May 18, 2001

IDM set for resurgeance with MoM and Air

In vain did I ask the editor for the privilege of printing an epigraph to begin this piece. Something, perhaps, involving exaggeration and Mark Twain would be appropriate. Luckily, only four or five minutes of work on the web granted me exactly the quote I needed to express myself. In this case, I guess, from, the following presents itself: "If a spectacle is going to be particularly imposing I prefer to see it through somebody else's eyes, because that man will always exaggerate. Then I can exaggerate his exaggeration, and my account of the thing will be the most impressive."

Twain more or less correctly identifies the visceral thrill of having the most impressive account, but it appears that in order for his account to be impressive, he has to abandon the typical Western urge to reach that origin. A more common man would say, perhaps, "I want to hear the man's account of something that I too witnessed. Not only will I be able to see how he has implemented stretchers, but I will then be able to tell, myself, how I can best use exaggeration to make the story the best, too."

Yet that option still leaves one a bit uncomfortable -- or not quite as entertained. Another variant of this accounting is when a person is involved in the account, but ends up being impressive because it's the other fellow doing the accounting and impressing. This happens a lot when I am telling stories of my exploits at Chicago White Sox games. They are impressive, usually, the exploits, though not as impressive as photographing myself playing World 1-3 of "Super Mario Bros." on the giant screen at Comiskey. When pushed, or down two pitchers, I'll tell the stories myself, but they start to get a bit too showy. It's hard to say, with a straight face and without seeming conceited, "so that's when Derek Lowe invited me to the locker room to drink champagne with the Red Sox since they had just clinched a playoff berth by beating the White Sox." It's true and all, but if I were to add the clause "because he had a crush on me," it would fall apart. Unless, of course, one of the many witnesses of this event were present and could either corroborate the event, or, even better, tell the whole story himself. That part about the crush is, of course, true.

I'm reminded of the scene in Annie Hall when Alvy takes Annie and Rob back to Brooklyn in a flashback to his cousin Irving's party upon his return from the war. In one scene, Alvy's mother is telling Alvy about her sister Tessie, who stands right beside her. Tessie, explains Mrs. Singer, was always the sister with personality. Tessie nods and adds nothing. Finally, Rob lets loose with his own incredulousness, asking Tessie if it's true that she was once the "Life of the Ghetto." Tessie could never convince anyone that these stories are true -- she needs a mediator to express properly the truth of the situation, or at least, her version of it. By herself, she is just a crazy aunt who can't do much of anything. But with that interlocutor, she becomes a figure demanding awe, or at least demanding respect for a previous ability to command awe. Maybe we buy it more than Rob does, but, there can be no doubt, certainly Alvy's mom buys it -- and she's the sister with "common sense."

Back to exaggeration, then. Here sits the reviewer, typing away, presenting himself as an interlocutor. She controls the traffic moving between the work of art and the person who cannot experience the work of art. Yet if Twain is to be believed, then perhaps the reviewer is best served by not even listening to the album, in this specific case, and, instead, just reading another review. She can exaggerate and finesse what the other reviewer writes and make a more triumphant review in the end. Why couldn't a semi-serious music journalist write an entire article based merely on developing a consensus demonstrated between the Editorial Reviews and the Customer Reviews of the Day at Amazon? After all, not everyone has Internet access, so the print journalist is almost providing a service by encapsulating the little capsule reviews. This is, after all, how every newspaper that prints south of I-80 and isn't called the Washington Post operates -- though I should probably save any kind of diatribes against the South for later in this article, when it comes time to address the greatly exaggerated reports of my demise.

In any event, this sort of understanding things and recounting things based on recounts of events seems awfully unsatisfying in our day and age. After all, even Plato hated this sort of thing when he was banishing poets from the Republic because they created knockoffs of knockoffs of Ideal Forms. More recently, in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, Tom Townsend causes quite a stir when he admits that he has never read Mansfield Park, yet has valid opinions based on criticisms he's read about it. "Even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirers, thought that [it was a bad book]," he begins. But Stillman emasculates Tom by having him repeat the same line about Mansfield Park (the absurdity of the premise of a novel about the immorality of a group of people putting on a play) over and over again. This ends up being his only complaint -- hardly effective.

