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April 22, 2009

Depeche Mode, Sounds of the Universe

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It's probably won't surprise you that I adore Depeche Mode. I'm not a fanatic about them—I've never seen them in concert, have never troubled myself too much about the band's biography, and I certainly never took the Talmudic approach to their catalog that a true obsessive might. To be honest, I stopped listening as intently after Violator (only, oh, what—19 years ago?) and still tend to think of Music for the Masses as the "new album" (as I also do with New Order's Brotherhood and other post-new wave touchstones that emerged during my adolescence, when a new album from a favorite band seemed less like a product than a potential revelation; needless to say, I miss those days).

But Depeche Mode have always continued to hold my attention, especially thanks to their knack for picking remixers who are not only current but often surprising. Name another act of their stature that have commissioned remixes not only from the likes of Paul Van Dyk, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Sasha and UNKLE but also Booka Shade, Alex Smoke, Alter Ego, Metope, Kettel, Misc., Motor, Michael Mayer, Rex the Dog, Ewan Pearson, Plastikman, Luke Slater, Shep Pettibone, LFO, Speedy J, Oribtal, Black Strobe, Underworld, Boys Noize, Ricardo Villalobos… (Some names I'd love to see added to that list: Luomo, Newworldaquarium, Carl Craig, Stefan Goldmann, Shed, Burial, Peverelist, T++, Efdemin, Lukid, MLZ/Andy Stott…. Hello Mute, are you listening?)

I've found my interest in the band significantly revived with Sounds of the Universe, Depeche Mode's 12th studio album. I didn't care that much for the last two, so I was a little worried to see that Ben Hillier (Doves, Elbow, Blur) was in the producer's chair again. Like the title of the lead single, though, I was wrong—rather than the stadium-bent modern rock I feared, the album expertly, even effortlessly revives synth-pop tropes from their first decade and a half without ever making it seem retro. All that vintage analog gear promised in the press release really is here, and not just in a symbolic role. The buzzsaw sound of songs like "Fragile Tension," "In Sympathy," "Peace" and "Sympathy" is flat-out gorgeous—warm, rich, always in motion. (Also, special to Jon Caramanica, who chides "the senseless minute-long feedback run that opens the album, [and] the whimsical instrumental blurt 'Spacewalker,'" just a few days after declaring Asher Roth's debut album "excellent" and "versatile" with no supporting musical evidence: Jon, as a friend I must warn you that that beard of yours is draining the blood from your brain. Ok, the intro to "In Chains" might not be on the same level of Mika Vainio, but seriously, "senseless"? I fear, and I say this only half in jest, for our musical imaginations, in the age of Twitter.)

Even their guitar tracks, like "Come Back," lean towards a kind of viscous, post shoegazey din (am I wrong to hear a little Blonde Redhead in that song?). And the lead single, "Wrong," stopped rubbing me the wrong way once I heard it in the context of the album.

In short, it's a delight from start to finish. Thus inspired, I put together a special feature for Rhapsody that I'm pretty stoked about. We've got Depeche Mode, Remodeled, featuring exclusive quotes from select remixers—Ewan Pearson, Dan the Automator, Michael Mayer, Rex the Dog, Misc., UNKLE, Roman Flügel, and Kettel—describing what it was like to remix Depeche Mode. (My favorite is Rex the Dog's: "… When the parts arrived, I spent almost three hours just listening to the raw vocal parts and the synth parts on their own, feeling that I'd been given some special early glimpse of heaven. To hear out-takes of an 18-year-old Dave Gahan saying 'Was that ok, then?' Can you imagine how cool that is?") Complementing that is a playlist of some of the best remixes, including numerous alternate versions from the early EPs, from the days before they used "name" remixers.

We also run down key DM side projects—it probably won't surprise you, but Martin L. Gore's 1989 Counterfeit EP is one of my all-time favorite records—and offer a brief primer to the band's catalog. My favorite bit, though, is a playlist of other artists covering DM classics. Not just the obvious examples (Johnny Cash, Nouvelle Vague) or the underground stalwarts (Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, Playgroup) but also some more surprising picks: Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Vernon Reid, Tori Amos. (Plus: Rammstein, Deftones, A Perfect Circle, and a whole bunch of other names you will probably never again see on this blog.) Who knew that 3rd Bass sampled "Never Let Me Down Again, or that Hilary freaking Duff (exactly who that is, I'm still not entirely sure) copped "Personal Jesus"? You might not exactly enjoy all the covers compiled therein—I can certainly live out the rest of my days without ever again hearing Shiny Toy Guns tackle "Stripped"—but it's an entertaining and even edifying look at a band whose songs have become part of the canon. (Special thanks to the folks at Depeche Mode Covers, whose database proved an invaluable research aid.)

