What’s Up? Content Imagination

[Obey Your Brain; 2009]

Styles: instrumental rock, video game-ish prog rock
Others: The Advantage, Hella, Anamanaguchi, King Crimson

Ever since the first Advantage album featured covers of classic Nintendo tunes with the grit and muscle of underground rock, I've been hoping they might attempt a record of original compositions in the same vein. Yet for some time now, mirroring the rise of stylized recording techniques, highly melodic contrapuntal works have been out of fashion. There's a sense in the rock world that, harmonically and melodically at least, everything's been done; many bands react with musical simplicity alongside textural overload. The newly formed Portland-based group What's Up?, despite their unfortunate name, succeed in channeling overtly composed songs through a bare, distorted sound, and the results end up relatively fresh by comparison.

Founded by The Advantage's Robby Moncrieff (who helped produce Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca), What's Up? obviously understand the impact of melodic constructions and seem focused on abstracting notions about complicated rock music through their raw recording style. At various times titled prog, art, and math rock, What's Up?'s "genre" has gone through many makeovers, but its broader definition is always based on two general elements: composition and quality of sound. While a wide variety of composition styles have importantly mingled together during the last century, an album's production has only recently risen to equal prominence. If Content Imagination had been recorded by some slick neo-prog band's engineer, it would probably never get past our editor's mailbox. There is an undeniable — if slightly ambiguous — litmus test between indie press outlets and listeners alike that determines what gets covered, and a band like What's Up?'s acceptance into the bubble is worth noting.

To put it simply, the quality of a record's sound plays a large role in determining its credibility. It's not something I explicitly cheer on, but the notion of timbre, fidelity, and "style" being barometers of cool isn't exactly new. In fact, it has pervaded rock ’n’ roll since its inception; just think of the cultural difference between a clean guitar chord and a heavily distorted one. Which made kids lose their shit in the ’60s? The same concept is now being applied to entire records instead of single instruments. In 2009, if your song appears strained and handmade, it likely connects to a time when lo-fidelity recordings were an artist's only option. Early records signified purity -- less concerned with perfection and perception, and more in tune with the moment at hand. We see value in this sense of authenticity, and a large demographic of young musicians has tried to mimic it, often through pop or folk music. What's Up? smartly pilfer the aesthetic, presenting their sound as a stylistic choice rather than an act of necessity.

Content Imagination remains charming because most comparable instrumental music is presented either through a compressed, metallic sheen or the prism of video game music. And while What's Up? are undeniably indebted to 8-bit compositions that came before them, it's nice to hear an aesthetically-minded band grab the torch. With rock drums and distorted keyboards, they cast off the trappings of chiptune bands — namely nostalgia — and let each song sink or swim based on its own internal logic. Removed from the culture surrounding their music, What's Up? simply know their way around a melody and how to present it in a relevant way, which counts for a lot these days.

1. Yes
2. Seasoning's Greeting
3. Fool's Gold
4. A Longing Expression
5. Content Imagination
6. Harper
7. The French Song

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