Hauntology and nowstalgia

‘Hauntology’ is a word that’s appeared on my radar only recently. It was originally a term coined by Jacques Derrida, linked to the similar-sounding ‘ontology’, the philosophical study of the nature of being and reality. Derrida’s idea was that the end of history would be signalled by a preoccupation with nostalgic, ‘old-time’ aesthetics. I first came across the term in The Wire magazine, used to refer to the music of artists like Leyland Kirby and Broadcast & The Focus Group who create dreamlike aural soundscapes that conjure up nostalgic versions of the past.

This reminds me of a term that I and my friends used to joke about: we used the word ‘nowstalgia’ to refer to nostalgia for the present moment. I think we coined the term when the first wave of inexpensive digital cameras were available. One summer, every social event featured a common moment, usually two-thirds through the event, when people would gather around the tiny LCD screen of a digital camera to view the images. The appeal of seeing still images of an event that was still happening was a guilty pleasure. Spending time reviewing the images actually seemed to involve removing yourself from the moment, and seeing the event through a nostalgic filter. Years later, the proliferation of camera phones and latterly direct publishing of images on Facebook means that the phenomenon is far more common but perhaps a little more unsettling.

Today’s worry: is there an outside chance that Derrida might be proved right? Is ‘nowstalgia’ just a first step into our obsession with the recent, then more distant, past?

Every Day the Same Dream (Paulo Pedercini, 2009)

I already posted about this game on my serious games blog, but it definitely bears repeating. Every Day the Same Dream is a beautiful independent game from Paolo Pedercini as an entry to the Experimental Gameplay Project. Illustrating the tedium of routine office work, the game allows few interactions – for example exchanging brief words with your indifferent wife, a homeless man, the elevator operator. You can only ‘win’ the game by searching out the few ways to break the routine of everyday working life. It’s bleak and often tedious – and it’s one of the most consistent and affecting games I’ve played in a long time.

See Paulo Pedercini’s website for links to his other works, including a machinima video about post-traumatic stress disorder filmed with the recruiting game America’s Army, and online games covering subjects such as the unethical practices of fast food corporations and child abuse by the Catholic clergy.

Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009)

Up until this point in this blog, I’ve tended to write about music that I unreservedly love – songs that I replay as soon as they’ve ended. ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear falls into another category. In 2009 Grizzly Bear escaped the long shadow of Animal Collective; in the indie press there were few songs that were as widely praised as ‘Two Weeks’. I love it too – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper.

I’ll avoid asking whether it’s a good track. The question that interests me is whether we – the music obsessives and list-compilers of 2009 – will like the song in 5 years time.

The track has a swagger unknown to Grizzly Bear up to this point. The piano line and ‘whoa-oh-oh’ backing vocals are infectious. The chorus swoons. But isn’t the production a little too perfect, almost clinical? There’s nothing wrong with a guitar band sounding more like Beyonce than Pavement, but something about this track rings false – there’s an inherent smugness that rankles.

It’s hard to predict how prevailing musical tastes will change – but when I listen to this track I always have the uneasy feeling that when we move on from 2000s-era American psychedelica-tinged indie, it’s tracks like this that we’ll guiltily ridicule. The grandiose follies of Sufjan Stevens, Akron Family’s freak prog – will they in retrospect sound like the last fart of early 21st century US indie before some pared-down music style sweeps them away? At the moment my money’s on Animal Collective’s work standing the test of time, partly because they’ve evolved significantly with each release. But Grizzly Bear? Ask me in 5 years time.

The album Veckatimest isn’t on Spotify, so listen to Two Weeks at Grizzly Bear’s homepage, here.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino, 1979)

This isn’t the actual beginning of Calvino’s novel ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, but it is the beginning of the first book-within-a-book, also called ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – so it still counts as one of my favourite opening passages of a novel.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from the piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odour of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odour. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Tim Major – writer & editor

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