, January 21st, 2009 06:17
New York in the Noughties found itself a cosmopolis sidelined and outvoted by the vast, mythic (sinister) heartland behind it, under an administration whose adventurism mass-produced an anti-American consensus everywhere from Middle East to Old Europe. It also divided the country so cleanly and deeply that those democrats and liberals of the bigger cities could only protest. But defiance proved more spectacle than strategy, and - while the Bush years will be remembered for flourishing satire, the laughs were doomed; the jokes couldn't match the imagination of the administration's continued abuses and excesses.
Switch off the television, though, and something was happening, something small and slow and local. Some place in Brooklyn, a group of musicians grew, over a couple of years, a new need to recycle music from other cultures. The internet provided the source material, but the desire stemmed (I like to think) from an instinctual rejection of their regime's isolationism - especially when Bush was confirmed with a second term - to somehow express solidarity with the world beyond. Gang Gang Dance, First Nation (now Rings), Dirty Projectors et al, would focus Animal Collective and Black Dice's earlier explorations while DJ/rupture mashed mixes and, in the clubs, Diplo fed third world dance music back to the first, capturing the media in the process.
Enter Telepathe, emerging at almost plantlike pace on the same Social Registry label which had brought through GGD. Initial EPs, Farewell Forest (2006) and Sinister Militia (2007) marked their makers as belonging to the sketchier end of what I (and I alone) called 'neo-ethno' (it's better than 'World Music 2.0', at least) but gave little else away.
Indeed, few outfits around circa right now have stage-managed their mystique better than the quartet / trio / duo, and word-of-press was stoked-to-smouldering by the news TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek had volunteered to produce their full-length debut. First fruit of the collabo, 'Chrome's On It' surfaced in 2008, and showed they were trading scenic route for off-road. While maintaining meandering introversion, it shuffled in syndrum autofills like slowing rims, plus sickly synthesised melodies, submerging the pleasure centres in a way chopped and screwed music had long before. From which point they (quite correctly) had the blogs on lock.
And so, 2009 hits and so does Dance Mother, with 'So Fine's dancefloor blur, all warm pulses and held notes expanding like suddenly full sails. The heavy atmospherics linger, but machine beats displace reticence for confidence, and stasis for acceleration. It heralds an album which will weave uneasily between entropic electro, evil R&B and 4AD slowdance, Sitek's thumb-prints showing only in how skilfully the ingredients are blended, with enough dissonance at the edges of harmonies to stop it dissolving into sizzurp.
Some early commentators have already questioned the simplicity of Telepathe's revamped-but-raw sounds, missing the point (if presets aren't the new four chords, what is/are?) In fact, it's these DIY FX that hold the key to what makes this record special, and may yet put Telepathe in the vanguard of their own movement. Because, as has already been mentioned plenty in early reviews, it's their magnetic attraction toward post-90s Southern hip-hop that's the story here, the avant-garde pop of Timbaland and The Neptunes, but also (even more) the skeletal horrorcore of Three 6 Mafia. Add in more recent, post-crunk R&B (noting that the latest generation of singers - Ciara, Rihanna, Cassie - are themselves kind of post-divas, less soulful screams, more glassy tones) and you're closing on it.
Of course, Dance Mother is no way/shape/form a hip-hop/R&B record - later obsessions bleed into their earlier sound (in a way they themselves characterise as 'Ying Yang meets Cocteau Twins'). But remember that hip-hop is not just good-time singles and swagger - what Telepathe key more into is the genre-wide vein of realistic sadness - almost every rap album out there has at least one requiem for dead friends, damaged childhoods, etc.
Although one of the band's defining characteristics, the beats are often recessed, like the grid beneath a life drawing. Above, their language dovetails the romantic slang of urban teens ("We can feel the real bang-bang") and archaic passages ("Find myself in an iron gown"). Vocal interplay is less call-and-response (which would suggest a dialogue) than constant overlap (and so, more subtitles, or - following the name - psychic collage) delivered in the diminuendo of shallow breaths straining to hit the higher registers. Over nine tracks they kill dancefloors, spike what could be a keening love song with the line "My greatest wish would be to destroy you" and - in their three-part, dubstep-meets-narrative-hip-hop trilogy (called, um, 'Trilogy') employ sub-bass like a psychoacoustic experiment to illustrate the story (which is, fittingly, southern gothic). It's an accomplished, agenda-setting performance by any standards.
If there's a flaw, it's that for all this, they still haven't quite hit top gear - for all its switches and manoeuvres, the record as a whole feels like a series of codas, everything tending toward silence and stopping. The evidence there's more to come? 'Devil's Trident'.
It sidewinds satisfyingly into the body-clockwork of R&B beats, rising from torpor and layering up synth shimmer, real or imagined brass undercoating their, again, double-exposed voices. Three tracks deep, an unprecedented intensity and embonpoint, something delirious in how these mumbles twine thornily together, an almost impenetrable Babel. "Provoke a frenzy in me, my love," they half-sing, recalling the way Kenneth Anger uses superimposition to suggest something subtle, something unquantifiable, thus disquieting, about the world on the other side of the body - it starts to feel supernatural, extra-sensory. "Does one expect an afterlife? No."
Ultimately, the importance of this record not so much in how Telepathe attempt to reconcile their disparate influences (although they do, and it is fine) but in how they get details wrong in the remake. As Italians Do It Better resurrect Italo/Synth Disco as something it wasn't before4, as The Dead Science tried to analogue-emulate the Wu-Tang clan on their under-rated 'Villainaire' album. Evolution roots from imperfect copies, right? Dance Mother ends with 'Drugged', a supreme finale which dreams like coedine, and beams like fibre-optics. It manages to sound like it's ascending and descending at the same time (which is to say: see title). And if you want my final word, I think something begins here.