The Software Slump
At the 2008 Grammy Awards ceremony early this year, alt-rock mainstays Death Cab for Cutie showed up wearing light blue ribbons, as a form of protest against "Auto-Tuner abuse," railing against the computerized pitch-shifting software that's overrun pop music. For his latest 'comeback' single, hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z has declared the "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," with, ironically, recent Auto-Tune abuser Kanye West handling Auto-Tune-free production.
Into such a storm of anti-Auto-Tune sentiment steps Discovery. Though named after a Daft Punk album, this is not some proggy dance-music act, but, rather, the project of a pair of bonafide indie-poppers: Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, and Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot. And their debut disc as Discovery, titled simply LP, is a study in Auto-Tune use and abuse; an album of pop-songs fashioned from the blips and bleeps of pure digitalia, with Miles' voice funneled through the omnipresent digitizing software.
Given all the outlandish accusations of cultural appropriation that greeted Vampire Weekend's workings with West African pop rhythms and modalities, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that the claws will be out for Discovery; that VW backlash will meet Auto-Tune backlash —not to mention backlash from VW devotees hoping for more preppy, guitar-driven indie-pop— in a perfect storm of (self-)righteous vengeance.
Interfacing the Truth
Yet, as Jace 'DJ Rupture' Clayton pointed out in an illuminating essay for Frieze, "rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital." And, nowhere is this potential seen more, on Discovery's album, than with "Can You Discover?"
A re-working of "Can You Tell?," the choice lovesong from Ra Ra Riot's The Rhumb Line record, the emotional interplay no longer comes from Miles' voice playing off against string sections, but against pitch-corrective software. With his every melisma sending a digitized shiver through the warping words, these shudders feel, strangely, like frissons of genuine emotion.
Of course, anyone who sees swapping orchestral instruments for computer programming as being somehow anti-musical (or anti-humanist), well, this Discovery record isn't for them. But for humans whom enjoy the sugary pop fizz of either Vampire Weekend or modern radio-ready R&B programming —and don't draw distinctions between the simple pleasures of either— there's enough sinuous melodies, thudding bottom-end, and synthesizer oscillations to make for a charming, half-throwaway side-project.
The Glad Facts
Batmanglij and Miles have, it should be noted, both done time in Dave Longstreth's Dirty Projectors; so, when Discovery invites along current DP dame Angel Deradoorian to knock out the bubblegum bounce-ballad "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," it's keeping things close to home. Comparisons will run rife with Dirty Projectors' breakout single "Stillness is the Move," but Discovery plays things far more FM-playlist-aping straight; the comparison only making you realize how ridiculous, oddball, and outlandish "Stillness is the Move"'s approximations of bass-heavy production really are.
Another familiar guest-spot face comes from Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig (who, incidentally, once reviewed Dirty Projectors for Dusted, then joined the band). He parries with auto-tune's forceful perfectionism on "Carby," which, for all its glue-buzz bass and club-centric lyricism, sounds incredibly twee and tinny. Which is probably the desired effect, given LP plays like a serious study of silliness (or vice-versa).
Tellingly, Discovery's robotic retooling of the Jackson 5's Wedding DJ stand-by "I Want You Back" screams 'novelty song,' but it's quietly subversive. Throwing the feelgood disco into a hall of software-plug-in mirrors, it's recomposed as kaleidoscopic digital oscillations whose pitch-corrected glissando stutters and flutters rather than glides. It sounds more like a shrill ringtone than a tuneful pop-song, but that's the point. Where Jay-Z plays the curmudgeon begruding the new, Discovery happily wade knee-deep into digital fodder and see if they can find meaning in it.
Record Label: XL
Release Date: 7 July 2009