Consider this a notice and/or reminder that anyone looking for the cutting edge of pop music shouldn't be searching for someone holding a guitar. Today's envelopes are pushed via keys, screens, and sound cards, with the accompanying human components bathed in pale LCD-screen glare inside bedrooms, basements, or on stage. Sorry, rockists: Laptops — and various things (including electrified traditional instruments) connected to them — are to 2011 what the Les Paul guitar was to, say, 1964.
No scene better demonstrates this than the current crop of beat-pop practitioners: artists like Baths, Eskmo, and oOoOO, who meld elements of hip-hop, electronica, rock, and radio pop into many different-sounding and forward-looking musical styles. Some hail from the make-'em-move tradition of DJ-based dance music, but take it to new places; others merely assemble uniquely modern bedroom pop on their computers. (The names above certainly aren't the only artists doing this kind of music; they just all happen to be playing S.F. this week.) Instead of chillwave or witch-house or dubstep with vocals, let's brand this big group laptop-pop, even though laptops aren't a requirement, and a lot of it isn't quite poppy. The defining characteristic here is a reliance upon electronic instruments like computers and drum machines — along with live vocals — to make beat-based music that aims to communicate something more complex and profound than a simple itch to move.
Now, not all the music that fits our loose criterion is interesting or worthwhile. You could even argue that this territory is more prone to missteps than others: It isn't always going to make people want to dance — although some of it does — and it's rarely going to dazzle with rhyming lyrics. Plus it almost never wields the watch-me-make-it-happen excitement of rock. The above formula could easily be a recipe for intricately boring background music, and some of what fits it is. (The task of turning button-pressing into a compelling live show is tremendous — more on that later.)
But consider Baths, the stage name of 21-year-old bedroom producer Will Wiesenfeld, who uses a laptop and various other tools to make beat music, with vocals, that is melancholic and complex and beautiful. A sudden star on the much-heralded L.A. beat scene, the classically trained Wiesenfeld builds dense, organic-sounding productions out of machine-made beats, piano, random samples, and his own wilted voice. "Lovely Bloodflow," a highlight from last year's rightly acclaimed debut, Cerulean, weaves a hesitant, stumbling beat through what sounds like the plucked strings of an acoustic guitar. On top of this, he spreads several layers of his own singing into something like a traditional pop structure. "You are my bloodflow, baby lovely bloodflow" he moans, rather creepily, for the chorus. This is confessional electronic pop, poetic and intimate, yet driving. Wiesenfeld doesn't always sing — the next song, "Maximalist," uses vocal samples with a more brusque hip-hop beat — but his laptop-pop feels expressive the way that folk or rock or emo-anything can. Cerulean is more of a cohesive statement of feeling than a collection of tracks. It wouldn't even be ridiculous for Wiesenfeld to include a lyric sheet with his albums (and in fact, we might ask that he does).
On another side of the scene is the music S.F. producer Brendan Angelides makes as Eskmo. Basically heavy, dubsteppy electronica with vocals, the best Eskmo productions feel like deep, subtly shifting canyons of sound. His massive bass structures are speckled with shotgun blasts of tiny clicks, staticky asides, and small variables in rhythm, rewarding close listening while sometimes inspiring dance. Where Angelides stands out from other producers is by infusing his own voice into this maelstrom. The idea has a lot of potential for enlivening the repetitive, monochrome slam of dubstep. But the vocals on Eskmo's self-titled debut are more ornamental than essential — often, they will consist of a single spoken phrase repeated through different effects. They fit well into his soundscapes, but certainly aren't words you'd quote to a lover — or anyone else, for that matter. Partly as a consequence of this, much of Eskmo's debut fails to rise beyond expertly made, kinetically inspiring background music.
Then there is what's been labeled "witch house," as practiced by the infamous trio Salem and S.F. denizen Christopher Dexter Greenspan, who records under the name oOoOO. It's unclear what instruments he uses live, but the result is sludgy, gloomy electronic pop with vocals, both his own and others'. Thankfully this music doesn't come across as intentionally obnoxious like Salem's. Greenspan is an admirer of mainstream pop and R&B, even covering Lindsay Lohan's "I Live for the Day." So here, vocals are vital — in fact, most of the instrumentation on oOoOO's self-titled EP feels like grinding, panoramic background landscapes for the contorted lyrical expressions of darkly longing lovers. This is quite different from Baths or Eskmo, but it's still semirepetitive music built largely out of synths and drum machines (and possibly laptops) in which emotional communication — not dancing — is the focus.
The challenge is translating all of this to the live sphere. Because while club-inclined fans won't balk at the guy onstage only pressing buttons during a concert, others will want to see a "real instrument" played when they aren't dancing. This issue could determine how quickly the diverse field of laptop-pop practitioners finds a mass audience outside the club. (And by adding more live instruments to their shows, many of these artists already have.) But it won't change the fact that they're making some of the most forward-looking music out there.