Monday, November 26, 2012

Beck, retromania, art versus craft

 Bourgeoiseaux with some thoughts on Beck and retromania:

"His record club project, while great fun for its participants I'm sure, (the recording sessions certainly seem like they were a blast) is perhaps the most damning example of this: track for track covers of "classic" albums (something that the Flaming Lips have also gotten into as they've settled down into increasingly less interesting work), without even the wink and nudge of the Moog Cookbook or Camper Van Beethoven's version of Tusk. Was this retromaniacal turn an inevitability for Beck? Hidden in his gleeful appropriation of junk culture and slacker attitude, was it a time bomb waiting to appear?

Never heard of this "record club".

Was is it that makes talented, in the case of Flaming Lips pretty darn creative, outfits go down this recreative route?  (The Lips, in addition to the Dark Side of the Moon remake, have also recently down an interpretation of King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, titled 'The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs feat. New Fumes and Linear Downfall with Space Face Present: Playing Hide And Seek With The Ghost Of Dawn'.)

Is it a form of work-as-relaxation? Or even craft as therapy: recreating an existing album, either exactly as possible (Rundgren with Faithful) or loosely, liberates the enjoyable aspects of  art-making (the technical, doing-it aspects, which can it's true be challenging but in a specifically practical, technical, how-to-achieve-that-sound way) from the more difficult part which is the en-vision-ing of something new, something that didn't exist before... 

Remaking an album means you can have all the demanding fun of making an album, without the pressure of actually contributing anything new to the world.  If you make an album that is trying to be new, a valid contribution to a crowded artistic field, the chances are still very good that you'll fall short, add to the redundancy and clutter of music. But if you remake something that already exists, then the redundancy of the project is built-in, pre-accepted. You're off the artistic hook.

This reminds me of something I saw in at LACMA in Los Angeles recently, a retrospective of the work of the ceramics sculptor Ken Price (who turned a craft, pottery, into art). One of his quotations, from 1993, was stenciled on a wall:

"A craftsman knows what he's going to make and an artist doesn't know what he's going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like"

So art, properly, involves an element of discovery...

Which chimes with a sub-theme in Retromania, my hunger to be surprised, continually, by music...  in a sense Ken Price is saying that the artist should be surprised by what he or she comes up with...

(But perhaps a retromaniacal, or retrolicious, artist -- if there's enough creativity in their recreativity -- can feel that way too, e..g. Ariel Pink "Interesting Results":  every time I pick up the pen I get interesting results / every time I sit down and I try I get extraterrestrial results / I get these interesting results")

Craft and art also seem to correspond roughly to the difference between talent and genius.... between skill and generative capacity (the paradoxical proof of which is precisely its tendency to incite, in your contemporary others, imitative work, skilful emulation....  and to invite, for decades to come, retro-replication)

Bourgeoiseaux , again: "Certainly, by Mutations (named after Os Mutantes), Beck's urge to cite, to curate and to copy, had already begun to overwhelm him, parody clearly slipping into pastiche (a transformation completed in toto on Midnight Vultures)....""Mutations is about its influences. Not doing anything with them, not transmuting them, but instead making them very apparent. They are the surface and the content, the purpose of these songs".

I thought Midnight Vultures was execrable, embarrassing.... I can't even remember Mutations. Perhaps I had stopped listening by then.

Other stuff Beck's done has teetered on the good side of retro-collage aesthetics, the Stereolab/Wagon Christ side

As Bourgeoiseaux argues, Odelay is kind of undeniable, still

And I did find myself surprised to really love Modern  Guilt, the  2008 album he did with Danger Mouse, the mash up man.

Particularly this track, titled, funnily enough, "Replica":

It's sort of his Low, this album....  those nervy, jittery drums...   he seems hollowed-out, sunk in a malaise...  feels like  maybe the masks have dropped away, and much of the clever-cleverness too...

It's the sound of the record I like, as much as the tunes (great as several of them are).

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