piano magic, “son de mar”

Piano Magic, Son de Mar (Music from the Film by Bigas Luna) (soundtrack, 2001)

pianomagicsondemarThis 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”

The American Analog Set, Updates (EP, 2001)

amansetupdatesI 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”

Gert Wilden & Orchestra, Schulmädchen Report (compilation, 1996)

schulmädchen reportI 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.

the high llamas, “lollo rosso”

The High Llamas, Lollo Rosso (remix album, 1998)

The High Llamas, "Lollo Rosso"This is the only High Llamas CD that I ever had; it’s is a little EP with remixes from Mouse On Mars, Cornelius, Jim O’Rourke, Kid Loco, Schneider TM, and Stock, Hausen & Walkmen all of whom (except the last, I think) seemed to be constantly remixing each other at that point in time with homogenously bouncy results – I feel like I have most of these remixes in several places. The Mouse On Mars sounds like Mouse On Mars, which is still pleasant, Cornelius sounds like Cornelius (some samples he’s used elsewhere, I think) and is still nice. The Schneider TM is low-slung and electronic, never really grabbed me. I didn’t appreciate Jim O’Rourke (now graduated to the Whitney Biennial) and thought he was boring; this particular remix goes through about six different styles and lasts too long. Kid Loco I used to like; now this seems tasteful if dull, call it trip-hop and be done with it. Stock, Hausen & Waterman were always stupid. And there’s a High Llamas remix at the end which is pretty and like the Beach Boys with occasional space noises, but, hmmm, predictably so. It’s mostly cute, but . . .

I believe I got this during the year I took off school when I was living in Union Square in Somerville. I had a little room just larger than the size of my bed, which was full of books mostly, as I was, ostensibly, taking the year off to get some reading done, which I did, though I wound up working a great deal too. That door to that apartment was never locked, as far as I remember; can that be right? I do remember that my room had a broken window that I never bothered to fix: at the start of that year, I didn’t have any money (why?), and by the time I did, I think, it had warmed up. It was an odd way to live.

intro / james, “say something”

Another project for a blog overloaded with projects: here I shall attempt to go through the massive pile of old, and in some cases mouldering, CDs that I’ve been lugging around from various place to the current place, listen to each, if possible, and to try to figure out (in writing) why I got the CD and what happened to me when it was around. This is largely because there are quite simply too many CDs, and it seems like it would make sense to just burn them to disc, which I’m doing in the process.

In method this owes something to somebody I knew in the co-op, Charles Messing (not, alas, this Charles Messing entangled with crinoids), who would, while I was washing dishes, regale me with the plots of dreadful-sounding movies from the late 1970s and the 1980s, lovingly entangled with his own life. I don’t know what happened to Charles, but I’m sure he’ll turn up sooner or later.

One will immediately note that the vast majority of the CDs are rather dreadful, but that does tend to happen, I guess. The vast majority of these predictably never get played; should you want one, tell me & I’ll happily give it to you, the resale value of CDs at this point being practically nothing.

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James, Say Something (single, 1994)

James, "Say Something"This is a single by James, who were (and perhaps still are) a British band. My friend R.J. liked them when I was in high school; how he started liking them, I don’t know, but he briefly obsessed over them. I had a couple of their CDs towards the end of high school (they were produced by Brian Eno, they had covered Leonard Cohen, both of which meant something to my nascent sense of credibility) and remember, weirdly, listening to them late at night on the drive to college, I think the only time I made the drive with my parents. I was reading, at the time, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a book I utterly and completely failed to understand at the time.

This single was probably bought soon after I got to college, when I was overjoyed at finding record stores that had what I thought were obscure things (in this case I don’t think it was that obscure at all, but such things simply didn’t exist in the rural midwest). I feel like I bought this at the semi-underground record store that was part of the Garage on JFK near Mt. Auburn St., though I don’t remember at all what it was called, though I do remember disappointment when it was turned into a Motophoto. Was it the old Newbury Comics? I don’t know.

This particular single: not so great. A radio version of “Say Something” (a bright, poppy single, which at the time I would have felt guilty about enjoying). A dreadful slowed-down acoustic version of “Laid” which was James’s one big song (but which was not a big song in rural Illinois, it bears pointing out). Then: two remixes. One by Utah Saints which is short and sweet, a pumped-up gym version of the single, which keeps threatening to break into ’92 hi-NRG techo-pop and doesn’t quite manage to do so. Some nice diva wailing at the end. Probably at the time I thought there was something not quite right in liking music like this, though I think even then I liked this. Finally: a long trance-y remix by Hardkiss, which bored me because it took out most of the vocals, vaguely dark + menacing, still boring.