October 15, 2012

Jonah Bromwich speaks English, Spanish, and Packer.

The branch of musical acts whom I consider to be great is split into two mental tiers. Either I listen to an act and really respect it, for musicianship, or songwriting, or some other relatively technical factor (John Maus, De La Soul, half of Bowie’s output) or I just love it to death (Ariel Pink, Slum Village, the other half of Bowie’s output.)  Usually, the love happens immediately for rap, pop and R&B and takes longer to emerge for musical genres with which I’m less familiar.

Nicolas Jaar’s genre-less 2011 debut Space is Only Noise put him in the first category—that album was cool as hell. But his impeccably curated Essential Mix for BBC this past May vaulted him firmly into the second. I can’t stop playing it. Now Jaar is back on the internet again, this time recorded live at a music festival in Barcelona. His set here mixes the monochromatic, downtempo beats of his first album with the spontaneity and subtle crowd-pleasing gestures that made his BBC mix so essential (it’s extraordinary how rarely that adjective seems hyperbolic when describing the mixes on Pete Tong’s show.)

Though his transitions here aren’t quite as seamless as those on the BBC (the smooth atmospherics of the opening soon give way to a poppier piece without ever dropping or upshifting), the curation is still as immaculate as you might expect from a transnational millennial. Mixing his own work (his rework of “John the Revelator” is bone-chilling) with that of artists like Atlanta Gospel singer LaShun Pace and others from his imprint Clown and Sunset, Jaar unleashes fifty minutes of restrained sound.

I hate to indulge in pure Europhilia (sparked, no doubt, by election fatigue), but it really is an amazing, alien thing to be able to play relatively avant-garde music this un-danceable for fifty minutes at an ostensible dance festival and have it be considered one of the top musical events of the year. Those commies.

By way of comparison, let’s take a look at how Jaar handles a sample of a popular Gnarls Barkley song as compared to, say, Greg Gillis, better known by legions of American festival attendees as Girl Talk. Gillis too, could be said to be a sort of curation whiz: while catering to a far broader audience, he selects two tracks people have forgotten and then mashes them together to create a kind combustive, insta-nostalgia that’s fun to dance to. If he has a Gnarls Barkley sample in his palm, you know the other palm has an Aha instrumental that will make the people go crazy.

Jaar is much more delicate. With the Gnarls Barkley sample, “Crazy” their one massive hit, he refuses to indulge an audience that might be inclined to hear a little bit of a familiar cut. Instead, he teases the audience, giving them a fleeting moment of joy with a little bit of “I remember when.” Then instead of feeding a hungry audience the candy they desire by letting the song play out, Jaar urges them to try a palate of unusual, complex, and eventually rewarding musical sounds. They really liked chocolate (show me the snobboid who doesn’t) and he introduced them to truffles.

Maybe I’m just romanticizing a foreign language but when the DJ pops up now and again, to identify the mix as belonging to Barcelona 2012, with that inimitable Spanish lisp on the c in Barcelona, it broadcasts the singularity and pride that comes with playing host to a set like this. It’s becoming clear that collection, collage and curation are some of the linchpins of my generation’s creative output, and when a producer can use those skills to create something as timeless as this, that arsenal doesn’t seem like something to be ashamed of.

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