Schnipper’s Slept On: Tough Knuckles and Washed Out

May 04, 2010

Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Tough Knuckles‘ Greek Jazz LP and Washed Out's Life of Leisure EP. Check out Tough Knuckles' MySpace, some Washed Out coverage from the FADER (and see him live in NYC Wednesday and Thursday with Beach House!) and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.

I fronted on Washed Out. I didn’t make any sort of assured anti-stance, but I did not celebrate his music, or personally enjoy it. But he’s in a recent issue of FADER with a really nice photo by Michael Schmelling, sitting on a dock, drinking a beer. He looks relaxed but still formal, not sloppy but certainly not prim. Then he put up a slideshow of honeymoon photos of his wife in a bikini in front of beautiful scenery on an expensive patio, and soundtracked it with voicemails from all the businesspeople who called him while he was away. At worst, this is rude. At best, it is fucking awesome. He doesn’t make it clear who most of the callers are, but one of them is a very perky man from Modular Records, a large electronic label, who are clearly calling to woo but instead have been put on the internet. It’s without commentary, not explicitly derogatory, but presented with some slyness. And because I like a clever asshole as much as I like a good song, I bought Washed Out’s record, Life of Leisure. The cover photo is his wife in the water. Everything is light pink. She’s squinting, probably in the sun. She’s not swimming, or floating, probably standing, maybe half treading water, the kind of crouched wading you do in pre-deep seawater. His songs have a similar oceanic feel, but not of titanic rolling, but a steady loll of mid-tempo, unchanging beat. It’s dance but it’s not, it’s bedroom pop but it’s not, it’s lo-fi but it’s not. What everyone apparently agrees it is, however, is nostalgic, a key genre tag of popular independent music in the last year. “Washed Out, the solo project of Georgia (via South Carolina) multi-instrumentalist Ernest Greene,” writes Marc Hogan on Pitchfork, “fits in almost too well with the balmy lo-fi synth atmospherics of peers like Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, Small Black, the higher-fi jj, or the darker, heavier SALEM, as well as the more guitar-based Real Estate, Best Coast, and Pearl Harbour.” He continues to outline in detail the yesteryear leanings of Washed Out:

More than some contemporaries, though, Washed Out submerges a sense of intense feeling within its '80s-fantasy electronic ether. Greene's "copy of a copy" distance, then, comes across as a form of emotional repression. The yearning-in-utero effect is strongest on woozy centerpiece "Feel It All Around." With blurry singing, cheap-sounding synths, and a humid, syrupy flow, the track suggests an ’80s synth pop hit that won't come straight out and cop to itself—or a young man in love, too tongue-tied (or too stoned?) to admit it. "You feel it all around yourself," Greene echoes. As for what "it" is, the song never says.

This photocopied yearning is a bullshit guideline for sound. “Nostalgia” is the new “beach,” apparently, and Washed Out is both. But it’s not. It’s gilded if anything, a good mock-up, homemade whittlings entered into the carpentry Olympics. Maybe he didn’t win, but he’d tell you himself he’s building a glossy dune buggy, not an organic jet ski. So why the supposedly inherent nostalgic inscription? “You feel it all around yourself,” doesn’t make me long for my plain past at all. Is it the warm echo? The slow pace? It makes me wish I was on vacation in Mexico again, but that’s a desire for future replication, not the supposedly supple embrace of long ago.

Maybe, though, this is a chicken or the egg problem. Did the critics or the musicians decide these songs are mnemonic devices? It’s reductive, either way, a heavy qualifier. Only when Hogan suggests that maybe the haze is weed is he on to something. Drugs conquer any intergenerational divide, and though for all I know Washed Out is clean, the sound of his fog is not one of nostalgia, just of an epic high.

Someone I am sure is not clean is Tough Knuckles. Before I knew who he was, I just knew him as the dude snorting coke off a metal tissue box in a bathroom in a picture on Sandy Kim’s site. Sandy is a frequent photographer, almost always of her friends, many of whom are musicians. So it was not a surprise that an anonymous drug-doing amigo of hers also makes music. And it was not a surprise that some anonymous drug doer is making blown-out rock music in 2010. But the overlap was surprising. Sandy’s photos, and her subjects, are future-focused. Right now is a pinprick on the map, not a tear smudge on a timeline. Her photos of blood, pee, boobs and tattoos aren’t ideal, they’re unfeigned. They’re not always lively but they’re never dull—steady and open-eyed, but still heavy lidded. Or in the case of Tough Knuckles, wide eyed because his eyes are super high on cocaine. It’s a surprising drug for his music, which sounds more like the loopy pill-taking variety. But maybe this is comedown music, not so much a result of the haze but of the simultaneously shitty and triumphant emergence from behind it. “Sleepwalking,” though instrumental, is stylistically similar to Washed Out, with a mild-paced drum machine keeping time and a crooked guitar and piano melody looped until it ends, cut off or continued for no other reason but whim. This isn’t a look back, or really a look forward, it’s just a life-for-the-sake-of-living static sticking around. The video for “Downtown Girl” is from the dashboard of a car on a highway drive. It’s boring. But you gotta get where you're going somehow.

Really, I don’t think Washed Out does a lot of drugs. He seems too good-natured for that. He probably smokes some weed sometimes, what else are you going to do without a job plus a dock in Georgia? Sounds fun. If you're gonna, now's the time, young folks. I mean that as a c'est la vie, not uncaringly. Maybe that's because I'm so sentimental, which I hate, hence my dislike for this nostalgia concept. But I know that looking back is missing out. Washed Out’s wife has it right, treading water in paradise. If we can’t all afford to do that, let’s not lament it. If you’re not going to move forward, the best you can do is stay present.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Schnipper’s Slept On: Tough Knuckles and Washed Out