Photo by Michael AckermanDealing with emotion has never been electronic music’s strong suit. When Kraftwerk sang, “Fun fun fun on the Autobahn,” the fun was in the disconnect: It didn’t sound like Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter would know the difference between a belly laugh and a system error. (The word fun itself was part of the disconnect. Kraftwerk were actually singing “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn,” German for “We’re driving driving driving on the Autobahn.” The misheard lyric is widely accepted, though, and much cooler besides.) Shimmering sounds, happy cascades and keyboard flurries aside, Kraftwerk could do nothing to conceal the fascist funkiness of their algorithmic, motorik beat: Doomb-doomb click. Do-boom-boom-click. “Enjoyment will be enforced, mein freund. You veel haff fun if vee haff anything to say about it.”
Yet electronic music can make you feel things. House has a good command of bathos (the diva howls). Techno has the mechanics of anonymous sex down cold (thump thump thump thump). Intelligent dance music — Autechre, Aphex Twin, etc. — does an excellent impression of mental illness (a combination of schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder). In fact, almost every genre of electronic dance music is ebullient, even if it’s often a joy imposed by force. Think of Fatboy Slim, Propellerheads and other proponents of the rapidly receding genre of Big Beat. (Cocaine music for cocaine smiles.) And electronic music has tried its hand at melancholy and more tangled emotional states. New Order comes to mind, as does its synth-pop progeny (e.g., goths, the New Romantics, the new wave).
Electronic music that emotes has been around since the theremin and the amplified guitar, but electronic music as we define it today only came into being in the ’70s with the advent of affordable sequencers and synthesizers. More often than not, it’s been music for or by the alienated and the overwhelmed: German academics and hippies (Kraftwerk, Neu, Can); gay, Alvin Toffler–obsessed African-Americans from Detroit (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson); and, more recently, dot-com employees (who are alienated and overwhelmed, at least). Arising amid the hum of various Motor Cities, electronic music has traditionally been less about using music as a path toward open roads and open minds, and more about the precision engineering of feelings. How do you build the best defense against the world at large?
Ask any computer programmer and they will tell you that, at its best, manipulating code is like playing God. Electronic musicians have often aimed for the same ecstasy when molding sound; what they’ve sought is complete control. Right now, in Los Angeles, there’s a growing community of music makers trying to bring that beat bring that beat bring that beat back to the irregular rhythm of the human heart. Many of these efforts intersect in one way or another with the work of Dublab.com, a DJ pool slash production company slash group of friends (back)slash Internet radio station that has just compiled Freeways, an album of some of L.A.’s strongest peristaltic beats. Fun. Fun! Fun?
Well, not quite. Yes, dance music’s got ebullient down, and intelligent dance music’s got a lock on brainiacs. What electronic music doesn’t have a handle on are ambivalent emotions — those small, furtive feelings (delicacy, prettiness) and the mysterious big ones (belief, faith). Few have shown a mastery of quiet times, soft notes, sensitivity — the songs that limpid, watery-eyed boys put on mix tapes for their willowy young female friends. Dublab has a command of that strange, often unpopular thing. The best of the musicians assembled on Freeways understand that our heartbeats are finite — quite unlike the endless and iterative Krautrock throb. It’s the music Nick Drake or Joan Baez would make if they had Roland TR-808s.
Languis and Fer Chloca start things up with “The Sky Below.” The track builds on a digital skip-step beat (rote among aspiring IDMers) but adds layers of keyboards, clacking tones more like tongue pops than pistons, diffuse bass that bleeds instead of bruises, and a classical guitar melody that weaves gossamer melodic lines where others would build rats’ nests. Daedelus contributes “A Mashnote,” a collage of fluttering birds, violin strokes and error bleeps all arising from the keyboard clicks that open the song. (He’s writing this song on a computer — get it?) Daedelus is a programmer who has transformed the traditional love-letter salutation — xoxo — into a new kind of code for the hug and the kiss: 1010101. Mia Doi Todd’s “Digital” is a tone poem that draws connections between man and machine over a drum-circle cum drum-’n’-bass beat. Genetics meet synthetics, binaries become DNA, and bodily exhaustion is explicitly linked to the demands of our ever more robust information machines: “Nakedly we lie in an ecstatic embrace, trying not to come too quickly. One minute rise plastic bagged lubricated safety tube. This is not a through street. One cannot pass here . . . Throw your body to the edge of crisis. Paralysis is everywhere . . . Population in transition. Information transference overload.” Sung word-salad style à la Beck, Todd’s song is an easy target for the kind of Bob Dylan comparison that greets all earnest folk singers: She’s gone electric and written her “Desolation Row.”
That Dublab allows and encourages such border crossings is its greatest strength, and it brings us to this album’s midpoint, a trio of tracks where genre falls away and what emerges are various new, new things. Yesterday’s New Quintet, a funk-and-jazz quintet led by Madlib, are a hypercharged version of Sun Ra bringing the funk. Their contribution, “Soul Searchin’,” lines up a dozen asymmetrical drum breaks and beats and rolls, overlaying the results with record pops, synth squiggles, and bass lines that walk until they stroll off. The sounds on this particular track could be real, might be Memorex, but — untrained and unrestrained — it’s as refreshing a take on electronic jazz as Amon Tobin’s organic beats were four years back. It bops, and it’s got heat.
Rap veteran Divine Styler contributes “Shen,” the album’s most impressive track. Clocking in at only 2.5 minutes, it’s composed of a concentrated blast of negative space: His double-tracked rap-rasp and short sub-bass beats leave holes in your chest. The antimatter sound lends some authority to whatever it is he’s going on about. This is rap as mantra: “I break thought down/Unlock your crown,” he chants 11 times, followed by the refrain, “The reason my inflection is deep in my shen.” “Shen” is a hip-hop number that’s spiritual in its depths. Possessing an idiosyncratic religious/sci-fi vibe as difficult to integrate within mainline hip-hop history as Kool Keith or P.M. Dawn, Divine Styler finds a home here.
The discovery of the compilation is 32-year-old Damon Aaron, a singer-songwriter-producer who feels deeply and sends his words out as uncut emotion. Imagine that Van Morrison had grown up in a time of hip-hop beats. Imagine that HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sang the blues on his deathbed. Over a moody bed of orchestral fragments and a slow boom-bap, the five minutes of Aaron’s “Don’t Get Up” are the new benchmark in vocally phrasing torture: “Don’t get up again/What good can be done here?/Let go all those tears/Don’t you have no fear/I won’t get up again/All my troubles stayin’ down/Won’t get up again/All my troubles stayin’ down/I won’t get up again/Sorry/Guess I just don’t know my position/You won’t be coming back/Give up before you pass/Turn off all the lights.” An impressionistic yet machine-aided feat, Aaron’s narration brings to mind the fact that Los Angeles boasts not only America’s best weather but its most unrelenting smog.
With Freeways, Los Angeles could become more than electronica’s next big car town. It has far more range than that. Remember, California has more immigrants than any other state, and upward of 40 percent of Los Angeles’ population is foreign-born. Freeways’ roster includes musicians hailing from Buenos Aires and Austria, Iran and Wales, and their message will hopefully travel beyond L.A. County’s borders. This record proves you can use machines to extend the sounds of the body, instead of using them to build up an ever-mightier electronic fortress.
VARIOUS ARTISTS | Dublab Presents . . . Freeways | (Emperor Norton)