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

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The unexpected influence of Paolo Hewitt on 21st-century music writing creeps into
even wider waters.

Still, I am extremely grateful to Mr Reynolds, for his parade of long-lost memes such as "ideology," "passionate," "get worked up" and "late capitalism" unintentionally spills the beans; Ariel Pink, Matmos and Hot Chip are this decade's own Faith Brothers, Billy Bragg and Big Sound Authority. The Wire of 2006 = the NME of 1985. And stretch a point for Stephen Merritt as 2006's very own Steven "All reggae is vile" Morrissey.

Phew. That's a relief!

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

It’s a terrible title, with a terrible cover, and the German DJ’s stage name isn’t too inspiring either; but it’s the best – what on earth does one call it now? Nu-electro, under which puzzlesome category it was filed in HMV? – mix since Miss Kittin’s Electroclash epic which came free with Muzik magazine some four years ago. It works not only because of the not quite seamless mix of beats and emotions, but also because Kiki’s character and interpolations are drawn into the record and stamp it as his, though not overbearingly.

There are 16 tracks spread over a 72-minute sequence, and at their best – and maybe this is why they draw these middle-aged ears so readily – they resuscitate the melody/space quadrant which made the ‘88/9 second wave of Detroit Techno so enthralling, but also take care to feed into that still under-explored sect of heartbreakingly melodic electronica (take Casinos Versus Japan and the sepia-toned end of Aphex as your starting points) which adds poignancy to the neon dance euphoria. Thus Fred Giannelli’s “Distant Gratification” opens like a sadder and wiser nephew of “Pacific State,” and later tracks – Anja Schneider and Sebo K’s “Rancho Relaxo,” Digital Excitation’s “Dream Party” – maintain those doleful Kevin Saunderson chord changes and wistful harmonies over delicately spaced beats.

There is of course also room for lightness – those perhaps apposite elephant noises which emerge some three minutes into Donal Tierney’s “Verse 2 The Chorus” and again at the opening of Michael Forzza’s “Kahana.” But the latter’s increasingly foreboding clouds of dark miasma give way to a ten-minute passage of astonishing intensity and gravity; firstly, and mostly, Joalz and Eddie da Silva’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes (Kiki Remix)” with da Silva’s remarkable, just-short-of-hysterical vocal performance demanding that the listener/his Other doesn’t fall asleep or, more likely, leave this world (“Tell me why/Why you close your eyes?” howls da Silva, as though adjacent to the life support machine), and after seven excoriating minutes this passes into Fairmont’s “Gazebo” with one of those Leila/Global Communications warbling/weeping synth melody lines which empties out my heart and leaves my awe properly struck, especially when the female voice comes in during the track’s latter third with her incantations of “My body, your body,” as if Gina X were exhuming the ghost of “Let’s All Chant.”

Gradually, though, via the whispered minimalist pseudo-menace of Turner’s “When Will We Leave (Robert Hood Remix),” the panorama sweeps back to life and light; thus the dizzying mid-sonic range layers of Misc.’s “Metroland,” so perfectly pitched as to distort your ears and head – lose yourself amidst its lasers – swims into the growled thump of Slam’s “Kill The Pain (Marc Houle Remix)” with its vocal addenda (“Out of reach! Out of touch! Out of reality!”), and which in turn flows to the fuck-it, hands-in-the-air anthem “Stoppage Time” by Guy Gerber, its ridiculous euphoria not at all hampered by the “It’s the end of the world” chant at the track’s beginning – many of these vocal inserts stem from tracks on Kiki’s own album, Run With Me, and undeniably work better in this context; left to his own devices, he can sometimes come across as rather bloodless and slightly absurd (the original “The End Of The World” is Andrew Eldritch sings Isolée). The mood then becomes somewhat sombre again, culminating in the splendid ruination of Âme’s “Rej,” before we are left with…

…Terry Riley’s In C orchestrated by Arthur Russell? This combination of stately brass and pacing metallophone continues for a couple of minutes before brilliantly and abruptly giving way to one last anthem – Infusion’s “Daylight Hours,” in which an urgent-sounding, Vocoderised vocal isn’t quite decipherable but does speak enthusiastically and eagerly of Life and The Future, and maybe that’s all I need to know.


Let it not be claimed that I am not a diligent or conscientious critic; following my comments of a fortnight ago, I have now received and listened to The Trials Of Van Occupanther, the second album by Texan group Midlake proposed as a solution to something or other by the eximious Mr Morley, fully ready to receive it as the most prominent signpost between that San Francisco of 1967 and this Grangemouth of 1980, though the only evidence of this particular “line” is Tim Smith’s slight vocal resemblance to Neil Young and the fact that they record for Simon Raymonde’s label.

From the evidence of its opening track “Roscoe” I would say that a more sustainable line here would be Poco with Rufus Wainwright on vocals playing Nick Nicely (Tim’s “1891” will see Nick’s “1892”) – after-the-fact psych-lite with some homestead (if not Homestead with a capital, early Sonic Youth H) ruefulness. Thematically – for the album’s eleven tracks are really one song in eleven movements – it’s the old favourite of retreating from Modern Life and Starting From Scratch In The Forest. Early tracks such as “Bandits” and “Head Home” indicate a modicum of community, though as the album waxes on it becomes increasingly evident that the would-be Mr Van Occupanther is the only person in this post-chemical village. Indeed “Roscoe”’s lyric of “The village used to be all one really needs/Now it’s filled with hundreds and hundreds of chemicals” intimates some unspoken disaster which wiped everyone else out; and by the time we reach “We Gathered In Spring,” this phantom world is made explicitly evident, with its very touching coda of “On a clear day I can see my old house…and my wife…and my front yard.”

Musically Midlake are undeniably 1970-ish soft rock with a 1972-esque twist. There’s no evidence of Syd’s Floyd to be seen, but the Floyd who made the studio half of Ummagumma might be a more useful comparison point (with “In This Camp,” with its maddeningly patient percussion and looming low-tone Minimoog, “The Narrow Way Part 3” and “Grantchester Meadows” spring to unready mind). “Love” never exists as anything more than a reluctant chimera (“Young Bride” and “Branches”). Eventually, there is the inevitable Ice Age (“It Covers The Hillsides”) and laments for perhaps never-existing Others (“You Never Arrived”).

Next to Walker’s “A Lover Loves” – more, much more about The Drift shortly - this is all rather jejeune. Nevertheless the record does have its subtle strengths. Smith has a way of drawing out his vowels which is rather affecting, and refreshingly egoless – listen to his double takes of “Listen to me, listen to me” and “I like the newness, the newness” on “Roscoe,” or the way he spans a bridge of Forth out over the word “ocean” on “Chasing After Deer” – and while much of Van Occupanther’s first half is agreeable post-America Americana (climaxing in the exultant violin solo which tops “Young Bride,” recalling the Toni Marcus of Tropic Appetites fame and Van Morrison infamy), the triptych of “Branches,” “In This Camp” and “We Gathered In Spring” hints at something not previously approached; a melancholia which seems to reveal a sheltered pathway connecting Matching Mole and Lambchop; the intro to “Branches” in particular is extremely reminiscent of some of those Eno/Wyatt nocturnal carpet crawls on Cuckooland. The record doesn’t resolve this equation, but I am in sympathy (obviously) with its theme of starting again (even if their mode of doing so is, as they foresee, doomed – so the occasional reminders of the Village Green Preservation Society Ray Davies recognised in Smith’s singing, e.g. the second verse of “Branches,” do not seem at all displaced or misplaced); so if Van Occupanther isn’t a “great” record, it does indicate that Midlake are capable of making one, soon.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

…and while I’m still, just about, on the subject, the definable missing link between the Mary Hopkin who sang “those were the days, my friends” and the Mary Visconti who do-do-doodoo’s on Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” is Philip Glass and Robert Anton Wilson’s Einstein On The Beach…among the first words which we hear on the latter are “these are the days, my friends,” repeated as a sort of chorus to buffer the sailboat, and what Phil and Bob did in the Greenwich Village of early 1976 had a direct impact on what Brian and Dave did in the West Berlin of late 1976…

…and it is therefore fitting that First Thought Best Thought, the latest chapter in the ongoing Arthur Russell reissue programme, bears on its cover sticker an endorsement from Philip Glass: “Arthur Russell remains for me one of the most gifted and enigmatic composers of the ‘70s/’80s…with recordings like the present one, a new generation of music lovers will have the opportunity to discover him for themselves.” If The World Of Arthur Russell compiled his “dance” work, Calling Out Of Context was his “pop” record and World Of Echo his divinely unclassifiable sui generis masterpiece, First Thought Best Thought collects the “classical” Russell. Half of this 2CD collection collates the albums Tower Of Meaning and “Instrumentals” Volume 2, absent from circulation for a generation, while the other half is taken up by two small-scale chamber pieces, and, most importantly, the never-released “Instrumentals” Volume 1.

This latter is the main point of interest, as it furnishes some much-needed additional perspective to the otherwise rather curious stasis of Volume 2 and Tower. Volume 1 consists of ten short pieces recorded by Russell’s ensemble in April 1975, which in themselves were extracted from what was originally intended as a 48-hour non-stop marathon of music, as accompaniment to “photographic wall projections” by the artist Yuko Nonomura. In this respect, evaluation of the music is considerably facilitated by the detailed and helpful commentary in the CD booklet by Ernie Brooks, then bassist in Russell’s group and also the outgoing bassist in the first edition of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. Rather than play 48 continuous hours of music, the ensemble selected “those bits that sounded best in rehearsal,” and these were in turn edited down to these short “events” of notated, and repeated, fragments of music over which the musicians were encouraged to improvise until each piece was felt to have reached its natural end.

The crucial factor here, however, was the inclusion of a discrete rhythm section of Brooks and future power pop specialist Andy Paley on drums, in order “to add some rock ‘authenticity’ to Arthur’s next recording session.” Thus these ten pieces sail along with comparative serenity, their comforting yet yearning melodic and harmonic constructs reminiscent of the Carla Bley Band playing some Bob James charts. The personnel mix in this performance would also prove to be important; among others, Rhys Chatham appears on flute, Garrett List (Musica Elettronica Viva, Anthony Braxton’s Creative Music Orchestra) on trombone, Jon Gibson (a Philip Glass regular) on reeds and woodwind, and keyboardist Peter Gordon, soon to be of the Love Of Life Orchestra but at the time also one of the French horn/synth players in Gil Evans’ loose-limbed big band of the period. Indeed, bearing in mind the free but controlled Evans Orchestra I saw at the Royal Festival Hall in early 1978 – and that performance was recorded and issued on two vinyl albums; someone please sort out the copyright and reissue on CD – the influence of the downtown loft music which Russell and others were pioneering at that time cannot be understated; a nexus which spreads out towards the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, encompassing both Bley and Laurie Anderson, and eventually giving birth to John Zorn.

These “Instrumentals” are prevented from becoming placid Muzak by their immaculately lax details; the way in which Paley’s drums and David van Tiegham’s percussion are never quite in synchronisation with each other, the increasing use of overtones (intentional and otherwise) with each section, the gradual introduction of 12-tone rows, the systematically freer improvisation which occurs. Thus by section four, Gibson’s clarinet breaks loose into territory somewhere between Perry Robinson and birdsong, Russell applies feedback to his electric ‘cello, Jon Sholle’s guitar growls, List’s trombone quietly overblows – and yet melodically it is as graceful as its predecessors.

At times one is reminded of unused backing tracks for SMiLE (especially section six); but the sunny mood established early on gradually gives way to portents of autumn, extending to the sublime sigh of Paley’s ride cymbal on the very brief section eight. These pieces seem to have been recorded in one continuous (live?) take; each section gently glides to a halt and the musicians await Russell’s next count-in.

Track 11 is the first from “Instrumentals” Volume 2; recorded some two years after Volume 1, and this time without drums. It is still an arresting, if frustratingly short, piece (and even more reminiscent of Brian Wilson); still the feeling persists that, in abandoning drums, Russell is walking in precisely the opposite direction from the “movement and sequence that hints at the popular radio sound of the future” which he described in his own (1984) note to the original issue; even if, with his parallel dance music work of the period, he was very much drawing himself towards that desired end.

The remaining four tracks of Volume 2, recorded in May 1978, have no rhythmic or percussional input whatsoever; indeed my impression when listening to the original issue in 1984 was of a sour New York take on Gavin Bryars, specifically the delicately decaying orchestral lines of The Sinking Of The Titanic. But with this new benefit, the tracks can be observed as the base matter of Volume 1 – the harmonies and themes – slowed down to a point of suspended stasis. Although the “big country” vistas of the American classical tradition, specifically Copland, Barber and Walter Piston, are evoked (not so much Ives, and a little more Roy Harris), the listener is forced to ponder the material of each held chord, the visibility of each note, whether a vibrato played with sufficient slowness can resemble a tear (as happens, quite movingly, on track 14). We are asked to consider and reassess the substance of each specific atom of this piece of music.

The seven sections of Tower Of Meaning – six short ones which inevitably call to mind, in motive if not in substance, the Six Bagatelles of Webern, and one final long section which sums up and develops its six predecessors – continue in a similar, and it has to be said not especially satisfying, vein. The point has already been made with “Instrumentals” Volume 2; here the individual sections sound merely “pretty” and “decorative” and in truth rather tedious. There is some hint of Oriental exoticism now and again – the harp which brings some much-needed air to section four, the hand percussion in section five – but the air of World Of Echo, into which Russell eventually flew, was naturally engendered and instinctively light and playful. Too often on Tower Of Meaning, the spectacle of the Portsmouth Sinfonia attempting Gorecki’s Third is brought to mind, only not quite as interesting as that. Their other constructional point of interest are the seemingly abrupt endings and pauses which many sections boast (cut off, as though in their prime; or stopping to get back their breath when the music has barely exerted itself). Cuttings from a random landscape? In his note compiler Steve Knutson talks about the impact of this music in connection with the gigantic, blue/green/gold nothingness of the landscape of the “big square states: eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa,” and while I do not doubt the sense that such music must make there, the impact of Tower Of Meaning while listening to it, strolling through the less-than-blue streets of Islington of a Sunday morning, is notably less dramatic and affecting (Russell eventually succeeded in squaring this particular equation with “In The Cornbelt”).

Of the two chamber pieces, “Sketch For The Face Of Helen” dates from “sometime in the early 1980s” and is performed by Russell alone on “Keyboard, Tone Generator and Tugboat.” As you might expect, it’s a creaking, vaguely desolate seascape; and as you might expect me to say, this kind of thing has previously been done with considerably more wit and depth by both Mike Oldfield (side two of the original Tubular Bells) and OMD (Architecture And Morality passim). “Reach One (With Two Fender Rhodes),” is, however, a compelling piece to which I have returned repeatedly. As the title suggests, it is performed on two electric pianos; this 1975 recording begins as though Zawinul and Corea were warming up for Bitches Brew but soon develops into an unsettling hall of mirrors where serenely luxurious chordal exchanges alternate with abrupt dark, percussive mutters. The piece obviously predicates the “hung notes” work of Eno (Thursday Afternoon especially), but while there is tender beauty here there is also quietly aggrieved pain. The music modifies into bleak abstraction, not that far removed from the desolately bare soundscapes which Michael Mantler created for his Beckett adaptation, No Answer; and as with the latter piece of work, “Reach One” does not conjure up the mountains of Oklahoma but bereft, semi-derelict late 1970s Glasgow council estates; haunted corners, breaths of gasped fear. In its conduit from the oceanic to the steel cube, it could be said to act as the link between George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Autechre’s Tri Repeatae. Together with the sometimes mesmerisingly beautiful “Instrumentals” Volume 1 – the ideal soundtrack for a Sunday morning urban brunch in Toronto - “Reach One” is the main reason to purchase First Thought Best Thought, although it seems to me that Russell’s art was far better served by the playfulness he was able to breathe in other contexts.


The string parts on Massive Attack records are on occasion oddly reminiscent of Russell’s near non-movement; their clouds are stately, unhurried, vast and sometimes generous in their patient drift. “Live With Me” is about trying to extract a sliver of light from oppressively grey darkness. The layers of doubling and halving rhythm are important; the bass moves at four times the length of the strings, and Terry Callier’s vocal half the length of the strings. The video depicts a girl lost, somewhere in the labyrinthine monotone eternal night of south London. There is a home but she has to manfully remember that such a thing exists. Callier begins with the “Smokestack Lightning” lupine howl before crouching down in her virtual corner to persuade. “I’ve been thinking about you baby” is the song’s leitmotif; at first low and quiet. Then “Day and night I’ve been missing you” – where and why did she run, if it were she who did the running? “I’ve been thinking about you baby…Almost makes me crazy…come and live with me.” I missed that last part, too quiet; could you repeat?

The song draws back its intended breath and continues to whisper, for now. “Either way, win or lose/When you’re born (or borne?) into trouble/You live the blues.” The leitmotif is echoed a little more loudly. A croak of “child” is extracted from the singer’s throat. Then the strings rise to open his door of worry: “Nothing’s right if you ain’t here!/I’d give all that I have just to keep you near!/I wrote you a letter/And tried to make it clear (echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “The Letters”)/But you just don’t believe that I’m sincere.” That “sincere” writhes and struggles before atomising into the “I” of “I’ve been thinking about you baby,” and then the circle comes back to its “Smokestack Lightning” point of origin.

Callier becomes bolder – that exquisite up-hill-and-down-dale underlining of the word “hopes” in the line “hopes and fears” which seems to require a lifetime of rejection to allow its expression, the near-holler of “Dreams I deny/For all these years” which in turn again collapses into a gargantuan, grotesque extended “I” before the leitmotif “I’ve been thinking about you baby” is expanded by its subjunctive: “living with me”…succeeded by Callier’s jaw-droppingly carnal “Well…” And then the carnal outweighs the charitable as Callier soars in impending rains of passion – “Makes me wanna WHOOOOH! WHOOOO-HOO-HOOOOH!” just as the strings snatch open the sunrise to eclipse the demise and Callier stands at the top of Parliament Hill Fields declaiming love and WHOOOOH knows what else. “I want you to live with me”…and then a second “Well,” but this time phrased as a question, just as the final monophonic string line erects its own suspended question mark. It’s an extraordinary performance of what, without Callier’s words and voice, could well have been yet another unremarkable Massive Attack album filler; what Callier does, as only he can do, is to turn the skyscraper of musical grey into a kaleidoscope of primary coloured expectations and a devotion as fiery and red as the corners of his anticipatory eyes.

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