- Lusine, “Two Dots” (Ghostly International)
- Mount Kimbie, “Maybes” (Hotflush Recordings)
- Christian Falk, “Dream On (feat. Robyn)” (Data Records)
- Seelenluft, “Manila (Ewan Pearson remix)” (Klein Records)
- Lindstrøm, “A Blast of Loser (Mungolian Jet Set 9406 version)” (Feedelity)
- Von Spar, “Hybolt” (Italic)
- Thomas Brinkmann, “Isch (Soulphiction remisch)” (Petite)
- John Tejada, “Liquid Mirror” (Palette Recordings)
- Coma, “Easy” (Firm)
- Thomas/Mayer, “Total 9” (Kompakt)
- Dominique, “Negatives” (Dial)
- Basic Channel, “Radiance II” (Basic Channel)
- The XX, “Teardrops” (Young Turks)
Icebreaker, Distant Early Warning (CD, 1999)
Somewhere in the eastern periferia of Roma there was – is, it looks like – a club so called because of the single palm tree in front of it. (Google seems to show this palm tree, though it’s hard to be sure from above.) La Palma was at that point in time exciting – maybe it still is, I can’t say – and most of the touring American indie bands playing Rome at that point in time played there. Living in Italy was, predictably enough, the high-water mark of my interest in indie rock. It was 2000; things were confused. This would have been at about the same point in time that I tried learning Italian from a facing-page translation of Finnegans Wake. Bad ideas were everywhere.
I was at La Palma, by my memory, a number of times. Looking at where it is on the Google map, I’m confused by this: how did I get there? I think there was some sort of local train that was not the subway that went there; I have vague memories of a run-down train station in the middle of the night. And I remember getting home by walking – at that point in my life, I didn’t use taxis (this was not a thought-out behavior, it’s just how things were) and the trains didn’t run at three in the morning, so I walked home. Google maps suggests that it would have been just over five miles back to via Plauto, over by the Vatican – was I really walking five hours through the outskirts of Rome at four in the morning, presumably after I’d been drinking? I remember bits of this – passing by the Cimitero Monumentale del Verano, which is enormous and surrounded by little shrines with candles, even in the middle of the night. And Porta Maggiore late at night, with carts selling porchetta and prostitutes – I remember being very tired there, knowing that it was still an enormous distance to anywhere even if I was at the old city limits, and wishing that the subway ran all night. And coming across the Piazza della Repubblica as the sky began to lighten and feeling at home in the city. It seems odd to have been doing that much walking late at night – in terms of distance, it’s roughly akin walking to Central Park from Jackson Heights, which seems somehow inconceivable. Another detail: I wouldn’t have had headphones to keep me entertained while I walked along the highway. That was how I lived then. It’s odd, really.
La Palma was one of the centri sociali, I think, though it was more of hipster than the usual hippy. They’d play Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra before shows – what did it mean for Italians to be listening to that in 2000? I am out of my depth. Hood was playing there & as my postrock dues were paid up – it was during that brief window where one could listen to Godspeed You Black Emperor and not feel enormously depressed about the world – I went to go see them. I don’t remember very much about Hood – they always sounded very nice on paper, but I never really loved them, though maybe I was listening to the wrong records. Later they fell in with those terrible underground rappers who destroyed everything they touched and it was clear it was time to stop caring. But that was later, this is still 2000, they were on a promising postrock label from Chicago called Aesthetics, and at the time they seemed pleasant. I was, remember, in a susceptible state. It was nice to be in a place where they played Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra. Is it possible that L’Altra was playing with Hood? Maybe. There might have also been a terrible Italian opening band. I don’t remember anything about Hood.
This CD, though, I’m fairly certain that I bought this CD at that Hood show. I’d never heard Icebreaker (later Icebreaker International), but they were advertised as a side-project of Piano Magic, and they’d shown up in The Wire. (At that point, the magazines that I was reading regularly were The Wire, i-D, and the Times Literary Supplement, make of that what you will. Youth!) But I walked this CD home and opened it up, and the inside flap (all the well-designed CDs of that period were digipacks) explains that this is a record about NATO’s distant early warning system, which is almost a good concept for an album. (Their next album, which I bought when I arrived in New York, firmed up the conceptualism: entitled Trein Maersk, it was ostensibly recorded on a container ship of that name sailing around the world; straight-faced soundbites paid tribute to the glory of free trade, and the band had decided that it was okay to like techno, which improved things tremendously. That this was an enormous – and reasonably good, considering – joke was lost on most of the critics.) The tracks have names that fit in with the concept (“Co-prosperity Sphere,” “The Arctic Night,” “Reconnaissance Flight”) though all are instrumentals and one suspects that the titles were added after the fact.
