By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Newsflash, courtesy of a recent Time article: Rebel music is as dead as Billy Bragg's career. Of course, Time is wrong, but there's a point hidden somewhere beneath its major-label-lovin' rhetoric. I mean, do you remember the last time a song left you wanting to burn down the house? I know that nothing has given me righteous goosebumps since Fugazi's apocalyptic 1995 album Red Medicine, when Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, sickened by rock-dude conservatism, snarlingly revealed his true feelings about rock hegemony: "I realize I hate the sound of guitars/A thousand grudging young millionaires/ Forcing silence sucking sound." When the rest of the group took up Picciotto's challenge by favoring the sounds of electronic music, they were nodding toward that scene's untapped radical potential--or so it seemed at the time. Trouble is, a mere six years later, it appears electronic music has suffered the same premature death that snuffed rock in the first place.
Take as an example Telefon Tel Aviv, the New Orleans duo of Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper, whose debut album Fahrenheit Fair Enough (Hefty) only reaffirms my worst suspicions about electronica's increasing irrelevance. Having heard that the group were tenuously involved with Nine Inch Nails, I was kind of expecting something appealingly twisted--bracing, maybe, or at the very least, REALLY FRIGGIN' LOUD. Turns out their only connection to Trent Reznor was a few lame remixes on Things Falling Apart. So I guess I shouldn't have been so disappointed to find that their new long-player extends a warm fuzzy blanket of recycled acid-jazz ambiance over the listener as if Boards of Canada were the most "out there" musicians of the last half-century. This is triply sad considering that early electronic music, for all its dudes with funny-sounding names, like Klaus Dinger and Conrad Schnitzler, was marked above all else by an insistent curiosity guaranteed to stretch your brain, if not exactly to inscribe said organ with a melody to hum the morning after.
In any case, the particulars of Telefon are particularly unremarkable. Their shtick? They combine live instruments (mostly guitars, acoustic and electric) with synthetic beats and ornamentation to make tracks like "John Thomas on the Inside Is Nothing but Foam": Tortoisesque jazz guitar and bass overlaying ricocheting dub rhythms, with some pleasant whirs and skrees perched inoffensively atop. Most of the album is amiably spent adding subtle tweaks to this formula--granulated speech snippets on "Life Is All About Taking Things in and Putting Things Out"; a little bit of Prefuse 73-style funk on "TTV"--and by and large the songs are quaintly melancholic and relaxing, and sometimes pretty in a winsome kind of way. Sure, I could talk about the interesting socio-cultural implications of Telefon's melding of the mechanic and organic, or I could get all geeked out on their muso chops, but that would only serve to render you as bored as I am listening to it.
Perhaps I'm being harsh here, overcompensating for my annoyance at the news that Blechtum From Blechdom (my Great Weird Hope for avant-electronics) recently broke up. But even so, we should expect more from albums like Telefon's, and more from music in general. When provocateur John Lydon squawked about "getting rid of the albatross" some 20 years ago on PiL's earsplitting "Albatross," he was cheekily referencing Pink Floyd's flaccid histrionics and the bloated Seventies scene. God only knows what he'd make of the mess electronica is in now.