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

Monday, June 09, 2003
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Their name is !!!, you can pronounce it Chk Chk Chk or however you like, and they’ve made the greatest single ever made as of today: “Me & Giuliani Down By The School Yard” newly available on Touch & Go/Warp Records, and the record which sooner or later had to be made about 9/11. Superseding both Springsteen’s sentimentality and Suicide’s severed solace, this deeply subversive record dares to command our alleged leaders to acknowledge that there is a future which does not involve the use of black armbands as blindfolds; one in which we can smile and, most importantly, dance again.

The record would of course have been rendered useless if it had not been danceable, but at long last here’s a piece of music – and indeed a group – worthy to stand beside the recently resurrected ghosts of No Wave, post-punk and Ze. Vocalist Nic has the same pissed-off tenor as James Chance, but crucially laced with a dash of Mick Jones’ daft optimism. The song starts out with him grumbling over a steadily ascending beat (and few beats have been so crisp since the unacknowledged days of ’81), “But I do believe that there must come a moment/When even the piggiest pig must get on up and move it.”

And then at 2:24, one of several transcendent, genius-laden structural/emotional shifts as early Simple Minds guitars come barging in to DEMAND rejuvenation. These slowly ebb away but suddenly DOUBLE in power again at 4:20 as Nic proclaims: “People always ask me – what’s so fucking great about dancing?/How the fuck should I know? Yeah, even I can barely understand it/But when the music takes over, the music takes control/Here’s a message 2 U Rudy (YES! Heartless Crew imminent!) and U sir, Mr Bloomberg, and the rest of U ties2tight dudes – Y’ALL COULD LEARN A LESSON BY LOSING INHIBITIONS, YEAH/Losing yourself in the music, losing yourself in the moment/’Cos we have nothing more than this very second…So forget about it, we live here & now dude, here & now here&nowhereinnow…so get on DOWN DOWN down downdown” before the track sublimely descends into temporary Underworld techno, and then settles back in its groove. King Sunny Adé guitars duel with sudden lightning thrashes before we all clap hands at the end.

It reminds us that “Into The Groove” was 20 million times more subversive and arrest-worthy than “Born In The USA” because it opens up the option of doing NOTHING or SOMETHING to make yourself HAPPY and BREAK THE DICTATORIAL CODE WHICH WOULD HAVE US SAY/BECOME NOTHING AT ALL (does Hanif Kureishi know of !!!? – qv. article on “word power” in today’s Guardian Review: “The problem with silence is that we know exactly what it will be like”). This is not “dance, don’t riot,” but DANCE AS RIOT, THE GESTURE ITS OWN SPEAR, but its destiny entirely yours. And it’s “Into The Groove” rehabilitated and renewed as both consolation and spur to dying people so that they may dance in order to live.

(cf. the continuing absurdity of C4 trying to impose showbiz on Big Brother - LET’S KICK NUSH OUT BECAUSE SHE DOESN’T SMILE, BECAUSE SHE DARES NOT TO PRETEND TO BE INTERESTED IN THE SAME SPURIOUS GARBAGE AS “ALL OTHER PEOPLE” – “all other people” of course acting as shorthand for “in concordance with the views of the dictator.” The number of times one walks down a street or into an office and resists the urge to ask: “Why are you pretending to be happy?”)

The tremendous kick of “Giuliani” is balanced by the explicit invitation to lose yourself which is the dance remix of “Intensity” from their eponymous debut album. This latter climaxes in a startling sequence of strobe-light rhythmic chop-ups – Oval with boiled rather than poached eggs – which is as exciting and new as anything I’ve heard this year.

