Within music are two contrary impulses, both worth nurturing: the impulse to focus on a main story, such as a lead melody or lead singer or soloist, maybe with a charismatic show-off taking center stage and acting as if all the music were his doing; and the opposing impulse to throw the various musical elements into conversation and competition with each other, to play around with both harmonies and disharmonies, attraction and distraction. Of course you can mix it up too, have melodies and show-offs and background riffs in competition with one another.
This tension exists in all genres. Different times have different inclinations. The 1940s had swing bands with singers in them, but as the decade went on these bands tended to be displaced by star singers with swing musicians backing them up. Jazz of the ’20s wavered between group improvisation and soloists with accompaniment. There’s always a push and pull between foreground and background, tightness and looseness.
At the moment, there are all these rock — especially metal — bands who are pulling their music together from various sources (blues-rock rhythms and licks, northern Euroclassical romantic darkness, Eastern mystery, hardcore thrash noise, new agey nice sounds, trance effects) but who integrate their material into a unified-seeming sound. And on the other hand there’s Recombinant Dub-Disco-Hip-Hop-Techno-House-Etc. (which I’ll call Recombinant Dub for short because I want to give Jamaica pride of place), which encompasses a whole lot of what’s been happening in the last 35 years — in disco, dancehall, hip-hop, r&b, house, techno, trance, Latin club, jungle. In Recombinant Dub, you take out the “lead” instrument — the singer, the melody, the lead guitar. So your center is no longer necessarily occupied by sound. Or if a sound does take center stage, it may not be what you expect from a frontman or soloist. The background may come to the fore, so that the effect of a simple change in rhythm, or the presence or absence of a cymbal, can be enormous. Or with the center now officially cleared away, anything from anywhere can be put into that front space (including soloists and singers and melodies), though no longer with the assurance that it can’t be displaced. And what’s been put back into the music can be twisted and treated and manipulated, and the new track can be a source for yet other recordings. From all this we get the mix-and-match that constitutes a lot of contemporary music.
But it’s not as if dub and rock have nothing to do with each other, given that a lot of the people at the headwaters of Recombinant Dub — including Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo and George Clinton and Norman Whitfield and Isaac Hayes and Kraftwerk — derived some of their spaciness from the psychedelic ’60s. And hip-hop pulls rock into its mix-and-match whenever it wants to. Jay-Z’s “Takeover” is built around a loop from the Doors’ “Five to One,” and M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” raps to the chord pattern from “House of the Rising Sun.” And some rock bands integrate techno devices into their songs. The self-titled CD by Rancid spin-off Transplants is full of tape loops and electrobeats while nonetheless being a tight, straightforward tuneful Clash-based punk record.
But I’m also noticing space and mix-and-match in current metal and rock bands, and not only those rock bands who do hip-hop or dub tracks (the Transplants have a couple dubby reggae numbers), but also bands who find rock or pop ways to create recombinant space. As I said, there’s ancestry for this: Led Zeppelin would punch strange holes in their sound; for instance, they’d bring it down to Robert Plant singing against nothing but his own echo. And even the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” — the tightest song ever by the tightest group ever — has a crucial break where they clear out all the other instruments, while the drum goes on with its relentlessly simple part. Extraordinarily dramatic.
Nowadays, dark-metal bands such as Opeth create “songs” (average track-length on Deliverance is 10 minutes, 30 seconds) that wander from style to style and, amidst the pummeling drums and bellowing werewolves, achieve a new age moodiness by emphasizing the darkly lush instrumental background (the new age will be full of shadows). And there’s a segment of “industrial” music that is probably the closest you’ll get to an official disco-metal genre. Wumpscut‘s Wreath of Barbs has as many synthesized beats and vocoder vocals as an electro album, albeit with clanks and crashes in the rhythm and the eerie, doomy (and pretty) melodies beloved by Goths, Visigoths, Huns, and all those other marauding tribes from the north. And if you eliminate the death-metal growling from Decoded Feedback‘s EVOlution LP (1999) you’re left with the sort of pretty Eurodisco tracks that you’d find on Donna Summer or Pet Shop Boys records, and if you eliminate the death growl from their Mechanical Feedback LP (2000) you’re close to trance. Their record company describes their forthcoming LP Shockwave as “pure aggro industrial” — perhaps “aggro” will turn out to be a euphemism for “ambient dub.”
