On music and nerds

London is electronic music. Jungle, dubstep, IDM, electronica, glitch, ambient, and (sadly) trance all had roots in the United Kingdom’s capital city. While these genres may catalyze a spectrum of thoughts (between falling asleep and dancing for 15 solid hours, then waking up in a hospital bed wondering what happened to your missing wallet), they all have one thing in common: The music is created by nerds.

Mentally place yourself in Brooklyn, New York — quite possibly the epicenter of the scenester universe. Everyone in your cone of vision is wearing jeans that grab so much crotch, there is literally no chance of future procreation. Odds are you will bump into a self-proclaimed visionary artist or poet, whose work is more amateurish than the garbage you turned out during an unnecessarily emotional high school breakup. (As a side-note, they’re probably drinking Red Stripe.) You’re standing in line at Studio B — one of the newer clubs set in the middle of a warehouse district. While a little shaky about the prospect of getting mugged, the shocking plethora of free parking manages to overshadow your nervousness. You’re there to see Simian Mobile Disco: a British electro-dance production duo from the coastal town of Bristol. From what you’ve heard, you’ve painted a picture in your head of a pair of waifs, dressed in a “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirt paired with the aforementioned size-zero women’s jeans.

But when the band hits the stage, you find you were completely wrong. These two gentlemen are no trendier than your run-of-the-mill Linux-running, occasionally showering, Carnegie Mellon computer science major. Huge white-guy afro, Nirvana-era ripped jeans, and middle-aged physique. They don’t mix with turntables and they have presumably never touched a traditional instrument. They use laptops, beat samplers, and patch bays (basically, panels full of circuits).

Somehow, unbeknown to me, such equipment combined with the direction of two nerdy dudes produced some of the most dance-able music I’ve heard to date — ironic, considering neither member of the duo could dance to save their lives. The show is mesmerizing — a veritable mindfuck of light and sound.

The topical music genre, which I colloquially address as “Nerd Dance,” has been on the rise over the past few years. Rewind to Pittsburgh last summer: Girl Talk, a 26-year-old biomedical engineering graduate from Case Western Reserve, was published in the College Music Journal and Rolling Stone, both of which had a musically induced orgasm over his first major release Night Ripper. Gregg Gillis (Girl Talk’s human name) mastered the art of mash-up dance, somehow successfully mixing Ying Yang Twins with Elton John. That being said, Gillis is just shy of 6’3”, has an extremely pronounced Adam’s apple, and sports a dance routine which ultimately resembles an epileptic giraffe. A nerd.

Consider this a call to arms for music-loving dorks everywhere — your era is now. Groups like Daft Punk, Alan Braxe and Friends, Justice, and Digitalism are all rocking sold-out shows and packed nightclubs. Grab your computers, circuitry toolkits, and an 808 and perhaps someday, you could be the next Simian Mobile Disco or Girl Talk.

On songs about food

Slicing, broiling, chewing, and swallowing are such natural processes that singing about them is just as natural. Eating is one of life’s purest visceral pleasures, so I present to you a list of songs about food (at least in name).

Cibo Matto — “Artichoke” “Artichoke” is off of the Cibo Matto’s magnum opus, Viva! La Woman, in which Cibo Matto presents to us a number of food-themed songs. “Artichoke” is the most “serious” food and song on the album, beginning with a crumple and a clatter over a clunky piano. It’s definitely not a fast food track — it oozes all over, and Hatori’s voice glides along the distorted instruments. “Can you squeeze a lemon on me?”

REM — “Orange Crush” Orange Crush is a deliciously sweet soda, and I’ve always had a thing for this classic REM tune, in part because it refers to something so lighthearted as a soft drink. At least, that’s what I used to think — according to Wikipedia, “Orange Crush” is talking about Agent Orange. Huh. Well, at least this song, secretly about Vietnam, has the fun fizz of the soda. (There’s also a far more depressing version: the recent cover by Editors.)

Wiley — “Pies” Wiley is a British rapper who produced a subgenre of Grime he calls “Eski,” as in Eskimo, because his beats are so icy. The beats on “Pies” sound like they were created by hitting massive icicles with mallets, so Wiley channels strangely serious hip-hop as he sings: “Who ate all the pies? (pies) / Who ate all the pies? (pies) / There goes Wiley, there goes Wiley, he ate all the pies, boy.” Clearly, “Pies” is an incisive exposé on urban life in London.

Coil — “Broccoli” You might think a song called “Broccoli” would be silly, and the gloomy clicking and chanting are so over the top that it is at least smirk-worthy. That is, until you realize the band is talking about the death of your parents, saying: “Wise words from the departing: Eat your greens, especially broccoli. Always wear sensible shoes.” Beyond creepy.

Smashing Pumpkins — “Mayonaise” I love mayonnaise, the condiment. Many people find it absolutely disgusting, but there’s something fabulous about its semi-gelatinous giggle smothered all over French fries. There’s also something fabulous about Corgan’s voice smothered all over “Mayonaise” [sic]. “Mayonaise” presents a shockingly perfect balance of breathiness, guitar distortion, and indulgent, adolescent angst. Fans adore it, along with the better-known tracks off Siamese Dream like “Disarm” and “Cherub Rock.” It’s almost depressing to listen to the overdramatic, whiny new Pumpkins album — alongside the intricate, sensitive Siamese Dream — but that’s a different column entirely.

On DJ Shadow

In 1996 DJ Shadow released his debut album Endtroducing…... I don’t know much about its impact on the music world at that time, but I’ll share my personal experiences with it.

Once I started listening to the album, it took me three years or so to slowly get obsessed with it. I liked it at first, and thought it was great, but put it away as I got distracted with other new music. Every once in a while someone would mention it and I’d dig it out and listen again and like it a little more. The same thing happened with my friends. They enjoyed it at first, put it away, and wound up completely taken over by its subtle greatness a few years later.

The experience comes in two parts; the first revelation that the album provides the listener is a complete trust in sampling as a musical instrument and an art form. For those unaware, Endtroducing….. is an album composed entirely of samples from other sources — among the first of its kind. Shadow expertly weaves drum loops, bass lines, strings, and all sorts of beautiful melodies into completely new songs. The effect can be mesmerizing; at times it seems that Shadow had all the melodies in his head already and only had to sift through hundreds of records to find the ones that matched what he already knew. In reality, the process was likely similar, though Shadow was probably influenced by the types of samples he heard as well.

Once you hear Endtroducing….. it’s almost laughable to see how excited people get about Madonna sampling ABBA and Crazy In Love’s sample of the Chi-Lites. The difference? Shadow doesn’t owe the greatness of his songs to the greatness of his samples.

The album’s second revelation comes the next time you hear one of the sampled songs in full. Shadow’s samples usually sound nothing like what the end result is on Endtroducing…... For example, Shadow’s “Stem/Long Stem” samples the beginning of “Love Suite” by Nirvana (’60s psychedelic band, not Cobain’s). On Shadow’s track, the strings and plucked sounds are ominous and scary. It’s long, dark, and moody, and most of it is held together by that one sample. In contrast, “Love Suite” turns into a happy, bouncy track right after the point where Shadow’s sample ends.

As in “Stem/Long Stem,” Shadow knows how to slice out a completely benign sample from a track and turn it into something fierce. He doesn’t go for the entire great synth riff. He’ll take the beginning few notes, fuse it with the outro and create something entirely his own. Just listen to Tangerine Dream’s “Invisible Limits” and then check out Shadow’s “Changeling” to get a taste of the genius.

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