14/07/20 This week I have been mostly listening to…

Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica (2011). Oneohtrix Point Never is probably my most ‘ignored’ electronic artist of the last decade. Universally lauded, he seems to be held in very high regard wherever I turn online. I tried to listen to a couple of tracks some years ago to see what all the fuss was about but nothing grabbed me so I instantly gave up. Recently, I decided to give Daniel Lopatin (as he is otherwise known) another go, following the recommendation of a friend, made on the basis that I was listening to Actress – another artist whose music took a long time to click with me. 

Replica seemed as good a place as any to start, and being a relatively short album at just over 40 mins, it’s been easy to play it repeatedly over the last few weeks.

Much like Actress, OPN deals in textures: the graininess, smoothness or softness of sounds, rather than such basic notions as beats or melody. And much like Actress, it feels like this should be described as ‘post’ something. But whereas Actress is influenced by club-based genres like Techno, House and Garage, OPN feels completely removed from any sort of physicality, into the realms of pure abstraction. 

Music of many different stripes is often described in terms of being a collage, but in this case I think it’s an appropriate analogy. The tracks on Replica are like moodboards – deceptively simple in their composition: with several short samples cut up and overlaid upon one another to create ten distinct but internally coherent little micro-movements. 

In contrast to sample-pioneer, DJ Shadow (and legions of others), the source material doesn’t sound like it came from hours spent digging the crates of backstreet record shops, but rather, the hard drive of a PC dredged up from 1999, or the memory of a cheap 80s Casio keyboard. The flat sounding pianos, robotic oohs and ahs, and choral synth pads are highly reminiscent of the stock sounds of early home computers – the dings and alerts and chimes of Windows 3.1. On some of the more maddening loop-based tracks you feel like you’ve become trapped inside a defunct computer program, forever doomed to wander a library of stock clip-art images. 

Trapped inside Windows

This kind of tech-inspired short-term nostalgia could be kitsch or gimmicky but it isn’t. In the same way that Boards of Canada use samples and a microscopic focus on texture to trigger buried (or even non-existent) memories, OPN burrows into dormant associations in the psyche. But unlike Boards of Canada, which for me feels intrinsically like ‘outdoor music’, evocative of nature and our place within the environment, this is ‘indoor music’ evocative of internal and artificial worlds. At times claustrophobic and confounding, but also deeply compelling.

Low – Ones and Sixes (2015). The Alex Garland-directed TV drama DEVS, which is part sci-fi, part espionage thriller and part undergrad philosophy thought experiment, has featured some incongruous tracks (in addition to an original soundtrack by Ben Salisbury) as the emotional backdrop to scenes played out in a wooded Silicon Valley tech utopia (or dystopia). Free, Crosby Stills and Nash… and Low (full disclosure: all of which I had to Shazam). The Low track, Congregation, was the most surprising Shazam result as it sounded so different to the only Low album I’m familiar with, Long Division. 

Apparently they’ve developed their sound somewhat in the 20 years between that album and Ones and Sixes, from which Congregation is taken. By and large, I am a staunch adherent of the ‘I prefer their early work’ school of thought but on first couple of listens, I’ve found this album much more engaging than the sparse, sombre, country-music-played-at-1/8th-speed slowcore of Long Division.

Make no mistake, Ones and Sixes is still largely sparse and sombre, and the tempo rarely gets above leaden – think of someone trudging their final doomed steps to the gallows. But Low have built some electronic textures and beats into their sound, which don’t detract at all from their minimal aesthetic, instead complimenting the haunting and tense atmosphere. I’ve only listened to this album a couple of times all the way through, so I haven’t delved fully into the lyrics yet – though it seems the subject matter is generally heavy stuff. And I won’t even get into the fact of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker being practising Mormons or the fact that Alan Sparhawk supposedly became convinced he was Satan while playing a gig a few years ago (citation required).

Low, from Duluth Minnesota

But among all the funereal drums, insinuations of judgement day and redemption, is a collection of beautifully written songs. Not exactly pop (well, definitely not pop) but compelling and memorable songs freighted with meaning. 

And finally, this is kind of an obvious comparison but I have to make it as they are both trios with a husband and wife duo sharing vocal harmonies – imagine Yo la Tengo, but darker, slower, and more….righteous. 

Garbage – Version 2.0 (1998). Listening to this album on a train journey heading back home to London recently was a real trip down memory lane. Despite owning their first two albums on compact disc, Garbage were never a band I was ‘seriously’ into, nor one I continued to listen often to after about 2001. So it came as something of a surprise when I found I knew every song on Version 2.0 pretty much inside out. 

Garbage were one of those bands that always felt to me more like a ‘project’ than a band – something dreamed up in the minds of record execs and music journalists – a way to combine magnetic frontwoman Shirley Manson, who was the living embodiment of a 90s ‘rock chick’ with production maestro Butch Vig, who was responsible for the sound of era-defining records by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins et al. To be honest, I don’t know if Garbage formed organically, or if they were assembled, but an album like Version 2.0 certainly sounds like it was the outcome of a production process. 

Garbage, nineties band

Produced to within an inch of its life, the album positively glistens with a pre-Y2K sheen. The dirgey guitars of Garbage’s debut album are still there, bolstered by burbling keyboards and breakbeat samples – a dilution of the sounds of acts like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy who were enjoying massive crossover success at the time. The lyrics too are perfectly engineered for the target audience (i.e. teenagers), with Shirely Manson playing roles alternately angsty or femme fatale, or a combination of both; with plenty of lightly veiled references to drugs, sex and the perils of excess. But from the grunge-lite of I Think I’m Paranoid, to the emotionally downbeat Medication, to the raucous swagger of Wicked Ways, every track is a pop gem.

So whether it’s a record exec’s wet dream, or a teenager’s wet dream I dunno…But for a slice of pure late 90s pre-millenium tension zeitgeist you can’t go wrong.  

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