Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…

Some Glee Clubs Need to Learn the Meaning of “Team”

December 3, 2010

Another Glee competition, another missed opportunity to truly shine as a team.

After the every competition episode, I seem to blog about teamwork and vocal arrangements. (Here’s my post on last season’s sectionals, and last season’s regional competition.)

A good Glee club showcases all of its talent. It can’t just be a star with a bunch of back up singers. That’s not a Glee club. That’s a music video.

This past episode was actually about teamwork and why New Directions needs to work on it! YAY! Mr. Schue finally called Rachel on her massive ego and finally told her that it wasn’t all about her. And he gave the solos to people we don’t hear from much.

But… in the end, concept never met execution.

The soloists were new, but it was still soloist + backup singers. As much as this episode focused on teamwork, when push came to shove, there was a lot more teamwork in their singing in last season’s regional competition.

That competition featured several singers in most of the songs. Solos were only a line or two long and pretty much everyone got one. This week they said they were doing teamwork, but all the did was elevate people who we usually don’t hear from. The only teamwork we actually saw was spoken, when Rachel helped Kurt prep for his audition and when the team cheered for Kurt’s new team.

So close, yet so far.

The Warblers, Kurt’s new Glee club they tied with are just as bad, if not worse. Kurt’s told not to try so hard, to not stand out, that they wear a uniform because it’s about the team, not the individual. But… that’s perfectly fine for Blaine to say because every song we’ve heard the Warblers sing has been all-Blaine-all-the-time, with his backup singers. Now, as a Darren Criss fan, I don’t mind too much, BUT don’t make him say a bunch of lies about teamwork.

The dialogue’s not matching the vocals. Part of me wonders if the writers need to learn what teamwork is, because as much as the characters talk on and on and on and on and on about it, they’re not actually doing it.

They need to stop talking the talk if they’re never going to walk the walk.

New Directions Lost? What?!

June 8, 2010

In January, I wrote a post about why New Directions would lose Regionals. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a Glee thing.)

My premise was that New Directions relied too heavily on the “strong soloist with backing vocals” arrangements, while their main competition, Vocal Adrenaline truly performed as an ensemble.  Because of this, I said that Vocal Adrenaline was the stronger group and would therefore win the great sing off.


I was right, they did win and our plucky heroes lost, but for all the wrong reasons.

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Why New Horizons is going to lose Regionals

January 20, 2010

In order to get me through the dark months before Glee starts back up in April, I’ve downloaded all of the songs from iTunes and have been listening to them nonstop.

If you download the songs that just aren’t on the albums, you get two songs that are performed (in the show) by Vocal Adrenaline, the best glee club in Western Ohio, and our plucky little group’s main competition. The two tracks by Vocal Adrenaline are markedly different than the others by New Horizons, and it shows why they are the superior group. The answer is all in the arrangements.

As much as Mr. Schuester protests in every episode that Glee is a team, it’s not. It’s Rachel and Quinn Finn (sometimes, for variety, Mercedes and Artie) singing lead vocals and everyone else oohing and ahhing in the background. Now, if Michelle Lea (who plays Rachel) were in my Glee club, I’ d give her every solo, too (Did you hear her sing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” in the finale?!) But… this style of arrangement, with a soloist or two in front and everyone else providing rhythm backup is the trap of the crappy glee club.

Vocal Adrenaline (which is cast with actors playing characters who don’t get names) doesn’t do this. The choir sings the song. One or two lines might be a solo, but the entire choir sings the bulk of the song. The show is probably only doing this because the focus is on our stars, and it’s about showcasing their talent, but in the end, they made Vocal Adrenaline an actual team, where New Horizons should be renamed “Rachel and the Misfits.”

The cast breaks into song enough that isn’t a rehearsal, the producers can still showcase their star soloists and still have a glee club that actually acts and, more importantly, sings, like the team they keep claiming they are.

And then they can get around to singing “Livin’ on a Prayer” because that’s a song that they need to sing.

