2004, 30-27 William Basinski, A.C. Newman, Junior Boys and Interpol

William Basinski
A.C. Newman
Junior Boys
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William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops

Way back in 2001, William Basinski, fine auteur of noise, samples and tape loops, was recording an old tapeloop from some forgotten classical score for digital archive when something amazing happened: the tape, being old and worn out, began disintegrating! He managed to record this monumentous event, and his four-volume epic, The Disintegration Loops, was born. How fucking magical.

The Disintegration Loops sounds exactly like the above explanation, but not quite as magical. In each of his bits, he isolates a loop of about 2 bars and loops it over and over again. You know how when your CD starts skipping and it sounds kinda neat? It's like that. The other thing is that "disintegration" is too strong of a word. The end of the tapes is more subtle, with it sounding more like the wire shorting out than it disintegrating. Some of the bits don't even go that far; perhaps a mild crackling is introduced by the end of the 20 minute long segment. He also throws a huge cavern reverb over everything to give it that "haunting church hall" sound that you think is super awesome when you first learn what reverb is. It's also four fucking hours long.

Now, as a reviewer, I need to review the album on its own grounds. Is it a classical piece? That's certainly not true, because Basinski didn't even compose the piece, he found it. No, this album is Art. And as such, I feel that first off, two criteria are in order: Can I do this? and Is it a good idea? Most all music can be measured on these two scales, and they generally correspond to talent and creativity. The first thing that is obvious is that anyone with a reel-to-reel and a penchant for collecting sounds could have done this. I bet many musicians (I know I have) have stopped to record a sound we thought was cool. Basinski gets no credit for his skill.

The other question is "is this a good idea?", which can be broken down into other questions, like "is this interesting?", "is this novel?", etc. This is in the genre of ambient music, a music genre which is supposed to work on at least two levels: the music is supposed to set a mood while allowing the audience to forget it's there. The other level is to be interesting should the audience decide to focus on the music itself. The music actually succeeds on the first level: it is quite calming and soothing. Basinski of course, is not completely responsible for that: someone else composed and recorded this music, and he simply remixed it. How much of it is the original composer's doing and how much of it is Basinski's choices of what parts to loop is a discussion we can get into at another time; the point is that it's not all his work. It's also ridiculously easy to manufacture soothing sounds. Even the most inexperienced producer could come up with an array of classical pieces or white noise or sea sounds that will help most people get to sleep.

But not only that, the music totally fails on the "interesting" scale. It's the same loop repeated for over an hour; the "disintegration" nonsense is nothing more than a gimmick, and anything interesting in that loop is solely the result of the original composer or that of the listener's mind. It's like the patterns that the brain makes looking at Rorschach ink blots or seeing devils' faces in the clouds of smoke surrounding the Twin Towers on 9/11. They might be interesting to talk about (the former being an interesting psychological tool, the latter a source of paranoia or comments on people's reactions to traumatic events), but the sources themselves aren't good art. No one would call an ink blot a masterpiece, and no one should call this album anything but an interesting exercise that would be cool to audiophiles or a good museum exhibit on what happens to tape when it gets old.

I have judged Basinski by saying he didn't even make the music, so it somehow takes away from his creation, but there is another kind of art that lies mostly in composition and the ability to find interesting things in real life: photography. Photography requires you to have the technical skill to work a camera to get the desired pictures, and the skill to compose a scene using objects in real life, many of which you cannot control. So who's to say that Basinski isn't music's photographer, taking pictures of a dying score?

The problem is that Basinski isn't taking musical pictures of nature, he's actually using other music. So the analogous situation would be a photographer taking pictures of the Mona Lisa and awarding them a prize because the "lighting in the room made the Mona Lisa look pretty good." Which I'm sure has been done before, but I don't think anyone has accounted it the best 50 pictures taken that year. And I'm sure that if it did, it was because the artist that took the picture did what I call the "Artist Backpedal."

