Musical Ai

On Nitch, the Instagram page with enough scrolling power to prod you out of bed in the morning, there’s an image of Banksy sitting in a chair, his face cloaked behind an oversized hood and his fingertips welded together as if in prayer.

The caption reads, “I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a super power.”

Sometimes this idea prompts me to hang back. To watch while others spread themselves thin. But when I discovered Spotify and the opportunity to be totally transparent about my listening habits, I leaned in.

Spotify gives me a heightened awareness about people’s connection to music. A track off Bon Iver’s For Emma might signal a rough day. ODESZA’s Divinity Remix hints at a moment of teeth-gnashing action. And when my grandfather, a man dedicated to his vinyl records, joined Spotify, I watched as he suddenly transitioned from Bach, Handel and Arthur Rubinstein to Frank Zappa, revealing a rare glimpse at a subterranean rebellious streak.

Maybe it was naive to overlook that all this public data could be harnessed for something besides interconnectedness. With great data comes great responsibility and recent news is uncovering a growing suspicion about how Spotify may be using that data.

Journalists and bloggers are accusing Spotify of creating songs by “fake artists” to fill in some of their ambient playlists to save money on royalty fees. Several artists stepped forward, others like Deep Watch remain eerily quiet.

Then there’s the potential connection between Echo Nest, Spotify’s data collection hub that tracks user’s listening habits, and the recent hire of Francois Pachet, a revered French professor and machine learning guru.

Bloggers speculate that Spotify is accumulating listening data so that they can use machine learning to create customized music. With millions of hours of listening data, Spotify’s algorithms could pinpoint the chord progressions, rhythms and styles that resonate with users. They could theoretically customize music for a specific moment in time.

The goal is awesome. And for me it would be the end of a long journey after stumbling on the crowdsourcing capacity of Hype Machine. I’ve always fantasized about a sixth sense for what song belongs in the current moment. An algorithm would take out the guess work.

We may not even be that far off. The glowing boards laid out in front of a D.J. and the prevalence of pro tools has introduced a new member of the band – a formula, a computer, or whatever cuts and hems raw tracks.

It’s hard to resist that mathematical precision. By definition technology makes things easier. Venmo means you don’t have to take cash out. Uber Eats means you don’t have to leave your couch to eat sushi. But I’m of the belief that easier doesn’t always mean better in the long term.

Take Dave Grohl for example. As a kid he couldn’t afford a drum set so he’d beat wooden sticks on pillows, hitting the fabric as hard as he could to make an audible sound. That produced a breakneck style that drove Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. No one brings Dave Grohl on to play drums for a soft jazz track – they hire him to shatter snare drums.

My concern with AI generated music is that we will lose the ‘fuck you’ types. The narrative behind the music will become less important as it becomes a more streamlined experience. We will settle into a cyclical feedback loop, thoughtlessly mainlining the musical stream. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Listening data goes in. Tunes come out. Our past would prescribe our future.

But as we get further into AI territory, we may find that our experiences with music aren’t as transactional as listening data suggests. A friend recently told me that he associated Father John Misty’sNancy From Now On” with a second-hand surfboard he’d found in the back room of a well-lit surf shop. When he called the previous owner, the man told him that he’d shaped it for his wife, who was uninterested in the alternative design (it’s round like a pill or a bar of soap). As my friend twirled around the board he noticed a note on the bottom channel. Inscribed in pencil it said, “For Nancy.” The moment was cemented and the board became one with the song.

Algorithms are designed to root out randomness and chance. For an equation to work, you need a closed system. A self driving car can’t function if the roads are forever changing direction. The same would be true for AI generated music. You would need to construct a limit. A known quantity. Random chance would be deadly.

But music needs randomness. It needs chaos. It needs Death Grips. It thrives off leaps and bounds – unpredictable moments of improvisation. And for that, there’s no one better than a human.

Serengeti – Dennehy

Every music lover reaches a point where they look through their library and realize the selections are far too serious: deep house, city punk, shoegaze, rare ambient, minimal techno.

We forget that before we devoured song after song and wedged ourselves into the deep wormholes of sound, we all used to rage to whatever was on the radio. Top 40s, classic rock, and Shania Twain. Of course, it’s hard to have more than a surface appreciation for radio hits once you’ve traveled the deep.

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Serengeti is a weird rapper who writes about normal stuff. Chicago native David Cohn’s act is centered around the everyday life of Kenny Dennis (KD).

The idea originated when Cohn was watching little league baseball. “Any time that they introduce a kid they ask him what’s your favorite actor? What’s your favorite athlete? Well what if someone’s favorite actor was Brian Dennehy? What would that guy be like?”

The rest of Kenny Dennis was fleshed out from there. And eventually we were given “Dennehy,” a laundry list of things KD does, likes, and deals with.

Play softball with the guys, wife made curly fries
Drink about four O’Doul’s, grounded out, two pop flies
In the Buick down Western, stop and get some more brats
On sale: chicken, Italian sausages, and orange pop

Electric Guest – Oh Devil

You probably recognize Electric Guest from This Head I Hold. The song is doing laps around other pop tracks on Spotify. It’s upbeat hop and skip is part of a recent movement to revitalize soul. Maybe you heard Pharrell’s Happy?

