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

Thursday, April 27, 2006
GNARLS BARKLEY

The sentient critic always has to be wary of hyperbole, but the hindsight of tomorrow sometimes has to be measured against the passions of the day whose parameters are set by one’s experience of the past. What I am confident in saying now is that “Crazy” is one of the greatest of number one singles; what I am slightly less confident in whispering is that it just might be the greatest. Why?

Above all else, because of the sheer confidence with which the record unites past and future sounds with intemperate current emotions. That plunked bass – itself reshaped from the bassline Danger Mouse provided for Gorillaz’ “Kids With Guns” – was ubiquitous in the pop of ‘67-8; set against a 1975 flat disco drumbeat, a mocking (self or us? Both?) but passionate pop-soul vocal which could have belonged to 1964 or 1987, a hint of 1994 Massive Attack neurostrings, the underlying “Ghost Town” dread of 1981 and a central sentiment which is unmistakably 2006; namely, the adherence to “normality” in a world which is clearly sinking into madness. Is it better to sink blissfully in mad oblivion, or use that same madness to tower above the drowning? Cee-Lo Green’s vocal, which could be Engelbert (“And I hope that you are having the time of your life”) or Terence Trent D’Arby (“Ha ha ha! Bless your soul!”), could suggest either option. The lack of fuss and total focus of purpose and intent with which he begins the song, with little warning (just four tolling plucked bass notes), is shocking in a 2006 where pop is expected to take its time to warm up for its supposed Grand Passion (“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Shayne Ward!”). Green sings like a man who knows he hasn’t got much time left to deliver his message, either because the world is about to end or because he knows he’s just about to tip over into madness. So the urgency of the labial repetitions (“I remember when, I remember I remember,” “Come on now, who do you, whodoyou whodoyouwhodoyou?”) entrances the listener immediately – how long has it been since such instant intensity could be found in a pop vocal? You are compelled to try to keep up with his flow of thought. He welcomes madness as a release (“There was something so pleasant about that place/Even your emotions had an echo…And so much space”); as Milligan used to say, his ambition was to be an idiot, free of taxes, free of responsibilities, to be left alone to sit with his feet in a bowl of custard for an hour if necessary.

But “Crazy” could also act as an incitement to rise out of the mud in a different way, as the song once again switches to a major key for “My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on the limb/All I remember is thinking I want to be like them.” To die trying being preferable to “existing.” And one has to remember that that sentiment could apply just as validly to the suicide bomber as to the Everest climber, or rapper. However, the craziness is welcomed more and more fervently with every chorus; note Green’s steady falsetto “possibly” on the first chorus, his shakier “just like me” on the second, and the final, triumphant (?) “Probably.” If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing. And then it simply ends, like a diary or blog entry, without fuss or setpiece, when the story has been told, the emotion emptied. End of bulletin, think twice (as opposed to the “don’t think twice” of “Sugar Baby Love”) but don’t let it pass you by. And on Top Of The Pops Green, dressed in full naval uniform, and accompanied by full choir and string section, turned it into a shattering staccato epic of a ballad, a threnody Gene Pitney should have lived to sing (listen to “I’m Gonna Be Strong” again, then tell me otherwise) or indeed Billy MacKenzie; and then you think that in the most important way “Crazy” joins all the dots needed from Johnnie Ray to UNKLE…and those are a lot of dots.

Inevitably, the album St Elsewhere doesn’t really live up to the implacable greatness of “Crazy,” but neither is it 2006’s World Clique – one unarguable classic plus a support act of “interesting” tracks which you appreciate but know you will never listen to again. What it resembles much more is the Anticon/Dif Jux ethos gone pop – the quantum leap which the Mike Ladds, Sage Francises and Cannibal Oxen of this world have never quite achieved (with the partial exception of Ladd in his Majesticons guise) – an ostensibly sunny and daffy album which on closer examination turns out to be a tortured diatribe against a world in which the singer clearly feels uncomfortable and sore. Sometimes Danger Mouse sets up 78 rpm Warp/Rephlex-type drum n’ bass gone mentalist rhythms, superimposing what sometimes sounds like dodgy ‘80s cop show themes (“Transformer,” the opening “Go-Go Gadget Gospel”); at other times he slows down to Wagon Christ/Earthling 1995 tripping hopping pace, with variable results; “Who Cares” is a quite marvellous restaging of 1970 Temptations in a Ninja Tune flotation tank, with Green’s Beckett-like pleas of “I could go on and on and on” answered by the baleful bass voice “Who cares?,” but despite a promising intro of Oliver Reed flutes and forgotten (Cowsills?) bubblegum vocals, “Online” (which is about cocaine, not computers) degenerates into a 2001 Fun Lovin’ Criminals B-side. When Green raps, the Mouse background becomes more generic (the jet set/Cibo Matto strings behind “Feng Shui”). There are a couple of workaday nu-soul workouts in the title track and “Storm Coming” which are moderately engaging, although Jamie Lidell trod the same territory rather more subtly on last year’s Multiply. Meanwhile, the slapstick horror of “The Boogie Monster” and “Necromancer” is merely silly and belongs on a mid-‘80s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins album.

Overall the feeling is of a stall-setting-out grab-bag; there is some resonance with early Was (Not Was), if only because Green’s voice sounds at times uncannily like Harry Bowens’. The cover of the Violent Femmes’ venerable “Gone Daddy Gone” is played surprisingly straight, though as with “Begin The Beguine” the song is such an intrinsically good one that it seems impossible to do a bad version. Sometimes the best results come out when they try less ostensibly hard; thus the closing “The Last Time” is a straightforward and wonderfully-curved dance-funk anthem, coming on like Engelbert with the 1973 Isley Brothers, and its (yet again) affirmation on the side of life (“Dance with me darling/Step with me sweetheart/The world is watching” – oooh, yessss….) is completely welcome.

