too much typing—since 2003


we've secretly replaced your regular instruments with Folger's Freezedried MIDI instruments...

I'm not sure why, within a year or so of one another, two acts (both of whom normally use a lot of conventional instruments) decided it would be a good idea to release CDs whose instrumentation was almost entirely made up of blatantly synthetic MIDI-based orchestrations . . . but they did. What's interesting to me is what aspects of their music came through regardless, and how the new (for them) textures altered that music.

First up was Sparks with 2002's Lil' Beethoven, on which the Mael brothers seemed to jettison nearly everything one had associated with their music (Russell Mael's stratospheric vocals, tunefulness...hell, for all I know, Ron Mael shaved off his mustache) except their bizarre, conceptual, sometimes snarky wit. The opening track, "The Rhythm Thief," is an example: while the entire album features almost no "beats" in the hip-hop sense, it's also almost entirely rhythmic, being structured primarily around repetitive lyrical, vocal, and chordal motifs. And if the joke seems a bit obvious and hammered-over-the-head, well, the next track is called "How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?" and, yes, it elaborates (slightly) on the joke which, astonishingly, is several centuries older than Carnegie Hall itself. In other words, although the sound is utterly different from any earlier model of Sparks, the lyrics make these songs instantly recognizable as a Sparks product. The music's evocation of furrowed-brow cello-sawing and ponderous choral emoting is nicely undercut by its artificiality and absurd lyrics, while constituting its own species of slightly out-of-phase joke.

A year or so later, Dan Bejar's Destroyer released Your Blues which - in the manner of most Destroyer albums - pretty thoroughly confounded previous expectations of what a Destroyer record would sound like. I don't know the history of this CD's recording, whether Bejar always intended it would come out like this or whether these were home demoes that he decided better conveyed what the songs were about - but there's a peculiar tension between the gestured-at lush orchestration and the distancing sonic similarity of almost all the sounds coming from a single source that, at least, compels attention. Of course, Bejar's a distinctive writer, both lyrically and compositionally - and it's fairly easy to imagine these songs re-scored for previous, more conventional configurations of Destroyer (in fact, a handful of tracks were redone with the band Frog Eyes as backup, and released as an EP earlier this year). In other words, they still sound like Destroyer songs, if perhaps from an alternative dimension...Here's "An Actor's Revenge," one of my favorites from Your Blues.

And just now, as I write this, I realize at least one set of residents of that dimension: (to quote Abbott & Costello) "exactly." That is, I'm thinking of the Residents, and specifically the way they transfigured their music when they became infatuated with electronic instrumentation in the early '80s. For comparison, here are both the original version of "Hello Skinny" (from 1978's Duck Stab/Buster & Glen) and the revamped version as heard on their Live in Holland CD from 1986. The change in affect from the acoustic to the electronic version is similar, for me, to the effect of my hearing Destroyer, or Sparks, through the scrim of the synthetic orchestrations...even though I know that those are the "real" versions of the songs, that there is, in fact, no version of "An Actor's Revenge" that I know of with an actual quasi-Spanish trumpet or a string section.

Sparks "The Rhythm Thief"
Destroyer "An Actor's Revenge"
The Residents "Hello Skinny" (from Live in Holland)
The Residents "Hello Skinny" (original version)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The title of your entry was my first big laugh o' the day. Thanks, 2Fs.