Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Oooh, he did it again!

In a world where musicians become synonymous with a brand, making it easy and safe for consumers to acquire the newest version, no matter how slightly it differs from the previous ones, Carl Stone's recent album Al-Noor demonstrates that he has retained a capacity for surprise. His earlier releases cover a fairly wide swath of electonic music, but spend a lot of time on slow-moving static development. Nyala, his full-length minimal work for electronics and percussion released in 1996 on the renowned ambient label Em:t, is one of his most sought-after works and commands astronomical prices in the used CD market.

With Al-Noor, Stone verges on plunderphonics territory mined by John Oswald because the majority of the album is clearly and unabashedly based on pop music. Apart from the title track, which is based on treatments of an extended loop of a solo female singer, nearly all of the pieces collected here have the steady, toe-tapping rhythm section that we all associate with pop. Not since the title track of his 1992 New Albion album Mom's (which to my mind always sounded like a twisted Talking Heads song) has Stone spent so much effort on pop structures. Jitlada is closest to Mom's, unrecognizable samples of a song, lyrics and hooks cut into unintelligibility, layered and looped back on themselves. Flint's (from a live recording) has a great beat and pre-articulate vocals that remain just beyond comprehension. Stone doubles the BPM rate after a few minutes, and the continuous percussive drive and faster speed increases the intensity, almost reminding me of the conclusion to Oswald's masterpiece Plexure. L'os à moelle (Bone marrow), the last work, is the longest on the album, a looping and deconstruction of a lite rock instrumental that Stone spins out for almost a half hour.  Also based on a live recording (at the Apple store in Tokyo), it's a dazzling dismemberment and reconstruction of the song, extracting different instruments and circling them off in different directions.

The most befuddling piece on the album isn't on the CD at all, it's the internet-only bonus track, Dino's. First, it's the most obvious pop music ripoff of the five tracks, with the original lyrics clearly comprehensible, so that even somebody in the dark about recent pop phenomena can trace the song back to its origins as the smash hit of a pop diva turned tabloid fodder. Any commentary on this track simply begs to use high-minded critical theory terms like 'recontextualisation', or 'intertextuality' — my head hurts already. Then there's the placement of the track — it's not on the album, it's only available with the download version. Al-Noor's label has credits and notes at their web site, but since Dino's isn't on the CD, it's not mentioned specifically in the credits. And with so many news and commentaries about the death of the CD, and with many labels including bonus material with the physical media, it's still somewhat unusual for a label to encourage customers to purchase the download version rather than the physical one (although there are many rational reasons why they should do so).

Now I guess what Stone has done to the original hit single constitutes fair use, perhaps as a parody. But compared with parodists like Weird Al Yankovic, Stone's track doesn't seem very funny (at least you can tell that Weird Al is making a joke). The diva in question has done far more to parody herself than anything Stone can devise. So maybe we're left with the track on its own merits, but even though Stone's processing changes some of the harmonies and is attractive enough, knowing about the original track raises enough recontextualisation (oops, I did it again) questions to make this a head-scratcher.

This unsettling feeling is exactly why I keep coming back to Stone and follow his work from album to album. From displaced pop to drones, from sound sculpture manipulation to Tokyo field recordings, and through collaborations with Tetsu Inoue and email modification with Otomo Yoshihide, Stone continues to show the immense variety of what can be done with a laptop. I haven't been disappointed yet.

The download version of Al-Noor, including Dino's, is available from iTunes, Amazon, and emusic. The CD is available from the usual sources.

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