Friday, August 21, 2009

Ten Songs No. 3

In case you haven't guessed by now, this is a weekly feature. A kind of personal Top 10 for the week, although the ranking doesn't necessarily imply relative value judgements.

1. Sunn 0))) - 'Alice' (from Monoliths And Dimensions)

"A gentle collapsing" - Talking Heads, 'The Overload'

2. Robyn - 'With Every Heartbeat' (live at The Wiltern, Los Angeles, from Robyn Live In LA)

Before you ask: yes, I am the archetypal sad bachelor - threadbare dressing gown, glass of whisky, thick glasses, the cat sleeping on yesterday's newspaper beside me, getting vicarious pleasure out of the young, successful and glamourous, whilst pretending to be a pop-culture connoiseur. So, on Thursday evening I was watching this live recording of Robyn on VH1. Her live set-up was excellent: basically The Moritz von Oswald Trio, but better, her tiny frame squashed into a black bodysuit beneath a black cloak, set against that slash of peroxide hair, kohl-black eyes set in delicate Swedish skin (OK, that just sounds creepy...) And this was the penultimate song before the encore. And and and and... and I maintain that this song is to the latter half of the 00s what 'Can't Get You Out of My Head' is to the first half. It may well be what this decade is remembered for. She's stood at the mike, centre-stage, and that kick pattern starts, and after a minute, two minutes maybe, the arpeggios start layering. The syllables, breath and colour plastered between the breaks in the beats, an incantation with the twinge of fragility tugging in the vocalese stretchings of each word, that you can see her straining to make ("We can make it bet-ter some tiiiiii-ime", and you know that time will never come), its humanity articulated in the first-love thud of synthetic percussion (one of her besuited backers came up behind her and started playing what may as well have been Linn syn-drums, bringing to mind some other culprits we know). And then, the moment that everything drops out, and the clear sky fills with the technicolour contrails of disco-strings, shamelessly and acrobatically dipping and swelling, and the vocal comes back between showers of synth: "And - it - hurts - with - ev-e-ry - heart-beat", Robyn hands-on-chest pumping in time as the kick comes back in, and and and and and and. And life, for 5 minutes, will never cease, and the light will never go out.

3. Mike Westbrook Concert Band - 'Marching Song' (from Marching Song Vol. 1 & 2)

You don't need me to tell you.

4. Beyonce - 'Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)' (from I Am... Sasha Fierce)

This is what I miss out on by not listening to the radio. More fool me. Talk about auto-theorising pop: the video shows Ms. Knowles engaging in dance-moves more cyborgian, more body-negating, than anyone since Grace Jones; the bizarre electronic gauntlet-thing she's wearing by the end of it - which, according to Zone Styx Travelcard is, in a marvellous piece of circuitous (ha!) coincidence, a homage to Michael Jackson before-the-fact - I at first mistook as a robot arm. (The video for the last single, 'Sweet Dreams', pulls in (unconscious?) references to Metropolis and Helmut Newton. I mean, really...) Rather like the last 50 Cent song I heard (yes, I am that far behind things), the production is light year's ahead of the sentiment (I'm unsurprised to find that the same team was responsible for Rihanna's 'Umbrella'): electro's arcade-game myth-science telescoped into the 21C., a hail of bleeps over relentlessly staccato clicks, the chorus joined by what sounds like a cyborg crunking. Needless to say, I've got it on repeat right this second.

5. Gowns - 'Mercy Springs' (from Red State)

After being reminded by a facebook status by F. the other day, I listened to Red State on the way to Brownsea Island. It was chilly as we started crossing Poole Harbour, but the sun picked up as we came in. There were cormorants perched on harbour markers and the rocks by the east end of the island, spreading their wings to look like revenants from prehistory. And, long after the blurred illumination of 'White Like Heaven', this springs into ear-view with pitch-black oscillator rumbles and the half-heard voices for four minutes. The bad-trip atmosphere turns deadly, slashing guitar and drums exploding from the swamp, ending with a coda of electromagnetic ghost-voices that sound like a premature end: "Take all shine out of me".

6. The xx - 'Crystallised' (from xx)

I approach this with caution because, in case you didn't already know, this kind of subtlety often passes me by. Mild dyspraxia (and hence autistic-spectrum status) and years of isolation during that period when you're supposed to, uh, 'grow up' mean that I'm mostly emotionally illiterate when it comes to pop. If it doesn't have loud or weird noises, my attention begins to drift. Hence why I so much admire the likes of Lauren Strain or Petra Davis, who's written on the group, who are able to articulate shades and colour where avant-blockheads like me see monolithic black, or whatever. So sue me if the first thing I thought when I heard this was: Young Marble Giants. That is, if they had grown up on post-Timbaland R&B. There's such a quiet pull to the song, even down to the way they use samples of minimal, ticking percussion instead of real drums. As with YMG, it's almost as if they're challenging us to think them dull - slightly more self-conscious than YMG's quality of sounding like an overheard private conversation; there's a slithering obliquity to it that suggests emotional states more complex, more interstitial than their voices suggest, complicated again by the understated confidence of the backing, its layers perfectly pleated together - a world where everything hovers on the brink of resolution. "Go-o-o slow."

