nate patrin.

March 27, 2009, 9:24 pm
Filed under: Criticism

I made it to the 170-ish shortlist, but once they started making deeper cuts my proposal on Daft Punk’s Discovery was jettisoned from the ranks of potential new 33 1/3 books. It’s a disappointment, but there’s two things that’ll help me get over it: a Donuts book getting approved, and a Bill Fox book getting rejected. Three things if you count beer. The time seems kind of right for a canonization of Discovery — between Kanye, Tr2n and a pretty sizeable cult following amongst a pretty wide range of music fans (and anime fans), Daft Punk have at least has some cultural cachet. I’ll post my proposal below; maybe it could’ve used some tightening (I have maybe a couple too many ideas and theories kicking around here) but overall I’m happy enough.

Despite being less than a decade old, the second full-length album by French house duo Daft Punk is already something of a classic to fans of electronic dance music – and, for that matter, fans of pop music in general. A smash hit in Europe and a cult hit in the States, the aesthetic of Discovery has gone on to foreshadow many of the most important movements in contemporary pop: anticipating R&B’s infatuation with vocoders and Auto-Tune, inspiring successive new waves of French house, and giving rise to a widespread indie-dance mentality that stretches from the Rapture’s NYC to Cut Copy’s Melbourne. They’ve spawned internet memes and YouTube tributes, become indie darlings thanks to frequent name-checks from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, and found themselves sampled by producers from Kanye West to Missy Elliott to Wiley. Since Discovery pushed them from the clubs to the spotlight, Daft Punk has grown into one of the decade’s most iconic and important acts – not bad for a band that hasn’t shown their faces in public for over ten years.

Yet as much as Discovery anticipated the near (and foreseeable) future of pop music, it’s an album with its heart, mind and soul largely set in two different kinds of pasts. There’s the past that’s hard-wired into the music itself – a base of samples, sounds and influences that distinctly evoke a larger-than-life electronic pop period stretching from the peak heights of disco to the flash and spectacle of MTV’s first few years. But those years also correspond with the lives of Guy Manuel de Homen-Christo and Thomas Bangalter in a different, telling way: both members of Daft Punk were born in the mid-1970s, which puts the chronological and philosophical framework of their greatest album directly in their childhood. Released in 2001, a year long embedded in human imagination as a signpost of the future – and revealed, in reality, to be the beginning of an epoch that was anywhere from anxious to nightmarish Discovery faced a mixed critical reaction upon release that only threatened to worsen once the year’s waning months saw obituaries written for the sort of opulent, tongue-in-cheek irony that the album was accused of fostering. But as a successful attempt to replicate how fresh and full of possibility the radio sounded to children in the early ‘80s, before they learned the parameters that separated high meaning from superficial bubblegum, it fulfilled an important niche in popular music that helped it act as an antidote to the tension of the times.

While there will be a suitable amount of historical background and making-of anecdotes (how much depends on who I can get to interview), much of the focus on this book will be about how the album’s sound relates to the crucial arc of late ‘70s/early ‘80s pop style, as well as attitudes towards it – why it was largely considered cheese or camp, and how correct or incorrect that assumption actually was. That attitude will be pit against the idea of that era’s pop as its generation’s formative experience in musical upbringing: the theory will be presented that when you’re born into a specific era, the sights and sounds you first experience give you the first ideas of how things actually work – including music, which is why our first ten years of life have such deep nostalgia triggers and how an album like Discovery tweaks them for people of a certain age. This may make parts of this a sort of spiritual (if tonally different) companion piece to Carl Wilson’s book on Let’s Talk About Love. Where Wilson discusses class, upbringing and vocal aesthetics in matters of taste, I’ll look into a matter of history: what makes the sounds and signifiers of a certain era of pop Discovery plunders — vocoders, Auto-Tune, filtered guitar solos, disco vocals — so allegedly kitschy? Overall, the undercurrent to this book will be one in defense of the mainstream chart/club pop of the mid 1970s to mid 1980s as the most important historical touchstone to current pop music, something that Discovery largely set into motion.

This book will be split up into six chapters:

Digital Love (1974-1986): Covering both a general range of style as exhibited on the album and, to a lesser extent, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter’s musical upbringing during this period. This chapter will be largely devoted to the main crux of the book: that Discovery is an album about how pop music sounds when you experience it for the first time — as a child or otherwise.

Face to Face (1987-1997): A brief historical rundown: de Homem-Christo and Bangalter meet, begin to create music and eventually form the band that would become Daft Punk. Covers their earliest work as Darlin’ (with future Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz), their early singles as Daft Punk, and their debut album Homework.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (1998-2000): The conception, creation, production and recording of Discovery.

Veridis Quo (2001): Discovery in review – this will be the book’s biggest chapter, tying in the aforementioned themes to the album’s title (discovery – and, inversely, “very disco”, a play on words echoed in the cod-Latin title of the track “Veridis Quo”). Some critical responses of the era will also be factored in, and the notion of the album’s irony — as opposed to its childhood-music sincerity — will be dissected and examined.

High Life (2002-2004): The extended success of Discovery, covering its full-length animated music video Interstella 5555 (directed by ‘70s and ‘80s anime icon Leiji Matsumoto), its Daft Club remix album and Daft Punk’s continued rise as respected pop stars.

