Now Playing: bring that beat back w/billy jam (wfmu.org)
Topic: 2002 reviews (Jul.-Sep.)
[this review was originally posted to the BSOTS website...hmm, i wanna say mid-2002, somewhere around there. know this: as far as sound collages go, nothing tops this album. NOTHING. -jrs.]
I first got interested in sound collages listening to pieces like “Revolution #9” by The Beatles and Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. Eventually, it was Negativland that I would compare all others to – Escape From Noise, Helter Stupid, and the U2 EP did my head in. But now, even Negativland pales in comparison to the figure I’ll be studying for the rest of my life. His name is John Oswald.
Plunderphonics was first released in 1989. One glance at the cover photo (a doctored image of Michael Jackson as a naked white woman) should’ve made Oswald’s intentions clear – this man was on a mission to completely rearrange pop music. The rearrangement is twofold: not only taking a familiar song and severely altering its order, but to redefine what pop music is in general. Of course, most people (when they didn’t call it sacrilege) considered Oswald’s work the complete and total antithesis of pop. It’s not repetitive, the hook has been plucked away and thrown into the fire, and any commercial potential has gone the way of the dodo. Yet it’s still “pop” in a way – the songs’ origins remain recognizable. Not only that, but it’s done that way ON PURPOSE.
What he did to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” alone made the disc one of the most infamous releases in recorded history. And regardless of the fact that he never sold copies of the CD, regardless of the fact that he encouraged others to dub his album, Brian Robertson, then president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association (equal to the RIAA in the States), had the master tapes destroyed. I wouldn’t even be writing this review if Negativland hadn’t stepped in. Through “borrowing” the album from John Oswald, they’ve made it available to the public. GOD BLESS ‘EM.
The folks at Seeland went all out on the packaging. What started out as a single album is now a double-disc extravaganza, celebrating a quarter century of Oswald’s work. Disc One (Songs) features more voice-centered material while Disc Two (Tunes) is mostly instrumental work. The introduction to Plunderphonics, “btls,” is our gateway into an alternate universe. As the last resounding chord of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” transforms into the opening guitar chord from “A Hard Day’s Night,” we leave the realm of the rhythmically conventional and step into a place where there are no limits. This is quickly followed up by “power,” featuring an energetic preacher strategically placed over the music of Led Zeppelin. (The use of irony is one of Oswald’s stronger qualities.) Recorded in 1975, some call “power” the first rap song, a claim that is certainly debatable, to say the very least. Further audio operations are performed on The Doors, Elvis Presley, Edie Brickell, Madonna, Prince, Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the themes to 2001 and Andy Griffith, and countless others.
One of the most engaging tracks is “vane,” where Oswald takes Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and painstakingly splices in sections of a cover version by Faster Pussycat. The end result is a playful tradeoff, often in the middle of sentences. “black” and “brown” relish various characteristics of James Brown’s music. Strict attention is paid to the forceful punctuation of the horn section or James’s trademark grunts and squeals. On 1988’s “pretender,” Dolly Parton’s rendition of “The Great Pretender” is decelerated to the point of where it sounds as if the buxom country star has undergone a sex change.
A examination of Plunderphonics is incomplete without mentioning “dab.” This is Oswald at his most meticulous, reshaping Michael Jackson’s “Bad” into a seven-minute climax of noise. Listening to “dab” is like watching a solid object explode in a confined area and witnessing the fragments collide with each other, providing they aren’t already stuck to the walls. From the opening clicks of Jackson’s speech to the closing clicks of the same, “dab” is a masterful exercise in sound manipulation. Oswald had hoped that Jackson would be flattered by it, and it’s been rumored that Michael did find the cut amusing, but no one can say for sure. The only assumption that can be safely made is that Jackson’s lawyers weren’t laughing at all.
This retrospective contains over 60 tracks, each one bearing an anagram of the artist’s name it plunders. So Led Zeppelin becomes Deep Zen Pill, Jim Morrison is Sir Jim Moron, Pizzicato Five is Taco Pizza Five, Ludwig Van Beethoven is Devil Gun Won’t Behave, and so forth. The package also features a lengthy print interview with John Oswald discussing the creative process, the legal fiasco that ensued over “dab,” and his own philosophies on music. Photo collages and other pictures accompany the interview. Anyone interested in experimental works shouldn’t miss this release – 69 Plunderphonics 96 is the Holy Grail of sound collage projects. Seeing as how the entire project is comprised of 100% unauthorized samples, it would be wise to secure a copy before it disappears again.
*check out samples and purchase tracks through emusic.com.