29 August 2009

(Brutalist) Boy from School

I used to wonder how much the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge affected the mindset of its longterm employees. Living and working amongst those buildings, massive, monumental representations of the institutions’ age, status and venerability… How much might this condition you to think a little more complacently of yourself (as the present-day representative of this heritage) and to think about the world a little more conservatively, than you would otherwise? Similarly, if you went to Eton, then Oxford, then worked in Lincolns Inn Fields, how might such an unbroken succession of film-set dreaming spires subconsciously condition you?

I don’t know how this effect could be tested for or quantified. And anecdotally at least I’ve not found it to be borne out by experience. (My friend and sample-group-of-one in Lincolns Inn volunteered for Obama and runs a Palestinian campaign group.) But I happened to be thinking about it a week ago, when I read this Sophie Heawood piece on The xx. Understandably enough, it picks up on the angle about their school: Elliott, a comprehensive in Putney previously attended by Burial, Fridge (two of whom release solo records as Adem and Fourtet) and two-fifths of Hot Chip. And some Maccabees. (Though arguably the most successful Elliott product is this shredder). I should admit that I know some Elliott alumni very well and can report that Heawood’s description is pretty accurate. They do have a somewhat cult-like insularity: they’re reluctant to associate with outsiders, they wear flowing white robes, and they gather every summer solstice on Putney Heath to worship a huge flaming effigy of a deity they name Victor. But while Elliott has been the subject of plenty of articles already, it's the first I‘ve seen mention it as a built environment. Heawood says the band were affected by ‘the sense of space in the school itself — which itself was “weirdly massive”, according to Sim.’

From images found online (all at elliottonian.com), it looks like a kind of soft brutalism to me: modernist, exposed stairwells and functions, but with glass winning out over concrete expanse or massive bulk. Not quite a 'council estate prison’ as The xx's Madley Croft has it (whatever that would be). No doubt Fantastic Journal, Entschwindet und Vergeht and Sit Down Man can make more of it, tell me what I‘m missing etc. I like the sheer horizontal persistence of the main building and the gym / theatre (?) looks interesting.

In relation to the Elliott discography I can’t see/hear anything as striking as the connection made in Militant Modernism between brutalist social housing and the sonic brutalism of grime. None of the Elliott discography could be described as brutalist, though there are jagged outbreaks in Kieran Hebden’s duo sets with Steve Reid, and some gloriously maximalist aggro in Hot Chip tracks like Shake a Fist. It’s wrong to generalize, but if I had to I would say there’s a kind of collective urban pastoralism at work. Check out these two Fridge covers; Hot Chip are as influenced by the low-key lushness of Hall & Oates, Robert Wyatt and Will Oldham’s Appalachian modes as they are by post-Timbaland electro-futurism; Adem’s records are post-Pro Tools kitchen table Cloth Cuts pillow talk. The xx are obviously in love with the lo-fi pastoral of Young Marble Giants (another Putney connection there, because Domino, whose offices are in Putney, reissued YMG in 2007, when The xx would have been 16/17). The master image of Burial’s first album was London, submerged under a broken-barriered Thames (…and the Wendle, one of London‘s underground rivers, flows nearby). So maybe, if you had to (idiotically) generalize, you could detect a kind of quiet polemic, a naturalization of city life. Because if there is a kind of 'fields beneath’, under-the-pavement-the-beach dynamic, it’s not about alienated hippie anti-urbanism, but a rejection of that rejection. Nor is it situationist denaturalization, a making strange of the concrete city, but instead buried in the background hum of the music, a straightforward celebration of it.

22 August 2009

Fear of Music (Again)

Haven't you heard? Music is dead, a cadaver quivering coldly on the edge of the rave. Music writers, the poor dears, say nothing of note. In the hot, sweaty summer of 2009, this has been the concern of many heavyweight thinkers. Take Mark Fisher's requiem for dance music in the New Statesman, John Harris's elegy for music journalism in the Saturday Guardian, the Drowned in Sound series Music Journalism: RIP? or Simon Reynolds's criticisms of club culture in the Wire and on his own blog. Enough is enough. It is time to tackle these quibbles, look up, and take action.
Jude Rogers writing here. It’s possible that the entire thing is a prank: note the close proximity of the words ‘heavyweight thinker’ to the name John Harris.

