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

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Buried deep within the rather exhausting Morley piece on Arcade Fire in this month’s Observer Music Monthly is the subtly slighting reference to current Canadian music as “lightly experimental.” A quarter of a century later, those dreams of stadium entryism are evidently hard to still, as though any group who didn’t want to be as big as or bigger than U2 are yet somehow a failure. Or perhaps the remark can be read as meaning a supposedly feeble counterpart to “heavy experimentation,” i.e. the “real thing,” an unwavering high-fibre diet of Sunn O))), Wolf Eyes and Vibecathedral. That and nothing but that would form the foundations of a roughshod but joyless life (whereas even with the heaviest free jazz, the Brötzmanns and Benninks of this world, there is a skipping deftness even in the most intense of moments, a perception of light and shade as well as Dadaist slapstick and unstoppable rhythmic flow).

National Anthem Of Nowhere, the second album by Apostle Of Hustle, and the first one I’ve heard, wears its experimentalism very lightly indeed, and is all the better for it. They are the main side project of Andrew Whiteman, otherwise lead guitarist of Broken Social Scene – a band who may yet end up bigger than all of us – and basically comprise a trio of Whiteman, bassist Julian Brown and drummer Dean Stone, though many other musicians stop by and help throughout the record. If pressed I would say that the focus of their music was from the percussion upwards; there are Cuban and African influences palpably at work, but not in a worthy World Music way; rather they bolster and strengthen the bare bones of Whiteman’s songs, most of which are laments for lost love, or missed love, or political/societal frustration.

Thus the opening “My Sword Hand’s Anger,” with its killer tag line “And the sad loves surrounded the lady of perpetual squalor,” comes on like Beat Happening covering Graceland; Stone’s busy drumming achieves a vertiginous swing and is shaded in by hues of post-rock drones, fuzzed synth bass, occasional gusts of laughter and an overall relaxing, near jugband-like feel. The subtle encroaching dynamism of the five minute plus title track (lyrically still obsessed with sailors and the sea, as though ambitious to become a post-rock New York Tendaberry) recalls Pavement at their finest, and the brass coda which crowns the song at its end is immense and wholly satisfying.

My two favourite tracks on the album are “The Naked And Alone” and “Cheap Like Sebastien”; the former is immediately intent on subverting its gloomy AoR sonorities with doomy piano and slippery drums, while Whitehead’s doleful vocal recalls, of all unlikely people, Ray Davies. The gorgeously sour Carla Bley chord changes of the chorus, each new harmony like a trapdoor swallowing up the previous one, and the eventual echoplexing of Whiteman’s voice, combine to give us a vaguely ominous end-of-what-century? feel – think Stereolab at their most focused, but also the delayed, muted poignancy of King of Woolworths, East River Pipe, Lizard Music or Eels (to name but four comparison points which occurred to me while listening to the song). Finally the song crumples up into itself like a surrendering fist.

Meanwhile the Farfisa and Lisa Lobsinger’s aqueous “la la la la”s which enter the chorus of “Cheap Like Sebastien” suggest the Stereolab of old, who weren’t afraid to sound as lovely as they were barbed. Apparently inspired by a combination of the St Sebastian story and watching “the adult channel” in a hotel room with others of Broken Social Scene during a ferocious winter storm, the song is far more delicate than it might sound, though never short of ingenious touches – the introductory drum corps, like a marching band wrapped in duvets, giving way to brushes, and the way the band rise, as though vaulting a mountain, on the “fool” syllable of the line “All those foolish things like sleep.” Magnificent. Similarly, “Chances Are” is the most commercial track here (if “commercial” is what matters, which I hope you realise this far into the Church it doesn’t) with a fantastic bounce for what is a reluctant break-up song (“Goodbye! Chances are not forever!”) again with a completely unexpected mid-song break of Afropop guitar, fuzz bass and heavy percussion.

But there are also darker forces at work in this record, even if Whiteman’s concept of National Anthem Of Nowhere is supremely preferable to, say, Lennon’s “Nutopian International Anthem” (it appears on the Mind Games album and lasts for precisely zero minutes and zero seconds because Nutopia is the negation of Utopia, ho ho and, as it never were, conceptual ho). A track like “Haul Away” focuses on guest percussionist Daniel Stone’s quietly hectic work, but here we begin to see an approach to “rock” which we may not have witnessed since the late eighties, bypassing even the cul-de-sacs of post-rock to recall half-forgotten names like Saqqara Dogs or Blind Idiot God; on “Haul Away,” one can but marvel at the track’s sudden and unexpected descent into angular but beauteous Bill Frisell-esque MIDI-guitar atmospherics.

