This week: Basement Jaxx, The Rapture, John Cale and Robert Wyatt, but much more importantly:
YES TO LIFE – BECAUSE LIFE’S TOO SHORT
For the first time, this week’s Church Of Me was written in the open air – in the Saturday sunshine of Norwood Park, from which there is a glorious view of London, lying on the grass, in what can fairly be described as a contented and happy mood. I would go further and describe it as a quietly ecstatic and joyful mood. It is the feeling that one has finally been able to reconnect with the world. A corner has been turned, and I no longer feel as though I am a ghost – instead I am, not so much turning back into a human being, but rather recognising the human being I was all along. Not perhaps the same human being who lived with and loved Laura for 16 years, but a different and no less worthwhile one.
When we choose to be depressed in isolation, we do forget that we are not the only people on Earth who feel that way, that some of our closest friends have the same, or similar, problems. And as a consequence we sometimes tend to idolise, or even worship, people we love, forgetting that fundamentally we are all awkward, contrarian human beings who change our minds every five minutes, fart too loudly in the bathroom and miss the bus. And we all need help. Ian Penman is, of course, right…we cannot exist without others, and certainly not without love or friendship, and definitely not without clearing the cobwebs away from the portholes of our self-constructed windows and walking out into the world.
And, of course, life is too damn short. Too short not to tell someone how great and wonderful a person they are (tell them every day in fact), too short not to smile or laugh, and too short to cut it even shorter, because…and this is the painfully obvious truth about it all…thinking it’s all over and wanting out of this world is like throwing away a book when you’ve only read half of it. Isn’t it so much more interesting and exciting to go on to the next chapter and see what happens? I feel that now more than ever. Laura, if she’d had the choice, would have gone on living. Well, I do have the choice and I’m not going to waste it or throw it away. And I choose to embrace life.
THE SOUNDTRACK FOR THIS ALTERED AND IMPROVED STATE OF MIND AND BEING
1. ATHLETE - Vehicles and Animals
Mostly because of Mercury, I’m now becoming enamoured with this perfectly amiable yet quietly adventurous record. I will write properly and fully about it in a future sermon, but for now will simply note that the point at 1:33 in “Westside” where the band shout “Chorus!” and the entire song shifts into a different and hotter gear is pure punctum, as is the deadpan, spaced-out refrain of “Oh…oh, oh…oh,” swiftly answered by a rude bass synth belch, in “You Got The Style.” The perfect soundtrack for a sunny Friday morning when you haven’t really slept and are a little hungover but as happy with the world, and in the world, as one could possibly be.
2. EDISON LIGHTHOUSE – “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”
Don’t ask me how this got into my head. Efficient 1970 bubblegum, of course, but musically the performance and production are a lot livelier and more muscular than you might recall. The contrast between Tony Burrows’ eager vocals and Big Jim Sullivan’s almost Chilton-esque guitar is the axis of the whole record.
3. JOHNNIE ALLAN – “Promised Land”
Currently available for nowt as part of this month’s Uncut free CD, this is a near-euphoric and partially surreal performance of Chuck Berry’s spiritual/sexual travelogue. Allan rolls his tongue and libido as he slows down and spaces out the words “Slow down chariot, come down eeeeasy.” The drummer (as with Cliff Gallup in the Bluecats) is hyperactive, can barely wait for the breaks before he excitedly does triple-rolls, can hardly wait to live. And the completely unexpected entrance of Belton Richard’s Cajun accordion is the musical equivalent of Spencer painting himself in three different places, being reborn thrice, in Resurrection: Cookham - you can’t quite work out how he achieved it, or why he’s there, but physically and metaphysically it’s entirely in place.
4. BASEMENT JAXX - Kish Kash
When I got home on Friday morning the new Basement Jaxx album was in my mailbox, as was the upcoming 5CD Scott Walker box set. Yes, it did rather feel like Christmas came three months early, and not just because of the contents of my mailbox. And as impressive as the Scott set looked, and as much as I adore Scott, it’s the Jaxx I’ve been playing in rotation. Their previous record, 2001’s uneven but unearthly in its brilliance when brilliant Rooty, helped me get through and cope with that most difficult of summers; and now they’ve done it again, with another album which screams the importance and brilliance of life.
