From the vantage of childhood, the future looks pretty sweet. Cars fly. Wiseacre robot maids work tirelessly yet display the full range of human emotion. Dogs talk, but with catastrophic speech impediments to reassure us that we’re still their betters. The subtext is that advanced technology equals richer lives, ipso facto. But then the weird and unfathomable digital age swept that analog idyll into history’s dustbin. I understand my old record player, but have no significant grasp of how my computer works. The majority is reliant on devices that only an elite minority knows how to build and repair. We’re skeptical of progress and intimidated by our increasingly inscrutable machines, which make us feel isolated and over-stimulated. No wonder digital technology in music, from Radiohead to Godspeed, is often deployed as a tacit critique of the world it’s creating, an embodiment of homogeneity, alienation, and dread.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Ann Arbor-based electronic music label Ghostly International has stewarded everything from house to ambient, digital pop to electroclash. This label primer is divided into two discs: Avant-Pop showcases Ghostly’s more upbeat and structured artists, while the enigmatically titled SMM disc airs out comparatively amorphous fare. But there’s some slippage in these characterizations: Benoit Pioulard’s “The Depths & the Seashore” (from the Avant-Pop disc), with its hypnotic acoustic guitar and spare percussion, would make as much sense on SMM; likewise, the skittering drums and ice-blue melody of Cepia’s “Hoarse” wouldn’t be out of place on Avant-Pop. This malleability is just one of several things that make this comp at least as good, if not better, than individual LPs by the artists it features.
Ghostly artists don’t know from technophobia or human obsolescence. Their music is united by a utopian bent, a childlike wonder at technology’s capacity to express and celebrate the individual spirit. This spirit is evoked by the music’s overarching lyricism and its endless variety within narrow parameters. The palette isn’t very diverse—drum machines and samplers, synths and sequencers—nor is it used very diversely. Throughout Idol Tryouts, precisely molded drums scatter in soft configurations around silent downbeats; bass rubberizes; house beats crest and subside like whitecaps on the sea; melodies shimmer in high-end digital decay.
Yet each artist manages to put their own unique stamp on these stock varieties like endless variations on the same essential face. Solvent serves up springy, burnished new wave. Dabrye’s durable, staticky instrumental hip-hop sings with sampled woodwinds. Matthew Dear’s clicky haunted house stomps in iron boots, while Outputmessage’s track cascades down in pinging, elastic waves. Loscil’s offering finds supple, jittery beats struggling to escape from a glittering black morass. Greg Davis pits raucous acoustic guitar against an ambient pastel wash. Twine scans across alien radio bandwidth, while Deru recasts the sound of trickling water as svelte electro pop. The often wordless yet consistently eloquent beauty of Idol Tryouts Two sounds a resounding rebuke to the idea that electronic music is cold and unemotional; that it all sounds the same; that guitars and human voices are the only true paths to expression. It’s also a testament to the idea that technology can be an agent of freedom and delight, not control and anxiety, when humans use it as a tool and not a crutch.