This approach is developed further through the Lorça and Victor Jara adaptations (“¡Rafaga!” and “A Fast Pony” respectively). The former is a lively percussion-led workout which weaves expertly between modes Cuban and Indian, while the latter is largely instrumental and in the shadows, guitars stroked cautiously in order not to wake the neighbours or arouse the secret police, tailed off by an undulating serpentine deep brass line. “A Rent Boy Goes Down” goes further, alternating between placid, luxurious keyboards and a determined, near-military beat augmented by Nigerian hi-life guitar figures, all the better to illuminate the protagonist’s fading world of “rose flavoured spit” and “branches thick with heat and syrupy decay.”

“Justine, Beckoning” returns to a semblance of cheerfulness, though the song is carefully policed by an austere Moog as it shudders once more between fervently active guitars over which Whiteman hoarsely calls out his lamentations (“Let the horses all starve in a ditch!/Let the architects sit and get rich!”) and jaunty acoustic shuffles reminiscent of a Cuban Monkees (“Justine! The world is cruel I know/But escape is loneliness for sure”). Even here, although the underlying tone is one of “rock,” there is nothing redolent of “attack” or exhibitionism; the activity is strictly at the service of the music, the dynamics directed at places other and higher than the boastful midriff – and therein lies another connection with the glorious ‘87-8 era of guitar-based rock.

The final two tracks, however, creep into a crepuscular spirituality which is breathtaking. Stumbling trip hop beats, swiftly leading into an intricate twinset of guitar lines worthy of the Meat Puppets at their most (Up On The Sun) transcendent and joined by Evan Cranley’s lonesome trombone, dovetail into the bleak spectre of a “hollow city and broken glass” with “a ‘phone booth shell/Who made that?” attempting to find salvation in that “one voice slipping thru’ the door” – the song is entitled “Jimmy Scott Is The Answer,” and perhaps he is as we melt into Whiteman’s exquisite “See how it goes” leading into the distant ghostliness of the “Aah-ah-ah-ah-ah” harmonies. And for the phrase “slipping thru’ the door” Whiteman crouches down to whisper at the listener. The guitars become more tender, but distemperate beats emerge from the right channel to remind us of the constantly present, if invisible, threat.

“NoNoNo” with its sorrowful line “You kissed me at the Hidden Cameras rally” tiptoes towards the end of everything with its ominous, harshly-bowed strings lurking in the background, a distraught piano and the aura of a ship of ghosts cutting through Whiteman’s imposed fog; once again, unequal beats emerge out of the right channel before drifting across the spectrum like abandoned wood. Again recalling Ray Davies, Whiteman runs off nine consecutive “no”s in one regret-filled breath before leaving the scene to some chirping crickets, a brief spurt of drum machine and a final drone leading to something unspeakable.

Whiteman has spoken of his aim “of having little fragments of people’s confessions, or pieces of their clothes that they need to get rid of. If you tour across the country, every night you get one more little chunk of something, and you clip it to a flag until you have this crazy hodge-podge of found or donated objects.” National Anthem Of Nowhere is a little akin to the aural equivalent of this exercise; quotes, riffs, beats from Ethiopia outwards, ideas, sonorities, all carefully added into the mix to produce something bewitching and utterly, though unsensationally (thus few will notice), original. Unlike too many of our mysteriously acclaimed British operatives, who seem content merely to top up their drab sub-songs with cut-and-paste raids on the more outré sections of their record collections, and therefore create nothing more solid or lasting than a lumbering, unlovable robot, Apostle Of Hustle look for sounds and concepts, embrace them and then play with them, organically and spontaneously, until they invent something they hadn’t thought themselves capable of inventing one second earlier. Lightly experimental? Let there be light.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Thursday, March 15, 2007

A degree of bigness is of course a vital prerequisite of music; there are the intimate, whispered gestures, but their microcosm is so greatly magnified by the balance of large emotions (if not necessarily large gestures), and sometimes when you’re unwell you need that bigness to drag or entice you back into the wider and lighter world. Bigness doesn’t have to mean the arid, echoing plains of so much compromised ‘80s pop, crashing Linn drums, distant Synclavier whines and portentous bellows of voice. Bigness can entail generosity of spirit and message, wide, deep and varied landscapes, a means of conveying emotions which would not work if delivered in a polite hush.

