Tanya Tagaq: Animism (pt. 1)

tagaq

Dear Matt:

This week, you’re getting an album that I have absolutely no idea how you will respond to. Seriously, this could go to either extreme. Because Tanya Tagaq is not an artist who inspires bland indifference. Your assignment is Animism, Tagaq’s much remarked-upon third album. You know this album by reputation from its historic Polaris Prize win, where it beat two of Canada’s most significant musical exports: Drake and Arcade Fire. Rightly so.

What you’ll be hearing is, in my view, one of the most remarkable musical fusions in recent years. What I hear on Animism is a blend of industrial electronica and noise art, with a generous dash of free jazz and — most crucially — a variant of Inuit throat singing that only one person in the world can do.

As you’ll know if you’ve read anything in the Canadian music press in the last two years, Tagaq is an Inuk icon. Her vocal technique is derived from a traditional style of throat singing where two women face each other and sing together. Tagaq’s innovation was finding a way to produce those sounds on her own. And, you know, incorporating them into industrial music.

Tagaq is an intensely political artist and an eloquent commentator on aboriginal issues. (The tweets she sent out after the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission came out are an education in themselves.) As such, most of what’s been written about her music has focussed on the political elements of her art. That’s a valid and important approach to take — far be it from me to sideline that aspect of what Tagaq does.

But the side effect of that approach is that Tagaq sometimes doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a musician and an aesthete. The fact that Tagaq’s music relates deeply to her heritage and the current political struggles facing aboriginal peoples in Canada is a significant part of why she and Animism are great. But it’s also just massively good music, when you’re in the right headspace for it. It’s got drama and tension and changes mood on a dime. It’s brilliantly paced, with slow burns and payoffs strategically distributed throughout. And it has that timbral variety I was talking about last week.

So: a bit on what you can expect to hear.

Animism is anchored around a central trio of musicians: Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drum virtuoso Jean Martin. There’s all sorts of stuff piled on top of them on most tracks: industrial-sounding synths on ‘Uja,’ operatic vocals by Anna Pardo Canedo on ‘Flight,’ horns and strings on the Pixies cover that the album starts with for some reason. (It really is a fantastic cover, though. One of those ones that nearly makes the original obsolete.)

But for me, the most satisfying moments on the album are on tracks like ‘Tulugak’ and ‘Damp Animal Spirits,’ where you get to hear the central trio performing basically unadorned improvisations. Tagaq is always in the lead, but the other two are always doing something interesting, too. Martin in particular gives one of the most entrancing drum performances I’ve heard in awhile.

Animism is not an album that goes out of its way to be likeable, much to its credit. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself loving it all the same. I think you will too, at least in parts. But I could be wrong. This is way the hell out there. Channel the part of yourself that thinks that ‘Night Swim’ is good music and you should be fine.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 1)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matthew:

It’s time for some more bleeps and bloops.

Earlier this summer, one of my favourite bands, the Chemical Brothers, put out a new record. It’s OK, I guess. It’s not bad. It’s got some great moments. But it didn’t floor me like the last time they put out a new album. That album came out in 2010, and it was called Further.

The Manchurian duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons first turned heads in the early 90s as the Dust Brothers. But, since there was already an American production duo called the Dust Brothers, they swapped the Dust for Chemicals, and went on to basically invent a style of electronic music production that dominated the genre for the rest of the decade. They combined the more acidic, psychedelic aspects of electronic music with the sampling aesthetic of hip hop — hypnotic, spacey synths married with soul and funk samples and big, bombastic drums in a way that really hadn’t been done before. The style came to be called ‘big beat’, and it was everywhere. Think Fatboy Slim, think the Prodigy… basically, think the soundtrack to every video game and sci-fi movie from your childhood. You have the Chemical Brothers to thank (blame?).