For this, because he has no personal connection to the art in question, he is criticized. He only finds redemption when he crumbles and reads the originals. His opinion is changed, he gets the girl, and we are all very happy for him, but maybe only a little bit, since, well, he still may be a public transportation snob, for all we know.

So Twain has quite a formidable list of opponents against him and his triumph of exaggeration. Plato's bringing in the old school philosophy tekneek, and Stillman shows up with the just-in-from-Shaolin style of a polished artist and master, ready to chop-socky any slippery relativists or rhetoricist sophists into a mean mush. If he fails, then what value is there to writing reviews? Or to making any sort of aesthetic judgment by your impression of the review?

You, as the reader of a review, cannot know the thing in itself through the review. For example, when I reviewed Rush's Different Stages in 1998, I called it "the result of Warrant and Poison on full scholarships to the MA program at Berklee Pool of Mucous." That may have been an exaggeration. Rush, for how awful they are, are awful for reasons different than why, say, Warrant are awful. Rush are objectivists. Warrant did some serious objectification in their video for "Cherry Pie." Rush committed the pompous crime of using the indefinite pronoun ("One likes to believe in the freedom of music") in "The Spirit of Radio." Warrant couldn't identify an indefinite pronoun. Rush is from Evil Canada, the land of crazies who wear black blue jeans and boots. Warrant are from, well, Evil America -- that is, all of America south of Interstate 80, as I believe I already described. Not only are they from EA, but they also hail from the Sunlit Mortuary herself. Heliophilic and insincere LA will always slap around and make its weakling the cold grayness of Toronto. As we say in my community, LA pitches, and TO catches.

Perhaps I am starting to stray a bit from my point, which questions the value of reviews, or, then, basing any kind of musical purchase or something based solely on a review. This could be a far more interesting question, of course, if I weren't weighed down by the stifling requirements our society demands of its journalists -- things like "objectivity" and "concision (not like 'mutilated')" and "staying away from making fun of the weak & defenseless." Sadly, though, I am (making fun otw&d), so seeing how quickly this question becomes a futile search for a transcendental signified is tricky.

But, speaking of transcendental signifieds, I'll tell a little tale. The only time I saw Mouse on Mars perform was during their tour of the States with Stereolab. The former was promoting Autoditacker, and the latter was rising to international party superstardom on the heels of "Parsec"'s being used in a VW Beetle commercial. Furthermore, like every hipster ever had already bought their most recent release, Dots and Loops -- a height they haven't reached since, but only since Aluminum Tunes is disqualified for being an anthology. In short, it was a good time for IDM. Squarepusher (with Hard Normal Daddy) was getting all sorts of heat for joining jazz with electronica in ways that Herbie Hancock failed to back with Future Shock. My friend Josh was convinced he'd make millions off a t-shirt design which read "Jungle Is Destroying Rock." We were young and hopeful and listening to Moon Safari. We packed shows to try and catch glimpses of which knobs were being twiddled. It was a large, hip, inside joke, and anyone was invited, as long as they did not mind that there were hardly ever any band photos on the albums. It was a good time, late '97-early '98. I mean, it's not like Windowlicker had yet been released, but, well, I wasn't crying myself into a glass of Jim Beam every night, either.

The pairing of Stereolab and Mouse on Mars for the tour made perfect sense, as Laetitia Sadier had thrown down some lyrics on "Schnick Schnack Meltmade," which is probably still the best cut off Autoditacker. Stereolab were well-known and respected as a bizarrely ironic group which was difficult to understand -- the whole unreconstructed Marxists generating commodities like it's going out of style and the futuristic sounds using old instruments thing being the chief causes of the quizzical faces on people discussing the 'Lab, of course. Mouse on Mars, however, were dorky German guys who, hunched over boards of electronics, made little sonic squiggles and diddles, closing their set with a blushing and painfully self-conscious apology / thanks to Jim O'Rourke, from whom they had stolen piles of material.

