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

Friday, June 30, 2006
WALKING AWAY, BACK TO YOU

I seem to have returned, quite naturally, to the habit of long-distance walking around London. This Saturday I somehow contrived to walk from Chelsea to Richmond (note to readers unfamiliar with the geography of London: it is a very, very long way) and then back across the river to Ealing Common. A walk full of signifiers, but thankfully these are now working in a positive way. The splendid weather does help one’s enthusiasm, but more importantly I feel I can walk around this city and not encounter a haunted house on every corner.

There’s no need to go into intricate detail about the walk here; a straightforward, slow stroll down through Fulham, across the virtually unnoticeable Fulham Bridge (the footpath which runs parallel to the District Line) into Putney, then through the highly pleasurable leaves of the outer edges of Barnes, into the quaint, in a Tuesday afternoon in Wishaw in August 1974 kind of a way, dappled shopping streets of East Sheen, and finally through the ever narrowing road into the little Brighton that is Richmond-on-Thames. After some food and rest I went north again, skirted the would-be seaside resort into which Brentford perpetually threatens to turn (until you see the council estates at the back and realise it’s Craigneuk), and strolled through the suburbs of Ealing – how can a suburb have suburbs? South Ealing, St Mary’s…? Threading through the busy Broadway, I picked up various elements of 50p esoterica, including, I was thrilled to find, A Wonderful Day, the album by Sweet People from which stemmed the surprise 1980 top five hit “Et Les Oiseaux Chantaient (And The Birds Were Singing).” In truth it is placid orchestral-electronic MoR, barely one step up the latter from Richard Clayderman plus library sound effects – and yet, listening to it, it seemed to provide the perfect soundtrack for a day where nothing happened, as such (except that something did finally happen eight thousand miles away, but I had no way of knowing that at the time), and yet was, in its way, nearly perfect.

“And The Birds Were Singing” I’d dismissed for decades as a Noel Edmonds-induced novelty hit – James Last does “The Birdie Song” at 16 rpm – so I was quite taken aback to hear it anew and be presented with what was essentially an Angelo Badalamenti backing track for Julee Cruise. When a female voice did eventually creep into the troubled atmosphere of the next track – “La Forêt Enchantée” – my heart gasped. Not all of it is that successful, but track titles like “Il Etait Une Fois” and “Un Eté Avec Toi” – oh, YES – tell all the story necessary. Also to my delight I found a mint cassette copy of Strange Meeting by Power Tools, a trio of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson from 1988 which the man Sinker once described as “the Jimi Hendrix Experience in negative,” and one of my favourite records of that period. The title track is an abandoned Duane Eddy of a Tortoise lift shaft waiting to become a hit single.

Generally my musical accompaniment for the day was cheery, bracing stuff – Colourbox’s long unheard (by me) but not forgotten works of ‘80s genius (“The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme”/”Philip Glass” – is this, by default, the greatest single of all time?) and Fatboy Slim’s jolly Greatest Hits collection; I was very nearly tempted to do a Christopher Walken over Ealing Common when “Weapon Of Choice” came on (Sly Stone sings “Guaglione” produced by Lalo Schifrin?) – and, between you and me, I could make a fair fist at it – and moved beyond movement when “Sunset (Bird Of Prey)” unveiled itself; the best record to feature a Jim Morrison vocal, in my opinion – an elegy of liquid hope which reminded me of those blearily sunny autumnal pop records of late 2000 (it turned out to be her last autumn) ranging from “Black Coffee” to “Everything In Its Right Place.” The moment at 2:33 when all the elements of the music peak is one of the great instances of punctum in 21st century pop thus far. Even if because it makes me think of Sister Feelings Call by Simple Minds, that signifier of a life about to end a generation previously.