Concept aside, the first track of this 49-minute CD (“Melody for NATO”) is far and away the best. This had appeared on a split 7” with Piano Magic; had I been more discerning and in a place where Piano Magic 7”s could have been procured, I could have skipped this CD entirely. Believing at that juncture in time that artists’ intentions should be honored and CDs should be listened all the way through, I listened to this CD all the way through many times; I remember nothing about any of the other tracks except that they’re mostly warm drones; looped synthesizers, a few Arctic-feeling samples, maybe, drums on a few tracks. They’re not at all unpleasant, but they’re nowhere as nice as the first one, which feels like a slow pop song without words. It’s a fine CD to put on when you’re going to bed – the first song is nice and then you’re asleep & things are happily going on in the world without you.
ISAN, Salle d’ISAN (EP, 2001)
Somebody’s family had a house in New Hampshire – was it really New Hampshire? one of those New England states where there’s a lot of winter – and I remember being in a large house and playing this late at night there. Why would I have done that? From this distance it seems like a horrific breach of good taste; I remember being upset at a party a few years later when a boorish friend of a friend brought his own music, terrible middlebrow indie, and started playing it, noting how he disapproved of the band’s politics (which really were the least offensive thing about them). Rochefoucauld says something about this, of course.
It’s not the worst thing to play late at night in someone’s cabin in the woods, I guess, but this is much more headphone music than anything else. This CD goes on for seventeen minutes; there are six tracks, but only the fourth, “Fullen Brimm,” sticks, because that has a much better bassline than any of the others (which seem to lack bass entirely). It’s almost menacing: things are layered on top, there’s some very delicate dubbiness, there’s a nice tension. The track before it, utterly forgettable, is named “Disruptive Elephant,” which I like; you always wonder if things have been mislabeled. I always wanted to like the other tracks more but couldn’t find anything to latch on to. With a CD, if you play one track over and over again you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Listened to now, the other tracks seem to verge on Tangerine Dream-style new age; there’s a little crunch that makes things uncomfortable, but this is overly pretty.
In Rome, I’d been listening to a lot of American indie; when I moved to New York, I was listening to much more wordless electronic music, the Björk album of that year being the fulcrum between the two. I wonder why? In New York, terrible indie music was all around – the Strokes and the White Stripes were in their ascendency – and it didn’t quite feel special. Electroclash was more entertaining, if obviously ridiculous, though that didn’t really seem like something one listened in a recorded form. Maybe my turn was a reaction against the static of the city. There’s not much public space in New York; when one arrives without money, there aren’t that many places one can go. Loitering is frowned upon. Thus, headphones.
Piano Magic, Son de Mar (Music from the Film by Bigas Luna) (soundtrack, 2001)
This CD has one of those stickers that says MADE IN ENGLAND on the back, which means that it would have been more expensive. I wonder if that’s still the case? I remember buying it at Other Music on West 4th; probably I’d left work from lunch. Is that possible? The office in fall of 2001 was at 8th & 15th; would I have walked so far? Maybe not. Is it possible that I bought this before getting a job? Maybe – I came back from Rome having listened to Low Birth Weight over and over again & wanted more Piano Magic, immediately. Seasonally Affective, a compilation of their EPs, was released just as I moved to New York; I remember listening to it while in the New York Public Library, trying to find myself a job and an apartment. This would have come out soon after. I do have a distinct memory of buying it at Other Music and hastily unwrapping it to put it in the Discman; that was what you did then, the fastest way of consummating desire.
This is a beautiful CD – it was the first record Piano Magic did for 4AD and they took pains to make it look like a 4AD record. The pamphlet is a thick square of cardboard, which is a neat trick, as it feels unlike any other CD; moody stills from the Bigas Luna film are on the front and back. (I did get around to seeing this film several years later & can recall almost nothing from it – it wasn’t bad, it simply wasn’t that memorable, save for this soundtrack. The CD is six untitled tracks; parts of it are from A Trick of the Sea, which I’d also listened to over and over again. Somehow this reuse didn’t offend me – that record sounds like a soundtrack already: plaintive strings, wordless vocals, what sound like clocks, bits of found sounds, keyboards. Sounds of waves, of course. The last track, almost longer than the others combined, is propelled by a motorik beat: there’s more obvious looping and use of electronics if you pay attention, but it still feels organic.