Yet since late '97, Mouse on Mars have seen their star rise up, up, and away. The followup to Autoditacker, Niun Niggung (isn't that the name of Lando's co-pilot in RotJ?) saw the band move away from burps and giggles to more, how shall we say, conventional music, using, even, to the shock of many, real, actual, instruments. The experiment by Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner failed for me, personally, as Niun Niggung seemed far too predictable. The play was gone, and, well, if IDM isn't going to be fun, then it's not going to be very I. And as DM, MoM is NG.

Still, their popularity had taken on some sense of reality, when even my friend Mike -- who, interestingly, spent Friday night sleeping in an alley with vomitous splattered all over his shirt, glasses lost and then destroyed, before trying to walk back home, realizing at the corner of 56th and Harper that he could not see a thing, which was far more hilarious than my Friday night, where I thought I lost my baseball cap for about 20 seconds -- began to incorporate Mouse on Mars in his bizarro fantasy world. He envisioned, probably not unlike Monty Burns in episode 1F08, a fabulous casino, named Mountain Haus, where all the beautiful people would come to game. Troy Glaus would play at the Mountain Haus. Once the first Mountain Haus became wildly successful, it would spawn a sequel casino, Mountain Haus on Mars. Mountain Haus on Mars would be, you know, on Mars.

In any case, the most recent step towards international party rock superstardom comes with the latest release, Idiology. Niun Niggung may have raised eyebrows because it used real instruments. Idiology actually features printed lyrics. How are we to ever take Mouse on Mars seriously again? Luckily, the Goetterdaemerung predicted by these Koelners' use of lyrics seems to have fallen to the wayside. Idiology is truly a peculiar and special album, but in a way which makes it both still challenging and approachable.

As with Autoditacker, the title of the new release indicates its direction. Autoditacker shows off quite a bit of autodidacticism on behalf of Toma and St. Werner, as they are creating music you can't be taught to play. It comes from experimentation, all from the self. The self returns for Idiology, which can be seen as a sort of concept album about the omphalos. But it's unclear where their opinions on the role of self lie. In the opening track, individuality is already questioned. "I is just what you say you to," begins opening track "Actionist Respoke." The self starts out only existing contextually, only as it is referenced by others. This is truly not the best place for a raving solipsist to be hiding out. Yet the linguistic games continue with the end of the song, when vocalist / drummer Dodo Nkishi returns some sense of strength to the I with "when I identify something, I do this in reference to something else." There is, then, some agency available to the self, as the self has the power to identify. But that agency comes at a price. Just as our thought is framed by language, naming is framed by reference. The unknown can only be named within the context of the known.

There is not much special or groundbreaking about these sorts of insights, but it is odd to see them out so starkly in the liner notes of a Thrill Jockey release. Elsewhere on the album, after all, questions of presence and the possibility of the present tense arise with question marks finishing the thoughts. Finally, in "Unity Concepts," the question of what is the one gets played out in perfect clarity. But Torma and St. Werner know better than to try and answer these queries. After all, it's the listener's responsibility to leave a listening of the album with a bit of an existential crisis.

Musically, the instability remains constant. Mouse on Mars are in their standard squiggle style for tracks like "Sunsequence" and "Catching Butterflies with Hands," while tracks like "Paradical" are a bit more odd, since they're more clearly based on analog samples, maintaining a stronger melody which is built from audio detritus. "Paradical" is especially notable, because it picks up steam with the introduction of a string arrangement, which leads into the finale, "Fantastic Analysis," which carries the comfort of Freud's sofa -- a comfort which is probably only welcome for someone who needs grounding, which is exactly of what Idiology robs the listener. The finale even sways, after all, which is interesting because it's named after Mouse on Mars's musical method, a method derived by a pair of Germans who met at, I shit you not, a death metal concert.

