Albert Oehlen Music
- Sound sculpting
- Van Oehlen straddle art and rock
- BY FRANKLIN BRUNO
- The most recent number of the British contemporary-art quarterly Modern Painters— roughly analogous to our Artforum — bills itself as a special "Art and Music" issue. The contents are as varied in value and interest as those of any gallery group show. On the upside are articles on the Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop (he’s also a solid abstract painter) and Kronos Quartet’s collaborations with innovative filmmakers and stage designers. On the downside, there’s a laudatory puff piece on polymorphously postmodernist songwriter Momus and a thin essay on the English art-school system’s influence on pop music by Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (Still, that one’s better than the shallow Art News cover story of a year back: "Art Rocks!")
- The accompanying compilation CD — Paint in Black — is equally uneven, though in a more interesting way. Some tracks are by bands canny and hip enough to have gained some art-world currency: Black Dice with their New York noise, Sigur Rós with their sub-Coldplay power balladry. And there’s music that visual artists just happen to be involved in: "Want Your Master," by the brilliantly named Prada-Meinhof Group, is indistinguishable from any well-made slice of electroclash. The most conceptually intriguing selection is by London-based artist Jeremy Deller. "Day in the Life" and "Can You Party?" are two foundational acid-house tracks by Todd Terry; here, they’re rescored and performed live by a stomping brass band. Deller’s "Acid Brass" may be a one-line joke at rave culture’s expense, but why shouldn’t traditional instruments poke fun at sequencers now and again?
- The question all this raises is, why is some music counted as Art whereas some is just music (or worse, "pop" music)? Why do the Wire-inspired Owada (or for that matter Wire) perform in London galleries while the similarly styled Oranges Band tour crummy US rock clubs? Easy: Owada’s leader, Martin Creed, is a Turner Prize–winning conceptualist; the Oranges Band are five T-shirted yonks from Baltimore. In other words, the very same reason — whatever that is — that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is a proper object of æsthetic delectation whereas the one in the bus station is just something men use. Duchamp’s intent, of course, was to deflate high-modernist pretensions; the effect of many current art-music hybrids is to pump them right back up, as if years of cross-pollination hadn’t blurred all manner of class and cultural distinctions.
- Still, some border skirmishes are more productive than others. Rock & Roll Is Here To Die (Blue Chopsticks) is the second album by Van Oehlen, who are led by German-born (but currently based in Spain) brothers Albert and Markus Oehlen. Albert’s widely shown work as a visual artist combines gaudy color, cartoonish figures, and computer-drawn passages to question both representation and the expressiveness of abstract painting.
- He and Markus are also long-time associates of Red Krayola leader Mayo Thompson, who contributes vocals to this release. In the mid ’80s, Thompson and the brothers were that band’s core, especially on the album Malefactor Ade, which featured such art-themed anti-pop songs as "Colour Theory, No. 4." More recently, Albert Oehlen contributed a scramble of programmed rhythms to Thompson’s reworkings of early blues-based material on the 1999 release Fingerpainting. Further connections: the Blue Chopsticks label is headed by guitarist/composer David Grubbs, who played in a latter-day Krayola incarnation with Gastr del Sol partner Jim O’Rourke, and Albert Oehlen supplied the cover for Gastr’s Mirror Repair EP.
- Despite the punning band name — think "Hot for Teacher" — there’s no Diamond Dave swagger or Eddie V. fret tapping on Rock & Roll Is Here To Die. With their lopsided rhythm loops and squishy, nauseous keyboard settings, most tracks come off like a grooveless, unpolished version of Mouse on Mars’s biomorphic burbles or Matmos’s experiments with the sounds of plastic surgery. Rather than a centering presence, Thompson’s voice is just more information to be chopped and reconstituted: "I’m gonna run through the tunnel, gonna ru . . . uh . . . uh . . . uh."
- If there’s a common thread between Van Oehlen’s music and Albert’s paintings, it’s that no element is allowed to mean what it usually does without a struggle. The five-minute title track makes this point most directly. The first half alternately builds up and tears down a dramatic, prog-rock structure of hacked-to-bits kick-and-snare (or their digital equivalents) and orchestral samples as Thompson intones — who knows why? — "A modest pharaoh/A modest pharaoh." Three minutes in, even this semblance of order is displaced by something more chaotic, an all-over-the-place synth solo by guest Juergen Schoeneberger. Is this rock and roll, art, both, or neither? I certainly can’t tell you, and Albert Oehlen may not be sure either: his own Web site (www.albert-oehlen.de) makes no reference whatever to his musical activities.