When Comparisons Fail

November 12, 2008 at 1:02 pm (Music)

A review that doesn’t quite interweave Dungen’s 4 and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles.

A lot of talk in music criticism amounts to comparisons, discussions of influence. The newest Dungen album, 4, is described as

(From pitchfork)

Moments of mournfully wailing acid-rock beauty (the violin-tinged opener “Sätt Att Se”) give way to gentler strains of classically influenced pop (“Målerås Finest”). The loose-fingered, high-speed freakout of “Samtidigt 1” is joined in progress right after the fluttering pastoralism of “Det Tar Tid”; its partner “Samtidigt 2”– culled from the same full-band jam session– soars into some kind of Deadhead exosphere only to dissipate into the soft piano/chime/flute melodies of “Bandhagen” (and its not-so-soft drumbeat– like every other Dungen record, 4 is a percussive monster). And sometimes the contrasts build over the course of a single song, like when the jaunty Zombies/Kinks march-beat of “Finns Det Någon Möjlighet” eventually shifts from lighthearted, piano-driven frolic to a feedback-drenched trudge through creeping dread.

To me, a “jaunty Zombies/Kinks march-beat” means very little. Those bands defined themselves much more by their lyrical and compositional differences to other British pop bands much more than they did the timbre of their drummer. Ditto for “Deadhead exosphere” (what does that mean!?! Is it referencing fans of Grateful Dead?). This is all, besides a couple strong exceptions (“feedback-drenched trudge through creeping dread”), listening to music with an encyclopedia instead of ears.

But I don’t mean to insult the writing skills of this particular reviewer. Dungen switches from style to style in their songs, their vintage cache of influence as much their musical identity as Andre 3000’s falsetto and Lil Wayne’s guttural flow. It can just be talked about with much more eloquence, because the listener has to understand Dungen’s love with classic pop stylings in order to talk about its lovely reimagining thereof. Dungen is a connoisseur’s treat, first and foremost when talked about this way, and an actual, uncritical listener’s odyssey much later.

Dungen’s metamorphoses are always anchored by two things, their light and fuzzy vintage equipment, and Gustav Ejstes’ faint but rich voice. These let us know that we are listening to a Dungen album. Here, music is described and perceived as a blend of signifiers to genres and styles much more often than described in emotional terms, less how the critic listens and responds to the music and more how he attempts to classify it: the sheer definitional aloofness is a fair assessment of how exciting the music is other than a more lengthy description of a particular song. For instance: a latticework pattern of drums framing heavenly melodies while electric guitar slinks quietly, munching more and more of the soundscape, until the pastoral scene erupts in manic, soloist’s glee.

(I really liked Dungen’s new album. Their music often evokes a scene through only sound, and then monstrous, vivid movement occurs).

Critics, more often than other listeners, enjoy music that defies classification, because part of the critic’s job is taxonomy, and work that engages its listeners on such a critical (of or relating to critics) level with such joy and playfulness cannot help but delight those who listen to music with a clipboard in hand, pen tumbling through trembling fingers. It is with this same sentiment of classificatory chaos that I must say Flying Lotus’ newest album really engages and intrigues those who listen to music very closely, and probably those with headphones on. It manages to reference a million of styles before it, but only does so through casual reference, never letting allusion construct the illusion that the music is actually good. It doesn’t need to.

From the hip head who brought you all the lovely five-second clips of hip hop during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Flying Lotus (also Alice Coltrane’s nephew, the great saxophonist being his great uncle) has made a hip hop and dance album that derives its enjoyment not from the hypnosis of heavy beats and samples, but from the ambience surrounding the (always bangin, if never centrally mixed) percussion.

Atmosphere is as important if not more important than actual instruments on almost every track. The opener, “Brainfeeder”, opens with steadily rising vinyl cracks, and simple synth chords blaze throughout the entire track, an electronic bass undulating creepily. But that’s not why it’s interesting. The vibrant synths are heard through the medium of dirty vinyl, and attain a neon unattachment to what colors actually look like. It’s so unreal and so unattached from how music is normally made, from the hollow body of an instrument, that it can’t help but be otherworldly.

The next track doesn’t anchor us in reality very much, either. I mean this in the best possible way, but the next melody we hear most closely resembles the Pikmin soundtrack than any other music I can recall, but even here the bizarre comes into contact with more bizarre, and they dance together happily. The bass below it bubbles, shifting from high vocal melodies stretching the instrument to deep, low rumblings. It certainly helps that the heavy kick drum and claps always slide and shift from their tempo, stretching to catch up to all the other music, sometimes overcompensating and in need of even more correction.

Through all this humans occasionally grunt, a singer sings a couple notes from an unknown song, and light, high electronic beeps course throughout the entire song. So many musical threads are introduced and quietly reach their climax, never in unison. It feels like a factory of robots all working towards one goal that humanity can finally reach, what music robots would make, how technology can feel natural by relying so much on an ecology of other technology. Samplers meet synths, all recorded by terrible tape recorders, and sometimes recorded onto terrible vinyl, but through each phase a distinctive character, a climax, is given to each musical cast member. When the beat slows, a tape reel goes (literally, in the third track, Beginner’s Falafel, which so much fun to type!) off its rails.

When an actual human sings actual English words (track 13), it really has its own distinctive feel, and through soft female vocal stylings does the music start to reconnect with the normal. Later, there’s an honest-to-Coltrane jazz track with a twanging upright bass connecting vintage percussion. And the last song with simple, unadorned chords and almost no ambience lets the (different) female singer really create tranquility and beauty after we’ve listened to anarchies and orgies.

But I don’t mean to single out any tracks as particularly good. Every one (all seventeen of them!) follows suit, creating an otherworldly sound enhanced by actual musical denizens of its other world, and eventually reconnecting it to Earth. But describing the music only in its other-worldliness leaves a little to be desired: this is head bobbin, feet tappin music at its heart, where dance rhythms meet hip hop swagger in a communion of sonic delight.

Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles is totally my favorite of the year so far. Dungen’s 4 isn’t too far behind. They’re both, in no underestimation or overuse of the term, sonic odysseys whose islands we visit form wonderful, utopian archipalageos of sound.

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1 Comment

  1. Listlistlist. How else does one express enjoyment besides comparison and competition? « Psychopomp & Circumstance said,

    […] affinity for the bedroom headphone composer, it’s an astounding solipsistic accomplishment. I’ve talked before about the album as aural excitement (scroll down a little to find it), but more than that it’s a stylistic parade which converges […]

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