Monday, 5 April 2010

After the summer: neon dreams and hypnagogic pop

The 80s influence on current pop/movie culture continues to be incredibly resilient. To be honest, I thought the fetishisation of the era had reached its peak by the time of Kanye’s ‘808s and Heartbreak’ and M83’s fitfully amazing ‘Saturdays=youth’ album, but the decade’s legacy continues to be plundered to hit easy instant nostalgia/pleasure notes.

For starters, this looks like being THE must-see film for pretty much everyone who was ten years old when ‘Back to the Future’ dropped.

Musically, in the UK at least, producer Grum would seem to be the populist man of the moment, although I’m not entirely persuaded. I’ll admit though, he has been responsible for some ferocious mixes, all of them pushing those 80s electro pleasure buttons.

And, although ‘Can't Shake This Feeling’ is pretty standard retro shtick, the video is worth checking out, if only for the way it morphs from the traditional tits n' lycra aesthetic of every euro/disco/house cheese vid into a (possibly unintentional), weird, mildly unpleasant semi-tribute to Paul Schrader’s 1979 film ‘Hardcore’ (if Schrader’s flick had had a 'sploshing' subtext that is). Bizarre.

He also cooked up a video mix of his own 'Runaway' set to images from the almost completely forgotten Dan Aykroyd vehicle 'Doctor Detroit' that I have to admit gives VERY good eighties..

80s art-funk continues to provide inspiration, Yeasayer's new track taking the neon biscuit with a video that looks like the setting for an unfilmed 1986 middle eastern post apocalyptic SF movie – there's even a woman wearing a steel glove?

Amazing tune too.

There are hints though, that the straight-up musical replication of the decade is becoming a bit, well, knackered. Lots of people seem to like perennial bandwagon jumpers Goldfrapp’s disco-fied ‘Rocket’, but to my ears it sounds limp, tired. Didn’t Ladyhawke do this already?

Time for some ‘new’ sounds then.

I’m aware it’s been bubbling under for about ten months or so, but I’m seeing and hearing more and more of what WIRE magazine described last summer, in a fascinating and hotly debated article, as hypnagogic pop.

This unwieldy term was used to describe a bunch of loosely connected US underground artists who are drawing from the 80s in a more abstract, dreamlike fashion.

Similar in spirit to the splendid British Ghost Box label - whose artists mine the rich seam of British 1970s radiophonic workshop sounds, public information films, schools workshop recordings and the uncanny novels of MR James and John Wyndham to create rich, troubling musical compositions that sound both familiar and unsettling, and VERY similar in approach to the work of groundbreaking Scottish electronica geniuses Boards of Canada – these musicians approach pick n’ mix 80s mainstream sonics to create music that funnels pristine pop, analogue ephemera and trashy TV cop show synthesiser scores. Using lo-fi technology – cheap samplers, cassette and vinyl recordings that retain crackle, hiss and distortion – they occupy a terrain between the long forgotten, the half remembered and the immediate.

“Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams." David Keenan, WIRE magazine

Although not mentioned in the WIRE piece, this magnificent work by the mysterious sunsetcorps seems to sum the aesthetic up perfectly. By the way, the beautiful cut-up tune playing over some phenomenal 80s imagery is Fleetwood Mac’s little known ‘Only Over You’ from their 1982 album 'Mirage'.

The artists who are namechecked in the article (not online, sadly, as far as I know. If I find, I’ll link) are, as you would expect, very much underground practitioners, unlikely to 'break through' in any traditional sense. And to be honest I’m more sold on some than others.Key figure James Ferraro (who releases most of his music on CD-Rs) has a backgorund in noise-rock and is the most conceptual. Subsequently I find a lot of his stuff quite draining, and about as accessible as a Harmony Korine triple bill. Maybe I need more time with it. The amusingly named, and occasionally brilliant, clearly Tom Tom Club influenced Pocahaunted
were more to my taste and I kind of liked bits of Ducktails who offer a fuggy, obtuse, lo-fi, angular and disquieting take on the kind of fuzzy alt pop that soundtracked many a John Hughes flick.

I’m MUCH more taken with the electronic soundscapes of Oneohtrix Point Never whose stuff will strike a chord with fans of Tangerine Dream’s scores for iconic 80s movies like 'Risky Business' and 'Thief'. Check it.

Mann-tastic. I've included some of TD for comparison sake.

There are signs this approach is definitely being co-opted more into the mainstream. Bands like Washed Out, Memory Cassette and Neon Indian are creeping over the radar, with a more immediate though similarly disconnected sound – a kind of woozy dream/nightmare nostalgia-pop, muffled with snatches of half remembered samples and retro sounds.

The roots of all this music, ironically enough, lie in the highly commercial tracks of the era, huge pop records with an undercurrent of sadness like Hall and Oates' 'She's Gone', Chris Rea’s 'On the Beach' and, as Keenan makes clear, the absolute touchstone, Don Henley’s 1984 yacht rock masterwork 'The Boys of Summer'.

The co-opting of Henley’s track makes perfect sense. On the one hand, it’s the sound of an untouchable American fantasia; produced during a time of 80-track recording studios, bearded producers being blown by lissom models, Scarface-sized bowls of cocaine on the mixing desk. Yet it’s also a haunting,‘after the summer’ snapshot, resonant of an age of innocence, musically and artistically, and the driving synth is spooky, almost ghostlike. Of course it’s almost certain that none of the artists I’ve mentioned will produce anything quite as sublime/revelatory as this, but that of course, is not the point.

It’s that kernel of yearning, the moments of sublime joy, sometimes buried deep in the mix, that these pop alchemists are trying to unearth. Ariel Pink, a lo-fi recording whiz who has been working this kind of trail for years, is just about to release his most commercial work yet – a record that is very definitely in this spirit.

I’m certainly not sure about ‘that’ term though. Even saying it in my head makes me feel uneasy. And saying it out loud makes you sound, well a bit of a nob, to be honest. But I get the ethos, totally. Essentially what all these artists have in common is a firm belief in music as transportation, a kind of sonic time travel. Not to a particular place or moment but instead a dream state, one that extracts nostalgic elements from their immediate cultural context and puts them firmly into that liminal zone that Keenan mentions.

Rather than replicating simple pop pleasures, these artists are finding new ways to mine sublimity from a degraded, derided, almost exhausted, heavily pastiched and frequently misunderstood era.

Which in a weird way, I guess, brings us back to ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’.

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