Big Data isn’t so much a band as a concept. A concept built around the technology we’ve developed closing in on us. There’s the good that instant access to information can give us, but of course there’s the downside – the isolation, the lack of physical interaction, and so on. The “band”, at least on record, is the brainchild of Alan Wilkis. This bespectacled, bearded one man show has crafted one of this year’s finest and most interesting albums. At a quick listen, these are electronic pop songs, possibly love songs with great harmonies. At a closer listen, you will find that the songs are all about the present age of man co-existing with technology, mutually using each other. This paranoid edge makes for dialogue about where we are heading as a human race. On the album, each song is crafted around a guest vocalist. In concert, however, Alan takes on the vocal duties himself, shared with Liz Ryan. They switch and harmonize where necessary. I was lucky enough to witness the band this past Saturday here in Columbus as part of the “CD102.5 Day Side A” concert. While I would expect Alan to be the subdued behind-the-keyboards guy, he is far from that, spastically getting into the rhythm in a way that reminded me of David Byrne of the Talking Heads. He also had a full band to fill out the electronics, yet the songs sounded like the album, but with a bit more “oomph”. With the exception of I think only one track, the band blasted through all of these songs from the new album with enthusiasm. They even included a fitting cover of Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes”. Bonus points!
But back to the album. 2.0. Why 2.0? Well, there was a digital EP called 1.0. then the remix EPs were called 1.5 and 1.6. So now the album is 2.0. Rather than a cover picture, we have a seemingly broken image that didn’t load. Except with Wilkins’ face partially visible in the image. The album starts out with a burst of distorted drums and keyboards hard enough to send fists in the air, followed by the sweet vocals of White Sea. Having seen the show, I am fairly certain that Alan Wilkis is doing the duetting and harmonizing here. The track is insanely catchy and has been on constant play since it was pre-released late last year as a single. The inspiration for the song came from what’s known as the Facebook Mood Experiments, where allegedly, Facebook changed select members’ wall pages to reflect only negatively or positively worded posts and were unwittingly studied. Even though the song is deceptively all sweet and happy sounding. Track two is Big Data’s first single that arrived in late 2013 and on the EP 1.0, “Dangerous”. This one seems to be about the dangers of the internet and privacy in general. The video is one of the most clever, if not gruesome, in recent history. I’ve included it below. It’s a look at how competitive and emotionally invasive advertising has become. The track is flat out irresistible. Again, as I always say… handclaps make everything just a little bit better. Though the song was already infectious. The vocals were provided by the lead vocalist of the up and coming band Joywave, who I am quickly becoming a fan of in their own right.
The third track is here is another heavy hitter, “Clean” featuring vocalist Jamie Lidell. I really need to hear more of this guy. He has a unique gritty quality to his voice. The music and beat make this one of the album’s strongest and most energetic tracks. The lyrics, according to Alan, are about a subject who is “Catfished”, but slowly becomes the Catfisher. Then we have the extraordinary Kimbra on vocals for the next track, “The Glow”. This one hasn’t been explained yet, but the lyrics allude to some sort of temptation to a “boy” – maybe porn? Maybe illegal file-sharing? With the line “child I’m gonna keep you safe”, maybe Kimbra is the voice of false security? A firewall perhaps? Otherwise this track is pure Kimbra. Her personality shines through and makes this her own, while still being a collaboration.
“Snowed In” follows, with vocals by none other than Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Alan said himself on his Facebook face that the song “is inspired by Edward Snowden, who famously and controversially leaked classified information about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the media. We envisioned the character in the song as if speaking from the perspective of the NSA, alternating between his own internal monologue and public statements to the media, assuring his audience (and perhaps, himself) that everything will be ok.” The track itself has a different kind of bouncy beat sort of similar to Pet Shop Boys’ “Love, Etc.” (a favorite of mine). In concert, the vocals by Alan were supplemented by the stuttered vocal sample quite seamlessly. This was my least favorite of the preview tracks originally, but it has crept up on me and now I love it. The next track, “Big Dater” (yes, a play on words there), is the other surviving track from 1.0. This one sums up online dating, online relationships, and anything of that nature that avoids the physical contact side of things. Musically, it’s a strong track with a sludgy beat stuttered with bleeps, blips, and a modem.
“Automatic” is next, with vocals from Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak. This one’s a bit slower, and I think the lyrics may be alluding to artificial intelligence much like the movie Surrogates, envisioning a future where we control virtual physical selves. At least that’s my interpretation. The slower burn of this track then leads to the more in-your-face approach of “Get Me Some Freedom”. This is the most rock and roll track on the album, with an almost glam swagger. Vocals excellently delivered by Dragonette on this one. Alan described this one on Facebook. “For this song, we envisioned the tech giant as the tyrannical dictator, offering the freedom that technology supposedly affords to his people as a means to control and enslave them.” That explains the marching pace to the song that reminds me slightly of Muse’s “Uprising” in its pace.
“Sick For Me”, featuring vocal work from the band Bear Hands, seems to be about addiction to internet porn, or maybe more vaguely the addiction to the forbidden things the internet holds, in which the user becomes sick from withdrawal much like a heroin addict would. This one has a bit more manic new wave feel to it and was one of the highlights of the live show. Then lastly “Perfect Holiday” featuring up-and-coming vocalist Twin Shadow is a fitting endcap to the album. The point of this one seems to be that the only possible real vacation these days is unplugging. I love the vocals on this one and definitely need to hear Twin Shadow’s album that also just came out.
2.0 does such a great job of straddling a line between enjoyable alternative pop music, and being a far deeper conceptual art installation. But then, great art inspires thought and conversations. That’s something to aspire to. But on song construction alone, Alan and everyone involved in Big Data have put together something collaborative and yet cohesive. This doesn’t feel like a multiple artist compilation. It’s more like how Alan Parsons Project went about constructing an album, except dancier and far more energetic. And way better electronics. And the “Eye in the Sky” this time is very real.
Check out some videos, clips, etc from 2.0:
“The Business of Emotion”:
and a live performance of “The Business of Emotion”: