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Monday, 26 July 2004
pop rocks (or "to hell with being hipper-than-thou")
Now Playing: Lady Man - Viagra Opus [theAgriculture]
Topic: music appreciation

?The records we?ve always loved were doing something culturally massive. We would love to bring [our label] into the mainstream. Are we doing something so much odder than Outkast? No. You know, people always say that good music cannot be successful and that?s a load of sh*t?we figure, we all have to listen to the radio, why not let our team win? I?m being an optimist. The day I stop believing this, then, I have a depressing A&R job.?

- James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records, ?Sup Magazine, Issue 13, Summer 2004

Reading James Murphy?s sentiments about music did my head in the other week. In the midst of the oh-so-hip attitudes of the underground, this guy unabashedly embraces pop music. Keep in mind that the DFA label is responsible for some of the most exciting music being released at the moment. It?s this wild mixture of punk ethics alongside danceable grooves. It?s rock music for rump shakers, an odd musical mutt that features blistering guitars rubbing up against funky bass lines, frenzied percussion and syncopated hand claps. It?s uncompromising and hard-hitting, but there?s something undeniably catchy in its song structure. I can hear it in the work of bands like The Rapture, The Juan Maclean, !!!, and others. The way that they rock so funky can be traced back to bands that were doing their thing in the late ?70s-early ?80s like ESG and Liquid Liquid. I am completely fascinated with this sound at the moment, and have been marveling at the idea of punk bands that wanted to move butts, that didn?t mind creating a locked groove through organic means.

A cat like Murphy amazes me. When you listen to the label?s output and read an interview like the one in ?Sup Magazine, it?s clear that he?s not trying to clutter an already oversaturated music industry. He is committed to making quality music, and DFA?s definitely doing that. At the same time, he is not solely doing things for a certain market. He is open to the possibilities of a larger listening public. He even tried working with Britney recently, but the sessions didn?t go well (apparently, Ms. Spears digs The Rapture). And again, he?s not trying to dilute the airwaves; plenty of other production companies and music imprints do that already.

I find that those within the under can?t even front on a lot of sounds being flaunted by the corporate signals, and Britney?s a prime example. I?ve seen people wear the ?Spear Britney? T-shirt, but I know several hard techno heads that are feelin? her song, ?Toxic.? I?ll never forget the first time I saw the video for ?Boys.? That was the day I learned that there?s so shame in Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo?s game: The Neptunes will work with anyone. It was bad enough that the choreography was straight out of the video for Janet Jackson?s ?Nasty.? Pharrell is perhaps the poster boy for overexposure (even more so than Diddy at his peak), but I can?t front on him. Alongside Chad, they have laced many an artist with a damned catchy beat. Is it any wonder that so many of us find ourselves listening to certain artists that we swore we despised? Once The Neptunes work their magic, the obligatory head nod session will ensue soon after.

They may work with a host of R&B folks and rap cats, but let?s face it?Pharrell and Chad are as pop as Jiffy, and they?re workin? that angle for all it?s worth. They can drive me nuts at times regarding who they work with, but never cease to pleasantly surprise me with a certain production or remix job. Ever hear their remixes for Sade?s ?By Your Side,? Daft Punk?s ?Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger? or Air?s ?Don?t Be Light?? Off the meter. It was their N*E*R*D project that made me first pay attention to them. I thought In Search Of? was going to be the Stankonia of 2002 and the album that brought black psychedelic pop back to the consciousness of the masses, but it didn?t quite work out that way.

