Ten Songs 8
1. Dexy's Midnight Runners - 'Let's Make This Precious' (live on The Tube, 1982)
It's been so long since my last update that the occasion for the picking this song - the fuckin' turning of the year - has been and gone. And now it's July. Nonetheless: I still had rather a lot of alcohol in my system when, on New Year's morning, I was flushed enough with optimism to find myself humming this. (About the last time I felt optimistic.) The studio version doesn't have a patch on this live TV rendition, delivered by perhaps the punchiest line-up in all of post-punk and New Pop: the culmination of Kevin Rowland's speed-freak push for the limits of Northern Soul, for a purity and drive that threatens to cancel out the body, turning soul into pure spirit. The relentless backbeat - even the organ is in a hurry, and knows exactly where it's going - is topped with horn-charts that threaten to blow the roof off; the drop-out at 1:53 (and it's indicative that Rowland talks about recorded music - "spin me a record that cries pure and true" - rather than other human beings at this point) is so obviously just a build-up to another climactic high it barely feels like a breath of relief before the handclaps and organ come back in. "First bear your heart and cleanse your soul": this is the point where Rowland's self-erasing megalomania met musical rigour to match and convey it; the moment where the idea that the urgency that gives a human life meaning - the heartbeat-rush of passion in the face of death - became indissoluble with music. You believe, coming away, anything is possible. Nietzsche would have been proud.
2. Toro Y Moi - 'Human Nature' (unreleased)
To say I missed the boat with the whole 'hypnagogic pop' thing - or whatever it's being referred to as these days - would be making a massive understatement. The fact is that I take little to no notice of what's going on in the music world these days, unless it's a new Xiu Xiu album or something: after Plan B closed I was deprived of my main source of information, and soon afterwards I stopped reading The Wire, simply because the writing was so uniformly unenthusing (after Mark Fisher left as acting deputy editor, so did half my favourite writers) and, um, I had better things to do with my time like, y'know, my degree. (In fact, I believe the issue including David Keenan's article on h-pop was the last that I bought.) ANYWAY (sorry for boring you all there): I still have my ears, and I still hear a track once in a while - in this case, after Joe Stannard posted the video on Facebook. After Jackson's death, it's doubly haunting to hear such a delectable cover of perhaps his last sincere sex-ballad before the descent of the post-Thriller period. The sparse space of Jackson's original becomes a pool-side shimmer of synth, over the almost archaic piston-pump digital kick and hi-hat, little snatches of detail - nagging wriggles of guitar, swarming synth-arpeggios that go almost unnoticed in totality of synthetics - and the voice almost subsumed in the haze, an architecture as intricate and fastidiously constructed as any Timbaland production, but out-of-focus. The vocal is almost studiously thin in comparison to Jackson's precision, laconic in the midst of the track's suspended, non-climactic drift. An act of love.
3. Drive Like Jehu - 'Here Come The Rome Plows' (from Yank Crime (Swami))
Begin with one shock. Repeat.
4. Ikonika - 'Fish' (from Contact, Want, Love, Have (Hyperdub))
The strangest thing is hearing records anew: I've had the Ikonika album for months, but it was only when my friend M. put (I think) 'Yoshimitsu' on at a party that my head turned. (It's partly because I tend to listen to records while working, with only half an ear on the stereo, but that's by the by.) Anyway, I've only just noticed how damned fun this track is - the rave-arpeggios of 'r.e.s.o.l' aside - the point, perhaps, where Ikonika most shrugs off the doubt and melancholy that runs through the record like a grey rock-seam. The opening sci-fi blare of the synths is quickly reinforced by crisp, popping kick/snare patterns and a bass presence as thick and all-encompassing as Burial's. The electronics split and detune as if Abdel-Hamid were cranking the pitch control with one hand on the keys, finally exploding into splurges of treble notes and Space Invaders bleeps. It's always apparent the powerful hold Abdel-Hamid has over the well-built architecture of the track, layers dropping out and expanding to suit different possibilities of dynamics and texture to pull the listener towards the end: the dry pops of raw electricity it ends with point towards the difficulties of the rest of this fascinating record.
5. Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane - 'Shine Blockas' (from Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam))
The video, of course, is punctured by an absence: in the course of the two years it took for this album to be produced and released, Gucci Mane was imprisoned for parole violation and then violating the terms of his probation; he flashes up as a series of photos, but nothing more. It's perhaps appropriate: Big Boi, outside of the influence of Andre 3000, seems to drift, as he did on his half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, back from the psychedelics of their most powerful collective work to the locus classicus of whips, drinkin' and ballin', the Real of the street. This is perhaps the strangest track to emerge out of that cloud of concerns, its mid-tempo bed of clicks buffeted from both sides by Gucci's smeared, clipped moans and sudden surges of drum-machine, points of light blinking through the blinding illumination of the keyboards - the shine of success that haters threaten to block, and which oscillates between reality and potential, bright actuality and far-off future. As in another celebrated track laying at the edge of hip-hop, you can feel impacted in the filigree electricity of the production, the inhuman nag of the percussion, the joy, anger and melancholy of a life consumed entirely by the grind and flow of cash - a life that, since the crisis, has been increasingly fraught with doubt. Big Boi's flow is less pointedly staccato than usual, slipping around on an unstable but perfectly calibrated production track; the celebrations are edged around with doubts - "we choose to lead not follow/It's a hard pill to swallow/Better yet prescriptions spill, cos there might not be tomorrow".
6. Flying Lotus - 'Do The Astral Plane'/'Sateliiiiiiiite' (from Cosmogramma (Warp))
From one end to another: if, in 'Shine Blockas', the weightless production is the utopian element cutting against the celebratory and struggling materialism of the raps, the incredible, baroque production of Cosmogramma is hip-hop as Afro-futurist escapism, outward-bound flight, as the bent-sideways funk of 'Do The Astral Plane' (compare with Boxcutter's celestial party joint Arecibo Message from last year) and the wheedling voice, amid hovering bass and a beat that ticks like a speed-freak's lip on 'Satelliiiiiiite', prove. (An off-topic aside: the only thing surprising about the resurrection of The Funk in wonky and its associated musics is how long it took producers to clock the pleasures of dirty south's boot-shuddering bass and slippery electronics. What are they, eunuchs?) I can't help feeling that the kinship between the two productions highlights the very falsity of the underground/mainstream binary that lets this be put out on a nerd-tastic label like Warp rather than, say, Def Jam: the combined space (in every sense) and rococo density of Fly-Lo's work, and that of his hip-hop contemporaries, is irresistibly gorgeous, but what it cries out for is an MC; that's precisely what made Outkast's Stankonia, cLOUDDEAD, Madvillain, Sa-Ra or Jneiro Jarel's Shape of Broad Minds project so compelling - the crossing of psychedelic currents and electric voice-play. ALL THAT ASIDE: 'Astral Plane' builds up from minimal foundations - pops, clicks, voice smeared into synth, scat-syllables - until a bumping kick/snare, honking, hot-stepping synths, shaker and a clave rhythm enter, the whole being scattered with trumpet wrapping around the contrails of bass, resembling nothing so much as one of Walter Gibbons' more built-up mixes (excepting the electro 'clink' that also filters through the production of 'Shine Blockas', and the digital cuts). 'Satelliiiiiiite' possesses the menacing presence of the earlier 'And the World Laughs With You' (what Kid A should have sounded like) and 'Mmmhmm', and, indeed, the later, crackle-ridden 'Recoiled': an enormous, swollen bass presence, metal and shaker rattling with nervous trouble, dotted with lounge-synth blurts, a DJ Screw voice sputtering into an isolated whine - "Sit up on my satellite/Get it right, get it right" - that dies out even further, into nearly 2 minutes of lounge funk, smooth bass resounding in an empty cosmos. Stranger and stranger.
7. Locrian - 'Ghost Repeater'/'Procession of Ancestral Brutalism' (from Drenched Lands and Territories (both At War With False Noise/Basses Frequencies/Small Doses/Land of Decay))
I don't know. It feels kind of dumb to enjoy extremity: I should have grown up by now, and have moved on to subtler, more adult pleasures than the overwhelming grind of sonic weight and texture (cf. Borbetomagus' negatively sublime Snuff Jazz). Nonetheless, I love these guys: Locrian are an improvising trio from Chicago whose work extrapolates from the chainsaw treble of black metal towards the miasmic drift of dark ambient and noise; both of their CD albums - 2009's Drenched Lands and this year's Territories, featuring Nachtmystium's Blake Judd and Yakuza's Bruce Lamont - capitalise on the experimental promise of Sunn 0)))'s Black One, featuring slow-moving dronescapes that crackle with menace, building into huge, shredding assaults. Both 'Ghost Repeater' and 'Procession of Ancestral Brutalism' evolve over 10 minutes, black metal riffs bursting out of the fog of noise with nothing to drive them on, the inhuman, abjected hunger of BM finally palpable, harried and buffeted by blown-out keyboard and spectres of voice, and exhausted percussion, somewhere between the ritualism of Xela's In Bocca Al Lupo and the despair of Khanate. On 'Procession...', what sounds like shortwave hiss gives way to a raging riff at about two minutes that eventually explodes into something off the last Wolves in the Throne Room album, but still wears a sense of enervation. Hails, etc.
