Free Radicals is Noisey's column dedicated to experimental music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they're meaningful.
By its very nature, a lounge is an in-between place. Medical waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, and clubs with ornate tables and expensive martinis are not places where action occurs but a spaces to pass time. It’s a space that’s never really yours, but it does offer a moment to step out of the aggressively fluvial energy of the day-to-day. The respite they offer is luxurious, in an exclusive way; comfy chairs and cold drinks in tall glasses are served to only those who can afford the break. Everyone else continues their capitalist race against time outside the lounge doors, sweating and scrambling the day away.
At least in the popular imagination, the music that’s accompanied these spaces has generally had qualities that accentuate the rooms’ restful qualities. Lounge music, a blurry, placid style of music born in the early ‘50s from the bombast of big bands—and readopted in the 90s in a fit of nostalgic revisionism—is essentially functional music. Utilizing slow tempos, drifting melodies, and crystalline, texturally rich chords (full of jeweled augmentations and pearly 7th and 13th intervals) made for sounds that you can get lost in.
Along with adjacent sounds like space-age pop, a sort of retrofuturist style that adopted early synthesizers along with the windier instruments, and exotica, a genre with a dodgy fetishization of far-off places baked into its name, it became the sound of escape. Unlike the big vocal pop that ruled the charts of the era and the brassy composers making a living on big band stuff, it found space in its arrangements for contemplation. Somewhere between the patchworks of woodwinds and drifting piano melodies, there was room for piece. Or, you know, room for you to talk over it as you sipped a martini.
Functional music like this, though, doesn’t really have to hold itself to a high standard. As the sudden revelation that Spotify was filling its mood playlists with music commissioned by a royalty-free service showed last year, some listeners aren’t really all that picky when it comes to music that’s deliberately meant to be tuned out. It still sells. So a lot of lounge music, especially the uncomplicated nostalgia of 90s bands like Pink Martini, can feel a bit wallpaper-y, a surface-level pleasantness hiding very little underneath. But the joy of this sound, as its transmuted throughout the years, is that it works pretty well as the wrapping for more complex forms and ideas.
Occasionally after digging up copies of old Command Records staples, bands pick up the bliss of these sleepy sounds to add new wrinkles. Yellow Magic Orchestra interrogated the implicit orientalism of exotica in the early 80s with their hazily arranged synth funk excursions and Stereolab staged a quiet revolution in the 90s, marrying the sunny bliss of space-age pop to krautrock’s taut motorik beat and Marxist sloganeering. In its first incarnation, lounge music, exotica, and the like were meant as pure escapes. But ever since Stereolab used it as the backdrop for meditations on the long cycles of capitalism and the invocations of revolutionary rhetoric, it’s often been a formed used in dialogue with the stress of the outside world. And more than ever, in 2018, it feels like the oft-maligned sounds of easy listening are in the air—providing a deceptively blissful packaging for some of pop music’s most experimental operators, offering the promise of relaxation, as if that’s even possible anymore.
The show started in proper, as it often does in this realm, with the scurrilous squall of a saxophone. A man, his head a mess of dark curls, switching his attention from cocktail to microphone to croon (when you have more than one button undone on your shirt, it’s automatically crooning) a love/hate song to the city of New York, where he stood onstage in late January. I was struck, watching Destroyer’s Dan Bejar whisper tales of cocaine-addled backrooms and the downfall of showbiz glamour, that he was not the first soused, arch musician to tackle such topics surrounded by a tight sextet that includes multiple horn players.
Even dating back to the shitty MIDI days of Bejar’s work as Destroyer, there’s always been hints of the lounge music’s simple tranquility, as well as yacht rock, and the mannered 80s style known as sophisti-pop, the practitioners of which were themselves indebted to the mannered horn players before them. But in his work there exists a sort of disconnect that marks many of the bands who’ve drawn on this sound and style. As time’s gone on, his sound’s drifted ever closer to these sounds (including the lounge curios in between the spikier moments on last year’s ken), and his lyrics have grown steadily more venomous, singing about Marxist revolutionaries in between mournful trumpet instrumentals. There’s the suggestion of peace and rest in the music (Bejar himself mostly crouched next to his microphone stand and drank during the long instrumental breaks at the show I saw) but the lyrics offer no such respite, just the symbological chaos and hyper-referential poetry echoing the unsettling state of the world.
A whole crop of newer bands have picked up this sentiment too as the backdrop for their invocations of easy listening sounds. Nick Zanca, the producer and songwriter who once recorded head-nodding beat music as Mister Lies, has a new band called Quiet Friend that explicitly channels the droning synth work and mannered melodies of the many strains of easy listening music and sophisti-pop, as well as new age and ambient music (styles themselves having a renaissance in non-experimental spheres for the first time in a while). He said in an interview with Dimestore Saints last year that he sees the swell of great ambient music, in part, as “a response to political unrest.”
