This spring Animal Collective released its latest offering, the three-LP Animal Crack Box. The collection of mostly early studio jams and odds ’n’ ends retails for a killer $92 a box—or I should say retailed for $92, since the thousand-unit limited-edition pressing sold out within the first day or two of availability. The day after, copies were selling for as much as $1000 on eBay, before the sellers had even received the copies they were selling.
The coup for the Animal Collective is that the Crack Box was, before most of us had even heard it, already among their most valuable releases. Promotion for the box comes with a built-in story line that indeed centers around value: reviewers already had their peg. By shortening the supply end in this way, the band cast an aura of desirability around the record that has nothing to do with the actual music in the box. This is probably to their advantage. In marked contrast to the immediately inflated value of the product, the music in the Crack Box might reasonably be considered among their least valuable. By this I only mean that these earlier recordings were made before the band hit their stride, and given that Animal Collective have rarely shied away from releasing tracks that didn’t make their proper albums, it might be fair to assume that these songs—having made it until now without seeing the light of day—might be among the least essential they’ve made. But instead of having a conversation about whether this music stands up to the best of Animal Collective’s catalogue, we are talking about “rarity” and “value.”
While it could be said that what was just described is part and parcel of everyday capitalism, this feverish investor’s market conflates two types of value that are usually distinct when buying new records: exchange value and use value (which in the case of music we might call pleasure value—the measure of enjoyment had by listening to and looking at the owned record). The presence of the former skews or at least supplements the appraisal of the latter.
We know that we record collectors fetishize the object, especially vinyl. A discussion of whether this is right or wrong, good or bad, is for another time, but either way, in the age of digital music the inflation of exchange value via micro-pressing is spectacularly artificial. We’re not talking about long-defunct or regional labels here, about crate-digging for ancient 78s. These six-month-old records are already out of print.
There seems to be a general sense of conflicted excitement regarding just how to take the latest crop of ultra-lo-fi buzz bands like Times New Viking, Wavves, and Vivian Girls—bands that revel in degraded signal or conceal themselves in it, depending on your take. Though not sonically similar to the Animal Collective, these groups employ another sort of supplementary tactic that is specifically concerned with importing suggestions of temporality and materiality into their music.
Much of the discussion and debate surrounding these groups’ records centers around claims about whether the songs are in fact good or bad under the production. Such a determination is up to each listener, but it is useful to remember that such a discussion requires that the songs actually be under their production—and that the bands gain something from this positioning. The listening experience is not just one of listening to a song, but discerning a song that is slightly buried, slightly elsewhere. This being-slightly-elsewhere alters how we appreciate and appraise the music. We don’t just hear the song but in part imagine the song in the context its production suggests, that is, as something older than the contemporary, something mediated by time and a host of decaying and out-dated apparatus: cassette tapes, cheap mics, overburdened four-track recorders, and vinyl records. In the instance of Wavves we are meant to imagine his garage and to believe that he could not possibly afford to record at a higher fidelity.
This production posits a context, sometimes temporal, sometimes economic. Times New Viking’s Rip It Off, released by Matador, one of the largest and best-financed independent labels in the world (though the term “independent” may be just as empty a signifier in this sphere as it usually is when applied to music), sounds like it was recorded in real time and on the cheap. But it’s more exaggerated than that. At a time when ProTools and M-Boxes are ubiquitous, Rip It Off sounds like homespun power pop re-dubbed on a dozen cassette tapes and blasted at max volume on low-watt computer speakers clipping hard at the ends of the frequency spectrum. You have to go out of your way for that sound, a sound meant to seem as though the band has not gone out of their way at all. Compression, of course, has always been a tool used in music recording, but at these levels of sonic degradation one has to ask whether this is not just a recording strategy, but a marketing strategy as well.
That these bands vary from flimsy to disastrous live further begs the question. Vivian Girls are about as amateur as a band could be without being children. Wavves’ Nathan Williams self-destructed during his second-ever European show. And yet, all have released some recordings that stick right in the brain. That these are not “studio bands” in the traditional sense—no wonky production gymnastics or elaborate adornment—complicates things. There has always been a gap between what a song is materially or compositionally and how we hear it. These bands profit from the prying open of this gap. The significant disjunct between the Crystal Stilts’ live performances—which are more accurately described as “without qualities” than as “low-quality”—and their easily palatable recordings exactly maps the space of the ideological or phantasmatic supplement involved in listening to this music, a space rendered only slightly opaque in reverb.
So is the fuzz part of the song or something done to the song? My contention is that it’s a supplement in the Derridean sense. Derrida reminds us that supplement (at least in French) properly has two meanings: a supplement both supplements and supplants. That is, it not only adds to its object but also replaces it. It’s what Derrida called an “undecidable,” neither wholly one or the other.
But this formula doesn’t help us determine whether it’s all just sleight of hand, which is a question perhaps more usefully asked and suspended than asked and answered. The records do something to the music that is other than the music. They try to pre-date themselves, conjure simpler technological conditions, more innocent means of production. But why have audiences and critics been so taken with it? Why now?
Postmodern theory offers a stock explanation: History is over and so is the possibility for the genuinely new, so all that remains is to recycle, recombine, and appropriate past models of cultural production. While this reasoning offers something, the bands discussed here do not resemble the vanguardism of postmodern pastiche or ironic appropriation (which still adds a new posture to old content). There is something altogether more naive and disavowed in the air.
In an interview on uncensoredinterview.com, the Vivian Girls, perhaps jokingly, cast their critical success as a rejection of “math rock” and take a shot a musicians who can “shred six different ways” but “can’t write a song.” But why should math rock be a target for proprietors of innocent bar-chord garage rock? The answer might lie in what these two types of music suggest of themselves. Math rock wants to appear to evolve and interrogate form, whereas this new garage rock wants to retrace the very normalcy of its gestures.
The work of these groups abandons a long-running dialectic of progress in music that may seem to have siphoned itself into endless sub-genre categorization and hyphenated tags. (Consider the limitless identifiable varieties of electronic music, a musical lineage that was inscribed with a quest for the new from its beginnings.) The new lo-fi turns away from that by retracing, revivifying, and reinscribing the basicness of rock in its most normalized forms. Even Animal Collective’s neo-primitivism sometimes seems to imply a return to an innocence that we know to be inaccessible if it is also to be authentic.
The need to lash out at a proxy as far afield in the now of indie music as math rock betrays a certain anxiety undercutting the innocent posture the Vivian Girls are trying to affect. In their music one hears both the retreat from the historical anxiety of the contemporary moment and the concealment of that retreat in noise.
What micro-pressings and the new lo-fi share is their insistence on the materiality of music. Micro-pressings inflate the value of the object at a time when music has never been so unyoked from its objective instantiations. The new lo-fi records don’t just present composition and performance, but filter them through a maximum focus on the music’s material instantiations (like the charmingly busted equipment with which it is recorded, through which we hear the music). The paradox is that we are susceptible to these strategies precisely because music in its most pervasive form (digital) is now so utterly immaterial and nearly value-free. We hear the reach back not just to the comfort of stylistic tropes, but to a past in which music’s presence seemed more grounded. It’s the nostalgia for a music that still requires materiality.
We might consider, as musicology does, whether music reflects its present social conditions, or whether, as Jacques Attali suggests more radically, it precipitates and predicts cultural shifts. If the former is the case, we ought to ask why we have abandoned the pursuit of the new, itself perhaps in part only a myth, for the backdated comforts of lustral simulacra. If the latter is true then the question becomes to what extent the future of rock music proves to be the future of an illusion.