Saturday, May 9, 2009

ZOMBY: Where Were U in '92?

Zomby - Where Were U in '92?
Somehow, Zomby got it into his head that his first full-length shouldn’t continue in the direction of the fantastic string of dubstep singles that put him square in the sights of subgenre-naming vinyl-only headz worldwide, but should be a 39-minutes-and-change fireball that affectionately recreates the sound of early 1990s jungle, with slight forays into the house and techno sounds of the day. If he had asked me, I would have said “In 92? I was in elementary school, learning to write in cursive, where were you, Zomby?” and then I would have told him to just make a whole album that sounds like “Liquid Dancehall”. Zomby, being a gentleman of sound mind and impeccable taste, would no doubt have had the wisdom to ignore my advice and make this album instead.

Most of these fourteen tracks have short running times and no real beginning or end, slamming into each other in an end-to-end brick wall of beats. This may inspire fantasies about delicious full-length versions of these tracks hiding on DATs in Zomby’s closet, but the album doesn’t quite play out like the DJ mix you might expect. The lack of smooth transitions echoes track one’s title (“Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance”) and emphasizes Zomby’s preference for straight-banging dance music over careful sonic (or vinyl) manipulation. In this music’s delirious ecstasy (pardon the pun,) you can hear a bright-eyed nostalgia for a dance music culture before LTJ Bukem and the like “elevated” jungle into the polite terrain of smoother (and more arrogantly named) “intelligent drum and bass". This is not the refined sound of soundtracks and car commercials, and the aerobics-class cheese melted into much of this music bolsters its unpretentious, raving sincerity. Sincerity; not reverence. This album never feels like devotion so much as celebration.

Plenty of artists have traded in received nostalgia for a bygone slice of pop (The Poets of Rhythm, The Darkness, The Pipettes) often with enjoyable, if not durable, results. Sometimes this is ironic pastiche and sometimes it is affectionate imitation, but either way, it smells suspiciously like an admission of defeat, as if we have reached a cultural dead end and our record-buying future holds nothing for us except reissues and star-studded tribute albums. Will there be no John Cage or Grandmaster Flash of tomorrow? Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe Zomby IS the next John Cage (although I like him better as the first Zomby.) Maybe Zomby is making one last nostalgic stop before launching into the wide unknown. When the liner notes proudly proclaim that this record was made using only early 1990s gear, it’s a big flashing clue that Zomby is... not crossing, but flirting with the line between an art and a discipline.

Approaching music as a discipline is rarely a good way to get me running to the record store with my hard-earned substitute-teaching money in hand. This kind of approach gives birth to many breeds of mutant snobbery, from the theory-head sanctimony of too-smart-to-like-the-Ramones music majors to the arch-conservative, Wynton Marsalis attitude that continues to turn jazz into a dusty wax museum instead of a thriving art form. Rebel! Reject! Renounce! Be a cultural heretic, a pop-apostate! Musicians obsessed with the past are doomed to repeat it. Or imitate it. Or cover it. The lecture blurted out to kids in Pink Floyd t-shirts: “Don’t let the Keepers of Taste stagnate the airwaves! Find your own heroes!” That being said, if you’ll pardon this dispatch from the Village Green Preservation Society, maybe there is something to be said for glancing back over our shoulders, even turning around for a moment or two…

Bob Dylan’s debut album was a precedent for Zomby's. Dylan began his career with a troubadour-repertoire of traditional folk songs and one original, the Guthrie tribute “Song to Woody”. Famous as an innovative, forward-thinking pioneer (although I might dispute that reputation), Dylan started out with a record as backwards-looking as possible. His conection with this tradition grounded him, and gave him a foundation on which he could build his ragged, thin-mercury folk rock. Charles Mingus is also admired for keeping alive embers of the jazz tradition, but his other foot was always placed firmly in the avant-garde. Traditions change, and an artist can inherit them without being enslaved by them. A great musician can expose the tradition’s un-mined facets, or use that tradition as a jumping-off point or a warm-up as their unique identity is developing. Sticking close to a tradition can also be a sneering (and probably deserved) finger-in-the-face to staunch demagogues like me who think music has to innovate in order to have value.

The music on Where Were U in '92? is too much reckless fun to be judged simply as craft, but the imitation is too exact for it to not be judged as a discipline. I am sure that this album will be listened to and discussed very differently in light of Zomby's work in the future. For now, though, I can enjoy it without the burden of any context other than possibility. I’m not sure what Zomby’s intentions are, but I think he might tell us “Fuck Criticism, Let’s Dance.”

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