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

David Byrne’s Field Guide to Blip Hop

In the face of countless electronic-music compilations, the Luaka Bop record label, run by David Byrne, faux-hubristically titled its entry The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need — and then added Vol. 1, in order to further hedge its bets. The album’s 13 tracks include work by Mouse on Mars, To Rococo Rot (in collaboration with I-Sound), Doctor Rockit (better known these days as Matthew Herbert), among others. By “blip hop” is meant that pop-minded brand of electronic music that, for all its skittery rhythms and scraped together samples, is still identifiable as pop music, what with its emphasis on danceable beats and soundbite-memorable riffs. The phrase “blip hop” is unlikely to surface as the defining term in electronica, any more than “glitch” or “IDM” or, for that matter, “electronica,” but it is a useful hybrid. “Blip” stands for the simple, lo-fi tones that typify “glitch” electronic music, sounds that often seem to have derived from malfunctioning equipment. “Hop” is cleaved from “hip-hop,” which is to say rhythmically inventive pop music made from spare parts (two turntables and a microphone).

The liner notes, by Byrne himself, confirm his potential as a standup music critic. They evidence the kind of wit and insight associated with his forbearers, the cutup composers John Cage and Eric Satie. The lengthy essay is titled “Machines of Joy” and subtitled “I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly” and it opens with a deadpan reflection on how the “cold damp climate” of Northern Europe, which he posits as the birthplace of the genre, is responsible for everything from the region’s highly “symbiotic relationship” with machines to its inhabitants’ philosophical “inward”ness and, as a result, the music that helps humans dance like computers. Byrne, it should be noted, is Scottish.

Given the likelihood that fans of David Byrne, best known for his work with the art-pop band Talking Heads, are going to purchase this album, it couldn’t have started off better than it does, with Mouse on Mars’ “Mykologics,” which sounds like a remix of the Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” To the uninitiated, many of these tracks will sound more like blueprints than like songs, what with their uniformly unflappable spare-ness. Pickadelic‘s “Burn Mamacita,” with its swollen drumming and its light accent of dub reggae, sounds more like the foundation of a world-music cut than a final edit. On first and tenth listens, Mental Overdrive‘s “Gravity Sucks, Maan” will have you waiting for a vocal to, finally, cut in — but it never does. The compilation was made with the uninitiated in mind, and it’ll satisfy curiosity many times over. Much of the music is, true to the collection’s mock-historical liner notes, history: the Mouse on Mars track is from 1999, the Mental Overdrive from ’98, the Pickadelic from ’97; in a kind of meta-compilation mode, one track (Skist‘s “Shift”) is from the original Clicks & Cuts compilation. But there is new music, too, including a vocal cover of an Autechre instrumental (“Gnit,” off Tri Repetae++) by Maria Daulne (of Zap Mama), and a track by Vibulator, which turns out to be Byrne himself.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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