Thursday, March 22, 2018

album review: 'punk' by eric taxxon

The last few projects from Eric Taxxon I've put on the Trailing Edge. Not entirely by choice - I ran out of time with The Art State at the end of 2017, I really did want to give that one a full review given the richer set of ideas and more abrasive experimentation, but One Pop didn't give me a lot to say, and while 'Guns' is a damn great song, the rest hasn't quite stuck with me in the same way as, say, Paul did.

But this was one of the projects I wanted to review in full, mostly because Eric Taxxon was going into a territory few producers or artists dare anymore: plunderphonics, taking a plethora samples and musical fragments to vividly recontextualize them for his own work. Now this is not unfamiliar territory to him - I distinctly remember his project Copy from 2016 that actually sampled me from one of my videos - but Punk seemed more ambitious, more driven by Taxxon's acrid distaste for modern copyright law and a desire to make a pointed and layered statement about it. Now keep in mind sampling for free mixtapes has not gone away, but the fact that one could pay for Punk - this project is available on Bandcamp, not DatPiff - means this was definitely in questionable territory, because I'd put money on none of these samples being cleared. And that's always a murky legal territory even if it is free given authorial consent - that's always been one of the big grey areas with fanfiction - but on the other hand I've just had a week where I've had multiple videos either stripped of their monetization or blocked outright by copyright bots without any proper third-party arbitration and despite Fair Use and Fair Dealing conditions on YouTube, so I'm just about in the proper mood to enjoy the hell out of this! So okay, what did I find on Punk?

I'm torn on this project - or indeed, how I should even review this project, mostly because it's less of an self-contained album statement and more in line with a countercultural art piece, less about the compositions themselves and more about the composite, postmodern critique of copyright and artistic ownership - think more along the lines of Orson Welles' spectacular film F For Fake rather than any sort of conventional, self-contained narrative. Now this is not territory Eric Taxxon has shied away from before - hell, The Art State was just as much of a deconstruction - but if that sort of artistic conversation is not what you're looking for out of an album review, I would tell you to clear out now... except for the fact that if you dig into some of the individual pieces of this project you might just find the best plunderphonics/mash-up project since Neil Cicierega's Mouth Moods.

And yet even that's a loaded comparison in itself, because it's very clear Eric Taxxon isn't just looking to create a tightly written set of mashups for the meme set, even if that's an audience that'll happily jump onboard, especially given Taxxon's flagrantly unapologetic genre fusion and method of sampling. And while there's very little if any actual punk music here, it bleeds through in the ethos and rough edges in how he rams songs together. Hell, the opening track is the prime example, taking a snide vocal sample of someone sneering a pop star for sampling a riff and then flipping at least four or five recognizable hard rock and metal riffs into a roiling cacophony of charging breakbeats, melodic fragments of vocals and horns sliced to ribbons, and a shockingly strong groove. And when that sneering rockist comes back, Taxxon keeps the breakbeat and drops in a blatant sample of Demi Lovato's 'Sorry Not Sorry'. And beyond just the heaviness, I really do appreciate the dramatic irony - mainstream rock calling out pop for being creatively bankrupt and stagnant for its samples when it's far more of a scathing indictment for modern rock radio! And when this record keeps that sense of momentum and sampling abandon, we get some genuinely awesome moments that showcase Taxxon recontextualizing artists into some of their most catchy, potent fragments. 'Hell March 2011' takes a stomping kickdrum, echoing snares with a bellowing shouting vocal cut to ribbons which almost sounds a little like Death Grips - it sounds familiar, I couldn't put my finger on it - and yet midway through runs a blurred over but still distinctly recognizable hook from Nicki Minaj's 'Super Bass'! 'Lost Lander' take a fragment of willowy indie folk to provide foundational melody for the breakbeat - again, I swear I should know this one, it sounds genuinely terrific - and then using a binaural feed introduces samples from an A.G. Cook mixtape track and Bhad Bhabie's 'Hi Bitch' and it fits together seamlessly! And it even gets better with 'Squaredance', which grabs up M.I.A., Rednex, American Authors of all people, and another maddeningly familiar pop sample that I can't quite pin down into a whirling blur of amazingly well-mixed sound that might just be the most potent millennial headrush I've gotten this year! 'Take Notes' takes its whirring skitter of a beat against stuttered vocals, punches up the drums... and then places it over a hook reinterpreted from Miley Cyrus' 'Malibu' and even if it runs a little short, it's more enjoyable than anything Miley's done in years! Hell, even though I'm not really crazy about the Meghan Trainor interpolation on the back half of 'Sing And Sing', the foundational sample from Camp-era Childish Gambino against the dirty percussion, what sounds like a gurgling sax, and a collage of vocal samples leads to a sampled hook that I won't dare spoil, but it might just be the best thing this artist has been associated with in over fifteen years!

