Monday, June 21, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show
For better or worse, this is the mix I’ve been waiting for Madlib to make, not for the content (“global psychedelic, progressive and hard rock & funk circa 1968-1976”), but for the execution.

A great DJ mix repurposes pre-existing material in a context that gives it new life, combining portions of disparate works in a self-contained, linear experience (whether for discotheques or living rooms) that voyages from valley to peak, tension to release, in a meticulously-paced arc. Along the way, the DJ reveals unexpected connections and contrasts between the original works, but you’re free to just revel in the music, totally oblivious to all that label-spotting and dancefloor-critique. The DJ did the legwork for you, combing through tons (literally) of records to find that one song, sometimes that one little part of a song, that will complete your musical life.

Madlib’s mixes, on the other hand, usually seem less about creating a new experience from repurposed records, and more about drawing attention to the original recordings. They’re sort of a demonstration for record hounds, put on by the ultimate record hound. Flight to Brazil was a tour of a specific region’s diverse musical landscape, and 420 Chalice All-Stars was an aficionado’s take on a particular genre, and both pointed listeners down specific paths of cratedigging inquiry. That’s why the lack of original track information alongside the Medicine mixes, while understandable from a legal standpoint, is so frustrating.

Finally, though, Madlib has made a mix that isn’t about the source material, but about the mix itself. While taking on an impossibly broad category as his unifying theme, for the first time on any of his mixes he has cast his pet treasures in a new light. It’s just too bad that this light is kind of ugly.

This is the most chaotic and abrasive of Madlib’s projects, interspersing noisy, psychedelic rock music with long sound-collage interludes. Early on, a man with a heavy accent singing a Spencer Davis Group song prepares you for an upbeat excursion through a DJ’s favorite obscure rock and roll. It’s a red herring, though. The songs here are smothered in mangled sound and frequently cut surprisingly short. Just when you start getting into a song (like the melodic tune in the first half of the third track) it is interrupted and rescinded. Attentive listeners will hear material they have heard sampled elsewhere, but what stands out more than anything is how much of the mix relies on spoken-word interludes, spacey intros and “freak-out” portions of songs. At times it feels like the “rock” has been taken out of this psychedelic rock. I think that may have been the intent. When a bluesy saxophone solo pops up in the second track, it’s run through a gauntlet of mixing effects and covered with barely identifiable sounds so it lurks and scowls where, on the original record, it grinned. Brain Wreck Show’s album cover, depicting anthropomorphic rabbits mid-coitus, suits the hallucinatory feel of the mix perfectly (as do the paranoid liner notes, compiled from an unidentified creationist text about Israeli dinosaurs, Chemtrails conspiracy theories, some DJ Quik lyrics and slightly-tweaked excerpts from a controversial book written by one of the founding Seventh-Day Adventists.)

I’m not opposed to music that is jarring and abrasive (can’t get enough Einstürzende Neubauten!) but this mix tries my patience as it descends deeper and deeper into a paranoid Labyrinth of disembodied voices and hallucinatory sounds. Sirens! Screams! Novelty records!

Psyche-rock as far back as Freak Out! and Sgt Pepper’s has always incorporated found sounds (Stockhausen-lite? “Poème Électronique” by way of The Mothers of Invention?) and it makes sense that this is one of the elements of that music that Madlib would hook onto. However, while the interludes on Before the Verdict were tangents at best and distractions at worst, the atonal found-sound here doesn’t feel like a break from the main attraction. To a great extent, it is the main attraction. How you feel about much of this CD will depend on how you feel about sound collages and tape-music.

There has always been an element of musique concrète in Madlib’s projects. Technically, all sample-based music is concrete music, but Madlib, moreso than almost any other hip-hop producer, frequently finds space on his releases to push closer and closer to “Williams Mix” territory. On this mix we have plenty of that, like the dissonant section in the fourth track covered with anti-drug PSAs read by the Looney Tunes or the extended “Eighteen nuns!” bit. This stuff is, from a listening standpoint, my least favorite part of Brain Wreck Show, but in the context of Madlib’s developing methods, it’s actually more intriguing than the songs.

We can think of this mix as analogous to the unaccompanied solos Lester Bowie plays on the second disc of All The Magic or Jimmy Giuffre’s solo clarinet experiments on Free Fall. The turntable/sampler set-up is Madlib’s primary instrument, and with this mix he’s pushing it to new places. A musician who doesn’t explore will surely stagnate. Not every experiment will be a success, but if iconoclasts played it safe, they wouldn’t be iconoclasts, and a lot of our favorite music would never have happened.

I’d like to see Madlib take some of this approach and develop it on future mixes, scrambling and mangling songs even further, blurring the lines between “beat-tape” and “mix”. There are three more mixes to go in this series, and it will be interesting to see how they’re put together.

In the meantime, we have reached the halfway point, and July’s release, High Jazz, sounds very promising.