The Arist Backpedal is one of the most basic manuevers taught to art students. It involves making a work of art based on a single idea, executing it with a minimum requirement of skill, and then because it isn't good enough at face value, pulling all sorts of connections out of your ass to "prove" the sheer depth of your worthless work of Art. For example, in the Mona Lisa situation, you could make up all sorts of stuff about "a critique of the institution of realist painting" or because you took it on a digital camera and put it on the internet, some kind of comment about "how the digital world has changed our society" or some garbage. You see this mostly in so-called avant-garde art or college senior art projects. It's the art world's version of the Bible Code: you get enough random letters together in a grid, and you can pull messages out of them. Sure, the letters in the Hebrew Bible can say stuff like "The Two Towers will fall," but the only problem is Moby Dick also says "The Western country will be frightened." It looks like something amazing if you get too into it. But the problem is that it's not unique and nothing more than coincidence. The fact that you can draw such connections is in itself amazing, and might be interesting to read about, but it's confusing the art for the reality. Your life might make an interesting story, but it's the story that's interesting, not your life.

The kind of things said about this album I can imagine without having to read them. I bet people are spewing all sorts of emotional drivel about how "haunting" the music is, and how fascinating it is to watch the slow death of old classical music, and how moved they feel to sit there and drift away on their headphones, guided by these lost messages from another galaxy, blahlabalbhablaha. I have actually read that it was an amazing score to the 9/11 tragedy, where no amount of regular art would do it justice, but this acciedental piece of eroding tape gave us the only expression deserving of being a memorial. I'm sure plenty of people wrote a whole truckload of purple prose about the album.

But it's a bunch of crap. The art here isn't in the music, it's in the reviews of the music. Those people writing essays about how great this album is are the only ones creating anything here. If Emily Dickinson (insert poet here) wrote a piece about a sunset, does that make the sunset one of the 50 most beautiful sunsets of alltime? Or is it the poem that is the real work of art? And if you want to experience the same thing she experienced, do you have to see the exact same sunset that she did?

The final level on which this album fails is the "could I think of this?" test. And I will prove it by thinking of my own CD. I start in Valparaiso, Indiana, my hometown, and then drive east toward the rising sun on US 30. I will turn the radio onto a classical music station and then record the station as I drive. As I keep going the radio station will eventually crackle and fade and perhaps be replaced by another readio station or even static. WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN?? It will be a 12 CD epic and it will be an accurate portrait of the U.S. radio multiverse. I'll call it "Journey" and make up a whole bunch of bullshit, like how my hometown is connected to the whole country by this one road that is not a super-highway, but actually is sometimes consumed by other highways, sometimes a expressway, sometimes a one lane road, always the same but ever changing, just like the frequency I am listening to. I could even talk about the double meaning of "Journey" - a bad rock band representing mainstream America OR the name of my album of absolute brilliance.

Pitchfork Top 50 2007, here I come!!!

As if you need a recommendation by now, skip it.. The main concept of the album is nothing but a gimmick that sounds like your cell phone breaking up, it's not worth your $20, it's not worth your four hours, it's not worth a place on the top 50 albums of the year, it's not worth a space on anyone's record shelf, and it belongs in an analog audio museum. Good riddance.

This is an art project. Some guy found a collection of ambient tape loops he'd made years ago which were falling apart and he played them until they disintegrated entirely, recording the results. Five hours of results. Of loops of about ten seconds, repeated over and over and over. This is audio rather than music and does not belong on a list of music albums.

Places where this would be appropriate: as background music at an art gallery. As background music for an art film. As the base for a more complex and developed hip-hop or electronica track. As punch music for This American Life. As ambient noise to go to sleep by. As an accompaniment to meditation. As an accompaniment to doing morning glory seeds. As a scientific experiment to drive dolphins insane.

Places where this is not appropriate: in my head. I find that I am unconsciously drumming the right earpiece of my headphones on my ear to impart at least a tiny bit of texture.

