Sunday, May 04, 2008
I Remember The Way That You Smiled
Y’know, they just down make callow, ironic folk-hop for 20-something white hipsters like they used to. At least that’s one theory. From a Pitchfork review of the Deluxe reissue of Beck’s Odelay:
From the nervy opening chords of “Devil’s Haircut” (based on the garage-rock classic “I Can Only Give You Everything") to the signature sax riff of “The New Pollution” (lovingly pilfered from forgotten tenor player Joe Thomas’s “Venus"), Odelay is the album every record-diving MPC-phile wants to make. Though the LP was a huge commercial success, its sound was never successfully equaled by savvy opportunists. Chalk it up to the increasingly complicated legalities of sampling, as Beck explained in a 2005 interview: “Back [on Odelay] it was basically me writing chord changes and melodies, and then endless records being scratched and little sounds coming off the turntable. Now it’s prohibitively difficult and expensive to justify your one weird little horn blare that happens for half of a second one time in a song and makes you give away 70% of the song and $50,000.” And, of course, it’s the little lifts - the sex-ed dialogue on “Where It’s At”, the snippet of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony #8 in B Minor” on “High 5”, the dozens (hundreds?) of unique drum hits and perfectly placed sonic scribbles - that makes Odelay such a deep and engaging listen even after all the headphone sessions and Best Album of the 90s accolades. Tellingly, when Beck and the Dust Brothers tried to recreate their signature style on 2005’s Guero they couldn’t pull it off, inadvertently reinforcing Odelay’s lasting appeal in the process.
This is interesting. Could it really be true that lawyers killed that signature mid-90’s alt-sampling sound? Or is Beck making excuses for the fact that Guero was so-so? If so, chalk up another loss in the IP wars. And, once again, it would seem to be economically self-defeating for the greedy rent-seekers. It’s obviously stupid to insist on pricing your half-second horn blares right out of the market.
I happen to have been listening to Odelay on the nice headphones, noodling around with Photoshop. That’s a satisfying combination.
I’m sure the cost of sampling has something to do with it, but definitely not everything. That late 90s moment—I call it “end of high school beginning of college”—saw a great deal of energy in the crossover aesthetic. You had Beck’s pastiches of folk and hip hop, but also Massive Attack’s and Portishead’s mix of dub, hip hop, indie rock, torch song, and kitchen sink. Lesser known bands like A. R. Kane, Disco Inferno, and Moonshake had broken down boundaries between moody alternative pop (like The Associates or late Talk Talk) and black electronic music (Detroit acid house, dub, hip hop). They looked back to post-punk, just as so many bands of the past five years have.
But if we look at my big three—Beck, Massive Attack, and Portishead—the energy all died out. Beck went folk and tropicalia; Massive Attack fragmented; and Portishead dropped out. Of the three, only Portishead have released an album as great as their past work.
A band like The Go! Team manage to keep up this crossover energy, so I don’t think it’s just about sampling costs. I thought a better idea would come to me as I typed, but it’s not so.
From the Pitchfork review of the new Portishead (which I haven’t heard yet):
“Can an album really be a departure if it’s the first thing a group’s released in 11 years? It ideally would be for a genre-bound band turned brand name like Portishead: As much as there is to miss about the mid-late 1990s, the time for any trip-hop revival is far into the future, and picking up right where they left off in 1997 would make Portishead some kind of sad cipher coasting on the fumes of an exhausted trend-- something they’ve always been above. If the voice of Beth Gibbons wasn’t so ingrained in the consciousness of a whole generation of indie kids, you could look at Third as a sort of re-debut; it posits that the sound of Portishead can actually exist even after the group excises every possible remnant of trip-hop from it.”
The Pitchfork review is correct that *Third* isn’t simply a retread of the first two Portishead albums. But I think it’s wrong to see it as some wholesale departure from trip-hop. Portishead never sounded like, say, Tricky. They always had that noir element from Dusty Springfield, Lee Greenwood, Ennio Morricone, et al, which gave their sound a sort of timelessness.
*Third* downplays the more obviously trip-hop moments, but it does so by emphasizing what we forgot was also in trip-hop: elements of post-punk, from ESG to The Slits; US disco and techno; Krautrock of the Can and Kraftwerk variety; neo-noir like Nick Cave or Barry Anderson.
So *Third* picks up where post-trip-hop acts took trip-hop. Bands like Broadcast, Pram, The Eternals, Ladytron, even some aspects of Clinic.
And one answer to the question of what happened to this sort of hybrid music during the early 2000s is The Strokes and The White Stripes and Timbaland. The garage revival, along with a sample-less, minimalist shift in hip hop, turned attention away from textured, cut and paste soundtracks toward “authentic” rock and roll sounds and a rap music centered strictly on the vocalist. (Elements of trip-hop would resurface in the DFA indie-DJ scene, as well as in the post-punk revival. Portishead and LCD Soundsystem have very similar influences and touchstones in the end.)
(The new Wu Tang album actually sounds a lot like older trip-hop.
(And what I was trying to say about the new Portishead is that it *is* trip-hop, but it is a trip-hop that has paid attention to how neo-psychedelic music and hip-hop have actually evolved since 1998. Portishead, like David Bowie at his best these days, is influenced by their best followers.)