[Self-released; Aug. 2019]
If the words “chillwave survivor” mean nothing to you, congratulations: You are neither a music critic nor a hardcore internet dweller. (This isn’t sarcasm: Seriously, congratulations.)
But those words do mean something to Yair Rubinstein, who, before he left Seattle for a literature PhD at Duke, scored some national looks as Big Spider’s Back in the ‘00s, at the crest of the microgenre that gave us Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Toro Y Moi, and then evaporated as mistily as it had descended.
In one way, chillwave was important as an example of an early internet-bred genre. In another, chillwave wasn’t anything at all, which somehow strengthens rather than weakens the first claim. The term was coined as a joke on the temporarily inescapable blog Hipster Runoff to poke at a trend in which moody bedroom loners bathed the eighties electro-pop of their youth in sleepy, faded beachy vibes, with medicated vocals and sluggish synths poking through endless fields of stoner reverb. The music sounded like new media dreaming of old media; writers grasped for metaphors about TV-VCRs with vertical hold and tracking issues. The term “glo-fi” was pleasantly bandied about, while “hypnagogic pop” failed to catch on, for obvious reasons.
No one could profess to make chillwave today (and no one ever did)—it was more a moment than a sound. But its scratchy-memory strain has persisted in indie music as our nostalgia wormholes deepen, and its afterimage lingers on Rubinstein’s new dance-music project, Ssoft, which, just to sow mild confusion, was also the title of a Big Spider’s Back record.
Air Maintenance consists of five pert, pliable house-derived tracks with nary a vocal or lo-fi affectation within earshot, yet it feels consistent with Rubinstein’s pop-based work. It’s melodic, emotive, and wistful, but a little ironic about it, in the chillwave spirit—one song is called “Update No One Knows I’m Dead,” the first word neutralizing the sincerity of the rest. On Bandcamp, the album is RIYL Aphex Twin and Karl Marx, because academics.
The Ssoft palette is clean and minimal, with drum machines finely stitching squishy acid-house basses to slightly melty synths in muted neon hues. The title track evokes a steelpan lost in a magic forest until a sneaky arpeggio slides in to show it the path. Synth pads float around like rain clouds over the fast, beveled basses of tracks like “Thanksgiving Acid.”
The grooves are straightforward but pulsating with activity, webbed with brief filter sweeps and ringing accents. The transitions are tight but understated; you might not leap up and dance, but you’ll at least shake your shoulders. Though kinetic, it’s all a little tender and introspective; the eighties-pop daydream “Hi-Tech Menswear,” in particular, is some kind of sad-eyed utopia. On this satisfying snack of an EP, Rubinstein advances beyond chillwave, but it still clings, as any nostalgia-based genre should.
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