Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Ambien Music - where faded meets fey

I did an interview December 2018 with Beatrice Finauro of Dry magazine (Milan) about trap / mumble rap - and why it was my favorite music of recent years. Here it is - resequenced a bit - and with a riff woven in from a separate interview with an Italian journalist that touched on the subject glancingly, and a few other stray thoughts.

Is trap a heresy, a new classic canon or both things at the same time?

On one hand, trap is just rap – the same old, same old. Gangsta rap, part 12. If you listen from a distance, you won’t hear anything you’ve not heard before. But immerse yourself in the music, and you hear a host of micro-innovations. Most of them are in the domain of vocals – the creative use of auto-tune and other vocal processing, the emergence of ad libs as kind of antiphonal commentary on or reinforcement of the lead vocal, the blurring of rapping with singing so that you can’t distinguish between rhythmic speech and melodic trills. 

Listen to the almost choral weave of voices in Migos - the main rap, the ad libs (often shouted or whooped or gasped nonverbal eruptions of pure jouissance), and then the rippling hyper-Autotuned backing vocals - again, wordless moans of ecstasy that sometimes resemble psalms or monastic chants. This is a new thing in music. And just as striking and interesting, it's a new kind of melting, woozy subjectivity for hip hop masculinity - almost effete at times. 

This new subjectivity and the vocal modes that have emerged alongside it seem to have been produced by changing drug use patterns  - the different vibes  generated by drugs like Xanax and Percocet. Although purple drank has been a southern  hop hop staple for a long while. But these numbing anxiety killers and pain killers have turned rap of the Migos, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Rich the Kid, Travis Scott type into a kind of ambient music - or even Ambien Music.  It exists in a zone between faded and fey. 

Texturally the floaty, wafting, twinkly IDM-ish sounds in the production make trap one of the last remaining bastions of minimalism in modern music, which otherwise tends towards maxed out digitalism. Trap has digimax's hyper-real contoured gloss, but in combination with minimalism - so you get this killer combination of spare and sumptuous. Trap tunes often consist of just a few vaporous sounds looped and these highly repetitive vocal hooks, and often there are a rather small total number of words in the entire lyric. It's a break with the whole tradition of MC lyricism, it's much more about texture and mood, and these sing-songy, rippling hooks. This is music that invites you to trance out, to listen in a semi-attentive stupor. Tracks ooze out of the car speakers to cloud the vehicle's interior - and especially if you're driving at night, it's like you're gliding along inside this futuristic glowing capsule. 

Adam Harper defined the characteristics of Hi-Tech aesthetics Vs Indie aesthetics. I think some of the features of Hi-tech, such as the harsh vision of the future, being decadent, excessive and aggressive, and originally linked by Harper to artists such as James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, can be also attributed to the trap genre. On the other hand, we have the supposedly warm, benign, archaic and, I’d say, lifeless realm of Indie to which the trap is opposed. In your opinion, which are the main trap’s features and where does trap lie in the contemporary ecosystem?

The supposedly subversive or parodic elements of vaporwave or hi-tech / hi-def – to me they pale next to the reality of what is streaming out of the mainstream airwaves. Which is to say the hyper-reality of it -  a lifestyle that is fantastical, psychotic... What could be more insane or morbid than the subjectivity in a Drake record or a Kanye song? The black Rap n B mainstream is further out sonically and attitudinally than anything the white Internet-Bohemia has come up with. Rap and R&B, Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Cardi B, Migos: is already the Simulacrum, is already decadence. I call it Weimar n B.

Trap spans from the original formula, such as the one of Gucci Mane, T.I, Young Jeezy, to the Ebenezer’s one, influenced by R&B and Gospel, to London’s Drill and so on… And each country has its own version. Is there a common ground, rule or standards that is cross to the different types of trap?

There are certain beat patterns that recur (yet also a surprising diversity of grooves and feels). You can connect trap back to early 2000s sounds like crunk and New Orleans bounce – the idea of the Dirty South – to labels like Cash Money. 

