Sunday, September 12, 2010
"to Labour in Knowledge is to Build up Jerusalem, and to Despise Knowledge is to Despise Jerusalem and her Builders"
Saturday, September 11, 2010
A Word In The Ear
Paul Morley was anomalously great on last night's The Review Show, if only because he was prepared to interrogate the easy, industry-built assumptions of Miranda Sawyer and whale-ish smugonaut Tom Service. He hit on what has been perpetually ignored by the majority of pundits, in the shift away from older forms of engaging with pop as a recorded artefact, as a form of artificial (modernist) enchantment, and its re-attachment to a reality principle. On the rise of the live music and festival industry, particularly Glastonbury:
"We're talking about something that almost doesn't involve music... The way we talk about it, it's almost like the way we talk about the season, with Ascot and Henley, and, again, I think it's about the celebration of an incredible 40 or 50 years in popular culture, and you can get off on it - but what, ultimately does it mean?... where is the disruption and the subversion in the new world? Now the reason I say it is because they're all listening to things and enjoying things that I was 30 or 40 years ago; if I was enjoying things 30 or years before me, I'd would have been getting off on George Formby.... there has to come a moment - and this is why I'm interested in post-Cageian [music] - because we're all looking for the new thing in music to have happened, and we're expecting it to be like the Pistols or the Stones, but I don't think it will be.... that form of music that young people are getting off on now is essentially a stale thing, it isn't liberating."
Of course, he's not wholly correct. My friend Frances recently did a panel with Morley at which he more-or-less slagged off every single young music writer working today, and presumably most of the bands (both disheartening and unnecessary, as Frances and the other writers who worked on Plan B set out to prove). But it does seem that, at the moment when our ways and forms of engaging with pop are dissolving, through over-saturation and the virtualisation and dispersion of music (no longer contained in the artefact of the LP/7"/12", but in single MP3s, store speakers, gigs), fewer interesting things are springing from these new conditions than they should be - and it's necessary for critics and young fans to be able to put the present into the context of a historical sense, and to confront and wrestle with the iron-clad conservatism of cultural life today.
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Ten Songs 10
1. Manic Street Preachers - 'Motown Junk' (from 'Motown Junk' EP (Heavenly))
And here's where we came in - the pristine beginning that even Generation Terrorists arguably spoiled. So many good intentions, and so many of them acted on: the link back to the formal revolution ("revolution - revolution - revolution") of Public Enemy in the opening sample, the shredding guitar tone that predicts the scalping Albini sawtooths of The Holy Bible, the hand screen-printed tees that they'd soon lose to beer-guts, the closing Skids sample that follows "We live in urban hell, we destroy rock 'n' roll" and slows to a burning crawl like rock itself sputtering to death, the absolutely uncompromising bile of Bradfield's motor-mouth screed - words pressed into each other as if, as on 'Yes', he had a dwindling supply of time in which to use them. I remember coming across a copy of the EP at a record fair in Bournemouth and the sleeve: a watch stopped at Hiroshima, a scorched-earth declaration, a Year Zero (or, again, the clocks shot out across Paris at the start of the Commune). The problem with starting out from here is that it's not a mode you can carry on in, and remain alive (cf. the Manics' initial declarations of post-first album breakup), but it's a standard you can't escape, a phosphorus-burn image that haunts you from the origin. Here, compressed into 3 and a quarter minutes (the extra quarter-minute adds to rather than dilutes the excitement) is the itchy, juvenile rage that impelled the Manics' whole career: outstripping their influences (not least with a virtuosity in Bradfield's solo that puts every c. '76 punk guitarist to shame) in the strenuousness of their assault, negating love, hope, community and 40 years of dwindling expectations in pop culture ("I laughed when Lennon got shot"); the contiguity of a working-class culture wrecked by Thatcherism ("Past made useless cos I'm dying now/Communal tyranny a jail that bleeds our wrists"), and pop's failure to deliver the future ("Songs of love echo underclass betrayal"). It's burnt into our bodies now: "21 years of living and nothing means anything to me." Write it bold: NOTHING.
