The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

2010 A Glass Half Full

Audio Foie Gras: The Summer Of Smooth
Charles Ubaghs , June 28th, 2010 08:07

They don't come much smoother than Charles Ubaghs, which is exactly why we asked him to investigate why 2010 has seen the return of smooth...

[Editor's note: This is not Charles Ubaghs]

Post digital-boom, music - or at least the type of music that normally interests sites like the Quietus - has swung between a noise/nice axis dominated at the extreme ends by Sunn O)))’s bearded monolithic doomscapes and Fleet Foxes' equally hairy cherubim folk. Between them, you’ll find LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend’s yuppie indie (yinde?), Liars’ avant-rock, the lo-fi tykes and their glo-fi cousins, to name but a few.

Most of these bands have plotted out their place on the great musical graph via a hoary pillaging of the past. Often serving as their lone calling card, it’s a trait that has yet to be shaken from the collective consciousness. The early 90s, no matter how much we’ve argued against it, continues to sink its grunge check and smiley face covered claws into the cultural psyche. But even with the hype-zombies continuing to strip what flesh remains from the bleached bones of recent musical history, the noise/nice axis has never properly embraced a notion that, in its purest form, only goes by one name: smooth.

Best associated with what’s now identified as Yacht Rock - the late 70s/early 80s AOR of Hall & Oates, Christopher Cross etc – smooth is a sound that pulsates to a softer rhythm, full of rounded shapes instead of the hard angles favoured in the naughts. Even the likes of Fleet Foxes fall into this post-millennial camp of sharpened edges. As 'nice' as their music is, as coffee shop friendly as it sounds, they and their choirboy ilk peddle a narrow, shrill interpretation of pretty, and pretty is never smooth. It lacks the underlying swing of smooth at its 'I Can’t Go for That' finest.

Ask any youthful, urban dwelling moustache wearer in tight slacks what smooth is and they’ll point you towards soft rock. Dig around a little, though, and you’ll also find something smooth in classic R&B, Barry White’s lover man bass and Marvin Gaye at his hip-swivelling, pore opening best. Is smooth just easy listening with an R&B bent, then? No. Smooth is easy to listen to but filing it away under easy listening means lumping it in with the saccharine bleating of Michael Buble and The Feeling; a band whose claims of allegiance to the best of the softies falls flat, thanks, in large part, to a lack of affinity with the vintage soul that inspired their blue-eyed forefathers.

The 21st century has so far been a decidedly unsmooth place. But, as you’ve likely inferred from the title, smooth is finally making a comeback. A comeback thankfully devoid of American Apparel-clad hipster irony and the false idol of the guilty pleasure - a term that holds little currency today, especially when defining oneself through cultural consumption, often from a stance of opposition to the wider culture, is an increasingly futile pursuit. Our ability to access almost all music ever made with just the push of a button has been slowly weakening this particularly virulent strain of puritanical elitism for some time now. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the leaders of the new smooth are a disparate bunch whose ranks stretch across international borders and genre divides.

Leading this unlikely charge is Minneapolis 'supergroup' Gayngs. Featuring members of Solid Gold, Rhymesayers and Mr. Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon, the group’s debut, Relayted, takes its inspiration from the multitrack musings of 10CC’s 'I’m Not in Love' and uses it as the foundation for all 10 tracks on the album, 10 tracks they claim to have recorded at a groan inducing 69bpm. On paper, the story behind the album reads like directions for planting one’s tongue firmly into cheek, as written by a bunch of prankster indie rockers. Press play, though, and you’ll find a perfectly formed mix of psychedlia, pop and electro-funk slow jamz that would make even the Paisley one proud, a point recently verified by Prince’s backstage appearance at a recent Gayngs’ gig.

Relayted is one of the year’s finest, and it hits the mark without adopting the 'Look! Don’t I sound and move just like ?' tactic used by every Darkness, Duffy and Plan B in recent years. Gayngs avoid pastiche and if there’s one thing defining the new smooth, it’s the lack of any sense of imitation. The only discernable, stylistic touchstone found on Relayted is early 90s g-funk.

Eyebrow raising, perhaps, but Warren G paid his own dues to the Yacht Rockers when he sampled Michael McDonald’s 'I Keep Forgetin’ (Every Time You’re Near)' on 'Regulate', and g-funk is in turn the one near constant you’ll find among other practitioners of the new smooth. Oriol’s Planet MU debut, Day and Night, is dripping with g-funk style electro and saxophones – perhaps the smoothest, if arguably most maligned, instrument in existence. Flying Lotus also incorporates elements of 'g' into his work. His latest, Cosmogramma, is more rooted in jazz than g-funk but Fly-lo still finds time to explore smooth sounds in-between his DMT fuelled excursions into the outer reaches. It’s efforts like his that are bringing softer sounds back to the bleeding edges of electronic music; a place that has been lacking in smooth since the late 90s, horror show deluge of Now That's What I Call Chillout compilations.

Closer to home, those softer noises can be found interspersed between the bouncing beats of South London’s James Blake. Labelled post-dubstep by some, Blake one-ups peers like Joy Orbison by stepping up to the mic and singing. Listen carefully amidst the warping and samples and you’ll hear a pair of honeyed vocals that, influenced in part by Bon Iver’s backwoods croon, would make Plan B grovel at Blake’s feet.

Little surprise that The xx are fans of Blake. Their lauded debut may not have been labelled smooth by the pundits last year but it has helped push smooth sounding music back into the critical spotlight thanks to a seductive mix of modern R&B, Burial’s night bus soundscapes and guitar tones cribbed from 'Wicked Game'- a late addition to the smooth cannon that Gayngs/Solid Gold members have been known to cover live. The xx are, in essence, Sade for a generation of dubstep loving indie kids.

There are other recent torchbearers of the new smooth. Canadian synth duo Junior Boys have long professed their love of smooth - singer Jeremy Greenspan has openly admitted that legendary smooth drummer Jeff Porcaro was a key influence on last year’s underrated Begone Dull Care.

Of course, no rant on the return of smooth would be complete without a mention of L.A.’s Ariel Pink, the only man in underground indie to ever successfully draw a line between Guided by Voices and Gerry Rafferty. Pink’s turn the A.M. radio dial and see what comes out aesthetic has often landed upon a smooth station. It’s a sound he’s toyed with for years and it’s finally culminated in the pop gloss of this year’s 'Round and Round' - a song so smooth, even Hall & Oates would have difficulties keeping a permed grip on it.

Believers in the fading notion of what constitutes 'proper music' may balk at the suggestion that smooth is now a credible form. Admittedly, there’ll always be an element of naff joy associated with the original Yacht Rockers, one that’s still being celebrated by the numerous Yacht Rock nights that have popped up in recent years. Brush aside the dogmatic stance and anachronistic thrills, though, and what’s left are the seeds for something new, something that just might illuminate a clear path to the post-tribal future we’ve been blindly careening towards these past ten years. We’ve done nice, we’ve done noise and now it’s time to make room for smooth. Bring on the velvet revolution.