The L.A. band is mastering a crucial balancing act, teetering somewhere in between indie and mainstream circles. They’ve performed on Fallon, Conan and Letterman, but avoid the corporate sell out label.

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With their new album, Plural, Electric Guest shows off an unabashed sentimentality, most intense on the track,  “Dear to Me.” It’s sweet, but too sweet. Sickly sweet. And the clear stand out on the album is Electric Guest’s confrontation with a darker side, on “Oh Devil,” a tune that will undoubtedly light the radio on fire.

Mura Masa – Blue feat. Damon Albarn

Mura Masa wasn’t on any particular musical radar I kept. Mostly, dipping into the memory banks here, when I hear the artist’s name, I countenance the image of a pretty girl in college: two years older, sorority member, laughably out of my league, and an audiophile. We stayed in touch, however, despite my better senses telling me it was perhaps best to put distance between sophomoric crushes out here in the ~real world~. When I saw her last it was autumn. We got dinner and drinks at a noisy Nolita taqueria. Neither of us is particularly loud and, well, you know how pretty girls listen but don’t hear. This was also the night I learned what Vetements is, but that’s a blog for another day. As a popular and raucous song began to play above us, we trapezed back some years and into the unique comfort of a running conversation: songs that sound good on paper but fail upon execution.

It was a tune designated for a land of shadows I call Sweetgreen Music™. Meaning, the song cashes in on the magic of Millennial pop by being of several styles and sensibilities at once without offending anyone. There’s a playlist for everything now, it seems. Mura Masa’s “Love$ick” is a top-earner in the Sweetgreen Music™ economy. We both hated the track. She thought A$AP Rocky soils the virgin production with his warm weather drive-by raps. The original orchestration wasn’t fetching. Though I thoroughly get down with the Four Tet remix of the track.

A graduate of the School of Soundcloud (RIP?), Mura Masa is the nom de plume of 21-year-old Brit, Alex Crossan. His self-titled debut album is here, and the immediate, overwhelming feeling goes as such: sheesh, what are the rest of us doing with our lives, huh? It’s a party album, made for dancefloors and, inescapably, Sweetgreens everywhere as well. What stands out most amidst the bubbling production, rippling and hefty bass lines, afrobeat and dancehall instrumentation, and is conspicuous even among the featured artists (basically a who’s who of i-D, Dazed, or Paper cover stories), is the track “Blu.” An early single and, now, the finale to the album, here is a track for the days ahead.

Damon Albarn lends his unmistakable tenor to the leisurely plod and 808s-rife song. In the background are, as the British musical icon waxes on about a sanguine kind of love, whizzing noises and harp strums. Near the end, there’s only a softly plucked acoustic guitar and Albarn’s magnified, reverberating voice. Finally, the music drifts for a beat and muffled London street noises become evident—where they there the whole time? Lasting for over thirty seconds, the innocuous sounds play the album out.

Albarn, of course, is a polymath and band savant. He’s the frontman of Blur, creator of Gorillaz, and just generally has his hands in all sorts of pots. The most recent Gorillaz album, out earlier this year, was, well, a lot. The personal and critical consensus seems to agree; it’s good in the gestures-of-approval-kind-of-way that doesn’t necessarily satisfy. The deluxe edition is out soon and promises more tracks, perhaps great ones. But why settle for an opus when a song will do? Demon Days was a gateway album for me and young Crossan (who told The Fader as much), revealing to us both the possibilities of music without boundary. Of combined genres, sounds, artistry, and visuals. It’s a weird, sonic showcase that seems to make a point of its genius by being playful and apocalyptic at once. Albarn made up a band, for chrissake. I still haven’t quite recovered. Nothing that outstanding had graced MTV since Kanye West who, dressed as a bear mascot, flipped rap on its head.

Perhaps, all of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that I unreasonably stress over any new output from Albarn. Can he be Demon Days great again? A dumb question, sure. I understand that our past both informs and haunts our every move, both in creative endeavors like music writing as it does in mundane procedures like figuring out lunch. Sometimes you want music that will free you from your teenage ennui. Other times you just need Sweetgreen. “Blu” is a cryptic lullaby. It is also over a half a minute of nothing. And, on repeated listen, it plays its hand. A couple of talented artists—one who impressed me and another who’d done similar to a years-ago crush—from across the ocean combined their talents and made something exceptional. We are all different people in different places now. “Blu” is what I hope to hear more of, wherever I am.

Shoutout to the good folks at Cymbal for sharing their Universal Player with the world. It’s easy, good looking, and intuitive. Like me.

Sturgill Simpson – Turtles All the Way Down

“I’ll do the one that you guys spend all the time talking about,” said Sturgill Simpson, his guitar resting on his lap.

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Sturgill strums a few bars and then stops abruptly.

“Actually just about every journalist so far that I’ve read has covered this song, but I don’t think anybody has actually nailed down what it’s actually about.” Sturgill talks through tight lips. “So my fault… for being too cryptic.”

Laughter ripples through the audience at NPR’s tiny desk concert. Everyone’s in on the same joke and coolness oozes from Sturgill Simpson and his worn-in Converse shoes.

“It’s actually all about drugs…”

The small gathering shifts uncomfortably. Someone coughs. Sturgill soaks in the awkwardness, like any country star worth his brass would make a few NPR stiffs squirm before handing over what everyone had come for – his perfect, soul-probing voice.