Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Charlie Megira, Dirty Beaches and the Meaning of Lo-Fi: An Inquiry
So if I can keep the Israel theme going--my favorite bar in Jerusalem was (and I guess still is) a cozy yet slightly divey little spot called Uganda. It's crammed into a little alleyway a block or two down from Kikar Tsiyon and attracts few of the personality types that have conspired to pollute the rest of the Ben Yehuda/Rehov Yaffo-area bar scene--there are no disaffected Yeshiva kids, no arsim or guidos, no drunk 16 year olds. I'm not sure I ever saw more than twenty or thirty people in there at a time. It was this, and not the place's audacious yet almost effortless hipness (this in a city where audacious yet effortless hipness is more or less a wasted accomplishment), that explained why my study abroad friends and I ended up there so often, usually after getting fed up with the creepers and Rockland County fucks who lurked at Egon or Zolli's or Goldy's. But the place's Bedford Avenue vibe, so uncanny in a city like Jerusalem, was always sort of comforting to me, so I'd sometimes find myself there in the middle of the afternoon, pouring over the crates of independent records that cluttered a niche near the bathroom. Using a dusty combination turntable/CD player the bar made available to its customers, I'd spend hours trying to get a handle on Israel's alternative scene, which apparently consisted of artists like mindripping crypto riot-grlls Plastic Venus (see above), genius minimalist composer Cherly KaCherly and the brilliant DJ Caress, who sounds like he could be a rogue member of The Avalanches or some shit.
But the Israeli artist who impressed me the most was Charlie Megira, a songwriter who, I realized about halfway through my third or fourth pint of Teybeh, had reached that Holy Grail of the lo-fi: the creation of music that serves as something more than the semi-ironic re-appropriation of an outdated sonic ethos, but that seems to exist outside of musical history itself.
Slow down, right! Well allow me to explain: the past few years of lo-fi have been a sonic race to the bottom (production-wise at least), as well as a backwards regression to the origins of alternative music. I think an artist like Ariel Pink, who produced the bulk of his recorded work in 2002 and 2003 (I think), represents the beginning of this trend. Unlike an archtypal lo-fi act like Guided by Voices--who seldom evince any awareness of a world outside of that laundromat basement where Bee Thousand was recorded--Pink is clearly attempting to comment on some previous musical trend. So his music is acid-washed 70s and 80s cheese that sounds eerily dislocated in the present, the sort of thing you'd be momentarily horrified but then weirdly comforted to randomly pick up on your car radio in the middle of Illinois.
But other lo-fi artists don't even seem to care about eerie dislocation, or about the intimacy that comes with absolute creative insularity (insularity, by the way, is crucial. The best lo-fi, i.e. Bradford Cox or Jeff Mangum's home recordings or classic-period GBV, is lo-fi because its creators seemed too wrapped up in other aspects of the songwriting process to give a shit about production values). Indeed, Bee Thousand is one of my favorite albums because of its intimacy--you're sitting right there in that fucking laundromat basement, right between the tape recorder and the 30-rack, watching Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout rip into one four-chord nonsense poem after another. That's what listening to Bee Thousand is like. What is listening to Wavves like, other than annoying after awhile? Is it like anything? How 'bout Best Coast, whose music is retro and breezy and utterly meaningless? Both bands can be summed up in a sentence or two: "lo-fi imitation of 60s beach rock."
Keep the concept, but lose the production values and backtrack about a decade or so, and you get this:
Dirty Beaches. They're pretty hip now. Pitchfork gave their EP an 8.2. But they do nothing for me. Megira, who threw his own 50's style surf-rock beach party like, five fucking years ago, is part of the reason why:
When I first heard Megira's Joy Divison-esque Charlie Megira Und Hefker Girl (which must be one of the most underrated albums of the past decade) I wasn't sure if he was a new artist or an old artist, if he was an Israeli or an American, if he was one guy or ten guys, if he was signed to a label or was just some post punk-obsessed self-distributed crank. I didn't care. Like Guided by Voices, the raspy, cassette-tape quality of the recording spoke to something that couldn't possibly be located in space or time as we currently understand it; something that was totally insular, confined to a basement or garage or a single musician's imagination. On the other hand, the long, lazy guitar swells, the distorted singing voice, those lyrics that were cryptic but not cryptic to the point of total meaninglessness, the AM-radio fuzz--it all jarred me like a cry emitted over an indeterminately vast distance. Great lo-fi can be simultaneously immediate and impenetrable, as GBV and I guess maybe Ariel Pink but especially Charlie Megira have taught me.
Megira's 50s-style dalliances didn't have quite as powerful an effect as Hefker Girl or Bee Thousand, although fuzzed-out sock hop music sung in Hebrew with the occasional country blues breakdown is just a disorienting and weird combination. Gimmicky, sort of. But Megira is a preternaturally talented songwriter, and unlike Dirty Beaches, he isn't satisfied exploring one riff or sound or piano phrase at a time. There's a restlessness to his music, a constant urge to move on to something different or new--Fragmentim Rock n' Rollim, Megira's most "50s" album, contains eight tracks (out of 25 total) that are under 1:30.
Which is all another way of saying that Megira wants to be something more than just a throwback, which is something that can't be said about the latest, hippest crop of lo-fi artists.