For all our chin-scratching and genre-tagging and influence-identifying, music people don't often talk about what music is actually good for. We discuss the stuff like it's a painting on a museum wall, an art form in a vacuum. To some extent, that's reasonable: Just as an art critic wouldn't evaluate a Pollock or a Picasso based on how well it matches her sofa, a music critic has no business judging an album on whether it suits his current mood. And most artists believe, rightly, that they have no business aiming to please. (Muzak producers everywhere, plus artistes like Brian Eno, have ignored or challenged this idea, writing works like Music for Airports to accompany specific places and activities.)
Of course, real people — and by "real people" I mean to exclude music writers, nerds, and musicians themselves — do not listen to music in a gallery. They play the stuff on their way to work, or while cooking dinner, or while strolling the aisles at the grocery store, and they choose music partly based on how well it suits those activities. When music critics and musicians get off the clock, we do this, too. We may believe that The Stooges and Chet Baker are both worthy artists, but we know not to play The Stooges at a romantic dinner, and we have learned (the hard way) not to put on Chet Baker before going out to party with friends. Prior to picking something to play, most everyone gives some thought to whether certain music works for what's happening right now, or not. (And if you don't believe me, look at the titles of your playlists sometime. I have one called "Party Rap.")
Technology has made this awareness especially necessary. Your grandmother's Victrola wasn't going to accompany her to the produce market, but you sure as shit aren't leaving your iPhone behind on that trip to Whole Foods. Now that you can bring your music with you everywhere, you need music that can accompany anything.
All of which may explain the success of Tycho.
Certain artists make it impossible to ignore the utilitarian aspects of music, and Tycho, the trio led by San Francisco producer and graphic designer Scott Hansen, is one of them. Since the release of its 2011 album, Dive, Tycho has enjoyed considerable success: approving reviews on popular music sites, enviable slots at major festivals, palpable anticipation for a follow-up record. Which is all a bit surprising, considering that Tycho makes glistening, unobtrusive post-rock that is entirely instrumental. You can't sing along to this music, and you can't really dance to it, either. Tycho songs, especially those on Dive, move like time-lapse footage of a day going by: There's a distant throb of drums, a slowly unfurling arc of synthesizer, a few droplets of reverb-y guitar. The melodies yawn. Nothing demands your attention. And maybe that's the attraction.
I wouldn't say that I loved Dive, yet I played it almost every day for months after it came out. I found myself wishing I knew more music like it. This was an album to put on first thing in the morning, whether waking to a deadline, as I often do, or a weekend day of reading the newspaper. The pace wasn't entirely sleepy, but it wasn't distracting, either. Many of the songs generated waves of melancholy, but the electronic drums underneath the melodies countered them with a forward energy. Dive was balanced, comforting, and reliable: It was ideal music to do other things to. (Many say it was great to do other people to, as well.) This has to have been a factor in its success.
Artists generally don't like to be thought of as making background music, and Hansen is no exception. He certainly isn't trying to soundtrack our hookups.
"A lot of the feedback I get is like, 'Oh, it's great for this or that,'" he says. "But that's definitely not what's built into it. ... To begin with, it's a raw, vague emotional state that I'm trying to translate." But while Hansen's songs do impart feelings, however vague, they also evoke something else, a spaciousness, a sense of landscape, that makes them a particularly satisfying accompaniment to pretty much anything. "It becomes something different toward the end [of the production process]," he says of his music. "I do start to see imagery and feel like it's kind of an activity-type thing."
Awake, Tycho's latest album, is more demanding of one's attention. After so many live performances behind Dive, Hansen came to like the more muscular sound of live drums, and recorded this new album with them. It's a positive change: Rather than distant pulses, the rhythms on "Apogee" or "Specter" ride as high in the mix as the synths, bass, and guitars, giving the songs a new agility and taking away some of the monotony that made Dive highlights like "A Walk" so dully entrancing. But "Plains," as Hansen explains, is one of the most nakedly emotional tracks he's yet released, and the album's title track exhibits all the best qualities of Tycho's music: A nagging, indelible guitar melody, an ambling rhythm, and a slowly building climax of soft, glimmering melodies and reverb. Awake is another excellent album to work, or muse, or wander the streets to. But it's worth giving more serious attention as well.