It starts with a gigantic fuck you to the negatives of anti-life, the exuberant “Good Luck.” Beginning with a careful strings ‘n’ vibes ballad intro, one briefly wonders whether they’re going to wander into dreaded UNKLE faux-angst territory (that ghastly new UNKLE record is the personification of anti-life), but in fact they take an excursion into Timbaland (complete with “chicka-chicka” inserts) land. Then, all of a sudden, the singer – Lisa Kekaula of grey Detroit garagers The Bellrays – appears, demanding “Tell me! Tell me!” and at 0:47 the lights are abruptly turned on, the orchestra storms in and the song starts proper. And what a song, what a Northern-Soul-that-never-was stomper, as Kekaula gleefully gets shot of her useless ex and the chorus rises, the bass doubling with the ascending orchestra, like a holy alliance of Heaven 17’s “Temptation” and Yvonne Baker’s “You Didn’t Say A Word.” “Good luck in your new bed,” sings Kekaula – and what a soul voice she has, and how much better an environment for it than the boring Bellrays. The Jaxx are aware of the importance of the unexpected – thus the multiple alarm clocks and drum barrages which answer Kekaula’s “But wake up baby” at 1:35, the later trilogy of quadruple hammering bass/string lines, the subtle suggestion in the string lines of ELO’s “Showdown” and how the bass starts to rattle as the song reaches its tumultuous climax. The machinery malfunctions appropriately at the close of this extraordinary performance.
“Right Here’s The Spot” (and how often do they hit it) features Me’Shell Ndegeocello, her voice blissfully dislocated, swooning and sloping over the post-Prince grind, saturated by sex. The “all my people” aside is a better monument to the influence of Missy Elliott than those Gap adverts.
“Lucky Star” features the newly wealthy Dizzee Rascal. If it sounds slightly conservative it’s only in comparison to the yardstick which the Rascal himself has set; next to anything else it’s bewildering, bewitching and colourful. DR – whose voice I increasingly feel may be that of the most individual and instantly identifiable vocalist in any sphere of British music since Morrissey – reflects on his journey from the Old Bill to the “house on the hill” as the Jaxx’ bizarre Bollywood/hoedown fusion (or fission) rages behind him. Again, hear how the backing vocals varispeed in ecstasy (the 33-99 rpm sweep of “lucky starrrrrrrrr” is a better monument to Madonna than those Gap adverts) – the delirium of “I’m too far gone/I’ve gone too far” set against one of this year’s defining puncta – Rascal exclaiming “Jackpot! Jackpot!” as if Alan Partridge had just signed up with Roll Deep.
“Supersonic” is everything that Rooty’s “Do Your Thing” should have been – whereas the latter was a disappointingly straightforward gospel thing which only conjured up the spectre of Kenny Everett’s preacher waving his gigantic hands, “Supersonic” in fact marries the “rooty” elements of that track with the album’s much more disorientating “I Want U.” It’s multilayered but with no discernible centre, so that Totlyn Jackson’s ecstatic vocals, particularly her 1000 mph vibrato on the word “supersonic,” conjure up the vision of Betty Boop on a vibrator. The track itself builds and builds steadily, like Betty Boo’s “Doin’ The Do” as Spring Heel Jack might restructure it today, with a dash of Arnold Dreyblatt’s maximalism. Elements methodically pile up - Old Grey Whistle Test harmonica, Hendrix-esque guitar, the theme from “Rawhide” (Frankie Laine rather than Scott Walker), an odd quavering synth which seems to have wandered in from Ultravox’s “Mr X” – to make the entire edifice quite spellbinding. “Tell me you’re a man!” sneers Jackson at the track’s climax, and the applause which follows is more than justified.
“Plug It In” decides to rescue one of the other members of N*Sync, J C Chasez. No need of course to comment on the attendant irony (because there is none; he actually means it) of “Ever tried to live without the photographs and money?” (the emptiness of the back cover of Celebrity; what happens when the crowd moves on?). Musically he’s clearly aiming for Justin replication, but typically the Jaxx’ musical response is much more aggressive and thuggish than we would expect from the Neptunes or Timbaland; so much so in fact that Chasez actually disappears halfway through the song, only to resurface briefly as a vocoder. “Ever tried to live without the make-up?” as he desperately tries to escape. He sounds as swallowed up as the radio which swallows up John Cale at the end of Music For A New Society. The rather ploddy ballad “If I Ever Recover” with its half-tempo stately strings and breezily concerned late-‘60s vocals (somewhere between the Association and Jon Anderson) sounds like an excuse for the Jaxx to get their breath back (though note that “find a shoulder, find a friend”).
They were right to do so because swiftly comes the album’s peak, the virtual title track “Cish Cash.” The natural sequel to “Where’s Your Head At?”, this sweeps along ruthlessly like an electroclash rebirth of PiL’s “Annalisa.” And yes, that sometimes scarcely recognisable voice is that of Siouxsie Sioux, sounding more mischievous, alive and threatening than anything she’s done since “Peek-A-Boo.” Against the cascading bass (one might say, the “Careering “ bass) Siouxsie has happily gone mad. “Yum yum yum yum.” “Splish splash.” “You want it? You take it!” “Not enough, must have more, baby,” she teases and caresses and chortles through what would otherwise be beyond-humdrum reflections on Money Making The World Go Round. Though she is actually singing Boo Hiss To Boredom. That little harp/piano motif which peers round the doorway at 2:44, only to be repelled by synthesised dog barking. The importance of the word “spin” in the lyric “They say it makes the world spin round” because Siouxsie sings it as though she herself is spinning, is clinging on to the world as it tries to throw her off. She’s never sounded better or happier.
