It is generally acknowledged that the idea of using the recording studio as an instrument was pioneered in the 1960s by producers such as Phil Spector and George Martin, who used effects and modular recording techniques to reshape sound in an evocative reflection of a song’s themes. By the 1970s, studio techniques had solidified into a recognizable “sheen,” a clean-edged sound in which every instrument is heard to advantage, and an entire science of microphone placement and post-processing developed that gave professionally-produced recordings a distinct atmosphere simultaneously dynamic and airless. It’s much harder to pinpoint the pioneer of the patina, the term that most closely reflects this current era of production, in which producers works against themselves, emphasizing room tone and analog warble, using EQ and compression to squash sound, pushing songs into a fuzzy brick wall of partial unintelligibility. Fetishizing the shortcomings of outmoded technology such as Fostex 4-track recorders and VCRs, patina creates a parallax, a field of distortion that alienates sound in time and space, often calling as much attention to the “excess” (noise, hum, tape splices) as to the product itself (melody, lyrics, song structure).
For all the generalized griping about the supposedly “retro” leanings of indie music in the wake of Geogaddi and the Haunted Graffiti (hypnagogic pop, chillwave, hauntology, etc.), rarely acknowledged is the fact that many of the production techniques involved are state-of-the-art, using unorthodox combinations of analog and digital means to defamiliarize and dislocate sound. George Martin used varispeed and pitch-shifting to make “Strawberry Fields Forever” achieve the quality of a memory, and artists such as Ducktails, Dirty Beaches, and Rangers use the technology at their disposal, whether vintage gear or VST sound modeling, to produce a host of synaesthetic effects. The result is a form of uncanny audio surrealism unique to this age, liberating unconscious desire in the form of sepia’d vocals and cyanotyped guitars, bathroom mirror iPhone sexts given the Instagram grain of vintage pornography. It shouldn’t be surprising that the old guard of rock criticism has been generally resistant and often even hostile towards this music, as its innovations cannot be understood at the level of structure, arrangement, or lyrics. It represents a conscious disruption of the “natural” evolution of recording technology, canonized notions of presence and fidelity displaced in favor of a distinctly visual imperative. One of the more familiar academic narratives views the evolution of 20th century avant-garde visual art as a progressive aspiration towards the abstract, non-mimetic qualities of music. In the 21st century, cutting-edge pop music is reversing the formula, increasingly aspiring to the visual gestalt of painting and photography.
Case in point is the new double album by Rangers, the “phantom band” of Joe Knight, multi-instrumentalist and expert manipulator of patina. Pan Am Stories is an early masterpiece for Knight, an ambitious photographic travelogue constructed out of the raw materials of bedroom psych-pop. The album makes an interesting gamble, one that has become a distinguishing feature of contemporary pop postmodernists, establishing and rarely straying from a consciously generic palette of musical features in order to foreground the patina itself. The production on the album emphasizes midrange, squeezing the music into a discrete set of frequencies that feels claustrophobic at the same time as it evokes the warmth and idiosyncrasy of some recently unearthed, reissued LP of private press, outsider psych from another time and place.
Knight has considerable skill on bass and guitar, but he courageously avoids any gesture that would call too much attention to itself, instead rolling affably along with a series of hazy, wistful 4-track pleasantries that become the ground upon which Rangers’ figurative and visual destabilizations achieve their shape and impact. Thus, the primary drama of a song such as “John Is the Last of a Dying Breed” is not the melody — though it is lovely and immediately redolent of something-or-other — but the transients, the moments where the track seems to hiccup and trip forward out of time due to a presumed flaw of analog tape. Other tracks utilize time-stretching and subtle pitch-bending to evoke the missing sprocket holes and unintentional varispeed of vintage public school AV equipment. Some early reviewers of the album have complained about the ubiquity of the guitar phasing, which appears on nearly every track, but this complaint seems to me a nitpick. Not only is the effect aesthetically pleasing, it also creates the pleasing uniformity of a signature sound, deepening the force of those moments when the formula is altered, such as the searing buzz guitar that erupts in “Conversations On the Jet Stream.”
The title of the album is somewhat unfortunate, given the inevitable associations some will draw between it and the overly-literal television series Pan Am, an inelegant Mad Men knockoff that fails even at its most basic task: to evoke the giddy, vertiginous sensation of taking flight in an age when air travel still represented modernity and adventure. In contrast, Knight’s complex evocations succeed at reproducing that giddiness, as well as the heat-warped visual distortion of jumbo jet exhaust, the sunbaked tarmac of landing strips, the criss-crossing cirrocumulus sky trails, background music in gift shops and beachfront bars heard through ears plugged by altitude pressure. In short, the fetishes of memory, the sensual souvenirs of a prelapsarian fantasy before “tourism” became a dirty word. Seemingly lackadaisical song titles such as “Luncheon Ghana” and “Bad Flan” reflect the quotidian surreality of travel and have interesting resonances with the Dubai dream tones and simulated Richard Branson avatars of James Ferraro’s recent Far Side Virtual. Where Ferraro’s kitschy MIDI-scapes constantly threaten to tip over into the unlistenable, the conceptualist tendencies of Pan Am Stories are shot through with Knight’s hazy, beautiful melodies and profoundly stoned solos.
Almost as soon as psychedelia appeared, it became ensnared with nostalgia, such that it is nearly impossible to disentangle them from each other. Rangers understands deeply this connection, demonstrated by the 13-minute “Zeke’s Dream,” placed audaciously as the second track on the record, a series of intriguing song fragments variously disturbed by distorted vocals, blown-out synths, jet engines, a police siren, and finally a concrete collage of foreign speech. Ending with the seemingly anachronistic skipping of a compact disc, the song is a masterpiece of irrational narrative, developing naive associations and auditory rhymes that unfold with a logic at once familiar and remote. Even the album’s shorter tracks manage to pack in a surprising amount of detail, especially given the limited sonic palette at work. Among other more useful things, Pan Am Stories is a hex against the lazy critical practice of only hearing “retro” in music that is concerned with the structure of memory, of only hearing “lo-fi” in music that uses modern technology to achieve a specific patina, of forgetting that the past is always subject to revision, and ultimately that the future is always made from the past.