Rewind Reviews #10 - By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
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Rewind Reviews #10

Keelan takes a mechanically-inclined stroll through the (recent)past. Author: on October 15, 2013
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Of course, there have always been stylistic shifts in music and art in general. Genres change and blend their conventions, movements usher in new paradigms, and individual artists change the way we think about music. Romanticism, serialism, stream-of-consciousness, and mannerism: all of these movements and artists have distinct conventional structures and landmarks and perhaps that’s the only real generalization you could give to art. So one of the most interesting effects of the internet age and the cultural saturation starting in the latter half of the twentieth century and onwards is the movement towards micro-divisions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that this is something without precedence and to believe that there were no deviations within historical movements is naïve. But I think one of the most overriding paradigms we have engendered today is this sense of micro-division, of slight deviations creating a massive and massively linked system of sub-genres and boutique niches. While in the past I have written about my skepticism toward the all-too-reliant use of sub-genre tags in contemporary criticism, I do think it is rather exhilarating and quite optimistic to see just how many slight deviations careen into exciting and surprising new territory.

This is what I had in mind this week when thinking of three songs, and to illustrate my point I will look at the way pop music (here meaning an umbrella term to cover popular mainstream music) follows certain sonic trends to wonderfully diverse effect. I was also feeling a little nostalgic this past week — probably having something to do with my romantic gushings over Summerfolk — so I have mined back to the late 90s, a particularly Canadian late 90s mind you, where I would come home to watch The Big One on MuchMusic, or Rick Campanelli counting down this week’s Top 30. One of the things I noticed while going over some of these songs was a particular sonic touchstone uniting what were otherwise disparate production styles; there is a certain synthesized ping, much like a less reverbed sonar sound, that has great pop and bounce. If we trace Top 40 tracks from the past few decades I think we can see how these micro-divisions work: someone finds a particular sound, perhaps borrowed from more underground movements, and reworks it into a mainstream framework. At the moment that sound still seems to be Skrillex’s brand of dubstep (much to my chagrin, but when in Rome, make lemonade). And perhaps the greatest element about these divisions, at least back in the 90s  is how each group provides a different take on a similar sonic theme. So yes, the prototypical bleep-bloop, the synthesized radar ping of the late 90s, in all its glory.

Love Inc. — “You’re A Superstar”

Love Inc. had a couple of hits back in the day and it wasn’t until I revisited them earlier this year that I really got a handle of how good these tunes actually were; both “You’re a Superstar” and “Broken Bones” have a certain quality, a special personality to them that really give them an edge. They often rely on the soaring, major-key synth melodies that we still see today, very much resembling some of the EDM from popular craftsmen like Avicii or Deadmau5. But Where I find Avicii and co. tedious and flat-out boring in their EQ humping perpetual build/drop dynamics (wait, are we talking about post-rock?), Love Inc. inject tried and tested pop mechanics into the core of their melodic, electronic anthems: a low-key verse, a killer hook in the bridge, and a gut-busting chorus. You can’t go wrong, and Love Inc. don’t. “You’re A Superstar” delivers the club-friendly, good time vibes with aplomb. And there’s that synth, bubbling throughout the background, in descending patterns, interlocking with the rhythm section. It has an almost retro-futurist feel to it (seriously, can we even say something like that about the 90s this soon?) while never feeling cold. Compared to the other two tracks in this list, this one is certainly the most club-friendly, and its take on the sonar ping is indicative of this.

Bran Van 3000 — “Drinkin’ in L.A.”

Oh man, this song was everywhere when it first came out, and for good reason. The Canadian electronic collective were clearly channeling Portishead in a lot of their sonic decisions. But while certain trip-hop groups were taking Portishead into druggier and more drawn out directions, Bran Van decided to brighten things up a bit. This is where a closer look at that radar ping is particularly intriguing. Comparing “Drinkin’ in L.A.” to “You’re a Superstar” is like night and day—no, wait, this metaphor can go further. “You’re a Superstar” used its production like the sirens of night, the neon-glow of the street lamps and club lights, the lure of the dance floor (where we all crash and die?) and in turn the use of the sonar synth was bright, alluring, and somewhat crystalline. “Drinkin’ in L.A.”, on the other hand, is dripping with the sweat of a hot summer day — the radar synth is now wobbling as if wading through humidity. Waver it does: the pinging sound wanders throughout the guitar chunks and the decompressed drums. And for a song that is very much about the opposite of superstardom, it’s a wonderful production technique.

Len — “Steal My Sunshine”

This one is easily the cheesiest and lamest of the three songs on this list — and I love it. It’s unabashedly optimistic and sunny. Hell, the music video takes place along a beachside boardwalk. And so the production variation on this same radar ping synth that I have been describing up until now has altered toward this sunny, optimistic outlook. The song’s intro, before we step out of the cabin and into our Technicolor dream-world, highlights the percussive popping that becomes the backbone for the rest of the track. There is something truly addictive in that sound, as much as sounds hold the psychological capacity to be addictive. Perhaps that infectiousness is rooted in the song’s campiness; I don’t even want to begin quoting any of the lyrics because they’re all just incredibly silly. The music video predominantly contains a bunch of Spring-Break-obsessed dudes and a single girl rapping “if you steal my sunshine” while seated at a diner, riding mopeds, smiling and having a really wholesome time — this is hilariously ludicrous on so many levels. But it all works in the end and I think it’s because all of these campy elements blend really well together, always tethered by that bouncing ping backdrop. If you took any of these elements away or isolated them, the song would fall apart into self-parody faster than you can say buzz-kill.

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