[1 November 2009]
Last month I unwittingly found myself at Washington, DC’s Sonic Circuits Festival. Having purchased tickets to the fantastic pairing of HEALTH and Faust in our nation’s capital, I only later realized that the price of entry included a lengthy list of openers providing “experimental and avant-garde electronic music, with an emphasis on improvisation and artistic use of new technologies”, as the festival’s website describes.
I dabble in the avant garde—hell, I’d been waiting all summer for that HEALTH/Faust concert—but there’s no doubt that the evening left me a bit cold. Outside of the audience’s unusual reverence (it was at the Black Cat, one of DC’s punkier venues), the music itself felt too calculated to exist much outside of the realm of music. Pekka Airaksinen stretched music to its tolerable bounds, sure, but to what end? Not to make our ears feel the pain he meant to express, it seemed—just to see how far he could push things.
Call it postmodern, call it progressive, call it what you want, but don’t blame me for questioning it. Acts like Animal Collective, Fuck Buttons, and yes, even HEALTH, find ways to incorporate some human aspects into their “experimental” compositions—it’s not an impossible feat (and a bit more difficult than just holding uncomfortable tones for minutes on end). Pushing our bounds of “music” doesn’t need to be limited to cold, calculated, weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
Someone forgot to tell Tickley Feather.
A one-woman project on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint, Tickley Feather (neé Annie Sachs) mines the same territory as the Baltimore group’s early work, with a dusty electronic sound and hazy, psychedelic melodies. Sachs’ extra-musical ties to Animal Collective (in addition to being signed to their label, she’s appeared with them live quite a few times) keep the group close whenever approaching her sound, a fact that does her no favors: musically, the two can’t compare.
Where Animal Collective has the constant tension of beauty versus discord, happiness versus creepiness—even at their worst the group still touches on themes past “this sounds neat”—Sachs doesn’t seem to have too much to say. Before you point out that it’s nearly impossible to hear her vocals, the best contemporary experimental acts aren’t conveying their ideas through vocals—only Animal Collective, out of the three I mentioned, have discernible lyrics, something that’s occurred at the most accessible point in the band’s career (a point far more accessible than what Sachs is shooting for here).
Without any notable themes, then, we’re left to approach the album as music for its own sake, and even there it falls rather short. None of the songs are particularly unsettling; they’re pleasantly forgettable explorations of the sound she’s developed so well. The keyboard chord progressions are obvious, the vocal melodies uninteresting, the beats plodding—nothing here is really new. It’s uninteresting pop music with a cheap (if unique) sound.
The sound itself is quite nice. In a time when cheap-sounding music (Washed Out, Neon Indian, etc.) is best appreciated on a cassette in a car with your windows down, Hors D’oeuvres has a more intimate sound that rewards close listening. The warm layers aren’t there to add to any sense of sunny nostalgia; they wrap you up the way that early Beach House did. Where Beach House had melodies to make Galaxie 500 proud, though, Tickley Feather doesn’t leave much in there to want to get wrapped up with. After countless listens to the album, only the vocal hook to “Roses of Romance” sticks in my head, and it’s more the kind of melody I don’t want there.
Sachs clearly has the willingness to try out different things, and, hell, it’s a better use of her musical interest than doing acoustic covers of “Party in the USA” on YouTube. Landing somewhere between pop music and experimental, though, she achieves the goals of neither, and comes up with an album that is, at best, inoffensive. Its sound may reward close listening, but you probably won’t want to get that close anyway.