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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Heavy Rotation: Holmes’s Pop, Chop Shop’s Ruins, People Under the Stairs, “St. James Infirmary”

What I’ve been most focused on, listening-wise, this past week:

(1) Holmes Between Features: There’s a whole lotta pop on The Holy Pictures, the new full-length from David Holmes, the DJ better known as the composer of scores for films, many of them by Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s trio). For example, both the album’s title cut and its “I Heard Wonders,” the latter of which opens the set, could be some dopey post-Bauhaus, pre-My Bloody Valentine lushness. That depiction holds also for the instrumental stuff on Pictures, like the upbeat, ’80s kick of “Melanie.” Fans of his scores will take comfort in the more atmospheric instrumentals, cuts like “The Ballad of Sarah and Jack,” “Hey Maggy,” and “Theme/I.M.C.” — all of them are heavy on melody, but are still more savory than sugary. And then there’s one truly serious expanse of sound design: “Birth,” Holy Pictures‘s penultimate cut, a thrillingly slow run of tide-pool placidity that briefly rouses itself, as if reflecting some brilliant object flying overhead.

(2) Rust Never Sleeps, the Remix: The Oxide that serves as the title to the recent album by Chop Shop, on the 23five label, is no figment, no metaphor, no mere familiar nod to natural, organic dissolution in our age of cold, digital meditation. It’s all too real, this oxidation. The title refers to the “damage. decay. loss.” — as the brief liner note puts it — that came to an archive of old audio tape belonging to Chop Shop, a pseudonym of sound artist Scott Konzelmann. To rectify the destruction by accident, time, and neglect, Konzelmann dove into the ruins of his archive, not to reconstruct the original material (it wasn’t, one imagines, salvageable) but to appreciate those ruins in their own right and on their own terms. The result is a CD consisting of one single track, divided into distinct segments of droning, noisy static that are the true sound of audio damage. There is white noise that sounds like the gaping maw of some malevolent spirit, and wisps of ether that are as soothing as an afternoon breeze. The lesson is clear, the passing of time brings both sorrow and comfort. That the album progresses from the desolate to the refined, from noise to quietude, suggests that Konzelmann has made peace with his loss. If nothing else, it has proven, as a result of this stark recording, to be our gain.

(3) Old Time Beats: Just last week (disquiet.com), the new Metallica album, Death Magnetic, had me dreaming that producer Rick Rubin, fresh from time-warping the famed metal band back to its potent mid-1980s style, would next turn to the Beastie Boys, unwind countless hours spent jamming in skate rinks, and re-produce them circa the tape-looped, sample-mad antics of that same period — for reference, their debut album, Licensed to Ill, hit in 1986, same year a Metallica’s Master of Puppets, and two after Metallica’s Ride the Lightning. So-called underground, or “backpacker,” hip-hop has kept alive the groove of that period (and the slightly later, early-1990s sounds of Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and their ilk), but Metallica’s backward glance proves that you can go home again — not just to the vibe of an era, but to its techniques. For Metallica, that means breakneck rhythms, as well as instrumental excursions that aren’t verse, chorus, bridge, or jam — think of them as music’s fifth constituent part, its umami. The equivalent for the Beastie Boys and other hip-hop pioneers of that time (from the pop of LL Cool J to the agitprop of Public Enemy) is the taut, noisy quality of fetishized sound objects.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Jon Caramanica’s “The Mining of Hip-Hop’s Golden Age” covered a slew of newer bands aping the old sound (nytimes.com), and lo and behold the vibrant new album from People Under the Stairs (not covered in Caramanica’s piece, which focused on New York), Fun-DMC, due out this coming Tuesday, September 30, is a veritable grab bag of true old-school rap entertainment. Which is to say, underlying it all are tracks built from short samples, repeated with an ear for the trance-like effect of the riff equivalent of a bon mot. Two of those instrumentals have been available for a month, thanks to a 12″ of Fun-DMC‘s “Step Bacc” and “The Wiz.” The former is the real keeper, from its wood-block knock of an opening, through its phased chanting, and those generous sluices of rhythm guitar. But there’s far more where that came from. Fun-DMC packs 20 cuts, so here’s to more 12″s.

(4) Downstream Coded Jazz: This week’s top Disquiet Downstream entry is the reworking of the classic jazz piece “St. James Infirmary” by San Francisco-based programmer and art gallery proprietor Christopher Abad, aka Aempirei (MP3, disquiet.com).

By Marc Weidenbaum

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