8. Arthur Russell - 'Soon-To-Be-Innocent Fun' (live, from Terrace of Unintelligibility (Rykodisk))
"He looked like a farmer." It can't have been because Arthur Russell wore plaid shirts - although we do see him, in Matt Wolf's documentary Wild Combination, blue-plaid-shirted against a cerulean background with recording equipment - as we also spot Robert Wilson, who basically ended Russell's potential career in the avant-garde, after the debacle of 1983's Medea, adorned in one. A late photo shows Russell in an Oskaloosa cornfield, the maize-leaves brushing his acne-scarred cheeks, the sky behind him redolent of the blue expanses of 'Let's Go Swimming'. The camera, in Phil Niblock's film of Russell performing songs from World of Echo, is close up against that face, lit in shards of red, green and white, moving over the body of the cello as he works percussive brushes and shading strokes verging on the metallic out of the strings. He introduces the song in a whisper, and hardly moves above it throughout, the words - never, even on his disco records, particularly clearly enunciated - droned, smeared, muttered, clipped, tweaked into falsetto, in unexpected ways, like a courting boy too shy to know what to say. The shuffling motive movement of his cello, the mantric repetition through chorus and verse structure, suggests the grooving energy, the loops, the eternal return of disco, but reduced to a shadow, to a private voice echoing out of the dark. It's the intimacy, the (allegedly) childish open-heartedness of 'The Letter' or 'A Little Lost' - "The rain falls for three hours", the lover and loved inside - turned to a bare series of gestures abstracted by dub echo, of "blushes and blurs" (Jon Dale), another attempt to re-enchant the world. The light shows up his scars again - ravages that, if you didn't know, might be taken for the wasting effects of the AIDS that claimed him a few years later. We remember, for a moment, he was just an awkward country-boy.
9. Owen Pallett - 'Lewis Takes Off His Shirt' (from Heartland (Domino))
A "nerd-fox" (Miss AMP), no doubt, and one whose almost-ridiculous compositional nous constitutes much of what gets the gentlemen and ladies hot - "if he can do that with a violin, imagine what he can do with", etc. Heartland, the new album under his own, more copyright-friendly, name, is an enormous buzzing hive, a legs-and-groins scrum of love, and 'Lewis Takes His Shirt Off' perhaps the most finely-honed thing on it, a high-BPM electro-pop track whose rhythmic undercarriage is closely threaded with chortling and sighing woodwinds and brass, and girded with strings. The lyrical humour that marked the Final Fantasy albums - I doubt there's anyone else with the cojones to name a record He Poos Clouds - and usual nonsensicality sticks around at least in part - "A hegemony armoured with a thousand-watt head and seven inches of echo". But it's the drastic, ascending pull of the track that keeps the listener gripped: "I keep up my velocity".
10. Oneohtrix Point Never - 'ǂPreyouandiΔ' (from Returnal (Editions Mego))
How to parse that title? 'Before you and me'? 'Prey you and I'? Or perhaps 'pray', as in something like 'pray, let us go then, you and I'? It matters, after a fashion: what sets Oneohtrix Point Never apart from many of those currently dabbling in revenant forms is the attention to his work's sensual properties, the fealty it holds to the textural pleasure of pop, the magnetic pull it encodes between 'you' and 'I'. His videos might suggest postmodern terminal decline, play in the ruins of culture, but they also access pop's anti-entropic charge, its powers of disturbance and resonance - as in the track that samples 'Lady in Red', schmaltz turned, via detournement, into a lonely cry echoing into the distance - these fragments I have shored against my ruins. So it is with the final track on the new album: far more reliant on the sampler than the work on Rifts, its first seconds flush with micro-samples like Oval glitches, fractured splutterings of sound, the thump and crumple of flattened percussion and digital flutters coalescing into something straddling the border between chorale and synth-scape, neither quite voice nor electronics, as undisturbed and immersive as the earlier 'Pelham Island Road'. In his pop, you can see every fracture, and hear every pleasure.