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

Friday, December 15, 2006

10. SLOAN: Never Hear The End Of It

“My name defined uncool
I didn’t belong
I didn’t belong.”

Sloan were my major musical discovery of 2006, and perhaps if they’d been enough people’s musical discovery of 1994, when their masterpiece Twice Removed was released, things might have been different. McGee was at one stage reportedly on the verge of signing them to Creation, but for whatever reasons that never happened; so outside Canada they remain a semi-closeted cult, whereas within Canada they are as feted and respected as Teenage Fanclub or Matthew Sweet or the Posies or any of those other briefly fashionable powerpop artists of the early ‘90s. Then again, even within Canada they’ve sometimes had to struggle; 1996’s venomous One Chord To Another they had to release themselves after being let go by BMG. Outside of remote specialist outposts such as Minus Zero, they do not register in Britain at all.

And that needs to change. If you want an album far more securely in the Beatles lineage, then forget Love (as most people already seem to have done) and seek out this seamlessly segued 30-track, 76-minute epic. Looking at them on the pastel pink cover, the four members of Sloan are clearly getting older and greyer – more than one of them is now a father – but if this is a comeback, or a reclaiming of their awesome strength, then it is a massive and generous gauntlet. Imagine if the Beatles had recorded the White Album directly after Rubber Soul, before the laughter stopped and the cynicism commenced, with all four having their say but patently playing together as a band, and you’ll get a pretty good notion of what Never Hear The End Of It sounds like; a non-stop procession of tremendous tunes (“And by December/reluctantly living the past”) which punch and bop and experiment with ideas and emotions. From the opening WE’RE BACK gambit of “Flying High Again” through the fabulous “Love Is All Around” – so much better than that other one – and on up past the wonderful “Someone I Can Be True With” with its appeal for “Someone to hear Hüsker Dü with/Someone to hate all things new with” (it’s OK; Chris Murphy is being ironic with that latter line) and soaring straight through the proto-post-psych jangling mirrors of “I Understand,” finally coming down with the slow and thoughtful likes of “I Know You” and “Last Time In Love” before coming up for Rickenbacker air one final time with the euphoric “Another Way I Could Do It” (“Yeah – better YET!”), it is a bloody brilliant pop record, The Pink Parade by Our Organic Romance, and if necessary you should purchase a ticket and fly to Toronto just to get a copy.

Indeed there is room in this top ten for three visionary albums by female artists, and here is the first of them; this year’s Antony and the Johnsons, to the extent of having Antony himself guest on the slinky “I Defy” (“Promiscuous”? Really…). Free violin passages link gorgeously sumptuous ballads like “Feed The Light” and “We Don’t Own It” as Joan Wasser crouches down in awe before new-found lands of love. Breath of the year: the way she builds up to and holds that “Jonathan” down to an elongated whisper on the title track. I am in possession of signed postcard number 225.

Clocking in at just over half an hour, this was the year’s most extraordinary improv record, principally because it works so astoundingly well as a record; they are a predominantly female Connecticut trio (though others drift in and out through these four tracks) and their music is revelatory. The opening “Blind White Alligators” begins like a Shangri-Las B-side before guitars and noise steadily shift the track out of tonality and into explosive, aleatoric noise with a purpose which makes the ears reel. “Infinite Regress” (is that title a manifesto?) is purer improvisation, demonstrating just how well the group’s empathy fuses in raging practice.

But the two other tracks go even further, and into somewhere else entirely. “Dance Upon The Steam” features glimpses of a melancholy, battered ballad – the Cowboy Junkies laid particularly low – over the thumping disco beat and jazz-funk muzak emanating from elsewhere in the bar. And “Shabbetai Tzevi/1666” goes beyond any attested category of known music; an unutterably gorgeous, mournful lament sung very softly over unanchored bass, guitar and organ, like Gillian Welch meeting AMM at the dawn of mourning, before it is abruptly and brutally cut off. This could be one of the greatest of all bands.

7. PATRICIA BARBER: Mythologies
There but for the gracelessness of Diana Krall goes Patricia Barber, the pianist and singer/songwriter who is the missing link between Bill Evans and kd lang – that same rich tangerine of a voice, the same patience – and how one can luxuriate and shiver in her exploration of Pygmalion, Orpheus, Persephone and Narcissus, none of her portraits obvious, all culminating in the final, graceful and quietly terrifying drowning of the world in “The Hours” with its whole tone doowop motif and dread-filled gospel choir. Radical in approach and execution, but it doesn’t need to brag about it; it just is.

