Monday, August 17th, 2009
The study of popular music representing the urban landscape is still a fledgling area in the discipline of geography. As the world continues to urbanize, however, more artists are writing and recording albums that serve as aural extensions of the cities in which they live. In the past few years, there have been three albums fitting this description that continue to see heavy rotation in our household while we cook, clean, or more often than not, study…
The Desaparecidos: Read Music/Speak Spanish (Saddle Creek): If there were a genre of “Urban Planning Rock,” this album would be the sole entry. On the macro level, Read Music/Speak Spanish is an incendiary analysis of America’s pre-recession crass consumerism and suburban sprawl, while on a micro level the album details the explosive westward growth of Omaha. From the physical packaging itself – an amusingly detailed send-up of a City of Omaha planning report complete with a vellum cover of tract housing superimposed over cornfields – to the songs, the album is the audio equivalent of a pitched battle between the sprawling exurban growth of west Omaha and the more urban east Omaha. The band was an all-star cast of Saddle Creek regulars fronted by Conor Oberst. Despite the folksy pedigree of Oberst and his Bright Eyes legacy, Read Music/Speak Spanish finds the band outwardly intense with the music as heavy and abrasive as the lyrical content is aggressive and biting. The resulting sentiment after the last song ends is that the kids are not alright and are going to mobilize and vote against you until you embrace more sustainable planning initiatives.
Zvuki Mu: Zvuki Mu (Opal/Warner Bros.) In order to record an album for his great, but now defunct Opal label, Brian Eno flew to Moscow in the late 80’s to produce Zvuki Mu. In doing so, he captured a sound that is wholly unlike most modern rock music. Disjointed musical references and time structures appear side-by-side on the project: ambient-skronk guitar, hotel lounge keyboards, strings, atmospheric synthesizers, near-military drumming patterns, disco beats, etc… The key to appreciating this song construction is to understand how time itself can be manipulated in urban environments. In New York City, socio-economic forces have bred the concept of a “New York Minute,” while in Communist-era Moscow, the absence of almost all personal control over one’s future provided for a more laissez-faire reaction to time. It was not unusual, Eno noted, for a musician to schedule a meeting on a Tuesday, but not show up until Saturday without much concern. He opined, when one has little control over the outcome of the future, the present is a much more fluid and a less structured concept. Along with Moscow’s plodding present-tense and seemingly non-existent future, a limited accessibility to popular music recordings left artists with a juxtaposition of influences from differing decades and genres. This serves to further confuse the sense of time on the album. Was this a hippie collective left-over from the 60’s playing Sun Ra and Zappa inspired psychedelic rock songs? Was this recorded in a 70’s underground Moscow discothèque, then slickly remixed in the 80’s? From the first song to the last, Zvuki Mu instantaneously transports the listener to a Moscow that encased its citizens in magnificently crumbling architecture and denied them access to a fully realized temporal structure. Despite this oppression, the members of Zvuki Mu still manage to create an insightful and personal document of their lives, passions, and longings in a city seemingly lost in time.
Nortec Collective: The Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1 & 3 (Palm) This is the sound of modern Tijuana, Mexico. Although many north of the border may still think of the city as an unsavory border town, Tijuana is in fact a large and dynamic city with a healthy arts scene and an economy thoroughly intertwined with that of the United States. The Nortec Collective is a small group of DJ’s and producers representing a much larger artistic movement in Tijuana encompassing graphic designers, fine artists, architects, and filmmakers – not unlike the Reykjavik, Iceland scene in the early 90’s that spawned the similarly aesthetically complete Gus Gus. The Nortec Collective’s sound fuses the booming tuba notes, pumping accordions, nylon stringed guitar flourishes, and hyperkinetic snare rolls of traditional Norteño with modern bass-heavy, groove-oriented electronic soundscapes and beats. The resulting effect gives the listener a brief glimpse into the dichotomy of growing-up in a border city where one could hear Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk tracks waft through the airways from San Diego while the extended family dances to Cumbia in the backyard.
Okay, I’ve told you about what’s been playing in our household, now it’s your turn. Feel free to use the comments section to post about your favorite album that evokes an urban landscape.Michael is a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy at the University of Texas at Arlington. You can follow him on Twitter here, visit his website here, and listen to his band here.