LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 2)

4533

Dear Matt:

BING-DUNG! Activity started. Warm up: five minutes.

In criticism — I’m using the word here in the sense that academics use it — the notion of authorial intent has been nearly irrelevant since 1967, when Roland Barthes wrote this thing, and probably for some time before. I know this is a thing you think about because you wrote this on your other, Parsons-less blog. (Can I call it “One Matt?”)

As I understand it, in the limited way of somebody who’s never formally studied any of this, author-based criticism reached a tipping-point around the time of Barthes’ piece. Barthes railed against critics who attempted to use the life experiences, politics and social milieu of a text’s author as evidence for a single, authoritative (I use the world pointedly) reading of the text. He called for the author’s voice to be drowned out by the voice of the text itself, which is the thing that truly speaks.

In criticism, on the other hand — now I’m using the word in the sense that most people do, as regards movie reviews and blog posts by armchair scholars like us — we seem to still be holding on to the author, such that questions like “To what extent is Mr. Oizo taking the piss?” “Does Ian Anderson secretly love prog?” and “Is James Murphy fucking with us?” still seem to be worth posing.

BING-DUNG! First interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

I listened to 45:33 while running, with regular interjections from the female robot voice of Runkeeper, my workout app of choice (and also the source of this post’s silly structural gimmick). I took this approach because I wanted to assess, with the benefit of knowing the background you outlined in your assignment, whether 45:33 is actually good running music or not.

It is. It’s quite excellent running music. Slotted right in with my intervals. So, if we accept that 45:33 is good running music, what does that say about James Murphy and the critics who took him at his word when he lied to them about his jogging habits?

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Let’s work backwards. The story as you told it ends with a legion of overzealous writers having egg all over their faces. They had failed the Emperor’s New Clothes test. Shorn of all credibility, they stood exposed as charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Murphy’s truth may have been that 45:33 has nothing to do with running. But the text’s truth contradicts that. And the text is the thing that truly speaks. I daresay that if Murphy believes that this album isn’t running music, he’s misunderstanding his own work. As such, I hereby find those critics innocent of these particular charges. There are other charges they will have more trouble dodging. But more on that shortly.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Before we move on, I want to address how angry I sometimes get about the derision levelled at critics by artists. Frank Zappa comes to mind, immediately. So does Birdman. The theatre critic in that movie (which I love in every way except for this) has a shitty attitude towards art, but the movie has an even shittier attitude towards that critic. It makes her openly, gleefully malevolent, which I sincerely don’t believe is a truthful characterization of how respectable critics think.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

No doubt many individual critics deserved Frank Zappa’s derision. But, I personally believe — in utterly self-aggrandizing fashion — that criticism, journalism, and related disciplines are arts no lesser than the arts they critique. I had an epiphany to that effect near the end of my music degree program, at which point I immediately applied for journalism school.

Evidently, you disagree with me on this, or at least you did in February of 2012. But Barthes appears to be on my side. If the author is metaphorically dead, that leaves only the reader. Good critics are very skilled readers and thus, invaluable — so long as they focus on the texts themselves. If, you know, you agree with Barthes on this. Which I only sometimes do.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

The narrative you outlined with respect to 45:33 suggests Zappa-like malevolence on Murphy’s part. If we accept for argument’s sake that there was something for Murphy’s critics to be ashamed of when the ‘truth’ came out, that means that it was Murphy himself who pulled the rug out from under them. And that would make him a more mean-spirited, slightly lesser human (though not a lesser artist, because the art speaks for itself).

But, like you, I’m not exactly convinced that Murphy was actually pulling an Emperor’s New Clothes swindle. If there was a swindle afoot (pun?), one suspects that Nike (pun.) may have been the target.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

But, naturally, we now come to the point where I say that none of this matters. I’ve already absolved Murphy’s fawning critics for praising his possibly bullshit workout mix, on the basis that it is a good workout mix. But there’s another sin that I can’t absolve them of, and that’s the fact that they so resolutely based their critiques of 45:33 on any professed authorial intention at all.

In other words, we’re charging these critics with the wrong crime. It isn’t that they have faulty bullshit meters. They are not charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

They are fetishists.