2. Roxy Music - 'More Than This' (from Avalon (EG))
It starts elsewhere: a Tokyo karaoke bar in Lost In Translation, where Bob (Bill Murray) drains a shot and takes the mike. Bob is in the city to shoot a whiskey commercial and escape the wife he's lived with for 25 years; his acting career has long since dropped from its peak; you can see in the lined landscape of Murray's face, the way he can hardly bear to bring his voice above a mid-volume deadpan, the effort he's spent the entire film holding back the years. On the original, Bryan Ferry rides the twitchy percussion and breathy gaps of the rhythm with a silky-smooth, laconic motion which, in its bitten-off syllables and moments elided by breaths, discloses a bittersweet sense of triumph, something Murray's performance amplifies: a revelation of the limits of desire, a truly Nietzschean sentiment - in the eternal return of the film and record, we are brought again to the moment we have always lived, the flick of the eyes towards another person, a breath in their ear, those flatlining vowels, only ascending on the final syllable of the title phrase. The album was Roxy's last, transcending the New Wave pandering of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood, a letting-go of the world Ferry's delicately engineered fame had brought them to: a peace, a final allowance of the moment.
3. Blondie - 'Dreaming' (from The Best of Blondie (Chrysalis))
Blondie are one of those rare bands who had, for a few years, a simply perfect run of singles - every track on their early-80s best of is a single - from 'In The Flesh' to 'Rapture' (excepting 'The Tide Is High', whose bodiless cod-reggae fumbling I've never gotten on with); 'Dreaming' is, to me, the very peak - more compact than the wonderful 'Union City Blue', Clem Burke's precisely hyperactive drumming finessing the rhythm beyond even 'Heart of Glass', Debbie Harry's vocal more animated and hungry in its attack, doubled and supported by the droning keyboards. There's little to the story: a conversation in a restaurant apparently become the dream of a whole life, simultaneously resisted ("I don't want to live on charity") and embraced - "I'd build a road in gold just to have some dreaming". It's perhaps their most mysterious song, the push-pull of desire breaking out on the chorus, Harry's punctum-intonation of the title-phrase pulling us up. Pleasure might well be "fantasy", but records never stop holding power, the truth of a dream - "reel to reel is living verity".
4. James Ferraro - 'Untitled 1' (from Heaven's Gate (New Age Tapes))/'Last American Hero' (from Last American Hero (Olde English Spelling Bee))
Perhaps surprisingly, I've more enjoyed the small fragments I've heard from James Ferraro's infinitely sprawling discography (I've not even checked out his pseudonymous records) than anything he did with The Skaters. Not so much a retreat from noise - the fidelity on his CD-Rs is still delightfully abominable, every shining second of drone encrusted with tape muck - as a channelling of celestial musics - Yoshi Wada, Terry Riley circa Rainbow in Curved Air, kosmiche, one-man synth orchestras like Vangelis, Steve Hillage and Bruce Haack - through noise's means and sensibility, a punk appropriation of cosmic music. The infinite gilded loops of Marble Surf are reprised on the first side of last year's Heaven's Gate: a sound somewhere between slightly sickly, overbright synth, bowed metal and decayed choral samples, spangling with flares of distortion as the sound rises and dips in slow, pulsating arcs, as the tape grinds on, seemingly impelled by a motion alien to humanity, the very movement of the spheres. By contrast, 2010's Last American Hero is almost his Before Today moment: a thick layer of tape-hiss still lays over every queasy, recessed note, but there's a sense of pop accomplishment, and streamlining here that I've found nowhere else in his release. The studiedly thin opening guitar riff loops and loses itself in blobs of sci-fi synth and white-light keyboard drones, until at about 10 minutes what sounds like an keening solo surfaces (inverting the hierarchy of rock); the 12.20 shift, as if someone had taped over the cassette at that point, pulls us back to chiming guitar, and, with the logic of a Beckett play, repeats the movement, submerging it in synthesised choral drones, snaps and flutters playing in the mix.