April 20, 2009

Spring, Sprung


My girlfriend and I start our German course tomorrow. It's long overdue—she's actually gotten remarkably proficient at the day-to-day transactions with shopkeepers and plumbers, but I'm still stuck, haltingly, piecing together rudimentary phrases with disagreeing articles and scraps of unconjugated verbs. It's humbling. (Not, perhaps, as humbling as going to sign up for introductory German courses and finding yourself inadvertently queuing up for basic literacy class. I can read, just not this language. Although I guess that doesn't matter much here.)

In any case, with the anticipation that I'll be easing off on the postings until I adjust to a schedule that will have me sitting in a classroom from 8:30am until noon every day, here's a quick list of things currently keeping my speakers warm.

Wareika, "King's Child" (Motivbank)
Florian Schirmacher, Henrik Raabe, Jakob Seidensticker and Michael Hank's live jazz-house project (cf Henrik Schwartz, Christian Prommer's Drumlesson, Burnt Friedman) cops an Afro-beat vibe, gets the Villalobos treatment.

DJ Koze, "Dr. Fuck" (Circus Company)
Tired of deep-house sanctimony? So is Koze, judging from the sound of "Dr. Fuck." A warped, pitched-down voice declaims cookie-cutter platitudes ("It's not a joke, man, this is deep house, it's serious, maaaaaan") over death-ray beats and misfit percussion; it sounds like someone's fallen asleep against the modular, as pitches cramp and twitch in spasms.

Cobblestone Jazz, "Traffic Jam" (Wagon Repair)
Can a Rhodes erupt? Because that's what it sounds like here. Sure, by now you know what to expect from Cobblestone's sense of the groove, but Danuel Tate's keyboard lines always manage to keep my attention. Here, he makes you wait for them—hiding out for 32 bars or more before angling across the frame like a peacock on fire.

Manuel Tur, "Golden Complexion" (Pepe Bradock remixes) (Freerange)
Pepe Bradock is my freaking idol. Tur's original is a fine enough track, slow and deep and swirly in just the way I like, but maybe trying a little too hard to be deep and swirly, if you know what I mean. And then along comes Bradock, does his usual trick involving crotchety drum machines and busted samplers and 303s (and sandpaper, and tarpaper and lord knows what else—it seems like every one of his remixes probably requires multiple trips to the hardware store) and comes up with an approximation of disco music as if heard through several hundred meters of drain pipe.

Cortney Tidwell, Boys (City Slang)
So, so excited for this album. "Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up" served as my introduction to her, as I suspect it did for many, but it was no fluke (and not merely another of Ewan Pearson's unsurprisingly stellar productions). Boys finds the Nashville singer flitting between relatively straight full-band arrangements (somehow as much Leonard Cohen as they are south-of-the-border) and more electronic-based loop fugues that remind me variously of Thom Yorke, Juana Molina and the Cocteau Twins. "Television," the song Tidwell sings on Sideshow's recent album for Aus, is one of my favorite songs of 2009; with Boys she plants a foot on the album chart as well.

April 13, 2009

Speaking in Code

It's been a long time in coming, but Speaking in Code, Amy Grill's documentary feature about the international electronic dance music scene, is finally about to be unveiled. Actually, that description's not quite right. The film, which opens Thursday, April 23 at the Independent Film Festival Boston, tries to tell a broader story about electronic-music culture by following a few individuals as they make their way through it. Filmed over the course of a couple of years, the documentary principally features Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, catching both acts at precisely the point where their careers began to really take off. And a supporting cast of likeminded souls—Akufen, Tobias Thomas, Sascha Funke and others—help flesh out the contours of the scene.

I'm in there as well, although I don't know to what extent. I haven't seen the finished cut, and to be honest, I'm not that keen on the idea of screen time. I relish the idea of seeing my filmed image even less than hearing my recorded voice -- which, as John Cage theorized, was a common source of discomfort, given that any playback presents our voices shorn from the natural resonance we're accustomed to experiencing as they vibrate through our skull. We feel naked, in other words. (I don't know what the visual equivalent would be, but I like the idea that there is one.) Plus, I think I have a weirdly lumpy profile.

But none of that should detract from the fact that I spent some incredible times filming with the SiC crew -- at MUTEK, in my old flat in SF, at c/o Pop and one of Kompakt's big Total bashes, even venturing all the way to Jena, Germany (home of Zeiss lenses!), to hang out with the Wighnomys and the Freude Am Tanzen gang. Jena's a special place -- I highly recommend visiting, if not simply to visit the FAT crew's Fatplastics record store, a proper digger's delight. (I do not, however, recommend leaving town at 3am, drunk on Wighnomy wine, if it means waiting on a snowy train platform, avoiding a talkative passenger much drunker than you who actually follows you through the train until you duck into a darkened sleeping bunk, sleeping one, maybe two hours, arriving in Leipzig only to find no bus to the airport, paying an unthinkable amount for the cab, reaching the ticketing counter just as they're closing, and then, only then, to be held up at X-ray for an object that, after a thorough search and a stern finger-wagging, turns out to be a collapsible wine opener. [What can I say, I like to relax with a nice red in the evening.] I did, eventually, however, reach home in Barcelona, much dehydrated and less one nine-dollar corkscrew.)

So: Speaking in Code. I'm as eager to see it as anyone. I still recall vividly when I first started filming with Amy, David and the incredibly talented cameraman Scott -- it was at MUTEK, maybe the very first day we were filming; we were talking to Akufen in very broad terms about his productions, about the Montreal scene, about electronic music in general. He said, as a way of expressing that idea of a secret essence to it all, "It's like speaking in code." A shiver went up my spine; I knew we had found the title to the film. In that one image was the whole nexus of subculture, technology and of desire -- the desire to have a shared secret. It's been a long time in the making; electronic music is a lot different now than when Amy and David first approached me about the idea of an electronic-music documentary. The whole mediascape is different. The code keeps being rewritten. But I think the desire stays much the same. If nothing else, hearing those familiar tracks over the trailer confirms it.

April 11, 2009

The First One's Always Free


Or, in this case, the first two: for the next week or so, the good folks at RCRDLBL are giving away two of the digital exclusives from Echologist & the Space Ape's Mercy Dubz, Brendon Moeller's own "No Mercy Dub" and my "Resurrection Dub," in passable 192kbps quality. (You see what we've done here: DJs and audiophiles will doubtless want to pony up for 320s or WAVs. Or spend the rest of their days wondering what sonic secrets lurk in the uncompressed nether-regions...)

I'm (mostly) kidding about the up-sell. Good music for free, what more do you want? Go here to get the goods.

(As for the photo above: Bowie's legacy is strong in Neukölln, apparently.)

April 07, 2009



I saw a lot of great things at Krakow's Unsound Festival in 2007, but nothing came close to what happened in a tiny, crowded, cavelike space (with an entrance for which the term "bottleneck" seems too generous; had there been a stampede, those brick walls would be wearing me like the sidewalk wears Hudsucker) where a band called Fuckhead performed. Now, New Yorkers get the chance to see the band for themselves, and presumably without risk of being ground into the foundations of a medieval Polish city. Fuckhead will be playing in New York on Thursday, April 16 under the auspices of the Austrian Cultural Forum, and I highly suggest you go. (Also on the bill are Koko Dozo, Christopher Just, and Reade Truth, who has an excellent and slinkily bizarre new EP on Planet E.)

I didn't know much about Fuckhead then, and in terms of their discography, I still don't now. They're a Viennese group with a complicated website that recalls many a net.art project of a decade ago; they recorded at least one record for Vienna's awesome and unpredictable Mego imprint, home to the likes of Pita, Farmers Manual and the comparatively sedate Fennesz. But having seen a Fuckhead show, I've really had no desire to go in search of their records. They may be doing it all wrong: gigs are supposed to be promotional affairs that inspire fans to purchase CDs and "merch." But with Fuckhead, the show is total.


What is a Fuckhead show like, then? Like Henry Rollins, if he were signed to Mego, maybe: loud, tattooed, angry, unhinged in a remarkably controlled way, macho in a kinda-sorta-questioning way. Like Rollins (or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose Flea could easily pass for one of Fuckhead's members), Fuckhead take the idea of heavy, punishing rock catharsis to an absurd, if one suspects not terribly ironic, extreme.