They were also at the fore of the trend of electronic groups working with big-name guest vocalists from often completely disparate genres — perhaps most notably on the 1996 single that put them on the map, the absolutely bonkers ‘Setting Sun‘, which featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame*. This, combined with their genre-bending and often quite heavy sound, gave them (and others like them) a crossover appeal that electronic music didn’t really have before — it was now ‘OK’ for rock fans to listen to techno. (Or at least, techno that sounded like ‘Setting Sun’. Oof. That song still kicks my ass.) It also gave them a huge sonic palette to work with — they could be raw and abrasive, they could be lush and euphoric, and they could be anything in between.

All of these things combine to make their sophomore album, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, their ‘classic’ album, and indeed a landmark album of the genre and even the decade. But you’re not listening to to that album, or the one after that, or even the one after that. No, the album you’re listening to, Further, is their seventh studio LP.

Why? Because while Dig Your Own Hole is interesting because of what it meant for the genre as a whole, Further is interesting because of what it meant for the band. See, after the success of Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers went on to make — and I say this as an absolutely massive fan of the band — four more albums cut from pretty much the same cloth. Big hooky first track. Guest vocals from someone famous. Brief return to breakbeat roots. Ravey dancefloor tune. Guest vocals from someone not famous at all. Psychedelicdrawn-out album closer (usually). Again, I love them, but I’ll be the first to admit that they were getting predictable. (Mostly.)

Right away, it’s clear that Further is a conscious effort to break away from the formula. Unlike literally every other Chem Bros album, it features no guest vocals at all (barring a few scattered lines from Massive Attack’s Stephanie Dosen). It’s only got eight tracks; none of them clock less than five mintues, and one of them (the second one, even!) is a whopping twelve. This is decidedly not an album of radio pop hits.

But what’s really cool about this album? The CD version comes with a DVD that features visuals for each song, created by Flatnose George, the production duo of Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been doing the Brothers’ live visuals since the very beginning. They’re not music videos in the conventional sense; they’re abstract, experimental video art, forming a very loose visual narrative to accompany the album. Make no mistake, they are definitely intended to be displayed on twenty-foot-high screens at music festivals where everyone is on psychoactive drugs — but it turns out that Smith and Lyall’s style works when you scale it down to the album level, too. Part of this is that their style is so different from what you usually associate with techno music visuals — it’s not computer-generated fractals and laser beams, it’s mostly footage of real-world objects (including people) lit, shot and edited in extremely interesting and creative ways.**

TL;DR: as with ISAM Live, you won’t be listening to this album so much as watching it.

Until this album, the Brothers were kind of like a techno Quentin Tarantino. Their early work was revolutionary, and you still looked forward to their new releases, because you knew they would be good. But at the same time, you know it’s never going to blow anyone out of the water the way the older stuff did at the time — by its very nature, that kind of lightning can really only strike once. I don’t know that Tarantino has necessarily had a Further, but the Chemical Brothers have, and I love it. Five years later, it might still be my favourite album of theirs. How often do you get to say that about a band’s seventh album?

I don’t know. Maybe this album won’t floor you quite the way it floored me at the time. It’s certainly not embedded in your psyche as the soundtrack of your tumultuous summer of 2010. But it’s still a great record, and with your roots in old-school British psychedelia, I don’t think the Brothers will have to work too hard to win you over. So, pour a glass of your favourite beverage, dim the lights — or, if it’s daytime, rebuild your closet music cave — and get ready for a pretty wild ride.

— Matt

* You’re a Beatles fan. Does ‘Setting Sun‘ remind you of anything in particular? How about ‘I’ll See You There‘ (apologies for the stream quality), a song they released almost 20 years later? Don’t worry, these guys have some pretty deep roots in old-school British psychedelia, too.

** The Brothers have always had an interesting visual component to their work. The rise of big beat in the 90s also lead to the rise of abstract, high-production-value music videos for techno music, often by ‘auter’ directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In 2011, they scored the fantastic spy-thriller-meets-coming-of-age film, Hanna. And, of course, those Further-style visuals have been part of their live show since the start. (Adam Smith directed a fantastic concert film, Don’t Think, documenting their show at Fuji Rock Fest in 2012.)

