Sharp Darts: Chill the Funk Out | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Column

Sharp Darts: Chill the Funk Out

The latest from Shape Shoppe: Chandeliers' The Thrush

by

comment

With so many bands orbiting the Shape Shoppe performance/recording space and its associated label, Obey Your Brain, sometimes I think it'd be easier to keep track of them all—and all their overlapping members—with a graph plotting just how complicated and frenetic each is. Then I could just point. Chandeliers would fall in the quadrant defined by the "relatively simple" and "mellow" axes, a ways off from the jazzers in Herculaneum and a world apart from the freaks in Man Man.

Chandeliers' new album, The Thrush, like another recent Obey Your Brain joint, Icy Demons' Miami Ice, revels in electro-funk's prime years and packs in enough musical references—from Zapp and Kraftwerk in the 70s to Moroder and Prince in the 80s—to safely imply that everyone involved has an absolutely killer record collection. (In keeping with Obey Your Brain protocol, the two records have some personnel overlap.) But where Miami Ice is an amphetamine-laced party starter, The Thrush is better suited for the chill-out room. "Mr. Electric" opens the album by crossing live, in-the-pocket drum beats that could've been lifted from any good midtempo 70s R&B number with a fat analog-synth bass line, resulting in a new kind of tight, minimalist modern funk. Then, apparently too forward-thinking to sustain the mood, the band brings in some cooled-out keyboards that relax that tightness and feed into the IDM-inflected mellow of the next track, "Maldonado."

That pattern of funk melting strangely into ambient soundscapes repeats throughout the nine-song set. The album peaks with track three—a snappy jam called "Mango Tree" that makes me wonder what Thom Yorke's The Eraser might've sounded like if its icy veins had been injected with some soul—and then drifts pleasantly into abstraction again. The midalbum tracks "Big League" and "Gold Rush" have upbeat tempos—informed, respectively, by Italo-disco and breakbeat soul—but the focus is less on the beats and more on the squiggles of synth and horn on top.

By the time "Gold Rush" ends with a wash of muted horns, it seems Chandeliers has decided to reinvent itself as a jazz combo. "Bamboo" is little more than lightly plucked upright bass, reverby vibraphone, and soft stabs of organ over a trip-hop beat. On "Graffiti" the rhythm track's been reduced to a stream of clicks and stutters, and the seemingly random progression of sounds on top of it—a snippet of guitar, a breath of melodica, a couple seconds of wordless vocals—creates the dizzying illusion that a bunch of overdubs have been set free and abandoned the song they were made to support.

The Thrush closes with a remix of "Body Double," a track off the 2006 seven-inch Circulation (Ghost Arcade), with the original's Moroder-esque drive muted and its sharp edges rounded. This return to the same type of groove that opens the album brings things satisfyingly full circle. I don't know whether Chandeliers plotted this looping effect to encourage putting the disc on repeat, but it works. I speak from experience.

The Loud Album

Over the past decade or so, a new aesthetic has emerged out of the studios that produce albums intended for large, youthful demographics. It involves the heavy use of dynamic compression—a technological means of reducing volume differences on a recording—to flatten out songs and make each individual element sound as loud as every other one. The technique's critics have dubbed this trend "the loudness war" and blame it on the new standards for casual listening: the MP3 format and cheap laptop speakers and earbuds, which tend to strip out any parts of a song that aren't blaringly loud.

But the millennials, who have grown up with low fidelity standards, aren't responsible for this situation. In fact one of the earliest salvos in the loudness war was fired 17 years ago, when Metallica released its so-called Black Album, which, the band bragged, was mixed and mastered louder than any other record on the shelves. (In an interview at the time, the band claimed its use of compression was inspired by TV commercials.) And now it's Metallica upping the ante: the new Death Magnetic (Warner) is so compressed that its waveform looks like one fat line—no ups or downs. You can hear some of the drum and guitar parts clipping.

Death Magnetic's production has raised howls of outrage, and an embarrassed disclaimer allegedly written by Ted Jensen, the head engineer at Sterling Sound, where it was mastered, is making the rounds. Within days of its release some of Metallica's most devoted fans posted an online petition demanding a remixed version, but that might not be necessary. On the day it hit the shelves, the album was also made available as downloadable content for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. Sharp-eared players observed that the Guitar Hero tracks sounded less compressed than the proper release—an observation quickly confirmed by Ian Shepherd, a mastering engineer and blogger who posted images of the wildly different waveforms on his site.

By the time word of the discrepancy had diffused into the blogosphere, intrepid hackers were already coming together in impromptu forums—e.g., the comments section of the BitTorrent-sharing site Pirate Bay—to figure out the best way to extract the Guitar Hero audio and produce a dynamically richer version of the album. At press time they were still debating the optimal technique, but one version that sounded better than the original was already available.

Savvy bands and industry types have learned to exploit the willingness of wired fans to get involved in the music they love, whether by blogging, remixing, making their own videos, or joining virtual street teams. But the Death Magnetic fiasco demonstrates how ultimately they're acting in their own best interest. Drummer Lars Ulrich, a notorious opponent of music downloading, reacted to the album's early leak (via a Paris record store) with surprising sanguinity—"Happy days," he told a San Francisco radio station—but I can't imagine he or his band—or their management or Warner—are too happy that a pirated version actually sounds better than the original. It may well turn out that the definitive version of the album won't be the one they signed off on but the one pieced together by anonymous computer geeks who weren't satisfied with what they were given. And the geeks will be giving it away for free.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

sharp darts

Add a comment