5. The Long Blondes - 'You Could Have Both'/'Weekend Without Makeup' (from Someone To Drive You Home (Rough Trade))
Of course, you shouldn't trust them. The hype called up Pulp (alongside The Au-Pairs and The Shop Assistants), curdled romance and the nostalgia of ruins - in this case, of Sheffield's provincial utopia (at least two of the members worked in the former polytechnic's art-school library) - but, as the Plan B review by Abi Bliss pointed out, they were all "the right side of 30, with their lives ahead of them and a short enough gap on their CV to go back to the real world if it doesn't work out" (which turned out to be necessary). "The style thing" wasn't irrelevant to me at the time - the video for 'Weekend Without Makeup', flashing up amid the knuckle-dragging boys of MTV2, Kate Jackson troubling the screen with an insouciance both threat and promise, a contrivance of shopworn glamour that suggested a whole hotwired world within short grasp (of course, it wasn't). The performance was a little too clearly 'performance' to overpower (never a problem with, say, Jarvis' icy lothario in 'Razzmatazz'), but it dogs me nonetheless - not least because the late-20s feeling that life is passing you by, that 'Weekend Without Makeup' sketched in such excruciating detail, arrived rather early for me. Where the adulterous whispers and burning regret of 'You Could Have Both' rattled in on overbright guitar scratch and roiling drums, 'Weekend...' is almost classicist in its slightly twangy, picked lead melody, ceding to post-punk scratch on the down-side of the verses and the surging peak of the chorus, the itchy discoid hi-hats and stalking bass the only thing to cut against it. Kate Jackson's voice rides the track's contortions more smartly than the iciness of her front would imply, carrying passive-aggression and disappointment ("Another evening to myself") and knowingly restrained defiance. You can only really hear the tinge of rubbed-off Sheffield accent on the spoken-word section of 'You Could Have Both', a performance equal parts temptation and cynicism ("When I'm around you get by without her even better"), romance and disgust ("Don't talk to me about happy endings/I'm too old for that now"), that gives a shuddering drama to unrequited lust (which we know all about) in its build and tension, the ironic dancefloor-burst of the chorus ("I wanted the world/but some other girl had to get there first"). They never gave me a thing, but pleasure.
6. Moondog - 'Lament 1: "Bird's Lament"' (from The Viking of Sixth Avenue (Honest Jons))
Perfectly condensed, we find here in one 1.45 earworm, the smartness and simplicity and honesty - an honesty that, as in the prefatory comments to 'From One To Nine', doesn't disdain acknowledgement of his own technical apparatus - of Moondog's whole oeuvre. Over restlessly shuffling percussion, a cyclical string figure rendered in slightly darker timbres than you'd expect, and, syncopated, a horn section scribbling over the top, working from a bouncing, jaunty head to quick shrieks, as the tune suddenly pulls to a halt. Lovely.
7. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - 'Envelopes Another Day' (from The Doldrums (Paw Tracks))/'Round and Round' (from Before Today (4AD))
Two snap-shots from two ends of a career: the grubby smears and motion-blurs of The Doldrums, and the first-love newness of Before Today, the first time the Haunted Graffiti were anything more than a one-man moniker and the first time the aleatory effects of awful fidelity have stopped being a possible tool. 'Envelopes Another Day' stands partly apart from the seething weirdness of the album's first half, its shifting mixes filled with ghost-noises like wind whistling under the door, structures Song subjected to the soldering iron, through having a rock-solid hook and comprehensible flow: the opening Bond theme keyboards give way to a surging chorus underpinned by pulsing bass, Ariel's voice shadowing itself in falsetto, howling halfway between fear and joy of "the great silence". 'Round and Round' (boasting one of the finest fan videos to ever grace this world) has a similarly false intro, launching with sprightly "na na na"s and pert keyboards, lapsing into a white funk bass/guitar chug over keyboard drone. The tension of its verses, spinning out the melody, a schematic of unassuaged desire - "answer the phone/I want to go home" - of relations in stasis, going, with the refrain "up and around/merry-go-round", is only accentuated by the triumphant chorus at 1.53 - "Hold on/I'm coming" the band croons (a Sam & Dave quote?), and we know we can't, through the build-up to the second chorus that explodes into a victorious coda, voices swaying unaccompanied, a breath of pure pleasure.
