Friday, November 20, 2009

Ten Songs 6

1. Lord Beginner - 'Mix Up Matrimony' (from London Is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (Honest Jons))

With the Windrush came joy, flooding the veins of an England dried-out and bomb-dusty, as the black-and-white photos accompanying this magnificent compilation attest, singers like Lord Kitchener, Young Tiger and, here, Lord Beginner, their dapper threads and nonchalant grins a-swim in an ocean of greyness. A before-the-fact spit in the face of the Enoch Powells of this world, this cheeky 78 from 1952 sees and embraces the new state of affairs, Beginner with a vocal so confident it should leaning on a bar, nursing a rum and coke, over a tangy swing of a rhythm: "Mixed marriage is the fashion, and the world is saying so/Lovers choose a partner of every kind that they know". He's not above a good dirty joke, as the piano rises (!) and taps all over the chorus: "The organs are always playing/And the preachers are saying:/Let's operate and amalgamate". (In this it presages other fruitful infusions over the next four decades: the Brotherhood of Breath, dancehall, London Posse and Brit-hop, garage. The future, in which "racial segregation go to hell", wouldn't come, but, in these grooves, we get the infusion all the best pop donates. "Life is short, so we mean to embrace".

2. Max Roach - 'Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace' (from We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid))

1960, and it's all breaking apart: anti-colonialism in African countries is succeeding, the conservative consensus is breaking down in America, and the civil rights movement is in full swing. On the front cover, beneath a banner headline, Max and two of his sidemen are being reluctantly served at the bar by a man whose white soda-fountain uniform pins him in the 1950s they, in their eminently sharp suits, are leaving behind. Their look at the camera is one of defiant insouciance: "And what do you want?" Well? Sandwiched between the tense jubilation of 'Freedom Day' and 'All Africa's incantatory celebration of black independence, this 'Triptych' squashes its sentiments into scat from Abbey Lincoln that anticipates the glass-shattering psychic torture of Patty Waters' version of 'Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair'. Over the low, sputtering rumble of Roach's drums, she keens, pressing forward as if just trying to progress in the face of overwhelming odds, to assert the presence the voice most clearly indicates - until we're subjected to about thirty seconds of screams so visceral you can feel the straining ache of the vocal chords, the lungs creasing and almost collapsing, life expended - the whole blood-in-mouth history welling up behind her, imprinted on the breath. And all this time, Roach's drums are going Napalm Death, cymbal spray flaying the skin just as horrifically. 'Peace' comes as suddenly as 'Protest' began, less suggestive of its own name, than of exhaustion, the scraped-bare tabula rasa for something else - hope never being an easy thing.

3. Andrew Paine/Richard Youngs - 'English Channel' (from English Channel (Sonic Oyster))

Picked up at the Colour Out of Space weekend, this 27-minute live improv piece is probably the quietest and most spooky of the various Paine/Youngs duo albums, at the polar opposite to the prog homages of their Ilk project and the likes of Earth Rod. Even during the opening minutes, when the two are simply rustling and rattling bells and other objects, interspersed with low whispers of flute (shakuhachi? but that's rather higher...) and occasionally the two voices rising in wordless exhalation - Youngs' copper-tawny strain against Paine's rather rougher burr - one imagines ghost-tones - as if from a half-heard record playing somewhere in the dark off-stage - floating around the main action. The sparseness and relative simplicity of the improvisation - both may be doing funny things with their mouths, but let's be honest, neither of these guys are Derek Bailey - is both part of its charm, and a counter-tactic: like a carpet sagging under the weight of a bowling ball, the sense of depth increases around these details by virtue of their very nakedness. And there always seems to be more sound than two men can reasonably make at once without amplification. From the interlacing of these small-instrumental textures, flattened out into quivering planes and small wells of colour, it builds up an almost oppressive atmosphere, the ear on the watch for every little tingle of sound. We hear.

4. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band - 'Sunshowers' / Machine - 'There But For The Grace of God Go I (12" version)' (from Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1976-1983 (Strut))

The argument that New Pop was in some sense a reactionary backlash against the true forward drive of post-punk always runs up against certain problems: the records. ABC's The Look of Lovein the UK - the reconstitution of the joy of pop at its most 60s white-hot (with Brechtian intertitles to cover its back); Kid Creole & The Coconuts' Tropical Gangsters in New York - the spiritual successor to Remain In Light's reconnection with love. And whilst the scorched-earth negation of No Wave is all well and good - no problems about post-modernist recapitulation or complexity - it isn't all that conducive to the business of living. Which is something some of us are, at present, sunk in. Therefore, looking back to Year Zero 1976: the rainsong and ticking metal percussion of 'Sunshower', uncannily African (or Caribbean) guitars and the blossoming expansion of the voices layering up on each other. Every touch of brightness is added: aching violin, vibraphone dotting the verses, piano on the come-up, the handclaps that burst in like tropical birds out of the bush, the way the voices scale back to the child's chorus taking up the same refrain. "Sunshower's just a sign of the power/Of loving you, oh baby". Three years later, and Darnell is at the beating heart of a disco scene that had, at least within the prescribed geography, scrambled and dissolved the social boundaries of late 70s America; Machine's 'There But For The Grace of God Go I' obviously belongs to the New York of Larry Levan, Arthur Russell and Donna Summer (along with her synth-svengali, Moroder), straddling the line between disco and the nascent electro sound, and pointing, in its hammering piano line, quasi-gospel vocals and propulsive rhythm, towards house. The chorus, a firecracker-soaring towards the stars, is the equal of that of Arthur Russell's 'In The Light of the Miracle' in transcendent joy. Its kitchen-sink tale of escape to, and away from, the suburbs, of the corrupting influence of rock 'n' roll, kicks up against the wedding-cake-thick intoxication of the guitars and synths scribbling all over its grooves. The narrator's acknowledgement that this might have been a self-portrait ("There but for the grace of God go I") undercuts the morality-tale, admits that a world "with no blacks, no Jews and no gays" would, in fact, just be a world without life. A world without this.

5. The Knife - 'We Share Our Mother's Health (Radio Slave's Secret Base Remix)' (from 'We Share Our Mother's Health' 12" (Rabid/Brille))

I'm half-ashamed to admit I'm playing catch-up. Having no real interest in the 'end-of-the-decade' nonsense retrospect-fest, I thought I could easily escape having to spend scribbling and discarding lists on the corner of newspapers and down lecture note margins. I'm a compulsive list-writer (yes, cliché, but what can you do?), but the idea of ranking, of being arrogant enough to declare that, out of all the hundreds of thousands of albums released over the last ten years, these ones are the absolute best (and no disagreement) - that I find deeply disagreeable. At the very least, you would think I'd have to have been buying records for a decade in order to evaluate a decade's contents - the last time I estimated it, I thought my first record came into my hands in 2004. But: a) I was sucked into compiling a list for the university newspaper, and b) it turns out I've actually been buying music for 8 years. Hence: no excuses, and listening back to try and figure out whether there was actually anything worth keeping released this decade. Tentative answer (contra other positions) = yes. (Completely instinctual, irrational, unargued, irrigorous, uninformed, warped by optimism. But, whatevs.) For example, this. One of the hardest tracks on the album, a hammering piece of neo-brutalist electro in the midst of a windswept desolation, its synths prickling like hydrochloric acid on the skin, the sci-fi darkness of the voices warped further by the distortion that makes them sound as if resounding from the depths of a digital wood. Take this harrowing oddness, and subject it to almost total fragmentation, the up-tempo beat the only thing holding it close to the fabric of the original, a plateau of cold, blank, abstracted paranoia such as has hardly been heard since Ricardo Villalobos' Shackleton remix a couple of years ago.

6. Kanye West (feat. The Game) - 'Crack Music' (from Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella))

About the only positive memory I have of the 6th form Xmas Ball, roughly 3 years ago, consists of my dancing to 'Gold Digger'. I've still no idea how I neglected to hear any of the rest of the album at the time, given Kanye's ubiquity, although the black depressive cloud that hangs over that period might have something to do with it. In any case, I doubt that I'd have known what to think about this - I still find middle-class rappers with perfectly ample record sales discussing their careers as crack dealers faintly amusing, although the records/rock analogy is drawn explicitly here (and recapitulated by Jay-Z later in 'Diamonds From Sierra Leone' - "I sold kiloes of coke, so I suppose I can sell CDs./I'm not a businessman/I'm a business, maaaan"). Over bare-bone snares worthy of J. Dilla, gospel-fragments (see RZA's production for Ghostface Killah's 'Black Jesus') and synth-squiggles somewhere between trumpet and grime strings draws links between the wars in Iraq ("George Bush got the answers") and on drugs, the synths wavering and spilling into a sour, paranoid hornet buzz in the background. Kanye and The Game's tone hovers between confident 'we-made-it' aggression and regret that the victory at living should come at so high a price: "Give us this day our daily bread/Give us these days and take our daily bread".

