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

Sunday, September 05, 2021


"Chemistry" by Girls Aloud 

"She was preserved in freshness. I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t reach through the ice. She floated in it mildly, she was adrift, far off, in some private place. Surprised, and dreaming, with wide-open eyes. She couldn’t see me. Ice gleamed on her like moonlight. ‘The ice wanted to prevent me. It talked: no no no no."

(Michèle Roberts, Flesh & Blood: Virago Press, 1994; chapter 10)

They stare at us on the cover, icy, as if from under a placid, inescapable sheet; there is a little bewilderment, a hint of indifference, a smouldering hatred, a faint trace of ridicule. The unasked question is: "What are you doing here?" Within their staring lies the germination of the bemused but kindly look which Beatrice would first have given to Benedick. Within their glancing lies also, and simultaneously, the contempt of self-contemptuous singletons, lurking in West London wine bars to give their managers and creditors the slip (towards the record’s climax they will sing of "Chelsea chicks" drinking white wine spritzers). "Do you know me?" will be the central question, closely pursued by the befuddled puzzlement of "Do you love me?" And what sort of love is required or desired? Must we induce premature deaths by never falling below the speed required by the market, or decide to slow down and thus ensure the market’s final irrelevance? What do we really, really want? 

The third Girls Aloud album was always expected to be the crowning glory of the unexpected late 2005 renaissance of New Pop Mark II; this generation’s Lexicon Of Love, the Statement which simultaneously sums everything up and then makes everything else redundant. The delicious irony of a group set up by a television programme whose subtextual remit was to delete the last half-century of pop, to take everything back to a cosy, compliant, agreeable 1954 of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan, and then turning the tables with the help of the operatives Xenomania whose supratextual remit was to give birth to everything that New Pop had promised a generation previously, such that they snatched sex pop, colour pop, punctumised pop, from the jaws of careful, remains potent. 

Yet Chemistry exceeds any superficial remit, for it is very consciously Xenomania’s most ambitious work to date – as happened with Stock/Aitken/Waterman and Mel and Kim, Higgins and co. seem to be inspired by GA to pull out all of the extra stops available to them, as well as sneakily tugging at a few unavailable stops. In fact it is the bastard niece of Lexicon Of Love and A Grand Don’t Come For Free; an extended meditation on the uselessness of inverted commas when it comes to "love" (and think about inverted commas around "come" as well) constructed as a concept album with a storyline, complete with alternative endings.

Then again, do we know Girls Aloud as anything other than the collective Girls Aloud, just as Martin Fry and Mike Skinner were the collective ABC and Streets? They appear in the CD booklet on first name terms only, none of them quite smiling at the camera (observe the giveaway Freudian slip in Cheryl Tweedy’s dedication to Xenomania – "an inspiration not only 2 me but I’m sure 2 any aspirin song writers"). Only one track, "It’s Magic," credits GA as contributory composers, and even then, as "Girls Aloud" only. Yet this is not the anticipated scenario of Men telling Women What To Think – Xenomania’s Miranda Cooper has taken particular care to claim sole responsibility for the album’s lyrics, and furthermore, the topics and approaches were only arrived at following detailed and intense discussion with the Girls.

When you hear the opening whispered fusillade of "It’s all about the hell of it/It’s all about the game/Don’t ask me to say my name/Don’t ask me to share my fame" you realise that you’re immediately being pitched into an even less hospitable climate than the previous two GA albums (which weren’t exactly enticing you to come on a-their house, either). But the shocking "Intro" is the album’s shocking denouement; as with the first 30 seconds of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate or the jitterbugging opening titles of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, if you miss it you miss the entire record’s point. "You took the bait, now you’re looking like a fool/Don’t ask us to break the rules" is a couplet one would expect from John Lydon – and a listen to "Rabbit Song," the obligatory new track on the latter’s Best Of British £1 Notes compilation, betrays a surprising or unsurprising musical/rhythmic overlap with "Intro."

Perhaps the least user-friendly intro to a mainstream pop record likely to be heard for some while (because we expect Eminem to blow our brains out three seconds into any given track one), it quickly squats to a halt. An alarm clock rings (so much more potently, because so much more subtly, than at the end of track one of the current Madonna album), there are some faraway crowd noises and suddenly it’s a Dolly Mixtures 1982 A-side produced by Tony Mansfield. "Models" is astonishing because, even though you were expecting Girls Aloud and Xenomania to start thinking about resurrecting the ethos of the Mo-Dettes or Girls At Our Best! in 2005, you’re amazed that they actually did something about it and went through with it (though maybe Xenomania have their eye on the Pipettes).

Indeed, GA’s monumental monotone FUCK YOU vocals are so captivating that one almost regrets it when individual voices come through more recognisably in the verses (but don’t ask me to say their names). It does set the tone for the album’s story, though, with its uncommitted, too-rich/spoiled boyfriend ("Why don’t you call? You’ve got my number and it’s driving me crazy!") who is soon mocked in a brief mock-Sloaney mid-section ("Darling, we’re a fashion, don’t you know?"). "You get your kicks like flyster shit," complains one GA before observing that his own "kicks" leave her "torpid and cold." The nightmare reverse of this song’s scenario will be (re)visited in track ten.

Then there is "Biology." In an age of instant hits/shit, where The Hook and The Point are by economic necessity thrust upfront immediately afront one’s face to engage their instant attention (and thus is the magic of pop music degraded further to the aesthetic level of a mugger’s flick knife), how utterly refreshing to meet a pop single which takes its time to reveal its ingredients, including the chorus, which does not as such appear until well after two minutes into the song – and indeed the song’s structure mirrors exactly the theme of the girl getting "her head in the shade," for it is about hiding from threats, or meeting and trumping them with unexpectedly greater threats of your own. The song begins almost as a mockery of Marquee blokey blues-rock – a twelve-year-old singing along to her dad’s Bad Company record (it's actually a sampled Animals track)? – as the singer turns the stock Plant/Rodgers/Marriott mannerisms and dismantles them by the act of merely reversing them. "Why don’t you CLOTHE me FEED me SAY you NEED ME without wicked GAMES? Come on and CALL me HELP me SAY you LOVE ME and not my dirty BRAIN."

Not only does that act as a virtual manifesto for courtly love, but we also have to take the possible view that this is Girls Aloud taking the piss out of The Bloke’s pleading. Possibly because they have to – for when the song drifts into more familiar 1980 synthpop territory the voices become multiple and the emotions turn darker. The "closer" section, where the music, the beat, the man – the rape? – are making a seemingly unstoppable advent on the progenitor – is extremely troubling, and this in turn is followed up by the stern chorale of "You give it up…and then they take it away/A girl’s got to zip it up and get her head in the shade." No means no, Zero Tolerance – "We’re gonna call it a prophecy!" – but when the clouds part for the chorus finally to reveal itself, the ambivalence is made explicit. "You can’t mistake our biology!" the lead GA warns as the others chant, "The way that we walk. The way that we talk. It’s there in our thoughts…So easily caught" (which latter immediately raises the spectre of Michael Hordern in the film of Up Pompeii! – "My daughter is chaste." Frankie Howerd: "And so easily caught"). They do not sing it in the frame of an invitation to party.

The opening "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" staccato jerk riffing reappears for one final time (think also "Fit But You Know It" as seen from the opposite angle) but the words have vanished. Sex, if there is to be any, will be strictly on GA’s own terms. Thus "Wild Horses"* (*one could argue that Chemistry is an extended attempt by Xenomania to de-masculinise pop – all these signifiers of titles, "Whole Lotta History," "No Regrets," "Models," "Wild Horses," "Long Hot Summer," "Swinging London Town," named after buildings long since demolished) begins with a bizarre roundelay of an intro which sounds as though it’s escaped from the Peter Wyngarde album ("Poor boy Peter [Wyngarde? Andre? Doherty?] didn’t know how to claim his miracle/Lost his way/Cost him dearly like his dad") before making mincemeat of the Stones ("Woo woo!") as they send their inadequate Other packing, again turning his own clichés against him ("Take your lazy dog with you/Your train is running late and overdue") atop a bizarre electro-bluegrass backing over which GA now begin to deliver a rap which isn’t as sprightly as they make it sound. "I was trying to sedate him, trying not to blow/I was trying not to hate him – wouldn’t you know." It does indeed sound like Daphne and Celeste grown up ("The rings on his fingers were as false as the kisses he gave") but again the sung verses take the song into a darker dimension ("Took my time, thought I’d be safe," followed by a terrible, inscrutable, elongated wail of "oh!"). Fucking so bad it feels like rape.

And then there is "See The Day," the first of three occasions on Chemistry when the voice is left alone (relatively speaking) to own up and admit vulnerability. Indeed the lead vocal (Cheryl?) and Xenomania’s arrangement bring out the song’s troubled compassion as fully as its author, Dee C Lee, did on her original recording in 1985. Back then I was prevented from accessing the song’s real nature by the glutinous Real Soul/Weller/NME/Red Wedge/Proper Music Not Tarzan Boy layers of fat which occluded any kindness. With GA, however, the story is different. "When you look at me," the voice begins alone, "tell me what you see. Do you see no love at all?" It’s a quietly insistent request masquerading as an invitation to a wanted and/or errant lover to let go of his self-constructed restraint, not be afraid of uncertainty, and finally release himself from the past.

Although slightly less remonstrative than Eric Matthews’ bitterly gorgeous 1995 song on the same topic, "Faith To Clay" – a song which really builds on the theme of "heartache leads astray"** **(and isn’t that a record whose time has finally and quietly come, It’s Heavy In Here by Eric Matthews? Listening to it now I hear firm portents of Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens…) - its tearful desperation balances its emotional generosity. "When you look away, is it mean to say that she haunts you night and day? And does it hurt your heart when I say let’s start to heal the part that’s been torn?" The Girl is prepared to be slow and patient ("Just watch and learn…/I’ll show you how long it can be"). Meanwhile, behind her, the arrangement seesaws between tubular bell and tympanic explosions and quiet piano, and nudges the cage of genius in the central instrumental section where Higgins brilliantly replaces the Ivor Raymonde wannabe of the original arrangement with eerie Morricone howls and gulfs of desert wind and stray bullets, before abruptly dropping back to the 6/8 piano, which we now see is a direct descendent of Japan’s "Nightporter."

The sex-mad (as in: sex inducing madness) duologue of "Watch Me Go" and "Waiting" marks the point where the album doubles back on itself – for, as with Time (The Revelator), the record’s two halves are symmetrical mirrors. "Watch Me Go" is the sparkiest that Chemistry gets, with a great old skool hip hop meme (Salt N’ Pepa?) giving way to a Fun Boy Three skank over which the Girls sing gleefully – or are they gleeful? – about a Catherine Millet lifestyle of random sexual encounters. "Got the gasoline, pour it on, I’m ready to blow!" they exclaim rather more convincingly than when Gwen Stefani used the same metaphor a year ago. And there’s a great moment at 3:01 when a Girl (Nicola?) purrs "for sure" over a spooky Dammers keyboard line.

Spooky is the word, though, for the song’s central refrain of a night (or afternoon?) of sex, counted off in hours as John Lee Hooker (!) once did – "Quarter past two, I was dressed in red, tied up to your bed, begging on my knees/Quarter past three, I was in the shower, almost half an hour, you were at the door/Quarter past four, you came back again, said your name was Ben, then we went for more." Troubling, again, in an Isabella Rossellini/Kyle McLachlan/Blue Velvet kind of a way - I was almost willing the Girls to be saying "Bent you on my knee" rather than "begging on my knees," but with this song and its shadow "Waiting" we have to face the unlikeable but unavoidable possibility that S&M games are being enjoyed here in both S and M ways. Even here, though, Cooper’s lyric devolves into bizarre allegorical surrealism ("I’ll take a little bit of pain, OK, and the beat of the big trombone") which in turn gives way to a cackling schoolgirl chant of "I know what you’re thinking you’ve been thinking about my butt!" to fade. Who’s really cracking the whip here?

"Waiting," which musically joins some dots between "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" (as the Action might have played it in ’65) and Fine Young Cannibals’ "Good Thing," seems to confirm that the Girl has reached the limit of her involuntary adventures away from the inadequate Other. The track itself is fabulously constructed, with the triple penetration of the opening "knock knock knock" echoed throughout (see particularly the ecstatic "Toni-i-ight" at 1:23 and the swooning "sta-a-ars" at 1:34). "Who wants to come in my candy shop?" the Girls enquire, producing the spectre of Barbara Windsor on Stax (not that absurd a chimera: see Diana Dors’ extremely strange 1964 single "So Little Time," most easily obtainable on Morrissey’s Under The Influence compilation). "Throw me to the wolves!" they scream joyfully. "I’ll never get to heaven with my glass half full." But the underlying unrest persists – sardonic asides of "hey there buttercup!" jostle for prominence with lines like "I’ve been hating all this talking baby, black and blue" and "It’s been hard not trying to fight you baby with the things I do." And yet it all seems to come right by the song’s end, as a resolution of sorts is reached – "Wap! Bap! The boy can move!" So sexual "perfection" is achieved; but will it prove enough?

"Whole Lotta History" ostensibly sounds like an offcut from Grease, but it is "See The Day"’s emotional twin, and the Grease analogy is hardly a put-down; think of Olivia’s quiet prayer (Abba writing for Connie Francis in 1958?) of "Hopelessly Devoted To You" amid all the hurly-burly boys’ stuff ("Greased Lightning" et al). Except that in the ‘70s no one could have conceived the solemn Massive Attack string intro, itself in danger of becoming the cliché of musical clichés – but it’s instructive to compare the strangely timeless staccato 6/8 over 4/4 (it’s the same beat as schaffel, actually) with what Cameron McVey achieves from the same starting point with the Sugababes’ "Two Hearts."

Though the latter is by some distance the greater song, the importance of "Whole Lotta History" lies in its representation of the Girl’s turning point, her recognition that sex is thrilling for 15 minutes, but that something more substantial is needed in the long term. The musings are distended. "I give myself the blame." "Does she love you like I never could? Would she hurt you, ‘cos I never would?" (and it is urgently important to interpret that last line in both ways, if we’re talking about sex). "I’m falling all around (? With joy?) when you miss me," the Girl continues. "So tell me that you’re not alone." This is distinctly creepy stuff indeed, in the neighbourhood of Elvis Costello’s paean to frustrated S&M "I Want You." A louder and angrier Girl briefly breaks the ice – "I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t!" she roars. "But you cost me so much love" – before the stark confession (on a deserted dancefloor?) of "And it keeps me spinning and controls what happens ‘til Monday/And it might sound crazy but your voice still leaves (and that satiated purr returns again as "still leaves" is extended over four bars at 3:26-3:27) me all funky."

"Long Hot Summer," however, was a single always more likely to carry more weight in winter than in summer. It manages to parallel both "Wild Horses" and "Biology" in lyrical subject and musical construction respectively, and although the joyous major key – with that always irresistible two-chord glacier of ascending guitar to take us from the first to the second half of the chorus, like ice added to the Coke in an August Bank Holiday Brighton – might lead us to think this is the emotional inverse of Bananarama’s "Cruel Summer," its subject matter could almost make it the prequel to "Cruel Summer." "I know you like to wear my dressing gown when I’m not there," the song begins, conjuring up Lynsey de Paul’s "Getting A Drag" – "I guess you like it in my shoes/Just ‘cos you drive a Maserati and the ladies stare/Don’t mean you go as fast as I do." So it’s a complaint about the five-second squirt-it-out/light-a-cigarette approach. "Baby," they exclaim, outraged, "watch the needle when you’re heading south!" The instruction to "Slow it down!" is answered by an ironic swanee whistle before descending into the chorus. "It’s only Sunday morning and I need that Friday feeling again," the Girls muse. "Suddenly I’m freezing and I don’t know why," which is a brave assertion to make on a 2005 top ten single. Sex as work. "When your fingers start to run, it’s no fun," they break free of the rhythm to decry, and then the return to the theme of fighting – "Baby if you fight me/How you gonna like me?/Running down that Old Kent Road (the spectre of the music hall is never too far away from Chemistry’s multilayered surface)…/Why do you fight me?" – after two songs which have seen the progenitors fighting him off.

And then one of the most sinister endings to any recent pop songs as the Girls now turn to their hapless/hopeless Other, and finally to the consumer/camera/us: "A little late to take it slow," they snigger. "Like a cannonball/Got what I wanted/Now I’ve seen it all." But they also realise that they too are victims: "So finally I’ll put the shade around the world" (echoing "Biology"’s "get her head in the shade"). "It’s what I wanted…/But I just can’t lie/Now I’m queasy." Once more, that "I just can’t lie" has to be interpreted in both possible ways.

"Swinging London Town" finds GA on the other side of the "Models" mirror. "I pussyfoot from drink to drink" they snarl. "The Queen Of London Town" they proclaim uneasily as the inevitable "I Feel Love" throb makes its entry. "I’m just a big-time Gucci girl/A first in Retail Therapy/Now the downward slide to rehab" isn’t quite a swipe at Kate Moss (remember "poor boy Peter") but possibly a swipe at themselves, though thankfully not on the crass level of McLaren telling Annabella to sing about being a worthless little puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow. "I’m starting to drown," they coo as the synths, Killing Joke guitars and beats start to pile up like atonal phenobarbitone, before they pronounce the question "Do you know me? Do you REALLY know me?"

Just as everything’s about to spill over into chaos, however, the clouds break and we drift into a reverie of avant-fluff (nice to know someone else remembers the Gentle People’s Soundtracks For Living, not to mention "Moments In Love" because everyone else will) as a desensitised Girl asks "do you love me?" as though already on transit to the afterlife, spurting out disjointed thoughts on Camparis in Soho, "cocktails with price tags to make you choke on your Sushi," and "Chelsea chicks" driving down the King’s Road in "Daddy’s Bentley" before the original track returns. The Girls continue to drown but there is a residue somewhere in the middle of their voices which betray the likelihood that they are, fundamentally, loving it, swept away in the W1/SW3 social tsunami.

Nevertheless, as an exercise in electro-urban angst "Swinging London Town" is easily on a par with the work of neglected late-‘90s operatives like Skinny and Bedlam-A-Go-Go; the emptiness as palpable as breathable damp. "It’s Magic" – which I note closes the non-UK versions of the albums – is perhaps the simplest and most heartfelt of Chemistry songs. It is also the cleverest, as it provides a potted history of ‘80s electropop, with its intro of snarling Leer/Rental Roland bassline minimalism, then gradually building up to Depeche Mode chordality, then gliding into the sublime slow cumulonimbi of the Pet Shop Boys (the Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans of electropop – listen to the latter’s "The Happy Stranger" from 1947 followed by the PSB’s "Do I Have To?" and see for yourself***) and finally settling in late ‘80s Balearic heaven****. 

***(The great altoist Lee Konitz, a lifelong collaborator with Gil Evans but also a man who called things as he patiently saw them, once gave a very simple explanation to how Gil arrived at the slow, patient, impressionist claudications of French horns and tubas which characterised his great early work: "It was music to smoke pot by. Gil was a copious pot smoker. The music moves at the same speed as the mind of the pot smoker.")

****(One of the many advantages of the new Stock/Aitken/Waterman Gold 3-CD compilation is that it has found room for the full-length 12-inch glory of Mandy Smith’s "I Just Can’t Wait," the record which invented Balearic beat and maybe SAW’s greatest achievement, fulfilling the dream, as it did, for the "artist" to disappear. And the teenage Smith does, her voice drifting in and out between banks of George Benson guitar lines and sweetly static synthesiser motifs. It remains the nearest that SAW ever came to making "art pop" and if it came out on Warp tomorrow everyone would hail it as the masterpiece it actually has been for the last eighteen years.)

And "It’s Magic" is where the Girls Aloud reverie/adventure ends and they elect to return to reality. "Other side of my world" one sings (immediately echoing the vast canyons of Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller’s immortal "The Other Side Of The World") "and I know that I’m in love with you. And there’s this tugging inside (the Girl nearly sobs on the word "tugging"). We both know I took you for a ride…/and honey, what have I done? Oh believe me I have realised…with you I know that I can be myself. I can call you crying at four in the morning on your naked bed." Again, the tenderness inherent in "See The Day" comes to the fore. "Let your body be free/That innocence/Let me set you free/It’s my chance." And the previous emotions are reversed. "You are in my thoughts (recall "It’s there in our thoughts") all the time/I need some help in shifting this heartache ("Heartache leads astray")." It’s an extraordinary courageous admission to make on a 2005 pop record, that somehow "pop" and "sex" in themselves are not enough, that immediacy does not lead to happiness.

As the couple stroll off benignly into the New Order sunset of "It’s Magic" that couple is unmistakably Beatrice and Benedick, united, with nothing to prove, in bed or otherwise. Rationalism has prevailed, and emotion more hard won, and therefore more valuable and concrete when it emerges, as a result (as Plato pointed out, rationalism and emotion are so necessarily intertwined that the former can only realistically arise after extensive first-hand experience of the latter).

A happy ending, of sorts, and it would indeed be very tempting to leave the Girls there, discovering the simpler and better joys of some new kind of bliss. But, as Oscar Wilde remarked, a happy ending is only possible if you don’t tell the rest of the story.

"The mask of ice that moulded her face blurred at the edges. It melted, and slid off. Her buckler and breastplate of ice turned to slush, to water. Her gauntlets of ice fell from her hands."

(Michèle Roberts, op. cit.)

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the album has two alternate endings. Or perhaps they are two different ways of expressing the same – far from happy – ending. First, "No Regrets," a morose bossa nova over which electronica burbles indistinctly, like the waters of a melted ice cube. Only one Girl appears on this song. Again, disparate memories cloud her mind – "Rainy Sundays, kids’ TV/Fish and chips in NYC" – but she knows that she has chosen to lose, to sever any connection with a workable and habitable world. "So sure the cocktail hour would last for all eternity." Finally, as she prepares to die, she beseeches us: "Just forget those heartfelt pleas/No regrets, no baby…not for me." Or, as another troubled woman once put it, remember me, but forget my fate. The scorpion and the frog…she can’t help it, it’s our nature.

And the final song, "Racy Lacey" describes in unremitting brutality the grisly fate for which she was always intended. Built on the remnants of "Sound Of The Underground" – a memory calling from a distant and now unreachable past – the Girls now assume the role of the audience, surveying what the Girl has now been reduced to. "I know this girl/She’s not too bright/But she’s educated in bed all right…/A PhD with her legs apart." At first we reel in happy disbelief that a lyric which a generation ago would have been sung, unironically, by Whitesnake or Saxon, has now been reclaimed by women…and then we realise that this is nothing to celebrate, the "she’s got undulating, punctulating, grinding hips" motif notwithstanding. "She clicks her fingers, guy comes to heel (or to heal?)/Chewed up, spat out, no big deal." The chorus itself is a music hall relic (musically) over which the Girls sing, "Boudoir beauty, it’s all that she can do…/A bedhead through and through…/She’s got this crazy mind."

A sound effects interlude of unsexily boinging bedsprings and banging headboards follows (sounding nothing like seagulls or cricket bats), after which the Girls recite the story of "Watch Me Go" from the third-party perspective: "And so this girl, I’ve heard it said, can spend up to 24 hours in bed. She gets her suitors to wait in line and she’s worn them out by half past nine." This is delivered in terms of rueful ridicule…and it is a suitably grotesque portrait of a shadow of a victim of the market who will never voluntarily break her ropes even if someone comes to untie them. Look, say the Cold Rationalists, this is what free enterprise leaves us as…sex as soap powder, love as a too-expensive/too-much-hard-work luxury, demographic husks of empty. The singer of "No Regrets" says farewell to a world she’s been told she can’t afford, and therefore proceeds to tie herself to her bed for eternity, already dead.

Fittingly the song, and therefore the album, cuts off abruptly after the final "she’s got this crazy mind," as if the C90 tape had run out (the playing time of Chemistry is 45:53) or a painful reduction of a life had been humanely severed.

"Now I am drunk on an infallible poison That my sister Medea brought to Athens. I feel my pulses pushing it icily Into my feet, hands and the roots of my hair. I see the sun’s ball through a mist, And you, whom my very presence sickens, I see you in a mist, darkening. My eyes go dark. Now the sun’s light at last Can resume its purity unspoiled." 

(The closing section of Phèdre’s deathbed speech from Phèdre by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes and staged shortly before his own death in 1998)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Sunday, November 27, 2005

In the hospital where I work the League of Friends have a monthly sale of discounted goods. The most recent was a week ago last Friday. Amongst the bric-a-brac on offer were a pile of new CDs "Donated For Charity" by various record companies – mainly Universal – retailing at competitive prices, none of them having managed to sell many or any copies at more competitive prices. At the bottom of this particular pile – and even in this company looking somewhat ashamed; reduced circumstances, but at the bottom, as an afterthought, as ballast? – was Come And Get It, the recently-released second album by Rachel Stevens, yours if you’d wanted it for £1.99, complete with a bonus DVD of seven videos, all featuring the lady voted last week by the readers of Smash Hits as Most Fanciable Female. Were this not sufficient humiliation, a few weeks previously – in fact, on its first Saturday of release – I had witnessed, in the HMV shop at Oxford Circus, a crowd of typically Saturday Top Shoppers openly congregating around and laughing at the album, which was not conspicuously displayed in that week’s selection of new releases; a spectacle last seen by me in 1989, when punters were pointing and sniggering at Terence Trent D’Arby’s underperforming second album, Neither Fish Nor Flesh. Overheard comments included: "Who does she think she’s kidding?" "Does she think she’s Goldfrapp? She’s fackin’ S Club and always will be!" "It’s embarrassing, it’s like your mum." In the mainstream broadsheets and the specialist music press the album was either ignored or given rave reviews on the proviso that it wasn’t going to sell. The album accordingly made an unspectacular, and nearly unnoticed, entry into the album chart at 28, and quickly made its excuses and left, despite Ms Stevens doing the blanket rounds of chat shows and teen television over the previous fortnight. Or perhaps because of her doing so.

So what happened? Why did one of the most outstandingly creative and discreetly avant-garde pop records of 2005 become, essentially, stillborn? When I first heard the finished version of Come And Get It in September I thought I had borne witness to the herald of the second coming of New Pop Mark II. Goldfrapp’s Supernature had sounded surprisingly alluring when heard on a blindingly hot summer’s day in Brighton, but this far surpassed it. Every track contained at least half a dozen ideas for a pop future. But then I thought the same about Anniemal a year ago, and that particular masterwork persists in its reluctant residency in the bargain bins. Is it that some pop just goes over the heads of today’s consumers? Or is it another indictment of the British music industry’s craven inability to handle female talent properly?

With Rachel the problem may have been more deeply rooted. "Some Girls" hit number two last year on the back of a Sports Aid charity tie-in and residual S Club fan interest, but apart from a dull cover of "More More More" which is pointedly absent from her album, subsequent, more complex singles have typically foundered at around about the number 11 mark (which in 2005 singles chart terms is the equivalent of number 41 in old chart currency) pretty much in inverse proportion to their musical interest. Did The Kids get confused by Rachel’s ad libs in the Kim Wilde-does-"Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" knockback of "Negotiate With Love" – "Can you turn down the track a little bit please?" etc.? In fact these asides add to her endearing vocal qualities; her playing with phrases actually mirrors and refracts the playing around of the Other of which the lyric complains and she sounds like she’s having fun if periodically being politely bowled over (that almost apologetic out of breath "negotiate with…love" at the start of the final chorus). What was it, indeed, that record buyers didn’t understand? Similarly "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)" is an utterly charming mindfuck of a pop song (listen to those "1-2-3-4"s – they make you want to hug her!) which was universally derided as an "Antmusic" ripoff. Unfortunately the nay sayers neglected (a) to check the songwriting credits, whereupon they would have found that one of the writers was Rob Davis, formerly of Mud, so it’s fair to say that Rob was simply taking back what "Antmusic" took from "The Cat Crept In" (Mud’s 1974 #2 follow-up to "Tiger Feet") in the first place; and (b) to recall that Antmusic was a gloriously unapologetic exercise in pilfering and reshaping elements of Link Wray, Morricone, Roxy and so on.

The invention continues throughout Come And Get It. "Some Girls" was a typically filthy Richard X production, of course, its subtle duplicity (a would-be pop princess being ripped off by a mentor more incompetent than sinister) virtually unnoticed. In the context of the album it’s one of three exercises in schaffel-pop – the bitemporal approach (a fast, light 6/8 superimposed on a hardcore dance 4/4 beat) pioneered by the likes of Akufen and Vitalic at the turn of the millennium, reviving a form which in pop had become lost to follow-up – previous historical examples of the same rhythmic matrix would include Blondie’s "Call Me," Amii Stewart’s version of "Knock On Wood," Elvis’ "Way Down" and, for those who really have lived long enough, Polly Brown’s "Up In A Puff Of Smoke" (and Gary Glitter, lest you forget – those "Rock and Roll" chants bolster up the closing seconds of "Some Girls"). The other two are "Crazy Boys" – a noticeably cleaner Richard X production which sounds like someone applying sparkling polish to the Goldfrapp template, gleamingly striding through hitherto inaccessible hotel lobby connecting doors, wiring up James Bond ("nobody does it better" indeed!) with Christ ("Forgive me, I know not what I do") – and the terrific "Every Little Thing," another Rob Davis co-write which sounds like Eno producing Clodagh Rodgers doing "My Coo-Ca-Choo;" check out the lovely quadrangle of "Oh! The sting of your kiss! Mwah! The twist in my touch! (Beep!)" in the second verse.

And yet here is an album which finds its artist at the start assertive and slightly threatening ("I like to watch you suffer ever so slightly" she croons on the sprightly "It’s-Just-Like-Kylie!" opener "So Good"), but by its end she is virtually on her knees, pleading for love and understanding of her façade ("Dumb Dumb"). Despite the aemotionalism perceived by the album’s critics, her ballad singing is touchingly fetching in a Thereza Bazar-had-she-been-Art-of-Noise’s-lead-singer kind of a way. She betrays exquisite fatigue on "Funny How" which effectively undermines the determined Luomo-out-of-Kylie rhythmic bounce with a lyric which references both the Pet Shop Boys/Patsy Kensit and the KLF ("The night got cold/It’s way past three/Take these fools away from me") and acts as a curious cold rationalist counterpart to the painful poignancy applied to the same subject matter on Sing Sing’s "Going Out Tonight" (a song which in itself has proved to be the missing link between Slowdive’s "Catch The Breeze" and the Streets’ "Blinded By The Light") even as it then goes on to cite Nomad ("I wanna give you devotion") and the Four Tops/Joy Division ("so don’t walk away"). Her reading of Alexis Strum’s superb song "Nothing Good About This Goodbye" is also sublimely hurt, wandering in a limbo between Air and Emma Bunton. But perhaps deepest of all is "I Will Be There," a song which many thought should have closed the album, and which is very nearly the last will and testament of Thereza Bazar on that videotheque screen before she truly mutates into a ghost. Rachel sounds on the verge of tears on the treadmill of "Round and round we go/Here we go again" before coming as close as this record dares her to do to becoming nakedly emotional – "We can live forever/This doesn’t have to be the end" – before evading her body entirely. "Is it OK if I meet you in heaven? Is it alright if I’m with you forever?" a chorus of Rachels sing, as smooth as the blanket swept over to cover the pain. And that unearthly, tender chord change on the third line of the chorus ("I will be there…") is enough to make a tender soul wish to evade Earth altogether. Watch Kylie cover this next year when she’s recovered. The poignancy will be, literally, unbearable.

And all of this appears on an album which hasn’t sold, or has been purposely undersold, is laughed at in shops and buried at the bottom of charity piles. Why?

Some possible reasons:

1. "She doesn’t mean it!"

As said by Chris Evans on Radio 2, dismissing "I Said Never Again." "Not like Charlotte Church! She means it!" This ties in with the Guardian music critic’s observation that Rachel Stevens possesses "the personality of a boiled egg." Not to mention "Who the hell does she think she is?" The overriding impression would appear to be that with Come And Get It, Rachel has proved herself to be a fish out of water, someone dabbling with things The Power Of Which She Does Not Know, your mum doing the Twist to LCD Soundsystem.

This theory cannot be entirely dismissed. What was sorely evident on her numerous television appearances was the extreme disinterest Rachel exuded when it came to the music she was supposed to be promoting, if not championing (and if not championing, then why not?). As I’ve said previously, she came across like a Young Conservative who’s accidentally walked into an electropop(ist) club night; a bit above it all, perhaps, desperate to get back to the David Gray and Dido she really likes. Her snooty air on the children’s TV show hosted by public school alumni Dick and Dom didn’t exactly encourage floating voters, either.

And as far as "meaning it" goes, it’s probable that she hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to show what she "means" – the general consensus is that she’s still the Baby Spice equivalent of S Club (indeed, one outraged Telegraph letter-writer – is there any other kind? – complained about how he was to explain to his eight-year-old daughter why squeaky clean Rachel Stevens now only wore knickers on TV!) and hasn’t really proven herself as an independent particle. Charlotte Church, however, gives a well-known history; with her it’s the classic teen idol-becomes-adult conundrum, but it’s one she’s handling exceptionally well. The twinkle in her eye is ever present; she makes no secret that she’s having a ball playing this game; her eyes smile when Rachel's evidently do not. And her strategy is better thought out, such that the startling futurism of tracks like "Let’s Be Alone" (one of 2005’s most sheerly pleasurable pop songs, including that "Enola Gay" quote in the final chorus) or the sneakier futurism of the likes of "Crazy Chick" (whose opening handclaps are as stridently sensual as Amelie’s heels tap-tap-tapping to your door in "1 Thing") come across as heartfelt and genuine as the straighter-edged ballads (though the latter still convey a weird aura of the Manics going R&B). The Sugababes, too, have had a chart-topping triumph with their splendid new album which is just as futuristic and Wire-friendly in its own way as Come And Get It. But then again, the Sugababes also now have a background story to tell – fans have never known them as anything other than Sugababes, they have to an extent grown up with them, are still interested in the paths of their lives, so are able to connect with them on that elementary but still vital level.

