“[T]he history of American housework is, in essence, the history of American industrialization and its transformative effects on people’s daily lives.”
– Never Done: A History of American Housework by Susan Strasser
As often as domestic innovations are taken for granted by those with access, Matmos’ conceptual offerings throughout their career have been taken much too seriously for their materiality, such that our critical frames (even when bent into goofy smiles) have always seemed inherently limited by their super-specific source material. For those familiar with M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel’s concept-driven composition style, there isn’t much that’s surprising here, yet there isn’t much like it either. Procedurally (A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure), Matmos have always been studiously thematic (The Civil War), decisively acute (The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast), and ultimately mind-melding democratizing (The Marriage of True Minds); but, as they’ve proven time and time again with each banger of an album, any divisiveness about this shit is all in our heads. That’s what’s so fresh about Matmos though: how perfectly and consistently they can translate concept into something that resonates not only with our brains, but also with our bodies. They keep moving us, not by making all this esoterica seem palpable, but by showing us how goddamn sexy our lives’ mundane workings can actually be.
Ultimate Care II is perhaps Matmos’ most literal “work” yet, composed exclusively out of sounds produced by Schmidt and Daniel’s Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine. Even more so than previous Matmos releases, Ultimate Care II’s single mechanical source begs analysis of its definite form, as well as its unsuspected functionality. Like all washing machines, Ultimate Care II’s novelty is revealed through its historical situation as an object with practical value, yet its cathartic power as a resonant source of sound derives from its use in our everyday rituals (whether it be washing our clothes or whistling while we work). Ultimate Care II is thus Ultimate Care II both materially and functionally in that, as a household object, it is familiar, transformative, and potentially liberating.
Ultimate Care II works because it is recognizable in both its origin and its performance. Its runtime and sequencing mirror that of a normal load of laundry: it starts with an initiating crank, ends with a buzz, and features cycles of Ultimate Care II itself performing its intended functions, including a four-minute period of unaltered tumbling. Its resounding timbre is as immediately recognizable as originating from a washing machine as its rhythm is recognizable as experimental techno. Unlike classical musique concrète records, which mask their sound sources, Ultimate Care II’s appeal relies on its initial unambiguity and its users’ manipulations of its unforeseen or unexamined functions beyond its supposed limits. By considering a sound source that is often groaned at as a necessary reason for more chores, Matmos has directed our attention inside our most profane spaces, deconstructing our own expectations of what can be transformational.
What makes this consideration so repeatably captivating is how their process of examining several aspects of one homogenous subject generates multiple standalone models that are compatible, such that just as much value can be found on a superficial level as on a mechanical one. By design, washing machines transform dirty, unwearable garments into clean, rejuvenated ones at a reduced cost of labor. Likewise, Ultimate Care II itself is a transformation of its namesake’s mechanizations into a musical work with an alleviating purpose, at little expense to the listener. This of course means that Ultimate Care II possesses transformative qualities, just like all music does, but Matmos’ musical treatment of their own washing machine exposes musical potential in other inanimate parts of our lives.
Of course, every innovation (whether technological or artistic) comes with a history of exploitation. In Ruth Schwartz Cowen’s book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, she digs through the household industry’s dark history of creating more work as well as higher expectations for those whom these gadgets promised liberation. This idea, when expanded to musical innovation, can challenge our critical vocabulary. As I reflect on my positive past experiences with Matmos, and as I let their latest work guide my aesthetic consideration of my inorganic environments, I find Ultimate Care II liberating, specifically because it relieves those parts of my critical perspective that seem too prescriptive and dismissive. It distracts me from making judgment calls and comparing my experiences by situating my enjoyment in something that isn’t inherently or universally enjoyable. When I consider how much I actually like this, however, my thoughts run. As fun as it is, perhaps its greatest value is in how it challenges how much I take my amenities for granted, not only as items that make my life easier, but as items that make my toes tap for joy. Matmos have successfully transformed their washing machine into an instrument of righteousness as well as introspection, and while I am not surprised at their continued high level of craft, this one feels especially deep. Laundry day will forever be a transformation.