Monday, April 28, 2008

I am a bird now

See here.

Animal Collective

I haven't listened to Animal Collective much so I can't really give much comment. They sounded to me like a bad XTC album if Andy Partridge couldn't write a tune, the sort of horribly overrated artpop that's very much beloved by the American indie crowd.

There's a lot of this experimental pop around, more or less psychedelic, eclectic and self-consciously "different". I can't help comparing this with something more straightforward, yet still leftfield, like Broken Social Scene. The difference is then clear: Kevin Drew writes wonderful pop songs and these clowns don't. He has an idiom, they have a smokescreen that is designed to prevent you from thinking that they have no real creative talent.

This, I think, is common enough in music: you get guys who simply do not have the ability to write decent music, so they do something fucked up. Now you cannot criticise the music in regular terms, because it's so irregular. It's like, you just don't get it, maaaaaan, if you don't like it.

But I like a lot of "difficult" music and I never shy away from the experimental. However, at heart I'm looking for stuff I can listen to, not stuff I'm supposed to stand back and admire. Not that I do admire this. I think it would be easy to make, which is one reason there are so many similar bands (genres flower quickly when they are basically easy to ape: lots of punk bands, lots of metal bands, lots of techno bands, not so much drillnbass because it demands virtuosity, not so much electropop because it demands tunes), and, animal shrieks notwithstanding, it's pretty tough to sing along with.

Amy Winehouse

Occasionally, I buy stuff that I think I ought to like more than I do (and sometimes stuff I think I should like less than I do). It's usually stuff I bought in a 3 for 20 bucks sale or whatever. I think, why not? And then I know why not when I listen to it six months later.

Amy Winehouse is a bit like that. It's not bad. If you like this kind of thing, it's very good. She's talented, without question, and her songs are excellently crafted.

But a bit dull. This kind of coffee-table music just doesn't engage you sufficiently to want to listen to it much but you can't hate it when you do.

But man, if she only moved in a slightly different universe. You can imagine that rich, beautiful voice backed by moody glitchy electropop of the Lali Puna variety, or even deeper ambient techno a la Bjork, and how good would she be.

I suppose acts like Winehouse choose this retro sound because it's easy to understand and easy to construct songs in. But it is so backward looking that you could happily not bother with it and go back to the source. The world didn't really need any more swing, tbh.

Amon Tobin

So you take a dark junglist vibe, a heap of cool jazz, a pinch of throbbing techno, a bucket of sleaze, a smidgen of Latino sass and samples of just about everything that moves, and what do you have?

(I was going to go for jazzmunching cocktickler but that's hard to form a mental picture of that wouldn't actually be quite scary. Gimpsexy soundspinner also came to mind.)

In the good old days, writing a song was simple. You sat down with guitar or piano and found a chord progression or riff that sounded nice, either to fit words you already had, or just something that you jammed and went "yeah". Even electronic music would largely work the same way.

Then they invented samplers.

I suppose samplemeisters like Amon Tobin could make records in a similar way, working through samples until they find something that works, then finding something else that works with it. Music's music, mostly, after all. But I like to think that he works from the concept backwards, because his music sounds so fully realised, so beautifully constructed, particularly when compared with others in the same genre, who are rather less seamless (Mr Scruff), less inventive (DJ Shadow) or plain not as good (Kid Koala; genius turntablist yes, good songwriter, no).

Earlier Tobin is heavy on the jazz. The template, if you like, is a shuffling uptempo dnb drum line, overlaid with cool jazz and vibes, with the occasional spoken sample. The wow factor is supplied by Tobin's excellent compositional sense. The songs just work so well. As his career progresses, you'll hear more techno in the mix, particularly on Out from out where and the Chaos theory game music, with Supermodified something of a changeover album -- still swingy and bouncey but shifting more to techno, with straighter beats and an almost Chemical Brothers feel on tracks like Four ton mantis. Tobin is a lot darker and harder edged than you'd generally find in jazzy breakbeat stuff, and although his working methods place him squarely in the Ninja Tunes camp, he's closer to Mu-Ziq or Wagon Christ in feel.

What makes Tobin difficult to describe or analyse is his uniqueness. He really doesn't sound like anyone else. You'd instantly recognise him once familiar with his work. His songs can be heavily layered, with sounds that have been electronically tortured into precise shapes fitting together in ways that build complex, cinematic soundscapes but retain a funkiness that made Tobin probably more hipshakeable than most IDMbots, although less so as he's progressed, with the revisionist jazziness giving way to futurism. The foley room, his most recent album, is less jazzy postjungle and more dark electronica. I think that that reflects how music has moved in the years he's been active, and it's symptomatic of how Tobin has stayed connected to what's going on in dance music, in a way that other IDM innovators, such as Aphex or Luke Vibert, haven't. Not that he isn't a one-off. Even when -- take Proper hoodidge for an example -- Tobin writes straight-up big beat, it's not your Fatboy Slim or even Wagon Christ, but a collision of huge beats, sounds and snatches of melody that make a deeply satisfying edifice of menace.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Nothing safe

Grunge brought us tons of overrated bands, ranging from Pearl Jam, who are just about unlistenable AM rock fuzzed up a bit, a sort of heavier Nickelback, through Soundgarden, horribly overwrought plodding rock, to Nirvana, possibly the most overrated band ever, with one decent album, Nevermind, and a bunch of material that does nothing but demonstrate just how thin Kurt Cobain's talent was, particularly In utero, which has one or two okay songs, but is largely rubbish.

