Herb Sundays 37: Sasha Frere-Jones
The New York writer and musician sketches out a melancholic but springy mixtape, full of detail.
Herb Sundays 37: Sasha Frere-Jones
Sasha Frere-Jones has made a career out of taking music from micro to macro and back down into detail, writing for places like The Village Voice, Bookforum, Artforum, 4Columns, Observer and The New York Times. He was on the staff of The New Yorker from 2004 to 2015 and still contributes. His Substack is a curiosity cabinet worth your time.
As a musician, the work I am most familiar with is his is Ui, a band I revisited in writing this (and who we will def be adding to our Ghostly Post-Rock playlist next update). A bridge between NYC punk-funk and post-rock, you can trace a lot of SFJ’s taste in this groovespace. In fact, you can see the Other Music sticker on the Ui album cover in your mind. I first remember his writing in feeling validated by his Timbaland and The Neptunes piece from 2004, and seeing someone who could connect the dots.
The hack/herb in me can’t help but help but look for the genius code in him along with his brother Tobias Frere-Jones, the typeface designer whose fonts were our weapons of choice for early Ghostly (Interstate and Gotham, in particular) for their stateliness AND American-ness until we asked Cina to cut one for us. I am probably 42 Herb Sundays away from asking TFJ for a mix, but back to the FJ at hand.
The other trope I’ll allow is looking for the musicians’ casualness/coolness in his work. Like some of his musical subjects, SFJ has also courted controversy over the years and became a celeb of sorts, an Obama-era coastal elite baddie. You could find him haunting Charlie Rose’s table looking like an ENO acolyte or a Billy Zane for the Abel Ferrara set. But he always delivered the goods.
In response to my request:
o hell yes
I am a total herb so it works
<blue heart emoji>
I’m not an SFJ historian, in the way I am for say, Simon Reynolds (Herb Sundays 32) (not me stalking dusty lecture halls) with whom he shares column space often, but I’ve always admired the lower case p panache with which he writes and how he zeroes in on the right thing quickly. I asked Sasha to contribute because he is also a playlist believer and maker, and his photography (quick color-punched-up close-ups of light/detritus/smudges) lends itself particularly well to the tiny square cover format.
This year alone SFJ has covered two stained-glass level Herb icons, Dilla and Arthur Russell. I’m working my way through Dan Charnas’ excellent Dilla Time book as we speak (I’m coming for you DC, buckle up), but perhaps my favorite sentence to summate Dilla’s production work belongs to SFJ (for now):
One Dilla production from 1995 illustrates how intense these small changes can feel. The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’ ” has a kick pattern that takes twenty bars to unfold before looping again. It doesn’t sound precisely like live music, but we sense the programmer and hear the joy in his decisions.
In SFJVille there’s not a fetishism of perfection or virtuosity, it’s about the feel and artists are lauded for their wonky form (or lack of it). The texture is big for him, like in the photos he takes. Nonsense is sense and feeling is paramount, the narcotic rush of music is the juice. When Daft Punk broke up one of the best bits I read was his:
The second best thing that happened to me in 2001 was spending an hour with Destiny’s Child in the basement of the Civic Centre in Peoria, Illinois. The best thing was driving to that arena in a rental car, doing 80 MPH on this flat earth and listening to Daft Punk’s Discovery for the first time. All of that land speed record fury road hogwash came true as I melted in their slipstream. The engine of Discovery moves like techno, but the frame is made of soul and disco samples from the Seventies. The singing is another thing altogether, filtered and transformed into mechanical birdsong, low on meaning and high on sentiment. With the Chrysler PT Cruiser’s built-in CD player working at its limits, I rode eternal with Daft Punk, shiny and chrome.
and then he deconstructs the band (a piece of cake)…
What they compile is an impeccable mille-feuille. The electric sugar of old soul and disco records forms the first layer, over which they stack deft keyboard melodies and electronically filtered singing. (Find the ‘Daft Punk Medley’, a brief piano rendition by Chilly Gonzalez, and you’ll hear how durable their themes are.) The third stratum is a family-friendly nostalgia, more Star Wars than Blade Runner. There is very little sex in Daft Punk’s world, no violence, and no explicitly stated politics. We are always returning, never arriving.
Herb 37, Sasha’s playlist, is a “wife guy” mix, maybe our first.
I tried to duplicate the experience of listening to music with me and my wife on a Sunday morning. Instead of having Heidi's input, I had to predict her responses. I started with Broadcast and let it shuffle, then did the same with Vegyn and then Gooooose. Whatever we "both" disliked got booted, so you can't see the deleted tunes! But maybe you can sense their absence.
His playlist favors the micro: Recent Trilogy Tapes signee Geo Rip, weightless bass stoicism from Forest Drive West, slept-on genius Kelman Duran, soother Tristan Arp and Sasha’s Big Crush Moses Sumney. The outro comes courtesy of my friend M. Sage and flows into Nala Sinephro’s astral micro-jazz. It’s all gravy. All aboard couch cushion cruiselines.