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Math Rock, M.I.A., and the Secret of iTunes Plus 

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
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Bonde Do Role: With a name that good, does it matter whether they are? Math Rock Matures: I used to think math rock was the music of frustrated desire. The epitome of the genre, Don Caballero, were a ’90s group from Pittsburgh, PA, who re-formed in ’06 with a new lineup, to mixed reviews. Now and then, Don Cab’s music featured stop/start dynamics, harmonic dissonance, and complex rhythms more appropriate for thinking than dancing. Like adherents to its predecessor, progressive rock, math rockers prided themselves on complexity; unlike prog, the point wasn’t an embrace of hedonism. Prog took music as far as it could go; math was workmanlike — a stern attempt to achieve a high degree of difficulty with just drums and guitars. For most boys — math-rock devotees are reliably male — the music lost its appeal as soon as one figured out how to talk to girls. It was music full of orgasm and devoid of sensuality. Imagine sex with a particularly adept blowup doll.

Battles — a supergroup featuring John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk), Ian Williams (Don Caballero) and Tyondai Braxton (son of avant jazzman Anthony Braxton) — are intriguing because they make math rock fun and approachable. Pitch-shifted vocals sound like Muppets singing sea chanteys. The concept behind their full-length debut, Mirrored (Warp), is expansive, not hermetic; obsessive without being anal. More to the point, Battles’ “Atlas” sounds like Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” reimagined for an episode of Star Trek. And the initial, hiccupping vocal build on “Tij” sounds a bit like people humping. Genres evolve, babies are born, life moves on. Battles play the Troubadour on June 30.

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iTunes Plus: Pundits wasted a lot of breath on EMI’s plan to offer DRM-free MP3s through iTunes. “Holy shit!” we proclaimed. “The majors have caved! This paradigm shift means the Internet will be awash in freely available, high-quality MP3s!” Then iTunes Plus launched, and computer geeks quickly uncovered Apple’s obvious and Orwellian solution. Each DRM-free file has the purchaser’s name embedded in the code. (As it turns out, it’s embedded in Apple’s standard AAC files too.) Piracy risk = zero. Digital-rights evangelists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have lambasted this watermarking practice, but acknowledging its elegance would have been more brave. Oh yeah, the Beatles haven’t made it onto iTunes yet either. So much for a revolution.

Outsourcing Pop Music:International outsourcing has long been common practice for corporate America. Put your call center in Bangalore, textile factory in Jakarta, and code crunchers in Beijing. But is that business model now transforming pop music?

Let’s start with why this wasn’t supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to outsource highly skilled labor — but the creation of pop music requires a skill set as finely tooled as those needed to manufacture luxury cars. (Sweden’s lock on contemporary bubblegum, from ABBA to Max Martin, is no coincidence.) Thing is, it’s starting to look like the West is tapped out of new ideas. Proof? Well, new sounds are supposed to start in the underground, but the “cool” rock bands that have emerged in the last six years are painfully lacking in innovation. Interpol, the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and the Arcade Fire are great craftsmen and enormously likable, but are they doing something truly new? Not so much. They make Evanescence sound like Captain Beefheart.

Instead, today’s groundbreaking sounds are coming from artists with roots in the developing world. I’m thinking of the Brazil indie acts CSS and Bonde Do Role; the London-born, Sri Lankan–identified M.I.A.; or Manu Chao, a Spanish/French musician who grew up in Paris, lives in Barcelona, and aggregates Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences like a kleptomaniac at a chintzy international swap meet. Their music bears all the markers of cheap electronics labeled with a “Made in China” sticker. It’s shoddily constructed and a bit unstable. The vocals sound like they were tracked using a karaoke machine. The percussion has a tinny sonic veneer that would embarrass a hip-hop producer circa ’82. They gain authority only through untrammeled enthusiasm, and complex use of syncopation.

There are several criticisms lodged against these artists’ “next big thing” status. One, they’re not actually that big yet (Manu Chao excepted). Two, they’re really just adding a dose of self-consciousness to more conventional genres like electro and reggaeton. True enough. A new M.I.A. leak, “Hit That,” finds her quoting “Rumpshaker” (a novelty 1992 hit by Wrecks-N-Effect) like a canonical text. Bonde Do Role’s song “Gasolina” includes a shout-out to Afrika Bambaataa, and shares its title with the ubiquitous 2004 hit by Puerto Rico’s Daddy Yankee, a “real” reggaeton performer currently making his bid for crossover success with a major-label debut, El Cartel: The Big Boss, and a single blatantly titled “Impacto.”

These namechecks are so blatant, though, they shouldn’t be characterized as theft. They’re more comparable to Bob Dylan putting his personal stamp on American folk tradition. Outsourced indie is not just another chapter in the long history of cross-cultural borrowings that found the Beatles stealing from Chuck Berry, and Bambaataa stealing from Kraftwerk. Rather, these artists find interesting ways to put a personal stamp on their own roots. That kind of self-conscious artistry is the definition of capital “a” Art — and it’s the sign of mature musicians with staying power.

Where should you start as a listener? CSS’s debut, Cansei de Ser Sexy (Sub Pop), is notable for its goofy indie-rock swagger, but I find them sloppy and under-rehearsed. Bonde Do Role’s With Lasers (Domino) tackles the same sound with a minimalist edge and more ruthless editing. Manu Chao is the indie-friendly pick. His new single, “Rainin in Paradise,” is relatively restrained; a tightly wound guitar line grounds it in the known. For pure dance-party adrenaline, though, try the trills, chicken squawks, children’s chants and tribal drumming of M.I.A.’s recently leaked “Bird Flu.” Rumor has it that her new album, Kala, will include collaborations with both Timbaland and Three 6 Mafia. No wonder she’s been pegged as a potential breakout star.

Whatever happens, these artists are intelligently addressing our new global economy, warts and all, and they have already made 2007 the year of outsourced indie rock. If they play their cards right, it could be the start of something much larger.

Daddy Yankee’s El Cartel: The Big Boss and Bonde Do Role’s With Lasers (Mad Decent/Domino) were released on June 5. M.I.A.’s Kala (XL/Interscope) will be released August 21. Manu Chao’s first studio album since 2001, La Radiolina (Because Records), is released on September 4. The first single is available for free download on his Web site, www.manuchao.net/.

MetaJournalism-dot-com: As blogs have grabbed audience share from print and television, it started to seem like all you needed to become a cultural authority was mastery of the HTML tag and a friendly relationship with MySpace, Google and your fellow bloggers. Now, a new wave of sites are tackling online journalism with a bit more rigor. What they lack in critical voice, they make up for in statistical thoroughness.

The concept here is that the overwhelming amount of data on the Web can be utilized as a focus group on what’s worth listening to. Old-school Elbo.ws (www.elbo.ws) tracks blogs with an emphasis on their prose (not a great idea); a newer contender, the Hype Machine (www.hypem.com), smartly focuses on the music, acting as a Billboard chart for bloggers. The long-running MetaCritic (www.metacritic.com) ignores blogs in favor of “establishment” publications ranging from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, tracking their combined wisdom. Critical Metrics (www.criticalmetrics.com) one-ups MetaCritic with sound samples and YouTube vids, then assembles all the information it gathers in a dense interface so lovely and Web 2.0–friendly that I’m tempted to say it’s the only site you need to keep track of new music.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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