Music

Soundscape Mix #9: Disco, The Continuing Last Days

PopMatters' latest free mix tape presents some aspects of the lasting effects of disco and associated funk, with ace selections from Squarepusher, of Montreal, Matthew Dear, Goldfrapp to keep that boogie in your shoes.

As I read granular synthesis guru Barry Truax's seminal soundscape text Acoustic Communication last year, I was struck by the following passage:

"Does our present ability to document something for all time contribute or detract from the experience of tradition? Does not all of the recorded past simply become part of the present? The concept of linear, historical time is denied, if not actually eliminated, by the electroacoustic media. If a particular sound can be preserved and embedded within that originating from any other time, the concept of a linear flow of time becomes an anachronism."

I spent my childhood in the '80s, and it only took a handful of years in the '90s for me to realize what a dreadful decade that was for music, politics, fashion, television, and so much more. Regardless, much to my horror, the music and fashion of the '80s seemed to fade only briefly at the millennium, and perhaps never really went away. Neon, mullets, and hair metal are still all common sights, among other things I'd consider best forgotten.

Yet, the regrettable return of the '80s aesthetic so noticeable to someone of my generation was certainly not a first. The late '70s concept of disco was polarizing in its day, birthed by the party scene in [New York] and fueled by stimulants, bold fashion choices, vigorous dance, synthesizers, and extended mixes of club funk and pop. On the other side was the hard rock crowd, basking in the glory of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Kiss, and the heyday of arena rock, loathing the comparatively liberated form with a wash of testosterone, beer, and a desire to cling to some naive ideal of 'sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll' without consequence.

These forces came to a peak at Disco Demolition Night, held at the 1979 baseball game between Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. At the time, disco was losing mainstream steam, clubs were closing, and the word 'disco' became a punch line among men concerned with being manly men. On this particular night, a riot of burning and blustering bombast exploded into the collective conscience. A statement had been made; as far as the mainstream was concerned, disco was dead.

However, as Truax pointed out, lest plague, meteor, or nuclear holocaust, musical cultural phenomena don't die. Despite protest and punch line, disco never really left us. It moved underground, continued on its own under hybridized names, and bubbled out of unexpected places like lava [not the lamp kind], influencing the creation of new genres such as hip-hop and house, new mountains still prominent in today's popular culture.

This Soundscape presents some aspects of the lasting effects of disco and associated funk. While few selections from the track listing would be considered truly disco, it shows some ways in which the aesthetic nurtured in posh clubs over 30 years ago continues to self-perpetuate and effect contemporary forms, even those enjoyed by people who may otherwise cringe at mention of the 'd' word. Ultimately, this mix is just a spot of fun, so don't start a riot... unless you hire a DJ and procure a liquor license beforehand.

 

 

01. Curtis Plum - "Get on the Dancefloor" (Call My Cellphone, 2010)

- Start time: 0:00; Links: Strange Famous - Curtis Plum

02. Duck Sauce - "Barbra Streisand (Baby Diego edit from scratch)" (unreleased, 2010)

- Start time: 1:27; Links: Tigerbass - Duck Sauce, Dolby Anol

03. of Montreal - "Wicked Wisdom" (Skeletal Lamping, 2008)

- Start time: 5:22; Links: Polyvinyl - of Montreal

04. Husky Rescue - "Sound of Love (The Twelves Remix)" (Sound of Love single, 2010)

- Start time: 10:22; Links: Catskills - Husky Rescue, The Twelves

05. Squarepusher - "The Coathanger" (Just a Souvenir, 2008)

- Start time: 15:36; Links: Warp - Squarepusher

06. Gentlemen Reg - "We're in a Thunderstorm (World of Echo Mix by Cadence Weapon)" (unreleased, 2010)

- Start time: 19:34; Links: Arts & Crafts - Gentlemen Reg, Cadence Weapon

07. Matthew Dear - "I Can't Feel" (Black City, 2010)

- Start time: 22:15; Links: Ghostly International - Matthew Dear

08. Goldfrapp - "Alive" (Head First, 2010)

- Start time: 26:31; Links: Mute - Goldfrapp

09. Cocosuma - "The Jar" (The Jar EP, 2010)

- Start time: 29:56; Links: 3rd Side - Cocosuma

10. Dinowalrus - "Bead" (%, 2009)

- Start time: 33:48; Links: Kanine - Dinowalrus

11. Music Go Music - "Warm in the Shadows" (Expressions, 2009)

- Start time: 37:48; Links: Secretly Canadian - Music Go Music

12. 4hero - "Morning Child" (Play with the Changes, 2007)

- Start time: 47:07; Links: Milan - 4hero

13. Tortoise - "Prepare Your Coffin" (Beacons of Ancestorship, 2009)

- Start time: 51:43; Links: Thrill Jockey - Tortoise

Total Running Time: 55:21

 

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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