I suppose if there are two things that define all 21st Century hip hop is that it doesn’t use samples very often and it breaks with the looped breakbeat approach of classic East Coast Hip Hop. The beats are programmed and relate to a longstanding Southern U.S Hip Hop tradition that was rooted in drum machines and 80s Electro. Trap is part of that, as was the related L.A. sound of Ratchet as pioneered by DJ Mustard. But in a larger sense it’s all trap, it’s all gangsta rap, it’s all rap. There’s an absolute continuity, a changing same to quote Amiri Baraka.

Why does trap have such an influence on kids?

Kids want something that feels now and that belongs to them, and trap is the most convincing and intoxicating contender for that role. Most other forms of youth music are static or overly shadowed with heritage and history.

The other thing is that trap is one of the few music around that drips with a disruptive and illicit jouissance. Trap – especially Migos and Young Thug, but all of it – is ecstatic. The performers seems entranced by themselves, in a swirl of ecstasy and glory. Think of the feeling in Rae Sremmurd ‘Black Beatles’ . The fact that their trope for that feeling of excess, triumph and abandon is rock stardom tells you something. This is supplying what kids got from the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin: a fantasy of a life without constraints.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Vampire Weekend

"The People vs. Vampire Weekend" / Pazz & Jop essay
Village Voice, January 21 2009

by Simon Reynolds

In an enervated year for music, when pop was rightfully eclipsed by Far More Important Matters, Vampire Weekend were as close as our little community got to a polarizing controversy. Why, this very newspaper felt obliged to run two opposed reviews of the New York City quartet’s self-titled debut upon its January release: Mike Powell’s tempered praise facing off against Julianne Shepherd’s a priori indignation.

Variations on these memes rippled across the criticscape all year long. Yet even the accolades were oddly defensive, hedged with disclaimers. British music mag FACT, for instance, prefaced its endorsement of “I Stand Corrected” as #11 in their Top 100 Tracks of 2008 with “There are a million reasons to hate Vampire Weekend,” while just the other day, I stumbled on a LiveJournal entry that began: “I have about a million reasons to reject Vampire Weekend, but . . .” (One million? Clearly, these are some pretty loathsome fellows!) I’d like to get to the other side of that “but” myself, to talk about rapture and shining eyes and that rare aesthetic sensation of miraculousness that occurs when you encounter, against stacked historical odds, Something New Under the Sun. But the reasons-to-be-sneerful are interesting, deserve dissection, might even be revealing.

Already I hear the naysayers bleating, “Something New?! But they’re so derivative!” (This, from Deerhunter fans.) No new instruments have been invented, it’s true, and here and there on Vampire Weekend, you’ll pick up a faint scent of things you might have heard before: a bounce of Beat in “A-Punk,” Orange Juice’s just-brushed sheen, Monochrome Set’s suave wit. The most common reference point (apart from Graceland, which seemingly crops up because it’s the sole example of African-influenced rock most people know) is early Talking Heads. And that’s a telling comparison, not because VW sound like them—they don’t—but because of the crisp, clutterless clarity of the sound, a transparency of structure that allows you to see both the perfection and the unorthodoxy of the way the songs move and build. Unfugged by nu-shoegaze haze, the equality between the instruments shines through—the bass, the keyboards, the guitar, and the drums all take turns as the star.

But where the Talking Heads comparison really fits is the identical set of accusations hurled at both bands: politeness, calculation, detachment, neatness. (In its charticle survey of 2008, New York magazine placed Vampire under “Despicable” for “further digging rock and roll’s grave” by appearing on SNL in sweaters!) Those insults are predicated on the positing of a subversive power to rudeness, spontaneity, wildness, and mess—a too-easy equation shaky even in Byrne & Co.’s day and now fully crumbled (although you can find its pantomime enacted still at Wolf Eyes or Monotonix shows). Given the nature of modern media and our crazed archival culture, it’s obvious that no halfway sentient band can come into being without premeditation, the meticulous marshalling and coordination of influences and reference points. Knowingness irretrievably entered the water table long ago, and Vampire Weekend simply take this foundation of modern music—the impossibility of not overthinking things, of not riddling your work with footnotes and hyperlinks—and push through to full-blown conceptualism. They began with a handful of ideas (including the occasional convergence of Johnny Marr’s playing in the Smiths with African guitar pop, along with an impulse to investigate the preppy aesthetic) and proceeded to assemble a tour de force amalgam of form and content.

