Bunky / Various Artists
Born to be a Motorcycle / Soca 2K5 Pt. 17
Asthmatic Kitty / Self-Released
2005 / 2005
A / A
he weird thing about modern music—so weird and so modern that it doesn’t strike us as either anymore—is the degree to which new styles are founded almost solely on new technology. In some ways this is a good thing: with the quick pace of gear innovation, new styles are birthed roughly once a decade, and it would be hard for a pop fan to complain about such an embarrassment of novelty.
But complain we do, and one of the more legitimate things we can raise our tiny fists to is the fact that styles and technology aren’t necessarily equivalent, and so while we might associate, say, the clavichord with Stevie Wonder funk workouts, this year alone it can be heard in both a rock/acid inferno (LCD Soundsystem) and a Lite-97 ballad (Tori Amos). Certain sounds might sound better in certain contexts, but that doesn’t actually mean they can only be used in that context. Listen to Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and you’ll hear a tight snare sound taken from Irish bagpipe bands by African-American marching bands. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s also not, strictly speaking, illogical.
This particular quality reveals itself when a style moves on from its technological origins without changing some of the musical characteristics that seem innately tied to its signature technology, because technology always has limitations. The workarounds individuals develop to deal with those limitations then become genre conventions such that even when the limitations are removed, the stylistic features remain. Technology creates style. (And the best technology for such innovation has the kind of differences, the quirks and problems, that styles themselves use to show differentiation from other forms, but that’s a tangent we’re going to leave alone since this whole thing is getting frighteningly abstract.)
You can see this phenomenon on my two current favorite CDs: Bunky’s Born to be a Motorcycle and the mix CD Soca 2K5 Pt. 17, credited to DJ Musical Mix (“Brooklyn NY Mixtape King!”), the former being an example of the evolution of lo-fi, and the latter being an example of the evolution of, er, Soca.
The Bunky album is out-and-out lo-fi at times, especially when those times are between tracks, with a number of distinctly Deerhoof-esque toy-noise segues (not the only similarity between the Bunksters and the ‘Hoof) that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sebadoh cassette. But other parts sound, musicianship aside, not unlike the polished pop creations of a band in any other genre, and this sonic disparity can be traced in part to the technology they used, which includes everything from your standard-issue cassette four-track to what they call a “calmpooter seastem,” which I think means computer system, i.e. ProTools, all recorded in their practice space. So the technological limitations become not an obstacle but a choice, as are the techniques employed in the past to compensate for the lack of technological choice.
Take, for instance, the above-mentioned musicianship. Lo-fi has a tradition of untrained musicians. But as the genre developed, it became clear that this characteristic actually sounded pretty good; the looseness was charming, and tended to go interesting places more trained players might avoid. (Also, it seemed to go well with cassette hiss.) Same goes for the prevalence of acoustic guitar (easy to record) and cheap keyboards (they were laying around from your adolescence anyway), not to mention the use of “studio” experimentation to distract from the crappy sound quality.
All of these things can be found on the Bunky album. Vocalist Emily Joyce is also the drummer, and man…well, she’s not the best in the world, let’s put it that way. But she is a great singer, and the drumming works; it’s right for the songs. Meanwhile vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rafter Roberts tends to lay down acoustic guitar lines that favor the spare and well-defined over lushness.
But there are significant differences, and most of them can be found in the song “Chuy.” It’s built around a riff consisting of bass harmonics harmonized by either a digitally manipulated guitar or an expensive sampler, reminiscent of Liars if nothing else, crisp and clear. Emily’s vocal line floats over the eventual mix of downbeat-riding power chords like a ready-for-prime-time pop song, and the distorted cymbals and rockin’ distortion of the chorus sound like Evanescence, sorta. In with all this are various lo-fi totems—the severely out-of-time post-chorus bit, the general sloppiness of the drumming, the weird dynamic shifts that result in an almost Boston-influenced solo—but it’s all recorded so well that it takes a number of listens to place it within its (proper, I think) lo-fi context.