And the album is an astonishing piece of work, too. 1981 to its fingernails, but better, less inclined to wrap itself up in a raincoat. For the first !!! album, think what ACR’s To Each would have sounded like if played and produced by Haircut 100 – in other words, the philosophy (Lacan out of Eldridge Cleaver and Guy Debord) is secure but the chops are immeasurably stronger – what Maximum Joy should have gone on to do after the imperishable Disco/”Rap” Mix of “Stretch” (but then again they did at least in part go on to the Wild Bunch and Massive Attack so they got there anyway). They understand arcane processes like constructing their songs, knowing exactly where to peak and trough (guitarist Mario would have been much better for Miles than Meatloaf Stern) – the percussive avalanche which concludes “Hammerhead” is genuinely overwhelming, the triple horn section peaks on “The Step” inspired. “Storm The Legion” begins in a quiet series of Factory perambulations, night watches (“LSD taught me a lot about me”) before its ascension is gradually revealed (“No they never think of changing things/They just order up another drink”). Best of all perhaps is “There’s No Fuckin’ Rules, Dude” which utilises dub in an imaginative and pointed way that should be a lesson to every indie nitwit who believes that one £3.99 Blood and Fire sampler teaches them everything they need to know. Like Beckett, great dub practitioners/scavengers know that a lot of the time you need to be QUIET in order that the LOUDNESS can be more keenly felt. And the album’s central point of explosion comes 5:15 into this track, when the car alarms start to squeal a Hallelujah chorus (remember how East 17 employed the same device halfway through “House Of Love”; of course they ended by detonating the house altogether. The Zabriskie Point of boy band pop – another under-acknowledged masterpiece of explosive production from Phil Harding). Is there nihilism/self-hatred here? (from “KooKooKaFukU”: “If you’re looking for a friend you should try being one first”). Or merely disappointed remonstration? Either way, this remarkable record is a possible escape route in a music environment where there remain far too many TRAPdoors.

MUTANT DISCO

Ze Records has lately been disinterred, and the back catalogue is slowly seeping out again to remind our generation that we did not learn the lesson first time around. Summarised and encapsulated by the 1981 six-track 12” compilation Mutant Disco (A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm), we were offered a gleaming and mischievous future, and opted for Annie Lennox and George Michael instead.

Well, Mutant Disco has been expanded, revised and reissued as a 25-track 2CD package. Rather pointedly, Kid Creole’s “Maladie D’Amour” from the original compilation has been dropped and replaced by “(I’m A) Wonderful Thing (Baby)” and “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy,” thus reminding us that what was once the future is now a summation, a sort of Greatest Hits. Ian Penman’s vital sleevenote to the original does not appear to have been retained (but that was why I bought it! That, and other reasons, such as Dancing In Your Head, Uncle Jam Wants You, Escalator Over The Hill and Songs For Swinging Lovers, without which none of the record/Ze Records would have been possible). It’s a rueful reappearance, therefore, to remind us that we failed. Now we’ll let you have/hear this stuff again, but we’re leaving it to your kids to pick up on and NOT MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES.

Where once the record ended with Was (Not Was)’ “Wheel Me Out,” now it opens the record – so the story continues in a semi-loop way, with its unequalled cement mix of Carla Bley psychosexual angst, hard-bop trumpet and MC5 (Wayne Kramer) guitar. Those Oriental minimalist strings hijacked from Chic. Here it’s joined by “Out Come The Freaks” and “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” which hopefully means that the parent album will become available again soon. We still get delicious concoctions like Don Armando’s 2nd Ave. Rhumba Band’s “Deputy Of Love,” the metal Moroder of Material’s “Bustin’ Out” and the gallons of genius which continue to pour out of Coati Mundi’s “Que Pasa/Me No Pop I” with its lyrics, acidic enough to make James Chance seem like James Taylor, and its call-and-response from the Coconuts which almost cross the bridge from the Shangri-Las to Ligeti in their intensity – and a Top 40 hit, too, when such things were still possible.

Nearly everything on Mutant Disco Reloaded is brilliant enough to make us ashamed. Shut me up if I’m starting to sound like Hornby (my REASONS are different), but, really, the glory which was Cristina, and her seductive demolition jobs on “Blame It On Disco” and “Disco Queen” (though sadly her Carla Bley/Alfred Jarry repositioning of “Is That All There Is?” remains legally absent from the record), Chance himself (Darnell-produced “Contort Yourself”) calling over to the Waitresses (“I Know What Boys Like”), the AMAZING Aural Exciters – effectively the Ze Allstars, with Darnell, Coati Mundi, Chance, Tania Gardner, Pat Place Et Al – with their No Disco updates of the John Martyn Live At Leeds template (i.e. start a song and have no idea where/how it’s going to end, but making art out of the muddle of a middle). Why isn’t anyone today capable of doing something as playful in its radicalism as “Emile (Night Rate)” or “Spooks In Space”? I mean, the Matthew Herbert Big Band? No, keep it serious, chaps, got to keep the Wire sweet. Most obscure yet perhaps most revelatory of all are the Garçons, who on “French Boy” (and especially its Disco Edit) provide us with the starting point for both Junior Senior and Daft Punk.