Pressed to distill that merger’s essence to a phrase, I’d offer “form & formality.” The latter is obviously a thread through those odious-to-some lyrics, like the archly phrased dandy disdain of “Your collegiate grief has left you/Dowdy in sweatshirts/Absolute horror!” But it equally pervades the music, whose symmetry and serenity recall the gardens of English stately homes—all terraced geometric flower beds, manicured topiary, and exquisitely landscaped slopes. The most audacious and delightful aspect of VW’s sound is the seeming incongruity between the African guitar parts and the quasi-classical flourishes, supplied equally by a genuine palm-court string section and Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboard ersatz. This sound clash works like a charm because the European and African elements share an emotional tone (uplifting, rhapsodic), but also stem from hierarchical societies. The kind of African ensembles from which Vampire Weekend have borrowed licks set a high premium on slickness, tightness, and regimentation; early King Sunny Adé albums often feature songs titled after local dignitaries—a doctor or chieftain or, in one case, “The Late General Murtala Mohammed,” a Nigerian military dictator.

The band’s (alleged, assumed) upper-class status often garners Strokes comparisons, with the underlying implication that “people like that simply shouldn’t be in popular music, because they’re not of The People.” The affinity between the two bands runs deeper: As Regina Spektor told an interviewer, “The thing that blew my mind first hearing the Strokes was that they were the closest I had heard rock come to classical. Their music is extraordinarily orderly and composed.” As Mike Powell further noted, VW are as much Anglophiles as Afrophiles, with most of their musical touchstones and lyrical allusions relating to Old England or New England. They’ve merely outed the truth of indie, which was never really The People’s Music for all its affected sloppiness and “beautiful loser” tropes, instead always much more of an upper-middle-class milieu, the kids recoiling from the commercial and mass-produced just like their parents did via artisanal foodstuffs and antiques. In his Spin profile, Andy Greenwald observed frontman Ezra Koenig’s “encyclopedic knowledge” of pop history and his “clinical, removed” way of speaking about it—”as if it were all a glorious steam table that had been laid out specifically for him to feast upon.” Ouch! Except that for better or worse, we’re all of us aristocratic listeners these days, able to sample “vibes” from anywhere and everywhere.

Vampire Weekend make more amusing and thought-provoking play from the signifiers of wealth and exclusivity than any rapper I’ve heard these past several years. (But then, Vampire Weekend has more interesting rhythms than any hip-hop record I’ve heard these past several years.) Their shit is tight, like their asses, because flawlessness is part of their aesthetic game plan—it’s what the record had to be and is. (The only defect I can find is that the lyric doesn’t actually read as Peter Gabriel II.) How righteous that 2008 should have started with some literally African-American music to herald the election of a literally African-American president. Funny, too, how all the attributes that describe (and, in some eyes, condemn) the band—cultivated and cosmopolitan, calm and collected, cautious and clean-cut—apply so amply to Obama. It’s as if history had twisted its way around to arrive at a place where the virtues in our polity are also the virtues in our pop music. Unlike sax addict Bill C. or faux-populist George W., our new prez doesn’t have a rock ‘n’ roll bone in his body, and neither do Vampire Weekend. This year’s best, their album is not Gossip Girl set to music, but a soundtrack for the liberal elite taking over.

