REVIEW

REVIEW

Ditto - In Human Terms

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By Phillipe Roberts

The algorithm - referred to almost universally in this ominously monolithic way, like a divine being or a mythical creature - giveth, but it mostly taketh away. Don’t look now, but gone are the halcyon days of a wild and unrestricted Internet, if that kind of pipe dream ever existed to begin with. Spend any appreciable time on your favorite music streaming service and you’ll begin to circle the drain. The same 20-30 artists in your suggestions, autoplay recommending you buzz bands you’d never dream of touching while simultaneously icing out your closest friends. A truly vicious gatekeeper with downright shady intentions and selective memory, the algorithm takes no prisoners in boiling us down to the sum of our clicks

But sometimes, waking up in the early morning delirium with your headphones still in, hours deep into a shadowy game of autoplay (anyone?), the algorithm gets it right. Sometimes, all that wonky, should-be-illegal data collection opens doors. Sometimes, it drops you into the inimitable world of Charles Ditto.

Aside from a few magazine reviews of his albums lovingly scanned and uploaded to his website, the work of Ditto has largely slipped by unnoticed. Passed around by synth aficionados and MIDI historians, his works seemed confined to academic obscurity, a late 80s curiosity collecting dust until late last year, when Youtube user “no obi, no insert” uploaded the album “In Human Terms” onto the site. And dastardly as that pesky algorithm may be, if you feed it a steady diet of strange ambient or foreign synth pop, it’ll have to start listening to you...eventually.

This is where Kasra Kurt and Ada Babar finally found the record, recently uploaded and lingering on “no obi”’s page. The two fell in love instantly. “I was surprised by how contemporary the album sounded,” Kasra says, “It has this nostalgic, post-romantic vibe that still somehow feels uplifting and sincere.”

They quickly looked for ways to contact Charles Ditto, and found a .edu email account - the synth master now teaches music at Texas State University. Ditto was keen to have the record re-released, giving Ada and Kasra free rein to “do whatever” with it through their cassette label, Nino Tomorrow. In giving it a physical form once again, they’ve brought a lost classic back right on time to catch the ambient pop resurgence.

Indeed, the most shocking feature of In Human Terms is how contemporary the sounds are, a phenomenon that Kasra credits to the album’s subtle rhythmic shifts and sparsely melodic character. On certain tracks, like the appropriately titled opener “Pop,” it’s easy to hear the album as a series of backing tracks to an ambient pop song from the likes of NNA Tapes favorites and synth weirdos Erica Eso or even Kasra’s band Palm–the soft polyrhythms gently undulate beneath blindingly bright synths, finding that perfect middle ground between meditation and exhilaration. “Rock” is another standout, with countermelodies weaving about each other in 5/4. The way they merge into a confused but propulsive mega-melody calls to mind a machine taking its first awkward steps, gradually picking up confidence.

The textures here do tend towards retro-futuristic, almost to the point of cheesiness. Invoking a bit of whimsy himself, Ditto’s website refers to the music as a form of alien life, “a curious music...discovered on a peculiar, but exotic MIDI-capable little planet.” It’s an apt expression, as the songs do seem to breathe with an convincingly organic character. “World Anthem” whirls and dances, gliding on synthesized voices that pulse in and out to close side one, which Ditto names the “High” side, like a wonky fanfare. Side two, “Low”, begins with a massive shift in “Prisoner Waltz,” whose elongated, breezy textures mingle with nature sounds for a cosmic brain massage. Like the best ambient music, In Human Terms works best when it works for the listener. True to the album title, tracks like “Christmas Before the War” seem to meet you exactly where you are, embracing you gently rather than flinging you into the deep end.

The “Low” side of the record is altogether more calming, dialing down the percussion while bringing in some guest instrumentation to keep your interest piqued. The saxophone on “Western” is a particularly nice addition; hearing it in duet against the icey keyboard textures is a real treat, so much so that when it returns only briefly on closer “Basso Contrato,” it sounds like a beautiful memory snatched up in the song’s tumbling post-rock rhythm.

