Album Of The Week: SOPHIE PRODUCT
I don’t have a lot of use for PC Music. The shadowy UK collective, which has built an aesthetic on bright plastic pop-music collisions, is interesting, at least theoretically, but that’s its problem, too. The music strains for interesting. It piles chirpy vocal samples on top of jittery, hopped-up synth sounds, cranking every strain of futuristic circa-now pop music — J-pop, K-pop, Max Martin melodic math, knowingly silly Euro-club — into a dizzy now-sounds pileup, smashing you with happy-face emojis so relentlessly that you know that what you’re hearing is parody. QT, the crew’s figurehead, is presented as being the human embodiment of a new energy drink that you can’t buy. So this is music as theoretical image-projection. It uses the sounds of music that we’ve come to accept as “fun,” and it’s cranked them up so hard that it becomes music about fun rather than actual fun music. In the process of making a high-art statement out of everything, they’ve robbed actual pop music of the joy and intensity and inventiveness and melodic rigor that, when it’s working right, makes pop music so great. (Nevermind that the UK producers of the early-’90s happy hardcore scene nailed this sound better and did it from a sincere place.)
PC Music, in other words, is clinical satire rendered as music, and for my money, it’s more fun to think about than it is to listen to. But the one big, glowing exception is a producer who isn’t even an official PC Music affiliate, though he does have plenty of ties to the group. It’s Samuel Long, the London producer who calls himself SOPHIE, and he’s just made the first Album Of The Week that’s also available in buttplug form.
Actually, PRODUCT isn’t an album at all, as SOPHIE’s press reps are hasty to point out. It’s a collection of singles, most of which have been circulating online for a while and some of which are a couple of years old. PRODUCT is, in other words, a product. And if SOPHIE is releasing a sort of greatest-hits album before he gets around to making a proper LP as some sort of statement, it’s still a remarkably user-friendly gesture. I wish more underground dance-producer types would do something like it; how often do new producers crank out a whole lot of great early tracks only to lose their momentum completely by the time they get around to cranking out an actual LP? PRODUCT doesn’t waste our time. It’s over in 25 minutes, and it spends all of its time blasting us with frenzied cheer. But there’s a crucial difference between what SOPHIE does and what so many of his PC Music peers do. As fast and bright and silly as SOPHIE’s music is, he still lets his beats and melodies breathe enough to let us experience them as music. He’s the one PC Music type who’s shown any sort of actual pop verve — and he’s already capitalized on it, doing production work on Madonna’s “Bitch I’m Madonna” and doing some forthcoming tracks with Charli XCX.
There’s a lot going on in SOPHIE’s music, of course. “Bipp,” the 2013 single that made him internet-famous in the first place, opens PRODUCT with morse-code synth pings and squealing sirens and all-the-way-pitched-up house-diva vocals. There are almost no drum sounds on the entire track, and it still finds ways to pound you into submission. “Lemonade” is an M.I.A. track injected with Pixie Stix and remixed by “Barbie Girl”-era Aqua. “Hard” is an early-’00s outdoor-tent-rave anthem reimagined as one of those lawnmower-shaped kids’ toys where you push it along the floor and all those little colored plastic balls pop up. A couple tracks are so full of bubble-popping noises that I keep thinking people are trying to Facebook-chat me whenever I listen. These songs have actual melody and hooks to them, but they also have all these disruptive forces that keep you on your toes. Something like “MSMSMSM” is built on a big, merciless dancehall/grime riff, but it also has all these sounds that ping around frantically enough to remind me of Aphex Twin’s “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball.”
The Aphex/SOPHIE comparisons seem to be coming up a lot lately, and they make sense. Both are pranksterish producers with wizardly drum programming and not the slightest intention of making anyone dance, ever. And the parallels come though most clearly on a track like “L.O.V.E.,” which starts out as an ominous drone-wriggle before a euphoric music-box tinkle comes in and disrupts all the bad vibes. But I think the producer with the most in common with SOPHIE is Kid606, the early-’90s abstract-electronic producer who also had a lot of fun playing around with the most crass and populist music of his day. (In 606’s case, he was messing around with jungle and street-rap and dancehall, and he was using those to make songs where he made fun of IDM contemporary Luke Vibert. 606 also sometimes went for straight-up beauty, which isn’t something that seems to interest SOPHIE.) As the Aphex and 606 parallels should make clear enough, the music on PRODUCT isn’t pop music, even if SOPHIE would probably be delighted if you called it that. Instead, it’s confrontational, theoretical electronic music that toys around with the loudest elements of its day. In SOPHIE’s case, we’re living in a blunter, more obvious, more corroded age, and so the music has to speed and brighten itself up to match. So maybe we’re lucky that he left some melody intact along the way.
PRODUCT is out 11/27 on Numbers.
Other albums of note out today:
• Foo Fighters’ free Saint Cecilia EP.
• Pope Francis’ why-does-this-exist rock album Wake Up!
• The Spook School’s joyously jittery Try To Be Hopeful.
• The Brainstems’ fuzzy garage-rock debut No Place Else.
• Former Sports leader Addie Pray’s solo debut Screentime.
• John Malkovich’s confusing, star-studded Like A Puppet Show.
• Danzig’s all-covers album Skeletons.
• Furze’s traditional black metaller Baphomet Wade.
• Ty Segall’s reissued T-Rex tribute Ty-Rex.
• Stardeath And The White Dwarfs and Casket Girls’ split EP What Keeps You Up At Night.
• The Arcs’ collaborative EP The Arcs Vs. The Inventors, with Dr. John and David Hidalgo.