-posted by kidsilkhaze

Sacred Harmonizing with the Subway

March 24, 2009

This morning on my way to work, I caught a story on NPR about the Tibetan Gyuto monks: Gyuto Monks: Ancient Practice, Modern Sound. The excuse for the story was that there is a new CD being released of their chants that more accurately reproduces the sound of what a full choir would have been like. Really, though, most of the story was about how these monks and their overtone (or throat) singing came to the attention of the outside world. The part I particularly liked was near the end, when they interviewed another monk who has already become famous as a singer in the US:

One of the first Tibetan monks to make his name in the West as a musician was Nawang Khechog, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. He says these chants are among the most secret and sacred of Tibetan Buddhism — that’s why they’re so heavily layered and deliberately hard to understand.

“Very secret practice,” Khechog says. “Secret as well as sacred … So, therefore, to hide the words, in the general public, it’s disguised in that kind of multitonic sound.”

[…] Khechog says that when he used to live in New York, he would get funny looks when he tried to harmonize with the subway trains.

“I start the chant, and then suddenly the train’s gone,” Khechog says, “and I’m still chanting that, and suddenly, few people standing there, and they think, ‘What’s going on,’ you know?”

I think it would be awesome to run across someone trying to harmonize with a subway train. Too bad there really isn’t any public transportation where I live.

Anyway, if you want to hear some of the singing, there’s a bit in the audio version of the NPR story, and also some longer pieces in the sidebar links on the article page, one of which I’m listening to right now. So there you go, my cool thing of the day.

-posted by Dana

Lincoln’s Playlist for Your President’s Day Party

February 16, 2009

This was your biggest dilemma today, wasn’t it? That nagging question of what would be the ideal playlist for the huge President’s Day bash you’re having tonight? Well, never fear! Abraham Lincoln, via NPR’s Morning Edition, is ready to help you out!

If Abraham Lincoln Had An iPod

You can hear some of the suggested Lincoln favorites at the link above, but the basic things to keep in mind when crafting your 200-year-old presidential playlist are: opera, Scottish ballads, and “Dixie.”

I also thought it was interesting that a lot of the composers that we think of as “core” classical now were actually just getting their start in Lincoln’s day, having been born in and around the same year as Mr. Lincoln himself: Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, and many more. Quite the time to be alive.

-posted by Dana

Drop Some Geek Tunes on New Year’s Eve

December 29, 2008

As an openly geeky DJ and a DJ for geeks at their weddings and such, I have often stood at the precarious nexus between multiple vectors of musical taste that – even in this era of the apparently “omnivorous” musical consumer – endlessly poses the question: “Is this the right track?”  Actually, if you’re not asking yourself this question as a DJ, then you’ve either got a killer set or you’re no DJ at all.  Let’s look at some of these vectors of musical taste, including their origin and their direction:

* The MAINSTREAM Vector – If they can play it in the grocery store, then people inclined toward this taste vector will be satisfied.  The origins of this particular taste category are from the comfort and familiarity of music consistently fed to us in the rhythms of our upbringing and lives.  “Happy Juice,” as Daniel Levitin calls it, floods into your brain when you hear certain select canonical songs.  You feel good while grocery shopping because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna, and you feel like dancing because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna LOUDER at a party.  No need to feel ashamed:  everyone will feel the same!

* The INDIE Vector – If a band is played primarily on college radio stations or, even better, only in exclusive locales as part of a scene that is gaining in popularity and becoming slowly co-opted by the mainstream, then those inclined toward this vector will likely enjoy it.  It is founded on the paradoxically entwined grounds of simple pleasure in the unusual and Bourdieu-style class distinction.  In its traditionally negative connotation, the indie taste vector plays on one’s ability not only to become an early adopter of a musical style, but also, as David Brooks argues, an early discarder as well: “In order to cement your status in the cultural elite, you want to be already sick of everything no one else has even heard of.”  In its rarely invoked positive connotation, however, the indie taste vector exposes us all to new and different musical material that may considerably complicate and deepen our musical taste.  Even though it was a little overdetermined for Natalie Portman’s character Sam in Garden State to call The Shins’ song “New Slang” “life-changing,” it certainly got a lot of us hooked on The Shins!

