The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, September 09, 2002

The song is of course about sex. Three different versions underline three different societal and aesthetic responses to the same “force.”

Michael Jackson, the song’s author, had probably not expressed as much gleeful joy on a record since “I Want You Back” a decade previously, and certainly has done anything but in the subsequent near-quarter century. There is no need for his recording to be included in the Church’s occasional Greatest Single Ever Made As Of Today column as its greatness is so evident that there is no need to point readers towards it, particularly since the spatiality of its arranger and producer, Quincy Jones – he really is the de Chirico of pop, if Boris Blank isn’t already – has only recently been worshipped here (6 Sept).

In MJ’s hands, it is probably the most selfless let’s-get-it-on record since…well, “Let’s Get It On.” Listen to the way in which the 14-piece band (not counting the string section) manage to sound both intimate and vast…from MJ’s nervous opening ad lib, as the guitars and percussion limber up on the starting blocks: “Uh…I don’t know ‘cos…you know, the force…and, er, I was thinkin’…” - almost a parody of a high school chat-up line, though there might be a subliminal reference to the then current Star Wars with all the talk about “the force” - and eventually when the tension gets too much, “…OOOHH!” and the record sets off. Significantly it is sung in his virtually asexual falsetto (all three versions under consideration here stay in the falsetto range). He wants the Other to take as much from him as she needs; he will do his best to satisfy her needs. The rhythm manages to be both restless and encouraging. And hear how, in the instrumental break, the synth suddenly starts running away, the horns take up the gauntlet, every musician in the studio suddenly striving towards orgasm THEY GET THERE

and there’s a second-long, immaculately timed pause for breath

and then it starts off again. The song does not climax again but the rhythm continues, the enthusiasm and love are still there. Finally, the song discreetly fades with just the Brothers Johnson’s almost high-life juju guitar lines maintaining the pulse. MJ would like the song to go on forever.

Compare this with the extraordinary version recorded by James Chance and the Contortions, live in Rotterdam in 1980, for the album Soul Exorcism. This is similarly active rhythmically, but here the jerks are virtually epileptic in their near-demonic need for sexual congress. There is no set-up intro; the band dive straight into the belly of the song. Chance gulps out the words in his strangulated alto voice, supported in the chorus by Frenchman Patrick Geoffrois, whose slide guitar was an inspired addition to the band and whose constant derailings of grooves are a delight throughout the album. The slide crazily weaves Dadaist patterns around Chance’s frenzy, bassist Al McDowell (on loan from Ornette’s Prime Time – I’m continually driven to thinking that Dancing In Your Head was the real Year Zero starting point of postpunk) constantly inventive, trumpeter Lorenzo Wyche holding the identifiable hook of the song practically all on his own. Chance’s improvised rap mid-song is largely indecipherable, but perhaps genuinely inarticulate in trying to express desire amidst the squashed together brickwork of the Lower East Side at high temperature. There are three climaxes during this version; in each, the band simply takes off for the planet Venus, and in the final closing climax Chance’s almost reluctant alto sax does its own squealing equivalent of MJ’s opening nervous salvo (albeit placed at the other end of the song) before he, Wyche and Geoffrois come together for a final ascension, and then end. The desire and enthusiasm are still there, but the urgency is far greater. This is an urban version of the song.

For the third version, we have to travel to Kingston, Jamaica, for some space. On Hustle! Reggae Disco, a lovely new compilation from Soul Jazz Records which contains reggae “Discomixes” of well-known ‘70s/early ‘80s disco hits (and incidentally, on One Blood’s rereading of “Be Thankful For What You’ve Got,” one realises where Massive Attack got their take from), there’s a superb reading of “Don’t Stop…” by Derrick Laro and Trinity. At seven minutes or so – significantly the longest of the three versions, and equally significantly not feeling as though it’s long – this reading decides to take its time with expression, and with love. There are no “climaxes” as such; simply a languid, steady but always stimulating rhythm and Laro’s falsetto almost pleading his offer of selfless congress.

(Slight digression: Commentators on the ‘60s free jazz scene always point to geography as a crucial difference in approaches to music-making; the thrown-together, high-rise, congested, claustrophobic infrastructure of New York led itself to the frenzied, do-it-all-now approach of Ayler, Sanders, Shepp et al (again, see Ornette’s New York Is Now album from the late ‘60s as a good example of freeform expression within overpowering geography – and of course the whole No Wave/No New York scene of which Chance was an integral part), while the open spaces of Chicago allowed the more leisurely, picturesque, contemplative approach of the Art Ensemble, Braxton & co.