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 1)

36chambers

Dear Matthew:

In the spirit of your most recent assignment for me, I’ve also got a ‘back to the basics’ assignment for you this week. My first assignment for you was Deltron 3030, an underground rap classic. And I know you’re a fan of a lot of other modern underground/alternative rap, like MF DOOM and Run the Jewels. I’ve also often noted that I’ve heard the DNA of some of my favourite modern music in older records you’ve assigned to me. This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me.

Your assignment this week, then, is nothing less than one of the most influential albums in rap history: Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

•          •          •

To understand why 36 Chambers was so influential, you have to know a bit about what hip hop was like before Wu-Tang. Rap music started in the late ’70s at street parties in New York City — specifically, in poor black neighbourhoods in the Bronx — thrown by guys like DJ Kool Herc. You’ve probably heard the song most often cited as the first recorded rap song, the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight‘. This is pretty representative of most early hip hop music: an MC performing rhyming spoken raps over a looped disco beat. (Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks‘ is another good example of this.) The rhyming schemes don’t usually get much more complicated than having the last syllable of a line rhyme with the previous one. The words are generally about dancing, partying, and the talents and general desirability of the MC and his friends, and the delivery is almost singsong. At this point, musically, rap is kind of just this weird offshoot of disco.

By the mid to late ’80s, however, rap has taken off in a major way. In what is now generally known as the New School era, artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the like are all becoming household names. Def Jam, a NYC-based label specializing in hip hop, is now a record industry titan. Beatmakers start using technology like samplers, drum machines and synthesizers in their production. Turntablism is born. Soul and funk music, particularly that of James Brown, is sampled extensively. You also start to see rhyme schemes get more complex — rappers like Rakim start using things like internal and multisyllabic rhyming, and move away from that distinctive ’80s singsong-style rap toward a more monotone, yet aggressive, delivery. (A lot of critics say that, in terms of lyricism, you can draw a pretty distinctive line in the sand in terms of pre-Rakim and post-Rakim.)

After this decade of explosive creativity, rap is now A Thing. It has coalesced from a scene into a genre, and now it’s expanding. On the West Coast, Dr. Dre and N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) pioneer a style that comes to be called gangsta rap that focuses on the violent criminal lifestyles said rappers (claim to) lead. (Dre also pioneers a style called G-funk that features lots of smooth synth leads and highly synthetic drums.) Now there’s a sort of tension in the industry, because labels want to sell rap music to white people, but white people are kind of scared by black people who make songs with titles like ‘Fuck tha Police‘. So in the early ’90s, the major labels are still putting out rap, but it’s mostly a sort of ‘rap lite’ — marketable and completely inoffensive acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or Young MC.

In 1992, this is the musical landscape in which Robert Fitzgerald Diggs finds himself. His cousin, Gary Grice, has released a solo album as the Genius, but it was not particularly well promoted by the label. Diggs is pissed off at the industry for what he sees as an unwillingness to invest in music made by black street kids, from whence hip hop was originally begot. So, he formulates a plan: in five years, he and his high-school-dropout friends are going to take over the industry.

It’s an insane plan. But what’s even more insane is that it worked.

•          •          •

Drawing from the Supreme Alphabet, Diggs — formerly Prince Rakeem — rechristens himself the RZA. He rounds up his cousins and rap comrades Grice (now the GZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and six others: Clifford Smith (Method Man), Corey Woods (Raekwon), Dennis Coles (Ghostface Killah), Jason Hunter (Inspectah Deck), Elgin Turner (Masta Killa), and Lamont Hawkins (U-God). Sharing a mutual love of kung-fu movies and Five-Percenter philosophy, they dub themselves the Wu-Tang Clan, after the practitioners of the most deadly sword style. In RZA’s Staten Island basement, he presents the Clan with his proposal: he has a plan to do nothing less than take over the entire industry — but the only way it will work is if he calls all of the shots. If you sign on, you’re essentially signing your career decisions over to him for the next five years, no questions asked.

