The Music Club

The Definitive Sound of the Obama Years Has Yet To Emerge
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 14 2009 5:40 PM

The Music Club

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Yo, club,

Singles or bytes, genres that are dead or just resting, feeling scattered or feeling in-betweeny, it all adds up—or breaks down—to a year of transition. And beyond all the factors we've raised, let me propose a more overarching one, especially for Americans: For the past 14 months or so, ladies and gentlemen, we've been floating in space. Or at least outside of the boundaries that usually hold Zeit and Geist together.

I'll be obvious guy and say the 2000s as we'll know them—that is, as the Bush era—came to an end on Nov. 4, 2008. Yet of course the 2010s cannot rightfully be said to have begun. Thus, the unbearable 'tweenness of being 2009. Music that seems more specifically of the Obama years (all eight of them) hasn't really had time to emerge yet.

The closest thing so far—while an unlikely candidate for next pop timekeeper—may be Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors, given the scope of their interests and the scale of their ambitions, all reined in by a cool, bemused control ... Remind you of anyone? Hell, there could have been a banner flying over the White House, during the deliberations over Afghanistan, that read "Stillness Is the Move." That song seems explicitly created to refute Sasha Frere-Jones' 2007 thesis that underground rock has lost the alertness and daring to stay in dialogue with black music, as its contemplative lyrics (swiped in part from Peter Handke's "Song of Childhood," the voice-over in Wings of Desire) soar out over a simulacrum of a Timbaland-scape—a mimicry validated in turn by Beyonce's sister's cover version, which improves on the original by cutting out the "see what we just did there?" fuss.

But another aspect of Dave Longstreth and his ensemble's sound indicates an emerging 2009 phenomenon, and that's the African influence. It turns out that Vampire Weekend, for all the shit that people (me included) have given them about it, weren't an isolated case. On my list are keening Swedish pagan-diva Karen Dreier Anderson in her solo guise as Fever Ray; Micachu and the Shapes' "Lips," in which I hear a strong vein of swinging township jive; Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend himself guesting with Malawian vocalist Esau Mwamwaya and European producers Radioclit, whose album The Very Best nearly lives up to the name; and young sound-sculptress Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-YaRdS, from New England, though she launched the project in Montreal. (The African trace in my selection is less blatant than it is in something like Hatari.) Live, both she and Fever Ray value musical performance as a collective ritual (cue face-paint, eerie lighting, wigs, all that dada-gaga), a universal human idea but one that's probably most strongly associated with Africa. And outside the rock realm we've got DJ Quik and Kurupt's  "Hey Playa (Moroccan Blues)," which, with its North African sample from an episode of "Bizarre Foods" (scroll to about 2:10), does its best to make up some of the damage done by "Arab Money" last year.

To my ears, all these songs also intersect with what's been happening in dubstep, as Jonah mentioned, in the DJ genre that Frere-Jones calls "lazer bass," in the Auto-Tuned-up-the-yin-yang precincts of dance-hall, reggaeton, et al., and in Gaga's "Bad Romance," when she hijacks the gypsy-punk of Gogol Bordello to her au'tarded ends. These blends of Third World rhythm and texture with First World pop and tech don't seek a Peter Gabriel-style fusion, more like a fission in which all these disparate things are happening at once—a less misty Fourth World music than the sort Jon Hassell and Brian Eno dreamed in the 1980s (though Hassel had a fine new album this year, too). I suspect this dirty-cosmopolitan sensibility will play a prominent role next decade, with MIA as its harbinger—if anyone deserves the "timekeeper" designation, I suspect it's her. (One of the most forward-thinking musicians in jazz, pianist Vijay Iyer, paid tribute with a great Galang cover this year.)

That "everything at once" aesthetic is also what marks a lot of the music Jonah labeled "weirdo indie boy" and Jody "exhilarating racket"—the Brooklyn/Los Angeles/no-fi/shitgaze types. Much of it sounds half-done to me—talk about in-betweeniness—but there's also a positive sense of "between" that is closer to "among," to making connections, which you might call music as social media or even "community organizing." It may not let you know what the next thing is but it lets you know something's gestating.

The most beautiful version of that I encountered this year was at a performance in Toronto last month by Los Angeles group Lucky Dragons, who are as much an art project as a band. They sat on the floor in the middle of the space and started up a simple rhythm and a drone, then began casually encouraging audience members to pick up instruments as well as the power cords that were lying around—which, as we had to figure out collectively as the show went along, generated tones if the person holding one touched another person who was holding one.

The sound became enfolded in this experience, at once intimate and funny, and time lost all meaning for a while as we became at once the composers of the piece and the material of its composition: The music was literally taking place between us.

So sometimes those interstitial zones aren't bad places to be. Sorry to get all journey-is-the-destination on you—I'm sure it'll pass by the time we get to the final round.

Carl

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.