I was far more depressed reading Rogers’ piece than I was when reading any of the quibblers she’s trying to call time on. Yoking together such a disparate body of opinion and writing it all off as moaning is absurd, but given the word count, I suppose straw men were necessary in order to get her own theory in. But it gets weirder. A David Byrne installation and some impromptu folk-singing session remind Rogers that
music is our tool to work with, and we can do with it what we wish, if we engage with it. Critics often forget this. They ignore the glimpses of light that the modern world offers, and prefer to bask in the nostalgia of their formative experiences.
There are all kinds of slippages going on here. Who is the ‘we‘? Critics? Listeners? Everyone? (A royal plural?) It seems to be in flux. This working and engaging, is it making one‘s own music or a different kind of criticism? . . . So far as it applies to the errant writers previously named and shamed, Rogers’ argument must be that if they just worked harder at liking things, they would find that they could like absolutely anything. Music being a simple ’tool’, you can make of it what you will (‘You only get out what you put in!’). And that would be better because it wouldn’t get Jude Rogers down so much.

Rogers has more to say about these critics wrongheaded enough to engage in critical thinking:
Just because they, like me, are no longer fearlessly young, and not experiencing movements and the draw of musicians for the first time, they shouldn't forget that other people are. What's more, they do little to get up and change things, and instead prefer to get themselves, and us, down.
What these writers actually ‘did’ was to word their critiques and publish them, unlike Rogers who has . . . written a critique and published it. Why the assumption that the aim of those pieces was not to inspire any action or change any minds but just to, you know, ruin people’s day?

You could put the complaints down to an unconscious animus against criticism. You know, the attitude that says music is music, do we have to talk/think about it? But these two words apply to very unstable categories and there’s a free exchange between them; music is implicitly an act of criticism, and critics can drive musical change, by feeding ideas back into that process, whether they’re Kode9 or Paul Morley. The true sentimentalization of the past happening here is the idea that we must side blindly with the kids, following the self-evidently false assumption that music is always in rude health, that those diagnosing it as palsied or amnesiac or sedated are just old people, and they’re ruining it for the yoot. All musical years are not equal; some are a lot fucking better than others. ('I’d be the first to say that DMZ is no Metalheadz! Or that I wish I’d been there for Bukem' as one buffoon empiricist, oddly, admits.) The thing being wished for here, is not some pure direct access to music as such, but simply the warm amniotic glow of feeling that everything is OK. It’s not just a fear of music that might be bad, and the burden of having to decide if it is, because that is inextricable from any experience of music. In its terror of actually having to think, critique and evaluate rather than apply fingers to ears and go lalala, and in its fear of finding out what music actually is, Rogers’ argument is not just a fear of criticism. It’s a fear of music itself.

This determination to think oneself into a state of deaf complacency is like a parody of critical engagement by way of positive-feedback techniques misappropriated from CBT. It's the kind of thing that leads you to swallow whatever you’re offered. The kind of thinking that leads you to realize, like Jude Rogers, only in 2009 that Blur and Britpop c. ’96 were over-rated, or that Tony Blair wasn’t the socially progressive messiah he presented himself as.

I don’t want to sleepwalk through the next fifteen years of music, culture and politics, and I don’t have to. Because critical thinking is our tool to work with, and we can get things done with it if we engage it. People often forget this. They ignore the glimpses of light that criticism offers, and prefer to bask in the safe sentimentality of their formative experiences.

18 August 2009

Minimalism III

From a profile of Apple's Steve Jobs, here:
Later, Jobs dropped out of college. Again, this seems to have been crucial. Alan Deutschman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, says his lack of a proper education in a world of highly educated people left him permanently insecure, especially in matters of taste. “I think his choice of a minimalist aesthetic comes from his fear of making the wrong aesthetic choice. He was someone who had great wealth from his early twenties. He was worried about not being seen as a brilliant sophisticate, so he had gurus to help him. There was this anxiety about being judged, combined with a natural instinct about the tremendous importance of design.”
It echoes, precisely, the connection made by Mark McGurl between Raymond Carver's reductionist aesthetic and his insecurities about his education and class. As discussed here in connection to minimal techno.

