Fall 2001 Releases

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Electronica is interesting for sure. Culturally valuable, too. But political? I wonder.

Electric Company and Donnacha Costello

Reviewed by John Brady

Sunday, June 9 2002, 5:04 PM


Electric Company: 62-56

Electric Company: Greatest Hits

Donnacha Costello: Together is The New Alone

Starting in the 1990s, Mille Plateaux, the German electronica and experimental music label, began to release electronica compilations under the series title Electric Ladyland. Each release in the series was also subtitled "electronic soul for rebels," a fact I always found both funny and slightly absurd. Funny and absurd because electronica's stock and trade -- wordless soundscapes built around machine generated beats and samples -- seems anything but rebellious and soulful. True, defenders of the genre often argue that by presenting new sounds combined in inventive, unfamiliar ways the music is inherently political (and, yes, even rebellious) since it helps individuals learn new ways of listening and experiencing the world. But many things can serve as a catalyst for a new aural experience of the world. Simply hearing an unfamiliar voice expands one's sonic horizons. But would we call that political? Doubtful. Along these lines, subscribing political and rebellious content to electronica simply because it introduces us to innovative sounds combined in strange ways seems suspect as well. Indeed, to make such a claim stretches the meaning of the terms political and rebellion beyond coherence. Electronica is interesting for sure. Culturally valuable, too. But political? I wonder.

The application of soulful seems even more misplaced. The music is stripped of everything we commonly associate with soul: the heartfelt expression of emotion, the exuberance and joy of soul's beat, the states of feeling either heightened by lyrics about love gained or tempered by stories of love lost, and the easy and direct expression of desire. By contrast electronica, especially experimental electronica, wraps itself in something like an emotional cotton batting, muting any expression of obvious human feeling and desire. What's more, electronica producers tend to disappear behind a sometimes very long chain of pseudonyms. Unlike in soul, where the listener has a chance to identify with the artist and thus heighten the music's impact, electronica constantly frustrates such identification and, by extension, the communication of desire, love, and pain between music producer and music consumer.

I was reminded of Mille Plateaux's subtitle while listening to these records. Specifically I thought about electronica as soul music and the musical expression of desire. Whereas much of soul, and indeed rock and roll, is directly about desire, these releases conspicuously lack it. What do these artists want, I wondered as I listened to these records? What do they secretly and not so secretly wish for? What might motivate their desire? Lust? Fear? The longing for companionship? I don't know. And I don't know if it can be known. These records are too cool. Cool like cold like impersonal like without feeling like lacking affect. Cool, like a corpse. And cool like the attitude of practiced indifference and political and social nonchalance that people commonly associate with the urban hip from the overdeveloped North.

Which isn't to say that these are bad records. Musically, they're quite fine. Electric Company's 62-56 could have been subtitled "Variations on Moodiness." Each understated track draws from the same palette of emotional hues and all seem to sulk out of the speaker to present their bits of electronic noise backed by disjointed beats. Spooky string samples augment the release's general gloominess. Greatest Hits offers a bit more variety. This compilation presents a collection of international artists who combine the various conventions of the experimental electronica genre -- sonic fragments, heavily filtered samples of everyday noise that demand and simultaneously resist deciphering, loops of beats -- to rather unconventional effect. Fragmentary and non-linear, the tracks have less the feelings of traditional songs and more that of auditory collages held together more by the cyclic repetition of noise than by harmony or melodic lines. Donnacha Costello's album is marked by fragility and loneliness, from the album's title to the tracks themselves, which are haunting, beautiful combinations of ringing ambient harmonies and glitchy hisses and pops. This juxtaposition of the delicate and ethereal and the deliberately flawed and distorted lends Costello's tracks a greater depth and more compelling effect than the songs on the other albums, despite their more complex structures and greater pretensions to artistry.

So amidst all the cool perhaps there is some soul? All three albums do invoke certain feelings and emotional states such as the dystopian pessimism and dread suggested by the fractured and noisy tracks on 62-56 and Greatest Hits or the somber mien suggested by Costello's glitchy, drowsy compositions. But it remains such a formal soul. In a recent review of the Whitney Biennial in the New York Times (31 March 2002), Roberta Smith accused the show's various artists of being scared of form. To her mind, the artists' creations lacked a transformative effect; they failed to alter "materials and subjects into something beyond themselves, something new and strange or wonderful to experience, something that expands our understanding of a medium, something whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts." The musicians here have no such fear. They combine the individual parts of electronica into tracks that are new and strange and (sometimes even) wonderful. Instead, what they fear is content. The feelings that are there lack any referent in everyday life. They're expressed without any context or without a hint of explanation that the listener could grapple with. And there is no desire that the listener could find exciting or compelling.

A variety of anti-Romanticism/anti-idealism is on display here. Instead of protesting against the perceived artificiality and superficiality of society with a forceful and earnest display of authentic feelings and programmatic calls for reform (as punk at its most Romantic and idealistic did and still does), this music withdraws into emotional and moral ambiguity, refusing to say what it wants or how things might be better. With Romanticism and idealism the danger is co-optation: one day you wake up to find the emotional states you worked so hard on to express and the ideas for social betterment you crafted with such care harnessed to sell cars or mouthed by politicians in diluted form. With these records, the danger is irrelevance and triviality. By giving listeners little to hold onto besides technically savvy manipulations of sound, these musicians risk that they will simply tune out after a while or simply employ the music as background accompaniment while they putter around fulfilling the tasks thrown in their path by modern life.

Electric Company releases are available from Tigerbeat6. Donachella Costello's Together is The New Alone is available from Mille Plateaux 

Copyright © 2002 by John Brady. All rights reserved.
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