NO WAVE

Did I say No New York? I note with the mildest of amusement the appearance of a new compilation entitled Yes New York, with a cover of identical design to the original (though with the lime green and black colour scheme reversed). Track one? The Strokes – live. Ash, ash, all is ash.

(One of the many things which differentiate !!! is that they bypass the apoplectic clenched-fist rhythms of the Liars and Rapture in favour of a warmer, more rhythmically fluid feel)

I received with considerably greater interest another Ze compilation, this one entitled N.Y No Wave: The Ultimate East Village 80s Soundtrack. A slightly misleading misnomer, as most of its 22 tracks were recorded in ‘78/9, and furthermore there are two tracks by Suicide (from their second album) who were strictly speaking pre-No Wave. This doesn’t displace NNY as a definitive document – and someone needs to inveigle Island Records/Brian Eno/Chance/Lunch/whoever long and hard to get that legitimately reissued – but it’s a useful footnote/sidenote. Lots of James Chance, inevitably – bizarre how, six months ago, there was no Chance material readily available on CD; now he seems to be in danger of becoming over-anthologised. Wait 20 years and six albums come at once – and the debut EP by Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (with both Chance and Lydia Lunch on board) is represented here in full. The performances are less powerful than those on NNY, but then “The Closet” is the only track which the two compilations share; and compared to almost anything equivalent now (is there anything equivalent now?) the adventure which these songs show remain pertinent. We also get Chance’s immortal assassination of “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” which he transmutes into a warning against troilism. There are two tracks by Mars – “3E” and “11 000 Volts” – which just predate their great leap into the harmolodic void (“Helen Fordsdale” etc.) but let you know what’s coming. DNA are sadly absent, though Arto Lindsay does contribute a couple of typically extraordinary pieces with the long-lost “Arto/Neto” 7” “Pini, Pini” and “Malu” which suggest a hypnotic rhythmic acumen coexisting with gleeful noise.

There’s also one track from each side of Lunch’s brilliant Queen Of Siam album – the horn-drenched sleaze of “Lady Scarface” and the most disturbing song here “Mechanical Flattery” which pre-empts Buffy by two decades in its gruesomely gossamer tale of a dead soul rising and trying to reconstitute itself and reconnect with the world.

Does that last sound familiar?

GILLIAN WELCH: “SOUL JOURNEY”

“You go to blank-blank
And I’ll go to mine
But we’ll all blank along
To-geth-ther”
(Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation”)

“Understand
We go hand in hand
But we’ll walk alone in fear”
(“Where Do We Go From Here?” from Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Once More With Feeling)

“I’ll send a letter, don’t know who I am”
(Gillian Welch, “I Dream A Highway”)

“Such a long, long time to be gone/Such a short time to be dead”
(Grateful Dead, “Box Of Rain”)

“I was a little Deadhead”
(Gillian Welch, “Wrecking Ball”)

“Anger in pop music is often stereotypical. It’s the stamping of the foot, the childlike response to that emotion. But to be able to allude to these frustrations, anger and more destructive emotions that one feels in a far more suppressed manner in the work, as in life, was fascinating to me.”
(David Sylvian, Wire 232: is the closing past tense relevant?)

It may well be that “records” are returning to being just that – journals, diaries, evidence of the existence of the people who make them. Stripped of the burden of having to be an “event” by the internet, have sex and glamour also been stripped from music? It now simply exists in a way in which it perhaps hasn’t done for a century. And it is changing (regressing?) the manner in which records are made. Perhaps it’s just a case of “pop” falling into line with the Archive of Statements and Documents which improvisers have been maintaining for decades. Increasingly, with such disparate recent entries as Hail To The Thief, David Sylvian’s Blemish, John Tilbury and Keith Rowe’s Duos For Doris and the Postal Service’s Give Up - not to mention Cody Chesnutt or M Ward – we observe the mechanics of the record being put together, of the artist’s thoughts forming spontaneous aesthetic patterns in the course of the record. As though it were being made up on the spot.