They fetishize the personalities behind the things they are ostensibly critiquing, such that the novelty of Murphy making a workout mix supersedes the music itself. Indeed, the fact that LCD Soundsystem could become a ‘buzz band’ at all comes entirely down to this critical approach.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Perhaps that’s why criticism — in the common sense, not the academic sense — is derided in so many quarters (not least of which is academia — someday, I’ll introduce you to the work of Joseph Kerman). It is at least partially about applying value judgements to people’s personalities. And that is ever-so-slightly skeevy.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Here’s the part where I capitulate.

Naturally, music criticism and journalism that focuses on the musician often makes for deeply interesting reading. I am endlessly fascinated with the process of making art, and I don’t have any desire to see music writers stop interviewing artists, or taking note of the autobiographical elements in music. But, I would like to see close listening take more of a role in what music writers do.

(I admit that I’m saying this partially so that I don’t have to hold myself to the standards I’m setting up in this post. Take heed of my current Twitter bio: “Opinions mutable, fatuous and best ignored.”)

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Thanks for this one, Matt. 45:33 is fantastic, and thinking about all of this really put me through my paces.

BING-DUNG! Workout complete.

— 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.

Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 2)

majorlazer

Dear Matt,

If this seems like a poorly thought out response, fair enough. It’s been a week.

This album is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for from this project, like A Walking Fire was for you. It strikes me as something that’s as central to your sensibility as a music fan as Brooklyn Rider is to mine — which means that Guns Don’t Kill People was always going to be a tough sell for me. I have some problems with this album, but I’m intrigued.

I’m definitely not the right person to attempt to parse the probably somewhat problematic cultural appropriation on this album. (I fully acknowledge my cowardice.) But I can certainly understand your preference for this over an album full of ‘bass drops and white people.’ That sounds terrible. Whereas Guns Don’t Kill People is the complete opposite of that sort of lazy blandness. Its entire appeal comes from how totally bonkers it is (those videos!), and the fact that it takes inspiration from sounds that come from outside of Diplo and Switch’s narrow cultural sphere.

Now comes the part where I say denigrating things for several paragraphs, in spite of my general admiration for the album. I know it’s becoming a habit, but I can’t help being perverse.

To me, Kala absolutely towers over this. The reason for that is, for all of its eclecticism, Kala still has one foot in pop songwriting. And the fact that my favourite track on that album is still ‘Paper Planes’ probably indicates that I value that characteristic. Hell, even Thick as a Brick is structured around (deeply unconventional) pop songwriting. I tend to like my pop songs clothed in somewhat flamboyant garb — be it prog rock bombast or a Diplo beat — but that doesn’t change the underlying value.

(The fact that your next assignment will have absolutely nothing to do with the craft of songwriting ought to indicate just how inconsistent my musical value system is. I am not at all sorry for this.)

Basically, my issue with Guns Don’t Kill People is that there’s no figure equivalent to M.I.A. on it — nobody to provide the raw goods for Diplo and Switch to dress up in mad, eclectic sonic outfits. (Though I did love that B-side with her on it.) Instead, we get a cavalcade of guests who each seem somewhat incidental to Diplo and Switch’s central concept. Aside from the Paul Simon-esque colonialist implications of that, which we’ve agreed to blithely ignore, this presents an aesthetic problem for me: for all of its internal cohesion and its high-concept grandstanding, Guns still feels like it lacks a core. It feels like a very attractive coat that nobody’s wearing.

And as for the guest artists — who occasionally wander by the coat, but never really consider putting it on — they’re a bit hit-and-miss, aren’t they? M.I.A.’s politics may piss a bunch of people off, but they make for more interesting listening than ‘Mary Jane.’ Granted, that’s an easy target and I’m a humourless d-bag. ‘What U Like,’ then.

So clearly, I didn’t love this. I liked it, basically. But I’d stick it at the lower end of my positive responses on this blog — above the Micronauts, certainly. But significantly lower than, say, Belle and Sebastian.

Okay, then. On to your next assignment, which I hope will be as challenging for you as this was for me.

— Matthew

Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 1)

majorlazer

Dear Matthew:

As alluded to previously, I’ve been wanting to give you this album for a while now, and your last assignment was chosen at least in part as a setup for it. This week, you’ll be listening to Major Lazer‘s debut album, Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do.

