Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Random Play Disasters (Part One in an Infinite Part Series): The Art of Noise

The iPod era is just the latest chapter in my never-ending fascination with random play. Lately, I haven't even been queuing up entire albums, preferring to sample just a few songs from them instead. But there are a lot of albums (or more commonly, artists) that defy the random play format, usually because some or most of the tracks flow together (Spiritualized, Tim Hecker, many more).

The Art of Noise recently released a four-CD box set of material from their time on the ZTT label from 1983-1985, entitled "And What Have You Done With My Body, God?". I have been a huge fan of this band since high school, so naturally I was excited about the prospect of such a collection. Although their most well-known tracks all stem from this period ("Moments In Love", "Beatbox", "Close To The Edit", all of which have been sampled more than just about any songs from the past twenty years or so -- if you're not sure if you've ever heard these songs, don't worry, you probably have), they arguably reached their prime during the China Records era that followed. It was a more prolific time for the band, for one thing, stuffed with experimental oddities ("Instruments of Darkness", "Opus 4"), proto-ambient ("Camilla"), and Yello-ish minor chart hits ("Paranoimia", "Kiss"). "(Who's Afraid of) The Art of Noise" is their most fascinating, twisted, and iconic album by far, but 1990's "The Ambient Collection" (a pseudo-remixed collection assembled and sequenced by Youth) is their best record. Long before "ambient" became a buzzword, this was a landmark chillout album filled with years worth of album tracks that were eons ahead of their time, anticipating just about every piece of downtempo dance music released during the 90's. I wore out my cassette during 1990, listening to it for hours upon end, second only to the Stone Roses debut (yes, ahead of Depeche Mode's "Violator", which I didn't even own until late 1991, but that's another story).

The problem occurred when I put this box set -- unheard -- on random play with a bunch of other stuff. One sitting later, I'd heard maybe a quarter of the total set but was completely baffled as to what I had or hadn't already heard, thereby complicating subsequent listening sessions. This is what happens when a band throws six or eight versions of "Beatbox" onto a box set. Although the concept of a "Pet Sounds" Box for the AON makes for an interesting prospect, I have to question whether anybody (even this band's most devoted fans) (even ANY band's most devoted fans) needs to hear the same four or five tracks being jammed out over and over and over again. I'm lost as to which versions are the best ones, and the working/alternate titles don't help matters.

Of course, it's always wonderful to revisit this stuff, and by putting the whole box on random play for about 45 minutes, you too can create your very own alternate mix of "(Who's Afraid Of) The Art of Noise" -- one of a kind, every time! There are plenty of previously unheard gems, such as "Diversions 3", a greasy, funky take on "Beatbox" that distinguishes itself from the other versions by stripping away nearly all elements of the track other the backbeat. Ditto "Close (To Being Compiled), which does the same to "Close (To the Edit)". The title track and "The Long Hello" pile even more drama onto their source track "How To Kill", adding church organs and choirs to the heartbreaking and unsettling original. A twenty minute version of "Close (To the Edit)", charmingly entitled "That Was Close [Diversion Eight / Diversion Two / Closest / Close-Up / Close (To The Edit) / Closed]", somehow flies right by, psychedelically bumping and grinding its way through several linked variations on the original song.

All in all, there's plenty to like here -- a little too much, in fact. Consume in rationed doses!

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