metal valentines

The tribute album has subdivided into several genres, including the remaking of entire albums, whether by groups of artists or by a single artist. Two rather intriguing examples of the latter showed up in the last year or so.

First, Japancakes (“groan” on the name – I’m not sure, is that better or worse than “Japanther,” another band?) has remade My Bloody Valentine’s 1992 classic Loveless…and, aptly given their status almost as more texture than text, has eliminated the vocals, giving their melodies over to various instruments, primarily pedal steel guitar or strings. The result seems to shift the geography of the music’s evocative landscape – from a hallucinatory, sleep-deprived dreamscape to a dustier, more western (as in movie) locale. I’m not sure why, but the resulting rearrangements frequently remind me of soundtracks to ’60s movies…although really, I can’t think of any actual ’60s soundtracks scored for pedal steel, strings, piano, and flutes (which is what the synths typically sound like). Some of the tracks work very well, demonstrating that while texture is what got Kevin Shields so much acclaim, he’s quite an engaging melodist as well. Others are maybe a bit too pretty, moving that soundtrack’s location from some twilit desert to a too-plushly appointed elevator…but for the most part it’s a successful reinvention. For comparison purposes, here’s MBV’s original version of “Loomer,” followed by Japancakes’ rearrangement of the same.

A few days back in the comments section, yellojkt argued that John Cage’s 4’33” is an “enormous emperor with no clothes joke on the music and art world.” My response is the following:

I disagree. Okay: it’s rather meta…in that it’s more a piece about listening to music than music per se…but that’s typical enough in 20c art. The point is to listen, firstly – but also, it plays with preconceptions of performance (to me that aspect is quite secondary: the musician sitting down, fiddling with the score, etc.). A key tenet of 20c art is that art is not necessarily inherent in the object but a mode of perception: if you see artistically, what you see is art. That is: if you look at something with an aesthetic eye, you’ll be looking for many of the things you might look for in a more traditional work of art: order, symmetry, pattern, texture, interplay of color and of form, etc. I think this might be most obvious in photography: a great photograph is rarely defined by the aesthetic beauty of its subject but by the vision and framing of the photographer.

Similarly: what Cage does is ask the listener to hear sound, as music. What sounds can you hear when you really listen for them? What sort of interactions, rhythmic, pitch, etc., can you perceive among the thrum of the building’s air conditioning, the echo of traffic on the street, and the occasional coughing audience member or whispered comment?

But also: yes, a joke. I think excessive self-seriousness is one of the main reasons art is seen as elitist. Duchamp’s urinal was all of the above (also, cleverly mounted upside down so you’d reconsider its form) – but also an enormous joke.

Everything truly serious is also screamingly funny. Certainly, life, love, and the like.

In many ways the complete opposite of the Cage piece – but also often regarded as a complete joke – Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music has received an overhaul…arranged for a small orchestra consisting of violin, viola, cello, contrabass, soprano and tenor saxes, trumpet, piano, and loads of percussion. Oh – and tuba, and accordion. Reed himself has alternated between claims that MMM is a serious piece of music…and that it’s a huge joke. He’s stated that the specs listed on the original album cover are all bogus…and he’s said that “anyone who’s still listening by side 4 [of the original 2-LP set] is even stupider than I am.” At any rate, German ensemble Zeitkratzer has painstaking transcribed MMM for the above instruments (one of the transcribers is the accordionist, perhaps accounting for that instrument’s place in the score)…and if nothing else, it’s a rather miraculous demonstration that the range of traditional acoustic instruments is by no means exhausted by the conventional orchestral repertoire…or even various twentieth-century expanded techniques. I don’t believe I know of any other piece that includes a part for bowed and amplified styrofoam.

Speaking of which, while listening to the music is intriguing enough, what really makes this set is the included DVD, which films the same live performance you hear on the recording. Reed has said that for him, guitar feedback is a visceral, physical thing (and it is, if you turn it up loud enough: if you see old videos of bell-bottomed hippies standing in front of bass cabinets, you’ll see that those cabinets move enough air to flop those trousers around pretty seriously). And watching this performance, you get a sense of the sheer athleticism required of these musicians. The string players in particular seem to be bowing furiously throughout the performance, and the percussionist takes up his station with innumerable unusual implements (including that styrofoam). If I weren’t technologically inept, I’d youtube an excerpt. Instead, here’s the first four minutes, first of Reed’s original, then of the Zeitkratzer orchestration.

Here’s the intriguing thing: once you get past the onslaught of noise – which is easy enough to do, particularly listening to all of it – that noise transfigures into drone, backdrop…and what’s left is curiously peaceful, almost calming. Long chords breathe in and out slowly, and I think Reed was serious when he said that he’s found MMM to be “meditative.”

(As a bonus: let’s say you want to listen to Metal Machine Music, but you just don’t have an hour to set aside. Why not listen to it all in about five minutes…through the miracle of modern engineering and stacking techniques, we’ve taken sixteen four-minute excerpts (approximately) and layered them on top of one another! Efficiency and progress are ours once more!)

My Bloody Valentine “Loomer” (Loveless, 1992)
Japancakes “Loomer” (Loveless, 2007)
Lou Reed Metal Machine Music, Part I (excerpt) (1975)
Zeitkratzer Metal Machine Music, Part I (excerpt) (2007, rec’d 2002)
Metal Machine Music (Efficiency Mixdown)

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2 Comments

Filed under noise

2 responses to “metal valentines

  1. yellojkt

    Here’s my picture of Duchamp’s Urinal in Paris. Now that’s art.

  2. 2fs

    If you’re being sarcastic with the last sentence…okay then: what is art?

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