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

Friday, June 29, 2007

As you may recall from “Imagine” three years ago, it was always Dizzee Rascal’s ambition to exceed and escape from the life and the neighbourhood in which he had to grow. The similar drifting winds of synthesisers which float Maths And English, his third album, into being, barely conceal the police sirens lurking underneath, and the sharpened knives which provide the rhythm track for “World Outside” (shades of Burial) signify that escape is never that easy nor that complete. Dizzee, breathing in his own awe, speaks of how the recording studio “took me to another world beyond the estate.” He is now apart, and yet “I can see you”; he has moved outside his hitherto confined and suffocating world and begun to breathe the oxygen of the actual world. The spell of coughing at track’s end brings the Associates’ “Q Quarters” directly to mind. And he remains uncertain about whether he has really broken free – “There’s gotta be somewhere other than this, man,” he says as though trying to convince himself.

But the story of Maths And English is to do with how Dizzee deals with this umbilical cord which he can’t quite shake off but which he knows will strangle him if he doesn’t cut it loose. “Back in my ‘I Luv U’ days,” he muses on “Pussyole (Old Skool),” which may or may not be an extended jibe at Wiley, “I was into pirate radio/I guess it was just a phase.” It is straight, unashamed 1988 hip hop which even has the audacity to use the venerable Lyn Collins “Think” sample, so dampened by extreme overuse that even Timmy Mallett used it, as though Dizzee were the first person to think of it, which is a pretty wondrous achievement in itself, as well as a few other old reliables. “Blood – don’t make me get old skool!” but suddenly he sounds freer than ever.

“Sirens” describes what happens when you choose not to be free; a fantastically grinding hardcore gulp of a backing track, processed metal guitars sounding like electrified cheesegraters, layers of Bomb School drums, horns and shouts, it starts with the tale of Dizzee’s home being raided by “twelve Limehouse police knockin’ at my door” after the “pussyole informed on me.” He protests his innocence, with a genuinely bewildered whimper on the last syllable of the line “They can’t do that to Dizzee Rascal!” But then he rewinds his story to give a fairly gruesome (and apparently true) account of mugging with extreme violence which he helped perpetrate while still a teenager, the horror only stopped by the appearance of an old schoolmate who recognises him and screams out his name in shock, just before the sirens come to collect him. He wonders whether the twelve Limehouse police don’t simply represent karma. He fearfully bleats: “I’ll break the law! I will never change!” A sad “uh-uh” stops him, and the track, in their tracks.

The same ambiguity of feeling towards the police springs up again later in “Excuse Me Please” in which a truly confused and angry Dizzee tries to make sense of why the world is so fucked up. He asks the listener, directly and not a little rhetorically, “If a policeman kills somebody, is that policeman still a murderer…or is he just another lost soul in our community?” The sober meditation, as with “Complete Control” and “Holidays In The Sun,” breaks down mid-song into angst-laden sobs of “Fuck it!…Is it me?…It is the fuck what it is?” and he then moves into active anger: “Who’s in charge of the stupid place? I wanna punch his stupid face!” before concluding “So that means there must be hope/Maybe room for revolution!” He repeats that last couplet, louder and harsher, so that the track’s real message isn’t lost – “Maths and English, stupid!”

There are numbers about his alleged credibility or authenticity. “Where’s Da G’s?” with visiting, genuine hardcore US rap guests Bun B and Pimp C in attendance, seems to direct its laser gun of ire towards rappers who talk the talk but can’t necessarily walk the walk; more than that, though, it could even be construed as a direct attack on passive cultural tourists – “You’re a fan of hip hop wanking!” Dizzee roars. “You love to sit and listen but we know that you don’t want no war…You’re no playa, you’re no pimp, I think that you should read a book! Find yourself a pretty girl and settle!” Several “critics” summed up in a nutshell there, I think. “How many real crooks on the TV? All I see are dead hooks on the TV!”

There is an extraordinary interlude about a third of a way through Maths And English where we get a series of numbers in which Dizzee seems to be looking backward and forward at the same time: the gloomy electronica of “Paranoid” with its “They wanna rinse me out” hook accompanied by suitable spin dryer sound effects, which leads into the hilarious “Suk My Dick” which sounds like latterday John Lydon gone for a grimy skank; observe the “I don’t give a shit who likes it!/I don’t give a shit who don’t!/Don’t tell me to change my fuckin’ attitude because I won’t!” section accompanied by a fast flute playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He rhymes “punch you in the mush” with “Georgie Bush.” Then we reach the enjoyable mock-boastfulness of “Flex” with its exceptional music which manages to blend Britfunk, electro and purple Unique 3 rave with complete success – “Life’s too short to be cautious innit?” Is this still the past from which he is trying to escape or what he is enjoying now?

“Da Feelin’” makes no bones about his yearning for the now; kicking off with his gleeful howl of “Summertime! No time like summertime!” the track finds him collaborating with venerable drum ‘n’ bass heroes Shy FX and T Power, who promptly speed up an old Peabo Bryson tune to 278 rpm while bringing back the old junglist thrust, as horns light up the never bluer skies and Dizzee revels in the life he now leads (“It’s all good, man!”), even looking forward to returning to Ayia Napa, where once he had been stabbed. The track is euphoric, multidimensional, global in the best way, worthy of inclusion on The Blueprint, and see how those sirens mutate into whirring jetstreams, with those bells (he mentions Los Angeles) right at the end; glorious, a summer number one which we should already have had…

After that, though, Dizzee retreats into self-doubt, outward caution and some vituperation. “Bubbles” is a purposeful march of a groove where he realises the limitations of mindless ambition (“The penthouse is lovely, it’s a shame about the price”) but still ends up firing off missives at presumed rivals and chancers. “Hardback Industry” is positively post-Tricky in its starkly hammering beats, its Earth’s core of a deep, winding bass and atonal synth air raid warnings as Dizzee carefully gives instructions to would-be rappers wanting to make it big; beginning with the advice to pursue originality, and then “find a record label that’s not full of pricks,” he then moves on to warn against old friends who will suddenly become enemies, about journalists and interviewers (“Turn down the fuck shit”) and then the taxman, before concluding that if you want all this you will effectively have to cut yourself off from the world entirely (“Buy a house before you buy your car! Don’t tell no one where you are!…/That Porsche looks great/But do you really want it sitting on that council estate?”)…a “life” not that far from the methodology Ice-T laid out in “New Jack Hustler” nearly a generation ago.

Then come the guest collaborations. “Temptation” is a reworking of an Arctic Monkeys B-side over which Dizzee and producer Cage simply lay a military tap dance of a percussive paradiddle while Dizzee warns those he knows who haven’t yet escaped the ghetto and a premature end to their future (“Ain’t no kid, the world ain’t flat”), and, echoing Alex Turner’s distant voice, which, laden with echo, sounds remarkably like Lennon, Dizzee speaks of “my naughty friends – they’re not free,” and the life-preserving necessity to get out of his old way of living and follow the path towards the new.

“Wanna Be” is the controversial Bugsy Malone one, and deserves to be number one for 168 weeks; controversial in my book because Dizzee pulls off the seemingly impossible achievement of making Lily Allen sound funny and interesting. Everything which her own music so sorely lacks bounds to mischievous life here as she and Dizzee bitch with great entertainment at each other. One knows from Dizzee’s opening corner-of-mouth “Olroight, mate!” that this is going to be a classic, and it contains some of Dizzee’s best putdowns, culminating in the mighty triptych of “Beef ain’t nothin’ new to me you wally!/Why don’t you just kick back, be jolly?/Stay at home with a cup of tea, watch Corrie!” Here is the easy, natural, relaxed humour towards which the album has yearned to strive and reach. “What d’you know ‘bout being a hard man?” asks Lily, “Your mum buys your bling!” – though in the end both of them are again taking potshots at fakers.

But what is real and what is assumed? The closing “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’” is Tricky on very bad drugs indeed; wildly fluttering strings, wobbling synths, M25 bulldozers of percussion, finds Dizzee howling about having come through both “badness” and “madness” – and even rhyming “Kate Moss” with “give a toss” – dodging the self-question of “Rude boy, what’s all the hyping for?” with a roar of tormented self-belief. It’s as if he’s desperately thrashing against the barbed wire of the estate, still trying to escape, even though he hasn’t yet realised that he’s now standing on the other side. “Get me!” he roars with a wounded nobility of which Lydon would truly be proud. “I’m STILL FUCKING HERE!!” Still a prisoner or guiltily free? What happens when you’ve made it and still have to make that third album about what it’s like to be famous and successful? With nothing in the way of grime, but plenty in the way of purposeful innovation (few British hip hop albums have sounded so purposeful and intrinsically strong), Dizzee Rascal has come up with the best possible response; unlike nearly everyone else snagged on that “third album” slice of wire, I can’t wait to find out where he goes on his fourth.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Another case for the advancement of British jazz after twenty miserable years of politesse, the quintet Led Bib, comprised of drummer/leader Mark Holub, saxophonists Chris Williams and Pete Grogan, keyboardist Toby McLaren and bassist Liran Donin, make me glad that the Polar Bear nexus aren’t the only ones at it. As someone who grew up in a period when jazz in Britain was at its finest and most outrageously and generously forward-looking, it has been heartbreaking, not to mention enamel-breaking, for my teeth to have repeatedly been set on edge by the tasteful “eclecticism” which arose from the mid-eighties “revival,” a “newness” measured only by units shifted, demographics and showbiz, to be respected by Jools Holland and all who buy into him. The sight of Courtney Pine, an entertainer compelled by his PR to suppress the musician he really is, admitting in The Wire a decade or more ago that he would love to play freer but has to “think about airplay,” was one of the most shameful things I have ever seen in print, if you don’t count his latterday dismissive attitude towards people like Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill – players for whom music is a lifetime of continuous discovery - with whom he was once happy to play and from whom he was once eager to learn.

The mavericks have continued, of course, with Pinski Zoo, the late Xero Slingsby and a few scattered others, denied their rightful media space because of the industry’s need, even at jazz level, for “stars.” But if Polar Bear/Acoustic Ladyland signified, as I believe they do, a sea change in British jazz, then Led Bib have moved their sailboat directly into the event horizon of its future. Their music is uncompromising, tending to take the form of hardcore harmolodic workouts of ambiguous tonality (with bitonality deployed extremely frequently) but with a push and a spring which enable everyone with open minds to access them. Sizewell Ten is their second, and better, album; from the opening sax fanfare of “Stinging Nettle” which rapidly plunges into a full-blown Prime Time thrash, punctuated by excited bubbles and whoops of electronica from McLaren, and both saxes going completely fucking mental – alas, the sleeve does not say which saxophonist does what when, and since both Williams and Grogan are playing alto it’s even harder to determine, but they lock swords in the fabulous manner of ye olde Osborne/Pukwana tussles in the Brotherhood of Breath, or Trevor Watts and Ray Warleigh slugging it out over one of John Stevens’ more approachable rhythmic matrices.

“Battery Power” has a somewhat misleadingly mellow intro of creeping, Zawinulesque electric piano figures, which soon explodes into a frantic alto/keyboard unison, in turn leading to an asthmatic sax soliloquy before the beats kick back in, McLaren's synths turning into a growl of pure radar noise, like Allen Ravenstine locked in the Peanuts Club. “Shower” deploys the old Miles “Nefertiti” trick of slowly-declaimed melody on the horns while Holub’s drums and McLaren’s piano become increasingly frantic, agitated and disparate behind them. “Manifesto For The Future” is more like a manifesto for 1972 to live again, with its angular thematic statements, incorporating a Batman theme paraphrase (accompanied by abrupt pauses) and its alto roundelays spun into orbit by occasional, sudden crashes of percussion – very Soft Machine 5.