This is what I wrote about them for Earplug, at the time:

"[T]hey brought to life their unusual mission statement ("performing the songs and the dances of this tiny sentimental nation of crashing folkloristic bores in an advanced way") before a jaw-dropped audience packed into a tiny, cavern-like basement space. Nearly naked but for athletic shorts and tattoos, the quartet elevated what initially looked like your standard ironic-metal show, complete with upside-down cross duct-taped to one member's chest, to the level of the sublime with a succession of increasingly absurd stage antics involving soap bubbles, feathers, glowing orbs, and other lo-fi props.


At times, it felt like the band was exploring layers of symbolism that had shifted out of joint: a cardboard box was fitted over a bandmember's head and then broken open, from which hands extracted fistfuls of straw. One sweaty, shirtless member ran through the audience, gingerly stuffing cotton balls in listeners' ears. When two Fuckheads stood on opposite edges of the floor-level stage, connected by a 10-foot-long red cord with one end inserted in each of their posteriors, it might have been mere adolescent shock tactics, but there was something else to it as well, a sense that the act had some significance that lay just outside your grasp. The show's climax found the four performers creating a human pyramid, covered in sweat, soap, and feathers, with one clutching an illuminated globe and another wearing rubber yellow gloves. Their poses suggested a kind of male bonding that was perhaps all the more subversive for its lack of explicit sexual content; their expressions recalled the agonized faces of Japanese Butoh."


Fuckhead are hard to photograph, as these snapshots from their November, 2007 show at Krakow's Unsound festival may attest. Many of them, if I recall, were taken without flash; I simply opened the shutter and waited for another flash to light the scene. The fact that many of those photos came out as double or even triple images is a testament to the sheer amount of wattage being blown at any given point in a Fuckhead show. The explosion of fan photography at rock shows is a much-lamented phenomenon, and rightly so, but somehow a Fuckhead performance wouldn't feel right without a phalanx of digital cameras at the ready to record its every spasm and shudder. The whole thing is organic, that is, it functions like a collection of organs: cameras and kidneys and theatrics and spleen, all sucking off the same foutain, all gushing the same fluid.

It's Dada, Brecht, Butoh, Fluxus, and a lot of other stuff I don't understand, plugged into a laptop and turned up to 11. Fuckhead are easily one of the greatest and most exhausting performances I've ever seen in my life. Click on for more photos after the jump.







April 06, 2009

More Wildbirds & Peacedrums

This is not the usual kind of thing I post. But I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with the Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums, whom I blogged about a month or two back, after spending a goodly chunk of time with their forthcoming album, The Snake, as well as their debut, Heartcore. (I know, right? But listen a time or two, and you'll forgive the title.)

Wildbirds & Peacedrums are a very different band, and not just because they've got the whole husband-wife thing going on. They're minimalists, but not in the usual way. Most of their songs are constructed of Andreas Wallentin's sparse, muscular drumming and Mariam Wallentin's mercurial voice; a goodly portion of the new album features no "tonal" instruments whatsoever—just drum kit and bellow. On others, vibraphones, bells and autoharp come into play, but it's just shading. Wallentin carries it all, in a voice that reminds me variously of PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Kate Bush. Sometimes their songs make me think of Swans—even though, oddly enough, these all-acoustic jams sound more like the early, punishing Swans than their later, acoustic incarnation. (Not that these songs are punishing. You'll have to trust me, or better yet, prove me wrong so I can figure out where I'm going with that thought.) I get a touch of White Magic's rude folk, but W&B are less lush, less rosy; more like a hunk of coal than a drying thistle. Their psychedelia sounds less like freak-folk's feathery thatching than the Boredoms' primal hammer. Somehow, I suspect, at least one copy of Folkways' great Mountain Music of Kentucky (Amazon) found its way to Gothenburg, at some point.

Here, W&P perform for Bandstand Busking, somewhere in a park in drizzly London. (Appropriately, they are shielded by a bandstand.) I didn't know about the series until now, but it looks promising: also featured are similarly low-key, public performances from the likes of Hauschka, Black Lips, Gregory and the Hawk, Loney Dear, Psapp, Asobi Seksu, Of Montreal and others.) After catching Cortney Tidwell's awesome live show last night (culminating in a solo performance on drums, Casio and voice all at once), I can only hope to find her archived here soon as well.

April 03, 2009



Over at eMusic, I talk to Kode9 about "D-step," going funky, and the shadow of the Internet. After the jump, a few short bits from the cutting-room floor.

Q: Hardcore continuum sounds have often been resistant to the 4/4 beat, preferring extreme degrees of swing and syncopation, whether by using breakbeats or programming rhythms inspired by them. After years of 4/4-phobia, why are the beat patterns of classic house inspiring so many producers across funky, dubstep, etc.?