I went to Amazon to find how much this costs - 20.00 used, as it's out of print (for some reason) - and found that someone had written:

"Much has been said by previous writers as to the process by which these recordings were created, very few however have expressed the impact these loops have on the psyche while listening to them. Pastoral memories of childhood (dlp 1.1), slowly giving way to what sounds like static transmissions from another galaxy (dlp 2.2), with each piece becoming increasingly retrospective."
The word "apophenia" springs to mind.

I've not going to deny that this stuff can be ethereally pretty, particularly near the end of the 40-minute long tracks where the loops have nearly faded into nothingness and strange percussive elements begin to creep in from god knows where. But unless you're a big fan of ambient music, it's an easy skip. (And I've never met anyone who's a big fan of ambient music - they're out there, apparently. I imagine a bald man in his early 30s who wears black, does high-end advertising design and lives in an antiseptically clean apartment with a small white cat.)

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A.C. Newman: The Slow Wonder

After Basinski, anything would seem novel and energetic. So I was really excited when I started up the A.C. Newman. Now I only know of two people bold enough to claim the name "A.C.", and those are A.C. Slater and A.C. Lerok. The album starts off with a hip shuffle beat and Mr. Newman began crooning a hook right off the bat. The verse on "Miracle Drug" has an excellent sparse rhythm guitar and the lead guitar melody fits it like a Tetris block, and the chorus is a simple, short part with choral vocals and is mostly instrumental. The song is rock and roll in its most basic, played with emotion and showing signs of coming apart at the seams. The next song, "Drink To Me, Babe, Then" is a simple slide-guitar augmented acoustic number with a short harmony line followed by a chorus and a horn synth/whistling breakdown. The whole song is catchy without being aggressive about it: more introverted than extroverted.

The rest of the album, however, starts to feel really introverted, full of insignificant melodies and uninspiring guitar work. The production carries some interest with it, but it honestly feels half finished or like they decided to hold back on anything too extreme. Mediocre is this album's middle name, but in certain places it really shines. "The Battle for Straight Time", which may or may not be a Douglas Adams reference, is a Who-inspired number with some awesome falsetto harmonies and a deceptively simple bit with a delay pedal that is almost hypnotic. On "Secretarial", the chorus comes through with a great harmony but the rest of the song is a letdown in light of it. "Come Crash" is another great song, but the next song "Better Than Most" isn't. He adds some neat stuff, too, like a cello part on "Town Halo" that somehow has a Beatles timbre to it.

This album gives so much hope for potential, it's disappointing to find that most of it is "just okay." So to any potential listeners, I'd say burn it as a precaution, just in case it doesn't tickle your musical foot in the right way.

Confession time, again: this album will be for me forever associated with Crerar Library in Hyde Park, where I would slope through the eerily silent shelves looking for vol. 57 no. 3 of the Journal of the Australian Assocation of Left-Handed Osteopaths as part of my duties as stack monkey. I would listen to "The Battle For Straight Time", and when A.C. (Ace, as his friends call him) sang "The revolution has been left to chance!", I knew exactly what he meant.

A.C. (Carl, as his friends call him) is best known as the primary songwriter for the New Pornographers, that sublime canadian cabal of intricate popsters. His solo work is, as the title would suggest, slower and more sedate; he doesn't pack as many ideas into each track, instead letting them develop as natural three-minute pop songs with verses and choruses, intros and outros. Much in evidence, however, are A.C's (Aceyalone, as his friends call him) trademark impenetrable lyrics, which tickle the fancy and please the palate but generally stop short of imparting meaning. That makes the odd straightforward song like "Come Crash" all the more affecting... and what a song that is. Let's examine how A.C. (Gladys, as his friends call him) put that sucker together: everything about it is slightly off-kilter, from the kick drum on the offbeat to the bizarre go-nowhere crescendos in the middle of the chorus. When the trumpets come in on the bridge and we march off with one leg shorter than the other it almost feels like Neutral Milk Hotel has come to stay. And the lyrics are funny and sad at the same time. It's a simple but beautifully realized little gem. Listening to the whole album through, though, that simple part becomes a bit of a problem.

