The Brooklyn Underground Pushes Forward, Looks Back

Retro vertigo

Consider the towering drum riff that opens The Ronettes' 1963 chart-topper "Be My Baby," reappropriated in a self-consciously retro fashion by The Jesus and Mary Chain on their 1985 game-changing single and album opener "Just Like Honey." As crafted by Phil Spector, the beat is perky but firm, its pop lightness supported by the superproducer's unshakeable wall of sound. The Jesus and Mary Chain, on the other hand, drench the tom-and-snare beat in a wave of sensual feedback.

Already this summer, I've seen several bands independently recycle this beat—Future Islands pulled it out when they stopped by Terminal 5 in June, and The Black Angels used it while headlining the Voice's 4Knots Music Festival—and have heard others using it on record, with the most high-profile use probably coming on Lady Gaga's "Hair." In none of these cases—except maybe Gaga's—does the allusion feel as self-conscious as it did on "Just Like Honey"; instead, the syncopated beat serves as a nod to pop history as a whole rather than an attempt to replicate a single artist's sound. "I do think certain songs sound '80s or '60s," says O.J. San Felipe of "Gotham City low lifes" Xray Eyeballs, who use the riff on their new album Not Nothing (Kanine). His explanation elided the detail of what, exactly, his band might be referencing: "But I never aimed to have it sound retro. It just came out like that."

This issue of "retro" began to surface toward the end of Voice contributor Simon Reynolds' authoritative post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Again, but it receives fuller treatment in Retromania (Faber & Faber), an exploration of the backward-looking culture in which he admits to being complicit. Odds are, you're complicit too, and with the new book you'll likely find something that will interest or provoke. Take his spot-on indictment of the current moment's so-called avant-garde: "The very people who you would have once expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional or groundbreaking—that's the group who are most addicted to the past."

Xray Eyeballs: Engaging in Retromania
Courtesy Tell All Your Friends
Xray Eyeballs: Engaging in Retromania

Look no further than Brooklyn, where the resurgence of a sound revived by The Jesus and Mary Chain overlaps with the waxing popularity of the "twee" aesthetic, an ideal of earnestness that can verge into preciousness and whose sound is commonly associated with labels like Sarah Records and C86, a cassette compilation produced by the British music magazine NME 25 years ago. A tradition that once survived only as an overdubbed subculture has, in the three years since the release of the first album by New York-based indiepoppers Vivian Girls, transformed almost into a nostalgic zeitgeist that has pushed bands like Best Coast, who add '60s surf pop into the mix and got their start opening for Vivian Girls, toward Target co-signs and Drew Barrymore-directed videos.

With Best Coast, whose Bethany Cosentino once co-founded the Los Angeles band Pocahaunted, the Brooklyn scene dovetails into another retro sub-genre: hypnagogic pop. Reynolds has extensively catalogued the genre in the Voice and elsewhere; it often nods to or incorporates fragments of old pop culture with a looseness that enchants some and infuriates others. ("Hypnagogic" refers to the state one enters immediately before sleep.)

But one of Reynolds' more interesting moves is to reclaim nostalgia and cast the concept in a potentially positive light. "Nostalgia gets a bad rap," he writes, "but it can be creative, even subversive. . . . Nostalgia-driven movements can function as ways of getting through doldrums eras, keeping faith until the next 'up' phase."

This seems to be what Frankie Rose, formerly of both Vivian and Dum Dum Girls, is getting at when describing the creative process behind her former band's debut. "I don't even think it was particularly original," she says, citing early twee bands like Shop Assistants and Primal Scream. "I just thought it was something that we could do, that was within our skill sets." And what accounts for how quickly the sound caught on? "It wasn't new and exciting. Maybe it was refreshing."

On the other hand, those skeptics ready to point anywhere from the '60s garage rock-influenced punks to R&B-sampling hip-hop pioneers in order to suggest that the avant-garde has always been addicted to the past would be interested in the book's sprawling second section, which makes stops at Biba, Northern Soul, and the Richard Nader Rock & Roll Revival shows that began selling out Madison Square Garden way back in 1969 as it looks back on the last sixty years of looking back.

Reynolds emerges out of this historical journey continuing to insist that there remains something, well, new about today's brand of retro. For starters, it seems that an "authentic" original to which one might be harkening back is becoming increasingly obscured or displaced by the presence of loads of imitations and imitations of imitations, much like the photocopied photocopies that often serve as album art for hypnagogic cassettes. It might do us best to think of the "Be My Baby" beat the same way. When I asked Future Islands about their appropriation, they responded that the beat was just something they programmed into their computer and e-mailed YouTube clips of other bands engaging in similar tributes.

In a time dominated by the push for new technology, new content and up-to-the-minute reactions, deference to and longing for something that's truly new, never before seen or heard, haunts Retromania. In his epilogue Reynolds lists songs and albums that once seemed to offer something of the future—the list moves from Donna Summer's stretched-out disco groundbreaker "I Feel Love" through 1983's Into Battle with the Art of Noise and into Aaliyah's baby-assisted 1998 track "Are You That Somebody?"—and writes, half in order to provoke and half because he actually wants to know, "This attachment on the part of young people to genres that have been around for decades mystifies me. Don't they want to push them aside?"

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