11/06/20 This week I have been mostly listening to

To Rococo Rot – The Amamtuer View (1999). I was prompted to listen to To Rococo Rot while reading Paul Morley’s book, Words and Music. It’s an intriguing, informative yet also maddeningly frustrating book, which I won’t go into detail on here. Apart from to say it seems to be part autobiography and part potted history of music, which he attempts to achieve by connecting the many dots between his ‘two favourite pieces of music’, Alvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which I guess in 2003 when the book was published, was the pinnacle of pop perfection (and arguably still is).

Anway, there are myriad musical bit characters and digressions and lists and lists of lists, and To Rococo Rot are one of many names that crop up incidentally. They sparked recognition, as a name I had always remembered from my early days of reading NME and Melody Maker years ago, where they featured as some ‘new artists to watch’. But in all that time I’ve never listened to their music. 

If I was going for a lazy music journalists’ x meets x formula, I would describe their sound as Tortoise meets Mouse on Mars. I have a lot of appreciation for Mouse on Mars (more on that below) though Tortoise were another band I always felt I ought to like but could never get into. To Rococo Rot successfuly blur the boundary between ‘live band music’ (or whatever) and electronic music. The fizzing and crackling electronics reminiscent of Mouse on Mars are present, but things proceed at a stately and refined pace more befitting a post-rock band, with none of the madcap freewheeling improvisations and explosions of static you find on a MoM record.

Identifying which elements of any given track are electronically generated, played on an instrument (whether guitar, percussion, brass, etc) or a hybrid of both is practically impossible. Rather than the sounds and textures, The Amateur View borrows the very structural bones from a range of musical styles: krautrock, jazz, post-rock, dub and more and rearranges them into a new configuration that sounds simultaneously homely and unusual. Unobtrusive but intriguing. 

On paper, the influences and markers – post-rock, avant garde jazz, a particular brand of German formalism – could imply this is seriously weighty and dour music. To be enjoyed while firmly seated, sipping on some forbiddingly bitter digestif. But that is far from the case. While this is most definitely thoughtful electronic music for home listening, it’s also highly accessible and easy on the ear. Fans of Four Tet, Mouse on Mars, Tortoise and that once ubiquitous late 90s Ninjatune downbeat jazz trip-hop sound will find much to enjoy.

Mouse on Mars – Niun Niggung (1999). Listening to To Rococo Rot reminded more than anything of Mouse on Mars and how it was probably time to dig into another album from their extensive discography. I’m definitely not alone in considering Autoditaker a classic of late 90s squiggly electronica, bringing a much needed sense of playfulness and European zaniness to what can be an austere and serious genre.

In my previous exploration I’d proceeded forwards in their discography to Idiology, which is a much harder-edged album – still playful but full of overblow distortion and power-crunch. I’d then gone backwards to Iaroa Tahiti, which is in the same vein as Autoditaker, though maybe a little rougher round the edges. So the seemingly nonsensically titled Niun Niggung seemed like the next logical step. 

When faced with a constantly overwhelming range of musical choice (especially with much of it being instantly available to stream), which only grows as one discovers more and more artists, it helps to artificially narrow down one’s options. This is what I’ve tried to do in recent months, prescribing myself a short list (i.e. a few dozen) of albums to focus on rather than trawling through either my ever growing ‘collection’ or the entirety of recorded human music every time I want to put something on. So in the last couple of weeks, Niun Niggung and The Amatuer View have been in heavy rotation, largely as my soundtrack for working at home. 

Even though I’ve listened to this album at least four times, because my days are so uniform at the moment and the listening environment almost completely unchanged, it’s actually not made a huge impression on me. This is more the fault of my lack of attendance than album’s, which is easily as good as any other MoM album – all of which are great. Mouse on Mars are a band with a unique sound and style; in the same vein as countrymen  Kraftwerk, even though their music is richly electronic, it always sounds like it is being played by a band of musicians, rather than programmed or generated by software.