As is sadly typical with Jaxx albums, however, the record tails off disappointingly as their previous two did. “Tonight” is “Rendez-Vu” on valium. “Hot ‘N Cold” doesn’t know whether it wants to be “It’s Not Unusual” or “Get Ur Freak On” (“I hear you talking some nonsense…it makes no sense at all”). “Living Room” is a curious fragment which sounds like Terry Hall just before hitching onto the World Music ambulance, but instead of the intended colour we get, uh, the Monochrome Set.
But “Feels Like Home” is a troubling conclusion in itself, completely unexpected from Basement Jaxx and perhaps the most radical and disturbing thing they’ve done. Me’Shell returns for some quiet words of prayer as the electronic creaking and humming slowly disintegrate. “Hold my hand when you sleep/So when you dream I’m there with you.” A sotto voce plea to live. It isn’t quite the complete breakdown of Tweet’s “Drunk.” For seven minutes it clings on, she clings on, they cling on until the song either falls asleep, or dies. But does it dream?
5. THE RAPTURE - Echoes
If it does, it might dream of a muted House beat with spaced piano commentary – Larry Heard meets Arab Strap. The burping synth bass which follows might dissuade you from thinking that there’s a funeral to follow. Not a bit of it. “I called you up on the telephone ‘cause I was lonely.” It is “Olio,” the opening track on the first album proper by The Rapture, Echoes, and it is the best and most natural wedding of House and post-Joy Division angst since The Beloved’s “The Sun Rising.” Lyrically, it does not condemn the world or the individual to death; it is a meditation on getting old, on the difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that it’s not 1969 or 1988 any more (“We don’t fit any more/Not the same/Not the same”), on how hard it is to amass the strength and patience needed to keep you in this world after what you perceive as your heyday – as your “life” – has seemingly vanished. I hear words like “Looking and not wanting to come up to date/Like a broken clock/The hand is still,” “The times pelting me,” and most painfully close to the bone, “Ripped up in the shadows/Over and over again” and can perhaps nudge a tiny bit closer to understanding how someone like Ian MacDonald must have felt. It is a deeply moving song which – and naturally every moron who pointed at this album, at this group, and cackled “revivalist!” missed it completely because they weren’t actually listening - shows us the stark, slow death which waits for anyone who decides to shut themselves up in the past and fence themselves off from the future.
How do The Rapture feel about it? Their answer is LIVE. Hear how “Olio” segues seamlessly into the opening chant “1-2-3-4-5-6-7/I’m floating in a constant heaven” of the song “Heaven,” and how the guitars suddenly, and shockingly, dynamite their way through your wall and bring you back into the world. The fresh air hits you like a punch in the face. Yes, forget the lot, forget the bloody lot, get back to life, get back to living.
And on that level of levels – are they any good as a group? – you will have to accept that The Rapture are a very fine rock group indeed, maybe the best we now have, in terms of dynamics, in terms of relationships between the music and the vocals. “I can’t believe that you came here today/And took me away” sings Luke Jenner. Ecstasy of what kind? I like to interpret it as romantic ecstasy. The track then shifts into the 3/4 of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” as if to remind us that that’s not a desirable option (“It’s driving me sane!”) while Gabriel Andruzzi’s fine alto adds some Caroline Kraabel-ish skronk commentary on the sidelines at the song’s close.
The whole album is segued; comparable in a way to Donna Summer’s Once Upon A Time - another examination of how happiness can be extracted from the jaws of terminal despair. Note how the 3/4 which ended “Heaven” now gives way so naturally to the 6/8 of “Open Up Your Heart.” Indeed the lyric could have come from Summer’s record: “When you’re sad and lonely/And your mind sees you only/Take a chance – you can fight it/Open up your heart.” It’s a beautiful (because imperfect, because Luke Jenner tries to be more James Carr than Thom Yorke) soul song. It’s a song which I find exceptionally pertinent to my life as it is (“Fight the urge to say no/Bring your friends, then you’ll know/Come inside, step away/Kill your fears today”) and I’m moved to tears by it. Jenner’s “imperfect” voice has more “soul” in the tiniest of its atoms than…well, whoever. In the corners of the song, electronica whirrs away, and there’s a beautiful moment at the song’s close when a descending sax/voice unison line dovetails with a one-note minimalist saxophone refrain. The atmosphere gets very close to the holy aura (Tara/ta-ra) of Roxy Music’s “For Your Pleasure.” Finally, the song itself gives way to the sound of people, the sound of a tolling bell…as the singer re-enters the world. If there’s any more moving performance on a record this year not by Lunge or Cat Power, then I’ve yet to hear it.