The Piano Magic aesthetic – miniaturism, the analogue, reimagined Victorianism – has became oddly dominant in the past decade. There’s an exhibition of the sets of the Brothers Quay up at Parsons right now, and it’s strange how familiar their creepy dolls, hand-cut paper, and bits of taxidermy have become. It’s the same impulse that led others to old-timey music at about the same time, probably: as the present becomes increasingly electronic, the past becomes more appealing. The Piano Magic records still sound distinctive – I can’t think of anything that sounds quite like this now – but maybe less so than they did; there’s been a stampede to reclaim the past, and I’m sure I’d find that somebody’s mining this territory if I bothered to look.
This isn’t quite as nice as A Trick of the Sea, which has spoken-word vocals which give it just enough purchase on the ear. This is evocative – everyone likes the sound of the sea, especially if you’re from the Midwest – but it loses hold very easily. The Piano Magic records past this one tend to get trapped in their own despair, only occasionally transcending it. I like this, listening to it now, but the sadness in it threatens to become overwhelming. Rolf accused me, at about the time I would have been listening to this, of only listening to sad music. That was my problem, he said, and also I was not lucky enough; luckiness, he proposed, was a skill that could be cultivated. It’s hard to argue with that.
It’s hard to remember what purpose background music served. I would have played this while alone, reading, probably. Painting? I was painting then, sometimes. Would I have played this at work? This is evening music, it wouldn’t have seemed right. I don’t think I would have, I had that much sense.
The American Analog Set, Updates (EP, 2001)
I remember a couple of American Analog Set records in college – they’d been pegged as the un-intellectual Stereolab from Texas – but for some reason I was taken with the album they released just before this EP, which was less droney and more warm indie. It’s possible they were the first band I saw in New York? maybe in September 2001? but that doesn’t seem quite right, I don’t think anything was happening that month. They headlined a show at the Bowery Ballroom where Interpol opened & you could tell by their fans that all was not going to be well in the coming decade. The date on this CD says 2001, but I feel like I probably bought it early in 2002; in the fall of 2001 I was too poor because I’d just moved to the city.
Certainly I associate this with a cold winter in Brooklyn; I don’t think that winter was much colder than most winters in New York, but the landlord hadn’t bothered to insulate the room that I was living in (which protruded into the back yard of the apartment), reasoning that it would be cheaper to give me a space heater. But that was the winter of twee/electronic crossover; there was the Notwist record & the first Ulrich Schnauss record (a CDR of the two of them back to back) and all the rest of the early Morr Music/City Centre Offices people – Isan, Lali Puna, Arovane, Static, Solvent. They sounded nice on a Discman as one trudged through snow to a job that was unbelievably terrible but seemingly inescapable: ineluctability was in the air. I was reading Thomas Bernhard and Hermann Broch.
(Discmen were everywhere in New York at that point; on the subway, it seemed like everyone had them. I remember being surprised; in Rome, it would have been very strange to wear headphones on the bus or the subway. Discmen had become extremely cheap; soon they’d be replaced by iPods, but at that point everyone carried around little books of CDs with them. I would have had a (restrained, tan) Invicta backpack at that point – I wonder what happened to it?)
This record, though: there are six tracks, two remixes each by the American Analog Set themselves (one presumes), Her Space Holiday, and Styrofoam. I would have bought this for the Styrofoam remixes, which I probably played over and over, just as I’d done with his A Short Album about Murder. Listened to now, the AmAnSet & HSH remixes sounds utterly unfamiliar. The first two sound unfinished. Her Space Holiday I never liked for some reason; maybe I was disdainful of them for not being German, not feeling like they came out of a tradition. But nothing grabs me about these tracks here; the originals are recognizable under layers of noise (the first) and faux hip-hop shifting to faux drum & bass (the second), but I don’t know that they’re especially nice as songs – I think I liked the sound of the originals rather than the songs themselves, maybe evidence of a change in how I was listening to music.
