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

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

On the rear cover of the CD of LushLife’s West Sounds is a quote from Brian Wilson: “I think we are at the lowest point we have been in the history of [music]…like in rap music, it all adds up to one big minus.” Now, such a statement has to be taken with several caveats; for a start, it seems unlikely that Wilson has listened to much rap music, or it could be that the experience of being recording “Wipe Out” with the Fat Boys in 1987 – complete with its 12-inch extended Mike Love “rap” – was understandably enough to put him off for life. Then again, the unpleasant experience of listening to the Kapitalist bling doggerel which has comprised much of rap over the last 12 months – and the parallel dead end into which the Dif Jux/AntiCon axis seems to have run – may suggest that as of now, Wilson isn’t too far wrong.

Recent times, of course, have also seen The College Dropout, one of the greatest of all rap records – as well as its severely disappointing and flat sequel, Late Registration – and West Sounds is a similar exercise to DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album in that it juxtaposes elements from The College Dropout and Pet Sounds against, or with, each other. With all its overt braggadoccio, Kanye’s record displayed a full awareness of the nothingness into which a life so unquestioned could prematurely dwindle, and here the Pet Sounds samples comment on and amplify The College Dropout’s inbuilt critique mechanisms. Whereas The Grey Album prompted its listeners urgently to re-evaluate both Jay-Z and the Beatles of 1968, West Sounds is constructed more along the lines of a Socratean dialogue, an internal debate against two seemingly opposing poles in music and art. It’s as if Wilson is continually prodding West’s conscience, crooning sweetly into his third eye: “you know deep down this is all bullshit, don’t you? It doesn’t even begin to cover up the emptiness.”

Well, maybe. But on a musical level, West Sounds also opens up hitherto unexpected connections, antedecents and forebears for subsequent directions in music. Thus the stately strings of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” are looped, and combined with the rhythm track for “All Falls Down” and Syleena Johnson’s lead vocal, demonstrate that Brian Wilson invented Massive Attack; the cushion of lyricism reacting with West’s description of an imminently ruinable life. Better still is “Get Em High,” where the vibes line from “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” is ingeniously manipulated and combined with West’s rhythm to remind me of two of my favourite records of the early nineties, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnite Marauders, and the High Llamas’ Gideon Gaye (both in their own ways articulations of lush life – on a personal level they remind me of, respectively, Hanger Lane and Maida Vale), even as West raps of a life rather less lushly lived. On “Diamonds” (significantly, the only track from Late Registration to appear here), the organ from “That’s Not Me” is amplified to provide an underscore of doom against Shirley Bassey’s chimerical voice and West’s bitter Kapitalist-politico tirade linking the craving for trinkets with civil war and genocide elsewhere. There is also heavily ironic glee in the brilliant reworking of the Zappa/Pryor mongrel “The New Workout Plan” which, with the addition of the backing track from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” becomes a crazily lurid celebration of consumerist nihilism, Hugh Hefner hip hop.

In some cases, tracks are left virtually intact but counterpointed by brief but profound Beach Boy interceptions; so the locker-room macho of “Breathe In Breathe Out” is quietly demolished by the appearance mid-song of the first verse of “I’m Waiting For The Day” – “I came along when he broke your heart/That’s when you needed someone/To help forget about him” etc. – the implication being that the “I” here is drugs. Likewise, the “I Will Survive” testifying of “Through The Wire” is left untouched until the fade – when an echoing “I may not always love you” (from “God Only Knows”) is introduced, devastatingly. And on “School Spirit,” a loop from “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” takes over from, and nullifies, West’s pseudo-boasting, with a heartbreaking harmonic sting in the words “But I can’t speak my mind.” But best of all, perhaps, is the astonishing reworking of “Jesus Walks” wherein Brian Wilson actually plays the part of God – as West prays for desperate deliverance, again against ominous organs, Wilson seems to mock him: “And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be you still believe in Me?” And the combination of Wilson’s organs and West’s klezmer sopranino violin conjures up, of all people, Robert Wyatt. Not all of the record works – one has to say no to the reworking of “Caroline No” into a Twista-dominant remix of “Slow Jamz”; nice try, but some things you don’t mess with, particularly the epitaph to an album which, for all its supposed childish outlook on the world and on life, is actually a concept record about the decline of sex. Nevertheless, as The Grey Album forced us to reconsider our aesthetic outlook, West Sounds works because it invites us to contemplate our emotional outlook – what do we want from music which we could get forty years ago but not today; and, if not, whose fault is that?