“I Need Your Love” is frankly pop-house in its structure, Jellybean Benitez Jaxxed up by the Basement. Jenner’s vocals are near-ecstatic in their desperation to be loved (“Feeling less desperate to hold in my fear”). But hear the whirring saxes deep in the background (rather like Evan Parker hovering ominously underneath Scott Walker at the beginning of the latter’s “Track 6”). At its close the song detours into JAMC-ish feedback squeals, but soon clarifies again to segue into “The Coming Of Spring” whose onward drive is extremely reminiscent of Theatre of Hate’s “Westworld” enticed into the 21st century (not to mention Jenner’s “mah-ma ma-ma, ma-ma-ma mine” which also slyly nods at Adam Ant’s “Apollo 9”). The high spirits and laughter lead us straight into the bring-the-boys-home anthem “House Of Jealous Lovers” (just as, on the Bonzos’ Tadpoles, “Monster Mash” goes straight into “Urban Spaceman”).
Forget the C**e, forget G**g of F**r, forget J***s Ch**ce, this is a dynamic and brilliant pop record which would have been eminently desirable in 1979 or 1982 but which could only have been made now. The ecstatic slashing of the tripartite guitar riff (very K*ll*ng J*k* actually) demands movement and, indeed, “shakedown.” The minimalist scenario (“One hand ties the other”) is Luomo’s “Visitor” refracted and spiced up. And anyone who doesn’t scream joyously at the moment when, at 2:48, Jenner’s vibrato on “shakedown” escalates into Phil Minton abstract territory and is immediately answered by his own coruscating guitar solo, frankly does not understand pop.
(Then again I would, and do, say the same of something like the fab new Rachel Stevens single – Cilla Black and Felix da Housekatt do “Empire State Human”)
Spirits remain elevated with the title track “Echoes” which comes on like Adam Ant doing PiL’s “Memories” with Jenner’s three-chord Hallelujah Chorus riff in the foreground and its bass descending down Jah Wobble’s staircase, but then evolves via its Del Shannon middle-eight until it suddenly accelerates to double-speed, culminating in alternating triplets from the drums and bass, leading inevitably to, uh, drum ‘n’ bass. “Killing” appropriates a bassline which, in another connected universe, would be that of the intro to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” and there is some good high-pitched vocal duelling between Jenner and bassist Mattie Bafer. The fadeout is unexpectedly resigned electronica, seemingly about to merge into Global Communications but which does in fact segue, via a guitar fanfare, into the “Fade To Grey” synth bass which underpins the sardonic “Sister Saviour” (“Why’d you leave me/For the good life?/At least our bad times were ours”).
If the latter title suggests the Stones, the climactic track “Love Is All” certainly does with its unapologetically Keef guitar riffs and on-the-beat 4/4 stomp, drummer Vito Roccoforte being very busy and emphatic with his cymbals. “Love is all my crippled soul will ever need/It’s OK to feel this way/It doesn’t matter anyway,” sings Jenner, with only the merest tinge of sadness on the last line, but it’s really an exultant song, the realisation that, if nothing matters, then nothing is in fact everything. Is this the most positive record to be released this year? Jenner signs off with the simplest of pop pledges and profoundest of moral pledges: “I dig love and just having you around.” Because that’s why we’re here, that’s why we stick around. At the end of the song, and effectively the album (there is an extra track on the UK edition, “Infatuation,” which is a bit morose, the only thing here which is really reminiscent of the Cure and a little out of place, but it can be programmed out), a virtual choir of guitars materialises, Jenner ascends to his heaven, and his guitar FX give out cyber-applause. And it is well deserved.
And right at the end, as the music, as The Rapture, disappears, at 4:10, almost imperceptible within hearing range, Jenner, from the left speaker, softly says: “I love you.”
6. LEMON JELLY – “Nice Weather For Ducks”
Say what you like about the Mercury Music Prize, but it does serve a very important function for me, that is to remind me not to overlook records which I might have overlooked or underrated. So it happened with Athlete (although, as I said, G had more to do with that), and also with Lost Horizons by Lemon Jelly. I’d lazily written LJ off as an Ealing Studios-directed-by-Nick Hornby dilution of Boards of Canada, but actually…now I think, what’s wrong with wanting to be approachable, with music that wants to be friends with you? And music which still, at its core, has a troubled heart, which does make all the difference.
