Bonobo’s “Cirrus” Weaves Found and Forgotten Sounds
Many electronic musicians prefer to stick to standards of highly crafted and smoothly enhanced tracks, but New York-based British DJ and producer Simon Green, who records and performs under the name Bonobo, composes elements of the imperfect sounds of everyday life. Between the popularity of his down-tempo 2010 album Black Sands and his music’s consistent NPR airtime as interlude riffs between stories on All Things Considered, the artist has become a prominent tastemaker of house-jazz-inspired soundscapes. While his music is tightly mechanical and texturized, there is a deeply emotive human element embedded within layers of looping samples. His newest album, The North Borders (2013), is the latest development in his line of explorations with found and forgotten sounds.
Green’s own artistic method inspires songs that are ideal for encounters that mimic the tones of the subconscious; many of his songs are slow builds rather than immediate explosions. “The process of making music is very therapeutic,” he says in an April 2013 Interview Magazine profile. “It’s late at night and I’m wearing headphones a lot of the time, so it becomes a way of zoning out and engaging with my thoughts. … It’s a matter of getting into that space where you’re just working without thinking.”
“Cirrus,” the advance-released track from The North Borders, is an exercise in the artist’s talents for translating under-realized individual sounds into cohesive parts of a moving whole. The inspiration for the song came from Green’s late night tinkering on a finger piano within the cavernous acoustics of his attic. A few notes, blurred together in a playful back-and-forth, give way to steadily more complex combinations woven into a progressive arch.
In addition to sounds pulled from drum machines and synthesizers, Green also utilizes an ever-growing collection of samples sourced from his world travels. Highway-bound freight trucks, subway doors opening and closing and harmonics from records buried in bins of small town record shops mix with the metallic notes of studio machines. “I’m just trying to sort of push the ideas of what can create melody, what can create rhythm, and how drum sounds don’t necessarily need to come from drums, but can come from a different place,” he says in an April 2013 NPR interview. “It’s about sort of re-contextualizing the sound and bringing it into a very different place from where it started.”
“Cirrus” transforms Green’s individual sound samples into a journey of looping patterns and spirals of hypnotic layers, like a carefully planned archeological dig into cityscapes where everyone is inherently alone. Indeed, the song is best absorbed, just as the artist created it, through headphones. It is a smooth, tempered attempt to build every disparate voice into a cog of a well-oiled hydraulic machine. Starting with the finger piano’s tinny five-note chord progression and gradually working in a triangle, maracas and scratchy evidence of vinyl feedback, Green adds in snare hits and synthesizer waves in an aggressive push towards a breaking point in which a sinister bass-heavy riff, once folded under melodic chimes, rips the entire pattern apart. Carefully timed pauses, whirs and clicks form the framework of a chirpy clockwork system that shuts down just as quickly as it begins. The overarching voice speaks to a breakdown of flawless mashups into subtle collections found beyond the confines of the recording studio.
Lou Reed (1972)
Lou Reed’s eponymously titled debut solo album, is mostly a batch of unreleased Velvet Underground songs he reworked for himself. Rolling Stone called it an “almost perfect” album, but it went largely ignored by the listening public. Reed imbues a gentle charm to The Velvet Underground’s scrapped material. For example I Love You, is not unlike a summery Simon and Garfunkel ballad. The first version of Berlin, a track he would later recycle for his 1973 record of the same name, is surpassed only by the live version on American Poet. Going Down, the only track on Lou Reed that doesn’t reappear on another record, is a mellow meditation that suggests just how lonesome Lou must have been in his post-VU, pre-Transformer days. Throughout, Lou Reed is a delicate and humble beginning to the extraordinary solo career that would follow.
Sally Can’t Dance (1974)
Despite being at the height of his career, riding the tide of Transformer’s success, Sally Can’t Dance wasn’t a hit at the time. It could be that Reed’s larger-than-life persona eclipsed the artistry of the “real Lou,” shedding his alter ego to share serious secrets. In “Kill Your Sons,” he tells us what it was like to be forced by his parents into electroshock therapy for being a bisexual teen. In “Billy,” we hear the story of his childhood friend, and how the two would eventually grow apart. But he also gave the public a little more Transformer in tracks full of that New York decadence that put Reed on the map, Animal Language and N.Y. Stars. The album’s standout track, Ennui, is a heartrending tune that could’ve been an outtake off of Berlin, in its icy depiction of melancholia and cynicism brought on by aging.
The Bells (1979)
On its release, Lester Bangs called The Bells Lou Reed’s best and most “literary” solo effort. Although I wouldn’t agree with him (Berlin, hello?), it’s certainly pioneering and very overlooked today. I’d call it his equivalent to Iggy Pop’s 1977 album The Idiot, in how closely it identifies with the punk scene of the time without actually sounding like punk. Disco Mystic reflects on the contemporaneous emergence of disco, at its peak in mainstream popularity, as a murky antithesis. The entire album sounds like the inside of a disco nightclub sunken deep in its own depravity, but like all of Reed’s work, underneath all the aggressiveness and the filth, it’s got a soft heart. Families is a poignant letter from Lou to his family, where he sings, “But papa, I know that this visit’s a mistake / There’s nothing here we have in common, except our name.” But the love letter “City Lights,” is a jingly, quirky ode to Charlie Chaplin, the most immediately likeable track on the album.
Growing Up In Public (1980)
Here’s Lou just before he settles down and gets clean. But the wild Lou Reed of the 1970′s goes out “with a shot in [his] hand” on Growing Up In Public. We see him here at his most candid, his most naked and self-revealing. Which is hardly a surprise considering the album was allegedly recorded in a booze-soaked haze. He professes his newfound love for liquor in The Power of Positive Drinking (though he would eat his words only two years later on The Blue Mask). We’re given a glimpse into a young Reed’s home life in My Old Man, where he describes having to cower under a desk to hide from his physically abusive father. The content of the album truly lives up to its title, and it more than makes up for every time Reed declined to answer a personal question in his interviews. Ever wondered why he always seemed so grumpy? Listen to the hugely underrated Smiles.
Legendary Hearts (1983)
Legendary Hearts picks up where his 1982 album The Blue Mask left off, in that Reed offers personal accounts of his new life as a married man, as just your average guy, with all of its ups and downs. He sings of his struggles with maintaining sobriety in The Last Shot and Bottoming Out. He sings of not being able to decide on the color for a room in Make Up My Mind. Legendary Hearts is a perfect example of Reed’s unique talent as a minimalist poet, with songs that you could either dance to at a crowded bar, or silently mull over at home. Pow Wow, the catchiest song on the album, gives us Lou’s humorous take on Native American race relations, inspired by his wife at the time, Sylvia (“Gave love to the Indians, they gave it back / A pow wow in the teepee is where it’s at”). If you want to hear Lou at his most light-hearted and playful, then this is a great place to start.
Like everyone else, I didn’t like Lulu the first time I heard it. I used the word “pretentious,” and thought it was a poor excuse for something new. But after giving it another chance (or a few, rather), I feel like it is Lou Reed’s crowning achievement, his magnum opus. Not a single moment could be spared. I know I’m saying that at the risk of sounding like a pretentious hipster douchebag, and that’s fine, because Lulu tugs at my heartstrings like nothing else. It’s a hallucinatory fever dream that takes you down to the darkest, strobe-lit recesses of the human condition. Take Frustration, for instance, and how it communicates the emotional devastation of sexual impotence. Even as far as surface textures go, Reed’s rough, gravely spoken word laid over Metallica’s steely riffs makes its own kind of sense. He appropriately prefaces the album with a W.B. Yeats quote in its sleeve notes: “Sex and death are the only subjects seriously interesting to an adult.” And it’s indeed a very serious effort. It’s molten metal poetry. It’s like Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil meets the best of Megadeath. But even that doesn’t quite do it justice.
Remembering Lou Reed
Image courtesy of the Lou Reed Facebook page.
Music lost a rare artist with the death of Lou Reed on October 27. During his time with The Velvet Underground and in his solo work, Reed experimented with boundaries in sound and subject, bringing a steady candor and razor-sharp wit to everything he made. His songs explored the lives of the city’s outcasts, dejected and desperate, at the same time finding a beauty in the gutter. Reed has inspired a generation of musicians, a surprising but lucky turn of events considering that The Velvet Underground’s first record only sold a few thousand copies in its early years.
Reed said of his music, “For most of what I do, the idea behind it was to try and bring a novelist’s eye to it.” This literary approach is evident in his songs. Lou’s reports from society’s fringes give us characters who are all looking for one type of fix or another, an existence the artist knew intimately but could still capture with an outsider’s eye. Central to his work is a mythic idea of New York, the city that serves as a backdrop for scenes of suffering and of desire. Reed’s strength as a lyricist lies in the way he described without offering judgment or an answer; although he excelled at teasing out a situation’s dramatic potential, he didn’t sensationalize his subjects and wrote songs that possess an explicit honesty.
Many of the most striking musical innovations of Reed’s career were made with The Velvet Underground, the band with which he pioneered a radically new sound and created the framework for the punk movement to come. In the era of folk and flower children, The Velvet Underground produced a music of nihilistic abandon; there’s a sense of true freedom in their experimentation as well as a grinning defiance. With fellow founding member John Cale and others in the band, Reed reveled in noise, delivering rock and roll to the unknown while introducing his own poetic sensibilities to the genre.
The Velvet Underground also inhabited a unique position between the worlds of music and art. Andy Warhol discovered the band in 1965, producing their debut album and providing its iconic cover artwork; he also pushed for the inclusion of Nico on the record. The environment of Warhol’s Factory fostered the band’s intense originality and pushing of boundaries. While the group severed ties with Warhol in 1967, their work from this period could not have existed without the artistic freedom offered by the scene. Following Warhol’s 1987 death, Reed and Cale reunited for the first time in years to record Songs for Drella, a tribute to their former collaborator and friend. Channeling Warhol’s voice, Reed sings: “‘You ought to make things big / people like it that way / and the songs with the dirty words, make sure you record them that way.’ / Andy liked to stir up trouble, he was funny that way.” Although their relationship was often filled with friction, the interactions between Warhol and The Velvet Underground fostered a period of incredible creativity.
Reed wasn’t afraid to address the taboo in his music, including drug use and subversive sexualities. His openness with these subjects was unprecedented, and came at a time when such transgressions held very high stakes. Reed was subject to electroshock treatments at age seventeen that were meant to “cure” his bisexuality; his later insistence on honesty in his songs provided a powerful counter to attempts at suppression. As a chronicler of the counterculture, Reed spoke out for those marginalized by society, paving the way for future rebellions within and beyond the world of music.
While the musical styles of Reed’s long career ranged from the spare to orchestral, Reed’s voice remained a constant throughout. Whether jaded and sarcastic (as in “Dirty Boulevard” and “The Gun”) or strung-out and vulnerable (“Oh, Jim”), his unpolished delivery fit the stories he told. As a deadpan but not disinvested narrator, Reed could supply both acid commentary and naked emotion. 1978’s sweeping Street Hassle shows both of these tones, as Reed moves from a romantic invocation of the past to bitter description of an overdose in the song’s “Bad Luck” monologue. Reed never shied from confronting despair in his work; instead, he made pain and its manifestation through voice the basis of his art. In an interview he said, “If you line the songs up and play them, you should be able to relate and not feel alone – I think it’s important that people don’t feel alone.” Offering solidarity at life’s lowest points, Reed’s songs have always achieved this goal.
Lou Reed was a musician who presented himself and his message unrepentantly, setting a powerful example of integrity and rebellion. His music responded to and interrogated its era while at same time often touching on something timeless. The defiant spirit that fills his work continues every time someone finds solace in his songs. Reed’s poetry and its shaky hope of redemption live on, and his voice will not be silenced.
It’s “Curtains” for Former Hip-hop Artist
Over screaming from the stage in the next room at Chicago’s iconic Fireside Bowl the musician known as Curtains says he was sick of hip-hop’s rigid rules, so he began a few years ago to experiment with a genre that would allow him to “explore what goes on in [his] head.” The first music he ever really listened to was hip-hop, when he was a preteen. But he knew even earlier that music was a part of what flowed through his veins. “In 5th Grade I asked my brother how to write a song, because I knew I had an idea.”
Lewis joined band in school and played clarinet and sax, but when he discovered his calling, it was “strictly hip-hop” for the next decade. From a middle school-er programming his own beats, he became a figure in the scene. As hip-hopper Crash, the Durham, North Carolina native began opening for the likes of P.O.S. and Buck 65. He dis some work on an album with the Jungle Brothers. He was no joke.
