In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in celebration of the new Black Keys record, our favorite songs by duos.
Between the eras of “college rock” and “indie rock,” “post-rock” was the genre junk drawer where bands that didn’t fit easy definition were dumped to be sorted out later. So when British critic Simon Reynolds celebrated Bowery Electric in 1995 as the vanguard of “distinctively American post-rock,” he may as well have crowned the New York band the “progenitor of marshmallow-wave.” After all, it’s hard to stand out in a genre so vaguely defined that it could encompass everything from the orchestral drones of Stars Of The Lid to the prog-jazz of Tortoise to the space-age lounge of Stereolab.
And yet, the duo of Lawrence Chandler and Martha Schwendener also didn’t make categorization any easier. Having met while working at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, they trafficked in a similarly of-the-moment, collagist approach to music, dabbling in several trendy musical styles across three markedly different albums. With 1995’s Bowery Electric, it was murky shoegaze, heavily indebted to British artists like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Seefeel. By the time their career ended with the release of 2000’s Lushlife, it was glossy trip-hop. But in between, they found an ideal balance with 1996’s Beat, a record that fused their hazy guitars to hip-hop beats in a perfect amalgamation of everything they were and would be.
Beat’s standout single, “Fear Of Flying,” owes an obvious debt to MBV’s Kevin Shields in its layers of shimmering, cirrus-cloud distortion and blissed-out, barely discernible vocals. (You could probably slot it next to “Soon” on Loveless, and no one would notice.) But the remarkable thing about it—and the thing that actually made Bowery Electric unique, even in an era where that was increasingly impossible—was that its epic sound was achieved without making similar stacks of Marshall amps. In the production of Beat, Bowery Electric became one of the first “rock” bands to incorporate samplers and laptops into its setup, using them to loop, redouble, and warp its various tones into rolling swells, then layer it all over crisp trip-hop beats and deep-space dub bass. A year later, Bowery Electric released the remix album Vertigo, becoming one of the first bands to submit to the now-commonplace practice of letting electronic producers tinker with their songs.
Of course, that embrace of technology would soon become as commonplace as the overstuffed pedal boards Bowery Electric’s forebears had used. And soon enough, the duo would willingly lose itself in the indistinguishable blur of “chill-out” that soon joined “post-rock” in the musical miscellany. But for one perfect Beat, two people made a sound too monumental to forget.