The pact is made. RZA collects $100 from each member who wants a verse to produce the group’s first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck‘. It’s a gritty, lo-fi number literally made in a basement that doesn’t have anything you could really call a chorus, or even a hook. Instead, it’s got eight whiplash-inducingly different MCs trading verses for almost five minutes. RZA spikes his crunchy drum samples and eerie piano loops with kung-fu movie dialogue and a take-no-prisoners verse of his own. Verbally, the Clan is mixing post-Rakim lyricism with the violence and realness of gangsta rap, with a heaping dose of pop-culture references on top*. They bully a few local DJs into playing it, but they don’t have to try hard — it’s a dynamite record that sounds nothing like anything anyone else is doing.

Soon, hype for their first album is building. RZA is able to negotiate a unique deal with the nascent Loud Records. For a paltry $60,000, Loud gets the Wu-Tang Clan, but with a catch: the individual members of the Clan can pursue solo careers in any way they see fit, with any label they see fit, with the full backing of the Wu-Tang name. In 1993, 36 Chambers hits the streets, and it’s a smash hit. Already, RZA’s plan is working.

See, RZA’s plan isn’t really about getting the Wu-Tang Clan a record deal; remember, he wants to infiltrate the entire industry. So, almost immediately after 36 Chambers drops, RZA is back to work in his basement studio making beats for the first round of Wu-Tang solo projects. And RZA doesn’t just want his Clan members to get any old record deal — he uses specific members to target specific labels and markets. He knows Raekwon and Ghostface will appeal to the street/gangsta crowd. He knows the aptly named Genius will appeal to the college crowd. He figures Method Man has the most mainstream crossover appeal, which is why Meth gets one of only two solo tracks on 36 Chambers, and why RZA signs him to Def Jam. ODB is, as always, the wildcard. (There’s a great NPR On Record piece on this from which I am cribbing heavily.)

Over the next three years, RZA produces a whopping five Wu-Tang solo projects, all on different labels. All are well received. (He also somehow finds the time to join Prince Paul’s Gravediggaz.) And now, not only is the Wu-Tang name everywhere, but so is the sound. Cut-up soul samples are everywhere. Harsh, street-life rhymes are everywhere. The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is everywhere. Wu-Tang is nothing short of a movement. In 1997, the group reunites for a double LP, Wu-Tang Forever. It debuts at number one.

RZA has done it. In five years, he has taken over the industry, exactly as promised — and he’s kickstarted a major East Coast rap renaissance in the process.

•          •          •

So, how does 36 Chambers hold up in 2015? Well, I think the first thing you’ll notice is how modern it sounds. It’s certainly a product of its time, but it’s not that big a leap from this record to something like Deltron 3030 or Madvillainy, or even RTJ2. To use a comparison I’ve used before on this blog, 36 Chambers is the Seinfeld of underground rap: to a modern ear, its explosive originality is essentially invisible, because so much of what set it apart from its contemporaries has been so widely adopted in its wake. Lots of rappers and producers owe their entire careers to the sound pioneered by RZA and the Clan, musically and lyrically. (Kanye names RZA as one of his biggest production influences.)

Of course, the Clan ended up being a bit of a victim of its own success. At the conclusion of the five-year plan, RZA took on more of a managerial role in the Clan, and its solo and group efforts thereafter have been met with very mixed responses. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, arguably the biggest mainstream success story of the clan, was in and out of prison and became increasingly unstable, as so many big musical personalities do, and eventually died of a drug overdose in 2004. And of course, the Wu-Tang sound and name being everywhere became a problem in itself; listening back on them today, the first round solo projects all sound kind of samey**. They oversaturated the market. He who fights monsters and all that.