7. Pulp - 'Babies' (from Intro)

Alternative blogosphere orthodoxy states this is one of the ones you're not supposed to like - too indie-ish, no acid/techno influence (although the bloops dotting the track like paint-flecks on a Jackson Pollock canvas, and the rising white-light synth on the chorus and the ends of the verses owes some allegiance). But I can't say that I care: this is one of those perfect moments of pop alchemy when everything falls into place just so, the push-and-pull of sex so perfectly mapped by Cocker's lyrics (and not just the lyrics, even down to the meaningless "My God!", "Alright!" and "Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!"), the obsessive interest, the power of teenage carnality balanced against the distance of retrospection (something that will crop up again in 'Disco 2000'), the stench of 70s interiors, the smallness and sordidness of it all against the melodrama of Cocker's delivery (cf. the ice-cold provincial cabaret lothario of 'Razzmatazz'). And all this buttressed by the interlocking architecture of the track, the bass propping up strata of electricity from Candida Doyle's synths (cf. Stereolab's 'Wow and Flutter'), the irresistible pull of that guitar...

8. Wolves In The Throne Room - 'Ahrimanic Trance' (from Black Cascade)

From the Pacific north-west's finest practitioners of ecological black metal, the point where their landslide noise becomes both most punishing and most ghostly. For the first half, the guitars deliver a relentless mid-range scree (they're remarkably robust for black-metallers - no under-nourished Norwegian lo-fi screech for them), Nathan Weaver's contorted screech sounding like a man emptying out his organs. Then, they stop, crack and buckle into a mist-filled ambient interlude, before rudely dropping you into an even more harsh environment. When that in turn tails out into an extended outro of spectral distortion, hi-hats picked out in the fog, closer to the breakdown of Sonic Youth's 'The Sprawl', you know you're in special territory.

9. De La Soul - 'Me Myself and I' (from 3 Feet High and Rising)

The lapses into naivety ('Tread Water', schoolyard tales like 'Jenifa Taught Me') are more than excused by the wonderful concatenations of samples, the bouncing, overbright architectures of the backings, the primal joy in wordplay, the absurdist pleasure of the between-song skits (you can really tell how young they were when this was recorded). Particularly, here, it's the squiggling earworm of a synth and the cut-up 'ahahahahahaaaaa' on the chorus, essentially breeding wonky 20 years before the fact, creating everything gangsta should have been (note the p-funk/Ohio Players quality of the synths, later re-deployed on Dr. Dre's first solo productions), already passing the mid-80s future the mid-90s boom-bap revivalists wanted to preserve.

10. Robert Wyatt - 'N.I.O. (New Information Order)' (from Dondestan (Revisited))

I'm still not sure I agree with Jon Dale about Robert Wyatt's 'solo solo' records. They feel curious in comparison to the group works: more 'serious', slightly austere, in some cases ('Worship') oblique to the point of attention-drift on my part; there's a bare, what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality to them. (Am I wrong in attributing this to the post-punk effect - demystification, the interrogation of the audience-performer, the flat absurdism of Art & Language? It was certainly in the air when Wyatt recorded the singles that made up Nothing Can Stop Us, and the ex-punks recognised Wyatt as one of their own...) Rock Bottom and Shleep - even the at-times-terrifying Comicopera - still feel more comforting, more profound. Nonetheless, there's something very poignant about the jaundiced sarcasm of this song, not least because of the delivery - the electronically-stretched "freeeeeee" in the middle, the sadness of his voice muted from the likes of 'Sea Song', over splashy cymbals and hovering organ, the bass a malevolent presence in the background. This morning, as I was walking by the sea-front, there was a wargames demonstration going on out in Poole Harbour, as part of the Bournemouth airshow, faux-marines skidding around in dinghies, larger ships looming further out, towards the site of the eventual surf-reef. It was perhaps the most absurd thing I've seen all summer, scarily banal. "Save a bomb on Union flags./Privatise/the sea/Privatise/the wind."


Blogger ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

To clarify, I should admit I've never seen any concrete references connecting the Sasha Fierce glove to MJ's, but I think if a major pop/r'n'b all-singing-all-dancing star wears a single glove it cannot help but be a nod to MJ.

An interesting synchronicity: Single Ladies' choreography is borrowed from a Bob Fosse routine, as you can see here:

This clip of another Fosse routine from The Little Prince shows how much MJ owed to him:

August 25, 2009 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Ah, how curious...

August 26, 2009 at 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Kenicky said...

I wonder what De La Soul were thinking when they actively decided to stop making good music after '3 Feet High & Rising'?

August 31, 2009 at 10:26 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, I dunno - 'De La Soul Is Dead' is a pretty damned intriguing album, certainly deeply underrated, and 'Buhloone Mindstate' has its little gems. In any case, they were the product of a conscious decision not to repeat themselves - not just to keep remaking '3 Feet High...' - and you've got to respect them for that.

September 1, 2009 at 2:44 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Hmm. I think it's precisely that those 'solo solo' records are NOT comforting that makes them so special. Unflinching is the word I always end up coming back to, though they're sometimes pretty funny, in a sarcastic way.

I'd completely forgotten about "Worship" from Dondestan --> "40 Words On Worship" from David Grubbs's The Thicket, too...

September 3, 2009 at 12:35 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

This is very true - there's something very bare and honest about 'Dondestan', wh/ lends a real power to its politics. I still think that I'll be listening to the group records ('Rock Bottom', 'Shleep', 'Cloudcuckooland', 'Ruth...') more often though...

September 3, 2009 at 2:52 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Yeah I can totally understand that position Dan, though I haven't listened to Rock Bottom for ages, and pull Old Rottenhat and Dondestan and Nothing Can Stop Us off the shelves pretty much every week. Which surprised me a bit when I realised it recently.

September 4, 2009 at 4:16 AM  
Blogger ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Agree with Dan that De La did plenty of good work after 3 Ft High (which I always think sounds a bit flimsy when I go back to it). Buhloone Mindstate is a really brave and intriguing record, Stakes is High also worth checking out, for title track alone, but also other bits of early Jay Dee production.

September 15, 2009 at 3:46 AM  
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