I was moved beyond words by a couple of tracks on their KY debut; the lovely 1971 children’s TV idyll of “His Majesty King Rham,” and the staggering “Page One” which starts off with a prelude to a lecture on how the world began. “Imagine a world where there was nothing at all.” The lazy, piano/double bass-driven groove quietly proceeds to build up, until we get to the crucial pause where the narrator says: “And then…nothing.”
At which point the track explodes into a celestial House anthem, piano cascading ecstatically. A point at which it is realised that, again, nothing is nothing and is thus everything. Emotionally it is stunning.
And so I’ve extracted Lost Horizons from the backroads of my less-travelled shelves and I’m rather taken by it, especially by the crucial interaction between the music and Fred Deakin’s not quite 3D artwork, the flowing of the country into the city and vice versa; how darkness and light coexist, and particularly by its top 20 hit single “Nice Weather For Ducks” which, with the minimum of fuss and maximum of ingenuity, evolves naturally from Enn Reitel’s endearingly daft nursery rhyme refrain – Ivor Cutler meets Brian Cant – to sensual salsa house (a bit like Girls Aloud/Betty Boo’s “Lovebomb”) and then, via Steve Sidwell’s extraordinary multiple trumpets, to what is nothing less than an update and rebirth of what Mongezi Feza did on Robert Wyatt’s “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” – another urge to live.
7. JOHN CALE - HoboSapiens
And I doubt that I could have appreciated the new John Cale album quite as strongly had I not first heard Lemon Jelly – crucially so, for LJ’s Nick Franglen is the co-producer. Cale – with one startling exception – does not “go dance” on this record, but with characteristic ingenuity brings out the dark heart at LJ’s centre; as with Lindsey Buckingham, he understands new technology; he has listened to the Beta Band (but not forgotten about the Alpha Band), he has listened even to Beck, but knows that technology has to be put at the service of whatever visions the artist wishes to create. Even inadvertently, as with “Blue Monday” – essentially a test track to see what a new drum machine could do – the emotion will seep through anyway, inevitable and ineradicable.
We know from this spring’s 5 Songs that Cale was ready to stun us again; but not even that document prepared us fully for the onslaught of this genuinely new music. With its askew view of geopolitics, benighted dictators and Armageddon, HoboSapiens could be described as Scott Walker’s Tilt tilted slightly more towards the mainstream.
And nothing is as it seems on this record. The first sounds you hear are those of a repeated unresolved synth chord, like a tolling bell (or ESG!), followed by breakbeats. When Cale’s unmistakable Welsh baritone looms into view, you might idly think you’re listening to The Blue Nile; but listen to what he’s singing: “Heroes turning on a spit/The lovers unable to resolve a prehistoric bitch.” It’s about The War, of course, and there’s even a sideswipe at Blair (“Stating the obvious/A monkey and his grinder/But on a different plane”). The near whisper of “We’re losing control of the night.” And The Blue Nile could never have conceived of the Cecil Taylor-ish freeform piano which destabilises the song at its fade.
The next couple of tracks are quite jolly by Cale’s standards and are splendid pop-rock songs: the Ballard-meets-Italian Job sex-drive (“Driving my motor/Couldn’t see the sings”) of “Reading My Mind” – whose Italian driving test samples bring Lemon Jelly brilliantly into the world of rock - and the first of two versions of his song “Things,” almost David Byrne in its seeming goodnaturedness, though note should be made of the latter’s Warren Zevon-paraphrasing refrain “Thing(s) to do in Denver when you’re dead” and lyrics such as “With the passion of a thoroughbred and the sensitivity of a moose.” We will meet this song again, in radically changed circumstances, before the album closes.
Things now gradually darken. “Look Horizon” opens with a jazz-drumming sample and mournful electronic background, and sees Cale “on the beach in Zanzibar” awaiting extinction (“The bears are in the forest/And the Pope is in Rome”) and musing on the imperfections of humanity (“What a shame we carry with us/The residue of fools/Instead of better wisdom/And advanced tools [cue ProTools demonstration]”); at 1.46, a guitar careers in as Cale exclaims with great terror “And I close my eyes” as he watches the “land of the Pharaoh” being decimated (“The broken amulets of history strewn in the pits"). Throughout, an askew, bitonal synth line (Numan-is-Prince-is-Foxx-is-Portishead-is-OMD), always a prophet of the apocalypse in pop, hovers in distant threat.
“Magritte” is a becalmed but deeply passionate expression of wonder and awe at the canvases of the Belgian painter, and includes a divine moment at 2:22 when Cale sings “Pinned to the edges of vision” and switches to falsetto. It is as if he had come up with the idea of “Radiohead” independently of Radiohead, in the way that Joe Harriott, never having listened to Ornette Coleman, came up with his “Ornette.” But the sinister also lurks here – “Somebody’s coming that hates us/Better watch the art,” which statement could of course be taken in two ways; protect the art or turn your back on the hater.
