Monday, December 17, 2007

Thing About 2007 In Arbitrary Order #3
Untrue By Burial, T-Pain

There is good reason to be skeptical when you hear someone talking about emotion in electronic music, even given the fact that most music, as time goes on, is and will continue to become more and more electronic. And this does not mean that I'm sanctioning writing out the entire idea of emotion in the realm of electronic music. Electronic music, like all music, is tied to emotion in a couple of ways at least, though in the case of electronic music the music itself rarely contains or expresses emotion, but rather that the experience of listening to the music, due largely due to circumstantial or extra-musical concerns, triggers emotions in the listener. Of course, this is a totally valid way for music to exist. All I'm saying is, when someone says, "[title of electronic composition] is so emotional," you may as well scoff cause 98% of the time you'll be right.

People like to talk about the Field apparently, but to me it sounds like every other micro house record I've ever heard. Cold, structural, boring, lifeless: entirely devoid of emotion. And sure, joy counts as an emotion, so Justice sort of counts as emotional, I wouldn't be able to counter that argument, but you have to admit that on a purely emotional level, The Cross is lacking something - even if it has joy locked down pretty well at times.

Which leaves Burial's Untrue relatively alone in this year's crop of "great" electronic records as "emotional". Are you skeptical? As I explained above, you should be. "Nothing's moved me since Music Has the Right To Children," you say, and if you say so you may well be right. Maybe there's no hope for you after all. But Untrue is good anyway and here's why.

Electronics when used in music can generally do two things: it can mask things, cover them up, or it can expose things. Amplification allows us to hear things we couldn't hear before - it exposes things. Modern studio production covers things up - it keeps us from clearly identifying the source of sound to the point where something like "Girl You Know It's True" can exist. And 2007 was anything, in terms of popular music (and I do not mean the music business), it was a real banner year for the ongoing battle between these two tendencies of electronics in music. But anyway, we were talking about Untrue.

The main selling point of Untrue is the way that Burial manages to wring emotional performances out of flat, ambiguous, spliced, unrecognizable and unintelligible vocal samples. The two best tracks on the album, and two of the best of the year, "Archangel" and "Etched Headplate" are the best examples of this. "Archangel" takes what are likely sampled pieces of three of four anonymous performances (or, I assume, anonymous to any but the most diehard record crate diggers) and transforms them into a fucking haunting vocal line, without retaining most of the words in any of the samples, or even the original pitch or line of any of the samples. "Etched Headplate" does something similar, though seemingly with material from the same song - cutting, editing between phrases and messing around severly with pitch and phrasing. What comes out in both of these tracks are unforgettable and, yes, emotional vocal performances created from totally forgettable and flat original source material.

And, like Jay Dee did on Donuts last year, Burial often does this while removing superfluous elements from the vocal performances he samples. At heart Untrue and Donuts are instrumental albums, not only because they were largely created on electronic musical instruments, but also because vocal performances on them are largely stripped of linguistic meaning, or even linguistic nonsense. The result is, I guess you could say, something akin to dadaist poetry - but I wouldn't say that. I'd say it's more akin to good instrumental music. Burial frees his sampled vocal performers from the constraints of the words they were trying to say.

And here we can get back to what I was saying before. Untrue reveals through electronic manipulation something about music that otherwise would be locked away in words, logic and a conscious effort to convey meaning in a traditional way. Most electronic music deals with apparent emotion, or potential emotion, Burial gets at actual emotion, and he does so by using the very tools that are meant to cover up - pitch shifting, reverb, digital editing.

But here's the battle for electronic music is fighting an underground war, a losing battle. Burial has created great music, but, of his own volition, will not take the fight to the masses. Our real hero here is T-Pain. If things get really weird we might look back on 2007 as the year that the auto-tuner went from being a studio trick to being a musical instrument.

Where Burial makes the subtle point that electronics can free us from bullshit as much as they can cause it, T-Pain takes a machine meant to fool pre-teens into thinking Billy Ray Cyrus's daughter can sing and turns it into an artistic tool. Holy Shit! Here we have the real maverick, the real danger to the industry. Stop that odd looking guy with flourescent dread locks!

One great thing electronic music has been able to do is take human process, actions, sounds and recontextualize them.

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