“My Pretty Lights CD Gets Better with Age”- Searching for Musical Longevity in the Aftermath of EDM

For this installment of our “In the Mix” series, we confront the breakneck pace of tastes and trends in the EDM world, and wonder if anyone can hold down an attachment or affinity for an artist or particular sound over any great length of time. I know my ears are always buzzing with new and different melodies every time I get home crashing from the club which will then keep me awake at night despite my best attempt “to be ready for work in the morning.”

After so many of these nights, I began to ask, “does any music hold weight against the ferocious current of the electronic music revolution” and ”are there artists in recent EDM bubble that withstand fleeting whims of collective taste?”

To find out, I did what any sensible reporter does when she has a question: ask everyone else what they think. So I created #whatmusiclasts and launched an extensive social media campaign looking for scenesters willing to offer testimony on behalf of any particular artist or record that’s held with them against the unrelenting tide of new sounds EDM has wrought on listeners.

I received mostly negative responses, replying to the impossible task of “listening to the same thing over and over again”. Of the affirmatives I scanned through, only one account was worth pursuing in any capacity for this story- a claim from one James McNulty of Cairo, New York, who said his Pretty Lights mix CD has not left the disc changer in 1998 Honda Civic in four years, not since burning the disc in early 2011.

“Even with only Pretty Lights, it’s the best mix CD I’ve ever made,” McNulty wrote in, “and that’s saying something, because mix CD’s are supposed to be diverse and this one is just Pretty Lights, haha. I’ve got sort of an opposite scenario with that CD to your questions from #whatmusiclasts, because it seems like this mix gets better with age.”

As a former Pretty Lights fan myself, (I’d been to a few shows in the early years) I could somewhat relate to McNulty’s sentiments, but was curious to know more about his coveted mix. I arranged to meet him for coffee at a cafe in his hometown in order to fully delve into the matter, asking, why Pretty Lights, and what’s the tracklist on this mix?

Lights CD

The only information James McNulty will not reveal about the mix during our cafe interview is the tracklist. He goes as far as identifying a few individual selections, (“Electro Cali”, “Finally Moving”, “Still Night”) but never their chronology-

“I can’t tell you the tracklist for my PL “best mix” because it’ll lose the specialness it has, and how in 2011 it struck me so suddenly how I’d mix it- what tracks to put on, and how make ‘em work together.”

I wonder if he feels this inspiration was divine, given the longevity of this single CD in his changer, but he shakes off my suppositions, offering a practical explanation-

“Before EDM, making a “best of mix” was a simple task,” he states blithely, “like what of an artist’s tunes are the best fill for the twenty tracks on a Memorex? But this was 2011, when EDM has become a thing apart from real music, and [EDM] producers don’t even have a CD’s worth of good tracks. That’s why I wrote in to say Pretty Lights is unique here, its #whatmusiclasts because in his back catalogue he’s got a whole album worth of shit worth listening to and that’s what I had the good sense to put together back in 2011 when I had the chance.”

A black Memorex re-writable analogous to that of James McNulty’s PL “Best Mix”

But what is the significance of 2011, and why has this mix stayed so hot for McNulty through the years while Derek Vincent Smith, the mind behind Pretty Lights, has since undertaken even more ambitious production endeavors: in 2013 critics heralded Color Map of the Sun as a groundbreaking record for the involved creative process whereby Smith slaved over studio sessions, recording original live instrumentals to vinyl and creating “samples” to mash with modular synth lines, effectively demonstrating his capacity as a “real” composer was not limited to sample collage and digital synthesis.

“I don’t care what critics say. There are no Pretty Lights bangers on Color Map of the Sun so this CD I burned before it dropped isn’t missing anything- the bangers are all here,” McNulty replies, drumming his fingers on the CD’s jewel case. “I made this right after “I Know the Truth” killed Bonaroo– so it’s certified, the best shit, and like a fine wine it’s aging well.”

I’m taken aback by the notion that any PL devotee could offer such a bleak, “meh”, review on an album that awed the critical community at large. What then constitutes a Pretty Lights “banger” as far as James McNulty is concerned, and why are his estimations of Color Map so different from celebrated critics?

“Look, I’m not trying to slander PL at all, like, he’s still my boy, but from the few Color Map reviews I read back then, the EDM jounrno’s were just happy to have a whole process to write about for once, like “Oh, Derek’s breaking the mold, he’s pushing electronic music into the future, he stopped biting samples from trip-hop legends”, etc. etc. I read all this and I’m like, ok, but did you guys even listen to the record? There’s no “Hot Like Sauce” on there, no “I Know the Truth”… sure, designing a production process is a big part of the production process, but what about the product in the end… what if the beats sound as mediocre as they did on Color Map… then you gotta call a spade a spade.”

I have to ask McNulty, with the known menace of the PLF (Pretty Lights Family) actively discouraging, and in some cases, threatening critical detractors to the Pretty Lights brand, has he ever feared persecution for his views?

“Not anymore because I won’t bitch on the internet anymore,” he said, “I did once and got death threats from PLF which just wasn’t worth it, because they all toe the party line in that “community”. Besides, I don’t need “likes” in a forum to let me know when I’m right. Nowadays I keep my comments to my circle, my boys. A lot of them disagree with me and think Color Map is god’s gift to Derek Vincent Smith, but none of them actually listen to it, while I’m still bumpin’ my “best mix” going on five years so you tell me who’s “right.”

Members of the PLF congregate for an event at Red Rocks Ampitheatre, 2012. (Source: Collegian.com)

I move for a wrap on our little conversation, asking if the physical CD is getting tarnished with age- that is, scratched up or losing sound quality? McNulty laughs at what he believes is a silly question.

“PL was never so much about “sound quality” back in the day. Before Color Map he made his name off that grimy, garage floor sound you get from biting hot breaks from other producers, original crook style. His shit was gutter, like Enter the 36 Chambers, or Lifestlyez of the Poor and Dangerous– any one of the early hip-hop classics really. So sure, my mix has lost fidelity and racked up the scratches after so many years but that only makes it sound better,” McNulty states, “a little skip or glitch shakes up these classics just enough to keep me hooked on ‘em.”

My apparent skepticism betrays me, as skipping CD’s were the bane of my childhood existence. I still remember pounding my brother after he ruined my Gorillaz album.

“You ever heard a barely intelligible version of “Total Fascination” in doubletime?” McNulty smugly inquires.

I assure him I have not.

“Ok then, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he says, sipping his coffee- EC.

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