The Arcade Fire are one of those rare groups who can sound big without even trying. Despite all the misleading talk about ‘80s AoR recividism on their second album, Neon Bible – the kind of smugly deliberate misunderstanding which, dare I say, would have well become Ignatius J Reilly – they succeed in bringing to their music a tonal and architectural depth which enlarges their space without having to underline it. Though recorded in various parts of Quebec, Budapest, New York and London, there is never a moment when they don’t sound like an ensemble playing and breathing together.

If there is a Springsteen sheen to their new work, then it’s Born In The USA as it might have sounded played by the Seeger Sessions band in the depths of Kane’s Xanadu – the black, grey and white tones of the design of the CD booklet itself suggest a great debt to Gregg Toland; the visual concept which plays throughout, involving a synchronised swimming team looking like tied-up insects and a children’s pageant with swords drawn and sombre, silent Bible reading, is decisively Wellesian. When the pipe organ erupts underneath Regine’s “Take you out of here” at a key moment in the song “Intervention,” it is as if an enormous-eyed God has strode into the lobby and switched on every floodlight available to him to deny the anti-Church message which the song is communicating, since “Intervention” is all about fear, suppressed rage, the former soldier who continues to work for the Church for scraps even while he is on the verge of becoming broke and homeless and his family is dying around him – there is a terrible chill in the line “Singin’ Hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” Again and again Neon Bible tells the story of what can happen to someone blinded by pride who won’t let anyone stand by him. “Windowsill,” which progresses from its acoustic “Get Back” intro towards sturdy brass lines, expresses the deathwish isolation of a would-be “Dancing In The Dark” progenitor who finally cannot bear to look at anything – “Don’t wanna hear the noises on TV,” “Don’t wanna give ‘em my name and address,” “Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more” – until the litany culminates in the only possible exit: “Why did I take the pill?/Because I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill!”

Some songs speak more openly of apocalypse. The introductory “Black Mirror” places everything at a distance – piano, strings and tympani all muffled, as though already in the bunker – while Butler intones his entreaties of doom: “Please show me something that isn’t mine.” The extraordinary “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” meanwhile, begins with Regine’s shrill proclamations, like the B52s riding the final waves of Coltrane’s Ascension (“Run from the memory!”) before slowing down to a more majestic tempo as Butler takes over with his rumbling “The sound is not asleep/It’s moving under my feet” as the Earth collapses into rubble.

Meanwhile, “Keep The Car Running” is folk-rock (the jaunty mandolin) as threaded through the threnodies of Penderecki (Owen Pallett’s exceptional air-raid string scores with that momentary but piercing blast of lead guitar), once more with that undertow of fleeing fear (“There’s a fear I keep so deep/Knew its name since before I could speak”) so total and penetrating that it provokes him to run from the ones who would be most willing to protect him (“If some night I don’t come home/Please don’t think I’ve left you alone”) in order to avoid the unspecified pursuers (“They know my name ‘cause I told it to them”). Eventually it may be that he is running from nothing save his own mirror; but the Arcade Fire make it feel as though they are running away from the world as it has suboptimally mutated, and dragging the rest of us along with them for our own sake. Even, or especially, at their darkest, they are here to save.

The darkest thing on Neon Bible is also the track which sounds the lightest, at least initially, the controversial “(Antichrist Television Blues).” Yes it takes its cue from Springsteen – but remember how consumed Born In The USA was by the concept of running away, escaping (even the singer’s own body), finally breaking down (that shattering moment on the title track when Max Weinberg at the drums suddenly turns into Andrew Cyrille). And the song’s gentle two-step is a universe away from gratuitous hammering hugeness; and still there are those dissonant strings hovering like vultures forty thousand miles above the forlorn and lonely car (or truck?) in which the protagonist is taking his daughter (already “like a bird in a cage”); she can apparently sing but is unwilling to do so on a stage, and we feel her paralysing terror in Regine’s backing vocals, at first slow-motion (half-speed) and then breaking forth in a high, heartbreaking wail. Meanwhile, Butler’s “God-fearing man” continues to bang his own head against his own windshield, somehow thinking that the purpose of God will shine forth if only his thirteen-year-old girl would get on that stage and sing, throwing out memes like “You gotta work hard/And you gotta get paid” without really believing any of them. Eventually his patience and civility run out and the inner demon revealed as he roars to his daughter about how “I was working downtown for the minimum wage” at her age. The music escalates to what promises to be a calamitous climax as he screams: “I’m through being cute! I’m through being nice! O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?” – and then the music suddenly cuts off, like the presumed razor at the throat. It is the most frightening sequence on the album.

