Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looking for Trouble?

The other day, after hours of excavating the archaeological strata of my desk hoping to find enough unoccupied flat space to start a new project, I put on The Endless Prom by Trouble Lights. The goal of desk space remained a distant dream, but Trouble Lights’ energy propelled me out of my slave chair and into inventing Zumba-inflected steps along the short narrow hallway that serves as my dance studio.
Trouble Lights is the pop-electronica duo of Adrien Daller and Philip Rabalais. Daller is the singer and Rabalais is the producer/synth wizard. Daller and Rabalais met while teaching stressed-out people how to practice Transcendental Meditation™ under the auspices of filmmaker David Lynch. Daller has a rich voice able to traverse the spectrum of intensity without running off the rails of intonation. As to the orchestration, I’m not really an electronica fan, so perhaps I’m missing something in the instrumental tracks that true electronicaficionados may cherish, but Rabalais’s approach seems obvious and retro – most of his tones sound quite old school to me, as if Rabalais is copying the very first synthesizer sounds making their way into pop music, as on Joni Mitchell’s “Shadows and Light” from 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. But maybe this is a really hip thing to do. Fortunately Daller’s voice makes up for a lot of the regimented buzzing of Rabalais’s synthesizers.

Lyrically, Trouble Lights inhabits a rather grim landscape – starting with the album title. For some people a high school dance might be a fondly recalled image, but for me it conjures up memories of the Junior Prom at the other high school, which did seem endless, trapped as I was clasping the clammy hand of my date, whom nobody was surprised years later to learn was gay. At the time he was wisely keeping quiet about it by decorating himself with a form of protective coloration – me – since he would probably have been beaten up or worse by the good ol’ high school boys surrounding him had he tried to come out and be authentic. 

My own memory feels compatible with Daller and Rabalais’s sensibility, as they paint a landscape of sorrowful alienation tempered by the occasional flicker of compassion. It’s those lamps in the wilderness that enable some people to survive the horrors of high school who might not otherwise do so.

The Endless Prom’s lyrics are quite spare and general, occasionally spiced with intensity. In “Grey,” the duo revisits a favorite theme of the 1950s and 1960s – the men in the gray flannel suits, the Stepford wives, the Valleys of the Dolls, the quiet desperation:

What do you do when the everyday
Slowly replaces your life with grey

And in “Ride This Horse,” an unusual and striking metaphor:

Inside the basement of our love
All I can find is my obsession…

Though I’m not crazy about electronica, I do like some synth-pop, which is a close relative, and I think Trouble Lights qualifies as both. But as with all digitally produced sounds, the relentless precision of the beats on The Endless Prom – and their similarity from cut to cut – is very wearing. 

You wouldn’t think the small rhythmic inaccuracies that crop up when people play analog instruments could be so valuable, but they act sort of like that third color that “pulls it all together” in your outfit, or that pinch of salt that adds a certain je ne sais quoi to your entrĂ©e. They blend instruments, timbres, grooves. Instead of a regimented series of ones and zeroes, “natural” grooves are the result of negotiations among all the players, more than the mere sum of their parts. It's this communal broth that I miss in Rabalais's arrangements.

The problem is exacerbated when all the parts are played by one person repeatedly overdubbing; when there’s only one player there’s also only one person’s playing chops, typical mistakes and favorite memes. In that case the inaccuracies work more like a standing wave, an amplification and propagation of an element that becomes more tedious with every new track. Trust me, I’m familiar with this problem, as is anyone who tries to bring her music into the world unaided by other musicians. Suffice it to say that I spend a fair amount of time moving notes around in the MIDI view when I’m recording at home. I find it’s often better to put up with a little bit of rhythmic inaccuracy than to quantize everything.

Despite its rhythmic tedium, as noted above, this album is danceable. Dance and electronica go way back; the first modern dance with an electronic score was Merce Cunningham’s “Suite by Chance” in 1952.  And here’s a recent – fantastic!! – piece by the California Filipino hip-hop dance group Kaba Modern Performance with electronic accompaniment.

When I was performing in Portland clubs, there was an unending battle between people who wanted to play the kind of music people liked to listen to and the kind they liked to dance to. My little singer-songwriter subculture looked down on dance music; we wanted people to be aware of all the nuances of our lyrics, the beautiful sounds of our acoustic guitars, the lonely passion of our voices, which we did not think they would notice if they were dancing. During this same period, though, I was also a modern dance accompanist at Reed College, cranking out improvised grooves and themes on the piano and various percussion instruments for several hours a day. In that environment, the musical details were secondary to the movement, and the movement provided a cerebral cortex-free link between hearing and vision for me – I played what I saw.

In doing so, I learned that fundamentally, music and dancing cannot be separated; they are the time-space continuum. So whatever you call it, music and dance go together. With that in mind, it’s time to return to my “dance studio” and try out some old school moves to some new school synth-pop.

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