The track which has probably gotten the most attention in the "look at what MoM is doing now!" crowd is the lush piece for strings, "The Illking." The piece seems perfectly set for soundtrack duty (hearing that MoM was hired to score a Tony Danza film is only, of course, half surprising), and it maintains a richness of tone that keeps it approachable. Mouse on Mars are all over the place musically on this album, but because of tracks like this one, they manage to keep their heads straight, referencing only what is already known, but doing it in ways which demand attention and which electrify the brain into seeing itself, the I, and the rest of the world differently.

Speaking of IDM groups getting chances to score movies, not even a year has passed since the peculiar combination of Sofia Coppola and Air teamed up for Coppola's directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, also known as Lots of Shots of Kirsten Dunst in Motion. She, Sofia, commissioned the French duo to score her movie, and they obliged her by creating one of the most enchanting scores I have heard for film in a long, long time. It is at times inventive -- the use of an Autoharp on "Dirty Trip" is, to say the least, shocking -- but mostly reassuring in a bizarre way. If a music professor wanted to demonstrate theme, development, and recapitulation, then Air's score would be perfect. The group rely both on instrumentation and melody to lend consistency to the score, but also create tracks so independent that it becomes very easy to, after only a few listens, recognize specific songs. A remarkable feat, actually, is this creation of something that is both a whole and parts at the same time. And when it's done, it's one for the ages. Air's Original Motion Picture Score to The Virgin Suicides will be with us for a very long time; too bad Coppola only saw fit to use about three songs, plus "Ce Matin La," off Air's debut.

That Air should manage such a masterpiece should not, of course, come as a surprise. Their January 1998 release, Moon Safari, after all, was equally stunning. Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel are batting 1.000 with a slugging percentage of 4.000. Every last one of their releases has been a must have, even the EP Premiers Symptomes. The singles have been a bit shakier, sadly, mostly because of questionable remixes by People Not In The Band (I'm looking mostly at the single for "Sexy Boy," off Moon Safari), but the band as a thing of itself is next to perfect. Perhaps this is a bit exaggerated, but, well, few people who have heard Air deny its majesty.

So everyone in the world is extremely excited for the most recent Air release off Astralwerks, 10,000 Hz Legend. The band has been consistently good for four years, after all, so this one should be yet another blast to the seats, right? First, any discussion of this album demands a preface along the lines of something like this: According to legend, French duo Air refuse to use the same instruments from album to album. This tiny fact I picked up in my travels, and apocryphal though it may be, it explains quite a bit, like, namely, why the hell 10,000 Hz Legend is so weird. Where The Score was wistful, dreamy, ethereal, and any number of other words that mean the same thing, Air's followup seems to fall into the "Robots in Love" genre we will be steeped in once Spielberg releases his take on what was supposed to be Kubrick's next project. I digress.

"How Does it Make You Feel," for example, feeds lyrics of longing through a computer, creating the weird effect of my G4 telling me that "I will be happy with just one more night in your arms." These lyrics are placed on top of a rich analog (read: strings, drums, etc.) accompaniment that sways in ways recalling "Playground Love" ("The Single With a Picture of Kirsten Dunst"). Only when human voices sing the chorus do digitized voices come into the background to provide accompaniment. We're never far from the mixing of digital and analog, but which is in control is thrown into play. Teaching my computer to rap out "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" is funny. This song is, though, weird. Opening track "Electronic Performers" reaches similar levels, only more self-consciously. Given these first two tracks and the absurd cover art, one would expect this to be a soundtrack to Robocop 3: Replenishing the PD.

Yet it's still rather clearly Air, even though that distinction falls under suspicion on the fourth track, "Vagabond," which features erstwhile rock saviour with potential Beck Hansen. The piece maintains the oddness of the release as a whole, and it shuffles along like later, more redneck Beck. His voice starts getting heavily processed, but then he laughs and closes the song punctuating his chortle with an "oh shit."

