[1 June 2010]
Sound Affects Editor
Despite the protests of diehard musos who maintain all records need to be actively listened to (cue the dim lights and mood-setting incense), there are nonetheless a great many people out there who treat music primarily as background noise to accompany their daily lives. Asthmatic Kitty seeks to cater to that demographic with its Library Catalog Music Series, which the label ecstatically describes as “a series of instrumental albums designed for possible use in films and television, as background sounds for home or office or sundry personal needs.” A life soundtrack, the label calls it. It even takes pains to sell the fact that savvy folk can license the music created for this series for commercial use, be it anything from advert tunes to office muzak.
The way Asthmatic Kitty is shilling this series is kind of quaint, recalling the “pop as product” conglomeration image touted both artists such as Public Image Ltd. and Heaven 17 in the post-punk era. This artistic role-playing is further reinforced by the fact that although all three inaugural releases in the series are credited to different artists on the CD spines, James McAlister and Casey Foubert appear as the masterminds in every individual set of sleeve notes. Despite the conceptual charm, I’m wary of any set of music created with the intention of being my personal soundtrack, because ultimately I pick my personal soundtrack, and the same goes for everyone else. It’s enough of a challenge for the Library Catalog Music Series to engage me in its stated aim given that I like to pay close attention to what’s playing in my ears most of the time, but when you factor in that my daily listening cue can veer between Nine Inch Nails’ Broken EP and the bumpin’ sounds of New Jack swing on a given Tuesday, chances are reduced further that these albums will hit the mark.
Asthmatic Kitty plays the odds by diversifying. Of the first three series volumes, Volume 1: Music for Lubbock, 1980 (credited to 900x, but really McAlister) is probably the best incidental soundtrack of the trio. Closer to modern ambient mood music than any anything actually generated with a synthesizer in 1980, Music for Lubbock, 1980 is airy and uplifting. Given a light hip-hop feel at times by McAlister’s drumming, the fizzy electronic pop of Music for Lubbock, 1980 works quite well as multi-purpose background music.
Less successful is Law of the Least Effort’s Volume 2: Music for Measurements. The problem here is chiefly one of quality. Veering between the twin inspirational poles of country and ‘70s AOR, Law of the Least Effort is obsessed with focusing on its weakest component—the quirky twang-heavy guitar that generates a series of endless limp boogie-rock riffs—and painting it all over the funky rhythms. The nadir is the horrendously cheesy “Law 1”, which sounds like some no-name bar band thinking it can do an Allman Brothers jam. Touches that might have added dignity to the proceedings like the shimmering synths on “Dig the Garden” and the occasional killer drum breaks just make it weirder. The cheese factor doesn’t help Music for Measurements in accomplishing the “decent incidental music” criteria, either. On the tremolo-heavy “Dig the Garden”, you can practically envision the long hair, bushy ‘staches, and denim jeans. Is that the image you want to conjure when giving that big PowerPoint presentation at the office? Didn’t think so.
Casey Foubert and James McAlister’s Volume 3: Music for Drums has both of the preceding sets beat. Solely the work of McAlister and Foubert, the pair craft a bopping, tom-heavy urban soundtrack that’s at times alternately invigorating and ominous. Even with sampled material, on this installment the idea is to exploit the idea of drums and percussion as tuneful instruments outside of simply restricting them to their rhythmic roles. Having laid down engaging grooves elsewhere, McAlister’s drumming really shines here. In the rumbling, clattering “Big Moth”, the break in the middle sounds like a needle being moved across stylus, only to be followed by pounding tom rolls. McAlister opts for a marching rhythm on “They Should be Named Numbers”, then follows with “C v. J v. X.”, which gradually morphs into something more expansive, becoming looser and more languid. The foreboding aspect rears its head on the tracks featuring a sizable electronic presence, such as in the minimalist synth warbles of “Earth Scraper” and the percussive blips and squelches of “Obvious Samplers”. There are a few abrupt halts, like the chaotic first few seconds of closer “Myrrh Birth”, but by and large Music for Drums is a steady source of pulsing grooves that build into adrenalin surges of rhythm.
All in all, the Library Catalog Music Series is a commendable concept for its ambition. The series now consists of six volumes, and could certainly support more in its effort to provide a suitable listening guide to every mood. Personally, though, while I think it’s a nice concept that has produced some great sounds from time to time, it’s a little hard to get too excited about what’s playing. Part of that is unfortunately the nature of the project—all too often, the really exciting tunes are too short, only intent on establishing the basic idea for wider media implementation. As a result, the albums themselves breeze by and feel ephemeral and insubstantial. If you’re selecting sounds to form the basis of your life soundtrack, shouldn’t there be some weight to them?