Various Artists: !K7 Fuck Dance, Let’s Art: Sounds From A New American Underground

[!K7/Cool in the Pool; 2010]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: “witch house,” “chillwave,” “shitgaze”
Others: No New York, Not So Quiet on the Western Front, No Alternative

I recently checked out a performance by oOoOO, an avatar of the much-debated witch house sound, at a Haight St. bar. Not coming on until after midnight, oOoOO performed a 20-minute set on his laptop, witnessed by two dozen mostly unmoved goths, before silently ceding the stage back to the workaday darkwave DJ set that had preceded his. This music was not watered-down industrial music, as detractors have claimed. It was both familiar and unidentifiable — the outrageously slowed-down samples and clattering dub percussion, the mostly beatless stretches of sampled voices, the swaggering Southern hip-hop snare rolls — still developing, bratty, and ahistorical, but enthralling nonetheless. !K7, best known for the DJ-Kicks series (which brought something of DJ club-culture to the living rooms of indie rock listeners), has turned its sights on these “sounds from a new American underground” with the compilation Fuck Dance, Let’s Art. It investigates the sounds of an underground that exists primarily on the web, on a network of blogs, MySpace pages, and mixtape clouds: an underground that seems to exist only secondarily as a physical scene, one that’s confined mostly to rooftop parties in Brooklyn. (Animal Collective really grew out of another decade and another underground, although their current incarnation as blissed-out synthpop deconstructors fits in well on this compilation.)

The layouts of these artists’ MySpace pages, self-edited art videos for each song, and never-ending mixtapes seem as much a part of the titular Art as the songs on the compilation are. Slow-motion videos, which combine everything from Twin Peaks clips, to images of faded 80s fashion models and tacky luxury goods, to sinisterly altered contemporary handbag advertisements, are filtered through scrims of dated video-editing software effects into drugged, dissociated loops. Any textual meaning is concealed in a thicket of dingbats, and the names that do emerge are un-Googleable, even untypable; they can only be linked to. In a way, links are the very medium of this underground; free association, the mechanism of the subconscious, the promiscuous play of half-remembered childhood artifacts in a dream: these are both the raw materials for these songs and their compositional logic.

The strongest tracks on this compilation are surreal, then, but not in any one particular way. CREEP’s remix of Baghdaddy’s “Hot Shit” is basically a ringtone-rap song — the entire song is a repeated chorus — that is somehow also a flawless recreation of the sound of an 80s-vintage dreampop band. The genres’ meeting is not so much as beautiful as “the chance encounter on an operating table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” as it is a détournement, one that makes both genres seem strange and unreal. Toro Y Moi’s “Fax Shadow,” made of glitched-out samples of R&B jams, repeats the line “I’m sorry I couldn’t name the color of your eyes,” and this lyric could describe the way the best of these songs are unnamable, de-personalized, and impossible to pin down. They partake in numerous genres at the same time, and either through heavy processing or a lo-fi recording process, the human producer is made uncanny, chopped, and screwed. The songs enter into the consciousness of the listener as if they are coming not from outside your head, but from your failing memory of the very same song. They are a dub version of the postmodern mainstream; they rely on familiar elements that peal up out of a fog.

This is indeed an art project on a large scale, but not really an underground in the way we are used to. The best-known American underground artistic movements, at least since the rise of mass media in the 1920s, have arisen in opposition to a monolithic mainstream, either to support an aesthetic project that the mainstream was uninterested in selling or out of necessity, having been demonized and cast out by the mainstream as the Other. The familiar pattern is: kids get together to forge alternate networks to distribute the music that MTV and ClearChannel won’t play; they play warehouses and house parties; they get in the van and tour the country to find like-minded kids in other regional scenes.

Based on the oOoOO show I saw, this movement is not an underground in this sense. But I doubt whether there can even be an underground anymore, given that there is no mainstream. Every genre, even mainstream pop, is now a niche. This is why the internet era has been, for indie rockers, the era of poptimism and a reappraisal of the mainstream sounds that were forced down our throats as children and from which we fled. The CD’s documentation calls attention to the tracks’ “non-mainstream aesthetic,” but what makes the tracks fascinating is the half-submerged influence of the mainstream, particularly the keyboard textures of 80s and early-90s R&B, hardcore rave music, and the glistening production of 2000s hip-hop. Pop is essential to the sense of familiarity that makes this sound so resonant.

The rock comps mentioned in the “others” field of this review exemplify some of the classic functions of the compilation album: to codify, document, or capitalize on a scene. This CD, though having ambitions to document an underground scene, comes so early in the development of these sounds, and will be so instantly dated, that it functions mostly as an occasion for argument. The physical album is mostly important now as a release event around which all sorts of other cultural forms flow: interviews, MP3 downloads, album reviews, and music videos. This compilation, then, is a form of polemic, using the authority of an album to define a scene. Or it is an archival format, preserving this music, taking it off of the internet and putting it onto our antique CD players. But this transit does a disservice to the music. If you had a choice between listening to a K-Tel compilation of disco classics or dancing to Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in 1977, you wouldn’t hesitate to put on your hot pants. However, the oOoOO show was so unsatisfying because live performance is not the purpose of this underground. This underground is on the internet: the experience is the representation. Because you can be there just by logging on, !K7’s CD is only a souvenir of an experience that is still unfolding. It can give you the music, but not the ability to link.

Links: Various Artists: !K7 - !K7/Cool in the Pool

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