Wednesday, October 13, 2021



Plunderphonics 69/96


(Uncut review I think)


In this "pop will regurgitate itself" era, sampling and referentiality is so par for the course, it's barely comment-worthy. Flashback, though, to a time when the debates about bricolage and (re-, mis-, and ex-) appropriation were more urgent: the late Eighties of Def Jam, the JAMMS, M/A/R/R/S, Steinski, that moment when the sampler suddenly got much cheaper. Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald had been messin' with music by iconic artist for years, using traditional tape-editing techniques, and he seized the opportunities presented by the new digital technology. The result was 1989's Plunderphonic CD: songs by Elvis Presley, James Brown, Count Basie, Stravinsky,  and others, vivisected and rebuilt into grotesque mutant alter-egos.   What was different about Oswald's approach was that each track focused on a single artist, and usually a single work. This sort of aural Pop Art mischief wasn't unprecedented, either in the academy (James Tenney's 1961 Elvis-deconstruction "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) or in pop itself (The Residents Reich'n'Roll), but Oswald's cover (per)versions were especially extreme.


Despite being scrupulous about identifying his sources, and circulating Plunderphonic on a non-commercial basis, Oswald was persecuted by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (largely because CBS were upset by his reworking of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and forced to destroy all remaining copies of the CD. For years, the only way to hear it has been to contact various Copyright Liberation outfits who'd tape it for free. But now, finally, Oswald has secured permission for all his  "electroquotes" and has re-released Plunderphonic, plus some of his earlier and later collages, in a deluxe CD box. There's an extensive booklet, which goes into fascinating detail about Oswald's techniques and diverse approaches to each different song-treatment, along with all the related issues of originality, copyright, artistic signature, etc, that Oswald is exploring.


Listening to the set's two discs, a certain Oswald "signature" emerges:   a partiality for choppy, fractured rhythms and weird time signatures. The herky-jerky cut-up of  "Hello I Love You" sounds like the Magic Band reduced to eking out an existence as a covers band, with the players uncannily imitating the Doors's instrumental and vocal timbres, but restructuring the tune in the jagged spirit of Trout Mask Replica.  Extracts from Plexure, Oswald's attempt to compress the entire pop universe into one 20 minute piece, offer a frenzy of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, etc, an FM radio inferno that spawns monstrous hybrids like Annie Lennox amalgamated with Fine Young Cannibals inna Cronenburg/The Fly-stylee.  There are also moments of beguiling delicacy, though: offcuts of Juan Carlos Joabim bossanova rewoven into a beautiful quilt of lilt; "Strawberry Fields Forever" condensed into a quintessential quiver of wistful ethereality; a varispeeded "White Christmas" that makes Bing's croon droop and ooze like a Dali dreamscape. "Pretender" is a sex-change version of a Dolly Parton song descending from only-audible-to-dogs ultra-treble to a testosterone-thick basso profundissimo, and  executed using a Lenco turntable that  goes from 80 rpm down to 12 rpm.


The most stunning of  Oswald's plunderphonic feats is "Dab", his infamous unravelling of Michael Jackson's "Bad".  Attempting to bring sorely-needed electricity to what he felt was musically lifeless, Oswald does his usual Beefheart/Zorn-style thing at first, transforming the song into convulsive cyber-funk. Halfway through, though, the remake ascends to another place altogether. Micro-syllable vocal particles are multitracked as if in some infinite hall-of-mirrors vortex, and this ghost-swarm of nano-Jacksons strobes stereophonically from speaker to speaker, while simultaneously billowing back and forth through dub-space. The opposite approach to Plexure's maximalist assault, "Dab" creates a new universe within a finite, not-especially-great pop song. It's one of the most cosmic (micro-cosmic?) things I've ever heard. And it alone justifies the not-cheap admission price to Plunderphonics 69/96. 

John Oswald

Plunderphonics 69/96


(eMusic review I think)

Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald is most renowned for 1989’s Plunderphonic, the CD on which he turned sampling into a form of digital iconoclasm--literally smashing pop idols to smithereens. Unlike most practitioners of sampling, Oswald concentrated on reworking a single work by a single artist: typically, vivisecting a song and recombining the sliced’n’diced parts into a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster. Despite scrupulously identifying his sources and circulating Plunderphonic on a strictly non-commercial basis, Oswald was hounded by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CBS were vexed by his mauling of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and ultimately forced to destroy all remaining copies. A double-CD career anthology, 69/96 makes available again the Plunderphonic tracks. It also includes Oswald’s pre-sampling pieces (the Mystery Lab cassettes done by tape cut’n’splice or using a doctored turntable going from 80 rpm to 12 rpm) and excerpts from later works like Plexure (5000 radio hits “composited” into a 20 minute barrage of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, and so forth). Oswald is a serious artist aiming to raise all kinds of questions relating to copyright and artistic originality. But there’s a strong element of pure mischief to plunderphonia, and one way of responding to 69/96 is to treat it as a barrel of laughs.