“Discover the miracle of your third eye with the first truly heavy psychedelic rock record of the new millennium,” proclaims the cover sticker to Oneida‘s Each One Teach One, though Oneida seem “psychedelic” more in the merry-prankster sense than the Pink Floyd (“we’re trying to create a new genre called ‘one-step’ — we expect it to blow up big time, and get us on the cover of The Wire“); on the first track they don’t go for dub space, but they achieve its effect in the exact opposite way: by throwing into the foreground a near monolithic, nonstop repeating sound, the vocalists chanting “light light light light,” with the instruments seemingly all playing along in unison, whomp whomp whomp whomp. So it’s as if the center of the music were occupied by a giant boulder, this mass of repeating sound, wham wham wham wham. And as you listen harder, you discover all sorts of little variations underneath the gigantic sound: a drum shift, vocals going slightly out of phase, globs of organ that mutate into organ rolls. And the little variations become gigantic themselves, since they’re what vary the piece and give it shape. So you’ve got a giant boulder of sound, but beneath it is a teeming mess of motion and life.
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.
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.
Actually, someone has. On the album Sabbatum, Estonian medievalists Rondellus translate 12 Black Sabbath songs into Latin and arrange them for medieval instruments, and the results are haunting and not at all gimmicky. Interestingly, in adapting the music to medieval modes, Rondellus not only eliminate Sabbath’s heavy guitar riffs but also give short shrift to the band’s 19th-century Northern European romantic (or 20th-century horror film) chromatic density. And the result is that Sabbatum highlights how psychedelic — that is, how Eastern-sounding — Sabbath is. And I guess if you’re a musicologist (which I’m not, but I’ve read Peter van der Merwe’s Origins of the Popular Style) this shouldn’t surprise you, since 1000 years ago European music was generally derived from that of the Middle East — in fact the Mideast musical influence stretched from West Africa to Ireland. And so, in outlying parts of Europe that later resisted the newfangled do-re-mi scale — the rural parts of the British Isles, for instance — the Mideast influence hung on. And it not only hung on, but by way of both West Africa and the British Isles, crossed into the Southern United States. Which is one reason rock has an affinity for Eastern music.
Exile by Pharoah’s Daughter places a well-mannered Natalie Merchant-type folksinger in music that could be described either as Jewish-Arabian tropes inserted into British-derived folk music or as British-derived folk reconfigured for Jewish-Arabian modes. The instruments are almost all acoustic. The lyrics are personal and poetic: “If I join what’s moving, I may not notice how it stirs in me, grows in me.” This has a woman-folkie sense of quietness. So, my reaction on first hearing it? “It’s a goth-metal album.” I kept expecting power chords, pulsating sludge, and aggressive vocals. Which of course never came, but I still hear them in the music as potential.
On the first track of Montgomery Gentry‘s first album, these c&w whiners instructed us not to judge them until we’d walked in their shoes, while showing no interest themselves in what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s. On the title track of the new Our Town they tell us significantly that their local Church of Christ is well attended, but they make no mention of any mosques or synagogues and presumably wouldn’t want to know the Mideast ancestry of their twang. But their music isn’t content to just rock back on its reactionary haunches; instead, it filches rock ‘n’ roll “na-na-nas” and AOR harmonies and Mexican melodies and wicked slide guitars from near anybody’s palette. Montgomery Gentry are not as rambunctious and obnoxious this time, to their musical if not moral detriment, but nonetheless they rock harder than you do.
Field Mob don’t need caddies.
photo: Brad Miller
Southern hip-hoppers Field Mob aren’t afraid to go far afield either. Their rural identification (they’re from the small city of Albany, Georgia, but they make a point of their plantation slave heritage: “If you’re from the South, you’re from the fields”) doesn’t stop them from using Euroclassical moods in the same way that a lot of supposedly black-as-asphalt street rappers, e.g., the Cash Money groups, go for romantic motifs that would make Schubert and Beethoven proud. Since hip-hop always pulls in everything it can, the Euroclassical moods are only one of about 40 or 50 musical elements. On Field Mob’s new From tha Roota to tha Toota, the first orchestral riff you hear is Asian, and what follows is a clamorous mix of beats and tones and shouts and soul songs and what have you, all partying away.
Sole‘s raps on his Selling Live Water CD are surrounded by background moods — eerily beautiful whines and electroscrapes that have the feel of film music. If Sole had maintained the quality of the first two tracks, this could have been a seriously great album, despite his rather grim voice. What keeps the album undie/indie rap rather than mainstream isn’t what he puts in but what he keeps out: He doesn’t latch his voice onto the instrumental hooks or provide vocal hooks himself, or act like enough of a show-off (the first two tracks being partial exceptions). So he’s not doing something that the mainstream forbids so much as he’s failing to do something that the mainstream craves. That said, Eminem and Mannie Fresh and the Dungeon Family and RZA — hip-hoppers who do plenty with soundtracky tunes and tones — could learn a lot from his album.
