Monday, January 05, 2009

Three to Go: On Music

I believe I've well established that one of the things I love about becoming an old man is the correlating decrease in how much I give a shit about things like the trendiness of things like my musical tastes. Sometime in 2006 I realized I had wasted a lot of time forcing myself to listen to music and read books and watch movies I didn't actually like, but because it was demanded of the image I was attempting to project. As a result, my iPod's been living in 1998 ever since.

So while I still try to keep up on the world's crappy pop songs [Ne-Yo is a beast of a songwriter, people. Just admit it, you'll feel better], I don't really keep up on the musical trends the Pitchfork crowd think I should. Is Pitchfork still the zeitgeist barometer? Shows how far I've fallen.

So when everybody cranked out their best of lists for the albums of '08, I didn't pay much attention, but curiosity always gets the better of me, and despite the mind-boggling presence of the Lil' Wayne album on numerous #1 spots, I noticed something encouraging.

I'd previously mentioned an interest in the latest album by Girl Talk, Feed the Animals [pictured above]. After seeing it pop up repeatedly on lists of 2008's best records, including Blender's list and even Time magazine [topped in both instances by Weezy], I finally took the plunge and hunted it down.

And it is mindblowing. Nevermind that it has the best album cover I've seen since The Streets' Original Pirate Material. Suburban house with lawn on fire immediately suggests the sort of party to be avoided, and this is the album that would be playing when the cops come.

To put it briefly, it's a mashup album, but it's unlike any other mashup album I've ever encountered. Other similar projects, from Danger Mouse's Grey Album to Mick Boogie and Terry Urban's Viva La Hova all have...themes. Two disparate elements smashed together to make something new, but they all have an established framework. Even geniuses like DJ Earworm [who dropped the sublime Radiohead/Kanye banger 'Reckoner Lockdown' easier this year] make songs in a traditional sense. Verses and choruses and whatnot.

Girl Talk [who goes by the legal name Gregg Gillis and is a medical engineer in a former life], makes no such promises. Each song packs at least 20 samples into each of its 3-4 minute runtimes, and the selections are completely random and [this is the important part] well known.

I've talked about my love for The Avalanches' one and only album Since I Left You, the closest thing I can compare Feed the Animals to in the sense that it's made of hundreds of samples, but different in that those samples aren't recognizable. You listen to the Girl Talk album and find yourself being drawn into the ridiculous combinations Gillis pulls out of his hat. Metallica and Lil' Mama? Why not? Weezy and the Chili Peppers? That'll work. Part of the thrill and excitement of the album is hearing those songs you've known your whole life in a completely different way. Put it on at a party and every person in the room will at least one cock their head in puzzlement, asking if what they heard really happened.

This is all ignoring the album's other major contribution: the fact that the album, legally, cannot exist. All the music on the album is copyrighted, there is no way Gillis or the album's distributor, Illegal Art, can release it. But they have, in a giant flip off to the recording industry as a whole, offering it in a fashion to Radiohead's In Rainbows experiment of 2007: let the buyer decide how much they want to pay for it. Those looking to access the album can decide for themselves how much they think it's worth. If they choose nothing, they have to explain themselves from a selection of options from 'I don't believe in paying for music' to 'I can't afford it'. No judgment, you'll still get the album no matter what, but you should at least tell them why.

Anyway, this has gone on far enough, the point remains: Gillis has made something extraordinary, and while it's not something you would probably listen to everyday, and certainly is not something that can be incorporated into your shuffle playlist, but if you put it on at your next party, the block will be hot enough to singe your grass.