Beer on the Rug is one of the most interesting labels to have emerged in the last year or so. Early releases from the likes of World Series, The Arcade Junkies, Midnight Television, and (a little later) Boy Snacks were all in that Ariel Pink, James Ferraro circa Night Dolls With Hairspray region of ultra lo-fi hypnagogia. But the next wave of output, beginning with Laserdisc Visions’ New Dreams Ltd. in July 2011 and continuing on with albums from Napolian and Computer Dreams, Macintosh Plus, and, most recently, 情報デスクVIRTUAL took the label into different territory entirely. All of a sudden, there was less emphasis on grime and far more on gloss.
Where hypnagogic pop was concerned with hazy and degraded re-productions of and odes to vintage pop, this new breed of artists — while still looking to the past for their raw material — seemed to be far more interested in re-using and re-purposing: re-branding, to use an appropriately corporate term, the sonic lubricant of commerce for the purposes of the musical underground. An act of appropriation and recontextualization. Sometimes the raw material is looped, restructured, pitch- and/or tempo-shifted. But sometimes it can be virtually impossible to detect the presence of the artist at all. And the effect is an intriguingly ambivalent gesture somewhere between valorization and critique.
The term being bandied around for this stuff is vaporwave. It’s by no means limited to Beer on the Rug, but the label is certainly a major hub for it. It’s these artists, most of all, who have brought the label attention. And as a result, I really wasn’t expecting their latest release, TIMETIMETIME&TIME by Californian artist Ben Straus a.k.a. YYU to sound like this.
Because on one level, YYU doesn’t feel like a good fit for Beer on the Rug at all. He doesn’t work with samples; his output doesn’t feel either “conceptual” or political, and — most of all — his music sounds overtly contemporary. Unlike every other artist on the Beer on the Rug roster, the most obvious reference points here are utterly current. What do I hear when I listen to TIMETIMETIME&TIME? Strange as it may seem, I hear Burial as much as Bill Orcutt, Dirty Projectors and James Blake as much as Brainfeeder and DJ Rashad. The great achievement of the record is that somehow the whole thing manages to come off as extremely coherent nevertheless.
Perhaps there’s some biographical reason for YYU’s relationship with Beer on the Rug that I’m unaware of, but it occurs to me that one possible point of connection between the two is a shared interest in repetition. In other words: repetition is, like, so in right now.
Vaporwave is concerned with it in a couple of ways. First, vaporwave artists exploit the fact that to repeat is always also to restage or reframe. So even when the “originals” being appropriated by an artist like 情報デスクVIRTUAL are left relatively untouched, the novelty of the context re-animates it somehow: it puts the listener in a different relationship to it. Repetition here means difference. Second, vaporwave artists tend to make extensive use of repetition as a production technique as well. The same material — whether treated or otherwise — is looped over and over and over, and soon enough we begin to hear it differently. Here, the influence of Daniel Lopatin and his so-called eccojams as Chuck Person is really pronounced. In this context, the act of repetition produces an experience of suspension.
In fact, “suspension” feels like a key concept in relation to vaporwave. When I listen to a track like “From Sacred Tapestry,” it feels like it should really go on forever. It’s as if the idea is to reproduce the sounds of nowhere and no-when — malls, lobbies, elevators, airports, casinos, the so-called “virtual plaza” — in a kind of blissful refusal of both time and space on and on to infinity. In part, it seems to me, vaporwave is about the sublime in capitalism then. Suspension here produces a kind of (sinister) transcendence.
Repetition is also right at the center of TIMETIMETIME&TIME (just look at the title!), but it’s doing something different entirely. For YYU, repetition isn’t about either recontextualization or suspension. It’s about rhythm: the way in which repeating something raises expectations that you’ll do so again… and again… and again… and allows you, therefore, to play around with such expectations by means of interruption… by means of interruption… by means of…
So on opening track “your hands/moo.3,” for instance, it’s the word “time” itself that’s sampled, pitched down, and then repeated sporadically as a whole host of short and discrete percussive patterns emerge and are themselves subjected to various different permutations of combination and replication before fading away again — sometimes to return, sometimes not. The effect is varied, rich and, rhythmically, extremely complex.
Here and throughout the album, YYU allows the fact of repetition to foreground itself. Whenever he samples acoustic material in order to repeat it — a vocal fragment, a muted piano, or a twanging guitar riff — rather than “papering over the cracks,” as it were, he frequently cuts the sample off early, resulting in that glitchy sound you get when a sound is interrupted before it has been allowed its natural period of decay. Or listen to that scuttling micro-percussion that features so extensively and that brings to mind footwork. Each tap, each throb, each bleep is literally identical to the one that preceded it. This, in other words, is percussion as replication. Totally inorganic, it has more in common with a photocopier than a drum kit.
Then again, the genius of a track like “&time” is that it probably could be played live. Again, the word “time” is repeated over and over, but this time it’s far less processed and there’s nothing but a naked guitar and a tapping sound for accompaniment. Even though the track was almost certainly put together on a computer, the effect is superbly ambiguous. What this sounds like is an attempt to replicate the logic of sample-based electronic in an overtly acoustic setting: the intrusion of digital techniques of composition and production into the analogue sphere.
TIMETIMETIME&TIME is a really fine record. In fact, I think it’s far better than anything else currently on the Beer on the Rug roster. Vaporwave may only just have arrived, but it’s already beginning to feel like it may have exhausted itself. It feels like a particularly transient genre, the bubbling up of a particular musico-conceptual gesture that will quickly either morph or disappear as its early exponents move on to the next thing. That’s not necessarily intended as a criticism. Transience is important. But it seems to me that there’s far more potential in the forms of repetition being explored here by YYU than by any of his labelmates. As a result, YYU’s appeal will be far broader and the shelf-life of his music far greater. Fittingly enough for an album all about “time,” it’ll stick around in your iPod for much longer. You’ll want to listen to it over and over and over and over and over…