Music

Actress' ​​'88'​​ Is ​a Beautiful Mess of Snaps, Pops, and Glitches

88 is not the most consistent Actress album to date, but it is probably the wonkiest. Parts of it sound like relics from the analog era; others sound like nothing else on earth.

88
Actress

Independent

15 July 2020

Is the music of Actress—the brain-child of Darren Cunningham—futuristic or retro? Or just retro-futuristic? Sometimes Actress' music sounds like the soundtrack to some 1980s computer game, with its love of bleeps and bloops and laser sounds. Sometimes the production is so grainy, so lo-fi, so overdriven that it's just plain archaic. Other times, though, it simply sounds too sharp, too twisted, too genre-defying to be anything but futuristic.

Maybe this is what makes Cunningham so great: he's one step behind and one step ahead of everyone else at once. His music takes the lean, clean sound of old school Detroit techno and mashes it up in a melting pot of house, dub, glitch, funk, and everything in between. It's at once a service and disservice to every genre he explores. But don't be misled: Actress is no dilettante. His music may be heady and genre-bending, but it's rarely tedious or top-heavy. His grooves, especially on albums like Splazsch and AZD, are part of what set him apart.

That said, Actress' newest LP has less in common with either of those records and more in common with the abstract compositions of R.I.P. or the bleak, staticky sound world of Ghettoville. In fact, 88 may be Actress' most inaccessible album to date. The tracks here are more sketches than songs—loose, open-ended jams that often feel intentionally half-formed, intentionally short-lived. There are 22 tracks here, and even though Cunningham provided a track-listing prior to the album's release, the album was released as a standalone 49-minute track. That means that, even though we have the track-listing, we don't know which tracks correspond to which sections of the album.

Does this frustrate you? It's probably supposed to. Because of any Actress LP, 88 seems like the one to weed out the true fans from the casual ones, the wheat from the chaff. Aside from the opening sequence, with its straightforward mix of twangy guitar and bass, the first 20 minutes are so left of leftfield they make RIP sound like a pop record. Starting at the 1:30 mark, we get a salvo of clucky, uneven drums, squealing synths, and distant vocals pitch-shifted to a ridiculously low register. The beat here is so slow but so disorienting that the sounds going on around it hardly seem to coalesce. The elements don't really gel together; it's like you're trying to listen to two songs at once. It's an uncharacteristically shaky start for Actress; the experiment doesn't really land.

Things pick up around the 8:30 mark, however. This sequence includes stomping hip-hop kickdrums, retro bleeps and zaps, and a gorgeous MIDI-flute passage. It's everything Actress does well—half-retro, half-futuristic at the same time. From there, 88 is pretty much smooth sailing. The song starting at the 23rd minute unites a bouncy piano melody with a fuzzy, crackling texture that sounds straight out of Ghettoville. At 27:30, we get an ominous two-note bassline and a melody that's created by filtering a similarly fuzzy texture through some subtle delay effects. Tracks like these show Cunningham's uncanny ability to mine melodies from the oddest, most unmelodic of sounds. Unlike so much head-banging techno these days, this is music that sounds challenging to make—not just listen to.

The end of the LP is probably the warmest, liveliest part of 88. At about 43:40, there's a footwork-like drum sequence overlaid with a series of bright, clean synths. The synths have a strangely watery texture; they seem to bubble over as the song goes on. At 47:30, the closeout, we get some gorgeous filter sweeps ascending and descending over an ambient keyboard passage. In comparison to the rest of 88, the last ten minutes are light, buoyant and playful. They're more reminiscent of AZD than Ghettoville. They give a glimmer of life to the murky, painstaking experience that is often 88.

Actress' music has always been weird and unclassifiable, but even by his standards, this LP is far-out. As a whole, the LP doesn't kick, spin or dance—it snaps, pops and glitches. It's something of a beautiful mess. Parts of it sound like relics from the analog era; others sound like nothing else on earth. There are 22 tracks jam-packed in under 50 minutes, and many of them don't even last a minute. The ones that do, however, are generally right up there with Cunningham's best. 88 is not the most consistent Actress album to date, but it is probably the wonkiest.

7
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Music

Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

Books

'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.