“Spring” might be the masterpiece here, and displays McLaren perhaps to be the man of the match; following the initial statement of the harmonically gloomy Bley/Mantler-type theme – bouncy piano triplets offset by bowed bass and morose sax unisons – and another brief acceleration, McLaren takes off with a terrific piano solo, beginning with daring choices of single notes, mutating into solidly bitonal chordalities (note how Holub’s drums instinctively lock in when he does so) before erupting into post-Keith Tippett cascades of runs, strikes and slams. McLaren’s versatility is further underlined by his own composition “The Keeper” (most of the tracks being composed by Holub) which, after another watery, echoplexed Fender Rhodes intro, slams into a thrilling duet between alto and McLaren’s cackling, gurgling chemistry set of synths. “Forest Fire” is a long, brooding ballad (inevitably, it too escalates into vibrant freedom) steered by Donin’s hefty, thick double bass, and featuring Donin on a long, very Haden-ish solo whose intensity is temporarily interrupted by an ill-defined shriek from a long way away.

“Chocky,” written by Chris Williams, is another of the record’s big setpieces; following an introduction of McLaren’s electronic bells, the piece eases into a dirty slice of Larry Young free-funk, powered by McLaren’s lubriciously low down and frankly filthy Fender Rhodes, before one of the altoists, who I presume is Williams since he wrote the piece, launches into an epic solo containing both references to “Perdida” and gloriously ecstatic Ayler noise. Holub’s “Lichen” starts with Art Ensemble-type rapid fire alternations between fast unison and uniform chaos before settling in an alien field of astral electric piano twinkles, both Williams and Grogan joining McLaren up in the sky with elongated dog-register alto squeaks.

I was slightly sceptical when I noticed the presence of Bowie’s “Heroes” as the final track but Led Bib’s is a genuine reinterpretation which puts them on a par with John Zorn’s Naked City. Over a fast bop 4/4 tempo the saxes play the tune, but it is scarcely recognisable since it has been comprehensively reharmonised, or even deharmonised, over more coffee-pot bubbles of electronics. McLaren once again takes over with an extraordinary keyboard solo which puts me in mind of Joe Gallivan’s abstract synths-as-percussion approach; he sounds unmoored, dislodged from the tune, and possibly from the planet. In a bustling duet sequence with Holub one marvels at the endless subdivisions of beats and bar lines. But, guided by Donin’s authoritative bass, the saxes begin to play the closing section of the tune solemnly as McLaren continues to dwell in outer space, and eventually Holub rounds everyone up and brings them round finally to playing the tune straight, with a suitably cathartic climax. Bowie, I think, will love it, and so should you. British jazz lives again…and about time, too.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Since I heard his startling drumming on the Paul The Girl album some three years ago, and strengthened by his involvement with the interrelated groups Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, I have remained convinced that Seb Rochford is increasingly becoming one of the most significant figures in British music, and perhaps one of those rare, unknowing polymaths which British music throws up on average about once or twice per generation. By “unknowing” I of course do not mean ignorant; rather that Rochford simply isn’t aware that there are “boundaries” in music, between jazz and pop, between the pre-punk of Henry Cow and the post-punk of the Slits, or chooses not to regard them.

Count Herbert II, the debut album by his “pop” group, Fulborn Teversham, lends further weight to the belief that Rochford may be another Keith Tippett or even another Robert Wyatt; its fourteen tracks do not stray beyond, at most, four and a half minutes and yet have more adventure crammed into their brevities than most lauded “new music” records have in their entire, tiresome span. It comes to us via Leicester’s Pickled Egg Records, the enterprising, if still shadowy, label previously responsible for bringing us such unforeseen wonders as Pop-Off Tuesday, Oddfellows Casino and (at least for their first single) the Go! Team; in 1974 it would not have hesitated to come out on Virgin.

The group is based around Rochford himself on drums, saxophonist Pete Wareham, keyboardist Nick Ramm and singer Alice Grant. The album’s tracks alternate between astringently frantic free-jazz-rock workouts and sourly boisterous songs sung by Grant’s admirably raw (in a 1979 Ari Up sense) voice. Opening track “Beachtune” comes on like Ayler jamming with Matching Mole at 78 rpm, having accidentally walked into a Penetration recording session, Grant panting through rapid, indecipherable lyrics (apart from “I didn’t care” and an almighty scream of “AAAAAARRRGGGHHHH!” midway through) while Ramm’s solo eventually has no choice but to melt into Eno-esque whoops and slides. The title track switches violently between hectic, bass-drone driven entropy and a poignant tenor/organ meditation, merging into an extended organ feature for Ramm reminiscent of the more placid moments of Plaid and Aphex before Wareham’s tenor returns to blast the piece wide open again.

“Silent,” based on a Leafcutter John loop, is policed by Wareham’s cautiously winsome flute; eventually Grant’s voice enters, hissing, “silent – you’ll be silent/Quiet – you’ll be quiet” as the room dissolves around her, like a harsher Young Marble Giants. In contrast, “Castle Music” bumps along like the soundtrack to a Hungarian cartoon film of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, busy harpsichord broken up by occasional bluff brass blasts, and again Wareham’s tenor rasping its way through the ramparts.

Then comes the quite astonishing triptych of lost love: Over what sounds like a broken-down barrel organ, Grant, in the song “Amazing,” intones, utterly unconvincingly, “I’m over it now – no really I am – I’m better than good – I’m amAAAAAAAzing!” – and those middle “A”s become progressively more painful until the screams become too shocking to bear, while a fairground Portishead bash into Kurt Weill’s concrete dodgems behind her. This segues straight into the fast punk junk of “You And Me” (note the subtle “Come As You Are” reference in the second verse) while two jousting Wareham saxes boil in hell as Grant howls “There will always be a me and you!” The sequence concludes with the despondent prepared piano waltz lament of “Even If,” Grant’s mourning, self-bereaving voice very well controlled.

The sequence gives the record a huge emotional burden which it never quite shakes off. “Mara Song” is the kind of disjointed avant-wine bar jazz-funk workout in which groups like Back Door and John Stevens’ Away used to specialise, its beats slightly, and deliberately, constipated. But then we drift through the magnificent “The Love That Was Went Away,” very Wyatt-like with its bubbling, unstable organ and 6/8 ballad tempo, Wareham’s tenor carefully and delicately phrasing the gorgeous, tortured melody.

After that, it’s back to Grant and her “Off Song” which is what I thought Lily Allen might have sounded like (“There’s just one thing I would like to say to you!/Starts with F and ends with OFF!” accompanied by abrupt musical cutoff and then leading to a parched, Slits-like post-punk skank. “New Transylvania” follows like Michael Mantler on Dexedrine (particularly with Ramm’s Hammering organ), Wareham emerging with his most demented solo on the record – squarely, or perpendicularly, in the tradition of George Khan and Gary Windo.

Grant makes her final appearance on “Empty Shell,” a tripartite exercise, the first part of which is another furious punkish trot over which she squeals “Don’t want an empty shell!” before screaming a terrible “DON’T!” At the latter, Ramm and Rochford halve the tempo to ballad pace as Grant re-enters, still threatening – “Don’t want an empty shell/’Cos I’ve got a strawberry heart/Got juice for my blood.” Then the tempo picks up again, capped by Wareham’s hysterical tenor before Grant brings the band back to the original tune. Once again the tempo slows down to provide a regretful coda.

After that climax, Fulborn Teversham seem to drift just out of touch or recognition. “Uhse” is the old Heart Of Darkness river trip, pattering percussion, ominous animal sounds generated from Rochford’s additional electronics, Wareham wary with his sax lead. The closing “1515” underlines the group’s melodic kinship with Slapp Happy (there’s a lot of Peter Blegvad about the vocal tracks in particular), with Wareham’s tenor and Hayley Hung’s violin fluttering like moths around an absent lightbulb, out of which a dolorous and moving ensemble tune gradually emerges.

The recording quality is real time but superb; despite the various effects and the very few overdubs, we always get the intuitive sense of a band playing together spontaneously – the music is not tarted up in any obstructive way, and is clearly music which can only be enhanced by watching the group performing and developing it on stage (Fulborn Teversham virtually demand to be seen live). And the record brings home to me the feeling that this is the nearest thing Britain has to a Canadian type of musical culture, where different circles of players can intertwine, learn from each other, make music because they want to and therefore advance the cause of music in the most truthful of ways. I think it’s the best way forward.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Phil Swern seems to have an uncanny knack for selecting weeks or times in pop when we’re all impatiently waiting for something to happen, or, as with this week’s edition, it’s all started to go a little wrong. Had he picked the chart of the week ending 29 May a month ago it would have been the reiteration and reinforcement of a glorious story to be passed down through multiple, wonder-filled generations. But now, 28 days later, the golden bough had passed into a not-quite-touchable distance and contented mediocrity was starting to make itself known once more. Did Swern purposely pick this week because of its possession of one of the most terrible of all number ones; is there a sense of nullified masochism at work here?

There was, nearly needless to say, still plenty of great music to be played and heard – the week ending 26 June 1982 represented a fascinating crossroads between the final initial hand of New Pop and a welcome resurgence in imaginative black pop – but it was all in a bit of a mess and the tone was systematically being lowered.

Top 40 New Entries/Climbers
39. Dollar – Videotheque (peak: 17)
And we begin with the final chapter of the Horn/Dollar tetralogy, something of a knowing farewell to the first phase of New Pop, and still one of the most frightening of pop records. All four episodes dealt in different ways with the dilemma and tragedy of humanity always at one reach – they meet in photographs (“Hand Held In Black And White”), consummate while staring at themselves (“Mirror Mirror (Mon Amour)”), lose touch with the desperation of humanity altogether (“Give Me Back My Heart”) and finally die a big death, visible to each other only as features of a video screen, both perhaps now only existing in memory, absorbed into the system, trapped, suffocated. Thereza Bazar’s final snake of descendence “Only ghosts are lovers on the screen” is Mingus’ chill of death turned to even starker ice.

37. Bucks Fizz – Now Those Days Are Gone (peak: 8)
Andy Hill’s Bucks Fizz were the classicists to Horn’s Dollar romantics, but either could break into different forms of Cubism when the mood took them, or even (“Give Me Back My Heart”/”My Camera Never Lies”) change places. Their “Give Me Back My Heart” deploys no special effects, no sudden revelations of gasp-inducing sonic marvels; it is a delicately elegant and straightforward song about a love which can never be retrieved, beginning with acappella harmonies, the strings and rhythm only gradually easing themselves in, underneath the voices, when the record is already a third of the way through…Mike Nolan’s “I just can’t face the thought of life without you,” for which the song and the whole world pause, doesn’t seem that far (emotionally) from late period Joy Division. “And we couldn’t see where we were going wrong,” the song concludes, with a final, quietly shivering “Now those days are gone.” “An absolutely immaculate pop record,” murmured Tommy Vance when he played it as a new entry back in 1982, after a pause of some few seconds. He wasn’t wrong.

31. Imagination – Music And Lights (peak: 5)
They were grottily glamorous and cautiously camp, yet even when at their “happiest,” as with this single, the carnivorously bending bass, Leee John’s inescapable yearning and the permanently unresolved minor chords make their celebration of “tonight” all the more poignant because they know full well that it’s not forever. Demand a reissue of their 1982 album In The Heat Of The Night if you want a great lost Brit-soul-funk-New Pop classic (“All I Want To Know” is one of the most affecting ballads of its year).

25. Shalamar – A Night To Remember (peak: 5)
And here was the “tonight” traffic coming the other way; American soul-pop reliables, some still in imperturbable wet perms and leather flares, singing a slightly old-fashioned but still welcome ode to the grace of disco, climbing the chart with patient politeness; the following week it went up to 17, whereupon Jeffrey Daniel appeared solo on TOTP with New Pop fringe and Covent Garden stuck-in-a-‘phone-booth body popping. The week after that it leapt up to number six, and its parent album Friends into a year-long residency in the album charts. The traffic was learning from each other.

