Urban Homes – Centres
Altin Village & Mine Records avm046, 2013, DD CD & LP album, 35m 41s
£4.99 DD €10 CD/LP
Altin Village & Mine sent me some great CDs for Christmas… well ok, it was after Christmas, and they sent them to me to review, but you get the picture. This is the third and last of that batch (and looking through their recent release schedule it appears that I’ve reviewed the label’s entire output since October 2011). Like Pttrns’ Body Pressure, Centres has a sound that’s redolent of the 1980s, although unlike that band Urban Homes don’t wear an allegiance to the decade on their collective sleeve. The resemblance is less clear and direct, but striking nevertheless, for all that it is arrived at by an additive process of combining ‘house music, dub, kraut rock, balearic and disco’; of course the combination of kraut rock with more deliberately euphoric forms of electronic music is the recipe behind much 1980s pop, and was a founding manoeuvre of much of the dance music they reference. It’s the indie vocals that really seal the similarity however; European voices set to funky electronic beats will always sound like the era in which that conjunction first occurred. Urban Homes (or at least the author of their press release) are very clear where they are positioned in relation to the dominant traditions of popular music, adopting a position in the liminal zone between ‘the guitar underground’ and the producer led world of electronic music. This is a site they apparently arrived at by accident, finding themselves without a drummer and recruiting a TR-707 drum machine as a substitute; as a result their sound is an organic combination of sequenced and physically performed sounds, and lacks the robotic, alienated feel of much of the music it resembles in other respects. This is no longer a transgressive fusion, and the fictive tribalisms that once policed the frontiers between guitar music and electronic music have long been exposed as marketing gambits, but there is still mileage, and novelty, in the blending of ostensibly incompatible styles.
A TR707 has limited options; every bar has sixteen steps, and the swing it can impart on demand is lacking in subtlety to say the least. As such, its beats will never resemble a drummer, and that’s an important part of Urban Homes’ aesthetic; the bass, guitar and keyboards which the drum machine accompanies are played with feeling, and obvious traces of humanity, but they groove with a perky, jerky stiffness. Conversely, the drum machine itself is humanised far more by its context than by any of the technological devices it’s provided with. ‘Full Trance Effect’ is recorded with an acoustic drum kit, and it’s very clearly played by a human, but the song retains that sense of regularity, and much of the drum part stays within the parameters of a TR707’s capacities. The saxophone found on the same track takes flight above an ineluctable four-on-the-floor, so although it is clearly an expression of artistic freedom and passion, its context is still the machine, and human beings’ enactment of the machine. The bass is performed with much repetition and the minimum of embellishments, again reinforcing the common ground between ‘hand-made’ and automated music. The arrangements are sophisticated and varied, while the drum programming itself is superb, extracting a wide range of textures from a very limited timbral palette.
I’ve encountered a lot of music recently that explores the relationship between the human and the mechanistic. This has been an interest of the avant-garde for a considerable time: Conlon Nancarrow’s work with player pianos, Philip Glass’ additive minimalism, John Cage’s investigations of the aleatory, and many other practices, can all be seen as engaging with the interplay between the deliberate expressive actions of the human organism, and the formal consequences of a set of parameters allowed to unfold their implications independently. A practice situated within the accessible terms of the ‘popular’ allows for these ideas to be elaborated in a less abstruse manner than the avant-garde usually permits; there’s a ‘natural’ tension built into such conjunctions, deriving from the naturalness ascribed to the categories such art tends to undermine. In fact there is no inherent reason for one sound to sound more artificial than another, or for a random process to sound less ‘human’ than one in which decisions are accreted moment to moment: we have simply learned to read certain sounds as signifying particular positions in that dialectic. Urban Homes exploit those associations expertly, and with subtlety. Many of the established tropes used in Centres have both poles of that continuum already competing within them, as that set of seeming contradictions has already provided fertile soil for an earlier generation of musicians. Ultimately, the band’s engagements with these issues is playful: although their work is pursued with seriousness and some rigour, these pieces located between the (‘human’) song form and the (‘technological’) dance track are enjoyable and exciting entertainments. Made with skill, and a broad musical awareness, they are about as much fun as you can have with your brain switched on.