Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ten Songs 5

The recent transmission interrupt has been precipitated by moving back to university, with the subsequent time-drain of having to, y'know, go to seminars and such. That and trying to spend as much time as possible working on what I consider worthwhile projects, on which this blog is a millstone-round-the-neck-shaped time-drain. Moreover, listening to music has become increasingly unrewarding: I've had, for the last few weeks, little real desire to listen to music, except to ward off silence whilst working. Even the most serotonin-charged pop makes little dent in the pretty much constant low-level anxiety, anger and melancholy that makes up my one default mood. For the moment then, expect posting to be decidedly intermittent; 'Ten Songs' will remain a regular feature, but only fortnightly, weekly posting being simply unfeasible.

1. Anne Briggs - 'Lowlands' (from A Collection (Topic))

Nothing but a voice. The debate about the framing of folk-music in the 1950s-60s, in which the likes of Pete Seeger claimed that the guitar (esp. not - heavens forbid - the electric!) was a new-fangled imposition on the untainted voice of das Volk, missed the crucial point. The strangeness of the a capella recordings that make up the majority of this compilation of Briggs' records for Topic is that they sound as if issuing from no cultural origin, the breath of a single human body articulating plaintively phrased dramas of bone, blood and betrayal - an inheritance that hits us with unfamiliar familiarity of the unheimlich. The song itself crystallises something at once inexplicable and ineradicable, its images lingering on the mind's eye like a half-developed photograph: it recounts a dream in which the narrator sees her lover, drowned overseas, emerging to sight, "green and wet, with weeds so cold"; as each syllable emerges, in a voice as pure, silvery and textured as birch-bark, locked into a repeating trickle of sound, peaking on each cycle through the chorus, it seems closest to the hopeless ebb and wash of the sea. It pulls us back.

2. Evangelista - 'You Are A Jaguar' (from Prince of Truth (Constellation))

I've got a review of the whole album in the university newspaper this week, but this deserves attention on its own - the noise-lashed vortex at its centre, a boiling meeting of angular vectors. The record was constructed using Pro-Tools after sessions during which Carla Bozulich was mostly laid up with pneumonia, creating, in this case, a collage of explosive drums from Xiu Xiu's Ches Smith, Nels Cline lending the same noise kick he added to Wilco's last few records (and then some), and Bozulich auto-combusting in the middle, dipping from strangled whispers to the tipping point of a scream. The cover art says most of it: woman, Baphomet, a red landscape out of Graham Sutherland between. Cracking.

3. Otis Redding - 'Try A Little Tenderness' (from The Very Best of... (Elektra))

There are always complications. Following 'Respect' - the most virile and stomping of openers, but inevitably coming across in bad taste, compared to Aretha Franklin's inspired appropriation two years later - is this most ambivalent and low-key of numbers, a song that hardly even be said to peak when it does, opening with woozy horns that cede to almost nothing, haunted by Al Jackson Jr.'s rimshots, and flutters of organ, guitar and sax like the brushings of a moth-wing. The field is left open for a voice broken and resigned, but tweaking each thought into an upward flight as the chorus (which is also barely a chorus at first) hoves into view, the prospect of healing the gap between ourselves - "But when she gets weary/Try a little tenderness" - not even for himself, for whom hope long ago receded, but for all others. As the song builds, the horns punching away beneath the now-thumping drums, he demands we rebuild a life in its integrity of blood and nerve-endings: "Squeeze her/Don't tease her/Never leave her", breaking down into glossolalia. You can hear why it was this song that so deeply connected with the audience at the Monterey Pop festival in '67 - Redding going into strutting paroxysms on stage. "I've got to go, but I don't wanna go". Within months, he would be dead. "The soft words they are spoken so gentle/It makes it easier to bear".

4. Alan Wilkinson/John Edwards/Steve Noble - 'Spellbound' (from Live At Cafe Oto (Bo'Weavil))

The duo of Wilkinson and Noble (Edwards having dropped out due to 'family issues') was one of my highlights of the Colour Out of Space weekend, sending me straight back to the records - no bad thing in this instance, the trio having never put a foot wrong on wax. What they do is, in a sense, completely ordinary - straightahead free jazz powered by the vocabulary of serrated screeches and bang-on-a-can percussion that's belonged to the genre for more than 30 years - but the native, punk-raw excitement they import into the form, the adrenaline delight in forward drive, the perfection with which the parts mesh, the flabless purity and absolute materiality of their sound, makes it absolutely irresistible. The 30-minute-plus main chunk of this live set starts with the buzz-saw of Wilkinson's alto - the sax equivalent to Steve Albini's guitar technique - slashing through the crowd-noise, quickly joined by the sinewy black bedrock of Edwards' bass, Noble's tumble of snare and smashed hi-hat pulling us down into the maelstrom. And although it lacks Wilkinson's decidedly, uh, 'unique' (not really) vocal improvisations, the almost telepathic suppleness with which they collectively stretch and warp the basic material into new shapes, switching one moment from gurgling backdrafts of squeal and shuffling clatter, groaning scrapes of bass, to rocket-propelled flights into the ether, make this a fine contender for my songs of the year. Listen to it burn.

5. The Specials - 'Nite Klub'/'Ghost Town' (from Singles (2-Tone))

Two contrasting notes from the sharp ends of a short career, but both concerned with the same thing. Which is a problem: The Specials are seen not as the white-hot heart of 2-Tone's pop explosion, but as an 'issue band', addressing 'social problems', a case for Arts Council funding. Witness the persistent use of 'Ghost Town' on documentaries about the Brixton riots, as if the band were capable of anything so crudely direct. Raymond Williams' theory about history's presence in texts - that the form and texture of a work is directly related to the historical formations of which it is a part - applies to records too: the very smell and feel of Coventry's first years under Thatcherism pervade the songs. 'Nite Klub' pulses with sick energy, Terry Hall's exaggeratedly flat white-boy vocals straining against the fidelity, the ironically gospel-ish backing chorus and cheap organ driving it on, the opening club chatter ("We got busted!") versioning Roxy Music's 'Remake/Remodel' for less salubrious environs, a hedonism deprived of glamour and the benefits of pleasure: "I can't dance in a club like this/The girls are all slags, and the beer tastes just like piss." 'Ghost Town' is the same dancefloor after the destruction of Coventry's industrial base, dust and shadows filling its seedy corners. The city had been, during the boom years of beat-pop, the country's centre for bicycle and car manufacture - Britain's motown, with The Specials as Coventry's Cybotron. A slowed-down skank emerges from what sounds like police sirens, Jerry Dammers' organ and the horns stalking the beat as Neville Staples' vocal introduces the violence - "Too much fighting on the dancefloor" - that announces the carny screech of the chorus. Hall can briefly remember, to the sound of overbright trumpet - closer to the radiophonic synths that accompanied the "psychedelic daymares of More Specials" (Neil Kulkarni) - the "good old days before the ghost town", before being plunged back into the trauma. The dub echoes that pile up on Rico Rodriguez' trombone solo only add to the sense of being trapped in the spectral after-image of a city, punctuated only by boiling violence - "Why must the youth fight against themselves?" - the wind howling down the streets announcing the police sirens that were even then filling Toxteth and Brixton. The single, its 7" cover adorned with skeletons at desultory leisure, also including 'Why?' and 'Friday Night and Saturday Morning', was the perfect, final expression of a world burnt out into shadows: the total impasse, the dead end, the cycle of traumatic behaviour. There was nowhere to go from here - New Pop, in all its ambivalence, would be just around the corner.

6. Brian Eno - 'King's Lead Hat' (from Before and After Science (Virgin))

One of the strangest points in a career full of anomalies - the only contribution Eno made to the post-punk sound under his own name (as opposed to his production on Bowie's Berlin records, Remain in Light, etc.), and a total contrast to the becalmed mirror-sea plateau of the second side of this record (the last song-based one before the beginning of Eno's Ambient series with Music For Airports). It is, indeed, a tribute to David Byrne's band, and is hence suitably slippery and twitchy: a churn of _ guitars and whipcrack snares girded by queasy, grating synths, random bar-stool piano like a rain of nails from a window. Eno's spluttering, anxious vocals are strange when teamed with the anagrammic wordplay of the lyrics, which so obviously betray their origins in word-games and free-association, an absurdity that seems more than appropriate given the sample of Kurt Schwitters earlier in the album, but also makes for a delightful chorus: "King's lead hat puts the poker in the fire/It will come it will come it will surely come!"

