Rumpus Sound Takes: Post Taste

By

oOoOO
Our Loving Is Hurting Us EP (Tri Angle)

Pop music rewards prejudice. Discerning listeners operate under the assumption that certain sounds, production tricks, etc., are off-limits, and in so doing spare themselves a lot of schlock. If you are at all interested in music, you’ll acquire these prejudices organically: Hanging around other enthusiasts, reading books and reviews, you’ll pick up on what’s acceptable and what isn’t. If you are well enough immersed in a culture, you will naturally reflect its tastes.

Maturing as a listener means accepting that these tastes are arbitrary—or at least circumstantial. But acquiring more diverse tastes doesn’t mean abandoning your prejudices, because these still help form the context in which you appreciate  music. You establish enough ironic distance that you can bounce from context to context, engaging with multiple styles and genres that on the surface seem irreconcilable.

At least, this is how things might have seemed before the Internet. Listening to music nowadays, there isn’t much recognizable context; or rather, there are too many contexts, each so specific and contingent that it cannot provide a framework in which to understand what is heard. Genres beget subgenres, subgenres beget subsubgenres. Old terms like “rock” and “jazz” have become meaningless through overuse, while new terms like “Chillwave” and “Witch House” are as hollow-sounding as ad copy. The old categories are too broad, and refer to everything at once; the new ones refer only to themselves.

Such is the free-for-all environment in which I came upon oOoOO, the moniker for San Francisco native Christopher Dexter Greenspan. The dozen small questions I had at first listen to his recent EP, Our Loving Is Hurting Us—such as how to pronounce oOoOO (like “oh,” apparently)—all masked a larger one. It’s a question I can’t remember asking before, since for so long the answer has been clear from the context. Nevertheless, oOoOO had me adrift, had me asking not just “What kind of music is this?” or “How do they make that sound?” What I really needed to know was: “Is this cool or not?”

To be clear: “Cool” here is not merely a measure of trendiness. It is an aesthetic distinction. To ask “Is it cool?” is really to ask “Is it in good taste?”—which is really just a specified way of asking “Does it matter?” “Is it important?”  As a listener, you look for signs that tell you whether or not what you’re hearing is in good taste. This is easy when the context surrounding the music is clear, as there are corresponding clues within the music itself. The context provides the framework for determining what is tasteful; how well the music fits within that framework determines its value. With too broad or too narrow a context, you lose not only a sense of the particular music’s importance, but also the criteria under which any music could be important.

Such is the case with my response to oOoOO. There are sounds here that in other circumstances I could readily dismiss as being in bad taste. There are sped-up, Alvin and the Chipmunks-style voices. There are Auto-Tuned vocals. There is the kind of tinny melody line you come across in commercial rap (Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” comes to mind). In another context, I could perhaps write these things off, but here I can’t comfortably do so—I am too far out of my depths.

This turns out to be a good thing. Hearing so much that is unfamiliar, I am no longer able to think of the individual sounds in terms of what they signify in a specific context. My only option is to focus on the sounds themselves. And in so doing, I can actually begin to hear them.

On Our Loving Is Hurting Us, oOoOO’s Greenspan makes ample use of the shock of the unfamiliar, but thankfully doesn’t rely on novelty alone. An atmosphere of low-key menace persists through all five songs. This atmosphere is too cinematic to be threatening: rounded-out synths and low electronic drums, all firmly mid-tempo. There is an industrial feel, but also something akin to easy listening. I don’t mean this derisively; it sounds genuinely pleasant. Above it all hovers a fragile female vocal, which provides a counterbalance to the murky dirge. The voice belongs to another artist, Butterclock, who toured with oOoOO and co-penned the EP’s single, “NoWayBack.”

The single hews closest to straightforward song structure. The other four tracks are free-form, foregrounding the texture of the sounds. Towards the middle of the record this aimlessness drags, so that no degree of sonic ingenuity can rescue it—even to fresh ears, wordless Auto-Tune noise is only interesting for so long.

The record’s highpoint might be the first song, “TryTry.” Synths meander over a chopped vocal, then reach a surprising major-key resolve. The record has a handful of these moments. It’s as if Greenspan can sense his listener groping for the music. Sometimes he steps in to help, and sometimes he leaves you hanging.

I’m as grateful for the latter instances as I am for the former. There’s something to be gained from the kind of listening that doesn’t immediately seek to establish meaning. Situating an artist in a particular context can be beneficial, but also binding. And if terms like “Witch House” are all we have to describe modern music, why bother?

To be sure, this kind of listening requires that we abandon our prejudices—even the aloof, ironic ones. In order to listen in this way, we have to suspend “tasteful” aesthetic judgment; this kind of listening is by definition uncool. There are times on Our Love Is Hurting Us when oOoOO lets us leave aside the question of whether or not the music is important. We don’t ask, “Does it matter?” Instead, we ask, “What is it?”


Marshall Yarbrough has written about music for The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi, and Flagpole magazine. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →