Monday, June 18, 2007

The emperor's new clothes

I am listening to the new(ish) Klute album. It's top notch of course, as usual one disc of slightly dark DnB and one of old-skool techno. Klute's no Aphex Twin, so both discs are fairly straight ahead and solid, but his great feel for melody and motif puts him way ahead of the pack. I was surprised to see this in the racks at HMV at Carindale, because Klute is an ultra independent who has many times expressed disdain for the major record stores. I'm not a fan of them either, but you don't have a great amount of choice in suburban Brisbane.


I listen to music a lot. It's one of the huge benefits of working from home: I get to choose what goes on the stereo and no one complains. I am not one of these people who likes to work in silence, even if I'm doing something that needs concentration, such as proofreading. To tell the truth, I need something to concentrate against, and I find my mind drifts if I don't have distractions. Not that it doesn't drift anyway.

I have to make tapes for the car, because the radio is so awful (mostly AM rock and a yoof "indie" station presented by jocktards so witless that they make Radio One's Zane Lowe seem an exemplar of great radio). The big problem with mix tapes is that you are going to be listening to them over and over, so the songs need to stand up to repeats. If you make a mistake, you're stuck with having to fast forward past that track that seemed like a good idea when you were taping but now sets your teeth on edge every time you hear the first bar.

So I went for What's the matter here? by 10,000 Maniacs. No music wears on me as quickly as Americana, mostly I suppose because the music is conventional and doesn't pack surprises or reward repeated listens. The Maniacs are a bit different, of course, because they feature one of the great indie chick singers in Natalie Merchant. The song is a wonderful meditation on child abuse, which seems very appropriate given that the UK government is reviewing its law on chastising children. They are being urged to drop the section that permits "reasonable" chastisement. I do not think it is "reasonable" to hit children at all. It is surely an anomaly that if I strike Mrs Zen, I can go to jail for it, but if I strike Zenella, no one cares. There is no good purpose to it. Children do not learn any lesson from being hit but to fear their parents and to use violence as a means of resolving conflict. And those parents who claim they strike their children to keep them out of danger are deluding themselves. If you think hitting a child is a superior way of keeping it from burning itself on a stove than simply pulling it away, you are an idiot. Yes, the childbeater will say, but if you hit it, it knows that touching the oven is bad. My kids know touching the oven is bad because I've told them it is, and I've explained why. They've seen the burn on my foot caused by hot oil that splashed out of a wok, and they've seen a blister on my finger when I scalded it.

In my (limited of course) experience, children learn most by example. The example I would like to be setting them, however much I fall short of it, is that people should be treated with respect and dignity, not that they should be coerced by physical force when they're smaller than you.

I also picked 505, which is the standout track on the Arctic Monkeys' slightly disappointing second album. I think the Monkeys are in any case one of those bands that makes the odd great track with a ton of filler, which is at least forgivable, given how many bands make albums full of filler with nothing great at all going on.

Badly Drawn Boy seems to have dropped off the radar somewhat in recent years. I know he's still making albums, but I haven't heard them. I loved Hour of the bewilderbeast though. It was big about the time Mrs Zen was pregnant with Zenella, and we would play it to the bump. When she was a baby, I would whirl her around the room to Say it again, and it became a firm favourite. That and Pissing in the wind stand up to the test of time pretty well. They are anthems of indie positivity as well as great pop songs. I like gloom as much as the next man, but we all need marching tunes too. Young men who only listen to Tool miss the roundedness of more catholic taste.

I included Turn back now from Candie Payne's debut album because even if the world does not need a new Cilla Black, I liked the old one enough to be delighted with Candie. You cannot beat good songwriting and a chick belter is icing on the cake. I don't confuse myself by listening to confected bullshit like Joss Stone. Anyone can fake heartfelt; only the great can actually make you feel it. Candie Payne may not quite be great, but she's putting her heart into her fakery if she isn't, and I like that.