Actually, a very good example of the two differences would be the career of Arto Lindsay, from the percussive guitar-beater of his DNA days to the Tropicana avant-balladry in which he now specialises)

In the same way, the open spaces of Jamaica lead themselves to a more understated but still persuasive approach (yes I know about the guns, the corruption, but they hardly figure in this analysis – try the unreservedly recommended recent Rebel Music compilation on Trojan Records for the other side of the story). So this is certainly the friendliest of the three recordings. Trinity comes in for the final section; he doesn’t talk about very much except “going to the disco,” “making you move,” and “skanking,” but he doesn’t really need to talk about much else. This is affable and approachable, and a rural version of the song. Absolutely lovely.

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It’s an unpromising title for the second Sugababes album, Angels with Dirty Faces. The same title, coincidentally, which was used by Tricky for his underperforming third album from 1998. The labyrinth forms when you consider that the first Sugababes album was largely overseen by Cameron McVey, husband of Neneh Cherry, all of whom have at some stage been associated with Massive Attack. No sign of the Booga Bear on AWDF, and only one brief glimpse of one Massive Attack associate. And when you further ponder that Tricky’s AWDF was a rather brave yet unheralded attempt to form a new music – using his paranoia to try to fuse post-Cypress Hill hip hop noir with the rhythmic dualities of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time – you would realise not to let cliched album titles defer you from attending to them.

And, out of a seeming career ruination – dropped by their previous label, one member going AWOL to be replaced by an AWOL ex-member of Atomic Kitten – the Sugababes have by some miracle pulled off the second great British girl-pop album of 2002 (the first being Mis-Teeq’s Lickin’ On Both Sides – specifically the “Special Edition” with the 2-step single remixes). And, as with all of the extraordinary post-hip hop/swingbeat pop music of the last decade, it manages to be simultaneously avant garde (sonically) and still manage to be danced to and sung with on buses and in shops all over South London (or wherever). There are no theorems in this music; any innovation happens naturally, without having to be signposted, implanted or fought over, because it has evolved naturally from the pop which preceded it. Certainly this album will be a sober reminder to Andy McCluskey just how Atomic Kitten could have turned out, had he had just that tiny little bit more nerve.

The first four tracks on AWDF are as strong an opening to a pop album as I can recall since The Lexicon Of Love 20 years ago (the last time pop in general was this good). It of course begins with “Freak Like Me,” the album mix of which sounds slightly tougher than the single. I must rescind previous comments made elsewhere regarding this track’s perceived inferiority to the Girls On Top bootleg "original.” The dynamics demanded of mainstream entryism are different from those of informal bootleg clubs, and here producer Richard X meets them fully. Utilising and subtly resculpting Numan’s original backing track, this record could not have happened in 1979 – and yet Joe Meek would have felt entirely at home with the aesthetics of desire and the electronic whizzbangs; this is the sort of thing he would have ended up producing had he lived. The static which threatens to overwhelm the singers and the song at the fadeout is really of the same kin as that which gloriously drowns Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag.”

Whereas Destiny’s Child seem to be about girl(s) wanting to impose themselves (herself) on the world, the Sugababes are lyrically more concerned about just getting on in the world – so there is a lifeline there with which listeners can identify, as opposed to idolising a cold monolith (although pop music would be unworkable without enough examples of the latter). So where DC are determinedly unlovable, the Sugababes really do want to be loved – albeit on their own terms; the uselessness and general scrubness of the male is ceaselessly returned to on this record, though balanced by simple expressions of love and companionship, or the desire for them.

The second track “Blue” definitely falls into the former category; attacking a male ambulance chaser, the refrain very negatively goes “The colour that suits you is blue” (of course there might be a hidden political subtext here – cf. Fine Young Cannibals’ song “Blue,” though interestingly Siobhan, the Sugababe who jumped ship, was a Tory supporter). Musically it demonstrates that Timbaland’s lessons continue to be learned. The co-producer here is Howard Jones – surely not THE Howard Jones? If so, it’s the best thing he’s been involved with since the title track of Human’s Lib. Hear how the clenched beats suddenly break into a cantering acoustic guitar riff in the chorus which is strangely close to Electronic’s “Tighten Up” – an exhilarating adrenal rush. Overall, though, the track echoes, both musically and lyrically, Neneh Cherry’s “Buddy X” from a decade ago (and thanks to the Belgian lass for reminding me of how good an album Homebrew was!), though with two crucial differences – the vocal vulnerability of the Sugababes is the exact reverse of the nice-but-don’t-fuck-with-me utter assurance of Neneh; and, conversely, the bitterness in the lyric goes further (“don’t fuck with me! – you’re lame, you’re broke!!”), its spleen fully directed at the freeloading man, though one suspects that the singer’s hatred and fear will eventually turn towards herself.

