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."