Vampire Weekend, lyrics, and the art of writing songs that are "writable" by the listener
Guardian blog column, May 12, 2009

by Simon Reynolds

The other night I went to see Vampire Weekend participate in a series of New York literary/music events called Happy Ending. Taking a break from recording their second album, the band played two micro-sets of three songs each (frustratingly not including any of their work-in-progress), which bookended readings by three young cult novelists: Wells Tower, John Wray and Arthur Philips. It would be an exaggeration to describe the event as star-studded, but Zadie Smith was standing right next to us, the model Agyness Deyn kept sauntering past, and during their second set Vampire frontman Ezra Koenig gave a shout-out to movie director Ed Burns. Mostly, though, the place – Joe's Pub in the East Village – seemed crammed with young literati and publishing people.

So the vibe was completely un-rock'n'roll. And thus perfect for Vampire Weekend, who "oppose all rock'n'roll" to the point of drawing up a charter of principles when they were forming that included the decree that no member would ever be seen onstage or in a publicity photograph wearing a T-shirt or jeans. One reason they're such a polarising group, loathed as often as loved, is that they've outed the secret truth of indie-rock as the music of the upper middle-class. Indeed, if the members of Vampire Weekend weren't in a band, you could easily imagine them working at a publisher or a small, cool literary magazine a la The Believer, ie. exactly the kind of thing some of their Ivy League peers doubtless went on to do after graduation. Twenty-five years ago Vampire Weekend would probably have been a group similar to the Replacements or Dinosaur Jr, downwardly mobile slackers making blurry, slurred anthems of defeatism and despondency. But Vampire Weekend's music is dainty, sprightly, hyper-literate and crisply enunciated because purposefully being or doing the opposite has practically zero meaning or cultural traction in 2009.

Introducing the night, Happy Ending's curator, Amanda Stern, explained there was a theme to the event, which she'd chosen after canvassing a disparate selection of people. In the end she'd gone with Vampire Weekend's own suggestion, "taking risks", and had challenged the three writers and the band to do something daring or embarrassing in front of the audience. This raised the question of what taking a risk could be for Vampire Weekend and their musical generation; in a sense the group's whole existence is about asking what counts as challenging in music in this hyper-knowing, history-addled, hard-to-shock era. Compared with novelist Arthur Philips's gambit – he announced his abandonment of writing for a new career as a matador and staging a simulated bullfight onstage with a radio-controlled model of a bull – Vampire's risk wasn't spectacular: they opted to cover the Tom Petty song Walls. Hardly risky, given that the musical guests at Happy Ending are supposed to do one cover version and five originals. Plus, Vampire had already covered a different Petty song (his big 80s hit Don't Come Around Here No More) at an earlier concert.

Still, it was kind of a conceptual masterstroke, because Petty is the complete antithesis of Vampire Weekend. He's an all-American radio staple, an earnest hack catering to the populist heartland with vaguely 60s-sounding songs that reshuffle tired-and-true rock'n'roll tropes of freedom and defiance. Vampire are Anglophiles who sing about east coast elite lifestyles with a peculiar but wondrous tone midway between arch and rhapsodic. So the joke with the Walls cover is Koenig singing inane Petty lyrics such as, "Cause you got a heart so big/It could crush this town/And I can't hold out forever/Even walls fall down". (The audience were provided with lyric sheets so they could sing along.) At the end Koenig couldn't resist a "look what we did there" comment. "It's a good song, isn't it?" he asked the audience, keeping his face straight. Pause. "Good lyrics".

On the way home, in between feeling slightly sorry for poor old Petty and starting to see why some folks find Koenig a wee bit smug, I considered the definition of "good lyrics". I happen to think that Koenig (and the group's other writer Rostam Batmanglij) have a great way with words, although there's many who find Vampire lyrics insufferably precious. The words are a great part of the pleasure of listening to their songs. But for me it's more about individual lines that flash up, and the more general way that the language frisks and sparkles like the music itself. Upon reflection, I could barely think of a single Vampire Weekend song where I actually knew what was going on in it, in terms of a storyline or situation. I've read reviewers confidently describe what's happening in, say, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, only to return to the song and find myself unable to match-up that interpretation with the lyrics.