“Archimedes” is another contemplative song (“Keep me away from a naked flame/I am made of vapour and I will explode”) but in fact believes in the same ethics as The Rapture do on “Olio.” “Archimedes and me/Both married in our own ways/To old ideas in new clothes.” To acknowledge the past but not live there.
“Caravan” is one of the album’s two great setpieces, wherein Cale is “slipping away from Planet Earth” and suddenly views and traverses the whole of the burning planet, from the Norfolk Broads to Niagara Falls; a more grievous echo of the journey from Reykjavik to Phnom Penn made by the protagonist of 1982’s “Santies,” and on a level with Massive Attack’s worldview in this year’s “Antistar.” Note the subtle relationship of Cale’s voice singing “shaking all over” and the violas which recreate the appropriate guitar riff. This is an older but wiser “Venus In Furs” – the musical trajectory is practically identical – but again wait for that awful moment of clarity when Cale intones, “You’re sitting alone at the traffic light/The pain is real/You’re ghostly white” and then immediately gives way to a Beach Boys chorale before subsiding again. Travelling the world but able to home in on the tiniest of deaths. “Mustn’t be late for the caravan/Mustn’t be early for the garbageman.” Isley Brothers or Black Flag.
Then we are presented with what might well give Cale his first hit single, the aforementioned dance track “Bicycle.” This is the most obviously Lemon Jelly of tracks here, but their modus operandi is subverted even more here, not merely by Cale’s breathless “do do do do” refrain (as if he’s about to keel over with an asthma attack), but also by the fact that the track is eventually submerged within a cacophony of sheep noises, giggling women (“ponce!”) and Cale’s trademark Rottweiler guitar.
When listening or dancing to this track it may be worth recalling how Nico met her end.
There is no easy humour in the avalanche which now awaits us. Without warning a crashing piano chord shoves us into “Twilight Zone,” where Cale plays the role of the doomed tyrant, holed up in his South of France bunker, demanding the destruction of everything, rather like Pacino at the climax of Scarface or the Michael Stipe of “World Leader Pretend,” but arguably more barbed than either (“The milk of human kindness has curdled in your cup/You see me staring at it and tell me ‘shut up’”). Eventually, over a choir of demented Beach Boys vocal harmonies, Cale starts to scream orders – “Give up the ghost! Bring out your dead! Get on with your work! Kick out the jams!” This is Cale at his most nihilistic, but even this song pales in intensity besides the near-demonic “Letter From Abroad.” Inspired by Beneath The Veil, Saira Shah’s TV documentary about the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan, and written before 9/11 but obviously gaining extra relevance as a result, this finds Cale reaching new peaks of rage. Powered by a groove reminiscent of the Beta Band covering “No Diggity,” Cale bloodily narrates the countdown to Year Zero (“In a few hours the heat will hang over town/As the north-east monsoon comes rolling in”). Screaming violas and guitars now take over as Cale continues to intone: “They’re cutting their heads off in the soccer fields/Stretching their necks in the goal.” A distant voice of doom (intoning a Catholic benediction) booms out over a Ligeti choir.
The second version of “Things (X)” emerges from the wreckage; the stench of decay evident everywhere. No more singalong pop as Cale slurs and sneers “Keep your gun in your pocket and your tongue in your mouth” over ugly guitar and piano death throes. The track fades to the sound of a marching band playing “Land Of Hope And Glory.” Britain surrenders.
The record ends with a love song, of sorts: “Over Her Head,” though few love songs begin with the words “She sees flames in the kitchen/It’s a vision of hell” or conclude “She loves everybody/She’ll even love me.” The boat is rocking, and perhaps sinking. The grandiose piano gives way to an apocalyptic guitar and drums onslaught. By the time of its closing viola squall, hope seems unattainable, but even the recognition of that possibility is in itself a reaffirmation that hope exists.
HoboSapiens isn’t quite Cale’s masterpiece; that title still belongs securely to Music For A New Society, but it is certainly the best and most radical thing he has done since that outpouring of grief, rage and torment which is unparalleled in popular music. But in this year of exceptional musical timidity (people like the Kings of Leon virtually apologising for being born 25 years too late), Cale’s unapologetic anger and adventure are more needed than ever.
8. ROBERT WYATT - Cuckooland
Or “Mad World” of course. Or “Cloud Cuckoo Land” obviously. 1997’s wonderful Shleep - the grief and torment of Rock Bottom finally having resolved and achieved closure – saw Robert Wyatt happy, if cautiously so. With his first album in six years, Cuckooland, he is less ostensibly happy. The world has changed again, or changed back, in those six years. Wyatt’s rage may be far harder to gauge than Cale’s, but it is anger – at The War, at the West – which drives this new collection of songs, as well as, more profoundly, regret. And his means of coming to terms with it musically may be much quieter than Cale’s, but are certainly no less radical.