The major issue here is that these are repetitive-as-hell pop songs for the most part and I'm going to look like a major hypocrite if I sit here and hail Newman as a genius when there's very little of musical interest in his compositions and he wears his top-40 influences on his sleeve. If there's a theme to this week's reviews, though, it's that what separates ripoff from homage and sleepwalking from Pop Sensibility (that rarest of gifts) is the personality of the performer. If you can imbue old ideas and forms with your own ideas about what music should be, if you carry a sense of uniqueness even into the very heart of cliche, if you jam those four chords together in a way that nobody else can, you are an artist. But it can be difficult to decide who does and doesn't have that touch. I like A.C., and I think he has that talent about him - there's no guarantee that you will. But one thing that is certain is that if you're new to his work you'd be better off starting with the New Pornographers. (Stay tuned in the coming months for our review of "Twin Cinema".)

I think that all averages out to a burn, don't you?

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Junior Boys: Last Exit

Have you ever walked into a really nice salon with an ambiguously gay hairstylist with some strange half-techno music playing in the background and thought, "Wow, what the heck is that music?" Well, wonder no further, because the answer is "Junior Boys," and their music epitomizes the genre of Ambiguously Gay Hair Salons.

The album is a set of underemphasized techno-beat backed pieces, with soft synth parts combined with an even softer whisper. The beats are everything you would expect from the 80s, except more subdued. Absolutely everything on this record is subdued. That's not to say that it drags or is full of very slow songs, but even the funkier numbers don't command full attention of the atmosphere - it gives you a soft beat in your step, like a subliminal groove machine. If you're still not with me, almost every song on here sounds like "Angel" from the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, except - you guessed it - more subdued.

There's some really good tunes on here, too, and when they succeed, it's more about the music providing an exceptional mood or a certain beat that sounds cool or just hits you the right way. "Bellona" has alien-like pitch shifted vocal hits that provide the song's main hook, and it's enough to keep you interested while the beat moves on. The album's "single" (if it has one) is "High Come Down", which is a staggering, lurching kind of song with a hook worthy of something like "Such Great Heights", but - far more subdued. The next couple songs are really beneath mention, and "Birthday" is like "High Come Down" but with a smoother beat. My personal favorite is "Teach Me How To Fight" which has an excellent chord progression and arcing synth-string-lead chorus, and flows as well as any decent pop song.

This music's only problem but also one of its strengths is its subtle quality. I didn't even notice that music was playing when I first heard it. But upon rehearing it, this album really won me over. But what you should do depends upon your tastes. If you are an ambiguously gay barber, this is a must-have. I can also guess that some people might like putting this album on to woo the women in their bachelor pads while they slide their date a Corona.

So, if you are into techno-pop, I'd say this is an album for you to burn, and if you aren't, I'd say burn it anyway and see if you develop a taste for it. It's just not good enough to be purchased.

EDIT: OK, my ignorance betrays me. If you are actually taking this review seriously (ha!) read what Isaac has to say about it.

What did I say about sounding like the Pet Shop Boys? What did I just say?

All pop music is in some way derivative. I grant you that. There is, however, a qualitative difference between a band that sounds like Band A meets Band B - or Band A meets Band B meets Band C - or Band A meets Band B meets Band C on drugs - and a band that just sounds like Band A, except not as much. Junior Boys sound like only one thing, which is the sophisto-electronic dance pop that was popular in Britain during the late 80s, minus the sophisto part. It's still better than Interpol, though. At least you can dance to it.