Nonetheless it remains rather unfair to dismiss Rachel for not "meaning it." I think her voice is the right one for the tenor required by the songs on Come And Get It; light but not drowning, vulnerable but never terminal. She possibly simply needs to learn to convey that emotionalism visually.

2. "Madonna is Madonna and that’s what makes her Madonna."

Ah yes, the elephant in the living room who refuses to be ignored. So here is Madonna, who is Madonna who is anybody or anything you want her to be in any given financial quarter, crassly digesting Rachel and Goldfrapp and maybe even Linda Lamb, for those who haven’t lived long enough, and she does the double – number one single and album, Hung Up On A Dancefloor – which seems to sneer at Rachel, look, kid, this is how you do it and here is how you don’t give a shit, which sees her swallowing up No Wave for the second time and regurgitating it as a handy, yummy revival as if Cristina had never revived "Is That All There Is?" (where is where Madonna starts, in the same sense that Patrick Hernandez’s "Born To Be Alive" is where Madonna starts) and views her swallowing up the future of music from the perspective of those of us who never forgot the Young Gods and who thought that the possibilities of sampling meant a million new possibilities for music, Bartok against Duane Eddy, Braxton with Bonzos, except that the future of music has turned out to be the astute Mylo who has correctly divined that we don’t really want music to have a future, just an endless, easy past, that we deserve no more from the limitlessness of sampling, that instead of plunging into a sexy abyss of chaos we clutch back "Bette Davis Eyes" and ooh do you remember the school disco and deelyboppers and the Kids From Fame and isn’t it a laugh and then you scream DOES EVERY FUCKING THING HAVE TO BE A LAUGH but then you go down the route of Celine (Ferdinand or Dion, it all ends the same) by thinking that.

So Impressions On A Dancefloor superficially sounds impressive and mighty and up to the second as long as you’re listening to it two rooms away from where it’s playing. You could briefly chortle at the little Gwen Stefani tick-tock jibe which opens the album ("Time goes by so slowly" – will our Gwen be singing "Unchained Melody" when she’s 47?) and hey, here’s how to play the game because Madonna asked Abba nicely and the KLF didn’t and turns the hi-energy sleepless heartbreak of "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" into an irritation which can be relieved with a dash of Nytol. In the same way, you might think that "Future Lovers" revs up "I Feel Love" to speeds and power unimaginable in 1977 if you’d never heard what Mark Stewart did with it on "Fatal Attraction" in 1987, which was rather more than superimposing a "Ray Of Light" rewrite on its top. And "I Love New York" seems to swoon with improbable modernity if you’re not familiar with Dakar and Grinser’s cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (the latter is less In Your Face than the former, but then the former loses among many other things the deviously subtle Dark Magus keyboard curlicues). After a while the UP-ness refuses to let you relent – rather than being celebratory, listening to the record is like being battered over the head with a weighty exercise bike 120 times per minute. Confessions Of A Hangman will not allow the listener to breathe as ultimately it does nothing more than billboard the joyless John Knox work-and-nothing-but-work ethic without which Madonna would have to look in her own mirror, and we can’t have that, can she? If anything the album’s "downbeat" second half is even more pestilent than the first half, for herein we find a shameless farrago of self-pity, self-glorification ("I guess I deserve it," she coos imperiously on "How High" apropos her career and money, not in that order) and self-love masquerading as selflessness ("Push" wherein she sings "You push me" while staring in the mirror rather than looking her audience in the faces), perhaps reaching its nadir in the interminable Kabbalah recruiting advert that is "Isaac" – think "Frozen" remixed by the Afro-Celt Sound System and pass the Imodium, Alice – before concluding with the inevitable, if loveless, schaffel of "Like It Or Not" whose message is "You can love me or you can leave me," alongside other subsidiary Wittgenstein-esque homilies such as "Sticks and stones will break my bones," "Better the devil you know," "Can’t get you out of my head" and "OK I made that last one up." That a purple leather jumpsuit is seemingly enough to get her to number one in this reduced world of ours asks why other musicians even bother trying, but not in the Aerial way.

3. "The British music industry cannot handle female musical talent properly."

And by that, I mean British. Perhaps Annie From Norway should have done a few more Popworlds and a few fewer Shoreditch DJ sets, but her record company had absolutely no idea how to market her and thus was a great pop album lost. Even with Charlotte and Goldfrapp there is the aura of "hedging their bets," albeit markedly reduced. But I’ve also been listening to a couple of very fine ‘60s girl pop compilations which came out this year – It’s So Fine: Pye Girls Are Go! and Sassy And Stonefree: Dreambabes Volume 6 – which between them contain some 70 pop gems, two of which were hits. What happened there? The sleevenotes more or less give us the answer; whereas in America talents like Carole King, Jackie De Shannon, Ellie Greenwich, Toni Wine, Carole Bayer Sager etc. etc. were given room to flourish and develop, in Britain the likes of Barbara Ruskin and Val McKenna – both considerable talents, and in the case of Barbara Ruskin a seriously awesome, lost talent, as singer, songwriter and producer – were marginalised; only Jackie Trent, by dint of being Mrs Tony Hatch, thrived (and the Trent/Hatch reinterpretation of Scott Walker’s "Such A Small Love" on It’s So Fine has to be believed to be heard). Otherwise it remained a boys’ club, and fantastic Northern Soul stompers like Nita Rossi’s "Untrue, Unfaithful (That Was You)" were routinely buried on the B-side of slushy MoR fare which it was decided – by the men in suits, many of whom had been in the music business since the days of Al Bowlly – The People Wanted. You realise just how important Suzi Quatro was as a symbol when she came along; but that was all she was – she was from Detroit, her hits were written and produced by men, and the wave of women who followed in her immediate wake – Patti Smith, Joan Jett – were Americans. Is it an exaggeration that we had to wait for the Slits and Siouxsie for British women musicians to finally have their say? And is it because 49-year-old men still think they know what’s best – i.e. women singers and musicians are only marketable as come-on R&B fodder or breathe-on-me-and-I-break vulnerables – that genuinely vulnerable people like Rachel Stevens end up being pushed and pulled any way as though on a pinball table, with the inevitable lack of jackpot?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Wednesday, November 23, 2005




"Give me, instead of beauty’s bust,
A tender heart, a loyal mind,
Which with temptation I could trust,
Yet never linked with error find.
One in whose gentle bosom I
Could pour my secret heart of woes,
Like the care-burthened honey-fly
That hides his murmurs in the rose."
(George Darley, "It Is Not Beauty I Demand")

The wind is inescapable, unavoidable. It is the same wind which could either fuel or blow out the fire on Wuthering Heights. But this time it isn’t just about coming back. It’s about summoning others to come back; in other words, life. Why Elvis? Why Rosebud – and by Rosebud, is that Hearst or should it be Orson?

"Why does a multi-millionaire
Fill up his home with priceless junk?"

"The interiors were cramped. The garden was littered with thrown-away Macanudo cigar butts – this is a terrible image, a blindness to nature…His bathtub was full of old books. His closet had maybe thirty identical black silk shirts."
(David Thomson on the living conditions of the last days of Orson Welles, Rosebud: The Story Of Orson Welles)

She is of course summoning herself back, after twelve very busy years, but not simply her own self. She’s been listening extensively to the works of Massive Attack, whose once-removed imprints are all over both halves of Aerial; on "King Of The Mountain" the not-quite-splendid isolation is articulated by the slowly ascending triple string chords as well as the Ryuichi Sakamoto synth pattern in limbo. She’s impersonating Elvis (there’s a chuckle buried deeply, which will eventually emerge from its chrysalis) as well as trying to will him back to life, to deny that he died

(and here’s the section where I’m afraid you’ll need to go back to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) and remind yourself of what she said about Elvis. Did he die the day he died?)

to return that 40-year-absent smile to his face ("Looking like a happy man?"). Meanwhile the wind whistles, its chill palpable, and it’s evident that the same spirit breathes here as breathed on "Dead Souls" – Kate Bush is summoning the souls of the dead, trying to understand why or how they died. In the multitracked "blow southerly" chorus it is as if she’s caught in the act of exhuming them, dragging their bodies back onto the ground. And then every individual will live again, proud and triumphant atop their mountain – and they can never make their way down again ("The wind it blows the door closed").

A Sea Of Honey is a study about how life can expect to be lived once that door has been blown shut, and we choose never to open it again. Far from being a prelude, or a softener, to disc two, it defines everything at which the songs of disc two laugh, or ridicule, or negate. In other words, the simple and complex joys of A Sky Of Honey would not carry nearly as much emotional impact were we not aware of the tragedies slowly being dissected on disc one. A Sea Of Honey is the tunnel through which we are obliged to swim if we are ever to emerge into the light of blissful blue.

Grieving penetrates virtually everything on A Sea Of Honey – and where there is grief, there is often associated compassion for others who decide to shut themselves away from the world, for whatever reason, never more so than on what everyone else has mistakenly thought to be the album’s comic relief, the song "Pi" which is actually a heartbreaking plea to rejoin humanity, to realise that a world comprised of lists and numbers, of doomed rationalisation of random biological occurrences, is not a substitute for interacting with other people. "Oh he love, he love, he love/He does love his numbers/And they run, they run, they run him/In a great big circle/In a circle of infinity" – a circle from which he does not seem to wish to escape. Thus does Bush sing him a tender lullaby to try to prise him away from this dead world, a lullaby comprised of the number Pi extended to however many decimal points are needed, as though any were wanted. Gradually her singing of the numbers drifts out of tempo, after an initial sustenato of the number "3" to make it sound like "free." Her 5s are like cuddles, her 8s and 9s see her in a virtual flood of tears, her 4s are subtly sensual, and she freezes in dread as she rolls the fatal number "zero" around her tongue like a barbiturate she doesn’t want to swallow. The verse musically offers Hugh Hopper/Matching Mole chord changes, but the numbers are accompanied by rueful electronica which, not for the last time on Aerial, indicate some familiarity with the work of Boards of Canada (compare, for example, with "Olson" from Music Has The Right To Children, which latter’s number count stops making sense, eerily, at 36).

Both "How To Be Invisible" and "Joanni" could represent Bush turning into herself, to denounce her own wilful absence from the world, if indeed she can be said to have ever been away from it. The former is a strangely loping torch song in which Bush examines the consequences of thinking "inside out," the slow decay which will occur once you have decided to remain "under a veil you must never lift/Pages you must never turn" and subsist in a microscopic world of yourself ("Eye of Braille/Hem of anorak/Stem of wallflower/Hair of doormat")

"The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning."
(Sylvia Plath, "Ariel")

"Is that an autumn leaf falling/Or is that you, walking home?" The sudden sob at the word "mirror" in the line "You jump into the mirror" and the whistling ("The wind is whistling," remember) which bookends the song. But those two lines again – "Under a veil you must never lift/Pages you must never turn/In the labyrinth"…

…of militant Islam?