Voyager (2005-): A brief summary of the ups and downs of life after Discovery, including the lukewarm reception to the radically different Human After All and the film Electroma. Special emphasis will be placed on the popularization of Daft Punk’s ideas in dance music, hip hop, R&B and indie rock, as well as the blockbuster Alive 2007 tour.

There’s a little more to it — mostly extraneous “about the author” stuff and so forth — but that’s the gist of it.

(Also, while I was in the process of writing this post, I heard back from David at Continuum about, among other questions, the fate of the Dilla book. That’s also a no-go, which is a shame; if there’s a record on that shortlist I could read 120 pages about, it’s that one. Still, David was unfailingly polite, even in the face of a lot of boneheaded arguing in the comments, so moving on won’t be too difficult.)

March 23, 2009, 7:12 pm
Filed under: Criticism

I like to keep up on Matos’ Slow Listening Movement blog just for the opportunity to get a glimpse into the habits of someone with less scattershot/berserk listening habits than myself, so I was mildly startled to notice a namedrop/trackback in this post. (For the record, the dubstep mix in question can be heard/downloaded here; thanks to @josephlovesit for the thirdhand tip.) The startlement comes from the fact that, oh shit, that’s right, I have this blog and everything. Pitchfork’s been keeping me busyish at about a review-a-week pace, my City Pages music video column is three-a-week material, and I’ve been listening to so much music that I only have enough time to stop and breathe when I’m focusing on one album or song for those other two aforementioned outlets. It’s funny, because I can almost feel my impulse to write about music casually, and in a non-employment-based sense, slipping away in favor of the urge to just listen to it without attempting to dissect it all. And since promos, eMusic, CD/vinyl purchases, MP3 blogs and miscellaneous downloadery have left me with a suffocatingly dense new pile of data to process every week, no damn wonder the listening/analysis ratio so heavily favors the side that’ll let me just zone out without thinking too hard.

Because once I start thinking about it, questions start coming up: Is it weird to have a span of interests that contains so many different types of music that are so diametrically opposed to one another stylistically, demographically and philosophically? Does that mean I have no standards, or no identity, or no real stake in the well-being of any specific scene? Where is the line drawn between eclecticism and being, for all intents and purposes, Woody Allen’s approval-seeking conformist character in Zelig? I’ll show you what I mean: I’m working on an independent project right now that requires me to do a deeper analysis and research into the discographies of artists I tend to like that have released music in this decade. These are a few of the artists, picked from the “file under M” section of the list (which I gathered from iTunes, hence the lack of accounting for last names in alphabetizing):

Memphis Bleek
Method Man
Metro Area
Mike Ladd
Modest Mouse
Mountain Goats
Mr. Lif

Or: sludge metal, Roc-A-Fella-era NYC rapper, Wu alumnus, postmodern disco-house, buzz-band indie-pop-rock, underground hip hop gone Gil Scott-Heron, ur-nu-indie rock, character-minded sometimes-lo-fi singer-songwriter, adenoidal indie rap, molasses-assed downtempo balearic/Quaalude house, that one grunge band I loved in high school that still puts out decent records, and a No Limit Soldier. How did I get to the point where all these artists sound appealing to me? It’s not something that I can easily parse, to be honest; I remember having an odd sort of modest entry-level eclecticism when I was in high school (favorite tapes: Nevermind, De La Soul Is Dead, Physical Graffiti) and then further developing that by becoming an amateur cratedigger in my late teens and picking out stuff on the always-important “does the cover look cool” criteria (which is how I got into Hawkwind, amongst others). I actually had this phase in my late-teens/early twenties where I would make mix cassettes featuring the most absurd combinations of style thinkable; I don’t have a tracklisting handy but I’m sure at least one of them featured a segue from something off Kind of Blue into a Dead Kennedys song. But I don’t think my tastes have developed so much as exploded, big cluster-bombs of subgenres and microscenes embedding different pieces of shrapnel into my tape deck and my CD shelf and my hard drive. Sure, you can look at that list of artists up there and come to the loosely-defined conclusion that it’s all stuff Pitchfork might review or whatever, but even then, a publication’s the sum of its writers and there can’t be a ton of them that’re on a beat that covers all of those areas. Granted, I do have limitations — freak-folk, screamo, your more precious trad-indie acts, some neighborhoods of glitch and noise — but I usually have to listen to something before feeling confident in writing it off.

What this has to do with the Slow Listening Movement, well, it’s everything and nothing: how much of this burden under the weight of eclecticism-spurred glut has doomed me to be forever playing catchup? And how much is that catchup making me undergo cram sessions with my finger on the “skip track” button and relegating judgments to “delete/favorite/decent enough to file away for later” that extends to listening to the entire track maybe 50% of the time? My iPod’s about 7 times the size of the first external hard drive I ever bought strictly for MP3-hoarding purposes some 7 or 8 years ago — 2001/2 being the time I started questioning what remaining assumptions I had about genre divisions and went from second gear to sixth in my voracious consumption of horizon-expanding pop music — and it’s scary to think how much stuff on there has still escaped me long after I first ripped or downloaded it. I gotta do something.