Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lekman and Ilhan

Did the string backing for Jens Lekman's terrific 'A higher power' (2005) influence Adem Ilhan's end credits music for In The Loop (2009)? Compare a live Lekman version and the Ilhan below:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

LCD Soundsystem, 1983, 1987, and all that

Dance yrself clean, the first track on LCD Soundsystem's forthcoming cd is fantastic: a song/record of the year candidate. Somewhat disappointingly, however, the core of that song is lifted wholesale - though reverse engineered rather than literally sampled - from an obscure 1983 B-side, The Pool's Jamaica running and (alt. version) Jamaica resting. Here are the two tracks for comparison [Update May 14, 2010: 'running' has disappeared from youtube just as LCD's opus is being released - interesting! I therefore link to the less-identical 'resting' version]:

Of course, we've been here before. For example, Radiohead's Creep builds directly on the Hollies classic Air that I breathe. Here are those two tracks for comparison:

A closer comparison, because it's in the artsy-dance genre: Madonna's Justify my love was built around a direct sample of Public Enemy's instrumental track, drum-loop, Security of the first world (on whose provenance, more below!). Here are those tracks:

And, as a final self-test case, which 1987 smash wholesale lifted from/reverse engineered this song by Colonel Abrams from 1985?

In all these cases, rather like when we find out that a beloved song we thought was original is in fact a cover (Madness didn't originate, let alone write 'It must be Love'? Inconceivable!), we end up with an objectively clearer view of who contributed what to the beloved item. On one level, we are only too happy to re-apportion credit accordingly. On another level, however, this is painful. Re-apportioning credit means exactly undermining at least some of the basis for your original enthusiasm and affection, and fans and (later) artists alike hate that. Thus, the Hollies' gain is Thom Yorke's loss. Creep's still a great song, and what Yorke and Jonny Greenwood added is magic, but overall the credit has to be shared. Similarly then, LCD's song may end up being the song of 2010, and LCD will deserve most of the credit if that happens, but a kid in Austin, TX in 1983 will also deserve some.

Of course, a large part of what most of us like about LCD is how deftly they channel what was great about early New Order, mid-period Talking Heads, The Passage in their pomp, and so on. So LCD's general debt to 1979-1984 pop has always been clear (just as Daft Punk's has been). But in the case of Dance yrself clean, LCD channels directly and specifically. A specific debt is thereby incurred, and a specific credit is therefore due.

So much for the moral/appreciation side of things, what of the legal/monetary side? I think LCD should 'man up' and give The Pool a writing credit (hence a share of any royalties). That's what Thom Yorke ended up doing with the Hollies for Creep. At any rate, some reasonable, formal deal should be made. If a writing credit is thought to be beyond the pale, then perhaps something like a sample clearance fee could be negotiated. (Note however that Daft Punk gave George Duke a writing credit, not just a one-off payment, for the use of his crucial sample on Digital love. Note too that LCD will in any case be negotiating from a position of relative strength: The Pool, which was never on a major label is very unlikely to have anything like The Rolling Stones' Verve-spanking, lawyer demons at its disposal!).

Despite being mad as hell about not getting paid, Public Enemy(PE) didn't get a writing credit or, as far as anyone knows, any other form of payment for having their work be the backbone of Justify my love. The reason for PE's frustration in this regard seems to have been that Madonna and her collaborators knew that PE's beats in large part reverse engineered a section of James Brown's Funky drummer, and that, more generally, M. & co. guessed correctly that PE were living in too much of a legal glass house to throw any real stones.

Colonel Abram's strip-miners, Stock-Aitken-Waterman (SAW), just brazened out the charge that they stole most of someone else's record. Indeed they took being hated by the cognoscenti to the bank for the next few years of pop! Assuming that The Pool aren't in a PE-like glass house (i.e., that they were in fact the way we wish LCD were: just deeply influenced and impressed by things like I Zimbra) then the SAW/Colonel Abrams case like Radiohead/Hollies seems like a good model for LCD/The Pool.

In sum, LCD's basic legal/monetary choice is whether to be honorable like Radiohead (or did the Hollies have to threaten to have the Stones' lawyers drag Yorke to hell?) or brazen like SAW. If LCD takes the latter path then this case may end up famously testing the proposition that 1987-style brazening it out is still possible in our youtube/feet-of-clay-finding era? I suspect that it isn't, hence my advice to LCD remains: your song's great, don't screw around with it, make a deal.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sanctimony about Taxes and Deficits

One of the most irritating political poses is the 'anti-tax' or 'low tax' pose. If you genuinely want government/state to be small then fair enough. But then you must also indicate which government/state activities you want to see ended or substantially shrunk. In the US, substantial Federal tax reductions are achievable in the long run only by shrinking either entitlements (to social security, medicare, medicaid, veterans benefits, etc.) or defense. If you aren't prepared to do one or more of those things then regardless of what you say, you actually aren't in favor of a much smaller government, with its attendant lower tax burdens. Rather, your railing about low taxes etc. is just very familiar, childish whining for a free lunch. (You're in favor of low taxes the way someone who orders lots of food at the restaurant is in favor of a low bill. Wah wah wah.) Go here for a useful discussion of the tendency of the American people to be big babies about this. Here's the crucial graph [hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]:

In the relatively short run, of course, one can square the babies' circle by just piling up debt. That's the Reagan/Bush strategy: cut taxes while expanding government, run huge deficits, and watch the debt pile up. That strategy can't work forever. Eventually things have to be brought back into balance, and some mixture of shrinking the core/popular state (i.e., entitlements+defense) and raising taxes must occur. Whining about debt/deficits can be useful insofar as it calls attention to this necessary end-game. But most deficit whining (shading into sanctimony) is more ambitious: (i) it claims to be in favor of low taxes but without saying in any level of detail how core/popular govt functions are to be seriously shrunk to make that possible; (ii) it claims to be opposed to any additional/emergency government debt even when private aggregate demand in the economy has collapsed (perhaps with a 'balanced budget amendment' to cement the point). Point (i) reprises 'free lunch' childishness, and point (ii) is the sort of lunacy that turns recessions into great depressions.

