Electronic music has often been a domestic phenomenon, at its best produced on secondhand equipment in ambitious kids’ bedrooms. But as it’s evolved over the past 20 years or so, it’s become domestic in another sense: no longer limited to imagining future worlds or utopian dancefloors, but increasingly reflecting personal lives and intimate settings. The laptop-driven noise symphonies of Fennesz, the refracted/desaturated beats of Boards of Canada, Four Tet’s folktronic psych, Herbert’s found-sound groove – this is the work of musicians who seek inspiration in their kitchens, their friends and families, their summer vacations in the country. It’s the real indie: made by and for people at home. The accessory and the lifestyle have become one and the same.
This homey vibe is epitomized by the suddenly-hot Gold Panda. Read any article about him and you’ll get the same idea: he’s a normal guy named Derwin from London. His checkered employment history (nonchalantly working in a sex shop because he was desperate, getting fired from HMV) is often used as a lead. In interviews like this one, he’s almost too humble, going on about how he’s thankful to have some success with his “hobby.” His sampladelic new album Lucky Shiner was recorded in rural Essex, in a cottage owned by his elderly aunt and uncle. It’s all as if to say that we shouldn’t feel threatened by him – he’s not a rock star, he’s one of us – and a nice guy, too. Yet there must be something special about him because Lucky Shiner is one of the most damned listenable albums to come to light recently.
Many of the (overwhelmingly positive) write-ups on Lucky Shiner are charmingly clueless about electronic production, often breathlessly highlighting the process of sampling itself – as if it’s something new, as if Gold Panda is the first one to sample his auntie talking or some exotic stringed instrument over a funky beat. The technique is fine, but that’s not what makes Lucky Shiner so good: it’s Panda’s aptitude for inhaling a wide range of sounds into his music, moving confidently through different styles and tempos, nimbly chopping up influences, reconstituting them into something organic and refreshing.
“Snow and Taxis” is an uptempo track that moves with the lithe grace and melodic repetition of The Field’s post-minimal techno. “Vanilla Minus” starts as a Daft Punk-style loopy house track before expanding into something as achingly atmospheric as Orbital in their heyday. With its cascading vibraphone sounds and choppy drum patterns, “Same Dream China” doesn’t bother hiding its debt to Four Tet.
Gold Panda isn’t quite as accomplished as most of these influences. But that’s all right; it’s a sound that’s thrillingly in-process. This is what the electronic music revolution is all about: discovering genius and beauty as an experiment, a pastime, a daily habit. There are awkward moments, rough patches, but the music is very light on its feet – quirky, adventurous, ultimately uplifting. His enthusiasm and overriding love of music – the joy of discovery as he puts the sounds together – are palpable, the strongest qualities on Lucky Shiner. There’s some of the cheeky experimentalism of Four Tet or Squarepusher, but the compositions never stray so far into glitchy beat-bop and noise that they neglect music: most of the tracks have melodic basslines and lovely tinkling keyboards, and there’s a fine atmospheric swoosh reminiscent of Kompakt’s Pop Ambient sound.
Even better, Panda’s got a great instinct for dynamics: his tracks often rely on one element – one sampled vocal or one breakdown – that doesn’t repeat, or doesn’t repeat the same way. This tantalizes the listener with possibilities, creates fascination, makes you want to hear it again, makes the music more lifelike. It’s an underrated skill perfected by many of the greats including Hank Shocklee, Derrick May and 808 State, but it’s funny how many modern producers – with their perfectly layered, perfectly repeating tracks – seem to have no idea of its importance.
And, yes, the pastoral, folktronic, groove is in effect here, with many acoustic instruments incorporated into the mix. “Parents,” the album’s third track, is simply a sweet-sounding folky guitar interlude that would fit on any indie-rock album. It sets an appealing tone and ices the whole package as a fantastic home listen. Or maybe something to rock on your headphones on a walk in the woods; like such an excursion, this is music that’s relaxing and bracing at the same time. And it’s probably what its creator had in mind while working in that country cottage. We should all thank Derwin’s aunt and uncle for their contribution to our personal soundtrack.