You can find other differences, too. For one thing, there are the horns that dominate the first few tracks on the album, and not cutesy like on, say, Belle & Sebastian, but well-played, well-arranged. Plus, there’s a certain forthright sexuality here that you don’t often find in lo-fi groups; not sexuality subsumed into aggression, or sexuality-as-stoned-mopeyness, or even sexuality-as-creepiness (paging C. Johnson!), but just plain ol’ “hey that’s sexy” sexuality—their video for “Baba” looks like the Suicide Girls collectively covering the video for the Breeders’ “Last Splash,” except semi-naked, and the Paris Hilton sex tape, except fully clothed, producing an odd mental oscillation between “aw, that’s cute!” and “ooh, that’s hot.” But it never feels exploitive, at least to me (it helps that Rafter is her significant other, so mainly it feels like them goofing around for each other’s amusement), and so it just adds another little flavor to the general effect of glee. It’s another way that, by approaching more “professional” standards (trust me, everyone will tell you if you’re in a band that the female members of said band should “act sexier”), a genre opens up new modes of expression.
Soca, from what I understand (should’ve disclaimed this earlier, but better late than never: if in doubt, please assume I don’t know what I’m talking about), started out much the same way lo-fi did: music made by people not necessarily taken seriously as musicians, and, as such, filled with the kind of cheap but enthusiastic touches I tend to love. It was also decidedly temporary, being made almost exclusively in the month or so before Carnival, as this was the music’s particular purpose, to serve as a soundtrack for that year’s festival. And so based on these limitations, Soca developed a particular hyperactive sound standing in stark contrast to reggae’s laid-back stonerisms. (Of course, a big part of this comes from its musical forbear, calypso, much as a lot of lo-fi’s sound comes from the rock music that influenced its sound.)
But with the cheapening of recording technologies, soca artists were no longer dependent on record labels’ reliance on the traditional Carnival cycle for funding, and so started to maintain a more regular production schedule, which seemed to release a long-bottled up creativity that utilized the similarly cheapening methods of distribution to grow rapidly.
A Soca mix from a few years ago might have sounded almost Casiocore, full of orchestra hits and thin beats, but the genre has moved from traditional instrumentation to a newer, more digital sound. That new sound is fully in evidence on the second track here, Dawg-E-Slauther’s “Calling,” which uses—gasp!—AutoTune, that bugbear of rock critics the world over. But it works in the context of a genre that always tried to land right on the note rather than somewhere in the middle—that steps on and pulls off quickly, without wavering.
Throughout, elements of other genres are thrown in, reflecting the spirit of wild creativity that Soca embodies. With track five, Baba Shanta’s “Lady,” we’re in the middle of a riddim that resembles nothing so much as “Hit the Road, Jack,” a four-note minor progression descending stepwise from the tonic, spreading itself out over almost ten tracks until it hits K.M.C.’s “Fans Fem,” which throws in the melody of military chants, and Marchel’s “Miss Good Reputation,” that performs the awesome trick of just pretending it’s in a major key, and laying a precisely sung, sunny two-part melody over what everyone else had interpreted as a dark, menacing beat.
In the middle of this, though, comes perhaps the best crossover with Bunky. In the lo-fi’ers’ “Gotta Pee,” Emily sings a cute melody, broken up by blasts of noise, over a progression and beat that could accommodate almost anything—a riddim, you might say. It incorporates nonsense as well as little stories clearly drawn from her own life: “So who the hell cares / Cause I’m only playing out on a dare / In a band with the man of my dreams / Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee, so so so…”
Compare this with K.M.C.’s “Pinky and the Brain,” whose title does not derive from some slang term, but it actually about the 90s WB cartoon that centered on two lab mice trying to take over the world. Set against the aforementioned menacing Ray Charles beat, it makes absolutely no sense, but they make it work with a great melody and lines about, I can only assume, their own professional relationship: “You have history, I have physics / You have chemistry, I have mathematics.” The track ends with a parallel of the artist’s own struggles for musical world domination with that of the cartoon mice.
This is the ideal end result of technology: unbridled creativity. What we see in “Gotta Pee” and “Pinky and the Brain” is music that is taking the chance of looking ridiculous and reaping great rewards in the process, enabled by the celebration of limitations that you only get from being happy with what you have. It’s beautiful, no?
I don’t mean to sell either of these albums short by harping on the technology thing: Born to be a Motorcycle includes everything from woozy country crooners to hearty blues to noisy indie rock and is probably one of the best albums of the year, and the Soca mix contains 37 tracks, at least half of which are staggeringly inventive, if nothing else. But in addition to the basic pleasure of hearing this music, it’s interesting to me to think about where else it could go.
Reviewed by: Michael Barthel
Reviewed on: 2005-03-17