7. Pens - Hey Friend! What You Doing (De Stijl)

The whole of the debut record by this all-girl London trio - 14 songs in 28 minutes - is in fact shorter than the Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble track listed above. This is, lest we forget, A Good Thing - not because it's illegitimate for a song to go over 2 minutes, but because their Huggy Bear-inflected noise-pop becomes so much more awesomely pure and concentrated as a result. De Stijl releases mostly noise records, and you can see why they were involved in releasing this: thuds, rumbles and blasts of shredded guitar whirl in fragments, treble amped to speaker-bleed, behind vocals that recall the young Viv Albertine (in all her glory) shouting down a wind tunnel. I was caught by my neighbours dancing in my front-room bedroom to this record, and remain unrepentant.

8. Yin Carrizo - '20 de Enero en Ocu' (from Panama! 3 (Sound-Way))

Of course, nostalgia reissue culture should = NO, but it's impossible to be mad when the results are just this good. And in any case, it's not as if Panama was ever part of the accepted history of Western music - like Sound-Way's excellent compilations of West African music, this material has the unmistakable scent of freshness and lurid novelty, steamy funk bent sideways by the rich seams of native Panamanian music. Although I might have picked any of the 23 tracks on this album (or anything off the previous two volumes), but the cross-cut bounce of tipica percussion, rolling away between madly wailing accordions and the punctuation of Carrizo's hollers on this cumbia piece gets me every time. Like an entire house-party squashed into one closet.

9. Broadcast & The Focus Group - 'The Be Colony' (from ...Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp))

If it was inevitable - Broadcast's visual identity has been formed by the artwork of Ghost Box's Julian House for years, before the label's founding - there was no way of predicting how excellent this collaboration would turn to be. The 50-minute EP itself is best thought of as a hauntological Donuts, distorted fragments of song reappearing and swirling throughout like the spangle of light through decayed film, but this particular song is the most fully-realised - more purposeful, rich and well-structured than the often somewhat bitty Focus Group albums, devoid of the rawness that arguably robbed Tender Buttons of some of its spooky charge; a structure of samples that seems to swim and melt away as soon as the mind tries to grasp it, the central element of Trish Keenan's voice itself sounding as if extracted from some forgotten library record/folk soundtrack, cycling guitar chords and tootling ancient keyboards working around her refrain: "All circles vanish, all circles vanish..."

10. Elvis Costello and the Attractions - 'Gettin' Mighty Crowded' (b-side to 'High Fidelity' 7" (F-Beat))

One wonders a little about the logic behind this, the most overtly R&B-fuelled period of Costello's career, the attendant album (Get Happy!!!) released a year after referring to The Genius as "a blind old nigger". Like the music, hate the people - hmm. Nonetheless, this cover of Betty Everett's moan of resignation delivers the goods, amphetamine-boosting the tempo to 'Northern soul stomp', Steve Nieve's uncomplicatedly pumping organ and Pete Thomas' drums keeping up the pace, the smell of sweat, spit and sawdust fairly peeling off the multi-throated chorus. One for a wedding disco.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

'Britain's Motown, Specials its Cybotron'.

I must dissent here, as much as I love the Specials there is little machinic about them. Surely the options are either the similarly motor-centric Birmingham and Black Sabbath - right down to sheet-metal worker Tony Iommi's guitar-playing being the consequence of an industrial accident; or Sheffield and the Human League circa 'The Dignity of Labour', although a steel city is a more 19th century ambition than a motor city, they are surely twin cities in techno.

Aside from this quibbling, it's lovely to have you back sir!

November 19, 2009 at 4:26 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I think I was more or less drunk with sleep/just drunk when I wrote that entry. Also, I have a reflex need to big up Coventry, hence hyperbole/inaccuracy. 'Ghost Town' is certainly as paranoid and neurasthenic as early Human League or the more melancholy strains of Detroit techno, but you're right, it's not very machinic.

Coventry was, however, one of the regional centres for acid house/rave, as is attested to by Russell Haswell...

November 20, 2009 at 12:32 AM  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Delia Derbyshire was from Coventry, which certainly supports your argument...

November 23, 2009 at 1:38 PM  

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