Clouddead: Noise hum; voices pushed through a grinder or a radiator. Then a moodier, more musical hum. Singers in the distance, lost in hum. They wander from speaker to speaker, start talking. The hum won’t leave, won’t leave, finally fades. Piano notes stroll by. The distant talkers now contend with windstorms while dodging the occasional piano chord. Suddenly, orchestral strings well up, like a truck passing on the left, except they’re pretty rather than truck-ugly. Some guys are declaiming, I don’t know about what. Their cadences are like auctioneers’. And that’s just one cut. Even though Clouddead’s Odd Nosdam produced the title track on the Sole album, and the sounds on the Clouddead album sometimes fall into rhythm and the talking into meter, the record is probably too empty of rap and too full of static and clouds to meet most people’s definition of hip-hop — except for Clouddead’s own, of course. Intriguing, but you have to like clouds.
Isis, meanwhile, deserve praise for being the first metal band to come out and admit they’re the aural equivalent of calendar art. (Or at least that’s how I interpret their album title Oceanic.) They have guitar leads and a singer who does the usual death-metal rasping, but the general movement of the (glacially slow) guitar notes is to take us to gorgeously dark chords that loom massively against the night sky; and these chords are the music’s story. Pleasantly engulfing, but you have to like oceans.
Ugly Casanova‘s Sharpen Your Teeth seems deliberately vague. He’s dreaming along a back road, and the wind is rising. Each instrument is looking for an excuse to go its own way. A couple of singers rasp in the distance, sometimes to a pre-blues ring-shout type shuffle. You think you’re relaxing along with the lazy beat; then you realize it’s got you by the throat. Recombinant blues-rock shuffle, and it can be as compelling as anything by N.O.R.E. and Missy Elliott.
Much of the packaging and liner notes on The Only Blip-Hop Record You Will Ever Need Vol. 1 is tongue-in-cheek — e.g., the humorously self-canceling album title — but compiler David Byrne seems serious in saying that, since this European electronic music doesn’t appear to emerge from blues or folk traditions, it’s therefore pretending to be rootless and free from the weight of tradition. I don’t particularly hear that claim — I can think of other music that asserts its rootlessness far more emphatically. Blues, for instance. (Or are we supposed to think that when Robert Johnson goes, “I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’… there’s a hellhound on my trail,” he’s celebrating his rootedness and sense of place? This is a pet peeve of mine, but I wonder if people who consider blues a traditionalist music ever actually listen to it. And the metaphor “roots” needs to be retired or at least not treated as synonymous with “ancestry.”) Anyway, though the guys on this compilation use computers, they’re more enamored of bass and space than of blip. Enamored of dub, that is. This is music where you hear the texture of the bass beat and go, “Oh wow.” A lot is genuinely beautiful and seems designed to take you out of yourself and put your focus on blank space and the beats that surround it. And the music isn’t humorless, either — the Marie + Scratch track builds its beats out of electronically treated mouth farts. Some other guys here fill the blank spaces with spy-movie riffs, Memphis soul, bird cries, ska. Still, this is merely music to savor, like a fine wine. Stoner music for preppies.
Tarwater are on the Blip-Hop anthology with something dubbier and moodier than anything on their Dwellers on the Threshold CD, which is far better than I’d expect from an LP with “threshold” in the title. (If they’d asked me, I’d have told them to name it Dwellers in the Vestibule or Guys Who Sleep Under the Piano.) No matter how soft or exploratory or diffuse or squiggly they’re being, there’s a hard-rock pressure to everything they play, a basic push to the rhythm.