The lyrics to the song "Joanni" are accompanied by a photograph of Bush, the lower half of her face seemingly obscured by a veil and her hands clutched together in prayer. She may well be laughing, or trying to laugh, underneath that veil. The song itself, with more sinisterly ascending strings, returns to Massive Attack territory, or at least on the same planet surface at right angles to the narrator of "Antistar." With its description of a girl who ostensibly is Joan of Arc ("All the cannons are firing/And the swords are clashing?…/And she looks so beautiful in her armour/…blows a kiss to God/And she never wears a ring on her finger") but reminds Bush of someone else ("Who is that girl? Do I know her face?"). Herself? Or…given the apocalypse of the first verse ("And the flags stop flying/And the silence comes over/Thousands of soldiers")…a suicide bomber? The progenitor of Eno’s "Bonebomb" ("I waited for peace…and here is my piece")? In these two songs there is definitely the touch of the muezzin wall present (even, at times, bearing a bizarre but entirely logical resemblance to John Lydon’s voice).

And then there are the two flattening songs with Bush alone, voice and piano, which almost made me wish that the whole of A Sea Of Honey had been recorded solo, which cut into an exceptionally deep core of pain. First, "Mrs. Bartolozzi" – a song about a housewife watching the clothes of herself and her family spin around in her washing machine, and the fantasies which that engenders in her mind, primarily sexual in nature. What is perhaps most remarkable about this song and its reluctant twin "A Coral Room" is how unhurried it sounds – one marvels at the increasingly rarefied qualities of slow patience which Bush applies to her writing and performance. Note the many pauses in "Mrs. Bartolozzi" – it’s as if she’s thinking over what she’s just sung and hasn’t quite decided where to take the song next, which road to travel down (or which river to swim down). This was a quality very common in thoughtful avant-garde British singer-songwriters between 1969-78 (see John and Beverley Martyn’s Road To Ruin and Simon Finn’s Pass The Distance for two extreme approaches to this tabula rasa) – the tradition of Roy Harper, indeed the same tradition within which those formerly lost souls Bill Fay and Vashti Bunyan worked. Remember that Kate Bush was virtually the last British singer-songwriter to come out, or come into, that tradition before it was supplanted, or superseded; thus when listening to Bill Fay’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorrow we can see exactly where Bush got the ball and how far she subsequently ran with it, virtually single-handed for the next 15 years. And what about Vashti Bunyan, whose second album, a mere 35 years after her first, finds her sounding 35 years younger than she did on Just Another Diamond Day (again, the patient compassion of a Bunyan song like "Turning Backs" is the other, necessary end of the tender Bush spine)? There’s something quietly significant about all these artists coming back from the cold in 2005.

But back to "Mrs. Bartolozzi." Wade in the Woolf waves of sensuality as Bush does so effortlessly here, gently transforming banal domesticity into a David Cox seascape. When she sings "Oh and the waves are coming in/Oh and the waves are coming out" with the piano ebbing and flowing in watery counterpoint, you can tell she really feels the movements which matter. "Oh and you’re standing right beside me/Little fish swim between my legs" would have been about a thousandth as astonishing if that couplet had appeared on the new album by Madonna, Bush’s senior by two weeks. Because we hear it so infrequently it penetrates far more deeply than the corporate wink which we pretend not to worship in 2005 mainstream pop (though that of course isn’t to say that the more intelligent pop operatives – the Sugababes, Girls Aloud, why the same intelligent pop operatives we had three years ago – aren’t sneakily and sexily dismantling those memes and know full well that they are doing so; contrast with Rachel Stevens, who torpedoed one of the year’s best pop albums basically by acting like a Young Conservative who had volunteered to work in Spearmint Rhino for a week for an ITV documentary).

However, the sea and the fish are – for now – merely a daydream. And it’s a daydream parenthesised by a nearly unspeakable pain. "I think I see you standing outside/But it’s just your shirt"…and if we look at the accompanying photograph in the CD booklet, it depicts a washing line in which there is a terrible red in the centre, as unavoidable as the red coat in Schindler’s List, bloodied…and then Bush virtually breaks down. "And it looks so ALIVE!" she screams, whimpers, "Nice and white." This is someone who might not be coming back ("And all your shirts and jeans and things"). The childhood memory of a nursery rhyme which intrudes towards the end of the song, and the mystifyingly terrifying first few lines of the song: "I remember it was that Wednesday/Oh when it rained and rained/They traipsed mud all over the house/It took hours and hours to scrub it out." And the song’s progenitor is obsessed with getting everything clean – note how the words shiny, clean and white keep reoccurring throughout – that you wonder: what horror is she trying to erase? Who were "they"? The Gestapo? Come to take her husband and children away? Was Mrs. Bartolozzi...interfered with?

Finally there is the option of drowning in A Sea Of Honey’s closing song "A Coral Room," a song which continues to leave me speechless as, with its visions of ruined houses, of past lives ("And the planes came crashing down"), the memories we clutched to our breasts, held against our hearts, now in disrepair, a broken home for spiders, it quietly sums up what for me has been the overriding trend of 2005’s important music – the feeling that, especially after both 7/7 and Hurricane Katrina, it’s after the end of the world (if Bush doesn’t mind my citing Sun Ra, which I’m sure she wouldn’t) and we’re engaged in a salvage operation. Think of the Shortwave Set’s reclaiming of battered 1974 MoR, their refusal to let their source material rot; of Eno’s generously gracious hymns of solace to a dying world (notwithstanding the deadly punchline of the final track on Another Day On Earth); Saint Etienne’s sadly wise realisation that all those Subbuteo catalogues and Gibb Brothers 45s ultimately count for nothing in the face of destruction (can anyone listen to "Side Streets" now and not shiver at the thought of 7/7? "I’ll probably get it tomorrow/’Til then…"); Antony’s mutation from boy to guhl; Rufus and Martha trying to redefine the pods from which they emerged; King Britt bringing Sister Gertrude Morgan back; the Arcade Fire bringing EVERYTHING back; Bill Fay being brought back – somehow it is all summed up in "A Coral Room," especially in that deathly pause between Bush’s first "What do you feel?" and her calmly tearful "My mother. And her little brown jug" (again a childhood nursery rhyme echoes in the collective memory, sung here by one Michael Wood, who may or may not be the television historian). When Bush sings "See it fall" it sounds as though she has plunged 30,000 feet into the abyss. Her tiny cry of "Oh little spider" also reminds us of Cat Power’s reading of "Crawling King Snake." At last, she turns to you, to me, to us, and her voice soars with choked emotion as she demands "Put your hand over the side of the boat. What do you feel?"

The centrepiece, the lynchpin, of this entire sequence of music is of course "Bertie," Bush’s ode to her son, arranged and performed by members of my favourite group the Dufay Collective as a 15th-century estampie realigned by John Dowland. Note how she cannot allow her larynx to let go of the downward cascade of the word "sweet" in "Sweet dreams" and the words-are-really-no-good-for-this-kind-of-thing inarticulate genius couplet of "You bring me so much joy/And then you bring me/More joy," worthy of Marvin Gaye purely because of how she sings it. But the medieval roundelay is minor key throughout, and sometimes she sounds as if she’s weeping. Has her displacement of time meant that she has seen forward to Bertie’s death, or her own?

"How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin stripes. It hangs like a glass cage. It is a hoop to be fractured by a tiny jar. There is a spark there. Next moment a flush of dun. Then a vapour as if earth were breathing in and out, once, twice, for the first time. Then under the dullness someone walks with a green light. Then off twists a white wraith. The woods throb blue and green, and gradually the fields drink in red, gold, brown. Suddenly a river snatches a blue light. The earth absorbs colour like a sponge slowly drinking water. It puts on weight; rounds itself; hangs pendent; settles and swings beneath our feet."
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves, whose prelude should perhaps not be read until you’ve heard the album, as it pretty well gives away the entire plot)

Suddenly…there is colour. A beneficent lightness. A child’s voice. "Mummy? Daddy? The day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words."

"A. Sky. Of. Honey." Or, if you twist your ear to 45 degrees, "Don’t. Go. Oh. Bertie."

Even as the sun and the piano and the birds of "Prologue" rise upwards and ever upwards, Bush is already foreseeing transience and non-existence. "Every time you leave us/So Summer will be gone/So you’ll never grow old to us," even as the piano magically unfolds in ascending scales and arpeggios, and the bass, drums and orchestra make discreet entries, even as Bush has to switch to Italian to express what English can’t quite ("Like the light in Italy/Lost its way across the sea"). Just as in "A Coral Room" the patterns of the melody echo the thoughts of Bush’s voice; they come after her words, as opposed to merely erecting a framework for them. Bush’s melodies will go exactly the way Bush wants them to, and at the speed which she decides – slow and patient.

"Some dark accents coming in from that side…"

Now it is nightfall, and the childish joys of that "lovely afternoon" become distinctly carnal and not a little pagan. "Sunset" is an exquisite scribble of Euro-Tropicana which wouldn’t have been out of place on the stunning Nine Horses album (Snow Borne Sorrow, or David Sylvian Was Right All Along). Bush sings wondrously of colours ("The most beautiful iridescent blue") but again worries about the horror of non-existence – that pause which comes after the first delivery of "Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust – Then climb into bed and turn to dust," and which amplifies its pain in the lines "Keep us close to your heart/So if the skies turn dark/We may live on in/Comets and stars." It’s an ECM samba for the end of the world (and distinctly ECM, as Eberhard Weber and Peter Erskine are the rhythm section on this track). However, after the last "climb into bed and turn to dust," Bush turns her back defiantly on mortality and ups the tempo to a Balearic house rave-up. "The day writes the words right across the sky/They go all the way up to the top of the night." Running up that hill again…to encounter a brief and astonishing episode ("Aerial Tal") where Bush suddenly gives us some vocal free improvisation in duet with the blackbirds, which obviously makes me think that, apart from Virginia Astley and maybe Messaien, she’s also heard the Evan Parker With Birds album, but even this is but a mere prelude to…

"We went up to the top of the highest hill. And stopped. Still."

And – again, like stout Cortez from whose notion of the Pacific I can never seem to tear myself away – Bush discovers…the eternal (or Joy Division’s "The Eternal")? "Something In Between" is the first of Aerial’s supreme one-two punch which gives me…just what I always wanted? Deep oceans of synthesisers, whale guitars and subaquiline bass suddenly but gently veer into view as Bush sings of being not quite this and not quite that. "Somewhere in between/The waxing and the waning wave/Somewhere in between/What the song and silence say…/Sleep and waking up…/Breathing out and breathing in…" Between man and woman, between jouissance and ennui, between life and death, between boy and guhl…

"Oh I’m scared of the middle place, between life and nowhere"
(Antony, "Hope There’s Someone")

But Kate Bush isn’t scared; she’s simply awed – that trembling sopranino sustenato of a note to which she clings throughout "Oh how we have longed for something that would make us feel so…" Words are really no good for this kind of thing, but the thing is, the twirls and curlicues of the arrangement set beside her voice, the echoes of a generation ago when I did feel so…but I’m thinking of a marriage between the Cocteau Twins’ "Ribbed And Veined" and Boards of Canada’s "Peacock Tail" and Björk’s "All Is Full Of Love" and, most deeply of all, Billy MacKenzie’s "At The Edge Of The World" because something here makes me hear that Kate Bush has become the new lead singer of the Associates and unless you’re a 1982 child like me you won’t know how that makes me feel, though you could make a decent guess and perhaps realise that Kate Bush becoming the new lead singer of the Associates is for me an infinitely more infinite prospect than Madonna becoming the new lead singer of Zoot Woman. And those gentle backing vocals, provided by Gary Brooker, the voice of Procol Harum, the co-author of "A Salty Dog," promising us that we can never really truly die, capped by the tender double meaning and let-me-die-now-poignant punchline which I won’t spoil for you, suffice to point out that it transposes the spirit of the closing two minutes of ELO’s "Mr Blue Sky" into the closing two minutes of George Crumb’s "Makrokosmos III," and unless you’re a 1978 child like me who waited 27 years for the two to come together…well, guess with a kiss.

And then, incredibly, there is "Nocturn," the song of the year, maybe of the century, possibly of the millennium, not that I anticipate personally living long enough to ratify either of the two latter options. The "sweet dreams" refrain returns, and out of tempo Bush oscillates as wildly but as gently as Julie Tippetts at the beginning of side three of Keith Tippett’s Frames.
"Everyone is sleeping. We go driving into the moonlight"…

"Could you see the guy who was driving?"
(Kate Bush, "King Of The Mountain")

…and then the most delicate and most gorgeous bass and percussion line you’ve ever heard eases its way in like the first tentative wave as Kate sings as tenderly as she has ever sung, quiet and wondering. "Could be in a dream/Our clothes are on the beach," and you can’t quite believe what’s happening here, now it’s Judee Sill singing Propaganda’s "Dream Within A Dream" and did you think you’d live long enough to witness that? The song gently ascends with that slow patience, not hurrying to reach ecstasy, and yes…"No one, no one is here" (even though everyone is) and…OH MY FUCKING GOD…"We stand in the Atlantic/We become PANORAMIC" and it soars above all of us, climbing higher and unbelievably higher, as if trying to drag Varese and Meek down from their clouds, "The stars are caught in our hair/The stars are on our fingers/A veil of diamond dust," and then you notice that Joe Boyd is thanked in the sleeve credits and fuck me if Kate Bush, who NEVER stopped believing in the Incredible String Band, is trying to make 1967 live again as the eight-year-old Kate Bush imagined she remembered it. The washing machine now long gone – "The sea’s around our legs/In milky, silky water" – they sink into ecstasy ("We dive deeper and deeper") until the unreal sun comes up and a sudden dawn chorus howls in rage against the dying night ("Look at the light, all the time it’s a-changing (Bob Dylan!!)/Look at the light, climbing up the Aerial") because it’s fuck me yes yes yes a thousand times yes Oxford London Toronto YES


She’s up, and she can’t come down. Finally, "Aerial," the song itself – and it’s Frankie’s "Relax" in 6/8, a thumping sex beat as Bush finally cuts the strings of restraint and screams as only she can except up until this moment on Aerial she hasn’t actually done so but she screams "I’ve gotta be up on the roof! Up, up on the roof! In the sun!" and then the scream turns into a laugh and she turns into a bird

and then the guitarist, Danny MacIntosh, who is actually Bertie’s daddy, who has so far kept a similarly reticent profile, suddenly erupts with Hendrix lava, interacting with, fucking, Bush’s cackles ("Come on let’s all join in!") and she keeps laughing, is it at us, or with us, and it’s frightening, or it’s liberating, and then suddenly there’s nothing except the dawn chorus of the blackbirds and the now distant echoes of laughter because they are now ghosts and they are happy and life continues anyway.

"The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside."
(Woolf, The Waves, from the Prelude)

Or, like me, you might prefer the following option:
"And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room, an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one."
(John Donne, "The Good-Morrow")

For L.G., who should have heard Aerial,
And for L.F., who thankfully can.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Sunday, May 18, 2003

Is Julie Burchill correct when she says that Girls Aloud are the most important pop group since the Sex Pistols? She may well be, if for no other reason that Girls Aloud have hit upon an uncomfortable truth about pop which only the Pistols have previously managed to express so bluntly. We ought to have known, of course, from the real “underground” of discomfiture which underpinned their debut single “Sound Of The Underground” (“Crank the bass, I’ve gotta get some more/Water’s running in the wrong direction”) which describes an addiction to music which is more clinical than celebratory. And it is now confirmed on their second single “No Good Advice.” Ostensibly another post-Shangri Las anthem in favour of not paying attention to your parents, there is something considerably more disturbing going on in this record. It is the parallel to the clenched teeth irony of Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice” (the final line of which advises, “But don’t listen to anything that anyone tells you”), but its “My Sharona”-gone-wrong groove points to someone who is actually past the point of help, the dying screams of an incurable addict. Ms Dynamite’s “stereo” motif is echoed, but this is not a lifeforce but a needle which will eventually kill the consumer. “I don’t need no special fix to anaesthetise me” howl the singers unconvincingly. “Shut your mouth!” snarls one of them (Cheryl? Kimberley? Sarah? Nicola? Nadine? Can anyone truly tell them apart? And what would be achieved if we could?). “I’m already wasted” they go on to proclaim; and finally there’s the astonishing anonymous soliloquy at the song’s close, which culminates – in a direct echo of “Pretty Vacant” – in a malevolently grinning “’Cos frankly, I don’t even care.”

It is supposed to be a euphoric blast of teen liberation, but in fact it’s one of the most terrifying moments in pop since “Death Disco” – that point where Lydon/Girls Aloud suddenly turn to face the camera and sneer murderously at the consumer, as if to laugh, “You think that pop is supposed to matter?” It is terrifying precisely because the consumer is expected to applaud it as a masterstroke of subtextual subversion, though it is really an undisguised truth.

(Consider the closing sequence of the “Dance Of The Dead” episode of The Prisoner wherein Mary Morris, a last-minute substitute for an unwell Trevor Howard as Number 2, laughs through Patrick McGoohan, through the camera, through our screens, directly at us, as behind her the disconnected teleprinter continues to print indecipherable data. The real terror here lies in the possibility that McGoohan, off screen, is participating in, or even initiating, this laughter. As systematic and lethal as the knife which proceeds to bisect Waldo, the geek progenitor of the Velvets’ “The Gift”)

On the cover of the debut album by Girls Aloud, also entitled Sound Of The Underground, there is a pink sticker which proclaims “YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS CAN BE THE VOICES OF GIRLS ALOUD!” This turns out to be a device whereby if you plug a microphone into your PC and programme the CD correctly, you can sing into the microphone – significantly over a section of “No Good Advice” – and depending on whose name you click, your singing will be reproduced as a recreation of one of the five band members’ voices. That’s how much they matter, of course. They are pictured on the cover, lined up, straight-backed, clutching microphones, wearing silver foil outfits – a touch I can’t resist; I remember what the silver foil-clad Suzi Quatro on the cover of her 1974 single “Too Big” awakened in me as a ten-year-old – but they are unsmiling, their eyes almost entirely obscured by liner and mascara. They might as well be drawings, or puppets – they have been curiously de-sexed. On the reverse of the cover there are simply the five abandoned microphones against a pitch black background. Yes, it’s true enough, you, your friends, anyone really, could be the voices of Girls Aloud. But does it matter?

As a pop record it’s great, of course. The gilded emptiness at the core of “No Good Advice” is not sustained – could not possibly be sustained for the value of anyone’s life or sanity – but as pop it gleams immaculate and is forceful in expressing its modest pleasures. The two singles come first, of course; when we arrive at “Some Kind Of Miracle” and its opening line of “Baby baby won’t you give me a chance” alarm bells momentarily ring, but it is superb post-1981 pop (think Ultravox’s Rage In Eden if Trevor Horn had been available to produce/mould it out of its essential naffness) with a heartbreaking Brian Wilson-via-Kim Wilde descending minor chord vocal harmony sequence 2/3 into the song which both confirms and justifies the song’s worth. The brilliantly-titled “All I Need (All I Don’t)” is determinable electro, better than the similarly-titled Basement Jaxx track on the latter’s last album, if only for the necessary parenthesis in the title. “Mars Attack” and “Boogie Down Love” both essentially rejig the components of “Sound Of The Underground” in entertainingly minutely different ways. “Stop” expands from its opening staccato pulse to another sunset of a descending minor chorus, somewhere between Kim Wilde’s “Stay Awhile” and All Saints’ “Black Coffee,” while “Girls Allowed” (heheh!) revisits the always welcome world of Now! Dance 1988 with a terrific old-school pop-house groove (and how quickly or slowly did that particular avant-garde become a tradition). One notes the presence of the Beatmasters and Betty Boo among the writers and producers, and indeed “Girls Allowed” is worthy to sit alongside masterpieces like “Numero Uno” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” (especially when aligned with its rapid-fire lyric which shreds Shania’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to a twain). There are the obligatory naff ballads – “Forever And A Night” and the vaguely unsettling “Life Got Cold” with the latter’s world-gone-wrong lyric (“We smoke as we choke and snatch another Coke”) which disturbingly suggests that, as women barely out of their teens, life fled long ago (“summer slipped away”). And the chorus only just avoids being the bridge of “Wonderwall” – as well as the equally obligatory naff shot at R&B (“White Lies”) but even a comparatively run-of-the-mill track like “Don’t Want You Back” is rendered interesting by what’s going on behind it (those oscillating squiggles sound queerly like Evan Parker’s soprano – indeed John Coxon of Springheel Jack is apparently playing guitar on some of this record, though the sleeve indicates one “Shawn Lee”). “Love Bomb” is great, though, and though the rapper here sounds very much like Ms Boo herself rather than any of the group, it’s a cheerily cheesy mash-up of Kid Creole and Man Parrish. The album is generally a welcome addition to the tradition of intelligent girl-group pop last exemplified by All Saints (though, as I mentioned in Uncut, the Appletons’ surprisingly good debut album should not escape your attention either). Like all great girl-group pop, however, there’s a cancer at its centre; but the malignancy identified and diagnosed so accurately in “No Good Advice” would be hard for anyone to treat.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Monday, March 10, 2003

Does the term “indie” mean anything anymore? The internet being what it has become, anyone can ply their trade, sell their music via the Web; record company hype is only required for high-profile, short-term profiting signings, and then only to recompense the high expenditure necessary to hype them, in order to please the shareholders. Thus a number of artists have opted to bypass record companies completely – believing that their behaviour and speed is entirely analogous to those of dinosaurs, slow-thinking, slow to catch on – and reach their audience without the necessity of a corporate, or even an independent, middleman.

That’s the theory; though, so far in practice, the artists taking this route tend to be acts whose profile and sales had slowly been declining anyway – Public Enemy, Marillion and Dodgy, and more recently Simply Red and Terence Trent D’Arby. Production standards become systematically more lo-fi, and editing is out of the window; thus something like D’Arby’s recent Wildcard! is a sprawling, incontinent mass of half-realised ideas sorely in need of the disciplined input of an outside producer. Other acts start from scratch and opt to produce their own records, downloadable from their websites or available in CD format by emailing them. The results unfortunately tend to be much the same as those mentioned above.

All the more pleasurable, then, when a new artist takes the direct route and produces what may well be the best pop record of 2003. Cody ChesnuTT will be known to Roots fans for his appearance on the latter’s Phrenology, writing and singing the strange ode to adultery/impregnation “The Seed.” Now he has produced his own record, the immodestly-titled The Headphone Masterpiece. But just because he calls it a masterpiece doesn’t mean that it isn’t. A homemade double CD package, containing 36 tracks and just under 100 minutes of music, the recording quality of much of which is determinedly lo-fi (in many cases, of demo standard), this theoretically ought to serve as an example of where and how not to tread. Yet it works brilliantly. Criticism has been made elsewhere of the supposedly off-putting sonics; yet, like such diverse statements as Brötzmann’s Machine Gun and even the Beatles’ White Album, the comparatively primitive sound design seems to be compatible with ChesnuTT’s intentions. True, all these tracks could be polished up and made radio- and chart-friendly by the Neptunes or Mutt Lange or whoever, but I sense a resistance on ChesnuTT’s part to do this, which is probably why he has thus far turned down all major label contract offers and chosen to make this record available from his own Ready Set Go! label, based in Studio City, California. It’s very much the sense that tarting the music up cosmetically would distance you from the artist, and there’s a need here to be closer to the ground-level aesthetics of black music predecessors like Son House or Marion Brown; direct emotion with no veneer.

It starts with ChesnuTT cocking a snook at New Ageism with his satirical intro of “your body might become a temple” – the ghastly anti-example of Aguilera’s “Beautiful” springs immediately to mind – before he laughs it off and welcomes us to The Headphone Masterpiece. It is extremely significant that the opening song “With Me In Mind” is sung, not by ChesnuTT, but by one Sonja Marie. Over a post-psychedelic glitch-drone which recalls the concluding wreckage of Robert Wyatt’s “Alife,” Sonja Marie smoothly intones her intent to conquer the artist and therefore the listener. This opening track needs to be borne in mind when listening to ChesnuTT’s barbed remarks about the opposite sex which occur throughout the record; the irony is clearly underlined here, and it’s never in question who’s in control.

That statement made, ChesnuTT moves on to the rocker “Upstarts In A Blowout.” The name of Lenny Kravitz certainly comes to mind while listening to the record, but don’t let that put you off; in fact, the record achieves what Kravitz has never managed, principally because, while Kravitz’s work always sounds as though it were assembled to order – rock and soul’s rich tapestry being filtered through an MBA course – ChesnuTT’s work sounds genuinely inquisitive, and thus adventurous in far realer terms. Even the Hendrix homage, with “Third Stone” basso profundo intonations and whirling, post-Joe Meek electronic whistles, doesn’t sound gratuitous.

Generally this is what even half a decade ago could easily have been categorised as mainstream pop with Songs As They Used To Write Them, except of course they didn’t. As with all great pop records, one sits excitedly as track after track demonstrates how good and repeatedly listenable this record is going to be. Comparisons have inevitably been made with Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times - another double album built up from skeletal demos – but ChesnuTT is by necessity more down to earth; see the very 1968-looking photo on the rear sleeve, with ChesnuTT’s family beaming happily from his front porch, and the man himself standing in the middle of the back row, gleefully waving his guitar in the air.

But he is aware of the contradictions in this extremely non-1968 world; hear “Boylife in America” where he sweetly croons, “All I want is pussy/Give me some religion/A brand new Cadillac/And a winning lotto ticket.” The benign beat of this song soon gives way to the sneering “Bitch I’m Broke” (which he clearly isn’t) before doubling back into the ostensibly solemn ballad “Serve This Royalty” in which he seems to urge you to embrace capitalism in order to subvert it (“I thank Jesus for my mama/Thank you bitches for my money”), a stately organ set against an Ornette-ish horn line which climaxes in a barely suppressed scream. It’s gorgeous, but why is it so?

Next, the distinctly lo-fi original of “The Seed” which seems to glorify brutal adultery, or is it an attack on the “I’m a man” subtext of rock and roll (as he would name the baby)? It’s hard to discern, and really up to the listener to determine. But it’s an astute, brilliantly-assembled pop/rock song. Perhaps it’s a subdued extension of the implications suggested by D’Angelo on the latter’s Voodoo - later on we get 1981 mutant disco bop in “Setting The System” (with a riff closely shadowing the Ohio Players’ “Rollercoaster”) and later still a blissful ode to getting stoned in “Smoke And Love” (“Keep on livin’, keep on lovin’, keep on smokin’”) –a celebration of the forbidden pleasure comparable to that of Harry The Hipster Gibson’s “Who Put The Benzedrine.” The song “Michelle” – and indeed those chorus chords are very Beatley – seems to be an apology for the adultery announced in “The Seed.” Do you accept him back? Did you take him seriously to begin with? “No One Will,” in contrast, reaches the places George Michael no longer can – an absolutely unambiguous hymn of acceptance of the Other. Hear the sexiness of his repeated “we laugh, we laugh” and how that is balanced by the slightly more assertive and confident “we are, we are” in the lovely ballad with a doomed chorus “Can’t Get No Betta.” “Up In The Treehouse” present childhood recollections (“dream, dream, that’s all I do”) taking us back to the ethereal pop of the Association, and in “She’s Still Here” we move to “Strawberry Fields” territory as ChesnuTT cannot believe that he is capable of being loved and that he does not have to die in order to achieve this.

The ominously celebratory electro of “The World Is Coming To My Party” is powered by a Human League distorted synth bassline, echoed by a doom-laden lower register piano as ChesnuTT declares a state of revolution (“Let me liberate your mind…emancipation starts on time”) – again, take this into account when listening to the subsequent satires on rap macho-ness in “War Between The Sexes” wherein ChesnuTT attempts to “freestyle” in accordance with mainstream rap templates, but can’t keep it up (in all senses) and collapses in hysterics. This segues straight into the gorgeously poignant “The Make Up” with its desolately beautiful organ/synth chord progression (“if you give my sex a chance, we might come closer together”), and the simple but heartbreaking declaration of unanticipated, undiluted love in CD 1’s concluding acoustic ballad “Out Of Nowhere” – an exact counterpart to Lennon’s “Julia” which concludes the first part of the White Album.

CD 2 begins with some superficially amiable fooling around on “Family On Blast,” wherein ChesnuTT engages in studio chatter with his cousin and collaborator Donray over another ominous piano-driven breakbeat (“Keep on shining – talk about how you want to change a few things”) before going into “My Women, My Guitars” which slaughters all similar endeavours by Lenny or Terence, and is the sort of song of which Noel Gallagher was once briefly capable of writing (the panorama from “I’ve got a dick full of blood” to “I know my breakdown’s on the way”) – a future classic. “Somebody’s Parent” is an impassioned plea from the protagonist to his family to “forgive me for being the dick that I’ve been to the children with you – all day with no nicotine is the reason I’ve been so mean,” and its match-striking rhythm makes it the song which balances out “Smoke And Love” on CD 1, though noticeably spikier with its wow-and-flutter guitar (“Novocaine For The Soul” in the penitentiary).

“When I Find Time” is the most overtly commercial song on the record, a terrific, rolling, infuriatingly catchy groove subverted by ChesnuTT’s frustration at not being able to love the Other properly because of his lack of time. “Eric Burdon” returns to introspective acoustic White Album territory as ChesnuTT muses what it’s like to be “nothin’ at all without my mojo” – again, here’s an addictive chorus (“pressure! pressure!”) which easily could have come out of 1968 but crucially is not imprisoned in 1968.

ChesnuTT is up for anything. “Juicin’ The Dark” is a Portishead-esque trip hop workout, complete with theremin wailing (and how suddenly and how overwhelmingly have Portishead come back into fashion, eh? I recently refreshed my memory with regard to their eponymously-titled second album from 1997, which now seems like the unintended prequel to 100th Window - war music: “Cowboys,” “Western Eyes,” Beth G sounding as though she’s about to spontaneously combust in “Half Day Closing”). And then we get a beautiful Fender Rhodes-driven ballad “5 On A Joyride” where ChesnuTT’s strained high vocals fit the song’s uncertain nostalgia – worthy of Wilson, worthy even of Rundgren. “So Much Beauty In The Subconscious” has ChesnuTT growling sinisterly and indecipherably underneath a 1979 No Wave organ refrain which randomly speeds up and down to echo his confusion about, again, “those bitches.” Then we have a lullaby “Daddy’s Baby” which starts soothingly enough but soon sails into darker waters with the clenched teeth refrain of “no stress, no worries, you lucky motherfucker;” a vague parallel to the introduction to Eminem’s “Kim,” except that here no one dies. Not yet.

Next we get a couple of comparatively straightforward rockers. “If We Don’t Disagree” celebrates his band (“It ain’t rock, it ain’t roll, if we don’t disagree”) while “Look Good In Leather” – more cheerful bubblegum - is tongue-in-cheek braggadoccio (the lightness of his tenor, as throughout the rest of the album, indicates the mischief at play here). Indeed, though it may be weary to cite D’Arby continually as the antithesis of Cody, there is none of the growling/retching/real man screeching which mars almost all of TTD’s records. ChesnuTT wisely stays in Al Green/Curtis Mayfield vocal territory/register.

The concluding “6 Seconds,” however, sees him musing on finding “ways to stay alive,” and here he seems to be contemplating, not just closing the album, but committing suicide (“I’ve only got 6 seconds to make up my mind”). Happily, he concludes “I’m gonna stay three steps ahead of it/I’m gonna live it up and leaves” before wandering off and letting his guitar play the album out. So there will be more…thankfully. But for now – well, in terms of pop records released in 2003, as the great David Vine used to say on Ski Sunday, this is the one they’ll all have to beat.

(Note to British Churchgoers: the album is not yet available in UK record shops (to paraphrase afternoon Channel 4 adverts); but if you go to
his website, you will be able to order the record and also download tracks)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

What do I have to say about the Clash? For now, merely two things. Firstly, Laura loved them. Secondly, the Clash was co-founded by Mick Jones and Keith Levene. Levene says that he was instrumental in recruiting Strummer, but was "voted" out of the band following conflicts with Jones, who wanted the group to adhere to rock and roll rebellion in the tradition, and Levene, who wanted them to go out and justify those Pollock-esque splashes musically. And without Lydon/Rotten, the Pistols were Queen. By 1978, both Lydon and Levene were severely pissed off with "punk rock" and what they perceived to be a smelly, beer-stained dead end. Already conformist; already assimilated into the tapestry. Time for a blast of what 1976 should have been like - Public Image Ltd.

Well, eventually, but there was a debut album to get out of the way first - 1978's First Issue was more a calling card, an advertisement, rather than an album per se. "Public Image" the single was an immediate top ten hit, and the nearest that this configuration of PiL ever got to "tradition;" the clear, anthemic, ringing guitar line, the I'm-now-gonna-do-it-my-way manifesto of a lyric; this is the superficial veneer of PiL which the witless likes of U2 licked up straight away.