And yet it is not just about Springsteen; we suffer for the limited supply of convenient comparison points available on tap, not to mention drowning ourselves, or at the very slightest bogging ourselves down, in debates about sincerity or meaning or internalism; “Intervention” is only unknown because most people outside Canada don’t know about the precedent of Matthew Good, who sings vivid and virulent protests designed to be performed big and spacious; the alternating despair and euphoria of “The Well And The Lighthouse” – how deftly does that latter elide from a near New Romantic beginning towards a 6/8 soul ballad and finally, via the refrain “the lion and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet” to a beautifully unearthly coda (note Regine’s angelic “sleeping yet”) for CS Lewis and celeste – would be instantly known to those who hadn’t yet forgotten Pete Wylie (his 1984 Mighty Wah! album A Word To The Wise Guy is an especially significant pointer throughout Neon Bible – the same unflinching stare in the face of the worst that free market-driven life can offer, long enough to stare it down and defeat it).

And so there must be songs of hope to balance the blackness. “Ocean Of Noise” is the most defiantly gorgeous song on the collection (and obviously the quietest), beginning like a Chris Isaak shuffle with tombstone piano strikings, but again progressing, particularly on the line “I’m gonna work it out,” into an unlikely New Jersey Turnpike version of the Associates, with a lovely touch of mariachi brass to end. “No Cars Go” likewise seems to favour the rising sun over the house on fire; the sun itself breaks through the opening low brass chord, giving way to the mandolin/accordion voicings familiar from Funeral, albeit always with unexpected flourishes (the pause before the fifth verse, the brief electro pulse, the fluttering woodwinds and again those spectral strings. At last the refugees make their escape – “Women and children, let’s go!” cries an exultant Butler, “Old folks, let’s go! Don’t know where we’re goin’!” – which in turn gives way to a choir and martial drums.

To end, the catharsis; “My Body Is A Cage” is an extraordinary performance from Butler, initially set against shadowy organ and clunky drum machine, a post-Burdon/Lennon torch ballad which tries very hard not to be “I Put A Spell On You” but nonetheless works exquisite magic – “My body is a cage,” he wails, “that keeps me from dancing with the one I love…but my mind holds the key.” Once again a choir joins in, and full drums make their entrance…

…and then, at 2:10, God suddenly cranks up the volume and lets the true sunshine in via the pipe organ as the music explodes in exhilarating blossoms of freedom. The words threateningly refer back to “Windowsill” and his father’s debts (“Just because you’ve forgotten/Doesn’t mean you’re forgiven”) but then Butler recovers himself to scream his strident defiance against the world ruined by others – “I’m living in an age that screams my name at night!/But when I get to the doorway there’s no one in sight.” The key is turned (“You’re standing next to me…Set my spirit free/Set my body free”) and something like liberation is achieved.

It seems beyond the realms of credulity to me that the emotional truthfulness and awesome generosity repeatedly demonstrated throughout Neon Bible can somehow be interpreted as “insincere” or hardening up and producing what they think their audience wants. Perhaps it’s simply that too many people remain scared of true bigness in music, need to traduce it to levels compatible with their own tunnelled eyes. Anyone who listened to the Islands and Final Fantasy albums last year won’t need convincing of that, or the Arcade Fire’s continued importance as the not-so-distant Quebecois conscience of the Canadian music world as it beautifully stands in 2007. However, it needs to be faced; Neon Bible was never going to be another Funeral – these are desperate times which require slightly harder remedies, and if we can grasp with our own ample resources of generosity the hymns, the pleas that Win Butler and his group are making on behalf of those who continue to be ruled out of the ghastly white heat of Thatcherism/Reaganism Mk II, who want to fly high in their own souls rather than in an anonymous and unforgiving market, who seek not to tread on everyone else but to be able to stand by themselves, then we can better understand how great is the gift which Neon Bible proposes. The fact that enough people in Britain empathise deeply enough with these words and feelings to send this record to number two in its first week of release acts as further glad confirmation that we are not yet dead, and that heaven can somehow still come to reside in all our heads.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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