As origins fade into distant horizons and individual reference points lose focus to the inevitable red shift of accelerating history, it becomes easier to perceive retrospective patterns and movements. Initial breakthroughs are amplified by time—ripples in a still pond made by the force of a single pebble expanding across a yielding medium.
The most important musical movement of the last fifteen years has been the gradual dissolution of genre barriers in pop. Whereas synthesis was once perceived as novelty, the act of melding and fusing disparate cultural elements has become so commonplace as to be not only unexceptional but expected. Disregard the ironic detachment so intimately associated with academic postmodernism and examine the pluralism embodied by artists such as Beck. The notion that all genre barriers are essentially artificial constructs and that technology can enable musicians to embrace the wholesale possibilities of recorded sound as a medium independent of historical expectations was a long time coming and wholly radical. Pop music can be prone to crippling bouts of parochialism, and the only cure for this is strict and unwavering verisimilitude.
Sound is a medium, and the most exciting musicians are those who make the most of the medium’s pliant and yielding nature. That this idea has already been subconsciously digested and accepted by large portions of critical consensus is perhaps a moot point. When Conor Oberst (AKA Bright Eyes) chose to start off 2005 with the simultaneous release of two albums, the more conventional rock-oriented I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the electronic Digital Ash For A Digital Urn, it was almost besides the point that critical consensus held the former to be the superior release. The simple fact that a musical prodigy widely acclaimed for his heartfelt songwriting and lyrical dexterity saw the need to explore the kind of digital musicianship that would have been absolute anathema to previous generations of indie rockers is perhaps as concise and pointed a statement on the direction of modern music as is possible to make. Oberst is undoubtedly sick of the “New Dylan” appellation, but here the analogy fits well: when Dylan went electric, it polarized a generation of music fans and served as inescapable proof that musical paradigms were changing faster than they could be formalized. When Oberst went digital, however, it was accepted with equanimity, as a faits accomplis.
It’s been long enough since the “electronica” backlash of the late 1990s that the bitter, alien taste of enforced progress has faded from the racial memory of the cognoscenti. Those with longer memories are beginning to understand that the ill-fated influx of European dance music was not merely an attempt by abrasive and ascetic beatmakers to storm the beaches of American retail (although that was certainly a large part of it), it was a more subtle and treacherous subversion of the way American musicians perceive sound. In this sense, electronic music did succeed in becoming the “Next Big Thing”, insomuch as electronic music was, and remains, little more than the overarching rubric for an ideology of music as infinitely malleable sound.
Emperor X (AKA Chad Matheny)is proudly an electronic musician, as well as an indie rocker, a folk singer, a lo-fi troubadour and an inspired pop songwriter. He switches between genres with the guileless enthusiasm of a natural born polymath, and the alacrity with which he does so is enough to make you wonder whether or not the distinctions of traditionally discrete musical genres have any use at all when considering music so willfully peripatetic. I could draw you a graph detailing all the different genres touched upon during the course of this record, but to do so would be fatuous as well as counter-productive: the key is not that we should admire the record for the dexterity with which a group of seemingly random pieces have been assembled to form a new whole, but that we should recognize the whole to be far greater than the sum of its parts.
When Emperor X released last year’s Tectonic Membrane / Thin Strip On An Edgeless Platform (which I reviewed here), it was a surprisingly engrossing curio, a herald of future greatness from an almost impossibly obscure quarter. Central Hug / Friendarmy / Fractal Dunes is the confident affirmation of Matheny’s talent and ability, and I for one am grateful to see that his debut was not an unaccountable fluke.
The lo-fi ethos which threatened to occasionally overwhelm the solid craftsmanship of the first album has been slightly eclipsed by a more competent and rounded production acumen. Although much of the album could still be considered lo-fi, it is clear that he is using the sound for aesthetic reasons, and not as a kind of contrarian philosophical default. Many songs on Central Hug . . . utilize the stylistic contrast between slickly-produced studio technique and lo-fi grit to create a powerful dynamic.
The album kicks off with “Right To The Rails”, a hard rocker that brings Matheny’s traditional preoccupation with movement and travel back to the fore. Legally blind, he is unable to drive and dependant on public transportation, and the urge for mobility carries through his strongest material. Here, the song’s insistent beat and frenetic guitar work bring to mind nothing so much as a runaway train. The album dips right into “Shut Shut Up”, another insistent rocker built atop a continually rising melodic scale that, again, imbues the proceedings with an irresistible kinetic charm.
“The Citizens of Wichita” provides a breather after the one two punch that begins the album, an acoustic ballad that brings to mind both the aforementioned Flaming Lips (in terms of the deceptively complex and decorative production) and later Wilco. “Raytracer” is one of the album’s most obvious concessions to current indie-mores, featuring the verbose and plaintive emotional refrain:
“Did you ever get sad on your bed late at night, /
Listening to ‘Either/Or’? /
Did you ever make out on the capital steps /
With an AK-47-holding Marxist girl? /
Did you ever get help with the problems? /
No, you never can admit it.”
Matheny is informed by the same kind of emotionally ravished songwriting that songwriters like Oberst revel in, but there’s also a disconnect there, a semi-ironic remove that prevents his material from settling down into the kind of profitable but repetitive rut songwriters like Oberst and Chris Carraba have occasionally mined.
“Use Your Hands” is built atop the kind of stuttering faux-disco beat that would not be out of place on a Squarepusher or early Autechre album. “Sfearion” is a hybrid of Bananarama-esque pop (check out that beat!) and Kevin Shields’ brand of lush guitar rock. It could easily be a Top Ten hit on your local college radio station, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was released as a single.
The starkly acoustic “Rinseley” is followed by the grungy rock of “Edgeless”, another effortlessly catchy tune (this time in the vein of Modest Mouse), that could easily be your next favorite song. “Aloalocular L.A.” could almost be considered a lark—it is built atop a harpsichord accompaniment, after all—if it didn’t also have one of the album’s most effusive melodies. The album ends with “Coast To Coast”, an instrumental that begins with an early-R.E.M. vibe before building to a wordless crescendo and dissolving into a puddle of tape hiss and overdubs.
It took me a long time to warm to Pavement, and to this day they are still not one of my favorite bands—their proud disaffection always seemed insufferably haughty. Likewise, the late Elliot Smith (name-checked on “Raytracer”) always struck me, despite his obvious talent, as uselessly recondite and sometimes painfully mannered. Matheny has the potential to be the next indie superstar, possessing the effortless songwriting chops of a Stephen Malkmus or Elliot Smith as well as the kind of compellingly holistic musical presence that could place him among the vanguard of modern pop composers, next to folks like the Flaming Lips. His vocal contortions may veer uncomfortably close to screamo parody at times, but there’s no doubting the sincerity of his sentiment or the forceful authority of his words. Emperor X is well on his way to becoming the Next Big Thing in the world of indie rock. Central Hug . . . is the best indie rock record of the year so far, and stands a good chance of being one of the best records, period, when all is said and done.