I know that at some point during their career, Mouse on Mars recruited a live human drummer, though my research tells me it was after Niun Niggung. Either way, their music has always had that live, organic, semi-improvised feeling which differentiates it from the hordes of electronic whizz-kids. Highly recommended.

Kid606 – Lost in the Game (2012). Kid606 was a big part of my early forays into electronic music; that phase of rampant exploration and experiencing music that literally changed my idea of what music could sound like. No matter how many artists and styles I might find, or whatever new genres are forged at the cutting edge today, nothing will ever sound as completely mind-boggling and unexpected as those first discoveries. 

I think my first taste of Kid606 was on the John Peel show, which I would listen to with the stereo pushed right beside my bed and the volume turned down very low, so as not to wake my parents sleeping in the next room. Kid606 played a set of ragga/jungle/breakcore/mashups, and bearing in mind at the time the closest thing I had heard to any of those styles was big-beat stuff like the Prodge and Chemical Brothers and maybe a bit of vicarious d’n’b or garage here and there, this sounded like music, squared. I had to get me some more of this shit. 

Kid606’s 2000 album, Down With the Scene, rarely left my discman around the time I was 16 to 17, and though I rarely listen to it now, it will always hold a place as one of my all time favourite albums. The word ‘punk’ is often used in reference to Kid606, (in attitude and aesthetic rather than sound) and nowhere is this more apt than on Down With the Scene. The sound of conventions literally being smashed to bits in an explosion of digital noise, fearless experimentalism and just the sound of a young gifted artist using new tools, not to make music that subscribes to some kind of formula or tradition but using music as a form of pure play. 

Anyway, maybe some other time I could carry on waxing lyrical about Down With the Scene. My musical tastes matured (mellowed, broadened, whatever) as most people’s do, as did Kid606’s music, though despite my early love I didn’t slavishly follow his entire recorded output. And despite having 10 albums credited to Miguel de Pedro in my collection, his prolificness outpaced my ability and inclination to properly keep track of what he was up to. It’s always worth checking back in with chameleonic artists like Kid606 though, and I half remembered reading that Lost in the Game was not a return to form as such, but at least a well-accomplished album.

So this turned out to be an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. This long into his career, Kid606 could probably turn his hands to any style (and indeed he has), but never has his music sounded so…professional. Polished, crisp, well-rounded. Even his early ambient albums were glitchy and full of spiky digital clicks and pops of static. Lost in the Game is all rounded edges: big shoegazey Ulrich Schnauss-style synth pads and muted downtempo beats.

It would be easy to look at this album as a way of the bratty, upstart wunderkind saying ‘look at me, I’m grown up now’. But I think the Kid had long since grown up anyway – the wistful ambient track at the end of 2003’s Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You was pointedly titled ‘Parenthood’. Like the best Postmodern art, much of Kid606’s music is a collage, a smashing together of existing styles and pop culture references in a riotous celebration that disregards the distinction between so called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ art. (No more is this in evidence than the copyright pillaging mash up album: the Action Packed Mentalist Brings you the Fucking Jams).

Though there is nary a sample to be found on Lost in the Game (no pilfered hip-hop or rave shout outs, no amens, no sirens, no 80s pop divas) it feels like a homage (a eulogy almost) to modern rave/dance music, from someone who’s been around a long time, someone who’s experienced the highs and lows. The melodies are epic but everything is tinged with melancholy (as most of the best rave music is anyway) – the beats are on the downtempo side, leaning heavily into influences from dubstep, trap and contemporary hip-hop. To be honest, I could imagine if these tracks were given lyrics by someone like Rihanana or Drake this would sound very much like a mainstream pop album.

Great to see that although he’s matured, Kid606 hasn’t lost his sense of humour – witness some of the album’s track titles: Godspeed you African American Emperor, Big Black Ketamine Jesus, I want to join a cult, and then later: I need to start a cult. On a final side note, when I started listening to this album, I assumed I was only a few years out of date, and was then shocked to discover this actually came out in 2012 (hence the African Amercian Emperor perhaps referring to Barack Obama). Seems I have been lost in the game for too long myself.

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