The Tinkerers

The Books, Battles, Prefuse 73, and other bands for whom, musically speaking, freedom is on the march

It all started back in the mid- to late '90s. As neo-grunge, nu-metal, teeny-pop, and bling-bling ruled the airwaves, the underground was thriving. Indie rock was everywhere, electronic music was splintering into dozens of subgenres, and "conscious" hip hop was on a mission to define itself in opposition to its gaudy mainstream counterpart. Toward the turn of the millennium -- thanks in large part to the Internet and Napster -- the walls were coming down; we shared and shared alike, and before we knew it all of these below-the-radar genres began to mingle. These days, for countless musicians around the world, categorizing what they're doing is a useless pursuit, like giving names to clouds.

It's in this gray area that I feel most comfortable. I'm a fan of those I'll call the tinkerers, the chameleonic bands that challenge your perception of what makes this sound hip hop, this sound rock, this sound ambient, this sound experimental. Where do the lines exist? Is it even necessary to know? Last week I was treated to a handful of bands that revel in such questions. This week a few more are coming to town.

Let's start with the Books, an act that sold out two shows at Café Du Nord last Tuesday and Wednesday. On the second night, the group made some of the most original music I've ever heard: Elliptical guitar lines danced with pulses of warm, oaky cello as field recordings and found sounds (ranging from old movie dialogue to academic lectures to unidentifiable tapes purchased in thrift stores) behaved as both lyrics and percussion. Visual images flitted on a screen -- babies, sumo wrestlers, food, the ocean -- spliced together from similarly found footage, none of it lasting long enough to process, merely to perceive. The sounds and images darted quickly but had a calming effect, like a swift-moving river.

"It sounds like New Age music!" protested my friend Erick, whom I had dragged to the show. That's one of the dangers of running willy-nilly through aesthetics: You never know when someone's going to take a snapshot of you frozen in Yanni-land.

The next day I sought out the metaltronic supercrunch of Battles at the Great American Music Hall. You really should check out Battles. At times, multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton played a keyboard line with one hand and hammered a contrapuntal guitar line with the other. While standing on one foot. (This wasn't a stunt or an affectation; I think he just likes to lift one leg as he plays.) As Braxton and two other multi-instrumentalists looped their guitar and synth attacks over, under, and through one another using sample-delay pedals, drummer John Stanier murdered his kit (which included a crash cymbal standing 6 or 7 feet high), frantically smashing out cadences that sounded like the square root of the number three. When the band concluded its set I thought to myself, "So that's what it feels like when coal becomes a diamond."

"Nerds!" someone yelled from the audience, referring (jokingly, I think) to what could be construed as Battles' ultradorky, meticulously executed sound; another audience member said it reminded him of early Genesis. Oh well.

However you classify Battles, it's not a stretch to say that their noise assault wasn't the most intuitive warm-up to hip hop shape-shifter Prefuse 73, aka Scott Herren, who's been bombarded with praise for producing fractured hip hop that's supposed to sound like you're listening to it through some kind of audio kaleidoscope. Anchored by a live drummer sitting center stage, Herren's set didn't pack nearly the wallop of his scrupulously composed albums; in fact, it rather stunk. Herren, wearing a fuzzy hat, a big white scarf, and tinted glasses like some hipster Bedouin, hovered over knobs, helming what to me was nothing more than a boring beat and a few gauzy samples. That's the trouble with the tinkerers: Studio experiments don't always add up to live success.


Comedian David Cross has a bit about "our freedom" that's become something of a meme among comics in the last few years. The bit starts off with Cross' description of an absurd commercial he saw for "electric scissors" while watching fuck-dolls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in The Simple Life.

"I vowed," continues Cross, "that I'm gonna retain that image every time I hear George W. Bush go, [whispers]'The terrorists hate our freedom.'

"You know what? I hate our freedom. ... That's all we've done with it? We're fucking assholes!"

This describes how I feel about unoriginal, pandering music. The No. 1 virtue of music -- or any art form, really -- is its ability to celebrate the human mind's endless capacity for ingenuity: We're never stuck, and we never will be. What's so deplorable about the '80s/ new-wave revival that we're trapped in over in alternative rock land, and what makes hip hop's tendency to cannibalize itself so disturbing (there are obvious exceptions to both, of course), is that they celebrate just the opposite: We are out of ideas, we are fucked. If you're not trying to do something new and different, the only thing your art celebrates is consumerism. 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" is electric scissors, not that he really cares one way or the other.

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