I like the new Ulrich Schnauss album A Strangely Isolated Place (or rather, reissued, forthcoming on Domino). I do. But there's something bothering me about it as well. Listen to track 5, "Clear Day." Those overdriven strings and chords buried deep in the mix -- you've heard them somewhere before, haven't you? Let's not be coy: it's My Bloody Valentine all over again, and when he pulls out the detuned drone, seesawing in and out of key, there's no mistaking the source. The strategy is essentially the same as the one that Dykehouse followed on his new album -- take classic shoegaze sounds, and cover them the way you'd cover a song. It's a kind of pastiche driven by a laptopper's ego: "It took Kevin Shields et al a massive studio to put this sound together; I bet I can do it with a G4." And in many ways the laptoppers are right.
But something in me cries out: is this all there is?
Culture revisits the past, this much I know. After a spate of blazing forward, it will periodically slip into a loop, returning to recent aesthetics and picking up room tones the way Lucier's voice does in his loop composition par excellence, I Am Sitting in a Room. We've been looping for a while now across multiple genres -- rock, electronic listening music, house, techno, electro -- and it seems like we've got the recent past pretty much covered. Garage rock? Check. Acid house? Check. Shoegaze? Check, and check. (Grunge is still coming, of course.)
Are we exhausted? Out of ideas? Have digital musicians pushed the software as far as they can, discovering that rippling glitches are a dead end, and that the only way to go forward is to move back to the discarded songforms and stylistic signatures of recent movements?
It feels a bit Tourettic, to be honest. In Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, the protagonist, a Tourette's sufferer, often takes an inordinately long time to do simple things -- close the glove box, say -- because his syndrome compels him to repeat simple mechanical actions. For most of the book, his tic takes six as its magic number, and so everything he does, he does six times. Tapping acquaintances on the shoulder, clicking the lock of the car door. It seems like musicians these days are cursed with the same compulsion, that before they can move forward they have to perform a well-rehearsed dance of OCD. Tap the past on the shoulder -- one, two, three, four, five... how many times? And when they've fulfilled their quota, will they be free to do something new?
Almost everything feels apres garde these days. There are exceptions, of course. But the zeitgeist, the one that cuts across rock, hip hop, techno, etc., the whole pop universe of recorded sound, feels like it's lock grooving. And lock grooves wear down, scuff needles, collect fuzz and disappear in a firecracker string of fizzle and hiss and dusty explosions. Pop music today is a necrophile, in love with from-dust-to-dust, pulverizing its way back to some idealized, ashen origins one pilfering at a time.