Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Go! Team and Samiam with needles in the red

Just downloaded The Go! Team's album Thunder, Lightning, Strike, and I can't stop listening to it. Am I the last person to hear about this? Is this blog entry gonna date me, like, two years and twenty hipster credibility points? It's an unexpected, addictive little album, purely and painfully anthemic. This isn't music that makes you lock yourself up and contemplate... this is soundtrack music, stimulating enough that the stimulation seeps into the rest of your activities. Some music turns you inward -- The Go! Team, playing remixed superhero disco anthems with middle school chants, turns you outward and gets into the rest of the world through you.

The album has a nostalgia about it. Now, I personally have an aversion to things that are self-consciously nostalgic, just like I have issues with "retro" and "kitsch." It's a neophilic instinct, not wanting to assume that people used to do things better, or be better off, than we are today. I have a theory that such nostalgic assumptions are a bad mental habit that we've picked up as we've filled out our cultural memory, and I assert myself as an idealist and a progressivist who thinks things are getting better in the long run, or if they're not, at least they're not getting worse.

Still, there's something to be said for feeling like a part of a long history, even if I wasn't around to appreciate most of that history. Thunder, Lightning, Strike invokes a Brooklyn of the 70's, with afro-haired disco queens and kids in bell-bottoms on street corners. You get the same nostalgia when you see a fire hydrant broken open in Harlem... it still happens, but it's an icon of an earlier time. I'm telling you, I wasn't even there for any of this. I was born in '82. Still, media has turned us all into time-traveling immortals, and just as I've seen Colonial Williamsburg on school trips, I've also seen life in the '70s through movies like The Warriors.

One of the ways The Go! Team manages this kind of nostalgia -- besides using basically all the raw elements of music from the '70's, including melodies, riffs, samples, and instrumentation -- is to record and produce their album with a lo-fi texture. Pitchfork Magazine mentioned this in their review of the United States release... they called it "needle-in-the-red sensibilities." It's the mark of authenticity in lo-fi recording, the testament that somebody recorded on an 8-track and had to fiddle with Radio Shack wires, instead of paying tons of record company cash to waltz into an outfitted studio.

There's something funny about this device, though. These days, recording and remastering equipment is so cheap and available that there never needs to be a drop in recording quality. It's a form of fakery, making your sound buzzy so it fits into an older aesthetic. I'm tempted to say, though, that in the 70's and 80's, when this aesthetic was unavoidable, it wasn't harnessed or respected by these artists. It's made the transition from inevitability to novelty. So what is it contributing? Why did somebody make the creative decision to create an album with crappier fidelity?

There's another album I've listened to recently that harnessed the power of crappy recording. Samiam, a California post-hardcore band that was breaking emo ground back in the early '90's, has created a lot of very pretty, well-produced albums. They've been awesome, due purely to the band's talent and songwriting skills. You won't find a more profound dynamic anywhere in punk-influenced music.

But Samiam's last album, Whatever's Got You Down, wasn't studio-polished. The vocals were guttural and clumsy, and the instruments were muddy and loose. Some fans took offense at this. Why make your music sound like crap? You can make gorgeous sounds without stomping on it and running sandpaper over it.

Of course, I'm going to vigorously defend both of these stylistic choices. What I'd like to note is that these two bands both had reasons for their stylistic treatment, although these decisions were probably very different.

The Go! Team was definitely trying for nostalgia. The gritty texture is a way of turning CD's and digital audio back into magnetic tape, at least in some small way. The music isn't trying to break brand new innovative ground, or if it is, it's trying to do so through retreival of an aesthetic that's slipped out of style.

Samiam's situation is a little different... they come from an intersection of scene with a love-hate relationship with accessibility. Punk rock has always wanted to be "pop" in certain ways: simple, short, enjoyable, visceral, and driven by hooks and songwriting. In others, the DIY music scene has actively distanced itself from pop in favor of "artistry": they don't want to be mass-produced, limited by market concerns, or forced into legal and economic subservience to their merchandise and their distributors. Samiam has always been smart and independent, but like all good punks, their flirtation with "accessibility" has been intermittent. The lo-fi sound on Whatever's Got You Down was an assertion of the band's creative license in the face of pressures to post-produce, remix, and polish their sound for the hi-fi synthpop crowd.

In both cases, though, the sound quality was a statement, an active part of the sound rather than a passive barrier to be ignored or overcome. As with a lot of media phenomena, this goes back to Marshall McLuhan, the godfather of media studies. He noted that a medium tends to be transparent until it's replaced and made obselete, at which point it becomes an object of attention and a factor in the content. Digital audio and hi-fi recording has basically replaced the ticks and quirks of analog production, and finally, after fighting those crackles and pops since the days of the phonograph, we've finally come to a point where they're part of the language we have at our disposal.

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