After Ealing Common I was pleasantly tired, took the inward hint and got a nearly empty tube and almost as empty bus home. As I say, it was a day when nothing seemed to happen – but compare it with that other long walk I took four winters ago and it is clear that something fundamental has changed. Yes, I know, there are Plan B and Magik Markers records warning me not to be complacent, and I will come to those (and others) all in good time. Thoughts which are far from random spring to mind – did that swan save me? Was that swan her?

(Julee Cruise did a song called “The Swan” but that’s perhaps going further than we strictly need to, for the moment)

And at the other end of this strange week, I sit writing these reflections in the full knowledge that apparently banal homilies such as “good things come to those who wait” actually apply; despite minor temporary hurdles (which nonetheless devastated me, albeit equally temporarily), everything finally came through in the end, thanks to patience and faith. Oh, and love, as though I needed any further final proof – the emotions and bodily reactions on my part this week speak their own irrefutable story. It is nearly time to embark on that next great adventure in earnest, and I have more than ample supplies of physical and moral courage to sail those sweetest of seas. And, dazzling beyond bogglement of mind, there is yet (whisper it very quietly) scope for that surprise, triumphant last-reel re-entry into Oxford…how can it be that there are likely to be yet more pages to add to my Oxford story? Perhaps because as long as I keep breathing and believing, nothing really finishes.

I am not so fearful.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Friday, June 23, 2006
JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN – REAL LIFE

I love the way Joan Wasser breathes, like she’s breathing not just into my ear, but through it – “’Cos anyone can see through me…but you’re not anyone.”

I love the name Joan As Police Woman, like the tributary of carnality flowing into the ocean of knowing and faithful love.

I love the fact that Paris Hilton could never have come up with the name Joan As Police Woman, never mind the mind.

I love the skittering improvising violin and viola interludes which scrape their way into the gaps between tracks. She was responsible for the astonishing improv intro to Rufus Wainwright’s “Agnus Dei.” In some worlds I would love it if she made a whole album like that.

I love the “YES, YES” panting in the song “Eternal Flame” which is not the Bangles one but the one Jeff Buckley would have written and recorded had he lived long enough to write and record a song entitled “Eternal Flame.” Those deliciously unstable guitars, the extremity of register in the backing vocals. But I love that “YES, YES” in between the labial folds of “I wanna have you now” and “I wanna go there” and “I wanna show you how.”

I love how the doomed love song “Christobel” begins with a Go-Betweens fast shuffle and then morphs into a Sam Phillips Sings Suzanne Vega glittering 1991 oasis of blue singing pop.

I love how it then divides into that sinister two-piano motif and this guitar-like electric violin solo – capped again by a rapid “Yes!”

I love how songs like “Feed The Light” and “The Ride” are so nearly Norah Jones, but remixed and re-sung by the Annette Peacock who tried to be a pop star – the breaths, the confidential whispers, the hand on the nape of what matters.

I love how even “We Don’t Own It,” the nearest this album gets to dull Norah, revolves and depends entirely upon that mid-song axis of “he’s still going on” as it dissolves into that dread-full whisper which seems to devour the listener’s head.

I love how the Antony duet – for you know there had to be one – “I Defy” defies reports of the passing of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, how they gloriously feed off one another’s passion:
- Antony: “In my dark days, did you fear for me?”
- Joan: “I don’t want to see my baby fall”
answered IMMEDIATELY by a Cecil Taylor fists-on-piano cascade
“Now I’m kissing the real you – how could it be different?”

I love how the multiple Antonys suddenly materialise at the end of the song and colonise it.

I love the tightrope between wanting (“Save me!”) and needing (“Take me!”) is delineated in whispers of such gossamer depth on the song “Save Me.” But not “if you’re already good as gone…I don’t want to live for tomorrow.”

I love the song “Anyone,” a raw post-F Apple 6/8 torch ballad, its pleas verging on demands of “Try me please/I’m a better dancer than it seems” merging into the blissful honesty of “The lightest floating feather is how I feel when I’m with you. So now that I know you, I’m ready to show you how good I feel.”

I love that gorgeous major to minor shift under the word “anyone” as though she’s leaning down to bestow my brow with grace.

I love how this sounds like one of my lost letters: “I don’t hear it now – the chaos that surrounds me. You – YOU hold my mind’s desire (the world could spin on that second YOU). You give me shelter…/Tucked into the warmth of you.”

I love the not-at-all painful sustenato of the word “start” in the line “I’m ready to start to be ready.”

I love the Linda Perhacs NOW of the line “So hold me NOW/You who come in pieces.”

I love, perhaps most of all, the title song, “Real Life.” A simple but not simplistic piano and ‘cello waltz, but…

I love how I shiver in quavering recognition of the words: “I watch the numbers register on the postal scale. I think of your hands and calculate how a man desired feels the weight of a letter” oh GOD HOW DID SHE KNOW

I love how I then think: “and isn’t, when it all comes to all, what music is about, what music can do that no other art can even imagine, to tap into somebody’s emotions and lay them out so perfectly and precisely that one is left with no option save to gasp – for the newly-donated oxygen?”

I love how you then speak through Joan As Police Woman: “So take the chance…be reckless with me…’cos I’m real life and you’re real life and we’re real life” – sung like she cannot believe it’s happened.

I love the cloudy wanderings of her soul through fragments of: “Is it crazy? 600,000 miles and all this solitude” and “What I’ll find beneath your new pair of glasses.”

I love most of all how she bends her feather breath, pulls the listener in by my collar, clings to me and lowers the world down to her scarcely-containable whisper: “I’ve never included a name in a song/But I’m changing my ways for you Jonathan” and the way EVERYTHING dissolves so warmly into that arbitrary string of syllabic breath within which is contained the breathless word “Jonathan” is one of the most profound passages in sung music of recent times. “I need to know – I need YOU to know – that I’m real life,” Joan concludes, and she falters on that last “life” in the same way as Michael Jackson does on “She’s Out Of My Life.” Except, of course, she isn’t.

I love how this performance, this record, this woman now gives me that final streak of confidence needed to address the woman who reads this.

I love my first-remove confessional of: “It’s true what they say about me/That I’m out of my mind/But I think that you like it.”

I love how she does not phrase that phrase rhetorically.

I love. You love me.

Love.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, June 12, 2006
ENCOUNTERS OF DIFFERENT DEGREES OF CLOSENESS

It's always something of a shock to me when, in the course of what I will glibly term Real Life, I run into other people whom I am inclined to forget also exist outside the world of music blogs. Thus, while making my way down Soho's busy Berwick Street of a pleasingly hot Saturday morning, I should not have been surprised to encounter the
Woebot man himself, Matthew Ingram, indeed should be surprised that we don't cross each other's paths more often, seeing as we are so often on our parallel paths, and were, I'd wager, both on our individual missions to find more music - the mission is unending, and therefore life is prolonged - to make our own kind of sense out of the world.

We exchanged a few nervous pleasantries; for we have argued fiercely online in the past and in a lot of ways I have drifted away from that particular corner of the blogosphere - the odd fellow in the corner by himself who just gets on with his own line of independent research and thought, scribbling away. I have been lax in following the Woebot blog and look at, or contribute to, Dissensus only very intermittently, which is a shame because, despite our very different outlooks on music, there are important overlaps. Also my degree of Asperger's always sends me into a tizzy when I meet someone unexpectedly, and usually gives the other person the impression that I am one millimetre away from being certified as I stutter things out, incoherently.

Anyway, I should clearly be paying Woebot more attention, for his current post on the Beatles is very good indeed. It also begs the very obvious question of: why exactly do music writers find it so hard to describe music in musical terms? The superficial answer to that is that nearly all music writers are graduates in English Literature and/or Philosophy - or, in the case of yours truly, both - and therefore are most comfortable describing songs, if not music, in terms of their words. With instrumental music of any sort, be it AMM or Breakage, they tend to come a cropper.