Kode9: I find personally it goes in cycles of five years, where I'll come back to more house orientated rhythms. I'm in one of those zones right now, but the 4/4 I go for is always a little lean-up or lopsided.

A lot of UK dance music has tended to pride itself on its rough-hewn qualities -- musicians readily admit to bashing their music out on Playstations or Fruity Loops. The scene doesn't seem as in thrall to gear fetishism and analog purism as techno, for instance. And yet on the music's margins, the principals of bass immersion and sonic futurism would seem to run counter to the on-the-cheap, anything-goes ethic. How do you see this opposition playing out?

I'm not a purist, and use plenty of plug-ins, but yeah, I'd rather use an analog synth that has its own way of being out of tune, where programming it is not based on buttons but sliders and knobs. Most of the synths on my recent stuff such as "Black Sun" and "Bad" and the forthcoming album is analog. There is an intimacy with the electricity that you get with analog synths that is a lot of fun to play with. Regarding futurism, as far as I'm concerned, any notion of futurism that goes against the on-the-cheap ethic is ready for the bin. I've never really bought those cold, hi-tech, gleaming notions of futurism. I've always just understood it as the shock of the new, and we all know that the way to get to the "new" is to use things and bodies in ways they weren't intended, and not merely to upgrade to the latest technologically enhanced version.

Bongos. They're divisive. I get the sense that many listeners can't see beyond their overdetermined signifying properties—as markers of exoticism, tropicalism, etc. They're deemed cheesy by association with mainstream (American) funky house, etc. And yet they're central to UK funky, just as they've been central to the minimal scene's turn back to deep house. Dubstep, likewise, seems very much about signs and references. I think of a track like "Sign of the Dub," and how it opens with a clanging guitar chord, almost certainly sampled from a vintage reggae tune (and if not, designed to sound like it), and how that lone chord stands in as a sort of synecdoche for all of dub reggae. How do you see these sort of highly overdetermined fetish objects functioning in the current dance-music landcape?

To be honest, I'm more interested in the rhythmic, affective and textureal dimensions of music. I find the notion of music as a text composed of signifiers and references the least useful and least interesting approach to making, listening and analysing music. Sure certain sounds are overcoded by habitual, obvious or cynical contrived use that disintensifies their affect, but really I'm more interested in how often the reduction of sound to signifiers becomes a journalistic trope for arbitrary critical attacks and a refusal to confront amplified vibration.

April 01, 2009

Rounding Up: News and Links (Updated!)


* Douglas Wolk turns in a concise and compelling preview of our rapidly approaching collective ascent into "the Cloud," aka the Celestial Jukebox. He's right, it is coming, and attitudes towards music "ownership" are changing more rapidly than we may realize. Not all physical product will die, of course, but it will become a niche market; the same goes for downloads, which will become, in their own way, fetish objects, once streaming becomes the norm.

The irony, however, is that even while vinyl sales will plummet to near nothing, the dance/electronic market will continue to sell downloads (320s and soon, I'm sure, WAVs) to satisfy the DJ market--that is, at least until someone creates the technology to DJ with streams. Perhaps I'm wrong about dance-music culture keeping downloads alive; maybe one day soon we'll simply sync up our Seratos and Traktors not to an external hard drive loaded with MP3s, but to networked "cloud" servers. I'd hate to try pitch-correcting for buffering, though...

* One half of Sweden's amazing Wildbirds & Peacedrums has a blog. It's cryptic. The album is out in Europe on 13 April, and remains just as great as when I blogged about it a month or so back.

* Robert Christgau looks back on his time at Blender and mulls the shrinking fields of pulp.

* I just stumbled upon soundamus, a personalized feed of new and upcoming music releases. Import your listening history from Last.fm, iLike, imeem, etc., and it sends you an RSS feed of upcoming releases. My list turned up a ton of intriguing things, many of which I knew nothing about: Radio Slave's Fabric 48 (September 14), Cortney Tidwell's Boys (May 29) and a new Wighnomy Brothers Speicher (May 12)…

* I review Ben Klock's One for Flavorwire/Earplug. This is easily one of my favorite albums of the year, and I expect it will remain in the top 20 for 2009.

* Boomkat's 14tracks digs into the past, present (and future?) of the one and only Move D. Maybe half the releases are new to me, which is exciting news indeed.

Also, thanks to Boomkat for the awesome review they gave The Mercy Dubz!