New Releases
Hot Chocolate – It Started With A Kiss (peak: 5)
Lost love is one thing, and it is easy to romanticise someone who has gone from this world for good who can never come back. But perhaps the hardest thing to take on board into one’s mind, or indeed write about in the context of a pop song, is the humiliation which occurs when you meet someone you haven’t seen for years, for whom your feelings have never faltered one iota, someone with whom you were once as close as close could be – and they don’t recognise you, or, as in the case of the object of Errol Brown’s passion in “It Started With A Kiss,” they are not even inclined to stop (“She looked…and looked away,” Errol sings as though he’s just been pushed off the edge of the Grand Canyon). How life-destroying it must be to know that you have been so thoroughly erased from that person’s memory, from their life; it would literally be as though you had never been born. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Errol sings of how inseparable they were all the way through school, but there are signs that this adoration was not entirely, or even at all, one-way; after getting the worst of a punch-up with a youthful rival suitor, he notices “that new distant look in your eye,” and then by the time they have to enter the world, “I couldn’t hold on to our love, I couldn’t hold on to our dreams” – and note those “I”s. Perhaps she does recognise him but chooses to blank him because, for whatever innocent or malevolent reason, she has never forgiven him. The song is one of Hot Chocolate’s finest; a superbly drawn picture of the stranded hopelessness which more often than not accompanies the transition from child into adult.

Irene Cara – Fame (peak: 1)
Actually a reissue of a two-year-old film theme, prompted by the BBC’s then recent purchase of the spinoff TV series, which they ingeniously scheduled at eight o’clock on Thursdays, directly out of TOTP; it was the biggest thing to hit the playground since Grease and in 1982 the single was outsold only by “Come On Eileen,” while the Kids From Fame soundtrack album eventually put a down payment on the number one album slot.

But “Fame” also signifies the dire fruition of Reagan’s New (Right) Morning In America; from now on it was all about grabbing what you could, focusing on me-me-me, becoming famous and rich, and not necessarily in that order, at whatever cost, about cheerfully complying with and congealing into the monetarist nightmare. The message of “Fame” is: I’m great because I say I am, applaud me for breathing…and we have still to recover from that grotesque misconception.

The Jam – Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero? (peak: 8)
As with Sound Affects and “That’s Entertainment,” Weller was disinclined to release a second single from the same album (The Gift) and so Dutch import copies had to suffice; still, for an import-only single to make it into the top ten was a considerable achievement in itself and demonstrates just how big the Jam remained in that otherwise New Pop summer (the Jam were of course becoming New Pop despite themselves, but Weller would always make sure he was the last to admit it). “Carnation” might have made a better single, but “5 O’Clock Hero?,” another of Weller’s periodic analyses of the soul-destroying dourness of suburban life being further squashed by Thatcherism, found its mirror image in the otherwise unavailable B-side “The Great Depression,” the latter of which was the single’s real selling point, and one of Weller’s most powerful anti-Thatcher tirades, spelling out the loss of love for oneself and one’s society.

(Note, incidentally, how nearly all of these records so far, despite the squalling criticism at the time of New Pop being all smiling and colourful and Thatcher-compliant, make it their business to stare life squarely in the face.)

9. Randy Crawford – Look Who’s Lonely Now (album: Windsong)
A different world? Secret Combination, her previous album, is the only one which most readers would remember without prompting, and this from the sound of it (since I don’t even remember its existence at the time) was more of the same; well-behaved, well-dressed R&B-lite, technically impeccable but totally and absolutely interval fodder for that week’s special musical guest on The Two Ronnies (which, on several occasions, turned out to be Ms Crawford). I forgot how the song went while it was still playing.

7. Soft Cell – What? (album: Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing)
5. Rolling Stones – Shattered (album: Still Life – American Concerts 1981)
Now here’s an interesting comparison; the different ways in which singers facing the loss of love deploy repetition with a view to either winning that love back or ending it altogether. Because the original Judy Street version of “What?” – another Northern Soul standard which had taken Soft Cell’s fancy, exactly a year after “Tainted Love” (and the latter was at this time still skulking around the lower end of the Top 100) – was so brief (but so perfect, in Street’s fulsomely light proto-psychedelic delivery), the duo had no option but to extend it somehow; but Almond takes the elements of its chorus – “What can I do? What can I say? Won’t you come back?” etc. – and reinforces his desperation by repeating them in variously rotating rotas over and over, sounding more and more dislodged with every cycle (especially when set against Dave Ball’s characteristically deadpan musical accompaniment) until it exceeds itself and becomes something of a mantra, an invocation for his lover to come back, a trance (and with the album’s reworking of debut single “Memorabilia,” the word “Ecstasy,” with a capital “E,” made its first large-scale entry into pop music).

But Jagger has been around somewhat longer, knows better than to accept anything more than resignation. His voice at a rather low key, he runs through the song per se but then snags himself on the word “shattered,” again repeating it ad infinitum (and Keith’s guitar latches onto this, and him, immediately). Gradually this too begins to drift into something which is not quite reality; he is chanting to himself, as though trying to prolong his own, fading life, as if trying to convince himself that he’s still wholly together. Those who think that the Stones of 1981 had nothing to teach the Primal Scream of 1991 need a major rethink after listening to this slowly astonishing performance.

4. Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Imitation (album: Tropical Gangsters)
Having virtually become the official August Darnell Fan Club magazine throughout 1981, the NME unsurprisingly began to turn on Kid and his Coconuts once they actually started selling records; oh no, they whined, he’s gone commercial, sold out, even though the whole concept of Tropical Gangsters was that, while marooned on a distant island, they were compelled to make a “commercial album.” In truth Darnell was merely returning to and revitalising his Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band concept; and though “Imitation” is not one of the album’s strongest tracks, it offers a clear rebuttal of any sense that, despite the humour and clothes, Darnell somehow didn’t mean it. Or perhaps it’s the old affliction of critics viewing humour and clothes as pejoratives.

3. Madness – It Must Be Love (album: Complete Madness)
Though long since superseded by the Divine Madness compilation, which collected all of their 1979-86 singles, Complete Madness was in 1982 a dazzling revelation of just how consistently great a singles band they were at their peak; endlessly inventive, each single sounding nothing like the last but exactly like the next. “It Must Be Love,” their Labi Siffre cover, really belongs to the glowing New Pop Christmas of 1981 alongside “Don’t You Want Me?,” “Bedsitter” and all the rest, but it has remained lovely and crucially stinging (Lee Thompson’s squeaking sax set against David Bedford’s courtly strings). And Siffre wrote it, way back in the early seventies, in a dingy flat above a car showroom in the Clapham Road which can still be seen on the 88 bus route. See how everything eventually, and gladly, falls into place?

2. Genesis – Follow You Follow Me (album: Three Sides Live)
Some songs, though, you just want to fall off the edge of a cliff. The second airing this wretchedly bland dirge has had on POTP in two months, except that this was a “live” reading which sounded exactly like the original, including an identical keyboard solo. Is this what playing live is supposed to be about – not improvising or interacting or developing, but providing a wan xerox of something their audience already has, because they cannot bear to hear it any differently? What’s the worst job you’ve ever had? Why didn’t Dale play “Paperlate” (at #20 in the singles chart as lead track of their 3 x 3 E.P.) since it was certainly one of the best things they ever did? Do I even need to ask?

1. Roxy Music – Avalon (album: Avalon)
It is, in contrast, more than fitting that the avatars of New Pop should be sitting so serenely at number one, having invented and/or anticipated practically all of it; yes, I suppose Avalon was Bryan Ferry coming back to show those ABC and Japan who’s New Pop boss, but watching his stunning performance of “More Than This” on TOTP – cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth with careful carelessness, poised over his keyboard at a slight right angle, dripping with natural elegance – it was impossible to deny that he had, and was, “it.”

It remains sunningly strange how, after a decade of divergence, Ferry (with Avalon) and Eno (with Ambient 4: On Land) had, in the same month, somehow ended up at exactly the same place – the edge of the lake of eternity – and defined their own common peace. “Avalon” the song, with its slowly diminishing chord changes, its opulent but never selfish environment, its quietly concealed doubt, defies anyone to dirty it; some think the album more radical than early works like For Your Pleasure, since by its end Roxy Music somehow seem to be not of this world at all, floating majestically and unsinkably into the ether (like Bell Orchestre?)…when Avalon was replaced as number one album by The Lexicon Of Love two weeks later, it really did feel like the candle of the eternal flame being passed on.

Singles chart
19. Midge Ure – No Regrets (peak: 9)
A one-off solo project undertaken while taking a break from recording Ultravox’s Quartet, Ure revisits a song which was in the top ten in early 1976 at the same time that he was at number one with Slik, and pays an important debt; to his credit, he has always been the first to acknowledge the enormous influence that “The Electrician” had on “Vienna,” and here he takes on Scott himself; not that Walker would have taken a great deal of notice.

While Ure’s vocal is carefully graceful, he cannot of course access the vast reservoirs of doubt which Walker held within himself; in the Walker Brothers recording, Scott himself inclines towards the abrupt vocal cadences of Tom Rush’s 1968 original, hiding the tears, as always. So Ure tries to turn it into an epic of defeated nobility with a far more dynamic guitar solo and a more forward production, including plenty of “Poison Arrow” drum rolls; but it doesn’t really work since, despite his goodness of character and purpose, he simply isn’t Scott.

18. The Beatles – The Beatles Movie Medley (peak: 10)
And now, for perhaps the first time ever – certainly the first time I’ve ever heard him do it – Dale criticises (gasp!) a record. “I have to apologise in advance for playing this record,” he announced, “since it was put together, seemingly with the aid of a razorblade.” One wonders why he didn’t simply skip it and play “Mama Used To Say” one place higher, but enquiries to Mr Swern I guess.

Anyway, it remains a mystery as to who would possibly want to buy, own and play this beyond-ramshackle assemblage of random bits and pieces of Beatles songs. Thousands must have done so, since it made the top ten – but why, in consideration of everything else that was on offer in pop at that time? It was essentially a plug for Reel Music (see what they did there?), a compilation of their film songs, and yet another gaudy attempt by EMI/Apple to flog a dying horse, and no doubt the success of “Stars On 45” was in somebody’s mind, but so clumsy and discontinuous is this wreck that it is impossible to imagine sitting down and listening to it for pleasure. “I didn’t like that at all,” concluded Dale. “Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the Beatles, but how could THEY do that to them?” – whoever the “THEY” was; probably some 22-year-old trainee marketing nitwit who more than likely did cut and paste it together with gaffa tape in about ten minutes (and that’s being generous) – before the modified punchline: “It was a hit, though.” But, as Gilbert O’Sullivan so aptly put it in that mortified winter of 1973, why oh why oh why?

16. Natasha – Iko Iko (peak: 10)
Nothing to do with the divine Ms Bedingfield (in fact, as I recall, this particular Natasha hailed from Hamilton, just up the road from where I grew up) and a pretty stinking take on the Dixie Cups’ original with lots of sub-Mick Karn bass, toytown Antmusic percussion and the general air of a cheap cash-in (which is what it was; in direct competition with the Belle Stars, it made the top ten while the hapless erstwhile Bodysnatchers got stuck at #35 – still, they would get their revenge).

12. Steve Miller Band – Abracadabra (peak: 2)
Why was it so big in Britain? There wasn’t even a video to promote it (this was the occasion for the legendary TOTP closing sequence where the producers hired a magician to perform some primary school tricks – “Abracadabra,” you see; this was the flipside of Jeffrey Daniel’s up-to-the-hip-minute body popping). It is a fairly morose song which sounds like a particularly pissed off Squeeze and eventually drifts into random ultra-lite psychedelic noodles (“My head keeps spinning round and round”). At least “The Joker” getting to number one here sixteen years after doing so in the States had the Levi’s ad as an excuse.

10. Stevie Wonder – Do I Do (peak: 10)
“A marvellous trumpet solo by jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie,” marvelled Dale, and indeed it would have been had he played the whole ten-minute album version, which includes said solo, rather than the 45 cut and fade it halfway through before it blasts off into orgasmic liberation. Sunny, embracing, sexy and a record which says YES YES and THRICE YES to life. Note that this is the first soul/R&B entry to be played within the Top 20.

9. Bow Wow Wow – I Want Candy (peak: 9)
Originally done by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, according to Dale, and while they certainly had the first British hit version, the original recording was done, as every schoolboy knows, by the Strangeloves. Anyway, divested of McLaren punctum (since by now he had become bored with Bow Wow Wow and trotted off with Trevor Horn to assemble Duck Rock), their “I Want Candy” is a rather lacklustre performance, its energy only audible on the surface, Annabella doing her best to sound enthusiastic but in fact coming across as very tired indeed. This was, as I recall, a one-sided single. Possibly one side too many. Compare with the mighty roar of “Go Wild In The Country” just a few months previously, and consider what had been lost.

8. Diana Ross – Work That Body (peak: 7)
The genesis of the Beyonce/Christina school of WORK and WORK and STRIVE and um WORK pseudo-ethics, and with Jane Fonda’s Workout Record doubtless very much in mind, here was Diana, no longer paralysed by ghosts of love now gone, or reflections of the way life used to be, or even still particularly waiting, but trimmed and READY for the EIGHTIES, the no-nonsense, don’t-look-back, work-until-you-bleed eighties.

Even if its drum introduction invariably makes me think of Max Wall.

7. Odyssey – Inside Out (peak: 3)
Ah, delightful, enticing, different; written by sometime Scot Jesse Rae, and a big turntable hit at Wild Bunch nights in Bristol, Odyssey’s finest record implores “don’t give up” and winks “like the words here in this song, you’ll go on and on and on and on without her.” The song’s bounce is elegant, its keyboards twinkling like naughty satellites – “As you feel her tightening grip, like a genie I will slip in your heart,” and similar couplets (not to mention the tumultuous quiver lent to the words “turning me” in the second chorus) suggest the hint of a panting threat; “Buffalo Stance” and “Karmacoma” not all that far away.

6. ABC – The Look Of Love (peak: 4)
the blue skies of May those blue sunny academic mornings, the rivers glistening, the trees glinting, the redness of the cover, the sincerity of Fry’s sleevenotes, P Morley and Edwyn C in the video dancing in mutual celebration over what they had helped to bring about, Fry bursting through the façade of façade, the bust of Baudrillard, and soaring into that sky, everybody from Trevor Horn upwards and downwards and backwards and sideways working to achieve that deliverance, Frankie Laine LIVES, the silver jackets, the courtly bows “and sometimes they say to me, they say Martin” close to Levi Stubbs but also close to the desperate Jagger of “Fool To Cry” or “Miss You” (“you know, sometimes they say, they say…”) and it’s so dazzlingly real you can’t believe it’s not fantasy and Lexicon Of Love the whole story about to go to number one and you know that New Pop was worth it if only for this if only for Sulk and New Gold Dream and this but there was so much more and it was all blue skies and it can happen again

5. Duran Duran – Hungry Like The Wolf (peak: 5)
I’m full up.

4. Kid Creole and the Coconuts – (I’m A) Wonderful Thing (Baby) (peak: 4)
and all dismissing or crucifying Ze Records as an expensive joke had to swallow the wrong lexicons when they started having hits and how wonderful and noble it was to have this genuinely elegant music – none of your Randy Crawford fake furs here – that something with this level of humour and generosity and clothes (“Let’s just talk about the As!”) could blossom into an actual hit and help invent (that ululatory androgyny!) Prince and OutKast and, well, the sun shone despite Thatcher and the Falklands and not because of her because we know better

3. Soft Cell – Torch (peak: 2)
and oh yes he watches this woman sing about her life, tear herself apart, and maybe it’s the Jimmy Nail of “Ain’t No Doubt” before the doubt set in, when everyone was still young and happy, and Almond comments on what she’s singing and how she’s singing it, all the time aching to penetrate her grief (“Hold me hold me hold me hold me HOLD ME!”), the trumpet reaching the emotions that the words can’t…the bits of chat business midway through the 12-inch (and “Torch” is a song which really only truly exists in its full 12-inch form) and then you hear her singing and it’s a small voice not Winehouse self-assured rasping small and vulnerable and offkey and you realise it’s all in the grain and what the active listener derives from it and can give back to it and they sing together at the end as though singing along while listening to each other’s records yes two people in two continents with similar records and by art and truthfulness they connect that’s good

2. Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes (peak: 1)
Adam thinks Kevin Rowland thinks he’s Al Green but he’s wise enough to know that he’s really singing about himself – “because you don’t drink, don’t smoke…what do you do?” Don’t need it (or at least he didn’t at that stage) because the art is enough. TOTP gave him three stages to perform the complex routine for the song; whatever angle you see him from, it’s always him, and really do you think I’d be able to do any of this if I got pissed and stoned all the time, but it’s not “Work That Body,” not yet, anyway.

1. Charlene – I’ve Never Been To Me
Eventually you cross that lake of eternity, look back over all of this unbelievably popular music, even as the shiny yellow was melting into nocturnal liquidity, and you find that even the worst piece of trash sitting at number one can’t put you off loving everything that was good and improper about pop music in the late spring and early summer of 1982; even this three-year-old piece of dysfunctional misogyny (she’s travelled places, done things, but no she can’t get a fuck and doesn’t have a bestial lout of a husband to slap her about and treat her like shit and worst and most unforgivable of all she doesn’t have any KIDS so she’s NOT REALLY A PROPER WOMAN IS SHE?). At least Sandy Posey’s “Born A Woman” had irony thrust through its guts like the deadliest of daggers. But Charlene (and on Motown? WHY??) simply whimpers her gross guilt (“I’ve been to crying for unborn children that might have made me complete”). Just because it is one of the few hit singles to incorporate the word “whoring” into its lyric does not elevate it, since its central message appears to be: women, know your place, follow the Moral Majority, be grateful for the crumbs you are offered and don’t get indigestion eating them either. Was this 1982 or 1952? And what business does POTP, on a Sunday afternoon, have in climaxing (ha!) a programme with this disgrace as a supposed crowning achievement? Or was it simply that things had started to go a little wrong in pop music again?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, June 25, 2007

Watching this week’s chapter in the BBC2 series Seven Ages Of Rock, which concerned itself with the rise and collapse of “alternative” rock, or college rock, in the America of Reagan and the first Bush – a “morning in America” which seemed to have omitted the letter “u” somewhere along the way (“Something In The Way” indeed) – with a particular focus on REM and, especially, Nirvana, brought it home (again) how vital it was for a new and distinct community to set itself up in the face of a society which had no time or wish for it, and how easy it was for the same community to lose its force and purpose when commercial success beckoned, since all that the original society had to do was jump on it when the breakthrough came and roughly mould it into a new, updated profit template. This had the desired effect of killing the community since it couldn’t go about its business or pleasure in the way originally intended; too many people wanted in, and the originators wanted out. With Cobain, this was demonstrated in painful extremis.

I fervently hope that the same thing doesn’t happen with the Canadian “scene” as it stands now. There are signs of danger. Arcade Fire have, practically by default, become both the REM and the Nirvana de nos jours for those too young to have lived through that era. Will they be allowed to develop and evolve at their own pace, or will the pressure which already seems to be telling prematurely tire them out? Can they escape being pinned down as The Next U2 and remain capable of flying? My optimistic feeling is that they will pursue the REM route of remaining successful while staying patiently uncompromising. The sum of the multiple rainbow coalitions of loves and influences which each member brings to the group is too great to be easily controlled or reined in.

I’m unsure whether Bell Orchestre still exists as a going concern, or whether, by virtue of its main members, bassist and keyboardist Richard Reed Parry and violinist Sarah Neufeld, it has absorbed itself into the Arcade Fire fabric. They were – or are – an instrumental collective, and their 2005 album Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light was assembled from two years of recordings but retains a sense of spontaneous discovery and interaction. The CD package comes decorated like a particularly florid da Vinci workbook; hopeful sketches of Doric columns alternate with maps, compasses and darkly red drawings of reclaimed wilderness. There is a typewriter which in one panel displays the words THANK YOU and looks like a modified cash register. There is a feeling of the sacred (“and we all clapped and whistled”) with multiple thanks (“thank you, thank you, thank you”) and a sense of natural holiness: how many records of this age could carry dedications to “BELOVED PARENTS” without coming across as cloying?

The record itself is supremely patient in its creativity. Broadly divided between atmospheric, improvised ambient interludes (the “recording a tunnel” sections) and more formal instrumental pieces, but with each still flowing into the other, the slowly accumulating horns sounding like ships in the night, together with the sounds of waves of water, make me wonder whether Björk might have listened to this before, or while, putting together Volta, though Bell Orchestre’s found sounds, while still troubled in several ways, are generally more peaceful, less effusive. The two-part “Les Lumieres” sets out the group’s modus operandi; Pt. 1 begins with a blend of trilling French horn, twinkling, high-register lead guitar, muted trumpet, glockenspiel, courtly violin and a bassline which could have come from an old Drifters record. Eventually these elements coalesce into melody, but soon thundering tympani and a heartbeat rhythm usher in an improvised section, the players’ notes dissolving into pointillistic birdsong. Pt. 2 begins with a vibrant gypsy dance, led by Neufeld’s frenetic violin (and reminding me greatly of East Of Eden); this too settles into a comfortable post-rock sprint, punctuated by occasional explosions of freeform brass, before “Sir” Mike Feverstock (who is also credited with “soaring flourishes at live shows”) brings the piece to a satisfactorily quiet resolution with his lap steel.

“THROW IT ON A FIRE” (the title is meaningfully capitalised in the credits, whereas most of the other titles are listed in small print only) is a thrilling reaffirmation and reclamation of living and breathing music, combining flamenco (the thunderous handclaps and footstomps of the opening section underlined but not undermined by an enormous, undulating siren), Arthur Russell’s early ensemble works (horn figures rising graciously on the horizon like a particularly generous early morning sun), Mingus franticity (French horn player Pietro Amato gleefully whooping away like Bob Northern on Liberation Music Orchestra, that earlier example of an even-handed, mutually dependent musical community setting itself up in defiance of a brutalist establishment) and compositional logic (since, at the end, peace once again reigns, the heartbeat rhythm now more serene); they are total masters of the disguised quiet/loud alternating dynamic which the Pixies invented in another connected time.

When we reach pieces like “The Upwards March” and “Nuevo,” it’s clear to see how Bell Orchestre’s ethic feeds directly into Arcade Fire music (Regine duly turns up with her accordion and “enthusiasm” on the latter). The excitable and exciting, sturdy beats which provide the undertow to “The Upwards March”’s steadily escalating anthem seem to be waiting for Win to add his proclamations to them. Like Generation X Northern Soul as scored and conducted by Todd Levin, with its violins-as-guitars bells of liberation, it is both danceable and purposeful, whereas “Nuevo”’s progress is more subdued and subtle, developing into a becoming tango with its skilful unions of melodica, accordion and pizzicato strings, soon joined by bold Victory At Sea brass figures (with a beautiful solo violin line by Neufeld); again strength is gradually built up, and at its end spirits of whistling angels carry it into the heavens.

“Salvatore Amato” I suspect is a tribute to a then-recently departed relative of Pietro’s (and there is another, parallel link with Funeral). Beginning with a solemn organ, it too blossoms into an elegant piece of quasi-orchestral/quasi-post rock music (early Penguin Café Orchestra meeting the Tortoise of “Cliff Dweller Society”), its key minor but hopeful, its restrained poignancy vast; the last word is left to a glockenspiel, patiently ticking away in tandem with the typewriters we hear in the “recording a tape (typewriter duet)” interlude.

Those interludes, if they should be termed as such (since the whole album is a thoroughly integrated, single piece of music), inevitably lead one to speculate on ghosts (if not hauntology, for these are the signals given out by people who want to live); “the bells play the band” sounds like a reclaimed children’s radio soundtrack from the forties with its scratchy clavioline and wind tunnels breathing through the brass players’ mouthpieces – but its sublime bells come from the now, from the tomorrow. In the second “recording a tunnel” segment the harmonic configurations of the brass figures are worthy of William Walton or Walter Piston.

The final “recording a tunnel” section (subtitled “(the invisible bells)”) is immensely moving in the early Gavin Bryars sense (the original 1975 recording of The Sinking Of The Titanic in particular), with its dots of French horns, violins, synthesiser and tolling bells slowly drifting into the ether, still resonating far into outer space, through the cosmos, with huge, cavernous spaces of echo and undefined atmospheric phenomena guiding them both through the tunnel and eventually out of it. Here the music exceeds itself, becomes supernatural in the sense that you feel that it is being created by nature rather than people, an infinite galaxy which seems to take both players and listeners out of themselves – for comparison purposes, I think of Eluvium, that remarkable and I think unprecedented New York duo of musician and poet (Matthew Cooper composes and plays, or at least generates, the layers of music, while Philip Cooper writes unsung poems as accompaniment), whose 2005 album Talk Amongst The Trees is among the most fully realised, yet also the most approachable, works of post-Fennesz guitar music (the simple figures of “Taken” last some seventeen minutes but you want it to go on forever; they seep into the air around you, seemingly distant but actually very touchable for those with sufficient patience to be touched), or Maryann Amacher’s Sound Characters, designed to be listened to in combination with her various artworks but on headphones in the middle of Suffolk sounding like the goodly breath of God.

The music on “(the invisible bells)” seems to fade away forever, but does not signal a farewell; rather, these are signals travelling out, being sent out, through the air, over the water, intended to reach others far away, to find, welcome and embrace lost souls. Following a brief pause, there is one final piece, entitled “(frost),” which demonstrates what happens when the signals reach their destination; a careful, marimba-led rhythm, like a buried calypso, plays while the transmitters from “(the invisible bells)” reach it and low brass play a resolving melody of harmonisation, one soul reaching and connecting with another. Listening to Bell Orchestre I feel humbled, and knowledgeable, too, about how my own life is changing, or reclaiming its original purpose, about the need, the joyous need, to establish these new roots, to form our own blessed and beloved community in the face of a world which otherwise seems not to have changed an atom since the days which gave rise to Murmur and New Day Rising. As the Replacements put it, “Left Of The Dial” – in music, so in politics, so in living…then, now and always.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Friday, June 22, 2007
“Since the lights are down low and we shouldn’t change position…”

If Charles Mingus was hard work, both as human being and bandleader, then to a large extent he had to be. While his small group records remain a brilliant and unsurpassed testimony to the variety and flexibility he was able to bring to his music with resources limited in number but inexhaustible in inspiration, his large-scale compositions remain an unfulfillable difficulty. It’s hardly his fault that this was the case; denied proper time and finances to realise his complex compositions – and no jazz music has ever been tougher to perform or improvise upon at the turn of the dime on which Mingus so frequently had to stand – the records which do exist are for the most part inevitably erratic, inexact in execution and sometimes in intent, under-rehearsed and under-realised. When given the treatment he deserved – as with the untouchable Impulse! 1963 duo of The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus, and the opulent 1971 Columbia album Let My Children Hear Music – the difference is more than palpable. But even in those cases Mingus’ music was not always easy to realise, and Black Saint and Let My Children in particular owe much to creative use of tape-splicing, studio edits and overdubbing; in 1963 this was considered a near-heresy in the context of jazz, which was supposedly all about inspiration and artistry in the here and now. Yet Black Saint never sounds anything less than urgent, human and bloodily, and sometimes ecstatically, so. In addition Mingus was afforded the aid of outside arrangers – Bob Hammer on Black Saint, and Sy Johnson and Alan Raph who did a miraculous job disentangling the multitudinous webs of melody and rhythm which comprised the compositions on Let My Children. These are finished, realised works.

Whereas the limited edition Music Written For Monterey, 1965: Not Heard…Played In Its Entirety, At UCLA double vinyl album looks and sounds like a samizdat, something unofficial, something incurably real; in contrast to the colourful riots of the covers of his Atlantic, Columbia and Impulse! releases, here we see an indistinct, blurred monochrome (and largely dark) mid-distance shot of Mingus, alone on stage, playing his bass, head bowed in deep concentration. It looks like the cover of a punk record, or of a hastily xeroxed Situationist communiqué. It was released by Mingus, independently, and was only available via mail order in an extremely limited edition (extremely limited because by 1966 Mingus was temporarily out of both critical and commercial favour and hard times were about to dig their heels in hard). Even my father, exceptionally resourceful when it came to tracking down hard-to-find records, never managed to claim a copy. The only thing either of us ever heard from it was a tantalising segment which the late Charles Fox played on his Radio 3 programme Jazz Today, following Mingus’ death in early 1979; the false starts to “Once Upon A Time, There Was A Holding Corporation Called Old America,” directed by an increasingly frustrated Mingus, who promptly dismissed half of his eight-piece band to “figure this thing out” and instead set the remaining quartet of trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, altoist Charles McPherson and drummer Dannie Richmond to work on a frenetic “Ode To Bird And Dizzy,” a compilation of bebop’s greatest hits attacked at near-inhuman speed which still sounds ecstatically draining. And since Capitol had wiped the master tapes a few years previously, any chance of hearing anything more was remote, and infuriating, even though two of its compositions – the aforementioned “Holding Corporation,” retitled “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers,” and “Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” – were subsequently reworked and recorded for Let My Children Hear Music, with most of the original players still present within that record’s variously sprawling line-ups.

But the performance has reappeared, remastered from a pristine vinyl original, on two CDs. If I mention false starts and band dismissals it will not be difficult to realise that this was not a common or garden “concert”; frustrated by his band being crammed onto an overfed menu of artists before an indifferent audience at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival, where he had proposed to premiere some new compositions but eventually had to come off after twenty or so minutes, Mingus brought the group to UCLA the following week – 25 September 1965 – and billed the performance as one of his workshops, i.e. not a “finished” concert but an open rehearsal. Reluctant to let any shred of realness flee the work, he insisted on releasing the concert whole, false starts, off-mike announcements, imperfect sound balance and all – something which no major record company would have tolerated, either then or now; after all, the painful memory of the 1962 Town Hall Concert, billed as a workshop but promoted (without his knowledge) as a bona fide concert, and which redefined chaos in the least productive of ways, was still very fresh in his troubled mind.

The instrumentation is not obvious. To the basic working Hillyer/McPherson/Richmond quartet Mingus added four brass players; Jimmy Owens on flugelhorn and lead trumpet, Hobart Dotson, also on trumpet, and the French horn/tuba tag team of Julius Watkins and Howard Johnson. Mingus himself alternated freely between bass and comping at the piano (and thus Johnson’s presence is crucial, since he frequently has to assume the bass line and act as the “bass player”). The absence of a trombone is conspicuous; no doubt guilt over his treatment of Jimmy Knepper was still galling him.

But, much more importantly, and despite the general lightheartedness of Mingus’ stage patter, the music is largely as grim as the cover. There was not much merriment in the order of “Better Git Hit In Your Soul” or “Hog Callin’ Blues” here, but then 1965 was not the merriest of times for Mingus’ people, and his music of this period both reflects and refracts that. The opening “Meditation On Inner Peace,” for instance, is a slowly burning threnody, its eighteen-minute pulse provided by the double heartbeat of Johnson’s tuba and Richmond’s floor tom while Mingus plays a mournful, near-Jewish lament on his bowed bass. Soon afterwards Owens’ Milesian flugelhorn enters to state the main melody, and then the other horns make their entrance one by one, encompassing solemn solos by McPherson, Watkins and Dotson, engaging in dialogues with Mingus’ continuously prodding arco. After thirteen or so minutes the tempo picks up, led by Richmond, and we get a Black Saint-style accelerando to a brief but frantic collective improvisation before the music settles back into its original state of suspended tension. But then, from 16:13 onwards, Richmond suddenly starts firing blanks of bullets from his drumkit, and the piece abruptly ends with some crashing, discordant piano flurries from Mingus. Following applause he then resumes his bowed bass line to provide the piece with its coda (the intention seems to have been to splice it to the original performance, but its warts have been left untouched).

Then the messy “Holding Corporation” attempts and the aforementioned “Ode To Bird And Dizzy,” the latter of which seems to spark electricity directly back into the event. The full octet then resumes their positions to lead to the quiet torture of the ballad “They Trespass The Land Of The Sacred Sioux,” all slow-moving Gil Evans mid-range brass chordalities whose reverie is broken by Watkins’ French horn cavalry calls, McPherson’s increasingly tormented alto solo over an unresolved and agitated four-bar stop-start loop and the final, sadly held note on Owens’ flugelhorn over distant piano; the battle already lost.

In the performance’s first half the playing is tentative, not quite formed, still slightly frightened, but in the second half (i.e. the second CD) things slowly catch fire. Firstly, “The Arts Of Tatum And Freddy Webster” is a damaged, nocturnal blues cycle through which Dotson’s commanding trumpet drifts like an irretrievable spectre; this resolves into a characteristic Mingus ballad form but then, unexpectedly, the music suddenly speeds up to demented hard bop as Webern might have imagined it, before just as rapidly returning to balladry. Throughout, Dotson keeps his composure and constructs an eloquently hurting soliloquy. At its close, Mingus ruefully considers whether he should have started the concert with this piece, so good did it turn out to be.

Then Mingus muses for some time about missed chances and opportunities, speaks of the terrible realisation, too late in life, that “…all of a sudden you find yourself trapped by yourself but you blame it on other people. That’s a weird way of thinking.” And then he essays “Holding Corporation” for the third time – and this time he’s lucky. More ragged, but also more passionate, than the Let My Children take, and despite its initial motivic fluffs by tuba and flugelhorn, the piece then explodes, in part due to Richmond’s forceful and relevant drumming and in other part to Lonnie Hillyer’s phenomenal extended trumpet solo. By now, Mingus is excitedly yelling “Love!” at both, roaring out vocal melodies for the band to pick up, and the music, after its painful genesis, has finally gained a real momentum and the long Hillyer/Mingus trumpet/piano duet which climaxes the piece achieves a tangible catharsis. Immensely and audibly relieved, Mingus cues the band into a rumbustuous reading of Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble” with Johnson happily soloing away on tuba, and you can immediately tell that the band are able, at long last, to breathe.

After briefly retreating backstage to discuss “a financial matter,” the band return for two final numbers (apparently the actual closing number was Mingus’ infamously confounding rearrangement of “I Can’t Get Started,” but this recording has not survived). “The Clown’s Afraid Too,” with its notorious line of ten simultaneous melodies, sounds surprisingly relaxed (and is half the speed of the Let My Children version), despite Dotson’s startling, spaced out high note introduction (which Mingus loved so much he scored it and gave the line to lead trumpeter Snooky Young to play in 1971, Dotson by that time having self-destructed, leaving a widow and children); a mellow stumble of a tune and again featuring Johnson’s comparatively subdued tuba as its main solo voice (and certainly none of the electronic manipulation and berserk free playing we find on the Let My Children take), though the various melodic and harmonic strands featured in the piece continue to remind me of a crossword puzzle anagram of “All The Things You Are.”

Lastly we come to what is by far the record’s most chilling track, “Don’t Let It Happen Here,” framed by Mingus reciting the famous poem by Protestant anti-Nazi campaigner Pastor Niemoller (“One day they came for the Communists, and I said nothing” etc.) over deathly chills of fanfaring brass. The words “I charge you with genocide, the same as I” and its variants put the warning squarely in the 1965 of burnings, marches and proclamations, and the cover’s KEEP OUT level of unwelcoming darkness (or blackness) underlines this. Following a brief and startling muezzin wail lament from Mingus, the piece then launches into a sternly uptempo bimelodic gallop, sometimes slowing down, at other times screaming with noise, but perspectivised by the militant flugelhorn/percussion duet between Owens and Richmond, following which Mingus returns with his warning over a glinting chorus of horns and disturbed piano, chewing on the words “genocide” and “equal” as militantly as the Archie Shepp of “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm.” No, it is not easy music; it will not bound up to you and lick your face with eagerness. Even though it is now on general release forty years too late, the music remains remote; you have to seek it out, find it and establish ways of penetrating and understanding the soul which created it. It is frequently a shambles of missed beats and introductions – but when the art emerges, proud and unforgiving, the life lived is understood far, far more clearly.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Thursday, June 21, 2007

At first, with its brightly primary-coloured cover – a simple painting of red girl guides holding white butterfly nets in green fields shadowed by distant farm outhouses under a blue sky – the eponymous debut album by LA duo The Bird And The Bee seems like another entry in the procession of smilingly inviting twee (in the best sense) indie records in the wake of, say, last year’s debut by I’m From Barcelona, such that you hardly notice the Parental Advisory Explicit Content box tucked away in the bottom left hand corner. Then you read through the CD booklet and come to the thank yous which include such unlikely indie names as Joey Waronker, Lily Allen, Bruce Lundvall, everyone at EMI Music Publishing and everyone at Blue Note, and then you realise that this is a very major label release but still the least typical Blue Note record since Unit Structures.

Greg Kurstin, who does the music and plays most of it, is one of those writers and producers whose name you see lurking periodically in the credits of albums by big-name artists (for example, Natasha Bedingfield as per yesterday’s article), while lyricist and singer Inara George looks so much like the typical indie female singer that the revelation that she is the daughter of the late Lowell George may come as something of a shock. So The Bird And The Bee are not starving, but the music they make is so painfully and pointedly wonderful that the listener has no option but to decide that it represents the music they really want to make, the art that the day jobs pay for, the place where they can be themselves.

And it’s fantastic music. Pressed to categorise them, I would place them alongside early Stereolab (before they became afraid of loveliness), Saint Etienne, the golden Maida Vale glow of the High Llamas, Future Bible Heroes, Lizard Music, a little forward to Air, a lot back to the Free Design, and incorporating Roy Ayers and all the shimmeringly dazzling stuff that Norman and Joey Jay put on their Good Times compilations, not to mention a touch of lite Tropicalia. In other words, immensely sunny harmonies, gorgeous and unexpected chord changes, a slight sonic distortion to turn the songs into dreams, a bearable lightness of being; the sort of music to which I could happily listen forever.

As with all valuable lovely music, however, Kurstin and George are careful to underline the loveliness with doubt, quiet desperation and the knowledge that life isn’t an unending stream of sunshine; thus the bewitching twitches of opener “Again And Again” concern an inconvenient love-hate relationship (“You’re so stupid and perfect…/I hate you, I want you”) even as it shivers like a newly sipped glass of ice-cold Pimms on a Sunday afternoon in July atop Primrose Hill. “Birds And The Bees” has the same gently insistent thrust as Norah Jones but with rather more colour and some missing vital dimensions. Uncanny harmonies alternate with frustrated music tinkles on “Fucking Boyfriend,” the title of which is intended literally (“Would you ever be my/Would you be my fucking boyfriend?”) since the song concerns itself with, shall we say, alleged Jeremy Clarkson-type problems (“Are you working up to something?/But you give me almost nothing!”). The way George pronounces and harmonises on the word “kne-es” is genuinely unworldly, like a disgruntled angel.

“I’m A Broken Heart” is the obligatory Brian Wilson pastiche but works on account of its ingenious opening Lesley Gore paraphrase, David Ralicke’s downbeat trombone and, again, George’s expansive panoply of voices – what American Spring might have sounded like if they’d persevered. But “La La La” is hauntingly blissful, aiming for heaven with its divine modulations (though I should again mention that Sing Sing have been doing this sort of thing for two albums now; don’t let them pass you by) with its psychedelic revisitations which sound anything but retrograde; just the sort of song, in fact, you’d wish to hear on a hot midsummer evening, the trees swaying with knowing tenderness outside the high window.

In the record’s second half the music begins to grow structurally darker. “My Fair Lady” alternates between doomy, low-cast verses (“I need someone to show a little kindness/If he can turn his head, a little blindness”) and cheerily bright choruses (“Do you know the way? I am from out of town”). A word, too, for the ingenious use of the seldom ingeniously-used Autotune throughout the album; when applied to George’s harmonies, they have the desired effect of making her seem not quite real, just out of reach, and too bright and close up to be absorbed comfortably (as the gloomy piano plunge at the end demonstrates). “I Hate Camera” is fast-paced electropop which again focuses on George’s insecurity about her looks (“Dusty numbers and public relations/Tell me to sit there and just shut up”) though from the evidence of the photos in the CD booklet she has nothing to feel insecure about.

“Because” is an extraordinarily askew ballad, like the Captain and Tennille remixed by Boards Of Canada, all warped synth tingles and George again expressing her frustration at the death of little deaths (“And when it’s done, it’s like I’ve killed someone”). With “Preparedness” things start to become actively disturbing. “Do you know who I am? I’m alive, you understand…alive, alive, alive!” George sings, but the music is subterranean and sonically dislodged; she sounds as though she is singing, or crying, from six feet under, even though the melodies and harmonies are as entrancing as ever.

Finally, we reach “Spark” and the journey is seemingly complete; distant, distorted electronica sends out signals of a stately, sustained melody – it sounds like Fennesz. A synth choir soon augments the lament as George enters with a very clear and precise vocal, but a highly hurt one…”Break through the dirt/Piles of earth/To see where the sun goes” and then her voice crumbles on that “goes”; with its increasingly passionate entreaties set against a beautiful and noble, if unearthly, song, George prays for life and meaning to return: “I heard a spark/Something that glowed/Hundred feet higher,” and you will tremble as resolutely as she does on the “higher.” The album’s surface beauty has already enticed me to play it a couple of dozen times, but its elegant and truthful depth will stay in my mind, even as I listen to “Spark” on the last Midsummer’s Day I’ll have to spend alone. But then, I’m not actually alone. Not anymore. It’s again…and again and again…do it again…

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Revelling in the lovely lunacy of “I Wanna Have Your Babies,” one of the singles of the year, reassures me that Natasha Bedingfield is one of the very few authentically mad British female pop stars we now have. By “mad” I do not mean insane but the merriment of madness which overcomes a rational mind when faced with the inarticulable but inescapable presence of love, transformation and transcendence. On “Loved By You,” the acoustic ballad hidden away at the very end of N.B., her second album, she gnashes her teeth and spits out the words “evidence” and “difference” knowing that neither truly matters. In “When You Know You Know” she turns her back on hopelessly huge fantasies and trusts in the magic uncovered by the paths of the everyday (“I’d rather find [love] like a penny on the street/’Cos that’s something I can keep and carry around”), and again, in “Tricky Angel,” she reels in her marvel that “you just broke into me and ignored that it wasn’t allowed.”

Saying the “appropriate” thing, playing the accepted role, knowing when to hold one’s tongue, keeping her countenance when dazzled by the light of sunshine sensuality – all of these things Natasha continually fights and argues against. A loosely tied concept album about relationships, it begins with “How Do You Do?” where an Oasis/Kinks guitar strum immediately misleads as it thuds into a pummelling, distorted glam beat and harsh, off-centre synth brass figures while Natasha reverses all the parts (“If it’s weird for girls to give guys flowers/Then maybe that’s a reason to”) and is joyous in doing so, as exemplified by the triple, ascending “Say-a, say-a, SAY-A!” and the plump kiss of her “do” in the song’s title, as well as her dreamily drifting “mmm”s and her chewing of the word “stupid” followed by a conspiratorial laugh. She lays down her manifesto by devoting thirteen notes to the word “connect,” careering up and down before coming to a pause for breath, and then straight back into the chorus, with some careless whistling to top up the cake of pop punctum.

“Babies” meanwhile is the craziest and cuddliest British female pop song since the days of Betty Boo with its deranged calliope, Natasha’s whirling “Whoops!,” her giggle after the word “faking,” the 78 rpm la-las which come in from nowhere (always the best place to come out of), the hints of gleeful stalking (“Trust me it would scare you that I’ve picked out the church, all the schools, all the names”) before she collapses into Daisy Age (“I see them springing up like daisies!”) delightful dementia: “There’s one! There’s another!” she exclaims followed by a rapid octet of “babies” culminating in an “Aaaaaahhh!” as though giving birth. At the fadeout she winks: “One day maybe you’ll find out.”

The rest of N.B. does not quite scale those levels of complete and compelling madness but does prove why Natasha is head and shoulders (and what shoulders) above her alleged competition…Corinne Bailey Rae is too polite, Lily Allen unsmiling beneath her smokescreen of glee glue, Amy Winehouse too accommodating of The Past, Joss Stone assiduously (and so disappointingly) pretending to be mad, Candie Payne the hapless recipient of Simon Jones’ Meccano kit – as though you could reconstruct Dusty from its unsmiling nuts and bolts…her voice constantly adventurous and expressive, even on relatively indifferent songs (her “everyone”) on the dull ballad “Soulmate.” Instead of aiming for needless melismatics she allows her voice to crack, break and plead at the top of her range; witness the high “Oh oh oh”s and the agonised bleeding of “Rubbing salt in my wounds” on “Not Givin’ Up.” Where Winehouse and Payne simply telegraph base intents over pasted together signifiers of a never-existent sixties, Natasha can do a seventies soul ballad pastiche like “When You Know You Know” and make it breathe (and those loopy, slightly disturbed synths impersonating the strings of Philly help also).

In addition it is very clear that Natasha works best when she’s in primary control; expensive names like Patrick Leonard, Diane Warren and Mike Elizondo appear but the consequences are rather flat and uninvolving (the Warren-penned slush fest “Still Here” evidently pencilled in as the big international crossover ballad smash). Elizondo comes out the best of the celebrity writer/producer bunch, if only because he helps turn “Who Knows” and “Say It Again” into girl group Fiona Apple with lots of ingenious touches (the echoed hall of mirrors which prompts the “Can you hold on a bit” section of “Who Knows,” the “Strawberry Fields” mellotron which pulsates on “Say It Again,” the latter also featuring an uncredited cameo from brother Dan), though their best collaboration comes on the unlisted “Lay Down” with its aggressively distorted ambient layers and the ambiguous lyric with its “You ask for peace, I give you war” and “I’m not ready to lay down my arms.” Also worth far more than a mention are her pair of collaborations with Greg Kurstin, half of The Bird And The Bee (more of them shortly on CoM), the oceanic heaven of her multitracked “Lost”s on “Backyard,” nicely countering the yearning lyric (“Your lasso, my tiara/My wand, your plastic bazooka”) and the gorgeous Vocoderised choir of the “I Think They’re Thinking” interlude. Even the relatively routine R&B of “(No More) What Ifs” is coloured in crucially by her broken down “sun,” her extended “c-liff,” and the music again momentarily bumping to a halt on the line “The intro’s looping on and on.”

But she works best when she’s in charge, as on the opening two tracks, and also on “Pirate Bones” where its tale of stubborn resistance to settling for second best is hijacked by electro-clangs, cackling chants of “oh! yeah! oh! oh!,” unexplained minimalist string intrusions and unexpected hammering piano chords, the closing “Smell The Roses” with its spaced-out drumbeats, dissociated finger snaps and Natasha’s delicately delineated “do-do”s – but perhaps most of all on the fabulous “Tricky Angel” where she bouncily yelps about having all her standards and expectations inverted, along with frankly bonkers whistling and cyclical piano line, its dazed, drawn-out chorus – her ecstasy is so overwhelming that every element of every syllable seems reducible to its own, breathless atom, her voice shakily ecstatic, trembling. And when she sings “knocked me on the head” in the final chorus, she is answered by a quartet of rude bass drum thuds (Walker’s “bam bam bam bam”?).

In the liner notes she speaks of the songs concerning themselves with “the highs and lows, laughter, regret, passion, frustration, choosing to trust, faith in what’s still unknown, grace for what is known, questions, insecurity, stubbornness, determination, surrender…I guess you can’t really have any one thing without the other.” But she succeeds in dazzling us as well as herself with what she discovers throughout her journey (and yes, were I still fourteen years old she would dazzle me in ways unspeakable). A creative and (much, much more than) decent British pop album in 2007. I’m paying attention again.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From the outset, I have to admit that Björk is not an artist whose progress I follow avidly and lovingly. She has always struck me as the kind of artist to whom you pop your head in for a visit every five years or so. Thus after 1997’s Homogenic I didn’t really reconnect with her until 2001’s Vespertine, a finely drawn album of dreams subsequently rendered unplayable because of my circumstances at the time of its release (but then I need to go back and make my peace with the music of 2001 in general). The films I skipped, the art projects I distantly nodded at but failed to investigate and Medulla, an adventurous album had it been recorded by anyone else, was modestly intriguing but exactly what you would have expected from Björk, which wasn’t really, I don’t think, the idea.

But now comes Volta, encased in the bloodied fire of its package, and suddenly I have to listen again, for this is Björk’s strongest and strangest work in a decade. It begins with something of a red herring; the single “Earth Intruders” sounds uproariously futuristic on the radio with its muddily marching and splashing rhythms (from Roy Wood’s “Wake Up”?), Björk’s fitting hiss of “Voooo-doo!” and the disagreeable compatibility between Timbaland’s abacus string of beats and Konono No 1’s diagnostic diagonals of rhythm, but finally it is slightly too pat, a little too Björk-by-rote.

It is with the second track, “Wanderlust,” that the record really begins its journey; literally so, as nocturnal bells, hoots and blasts from sundry ships resolve themselves into pliable brass chords – something of a cross between Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band and Anthony Braxton’s tuba quintet – over which Björk sings, with initial restraint but increasing unrest, of her insatiable will to travel, not to remain in the same place even as the music manoeuvres through its parallelogram of repeated motifs, underlined by bracing, though still rootless, electro beats. Finally the exasperation overtakes her and she gives up: “Can you spot a pattern?/Relentlessly restless/Restless relentlessly” she declaims fearfully over high Morse Code trumpets.

Then comes a masterpiece. “The Dull Flame Of Desire” works around a patiently ascending cycle of a ten-line extract from a poem composed by 19th-century Russian poet Fyutchev, itself featured in Tarkovsky’s opus of rococo nihilism Stalker. Scored as a duet for Björk and Antony, again with a low-cast brass section and drummer Brian Chippendale, its passage from sparkling light (“To cast a swift embracing glance”) to deeper bonding (“And through the downcast lashes/I see the dull flame of desire”) is elegant, entirely logical, perfectly paced and beautifully performed; both voices bursting with noble desire, each gradually disrobing in front of each other, beginning to pulsate and harden as the brass climbs higher, Chippendale’s drumming becomes steadily more hyperactive (Gil Evans? Hindemith? A sexed-up Arvo Part with Elvin Jones at the traps?), all climaxing in Björk’s boundary-shattering “desire,” the voices disappearing beneath the thrusting avalanche of drums (the Righteous Brothers perform Tosca with Tony Oxley!) and all headed off by a

UH! And then a meaty punch! (Meat punching? Scott Walker??) Timbaland THRASHES his way back into relevance with “Innocence,” a gloriously gnarled atonal sculpture of punctumised wire and easily the best thing he’s done since that last Aaliyah album, at a stroke erasing the intervening half-decade of self-parody. As Björk gladly shrieks, “Let’s open up, SHARE!” the carousel careers upwards towards a pummelling fuck of a bea(s)t and then

all quiet, bedtime Aphex/Leila tinkles for the record’s peak, “I See Who You Are,” producer Mark Bell (of LFO) playing elusive with the song’s pulse (though he makes it explicit on the calm dance mix which closes the album). But the song’s centrality constantly moves away from the centre, with the constant deep brass (this album’s equivalent to a “lead guitar” or “Greek chorus”), Chris Corsano’s asymmetric percussion…and all the while Björk luxuriates in these being the days of our lives, wanting, DESIRING the tactile, the closerthantheearcanhear NEARNESS…”Let me push you up against me tightly and enjoy E-EV-ery BIT of YOU” oh YES!! and she wants this SO DEVOUTLY that it devours even the deranged kora samples which flow and peak and curve

and then that heartstopping middle section when the major key suddenly becomes suggestive of a minor chord, and the brass turns into an ominous, gathering cloud as the singer sings, very quietly, “And afterwards/Later this century/When you and I have become corpses,” before the beats and the happiness make their way back in as Björk sticks her finger up to mortality and proclaims “Let’s celebrate NOW all this flesh on our bones!” (the whole world should MELT around the smiling eclipse of her tender “lover”)…and that’s the message really, grab life (literally) while it’s here, don’t waste it sitting and thinking about what you could have done, in the right circumstances you could even become a kid again and relive the whole thing, come out of that fucking Ghost Box and LIVE and BREATHE and PALPATE and LOVE!!!! and SAIL the NINETY SEVEN SEAS of waves, of OCEANS into which the brass multiply at the end but really it’s the beginning!

But there is always the crepuscular journey to consider. “Vertebrae By Vertebrae” creeps along its railings of spiky Bernard Herrmann brass (is Volta the best use of a horn section in pop since Searching For The Young Soul Rebels?) and approaching Taxi Driver menace, Björk crawling agonisingly to who knows where with her most convincing and coruscating scream ever (1.47-1.50). Finally she must “let off some steam” and the rain and sea hush their whispering wetness once more…

As for “Pneumonia,” well, the singer sits, alone but for the chorus of French horns (think Carla B’s “Slow Dance (Transductory Music)”) and stares at the terminally ill victim (or is it herself?) with her “get over the sorrow, girl” and the “and your lungs are mourning TB style” though the real death she is mourning is “All the stillborn love that could have happened/All the moments you should have embraced/All the moments you shouldn’t have locked up” before increasing her tearful rage (it is somewhere between Van’s “TB Sheets” and Kate B’s “All The Love” as Sinead might have sung either) to encompass “And understand so clearly” (four seconds per syllable) “to shut yourself up/Is the hugest crime of them all/You’re just crying, after all/To not want them humans around any more.” Again the message is gently rammed forward; do not waste life, either yours or others, and where does that “stillborn” fit in exactly?…

…since on “Hope” with its actual kora (courtesy of Toumani Diabate) she bounds around the rhetorical question of “what’s the lesser of 2 evils,” namely a pregnant woman acting as a suicide bomber and whether or not she pretends to be pregnant while blowing herself and others up, Timbaland’s question marks of triggered beats always pestering the conscience, and what is worse as if anything could be better…she concludes “Well, I don’t care/Love is all/I dare to drown/To be proven wrong,” and leaves it up to you to work out what variety of love she means.

And I really would have liked a bolder Björk to release “Declare Independence” as the album’s lead singer since this is stingingly brilliant, one of the best and most naked things she has ever done; distorted 1979 No Wave noises and close-miked voice demand your attention and action (“Don’t let them do that to you!”). As her exultations become more and more hysterical (in the best, that is, the only, way) the music hardens and hardens and strengthens, through electronica moodiness shattered by abrupt splinters of glass guitar samples…it really isn’t that far from Throbbing Gristle; the Manchester mix of “Discipline” in particular…those repeated screams of “Justice!,” the beat getting ever more brutal, and by the time Björk is howling “And raise your flag!” (and answers herself with an eager “Higher! Higher!”) the music’s dance has become demented, beats now slamming like Alec Empire’s choicest axes. A manifesto! An extreme/extremist scream of DEFIANCE (“Damn colonials!”)!!

Finally, the reckoning, “My Juvenile” with clavichord taking the place of kora, Antony a ghost in her song now as “The Conscience” while she weeps “Perhaps I set you too free too fast too young” and sobs “The intentions were pure” while contemplating her actions – “I clumsily tried to free you from me/One last embrace to tie a sacred ribbon” (you may already be getting the idea that the underlying pain throughout the whole of Volta may have to do with that troubling “stillborn” I mentioned earlier). But again, Antony quietens her with a word. “This is an offer to better the last – let go.” It is a phenomenal performance to end an unclear journey but its central message remains potent and permanent – do not take life, in whatever form, for granted, and embrace it every second it is here, with you, with us. So I shall make more of an effort to keep in touch with Björk between now and 2012. Who knows what glories I might miss?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, June 18, 2007

The cover of this month’s Observer Music Monthly – “THE TEEN ISSUE” in big, slanted capitals – is emblazoned with the hopeful “Meet the bands and the fans kickstarting a youth revolution.” One’s instinct immediately leans towards wondering whether a real revolution would ever make it to the OMM’s cosy pages, let alone be championed within them. The issue boasts nine teenage guest editors, one of them black and all the rest looking comfortably middle class, and indeed the acts publicised in the “OUR GENERATION” (more bold capitals) section are, with one (token) exception, exclusively white, all of whom fill their predestined roles as future fillers of existing gaps in the market rather than creators of new ones.

Maybe that already sounds shockingly cynical and I would trust that enthusiastic music fans young enough to be my children would treat it with complete contempt. In the issue’s two major bookend columns the main anxiety appears to be a worry over old and middle-aged people’s continued control of things which should the exclusive premise of youth. In his Sounding Off column, teenage promoter Sam Kilcoyne (quite a worrying number of the prime movers here are named Sam) talks with disgust about “ageing suits without a clue and misguided priorities” apropos what he rather misguidedly refers to as “this new teen scene.” You can understand his frustration, though, as he speaks of his embarrassing dealings with “a major national pop music radio station” (well, there’s only One, isn’t there?) who commissioned a survey of teenagers to determine their playlist. It transpired that said teenagers were obliged to select from a very narrow shortlist of acts, such that the likes of the Klaxons and the Horrors did not make the playlist and the two most popular groups turned out to be Green Day and the Kooks. Depressing and predictable, but naturally ageing misunderstandings play only a partial part in this – while there is understandable angst about forty-year-olds favouring acts who sound like acts who were around when they were teenagers, such affairs also have to do with the real disease strangling British music at present, namely the eternal nepotism which means that playlists and exposure continue to rely on known industry contracts, backhanders, favours for favours (you don’t playlist Newbies A, you don’t get an exclusive on Global Act B), yet other favours called in, Buggins’ turn, and so forth. This practice also incorporates mainstream music magazines and music sections of major newspapers – I know of at least one senior broadsheet music writer who is in the paid employ of a PR company and is contracted to write only about their acts. Anyone, for instance, puzzled by the sudden accession of certain long-standing music business sideliners and also-rans to “the future of music” would find much clarity if these lines of communication were followed and dissected.

But anyway, back to Mstr Kilcoyne, who says: “It’s clear that teenagers have never been so important [certainly that is always the case when one is a teenager], but no one can grasp that times are changing, that to understand them better people have to change with them.” Cue any teenager with a gripe – and that’s most of them – over the last fifty years. “If marketing people are going to make money out of us,” he cries with the assurance of a future marketing person, “they need to have a rethink. We’re not going to be spoonfed safe rubbish off their surveys.” By way of illustrating this he signs off with a defiant “I’m 15, I can’t use MySpace properly and I listen to Ornette Coleman and Serge Gainsbourg.”

Well, good for you, lad. Flip back through the serrated back issues of Musics, the former journal of the London Musicians’ Collective, in the mid-to-late seventies – they are, sadly, not yet available online – and you will intermittently find me, at more or less the same age Sam is now but deploying a battalion of unlikely pseudonyms, uttering strikingly similar sentiments. And while it is reasonably viable to argue that with all music now at everybody’s fingertips on the internet, anything can be found and discovered, or rediscovered, with the minimum of effort, such that there’s no real work involved in doing so, no need to get one’s feet cold walking the streets trying to find The Light, The Truth and The Way, and also crucially no chance of serendipity, that stumbling across something or someone of which or whom you had never previously been aware but goes on to change your way of walking through the world irrevocably (since if you decide to investigate Ornette Coleman or Serge Gainsbourg’s music it is because it has already been cited by your favourite band), it is equally unarguable that the situation when I was fifteen, in the context of late seventies Glasgow, was the complete opposite of ideal. Back then, if you wanted to hear any Ornette or Serge, it was close to impossible; their records, as with so many important artists, were long out of print, jazz and “world” music were forlorn, dusty corners at the back of dusty, forlorn record shops (jazz of any stripe was the least fashionable of all musics in 1978/9), and any search would necessitate long trawls, your arms half-buried in cutout bargain bins, or scrabbling around in verminous basements, poking through the very limited selections on offer in the very few secondhand record shops in Glasgow at that time, eventually extending your search out to places like Edinburgh (coming across places like Ezy Ryder in Forrest Road, for instance, was like stepping into an Aladdin’s cave, though no doubt by contemporary standards it would look extremely superficial indeed) or relying on the happenstance of everyday occurrences – one highly regarded British free jazz issue from the early seventies, for example, which has not been reissued on CD and now commands absurd prices on ebay, I found in pristine condition going for 20p in the semi-derelict racks of a perfectly ordinary newsagent in Cambuslang Main Street. Exhausted, you would finally rely upon mail order, ringing up places in London like Mole Jazz and Honest Jon’s requesting copies of this or that, or writing to Derek Bailey in Clapton or Hazel Miller halfway up Haverstock Hill for the latest Incus or Ogun release. Sometimes HMV in Glasgow’s Union Street would hold one of its periodic stock clearout sales and you’d suddenly see the racks flooded with improbable quantities of supposedly impossible-to-get things from the FMP or Impulse! labels; and I still cherish wasting a bucolically hot Saturday midsummer afternoon in 1978 trudging through the basement of Listen Records in Renfield Street and coming across tons of Sun Ra (Saturn label, some with hand-painted covers) cutouts retailing for 49p a throw – said bargains now constitute an important part of my pension plan.

However, enough of this waffling; the point is that much key music, access to which is taken for granted by everyone today, was effectively unavailable and ostracised from the marketplace throughout my teenage years, and artists gain no royalties from secondhand sales. So it would take a particularly iron-headed rationalist to argue that the old way of doing or finding things was better. But then taking music for granted is an equal and opposite danger.

The other major column in the current OMM comes from Maddy Morley, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Paul Morley (who I note in passing has recently turned fifty). It’s a remarkable piece of work which makes me wonder (unless her dad had a big hand in writing the column, but that’s Grandad MC being cynical again) whether she shouldn’t just take the column over, but then at fifteen I suspect she’s got more than enough work to be getting on with. Anyway, she muses about the habit of going to gigs with her dad, or seeing her dad at gigs to which she’s gone with her friends, and she sounds somewhat worried about all this, although she eventually falls on the side of enjoying it, the artful aesthetic table tennis of influencing each other’s tastes back and forth. As someone whose own dad (who died eleven days past his fiftieth birthday) was apt to spin Stockhausen, Beefheart and the aforementioned Ornette Coleman into my toddler ears, I felt this dilemma with near-equal acuity.

But punk solved that. My dad was never likely to get into the Pistols or even (though he tried) PiL or Alternative TV or the Pop Group and the Slits or anyone else who cited Miles or Ornette as an influence; he had a thing about musicianship, which is why he was one of the few people in this country to buy Nick Drake albums when Nick Drake was still alive and needed people to buy his albums since they had on them people like Ray Warleigh and Chris McGregor and Lyn Dobson who “legitimised” the music. Everyone else was just faking it. So the roads, though still linked to this day, were bound to diverge, and the divergence was treated by my dad with something approaching sadness.

But then again glam also solved that, since my dad hated glam thoroughly and I had to keep my love a fairly painful secret. T Rex just about passed through his gates (he liked “Hot Love” because it reminded him of the Archies!) but as for Bowie the Bisexual…forget it. So I empathise more than somewhat with Maddy as she talks about persuading her dad to like Arcade Fire (“I had to play them a few times before he admitted they weren’t just a retro band”) and then he’s the one who flies off, interviews them, has breakfast with Win. It reads like carpetbagging.

“What was worse,” she says, “was watching the Arcade Fire documentary on television and seeing my Dad all the time and other older journalists. Where were the younger people?” Where indeed? They’ve all gone straight into blogging, or onto MySpace or Facebook; no more arduous apprenticeships reviewing the Edgar Broughton Band in a soggy pub in Kidlington. But since those in charge of music magazines and music sections of newspapers never, or can’t, read blogs except to rip them off periodically, and their eighty-word reviews inclusive of ratings, emoticons and “a letter – that’s a piece of paper you write on and put in an envelope” levels of explanation are hardly conducive to the decreasing pool of “journalists” still willing to suffer all of this, then such enterprises are always going to be full of people my age, or worse, telling you about how music fifteen-year-olds love now remind them, or copy, music they loved when they were fifteen.

The cycle cannot be excused. What forty-plus writers are prone to forget is that for many fifteen-year-olds, to paraphrase Maddy, Win Butler is their Bolan, their Bowie, their love, their hope, their inspiration, their nowness – and because of a peculiar and well-documented twist in my own fate, I find that at forty-three Win Butler is perhaps now also my Bowie, my Bowie, and I will not be slow to qualify those “my”s by turning them into “our”s. How should people whose lives are slowly and gradually being changed by the music of Arcade Fire and others be expected to react when other people old enough to be their dad sneer and spit? Well, with any luck they’ll take no notice of Green Gartside, or Simon Reynolds, or Jarvis Cocker, or any of the other ageing, self-appointed Customs officers at the gates of music in whose personal economic interests it is best for them to pronounce and pretend that it’s all over (or, if precedence speaks for itself, this is simply another chapter in Green’s one-sided war against Rough Trade for promoting Funeral more fulsomely than the highly rebellious-sounding Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart pastiches which characterise the last Scritti album)…but the gates still need to be rushed and trampled down.

You’ve probably long since given up wondering when I’m going to start talking about Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, a Swedish duo who are not mentioned at all in this month’s TEEN ISSUE of OMM. From the cover of their new album (labelled #3; someone please contact me with regard to availability of the first two) they are clearly teenagers, or very recently teenagers (although only just released in Britain, the small print reveals a recording date of 2005), but still young enough to be swayed and stunned by magic; on the cover they gaze in awed amazement at a 12-inch vinyl record, from which emerges a golden ray like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Certainly a song like “Loop Duplicate My Heart,” briefly a single (and a Record Of The Week on Mark Radcliffe’s show, which is where Lena and I first heard [of] them at Easter), could only really have come from teenagers; the song joyfully dots and loops over the joys of playing with the singer’s home computer. Unrefined by “production,” the song is free to career in all directions, stylistically and harmonically, and usually all at once (“So many interesting effects – I want to try them all on you”). The singer’s (I’m not sure whether it’s Johan Hedberg or Peter Gunnarson) “Damn”s (as in “Damn, it feels so sweet tonight!”) are in their own lo-fi way as profound as Amerie's. Best, perhaps, is the gleeful line where he sings, “The neighbours can’t complain ‘cos I’ve got my headphones on!” Only in 2007, and only, I suspect, from someone under twenty.

While the album gets a little tiring (but not necessarily worse…there is so much going on in each song that tracks 10-14 should ideally be heard at a separate setting) as it wears on, its songs are fresh and energetic. A song like “Trees And Squirrels” is almost worthy of Jonathan Richman with its “Trees are wild and undisputably (sic) beautiful today” opening line, though the air of suburban defiance becomes clearer as the singer pronounces, accompanied by military drums, female backing singers and bullring trumpets (a touch of the June Brides there), “I don’t know what you’ve been told but I’m gonna have some fun tonight.” And “Noodles” is maybe the album’s triumph, a new “Bad Seeds” (the Beat Happening one) for our time with its thrashing chant of “Noodles taught us smell of denial, you will never grow up!” Through its sublime jungles there is a cocky denial of “logic” or “adulthood.” When the singer sings “I’m out of here, as soon as my will disap…” he disappears, to be succeeded by deliberately out-of-tune marching band flutes. “What matters is I don’t have to talk about the weather with some DJ dude with his shining boots of leather” is perhaps as concise and cutting a putdown of older, soggy attitudes you could find in the present age. “Don’t trust anyone or anything,” concludes the song, and I’d trust that any day.

Where love songs are concerned, Suburban Kids have an enviable knack of getting straight to the point. Thus “Funeral Face” with its merry Afropop backing, finds them demanding that “I’m the one that you want, and you want me now” and declares “So cut the crap, stop that shit dumpy-dum (stop that shit dumpy-dum! Genius!!), I will love you forever,” with a nod of approval from the accompanying banjo and tuba (banjo and tuba meet Afropop!). “The sun will murder the snow,” they confidently warn. But on the other hand they are capable of the plaintive poignancy of “Marry Me” with its Osmond-like pledges of fidelity and commitment – “Any old chance I’ll get I’m gonna marry you…/Put down a deposit on a nice little flat/Get my finances together and show where it’s at.” Extremely touching in its naïve faith, especially when a mandolin steals in at 1:31, though there’s a nice touch of petulant spice at the end with their “Why won’t you marry me? I want your love!” protests.

Musically they have the knack for lovely Saint Etienne atmospherics and High Llamas unexpected chord changes; see for instance “Peter’s Dream” with its gruff Hank Marvin lead guitar and mocking Greek chorus of “blah blah blah blah,” or the gorgeous instrumental “A Couple Of Instruments” with its Sunday afternoon in the park acoustic guitars and running waters. My favourite track, though, is “Parakit,” where the singer revisits his hometown, reminiscing about skateboards, cheap beer and old accordions, ruminating that he “didn’t do that much” when he was there, but then observes “And the tags are still there – Meat Is Murder and Pavement.” Upon which there’s a sudden pause of silence which lasts for a few seconds before the song restarts: “I used to wonder when I went out for a walk/If they named the pavement after the band or whether it was just coincidence.” You would have to be truly unspoiled to come out with a couplet of lyrical art like that, and perhaps beyond redemption if you aren’t charmed by it, or by this duo.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the Meat Is Murder citation is first-hand and they’re really 35-year-old accountants. But somehow I doubt it. Like They Might Be Giants, they inhabit their own self-made world with complete, innocent confidence. Hauntology? Been there, came out the other side; these days I’m far more interested in what’s happening next, since by definition it must be “bigger than everything I have ever done before.”

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