“Round Round,” their deserved second number one, with a rhythm/string sample angular intro which again calls Cabaret Voltaire to mind, before going straight into what they used to call a classic pop hook, superficially lively yet sung very solemnly against a nagging compressed grunge guitar line and purposeful percussion (Bananarama meets the Velvets) which becomes sinister by the ease in which “love” is being rejected in this song – “I don’t need no man/Get my kicks for free.” There is no exultation at liberation here; it’s a chant being used as self-defence against inflicted pain. Note how it slows down to the classic 6/8 soul ballad form in the middle eight, as the vocal meaningfully pronounces the question “Does it hurt when you see how I’ve done without you?” There is no smirk in her voice when she sings this, implying that she needs to know herself how she’s done without you. The very title is of course the seed of doubt – “round and round and round and round…” – one routine replaced by another. As with all great pop, this works on innumerable levels.

The fourth track is the big ballad “Stronger.” Co-composer is Marius de Vries (the aforementioned Massive Attack associate) and the trademark static but deep string section is very much in evidence, speaking the inarticulable yearning of the song. Right from the musical and lyrical parallel in its first line to the first line of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” this song talks about surmounting pain and entering a new phase in one’s life. The lyrics are not very original but the way in which the music expresses them is – the augmented minor-to-major chord change in the chorus underlines that she has not yet made it through the rain, as confirmed by the lines “I’m not the type of girl that will let them see me cry/It’s not my style/I get by/See I’m gonna do this for me.” Again, see how the beats suddenly magnify in the middle eight and start to swirl around the speakers, paralleling the confusion in the singer’s soul.

It is not belittling to say that the rest of the album doesn’t quite live up to this stunning opening quartet, as it’s still (mostly) very fine. “Supernatural” is a fantasma of decisive, stern vocals, orgasm-inducing synth bass and subtle “French Kiss”-style rhythm. The title track doesn’t let the record down, either; the “angels with dirty faces” is wisely qualified by “in the morning” and the refrain “you don’t know where we go.” We’d still like to know, though. “Virgin Sexy” moves the record towards more conventional R&B territory, but the semitone descent of the second half of the chorus is thrilling, even if the lyric “’Cos I’m virgin, virgin sexy/If you want me, jus’ text me” isn’t.

Even the dreaded Sting-sampling let’s-get-a-hit-in-America appearance of the track “Shape” (i.e. sampling “Shape Of My Heart” fairly heavily, to karaoke level really) works for me. It is the necessary balance to the sampling of “Are “Friends” Electric” in “Freak Like Me,” the contemplation after the thrill. “I live my life in chains…In this man’s land I can understand/Why I’m taking command” nicely subverts Sumner’s insufferable solipsism. The uncertainty is not tempered by arrogance. And I like the tune anyway if not the man har har.

Similarly, “Just Don’t Need This” is the ballad which bookends “Stronger.” This is noticeably darker but not, I think, as impressive. Lines in the line of “The way I’m feeling now is mental/The problem first starts in your dental” would frankly shame even Bernard Sumner at his Prozac-less worst!

Invoking Bob Marley is usually the signpost for the rest of the album tailing off, and sadly there’s no exception here. “No Man No Cry” is rather pedestrian, depending upon a hoary old reliable R&B melodic/rhythmic line (I can’t place the origin, but J-Lo has also been using it recently – hear it and you’ll see what I mean). “Switch” competently adopts Timbaland’s methods but doesn’t do much else. “More Than A Million Miles” revisits and reverses the career-or-love theme of Luther Vandross’ “Stop To Love” but one has to say NO to the ‘babes’ attempts at rapping. In this sense at least, Mis-Teeq they ain’t.

(Speaking of Mis-Teeq, which I shamefully haven’t on CoM very much to date, Alesha Dixon is truly a one-woman punctum – listen to the way she suddenly erupts 2:16 into “B With Me (Bump & Flex Radio Edit)” and fast-thrusts the entire song into another galaxy!)

The album gently winds down with an “acoustic jam” version of “Breathe Easy” which in its original (and better) form appears on the “Freak Like Me” single – in which manifestation, with the crowd sounds and crucial rhythm, it’s like Paul Weller doing “Whole Again.” But hell, I could never get through “4 Ever 2 Gether” on Lexicon of Love either.

People really oughtn’t to complain. For what Morley called “shiny yellow new pop,” this now has to be the best time since 1982. From LCD Soundsystem to Scooter, from Rob Dougan to Tweet, it’s finally looking as though the options are opening up again. And the Sugababes are up there with the best of them. This record will inspire in you open-mouthed astonishment and real love. You need this record.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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