As the world burns using religion as an excuse, Wyatt uses the first track “Just A Bit,” to examine whether the amount of faith and religious belief he still has in his heart is excusable in the world of Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, to whom the song is dedicated) and whether he feels guilty that what is in his heart does not equate with what is in his head (“I’m as mad as a hatter/I feel safer touching wood”). He knows what, uncontrolled, this sort of thinking can lead to (“as wailing walls induce psychosis”) but reminds us that without religion, there would be no art and no music (“Transcendental art’s religion/Thinking you’ll improve your mind/When all it does (if you’re in luck)/Is camouflage the daily grind” he sings ironically, knowing full well that music can in many cases – and you know this in your heart, G – save people’s lives. Including ours). Musically it’s as gorgeous as anything Wyatt’s ever done – the trademark melancholy melody (Monk via Carla Bley), the forlorn synthesisers, and now also the forlorn trumpet/cornet of Wyatt himself, returning to his first instrument. Much more prominent and assured than it was on Shleep, the rough-and-ready wistfulness of Wyatt’s trumpet is very Chet Baker, although the soul is that of Mongezi Feza (whose death was the prime catalyst in Wyatt’s retreat from music in the late ‘70s).
(though G reminded me on Thursday that, yes, the Brotherhood/Blue Notes were musically phenomenal, but that as human beings “they were all music, they were only music, they didn’t live, these people were really fucked up as humans…most musicians are like that.” Still, their music even now helps me live, though sadly it didn’t help them to live. Says a lot about the egotistical/one-sided nature of music consumer vs. musician, doesn’t it?)
“Just A Bit,” however, is gorgeously sad (I dare you not to crumble at the way in which Wyatt sings “wood” at the end of the first verse). The next track, “Old Europe,” is a lovely reverie based on the brief liaison between Juliette Greco and the young Miles in Paris in 1949. Wyatt’s drumming is perhaps more noticeable on this record than it has been for a long time; extremely active and propulsive – a remarkable achievement; his cymbal technique is almost on a par with that of Billy Higgins. Gilad Atzmon’s one-man sax section career around the song like Montmartre traffic (“the ghosts of two people in love”) and Wyatt again is honest about the love for the past which is such an integral part of him (“I’ll be dreaming again/Always dreams of yesterdays/Those days live on/Safe here in my heart”) but canny enough to know that the future still has to be faced. And the subsidiary, or main, significance of these lines lie in the fact that “Old Europe” was the pejorative recently employed by Donald Rumsfeld in reference to France’s refusal to participate in the Gulf War; although not mentioned in Wyatt’s notes, this surely must have been the song’s trigger point.
“Tom Hay’s Fox” in contrast is sepulchral, disturbing, edge-of-the-world electronica. Wyatt materialises out of the fog halfway through to intone a grim verse (“What light there is/Is too different/To indicate any direction/What light there is/Tells us nothing”). Brian Eno is credited with “the last note” if not the Last Trump.
Then we have the album’s epic, “Forest,” a moving tribute to the gypsies exterminated in WWII and who are still being exterminated today, and musically the nearest thing here to the anthemic Wyatt of “Sea Song” and “Shipbuilding.” Over its immensely patient eight minutes, Dave Gilmour contributes pertinent guitar, a chorus (including Eno) turns the song into a kind of after-hours “Hey Jude” singalong; it’s very low-key but could not be more profound.
Another important contributor to this album is Karen Mantler, the daughter of Carla Bley and Michael M, who has written and co-sings/plays three of its songs. “Beware” is a heavily ironic series of aphorisms which tell us “don’t trust anyone/they might be your enemy/if you’re not careful/you might get hurt one last time/it’s just a warning/beware.” Withdraw from life (i.e. don’t) set to a characteristically circuitous melody (very Carla B) nicely offset by Michael Evans’ hyperactive drum loop.
“Cuckoo Madame” is slightly obscure in its intent (“Yellow fingers clinging to the chain link fence/Bombers above you/Bombers behind you” – so actually not that obscure). Seemingly about a “mad woman” who abandoned her baby at birth (“[you] had to fly before you saw another mother feed your chick”) the song then blossoms out to damn those who would damn her (“You’re Greta Garbo/You’re the witch of Salem/You’re anti-social…and/YOU ARE TOO BLOODY LONELY FOR THE LIKES OF US.” Wyatt doesn’t shout that last line of course, but you know immediately where the emphasis lies). The sneering at “not joining in” which naturally provokes the people Leonard Cohen described as “the wretched and the meek” to opt out even further.