Major Lazer is a laser-armed Jamaican commando from the future who rides around on a rocket skateboard fighting the undead. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a musical project originally started by Diplo and Switch — two producers who you may recall having produced most of your last assignment, M.I.A.’s Kala. Major Lazer is their take on the music of Jamaica — mostly dancehall and reggae, with a bit of good old-fashioned pop and electronic bullshit thrown in for good measure. They work extensively with Jamaican artists and Guns Don’t Kill People was recorded at Tuff Gong, a legendary recording studio in Kingston that’s been used by Bob Marley, among many others. Major Lazer is sparse and futuristic and wonky and disorienting in all the best ways.

…or at least, that’s what Major Lazer used to be. A short time after the release of Guns Don’t Kill People, Switch left the band due to ‘creative differences’, and while he did work on a few songs on the band’s second album, Major Lazer is now essentially just a Diplo solo project. It’s been kind of heartbreaking to watch such a unique and interesting band go from the astonishing nugget of weirdness and awesomeness that is Guns Don’t Kill People to what it is now — especially since it’s made them a huge international success. Their third album came out a few weeks ago, and while it’s got some decent tunes, it mostly just makes me sad. It’s full of trap and bass drops and white people, and the production is very noisy and in-your-face, but not in a good way. It’s not an album, it’s just a bunch of tracks meant for DJs to play in clubs. Sigh.

They used to be so much better, man. You know, before they sold out. *takes drag on clove cigarette*

But I digress. Seeing what happens to a band when you take half of it away is interesting from an academic standpoint, if nothing else. Diplo (who produced your standout Kala track ‘Paper Planes’) is very much a DJ at heart. He’s a straightforward guy who makes straightforward music. His reputation as an oddball producer is really only because he’s ahead of the curve in knowing who to work with and what sounds are on the bleeding edge of what’s ‘in’. (There’s a discussion about white appropriation of black culture to be had somewhere in regard to this album, and Diplo is probably at the centre of it.)

Switch, on the other hand, is much more of a producer. (He produced — well, he produced most of the rest of Kala, actually. And a lot of Matangi, which is why I love it so much.) In comparing old Major Lazer to new Major Lazer, he is very obviously the source of the weirdness and sparseness of the first album. He brings a level of restraint to to the studio that Diplo just can’t muster. I think that’s why the first album works so well — Switch is able to rein in Diplo’s madness and bring a level of focus to the project that it now seems to utterly lack. Switch is the reason Guns is a cohesive album rather than just a bunch of songs like the newer albums. (This is probably also why he works so well with M.I.A.)

Anyway, this is turning into more of rant about why I don’t like a band’s new music than actually saying anything useful about the record at hand, so I should probably wrap it up and hand it over to you. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Jamaican music, but if not, it’s time for a crash course in patois. This album is all over the place, but if you liked Kala, there’s definitely something here for you somewhere. It’s controlled chaos. It’s lightning in a jar. It’s Major Lazer. Booyaka.

— Matt

PS: There’s also a Major Lazer cartoon. It’s essentially a sendup of bad 80s action cartoons like G.I. Joe, and it’s about as insane as you’d expect. Also, J.K. Simmons plays the president of future Jamaica. Yeah.

PPS: Bonus M.I.A.-featuring B-side.

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 2)

Kala

Dear Matt:

This tweet notwithstanding, I can detect no connection between M.I.A. and Kate Bush. But hey, one’s ears are one’s own. Moving on.

I have never been much for subtlety. You will have gathered that by now. That tendency extends from my taste in rock to my preference of Beethoven string quartets. (Opus 132, please. Keep your 127.) So, M.I.A’s aesthetic is well within the ballpark of ‘stuff I tend to like.’ (Subtle as a landmine, indeed.) Kala’s great.

But, let me be totally honest: after a couple of listens, ‘Paper Planes’ still eclipses everything else on the album. You may find that disappointing, the same way I do when someone informs me that their favourite Jethro Tull song is ‘Aqualung,’ or their favourite Peter Gabriel song is ‘Sledgehammer.’

