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

Monday, September 16, 2002

And now to another isolated guitar-playing DB – or should that be MI? MI for Michael Ivey, guitarist, singer and songwriter, the frontman and the larger proportion of dC Basehead. Recorded in Rockville, their debut 1992 album Play With Toys more or less invented slacker hip-hop. There is virtually no rapping as such on the album, but plenty of what one might call modified Sprechgesang, essentially speech as song but confined to a few recurring notes within an octave (Nelly, to be discussed above, does more or less the same thing).

Now Beck Hansen can afford expensive lawyers, so it’s not my place to suggest that Ivey/dC Basehead were ripped off something chronic by Beck in the latter’s career per se (Beck was still in his Ribena-Daniel Johnston Stereopathic Soul Manure phase at this stage). But it’s all here, fully two years before Mellow Gold, and without the vague air of corporate smugness which makes Beck’s work impressive but ultimately unlovable.

This album has room to breathe. Seldom have despair and alienation been expressed in such an airy and graceful fashion. It starts with Basehead’s approximation of an awful C&W bar band (Jethro and the Grahamcrackers who “appear courtesy of Countryfunk Records”) plodding through “Sex Machine” in front of a disinterested audience, one of whom asks them to play “Copacabana.” “Can’t you tell it’s a soul night?” says an exasperated “Jethro.”

Musically, the opening Basehead track “2000 BC” (“2000 brain cells ago”) sets the template. The music could be described as a marriage between the Meat Puppets and De La Soul (the spacious vistas of the former’s 1985 masterpiece Up On The Sun are irresistibly recalled). Ivey’s discreetly echo-laden vocals are almost narcoleptic and virtually disembodied, not so much PM Dawn’s Prince Bee but more Arthur Russell circa World of Echo. The scratching (by Paul “DJ Unique” Howard) sounds as though it’s being beamed down from an asteroid. The utter lack of body or centre in this music is bewitching (Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is especially relevant here).

“Brand New Day” has a transcendental floating chord sequence (a direct antecedent of what the Neptunes/N*E*R*D* were to do a decade or so later; see “Bobby James” as especially strong evidence of this). Ivey is pretending to be able to cope with his girl leaving him, varying between pessimism (verse) and forced optimism (the heartbreaking chord change into the chorus). The song is constantly interrupted and analysed upon by his colleague (bassist Bob Dewald) who midway asks for some sample breaks to test out before returning to the song proper. Certainly the conversation/song interface here (and throughout the whole album) is comparable with Kevin Rowland and Billy Adams’ Pinteresque chats which PUNCTUMate Don’t Stand Me Down. Get beer and vodka – “get real drunk ‘til we turn blue!” Optimism revealed as a death wish.

The song then segues straight into “Not Over You” in which Ivey is utterly bereaved and simultaneously inactive/incapable of doing anything about his situation, denying that he is in grief (the reverse lyrical double-bluff to 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”). A piano chord recurs like nails being hammered into his coffin. Dewald again enters the song halfway through, encouraging Ivey to cheer up, flicking through radio stations in search of a cheery song or two. First song up: Heatwave’s “Always and Forever.” Despair results. Second song found: Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The guy’s ready to shoot himself by this stage. The channel flipping continues as the song resumes, and it’s a disturbing moment; Ivey desperately looking across the radio, looking over his life, trying to find something to hang on to, trying to find a justification for continuing to live, painfully trying to make sense of his life, his world, while the narcoleptic vocal continues in front.

(How the relevance of songs change: back in 1992, Laura and I used to laugh ourselves silly at this track, even though we both recognised Ivey’s despair at the time. I’m not laughing now. “Not Over You”)

On “Better Days” Ivey attempts to address the world in general, capitalism, etc. The guitar continues to go to unexpected places, the unresolved chords (the Meat Puppets influence again) confirming his and our restlessness. He eventually gives up and starts to sing an “Ode to My Favorite Beer,” a love song to alcohol. More channel-flipping (this time the TV – “eight-ball junkie!” NWA sample included) follows over the languid Frisell-ish guitar ambience. “Things just wouldn’t be the same without you” cries Ivey quietly.

Some female heavy breathing initiates the song “Hair,” in which Ivey accuses his partner of cheating on him on the basis of the “fucked up” condition of her hair. A dialogue ensues:

Ivey: What have I done to deserve this?
The Other: Well maybe it’s those marks you’ve got on your neck.
Ivey: It’s just an allergic reaction. I’m allergic to cats.

By now Ivey’s vocal is so low and laidback (even as the increasingly hysterical Other has had enough and packs her bags) it sounds almost a dead ringer for Stuart Staples of Tindersticks.

On “Evening News” Ivey again attempts to gaze upon the world and there is more TV channel-hopping, with an evidently lousy sitcom being superseded by a beat which momentarily threatens to turn into “Jack and Diane.” A third voice comes in to implement a critique of the song’s unwillingness to talk about the state of the world. He then gets into an argument with Dewald about the unnecessity for Ivey’s songs to be “relevant” to the state of the world and ends up getting shot. Reality used to be a friend of Ivey’s (“He can’t go on givin’ out all this information and shit and not give us a solution!”).