We got skittery disco beats and Casio tone, hard panning and overuse of delay. (Translation: it sounds like dance music.) We've got an inoffensive tenor crooning inoffensive songs of love and loss. I can see him standing on a roof in a Sensitive Male hairstyle, a t-shirt and a sport coat in an 80s music video. From time to time we get interesting noises and textures, like on "Bellona", where the main hook is held together by a keyboard patch that sounds like sped-up baby babble. Much of this music is reminiscent of early-to-mid period Momus, which I am predisposed to love - them smooth textures, that effortless chill - but on a song like "Three Words", as I listen I can only think of how essential interesting lyrics are to this kind of music. These comfortable but unmemorable electropop soundscapes are meant to function as a backdrop for the songwriter's capital-R Romantic pretensions. Understatement is not the name of the game. This guy needs to get about 300 percent more OTT before I can be bothered to care.

Case in point: a minor standout is "Teach Me How To Fight", partially for the burbling fuzz at the bottom of the beat but mostly because he's letting his inner emo twerp hang out, falsetto and all. He's going out on the town and getting blood on his shirt, cause he's got turmoil. And that's what this kind of music is for, dammit.

So in sum: there's nothing wrong with this music. It's pleasant. Great for bike riding. I think I'm gonna keep it around for exactly that reason. But if you own a Pet Shop Boys album, or any similar music from that period, you really don't need to download this. On balance I'd say skip.

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Interpol: Antics

The first thing I thought of when I put this album on was, "What the hell is John Linnell doing on my mp3 player??" This album was really a drag to review. I had previously only heard their single on the radio before (more about that later). This album is pretty much typical modern indie-style rock (they're usually lumped with Franz Ferdinand). While all of the songs are dynamic, none of them really provide any excitement or reach any emotional peaks or valleys. (Side note: at some point during "Not Even Jail" the bass steals the main theme from Phantom of the Opera.)

The only song worth talking about on this album is the single, "Slow Hands," and even that seems to be the kind of unexceptional song that passes for radio play these days. This is because it is the only song that features any soul at all, and most of it is due to the drummer, and the singer's decision to stray outside of his five note range that he usually sings in. He's stuck in a tighter box than a guitar student just learning the pentatonic scale. In addition, his voice has a fascinating numbing effect on my brain. His warbling is like novacaine for the part of my mind that enjoys music, which is why reviewing it was so painful.

Yecch, skip it because it means I get to stop listening to it. It's not bad, I just would rather listen to something interesting. This music makes my inner musician depressed.

New York heroin rock. This shit bores me to death. Decent rhythm section, though.

...oh, I have to say something else?

This is a product of the idea that repetition is cool. (And I know repetition is the essence of pop music, but for the love of mike it can be taken too far.) It's like the Pet Shop Boys decided to go vaguely rock and roll -- very much like that, actually. It's got the dark urban aesthetic, with gentle reverb all over everything to make it sound like it was recorded in an empty warehouse. It's got the doomed sophisticate vocals -- Mr. Interpol has Morrissey's Syndrome, where you sing tales of woe in an affectless voice restricting yourself at all times to no more than three different notes. No Johnny Marr to back him up and keep things interesting, though. It's really straightforward four-piece rock music, and the tempo is always a little too slow, and the crescendos that're meant to hold your attention through six minute songs fail entirely to do so. At least if you're not enamored with the pale and interesting mystique they're shooting for.

I mean, really, a song called "Public Pervert?" Could they be biting the Smiths-era London scene any harder? Normally at this point in the review I would pull out a song and point out something interesting about it, but there's nothing. They all sound alike. It's all 4/4 and the guitars play quarter notes. The lyrics are probably the strongest element, being, um, literate, but they don't jump out. And the guy rhymes "life" with "strife" on "Evil", which in a fair world would earn him a clip upside the head.

To sum up: I don't care how vintage your guitar noise is -- I don't care if you're incorporating disco beats into rock, I've heard it done better -- I don't care about your tiny little production tricks. I like your bassist. Sort of. The rest of you, well, I'll skip.

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