“But me and everybody’s on the sad, same team
And you can hear our sad brains screaming:‘Give us something familiar; something similar
- To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady going nowhere’”

Not an excerpt from my forthcoming review of the Arctic Monkeys album, but a lyric from “Please Please Please,” a sneaky electro-reconstruction of “Hitch Hike” on Extraordinary Machine, the belated new album by Fiona Apple. Belated because it was shelved – either by the artist or the record company – in 2003 until such time as ten of its twelve songs were reworked and re-recorded with Mike Elizondo (Eminem’s producer) rather than Jon Brion (Kanye West’s recent co-producer). There have been stories, accusations and assertions on both sides, but as you might guess from the above parentheses, sonically and artistically the change of producer doesn’t make a great heap of difference to the outcome.

Just as well, for Extraordinary Machine is one of the great break-up albums – not mournfully so, as in Joni’s Blue, but bitchily and funnily so; it isn’t quite the white answer to Millie Jackson’s Caught Up, but it’s not far off it. It may speak undue volumes about my distorted state of mind that Apple’s sudden eruption in the middle of the solo meditation “Parting Gift,” wherein she seems to strike the piano with sabres or stackheeled boots while yelling “OH you SILLY, STUPID PASTIME of mine” actually connects more with my heart in January 2005 than the dilapidatedly dilated tones of ex-Olympic swimmer Beverley Craven dripping her way through her unwarranted 1991 top three smash “Promise Me” – “Promise me! You’ll wait for me! ‘Cause I’ll be saving all my love for you!” – EVEN THOUGH THAT’S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL AT THE MOMENT* because, after all, love comes in colours, and the main colour in Fiona Apple’s love palette at present is RED, as exemplified in the torched Fad Gadget-fading-to-Jim White when he sings about the old Corvair in his yard “Red Red Red.”

(*for an infinitely superior variation on that theme, see Richard Hawley's "Darlin' Wait For Me")

In practice the substitution of Elizondo for Brion makes no substantial difference in Apple’s musical approach – if anything, Elizondo’s work is stranger than the two Brion cameos which bookend the dream of this album’s core. The opening title track is a nice sub-Sondheim romp with the best use of a doorbell in pop since Gwen Stefani’s “Bubble Pop Electric,” but both that and the closer “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” come over a little reluctant, a little underbaked, a little Tori Amos rather than a lot of Jane Siberry (speaking of which latter, you mustn’t listen to Antony’s I Am A Bird Now until you’ve experienced Jane’s When I Was A Boy – a decade-old masterpiece of loss and redemption). Whereas track two, “Get Him Back” is Gilbert O’Sullivan marrying The Joy Of Cooking on the verge of being derailed by Cecil Taylor – a McCartney-ish uptempo rant in which Apple explores her lovelorn schizophrenia, but her determination is perpetually under threat of submerging by the dislocating keyboard bitonalities. Similarly “O’ Sailor” is like a drunk Tori Amos (whereas the Armand Van Helden remix of “Professional Widow” was like Tori Amos trying to get stoned on Blossom wine at 78 rpm), although the ungainly swagger does momentarily resolve into lush, stringy smoothness. “Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)” continues the I love him/I hate the fact that I love him dichotomy with one of those Carla Bley chord progressions that I adore; unexpected harmonies and chord changes swallowing each previous one like a trapdoor, all soundtracked by a Nino Rota mandolin and Jerry Dammers organ. “Window” is a detuned hooligan variant on “Cornflake Girl” which ends in a free jazz rave-up. “Oh Well” stalks its own pseudo-resignation as once again Apple hammers out her soul with genuine rage midway through (“What WASTED! UNCONDITIONAL!! LOVE!!!”), and the climactic “Not About Love” is a truly disturbing schizophrenic seesaw, veering from bitter waltz balladry to hammering double-speed berserkdom (“TAKEALLTHETHINGSTHATISAIDTHATHESTOLEPUTEMINASACKSWINGEMOVERMYSHOULDERTURNONMYHEELSSTEPOUTOFHISSIGHT”) before suddenly stopping dead (“This…is…”) and then the jackhammer piano again (“NOT…ABOUT…LOVE”) – but the emotional core of the song is in the quietly sobbed “I miss that stupid ape.” The closing “Waltz” perhaps sees her reluctantly return to the devil she does know (“If you don’t have a song to sing – you’re OK”). But generally Extraordinary Machine is a gloriously unreasonable, contradictory, damn sexy and damnably funny record. Apple’s voice, if anyone, reminds me of KT Tunstall (really it should be the other way around) but (dis)placed in a different, if not quite alien, environment. One gets the feeling that if Apple had sung “Suddenly I See” the residue of her spiteful spittle would be felt as far away as, at the very least, Iceland.