This might be my own deficiency as an interpreter of lyrics. I wouldn't say it's necessarily my strong suit, as a critic. Oh, I do fine with lyrics that are fairly transparent, especially if I can zoom out the lens to larger currents of social or cultural significance, as with songs by Pulp or the Smiths. But people like Elvis Costello, or the Go Betweens, or the later veiled-and-fragmentary Morrissey, tend to leave me scratching my head, or coming up with interpretations that turn out to be way off. Those guys write lyrics that can't be enjoyed as mystic gibberish, or for their pure sound-over-meaning sensuousness. Their lyrics clearly don't aim to be nonsense but at the same time deliberately withhold their sense, masking meaning through labyrinthine lexical games (Costello's puns, alliterations and mixed metaphors) or an elliptical coyness that can often look like the song is simply half-finished (the latterday Morrissey).

Vampire Weekend songs often seem like short stories where everything's been erased EXCEPT for every third paragraph or – at the extreme – EXCEPT for every twenty-third line. Or maybe they're just extremely condensed screenplays. That is actually the case with one song, Walcott, based on a horror movie Koenig and friends made some years ago and from which they derived the group's name. But you probably wouldn't be able to glean the scenario (vampires rampaging through New England) from the words alone, even with the line "evil feasts on human lives" hiding in plain view. Still, this did make me wonder if Vampire Weekend songs are all written in this fashion, taking a movie – made or planned or just daydreamed – and then boiling it down to a string of haiku-like verses. You could apply that method to other people's films, novels, or plays just as well, and a fair few songwriters have done that, especially when inspiration-starved. The only example that springs to mind right now is E=MC2 , one of the few Big Audio Dynamite songs I like, a plaintive ditty that lyrically consists in large part of ultra-condensed movie synopses and highlight scenes from the filmography of Nic Roeg.

But back to Vampire Weekend: I was relieved to see that I'm not the only one who has difficulties. Visit one of those lyrics-exegesis websites like SongMeanings and you'll find a bizarre range of interpretations, testifying to the imaginative powers of fans and their intense identification with the music. Let's take one particular Vampire Weekend song, The Kids Don't Stand a Chance, my second favorite after Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. Picking up, as I often do, on just a few lines in the song – the title/chorus and the line "denying them romance" – I had imagined this tune to be an oblique plaint for a disenfranchised generation, not a million miles in sentiment from Bastards of Young by the Replacements. (It was Generation X in Paul Westerberg's day, now we must be at Z or even round again to A). But this interpretation depends on ignoring the rest of the lyric, which is vivid and visual and attentive to detail like you'd expect (Vampire's lyrics are uncommonly eye-oriented, which explains the recurrent Wes Anderson parallels they get) but also incredibly opaque.

I was intrigued to see that one of the most commonly ascribed meanings to The Kids Don't Stand a Chance is that it's about corporate recruiters arriving at top-league universities in America and luring young people on to the first rungs of the career ladder. This "don't' sell your dreams" message would make it a sister song to Animal Collective's more direct College, which consists of the single line "you don't have to go to college". Naturally, this reading appealed to me (social currents, don't you know) but when I juxtaposed this popular interpretation of the song with the actual lyric (printed in an attractive font in the CD booklet) I could barely see the correlation. Still, I suppose if it's true that the fans ultimately make meaning, as some pop-culture scholars insist, then this is what the song is about now, for some. Perhaps that's one definition of "good lyrics" – that a song is capable of being "written" by the listener.

excerpt from the conclusion of Retromania on Vampire Weekend as exemplary modern exponents of "superhybridity", 2011

This mixture of "advanced tech-iness and the deliberately antediluvian", as Frieze's Jorg Heiser puts it, can be found in all kinds of places in the contemporary sonic landscape.  Take "Diplomat's Son", the stand-out track on Vampire Weekend's 2010 album Contra.   The track gathers its components from all across the globe, but also from all across history too. It welds together rhythms that simultaneously recall the rhumba yet also refer to more recent hi-tech Caribbean beats, with crooned vocals that channel Morrissey channeling early Sixties vocalists like John Leyton and harmony backing vocals that almost sound pre-World War 2.  It also throws in an interpolation of 1969's "Pressure Drop" by Jamaican reggae legend Toots & the Maytals and a cheeky sample from M.I.A. (one of the 2000s's most controversial pop nomads). "Diplomat's Son" is real everywhere/everywhen pop.  Utterly disparate sources cohere to gorgeously rhapsodic effect. Although the lyric is an oblique gay confessional about a fling with a Washington DC consulate brat, the title "Diplomat's Son" seems to have extra resonance, evoking the idea of rootless and guiltless cosmopolitanism (diplomatic immunity means that you can go to foreign countries and get away with all kinds of mischief).

Vampire Weekend's license to appropriate doesn't just validate expeditions across the wide world of contemporary music; it permits a form of time tourism too.  Much has been made of the group's African influences, but in fact they are almost all from 1970s and 1980s Afro-pop (whereas earlier appropriators like Paul Simon, Talking Heads, Malcolm McLaren, et al, were responding to contemporary or relatively recent African sounds).  What is striking about Vampire Weekend is the lack of hesitation with which they go about their borrowing, a nonchalance that caused some critics to accuse them of entitlement. Where does it come from?

Prior to the formation of the band, singer Ezra Koenig was involved in a rap group, which suggests that like many of his indie-rock generation, he grew up with hip hop and  assimilated its sampling and crate-digging sensibility. Koenig also maintained a blog called Internet Vibes, whose 2005 mission statement announced: "my goal is to categorize as many vibes as I can". In that spirit, the blog's topics included Native American pop, the clothing style of  the English land-owning gentry (Barbour jackets, etc),   Seventies New Age fusion star Paul Winter, Jamaican "one riddim" albums, Billy Joel,  preppy aesthetics, Bachata (Dominican guitar pop), 1970s cook books, Sixties mod, and much more. In a manifesto-like aside, Koenig wondered aloud: "What is authentic for a guy like me? Fourth-generation Ivy League, deracinated, American Jew...  raised in [New Jersey] to middle-class post-hippie parents with semi-Anglophilic tendencies.... The obvious answer is that I, like all of us, should be a truly post-modern consumer, taking the bits and pieces I like from various traditions and cultures, letting my aesthetic instincts be my only guide.  In fact, all of my friends (even the children of immigrants) seem to be in the same boat. We are BOTH disconnected from AND connected to EVERYTHING."

Drawing a provisional conclusion about super-hybridity, Jorg Heiser suggested that while its exponents do not make "for a clearly distinguishable avant-garde", so long as the approach "doesn't regress into messy plagiarism trying to pass for magic, this could be its achievement." Vampire Weekend have managed to weave together an insanely varied array of sources: a testament to their skill and taste, but also their meta-critical sensibility-- the ability to see a connection between West African guitar tonalities and Scottish indie-pop from the early Eighties, for instance.

Here is Rostam Batmanglij--along with Koenig, the principal writer in the group and the producer of their records--providing a breakdown of the constituents of Contra's opening track "Horchata": “It opens with a harmonium drone like you might find in Bollywood music, Ezra’s voice comes in with a kind of Buddy Holly echo, he’s doubled by a Kalimba thumb piano, which is intertwined with his vocal melody.... then suddenly you get a deep house synth and a mass of our voices: me and Ezra and some womens’ voices as well. And they’re all soaked in this classic 80’s reverb." That's at least three different continents (Africa, Asia, America) and just about every decade from the Fifties onwards.  But, like "Diplomat's Son", "Horchata" doesn't sound seem like "messy plagiarism" or even contrived; it feels right, it sounds natural.


couldn't get on with Modern Vampires of the City at all

and this Stereogum breakdown of the new album  - almost entirely focused on lyrics and Koenig's growth as songwriter and human being, almost nothing about sound or form - doesn't exactly make me eager to hear Father of the Bride