Music

Various Artists: F*>k Dance Let’s Art; Sounds from a New American Underground

!K7 Records tries to make sense of chillwave, witch house, Animal Collective, and other neo-electronic non-dance artists.


Various Artists

F*>k Dance Let’s Art; Sounds from a New American Underground

US Release: 2010-09-28
UK Release: 2010-10-11
Label: !K7/Cool in the Pool
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The phrase "Fuck Art, Let's Dance" started popping up on T-shirts in 1970s U.K. It's unclear whether the phrase, since popularized and bastardized in many forms, originated in any specific scene, but it has been identified as a current throughout northern soul, ska, disco, and other club scenes. In 2010, it'd be hard to imagine "art" as a status symbol enemy in pop music. The artistic touches of Gaga and Kanye are of the stylized, ad-gloss coated, commercially sanctioned Guggenheim promo video pomo at fashion week variety. Haters exist, but for the most part these supposed "auteurs" are celebrated equally in both above- and under-ground forums. Meanwhile, the long tail marketing method satiates the desires of artier types by treating them as specific cliques, allowing the existence of a counterculture that does not run the risk of alienating (or turning on) the larger consuming populace (to whom these micro-scenes are less than irrelevant). There’s art-metal, for instance, and “intelligent” dance music, but beyond their target audience these provoke little attention from a community too caught up in total enjoyment to be bothered by their existence.

Art, as a correlative to anything in our current musical era, is a non-entity. It's just something you say when you want to justify your lavish budget, or qualify an "experiment" in a separate and wholly unchallenged form. Non-academic sonic art means never having to justify yourself, lest your narrow lens spoil someone else's gratification of the art-for-itself. It's hard to imagine that once there was an art-pop establishment, whose painterly jackets were contemplated for hours in bedrooms, whose sequences were perfectly tuned to fit the demands of rotating a vinyl side, whose references needed to be decrypted and deciphered, and whose mysteries lingered large in discussions for years following an album's release (imagine someone talking about an album for more than a couple months now!).

If the musicians on the latest K7!-helmed compilation F*>k Dance, Let's Art are in fact art in the form of resistance to dance or pop, then what exactly is the role of art in the contemporary discussions of music? Sure, the title of the album is probably just a cutesy little turn-of-phrase, but the question bears consideration, particularly since the compilers don't seem to have an answer themselves. In a curious piece of self-sabotage, the authors of F*>K Dance, Let's Art's press release suggests that there is probably no cohesive strain running through all these tracks, save for the fact that they are all very "now" recordings made mostly with electronics and samplers and hailing almost entirely from the east coast of the United States.

To be sure, there's plenty of factors that serve to isolate rather than bind the artists present here. Many of the tracks here are quite lo-fi and are constructed with tactile instruments. Others are studio concoctions which reject DIY for the assistance of professionals who know their way around the latest computer mastering technology. There are some iconic cuts from the relaxed and lush chillwave world (Small Dogs' "Despicable Dogs", Washed Out's "Feel It All Around"), as well as representatives of the anxious and ominous drag scene (Balam Acab, oOoOO, CREEP). There's music that intimates dance (Peter's House Music's "Body Heat", the atrociously-named Truman Peyote's "Kartwheels"), as well as an outright techno track (Slava's "Anything"). There's the chiptune Crystal Castles and the more indie HEALTH combining their songwriting talents for a cheap blippy arpeggiated cut that could have been a bedroom solo joint and Bear In Heaven making simple arpeggio patterns sound both progressive and anthemic on the soaring "Lovesick Teenagers".

Yet despite these converging dynamics, there is some kind of underlying aesthetic that connects these tracks that the press release seems to sell short. In deference to the album title, this music is art which could only exist post-dance. These (assumedly) younger artists have lived their entire lives with electronic music buzzing in the background of their video games, car commercials, films soundtracks, and iPod playlists. To them, it was never weird or leftfield the way it had been a generation or two before (though it hardly qualifies as the top of the musical food pyramid either).

In this sense, it's hard to consider all this "art" music to be a reaction to "dance", particularly not in the way that the industrial Chemlab-donned "Fuck Art Let's Kill" sloganeering expressed violent reactionary retorts to pop music of its age. Instead, the music on F>*k Dance, Let's Art functions as an exogenous branch, an olive branch even, that extends from indie to dance music, basement lo-fi to high society pop, synthpop to psychedelia, southern hip-hop to shoegaze

With that said, there’s the content of the release to worry about. In this regard, it’s hard to decipher the programming philosophy. There are a few seminal cuts and a handful of obscure ones which are uncharacteristic of their respective artists, as hinted above. Animal Collective’s “My Girls” was perhaps the biggest indie cut of 2009, and a perfectly crucial puzzle piece connecting many of its outlying peers. On the other hand, Toro Y Moi’s “Fax Shadow”, while impressive, is hardly indicative of where major obsessions lie.

