A locally-renowned Melbourne classical music critic once said that the difference between classical and popular music criticism is that popular music criticism always relies on describing things viscerally (e.g. “BeyoncĂ©’s latest spine-chilling release brutalises you in the skull like a bowl of porridge”), whereas classical music criticism relies on more objective/descriptive means (e.g. “This performance of Schubert’s Trio in Bb major was adequately-named, featuring three instruments which often played together, although sometimes splitting into smaller configurations. The work took place after the interval, an analysis with which I’m sure the audience would have concurred”). I think he was meaning to imply that popular music criticism is somehow vaguely fraudulent. Which is funny, because that’s the way I feel about most music criticism regardless of genre.

I like the idea that criticism might actually be able to subjectively discuss the sorts of questions a performance raises, and provide a space in which to echo and amplify the provocations of the music, rather than simply providing an account of what happened. Either way, the above generalisation doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that SoundisGrammar can feasibly leave uninterrogated.

So today I’m making a brief foray into the beer-soaked, drug-fueled, tragi-glamorous world of rock journalism by telling you about how, last week, I went to see Berlin-based Parisian duo Tracy’O.

The first thing one notices about Tracy’O is their attractiveness the limited sonic materials at play. Comprising Dell (voice) and Bert (guitar), this is no simple voice-with-guitar-accompaniment walk in the musical park. The sense of material limitation is made potently present by the music’s constant desire to transcend those limitations.

This leads to some fascinating solutions: Bert’s guitar riffs are looped and overlaid on top of each other, resulting in intricate walls of textured sound. At the same time, though, the necessity of building up such a texture bit-by-bit, or at the very least out of previously-used material, forcibly breaks the architecture out of a more normal verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook-whatever type song structure. Rather, the music resembles a continuous musical strand, the self-similarity of which produces structural cohesion.

The loop-based strategies employed in the musical materials are mirrored in Dell’s lyrical materials. Featuring frequent, although irregular, repetitions, the lyrics are at times hypnotic, neurotic, pathological. The irregularity of the repetitive structures, frequently divorced from changes in musical texture, convey a ‘sense’ of a hook, or a hook-like structural unit, without providing the security or formal definitiveness that a textbook hook would provide. The lyrics consist of highly direct statements, with each song seeming to limit its own vocabulary – there is never a sense of getting to know or understand the narrator. The narrative voice is curiously guarded, only permitting us highly restricted glimpses into the psychology (pathology?) behind the words. Given that lyrics are so often expected to provide a sense of emotional or psychological ‘truth’, the lack of context with which we’re able to gauge the veracity of the narrator is starkly terrifying.

The music of Tracy’O, then, despite it’s apparently simple means, is about ambiguity. It asks far more questions than it answers. The music of Tracy’O is also about multiple forms of constraint. The construction of the songs naturally reflects certain constraints (some voluntary, some not), while the lyrics similarly demonstrate strategies of extreme limitation – a violence enacted upon the potentiality of the text. The music of Tracy’O, despite it’s sense of volume and catharsis, is somehow caged, bristling at its confines. Implicit in this music is the question of what the object would look like if it were freed from these constraints.

Tracy’O’s MySpace page can be found here. However, this really is a band to be experienced live: the sounds on MySpace sadly have a very different quality from the sounds produced live and is, to my ears, significantly less provocative (the best thing there is probably this handheld live video in gloriously distorted sound). Something remarkable happens on stage. And I promise it’s not just the beer-soaked, drug-fueled tragi-glamour talking.

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