One of the benefits to not actually doing work as a music journalist anymore is that I don’t have editors and I don’t have deadlines. Sure, the publication might be more limited, but on the web it’s an equal opportunity deal: Some will see this and some won’t, those that do, might be moved to share it… Either way, it gets the thoughts out of my brain and on the page.
Probably the biggest challenge of my music journalism days was that when you would get new releases you didn’t get time to be with the music, let it sink in… You had to get your write-up out to the various channels to coincide with release so that you’d continue to get releases… Lag behind, too much, and you’d find yourself removed from the cool kid PR lists… It’s a crummy system to be sure, but so it goes. Viva la Personal Blog! And that’s why I’m writing this now, today… I was just struck by Tycho’s Awake and my relationship to it.
Awake is Tycho’s 2014 release on Ghostly Recordings. Longtime readers, fans, whathaveyou will recall that yours truly had a release as part of his KOSIK project way back in 2003, as part of SMM Vol. 1, but our little duo seemed to lose their shit and make a bad relationship of the partnership that we were hoping to cultivate with the enthusiastic upstart that was Sam Valenti’s Ghostly Recordings, who in the ensuing years have become real tastemakers for electronic music. In any case, I haven’t revisited Ghostly’s catalog much in the years that have past, but this release just seemed to grab me from the start.
Back in Feb. 2014 or thereabouts I started hearing about Tycho. Apparently, the previous album, Dive, was pretty good to folks who make judgements on such things and I’ve heard bits of it on Soma FM’s Groove Salad station and it is pretty good. Anyway, one morning I saw that NPR was offering a First Listen of the new Tycho recording. I listened to it. Only once. The whole thing. It was good. Not great, but pretty darn good. Great is reserved for records like Grateful Dead’s American Beauty or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon… Great is quite an achievement. I didn’t mark my calendar for it’s release or anything, but I can’t say that I forgot it either. A few months followed and I thought about the sounds and timbres from time to time. I thought about what might have been programmed drums and what wasn’t . I watched a Morning Becomes Eclectic performance from the Dive tour and since I also make live electronic music, I started to think about Awake a bit more; I wanted to see him bring this work to life, live. Some more time passed. I listened to some John Scofield’s Uber Jam recordings and at times thought of Tycho while listening to them, but still didn’t buy the recording. I heard, what I recognized as Awake on the aforementioned Groove Salad streaming station, and still didn’t budge — I just wasn’t moved to purchase it just yet.
Was it because of what went down with Ghostly and me so many years ago? Was I really that petty? I couldn’t accept that about myself. Was it the pain of a lost opportunity? How come I wasn’t buying the music? Did I scrutinize everything this much? It was like ten bucks…
Finally, I bought it… I listened to it once, just after I bought it. Then another time a day later, then a few more times over the days that followed. It was different than I had remembered it. Not as good, somehow, for some reason? Why? Was it because I had finally bought it, invested in the endeavor and was now all-in? What was missing that I heard in the lower resolution First Listen on NPR that wasn’t here? Different mixes maybe? I went back to listen the original, but it’s long since been pulled down. Fine. Fair enough.
Tycho is the project of Scott Hansen, you can learn about him at the link. Awake is a curious album that definitely has some programmed beats, but also live drums, tracked, recorded live as a full band? I can’t say. However, the drum sitch something that stuck out to me — the mark of a great electronic music producer is that they reach a point where breaks and samples aren’t enough and they need real drums and a real drummer, whether it’s Beck, Air, Moby or Zero7, real drums set electronic music producers apart. For the record, I like breaks and samples and a real drummer, like any band member is a logistical pain in my ass that stifles my creative process, but nevertheless, this is a mark of many excellently produced electronic music recordings… and this fact of Tycho’s Awake caught me right away. At times this recording reminds me of The Cure, possibly it’s the echoey, chorusy Robert Smith-like guitar which if I was more of a fan I might say is much like the work of U2’s The Edge, but I’m only cursorily aware of his work and not always sure where his work begins and Brian Eno’s work as a producer ends. Awake is also really brought to life by the rolling quarter note basslines pulsating throughout the tunes — The music moves. Even when you’re in a chilled out passage the bass line keeps going and at times reminds me of Joy Division, not sure why, but there’s something about it’s timbral quality and its place in the music alike that speaks in that vocabulary to me. The bass lines are like a train rolling across a nighttime landscape with the freight being that of spacey sounds and chilled rhythms.
Omnipresent through this recording is the sound of the Minimoog synthesizer. This little workhorse from the bygone days of 1970s electronic music and jazz rock fusion, not least of all a staple with Kraftwerk’s finer albums and also an important part of their sound, drives Awake… The Minimoog is the primary carrier of melody with everything else really supporting it, rhythmically and only a little bit harmonically. There are other timbres and textures that also support it, but the Minimoog is the lead voice. With that said, I can’t say that melodies are super memorable, but more like supporting aural guides that let you know that it’s central to the tune. In a weird way, I was struck thinking that the synth line in Tycho’s music on Awake is what piano is to the tunes on Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which, for many, may be a stretch, and it was a stretch for me until I started thinking about Awake as a truly ambient recording rather than an a downtempo or electronica recording. When removed from that context, to me, Awake, shines like a beautiful gem. Follow me, here…
Awake has nicely mixed binaural sounds, texture and timbres with recognizable and definable musical content, BUT it’s also a music that not out to take you on a wild ride. It’s calm and even keel, but it’s not uninteresting. There’s a space that you can sink into or remove yourself from, but it’s not vapid like some musical ephemera. It breathes and you can breath with it, let it move you and stir you and be this excellent soundtrack to your life and your activities, but it doesn’t smack the shit out of you while vying for your complete and undivided attention. Like ambient music, though, it’s a music that can be listened to as easily as ignored, but in either instance you’re going to be rewarded with a recording that strikes the balance between being engaging and interesting with background contemplation. At the end of the day, it was these paradoxes that made it so hard for me to get my mind around Awake. This was the reason it was so hard for me to buy it. I wasn’t sure about it. It didn’t fit in a category that I could understand. In my binary world, it wasn’t either or and because of that I struggled, but through the struggle comes understanding and I think that was why I felt inclined to write all of these lines, the likes of which I haven’t done in some time — to express my thoughts on this journey and to express that ten bucks is cheap for a recording that’s this well-produced and this satisfying of a listen.
I had stated early on that the music I purchased didn’t feel as good as the music I heard on NPR’s First Listen. I’ve listened to this recording many times now and I can only chock that up to a first impression. I still remember the first time I heard Pink Floyd’s Animals, and Metallica’s …And Justice for All, or Al Green’s Greatest Hits… those were recordings that are part of me now, recordings that I’ll never, ever hear again for the first time, with fresh ears, new ears and when I heard Tycho’s Awake I approached it with fresh ears, and then went on to learn a bit more in between making purchase. In that time, I developed a consciousness and desensitized myself to Tycho, the artist, enough to make that first listen and the impression it made on me, be one that I can’t get back. It’s something that I don’t need to get back. There are two versions of Awake to me now and there will be until I’m left with only that first impression and the artefact of that experience. As an artist, to make another feel deeply, is enough and Tycho has done that for me.