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

Thursday, March 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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