Ivey is finally left on his own. Running away but still trying to run back. The unbearably poignant tune of “I Try.” “I’m not gonna let the world go and get me down,” he is almost sobbing at this stage, like someone who has been irretrievably crushed by the world. “Everybody keeps talking about a brighter day…Nobody lives in my world.” The double-tracked vocal gradually drifts out of sequence in the chorus. This is someone who has stopped trying to try. At the fadeout his horizons are narrowed to “I’m not gonna let this song go and get me down.”

The echo returns for the closing title track, implying that in his disconnection with the world he has a greater understanding of it than those actively participating in it (“surviving is the crime…don’t play with guns and knives…all you little boys and girls are just playing with toys”). He is ready to “get a bus to anywhere” like the old man sitting at the deserted, disused bus stop in Ghost World (but whose bus eventually comes). There is an astonishing ambient interlude with REM-type guitar/chamberlain chords and indistinct samples of children’s voices which presages Boards of Canada by at least seven years. Drums and guitars move out of phase and into bliss; note the psychedelic-raga guitar line which is played at the end. “Learn your wrongs and rights” Ivey admonishes at the song’s close.

There is nothing more to be said, so we return to Jethro, playing a messy C&W mutation of “Play With Toys.” He then recklessly goes on to dedicate a ballad to a lady in the audience, much to the chagrin of her companion with the “bald head and the big stomach,” and then retracts his sentiments at gunpoint, his voice remaining distended and passive throughout. Comic? Perhaps. But when playing the record in preparation for this piece, I followed it with the Palace Brothers’ There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, released a year or so afterwards, and a fugitive strand of punctum was identified.

Like the Dream Warriors, there was one further obscure album in 1993, and then silence. Most probably dC Basehead decided not to pursue the trail which they’d opened up. Perhaps they’re still out there, somewhere in the Midwest. Still, as I am reliably informed that the Church of Me now has some influence in places of medium height, if not quite high places as yet, it is incumbent upon me to point out that this masterpiece of a record is not currently available on CD. BMG are advised to resuscitate it immediately.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Liberty X's "Just A Little" was a great pop single, so it's a shame that their new one, a cover of Mantronix's "Got To Have Your Love," misses the point so badly. The whole punctum of Curtis Mantronik's work lies in the fact that he is (or was) unafraid of silence or space. Thus the original "GTHYL" at one point cuts down to the bassline alone and thus magnifies to titanic levels the singer's urgent need for love. The minimalism and general unresolved melodic procession of the song may owe something to the influence of the then-relevant (1990) Soul II Soul.

The Liberty X cover is fairly faithful, and it's such a good song that it would be difficult to damage. But there are two factors which deter from the record's potential greatness; one is the irritating post-Spice Girls urge to let everyone in the group have a line or verse to sing. The female lead here is up to the task but the male voice isn't - that awful gloopy, haven't swallowed my treacle properly gunge which passes for UK male soul singing at the moment. And having the song shared between one and the Other detracts from the single-minded urgency which powered the original. Secondly, in the key break which on the original was, as I've said, the bassline alone, the producers here have been unable to resist cramming in useless vocal detail (standard "soul" mangling which is unattractively meaningless and just gets in the way). Like everyone these days, they're scared of being quiet, even for a nanosecond, in case the automatic Top Shop party tape comes in and drowns the underlying fear of impermanence. Still, it went in at #2 this week, so the kids obviously don't want "silence" either.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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The song “Laura” is about the futility in trying to pin down or define an elusive and ultimately indefinable spirit. “But she’s only a dream”…as a film theme, it of course relates to a murder victim (or not?) who is ceaselessly alluded to but never really seen. When redefined by Sinatra on 1957’s Where Are You? album he elicited something deeper and perhaps more painful from the song; his reading is a lament (unhistrionic but undeniably foredoomed in its delivery) for someone who not only cannot be caught, but someone whom he once could have touched but is now beyond his reach forever. For obvious reasons I cannot bring myself to listen to this recording at present.

But Derek Bailey must have had in mind the idea of personifying himself as this elusive spirit. Why else would Mr Nowness of Now, Mr Contrarian himself now (re)turn to the sort of standards which he must have played thousands of times over in dancebands and pit bands in his youth, as evidenced in his extraordinary new album Ballads? Well, the difference is of course that he did both play and enjoy these deathless tunes – that phenomenal canon of songs penned to order in the early-mid 20th century for supposedly ephemeral entertainment purposes and yet whose durability looks set to outlive all of us – in his younger days. Crucially he turns 70 this year; his upbringing, as with many of the elders of British avant-jazz/improv, was utterly dependent on the times and, of course, the war. There is a book waiting to be written about the not very divergent paths of creative music-making and the entertainment industry in post-war Britain (through ENSA, the Gang Show, etc.). Grounded in providing backing to order for any number of visiting luminaries, from Gracie Fields to Bob Monkhouse, from Morecambe and Wise to the Supremes, this music, this culture is in the blood of the guitarist from Sheffield.