Then something inside of him changed. A darkness entered Crash that started to push against the traditionally positive energy of the hip-hop scene. “I was depressed, agoraphobic, working in kitchens.” He went back to being Dashiell Lewis from Durham and became obsessed with morbid, psychedelic rock and roll and began to make his own “weird, shadowy music” so repetitive it sounded dysfunctional.
It turned out this new, noisy and macabre style brought him back from the brink of a place much darker than the nature of his music, which made him want to try it out on his old friends. But, quite understandably, “people didn’t want to hear that stuff,” he says, so he holed up in his apartment and worked.
Lewis’ turn on Fireside’s stage comes up. He’s wearing hiking boots and jeans with a flannel tucked in. He looks a little all-American behind his glasses. And then he starts to play. The darkness begins to creep into his features, almost visible as a fog flowing out from him and rolling past crimson stage lights down into the crowd.
He plays as Curtains now with just his voice, a loop pedal and some little electronic boxes he keeps in a vintage suitcase. The songs are sad and drone-y. The sounds are distorted and crushed, blown out to a point where his voice doesn’t sound like his voice anymore.
The legacy of his hip-hop career is unmistakable as he uses his mouth to form sounds and effects and records them for loops. The loops become rhythms and blend together. Lewis uses machines to make more sounds and melodies in combinations that are sometimes quite beautiful. Over it all he sings in mournful tones that almost get lost in the loops, like a woman’s cries disappearing in the sound of crashing surf.
After the show, he’ll say there is a structure to the songs and to the entire set, but within it the freedom to let repetition become trance-inducing and cathartic. Although Lewis has been onstage hundreds of times, when he plays as Curtains, a period of anxiety precedes each show. The songs, he says, are incredibly personal, the results of obsessive and continual evaluation of his own psyche. “I always feel lighter, physically lighter, after I play,” Lewis says. “I’m not dark and angry anymore, because all of that gets deposited into music.”
Daft Punk’s Detached Celebrity
Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris
In a celebrity-obsessed world where faces make fortunes, Daft Punk, with their helmets reflecting such glassy, impenetrable depths, are famously anonymous. Their robot personas have been evolving and enchanting the masses since 2001, but the duo’s brief cameo in 2010’s “TRON: Legacy” elevated their visual branding to the realm of pop culture legend. Although by the film’s release it had already been intensely publicized that Thomas Bangalter (“the silver robot”) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo (“the gold robot”) had scored this sequel to the original 1982 film, their onscreen presence came as an Easter egg surprise. In a pivotal, tense party scene, their “faces” blend in seamlessly with the hyperstylized digital microcosm of the TRON-verse. Looking on in artfully designed light-up speed suits, they offer nothing more than what they do best: make music and ensure that the crowd is pumped.
Daft Punk’s helmets have now become international icons in their own right, so interestingly, the DJs’ presence in this onscreen fantasy world creates a link and an anchor back to the “real” world of the viewer; they are our only familiar signifiers of a well-known code. While both fitting in perfectly with their surroundings and sorely sticking out to the eye of the cultural savant, their cyborg personas allow them, as artists, to move between virtual and physical worlds, permanently residing in neither. It could be a statement on our increasing reliance on carefully constructed masks that we put on and take off, depending on the situation; a successful negotiation of our “digital” selves alongside our “analog” selves now marks our everyday interactions within both virtual and physical communities.
Identity negotiations aside, the robot guises act as a way for Daft Punk to both amplify the reach of their music and buffer the distracting effects of celebrity life. In a May 2013 Pitchfork interview, de Homem-Christo explains: “Looking at robots is not like looking at an idol … It’s not a human being, so it’s more like a mirror — the energy people send to the stage bounces back, and everyone has a good time together rather than focusing on us.” Their costumes act as physical armor to maintain the performers’ privacy (their actual faces and bodies) and keep everyone (performers and audience alike) focused on the art.
