Rockin' Our Turntables: Still Corners
By Eric Hehr in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 16, 2011 7:00PM
In 1993, French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” in his book, Spectres of Marx. The term was used to describe the presence of ghost-like traces of the past in our culture as we move further into the future; a type of post-modernistic standstill that occurs when society imposes a barricade on tomorrow, leaving only yesterday to suffice as a means of cultural succession. Since then, the presence of hauntology has grown exponentially in modern culture. For example, we can now take digital pictures on our cell-phones and run them through an Instagram or Hipstamatic application, which mimics vintage toy cameras from the past, purposely distorting our digital pixels to produce an authentic analog image. We can walk by storefronts of retail chains such as Banana Republic, which display archetypical dresses and suits modeled after conventional fashion of the 1960s. We can look at contemporary design, which embraces the simplistic, asymmetrical lines and curvature of the De Stijl movement that occurred in the early part of the 20th century. But more so than anywhere else, we can find hauntology in music.
Mark Fisher, professor at the University of London and author of Capitalist Realism, applied hauntology to music when describing musicians who dwell in “sonic nostalgia,” often writing songs that sound indistinguishable from those that which were composed half a century earlier. In the musical world, hauntology is applicable to most indie acts: The Black Lips revival of dirty 60s garage rock, The Dum Dum girls renewal of girl groups like The Shangri-Las, Dirty Beaches fuzzed-out ode to 50s rock ‘n roll, or the Daptone Records roster of 70s funk and soul evangelists. Fisher’s personal favorite example of hauntology in music is Ariel Pink, since his sound “musters the sonic equivalent of the 'corner of the retina' effect that the best ghost stories have famously achieved.” By burying his actual compositions in production techniques such as tape echo, analog reverb, and delay, Ariel Pink produces a stylized sonic aesthetic that replicates the presence of a ghost-like entity: “The ghost is at its most scary only when it can't fully be seen [ ] specters are unsettling because they are that which can not, by their very nature (or lack of nature), ever be fully seen; they can only dwell at the periphery of the sensible, in glimmers, shimmers, suggestions” (Fisher).
Creatures of an Hour, the debut full length from London’s Still Corners, is a perfect example of hauntology in music. Released less than a week ago, Creatures of an Hour borrows enough from the past that it sounds like it was recorded thirty, forty or fifty decades ago. In actuality, Greg Hughes, Still Corners' main songwriter, recorded Creatures of an Hour recently in his home studio in Greenwich. A dedicated cinephile, Hugh cites film as the major influence on Still Corner's atmospheric debut. “There’re just certain things in certain movies, like older horror movies and other foreign films, that you see sometimes. They just have a certain vibe and atmosphere,” says Hughes. “All these little bits, these tiny moments. That’s what I was trying to go back to. To bottle that up and put it into a song.” But in typical hauntologist fashion, you won’t find any John Williams influenced arrangements on Creatures of an Hour. Instead, you will find the menacing spaghetti-western feel of Ennio Morricone in tracks like “I Wrote in Blood,” or the eerie whirling effect of a Bernard Herrmann score in tracks like “Circulars,” which could also easily double as a Goblins B-side for a Dario Argento film.
One of the main influences present on Creatures of an Hour is boy-wonder producer turned parodied criminal, Phil Spector. On the track “Endless Summer,” Still Corners purloin the opening drumbeat of The Ronettes' “Be My Baby” and soak the blown out bass drum and snare in enough reverb to make Best Coast jealous. The density of the Wall of Sound approach covers up most of the songs arrangement, sans a drone-y one-note lead guitar solo that is reminiscent of a drugged-out, Velvet Underground jam. On “Into The Trees,” the Spector production vibes persist against a relentless post-punk rhythm that evokes the rash energy of early Psychedelic Furs circa their 1980 self-titled debut.
It is difficult to evaluate Creatures of an Hour as its own entity because the basis of its entity is knowingly counterfeited - an obligatory example of hauntology in music: an anamorphic sonic object that is deliberately veiled in a cloud of stylized retro production to fabricate an auditory sense of nostalgia. In embracing it’s attributes, you simultaneously embrace its influences, and if you’re a fan of Phil Spector, Ennio Morricone, or Goblin, then you will enjoy Creatures of an Hour. And if you’re not a fan of any of the above, you will still be hard-pressed to deny Still Corners sense of sonic uniformity, one-upping artists like The xx and Beach House in the realm of malevolent, dreamy pop music. Throughout the 10-song album, Still Corners preserve a consistent atmosphere of nostalgic ambience by employing melancholy tones and haunting soundscapes. The wistfully ominous mood that Creatures of an Hour induces does not detour from opening track, “Cuckoo,” to closing track, “Submarines.”
Music typically marks time, and in its marking it has the power to generalize: 1930s big band music makes us think of swing kids in zoot suits, 1950s doo-wop suggests teenagers hanging around the soda fountain, 1960s psychedelia brings to mind the hippie movement, and so on and so forth. It is difficult to imagine The 13th Floor Elevators playing to a ballroom of flappers in 1928, or Benny Goodman playing at The Whiskey a Go-Go in 1969. Yet, something odd is happening in modern music. Hypothetically, you could transport certain modern bands and artist into the past, and there would be no sense of disjuncture or time lapse, which is the foundation of musical hauntology. Still Corners is one of such said bands.
Still Corners are not trying to re-create the wheel - they’re just trying to spin the pre-established wheel in a different direction. The problem is that they’re one of many reverb-soaked indie bands attempting to reawakening times of yore, and in their attempt to reproduce the romanticized past they run the risk of never having a real future. However, they are very good at what they do - perhaps one of the best in their respective genre, and right now is a great time to produce hauntology-tinted music.