In Retromania, Simon Reynolds quotes Brian Eno from a 1991 Artforum article: “Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times. … In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.” Reflecting on his solo debut Great Melodies From Around, Ben Von Wildenhaus hits upon a similar theme: “My biggest hope for these tapes is that someday someone will find one at a Goodwill in a random town, put it in their car stereo and be honestly confused as to the decade, country-of-origin, and intended target audience of the music.”
As Eno predicted, contemporary music is becoming increasingly postmodern in character, thanks to both the advent of the sampler and the fact that the internet has sent us down an inexorable path towards the free and instant availability of recorded sounds.Eno saw notions like the intent of the original artist and the traditional audience-performer connection as withering away in a world where obscure crate-dug records are as, or more, familiar to music nerds than anything their own culture produces. Many of my fellow college radio DJs are more familiar with Sublime Frequncies’ obscurity-fetish Third World music comps than anything tagged as college rock. For Eno, the curator is essentially supplanting the role the original artist can no longer perform: creating meaning out of this deluge of disparate, endless sounds. BVW, however, celebrates disorientation rather than bemoaning the loss of the Romantic idea of expressive authorship.
In this sense, both aesthetically and musically, Melodies is similar to what’s become known as library music: ambient (in the broad sense of music as background) compositions produced in the ’60s and ’70s for TV specials and documentaries, particularly for public broadcasting corporations. Like BVW’s music, library music was often intertwined with the avant garde—several experimental composers, like Basil Kirchin or Daphne Oram, were also important composers for BBC productions. The mode of expression is one of conjuring moods and creating soundscapes, rather than communicating a direct message.
This sort of impressionist aesthetic is key to understanding Great Melodies From Around. Given BVW’s garage-rock background, the record sounds oddly obtuse. Each track, rather than presenting a narrative, explores a theme. The record opens with two blunt sine-wave drones, which BVW soon modulates with a pitch-shifter into a pleasing, Theremin-like melody. The two drones then converge into one, before the track quickly cross-fades into the next, “Cumberland Winter.”
Here, BVW gives a sort of thesis statement, splicing together a number of disparate musical motifs. The oscillating synths are distinctly psychedelic, the chord progression is a stately, minor-key melody suggesting vaudeville (as does the piano, which sounds tinny enough to be a barroom player piano), and the tempo is waltz-like (though not actually in waltz time). The heavily-reverberating guitars have a distinct Spaghetti Western vibe, a sound pioneered by one of the most prolific and best-known soundtrack composers of them all (and one familiar with the avant garde), Ennio Morricone. The music uses sonic touchstones from the 20th century to create something that is more than the sum of those parts, but nonetheless retains something of the original appeal. Unlike much explicitly postmodern music, it’s neither slavish retread nor irreverent pastiche.
“Week Five” lays guitar reminiscent of Omar Khorshid (whose music is itself a synthesis of disparate traditions) over a simple, Delta-bluesy octave pattern. This mutates into “Only Pendejo,” a noodling, tricky drone, which BVW subsumes with guitar lines that hint at a different musical tradition with each line. “Only Pendejo” coalesces into its more polite English translation, “Only Fool,” a placid country-rock ballad stripped of any percussion at all, which cleverly mutates back into the same sine tone that opens the record.
“The Orientalist” opens side two, still working on the minor-key theme that opened the record, but eventually sputters and falls apart. The unfortunately titled “Geebz” is the result, a mess of throat-singing, the clicks and pops of an amplified but barely played electric guitar, and a forcefully echoing minor chord. The rest of the record continues in much the same fashion, revisiting vaudeville (“The Limping Axeman”) and screwing around some more with magnetic tape (the pretty, blissed-out “The Bear”).
Great Melodies is a curio; compare it to the birth of the travel-writing industry in Enlightenment-era Europe, when travelogues were often half narrative and half imaginative works. BVW has a similar knack for conjuring up moods without quite directly quoting from them. This sort of vagueness (sometimes descending into cheap exotica) ends up being the record’s main flaw, one that detracts from but doesn’t quite spoil it. Too often, the main musical theme—that minor key waltz—and the various quoted traditions are put together in a way that feels cartoonish. At times the record’s musical signposts conjure Tom Waits or Man Man, producing a similarly fun but hamfisted mysteriousness. Still, it’s a cheap shot to critique a record for what it’s not. While Melodies is not a caricature of the more studious practitioners in the electroacoustic tradition, it’s also clearly supposed to be less po-faced than more innovative but admittedly more pompous academic approaches. Fusing the avant garde with pop music is always a tricky task, with rare masterpieces like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cropping up here and there. Great Melodies is definitely worth a few spins, while we wait to see what BVW comes up with next.