The fizzy, refreshing band Lemonade, used to live in the Bay Area but these days, they call Brooklyn home. Last week, for “Tune in an Afternoon,” a reoccurring series conceived by the folks at XLR8R TV, the sample-happy trio, self-described fans of popular television eats-seekers like Anthony “This Aging Rocker’s Physique and These Expensive Boots Do Not Hide The Fact I am a Huge Unrepentant Dork” Bourdain and Andrew “I’m Not As Funny As Tony and It’s Actually A Little Disturbing When I Force Myself To Eat Weird Stuff” Zimmern, crafted a track appropriate to their quaffable namesake in a matter of hours. With a skimpy budget of 40 bucks in hand, the band went shopping for edible inspiration at Deluxe Food Market on Elizabeth St. in New York City’s Chinatown, intending, with the typical enterprising thrift of savvy musician dudes, to fashion both music and mid-day sustenance from their purchases.
Food and music are not strangers. Famously, during an interlude of “Clara,” the 12-minute center-piece of Scott Walker’s The Drift (2006), a pulsing, jarring horror show of a record, a percussionist is captured vigorously and somewhat rhythmically punching away at a side of beef. The result: dull, wince-worthy thuds, fleshy and full yet weak, an icky almost carnal sound infinitely more gruesome than anything on A Chance to Cut Is A Chance To Cure, Matmos’ 2001 album of accessible electronica derived entirely from the recorded saws and squishes of various plastic surgery procedures.
While music made from sounds associated with food, or at least those emanating, with human interference, from things that, properly prepared, could become food (30th Century Man doesn’t tell us if Walker or any of his studio minions elected to barbecue the pummeled hunk of cow once it had been thoroughly tenderized) may not be untravelled terrain (I am not knowledgeable enough about electronic music to even bother pretending that there is or is not a chronicled history of such efforts), Lemonade’s off-the-cuff July 14 experiment gave me some fresh perspective on the ways we process, enjoy, and dissect food and music.
When we cook a meal, we transform the properties of once-living flesh or vegetable matter to ready them for consumption, rendering them palatable to our tastes and (hopefully) acceptable to our digestive systems. When it hits the table, food is for the most part appraised and enjoyed via four of the five senses: taste (naturally), smell (not far removed), sight, and touch. We may, at times, like hearing the food we’re eating — a bowl of Rice Krispies, shards of papadum, meat sputtering on the grill, even the crackling overture of a super burrito shedding its silver foil skin — but that sense is, at least for me, not necessarily crucial to pleasurable, or at least engaged eating, the sort of experience capable of triggering memories and emotions. Does food that tastes good often sound good as well? Carpaccio hacked up through mounds of compression and some slithery echo might not sound as lovely as it will taste. Then again, drop a few hushpuppies in a vat of bubbling oil, hold your nose, close your eyes (don’t do this before you get within spitting distance of the pot), and tell me that doesn’t sound as if it won’t deliciously call forth a crashing wave of delirious nostalgia for river-side catfish feeds of days long past and so on.
Whether or not the by-product of Lemonade’s music-making was particularly yummy, it’s exciting and new to hear food, and only hear it, though the video does obviously visually link the band’s process to their final product, a song. Using a cheap microphone and proletariate software, the band documents the pressing of garlic, the popping of a cava bottle, eggs boiling, olive oil sprayed from a can, and, goofily, the open-palmed slapping of a fish, harnessing typical supper-time noises and manipulating them (along with samples from a steel drum platter and some pre-prepared synths) in an improvised recipe for an organic musical composition: “Fish Clap,” an uptempo, dish-rattling instrumental ditty, cartoonish, effervescent swirls of kitchen activity in 4/4 with a whiff of the kind of mixer-chewing mayhem Black Dice usually employs to more unsettling ends.
In case the descriptives peppering this tract haven’t made it quite clear, the sorts of words critics frequently abuse in reviewing music often work with regard to food and drink too. A mad dash through a few recent Pitchfork reviews reveals that beats, melodies, riffs, tones, and vibes can be construed as fat, rubbery, foamy, gritty, and fluid, just like eats. In the end, writers trying to make sense of whatever creations they’ve elected to reflect upon have the same tools at their disposal, and there are naturally huge overlaps in the applications of their meanings. That doesn’t explain why so many restaurant reviews come off as just a touch less antiseptic than sanitation score reports written by a low-wattage Hemingway sitting down to his Royal portable typewriter after a trip to The Vapor Room.
Amid billowing black stove-staining clouds of digression, I suppose what I’m really coming to, here at the end of this roundabout stew-stirring, is another question, one stretching a bit beyond the scope of the original subject: if food, in the right hands, with the right software, can become music, can music, in a listener’s right frame of mind, feel, not literally, of course, but metaphorically, like food?
Certain sounds even evoke specific tastes for me. For example, the vibrato-drenched electric guitar commonly used in old-school surf music lends a silvery, watery quality to whatever it graces; hearing the effect makes me thirsty and apt to think about Coca-Cola in little glass bottles, frozen technicolor drinks churning away in glass-and-metal machines in gas stations, and Gatorade — sweet refreshments for slaking thirst and cooling down — as well as deuce coupes and suntan lotion. If sounds packed into songs have flavors, the end results can be dishes, some nourishing, some junky, some deceptively simple, and others triumphs of high art and affectation. To conclude, trying to avoid tunes with explicitly food-oriented lyrics (Sadly, no Dead Prez), because that’s really a whole other topic, I’ve selected, in Rob Gordon-esque fashion, my Top 5 Most Delicious-Sounding Tracks of All Time If They Were Actually Dishes, In A Meal:
1. “Can’t Come In” by The Congos off Heart of the Congos — A very small bowl of intense, almost overwhelming, practically hallucinogenic elixir broth made from about a thousand different tiny spiny slippery sea creature things deftly simmered, frantically stirred, and infused with a literal ton of Scotch bonnets.
2. “Small Hours” by John Martyn off One World — A cool little lemon-laced salad of sliced English cucumber and some sort of pickled fish, maybe herring.
3. “The Weight” by The Band off Music From Big Pink — An Arkansas-style poutine, with barbecue sauce substituted for brown gravy.
4. “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin off Led Zeppelin III — A luscious royal layer-cake, decadent, towering, frosted with ambrosia (for the gods, of course) and topped with icing in arena light hues.
5. “Turiya and Ramakrishna” by Alice Coltrane off Ptah The El Daoud — An endless cup of perfect espresso, covered in celestial mounds of spiced cream.