 Disc One

 “O’Hell” is a hilariously herky-jerky undoing of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You”. “Sfield” distils “Strawberry Fields Forever" into a tremulously ethereal wisp of wistfulness. “White” makes Bing Crosby’s croon ooze pendulously like Dali’s melting clocks. “Pretender” inflicts sex-change on Dolly Parton by taking her voice from bat-squeak treble to molasses-thick infra-bass. Piece de resistance and yet-to-be-topped career pinnacle, though, is “Dab”, Oswald’s unraveling of “Bad”. It starts as epileptic cyberfunk, then halfway through takes off into the cosmos, with Oswald multitracking a myriad infinitesimal particles of Jackson’s voice into a billowing shroud that strobes eerily across the stereo field. One of the most ecstatically disorienting things you’ll ever hear.

 Disc Two

 Listen long enough to plunderphonia and a certain  Oswald “signature” emerges--a fondness for fractured rhythms and disconcerting time signatures (you get the impression that he never quite recovered from hearing Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica). On this disc, based around instrumental music rather than the first disc’s focus on songs, you can hear this convulsive choppiness in “Birth1” (based on The Beatles’ “Birthday”) and “Mach” (a frenzied collage of Kronos Quartet and heavy metal). Refreshing exceptions to the pell-mell rule include the trippy undulating wooze of  “Fold” and  the eerie tranquility of “Debizet”. “dWig” , meanwhile, showcases Oswald’s skill at isolating the artistic signature of his victim (in this case, Ludwig Van Beethoven) and intensifying it to the point of caricature. 


minifeature for Melody Maker

Sampling may be the everyday stuff of modern pop, but for a certain breed of avant-garde artist it's also a highly self-conscious technique that allows them to explore issues of originality and copyright. Canadian producer/composer  John Oswald is one such sampladelic researcher. His 1989 CD  Plunderphonics' involved the digital deconstruction of songs by the Beatles, Dolly Parton and Elvis, amongst many others. And it got Oswald into a heap of trouble. Acting on behalf of Michael Jackson's record company  CBS (offended as much by the cover image of Wacko's head superimposed on a nude female torso as by the drastic dismemberment of  "Bad" inside), the Canadian Recording Industry Association forced Oswald to destroy the master tapes and all remaining CD's.

      Fingers burned, Oswald has since stuck mostly to projects where his "electroquoting" has been solicited. Last year, he accepted just such an invitation from the Grateful Dead, and decided to construct a sort of megamix  of  "Dark Star", a 'song'  the  grizzled West Coast acid-rockers have been stretching out to kozmik proportions in their live improvs for more than a quarter-century.  After 21 days in the Dead's  legendary tape archive, Oswald emerged with 40 hours worth of material, which he painstakingly wove into a seamless uber-jam, using an array of digital techniques and treatments. The first instalment, "Transitive Axis", was released in late '94;  the second, "Mirror Ashes" has now been added to form a double-CD package entitled "Grayfolded". The result is both a remarkably sympathetic interpretation of the Dead's flow-motion aesthetic,  and a luminous tribute to the late Jerry Garcia.

      "Folded" refers to Oswald's primary method, "folding", whereby material from different, often decades-apart concerts is layered, achieving both Phil Spector-like textural density and an eerie anachronistic sense of time travel. "But the computer techniques behind this record are really incidental to the illusion I'm trying to present," Oswald emphasises. " People told me to stop listening to the tapes and go to a concert, 'cos live it's a totally different thing. I thought 'I can't soak the cover in acid, so how can I achieve what everybody desires--a record that captures this feeling that Dead concerts are magic?'  So I did things that are unnatural, like have a young Garcia harmonise with an old one, or have an orchestra of multiple Dead musicians, all in order to pump up the sonic experience so that at certain points you think: 'What's happening? Have the drugs kicked in?'".

      "Grayfolded" got a surprisingly positive reception from the Deadhead community (50 thousand sold of  the first disc!); surprisingly, since Deadheads tend to adhere to a Luddite, keep-music-live ethos. Oswald's favourite reaction was from an Internet correspondent "who wrote that 'Grayfolded' made him cry, because it encapsulated 25 years of Garcia, yet it's unreal in a way that gave him a very visceral sensation of it being a ghost."  But even if, like me, you're no Deadhead, "Grayfolded" will leave you mind-blown and spooked-out. 

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