Unlike visual artists, whose works become physical “products” that are separate from their bodies, actors and musicians employ their bodies as their art. But, by utilizing costumes, Daft Punk offers a challenge to the idea that celebrity relies on a human form; they perpetuate their robot faces as visual objects interrelated to and inseparable from their music. The getups also act as symbols of the transitional field between men and music: the instruments. Robots are the intermediaries between machines and humans, technological tools that can become new instruments — transmitters for art — altogether.
As members of undeniably wired societies, we’ve finally caught up with what Daft Punk has been doing for years: shapeshifting, negotiating and negating the nature of our public faces. As artists, they have a long history of physically portraying the now culturally ingrained practice of utilizing avatars. We carefully craft and play out our social media, video game or blogosphere personas and seamlessly step into and out of hyperdigitized communities both virtual and real, relying on technological tools to act as buffers. Our digital selves have conformed to our physical selves, and vice versa, and all of the masks that we show the world have become the same guise. Perhaps that is why, at some unconscious level, the duo’s popularity continues to skyrocket out of an unassuming development: in stepping into the role of robots, they deny their audience the chance to see them as men but instead present themselves as intermediaries on a path to simply enjoying and experiencing music. By physically removing their real selves from their robot armor, by taking off the costumes at the end of the day and keeping their real faces carefully out of view, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo might be enjoying a luxury that is a new rarity: celebrity away from the public eye.
Review: Riot Fest Chicago 2013
“We may not be the prettiest festival, but we’ll totally sleep with you on the first date,” Riot Fest readily admits on their official website. And they’re right. Five stages, oh so many great bands and thousands of people jam packed Humboldt Park and rocked it to the ground for three straight days. Pure festival spirit fueled a music-beer-carnival wonderland, proving that punk is definitely not dead nor ever will be.
FLAG performing at RiotFest Chicago. All photographs courtesy of the RiotFest Facebook
Fall Out Boy, Blink 182, Pennywise, Public Enemy, Flag, Bad Religion, Rancid, The Violent Femmes, The Pixies and Blondie formed part of the extravagant lineup for Riot Fest’s ninth year, along with the long-awaited reunion of The Replacements. The park turned into a massive playground filled with rainbow mohawks, crazy tattoos and Ferris wheel rides. A childhood memory of a picnic on the grass was replaced by exotic food trucks and gallons of beer on tap.
Highlights for the year included Chicago’s very own Fall Out Boy, who monopolized attention partly because they partied with the Stanley Cup. Trashy 1960s pop-esque or not, Blondie and punk-is-very-much-alive diva Debbie Harry still had it. The same went for The Violent Femmes, who played their first album from start to finish for a crowd that happily danced down sweet memory lane. Age ain’t nothing but a number during these three days.
Insanely energetic Blink 182 rocked the stage in pop-punk mayhem like it was 1999. Was the irony of playing “What’s My Age Again?” too much to handle? Not for this trio who still remain teenagers at heart, and not for their fans, who exploded into a paroxysm of excitement. Once again, they proved that they’re punk royalty to a gaggle crowd-surfers, twisted ankles, panic attacks and bewildered fans who tried to scramble up security barriers. Things quickly turned into a not-so-beautiful mess when photographers had to run for their lives from a frenzy in the mosh pit that left several people injured and six hospitalized. “If someone falls, help them up. I shouldn’t have to tell you that!” Mark Hoppus admonished in a glimpse of maturity. For the sake of good old times, he invited groupies to a “make-out booth” under the Ferris wheel, where Travis Barker gave out French kisses to orifices of his choosing.
Mark Hoppus of Blink 182
”I now know what thousands of wet denim vests smell like” joked a member of the festival crew when the event proved its “rain or shine” commitment on the last day of the extravaganza. Festival-goers though, begged to differ. “I’m glad it’s raining. No one will be able to tell that I’m crying during The Replacements,” one fan gushed. “The difference between Riot Fest and every other festival is that when it rains, the only complaint people have is that their beer gets watered down,” another explained, and then promptly tweeted at the same time. They were absolutely determined not to let a little rain ruin their plans. “We had a heck of a weekend and are gonna have a wicked three day hangover!” squealed soaking wet but happy groupie. “Just know that it was beyond awesome. Wow Riot Fest! Thank you. And THANK YOU!”
If getting sweaty, dirty and exhausted is the formula for a successful gig, Riot Fest can relax again until next year. Mission accomplished.