Compilation albums can be paradise or poison. Many comps that are organized and compiled according to genre conventions end up merely as documents of a particular style rather than pleasurable albums in their own right. On the other hand, record label comps often vie for an eclecticism that reflects the variety of the artists in their roster at the expense of cohesion. For instance, I remember that when I picked up Matador's tenth anniversary three-disc extravaganza Everything is Nice, I was rabidly enthusiastic to find so many songs by so many greats (Boards of Canada, Cat Power, and Yo La Tengo, to name just a few) in one cheap package. But once I got around to listening to all three discs, I found them eclectic in the worst sense--a hodgepodge. So the point is that you can't simply slap some great songs together and expect them to "work" as an album; there must be some overall unity.
Carpark is inherently less prone to this "hodgepodge" phenomenon because most of the artists in their roster can be loosely called "electronic," but that didn't make me any less skeptical when preparing for my first listen. After all, as a record label comp the potential stood that Wanna Buy a Craprak? could be merely self-serving, an opportunity for Carpark to show off all the talents in their roster at the cost of compiling a good album.
Thankfully, however, Craprak (I feel silly just typing that!) dodges that bullet by opting for cohesion over jarring heterogeneity.
Greg Davis's "Brocade" opens the album with lovely strains of multitracked acoustic guitar interweaving, overlapping, fusing and fissuring. In the background sundry electronic clicks and static whirrs and rattles eventually condense into a slow, stuttering beat that leads nicely into the fractured pop of Kit Clayton and Safety Scissors' "17-11." Here, surprisingly, vocals spring up, albeit in a reconstituted, regressed form. Clayton and Safety Scissors make you want to dance but constantly defer and deny the beat, until the song spirals into a miniature sound cyclone.
Following that is a track by Marumari, my favorite of all the Carpark artists. Perhaps because it comes from their first CD, it's not as focused or catchy as their material on The Wolves' Hollow or Supermogadan, but it's an interesting and rare view of geniuses in the making. Just as Boards of Canada have a distinct "sound" which they produce with their analog synths, Marumari has a distinct synth-sound, and it's evident here in larval form.
The fourth track is So Takahashi's "Blue, Blue, Electronic Blue," a gorgeous ambient song that accomplishes what only the best ambient songs do: evoke an imagined space in a way that transports the listener. Its shimmers of blue (truly the only appropriate word) noise and humming bass reference the "wall of sound" aesthetic of My Bloody Valentine but transmute it into a realm of pure, immaterial color.
By comparison, the following track, Ogurusu Norihide's functionally titled "5:00" is less ambitious, opting for a more conventional song structure with guitar and piano, but is no less lovely for it. It is a simple and pastoral song that would go well alongside, say, Richard Youngs's folk or Manishevitz.
Dinky's "No Love" is pretty cheesy, incorporating Game Boy noises with early-'90s sound effects and silly vocals, but it's light and entertaining in the sense that campy electroclash is (Adult, Ladytron, etc.).
Freescha's contribution to the disc, "Live and Learn Me," follows in a similarly dance-y vein but is infinitely better. I had the best-possible music journalist response--where can I get some more of this?
Casino vs. Japan slow things down with a dreamy but unremarkable track and, astonishingly, Kid606 follows with a pretty song with romantic overtones. Now, my exposure to Kid606 isn't deep or comprehensive, but I know him as a prolific "sonic terrorist" notorious for flaunting copyright law with breakbeat remixes; therefore this divergence from the majority of his output was surprising and intriguing.
Likewise, Takagi Masakatsu ventures into sonic territory I didn't know him for--pretty pop. While the exclusive track he gives Craprak is a bit repetitious, it opens up the horizon for him to combine his work in field recordings and electronic abstraction with this (new?) development. Who knows what could happen?
Craprak ends on a high note with Jake Mandell's "Beartrap!" a dark, suspenseful track in which some ominous force seems to wait at the sonic horizon. I can't help but impose a narrative on the song--considering its motion from a steady, pulsing beat (reminiscent of Plastikman's Consumed) to silence and shards of static, I couldn't help but think of The Blair Witch Project and other horror movies in which the listener/viewer is left with nothing but a static screen--nothing to fear but nothingness itself.
As an added bonus, the CD comes with four videos on it, of uniform quality. Marumari's "Way in the Middle" is a cute animated video of a baby's dream that comes off like an anti-smoking ad. Unfortunately, the dynamic video is set to a repetitive song that is a poor accompaniment to a baby and a rabbit racing in go-karts.
Perhaps the ultimate selling point for buying a Craprak, as it turns out, are the three other videos, the quality of which I could not possibly overstate.
Jake Mandell's video for "The Prince and the Palm," an upbeat, danceable track, takes what sounds like a boring premise and makes it compelling. Using only abstract red forms against a white background, Mandell makes them throb and transform in rhythm with the music, and the result is a lively video that makes more of less.
On a deeper level of abstraction, art collective 242 Pilots provide a video collage filled with images of skyscrapers, scaffolding, and sundry amoebic forms overlaid and intercut to create a dizzying paranoiac state, a visceral fear and wonder of the modern metropolis. It's difficult to contain my awe at that fact that this was all improvised onstage. I'm not sure what portion of the credit the artists deserve, and what portion their software, but the distinction is arbitrary anyhow--the artists programmed their own software.
I don't know if Takagi Masakatsu does the same, but his video work on Craprak, "I'm Computer, I'm Singing a Song," is equal to 242 Pilots'. It is a love poem in prismatic pixilation, cascades of sine curves, eruptions of color and paroxysms of light. An image of a woman talking decomposes into a chromatic essence, and finally disappears. It is perhaps the highpoint of the entire disc.
Although there are a few lackluster tracks, this Carpark compilation shines on many levels: as a showcase for all the talents they've assembled in their short life, as a good album with a unified mood (most calm and soothing), and as a small collection of luminous videos. Bravo, Carpark!