Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Irrefutible proof that I am a helpless product of the mid-'90s: Yesterday, I received in the mail a pair of 2CD compilations on Ninja Tune, Zen CD: A Retrospective and Zen Rmx: Remix Retrospective. They are nicely packaged, naturally; they are stuffed full of music, of course; and $50 says that a good 60% of music contained therein will never give me any genuine pleasure as long as I live. Having played three-quarters of the first disc of A Retrospective, I proved myself right: apart from Mr. Scruff's "Sweetsmoke," a playful riff (and I do mean riff) on stab-heavy late-'90s filter-house, most of it sounds bleh. Not just bleh--cutesy bleh, the kind that makes smart people distrust this stuff. You don't have to even be a hip-hop pseudo-lifer to find this approach annoying; it's the kind of stuff that appeals primarily to people who've been sheltered from hip-hop in any but its most collegiate or poppy guises--or at least that was the case back when people mistook this stuff for the future.

Needless to say, one of those people was me. And needless to say, I've put the disc on again and am playing it right now. And needless to say, this is the source of my shame: I keep giving it a chance, long after I should know better.

Why? What on earth am I learning by playing boring "downtempo" "beatz"/reconstituted hip-hop/refried food (har har)/any of this stuff? That the English are whimsical? All I have to do is read ILM for that. (Sorry, Limeys, I love a whole bunch of you, but your continued insistence that the usual post-Bolan/Bowie brigade of suspects somehow "rocks" or "can sing" is FUCKING BATSHIT.) (You too, pseudo-Limes.) ("Limons"?) Most all of it is wallpaper, and while I love me some good wallpaper (Another Green World holler), most of this stuff disobeys the golden rule of ambient, which is to repay attention as much as inattention. Most of the time when I play this stuff, even (especially) on headphones, my focus slides right off it like an egg on a freshly waxed car. I'll never forget the day I put on some NT comp (I think it was something like If Ya Kan't Stand Da Beatz Git Out Da Kitchin or something equally obnoxiously misspelled--and I am a BIG FAN of creative misspellings, so don't even try it) in close proximity to Endtroducing . . . (not back-to-back, I don't think, but within an hour or two of each other, most likely) and realizing that, you know, the reason most people kept saying nice things about DJ Shadow and not the rest of these guys was that he had so much more imagination than they did--he kept things moving by switching up patterns, developing ideas before your ears, playing tricks without being precious about it. He wasn't (isn't) afraid of being bold or flat-out rocking it. And most of the Ninja brigade and their cohorts . . . well, once they've EQ'ed the drums to a certain level of graininess and found their handful of samples, that's all folks. The sampler is the greatest instrument in the history of humankind because it allows you to do wild with the ideas; sure, you can end up with a grating over-busy-ness as a result, and the best hip-hop (or downtempo, or post-hop, or whatever) loops are often the simplest ones. (Cf. "Come Clean," "Method Man," most of Maxinquaye.) But the strike rate of this stuff was, is, surprisingly low.

Haha, "I'll never forget the day"--Jesus, even my epiphanies about this stuff barely register on the importance scale, even for me, and I'm a sucker for minutiae! That's probably why I like microhouse so much more, though--it's full of minutiae, stuffed with it, or at least the best stuff is. Even if m-house up and dies in '04 (and like I said, I wouldn't be a bit surprised, four or so remarkably consistent years is a LOT in this day and age) it's had a hell of a run. (Reasons no. 1 & 2 I think this might be happening: the upcoming DJ Koze and, especially, ugh, Pass Into Silence discs are the worst things I've ever heard on Kompakt.) I know that's unfair--it's one label, those are two releases, boo hoo. But you know the law of averages with record labels, especially ones run by and for friends--the further afield they go, the less focused they are, and when focus is all that becomes a real problem.)* But I'm not even able to muster any nostalgia for the N-Tune etc. stuff; it's wallpaper, period, most of it, except it's wallpaper that your kid brother threw his pudding pops at till it melted and it wound up just stuck there. (Not for nothing was one of its leading labels called Jazz Fudge, methinks.) It's not wallpaper that wriggles with life, that gets more fascinating with deep concentration, that isn't afraid of its own feelings or, especially, libido and have a sly not silly sense of humor about it (give me a genre whose artists call themselves Pantytec over one starring a Mr. Scruff).

Right--I sound like I hate this stuff unreservedly. I don't, though, partly because it gets at my biggest weaknesses: gigantism and identification. I'm willing to wager that the most famous v/a collections of this music have been the longest--the three 2CD Headz comps Mo'Wax put out and the 3CD Xen Cuts box Ninja Tune did five years or so back. (Which is another reason I'm bewildered by these Retrospective comps--didn't they already fucking DO this?) And of course here are a pair of 2CD sets . . . you get the idea. Yet--yet--the best collections I can recall right now have been not just single discs but relatively short single discs: City of Industry and Pop Fiction, both on Quango/Island in '97 and '96 respectively. The size of the Headz comps especially seem like attempts to demonstrate the immersive quality of the music, to show that this stuff is, you know, a world unto itself or something. (Well, that and the fact that the mid-'90s were a hubristic time generally, I mean Roaring ’20s eat your heart out; and that James Lavelle wanted to prove what a badass he was by folding friends famous--Beastie Boys--and semifamous--Tortoise--into his omelette.) Xen Cuts you can forgive for being a 10-year anniversary deal, and for having better selections all round. But especially the 4CD Headz 2A and B is my generation’s Sandanista! or something--too fucking much, of course, but also better than it’s given credit for. Or maybe not, since S! did win the Pazz & Jop in ’81 and all (no Headz II’s seven-point second-place finish in the short-lived Compilations ballot does NOT count). But still, bring up either and someone’s gonna bitch about overkill, and not at all wrongly, either.

But maybe I’m just nostalgic. Headz 2 came out during a really terrible period for me, when I was broke and completely alone in Seattle, the most completely adrift and aimless I have ever been in my life; I clung to that music (along with Prince’s Emancipation, another monument of too-fucking-muchness) with my life, and its one-dimensional aerosol-mist background paintings + clanging beatz worked as one kind of immersion therapy. (I was mostly a straightedge then, though I’d tried pot earlier in ’96 and was working very hard at not being a complete tightass about drinking, something that took me years to accomplish.) This stuff was a phase like any other, but it occurred at a crucial period for me, right before I stopped dicking around and kidding myself that what I wanted was to write about music.

So there you have it: I keep trying this stuff despite knowing better because it reminds me of when I was younger and less bright but things seemed possible in ways they don’t now. URGENT! LATE-TWENTYSOMETHING WRITER MISSES YOUTH! STOP PRESS! Right, I’m hopelessly banal. I’ll cut it out now. I do have more to say about this, though damn if I can remember what anymore. Maybe tomorrow. If I ever get over myself and/or my “past,” that is.

*Not that this is going to prevent me from going to NYC for the Superpitcher/M. Mayer/SoundMurderer extravaganza next month HOLY MOTHER OF GOD I CAN'T WAIT.