March 2014: Damon Albarn & Post-postmodernism

Even though it was kind of like eating candy for me, I felt slightly guilty about the retro focus of last month's playlist, with its severe dearth of new music. This month I renewed my commitment to finding new music, and also devoted energy to researching some new sources, a few of which I'll mention below. Looking at this mix now, I wonder if I've swung too far in the other direction - but that anxiety is assuaged by what I think is a pretty tight, well-paced mix. As a part of my research I've been looking at other music blogs and putting some deep thinking into ways to improve Faux Sounds itself. If you've got any suggestions I'd love to hear them. Not as much as I hope you love hearing this mix, of course.

Xenia Rubinos – Los Mangopaunos A lot of what Rubinos does reminds me of a tUnE-yArDs, with Latin influences subbed in for African ones. She's got a similar vocal theatricality, with a heavy focus on the drum. I love the fuzzed-out keyboards going on here, and I'm pretty sure some of it is a Rhodes played through distortion, which I know from experience makes a monster noise. I put my language cap on for several days and tried to tease out what "mangopaunos" might mean, then gave up and started looking at Spanish-English dictionaries, coming up empty-handed. It's a made up word, referring the group of mice the song is about. So, maybe my Spanish is not as bad as I thought? Here's a nice little interview with Rubinos from NPR. 

Moon Hooch – Number 4 The All Songs Considered crew mooned over this trio during their SXSW coverage, commenting on the sudden resurgence of sax in rock music. Is this rock music, though? I'm not sure what to call it, but I love the idea of walking down a busy street downtown and coming upon this happening on a street corner. The feasibility of a venue like that is a considerable benefit to lacking any electric instruments. The prominence of sax in a rock-oriented setting kind of makes me think of what would have happened if Morphine had been named Meth instead.

Ava Luna – Plain Speech I just fell in love with this group this month. Despite it's garage-y, heart-on-its-sleeve youthful energy, the whole album has proven to be one of those that keeps revealing new things every listen. This song, in particular, pulls a kind of bait and switch, advertising itself as a complete herky-jerk garage freak-out, and then settling into an incredibly subtle, smooth jam punctuated by tiny bursts of that initial punky flavor. Every year, I find myself falling deeper in love with bands featuring multiple lead vocalists, and like the Dirty Projectors (who it's nearly impossible not to think of when listening to Ava Luna), they do a great job of mixing it up, playing to each singer's strengths, as evidenced in "PRPL", further down.

Sharon Van Etten – Taking Chances I'd be interested in seeing what a serious gambler makes of Van Etten's odds of being a superstar. Over the course of (what will be) four albums, she's consistently built the perfect architecture to feature that startlingly vulnerable and inexplicably bold voice. This single from the forthcoming Are We There (out May 27) features the fullest sound yet, and like each step before, it feels like nothing more than the organic next step.

Seleshe Damessae – Endiawes My wanderings through other music blogs took me to the sprawling Ad Hoc blog (also a zine), which, in addition to great articles/review/news, has as its right-hand column a looooong list of other blogs - one of which is the odd little gem Awesome Tapes From Africa. An intrepid music enthusiast looking for music off the beaten path would be hard-pressed to find a richer treasure trove than this blog, whose name describes exactly what you'll find. I played this track from Seleshe Damessae for my dad in the car last week, and he was impressed both by the quality of the musicianship and how incredibly difficult the sound was to locate geographically. "This could be from Asia or Africa or somewhere else entirely. What is this?!" Ethiopia! He's playing what this site describes as an ancient 6-string lyre called a krar. My sister said the music was relaxing, which I can kind of see. Mostly, I love his freaky vocalizing and those throaty croaks.

Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots I distinctly remember the day in college (circa 1995?) when my friend Casey explained to me what "post-modernism" was. In particular, I remember that the only example she gave which made any sense was Beck - how his disregard for genres and time periods, and the resulting mishmash bric-a-brac sound, demonstrated a post-modern sensibility. While I'm not sold it's the greatest example of po-mo, the genre-hopping nature of Beck's music - the way he's been able to very effectively straddle rap, country, folk, rock, french chanson, electronica, avant-garde, etc. -  is the thing that has made him stand out, especially in the early '90's, when "Loser" inspired such startling frisson.

Walking through the park listening to this song on headphones a couple weeks ago, I started thinking about how Damon Albarn is kind of like a more interesting, more creatively successful Beck. Not only has he straddled (continues to straddle) numerous genres, but (unlike Beck) he's strayed way outside of the conventional Western pop spectrum - with frequent collaborative projects in Africa; the stellar, uncategorizable Gorillaz; soundtrack work which pushes the avant-garde potential of pop music; etc. Oh, and he helped invent Britpop.

For me, Albarn's music (whether he's performing, producing, or both) always seems fresh, full of ideas, utterly groovy, superbly produced, and, most remarkably, almost utterly devoid of ego. His willingness to hide himself in collaborations (sometimes with cartoons) is mirrored by what I experience as a kind of musical selflessness. For all of Beck's musical inventiveness, his music, like most pop, hinges on the charisma, personality, and attraction of Beck himself. This simply is not the case for Albarn's music, much to its benefit.

