Adam Harper examines how the stars of now are reinterpreting the 90s in the final half of this essential feature.
One of this year’s most interesting remixes has been the slow-mo rework of d’Eon’s Transparency by Tom Krell, the Brooklyn-based artist better known as How to Dress Well. The two share much common ground, particularly in emotional disposition and the connection to early 90s R&B. While d’Eon’s sound is crystal clear, however, How To Dress Well’s world is murky, frail and ultra-lo-fi. His connection with R&B, particularly as sung by bands like Silk and Shai, is obvious in the tone and movement of his voice (and he has also covered the R. Kelly song I Wish), yet the genre’s traditional slick production values are reversed utterly by waves of uncontrolled crackle and resonant reverb. One of the most popular tracks on his debut album ‘Love Remains’, released last autumn, shares its name with the R&B group Ready for the World, who released both upbeat, funky New Jack Swing numbers (e.g. My Girly, 1988) and slow jams, of which the intro to 1986’s Love You Down most closely resembles How To Dress Well’s sparse, exposed textures. Yet if the song represents the boy band at all, it has them shuffling through an empty afterlife as a ghostly chain gang with dusty, translucent skin. Sometimes on ‘Love Remains’ there are traces of the more sophisticated neo-soul of singers like D’Angelo, whose Brown Sugar (1995) could have been a How to Dress Well refrain, once stripped right down to its bleached bones.
In some tracks the 90s connection is more obvious. Endless Rain features a drum and piano break that wouldn’t be out of place on DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ (1996). Lovers Start seems to feature a slow rap or R&B beat recorded off a poor radio signal or an ancient tape. Yet to brand How to Dress Well as a 90s throwback and nothing more would be absurd. Had Love Remains been released in the 90s, it would have alienated both R&B fans (with its lo-fi credentials) and lo-fi or experimental fans (with its echoes of mainstream pop) alike. As with d’Eon’s improbable blend of influences, there was almost no overlap in those groups of fans at the time – the combination and the message is unique to the contemporary era. There is, however, a missing link between How To Dress Well and the turn-of-the-nineties R&B it is related to but twice removed from, which can be found on a 12-inch released on 4AD this summer by Inc. (formerly Teen Inc.) called ‘3’. The pastiche of that era’s R&B is much fuller and more accurate on ‘3’, right down to the keyboard sweeps and funky slap bass. It’s much more comparable to Ready for the World (especially to My Girly) than How to Dress Well ever is, and is possibly the closest 2010s reconstruction of the New Jack Swing sound out there. The 12-inch still has a moderate helping of melancholy nostalgia however, brought about in the usual way with reverb, lo-fi effects and a less than fully cohesive groove.
In some tracks the 90s connection is more obvious. Yet to brand How to Dress Well as a 90s throwback and nothing more would be absurd. Had ‘Love Remains’ been released in the 90s, it would have alienated both R&B fans and lo-fi or experimental fans alike.
R&B isn’t the only 90s flavour that underground pop is currently toying with, however. Some artists that have previously been associated with chillwave and hypnagogic pop are now exploring their own corners of the decade. Despite the confusion of online debate, hypnagogic pop and chillwave were always separate styles. Yes, both brought back the 80s in the context of downtempo lo-fi, but the sounds, moods, reference points and artists involved are quite distinct. Flourishing in 2009, chillwave is the style of Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, who have each branched out stylistically since the similarities in their early releases prompted their connection. Washed Out’s album ‘Within and Without’ was released earlier this year, and arguably sees the Atlanta-based artist moving on from the 80s into the 90s. To generate a typical chillwave song, especially as done by Washed Out, you take an 80s synth funk or New Jack Swing track and slow it down to two thirds or three quarters its original speed. Try imagining songs such as Keith Sweat’s Something Just Ain’t Right (1987) or Timex Social Club’s Rumours (1987) at a slower pace, with more reverb and airy vocals added, and the resemblance is almost uncanny. In fact, this is exactly what Washed Out did with Feel It All Around, sampling a huge wad of the 1983 Italo Disco track by Gary Low, I Want You.