Recently, I have been revisiting my goth phase. This is not a reaction to living in a deadend town, as I did when goth was big the first time around, although I do note that there are tons of emo kids in Brisbane. They gather in Queen Street at the weekend, a legion of black-clad wannabe-geeks. Why you'd wanna be a geek is a mystery to me, but I guess you at least increase your chances of getting laid if you belong to a subculture. Dead Can Dance are coincidentally Australian, although they moved to London before writing all their good stuff. They were one of those bands with two creative forces, and I think, although I'm not sure, that they tended to write separately. In their earlier work, Lisa Gerrard would sing more folk-influenced, difficult, whirling kaleidoscopes of sound; Brendan Perry would sing dark, deep ultragoth stuff. In power we entrust the love advocated is Perry at his best. The gloom is laid on with a trowel, but the intricate guitar is a treat and the words -- utter nonsense -- are great to belt along with in the car.

If you read my review of Feist's new album, you know I rate her highly. 1234 is at the bouncy pop end of her output. If you aren't whoa-hoing along with it by the third chorus, you do not have the capability for joy. Which is not a good thing, in case you were wondering. Even if your life is joyless, you need to be able to be sparked into life. Without the ability to be lit up by something wonderful, you are just an ape. Which is okay, but do we not all have a little part of us that wants more?

Those of us who like retro stuff like Franz Ferdinand (not me) or Bloc Party (first album, yase, second album, nay thankee) or the Rapture (thankee much) are missing out if we don't return to the source. Elsewhere, I've praised Wire, brilliant pioneers of minimalist guitar, who Bloc Party should pay royalties to, and equally as good are Gang of Four. To say that they were influential is like saying that the Pacific is a bit wet. Return the gift is a brilliant mix of spiky guitar and social commentary, which was very much the thing in the early eighties, until people discovered bum sex and drugs.

Almost contemporary with Gang of Four, not very influential, perhaps because they worked solidly within the bounds of pop, and criminally neglected commercially were the Go-Betweens, the single best thing ever to come out of Brisbane. How men this talented could have been produced by Queensland is a mystery to me. People say is from the "lost album", the early demos that were supposed to be the Go-Betweens' debut but never were. They are very raw but you can hear the songwriting talent that made Forster and the sadly missed McLennan two of the best of their (or any other) day. It's simple and direct but just wonderful. I won't tire of this, no matter how many times I play it. One of the tapes that has just about been worn to nothing in our car is a compilation of the Go-Betweens' stuff. If you pass a guy in a station wagon who seems to be tunelessly bellowing Part company or Boundary rider, that's me.

If I had to describe Depeche Mode in a word, I'd probably choose Useless. Okay, I liked the early synthpop stuff and only switched off when they set sail for boring as an "industrial" band. If they invented a genre that was more tedious than industrial, I'm yet to come across it. I'd rather listen to cats' being tortured than Nine Inch Nails. So why is this track on my compilation? Well, at some point in their career, the Mode, or their handlers, had the sense to have Kruder and Dorfmeister remix them. And the result sounds nothing like Depeche Mode, much more like lo-fi, bedsit music of the Low or Eels type. I haven't heard, and probably will never hear, the original, but the K&D magic lifts this above anything else I have heard of theirs.

You may be smelling an eighties theme in this tape. It's nothing purposeful; just that I have tried to make something that I'll like but Mrs Zen will also like. She's not into dance music at all, and she isn't keen on anything too experimental, so if I'm making something that I hope appeals to her, it's going to be at the pop end of town. And the eighties -- early eighties, I mean -- were great for pop. Punk destroyed music and re-created it. It made it possible for people who were creatively talented to feel that they could make music even if they were not technically excellent. Now, of course, you can fake technical excellence easily enough. I doubt anyone will accuse Lloyd Cole of being technically excellent, but he was creative enough in his day, and Forest fire is a tremendous belter. Try putting it on when no one's around and try to resist bellowing it at the top of your voice. It's liberating. And, you know, that's what a great song is for me: something that can make you feel, just for a moment, untied, able to let go, floating free, lost in those few minutes that it lasts.


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