Hearing dub for the first time in any surroundings is a unique experience, since the musical qualities of the genre have two separate (and, let’s be honest, literally) physical qualities. Whether in a club, in an outdoor market, or in the privacy of your headphones, the subsonic bass acts like a woofer-rumbling Godzilla, threatening to demolish its surroundings, while the echo and delay on that selfsame bass act more like an airborne Mothra, delivering the threatened to higher ground.
In other words, while the bass grounds you in the organic sounds of yourself—the heartbeat, the thrumming of blood in the temples, the lungs expanding and contracting—the artificiality of the effects on the bass jars you outside yourself, with their aural reminders that sounds can be heard as well as deeply felt. It’s disconcerting hearing something as ear-shuddering as the bass in dub splattering and reverbing and flanging in ways you don’t immediately expect. (I’m thinking of a child’s response to the ballet sequence from Disney’s Fantasia: the juxtaposition of the hippopotami in tutus is almost too bizarre, too much, to comprehend.)
What further complicates this feeling that we get from dub is the fact that, as Dick Hebdige has it, dub “leaves the studio door open”. By the use of these studio effects, we as listeners are made aware that what we are listening to is a music that has been treated and re-treated by someone in a production room. (It’s not by accident that the terminology of dub stresses the artificiality of the music: the version, the sound system.) So at the same time that we might feel the bass in our chests, once the effects layered on top of the bass become apparent to our ears and brains, we’re subtly reminded, perhaps, to not pay so much attention to what we’re obviously feeling.
There’s a pseudo-dichotomy set up in dub, then, between a physical feeling that we cannot deny with our bodies, a feeling that is inner-directed, and an aural feeling (a hearing?), coming out of the studio effects lathered on the music, that denies our organic reaction and removes our bodily selves from the equation. (This is, of course, a pseudo-dichotomy, since hearing music and feeling it are both organic responses, coming out of the body.)
Call it the manifestation of a metaphorical battle between Japanese movie monsters waged in the streets of Tokyo; view it in the form of a physical battle between the head and the heart for understanding (or feeling, if you like); see it as the staging of a psychological battle between the ego and superego over control of the self; dub is a genre that wages war among polarities.
Out Hud’s first album, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D., then, as nominally a dub record, is one cluttered with contradictions. However, the band, featuring ex-members of Sacramento, California punkateers Raouul, the Tourettes, and the Yah Mos (and current members of funkateers !!!), as much evokes the smeary dub of Adrian Sherwood’s New Age Steppers, as it does the more experimental side of New Order’s club-friendly dance music, and the shouty, trebly funk of Gang of Four and the Pop Group. It sounds hard to imagine these influences joining harmoniously, but they do.
These musical reference points all hint at something that’s really out of the scope of this review: the fact that Out Hud are drawing on the music of performers that were white, who themselves were trying on musical forms that are culturally “black”. My point here is not to belabor this issue of race, but it is interesting that most reviews I’ve read of Out Hud point out the whole indie-rock-kids-bringing-the-dubfunk thing, forgetting that they themselves draw on a slew of white musicians from the past who were drawn more to “black” musical forms. In fact, there’s probably a dissertation waiting to be written on the use of the word “dork” in music criticism to describe whites working in “non-white” genres.
Well, if dorks Out Hud are, then the titles of the six movements (in the ass-shaking sense and the classical music sense) on this record are the dorkiest thing about them: “Hair Dude, You’re Stepping on My Mystique” and “Dad, There’s a Little Phrase Called Too Much Information” are either incredibly lazy titles or incredibly brainy ways of telling us that “Having to Make Up Song Titles Sucks” (to use a nugget of wisdom from Anal Cunt). “The L Train Is A Swell Train and I Don’t Want to Hear You Indies Complain” takes the cake for most pointless title on here.
Or does it? Well, the piece does begin with what sounds like a recording of the train from Kansas City pulling into the Brooklyn station. But what happens from there is absolutely magical. Echoey guitars chime like sparks ground out from under the wheels, synthesizer notes and electronics float on through the mix like leaves blowing across the tracks, and the drums chugs along like the engine. Different pieces of the music take precedence throughout the 12-plus minutes (!) of the piece—a cymbal wash here, a burbly synthesizer line there, some electronic noodling and deep bass everywhere—until it becomes near-impossible to anticipate what sonic turn the piece will take next.
And then the 9:10 mark hits. Everything drops out except for a sad cello—heretofore unheard in the song—playing to the accompaniment of the most rudimentary of drum machine lines (boom-boom clap! boom-boom clap!). For the ten seconds or so that this section lasts, nothing in the world has sounded more alone, more naked, than this live instrument with its mechanical beats. The drum machine starts playing an intricate pattern and the synthesizer plays a jazzy little piano line, and things start getting more complicated. Until about a minute later, that is, when a mournful violin dominates the mix, sounding even more alone than the cello and drum machine did previously. And another minute beyond that, an acoustic guitar comes to dominate. Eventually, the electronics fade out until all that’s left are the three wooden instruments with one bright synth note repeating behind them.
This reversal, where the “organic” instruments come across like they’re bullying the electronic ones into submission, might be one of the best instances of the way Out Hud embodies the pseudo-dichotomy of dub. It’s hard to ignore either the power of the heavy bass and the studio trickery in the first part of the song or the weepy acoustics of the latter. And the rest of S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. feels the same: undeniable.