“So much of the history of this genre has borrowed cues from disparate heritages—Indian raga, Indonesian gamelan, African percussion, Gregorian chant, American primitive guitar,” he said. “Listening to the way artists fuse these influences today in the face of an administration that has so clearly threatened multiculturalism seems to me not only like the strongest way to heal right now, but also functions as a wholly valid form of antifascist protest.”
While he was specifically referring to formless, boundary-blurring ambience, that line of thought easily extends through to the new pop forms he’s twisted out of this music too. The general instrumental palette that he and his main collaborator Steven Rogers work with is a host of synthesizers of varying degrees of viscosity (from thick neons to wispy, diffuse leads), jazzy basslines, vaporous guitars, and dizzy strings. The general mood, even at its poppiest moments, is a sort of sleepwalking ambience, a retreat from the world, “Name All the Animals” even makes this explicit, painting a scene of staying inside, making a home, being “hungover in our hiding place.”
Most of the lyrics are similarly internal, but they’re not as conflictless as the sounds suggest. He sings of intense anxiety, breathless and desperate queer desire, and the general emotional overload that comes with being alive. Zanca said on Twitter that you should listen to the record while burning palo santo, maybe in the dark, as if to create a cocoon for yourself. But the lyrics suggest something else: there’s never really going to be an a way out. At this point of late-capitalist rot, unfortunately, the call’s coming from inside your head.
Back in January, Quiet Friend played a cold show in a Brooklyn basement with the similarly minded New York band NADINE, whose warm take on indie pop was enough to create a space safe from the disgusting slush outside. NADINE is the project of Nadia Hullett of the similarly daydreaming collective Phantom Posse (which happens to count Makonnen as a member) along with Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandez, both of whom hail from the Brooklyn band Ava Luna, who along with their labelmates in Twin Sister, have spent the last few years conjuring a germinal form of this lounge-influenced pop music. NADINE’s debut oh my trades in dreamy synth work, tracing abstract, jazzy melodies over Fader and Hernandez spry rhythm work.
On “Pews,” they echo Stereolab’s krauty take on space age-pop, offering up hand percussion interlude, and dizzily tracing atypical synth melodies in the margins. It’s music that’s suggestive of other realms—that ”Contigo”’s wheezy percussion sounds like the respirator of either an astronaut or a deep sea diver is likely no accident—but it comes with worldly invective. Hulett sings with a weary sigh on “Ultra Pink,” “Don’t tell me that I’m some kind of woman / Don’t tell me,” the target unclear but its purpose clear. Even as keys plink like the work of poolside singer at a resort somewhere along the seaside route between Margaritaville and Flavortown, Hulett makes it clear that those vistas are fantasies. Outside of the comforts they offer, there’s real problems in the world.
Other bands across the spectrum of indie rock and pop music also toy with the sounds first forwarded in lounge music and space-age pop. There’s sunny shades of it on In a Poem Unlimited, Meg Remy’s new album as U.S. Girls, on which she unspools symphonic takes on the sound while singing of pain and violence and emergency on “Rosebud.” The woodsy band Mega Bog’s offered deliriously literary take on the style on last year’s Happy Together, weaving delicate latticeworks of synth and brass on songs like “London,” before setting those quilts alight in experimentalist abandon. The common understanding between all these acts seems to be that even if it sounds safe, the world’s far too unsettling for it to be that simple.
None of the aforementioned bands have explicitly acknowledged the influence of lounge music on their own compositions, which is probably part of why it works so well intertwined with their takes on indie rock. They’re not seeking to create actual spaces of calm, but to use the language that’s filtered through others as a way of establishing contrasts. Explicit homage in this style never fares as well.
The mysterious producer Martin Glass released a record in September of 2017 called The Pacific Visions of Martin Glass, using a naming convention and a likely invented backstory (he’s apparently an American businessman “exiled in Taiwan”) to echo the long history of exotica’s dodgy travelogues. Songs like “Okinawa Fantasia” offer a sort of sunny bliss; each swirling synth-marimba melody evokes an impossible world to lose yourself in. But across its 11 tracks, that’s more or less all it offers, memories of a style long since shirked because, well, the world is more complicated than its sound suggests. That’s why this new wave of bands leaning on this style is so moving, because it does offer some surface level comforts, it complicates it. That cucumber mask they offer you starts to itch, your cocktail tastes a little too bitter. You go inside the lounge and take a load off, but you are reminded, often, that you can’t stay for long. There’s work to be done.
Colin Joyce is an editor for Noisey who's probably listening to ambient music and scrolling through Twitter.