Thankfully, though, Beck's only around to ruin one track, and it is quickly brushed aside anyway by the superlative "Radian." The track opens sublimely, and never changes. Even with flutes and harp and a hot electric piano part, the ethereality never reaches absurd portions. Air stick to what's helped them in the past on their instrumental tracks -- a good guitar line -- and it wins here. The night is over, the hosts are asking you to leave the party, and you're glad that you're not walking home alone, since you have this CD to make three, as already lit candles await back at the ranch. It's that smoove, that seksi, that energising, without ever slumping into cheese. Seven minutes later, the piano escorts you to sleep.

The mood continues with a bit more force on the next three tracks, "Lucky and Unhappy," "Sex Born Poison," and "People in the City." The middle track starts out with a drive and fluttering Japanese lyrics, before an Autechrin burp takes over the rhythm part and the voice returns, this time in English. Taken as a threesome, it's quite a suite of velvet hammers, each blow persistent, yet soft and appreciated. I realize that it might be a bit odd to use such violent imagery to describe something usually referred to as sonic wallpaper by less enthusiastic critics, but to me it is that very subtlety that's the force of the hammer. Air becomes almost passive-aggressive, but without any negative connotation. Like, say, Stereolab, Air rewards careful and close listening. To the inattentive, it's just good cocktail music -- but that's the fault of the inattentive, not Air.

Perhaps Air in this way is a bit like ABBA. ABBA's genius has always been left in doubt because, simply put, not enough people have extensive experience with hallucinogens. One cute thing about hallucinogens is that they make you hear every damn instrument. There is a certain beauty in that, since it makes the album more cohesive (if the album is good, of course). Try this at home, kids: eat two tabs and listen to, say, Daydream Nation until it makes perfect sense. It will happen. ABBA, though, realizing that it's easier to buy pop confection than hard-core drugs, has decided to produce their tracks to recreate the feeling of serious hallucinogenic listening. That is why they kick ass. Everything is in the right place, at the right time, and every time you listen, you can follow one instrument through the whole song, follow its journey, and you will love it. Try this. Follow the advice Negativland gave for listening to A Big 10-8 Place: listen to it blasting on headphones and speakers at once.

ABBA's triumph, then, becomes also Air's. "Vagabond" reprises, with much better effect, in "Wonder Milky Bitch." There's a mouth harp to accompany a theremin-like warbling, an ARP's random (literally) blipping, and an acoustic guitar. "Vagabond" failed for its entire duration, becoming a joke of a song that was never that funny. But this reprise shows what happens when Air has the conn again. Pick one of these instruments, and follow it through. There is an intrinsic value to it, I swear.

While searching for faults with 10,000 Hz Legend, probably the best place to look is in the track order. "Vagabond" ought to be on the cutting-room floor. The overly aggressive "Don't Be Light" and "Wonder Milky Bitch" seem a bit out of place while the album is already moving down. "Caramel Prisoner," however, is an appropriate finale, returning, with the analog randomness under breathy notes, to territory visited earlier. And with this continuity, it seems that Air have created an album much more in tune with a side of the '70s they have avoided. Hacks have called their stuff "Floydian," but that never rang true; Air seemed too steeped in the traditions of the discotheque. Yet from its very title, 10,000 Hz Legend demands a view more towards Ziggy Stardust and away from, well, any clubs called Stardust, like the one that was closed down a few years ago. Did they ever reoepen it, I wonder. The flighty paths of the music require a pilot able to fly out of friendly airspace every once in a while, and if the listener is willing to provide it, then there is success here, even as panning static closes out the LP. Otherwise, it may just seem too weird.

And weird it is. But, then, Mouse on Mars are also weird. Alvy Singer, have no doubt, is also very weird. So is just about anyone else I've mentioned here this evening. But Mouse on Mars are building still, developing a portion of the giant stake they claimed at the get-go. Air, on the other hand, have left squabbling over turf to the amateurs. They've already claimed Saturn. I'm going to fly there on Saturday, and I'll let you know how the weather is.