8. ARP - 'From A Balcony Overlooking the Sea'/Silver Clouds' (from The Soft Wave (Smalltown Supersound))
An object/abject lesson in not trusting press releases (I should know, I've written the fuckers), apparently ARP's tenth album (though almost none of the others are listed in any of his discographies) is talked up as a melding of Cluster, Terry Riley, new age, Eno and A Mountain of One - which, sadly, it is not. The two closing tracks, however, come close to living up to that promise - 'From A Balcony...' is a blatant lift of Eno's 'By This River' crossed with the most languid and keening moments of Another Green World, stretched out to nearly 7 minutes. Alexis Georgopolous keeps his voice soft and low as synths build up over a studiedly primitive drum-machine beat, the sound as warm and gloopy as imaginable - total aural comfort-food. Out of this transparently lovely bed rises at intervals an approximation of Fripp's 'St. Elmo's Fire' solo become a syrupy flow of electricity - like playing in a molasses factory. The following (and closing) 'Silver Clouds' briefly makes good the album's promise: a storm-cloud ripple of oscillators, guitar needling the dark, that could last five times as long as its two minutes, and I wouldn't grow bored.
9. Nugrape Twins - 'There's A City Built Of Mansions' (from American Primitive Vol. 2 (Revenant))
Back on disc one, the Nugrape Twins are singing a jingle for the grape-soda drink that gives them their name. Over much the same piano, which seems to be playing from another room to the singers, whose voices (white, southern, protestant if I had to guess) crack into distortion more often than not, sing The Pilgrim's Progress condensed into less than 3 minutes. Perhaps more so than any of the other tracks on American Primitive (aside from Homer Quincy Smith's cracked organ hymnals or Rev. Moses Mason's overcharged sermon on the flooding of the Mississippi) one gets the sense that the voices here can hardly be referred back to bodies, that the shellac was picking up ether-noise. The experience that elsewhere manifested as disaster songs, murder ballads, tales of alien abduction - a disaster that keeps on going - crops up here, as in Blind Willie Johnson's 'Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning' and 'I'm Gonna Run to the City of Refuge', as a quietly-breathed apocalypse, escape and testament as teleology. It's sung sweetly, unselfconsciously, without much obvious effort, voices slipping out of harmony, the piano pushing through jaunty chord progressions somewhere in that black material is the unconscious. It's hard to make the words out, the voices crumpled by the medium, as if we were listening to a dub record, only the syllables' traces left, but they still chill: "Let Lord Jesus guide me/Safe unto the other side". They've already crossed over.
10. Coil - 'Amethyst Deceivers' (from Live 3 (Threshold House))
What about death, again? 'Amethyst Deceivers' was probably my favourite track on the otherwise less than incredible threnody of The Ape of Naples, but even there it was somewhat overly subdued - too settled, too neat in its aural balance of light (vibraphone) and dark, woody bass. Handy, then, to come across this haunting version recorded live in Bologna, two years before Jhonn Balance's death, caught from the first in a disturbing, ritual atmosphere: Balance's whispered incantation doubled by his own voice and digital rumble and hiss; the familiar double-bass riff starts up now amid queasy, see-sawing keyboard drones and swooping synths that drift and course like smoke-clouds, that get in yr pores, yr lungs. High notes (digitally treated lute?) snap brightly like bone. The "uncanny/familial work of mourning" that 'Broccoli' dramatises is reversed: it is now "our fathers and mothers" who must deliver us up "into the welcoming arms". Balance's vocal doesn't trip to the hammy highs it does on Ape... but stays almost frighteningly level, almost affectless, as if, in fact, it were not him speaking at all, phasing in and out of the spangling noise, only rising above his whispering double on the almost-a capella outro: a voice raging against the end.