Backtrack: Studio West Coast
Studio were the Gothenburg, Sweden-based duo of Dan Lissvik and Rasmus Hägg. Their output, which consists of a series of singles that were later collected, with some repeating tracks, on 2007’s West Coast and Yearbook 1, was heartbreakingly limited, lush, and often absurdly gorgeous. It presented Gothenburg as a tropical outpost of Sweden that existed somewhere between Club Med ridiculousness — think a Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid-led conga line — and blunted, eyes-squinting-at-the-sun introspection. Their songs managed to be sincere and tongue in cheek simultaneously. They sounded like just about everything, which somehow made them sound like nothing else.
A lot of the appeal of their tiny discography — I’m focusing on West Coast, the most concise iteration of their sound — was how the duo behind it were mostly ciphers. They weren’t being mysterious as a way to market themselves. If you wanted to interview them, you totally could. They had no problem being photographed. They remixed high-profile artists like Kylie Minogue, and less high-profile artists like Love Is All, who I wrote about last week, grafting a laid-back sheen to songs that were previously jittery and troubled. They were ciphers because they weren’t immediately interesting artistic characters. I don’t write that to say that they are uninteresting people — anyone that makes music as fully formed and often brilliant as Studio couldn’t be boring — but they didn’t have that quirky element to them that catapulted them to the forefront of any kind of scene, despite being highly influential on balearic dance music, and helping to define a “Gothenburg sound.”
We’re always looking for another Brian Wilson. By now the story is well worn: tragic genius figure gets so consumed by his own musical brilliance that his art becomes a cracked reflection of his personality, and then, later, completely alien and muddied by too much drugs. The music industry rarely allows for those artists anymore. Or at least it doesn’t allow for them to achieve the same kind of money/genius/press support power axis that Wilson was able to grasp at before plummeting into the hell he’d accidentally erected around himself.
It’s always worth searching out the next flash of genius, because it’s always there. It’s just that, now, by looking for it in the personalities of artists instead of the music they’re making, we’re not allowing for the idea that some brilliant musicians are actually totally fine, stable people on the outside. There are plenty of great records out there, and they’re often great because they stand on their own as great, even if we don’t know too much about the human beings that actually made them.
There’s a low-key, idiosyncratic emotional element to West Coast — which sprawls and lazes, as bass lines mutate into dubbed out digital funk, and then a sort of post-Graceland orchestration worms its way in. Suddenly 19 minutes of heat soaked rhythmic bliss has gone by effortlessly. “Effortless” is the key here, because as much as Studio draw from an entire history of classic rhythms and easy beats, they do it all without being obvious, like they’d memorized and spit back out everything they’d ever listened to into one gooey mass of sunstroked prettiness.
The highlight of the album is “West Side.” It’s a song that is built on a fidgety conga, with skittering scribbles and a dubby guitar that trips over itself even as it echoes and stretches nimbly. It sounds a lot like Can, except where that band leaned academic and explored visceral emotion at the same time, Studio’s “West Side” is pure pleasure, the composition tangled, but so easy to listen to. When the lyrics “solid good times” begin repeating over the gentle guitar shimmer, it feels less like a wink at their listeners and more like a mission statement.
Since they quit working together, Lissvik has been producing on his own, and it’s all been good, but nothing approaches the magic of the Studio material. Maybe that whole “solid good times” thing was more about doing something until it stops being fun. I can lament the death of Studio for the rest of my life, but that’s just for selfish reasons. It’s pretty clear that they did it exactly right.