* The MY Vector – We’ve all got our own taste that isn’t entirely determined by the poles of music everybody listens to and music nobody but cool people listens to.  I, Evan Torner, have songs I like because I’ve somehow mentally possessed them.  My musical taste was shaped by falling in love with electronic music in high school and somewhat resolutely refusing to buy albums outside the genre… up until the present.  On the one hand, people know some of the artists I enjoy – The Prodigy, Prefuse 73, Squarepusher, Orbital, Chemical Brothers – and find a great affinity with my musical taste on their account.  Yet I listen to the outliers of the genre as well – Black Strobe, Ghostcauldron, Timo Maas – who may only be known in select clubs and circles in Europe.  I have to be very careful about throwing on, say, a Tim Deluxe house track or something I’ve composed because of its simultaneous lack of mainstream or indie cred.

The GEEK Vector – Then there’s the Bantha in the room:  I’m a geek.  Geeks may or may not be comforted by the mainstream music, might become offended by the indie music, and outright dismissive of the electronic craziness.  They’re likely to jointly appreciate the sounds of Weird Al Yankovic, Celtic melodies, The Phantom Menace soundtrack and Monty Python Sings on their iPods.  The origin of the taste vector stems from a sense of shared understanding about the absurdity of reality and the total awesomeness of the fantastic.  The main problem with geek taste is its eclectic field and often corporate origins.  The Matrix soundtrack is as much a product of the establishment as it is “anti-establishment.”

So what tracks should you play at, say, your New Year’s Eve party to appease a specifically geeky audience?  What tracks should I play to please myself while pleasing a geeky audience?  I’ve come up with a few over the years that are becoming time-honored components of my track “arsenal” that I only reveal and explicate to you as part of my holiday goodwill.

(Note:  This is not a prescribed set-list.  The songs are listed in my brain’s order)

R.E.M. – End of the World – “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”  There’s something very poignant in the combination of this song’s fast tempo and utterly apocalyptic lyrics that make us all join in chorus to sing of our own demise.  And the geeks at the beginning of ID4 are playing golf to it.

David Bowie – Suffragette City – With the presence of Rock Band and Guitar Hero in our lives, certain songs have taken on radical new meaning.  We can imagine ourselves jamming on them with our plastic/electronic guitars, trying desperately to keep the song’s audio on the television from embarassingly cutting out and disappointing the digital audience.  This song – WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM! – has become as geeky as it ever was cool.

Chemical Brothers – The Salmon Dance – This recent addition to modern line-dancing will have you dancing “like a salmon floating upstream.”  That’s also the only move, and there’s no “correct version” of it so as to not intimidate people off the dancefloor.

Madonna – Like a Prayer – This song has swept away the heart of those born between 1975 and 1985, thereby answering Madonna’s prayers and dreams.  This entry also goes out to everyone who graduated from Grinnell College within the last two decades…

Wylde Nept – Wylde Mountain Theme – So, you’ve got some people in capes and you want to see them whirl around?  Throw on the local Eastern Iowa Celtic pub band Wylde Nept and watch the clapping ensue.  It’s so local that even the indie heads won’t know where it came from.

Jamiroquai – Canned Heat – This song was a great dance number for those into acid-jazz and disco even before Napoleon Dynamite came out.  Now we have his crazy-ass choreography to follow.

House of Pain – Jump Around – Get down to the sounds of 1993!  For some reason, this song hits nerves across the social spectrum, with geeks and non-geeks alike thoroughly appreciating its timelessly dated (that’s right) quality.  Even school teachers will start to jump.

Tori Amos – Bouncing Off Clouds – One of the very danceable Tori Amos songs, “Bouncing Off Clouds” reminds girl geeks that the time of their life when they were smoking cloves (or wishing they were) and applying liberal amounts of dark eyeshadow was legitimate and enjoyable.

YMCK – Pow_pow – This song is a good example of thoroughly obscure music that everyone will enjoy on some level.  YMCK is a Japanese chiptune band, a musical genre based off the 8-bit square-wave noises generated by our old Atari and Nintendo game systems.  These guys concoct bright and crazy jazz within their timbral pallette of bleeps and bloops.

Aqua – My Oh My – In the era following The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, there was the fantasy techno song by the band that everyone is slightly afraid to admit they love.  Scandinavian artists Aqua take the cheesy princess story to the next level.

Techno Syndrome – Mortal Kombat Theme – Whoops! How did this get on here?  Still, this’ll get a laugh… and inspire geeky men to fake spar in the middle of your living rooms.  It was composed by Praga Khan, who helped found the sexually explicit Lords of Acid.

They Might Be Giants – Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – This one’s a real sing-along song, as are many from their album Flood.  I selected this one over Particle Man because it is more danceable.

