The Onslaught

Recombinant Rock in the Valley of Dub

I've been paying attention to all this Recombinant Rock while working on a simple idea: These days, thousands and thousands of recordings come out every year—an onslaught—and there's no way a person, or music section, or magazine, or profession, can absorb them all. And the people making this music are taking it to the most important public space they know of: sound recording. Trying to get it to us as fast as they can, so the distinction between demo and release hardly exists anymore. I decided to throw myself at a lot of CDs that the Voice hadn't gotten to, just to see what would happen. I was getting ideas as I listened, and let the ideas determine whom I would write about. Two themes kept jumping me as I listened: How do musicians put together their source material? And how do they go about signaling their relationship to this material—and their relationship to the past?

Take the question: How do you draw on '60s Beatle-pop? On Boystyle, the three women in the Booty Olympics do a Beatley tuneful-oonful thing, but like the Bangles and Go-Gos of old they play it somewhat rock-tough, so as not to come off as little-girl cutesy poo. Their rock is not necessarily retro, but it doesn't identify itself with the present, either. Kay Hanley is in the same tuney territory on Cherry Marmalade, yet doesn't mind singing cute or letting her voice belong to modern-day commercial pop; what's potentially innovative is her songwriting overload, which is based on the principle: Why settle for one or two melodies and moods per song when you can create four or five? Japanese duo Puffy AmiYumi take this principle further. On The Illustrated History of Puffy AmiYumi they not only chirp their way cutely through several melodies in a song, but arrange each melody in a different style—mostly '60s (a Beatles melody, say, then surf-guitar, then Byrds guitar), but also Afro-Brazilian, electropop, tour-boat international disco, and so forth. Their mix-and-match is their way of claiming control, as if to say: Even though we didn't come up with these sounds ourselves, we're the ones putting them together. We're in charge.

On Six by Seven's The Way I Feel Today, the singer puts Everlys-Beatles wiggles in his voice, but sings wistfully pale, so you think of sweet beauty off in the sorrowful mist; but the band will insert drones and dissonance. And then they'll hit you with a fast hard loud punk track. And then go back to fey'd-out McCartney, then grinding sound layers reminiscent of Sonic Youth. And then a Dylanesque voice through the roar. Tuneful sadness, at all speeds and volumes.

One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida
photo: Courtesy Jagjaguwar Records
One-step Brooklyn boulder-holders Oneida

Six by Seven's mix-and-match is between the songs rather than within them, and isn't about asserting control so much as about displaying the range of their sensibility. But the musical shifts aren't shifts in identity, since to root around eclectically in pop and rock is a standard postpunk indie bohemian move. So the shifts don't mean much and don't put the band interestingly at odds with itself. If the band had done a Celine Dion torch song followed by growling, darkness-drenched goth metal followed by Trick Daddy thug hip-hop, now those would be changes in identity.

Kultur Shock are in the same boat, though they might wish otherwise. On Fucc the INS (band members from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Seattle, and Japan, which might explain their hostility to border patrols) they sing Backstreet Boys lyrics and play death-metal riffs but don't go deeply enough into those sounds to inhabit them socially. Their general strategy is to throw Eastern European dance tunes into a mix-and-match with jazzy riffing and metal guitar skronk, which fit nicely into their Euro-dance-folk clatter. The band risk being self-conscious to the point of total preciousness, but actually they're a hoot.

Kultur Shock deploy their mishmosh to an effect that's different from Puffy AmiYumi's. Puffy AmiYumi are simply putting on display for us that they take in a lot of sounds, whereas Kultur Shock want their disparate sounds to pierce borders, create shock—which is the band's own method of asserting control.

The musicians on Morsel's Para Siempre have great technique and can play almost anything they put their minds to—rock, techno, jazz, funk, drum'n'bass—all with the noise edge that progressive musos have been putting into their sound for 30 years. The drawback is that they come on as bright young men working on their chemistry sets, and I wonder where the psychological need is in the music. The wild card is Miriam Cabrera, who sings with hip trip-hop mannerisms and definitely sounds full of need. I've tended to think such mannerisms are stylized bullshit, but bullshit doesn't necessarily mean bad music, and her stance and the musicians' chops give sociological passion and visceral force to the whole operation.

The first track on the LP has modern-day dance-club beats accompanying music that sounds like Eastern Europe of several centuries back (E. Europe as I imagine it, that is). This reminds me that people are willing to pour almost any old sound over a modern rhythm track. But I wonder why no one ever does the reverse, plays rhythms from, say, the 1700s or the 1300s and puts modern sounds on top.

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