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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ghost Box Records Excavates Childhood Memories, Reminds Us Adults Are Full of Crap

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 8:43 AM

Chris de Burgh, not-so-fond memory
  • Chris de Burgh, not-so-fond memory

Dad Rock is a new column in which Ryan Foley will attempt to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

Last summer, a release from Brooklyn's Daniel Lopatin, who records and performs as Oneohtrix Point Never, created a minor Internet buzz. A self-dubbed "echo jam," the track was a reworking of Chris de Burgh's mushy, limp-dick abomination "The Lady in Red," Loptain distilling the song down to a two-minute loop of the words "There's nobody here."

Despite its total heinousness, the song original summoned unspoiled memories of mine: junior high parties in finished basements, girls with Kip Winger's hair, boys with Kip Winger's poetic sensibilities, tall girls dancing with short boys, de Burgh bleating mercilessly in the background. However, Lopatin's reinvention of the song stripped away that golden, wistful patina, transforming it into something new: something unnerving and somnolent, like falling asleep in a bed you're not familiar with.


On a more macro level, this is what the label Ghost Box Music is attempting: Creating music that assaults nostalgic triggers and as a result, casts long shadows across our precious images of adolescence. Founded in 2004 by pals Jim Jupp and Julian House, the English label's singular brand of electronica is inspired by vintage television programming, austere public service announcements, and spooky science fiction like "Quatermass and the Pit," a popular BBC serial in which humanity is revealed to be descended from Martians. (A concept that may actually be popular among those striving to explain the appeal of Chris de Burgh.)

The Ghost Box audio/video aesthetic oscillates between engrossing and contrived. Album covers appear inspired by those glossy pamphlets you ignore in a doctor's office. Releases include logo tones that remind me of the brief PBS promos that popped up when "Sesame Street" had concluded and I began bawling to mom that my bowl of dry Alpha-Bits needed refilling. Liner notes detail the imaginary spaces Ghost Box music inhibits. Jupp insists that the approach is wholly functional, that it's all about the manic energy derived from being completely immersed in a mysterious, new world--like when a child traps an ant under a glass.

Under his own musical moniker, Belbury Poly, Jopp is quite adept at revising nostalgic triggers. The melodies and rhythms in "Caermaen" and "Insect Prospectus" haven't been pilfered from specific children's programming; they feel like the flawed recollections of this music that we carry around in our heads. It's a trifle violating, as if Jupp accessed your memory, rummaged through the drawers and shelves, and pocketed a few items. "Clockwork Horoscope" features spoken-word parts that sound like an adult speaking to a child ("This is going to be a year of great changes for you" says the voice, sounding like a high school health teacher about to discuss armpit hair). As kids, we're often impressed by the strength of a grown-up's voice, as well as the wisdom they impart. "Clockwork Horoscope" brings the realization that most of what adults say is extra-thick bullcrap, that words are often uttered just to kill the sting of silence.

Labelmates the Focus Group (House's alias) similarly reframe adolescent imagery. In "Backyards Rituals and Spare Time," summertime never felt so disjointed and fleeting; samples of chirping birds, bicycle bells, and splashing water are chopped up and spliced together, play for a few heartbeats and then die abruptly. "The Bohm Site" weaves what could be the purr of a busy household (voices emanating from a television/radio, a twinkling piano) with air raid sirens wailing ominously. It's the comforting womb of home ready to be vaporized. 

But the Advisory Circle (the alias of Jon Brooks) is responsible for the most striking example of how spiritedly Ghost Box screws around with nostalgia and memory. "Frozen Ponds PIF" is based around a vintage public service announcement warning children of the dangers of thin ice--the kind of pop culture ephemera that's tirelessly fetishized across the Internet. There's the pleasant sound of children playing, a friendly narrator (if I only I could sound so fucking agreeable when lecturing my kids on the hazards of doing anything stupid), and bits of plaintive piano. It stirs memories of our own childhood walks through winter landscapes. Suddenly, Brooks leaps out of the closet wearing a scary mask; he adds demonic warbles, the ominous crackling of breaking ice, and panicked shrieks. That cherished memory is suddenly colored with inescapable anxiety and dread. It's a bit fun, actually.

If you accept the theories of some neuroscientists, Ghost Box is merely emulating a natural process of the brain: That every time a memory is recalled, it's subtly and irrevocably altered. Like the magnetic tape in audio cassettes, the more it's replayed the more degraded the memory becomes. If that's the case, then Ghost Box is truly deserving of the label "head music."

And for me, an increasingly frequent companion of nostalgia (despite my best efforts to keep it at arm's length), this degradation is playfully unnerving and a tad liberating. Wistfulness getting jerked around by the collar; a little mind-fuck without the narcotics. So long as the Chris de Burgh is kept to a bare minimum.

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