On ‘Within and Without’, the reference material is less clear, but much of the album has a curiously British 90s feel. With their slow euphoric feel, shoegazy production and soaring vocals and guitars, Eyes Be Closed and Amor Fati sound like the sort of songs that were often popular in the UK charts in the mid-90s, such as The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony (1997) or Duran Duran’s Ordinary World (1993). But, in accordance with this trend of uncommon stylistic bedfellows, these tracks also have a dancier side, again British and even European, with the beats, tambourine and chilly, syncopated synth chords pointing to Eurodance hits like Corona’s Rhythm of the Night (released in 1993, UK number one in 1994) or Haddaway’s What is Love (UK number two in 1993). Later in the album Washed Out uses downtempo breakbeats and sweet, weathered synths, both reminiscent of the early work of IDM duo Boards of Canada, as on 1995’s ‘Twoism’. In fact, the whole album feels like what might have happened if Boards of Canada had aimed for the top of the British charts rather than Warp Records.
All this may be more accidental than deliberate, especially since Georgia, Washed Out’s hometown, is hardly the place to grow up developing a nostalgia for the particularities of Britain’s euphoric chart pop. And although the slow pace and blurry production tends to obfuscate the borrowings in Washed Out’s music, he rarely manages to escape sounding derivative. ‘Within and Without’ adds to this a layer of blandness – unlike Autre Ne Veut, d’Eon or How to Dress Well, there is no contemporary urgency in Washed Out’s immaculate but vacant stare.
Unlike Autre Ne Veut, d’Eon or How to Dress Well, there is no contemporary urgency in Washed Out’s immaculate but vacant stare.
Hypnagogic pop, on the other hand, was the weird, heavily lo-fi sound of James Ferraro, Spencer Clark, Rangers, Matrix Metals and other artists on the Olde English Spelling Bee and Not Not Fun labels. Rather than the shoegazing synth-funk of chillwave, hypnagogic pop focused on the trashier, disposable areas of 80s background music. The story commonly goes that the style alludes to the North American mainstream pop of the 80s, but this is only partly the case. Its focus is mainstream pop only to the extent that pop idioms of the time trickled down into the music written for film, TV and video. Hypnagogic pop is the sound of a mid-80s aerobics video moments before the machine eats the tape. It has also been linked to the meditative exotica of the New Age cassette culture in the late 80s and 90s. This is why the style has little to do with the superstar dance pop and power ballads that tended to top the US charts in the 80s, and a lot more to do with the cheesy rock and synth mood muzak that was most acceptable to television and video.
Rather than the shoegazing synth-funk of chillwave, hypnagogic pop focused on the trashier, disposable areas of 80s background music. Its focus is mainstream pop only to the extent that pop idioms of the time trickled down into the music written for film, TV and video.
Earlier this year Amanda Brown, who runs Not Not Fun with Britt Brown, collaborated as LA Vampires with dance producer Ital on a 12-inch called Streetwise. Its title is a word which was used in the 80s and 90s to signify a distinctly urban brand of cool but now seems evocative of that time, even dated, and fittingly, the cover for the release resembles an underground hip hop record from the turn of the 90s. The music inside has a slightly less obvious 90s feel, if any, though a hip hop, new jack swing or neo soul swagger is often discernable in the beats. On the title track, a riff of bell-like tones is revealed to be a twinkly synth of the sort common around 1990, but pitched down an octave. But as with many lo-fi releases on the Not Not Fun, it’s too idiosyncratically inventive to be labeled as a revival of anything. Not Not Fun’s subsidiary dance label 100% Silk recently released a 12-inch by Octo Octa, which references 80s and 90s house much more clearly, though, and such references are common on London-based dance labels these days.
James Ferraro’s latest stylistic twist confirms that he has little direct interest in chart pop history. Ferraro first came to indie fans’ attention as a noise musician wandering into a peculiar and hardly relaxing lo-fi echo of new age music. Remaining resolutely lo-fi, he later explored dystopian sci-fi film soundtracks and trashy high school punk culture as seen in B-movies like Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), culminating in 2010’s ‘Night Dolls with Hairspray’. With the ‘Condo Pets’ EP (released this month) and ‘Far Side Virtual’ album (to be released this October), Ferraro heads straight for the digital age of the mid-90s and beyond. ‘Condo Pets’ and ‘Far Side Virtual’ pastiche a kind of music you never knew you knew existed: techno-capitalist stock promotional music for the era of the personal computer, with the lo-fi of Ferraro’s previous releases a distant memory.