There are some darker and profounder moments on the record, however. “Just A Thought” is Green’s epic meditation on suicide, and his straight gospel vocal in the midst of disorientating electronics groans and bangs, set against Morricone-esque Spanish guitars and tolling bells, suggests the world’s last sane man, marooned in the middle of a block of crack houses, struggling to hold onto his sanity as the world palpably cracks around him. His closing signoff “But I’m fine” is not exactly convincing. And perhaps the other truly sublime moment on St Elsewhere comes with the fabulous “Smiley Faces” (probably the record’s only other potential hit single) which sets Green’s powerhouse voice against a hustling Motown beat which in turn is progressively dislocated by electronic whooshes and slides, and dazed-sounding backing vocals, all underlined by a stately organ and a gorgeous set of chord changes – the Four Tops produced by Thomas Leer and remixed by the Flying Lizards with Ivor Cutler in the background playing the Castaways’ “Liar Liar.” But “Crazy” remains Gnarls Barkley’s one undentable masterpiece thus far; its ambiguous, tortuous and cunning aura sets a new standard for 21st century pop which one hopes will be expanded upon and made even yellower by astute pop operatives to come – even though it could legitimately stand as the world’s last pop record. And then I see you smiling and remember that there is no end.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, April 25, 2006
PLANETS CONSPIRE TO FURNISH US WITH EMPATHY

Although it’s not due for official British release for a further two months, it is Rough Trade’s album of this month, and the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden is where I found it, and I will still take a lot of convincing to believe that you didn’t sneak into that shop while I was away and place a copy there so I could find it, exactly when I needed to hear it. Emotionally, “blown away” would be a sadly sober underestimation of how I feel about Planets Conspire, the first album by Toronto’s Meligrove Band to be issued in Britain, and yes they’re another Toronto band, but that’s how it goes when you’re in love, you discover multiple beautiful new worlds all at the same time, and to this mind Toronto in 2006 is as excitingly creative for music as Glasgow was in 1980, or Chicago in 1994, with all these new lives to take into blissful account. The highest compliment I can pay these new Canadians is that listening to them makes me feel sixteen again (and, yes, partly in the Buzzcocks sense).

How great is Planets Conspire? Put simply, it manages to achieve what the latter-day Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips have aspired to accomplish, namely the perfect fusion of musical adventure, deranged glee and bottomless, ever-full reservoirs of genuine emotion and compassion. To hear singer Jason Nunes squeal with joy “Then God will sing, SING a pretty SONG!” and thereafter immediately howl “OH, COME ON!!!” may lead the listener to discern a deep spiritual leyline running through the Meligrove Band’s music – but this spirituality is worlds away from the facile chanting of the Polyphonic Spree or creepy Cliff Richard Godheadism, is more in keeping with the spirits of Bessie Banks and Pharaoh Sanders, but in a post-post-rock way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an opening track as welcoming and overwhelmingly joyous as “Isle Of Yew” (the titular pun is obvious, the deeper emotional links with “Isles Of Sleep,” the song which resolves Bill Fay’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow, less so). It begins with a piano melody which would fit easily into a Keane or Coldplay record, but the live, breathing, boxed-in drums immediately lift the song into a different and brighter sphere. “I feel like I’ve been living alone,” Nunes muses, “I guess I must be doing it wrong/Ooh (and crucially the Meligrove Band are a band big on the power of “ooh”s) I, I think about it/Ooh, I, I DREAM about it,” and then for the home strait of “Oh I never want to be alone again” and leaping over the winning post with the YOU KNOW IT MELTS ME celebratory shout of “I LOVE YOU! And I hope you’ll come through,” whereupon gentle strings accordingly come through. A pause leads to strengthened affirmation: “If you look you’ll see I’m still around/Ooh, OH, I’m here for you/I’ll never leave you.” There are signs here of a message from the afterlife, underlined by the long, lowly hovering final string chord (the bottom of the “Save The Country” trumpet canyon?) and throughout the record there are increasing signifiers that this is a suite of remembrance, and therefore would have spoken to me in an entirely different way a year ago, though clearly I now demand to interpret it as what it means apropos you and me, and geographical distance rather than emotional absence.

The more sprightly title track is (like most of the album) piano-driven, and recalls a refreshed Ben Folds or possibly even a superior Supertramp. It is a wonderful dewy dawn of a song immortalising those moments of initial tingle (“Oh, where have I been?…/Much too busy keeping cool/That’s when I met you/And my life changed/I have opened my eyes/Now my heart sings” – if this were Barry Manilow a couple of ahems might be permissible, but Nunes sings it as if no one had ever sung such lyrics before, and there’s the Meligrove magic). But then again, the bend sinister: “If you keep the love I gave you/You’ll turn around when nothing’s left” followed by silence. As with “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” the guide is more spirit than corporeal being.

“Grasshoppers In Honey” takes the internal Meligrove struggle out to face the world, from the opening ecstatic flurry of “Ooh, I love the way that you love me,” to the New Seekers rewrite “I’d love to teach the world to live the way it sings in fantasy,” before Nunes once again veers on the desperate (“PLEASE listen to my PLEAS!”), which in turn leads to a love/hate struggle between minor key guitar storms and major key bubblegum (the intro to Roy Orbison’s “Penny Arcade,” no less!). Whistling and double drums provide reinforcements, and good finally triumphs, as underwritten by the concluding downward-cascading double piano signoff.

“Everyone’s A Winner” isn’t the Hot Chocolate song but shares the same beliefs; though it sounds slightly like the Boo Radleys playing “Cold As Ice,” these beliefs are explicitly positive (“And when you want it more than anything/Then fate will bring you all that once seemed lost”), culminating in more feedback and squeals of “PLEASE BELIEVE IN ME!” and “I BELIEVE IN YOU!” before the piano collapses to the bottom of the lift shaft.

“Feversleep” is an ever-shifting instrumental reverie which makes me think of Pet Sounds as re-recorded by Olivia Tremor Control, moving through ghostly Bartokian piano, fast 6/8 Mahavishnu riffing, brass figures halfway between mariachi and klezmer, wordless vocal humming, some Weill-ish theatrical flourishes and finally a female scream, leading into the glummer “Ages And Stages” – note the piano pausing, as if suspended over a suddenly opening trapdoor, after the words “I was afraid of the footsteps I’d hear,” but then note how the spirit picks up instantly (“Oh I can feel it’s time!”) and yet slows in echoes to a discordant half-tempo over which Nunes asks the rhetorical question “Were we crazy?” – which in itself begs immediate linkage with the Gnarls Barkley song (more about him/them/it imminently, but for now I’m pretty convinced that “Crazy” is the best askew-mainstream pop single since Prince’s “Kiss”) – followed by a searing affirmative of “OR IS THIS LOVE BEGINNING?” immediately answered by a fusillade of drums and guitar, then strings again, building up monophonically over the refrain “Now, are the old days over?” Eventually, they will need to be if any new love is to begin.

“Our Love Will Make The World Go Round” is the record’s nearest thing to a “Wake Up”-type anthem with its very 1970 Plastic Ono Band echoed vocal (in this context, a good thing) of “I must have died a hundred times/(a sublime micropause just to check)…And I’m still breathing”). “Start the healing,” Nunes commands. “We’ll do what we can,” he offers in a lovely, delicate and generous five-note descending scale, “with these emotions.” The song culminates in his pronouncement “I will try,” so the world isn’t perfect, and neither are people, but that’s not going to stop us, nothing can stop us now, you know that, and so does the drone chant with which this hymn climaxes.

“Free On The Air” could almost be an Oasis ballad with sense and point added. “The stars are born so we can die” (cf. Kate Bush’s “Sunset”) is the opening meditation, but the absolutely loving chorus line of “Find someone who’s easy to love” is irresistible, as are the sentiments of “We’re holding onto all the loving that we’re never letting go” – ooh, that is so right, you can feel it can’t you, especially when it segues into that gorgeous counterpart of baroque violin and fuzz bass. “Find someone with an easy love. I’m easy,” and you know, I never always thought I was easy to love, though I should have done, because it was other people who found it difficult, who couldn’t see through the obstacles I never placed there, who wanted me only to become a replica of somebody or something else, but you alone, you found the key to me, and isn’t it so easy and wasn’t it so easy to find, really, and if anyone else had realised it was that easy to love me and for me to love in return, well, but then again you’re not anyone else, and thank God for that, you alone had the strength and compassion to see the heart of me, the soul of me, and now it’s so easy for me to live again…

And to live again means finally letting go of the past, and that’s what the last few songs on Planet Conspire sum up so fundamentally and brilliantly. So “Free On The Air” is a straighter, major-key variant on Sebadoh’s “Spoiled,” with its quiver-inducing mention of “places where we had a laugh,” and its stark admission that “recollections get the best of me” (past tense as far as I’m concerned; now you get the best of me) leading to a sitting-in-the-corner-weeping-with-strange-happiness scenario of a melodic fugue and roundelay leading in turn to Boards of Canada-ish fragments of birdsong and children’s chatter, all finally dissolving into echoes of its own remembering. I understand immediately what the Meligrove Band are saying here, at least to me: the past was sweet and bright but in finality it is the past…

“…So let the sunshine come out and make it better!” as if I didn’t expect a song entitled “You’re Alive” (OH YES!) to conjure up the Fifth Dimension. “Do not ask yourself why the water is not wetter…/You’re not alone/YOU’RE ALIVE (with a lovely Beatles harmonic sixth),” and the chord changes are gorgeous, and it all climaxes in another spiritual chant: “YOU’RE SO BEAUTIFUL!” – so much more poignant for its wavering harmonies (this track in general makes me think of Badfinger with a happy ending – Goodfinger, perhaps?).

“And you know, you’ve been right all along…”

And straight into the giant question mark of a finale, “Delivered From All Blindness Of Heart” with its initial electronic whirrs (another abyss) giving way to undiluted Beach Boys harmonies and a very brief but not morose lyric: “Now that it’s over/I’m on my own/Though I am not there/And it seems all is lost/I’ve got more than ever/I’ve found love.” So those first two lines are the first two years of CoM, then the next two lines the missing two years of CoM, and the final two lines are the nowness of CoM – that’s how I choose to interpret it. As a not-at-all out-of-place Minimoog swoops into the high-register ether, setting up the long and deliberate instrumental outro (with the occasional spice of elbows-to-keyboard), I think that this record is you finding me, persuading me to release myself from my grief and guilt, revealing to me the love and future which had existed all along, and there’s an ending, and it’s another extended pause, a long electronic chord drone with specks of feedback (Escalator “ends” the same way!) which in itself is eventually subsumed by musique concrete effects which in turn reveal themselves as – a mother and baby, and an orchestral film soundtrack, probably coming from the TV in the living room. That in turn evaporates into a closing flurry of abstract electronica, as though turning to me and saying with a smile, “Well, the choice is yours.” Well, I am yours, we both know that, and so Planets Conspire conspires to make me even more euphoric because despite its subtext of a material love now gone, it doesn’t close off the future, admits the possibility that I might find that recipe again – as indeed I have. It makes me even more acutely aware of the imperishable and precious love there is between us; what Planets Conspire finally affirms is that for us there is now the chance of a happy ending. The kind of irrefutable Faith which even the George Michael of 1987 might not have fully grasped; it reminds me that in this world, some things are bigger and greater than even music, namely, you and me.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Monday, April 24, 2006
PAUL MORLEY IS FINISHED – AND IT’S ALL GIRLS ALOUD’S FAULT

There is a writer named Paul Morley who contributes regularly to British broadsheet newspapers with regular repeats of what is essentially the same article. On first sight he seems no more than yet another reactionary fifty-quid man angrily denying youth their youth because he is no longer capable of recapturing his at first hand. Readers may always rely on his rhetorical potshots at Kids Today for their supposed failure to live up to The Kids Of 30 Years Ago, most virulently manifested in his regular anti-popist pops at Girls Aloud.

Taking Morley’s
rants, which place him closer to Hornby than he would care to admit, and of course thereby please his fifty-quid readership, in tandem with other recent blasts from The Canon Of Music Writers and Proper Journalists – and also with the fact that the single most prominent cause of my falling out with the membership of said Canon is my continued championing of Girls Aloud, which has been responsible for almost as many ruptures and rifts as your average Pacific tectonic shift – it would seem that Girls Aloud are now on the verge of usurping Metal Machine Music as the ultimate acid test for anyone who considers themselves a music writer who counts in the 21st century. If you cannot write sexily, provocatively, usefully or at least interestingly about Girls Aloud without deploying the words “gaudy,” “enslaved,” “manufactured,” “plastic” (as a perjorative), “phony,” “canned,” “candy” (again as a perjorative) or “punkier” (as a positive) then you have no more hope of being considered a significant music writer in 2006 than Bernie Clifton or Jimmy “Whirlwind TM” White. If you shut the door so firmly on pop, then you are literally in possession of half the facts, have read only half the story, have, strictly speaking, half a mind. If you insist in persisting on reliving or permitting only those artists who do little more than juggle with elements of music you liked in 1975, you cannot hope to be moved beyond words and tears by the Gnarls Barkley performance I’ve just seen on TOTP – the greatest TOTP performance since “Party Fears Two,” and indeed with the Soul Machine in full naval costume, with I swear the ghost of Bob Sharples conducting the orchestra, it could fairly be described as Opportunity Knocks directed by Billy MacKenzie. If you glue yourself to that Stein-like line you’re drawing, rather than considering pulling the entire fucking line down altogether, then the line will twist in upon itself and eventually hang you. If you write about Girls Aloud in 2006 the way in which Paolo Hewitt wrote about ABC in 1982 then you might as well have not lived beyond 1952, for all the attention and love The Kids will actually pay you. If you describe Girls Aloud in 2006 in the same way in which most music writers described Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984 (“the spooky, enslaved hooligans they really are,” which I’m sure must have appeared in a heavily censored ZTT press kit) then, indirectly speaking, your punk might as well not have happened (Hudson and Ford?).

This Paul Morley is, as I said, that Nick Hornby’s alter ego insofar only as, whereas Hornby sticks rigidly to his approved canon of Byrds, Buffalo and Costello, plus the Marahs of this world who know the rules and open their bank statements, Morley adheres morbidly to his approachable carrion of Can, Barrett and Ramones. Never mind that the Secret Machines might be Pink Floyd had they been formed by Michael Barrett (one of the reviews I read of the new Zutons album described them – favourably – as “Roxy ’72 without Ferry or Eno,” which is either unimaginable or, in a Richard Williams kind of a way, would have, if extant, been the missing link between Back Door and Trevor Watts’ Amalgam); they make the right recognisable moves and Morley pretends to be moved. I suppose they do provide succour for those “who’ve long lusted after something that sounds like Neil Young singing Neu!” but where were they 23 years ago when Neil Young actually achieved that, with his Top 30 album Trans (and it’s still my top Neil Young album, and I admittedly might be the only person who thinks that)? Or indeed, however good Midlake are or aren’t (someone send me a promo please so I can decide), that “country lane that connects 1967 San Francisco to 1980 Grangemouth” has actually been wandered along by Mojave 3 for the best part of a decade.

Let’s not fall into the poptimist trap of worshipping Imbruglia above MIMEO either; such souls similarly only know the other half of the story (even if, as I know for a fact, the former at least in part finances the latter). This “sending into space” is happening, and happening now, but it’s happening in Canada, delicately speaking, rather than the USA, with people like Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade and the Meligrove Band actually doing things in combinations (of influences, innovation and emotional candour which doesn’t cross the line into hysteria) I’ve never heard before. And of course I would say that. That doesn’t make it any less the case. And there is also, above just about all, The Drift by Scott Walker, which I will obviously be writing about in oceanic depth in a few weeks’ time, but all I need to say for now is that currently it makes all other music sound beige. But Girls Aloud – at least, the Xenomania Girls Aloud who have sustained three albums without requiring Stan Boardman voiceovers – are a happy and indispensable piece of the 2006 musical jigsaw, and to crow at them is ultimately for the middle-aged man to crow and sneer at the lives and loves of teenage girls. And, of course, gays. Otherwise we end up at the dark end of the sealed-in Wire/Dissensus/Resonance street which can only define itself against what everything else isn’t (just because the light end of the Poptimism street is light doesn’t disqualify it from being a dead end, either) – and who wants to live there?

In any event, we must take great care not to confuse the Observer Music Monthly’s Paul Morley with the other, illustrious writer Paul Morley, who buckled his Barthesian swash through the stolid pages of the NME between 1977 and 1982, who demanded that Bucks Fizz and Dollar be given credence equal to, say, Junior Giscombe or Pigbag, who would have wasted no time in ridiculing and demolishing these diatribes against “phony fame-pop groups” (like the Sex Pistols weren’t). That Paul Morley would not have grabbed in desperation at comedy groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“punkier, Syd-like groups”? Does he mean Syd Little?), whose eyeless pudding bowl of a singer is the missing link between Nicole Richie and Beki Bondage, or the Secret Machines, who are OK if your life’s long enough for OK, except mine isn’t, and yes Bowie raves about them, but once Bowie raved about Peter Straker and the Hands of Dr Teleny so you learn to treat Bowie’s raves with an eleven-foot pole at the best of times. When these two bands appeared on TOTP it was rather like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1982 followed by Bauhaus. And Sigur Rós the soundtrack to a revolution other than that of Planet Earth? – well, I rather like them but of course they are the missing link between Barclay James Harvest and Mezzoforte, so no flags will be burned to their slow-burning epics. But the razor-sharp, astute, passionate Paul Morley would not have made such glaring errors of judgement, as opposed to the james-blunt, contrite, bored (in the worrying, Ian MacDonald sense) Paul Morley who writes for the big papers to reassure everyone that no music is worthwhile apart from that which derives from, or reminds him of, the music of 30 years ago, when others were alive.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, April 12, 2006
A DUOPOLY OF 1969
PART ONE: TROUT MASK REPLICA


“We didn’t want to make sense. The last thing we wanted to do was to make sense. So we worked on that.”
(Spike Milligan on the genesis of the Goons)

The Child
…and the secret, really, to understanding, to dwelling within, Trout Mask Replica is to make sure it’s the first record you ever hear; I first heard it sometime in 1970, aged six – my dad had the record and thought it would be absolutely up my street, but that’s why it’s so great to contemplate music when you’ve been brought up on Spike Milligan, Batman and the Bonzos before you get to the Beatles, thus to me the Magic Band were the most magical of bands, like a Disney-Marvel fusion of daft and colourful, I mean how could you not be six years old and not love a band called Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band – they certainly out-coloured Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in my book – those crazy costumes which made me think of the Banana Splits, and those names! Zoot Horn Rollo! The Mascara Snake!! A drummer called Drumbo!!! Whom they forgot to credit on the sleeve!!!! I knew a bit of Ornette by that time, but what the fuck was a simran horn or a flesh horn; these things sounded like treasure plundered from Tintin’s idea of Incas…

…and it tickled me and it threw me and it dazzled me and it unbound my spells because to begin with the record told us to be happy – “My smile is stuck! I cannot go back to your Frownland!” And the guitars and drums, well they weren’t the Tremeloes, I could tell even that, but they slid tantalisingly down the slide-rule of my mind and unearthed measurements I hadn’t even considered, and they were all over the place, not quite together, never more together, but if they were falling off the cliff you could be pretty damn sure they were doing so deliberately, not like lemmings, but because they trusted in the existence of a bouncy, benign trampoline to catch them beneath, and why don’t you come and reside in our bouncy castle, it was gold and gaffe, inapt and immaculate…

…and in six senses Trout Mask Replica is really a set of hallucinatory nursery rhymes, thus “Ella Guru” and “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” and “Sugar ‘N Spikes” somersault their way through mathematical rods and make you want to slide down banisters and pass the parcel while chanting “Here she comes walkin’/Lookin’ like uh zoo” uh was that the right one, but the rhythm was sparse yet multiplex, it never settled for foursquare when it could blossom out in all true and imagined directions like a Starship Enterprise run on beans (Rockette Morton: “I run on laser beams!”), in other words Beefheart’s singsongs made you want to shift and sway and shake all over your bedroom and not simply plod like dull 1969 adults did; like Ornette and George Clinton and Lee Perry (all of whom attracted me by their use of the cartoon, and what is Pollock's White Light if not a cartoon, if not an untied Tiepolo?) they ask the question: why not this way?

The Child With The Horn

…for people still have problems when Beefheart takes to the sax; no, his soprano isn’t Steve Lacy’s or Evan Parker’s, but then that level of proficiency and independent vision would not be suitable for Beefheart’s music, for if we are to assimilate this idea of the greatest children’s album there has ever been, then we must think like children, or at least as this six-year-old author would have thought. When Beefheart and The Mascara Snake do their lengthy soprano sax/bass clarinet duet throughout “Hair Pie: Bake 1,” they discover harmony by accident, they sound like cats attempting to squash Cadillacs, they sound like the first people making the first music, like children learning how to think and respond and create, they fashion an environment into which the child can enter and glimpse the vast world which lies beyond, if they’ll only let it…

…Beefheart’s sax is a sex machine, even more so than James Chance’s alto, and without any of the latter’s malice come to that, and these duologues you hear in “Wild Life” and “Ant Man Bee” where Beefheart appears to be in conversation, or on the point of consummation, with his sax/alter ego/true child signified, well you can feel his mind slaloming like an overoiled pinball, from extreme to intuitive, indeed all of the things which even his newly invented language cannot adequately articulate, because when we’re ecstatic and DELIVERED – and note that anagrammatic reed devil there – we know that any words aren’t nearly enough; and indeed…

…”When Big Joan Sets Up” provides us with the biggest hands in rock music, if indeed the Captain is a rock, and why not, why should not rock be the Captain, and it burnishes along with the entirely knowing discovery that this is SEX and this is NEW and dammit when you’ve been writing this while listening to Dale Winton on Pick Of The Pops playing the Top 20 this week in 1969 and squirming at the perceived necessity of Sandie Shaw and Lulu prostituting themselves on forcefed battery food crap like “Monsieur Dupont” and “Boom-Bang-A-Bang,” and they’ve both said much the same themselves, and then you listen to Beefheart’s noble soprano hurtling confidently into the newly-trawled conduit of flesh and noise and pop, finally taking flight, and the alacrity and anticipation are such that you fly with them, and end up rocking back and forth on the windowsill Eastern dervish style and realise THIS IS WHAT SHOULD BE NORMAL and it’s as sexy as 20 fucks and about nine million dirty sox…

The Shyster
Immediately after “Hair Pie: Bake 1” there’s a delicious fragment of chatter where some kids, and notably some girls, stop by the Captain’s place to chew the fat. The Captain is clearly flattered by their interest and enthusiasm, but you just know from his sotto voce baritone that he’s buttering them up for chatting up; and there’s a section where he muses with a chuckle in his voice, “The name of the composition is Neon Meat Dream Of An Octafish,” and for all the world he sounds exactly like Orson Welles, and then you get it; part magician, part mendacious conman, and would we worship him if he were only either? Then there is a lovely prolonged section of silent night; cigarettes are lit, drinks are lifted to lips, contemplating the landscape stretching out before them – it’s very touching, and you would give anything for a camera to have been present.

But then that leads you to the man himself…

The Blimp
Was this seriously intended as a single? “Frank it’s the big hit! It’s the blimp!” Chanted in serious falsetto down the telephone – see also Daniel Johnston’s similarly manic/ecstatic telephonic delivery of “Speeding Motorcyle” with Yo La Tengo backing him on the other end of the line – it’s the most cartoonish moment on the album, yet also perhaps the most desperate (“The brothers hid under their hood”) and that moody piano which takes the song out…and again the self…

The Wolf
…and what is it with that sequence of solo vocal recitatives made up to sound like ancient 78s, “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back,” with its mock crackles which actually form the song’s rhythm, and the mood is playful, gophers rumblin’, one red bean stuck in the bottom of a tin bowl, but also profound in its emotional range, spanning childish wonder – “Well I took off my pants and felt free” – to childish wonder – “It’s night now, and the moon looks like a dandelion” ; then “Well” with its startling full-facial focus and sturdy Paul Robeson baritone (coming straight after the castrated sopranino of Zoot Horn Rollo’s sole lead vocal on “Pena”) and its emotional turnaround with the lines “My mind cracked like custard/Ran red until it sealed,” and finally (un)settling on the unforgiving arena of “Orange Claw Hammer” which lyrically seems to run between “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (“A gingham girl baby girl/Passed me by in tears”) and the first Mad Max film (“Gimme one and I’ll buy you a cherry phosphate”) even though it’s about a sailor who hasn’t seen his children in thirty years, and somehow it begins to be about children in a different and more unsettling way…those tape delays, as though reconstituted from the remnants of an annihilated civilisation…

But The Wolf
“Well” is Howlin’ Wolf through and through, and “Moonlight In Vermont” with its Lifebuoy citations and “Gimme that old time religion” refrain conjures up Howlin’ Wolf’s band all falling through the club roof at the same time…

The guitarist Hubert Sumlin first encountered Howlin’ Wolf at the age of twelve when he attempted to gain entry to a club to see him perform. Denied access, he clambered up the back wall and through a gap at the top, supported by several empty crates, he witnessed the bluesman in full showbiz flow. He became so entranced that he hardly noticed the crates rocking, then giving way, as he tumbled through the wall, landing on the dead centre of the stage in front of an astonished Wolf. He took to Sumlin as a father would to a son, and a few years later paid for him to come to Chicago, and employed him as his lead guitarist for the rest of his long career. Listening to “Spoonful” or “Smokestack Lightnin’” you could scarcely imagine a bigger voice or a bigger human being existing.

…and “China Pig” is where the Captain veers closest to the Wolf, with Doug Moon’s Sumlinisms on acoustic 12-string as Beefheart howls and moans and teases; the tape eventually warps and cuts off abruptly, but it affords us a glimpse of the eminently normal man Don Van Vliet actually is…

Moanin’ At Midnight
Even as a six-year-old, “Dachau Blues” sounded slightly too scary for a children’s album; the deepness of Beefheart’s voice was unsettling, as was the way The Mascara Snake’s bass clarinet seemed to lurch into the picture from stage right and then suddenly screech, like a disturbed tarantula, and I had to wait until The World At War a few years later before I realised what Dachau meant; though the brutalist summation of “War One was balls and powder and blood and snow/War Two rained death and showers and skeletons” is about as concise and comprehensive a summary as anyone could come up with. Then there are the unnameable horrors of “Bill’s Corpse” where Beefheart stops the song entirely to yell, “It’s not the way I’d like it to get together/That’s not the kind of thoughts I’d like to keep,” after a couplet of “The only way they ever all got together/Was not in love, but shameful grief.” And “Dali’s Car” seems to be the last music ever played; the Ventures after the Bomb.

Second Childishness…And Mere Oblivion
“My smile is stuck. I cannot go back to your Frownland.” What does he mean by a frown? “It’s not too late for you/It’s not too late for me/To find my homeland/Where a man can stand by another man/Without an ego flying/With no man lying/And no one dying by an earthly hand.” A lyric which in isolation could have stemmed from the pen of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez. And an 80-minute album which begins with a stuck smile and ends with “I cry but I can’t buy.” The penultimate song “Old Fart At Play” is about a bitter old man – maybe the same sailor of “Orange Claw Hammer” – hiding behind ludicrously labyrinthine disguises, for the sake of hiding himself from the world. Beefheart concludes the piece with a two-part recitative; the first part he delivers straight, again sounding uncannily like Welles reading Huysman’s Against Nature, while the second he hams up in mock-Charles Laughton style, concluding with a bandmate commenting ironically: “Oh man that’s so heavy.” While the subject of the song looks forward to his imminent annihilation (“His excited eyes from within the dark interior glazed/Watered in appreciation of his thoughtful preparation”) – and the factor which will suffocate and kill him is the “very intricate rainbow trout replica” which is presented so mischievously on the record’s cover.

“Wild Life” again – “I’m going up on the mountain for the rest of my life/Before they take my wife” preceded by “They got my mother’s father/And run down all my kin/Folks I know I’m next.” The capitalisation of the words “FOREVER AMBER” in the song “Pachuco Cadaver.” So is Trout Mask Replica a concept album about the search for identity, the pining of the forcibly rejected for an unreachable home? The invention of a language so convoluted and incomprehensible that no one will be able to penetrate those who speak it?

“The black paper through a mirror” in “Steal Softly Thru’ Snow.”

The horror. The horror.

The 28th and final track of Trout Mask Replica – though really the whole record is one extended song in twenty-eight movements, or sections – is “Veteran’s Day Poppy.” “It don’t get me high,” Beefheart sings in a mournful yet agitated tenor. “It can only make me cry/It can never grow another/Son like the one who warmed me my days.” And then the blues train – or is it the death train, like the one heading for Dachau? – departs with undue force and speed, giving way to a strange and extended tonal guitar waltz. It seems to provide unexpected calm and harmony, but in truth reveals Trout Mask Replica as a dream; the dream of a grieving father whose son has been killed in Vietnam, imagining in his reverie the sense and nonsense, the noise and music, which might have gone through his son’s head, what his life must have been like; or perhaps it’s the reverie of the dying son himself, his life flashing back like meteors of crazy paving even as it painfully ebbs away.

Painless Parker
In the song “Orange Claw Hammer” it’s the sign on a barbershop. It is also the greatest and most concise history of jazz over the last 30 years.

“Every swallow brought breath that bore neither memory nor meaning nor even deliverance from them – he no longer needed that deliverance – but rather the strange sweetness of something that may or may not have ever been, except in a dream of faint sea breezes through darkening pines.”
(Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams, Doubleday: New York, 1992; ch. 15: “The Breeze”)

We can’t leave 1969 there, of course, not sans everything. Because in the other crucial record of that year, a different Captain – or perhaps the same one from a not-too-different perspective – emerges and turns us all into the happy and fulfilled children we have always longed to be. And also because I do not want an end to everything; because I am in love and the tenderness and loud generosity of this other record reaches out to me beyond the life of its creator, towards, inevitably and irresistibly, you.

PART 2: NEW YORK TENDABERRY

The voice, when it enters at the beginning, sounds like a bemused visitor from another planet trying to get her larynx around Dusty Springfield, and it sounds such a sad voice – “Two mainstream die,” and then “You don’t love me when I cry.” The piano is quiet and the voice, for a voice which was often derided by 1969 ears for being too “harsh” and “strident” – women speaking up loudly and proudly for themselves, heaven forbade – was also capable of being the most intricately sensitive, knowing the exact location of the exact part of the left side of your neck which needed to be brushed, then stroked, as she brushes, then strokes her piano, and then suddenly STRIKES with a cry of “Baby I don’t want to say goodby” (that’s how she spelt it) or that shattering “got” in the middle of “Mister I got funky blues” followed by the swooning petals of kiss that are her words “all over me.” There are fragments of orchestration – flute, flugelhorn, organ, a few strings – which appear very momentarily, as if springing directly from her imagination, her desire, her being; I also think of Ron Carter’s bass solo on Gil Evans’ “La Nevada” where the rest of the orchestra improvise motifs around the bass in a kind of round robin, so detailed and multidimensional that you eventually forget about the bass, which incidentally sounds as though it’s being played in your living room – and arranger Jimmie Haskell seems to have had the same problems orchestrating Nyro’s songs as the Magic Band did with Beefheart’s; because they spring directly from her mind, fully formed but in her own distinctive, uncopyable way, she dictates the speed and flow of her songs as though sitting down next to you to speak with you, as each second and moment allows; so the sudden tempo changes or switches from rubato to aggressive and back again (sometimes all in the space of one second) were very difficult to pin down for other musicians. A lot of the time the other musicians sound as though they’re trying to keep up, and there are some minor tonal incompatibilities on occasion (and indeed a major one, when the orchestra and piano accelerate towards the end of “Save The Country”). You have to rush to accompany her soul lest you become lost.

These slow-burn meditations continue on the first Captain song, “Captain For Dark Mornings,” and you immediately remember exactly where the eleven-year-old Kate Bush must have been taking notes – those solo performances on Aerial are the nearest a British singer/songwriter has ever come to transposing the indivisible New Yorkness of Nyro into a recognisable but absolutely specific post-1969 British state of feeling. Perhaps only Beefheart could sprint the equivalent emotional gamut across which Nyro alternately crawls and strides throughout New York Tendaberry; and so this first Captain song is a tentative, then frighteningly bold, bid for companionship and more. Witness the terrible beauty of Nyro’s cry of “ravin’” – wanting so to come – and how the piano punctulates like the hips should, working its way up to the desired climax, but punctulating gently, like the treetops of Belsize Park avoiding the top decks of passing double decker buses. “If you’ll be my captain/I’ll be your woman/If you’ll be my fearless captain/Die! I would lay me down and DIE!” and I would have to print that last “DIE!” in 96 point Albertus type even to suggest how gigantic and silencing it is to the listener – to be immediately followed by the temptation, the delicately quiet invitation: “Captain say yessssssss….” and those sibilants gracefully slide down to that part of the lower shoulder which lightens you up so highly.

She’ll even kill not to get what she wants: the amazing “Tom Cat Goodby” which proceeds through Bacharach delirium (“You know you’re never gonna make a movie maker/Always be a City fag”), Frankie and Johnny murder mythology (“I’m going to the country” – or should that be cunt-tree, as suggested on one website? That part of the lyric is noticeably absent from the CD booklet – “To kill my lover man”) waning to the wistful (that Everest-high “lovin’ you” which swoops down like a vulture stuck to a parachute over San Jose) and then careering through a hall of mirrors encompassing Sondheim, Brecht, Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell (the consonants “Tom” and “Cat” eventually become abstract signifiers) before the above-hoarse roar of “HE LIES!” before the strings quietly draw a line under the intended horror.