One of my constant musical inspirations is Prince, who obviously knows something about crafting a great pop tune. Andre 3000 has certainly been taking notes over the years because ?Hey Ya!? was a monster. Both Outkast and Prince are perfect examples of good music being able to be successful. Both have also been able to freak the pop aesthetic and make it an integral part of their respective takes on music. Pop doesn?t have to be a bad thing. It can be catchy while not insulting your intelligence. I immediately think of three acts from the alternative rock landscape in that regard: The Cardigans, Stereolab, and Cornelius. All three have been able to work within a pop context and not become watered down in the process. The Cardigans have even performed sweet and sugary interpretations of Black Sabbath songs. Listening to Cornelius can be quite the genrecidal experience, but one constant always remains: his undying love for The Beach Boys and The Beatles (two ensembles that arguably drafted the blueprints for creating the quintessential pop tune). His vocal harmonies are lessons learned from the school of Brian Wilson. And Stereolab?I don?t know where to begin with them. They can convey a world of emotion with songs centered around two or three chords. Between the strum of the guitars, the occasional accompaniment of a brass section, and heavenly vocal harmonies, Stereolab represents everything enjoyable about pop music.

As of late, I?ve been obsessing over a pair of electronic music artists: Matthew Dear and Junior Boys. Dear has been touted as one to watch by a number of underground dance publications and he totally lives up to the hype. He has recorded a number of minimal techno singles under his own name as well as songs under two different monikers (Jabberjaw for the Perlon label and False for +8). Recently he has taken a turn towards vocal pop material and the results have been extraordinary. His debut album Leave Luck To Heaven includes several of these works, the most infectious of which is the lead-off single, ?Dog Days.? What amazes me about the track is how accessible it is without losing its underground integrity. It is a musical halfway point between techno and house with a repeated four-bar vocal chorus. Take that chorus out and it wouldn?t be the same ? it?s so necessary to the success of the track. To say that Matthew Dear is in a zone would be an understatement. Only a few months after the release of his debut album, the Backstroke mini-LP came out this month, featuring more vocal heavy work. It has quickly become a favorite of mine. As for Junior Boys, their album Last Exit came out about two months ago. I?ve only heard snippets from two songs released as singles, but my curiosity is peaked. Try to envision what would happen if an urban contemporary/hip-hop producer invited an ?80s synth pop outfit to their studio. In other words: Timbaland meets Depeche Mode. Yes. Seriously. FOR REAL.

All of these acts can be successful if given the right exposure. Good music deserves to be heard by as many as possible, no matter where it?s coming from. It?s funny how so many of us that support obscure artists tend to get upset when mainstream success comes their way. We?ve been known to turn our backs on them altogether. I can remember when Fishbone started getting more exposure. It was somewhere during the release of The Reality of My Surroundings, circa 1990 or so. They were a musical guest on Saturday Night Live and had made an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. Part of me was happy for them, but another part of me wondered what the hell was going on. Why is it that when others come to know what some already know about a certain artist (particularly one with mad talent and limited exposure), the first question that the informed want to ask is ?Where have you been??

I?ve been guilty of asking that question on many an occasion and then some. I would even go so far as to call people ?musically ignorant,? back during a time when I didn?t know half as much about music as I do now. I once hosted a college radio show in this condition, which means that I have an entire listening audience to apologize to. I can?t speak for others with their ears to the underground, but as for myself, there was this selfish part of me that always wanted to keep the music to myself. It?s as if I didn?t trust too many people having it at once because if that happened, there was a greater chance of the sound becoming tainted to mainstream influence. So I always wanted to make clear distinctions between the underground and the commercial, but the lines have seriously blurred over the past ten years. And I?ve come to realize that if I really love an artist, I won?t penalize them by keeping how great they are to myself. Now I want the world to know what awaits them underground. It?s like James Murphy said in that interview: ??why not let our team win??

I?m starting to think that being hip takes far too much effort. I am tragically un-hip. I?m too excited about music to have a ?cooler-than-thou? attitude about it. I want to run out and tell as many people as possible that the antidote for cluttered airwaves does exist, contrary to popular opinion. So for someone just coming into the knowledge about some leftfield sounds that I may have known about for a while, the question isn?t ?Where have you been?? If anything, I should ask them, ?Aren?t you glad you?re here??

Posted by macedonia at 2:14 PM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 10 August 2004 10:46 AM EDT
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