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions - 'I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down' (from Get Happy!! (F-Beat))

Yeah, this guy again - same album, another soul cover, amped up to the usual amphetamined tempo. I'm really not so sure why Simon Reynolds dislikes it, but it may well be that I'm easily pleased. Or it may be the usual self-pity (both mine and Declan's) leaching out again: "I'm a man who's been hurt a little too much/And I've tasted the bitterness of my own tears/Sadness is all my lonely heart can feel". (Although I keep hearing that last line as "silliness...." Slurred Irish accent/self-reflexivity - who can tell the difference?) In the corner for the defence is also the video, featuring Elvis and the boys jigging awkwardly in some strange Mediterranean setting, as if fighting off the joy the track's groove brings, up against the belted-out lyrics, eminently suitable for maudlin bawling, once you've worked them out from Declan's slur: "Simple though love is/Still it confused me/Why I'm not loved the way I should be... I've roomed with fear/I've dealt with despair". (It is, in fact, a remarkable doppelganger to my own drunken dancing - I've even been told I remind people of Costello. This can only end badly...)

8. The Advisory Circle - 'A Clear Yarn Warning' (from Other Circles (Ghost Box))

An eerie audio drama whose power proceeds from dislocation, the cobwebs hang between the edges of the razor-edit. "Now gentlemen, a telephone call is enough. Thanks for listening."

9. Ghostface Killah - 'Camay' (from Ironman (Razor Sharp))

Ironman could well be The RZA's peak as a producer, not least for the consummate skill with which he utilises the sample-as-alien-artefact. On 'Black Jesus' and 'Motherless Child', black voice (fragments of soul paroxysms and humming, and a gospel choir, respectively) is disassembled by non-synchronous looping, chopmarks and vinyl crackle marking it out as the product of a different world - but a world whose distance from the one of crack-dealing, shootings and "plucking roaches out the cereal box" that Ghost and Rae inhabited is poignant in its shortness, the fragile dignity of the old African-American communities curdled into the guilty confidence of the prodigal son. The entire album is replete with such tea-spitting moments, but 'Camay' is the one I keep returning to at the moment - the restaurant smoke-haze of bass, sparse shaker and piano randomly plopping like raindrops (the paranoid pianos of so many of RZA's productions returned to the cocktail lounge), and, above all, the Percy Sledge sample, interrupting himself, voice ramming up against voice, on the chorus. Sliding between the intimate boisterousness of Ghost and Cappadonna's entreaties, the subconscious slipping through, a tender falsetto thinned to a ghost from the back the brain: "Love was never going to say/Goodbye/Just another helpless fool in love is what I am". We feel the intoxication, and know that's all we, too, are.

10. Marnie Stern - 'Don't Stop Believin' (Myspace demo)

There's a couple of facebook groups circulating in response to the X-Factor cover of Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin', currently planned to be slotted into the top of the Christmas charts - one to get Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name' to Number 1, and another to get the original of the song to the same position. Both are idiotic, based as they are on rockist notions that music played by 'real bands' (generally of white men) is somehow a rebuttal of top-down capitalist monoculture, an 'authentic' response to Simon Cowell's cultural gerrymandering. We should keep in mind that, as Greil Marcus' frequent scorn for Journey throughout In The Fascist Bathroom makes clear, the kind of bovine rock they represent was, until recently, in exactly the same position of dominance. And, as any hip-hop fan can tell you, it's all product, baby. Marnie Stern in fact constructed a better response, ahead of time, posting this demo cover on her myspace earlier in the year. Her deconstructed Van Halen storms of finger-tapping almost become Summer/Moroder synth arpeggios, tipping into ragged distortion before the familiar drums and bass melody pull us back to the song as we know it. Memory does the rest: the guitar flourishes that arrive a minute into the original are multiplied across the song's body, the lighters-aloft step-up of the refrain imported to the whole thing, reconstituting it as a fulfilment of the song-as-ideal, the potentiality the original had as a pop fragment - an acceleration into song. "yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

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.