Rock’, and its running time? Three minutes and 19 seconds.

Michael Nyman & Motion Trio: Acoustic Accordians (pt. 2)

Acoustic Accordions

Dear Matthew:

This is good shit.

Seriously, I enjoyed this album way more than I thought I would. I mean, I didn’t think I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t expect to be totally floored by it, either. Where I’m having trouble, though, is quantifying exactly why.

Maybe it’s the Baroqueness. I’m not a hugely informed classical listener, as you know, but Baroque stuff has always been my favourite. Of the ‘rock stars’ of the classical pantheon, Bach has always been the one I’m most into. When I took piano lessons as a kid, my favourite pieces to play were always from List A — the Baroque repertoire. This is even reflected in a lot of the modern acts I’m into — Ratatat and Justice both smack of this stuff, and it’s my favourite feature of their music. I also like a lot of music that is definitely influenced by minimalism — Daft Punk spring immediately to mind, but there are certainly others.

Maybe it’s the playing of Baroque music on instruments other than what I’m used to hearing Baroque music on. An epiphany I’ve had over the course of writing this blog is that one thing I’m really into in music is recontextualization — I love picking out samples, I enjoy clever and unexpected mashups entirely too much, and I have enormous respect for good DJs (there aren’t many). I love music that takes something familiar and twists it in an unexpected way. That’s certainly what’s going on here. It reminds me of what little Wendy Carlos I’ve heard. (Mostly just the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack. But apparently she and Weird Al did an interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, and I now desperately want to hear it.)

But what specifically is it about Baroque music that’s so compelling? Why am I so into it? What is the source of its driving rhythm and energy? What magical switches is it flipping in my brain with its complex, mathy harmonies and incredibly satisfying modulations and resolutions? I’m seriously asking. I’ve heard about Mozart’s brilliance and Beethoven’s intensity and whatever else, but I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer to a question that I didn’t realize was bothering me so much until I sat down to write this: Why is Bach so damn good?

Also: while listening to the bonus Michael Nyman Band piece from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover I couldn’t shake the mental image of the cartoon characters in Victorian garb trying to be inconspicuous in a funeral procession. I am confident that it improved the listening experience significantly.

— Matt