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U.S Useless
Trust, Loss, Forever Robert Barry , August 31st, 2022 08:51

A duo based in Edinburgh and Berlin (featuring one half of Hi & Saberhägen) making music on tape with the gentle magic of daydreaming

The guitar sways backwards, picked notes bathed in chorus lurching towards an attack now decayed. The sound jerks and stutters. When the voice comes in it seems to be coming from a different place entirely. Electronic percussion putters and pops in a third place, somewhere else again, far off. An ocean of static separates them and then, finally, engulfs everything, turning it all into hiss.

I know these effects, these techniques. The memory is tactile: My hands prodding the wheels of a tape deck, removing the cassette and turning it round, twisting the dial marked GAIN. You can’t hear sounds like this without being reminded that you are listening to a recording – and a specific kind of recording, too. They are tape sounds. This is tape music.

But Trust, Loss, Forever by U.S Useless does not arrive as a cassette in a plastic jewel case. You can buy it in two different formats: a digital album, via Bandcamp, currently retailing for €1,000 (an example of pricing as protest); and a 12” vinyl record (a comparative snip at €16.66). Listening at home on the format that the artist and label evidently want you to listen to it on, these tape sounds are joined by other sorts of format-specific sounds and sensations: the feel of a foot-long plastic disc between your fingers, the careful manoeuvre of placing it onto a spinning surface; the crackle of the needle.

Over the last few years, particularly since the (2003) publication of McGill University professor Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past, there have been a slew of books analysing the specificity of particular music formats, eking out the secrets and singular significations of discrete audio technologies like so many object-mysteries to solve. I’ve even written one myself. But perhaps it’s a mistake to isolate formats in this way. Perhaps no individual technique of reproduction is sufficient to define an era of music consumption or a mode of listening. Better to speak of networks of technologies interacting in different ways at different times. The 1980s ‘tape underground’ might more accurately be described in terms of the nexus of cassette–fanzine–postal service, for instance, maintained by each pole equally.

Trust, Loss, Forever arrived via email to my inbox a few weeks ago. Something about the message was immediately slightly odd. The spacing was weird. The tone of the message lacked that pick-me stridency I’ve come to expect. “I hope you enjoy,” the emailer signed off. “No worries if it isn’t your thing.”

He introduced himself as one half of lo-fi house duo Hi & Saberhägen (Proibito, Lo Recordings), but U.S Useless is clearly something quite different: dreamy, spacey bedroom pop songs, equal parts 555 Recordings and Lewis Baloue, or the Cocteau Twins corresponding with Jimmy Tamborello. The voice is hazy, soporific. Guitars pick lazily through dripping wet arpeggios. The beats are carefully, if cheaply, programmed. This music is neither strictly analogue, nor digital, but represents a particular conjunction of different techniques and devices, impossible to imagine outside of the precise relationship that digital audio workstations and cassette players currently maintain – not to mention the weird psychic aura that digital audio has leant to its analogue forebears.

“To give you some brief context,” Pete explained in the email, “the album started not long after the death of my Granda, after which I inherited a bunch of his old cassettes (he would often record songs from the radio in Derry). I started writing these songs and recording them onto some of these tapes that had space on them – also sampling little parts from the songs he’d already recorded. The result being that some of these parts I recorded got kinda wavy and blessed by the tape.”

Trust, Loss, Forever is a work of mourning and melancholia. The warmth and sweetness of its half-hummed, wholly hummable melodies is tinged with that loss alluded to in its title. It is an album that trades in strange temporalities, alternately compressed and distended by the technologies of different eras. It emerges as an abstract machine built at the conjunction of the contemporary DAW-email–vinyl network with the same vinyl-radio-cassette network alluded to in Bow Wow Wow’s 1980 debut single ‘C30 C60 C90 Go’. These are songs blessed by more than just the polyethylene film and ferrous oxide of magnetic tape. An album as ludic and seductive as a waking dream.