In Animal Collective’s case, their inclusion seems correct insofar as the compilation would seem incomplete without their pivotal role at the center of this musical framework, but the cut seems like a poor choice nonetheless as its brightly hued intensity so outshines the rest of the lot that it makes everything else sound drained and ineffectual in comparison. Toro Y Moi utilizes chopped vocals and offset quantized beats to cut a slab of abstract wonkified hip-hop that could have been a collaboration between Flying Lotus and Koushik, but it is tangential to the artist’s usual hiccupy synthpop. The playful knob twiddling here is the kind of accidental fiddling that produces something distinctive via its devotion to excess. As a hypothesis, it pays off, but it just as easily could have fallen on its face. A few other numbers here are indicative of this fallibility, and it’s troublesome that the compilers don’t seem to be able to tell the difference.

Only a couple other cuts are as unprincipled though as “Fax Shadow”. Hideous Men’s “Tangled” is the most successful, spiraling a patchwork mesh of High Places-style paradaisical synths and imperfectly honed autotune vocals off an initial burst of gabber drums. Like the David Foster Wallace novel the band name seems to be referencing, there’s little need for structure here, but charm serves as suture for the otherwise ramshackle pieces.

Most of the album’s compositions however are content to remain within a set of parameters. Psychobuildings’s “Paradise” plays the postpunk/art-pop angle like it had been the norm all these years, its wiry guitar patches suggesting one of The Cure’s funkier tracks. Washed Out’s gorgeous “Feel It All Around” is the definition of stasis. It nabs a sample of Gary Low’s cheeseball Italo Disco tune “I Want You” and saturates it with faux harmonies reverbed ad infinitum a la 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love”, producing a sound so immersive that time seems to stop in it and even the braindead simple tropical fills ripple with the force of a thousand dubs.

The entire Tri Angle family was invited along for F*>k Dance, Let’s Art, which explains Slava’s appearance, who otherwise seem to be here mainly as an example of what dance music actually sounds like. The outfit actually contribute a great track, but the selection makes about as much sense as putting Balam Acab on a Delsin compilation. Speaking of whom, Balam Acab’s terrifically creepy “See Birds” is another highlight, a foggy graveyard of unintelligible spectral helium vocals, detuned keyboards, and insistent samples. Both bugged and chilled out, “See Birds” uses cheap instruments, but does so cautiously, enlisting them to conjoin into skin-crawling textures rather than gloating over their anachronistic qualities.

This kind of mindfully fortuitous autodidacticism is absent in Baghdaddy’s “Hot Shit”, remixed here by Tri Angle artist CREEP, who should probably be blacklisted from sonic discourse hereafter for their coinage of the heinous genre name rapegaze. The robotic repetitions of the word “sex appeal” and affectless boasts that the singer is “hot shit” smack of electroclash’s posturing irony, slowed now to an undanceable beat. At the time of its arrival, electroclash was like the rockist anti-dance answer to techno's conquering of the synth and the genre received criticism for eliminating “dance” from its stylistic formulas. If any genre should have adopted this current album title’s motto, it was electroclash. So, it’s unsurprising that there are echoes of the faded fad in other cuts on this album, namely Crystal Castles vs HEALTH’s “Crimewave” and the J.J. Fad-ish electro-hip-hop of the Phenomenal Handclap Band’s "15 to 20 (Bim Marx mix)”.

In the end, F*>k Dance, Let’s Art’s major concerns (like electroclash’s) may be commerce rather than art, a merciless bid to capitalize on whatever this unspoken now moment is. At times, it comes off as little more than a half-decent podcast. However, as my (and probably many of your) first contact with many of these songs was through free MP3 downloads hosted by a variety of sites, a little sales relief might ensure that art of this nature continues to thrive. I’d personally be amazed if any of these artists, even the bigger ones like Animal Collective or Crystal Castles, were not sporting second jobs without taking out a second mortgage on their adobe slats. Art music may never climb to establishment heights again (though some delusional online curmudgeons may claim that a short swarm of buzzing discourse is the same as lavish jet rides and SuperBowl-ready pyrotechnics), but it may continue to surprise those of us paying close enough attention. In fact, those of us whose job it is to pick up on these things may even be able to note unifying trends from disparate scenes and identify their presence as part of a larger movement. F*>k Dance, Let’s Art is a flawed collection, but maybe it will have enough impact to inspire other, more acute primers. Otherwise, the artists on this compilation may soon be saying “Fuck art, let’s health insurance.”

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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10

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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