One of the most exciting performers in the electronic music underground--his gig at last year's Pitchfork Music Festival set off a veritable frenzy--laptop composer Gregg Gillis is arguably as significant for his politics as he is for his unbelievably dense, incredibly enjoyable musical pastiches. And the 26-year-old biomedical engineer has topped himself on both fronts with his fourth album, recently issued a la Radiohead as a "pay-what-you-like" download and due for a physical release in late September on the Bloomington, Ill.-based Illegal Art label.
While Girl Talk's 2006 breakthrough "Night Ripper" pushed the envelope with some 200 samples of wide-ranging pop hits both familiar and obscure--none of them cleared through the now sadly familiar legal ordeal--"Feed the Animals" goes even further, combining some 300 bits and pieces of the musical universe ranging from Roy Orbison to Twisted Sister, the Beach Boys to Jay-Z, and Procul Harum to the Cool Kids employed to create 14 dizzying and intoxicating rollercoaster rides. In other words, Gillis has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging other artists to match his voracious creativity, and daring the industry to reconsider the oppressive standards that have throttled collage artists since a 1991 legal challenge by faded pop star Gilbert O'Sullivan rapper Biz Markie's career because he'd sampled a short and dissonant piano intro and re-employed it in a context where it was barely recognizable.
Fans avoid the term "mash up" for Gillis' creations because his artistry and imagination make simple mergers of two tunes pale in comparison, while detractors note that many conventional mash-ups make the original tracks hard to discern, while Gillis does the exact opposite: One of the joys of his music is picking out and identifying the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture. ("Can that really be Thin Lizzy percolating under 'Soulja Boy'?!") The effect is not unlike rapidly spinning the dials on four or five radios that are all playing at once--except that each receiver unfailing lands on just the right section of a killer tune, and they all match up in perfect but unexpected ways every time.
If you think that isn't art, or that it should be illegal, well, go try it yourself and see how you fare. Meanwhile, I'll be spinning "Feed the Animals" all summer long.