17 August 2009

last thought

...on Hyph Mngo. Interesting that Simon compares it unfavourably with MJ Cole's Sincere here. I've been listening to MJ Cole's recent mix for Fact a lot (which it looks like you can still d/l from their site), and Hyph Mngo doesn't come out out of it too well. This is mostly I think to do with technicalities to do with this specific mix: it's pitched too slow, losing its natural snap, it's a little quieter than the tracks around it, it doesn't get a build-up... But a couple of tracks later, a Nero remix of Sincere comes in and – put it down to MJ Cole framing his own offspring more carefully if you like, or perhaps the fact that it's just newer to my ears – tingles the spine in a way that Hyph fails to.

12 August 2009

'Don't believe the Hyph'

Simon Reynolds doesn’t like Hyph Mngo much.

Should this be a surprise? Well, the url is blissout.blogspot.com . . . isn't there more bliss washing about in Hyph Mngo than in Chainsaw Calligraphy?

Maybe the problem is the still standing in for a video on the YouTube clip that's getting linked to. I mean, check out the visuals on this Wax Doctor clip. Then are those LTJ Bukem sets that always seemed to be orbital shots of some metallic toned planet. Liquid drum’n’bass. Mmm. Liquid . . . like propafol. Plus isn't there a definite Mngo >>> mango >>> Goa >>> trance >>> snooze chain of suggestion going on? [Edit 26 August: for clarity, I'm not suggesting this is intended by JO, but something subconsciously affecting how Simon might hear it.]

Back to the post: the phrase ‘moist’n’milky minimalism’. Is Hyph Mngo really minimalist? Those synths are so saturated and saturating, the snap and kick of the rhythm so thoroughly . . . present. Whether or not the vocal is an enraptured hymning of a certain contemporary philosopher as Dominic Fox wondered ('BADIOU! . . . BADIOU!'), it's still enraptured by/ enamoured of something.

I'm not sure Chainsaw Calligraphy is strickly maximalist either. It’s stripped-down, nuts & bolts. Like (say) The Ramones, it's both maximalist and minimalist, depending on your angle of approach. Compared to close relatives – Talking Heads' uptight jerks and twitches, Patti Smith’s oneiric drifts – The Ramones were chainsaw calligraphers, demented wall-of-sound maximalists. They did end up working with Phil Spector after all. But compared to the prog and glam which preceded them, they were Roundhead iconoclasts, mowing down multinecked virtuosi and art-school peacocks alike. You use chainsaws to cut down trees, tall poppies, and in both 16 Bit and The Ramones there's a vein of purest avant-yob reductionism.

Ultimately, like Grievous Angel, I just don't see the need to choose between 16Bit and JO.* But if I had to, then yes, I would rather dance to Hyph Mngo.

*Just waiting now for this biographical morsel which makes JO the Son of Nuum to break. And the SR interview hopefully.

10 August 2009

Recommended Reading

A great diary by David Keenan of his tour as Jandek’s drummer; superb piece on Philip K Dick by k-punk; audacious essay on The Dark Knight as a sequel to I’m Not There at Rouge’s Foam (and more Dark Knight, sort of, at Planomenology). Constant bubble of ideas at Object-Oriented Philosophy. (One very marginal thought in this post made me laugh; reminded me of when Claude Makalele was still at Chelsea and was universally acknowledged to be under-rated. Er...) The blog of fellow Wire contributor Phil Freeman. And Admiral Greyscale’s blog.

Edit: almost forgot, the Impostume on Scarface.

01 August 2009

Derek Went Mad

Somewhere in a shoebox at the bottom of cupboard I have a school-age tape of Dance Before the Police Come with – I think – a Blade album on the reverse. It didn't really leave much impression at the time, half of it being that British brand of post-Terror Squad aggro speed rap that already seemed out of date by '93. The other half, the inchoate breakbeat/hardcore stuff just didn't register, I didn't really have any context for it.

Playing the vinyl after a recent charity shop trawl, this track was a minor revelation. The Amen break, the disembodied vocal, the sense of psychological fragility; the singer's defiance undercut by the distracted tone, as if he's not even sure it's his own voice he hears singing. Looking back it connects dots between Burial, Gavin Bryars and the dread-drenched fevers of jungle records to come. It's a real omission from Soul Jazz's Rumble in the Jungle. Its sheer spookiness is only amplified by the video – burning crosses, wang chun exercises, and amphetamine dashes down institutional corridors.