Why should that be disappointing, though? Once in a while, the slightly-left-of-centre (though not necessarily obscure) artists that thinky music people* listen to make a song that allows the rest of the world to get in on the joy. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Of course it is. That, for me, was a key takeaway of the most tiring ideological debate in pop culture over the last decade.

But, to write that just now, I had to subdue a tremendous amount of pathological geekiness and symphony-goer snobbery. Because, the fact is, the music that speaks most deeply to me speaks to a relatively small number of people. I’m under no illusions that there’s any superiority in that. But, some part of me can’t help thinking that when an artist does manage to conjure the secret sauce for a ‘Paper Planes’ or a ‘Sledgehammer,’ they sacrifice something that makes the bulk of their music so meaningful to the true believers.

And it’s entirely possible that I’m not equipped to be a true believer in this case. You entreated me in your assignment to engage with M.I.A.’s mashup aesthetic, and consider her as one of the first breakout artists of the digital age. And while I love mashups in concept, I suspect that some of the effect was lost on me in this case, since Kala appears to mostly reference stuff I’ve never heard of. The only references I caught were the Clash and the Pixies — the first only because you told me, and the second only because of Fight Club.

But, I’ve just realized that I’m doing that thing again where I make it seem like I enjoyed an album less than I did. I really enjoyed Kala, and I’ll definitely be checking out more M.I.A. One of the structural weaknesses in this project is that it can only ever be about first impressions. Ten listens from now, ‘Paper Planes’ might be my least favourite track on the album.

— Matthew

*These people are the worst. (Mea culpa.)

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 1)

Kala

Dear Matthew:

If you’ll recall, I once posited on this blog that Kate Bush was the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars. (New readers: in context, this is more flattering than it sounds. I promise.) When I talked about the modern female art-pop stars she influenced, I mentioned Björk and Fever Ray, but mostly I was thinking of M.I.A. This week, you’ll be listening to her album Kala.

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam — get it? M.I.A.? — is a British-born Tamil who grew up in Sri Lanka during the outbreak of civil war, something that has underscored much of her artistic career. She makes a chaotic sort of electro rap pop type of music that is often highly political in nature. She also draws on many other genres from around the world, from dancehall to baile funk to Bollywood film scores. A trained visual artist, she’s also known for the striking visual elements of her music, including videos, fashion and art. Combine all of these traits, and you have someone almost destined to get huge if she happened to be around at the advent of the digital music revolution. And hey, guess what?

Her first album, Arular (named for her father, a prominent member of a militant group called EROS), caught the ears of all the hip music bloggers when it came out in 2005, right around when music bloggers were starting to become a thing. But it wasn’t until Kala (named for her mother) that she really blew up, and blow up she did — you are hopefully at least passingly familiar with the Clash-sampling mega-hit ‘Paper Planes‘. Kala is also when she first teamed up with producer Switch, and also features further collaborations with Diplo, who was still relatively unknown at the time (and also her boyfriend). In contrast to the comparatively stark beats of her bedroom-produced debut, it’s a lush, worldly collage of sounds — owing to the fact that it was literally recorded around the world. It’s a bombastic, idiosyncratic, in-your-face record, and it solidified her place in the pantheon of internet pop stars. It was probably about as successful as you could ever ask a ‘difficult sophomore album’ to be.

I’ll be honest: Kala is not my favourite M.I.A. album*. But this assignment isn’t about listening to her ‘best’ album — this is about the context. I want to hear your thoughts on one of the first big albums of the digital era, an album that arguably couldn’t have been made in any other era. I want you to really dig into Kala‘s mashup aesthetic. I want you to see how many musical allusions, references and samples you can identify in its sonic collage, and to know how you feel about them. And, of course, I want to know if my Kate Bush analogy is grounded in any sort of reality.

M.I.A. isn’t for everyone. She’s about as subtle as a landmine, and her politics certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way. But her music is like nothing else out there, and that’s more than most can say. Even if you don’t love it, I hope you at least find it interesting.

— Matt

* For the longest time that was Arular, but it’s been recently supplanted by the extremely good Matangi. I’ve warmed up a lot to /\/\ /\ Y /\ over the years, too. In fact, now that I think about it, Kala might actually be my least favourite M.I.A. album. But again! Not the point.

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