Ballads appears on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and it was indeed Zorn’s idea to have Bailey come into the studio and improvise on some standards. The cover maintains the seeming artifice – the eyes of a ‘50s diva appear in monochrome on the cover, peering out from behind what appears to be the ears of a cat. The titles are picked out in Women’s Journal pink. Typically, though, Bailey remained contrarian when preparing for the recording. “I bought this guitar which was totally inappropriate for playing standards…the fact that I was going to play a standard did something interesting to the improvising…I’m not interested in Improvised Music with a capital I and a capital M. I’m interested in improvising.”

So we could call this record The Popular Derek Bailey, or perhaps look upon it as a bookend with which to summarise and wrap up his life’s work; except that at 70 Bailey thankfully shows no signs of retiring or expiring.

Ballads is not a series of set performances, but a continuous 41-minute piece in which Bailey freely dips into his memory and plays various standards but simultaneously improvises as he has always done. For those unfamiliar with his “previous” life, the immediate sound of Bailey plucking identifiable harmonic chords on an instantly recognisable tune (“Laura”) may come as a shock greater than that of hearing him tangle with DJ Ninja’s beats on 1995’s Guitar, Drums ‘n’ Bass. The tune (as with all the tunes here) is played with immeasurable and deep love, but this does not stop him from deploying his usual improvisational techniques in the song’s service. As the song slowly dissipates into abstraction, you feel that Bailey is striving to find the essence of “Laura,” to try to use his positively anti-orthodox style to get nearer to, and perhaps inhabit, the song’s cynosure. You hardly notice the unlikely but logical transition into “What’s New?” (another song also sung definitely by Sinatra, on 1958’s Only The Lonely) – elements of the opening melodic motif of “Laura” continue to pervade the Burke/Haggard standard. This song is of course about meeting up with an old flame and finding that the love (at least on the singer’s part) has neither changed nor diminished in its passion. There is always a sense of something lost in Bailey’s more desolate playing, especially on acoustic (which is what he sticks to on this album). The technique, however, remains astonishing; note how he skilfully strikes the upper notes of the fret in such a way that instant echoing harmonics are produced, to get a kind of acoustic “feedback” effect.

Through “When Your Lover Has Gone,” the guitar becomes more pointillistic and more animated, with dazzling high-speed runs tossed off almost as an afterthought. On the epic seven-minute dissertation on “Stella By Starlight” you might believe that an acoustic guitar can scream. The playing here is jagged and uncomfortable, and the song itself only becomes explicitly apparent in the closing moments. On “My Melancholy Baby” the song is hardly there (though everything that happens, no matter how abstract-sounding, has a pronounced relationship and relevance to the song’s basic structure. Bailey has to be listened to and heard).

Then he relents for a little; Walter Donaldson’s “My Buddy” is played almost straight, and we then go into a section which is bookended by references to the songs “Gone With The Wind” and Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” Again, these performances are fairly faithful to the song structures, but note on the first performance of “Rockin’ Chair” how Bailey is accompanying himself with octave runs, the lower register then shooting off on a very different direction to the rest of the guitar. This is almost his equivalent of his former playing partner Evan Parker’s multiphonics. Then to the Mount Sinai tablet of jazz improvising to which all improvisers are one day fated to come: “Body and Soul.” This is a very faithful interpretation and Bailey never loses sight of the tune but is not deterred from utilising his techniques in ways which constantly derail the ears’ expectations of what is to come. Then he returns to the preceding two tunes. On the second “Rockin’ Chair,” note how structural symmetry is achieved by the fact that the octave runs here are high and middle register, and now it is the high register which is going off on a tangent.

Acidity re-enters in the performance’s closing stages: “You Go To My Head” is played with reverence but with extremely askew rhythm (get the violence of these arpeggiated, heavily struck block chords!). “Georgia On My Mind” is dissolved into fragments, ever more fragile, ever more transient. Finally, on a 30-second reading of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” a chilling threnody is struck, the song barely clinging to its side, and an explicit relationship with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night” (to which Marc Ribot refers in his sleevenotes) is revealed. Krapp’s last will and testament, the tape slowly dwindling to silence and the serrated hiss of its final fadeout before termination.

Notes for interested readers
Bailey as solo acoustic performer is best exemplified by 1982’s definitive album Aida, which irritatingly drifts in and out of print. But for neophytes, a more approachable (not to mention more easily available) starting point might be the recently reissued 2CD set New Sights, Old Sounds, a concert recording made in Japan in 1979 which provides a good overall guide to the range of Bailey’s playing approaches, from pure feedback to the incorporation of his older influences (e.g. Charlie Christian). For light relief 1975’s Domestic and Public Pieces (Emanem) is also highly recommended, featuring as it does several examples of Bailey’s lugubrious Sheffield voice ruminating on everything from the fire at London’s Unity Theatre to middle-aged impotence.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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