October 05, 2005



This article was titled "Join The Click" and published in the Village Voice on May 13, 1997.


Be it made electronically or with muscles and fingers, all sound is comprised of clicks cycling at different speeds (i.e., oscillating), scalar notes just being clicks going fast enough the separation between them is no longer audible. When slowed down, clicks become beats. "Teurastano," from Kulma (Mute), the latest album by Finnish analogue synth duo Panasonic, the Martha Stewarts of the click, illustrates this clearly: After sounding once at the opening, a click accelerates to become a tone and then, quickly, a jiggling, staticky tone that threatens to overtake the whole track. An air-raid buzz starts a-funking, steam blasts start, and we've got the Many Moods of the Click, velocity and space working out the differences.

Using oscillation in this manner, the hierarchy between melody and rhythm becomes a fluid continuum of sound that yields many good things—"Teurastamo" could be a grouchier Chemical Brothers and "Kylma Massa" is a lovely spray of clicks behind glass. The continuum does not include indulgences like, say, harmony or melody. If a track begins and you don't like what it sounds like, you're out of luck—that's where you're gonna be for a while.

Lead 'Sonic Mika Vainio makes even more stripped-down records under the name ø for Sahko, the Finnish label the group calls home when they're at home. ø's Olento is a fairly stunning stretch of oscillator mesa, but the Sahko family gem is the remarkable Kosmos EP, allegedly recorded by a pair of exiled Russian engineers. A music box rattles, while commanders Pulyov and Kostovich make a sandbox from radioactive erector set pieces. A shame its a fancy import 12-inch, because electronic music's allegedly limitless promise rarely yields anything this truly alien and beautiful.

The act that's probably done the most radical thing to the click is Oval, a/k/a Berliner Markus Popp. Over the course of Systemisch and Diskont94 (both reissued here by Thrill Jockey) the soft-edged click of a skipping CD player is turned into a melodic strategy. If Kosmos is Hansel and Gretel on Sputnik, Oval is the stars themselves, grumbling, orbiting, spitting out notes and un-notes simultaneously. Systemisch is the keeper by a slight edge, with a sonic m.o. as identifiable and pleasurable as My Bloody Valentine's. Making good on the Clinton-style wishy-washy promises of ambient-electronic-dishwashing music, tracks like Systemisch's "Aero Deck" sound pastoral and reassuring at low volume, bursting with overtones and spatial structure at rock volume. Popp's pops are not arrayed by default.

I don't have the column inches and you probably don't have the downtime, but new CDs like Ryoji Ikeda's +/- (Touch) and Bernhard GĂĽnter's Un Peu de neige salie (Table of the Elements) make an hour of music from nothing but pops and clicks and silence. If that sounds like fun to you, now you know where to look. And, for the record, they really don't use any other sounds than clicking, so I gotta give a shout out to them. I prefer a little more music in mv music, but Ikeda and GĂĽnter's sense of the stereo field does raise mv neck hairs.

Back in the world of music that gets played on the radio, the click has kin in the continually shrinking drum sounds of hip-hop. In-demand producers Mobb Deep and Trackmasters favor constrained samples that thump and snap more than they boom and ring. Heard favorably, they sound like a contact microphone recording the blood coursing through someone's temples, menacing and implacable. Heard by the old-school fiend in me, they sound momentarily spooky and then kind of thin. This may not be my idea of a good time, but I at least understand the deployment. Tight sounds can suggest pressure and anxiety while functionally clearing room for melody samples and voice. In r&b, the click reads as intimate, like skin smacking or rain on the window.

Excellent, high-gloss woodpecker r&b like Aaliyah's "One in a Million" and "Hot Like Fire" make lovely use of the click, pitching bass sounds way below it and leaving a sexy Grand Canyon between the two. "Hot Like Fire" samples the ur-click beat, Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine" from 1972. You know it, even if you don't; it's drummer Howard Grimes's magical intro, a tango of kick drum and rimshots touching toes, alternating in binary morse code so funky funky had to call in sick. First sampled, I think, in 1989 on Eric B. and Rakim's "Mahogany," this track has subsequently been referenced by a frightening range of musicians, most recently sampled twice (guys, preplanning meetings!) on Biggie's Life After Death, again on triphoppers Recloose's "Bug-Eyed Blues" (This Is Home Entertainment Volume Three), and then quoted by the drummer for soul-punks the Make-Up on "Tell It Like It Will Be." This variety of usage marks the point where a sample becomes (as "Funky Drummer," "Apache," "Amen, Brother," "It Takes Two," and "It's a New Day" have become already) functionally similar to public-domain folk songs, a textual point around which a common experience pivots, accruing enough meaning to constitute something like a genre unto itself. (In the case of drum 'n' bass, definitely a genre unto itself-as it subsists mostly on four drum samples.)

"I'm Glad You're Mine" marks the beginning of the click that winds up through soul into hiphop and current-day blends like Erykah Badu and the Roots, who believe that, hey diggy diggy, rimshots will nice up the place all by themselves. Puffy Comb's remix of New Edition's "You Don't Have To Worry' puts the job of next-level funkiness squarely in the hands of a machete-like click. The song's intro isolates our favorite ingredients: a syncopated synth click that's all attack and a kick drum sound with no edges providing a brutal low-end thump (the click's inverse). (Then there's a song and some singing.)

Another remarkable r&b cut in this vein is "Love You Down, by Jodeci's Devante Swing, operating under the name Da Basement, from last year's Nutty Professor soundtrack. Coming off like a Panasonic and Prince duet, the track pays fevered, loving attention to sound. Insistent tippy-tapping and distorted kick drums boom along next to a trembling guitar arpeggio closer to Sebadoh than the Isley Brothers. Add pre-orgasmic falsetto singing, over-the-phone mumbling, and an error-alert bleep and you've got alpha beta Mastroianni robot love music. Remember when the Artist used to get this deep with a click? Remember "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker"?

So I'm just a fool for little sounds. Why might everyone else be? (1) It's part of another (alleged) revolt against (allegedly) worn-out signifiers of rock like "big" or "good" drum sounds. The snare, the seat of much rock excitement and endless hours of engineering foolishness (try listening to John Mellencamp circa 1985 for thousands of dollars of "big" snare sound), is seen as rockocentric and played out. If you're gonna have one, make it weird and small. (See also Helmet's John Stanier and his tightly wound, timbale-like snare sound, which helped undo some of the worn-out machismo of a solidly male music.) In r&b, it's just a further step along the continuum moving away from similarly corny '80s stadium sounds. (Listen to Jody Watley's "I'm Looking for a New Love" and see if it doesn't sound hopelessly dated in a way that, say, "Billie Jean" doesn't.)

(2) Click-wielding is a heady game of one-upmanship: if you can use some blippy ticky-tock sound with no sustain, no decay, and still manage to swing, well, you're special. (3) New awareness of detail brought on by the magnifying glass of the sampler has caused it all. Ten years of listening to three seconds looped for five minutes has given people dog ears for differences in pops, static, and recorded ambience ("That's the B-side of `Doodle Oop' slowed down!"). This audio pornography reaches a logical end in music that's all detail and no figure. (4) Everyone wants to stop making music but they're too chicken so they just make it smaller so maybe no one will notice.

Posted by Sasha at October 5, 2005 04:01 PM | TrackBack