My relationship with pop music is a tenuous one. Where others hear teenage symphonies to God, I tend to hear post-adolescents going through the motions. It is one thing when you are young; epiphany comes through emulation, but after a certain point I want to hear what you have to say as oppose to what you've heard all these years. Pop music, in general practice, falls into the realm of echo, sounds only changing on the rebound because of the distance between you and the chasm walls. Sure it's escapist, and who doesn't want an easy escape now and again, but spending all your time on escape is like living on vacation. At some point, you have to be at home.
So, when I hear something that registers as pop music, yet it operates on a different frequency, is built of different stuff, it softens my resolve against the stuff. Black Dice has always hit me this way. Their spark-infused rattles and hums are at worst an alien approximation of more terrestrial pop, and at best, the chants of a new tribe. Repo is immediately less abrasive than past efforts by the band; "Nite Creme" lurches and struts around the idea of new wave swagger without becoming that exact thing, which is interesting but not quite the Zarathustra disco moment I'm after. Nor is the AfroBeat influenced "Glazin" or the elfin hip-hop beat-tinkering in "Earnings plus Interest." It's all good stuff, mind you, even weird stuff, but I'm starting think Black Dice's spaceship has landed.
Then, the plodding pop colossus in "Idiots Pasture" appears over the horizon. It churns and crunches the last vestiges of a melody and a low human mumble into atomic particles and then rearranges them into a song isotope, perhaps by the use of high-powered magnets. Or Crowley magick. Something. Whatever the means, it's getting good. By the ninth track "Ten Inches" semblances between regular music are only implied by the mind trying to rectify the racket being offered. "Chicken Shit" is that, but in dub.
"Vegetable" finds the invaders trying to go acoustic, which is a nice break from the sonic vivisection that preceded it, and follows it on the zombie slump of "Urban Supremist" and the groovy public flogging "Ultra Vomit Craze" inflicts upon you. Here this record presents its soul, an R&B groove inundated by a life that eschews R&B's unnatural smoothness. "Urban Vomit Craze" is fundamentally jagged and hollow, with ghosts of raging inventors howling about their past failures echoing from within, and this anguish only serves to bolster the robot funk on the surface. In other words, it is the machine improving on the hallmarks of the creator, willfully discarding the parts that don't work and focusing on the parts that do. It is difficult stuff, perhaps a little torturous, but when the loop reaches then end of its run, I wish it had kept going.
Micachu & the Shapes
So OK, maybe you want to push the envelope of pop without destroying it. I can respect that, I guess. If so, Jewellery by Micachu & the Shapes will be your new favorite CD. "Vulture" opens this with a clatter of bedspring percussion and icy synths, and Micachu's not-quite-tuneless chant. These are traits that will continue throughout the record. The melody sometimes sounds like it was played on a shoebox strung with rubber bands; the recording done in a slightly larger box, yet despite all this, it is ridiculously infection. "Lips" will have you doing some hyperkinetic variant of the twist in your seat; "Sweetheart" will draw you in like the drunken sing-along of mutant squatters. It is so far, my pop record of 2009.
Like the taste of wasabi or the weather in the Pacific Northwest, once you are acclimated to the repellent aspects of Jewellery, you will find its quirks comforting. "Curly Teeth" is a punk-folk anthem, strummed out on a guitar tuned to the key of Zero, dressed up with squeaks and giant machine hum. It is weird as hell and you will love it, and if you don't, then you have no business in this part of town and better head back to the safety of your coddled familiarity.
"Golden Phone" is your reward for making it this far, an innocuous, vaguely Caribbean confection, only falling off its beat at one point to make sure you are paying attention. This is good, because following it "Ship" takes you through the most difficult terrain so far. "Floor" is as close a ballad as you are gonna get here, sounding like a lo-fi teenage Nico intoning I'm wearing my expressionist face, bought lots of things to replace you. This easy readability is shocking; up to this point I haven't really had any idea what she was going on about, and with that, it opens up the whole record again. I feel the love songs at the heart of all this artpop echoing in the robo-Flamenco "Just in Case" when she sings it will probably come out a jumble of words. That is the real expressionist face of love; it never comes out groomed like a Marvin Gaye song. Those R&B dudes have a team of people behind them approximating love by refining it. Micachu is like us in that it sounds jumbled and a little busted and is all the more endearing because of it.
This is celebrated by the twisted "Tequila" variant "Calculator" - dizzying, difficult to follow, relentless, practically stream-of-consciousness pillow-fight music. Its madness is so entrancing I don't even know what I'm saying anymore, much less what they are saying. All I know is, I love it, and maybe a month from now I won't even remember their name, but I'll remember how experience of listening to it made me feel airy and joyous and slightly transformed, and that, I suppose, is the real truth in pop music.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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