But here's the thing: it's not all just shamelessly awesome blended mashups and it's not trying to be especially memetic, and this record spaces out those moments with more contemplative, experimental pieces. 'Taylor Swift' was intriguing, half because of its piano loop against plucked fragments deftly sliced together and a blockier electronic beat... until you realize it's less about Swift herself but a performance over her sound then sliced to ribbons - which she and her management has been famously litigious about. 'Too Much' takes its shrill squealing sample chopped into noisier drums and another vocal sample that really isn't as shrill or grating... until you get a sample of a woman counting in Spanish with a distinctly ASMR-pickup, and that was indeed 'too much'. Which is the point, of course: Eric Taxxon is looking to challenge his audience with these sample blends, and while there is a certain amount of blatant provocation - he literally ends the album with 'Pop Star' and a juxtaposition of artists saying 'Sue Me' before he adds his own taunt - but it's when this album digs deeper it gets fascinating, and this comes through two distinctive choices, one that works, and one that doesn't. The one that works comes with 'Drummer Hoff', which includes a spoken reading of the titular children's fable showing a number of ranked soldiers with rhyming names assembling a cannon, always circling back to how it was 'Drummer Hoff who fired it off'. And while the writer and illustrator of the book have always denied any deeper reading of the text - readings that have spanned anti-war interpretations to those seeking credit for a larger conflict that is not theirs - in this context of this record Taxxon yanks out another layer of subtext: abdication of responsibility. After all, it's the least important and least active of the ranked men who is cited with the most blame, drawing the thematic link that when it comes to modern copyright law, it's not the systems and men within them who have received the most blame, but the artists at the bottom who bring their sound. Abstract, but a really damn potent point, and when paired with the 'copy' jingle at the end of 'Squaredance', I definitely see his intent. But right after that we hit the most controversial part of the record and one that if I didn't know any better was intended to troll me directly: 'I'm Not Famous', which is quite literally an unchanged copy of the song written, performed and produced by AJR off of their last album The Click.

Okay, here's the thing: I get why it's here. By its inclusion Taxxon is taking what is a blatant, thematically infuriating lie for AJR and reframing it as a truthful moment. And it goes beyond that, because Taxxon not only knows that this song is utterly shrill and grating but that this track is intended as the most extreme version of copyright violation: taking an explicit copy of an original work and repackaging it in an album structure to imply his own claim of originality - this isn't post-structuralism, we're still dealing with an album framework to imply a collected work belongs to a specific artist. And to call back to Welles' F For Fake, Taxxon is laying claim not just to the work of 'I'm Not Famous' by AJR, but the idea of 'I'm Not Famous' by AJR, and if in a few hundred years all knowledge of AJR and Eric Taxxon is lost this song could well stand as the centerpiece of Punk, almost certainly have more thematic viability of The Click outside of whatever Taxxon or AJR have said. And it's a compelling argument, analogous to the author function template put forward by Michel Foucault in 1969... and it's one for as much as I admire its daring cannot agree with it on pretty much any level. The first is philosophical - I've been pondering this for years now, but for as much as the author function would acknowledge a composite of ideas over direct authorial intent, a performative art like music encounters at least part of its artistic interpretation in the aesthetic of performance. To simplify this idea, a literary critic doesn't review the paper the book is on, but a music critic does comment on vocal timbre in the delivery of the lyrical ideas, because that aesthetic is intrinsic to the author. And that takes us to the second point: as coined by Lindsey Ellis, 'aesthetic trumps intent, always always always' - and while I took a ton of issues with AJR's thematic incoherence, the shrill, choppy, utterly vapid and sterile delivery was what really gave me a migraine every single time. And considering Taxxon doesn't change any elements of 'I'm Not Famous', the only element of the author function that acts upon that song is the thematic shell... and I'm sorry, the intrinsic AJR-authorship trumps that, especially as Taxxon is not trying to hide that's what this song is to make his provocative point, further weakening its thematic contextualization! This goes beyond sampling into the category of plagiarism, lifting an entire idea and placing it within your work and saying it's now yours by the album construct, just because you can. That's not artistic interpretation, that's an outright lie, and as much as I didn't like The Click and despise copyright law, even if offered for free this hurts Taxxon's arguments against it more than it helps - how very punk of him.

And again, I get the provocation and intended catharsis, I get the thematic intent, and there's a part of me that respects Taxxon's daring here to put his money where his mouth is... but I'm also vividly reminded of when Biz Markie ignored Gilbert O'Sullivan's request to not include a sample of his work for the 1991 record I Need A Haircut, where O'Sullivan sued and won, laying the groundwork for copyright law as it is now and destroying the golden age of sampling in music, pushing the sort of sampling collages in the hip-hop golden age and plunderphonics projects like this into the domain of free mixtapes, increasingly obscure samples, or artists rich enough to clear everything, reinforcing the same monied system Taxxon seeks to challenge. Keep in mind that it's not the idealistic renegade artists who'd receive the most benefits from the 'take art into different structure, ergo it's mine' ethos, but the corporations who already do this en masse to real working artists - look up what's going on with street art and H&M right now for a particularly ugly example - and I'm not in favour of writing a blank check for them to get away with it more, even if it's just in theory. And samples had the benefit of recontextualization by aesthetic and theme - with none of the former and the latter as tenuous as it is, Taxxon is aiming to open floodgates he can't possibly control. Now granted, would anyone ever care - Taxxon is still very much a Bandcamp cult act for those in the know and he knows it, odds are AJR will never notice or care that he did this - but I'm calling it out now because these sorts of fateful choices do have consequences down the line and not just landing on him, especially when those choices don't work nearly as well. And I wish I didn't have to go in at such length on this level of artistic critique, but I do it because a.) Taxxon will likely see this review and I hope he gets my artistic criticism and b.) I really do love the rest of this project! Again, there are some tremendously potent plunderphonics tracks here I enjoyed a lot, with a real thematic core I can respect even despite its overreach. That said, at the end of the day I can't praise this record as much as I'd like as a whole given some of its choices, so for me it's a solid 7/10 and a recommendation... that is, if you can get it before someone tries to shut it down. Good luck!

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