Oh Astro: Champions of Wonder

Oh Astro
Champions of Wonder
Illegal Art

The Illegal Art imprint got its start a decade ago with series of cheaply-produced compilations just begging to be made into a fair-use cause célèbre. The first and most notable of these was Deconstructing Beck, which, consisting of thirteen tracks sourced entirely in variously mutilated Beck albums, was exactly what it sounded like. The RIAA either didn’t notice or didn’t take the bait, and the challenge went unmet, paving the way for further compilations sourced in film and advertising, and eventually a variety of solo works including the three full-length albums of pop-reconstruction by Girl Talk. The six years since debut album Secret Diary have seen the Girl Talk oeuvre gradually shift from plunderphonic top-40 subversion to a sort of holistic musicology that sees the Boredoms set against Oasis and the Ying-Yang Twins without anything seeming out of place. Now Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis is opening for the same Kanye West he’s been sampling uncleared and getting remix work from the same Beck his label was goading a decade ago (as well as, hilariously, Good Charlotte).

I mention all of this not because I’m especially interested in Gillis right now, but because I’m interested in Illegal Art. Gillis’s work may now have been almost entirely subsumed by the sort of mass culture he originally appeared to be critiquing (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether he’s come around to a genuine all-embracing love of pop, or effectively subverting from within, or just having fun, or cashing out, or whether motivation ultimately matters at a dance party this good), but a glance at Illegal Art founder Philo T. Farnsworth’s blog confirms that his interests and allegiances are relatively unchanged. Which makes it especially interesting that the current crop Illegal Art releases seem to have followed the Girl Talk lead towards greater pop accessibility.

Take Jane Dowe. She’s been around as long as the label, contributing two of Deconstructing Beck‘s most clinically dissected tracks. In her own notes on one of those contributions, she wrote, “‘Puzzels & Pagans’ takes the first 2 minutes and 26 seconds of ‘Jackass’ (from Odelay) and cuts it up into 2500 pieces. These pieces are then reshuffled taking into account probability functions (that change over the length of the track) determining if pieces remain in their original position or if they don’t sound at all.” Technically interesting sound art, certainly, but remote from any traditional pop sentiments (besides source). Working since 2005 as Oh Astro, though, a moniker that now includes her husband Hank Hofler, Dowe has allowed latent pop sensibilities free reign for a glossy sample-collage sound, something like Jason Forrest re-imagined as a slick electro producer. The latest, Champions of Wonder, still isn’t likely to show up on the Video Music Awards anytime soon (whereas Girl Talk played the after-party last year), but it’s a far cry from her academic roots.

As such, the album is intensely listenable. Opener “Snow Queen” lays down the template: lurching synth-stabs, bright and tightly gated into precision tools, deep bass bump, stop-start drum glitches that seem constantly on the verge of falling out of rhythm, and duplo-block melodic theme of ambiguous origins. Actually, all the components are pretty ambiguous here, stripped of context and seemingly now most at home in their new environments. “Hello Fuji Boy” and “Candy Sun Smiles” manage a similar trick, but synced to steadier house rhythms that make real dancefloors a not entirely unreasonable possibility.

Besides the thick, catchy, primary-color electronica, though, and more ambient-glitch-based counterparts like “Empty Air” and “Pet Apples”, Dowe and Hofler also include three entirely different studies in vocal manipulation using Hofler’s own custom software. “Lucy Sees the Moon”, for instance, combines a few sung lines from the couple’s seven-year-old daughter with several examples of mid-century crooning. Far beyond simply overlaying the two, the former’s words seem set into the melody and timbrel qualities of the latter, for an effect like an ever-morphing, customized vocoder. Later, Dowe takes her own voice as the source material of “Xanadu”. Both of these songs have a kind of alien prettiness, and rather than coming off as a mere neat trick, they’re genuine highlights and help the album’s pop and experimental tendencies cohere in a less obvious manner than its cut-ups.

Sampling has, of course, existed for decades and has been well-incorporated into the popular music vernacular since oldschool hip-hop. Illegal Art and bands like Oh Astro, though, are a part of a lesser-known lineage of sampling, that of plunderphonic arrangement concerned mainly with the appropriation and recontextualization of various cultural ephemera. In this way, they’re more directly linked to the sonic détournement toolkits of misfits like Negativland and the Evolution Control Committee, even as their recent output converges with the same pop culture they toy with. It remains to be seen exactly how the current post-mash-up landscape will affect the plunderphonic movement, but if the success of Girl Talk is any indication, we may see the way cleared for more such acts to follow suit. Perhaps most interesting of all are the implications for plunderphonia in general: will incorporation into the popular media they dismantle help or hinder the project?

RATING 7 / 10