For evidence of this egolessness, one need only consider the fact that his first "solo" record is coming out April 28th, 23 very busy years after the first Blur album. Judging from the two songs that have been released so far, the complicated relationship between 21st century people and 21st century machines will be a major theme. I imagine there are people out there who find this tiresome or trite. (Those people probably also hated the movie Her.) I also imagine these are not people who fall asleep at night with their phone and laptop in bed with them. Personally, I think the topic is salient, and in these two songs tackled with imagination and genuine poignance.

It seems to me like this music makes a good example of  "post-postmodernism" (or "metamodernism" as Wikipedia explains). A lot of post-modern art and thought has a chunky, Lego-block feel to it - where, no matter how well the pieces fit together, the individual blocks are always discernible. It is also marked by a pronounced vein of irony and self-sketpicism. In this regard, Beck's music is the perfect example of post-modernism. But this music (and almost everything Albarn is involved in) doesn't have that same kind of "blockiness" to it, even though there are many different genres and sounds colliding. It's less like a Lego construction and more like an oil painting that borrows colors from disparate palettes and swirls them together into something new and whole. More significantly, even though the music is largely about the experience of detachment, it doesn't lean on ironic detachment as a formal crutch. I like to think that, culturally and artistically, we've moved past overwrought self-consciousness of po-mo thinking and into an era where we acknowledge boundaries and genres, but take their mutability for granted - into an era where we can acknowledge the contradictions in what we say without having to pretend we don't mean it. I like to think that someday when someone asks me what the hell "post-postmodernism" is, I will point to this music and they'll say, "Oh, I get it."

Ava Luna – PRPL Another great jam with just the right amount of static.

Betty Wright – Tonight Again I've got a friend who has embarked on a multi-year mission to craft the perfect mix to get his lady in the mood. I immediately thought of him when I heard this collab with The Roots. Of course, for a lot of people in my irony-fed generation this kind of bedroom cheese is way too on the nose, and probably causes more eye-rolling than lip-smooshing. Well, maybe we've got a thing or two to learn. I take Wright at her word when she says her music is responsible for lots of baby-making.

Black Milk – Ruffin Detroit rapper Black Milk has been one of those artists I've been meaning to check out for a while. I've still only scraped the surface, but have been definitely digging the more recent sounds from this prolific rapper/producer. The music has a genuine grit to it, but lacks the suspiciously forceful concern with being hard that a lot of contemporary rap has ("The M.C. doth protest too much, methinks."). For someone like me, who just doesn't like to indulge in listening to people brag about being murderers, it's just the right amount of street.

John Lurie National Orchestra – Flutter I learned recently that, due to advanced Lyme disease, John Lurie hasn't been able to perform music in over a decade. That makes my heart hurt a little. This is a little morsel from the recently released collection of live cuts and atmosphere recorded for his cult-classic TV show Fishing With John. 


Kevin Drew – Mexican Aftershow Party I've written before about Broken Social Scene svengali Kevin Drew, and how the vibe of his music (both with BSS and solo) fulfills one of my essential musical nutrients. This song from his new album exemplifies Drew's penchant for writing lyrics that straddle two different registers - being at once almost painfully plain and brazenly bizarre. What the hell is a Mexican aftershow party? I don't know, but I would go if invited.

Damien Jurado – Return To Maraqopa Years ago, I saw Damien Jurado perform at exactly the wrong time. Wading through the deep funk of my own broken-hearted swamp, Jurado's wan, I'm-about-to-give-up-on-life music was way too much for me to take, and caused me to ditch the very cute girl I was hanging out with (sorry, Lisa!). Since then, I've always kept Jurado penned up in the part of my brain reserved for what I call "whisper singers," that informal club of vocalists who can't seem to muster enough passion to move more than the minimum amount of air through their throats (I'm looking at you Sam Beam). So, upon checking back in after all these years, the energy of this psychedelic workout came as a bit of a surprise. I've noticed that my experience of this record is improved the fuller the volume, to the point where playing it loud in the car almost makes it seem like a different record. I think it speaks to the atmospheric mastery here. The list of artists I thought of through my first listen is long (Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd, Bon Iver, Devendra Banhart, Neil Young, Animal Collective, ...), but in the end the album definitely stands on its own. I recommend a black light, a loud stereo, and some herbal enhancements, if that's your bag. Or, you know, just a long car trip by yourself.

The Handsome Family – Far From Any Road For anyone caught in the net of HBO's True Detective, this song will never be anything less than the spooky harbinger of the show's peculiar potpourri of metaphysical and earthly horrors. Years ago, I got to see the Handsome Family at a house concert in Albuquerque, and it makes me happy to think of the notoriety (and $$) that should be coming their way as a result of the continuing perspicacity of HBO's music directors.