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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.

++ Recently ++

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 = Documenting Beulah And DCFC

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 = Out-Of-Control Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 = Just In Time For Halloween

Monday, October 3, 2005 = The Dandyesque Raunch Of Louis XI

Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

Monday, July 25, 2005 = Hot Sounds For Summertime

Monday, June 27, 2005 = Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

Monday, June 4, 2005 = Cool New Sounds To Download Or Stream

++ Needle Drops Archives ++

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Monday, June 27, 2005

++ Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

By David Howie

++ The mad heat of Girona announces itself immediately: I am in another country. The two-hour flight has taken me out of the death-throes of Scotland's Twentieth Century into the Twenty-first Century bustle of Barcelona. I have come here to dance and drink, to meet friends and talk, to relax and take stock. For a weekend in June, I'm here in Barcelona with the world's hipster elite for the Sónar festival. (I swear, one carefully placed A-bomb would cause the subcultural capital of the world to plummet.) I have flown here with an ulterior mission in mind, however. In accepting this commission from my editor, I have come to see if I am able to achieve something I feel is perhaps no longer possible: I have come here to write. For too long I have been a writer who does not write, and that makes me nothing at all.

There was a moment during this year's Sónar — I was listening to Ada's sweet puckered techno — when I had a critical epiphany. From the moment I left for the airport, all throughout my trip to Barcelona, I had been writing, drafting and re-drafting in my mind the column I would eventually submit. You have to understand, in all my writing on music to date I have tried to provide different takes on popular music. It is my perhaps misguided but earnest belief that in this age of a thousand monkeys typing infinite Internet copy, anyone who wants to read about a certain album or artist will be able to find the article they want to read published somewhere across the wuhwuhwuh. The article I was going to write was as playful as anything I have ever written; it was irreverent, maybe a little funny, and intentionally unfocused. The article may have displayed these qualities but — it was ultimately dishonest and a disservice to the music I was quickly falling in love with. I realized then, at 4 a.m. in Barcelona, as the sun rose on my evening, that in certain instances there exists a moral (in the artistic sense) imperative for critics to serve the music they regard and love.

This instinct is counterintuitive to every thought I have ever had. It runs counter to all the ideas about writing and about music I have invested with myself. It goes against my sense of playfulness and listening ears, and it goes against my injunction to think critically at all times about all things. But it came to me at Sónar.

++ If you are determined to write at an angle, you'll probably find the festival is difficult to write about. In some ways it is like Barcelona itself: structured at its edges, but at heart scattered and piecemeal, an attempt at organization through the prism of chaos. It is also faintly ridiculous. There is an air of quiet improbability in and around the Sónar complex. Ellen Allien mills around behind me, schlubbing; Ada checks her email; Nathan Fake shares a joke. As a kid with an erect heart and a keen eye, I'm still struck dumb by the voyeur-mechanics of artists-as-people: these musicians are obviously just hanging out, suspended in the nets of their own ennui. This is what they do every day. This is the dark matter of the critical universe, of course, that black mathematics we reader/writers can't decipher: 90% of artists' lives spent, like ours, treading water, simply living. It comes through in Sónar's feeling of genuine community. Matthew Herbert was helped to carry out the exquisite nonsense of his Plat du Jour show by a few electric luminaries (Drew Daniel of the Soft Pink Truth, for instance, helped fan fish essence, trapped inside large balloons, from the back of the stage); Mocky and Taylor Savvy jumped to the assistance of Sónar poster-boy Jamie Lidell when his software packed up on him, forcing him into an ugly, impromptu scat show (I have to say, though, as difficult as it was to enjoy this, I came out of the show with nothing but respect for Lidell, who riffed and improvised his way out of the hole); Kevin Blechdom jumped from behind the decks dressed as a caterwauling baby witch, the perfect screeching accompaniment to the utterly impressive and heart-shattering Soft Pink Truth. (Blechdom had apparently been hiding beneath Drew's decks for the whole show, and had at one point promised to strip completely naked and smear herself in chocolate ice cream. What a tease!)

The quiet of the village lifts to a fever in the evenings when the people of the day transform into artists of the night, come aboard the Bass Bus to deliver locked jaws and bug eyes as wont takes them. Outside Sónar by Night presents as a scene from UPN's straight-to-rubbish post-apocalyptic drama "Jeremiah": a cottage industry of crusties and travelers selling all the shit in their kitchen (water, beer, uh, meat) at 500% profit. Inside, though, there is so much to stumble upon in the daze of wandering that helps make sense of Sónar by Night's hollowed-out shopping mall: Luke Vibert looks like he's checking out some particularly dull raincoat porn as he takes the room and shakes it like a snow globe; Magdas sprays the night sky with her microgoth; Nathan Fake bathes The Loft in acid, dancers melt in a swathe; Drew Daniel extends a soft pink welcome to all; and, M.I.A. drops it like it's hot.

Of course, in any accurate, honest report from Sónar there must abide a note of bittersweet sadness. The tyranny of the schedule brings regret to even the most assiduous festival-goer. There is ever-present a question of who to see, what to miss: Mark One vs. Ellen Allien vs. Richie Hawtin; Jeff Mills vs. Areal Showcase (Basteroid & Ada) vs. Le Tigre; Hood vs. Hot Chip vs. Islaja; M.I.A. vs. Marc Houle vs. Luke Vibert (!!! I mean, c'mon!). Seriously, though, the festival programmers should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their feats with space and time: they somehow manage to lever all of this, a significant amount of the world's best music, into their allotted 72 hours. (There are a few musicians notably conspicuous by their absence, however; for example, those for whom 2004 was massive, or for whom 2005 is essentially their year: Justus Kohncke in the former category or Vitalic & Isolée in the latter.)

The hits hit harder than any hit has hit me ever. (Understand, though, I saw things that underlined the festival's queer science of excess with an exclamation mark. I am no prude — no, not at all — but when you watch a man lead his wife through the venue on a leash you definitely start to question the sense and morality of your own decisions, your own loose sobriety.) But the hits! The Soft Pink Truth left my heart erect, my head screwed and chopped, and my feet blistered. (Sample lyric: "Jesus was a black, cock-sucking Jew from Galilee," delivered dressed in a leather baby-suit, with bib and hip-hop swagger). To put it quite simply, it was the single most stunning performance of the festival, and perhaps the greatest live music experience of my life. Drew Daniel is awesome and this is where I tell him so, OK? (Yeah yeah, slurp slurp.) At The Loft on Thursday night, Nathan Fake dropped the Border Community's favored micro-prog in favor of an acid test and killed the dance floor — as you would expect since it'd been bathed in, uh, concentrated acid. LCD Soundsystem were filled with the power of a thousand fire extinguishers and the fire to waste them all. In fact, over the massive soundsystem even "Rocker," "E Talking," and "Tax Man" sounded OK, they sounded good, they sounded AL-right, as if invested with some weight by their sheer volume and size.

++ It comes down to the bottom line once again, as always: music remains as untranslatable as joy, and it's our common quest for some sort of translation — the dissolution of music in the solute of language — that justifies the critic. Sónar left me, as most assignments do, questioning my ability to achieve effective translation, the transference of exuberance and excitement across the page and down the wires. Somewhat mired in memory and experience, my own personal sense of writing's necessity took a hit, but my belief in my own ability to write was restored. Who knows, maybe I'll give it up for a while, but at least now I know I can do it. Coasting out of Barcelona I stick my iPod on shuffle and lay myself at the mercy of its alphabet fascism. It is a fitting end to what has been my journey into chaos — caught, as I am, between the twin poles of order and confusion.

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