…and last, but not least:

Yoko Takahashi – A Cruel Angel’s Thesis – The theme song to Neon Genesis Evangelion has delighted fans for over a decade, with its serious, techno-inflected J-pop opening every episode of one of the greatest anime series of all time.  I have used it at any and every wedding at which I can get away with it.  People who don’t know the series think the song’s catchy.  People in the know are in ecstasy, and are – in all likelihood – geeks.

Actually, Maestro, Infinity Isn’t A Number

November 22, 2008

On November 7, I received an email message with the subject line “CHORAL SINGERS NEEDED!!” It turned out to be from a student in the music composition program here at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He had written a piece for a choral ensemble, and he was looking for singers to rehearse and perform it in his master’s composition recital a few weeks hence. He was writing to ask me to participate in the project, if I wasn’t too busy.

Now, by no means am I a very good singer; I’m just a lowly computer science student who happens to be a member of University Chorale, which is but one of the thirteen Jacobs School of Music choral ensembles. Nobody in the graduate composition program would have any reason to know who I am. I’m sure that this particular student composer, after contacting all the actual good singers he knew, just got my email address from one of a number of lists the choral department keeps, most likely the list entitled “Passably Okay Singers Who Can Probably Be Flattered Into Being In Your Ensemble For No Credit And No Compensation, As Long As You Make It Sound As Though You Think They’re Somehow Important And/Or Special.”

Whatever the composer’s recruiting technique was, it worked, and I readily agreed to rehearse and perform his piece. I was assigned to sing the seventh alto part, and rehearsals were to begin the following week. The title of the piece was White Love/Shadow Illumination No. ∞. Yes, that’s correct: “Number Infinity.” Needless to say, hilarity has ensued.

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The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

October 24, 2008

Yesterday, I had to act as an usher for a school performance by a visiting artist sponsored by the academic department I work for. Lest you think I’m complaining, I assure you I’m not; what this meant was that I stood in the cold for maybe as many as 10 minutes instructing middle schoolers on where to sit once they got into the auditorium, and then I got to enjoy a free performance for the next two hours. I suspect I enjoyed it a great deal more than the 7th graders.

The performance was given by a Japanese biwa player, telling a legend about The Tale of the Heike. For the middle school students, she chose the story of Hoichi the Earless, which is, appropriately for October, a ghost story. Since the actual singing/story telling is in Japanese, she gave the students a background explanation and an unsung version of the story in English. So here’s a ghost story for you all. (Note that I am retelling it from my memory of how the artist recited it, and am not looking up the official version, despite the lure of the internet.)

Background: Many years ago, in the days of the samurai warrior in Japan, there was a war between two clans, the Heike and the Genji. A decisive sea battle came at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, as the Genji fleet defeated the Heike. To protect the infant Heike emperor from the shame of defeat, his (grand?)mother took him in her arms and jumped over the side of the ship, drowning them both. Many other Heike warriors also jumped into the sea, and many more died in the battle. The beach forever after was haunted by their spirits (which are said to have taken physical form in the Heike crab, whose shell resembles a samurai’s face.)

The story:

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Which Albums Have Shaped You?

May 7, 2008

A recent post over at Good Readings (the new blog of Ryan Williams, a Grinnellian once removed) mentions the 15th anniversary of Liz Phair’s album “Exile in Guyville” — an album containing such classics as “Divorce Song” and “Fuck and Run.” Ryan links to an article by former Sleater-Kinney rocker Carrie Brownstein describing the album’s influence on her when she first heard it in 1993. He then goes on to describe his own relationship to the same album, one whose adult themes were enjoyed clandestinely “alone in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening with a uniquely teenage intensity of focus and emotional engagement.”

Is there anyone among us who cannot sympathize with that statement? Each of us could identify a few sentinel albums in our lives: those calling out to us clearly with their music, vocals or lyrics and which, despite the onward march of time, soldier on inside our heads and hearts and on our playlists.

So fellow geeks, which albums have shaped you (your world view, your understanding of music) significantly? Please also share which song you believe to be the most underrated on the album — never a hit, rather the kind of gem you discover only by purchasing the whole disc and (perhaps warm up to) listening to it incessantly.

-posted by poetloverrebelspy