“Mercy On Broadway” is like Sondheim grafted onto Hieronymous Bosch. A hint of SMiLE calliope gives way to a chorale of cowbells reminiscent of a herd of Alpine cattle tiptoeing through a plumber’s bedroom on a hot morning in July, and then warnings in the nature of “jive and pray” (or is that “prey”?) and “She’ll make you pay” before the song collapses in a maelstrom of thunderclap (New Woman?) and gunfire. The singer seems to be buried by the hurricane of tinnitus brass and handclaps which dominates the song’s end. “Save The Country” might be a turning point of a kind – so much more expansive than the compromised single version – and again she begins like an excitable Brill Building newbie, pounding enthusiastically at her piano and calling for the need to “lay that devil down.” When the orchestra suddenly bursts in halfway through the tone and speed are dramatically accelerated, like two skiers trying to outleap each other over dry land; the trumpets, led by Lew Soloff (then of Blood Sweat and Tears, later a Gil Evans and Carla Bley regular), keep ascending and extending this Torrent of Babel until THEY STOP AT THE EDGE AND GLIMPSE OVER

AND IT’S THE GRAND CANYON THEY SEE – THAT FINAL SUSTAINED TRUMPET NOTE REPRESENTS THE ABYSS THE SINGER MUST LEAP TO REACH BACK FROM DEATH TO LIFE

…and on the other side of the Grand Canyon there is “Gibsom Street,” and Laura’s afraid to go there for she’s heard “they hang the alley cats” there and that “if you are soft then you will shiver – but still, that crucial and sublime chord change after the first “Street” is sung, which represents the next abyss underlined by that safety net of the sustained major piano chord, before she prays to and for herself, “All my sorrow/All my mourning (or “moaning”? Again the lyric sheet conspicuously omits this section)”

and then the quantum jump:
“There is a man. He knows where I’m going. Gave me a strawberry to eat. I sucked its juices, never knowing that I would sleep that night on Gibsom Street.” The final low piano note is the bell tolling for a death rejected.

There is that little pause of hesitation after the line “So winter” which begins “Time And Love” but she then enters courageously into the sprightliness which the song is set to celebrate, and she now knows that her power is regained: “So he swears he’ll never marry/Says that cuddles are a curse/Just tell him plain/You’re on the next train/If love don’t get there first!” she laughs, and there is such unfettered joy in her singing “You been runnin’, you been ramblin’/And you don’t know what to do/A holy golden wager says/That love will see you through,” similar to the ecstatic breakthrough of Beefheart’s “Moonlight In Vermont.” “A woman is a woman is a woman inside,” Nyro concludes, “has miracles for her man.”

Oh yes.

And then this pair of beautiful, but BEAUTIFUL hymns, “The Man Who Sends Me Home,” and you want to swim and bathe in the warmly lapping waves of this so simple paean to true love: “There’s a man who loves me/When it hurts inside” – and the song is taken so delicately, so slowly, so deliciously – and oh GOD, “When I touch the man/Lord I rise/To rooftops in his eyes,” well you are already there as well you know but when we touch we will look out over all rooftops and it will seem like the most golden sea we have ever known and know we can fly across it and back again and even walk on it would you like that?

And “Sweet Lovin’ Baby” with that YOU CAN SENSE IT minor-to-major sweet shift on the words “my man,” how she makes the word “loneliness” sound like “no limits,” and “My dreams with God/softly waiting” and “I want you/I could almost die/He says” and don’t you know that and then a little bit of Beefheart crossover, the crucial crossover really (“Grace and the Preacher/Blown fleets of sweet-eyed/Dreams/Tonight”) and the song is working up and she declaims “Natural windmill/Wheel weave and bless/My bed/My bed/My man” and the music suddenly becomes the softest sea and back again – “Where is the night lustre?” and she answers her own rhetorical question with the shout-it-from-those-rooftops “Past my trials/Sparking in flight/In your arms/For all of my life” oh yes and yes and bless the summer there will be no autumn not with us.

Then the second Captain song, “Captain Sweet Lucifer,” and she’s found her earth and church: “Meet me Captain Sweet Lucifer/Darling I’ll be there/Don’t you know…

…now don’t you know I love you?”

“Now I’ll live and die and rise with my captain/Mama say go” (because the Captain did eventually say YES)

and when Laura Nyro reaches the orgasm of “Thank you baby! You’re my baby now!” she is not only addressing her Captain but her city, her world; it’s all hers now, to play with, to enter and to adore.

But the real climax of the record, of this journey away from her Frownland to her real idea of Wild Life, is found at dusk in her own living room, she and her pealing bells of piano with the hymn of lifelong devotion to her world, the title track, “New York Tendaberry,” and you want it to go on forever, it feels like the song could last the whole of Laura Nyro’s life, which in some ways it did, and she sees the beauty amid the grime – “Rugs and drapes and drugs and capes/Sweet kids in hunger slums” – she looks out over this and where is anyone, what does anyone have, if not their soul and each other?

“You look like a city BUT YOU FEEL LIKE A RELIGION TO ME!” – and there she reaches her apex, her peak from which she views the world in front of her, and she is not alone, just as you and I can NEVER be alone, not ever again, we know that now, me in this front room “here where I’ve cried, where I’ve tried, where God and the tendaberry rise” and you in that front room and it is the same room and we’re sheltering each other and looking at each other’s world and it’s the same world and now it is ours “join for life for precious years” and the song slows to a tiny whisper and the title disappears into her mouth and out into the air, and that last "tears" turns into Miles' trumpet, and then an eternal bell, and I see her on that cover with her flowing hair and is it leather or is it musk, where does one end and the other start, and she’s so damned sexy and really she knows it, and a smile beams through all of it and I look at this benighted city up on the roof and the sun comes down in pink and purple and the love broadens under the milky way then narrows down to the scope of the universe and my world becomes you.


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