Having now written 1,400 words about a 60-minute rap album from 20 years ago, I realize this is a lot of baggage to have to unpack. But luckily, even without this tome, 36 Chambers stands up on its own merits. Even though there are nine full Clan members, the chemistry between them is electric. (Don’t worry too much if you can’t pick everyone out by name by the end of the first listen, although a few are bound to stick in your mind. I’m curious to know who, though, and why.) The corny kung-fu dialogue, the sludgy soul loops and bloated low-end, the ghostly bit-crush of the RZA’s shitty sampler — it all just works. Even without the backstory, 36 Chambers is just a damn good rap album.

I hope you enjoy it.

— Matt

* This is yet another rabbit hole in a post already full of rabbit holes, but there’s a very interesting discussion to be had about the idea of masculinity in the lyrics of 36 Chambers. Maybe not on your first listen, but when you’re more familiar with the record, pay close attention to the things they rap about — and just as interestingly, don’t rap about — and how they rap about them. I’d love see an academic article that really digs into this aspect of the album.

** GZA’s Liquid Swords is still great, though.

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 1)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matt:

I have been looking through my past assignments to you and I’ve discovered a flaw in my approach.

From the start of this project, each of us has been trying to guide the other into unfamiliar musical territory. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times, we’ve generally been providing fairly non-standard entry points. That’s to be expected given how nerdy we both are, and it’s part of what keeps this so interesting.

But as I scanned our oeuvre thus far, I couldn’t help but think that my assignments have been borderline perverse. Nobody has ever suggested Van Der Graaf Generator as a possible ‘in’ to prog — let alone Magma. And, even my assignments drawn from the pool of ‘standards in their genre’ — Red and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady come to mind — have tended to be the sort of music that’s become standard specifically because of how it plays against the conventions of its genre.

This all goes double for my approach to classical music, so far. Come to think of it, I haven’t assigned you anything that can even be called ‘classical’ without some heavy qualifications. (Bartok, maybe. But even that’s a stretch.) Perhaps I ought to defer a bit more to the broader public’s notions of ‘the essentials.’

Yes, I like the sound of that. You need a firm grounding in the basics, Matt. You need ‘core repertoire.’ You need something that is, for us classical concert hall types, utterly standard to the point of monotony.

You need Beethoven 9.

(You can tell a real classical type by whether they refer to symphonies by cardinal or ordinal numbers, i.e. ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ vs. ‘Beethoven 9.’ Incidentally, that’s the same way you can tell an old-school Doctor Who nerd from a Nu-Who fan: ‘the Ninth Doctor’ vs. ‘Nine.’ In either case, both options are acceptable nomenclature.)

What shall I say about Beethoven 9? Well, I suppose the most important point to bring up is that there’s more to it than ‘Ode to Joy.’ That may seem obvious. But then, that melody is so synonymous with the phrase ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony’ that it may indeed come as a surprise for some that the ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t even crop up until over 45 minutes into the piece.

And when it does, it’s one of the most gratifying moments in all of music.

To my ears, even the most familiar parts of Beethoven 9 don’t have the whiff of mould about them that, say, Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ does. Or Beethoven 5, even. I can’t begin to speculate as to why that is, or if it’s true for anybody except me. But for all of my bluster about how the classical repertory is strangling the modern concert hall and silencing living composers, I would never question the common wisdom that this symphony is one of the best things ever accomplished by a human.

A colleague of mine, who isn’t really that much of a classical music person, once opined that Beethoven 9 is the best piece of music ever written because anybody can listen to it and enjoy every part of it. It isn’t my personal favourite piece, nor even necessarily in my top ten. But I find it hard to disagree with my colleague’s assessment. In modern parlance, Beethoven 9 is chock full of hooks.

Okay, enough eulogizing. You need context. This is Beethoven’s final symphony. It is the only one that he wrote during what’s thought of as his late period, premiering a full decade after his eighth. It was the first symphony of note to use voices and text — the ‘Ode to Joy’ is a setting of a poem by Schiller. There’s no overstating what a massive deal that was. Wagner would later interpret this as Beethoven proclaiming that instrumental music had run its course, and he used that interpretation to justify his decision to only write operas (or Gesamtkunstwerken, if you insist).

A quick word about the recording I’ve chosen: it’s a classic performance from 1962, by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was an old Nazi (no, an actual Nazi — though his sincerity has been questioned) who led the Berliners with an iron fist and a contemptful scowl for over three decades. By the end of his career, he’d shaped the orchestra into a slick monolith that sounded the same in Debussy as in Wagner. But early on, he made some recordings that are still considered the gold standard. This is one. (And for what it’s worth, it has sold massively well, over the years.)

Beethoven and Karajan were both angry, serious and unpleasant men, but this music is none of those things. It is effervescent and powerful, and has no desire to alienate anybody but rather to reach everybody. I hope it reaches you.

— Matthew

LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 1)

4533

Dear Matthew:

In my last post, I mentioned listening to music while exercising. You also pointed out that your last three assignments to me have been long compositions. With all that in mind, there’s no way your next assignment isn’t going to be LCD Soundsystem‘s 45:33.

As a person who generally follows music, there’s no way you haven’t heard of LCD Soundsystem. They were indie rock royalty in the mid to late 2000s, unquestioningly loved by all of the hip music publications and blogs that were rising to prominence at the time; they’re probably the first ever ‘buzz band’, in the sense that we might use that horrible term today (though its use does, thankfully, seem to be fading). The band was a project of James Murphy, cofounder of the New York indie dance label DFA Records, who was already in his early thirties when he started the band. This lead to a lot of hacky music writers calling him things like ‘indie rock’s elder statesman’ and ‘dance music’s resident old guy’. He made a jammy, dance-influenced style of indie rock with often contemplative and ironic lyrics that put him squarely in the camp of music universally loved by sad college kids of the early 21st century.

All of this, and the band only ever released three proper albums, over only seven years. After a series of singles, LCD Soundsystem released a self-titled debut LP in 2005, a widely lauded followup called Sound of Silver in 2007, and a final album called This Is Happening in 2010 before Murphy announced the end of the band in 2011.

I’m not sure what to call 45:33. It’s not usually lumped in with the band’s three studio albums, but it’s too long for me to be comfortable calling an EP. The title is ostensibly a reference to the two most common speeds of vinyl record playback*. It’s a one-off composition written and recorded by Murphy in 2006, commissioned by Nike for release under their Nike+ program as a piece of music made specifically for running. (This would have been at the same time he was working on Sound of Silver, and indeed a large instrumental chunk of 45:33 ended up on Sound of Silver with lyrics as the song ‘Someone Great’.) Marketing copy for the piece’s release talked about how it was designed to ‘reward and push’ at ideal points during a run, and how it had been refined by Murphy after numerous runs on a treadmill.

…except that this was all bullshit. A few years later — presumably after Nike’s exclusivity license was up and he was able to release the piece himself — Murphy admitted he had been lying through his teeth when he said the piece had been designed for running, and that he doesn’t even jog. He just wanted to make a longform disco record in the style of Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, and given his own label’s hesitancy due to the format’s unmarketability, he figured this was the only way he’d be able to do it. The music press — who, you’ll recall, unfalteringly loved everything Murphy ever touched — had of course eaten the whole thing up, leading to some pretty hilarious reviews where music blog hacks lauded the mix’s peaks and valleys that coincided so perfectly with their workout. While his label’s trepidation was no doubt a factor, I like to think that, at least on some level, Murphy just wanted to fuck with people.

All of LCD Soundsystem’s stuff tends to the long and jammy side, but on 45:33, Murphy takes that aspect of his music to its logical conclusion. As often seems to be the case around here, this is not the band’s conventionally accepted magnum opus, but I see no reason why it won’t be a great introduction to the band for you — and you’ve told me you’ve been meaning to give the band a listen for ages. So, now’s your chance. Go for a run while you listen to this piece. Or don’t! By Murphy’s own admission, it won’t matter. Either way, I think you’ll like this album a lot.

— Matt

*If Murphy had made the piece about 30 seconds shorter, it would have been exactly 45 minutes and 33 seconds long. This frustrates me to no end.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.