Saturday, February 19, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors: Deerhoof, Ratatat, and Live Persona

Not too long ago, the sound of a person’s voice was never far removed from his or her mouth.  With telephones, computers, and speakers lurking in virtually every corner of our existence, that idea seems almost laughably quaint.  Today, it hardly seems miraculous that I can talk to my wife across town without actually physically being there.  That we take this for granted has significant ramifications on our musical consumption.  In the midst of all of the smoke-and-mirrors that follow the recording process, it is particularly easy to forget that music is generated by human hands.  The studio version of a song is a fixed ideal, and is often not reproducible in a live performance.

For me, however, a band's live persona is an important component of the overall listening experience.  It does more than just put a face on the musicians – it also allows me to see the musician’s conception of their own music.  When I went to see Deerhoof in January at the “coldest show ever,” I hoped I would be able to better appreciate their recorded output, an investment which is just now starting to pay off.

For the musically curious, which is who this blog is supposed to be for, I would suggest "Deerhoof vs. Evil" as a good entry point for the band.  It has been in regular rotation ever since that show, and something is starting to happen with me and that recording that is hard to describe.  Yesterday I woke up with this little ditty firmly planted in my internal radio.  The video showcases Satomi's quirky "Laurie Anderson meets the grunge scene" persona.

Studio versions of songs are often unrealistic in a live setting, though.  Some bands hire extra musicians who were not part of the creative process to recreate the studio on stage.  Deerhoof takes a different approach, stripping the song down to its barest persisting essence so that it can be performed by the group’s core members.  I attribute my new perception of "Deerhoof vs. Evil" to a conceptual framework provided by seeing them perform live.

For comparison, here's a pretty good amateur clip of "Super Duper Rescue Heads!" from that January show.  Check out the similarities and differences between this live version and the version from the "official" video, particularly in the drums and guitars. 

On the flip side, some styles of music are created entirely in the studio, and live performances are complicated by the expectations of the original.  For example, if it seems like I am sort of on an electronic music kick, I squarely place the blame on the duo Ratatat.  Back in the day, if I liked a group, I would avidly collect all of their albums.  I am less inclined to do that these days, but Ratatat is the first “band” (if a duo can even be a band) in awhile that has me eyeballing their entire catalog.  I got “LP4” last Fall, and that is as good a place as any to start if you are curious. Be prepared, though: within months, I got “LP3” (which has a surprise on it for Horror Remix fans) and I just put “Classics” in rotation.  Ratatat’s sliding guitars, swirling melodies, and hallucinogenic beats keep me coming back for more.

Beyond this rather superficial description, however, it is difficult to stylistically pin Ratatat down.  Late 80’s electronic pioneers The Art of Noise come to mind, although Ratatat is definitely more West Coast and less British.  Mike Stroud’s guitar work suggests the epic walls of guitar that Brian May built with Queen, but within an electronic context reminiscent of Daft Punk (yeah, THOSE guys again).

Now granted, I might not be the best authority on Ratatat’s performance practice.  I was looking forward to seeing them live, but the show was sold out by the time I got around to getting a ticket.  That’s the price I pay for procrastinating. As a duo with pretty complicated music that is known for a good live show, though, it does beg the question: how do they render their music in a performance setting?  From what I have gathered, Ratatat employs sequencing to fill out parts that cannot be covered or that are impossible to acoustically recreate.  To draw attention away from this aspect of their performances, they meet the smoke-and-mirrors head-on by putting on an audio-visual lightshow spectacle.

There was a time in my life when I would have been critical of this "play-along" approach, but as sequencers become ever more reactive, I have come to appreciate the emergent specialized musicianship that accommodates them.  On the one hand, Ratatat showcases guitar in a way that humanizes their performances.  Beyond that, for Ratatat (and for Rush, too, for that matter), virtual instruments allow the musicians who are primarily involved in the creative process to perform at a level that compares favorably to the expectations set by the studio recording.  Ratatat's music is essentially larger-than-life, and to strip this away for a live performance would fundamentally change what the band is about.

This final clip is a Deerhoof encore, of sorts. It catches Greg's monologue on the weather, Satomi's attempt to get feeling back in her hands, plumes of steam coming from the band's mouths...and of course, an energetic performance that would be difficult to capture in the studio.

Finally, in other news, I am considering offering prizes for musical suggestions that contribute to the blog.  Keep your ears open.

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