Let's expand on point (ii). It's one thing to be a deficit hawk over the whole business cycle, it's quite another to be a year-by-year deficit hawk. A 'whole cycler' gathers more taxes than she needs/runs surpluses/reduces debt during the good times (thereby reducing aggregate demand at peaks and helping to deflate economic bubbles), and has the option of using (a mixture of) deficit-creating public spending and deficit-creating tax cuts to boost aggregate demand in the economy during bad times. A year-by-year (YbY) deficit hawk, by way of contrast foregoes all automatic, public sector stabilization (whether through spending or tax cuts) of the private sector's flux, thereby increasing the risks of bubble booms and depression busts like those that plagued the US economy from the Civil War until WW2. YbY deficit hawks - true 'know nothings' really, who are prepared to endorse society-shredding, revolution-promoting capitalist phenomena that would warm the hearts of Marx and Lenin as 'the system working' - are, of course, completely ascendant in current US debates. And that's to say, in the real world, sanctimony about deficits tends to be a continuation of rather than an antidote to ultra-irritating 'anti-tax' or 'low tax' posturing and remonstrance.

And see this story for a reminder of how internally divided and difficult to govern the US really is: Republicans captured both the Federal House and Senate in 1994, in part because of backlash in rural and southern areas against a ban on assault weapons (which Bill Clinton had campaigned on, with the vigorous support of police associations across the US) that was part of a big 'new cops on the street' Crime Bill that Democrats passed that year. One might have thought that conservatives would have found plenty to cheer in that Bill even if they themselves didn't see much of an issue with assault weapons. This was a centrist, right-ish, 'law and order' Bill both in spirit and in many, though not all of its details. But no: God forbid that you do exactly what you said you were going to do, and end private ownership of machine-guns. For that, it's 'throw the bums out'/'now you've gone too far'/'final straw that broke the camel's back' time. Of course, lots else was going on in 1994, including a general 'time for a change' pall over Congress, and Gingrich's well-played nationalization of (traditionally highly local) House and Senate races, i.e., under the 'Contract for America' banner. But the story I just sketched is an essential and depressing part of what transpired.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

In The Loop's End Credits Music

Armando Iannucci's In The Loop (2009) ends with two pieces of music. One is Bach's sublime Prelude #1 in C Major, i.e., the opening stanza of The Well-Tempered Clavier, which represents the Enlightenment, reason, the potential of the West - everything that we've seen painfully, hysterically go up in flames over the course of the film. The second is an uncredited but rather glorious new piece, apparently due to Adem Ilhan, for string quartet and a bunch of mallet instruments (and possibly a piano).

Ilhan's piece, which is our focus here, isn't as sedate or inherently optimistic as Bach's Prelude, hence its use isn't as straightforwardly ironic. Rather, Ilhan's piece functions as a come-down, chill out, sobering up, de-ironizing piece for the audience. It's melodically and timbrally plaintive and slightly skeptical, even as it's rhythmically insistent. We leave In The Loop entranced by the piece, but also somewhat saddened. It makes us think of the (likely now suicidal?) peripheral figure in the film who's (i) been playing classical music throughout, (ii) tries to do something noble (Spartacus-like) by volunteering to take the blame for a leak, (iii) is turned into the marionette typist of the doctored evidence in the film's ugliest scene, and who (iv) suffers the indignity of becoming the literal, final causus belli, "Debussy", at least insofar as any such thing exists. Ilhan's music's impact is huge in other words - in some respects it's the key to In The Loop's claim to be anything more than a silly pastiche and swearathon.

To be sure, one doesn't want to exaggerate the significance of a coda/recessional/outro that the many, restless and chattering never consciously hear. But one also doesn't want to underestimate such pieces or to assume away the sensitive end of a broad audience. The impact of Jaws is widely believed to have been measurably heightened and the film deepened overall by John Williams's haunting, perfectly timed end credits theme. And many classic TV series, from Mary Tyler Moore in the US to The Sweeney in the UK (an example possibly closer to Iannucci's and Ilhan's hearts?), featured reprising end credits themes whose contemplative force essentially every viewer felt at one time or another. I claim that In The Loop's end credits theme functions like these other landmarks. It's as strangely non-ephemeral in context as them, and may be objectively as good, however we finally account for such items and their power.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, there's been no official soundtrack or score released for In The Loop, and, as I write, Ilhan's original end credits theme isn't available anywhere. Maybe my posting the raw audio from the final three minutes of the film will inspire Ilhan (who apparently has some connections to Four Tet), or Iannucci, or whomever (Alex Ross from The New Yorker?) to release or agitate for releasing the track properly (on iTunes say). In The Loop may not contain enough music original or otherwise to warrant a score or soundtrack album, but a clean version of this lovely, important-in-context piece does deserve and need to be out there.