In Human Terms is the work of a master machinist playing mimic–bending emerging technology to see just how close he can come to passing a musical Turing test. In a twist of irony, in failing to render a perfect copy, Ditto’s MIDI-capable machine universe sounds too human to ignore.


REVIEW

Ava Luna - Moon 2

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By Max Freedman

Somewhere along the way, one of the decade’s most overlooked bands decided to begin referring to itself as a group instead. Brooklyn’s Ava Luna—the five-piece art-pop outfit of multi-talents Carlos Hernandez, Felicia Douglass, Becca Kauffman, Julian Fader, and Ethan Bassford—reached this decision at some point while conceiving Moon 2, its fourth and most straightforward album to date.

With how many other projects its members are involved in, Ava Luna’s genesis of an album as unimposing as Moon 2 deserves special attention. Here’s a short but likely incomplete list of the members’ other work, because they just do that much: Kauffman is the performance artist and avant-pop figure Jennifer Vanilla; Douglass is in the electropop group Gemma and tours as part of Dirty Projectors; Hernandez and Fader are part of the band NADINE and together run the Brooklyn recording studio Gravesend Recordings, where Speedy Ortiz and Frankie Cosmos recorded their 2018 albums. Each project that the members are involved in informs the group’s songwriting in some way, and on Moon 2, the group sounds less worried than ever about preventing its other interests from entering the foray.

Moon 2 is Ava Luna’s tidiest attempt at cramming the members’ expansive breadth of influences into a 40-minute collection. Its consistency and coherence are unmatched by previous Ava Luna albums, and this quality welcomes new listeners with open arms. Take “Mine,” for instance. To longtime Ava Luna fans, the influence of Kauffman’s performance art background will be readily apparent within the song’s first minute, but to newcomers, “Mine” is a deeply groovy and enticing pop song doused in a deep, blue flame. “Deli Run” is likewise as funky as it is plain fun, restricting Ava Luna’s notoriously thick basslines and shrieking guitar harmonics to guiding elements in a swerving pop jam. “Set It Off” assertively and sassily wags a finger via a classically offbeat vocal performance from Kauffman, and synthetic clatter that resembles a more tightly wound take on a handful of Electric Balloon/Infinite House-era Ava Luna highlights. The group’s trademarks remain apparent to the diehards, but never before have they been packaged so approachably.

Interestingly, where Ava Luna’s newly explicit group dynamic and focus on relatively unchallenging pop sounds and structures sometimes falter is on Hernandez’ songs. It’s his voice that appears most often across the Ava Luna catalogue, so fans have sometimes seen him as the group’s de facto front-person, but Moon 2 suggests that he truly has taken a backseat. “Accessible,” the surprising, auto-tuned opener, sounds like his brainchild (though Kauffman actually provides the Fernandez-esque vocals), but it dips too deep into the trendy pool of musical roboticism (and might actually be the album’s least accessible moment). “Leaf,” another Hernandez song, is aptly named; like a leaf, it’s pretty, but it’s motionless even when it’s colorful. None of this is to say that Hernandez has forgotten how to make great music–Ava Luna is, after all, a group. His charms appear in the aforementioned guitar harmonics on “Deli Run” and on the enticing whisper during the chorus of “Centerline,” a thrilling reminder of how special and flexible his voice is.

Hernandez really does recede to the background, though, and this often feels intentional; Moon 2 is dominated by Kauffman and Douglass’ voices more often than on any previous Ava Luna album. Never before has Ava Luna felt so deeply like a group versus a band, and the songs’ general smoothness (even at their most bizarre—here’s looking at you, “Set It Off”) is a fascinating emergence of this mindset. Moon 2 is this decade’s most overlooked group at its most communal–its collaborative and amiable nature inviting new ears in a way that an already deeply exciting outfit never quite has before.