Reviewed by John Brady
Wednesday, April 19 2000, 1:05 PM
Ten or so years ago one of the most dominant motifs in the discourse of popular music was geography. People talked about certain cities having specific sounds and scenes, and they ascribed to certain areas the almost mystical ability to foster cultural creativity and to churn out toe-tapping hits. The power of geography as a cultural frame of reference began to gather steam in the 1980s as musical critics during that decade christened places like Boston, Minneapolis and Athens as the origins of the next new mod sound. The trend's trajectory reached its apex when grunge broke and Seattle became the ground zero of all things new and cool in popular culture. In those heady, hype driven days, geography wasn't just a way to explain musical production and cultural creativity, geography was destiny. To be from Seattle meant you were 'in,' regardless of whether you could play your instruments or not.
Now any talk of cities and their scenes and sounds has a quaint ring to it. In the discourse of popular music and culture, geography as a motif has been eclipsed by technology. Today the talk is about whether the web and new digital technologies like mp3s will lead to a revolutionary shake-up in how popular music is made, distributed, listened to, and profited from. At a point in popular music when technology has made it not only easy to make but also to distribute music across the world, the advantages and/or limits of geography don't seem all that important anymore.
Which is why I find Olympia Washington to be continually fascinating. This little burg in the state of Washington is a cultural anomaly. In Olympia, geography seems still to really matter. While the cultural energy that briefly collected in other cities and areas has dissipated (Who really cares about Seattle anymore? Do people still know where Minneapolis even is? Quick, what city is Wicker Park in?), Olympia's cultural reserves remain surprisingly high. Not only has the area continued to produce an impressive number of new bands and performers, but the music itself continues to evolve and mutate into diverse and interesting forms.
Internal/External is a case in point. On Olympia's K Records, the album -- an entertaining blend of electronica, spoken word and noise -- represents the cultural vitality still to be found in this Northwestern small town. It is infused with the experimental, creative pop sensibility that is often associated with K and with Olympia generally. But while the album is rooted in Olympia's pop musical tradition, it is more than just vintage Olympia. It also demonstrates the ability of artists from the area to build upon the foundations of their tradition and expand their creative horizons.
Although in the electronica genre, many of the album's tracks were produced by Olympia musicians (Calvin Johnson, Kathleen Hanna, Slim Moon) who gained their cultural capital outside of the world of electronica in other areas of pop music -- punk, post-rock, lo-fi pop etc... Also noteworthy and indicative of the flexibility and mutability present in Olympia is the fact that Internal/External is a multi-generational effort, featuring representatives of both the old and the avant-garde in Olympia's international pop underground. As long as the artists and musicians in Olympia are able to maintain the collaborative relationships and sub-cultural institutions that foster musical experimentation and exploration of this sort, geography will still matter in their part of the pop cultural world.
Internal/External is a K Records release