Welcome to the second post of album roundup week, where I tackle more releases that I want to spill ink about. Beats Etc = electronic music for home listening, really, but that won’t fit in a headline.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Simon Reynolds’ broadside in Energy Flash against the “dead-end redundancy” of electronic listening music was ill-considered. Sure, he had a point about much of it being mere sonic wallpaper; in preparation for this post I abandoned at least three albums on reputable labels that I just couldn’t bring myself to slag off. But there are and have been so many discs that likely wouldn’t work in any kind of club environment yet that are totally engaging and listenable that I have to wonder whether Reynolds’ argument was more born out of a reaction to the music’s social component, that oppositional stance toward dance-music-for-dancing perfectly embodied in the term “Intelligent Dance Music” more so than the concept itself. To be fair, IDM purists may have been the most annoying subgenre nerds in the history of dance music. I certainly was one. You can have my Otto Von Schirach records, I’ve atoned.
Four Tet to my ears has always been better in the home than in the club, some of his latter-day 12-inches excepted, and Beautiful Rewind is no exception. It is exceptional, though, in that it sounds a lot like an ode to the aesthetics of pirate radio in the early 1990s, with its sometimes garbled sonics and extremely tight repetition. I was fascinated to read in the Wu Tang manual that part of what drove the early RZA productions was the fact that his sampler could only hold very short samples, so the minimalism of something like “Can It Be That It Was All So Simple Then” was driven at least in part by the technology. I get a similar vibe from Beautiful Rewind, where the vocal samples are short, clipped, mostly unidentifiable and sometimes incomprehensible, but so infectious. The Janet Jackson-like vocal snippet repeated over and over in “Parallel Jalebi” bleed into each other like burst egg yolks slowly winding their way around a frying pan before coalescing into a deliciously viscous mixture – and then cross into the next track, “Our DIrection.” Â There’s a nagging urgency to the stuttering voices sprinkled liberally across the disc, but Beautiful Rewind is still a strangely calm album – even “Kool FM” with its drum n bass-like palette won’t jolt you out of your reverie. It works in the way that Four Tet’s last couple of albums have: it’s meaty, beaty and bouncy, but rarely big. And that’s fine by me.
I’m a little surprised by Ryan Hemsworth’s debut album, and, it somewhat pains me to admit, not always in a good way. I fully expected it to be in the vein of Hudson Mohawke’s big-screen trap-informed but over-the-top batty productions; instead it plumbs downright melancholy depths, sometimes to the point of channeling trip hop gloom. There’s no question the guy’s got an ear for mellow music with a satisfying bite to it. The undulating patterns swirling beneath Lofty305’s vocals on “Against A Wall” make the rattling of the snares and popping kicks almost superfluous, if they weren’t all so perfectly syncopated together. And there are tantalizing hints of ambition in the volatile likes of “Weird Life” or even “Ryan Must Be Destroyed,” where bombast in the form of gong hits and unabashed soaring melodies keep the track moving steadily upwards in intensity. Still, a track like “Small + Lost” seems pallid and predictable next to Hemsworth’s remix work – and the nicest thing I could say about the collab with Baths is that it almost makes Morcheeba seem ahead of their time. Home listening music doesn’t mean you should be able to ignore it.
Paper Bag Records
I just about lost it when CFCF’s Continent album came across my desk in 2009, being not just the perfect distillation of the Balearic sounds I had been hearing in fits and starts, but also Canadian – not many people here were doing anything like what Mike Silver had cooked up, and none of them doing it as well. I wasn’t initially quite as jazzed about Outside, I have to admit, though only because my esteem for Continent was so high. Or maybe I’m just not ready for it.
The thing CFCF does better than any other producer I can think of is to carve out a unique space of infinite unease, a sonic vista that stretches out grandiosely in front of you without ever quite allowing you to admire it unreservedly. Doesn’t sound like fun, I know, but I also can’t turn it off. I get sucked into tracks like “Jump Out Of The Train” no matter how much the aspartame-artificial wood block sounds make me smile in vague recognition of what I probably heard watching educational videos in junior high. Speaking of ambition, CFCF always feels a few steps ahead of the cognoscenti in terms of his choice of synths, but at the same time, he always makes it part of his own DNA. There’s plenty more of the Jan Hammer/Miami Vice vibe to be had, on “The Forest At Night” for example, and additional treats in the form of hand drums and distant guitar that could be from a Genesis b-side (“This Breath”), all bundled together under CFCF’s beach umbrella by a stormy sea.
My only hesitation is over Silver’s vocals, which appear more prominently here than on Continent, and which, while not unpleasant, don’t add much compared to the immaculate textures of the tracks themselves. The whisper-rap of “Walking In The Dust” is a little too beat-poet-discovers-hip-hop for me right now; then again, I thought the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love” on Continent was corny until I heard it a few more times. What Outside proves CFCF has going for him, even more than these other three fine producers, is a kind of grand, multi-faceted vision, one that you can tap into almost in an instant. I have a funny feeling I will end up enjoying this disc most of all, in a little while. (Of course by then the vinyl will probably be sold out. Damn my intransigence.)
Journey From Anywhere
I got into ambient music via the polar opposite – noise, which I realized one day was basically ambient music for crazy people. Neither of them have a beat, usually (or if they do, the beat’s not really the main attraction), they’re almost entirely about texture rather than melody or rhythm, and they require you to suspend your usual listening habits and try to step outside the tyranny of linear progression. Compound Eye’s first disc for Editions Mego (thanks and praise to the most high Euro label – whatever happened to Farmers Manual, anyway?) fits comfortably in the uncomfortable space between ambient and noise, which is to say that it flits uncomfortably between the two. “Journey Into Anywhere” has an organ drone and a wandering melodic figure that together remind me of John Cale’s towering Sun Blindness Music. “The Outer Sphere” is eerie like Throbbing Gristle’s “Myra Hindley,” no murder tales necessary. “Cosmic Exhaust (The Selector cut up composition)” is a mishmash of abrasive analog synth fuckery that you might use to torture the neighbour who won’t turn down his subwoofer. All three are inspired and, despite being largely directionless in any conventional sense, completely arresting. It’s a rare disc of this sort where you can choose to luxuriate in the tones, or alternatively, appreciate the sense of arrangement – sort of like watching individual players on a basketball squad or letting your peripheral vision take in the whole defensive strategy. I suspect it might annoy ambient purists and bore committed noise fans, but it’s right in my sweet spot, and I don’t think I’m entirely alone on this one.