The album itself? It was largely received as a self-aware con, though the excoriating nine minutes of the opening "Theme" sounded anything but; Levene's guitar and Jim Walker's drums thrash against each other slowly like beached whales, Jah Wobble's bass mixed right to the foreground to carry the riff/melody, Lydon screaming "I wish I could DIE" over and over; "On and on and ON" on and on - but at the song's death he appears to shrug his shoulder and grunts "terminal boredom." The album as a whole seems like a dry run for Metal Box; "Low Life" and "Attack" bring the dub/Can influences forward, "Annalisa" has an elasticity to its rock attack which the lumpen rhythm of the Pistols could never manage, "Fodderstompf" is ostensibly extended mucking about to fill the remainder of the album, but again there are clear elements of what was to come in 1979.

1979 was, for many of us who were around at the time, our real 1976, the year when the radicalism of the music began to match the radicalism of the manifestos. True, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Alternative TV, the Slits and the Banshees were already in existence, not to mention the Buzzcocks and Magazine, or Warsaw on the point of mutating into Joy Division, or indeed early stirrings from the Pop Group, Human League and Gang of Four. But 1979 was the miracle of a year in which nearly all these groups determinedly took off into outer space, burned their "roots" and actually started to make "new" music; things, approaches which you had never heard before. And the one record of 1979 which even more miraculously managed to pull all these strands together (dub, polemics, No Wave noise, dance, ennui) was Metal Box, the second album by PiL, released almost at the close of the year, as if to sum everything up.

It was originally released, at a cost of some £66,000, as three 12" 45 rpm singles encased within a matt grey film can. No gatefolds; not even any sleevenotes or pictures; just one curt sheet in red type containing the minimum necessary information, and no more. This was about dissecting and dissembling the way in which the listener or consumer approached music, and specifically "records." JA dub and disco were both quoted as templates; the 12" format was necessary for sound enhancement - particularly to highlight and emphasise the absolute key role of Wobble's bass. However you did it, this music was meant, at least in part, to be danced to. The JA influence was aesthetic as well; records to act as utilitarian containers rather than be Statements or Documents - all those 7" dubplates in the '70s, many of which were unlabelled; the point being you danced to them, got what you could out of them and then disposed of them. It was against the whole concept of an "archive," the antithesis of a "living" music. You can see that again now with the plethora of 12" garage/gabba garage white labels; this music is not meant to be compiled but consumed as you would, say, food. Use it up and wear it out. It's the same with mp3 downloads; why spend £4.99 on a single when you can simply download it, enjoy it for a few weeks and then delete?

The downside was that, in practice, the 12" singles were so tightly packed into the film can that it was nigh impossible to take them out without warping or scratching them, or at least turning the whole package upside down and letting the record fall out. But again this was deliberate; you want to hear this music, you're going to have to work at it. And it remains, for all these reasons, the ideal format in which to hear Metal Box.

The near 11-minute opener "Albatross" was certainly no easy point of entry. The opening words we hear are "slow motion" and indeed the vocal track was Lydon slowed down to 25 rpm, although many people assumed that it was Wobble on vocals. The song was apparently "composed" on the spot, but its theme is clearly renunciation of their history, of McLaren, of "punk." Later in the song we hear "death to the spirit of '68" and, even less ambiguously, "fuck the Pistols." It is significant that in Levene's interview in last month's Wire he mentions James "Blood" Ulmer as a key influence in constructing the music for this album. Although musically Levene's contributions are bitonal rather than harmolodic (and in "Albatross" there's more than a passing reference to Beefheart's reconstructed guitar lines on pieces like "Dali's Car"), the Ulmer/Ornette influence is more philosophical than musical - the concept that, if you make any mistakes, you keep them and incorporate them to advance and develop on what you are playing (an idea which also owes much to Christian Wolff). And indeed, if you listen to Ornette Coleman's 1977 Dancing In Your Head album - one of the half-dozen or so most important records of the last 40 years - in tandem with Ulmer's own Tales Of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979) - you can hear clearly how this process works with "harmonic" instruments (i.e. the guitars). Harmolodics is a difficult concept to explain at the best of the time, but Don Cherry once summed it up neatly when he explained to me that essentially you improvise on the melody rather than the chordal structure, and that you solo pretty well all of the time but keep out of everyone else's way. "I ran away" intones Wobble. "Sowing the seeds of discontent." On this album, Walker is replaced on drums by the far more sympathetic Richard Dudanski; he and Wobble as a rhythm section are a strong counterpart to Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson in Chic, and Dudanski has no trouble in taking the beat into more adventurous waters. And hear how Wobble's bass bends like a reluctant hedgehog as the lyric's emotions rise and fall back again. Lydon's voice, at normal speed, now veers into view right at its close, shrieking "Only the lonely!"

"Memories" is an extraordinary construction of a song. Lester Bangs, in his review at the time, assumed that what was being attacked here was the whitewashed nostalgia of Grease, Happy Days etc., but its sentiments are still painfully applicable in today's empty "I Love Ten Minutes Ago" culture. "You make me feel ashamed/By acting attitudes/Remember ridicule?" howls Lydon. "Someone has used you well." And then the song suddenly shifts into close-up view, as though a separate band has started to play the same tune - obviously two different takes were spliced together, but the effect, though simple, is still astonishing. It symbolises Lydon's own doubt about the diagnosis. "I could be wrong/It could be hate/As far as I can see/Clinging desperately/Imagining, pretending/No personality/Dragging on and on and on and on...." (that "on and on" leitmotif again, clearly the enemy of "life"). "I think you're slightly late" (late as in "dead"). "It's not the movies...and you're old." This is followed by "Swanlake" a.k.a. "Death Disco," perhaps the most unlikely single ever to make the UK Top 20 - and it's the Stones' "Miss You" introduced to the ghosts of Woolf's "To The Lighthouse." Do I really have to underline to you what this song is about?

"Seen it in your eyes/Never no more, hope away/Final in a fade/Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking on a bed/Flowers rotting DEAD.../Ending in a day/Silence was a way." Levene's Prophet 5 synthesiser wanders in and out of the track like consciousness. Finally Lydon sends the track into a loop: "Words cannot explain" as the synthesiser repeatly shrieks, coming back at you again and again. Don't talk to me about Achtung Baby.

Next it's "Poptones." For all the avant-garde talk about Levene's guitar playing, it's actually very accessible throughout. Much of what he plays here could, in a lesser and dumber context, be stadium rock - indeed he quotes Steve Howe's soloing on Yes' "Starship Troopers" as a key influence on "Poptones." There is a terrible certainty about the complete confidence of PiL's playing as a group on this track; nothing settles but everything fits in, and its waves engulf you. Lyrically it appears to be about someone being taken out into the countryside to be shot and executed. "Standing naked in the back of these woods...You left a hole in the back of my head/I don't like hiding in this foliage and peat...The cassette playing poptones." Music to drown out the pain, to hide the truth, the stench. Another sardonic payoff line: "Praise picnicking in the British countryside." The IRA comes to mind, as they do on "Careering." Here Wobble and Dudanski play a strong backbeat which could almost be a Northern Soul backing track, but it is delineated by the quasi-atonal blades of Levene's Prophet 5, queasily destabilising the rhythm and underlining Lydon's narration - lyrically this would not be out of place on Scott Walker's Tilt (terrorism - "across the border/Trigger machinery/Mangle the military"). It is coldly compelling and the assuredness of its alienation is overwhelming.

Two instrumentals (or backing tracks for which Lydon never got around to providing lyrics/vocals?) follow: "Socialist" which sets up a typical New Wave jerky rhythm that is punctumised by Levene's cautious percussive guitar/synth(?) stabs. It's rather like Miles Davis' percussive organ essays (On The Corner) jamming with the Knack. "Graveyard" has some determined guitar playing on it but really needed Lydon on top of it. "The Suit" is carried on a drunken stumble of a jazzy rhythm upon which Lydon again disseminates the pretentiousness and pointlessness of social climbing ("Society boy/on Social Security/It is your nature/Tennis on Tuesday/Sipping champagne...Girl from Totteridge Park/Said you were nice/So was my suit"). "Bad Baby" vaguely revisits the terrain of the first album's "Religion" though really it's about humanity's indifference to other humanity: "Someone left a baby in the car park/Never any reason...Someone is calling/Don't you listen" - a muted anti-lullaby.

Finally we come to the astonishing 13-minute closing sequence which surely represents PiL at their peak. "No Birds," in Levene's opinion PiL's finest moment, elevates the already high dynamics even further. The rhythm here is unbelievable; Dudanski sounds as though he's playing the drums inside your head. Lydon declaims his assassination of Daily Mail middle England in a stentorian baritone - "Bland planned idle luxury/A caviar of silent dignity/Life in lovely allotted slots...Lawful order, standard views/This could be heaven" sounding as though he has been condemned to hell, though one cannot clearly tell whether he is cackling quietly. Lydon's piano strikes its own discordant Dies Irae as the track fades.

Then it's "Chant" (the chant being "mob, war, kill, hate"). Yet again we realise that nearly every element on this album could easily be profitably and commercially appropriated, in isolation, by Radiohead or Coldplay or whoever, with misplaced solipsism, sentimentality and bluster failing to mask their utter lack of understanding of PiL's message or dynamics. Here Lydon realises that all Metal Box might really amount to is a "voice moaning in a speaker...Don't know why I bother/There's nothing in it for me...The likes of you and me are an embarrassment/It's not important/It's not worth a mention in the Guardian." The music, though, belies the apparent indifference; Wobble and Dudanski appear ready to blast off past boiling point into another galaxy; Levene never letting up in his ceaseless guitar commentary, repeating and mutating riffs with a strange ecstasy. Eventually, just as the whole thing is about to explode, Levene's synthesiser nudges cautiously back in and the track suddenly segues into the closing instrumental "Radio 4." An ironic goodbye a la Throbbing Gristle? A farewell to life? An idealistic utopian string synth waltz is played, against which Wobble graciously plays what could in another context pass for a Motown bassline. At the end of the album two potential paths appear; on one side, what sound like sleigh bells (the album did come out just in time for Christmas) and on the other, a sudden and disturbing discordancy in the synth line. It is up to you, the listener, to decide which path to take from here onwards. Not many subsequent musicians, least of all the later, lesser, Wobble-less, then Levene-less, then just sourly corporate, manifestations of PiL, followed either path.

So where does Metal Box stand, even in relation to what else we have inherited from 1979? That it stands up musically is beyond question. Joy Division were perhaps the nearest that anyone else got to what PiL achieved, but Ian Curtis' obsessions were more manifestly personal, and Martin Hannett chose to have the band float sonically in the middle ground. Nothing is mixed upfront; the music comes at you as a subtly, rather than explicitly, differentiated entity. Throbbing Gristle were arguably already taking some of these implications further, but they remained at a decided distance from "pop." It might, for the present, be correct to point out that there is as much "anthemic" guitar here as there was on London Calling, released just a couple of weeks before Metal Box; but the former was a double album with Elvis Presley lettering and Pete Townshend-derived imagery on the cover. This is not to disparage London Calling or the Clash, merely to point out the divergent paths down which the streams of punk had flowed - though there is much reason to disparage all the ambulance chasers who over the holiday season decided to use poor old Strummer as a stick with which to beat today's pop kids over the head. "No more passion they're all manufactured he was soul he was rock and roll punk make a difference the last great rock and roll star..."

What did Lydon have to say nearly quarter of a century ago?

"Whatever past/Could never last/All in your mind/Where it all began/You're doing wrong/It's not the movies/And you're old."

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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