Listened to now, the Styrofoam remixes seem emo beyond all hope of redemption. On the first, looped melodramatic keyboards are layered with plastic crunchy drums & strategically placed noise while the original vocal floats serenely through; warm bass builds. At the time this was some sort of dream come true: German electronics meeting American indie pop. Dntel would do roughly the same thing a year later with a better vocalist and less Germans & turn into the Postal Service & then everything would be over, but this sounded fantastic over headphones walking through snow. Listened to over speakers now, it sounds a bit too much like they’re trying for the cinematic. The second is named “We’re Computerizing and We Just Don’t Need You Anymore (Styrofoam’s freezer burn mix)” which seems about right: glitched vocals, warm synthesizers. It’s a pop take on IDM, I guess, which seemed like a valid approach at the time: the Warp acts had run into a wall at about that point, and this seemed more palatable than Mille Plateaux-style clicks and cuts. Probably the clicks and cuts would sound friendlier now; probably some of that holds up better than this.
Things were generally less bleak after the winter of 2001/2. I lost touch with what the American Analog Set did some time after this, though I feel like I saw them do a show at the Knitting Factory a year or so later; by that time everybody else was doing the exact same thing & they weren’t so distinguished. Styrofoam went more indie (like the rest of the Morr Music stable) and it was roundly terrible and I stopped listening to him. Oh well.
Gert Wilden & Orchestra, Schulmädchen Report (compilation, 1996)
I would have first heard this in the summer of 1997, I think, when I was, for reasons still unclear to me, the associate editor of Let’s Go Ireland 1998; probably my hearing this was the fault of Alex Speier – who might have become the Harry Crosby of the late-90s Let’s Go set after writing the masterpiece that is the Harvard Student Agencies Bartending Course (available at Google Books in mutilated fashion), though thankfully he seems to have turned into a successful sportswriter since then. As the cover suggests, this is a compilation of music from 1970s German porn films about schulmädchen; from the dubiously titled Crippled Dick Hot Wax, it fit in nicely with the wave of late-90s indie cosmopolitan exoticism (Pizzicato Five, Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone). The liner notes on this are minimal; one has no idea on how Mr. Wilden’s music fit into the history of German film music, if at all.
Though it seemed perfectly normal at the time, the Let’s Go office was an odd place to work, not least in that at that point in time everyone had their own computer with CD-player and speakers; as it was staffed by college students, everyone was constantly playing their music loudly, generally in counterpoint to everyone else’s. Schulmädchen Report soundtracked the Britain & Ireland pod for a good part of that summer, along with a Willie Nelson box set, the self-titled Blur album, a cassette tape of Irish drinking songs, and the new Oasis album, which Eric attempted to convince everyone was almost as good as their last one. There was very little variation in this diet – no one’s taste matched at all, and those were the compromises that were worked out. Schulmädchen Report generally worked the best – the songs, cheerful to the last, vary in tone (the patriotic one, the rocking one, the Christmas one), and the disengaged worker could spend a long time speculating on what acrobatics might have been going on in the films these songs soundtracked. Nobody ever though to track the films down, but someone knew someone who had seen one once. Probably we played this once a day for most of the summer.
When Sam and Eric and I worked at Cognoscenti, did we listen to this? I don’t remember that, though it’s certainly possible. But the mood would have changed by then, I think; it wouldn’t have been summer, and this is a summer record. Records wear out, probably this had worn out.
The disc I have isn’t the original, which I seem to remember bequeathing to someone – a roommate? the Co-op? – I bought a second copy, presumably identical to the first, a few years later. It’s nice to hear. This would be a nice record to have in a car, maybe. No, actually: it’s too obviously a soundtrack & you’d feel foolish.
- Shocking Pinks, “Dressed to Please (Echospace reduction)” (DFA)
- Sebbo, “Watamu Beach (Moritz von Oswald rework) (Desolat)
- Koss, “Negai” (Innervisions)
- Prosumer & Murat Tepeli, “Solid Mind” (Ostgut Tonträger)
- Cassy, “Somelightuntothenight” (Beatstreet)
- The KLF, “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard” (KLF Communications)
- Ricardo Villalobos, “Dexter” (Playhouse)
- Depeche Mode, “Peace (Ben Klock remix)” (Mute)
- Carsten Jost, “Love” (Dial)