Mu­sic Close to Swoon­ing

An­wen Craw­ford on Prim­i­tive Mo­tion’s ‘House in the Wave’ and To­tally Mild’s ‘Her’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

Prim­i­tive Mo­tion, a duo from Bris­bane, have a damp, dis­solv­ing sound. Their songs are evoca­tive of pa­per left out in the rain, or the shells of aban­doned build­ings – things once in­tact now left to sprout holes. San­dra Selig and Leighton Craig favour in­for­mal record­ing set-ups; House in the Wave, their new­est al­bum, was recorded piece­meal over a pe­riod of al­most two years, at Selig’s home stu­dio. Bird call, along with tape hiss, leaks into sev­eral tracks, so that the songs also be­come im­pres­sions of the en­vi­ron­ment in which they were made. The mu­sic is mostly im­pro­vised, with some over­dubs. Songs by Prim­i­tive Mo­tion bear ti­tles such as “Small Or­bit” and “Is­land Self”, clues as to the mu­sic’s at­ten­u­ated spa­ces. But in­side of those songs all point­ers go blurry. Voices wa­ver; in­stru­ments soften; lyrics, where they ex­ist, are on the edge of de­ci­pher­abil­ity. “Small Or­bit”, for in­stance, the mid­point of House in the Wave, is an in­stru­men­tal. A pi­ano melody, high up on the key­board, dances across a hand­ful of notes, while a ba­sic chord pro­gres­sion is sketched out in the bass oc­taves. Scraps of sax­o­phone and clar­inet drift by, and a drum kit pat­ters lightly. All is en­veloped by re­verb. The song is gone in two min­utes,

but dur­ing that time it trans­mits a vivid sense of yearn­ing. For what or for whom is harder to de­ter­mine, and prob­a­bly be­side the point; the in­ex­act­ness of the mu­sic, its lack of ob­vi­ous mes­sage, is its virtue. This is not to sug­gest that Prim­i­tive Mo­tion is a project vaguely or care­lessly con­ceived. The duo’s mu­si­cal ap­proach has been con­sis­tent, and is doc­u­mented now across three stu­dio al­bums and a few lim­ited re­leases. House in the Wave leans on pi­ano, while the pre­ced­ing al­bum, Pul­sat­ing Time Fi­bre (2015), made use of key­board, gui­tar and drum ma­chine: these var­i­ous in­stru­ments are used to ren­der a sim­i­larly en­tranc­ing at­mos­phere. Selig, who does most of the singing, has a glassy voice well suited to the mu­sic’s liqui­fied and oc­ca­sion­ally scin­til­lant feel; the pi­ano, es­pe­cially, adds sparkle. “Small blue flower,” she and Craig sing on “S.B.F.”, from the new al­bum, along­side a de­scend­ing, four-note pi­ano melody. The tempo of the singing is slow enough to smear the words into a kind of paint. One thinks of er­rant wild­flow­ers by the road­side, or a fallen petal in the gar­den, or other fleet­ing, in­ci­den­tal en­coun­ters with a ma­te­rial world that we may ap­pre­hend but not fully com­pre­hend. Such a world might best be de­picted in im­pres­sion­is­tic ways. Prim­i­tive Mo­tion come close at times to what could be prop­erly called am­bi­ent mu­sic. In a re­cent es­say for mu­sic web­site FACT, mu­si­cian and critic Lawrence English re­flected on the his­tory of the genre, which was of­fi­cially named 40 years ago with Brian Eno’s al­bum Am­bi­ent 1: Mu­sic for Air­ports (1978). It was Eno’s stated in­ten­tion to cre­ate “en­vi­ron­men­tal mu­sic … as ig­nor­able as it is in­ter­est­ing”. English, in his piece, writes of am­bi­ent’s “va­porous” qual­ity. (It’s worth men­tion­ing here that English, who is also based in Bris­bane, has re­leased solo work by Leighton Craig on his la­bel Room 40. He also did the mas­ter­ing for Pul­sat­ing Time Fi­bre and Worlds Float­ing By, Prim­i­tive Mo­tion’s de­but al­bum.) Va­porous, en­vi­ron­men­tal mu­sic goes some way to de­scrib­ing the ef­fect and pur­pose of Prim­i­tive Mo­tion. But they also re­tain a con­nec­tion to the pop song as a dis­tinct form. Their mu­sic os­cil­lates gen­er­a­tively be­tween a thing that re­cedes into an un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated back­ground and things – songs – that claim one’s at­ten­tion as dis­crete com­po­si­tions. Selig, also a prac­tis­ing vis­ual artist who makes site-spe­cific in­stal­la­tions, has de­scribed her in­ter­est in the “form­less­ness of form”. That seem­ing para­dox, which points to the ways in which shapes change through our per­cep­tion of them, serves as an ex­cel­lent de­scrip­tion for Prim­i­tive Mo­tion, too. There are prece­dents, and con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels, for this am­bi­ent pop. The mu­sic of English group Fly­ing Saucer At­tack, who be­gan record­ing in the 1990s and still ex­ist to­day, is of a com­pa­ra­ble char­ac­ter to Prim­i­tive Mo­tion’s: muzzy, tan­ta­lis­ing, elu­sive. In­ter­est­ingly, Fly­ing Saucer At­tack has also been (mostly) a duo – per­haps there is some­thing in the cre­atively in­ti­mate na­ture of the for­ma­tion that lends it­self to this kind of semi-cryptic sound-mak­ing. (Other ob­scurely dreamy, and dream­ily ob­scure, duos along these lines: A.R. Kane, Bow­ery Elec­tric, Broad­cast.) More re­cently, Amer­i­can mu­si­cian Liz Har­ris, who records as Grouper, has also pur­sued a blurred, ret­i­cent song form. It’s hard to grow tired of such mu­sic, be­cause it doesn’t en­tirely re­veal it­self, and it’s never quite done. To bor­row an­other Prim­i­tive Mo­tion song ti­tle, it’s a liv­ing sys­tem. Cen­tred on the singing and song­writ­ing of El­iz­a­beth Mitchell, Mel­bourne quar­tet To­tally Mild make mu­sic that re­calls the sun­shiny, doo-wop vibe of early ’60s pop – The Beach Boys, Jackie DeShan­non – but shot through with anx­i­ety. Their first al­bum, Down Time (2015), was a sly, suc­cinct marvel, over and done in 25 min­utes but with a last­ing ef­fect. The record’s cen­tre­piece, “Nights”, was pulled along by a sour­ing slide gui­tar line, over which Mitchell stretched her vo­cal into melis­matic spi­rals. “All my nights end with all my friends dead,” she sang. “I wake in cold sweat and bad dreams in my bed.” It looks stark on the page, but Mitchell’s limpid voice, so tonally dif­fer­ent from her lyrics, worked like a ruse – with­out lis­ten­ing closely, you might have de­cided that To­tally Mild sounded merely pretty. A par­al­lel type of con­fu­sion arises with the group’s cover art. Her, To­tally Mild’s new, sec­ond al­bum, comes pack­aged in a sleeve – like Down Time did – that at first glance re­sem­bles a luxe fash­ion spread. Look closer, how­ever, and ques­tions present them­selves. Why does the bathing covergirl look so pen­sive? Why is she hold­ing a wa­ter glass to the bath­room mir­ror, as if strain­ing to hear some­thing on the other side? And why is her bath­wa­ter a poi­sonous green? “We’re told to keep it in / Don’t aim too high / You’ll fall,” Mitchell sings on “Sky”, the al­bum’s open­ing track, as if giv­ing voice to the pen­sive woman’s thoughts. The song is washed by a syn­the­siser as com­fort­less as flu­o­res­cent light. Dis­af­fec­tion sits close to the heart of Her – a dis­af­fec­tion with the lim­its of gen­der, in par­tic­u­lar. The al­bum’s ti­tle un­der­scores the im­por­tance of fem­i­nin­ity to the mu­sic, but it also brings fem­i­nin­ity into ques­tion, mak­ing it a strange, stud­ied no­tion again. Which it is, when you stop to think about it. Fol­low­ing the re­cent de­par­ture of drum­mer Ash­ley Bun­dang, who played on Her, three quar­ters of To­tally Mild – guitarist Zachary Sch­nei­der, bassist Lehmann Smith, and re­place­ment drum­mer Dy­lan Young – are now men. The gen­der im­bal­ance ac­tu­ally serves to en­hance the group’s dis­rup­tion of gen­der roles and ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially when the male band mem­bers add stut­ter­ing, girl group–style back­ing har­monies to Mitchell’s lead vo­cal lines, re­vers­ing pop’s tra­di­tion of