Balanced against this, it’s an unavoidable truth that the common factor of all the records with which this writer would choose to be buried - Escalator Over The Hill, Rock Bottom, Metal Box, Starsailor, Closer, Treasure, Maxinquaye, Tilt, Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, to name the first nine – is that at some point in the record, the artist disappears into her/himself, vanishes within the parameters of the record’s aesthetics as far as they parallel the artist’s own life. Does that suggest an aversion on my part to artists expressing themselves too clearly and making things too plain? Or does that suggest that a greater degree of consideration is required for the artist, who is, after all, only documenting their life as best they can – to understand that records are not discrete capsules devoid of any human input, that investing in an artist means absorbing all of their work, regardless of quality? It’s like turning one’s back on one’s best friend because they had a bad cold one morning. It doesn’t correspond with life.

The tenth of these records is Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch, which was discussed in detail here in April 2002. On “I Dream A Highway” she didn’t quite disappear into herself but was embarking upon the final stages of a journey which may have been either progressive or circulatory. She couldn’t have stayed like that, of course, otherwise there would ensue blank CDs recorded by, or in, a black hole. If one is to reconnect with the world, one has to attract other humans, starting with oneself. But no fanfare is necessarily required with artists of a certain reluctant disposition; sometimes it’s enough for a new communiqué simply to materialise.

Thus is the case with Soul Journey, Welch’s follow up to Revelator - last week I turned around and there it was with its black and white elementary illustrations on a turquoise background. On Warner Music now as well. Has Welch been ordered to lighten up, in every sense?

But look more closely at these drawings. Hardly any faces. Significantly, what looks like a two-headed horse marooned, unable to go in either direction. In the centre foreground someone who may well be being burned on a bonfire. Cut-out-and-paste individual “parts” on the back cover. In the inner sleeve, Welch photographed in black and white, hat on head and head firmly and decidedly turned away from the camera. I am anybody.

Once again there are ten songs on the album, and once again they are arranged symmetrically. One facile reading could be that this album explains “I Dream A Highway.” Did we want it “explained”? Remember that we’re talking about someone’s life; that means not cursing or damning them for not cutting themselves up for your aesthetic benefit. Do we still wish to listen if the artist is happy? Then again Soul Journey is not an especially happy album. On most of the tracks Welch is accompanied by a small band, while on the remaining three she is on her own. Her Boswell, David Rawlings, only plays in the context of the band.

At the beginning of track one, “Look At Miss Ohio,” one could be forgiven for thinking that she is singing “Look at me so high-oh!” “I want to do right, but not right now” she continues as the band (almost The Band) make their entry, with drums (Rawlings?) patiently measuring out her lifespan with the same aesthetic judge’s gavel as Levon Helm. The voice excitedly curls around itself as it didn’t do on Revelator. But melancholy returns as Welch is left on her own to sing the traditional “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” requesting salvation/deliverance from a failed love affair/life; less obviously isolated-sounding than she was on Revelator, but perhaps more deeply so. And sure enough, on “Wayside/Back In Time” she pines again for The Golden Mean of The Past, namechecking and discarding Nashville and Clear Channel and still wanting out of the system, maybe out of this record. “I Had A Real Good Mother And Father” is another solo traditional rending, and her delivery is very heartfelt, though clearly imbued with the foreknowledge which she is yet to disclose to us.

It certainly doesn’t prepare us for the hugely bitter minimalism of this record’s centerpiece, “One Monkey.” Welch has never sounded more furious, never more controlled in her fury. The lyric is elemental – she could almost be scooping the words out of the earth – “One monkey don’t stop no show – so get on board.” Other commentators have picked up on the link with Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” though that is in many ways the converse of “One Monkey” – Mayfield offers the listener as much comfort as he can, knowing that the apocalypse is imminent and that everyone will shortly cease to exist; it is a benign gateway out of life – whereas Welch is clearly raging inside, refusing to accept death as an inevitability. The music slowly builds up but crucially never explodes – it is enough for the drums to suggest implicit rage in their unflinching, steady medium pace, for Ketcham Secor’s violin to linger on, but never cross, the boundaries of John Cale/Fred Frith territory. Having made her point, she recedes into contemplation again, but is clearly capable of destruction if she so wishes.

Where the album converges – as Revelator did on “I Want To Sing That Rock ‘N’ Roll” – is on the deceptively jolly hoedown “No One Knows My Name” wherein Welch reveals that her mother had her at the age of seventeen, that her father “did his thing, as your man would do,” and that, being adopted and uncertain of her father’s true identity, “no one in this whole world knows my name.” It’s the most bruising and explicit lyric on the record – indeed, the lyric which explains not just the whole album but the previous one as well – and is hidden beneath a bluff, hearty exterior of pseudo-jollity.

From there, it is a steadily quiet descent to rising despair. “Lowlands” chronicles her depression (“I’ve been in the lowlands too long”). One cannot admit light without first knowing the totality of darkness at its darkest.

And then there is “One Little Song.” List songs are usually problematic unless your life is honest enough to provide a justification for whatever you consider worthy of inclusion. That’s why the turgid 15 minutes and 40 seconds of Nick Cave’s “Babe I’m On Fire” fail; there is nothing at stake apart from the payoff “I’m in love” – well, we guessed that. However genuine a madman Cave may have been two decades ago, he cannot really pass himself off as one now; he is a successful middle-aged businessman who lives in Brighton and is fundamentally satisfied with his life. I am not crass enough to demand that he return to a squat in Blenheim Gardens to rekindle his muse – indeed, the prospect of moving to Brighton to escape a painful past is a very good idea, given the right circumstances – merely realise that he is better off singing ballads about relative contentment. What “Babe I’m On Fire” lacks is any genuine fire; that was buried in Black Paul’s box back in 1984, or burned in the Mercy Seat in 1988. There is neither the rage, nor the need for rage – which is, in human terms, a good thing, if not aesthetically. And which is more important? It can never be denied.

In “One Little Song” Welch asks, politely but passionately, for reasons to continue to exist. “One last rug that hasn’t been wrung dry – ‘til there’s nothing left.” The immensity with which she leaves that last “nothing” hanging in the air. It is the humblest and most moving of songs. The subsequent “I Made A Lover’s Prayer” needs even fewer words – it is a plea for redemption, for her past to be incorporated into her present without sacrificing her future.

But there’s that underlying tension; throughout the whole record it hasn’t stopped quietly building up. And all of a sudden, and quite unexpectedly, it explodes (as far as Welch’s music can explode – after all, she is not Peter Brötzmann) in the closing “Wrecking Ball.” Worlds away from the dream aura of Emmylou Harris’ similarly titled 1995 album, here Welch sneers as she has never done before on record – extremely Dylanesque – as she finally opens herself up to the world, describes her life and missed chances as Rawlings’ cranked-up electric thrashes behind her and Secor’s violin once again threatens to spill over the cracks. There is a terrible euphoria about Welch’s delivery, as though she is trashing her entire “construct,” as though this were the equivalent of Cohen on the cover of I’m Your Man, wearing shades, nonchalantly munching a banana in what looks like a stripped loft apartment (those lyrics within: “And I feel so close to everything that we’ve lost/We’ll never have to lose it again”), or maybe even Welles in F For Fake - or perhaps just Welch fantasising about being one of those five bands on the bill of the unattended gig described in “April the 14th, Part 1.” What is undeniable is that the record does not sound like a casual, lightweight exercise in whimsy, but a renewed (though more kindly worded) request that you acknowledge that this is how she lives, that the music cannot be divorced from the life, and that on this day, in this year, this is how her things are.

And that is perhaps now the renewed rôle of music. Hail To The Thief (full review of which is forthcoming) has been described in many quarters as the latest chapter in a diary; a new way of consuming music which requires active participation in the lives of the artists, in which the artist’s website (i.e. you) can directly contribute to how a piece of music is made and expressed; ultimately, perhaps, aiming towards an ideal in which weblog, record, book and film finally fuse into a thankfully far from definitive explanation of how and why we live. It prevents the danger of Radiohead, for example, being chewed up into an “acceptable” Jools Holland flavourless bouillabaisse of music where they unhappily but conveniently coexist with Steve Wright, Pat Metheny, Ibrahim Ferrer and Billy Corgan AS THOUGH THERE WERE NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OR IN ANY OF THEM.

An ideal in which one accidentally can hear Brôtzmann playing as softly and tenderly as he has ever dared to play – on alto sax, quietly but passionately playing the melody of “For Peter Kowald” – as I did late on Friday night while an uncensored Willow unsuccessfully attempted to destroy the world on my screen. Finally, they all embrace; the saxophonist of Deutschland finally tells us what these 35 years of hard blowing actually meant; and on an adjacent channel the BB tenants settle down to a contemplative rest. As indeed is this writer, as anyone must before embarking upon major corrective surgery to wrecked but salvageable lives.


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