f there’s one plight that the legion of laptop abstractionists may never have to worry about, it’s rock and roll excess. Getting out of the rave scene and into the art galleries has cut down on the free drug supply and there really haven’t been too many complaints lately about so-and-so being so sloshed that he puked on his Powerbook. At this time, the odds of Markus Popp cavorting with porn stars on home video seems (regrettably) slim, and the backstage antics of Christian Fennesz aren’t exactly the sort of thing that Kurt Loder will be intoning with mournful solemnity any time soon. And if Autechre breaks up sometime before the mothership comes to retrieve them, you can rest assured that the affair will not dissolve into a crap-slinging contest delivered in hilariously bitter thirty-second VH1 interviews detailing one programmer’s tour bus shenanigans with the other’s lady.
“All the better,” says Montreal ambient soundfile cruncher Tim Hecker in the form of his last EP for Substractif, My Love Is Rotten to the Core . Other laptop jockeys have taken on popular music – see Fenn O’Berg and their digital mangling of Led Zep riffery, see the smart-ass radio-trash pileups of Kid 606, see Fennesz’s wistful reconstruction of naïvely drugged-out Beach Boys bliss – but few have addressed the wreckage left behind in the wake of popular music excess from both a critical and human perspective. On My Love , Hecker trains his sights on 80s cock-rock mongers Van Halen, but bypasses the opportunity to take the typical “high art” potshots in favor of a close examination of the tension and loss surrounding the band’s chemical-and-ego-fueled breakdown. The EP is too dark in tone to be a condescending irony trip and too warm to be an out-and-out condemnation of rock and roll stupidity; instead, Hecker’s funereal reinterpretation of Van Halen’s bombastic riff catalog and even more bombastic interviews comes across as something of a cautiously loving requiem.
From the opening pileup of unintelligible radio announcements to its final whispers, the tone of My Love Is Rotten to the Core aches with nearly apocalyptic futility. It’s the sound of things fallen apart and of inevitable dissolution, masked by more than enough “party hard” machismo and mudslinging. Hecker converts the rock and roll signifiers of his Van Halen source material – the pop-metal power chords, bloated dive-bomber solos, the faux-classical piano – into claustrophobic clouds of church organ drone and viciously panned stutter-swells of chopped chord work. Each gesture is stripped of its high-spirited bandstanding and redressed in the tension and ill will that marked the band’s behind-the-scenes human element. Palm-muted chords build up to climaxes that never occur; instead, they stretch into an infinitely drawn-out moan that collapses under its own weight and leaves billowing clouds of static-heavy smoke. On the album opener “Introducing Carl Cocks,” Hecker splinters and stalls a boisterous guitar solo into motionless comb-filtered fragments left to twitch and burn before crumbling. “Hello Detroit” melts down crowd-hyping stage banter and accusatory interviews into a crackle-ridden dirge whose glacially-paced harmonies are at once foreboding and heartbreaking testaments to boom and bust. Drum tumbles and finger-tapping struggle to rise from the murk only to be consumed by the gravity of black-hole rumbles engaged in a stately funeral march. Throughout the album, the drones remain largely dense, amorphous, and guided by a rich low end of such orchestral warmth that reverence typically edges out contempt – leaving the listener somewhere between wet eyes and raised eyebrows. My Love is truly a musical act of compassionate criticism, emptying out the hubris and swagger from 80s metal fluff to reveal the very human undertow of frustration, loss, and denial that claimed its makers.
Elsewhere, Hecker leaves untreated snippets of interviews – generally pertaining to Van Halen’s well-documented personnel struggles – to rise untouched from his shifting glitchscapes. They are often denials and accusations every bit as hollow as the senselessly puffed-up stage banter they run alongside. They compose a barrage of defamatory diversions whose tone of delivery hints toward all manners of personal hurt and insecurity. They rise from the mix like radio interference – detached, without immediate context, tuned out before completing their thoughts, frustrated and lost. Amidst pools of hiss and sputter, “Sammy Loves Eddie Hates David” strings these interview fragments into a libretto of betrayal and character assassination glossed over by a final recording of pre-concert rock babble. Such juxtaposition is rivaled by “Midnight Whispers,” in which Eddie Van Halen’s attempts to portray himself as an obsessive creative force – haunted to the point of sleeplessness by his desire to create melody – serve only to cover up his apparent desperation. Such moments form the programmatic spine of My Love Is Rotten To The Core ; like the music that enfolds them, they are grimly ironic but lack disdain, left like the unfortunate memoirs in the wake of some inescapable tragedy.
It’s a testament to Hecker’s craft that My Love Is Rotten to the Core rings with an emotional resonance that betrays the presupposed coldness of digital art and the traditionally pitiless treatment afforded to Van Halen figures. To its benefit, My Love lacks either the digital community’s cynical fascination with pop star disasters or its elitist laptop-over-guitar rhetoric – the tone is cautionary and concerned instead of crass. Hecker looks past the cartoonish surface of band dynamics to find the hidden intricacies that hum just below the surface, emitting signals of despair beneath the torrent of macho riffs and backstage blame. My Love Is Rotten to the Core offers a surprising alternative to rock and roll cheap shots – an earnest investigation of tension, dissatisfaction, and eventual dissolution by methods usually reserved for acts of brutal irony and depersonalization. You may never look at Van Halen the same way again.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01