The “R.A.F.R.” in R.A.F.R. VOLUME 3 stands for “real ass-fucking rock.” No, it doesn’t; it’s a record label that calls itself “Rock and Fucking Roll,” and this compilation is of bands in Ramones or Cramps or tuneful punkcore mode, copying the punk ferment from 1975 to 1981 without catching anything like the range of that ferment, or the ferment itself, much less any of the ferment that’s hit us since. To my surprise, damn near every track makes me smile. But this record raises a puzzling issue: All bands draw on the past, and a lot I’ve mentioned (Ramones and Cramps included) are quite explicit and gleeful in pointing toward the sources they’re pilfering. But some current bands ape a style to the point where they might as well have a year draped around their neck: Kaisers (1963), Greenhornes (1966), Mooney Suzuki (1969). And others will drape themselves around a beloved predecessor: Richmond Sluts (Heartbreakers), Overthrowthe (Velvet Underground). There’s a fallacy in taking someone else’s journey to be your destination, though fallaciousness doesn’t necessarily make the music bad, just different. I don’t mind in principle that the Kaisers and Resonars take the hate music of my mid-1960s youth and try to turn it into pale formalist beauty. Hate just can’t be gotten from those notes anymore, anyway. (The Kaisers’ Shake Me and the Resonars’ Lunar Kit rarely go beyond the pale into beauty, unfortunately.)
The Greenhornes could even be cast as the garage-rock band in a movie that’s set in 1966. They’re very canny in their accuracy; Dual Mono, like thousands of records from that time, even has a blues song with a riff like “Smokestack Lightning.” Another track is a full-fledged Yardbirds rave-up. The group can’t reproduce the sense of how noise, energy, and restlessness exploded out of the era’s tuneful popcraft and threatened to upend it, given that those old fuzztones and distortion and power chords are now so run-of-the-mill that they’re no longer incendiary. But the Greenhornes do make the sounds seem special — tentatively psychedelic, as if the band had just heard their first Yardbirds album and wanted to try it themselves. And those sounds also capture what a Yardbirds rave-up was — a beat crescendo with stuff thrown into it. Which is not unrelated to Tarwater and techno.
The Gore Gore Girls, though, would be my exhibit Number One of bands that seem to be hiding in a cutie-culty Way Back Then but have a sound and passion that could bring us beyond Right Now. Up All Night is girl-group and hot-rod music of the early ’60s but played with cheap rawness, clatter, and a searching, slashing guitar style that comes from a Stones-Stooges sensibility of calamity and anger that in its time had superseded music like that of the girl groups, put it out of business. The Gore Gores come off as neither girl-group sweetness nor Stooges fury. So I don’t know what I’m feeling when I hear this, but I’m feeling something.
The Brazen Hussies‘ Ya-Ba EP pointedly draws on the past without seeming at all past, mixes and matches without coming across as a mishmosh. They play punk, glam, prog, metal, disco as if each were an extension of the others; they pull it off because each genre really does extend to the others. The Hussies sound like cheerful sprites who grasp the common goofiness of ’70s metallers Blue Öyster Cult and ’90s techno-ravers 4 Hero, so naturally will flit from one to the other.
Rock had once laid claim to the future (“Hail hail rock ‘n’ roll, deliver me from days of old”), and not even the retro rockers are trying to be traditionalists. Whatever Mooney Suzuki, the Greenhornes, the Gore Gore Girls, et al. are doing, it’s not traditionalism. (More likely they want to stay true to some spirit or reanimate an ideal, as well as find musical forms to play with.) But basically, since the Recombinant Dubsters — particularly in hip-hop and techno — have usurped the official role of Conveyors of the Future, this frees rockers to evolve in all sorts of directions without worrying about which way is “forward.” The forward spot is already occupied. (And the rock bands that do make a point of their modernity — the industrial acts like Wumpscut — always sound like they’re playing catch-up, anyway.) So metal especially can mutate and reconfigure itself all over the place while still being a subcult rather than a “trend.” I won’t generalize as to whether being free of the future is good or not. It’s safer, and safety can free up some people and make others lazy. But at the moment, the space is wide open and everything’s for the taking.
Record labels: Booty Olympics; Brazen Hussies, Peanut import; Clouddead, Mush; Decoded Feedback, Metropolis; Field Mob, MCA; Gore Gore Girls, Get Hip; Greenhornes, Telstar; Kay Hanley, Rounder; Isis, Ipecac; Kaisers, Get Hip; Kultur Shock, Kool Arrow; Montgomery Gentry, Columbia; Morsel, Small Stone; Oneida, Jagjaguwar; The Only Blip-Hop Record You Will Ever Need Vol. 1, Luaka Bop; Opeth, Koch; Pharoah’s Daughter, Knitting Factory; Puffy AmiYumi, Bar None; R.A.F.R. Volume Three, R.A.F.R.; Resonars, Get Hip; Rondellus, Beg the Bug import; Six by Seven, Beggars Banquet; Sole, Anticon; Tarwater, Kitty-Yo/Mute; Transplants, Hellcat; Ugly Casanova, Sub Pop; Wumpscut, Metropolis. The Booty Olympics play Don Hill’s December 28.