It’s hard to grow tired of such mu­sic, be­cause it doesn’t en­tirely re­veal it­self.

male soloists in the spot­light and women in the shad­ows. (Not to down­play Bun­dang’s con­tri­bu­tion to the group: es­pe­cially in live set­tings, she pro­vided a res­o­lute yet ex­u­ber­ant rhyth­mic foun­da­tion.) Mitchell com­mands the cho­rus of “Work­ing Like A Crow” (“I can’t do it on my own”), while her band­mates echo her (“I can’t, I can’t”). The words are the in­verse of the vo­cal ar­range­ment, and so the song drama­tises the ten­sion be­tween de­sir­ing soli­tari­ness – es­pe­cially as a woman, when such a de­sire is rarely cel­e­brated – and long­ing for con­nec­tion. That ten­sion is not a new idea in pop mu­sic, but part of To­tally Mild’s pur­pose is to bring pop’s re­ceived ideas into ques­tion, by com­ing at them a lit­tle skewed. “I know that what I’m feel­ing has all been felt be­fore,” ob­serves Mitchell in “More”, a love song that un­der­mines it­self. Her sounds richer than Down Time – there’s even a grand pi­ano (“Lucky Stars”), to go with the syn­the­sis­ers and slide gui­tar – and is the less dis­tinc­tive record for be­ing more fully ar­ranged. But it nev­er­the­less cre­ates an in­ter­est­ing push-pull be­tween ro­man­ti­cism and irony; like Per­fume Ge­nius, with whom they tour na­tion­ally this month, To­tally Mild come close to swoon­ing, and then pull out of it. They cov­ered Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” re­cently, at a live show in Syd­ney, and it was the per­fect choice of cover song: they drew out the song’s doomy un­der­tones (“The world was on fire / No one could save me but you”), and leaned into its de­nial, and re­fusal, of ro­man­tic com­fort, which is nev­er­the­less ex­pressed through the most ro­man­tic of melodies. Don’t want to fall in love.

Part of To­tally Mild’s pur­pose is to bring pop’s re­ceived ideas into ques­tion.

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