1. “All About You” by the Scars (Pre, 1981)

Another reason for my unwillingness to join in with the rounds of applause for Franz Ferdinand is the existence of this Edinburgh quartet a quarter of a century ago. They released only one album – Author! Author! – which received warm critical plaudits and sold healthily in Scotland, but they never followed it through, drifted into dubious semi-existence, and the album itself has probably never even been considered for CD reissue. Curious, as Author! Author! (in combination with Heart Of Darkness, the debut album by Glasgow’s Positive Noise, released in the same month) lays out with commendable depth the template which the Ferdinands would deploy a generation down the line (but not a generation, obviously, dissuaded from picking up interesting-looking albums in second-hand record shops in Glasgow) – the artless artiness, the unilateral angularity of guitars, the carefully untidy rushes of rhythm as though to avoid being thought of as “rock,” the knowing winks and the Caesarean fringes. But the Scars’ music also had other, important qualities which seem to have become lost to 21st century follow-up; such as that perhaps irretrievable boyish rush to excitement which you also hear in Postcard period Orange Juice, a Boy Scouts call to arms (those reveille guitars and Edinburgh Military Tattoo drums) as if rushing out for the new issue of Whizzer and Chips on a Saturday morning, as opposed to the Stockholm-centred business plan which their successors have been possibly too eager to adopt (rather than adapt) – such that the Scars stand as a missing link between the Skids and the Fire Engines. In addition the Franzes have yet to be sufficiently guileless to write and record a song called “The Lady In The Car With Glasses On And A Gun!” or outdo David Essex (the Scars cover “Silver Dream Machine”) or delve far more dangerously into emotional depths – the aura of impending personal apocalypse which shadows songs such as “Leave Me In Autumn,” the still disturbing “Je T’Aime C’est La Mort” (and all the more disturbing for immediately following a song entitled “She’s Alive”) and the quite brilliant setting of Peter Porter’s World War III poem (and staple of Scottish O Grade English Literature syllabuses of the period) “Your Attention Please.”

It all unites with determined chaos in the album’s single, “All About You,” which vacillates as freely as Fiona Apple between the twin poles of I love/hate you. “When I’ve nothing to do/And I think about you/All about you/It makes me blue,” singer Robert King chants cheerfully over major key guitar clarions (but the punctum lies in the slashing Killing Joke chord in the fourth bar of each verse and chorus). “And the things you say/With your serious way/Make me cry all day,” the song continues, like the flipside of the beneficence which Belle and Sebastian have always kept in closeted check. It’s a rousing damn you/can’t live without you anthem played with as much positivity as if it were the new Scottish Parliament national anthem/end-of-term drinking song, Steve McLaughlin’s drums booming from speaker to speaker, the song gradually echoing into space-bound residue – like Franz Ferdinand produced by Trevor Horn after they have finally grasped the true meaning of darts of passion.

2. “All About You” by Thomas Leer (Cherry Red, 1982)

Had the motives and strategies of New Pop really been seen through to their logical end, the Christmas number one single and album of 1982 would have been, respectively, “All About You” by Thomas Leer and Force The Hand Of Chance by Psychic TV. As it sadly happened, the actual Christmas number one single and album of 1982 were, disrespectfully, “Save Your Love” by Renee and Renato and The John Lennon Collection. But then it’s highly likely that “All About You” appeared on the biggest-selling album of the first couple of months of 1983, the Cherry Red 99p sampler Pillows And Prayers, which, though debarred from the album chart for the Kapitalist crime of being inexpensive, shifted some half a million copies, thereby getting the likes of Felt, the Monochrome Set, the Nightingales, Joe Crow, Kevin Coyne and Quentin Crisp into a substantial number of collections, as well as the Everything But The Girl tracks which, logically, probably were the album’s main selling point.

Even so, Leer remains the Howard Jones/Nik Kershaw/George Michael/Chris Martin we should have had – a brilliant songwriter, producer and singer who, not content with helping to lay the groundwork for Techno with 1981’s Four Movements EP, or helping to lay ZTT to rest with 1987’s “Snobbery And Decay,” produced, and continues to produce, sublime, intelligent and adventurous pop songs. But “All About You” is his masterpiece – such a simple song, with its Brookside drum machine, its carefully stealthy melody regularly breaking into heartbreaking minor key bridges and Leer’s fantastically controlled, but passionate, dual lead vocal for a song which cries out against stupid artifice (“But I’m not supposed to see you! And I’m not supposed to care! And I’m not supposed to tell you…that love is all about…it’s all about YOU”) but whose compassion is centred around its deeply-felt need for personal redemption – the prospect of a second chance, a new life. With words such as “It took so long to find you” and “You’re like a saving grace I had to find,” is it any wonder that I’m now listening to the song again with the same breathless fervour with which I first heard it, the last time I stood at these crossroads, 23 years ago?

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