November 25th, 2009


My noughties 3: Oskar in Tokyo

2003's Oskar Tennis Champion is my first proper album of the new decade, if you see Folktronic as a belated summary of 90s themes. Oskar draws its power from two collaborations with women artists: the Milky album Travels with a Donkey I made with my ex-wife Shazna in New York in early 2002, just before leaving for Tokyo, and the Mashcat mini-album Mashroom Haircat, recorded with Emi Necozawa when I arrived in Japan. What these records share with Oskar is the genre-collision I began to call vaudeville concrete; they were the kind of record that might have emerged if Georges Brassens had worked with Pierre Schaeffer, or Tom Lehrer had studied with Stockhausen.

It's a powerful combination. On the one hand you have the conservative, enduring, folksy appeal of strong narrative lines, universal timeless themes, stories, content. On the other radical, innovative Modernism, and with it a certain elitist formalism, futurism, the shock of the new, the untried, the experimental. How to reconcile them? Well, one method is to do what the brilliant physical, textural cine-clown Jacques Tati did in Mon Oncle and Playtime; present an exaggeratedly pure and dogmatic Modernism whilst making a folksy satire on it. Another might be to do the vaudeville in the songwriting and lyrics, and the concrete in the music by, for instance, bringing in a formalist collaborator -- here, John Talaga, aka Fashion Flesh, the "reproducer" with a license to "fuck things up" musically. In fact -- as the pre-mixed, pre-reproduced Oskar Originals show -- Talaga improved the record no end.

I take the title of Oskar Tennis Champion from an early Tati short. The album is recorded in Tokyo, where I've moved after being shocked by 9/11. The destruction of the WTC hangs over Oskar Tennis Champion, thematically, like a low-flying passenger jet. How could it not? I saw them, those jets, with my own eyes. Well, one of them, with one eye. So how does 9/11 impact on the Oskar album? Because this is a record in which Modernist utopia slips on a banana skin, and 9/11 was modernity slipping on a very big banana skin (religion, the irrational, resentment, the guerilla resistance, self-appointed nemesis, call it what you will).

You know those Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd films where the clown is dangling from the clockface of a 1920s skyscraper, or saved only by the position of an open window when a whole facade crashes down? The collapse of the graph-paper rationality of the World Trade Center seemed like one of those moments -- as in a Tati film, modernity had been challenged by something absurd, insignificant, clumsy, stubbornly human. The irrational, the uncontrollable, a slight change in plan leading to clumsy catastrophe, and slapstick about clumsy catastrophe. In retrospect, it's particularly interesting to me that this theme plays out in Oskar so much on the level of a comedy of gesture and sonics, just as it does in Tati's Playtime:

The retro-Modernist side of the equation involved delving back into the theories of the Russian formalists, and particularly Shklovsky's concept of ostranenie, which I finessed into a concept I called disorienteering. Needless to say, living in Tokyo without speaking Japanese was, itself, a form of disorienteering for me, a time of being pleasantly lost, and a series of irrational episodes played out in a relentlessly Modernist cityscape. The irrational defamiliarization on display in Oskar was a "logical" and "natural" choice for someone in those circumstances.

There's a ton of documentation of the making of Oskar on the Momus website, but let's move on to a track-by-track play-through.

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Overall, in retrospect, I think Oskar Tennis Champion is a very ambitious and exciting album, funny, provocative and serious, bursting with ideas but also able to be moving and personal, oblique yet also politically thoughtful, provocative and, artistically, richly suggestive. Rather than Folktronic (which is where many of my American listeners took their leave of me), this is the record which would map out my noughties, texturally, conceptually, thematically. I'm actually very proud of it. It also doesn't sound sonically dated to me; I think that by this point I'd arrived at a style that was completely my own. At the same time, the glitch and "aesthetics of failure" stuff does root it in the early 21st century.

Previous: Folktronic
Next: Otto Spooky

Buy Oskar Tennis Champion from Cherry Red (UK) or Darla (US).