A heady and supposedly inviting kaleidoscope of smirking digital piano riffs, upbeat strings, hi-res synths and beats for the kids, ‘Condo Pets’ and ‘Far Side Virtual’ sound like the music for a CD-ROM introductory movie that came with the first home PCs families started buying in the mid-to-late 90s. Each track is bristling with the maximalist promise of a world of possibilities waiting behind the screen for your double-click, and evokes a time when we were much less familiar with and cynical about the virtual world technology has brought us into. It also brings to mind the first giant multiplex cinemas that become widespread in the mid-90s, full of food counters, jaunty architecture and theatres that were larger and louder than most people had ever seen. It particularly recalls the booming music that preceded the films on show in these temples of cultural consumption: Dolby or film company logos, and the computer-rendered text reminded you not to talk or smoke and to, above all, Enjoy the Film.
Each track is bristling with the maximalist promise of a world of possibilities waiting behind the screen for your double-click, and evokes a time when we were much less familiar with and cynical about the virtual world technology has brought us into.
Some moments seem to feature operating system sounds mashed together into an orchestral showcase with a characteristically American sound, indebted to mildly minimalist tonal classical composers of the 80s and 90s such as John Adams. Elsewhere it’s as if we’re browsing through Encarta 95 and sampling the delights of African or Indian classical music (but through the colonialist viewfinder of light Western electronic pop music, mind you). It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly the music that ‘Condo Pets’ and ‘Far Side Virtual’ are referencing, and yet it’s incredibly familiar. There is a clue on one track, when a voice constructed from synthesised speech introduces itself and proclaims, “There is a cool city filled with people just like me – Sim City… Will you join us? Imagine a playground of endless terrain”. This interjection offers a metaphor for the whole album: Sim City is a famous computer game first released in 1989 and appearing in various editions right up to the present in which the player has to build a successful virtual city. By the late 90s, most computer game music played off sound files or CD audio rather than the engine bleeps or MIDI of previous years, and this is what ‘Condo Pets’ and ‘Far Side Virtual’ look back to. The music written for the Sim City series in the late 90s was probably recorded in a studio, and does sound very similar in style to ‘Condo Pets’ and ‘Far Side Virtual’, especially the music for Sim City 3000 (1999), with its slick combinations of many different musical languages and synth imitations of acoustic instruments. Ferraro’s spin on this type of music, however, is a lot more hyperactive, having gotten high off millennial excitement and caffeine at the newly opened Starbucks downtown.
As its title hints, ‘Far Side Virtual’ is about the hyperreal future marketed to us for our consumption en masse, hypnotised by the relentlessly jovial spectacle. By adopting this culture in an outdated form, Ferraro sets up a certain degree of ironic distance and reminds us of the rapid pace of planned obsolescence that characterises the expansion of contemporary techno-culture. Revealingly, the only track that approaches being a song on ‘Far Side Virtual’ is entitled Dream On – a phrase which could mean ‘keep on dreaming’ but also, simultaneously, ‘there’s no chance’. With his most recent releases James Ferraro is still a noise musician, and still a pop artist. Like classic pop artists Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist or Richard Hamilton he reflects the shallow obsessions of contemporary Western culture back at us with sarcasm disguised as wonderment. Such provocative statements are much more valuable than a mere 90s revival.
Like classic pop artists Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist or Richard Hamilton he reflects the shallow obsessions of contemporary Western culture back at us with sarcasm disguised as wonderment. Such provocative statements are much more valuable than a mere 90s revival.
Even though 90s allusions seem to be appearing in underground pop, then, they may be too subtle and complex to be considered a traditional revival. But might it develop into one? It’s certainly high time we remembered what the decade has to offer, especially the North American R&B, soul, alternative hip hop and adult contemporary songwriting that flourished then but was soon forgotten. Dark, stylised and thoughtful films such as New Jack City (1991), Flatliners (1990), Candyman (1992), Dangerous Minds (1995) and The Game (1997), as well as TV series like My So-Called Life (1994) and Twin Peaks (1990), now strikingly reveal a 90s of autumnal tones that compliments this music and provides an antidote to the silliness of the 00s and the contemporary pop culture that grew out of them. Perhaps now is a good time to counter Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Kesha and the rest with classics of 90s cool such as Tracy Chapman, Sade, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, The Fugees, Portishead and A Tribe Called Quest.
Yet on the other hand, surely we want something more than another episode of retromania for this new decade? Musicians contemplating a revival of the late 80s or early 90s should follow the lead of Autre Ne Veut, d’Eon, How To Dress Well, LA Vampires goes Ital and James Ferraro rather than just their reference points, by using the old to help them find something new to say.