I suppose I am a very minor exception to this rule, since I did have a significant degree of musicel education in my youth - Grade 8 piano and clarinet before "life" intervened, and I'm pretty good on the saxophone, even if Evan Parker doesn't need to worry - and therefore am at least in part able to talk technically about music in a reasonably intelligent manner. As far as The Wire is concerned; well, in its early days, when its remit was strictly that of post-Ornette jazz and improv and post-Darmstadt serialism, writers like Max Harrison (a huge influence on me, possibly more so than Morley), Brian Priestley and Steve Lake were happy to discuss the power and impact of music in such a way. But then of course all of those writers were, and are, practising musicians.

I read Revolution In The Head some dozen years ago - I borrowed it from Victoria Library, and then bought the revised, Anthology-inclusive reprint. It is a hugely admirable work in many ways, though its central argument - that the Beatles, and the sixties, represented the aesthetic apex of everything, and now it could only decline - is destructive, not least in terms of the man who wrote it, and the terrible personal pain which the argument concealed; but also it was annoying to me - in 1994 my head was spinning with innumerable potential futures, with Omni Trio and Tricky and Portishead and Jeff Buckley and Wu-Tang and Aphex and Mu and Oval and Biosphere and Origin Unknown and Tortoise and LaBradford, and I knew in my bones that MacDonald was being deliberately wrong-headed.

The musical analyses themselves are admirably free of sentiment, which is not the same thing as poignancy - his appraisal of "Penny Lane" is about as poignant as any music writing could get. He is hard but fair, in a way which I think is in direct lineage from Harrison's contributions to the indispensable three-volume (if now needing an update) Essential Jazz Records set, even if one of the major tasks of the book appears to be giving McCartney his proper dues in terms of innovation (though that has the side-effect of making Lennon seem more of a dilettante than he actually was...then again...).

Most importantly, though, the book worked in its main function of getting me to listen to all my ancient Beatles records anew; and I would be disingenuous if I claimed that it had no influence on my own writing, here and elsewhere - although he never uses the word "punctum," he knows exactly what it signifies. And, for the purposes of this particular article, it was so immense a relief to read a writer who expressed discrete and concrete opinions, with real passion, about music.

I got some of that same feeling from reading the current issue of the magazine Plan B, which I purchased from the newsagent's immediately after my encounter with Matthew. Reading comparative veterans such as Everett True and Neil Kulkarni - and to me relatively unknown writers such as Frances May Morgan and Daniel Trilling - made me exclaim inwardly, several times: "At last - print music writers with directness of emotion and clarity of thought," even if I disagree considerably with some of their conclusions. It's a way of writing which has long since been expunged from the glossy monthlies and broadsheets, with their "considered balance," their recycled press releases (can't you just tell when someone's done the latter?) and general demographic-driven cowardice - these journals should be ashamed of the way in which they undersold The Drift, a masterpiece which thoroughly achieved, if not surpassed, their aims, scared that their Fifty Quid Man readership would have thought it weirdo minority music; whereas their aim should be to promote the best music, not the best promoted music. Only Chris Campion in the Observer Music Monthly and David Peschek in the Guardian were brave enough to defy this unwritten three-star ruling. Whereas with Plan B you are not only left with no doubt as to what writers think, but can be persuaded to investigate things which you might otherwise have passed over, for reasons of time, or prejudice, or exhaustion; Trilling's discussion of J Dilla's Donuts album should have you running to purchase a copy, even if you live ten miles away from a record shop. Kulkarni's singles column in the present issue should be a set text for any writer wishing to engage with music at any level other than the most superficial and least helpful. The tired, dated nonsense of Ben Myers anti-pop rant is easily rendered meaningless and purposeless by Alex Macpherson's staunch pro-Girls Aloud piece on the opposing page. I suspect that Plan B is far from free of demographic considerations, but unlike every other "mainstream" or "alternative" magazine, from Mojo to The Wire (though there may be a case to be made for some of the specialist hip hop and dance journals), it does not allow its demographics to crush and suffocate it. Its writing comes out of love rather than fear. It might even make me think that the Long Blondes are worth serious consideration (are they?).

And then, the envoi: this purpose-free but oddly idyllic Saturday morning - me on no errand, no specific purchasing requirements, no aim other than to enjoy the summer - looking in a second-hand record shop for nothing in particular, or maybe for the happy accident; and then, over the speakers, for the second Saturday within a month, I hear the Pavement song "Carrot Rope."

Sometimes happiness is not quite knowing why you are crying in the middle of a record shop on a Saturday morning. But the symbolism was clear, the promise eternal, her presence imminent.


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
SHUT UP, PLEASE

You’ll forgive me if I don’t clap my hands and join in with glee at the unsightly and rather
ugly spectacle of middle-aged middle-class men walking into pubs and putting on Metal Machine Music or Dondestan or whatever – and what a cheap INSULT to Wyatt, a generous and wise man who has never made any secret of his equal valuation of Lynsey de Paul and Ornette Coleman, to name this “movement” after him – and laughing at the agonies of poor working-class punters. You’ll forgive me if I label this as stinking, plain people-hating bullying. You’ll forgive me if I think of idiots at school who kept threatening to kick my head in for liking Pere Ubu AND the Dooleys, because they thought I was gay. Or stuffed-up scum who sneered down their noses at Laura and me for all the years we were in Oxford.

I mean – is this the absurdity to which the music blogosphere has really reduced itself? To the level of prefects who’d storm into the common room and put on fucking 2112 by Rush for the millionth time because they knew what was best? To the level of thirty/fortysomething men sneering at the tastes, lives and loves of teenage working-class girls? Then maybe we ought to blast the whole thing out of existence. “Pockets of resistance”? Against WHAT? Ordinary people with (by your standards) ordinary tastes? Or maybe it’s convenient for certain “critics”’ wallets not to have to deal with all those other irritating types of music which demand equal attention and respect.

It’s exactly the same snobbery you get from something like the brave new Radio 2, which seems to exist solely of a diet of approved Q/Mojo “classics.” Want to hear some Dean Martin or Lieutenant Pigeon? Fuck off…our regimen is one of stalwart, soulful, non-plastic “real” music. “Piece Of My Heart” and “Jean Genie” until the end of fucking civilisation (which hopefully isn’t that far off).

*pauses for breath*

*counts to 12*

Saturday was a glorious day; exactly the kind of manageably hot and sunny day built for wandering around not-quite-forgotten back streets and obscure highways of my capital. Usually such meanderings tend to be melancholy but now are infused with hope and anticipation. Up to Highgate (well, Archway really) to obtain a copy of the new Gail Brand and the Furious Five CD (she’ll hate me for that) Supermodel Supermodel. Actually it seems to have been the brainchild of percussionist/whateverist Gino Robair; four Bay Area improvisers plus Gail on most of the tracks. Giving it the Discman roadtest treatment I found its chirpiness, mischief and drive a most agreeable complement to the happy-looking weather. Then track seven (“Cindy Cindy”) struck me dead; an oscillating, solemn drone which sounded like a reluctant sequel to the first section of George Lewis’ “Homage To Charles Parker” – disused laptop blurrs, unearthly (ebow snare?) sustenatos, a trombone unsure whether to breathe. Then I looked at the recording credits and saw that this was recorded long after the other two sessions represented on the album, and that in the interim one of their number, bassist Matthew Sperry, had been killed in a road accident. The mourning would have been obvious even if I hadn’t known that.

Further attempting to get my grip on the new Scritti, it must be recorded that its bucolic anonymity fitted rather well with the rundown terraces of Pimlico, the 1974 genteel desolation of the area immediately surrounding Victoria Station; having said that, only the opening track “The Boom Boom Bap” stands out for me as a discrete and concrete song, and it may be one of Green’s finest; his voice has remained miraculously untouched, and the utterable 1988 sadness of the musical backdrop forms a starkly beautiful tribute to hip hop; just as he transposed the South Bronx to George Harrison’s back garden on “Jacques Derrida,” so he pays tender tribute to Jam Master Jay, Wu-Tang and even Frankie “Double Dutch Bus” Smith against a song whose glades are as suffused with lost poignancy as those of Fay’s “Strange Stairway” – those thoughts again of the lanes in Old Headington, what she would have thought of this – and the antique home studio synths are in an unfunny but profound way as needed for this music as they have been for Leonard Cohen’s music over the last 18 years. The last part of the song, where multiple Greens sweetly croon the tracklisting of the first Run-DMC album, to be succeeded by a single Green pledging: “I love you still. I always will,” is unfeasibly moving. The remainder of the record is pleasant enough in a 1972 George Harrison trying to be 1999 Saint Etienne kind of a way, but none of the tracks singularly sticks in the mind, except perhaps for the Partridge Family schaffel of “After Six,” the odd old-DIY meets ‘80s-yuppie Politti fusion of “E Eleventh Nuts” and the tender-ish “Window Wipe Open.” But both of these latter tracks peter out unsurely, while others like “Dr Abermathy” and “Mrs Hughes” (which I don’t think is about Sylvia) are clumsy fusions which lead to nowhere revelatory. “Snow In Sun” is sourly sweet but detours into a tacked-on fadeout without good or bad reason. All tracks were recorded solo, at Green’s home, and demonstrate the need for a good and purposeful producer; though the general airy aimlessness, as I say, worked wonders on the Saturday afternoon before Girls Aloud at Wembley Arena demonstrated that all doors are always open to those with the enterprise to find the right keys (they made no mention of me or that GQ piece, and doubtless forgot both after about 90 seconds, but I love them anyway...).


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Thursday, June 01, 2006
BURIAL

Kazuo Ishiguro's last novel Never Let Me Go is currently haunting me. For if we are to envisage a virtual city of the future, or even of "England" in "the late Nineties," a city where every taste, aesthetic and otherwise, is indeed
catered for and codified, then through knowledge of common capitalist theory and practice we can safely deduce that such a city would only represent an illusory comprehensiveness, a façade of omni-inclusivity, where "alternatives" lack "substance" but are only there "in spirit," like Rodney Slater in the credits on the last Bonzos album.

By definition, of course, there would also be, as there has to be in every capitalist society, an underclass - if you like, a "buried" stratum of people; those who refuse, by logic or instinct, to be "happy" for society's "benefit" (see the "Change of Mind" episode of The Prisoner for early definitions of "unmutual" - how dare he exercise away from the community, on his own, on non-approved equipment) but whose deliberately imposed wretchedness is designed to benefit the society which rejects them.

Thus the children who turn into young adults and nothing beyond in Never Let Me Go exist only to "service" with their "donations" - and never has the word "donation" been made to sound so evil - those who are already deemed the dregs of society; drunkards, winos, convicts, prostitutes, incurable cancer cases. They are given the illusion of education and enlightenment, allowed a degree of "training" and "caring," but their lives will inevitably dwindle to a long and painful end with every "donation" they are required to make.

The multiple metaphors in Ishiguro's tale need not be underlined; about post-war immigration, about designer babies, about the post-Thatcher wooing and subsequent crushing of what once might have been described as the "working class," about the people instantly degraded into piteous call-centre servitude in this current century - nor the nearly unspeakable horror of its final page; never exactly spelled out - so pastoral, so reflective and regretful on the surface, almost as though it were the last page of a Joanna Trollope potboiler - but with a gathering sense of accumulated shock the reader learns how these people physically end up.

Never Let Me Go concerns the efforts of a group of - well, I won't give the game away for those who haven't yet read it - but not quite developed young people to prove that they have souls, to justify their continued existence by means of what they can "create," be it art or love. And in the end it all proves to have been for nothing, except for the memories which society may or may not be able to erase.

It is also about the fatal naivety of its main characters, above all Ruth, who with her stupid faith in The Future thinks nothing of keeping Kathy and Tommy apart until it's too late for anything; or Kathy herself, who sails as blithely through determined ignorance of atrocities as Stevens the butler in The Remains Of The Day; her narrative is clearly only spoken to herself, for like Stevens (read Halisham School for Darlington Hall) she is too buttoned up to tell any story to anyone.

But it is also about reclaiming lost memory. With its theme of people programmed for an early death by virtue of however they were conceived, it did bring back some painful associations for me, as you would expect; but Ishiguro writes very finely and movingly indeed about the redemptive powers of music. There is this cassette, you see, which the young Kathy picks up at her school jumble sale, an ancient and invented '50s album called Songs After Dark and performed by one Judy Bridgewater, and on it is a song which gives the book its title. Kathy becomes obsessed with it, attached to it, imagines that the words "baby, never let me go" are meant literally, and takes to waltzing her dormitory floor cuddling an imaginary child in her arms - one which, in reality, she can never hope to have. The tape is lost, eventually, and it is only when she reluctantly agrees to go on a trip to Norfolk - "the lost corner of England," her teacher has told her, "where everything that has been lost turns up" - as a young adult that she finds it again.

More poignantly still is the fact that she finds it in Cromer. As regular readers are aware, Cromer is a place Laura and I knew very well; I've been in that Woolworths, wandered the shores right up to the lighthouse and back down again, through the ruined cathedral, past the pier with its summer variety bills of ageing and dying artists. The absurdly sincere art of John Sell Cotman. Somehow Kathy and Tommy get the inclination to search for this tape, these Songs After Dark, and head for the town's many charity shops. Inevitably, Kathy finds it in a dusty tape rack right at the back of one shop. It is all one can do to keep from crying. That feeling I know too well; finding something I'd gotten rid of years ago, maybe right after Laura died, for whatever stupid reason - maybe even the exact same tape or CD, and I can tell when it's the same one, I instinctively know - and it feels as if, somehow, you've made a part of Laura live again. A binding to the past you never want to loosen. And even if these memories can be mechanically eradicated, their previous existence cannot be nullified; they were felt and were experienced, and nothing can make them not so.

This is why the city in the shape of music, or anything not shaped like a human being, can only be an illusion; by denying the factor of the individual, it denies any meaning or purpose or emotional drive to any work of music or art; it's simply there - sample it, appreciate it, but never scream to it, never fuck to it. laugh at it, cry to it or die by it, as the discreetly positioned yellow-jacketed security guards will soon escort you to one of the city's darker quarters for corrective treatment. The music is to be consumed rather than absorbed or refracted. As for partisanism, that's exactly what the city authorities want - to divide everyone up into what they "know" they'll "like"; show me a record shop whose entire stock is filed under "Music A-Z" and then the theory will be disproved.

And inevitably, and invariably, some music - the music which will, in the end of all ends, "matter" - slips through the city's streams and directly into uncharted, unanticipated arteries. The eponymous debut album by Burial has something of that aura about it. Its packaging is minimal, unfussy, dark - a single slip of card for a cover, functional and basic details on the rear. The design is of a city seen from high up - from an aeroplane or from the fiftieth floor of a tower block - a city almost buried in darkness; the aura is black with a ray of dark and unattractive vermillion tint emanating from a light in the top left-hand corner. The record looks and feels like something unofficial, unauthorised; an urgent samizdat, a desperate plea from an ending world, an artefact whose emotions are so necessary to communicate that packaging would constitute both delay and distraction.

It is also a record which in my view sums up this desolate, tingling London of 2006 more fully than any other - though it is tempting to think of the Hackney back garden of Scritti's White Bread, Black Beer as its white mirror image - a city paralysing itself in fear of blackened steel, perpetually on the point of total detonation. The beats throughout this collection - apparently recorded between 2001 and now, though there may be some doubt about these dates - are very noticeably assembled from scraping knives and locking gun barrels. Sometimes it feels as though the cymbals are slashing the listener's tongue.

But that description might be a little misleading. Burial's music could I suppose be described as grime or dubstep up to a point; but from my perspective it sounds like what I always imagined grime should sound like - vast, empty and deeply emotional. The beats are too shadowed and distant for dancing; this music is to be felt in other parts of the soul as well as listened to. There is one regrettable mis-step with the full-on, focused vocal recitative on "Spaceape," which feels like an intrusive nuisance, an unnecessary spelling out of things which should be discerned from the music's shadows; its enclosed bloody pasts and grey uncertain futures. Better that voices be stretched out, distorted, slightly divulged from their "proper" context; thus memes seemingly extracted from glossy old StreetSounds compilations or Tony Blackburn broadcasts turn up in new, more alienating contexts - indeed akin to discovering a de-glossed, grimey old vinyl record in an ill-lit skip. "Now that I need you" in "Distant Lights," the titular loop through "U Hurt Me" - these come across as mayday codes from a ship long since sunk.

Both "U Hurt Me" and "Gutted" are carried along on mournful klezmer - or Asian? - violin lines which made me think of the old Jewish communities in the pre-war East End, the ones who eventually made good and moved out to Stamford Hill, and the Asian communities who succeeded them. "Southern Comfort" is guardedly violent in its controlled tai-chi percussive swipes and synthesised swoops - the feeling is one of Horsepower Productions in negative; their bright, yellow urbanity turned into blotched lavender darkness. Terminals too far for even Ballard to access.

But where Burial, the album, cuts deepest is when they nearly absent themselves from beats, or even from "music." "Wounder" waddles in an eternal black afternoon like a makeshift vehicle assembled by Martians from debris found in the ruination of Stratford, its clanking bells of "rhythm" dissolving against the ghastily empty tones of the siren synthesiser - high notes in Morse code from the North Sea, a curious, coldly rationalist modification of the OMD of "Stanlow" and "Sealand." The absolute grey of an essentially colourless semi-existence liable to be aborted at any moment by those gathering voices in the dark distance.

At its apex Burial reflects Aphex; the astonishing - all the more so for their brevity - lucid dreams of "Night Bus" and "Forgive." The former eschews all overt aspects of knife and spent passion for a liquidity, a rare oasis of peace, the bus static in the station, or moving very slowly through an otherwise uninhabitable city (SAW II remixed by the Vangelis of Albedo 0.39) with all the nobility of an unspoiled Titanic; in the latter, a voice gurgles for salvation - it sounds like a baby crying for its mother, and it's the record's equivalent to Judy Bridgewater's "Never Let Me Go" or even Tricky's "Aftermath" (the third greatest single ever made, after "Everything's Gone Green" and "O Superman") - it devastates.

"Prayer," too, is a delicate if distant tracery of suppressed resentment and pleading salvation, synth chords hovering so delicately they could be cut down five seconds ago. But "Pirates" brings the record to a brilliant, if terrible, end; with its refrain of "burn" and "slowburn," its vinyl crackles sounding like London burning down forever, everything viewed at that crucial distance, like an impassive but working CCTV monitor, it places us squarely, not in the land of ghosts, but in the London of now, a city where any or all of us are liable to become ghosts without further notice. Or perhaps the impassivity of distance is equivalent to that of Stevens the butler; a man who has trained himself never to show emotion at anything or anybody - the only person who could comfortably inhabit such a proposed city, for it would relieve him from the eternal burden of having to think and feel for himself, without being told, or "recommended," or "completed."


posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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