6. BURIAL: Burial
And what would the world become after it had been drowned? The Burial album – and why do I hope that there might only be the one? – asks us to imagine a south London engulfed by waters, where nought rises from its shrivelled beds save delayed, transformed remnants of what was not an age of gold and idyll, but a blackened map of the paths which helped lead to apocalypse. Survey those titles – “U Hurt Me,” “Gutted,” “Forgive,” “Broken Home,” “Prayer” – and absorb the distant tinkles of breaking glass, the glinting click of knife or revolver, emptied bus stops (“Night Bus” is as gracefully immense as a Whistler nocturne), the decayed whines of obsolete synths, the haunted dancehalls, the dark, the thirty-nine dubbed steps into an ocean of eternal grey. The spent nightmare of Gerontius.

5. FUN-DA-MENTAL: All Is War
Society confronted by unsavoury challenges has long since learned that the surest way of stifling such voices is not to get outraged by them or outlaw them, but simply to ignore them, quietly and discreetly, until the message is allowed to dwindle into welcomed irrelevance. So it is scarcely surprising that the most sustained and articulate outburst of targeted anger on any British record since the first Sex Pistols album was left to wither in the racks, unrewarded (with one brave exception) by extended five-star broadsheet reviews, determinedly ignored by exponentially envelope-pushing music websites who at the same time berate their readers for socialist envy at failing to empathise with the banked wraith that is Paris Hilton.

You didn’t have to agree with everything said on All Is War, but by God – or by Allah – you were swept along by the lucidity of its passion and attack; and then, having sped through the triumphant estampie of “Bark Like A Dog” to arrive at the devastating lament of forced bereavement and decimation that is “Screbinicia Massacre,” via the balancing quotes from bin Laden and Guevara, you understand that this is the cry, and maybe the last warning, from the dispossessed, the excluded, and the consequences of what might come to pass (away) if we cannot find any way to accommodate them in the world. Listen, learn, understand and then do something about improving it.

4. EMILY HAINES & THE SOFT SKELETON: Knives Don’t Have Your Back
The escalator comes back down from the hill to raise me up once more…the cover was an indicator, the Robert Wyatt sleevenote and Carla Bley thank-you all the confirmation I needed to know that this was the best record released by a female artist in 2006. No big-budget string sections or sub-Holbein sleeve design was needed; just Emily, her piano and Wurlitzer, and some of her friends and colleagues, playing because they want and need to. “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff” is about as lonely as popular music can get this side of Roy Orbison, and yet she works her way back, back to us, reaching for and grabbing that windowsill…

…and then you look at me and ask “When you talk, can I tape you?” and tell me “We’ve got time…all the time” and the humblest and kindest “mmm-mmm”s you ever heard, and everything is made better and tolerable and that’s what the greatest music does to a human being – “She’s drawn in breath and drawn you in, too” Wyatt says. I say – “It’s again.”

We’ve almost been here so many times before, it’s not true. The Softs, Hatfield and the North, Centipede in one age; Rip Rig and Pigbag in another; the nearly bypassed likes of Pinski Zoo and Xero Slingsby as the eighties unforgivably bleeded into the nineties…but this time, I think they may just have got it…

So many have tried that improv/pop crossover, and invariably failed at the last hurdle – and more often than not it wasn’t their fault. Yet Acoustic Ladyland, with their mind-turning fission of speed metal, punk jazz and…whisper it…Britpop Mks I and II…are developing into something potentially world-changing.

The soft/loud jumpcut dynamics of “Road Of Bones” are learned from Albini and Cobain. On “Your Shame” saxophonist Pete Wareham burns with an incandescent fire which links George Khan to Alan Wilkinson, the John Surman of 1969/70 with the John Zorn of tomorrow, and Seb Rochford once again proves himself the best improvising drummer to come out of Britain since Steve Noble veered out of Oxford and into the last days of Rip Rig & Panic a generation ago.

But I can find no real musical precedent for things like “Red Sky” or “Cuts & Lies” which start out as jagged shards of shouted song before mutating into plaintive Cocteaus/Dif Juz caverns of echoed, epic melodies, like Coldplay if they’d had a nerve. And in the record’s latter third, the group change tack yet again for a set of moodily acerbic pop songs, Wareham now on vocals, sounding for all this world like Blur with Coxon in greater charge, though even Blur have never done anything as stark as the genuinely disturbing “Hitting Home” (the verb is transitive; it’s about domestic violence).

