Throughout August, Crate-Digging will be focusing on recordings that have been given a cassette release.
(Leaving Records, 2010)
Los Angelino Nick Ray’s Speculator project lives in an alternate universe, one where the 1980s never ended and retro-futuristic pop culture is a reality. The flanger is in – Oasis is out. And that cover – is that Kyle MacLachlan? In a bubble bath? Totally enjoying the sweet jams on his Walkman? Maybe, maybe, and definitely. And that can only be Speculator’s Lifestyle travelling across the device’s reels.
Yes, Lifestyle owes a debt to the 1980s, featuring snippets of dialogue and samples of songs from the era, woven seamlessly into the album as a whole. But instead of being simply a stylistic retread, the tape swallows the characteristics in a fog and regurgitates mutant representations for both easy consumption and critical appraisal. That’s fancy talk for calling it super lo-fi.
That’s right kids, another tape release with questionable fidelity! Why is that so OK? On the surface it should be a turnoff to anyone with the faintest distaste for anything that doesn’t boom-thwap, but I think the approach really works. “Afraid of the Future” even uses the variable tape quality as a songwriting technique, as Ray inserts what sounds like the glitch of a cassette being read incorrectly to pause the song, and when his guitars come back in, it sounds like the tape itself has been run under a faucet, or something like that, to dull the impact of the sound. It’s temporary though, as this hiccup acts as a bridge, and truly drags you into the medium, a reminder of all those mixes you lost in your car’s tape deck after noticing a squirrely change in sound quality on your favorite song. It also helps that “Afraid of the Future” is pretty damn catchy.
Speaking of catchy, “I Wait All Day,” the strongest cut on the album, is a pop marvel – it cheekily borrows a lengthy sample from Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You” and marries it with upbeat drum programming and additional guitar and synthesizer for a straight glo-fi treat. The treatment calls attention to the strength of the hook, and how, in the hands of one who cares little about the lowest common denominator, it can really shine. It also reminds anyone who cares to agree with me just how chintzy Janet Jackson’s catalog truly is. Speculator’s not done though – immediately following “I Wait All Day” is “Tommy Less Jones Version” (split on tape into “Tommy Less Jones” and “(Version)”), which uses the exact same sample to create a totally different song. Here Ray slows the sample down, adds different drums and instrumental focus, and turns what was upbeat a minute ago into a rainy-day dirge. The song opens with, and gets its name from, yet another slowed-to-a-crawl sample, this time a line of dialogue spoken by Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black. And yet it doesn’t sound goofy in the slightest.
To say that Speculator’s style is dreamy pop is close to true, although anything with a haze of tape hiss or gauzy effect is going to be thrust into that category. But it has hints of the Top 40 pop stylings (obviously, given the Janet Jackson connection) and R&B moments, always spaced out or hidden in drones or fuzzed guitar. Repetitive rock even finds purchase in the tracklist, as opener “Cruise Control” features a garage organ phrase played over and over as pieces and parts are subtly swapped in and out. “Smoke Me” is as close to a guitar freakout as there is here, and Ray insists on cramming every track of his Tascam (or whatever he uses) with some sort of effect. There are even ultra-buried vocals here and on a few other songs. “No Future” and “‘Dreams’” up the bliss-out quotient, as does lovely album-closing tandem “Right” and “I’m Shrinking.” But throughout, the sense of fun and expressive discovery never wanes – a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles snippet starts “No Future” (“It’s a Super Shredder!”) and “Sick Oasis,” an interlude to be sure, is nothing but a sampled, smeared, and discombobulated minute of “Wonderwall” through a flanger. The effect is something like flipping through the radio dial in Speculator’s parallel world, the tunes pulled like taffy and existing only in your head.
I love it – it’s a different approach to repurposing 1980s (and 1990s) culture, and the unusual medium of the low-run cassette plus digital release gives it an air of both mystery and accessibility. If you can’t get your hands on the tape, get it directly from the artist for whatever you want to pay him. (Click on the player above to be whisked away to Speculator’s bandcamp page.) It’s impressive to see how artists such as Nick Ray are able to explore the corners of past-due styles and tease out the nuances of recording limitations in order to create something unique and enjoyable. Lifestyle is both.
RIYL: James Ferraro; Oasis, slowed to a crawl, played through a flanger; The Go-Go’s, played through a boombox dropped from the roof, through a flanger