Boards of Canada
eviewing this record is difficult. I should say - at the outset - that Boards of Canada's first two releases on Warp are among my very favorite records, electronic music shot through with both gorgeous mystery and a wide-eyed wonder so often very lacking in IDM, riddled as it is with no-mark ironists and brittle clinicians. Like much of what makes for good music, I was instantly seduced by precisely what BoC's detractors cite as their main weaknesses: the rampant nostalgia factor, the wistful melodies, all the charming-verging-on-creepy samples of little kids, those old-school Warp ambient breakbeats. Music very much of the "now," yet seemingly stranded in some mid-70s fantasia of suburban reverie.
It's difficult not because the record is bad, but because I'm not sure if I can figure out what it is. The last four years have seen an avalanche of pastoral, childlike electronic music. Some of it is quite good, some mediocre, and some quite bad. At its worst, this stuff can sound almost painfully naive, like some of the syrupy excesses of Nobukazu Takemura's Child's View label. Its "best" is a tricky game of push-me-pull-you between a knowing nudge and full-on emotional manipulation. None of it has quite bested BoC tracks like "Kid For Today" or "Roy G Biv", though. Boards of Canada had staked their territory out, if not necessarily first, then so thoroughly that the notion of evolution seemed impossible if not outright vulgar.
So, to Geogaddi then, nearly three years after Music Has the Right to Children and much critical tongue wagging & fan anticipation. On a music message board recently, fans of the album were discussing the seeming impossibility of finding mp3 bootlegs on web. One chimed in that she had found a copy of something called "Music Is Math" and hoped it wasn't an actual album track as it was fairly disappointing. (It's track 2, in case you were wondering.) When the full album finally did show up on all the usual file sharing services, many people expressed misgivings over an album which seemed like a "grower." Frankly, it all sounded like disillusioned kids trying to work up the language to cover the fact that they were let down. I didn't bother with the mp3s.
I admit, I cringed during the first play when the samples about volcanoes and the rain forest came on. For those who don't know, Boards take their name from the National Film Board of Canada, producer of many a filmstrip and projector reel on the life cycle of the sea otter and the story of photosynthesis. The soundtrack to many of these semi-mythical productions (Americans - and Canadians I would assume - must remember at least one from their elementary school days) were synthesizer tracks, obviously designed to sound New and Now but whose cheapness (and tape decay?) make them seem unintentionally eerie to our ears twenty or thirty odd years later. And not entirely dissimilar to the ambient backings of many a BoC track.
These samples, however brief, were shocking because they made explicit something that had always been a knowing wink between artist and fans. It seemed rather, well, vulgar, like they were playing up to their own shtick. Likewise, I was hearing many of the exact same sounds - filter sweeps and plangent melodies - plucked from earlier records unchanged. And then the child's voice repeating "beautiful place" in "Sunshine Recorder." Was this knowing self-parody? An acknowledgment that they couldn't move forward? Or were they blithely spinning their wheels? Sure, there were elements of "advancement," some hints of glitch here, some more exuberant (I hesitate to say physical) drum programming there. But very little suggested that the boys weren't just stoned out on some blasted Scottish heath, letting their Akais loop to infinity.
Listening to it late at night, on very low volume, was what finally made it click for me. Even at just-audible levels, the sounds were leaping from my speakers. It still had that fuzzy-around-the-edges Rothko-mural quality, but everything sounded so bright and loud. It dawned: this is BoC in hi-fi, and not just in sound-quality either. All of their traditional cliches have been turned up to 10. It's as if the earlier records were petri dishes to divine the most effective ways to cause mass-swooning among the faithful. "1969" in particular could be the "ultimate" BoC track: moonwalking breakbeat, oscillating synth melody, vocodered mantra, and a glowing sample repeating "1969 in the sunshine." But nothing to make me turn my head, to sit up and be so wowed I couldn't do anything but listen for those three or four minutes. (There's the granular synthesis of "The Devil is in the Details," splintering a BoC voice into vibrating globules of sound. But it almost seems like window dressing, hardly as "out" as the most extreme Mego artists in pulverizing music, too obtrusive to slip into the background.)
If this review seems hesitant or half-collected, it's because frankly - a few dozen listens in - this record has me puzzled. On the one hand, I want to believe it's a grand and generation defining statement (or some other bunch of puffed up hoo hah) from a band which has thrilled me so much in the past. On the other, I can't get away from the simple fact that there's nothing new under the turquoise hexagonal sun. Perhaps I'm being unfair; there's a particular sub-function of electronic music that makes the listener demand "advancement" in a new release. There's nothing wrong with a perfectly executed collection of your own routine. I doubt I'll be coming to the next Strokes album with the same set of demands. At least I know, however, that I'm being hypocritical. I once called Boards of Canada one trick ponies who could pull their trick until the end of time and leave me happy. And that's still true. The quality of that track and the frictionless ease of its execution may still help to ease my lingering, niggling disappointment, in time.
Reviewed by: Jess Harvell
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01