Its most magnificent track, however, is “Salt Water,” which not only features guest altoist James Chance, howling in tandem with Wareham’s tenor like Trevor and Evan in the good ol’ SME days, but is also mixed by Scott Walker, who typically deploys abrupt and violent changes of perspective and overpowering echoes and loops of gurgle. I can honestly say that I have heard nothing like it in any British jazz, or any British music for that matter – and yes, I want to see Top Of The Pops brought back so that Acoustic Ladyland can appear on it and get in the charts. Let’s hope they can develop and mutate this fantastic music even further; if their third album turns out to sound like Spyro Gyra jamming with Keane, I doubt I shall ever forgive them. This time, let’s get it right.

2. SCOTT WALKER: The Drift
If I’d heard anything like The Drift before, it would only have been in the form of Scott Walker’s previous work, each chapter of which leads methodically onto the next. And there’s an important lesson to be learned here. We keep wondering what the Beatles or Hendrix would have sounded like if they’d kept going; and yet this is the point every sixties revivalist misses…the vital voices which rose in that generous decade and managed to persist and survive never, if they could help it, looked back. No matter where you cast your eye – to Cale, or to Cohen, or to Dylan, or to Young, to the Lee Hazlewood so serenely accepting of his own imminent end on Cake Or Death?, to the Derek Bailey who kept right on to the end of his road – the great innovators of the sixties simply kept going, kept pushing their allotted envelopes, and therefore always have a new story to tell, more pages to add to and strengthen the existing book. That’s how they were brought up; not to recreate the Woody Guthrie and Charlie Christian records they loved, but to take them as a starting point before striking out into new pastures. It was expected of you. Even the protracted silences of Lee, Barrett and Erickson provide their own reproach – we invented it, now you take it over.

It may seem to be asking too much to suggest that in order to appreciate The Drift fully you need to have prior knowledge of Walker’s previous work in full, since it stands so firmly and monumentally on its own as a record; however, it is the logical cumulation of those strands of thought and expression commenced in those far-off (or are they?) sixties records, Scott hearing Brel and Hardin, then interpreting them his own way, then finding new angles to develop and nurture his own themes, or obsessions – and the haunted bedrooms of 1966’s “Orpheus” lead very directly to those of 2006’s “Clara.”

There isn’t much point in describing The Drift further here, since I used enough words to do so at the time of its release. It is perhaps the fullest-formed musical statement by any artist thus far this century; meticulously choreographed yet spontaneous, it commits the supreme virtue of ruthlessly discarding sentimentality in favour of looking 2006 hard and square in the face, and the bones and blood beneath that face, of recognising that in extremis the worst has to be faced down before life can be resumed.

And that whisper right at the end of “A Lover Loves” – I thought he was whispering “Scared?” but on closer listening he is actually saying “It’s OK.” Rescued at the last second.

And when you are rescued from the irreversible finality of death, you have to embrace life…


1. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE: Broken Social Scene

In truth, it led the pack from the beginning (Emily Haines again: “What’s a wolf without a pack?”) and in the end it has to come above The Drift because it is so clearly a record about, and in favour of, life. Acoustic Ladyland may be approaching a startling and unexpected new musical fusion, but Broken Social Scene play as though that fusion has long since been accomplished; in You Forgot It In People you could sense something, as yet impalpable, waiting to burst, and in Broken Social Scene, the album, they have achieved it. Yes, to a degree it is the Toronto All-Stars, from K-Os through Feist to the aforementioned Ms Haines, but the phenomenal creativity to arise out of contemporary Canadian music here finds its peak.

“Major Label Debut,” “Bandwitch” and “It’s All Gonna Break” are all songs, as such, but not in weary set patterns; they bring back the spirit of those groups and artists where, if you listened to the beginning of their songs, you were never certain about how, or where, the songs would end (thrillingly, the artists appeared to be in a similar position) – the artists thus learn in tandem with the listener. So Broken Social Scene’s songs float and detour and sometimes atomise into nothing, or everything, but there is such fluidity and intuition that it not only unites the individual components of what was great and thrilling about 2006’s finest music, sums them up, but also takes them and moulds them to create a truly new music; one which relies on process, reflex and human interaction in the here and now. To listen to everyone shoehorning their contributions into “Windsurfing Nation” but never jostling for position, rather working together to create a genuine greater good, is a defiance of music as a predetermined commercially-driven artefact, argues eloquently against standardisation, celebrates the mess of humanity, enables deeper and finer art. That is their achievement – the fulfilment of a musical environment as socialist paradigm; music reclaimed as art to be shared between human beings. Canada led the way, and therefore Broken Social Scene lead this list, as a tribute, not only to their revolutionary greatness, but even more so to the woman who led me back to music, to the world, to me, to us, for us.

Our hearts, in the end, have mastered the incinerators.

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