And then we have a simple instrumental piano reading by Wyatt of the old Buddy Holly hit “Raining In My Heart.” Although deceptively light and upbeat-sounding, the gulf of emotion exists in the words which appear on the sleeve but not in the song itself. Grief cuts so much deeper when it is suggested rather than expressed.
To close the first half of the record (Wyatt has included a 30-second break to allow the listener to “take a break, go and make a cup of tea”) he sings “Lullaby For Hamza,” a song about a child who was born at the outset of the 1991 Gulf War and who now dreads the thought of war reoccurring. A plaintive lullaby, the accordion of Jennifer Maidman and the trombone of Annie Whitehead weep along with the voice of Wyatt.
The 30-second pause, naturally, is as emotional as anything else on this record. And in the same way that a similar pause in Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels delineated the line between wanting to die and deciding to live, Cuckooland now roars back into life with the terrific “Trickle Down.” “Open your window/Lend an ear,” sings Wyatt benignly as the horns (Whitehead, Atzmon and Wyatt himself on trumpet) and rhythm make like an Ogun recording date of old (Harry Miller’s “Touch Hungry” specifically springs to mind). Of course, though, Wyatt is also credited with “Eno’s toys” which he uses to stretch out, filter, re-sample the musicians’ playing, such that in the end it becomes a kind of lo-fi “Third Stone From The Sun.” I especially love the bit at 2:43 when Annie Whitehead lets out a lovely low-register smear; throughout this album in general she again proves that she is one of the world’s finest trombonists. The song concludes “Press on your window/Feel the pane” to which standard of pun one’s instinctive reaction is “Aargh!” but Wyatt, as he always does, gets away with it.
Things cool down again with Wyatt and Mantler duetting on a subdued reading of Jobim’s “Insensatez” (a.k.a. “How Insensitive”), though note how Wyatt doesn’t change the song’s gender (“How insensitive I must have seemed/When he told me that he loved me”) which may indicate a greater note of betrayal.
(Although Wyatt doesn’t mention it on the sleeve, his 1985 album Old Rottenhat begins with a deceptively bitter song called “Alliance,” essentially an attack on his former Matching Mole colleague and former fellow CP member, bassist Bill McCormick, for crossing over to the SDP. “It’s hard to talk to enemies/And we are enemies/What we had in common/Makes it even worse.” One wonders if this still rankles with him. McCormick is also, incidentally, the brother of the late Ian MacDonald)
“Mister E” and “Life Is Sheep” are the other two Karen Mantler compositions; both seemingly simplistic but actually extremely haunting – especially the lines in “Mister E” which say “When will I learn to trust myself, embrace mystery, not be afraid?” To which I reply: Thursday last in Hampstead. But you get the point. Wyatt sardonically signs off by saying “God knows. I haven’t got a clue.” Meanwhile “Life Is Sheep” is a belated postscript to Wyatt’s eerie 1982 minimalist essay “Pigs” (“The animals all have numbers/So you won’t get too attached”).
Between the two songs we have some welcome humour, with “Lullaloop.” Written by his missus Alfreda Benge, this sees Wyatt in classic Victor Meldrew mode, until you realise that of course it’s Alfreda having a friendly go at him for driving his wheelchair too fast or staying up all night listening to loud bebop (“Slow down/Night’s for lying down”). Guest guitarist Paul Weller contributes some of his most adventurous playing for some time, interacting very well indeed with Annie’s amusingly irascible ‘bone. And there are few more heartwarming moments on record this year than the point when Alfreda’s voice emerges quietly from the undertow and tells Wyatt, “Sweet dreams, old chap, sweet dreams.” The amused exasperation you sometimes get from people who love and cherish you more than anything.
“Foreign Accents” is a minimalist exercise which uses only a handful of words to express several lifetimes of emotion; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mordechai Vanunu (the scientist imprisoned for revealing Israel’s secret stock of nuclear weapons) and Mohammad Mossadegh (the Iranian prime minister deposed in a CIA-engineered coup in the ‘50s in order to let in the Shah and denationalise Iranian oil). How everything leads to something else, and ultimately, of course, The War.
So things end in a melancholy way. “Brian The Fox” is more uncertain ambience with just four words in its lyrics (“Overnight/Upstream/Downwind/Overland”). The horns of Wyatt and Whitehead are overwhelming in this context; it sounds as though they actually are weeping. And to close, a sensitive instrumental reading, led by the never more emotional clarinet of Gilad Atzmon (himself of course an Israeli exile, as is the excellent bassist Yaron Stavi) of the Baghdad bombing lament “La Ahada Yalam (No-One Knows).” To paraphrase Mingus on Mariano (in Black Saint And The Sinner Lady) no words or examples are needed to show the tears which must be expressed. Deeply human, full of grief and yet full of hope. A beautiful and still hopeful record.
posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .