Friday, February 16, 2024

You Don't Have to Go to Collage (retro-blogging)

Not sure if I did post this on Retromania, as opposed to Hardly Baked... an oldie riffy-rambler from 2011

This summer we went to see two exhibitions in Los Angeles – one was in nearby Pasadena (Clayton Brothers: Inside Out) and the other was in downtown at the MOCA and called Art in the Streets, a mammoth retrospective of graffiti and street art going back to the very beginnings... Clayton Brothers do life-scale shacks and diorama-type things, lots of stuff based on old illustrative styles, newspaper fonts, etc – readymades either literally or in inspiration, but the overall agglomeration of it tinged towards the surreal-creepy-macabre-twisted... a sort of dayglo American-Gothic... At Art in the Streets, a lot of the more recent work involved very large pieces, real-size reproduction of actual real-world stuff – like a bodega, with cans of vegetables etc – or a shabby taxi hire office in a shady part of town, those band or advertising or prostitute type stickers stuck over every surface – one artist (Neckface, we used to see his graff in our old neighbourhood in the East village) did a thing that was literally street art -- the recreation of a dark, dank alley in a scary, grotty part of NYC, complete with a sleeping bum.

Anyway this got me thinking... about readymades and collage, the tradition that starts with Duchamp... with Schwitters with the merzbau and the merzhaus... then proceeds through Lichenstein, Warhol, Richard Hamilton.... Lari Pitman, whose work draws on decorative and kitschy-retro graphics and fonts... Jeff Koons.... and then into the post-graffiti/hip hop era with people the Alleged Art crew (heavily present at this exhibition)... some of whom were into stuff like the tags left by hobos on the side of railcars, or they were into tattoos... 

The late Margaret Kilgannen of Alleged used a lot of commercial imagery... hand-painted shop front signage, imagery from advertisements in old magazines... in the Alleged crew doc Beautiful Losers she says something about how "all this stuff becomes interesting to me when it's no longer selling anything to me"-- in other words, once it's divorced from commerce in the immediate here-and-now, it becomes capable of being aestheticized, which is a great description of how vintage chic works

But what struck me about all this in connection with Art in the Streets and Clayton Brothers is that underpinning the whole century-long thing was One Idea – a REALLY BIG idea - which is treating the objects of manufactured modernity as if they were nature, as beautiful as a tree or landscape... (c.f. James Ferraro's description of Far Side Virtual as "the still life of now" - the audio and video landscape of our digitized, augmented-reality daily surroundings)

But also it’s a move of taking the non-art, the infra-art, and just moving it across a line... commerce becomes Culture, the mass produced aura-less product becomes the one-off, aura-full handcrafted object ready for the art market.

And as the Ferraro comparison suggests, it's the same move being made by the hauntologists and the hypnagogics (a lot of post-Ferraro music is Pop Art meets psychedelia), you take what is deemed beneath or outside Proper Serious Rock-as-Art, so that would be ancient cheese pop or mainstream AOR or library music (in the case of hauntology) or with Ferraro now it's ringtones and computer start-up jingles and so forth i.e. today's equivalent to library/Muzak... and then you say well actually if you tilt your head this way slightly , it’s sublime – or even (upping the ante) in some cases it’s just better and more weird than self-conscious Arty art-rock.

And then the art work for a lot of those hypnagogic cassettes is chopped-up magazine images (eyes, lips etc) like a more grotesque and cack-handed version of what the British Pop Artists did... like the popcult unconscious throwing up all over the page (and that's no diss, i love all that artwork)

the low > high context-shift

Nick Katranis calls this artistic move "looking at what is right in front of you"

for most people "right in front of you" nowadays means that what they can find on the internet, what’s trawl-able on YouTube etc etc

e.g. Oneohtrix scavenging for alchemy-susceptible materials on YouTube, the stuff that’s beneath consideration, infomercials or ancient clumsy computer graphics, or Chris deBurgh... or with Replica, the new LP, he's sampling from a DVD of 1980s and ‘90s daytime TV commercials

What I'm a-wonderin' is whether the BIG IDEA that i mentioned, whether that is so very very BIG -so fundamental and capacious in scope and potential - that it can just carry on and on and on... or is it a 20th Century idea that has just lingered a bit into the next century and hangs on while we all try to think of somewhere new to go?

Post-script: what do you know, Aaron Rose, the guy who co-curated Art in the Streets and was owner and director of Alleged Art (and also directed the Beautiful Losers doc) has co-written a book called Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century's Identity Crisis that looks to be a rather Retromaniac-al polemic ("why has the 21st century become an era of collage, in which creative works are made by combining elements from the former century?", "THE PAST MUST NO LONGER SERVE AS OUR MASTER") which sorta suggests that even as he was pulling together the exhibition he might have been having similar anxieties as i did looking at it

here's what he says in an interview with Oyster:

"Everything in this world is built on references. I don’t think that’s really such a problem, that’s part of the creative process. Although where the amount of original input is below 5%, that’s when I feel like there’s maybe a problem... I think the contemporary art world is horrible [as an offender]! And in music. Music, I think, is really bad. Music videos, especially — horrible — are like, basically just taking things frame for frame.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

museal techno and futures forestalled

An interesting article with an interesting title - Techno: Inside the Museum of the Living Dead - from interesting new-ish blog (really a Substack) Infinite Speeds, the interesting work (go check the archive of previous essays) of Vincent Jenewin. 

This essay juxtaposes the "musealization of techno" with the club-closure crisis.

I particularly enjoyed the bit about "the little "Drexciya-industrial-complex" that has popped up within the last few years". It is bizarre - yet also all too logical - how that tuff little unit has become the basis for a production line churning out PhDs and dissertations. Not that they haven't made some great records with a fascinating mythos wrapped around them.... But you don't see the same level of exegesis with the equally-rich-and-ripe text that is Marc Acardipane / PCP.  Or [insert your own example].

But  more to the point, there's plenty of fantastic electronic dance music that doesn't have any text around it as such - music that sonifies rather than signifies - tracks that simply execute the task it's been set . But for those reasons gives academia nothing to latch onto. 

Musealization seems to capture everything eventually, perhaps it's futile to resist. or pointless to complain... And of course I'm in this business myself, rather often. 

But in the conclusion to the original 1998 Energy Flash I suggest that the vitality of a genre or music movement is in inverse relation to the amount of history written about it, before wryly noting that my own tome might well be an early sign that the prime was passing - had literally become The Past now, past-ure ready for memory-mastication and digestion. For when things are most vital, things move too fast for retrospection: you're in it, living it. Under the bracket "history" could be included not just books but exhibitions, box sets, documentaries, podcasts, oral history features, and every other form of curation and annotation. 

If techno-house etc is fundamentally a bliss-machine, then...  well, this old favorite quote springs to mind:

"Criticism is always historical or prospective... the presentation of bliss is forbidden it: its preferred material is culture, which is everything in us except our present

- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text. 

This one too: 

 "Beauty will be amnesiac or it will not be at all."

~ Sylvère Lotringer, "The Dance of Signs" 


Related themes and quandaries - ideas of futurity, lost futures, looking back to looking-forward - flicker through two new excellent bits of writing at Pitchfork...

A review by Philip Sherburne of the new Burial release "Dreamfear"/ “Boy Sent From Above” 

Gabriel Szatan s Sunday Review flashback to Jeff Mills's Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo, the legendary 1996 deejay-mix-CD 

The Burial release - it suddenly struck me that it is now 

A/ almost 20 years since Burial's recording career started 

B/ in reference to the darkcore-'93 flavour of "Dreamfear", we've probably now had at least 20 years of aunterlogikal ardkore 

(Well, the very first example dates to 1997 - Jega's "Card Hore" - but then there's a long gap, before you get Zomby's Where Were U in '92?  in 2008... I don't think there are any examples between Jega and Zomby... Then again, there was The Caretaker's Death of Rave project)

Listening to "Dreamfear", I felt the same way I did about Antidawn, that it floats in this zone where it could either seem self-parodic or consummate + inimitable, depending on how you tilted your head. More of the same, only more so.  

Here's how Sherburne negotiates similar feelings: 

One of Burial’s chief fixations has long been nostalgia for a halcyon era of renegade freedom... 

Or is it becoming a shtick? It can be hard to say. If you love Burial—particularly the maudlin turn of his work over the past decade—you’ll love the outsized pathos of “Boy Sent From Above” and the high drama of “Dreamfear.” If you feel like you’ve heard enough pasted-on vinyl crackle to last a lifetime, or aren’t particularly invested in the hagiography of rave music’s formative years, you probably won’t find anything new here.

But newness isn’t the point. Using not just the same tropes but even many of the same samples he’s used before, Burial seems to be pursuing his long-running project of world-building and self-mythology to increasingly hermetic ends, burrowing deeper into a state of déjà vu—as though if by recreating the memory from every possible angle, he could preserve it forever.

And here's the relevant bit in Szatan's incredibly in-depth, gets-into-the-nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts-of-turntable-artistry review of Liquid Room, where he zooms out to this question of futurity: 

"In a recent campaign for fashion house Jil Sander, Mills was asked to expound upon a theme, “mid-’90s optimism”—with the unspoken “that we’ve lost” echoing not far behind. There’s no glint of awe in our collective eye when DJing’s premier cosmologist collaborates with NASA. It’s just a thing that happens. The idea that technology could be inspiring or even fun anymore has dissipated. Accordingly, the notion that techno might be a pathway to revolution has lost resonance. So many arenas and aircraft hangars have passed in front of Mills’ eyes now that, by his own account, he sometimes zones out mid-performance and begins to dream, instead, of the stars. To some degree, he stands as an avatar for a future forestalled.

"Yet I’d encourage you to listen to the mix and consider the opposite: that this is the work of an individual who believed so unreservedly in the possibilities of what lay beyond that they gave up their best years attempting to tear open that wormhole. At the root, Mills told author Hari Kunzru in 1998, his spin on techno has always been “about making people feel they’re in a time ahead of this present time. Like if you’re hearing someone speak in a language you don’t understand, or you’re in surroundings you’ve never seen before.”

The final point Szatan makes resonates with me: that for all the talk of posthuman this and posthuman that, 'the machines are taking over" etc etc - that excitingly depersonalized discourse that many of us got caught up in the '90s - what makes the record exciting is that it's a human being grappling in hands-on real-time with (by today's standards) unwieldly mechanical technology and analogue slabs of sound-matter.  The friction and the sparks come from this battle between the will-to-flow and the resistance of  materiality. The disc captures a pre-digital moment, steampunk almost compared to what can be done today... 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Replacements & Dinosaur Jr. versus The Beatles and the Stones

Via Stereogum

" Paula Cole Releases ’90s-Summoning New Single “The Replacements & Dinosaur Jr.”

The follow-up to the Massachusetts-born singer/songwriter’s American Quilt (2021) is called Lo and the album’s first single will make ’90s music enthusiasts turn their heads. Titled “The Replacements & Dinosaur Jr.” the song chronicles Cole’s introduction to those bands by her late friend and musical mentor Mark Hutchins. Hutchins, who died in 2016, produced all of Cole’s early demos and was the one who introduced the singer to a wide array of alternative bands, like XTC, A Tribe Called Quest and Daniel Lanois. "In a statement about the single Cole wrote: “Mark exploded my mind. I literally heard the Beatles first with Mark. Also The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., A Tribe Called Quest, The Pixies, and a lot of gorgeous early-90’s alternative music folks might not associate with me. We connected in our love for Peter Gabriel’s music. I was mourning, honoring, celebrating Mark when I wrote this. I wanted to acknowledge him and his lasting influence in my life. Mark should have had an enormous career. I’m so grateful. The song needed to be fun, like he was.”

This inevitably reminded me of The House of Love's "The Beatles and the Stones"

But also - more appositely -  of The Replacements's own "Alex Chilton"

That, then, was A/ quite clever and B/ indicative 

Indicating the Replacements's perverse drive to fail in the marketplace, just like Paul Westerberg's revered forebear, the ironically-named Big Star

But Big Star was only ironically named in retrospect - they really wanted to be big and thought they could be.  Listening to the Anglophile distillate of Beatles-Stones that is their perfect first album, the fact that they did fail, that radio didn't embrace them - it seems so mystifying, so wrong. The music is full of self-confidence and sense of destiny. 

Later on Chilton did - of necessity, through self-destructive impulses - make a right cult of himself. 

But he and the rest of Big Star wanted to be big. 

Plus he'd already been a pop star, in The Box Tops, with the massive hit "The Letter".

"Alex Chilton" the song is also a significant contribution to the canon of meta-pop - "I'm in love / With that song", it captures that feeling of being ravished through the radio. (Or in this case, it being Big Star, not through the radio).  The chorus enacts what it rejoices in - the seizing of the ear, the endlessly renewing miracle of pop. Yet releasing a song titled "Alex Chilton" as a single virtually guarantees it'll never be a hit (except in the hearts of college radio deejays and fanzine editors).

As for The House of Love, doing a song titled "The Beatles and the Stones" and then releasing it as a single, it just seemed like a form of self-humiliation - as if the only way they could ever be mentioned in the same breath as the B and the S was by this ruse of titling a song after them.

Talking of the Beatles, here's legendary-era-of-blogs ex-blogger Owen Hatherley surprising us with an excellent piece in The New Left Review about the AI-concocted half-lives of the Beatles 

"The rise of McCartney’s reputation at the expense of Lennon’s over the last few decades has something to do with the way popular music has become a less crucial part of youth culture. People still listen to music, it still changes and develops, but it is no longer the main vehicle for social comment or subcultural identity, far less important than social media; perhaps on the same level as clothing. Gone is the idea that pop music could ‘say’ something, that it could be a means of commenting on society, or an integral element of an oppositional counter-culture. McCartney’s solo work now seems unexpectedly prescient, anticipating modern listening habits. McCartney, Ram, Band on the Run or McCartney II all deliver the immediate dopamine hit and the restlessness with genre that you can find on Spotify playlists; they are albums already ‘On Shuffle’.... 

"What has also virtually disappeared from pop music is ‘politics’. The Beatles’ politics were complicated, to be sure. Each of them owed almost everything to the welfare state. Starr’s upbringing was rough, and a spell of childhood illness saw his life saved by the new National Health Service, which sent him to a sanatorium, an unimaginable thing for a working-class child before 1948. McCartney and Harrison grew up in good suburban council houses, and their families – sons and daughters of Irish migrants – were in skilled, stable work during a period of full employment (Lennon’s father, a Liverpool-Irish sailor, was a ne’er do well, but he was raised by his middle-class aunt in a large semi). Lennon and Harrison went to Liverpool College of Art, and McCartney sat in on lectures, later recalling attending a talk on Le Corbusier..... 

"The ‘new’ ‘Beatles’ songs have been devoid both of the interesting if generally failed political content of Lennon’s solo work, and the musical invention of McCartney. They are the worst of all worlds, leaden plods saying little more than that Lennon in the late 70s didn’t have much to say anymore. That was likely why he wasn’t saying it publicly, declining to release the songs in his lifetime. Yet, tellingly, ‘Now and Then’ has far outsold an actual new album of actual new songs by the actually living Rolling Stones, who were sixty years ago the Beatles’ nearest competitors. 

"....  Nostalgia can be spun out of the flimsiest of mid-20th-century golden age cultural phenomena – Cliff Richard, whom Lennon and McCartney loathed, is currently on tour – but, unfortunately, the Beatles really were special. It isn’t all a hoax; there has never been anything quite like the sheer speed and promiscuity and drama of those six years of actual Beatles music. They proved that working-class people from ordinary places could create, in the 2.5 minute slots of the lowest of low art, work that is bottomless in its complexity and richness. There are entire worlds in A Hard Day’s Night, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour or the White Album, evanescent spaces in which rhythm and blues, Victoriana, cheap chanson, electronic avant-gardism and Indian classical traditions are all mixed up and transfigured in the studio by people who, as the Get Back film revealed, could not even read music. Theirs was a world in which everything was getting better, with new possibilities, new ways of hearing and seeing opening up every minute."

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Retro Man

 "This second volume in a series bringing together short stories of veteran science fiction author Gordon Eklund leads off with 'The Retro Man,' a visionary tale of a man reliving his life in reverse time."

A science fiction short story from 1977 - and quite an early appearance of the concept of "retro" in the Anglosphere. (In France, it's in use from the beginning of the decade, referring to a kind of nostalgic cinema).

For instance, I have not come across any "retro" references in Anglosphere music writing until the early 1980s.