tremble clef

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Knife, "The Captain" (2006)

You may have come to the conclusion, if you read this blog with any regularity -- and if you do, then: Hi, Mom! -- that I sometimes write in different persona. He do the music writing in different voices.

Messing around with voices in music production, however, is hardly an unusual act. Vocals have been processed, distorted, chopped, screwed, mutated. And sometimes served with a side of fries and a pickle. (They've also been fixed and corrected, but that's a different story, Ashlee.) But all of these effects have more or less the same aim: what they attack or deconstruct is the division between human and inhuman (and associated divisions, such as organic/inorganic, or warmth/cold, emotion/lack thereof), since the electronic twiddling serves to denaturalize the human voice and render it machine-like.

More unconventional is production that distorts voices in order to transgress other binaries of identity: those of gender, say, or, even more startlingly, race. Challenges to the male/female divide have come when male singers perform in falsetto, of course, or pull an Alison Moyet or a Nina Simone (or an Antony-doing-Nina-doing-a-man); much less "organically," electronic trickery can also do its part. On the stunning version of "Always On My Mind" that's on Introspective, the Pet Shop Boys include a rap in the middle on which Neil's voice mutates from female ("You were always on my mind it's true...") to male ("...I worked so hard I thought you knew...") and back again ("...My love I did it all for you..."), toying with our notions of the way men and women might play, and have played out this debate on love.

Vocal effects that mess around with racial signification are rarer, in part because they run the risk of being offensive. Indeed, while we seem more inured to the vocal stylings of a white rapper, someone Caucasian who engages in a bit of dancehall toasting still doesn't sit right. On Hyacinths and Thistles, Stephin Merrit, in his incarnation as The 6ths, gives the song "Lindy Lou" to Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori to sing. As one reviewer astutely noticed, it's a "perverse" move (or even a vaguely disturbing one), since the song has "an unusually high number of l's and r's -- two consonants that Japanese speakers find difficult to distinguish." If nothing else, it's impossible to listen to that song without feeling Miho's Japanese-ness in every line.

The Knife is one of the few acts in contemporary pop, if not the only one, who seems interested in persistently or systematically playing around with voices in these other gendered, racialized ways. On their uber-spooky remix of Stina Nordenstam's "Parliament Square," for example, they slow down her original vocals -- which, since this is Stina we're talking about, are already kind of ghostly -- so much that she ends up sounding like a man. Although the remix dispenses with the hypnotic sax that made the original version so great, the vocal processing, along with the almost military drumbeat and the menacing synths underneath, makes the remix a truly revelatory one.

The band's forthcoming album, Silent Shout -- and in that title may be another sign of their interest in the complexities and paradoxes of the human voice -- is, as is already well-known by now, dark and creepy, and will disappoint anyone expecting the electro danceability of Deep Cuts. But it offers other pleasures.

"The Captain" is an especially weird track: the first three of its six minutes simply consist of an illbient synth passage that's almost Jarresque. (Or Yanniesque, if you're less kind.)

Then Karin Dreijer Andersson sings. And the Swedish singer sounds...Japanese. I'm not enough of a techno geek to be able to tell whether her vocals are distorted by electronic means, but my guess is no. But through her intonation and phrasing, she sounds to me like she's imagining herself as Japanese. It's hard to be sure, of course, since Karin's voice, which is from the same school (though not the same class) as someone like Bjork, is always weird, but I can't shake the feeling that she's experimenting here, interestingly, with something like racial impersonation. The lyric isn't that helpful: it's typically hard to work out, but the title and fragments like "we turn the other cheek" suggests that a kind of mock-Oriental subservience -- addressed to some white (or Pink-erton) master? -- is being mimed, performed, and therefore subverted. I guess if they start moving with Noh-deliberation and wearing Kabuki masks in their videos -- not far-fetched if you look at the picture above -- or restage Memoirs Of A Geisha for their live shows, we'll know with more certainty if I'm crazy.


  • New Knife-singel Silent Shout, now th├ít's a spooky track. Ofcourse, there are more bands that like to mess around with the vocals, like Beck, or Belgian alt.superstars dEUS. But not to this ouijaboardspinning effect. Love that remix as well, merci.

    By Blogger Guuzbourg, at 1:28 AM  

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