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.
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.”