Floating in the sea of meh was Alice in Chains. On the whole, you could sum them up as dreary angst-rock, which mostly leaves you feeling "what the fuck is that incredibly rich, pampered fool whining about?". To which the answer was probably how difficult Saturday night is when you can't get a fix. Like many grungers, Layne Staley fucked his life away on smack, finally managing to die of it. These people are held up as heroes, but kids, if you get lucky as they did, choose life. There is nothing glamorous about crawling around on the floor, strung out and begging for drugs. Nothing wonderful about lying and cheating, making your whole life smack, smack and more smack.

So Alice in Chains had a few decent songs, in particular Would?, Them bones, Down in a hole, which I have on my iPod, but rarely listen to.

I rarely listen to them because I am sad. I am not sad because I cannot get a fix, or because I wished Daddy love me so much that I needed smack to kill the pain. Not even because I worry that my talent will run out on me, or that I might be a sellout. I am sad because my life is horrible. If I had a million-selling album, my life would be less horrible, not more. I've never really had much time for ultrarich misery peddlers. I remember one time seeing an interview with Annie Lennox. The whole thing was about how perfect her life was, with a wonderful husband, a couple of kids and several mill in the bank. And the cunt warbling on about how horrible life is. Yeah right.

I don't deplore people for finding their lives tough. Lives can be tough. And my problem with Annie Lennox disappears if she stops claiming to be an artist. If she says, yeah, I'm just making pretty music to hoover up all the dollars I can, then I mind her a lot less.

But kids, art has to be authentic. That is not negotiable. It has to be authentic because that is how it is defined. I wouldn't go as far as saying that art is anything you create that is authentic, but nearly so. Not everything that you create has to be art. A cheese sandwich is created. But it's not art.

Although, I suppose, you could argue that it's authentic. (And obv. a cheese sandwich is only art if Damien Hirst sells it to some rich twat for a mill.) So authenticity is necessary but probably not sufficient.

So I don't listen to Down in a hole much, although I do like it a lot, and it really does sound like being down in a hole. It feels to me like a companion piece to Too far down, Bob Mould's meditation on depression. I don't listen to that much either. I'm not a goth: I don't like wallowing in it, believe it or not. I want to be cheerful and well.

The other day, I was talking to Mrs Zen. I was telling her about bipolar disorder, which is a fancy way of saying you have ups and downs. If I went to a psychologist, they would agree that I had it. She said, why don't you take drugs to fix it? And I said, not that I should even have bothered, because what's the point? She doesn't listen to anything that anyone says to her. Most people don't. They simply filter what you say through a mesh formed from what they already think, and that means anything contrary gets mangled and is useless to them. More to the point, Mrs Zen simply doesn't listen anyway. She often accuses me of one thing or another, and I say, but I talked to you about that last year, and she's like, no you didn't. And I'm left saying, but it's like we're in two completely different universes. In mine, I said x y z, and in yours, I never did. So I said, the thing is, the drug is lithium and all it does is level out your moods. I've seen it. The person doesn't get so down, but their edge is taken away. My edge is the only thing I like about myself. Fuck me, if I was drugged, I'd be like her! Fuck that. Anyway, I self-medicate.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


If I tell you that Amiina are the strings that sometimes fill out Sigur Ros' sound, particularly prominently on the Heim live set that they recently released, you'll know what to expect from Kurr, but you might be surprised at how good it is. A lot closer to Mum than Sigur Ros, Amiina's compositions are grab bags of twinkling chimes, vibes, and of course exquisitely arranged strings.

Ambient music can often be dull, not much more than wallpaper (and I understand Eno's contention that that should be its aim), but when it is good, it combines lack of intrusion with subtlety, to become something more than just stuff in the background. When ambient is good, it sucks you in and makes you listen way more closely than you intended.

In particular, tracks like Rugla and the outstanding Sexfaldur are deeply evocative, layering little melodic lines to make quite lovely music. I'd strongly recommend it after a tough day, because it embodies unwinding. It's definitely sit back with a cuppa music, not for anything that requires intensity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

So far

I don't know what became of Alex Reece. He was huge in the dnb scene for a while--enough so that he titled his first album So far, so that we'd all understand there would be more, yet he didn't kick on from there, despite the commercial appeal of that album, and didn't become the big star that he threatened to be.

So far is excellent jazzy dnb, featuring several killer tracks. Feel the sunshine's trippy beats, Pulp Friction's propulsive techno bassline, and Candles' laidback smooth jazz feel put him head and shoulders above the rest of the scene back in the day. It was groundbreaking in its day, and it still sounds fresh. For my money, dnb has largely lost its way, and creativity is at a premium, which makes an artist like Reece seem that little bit more vital.

Moon safari

On a certain summer afternoon, out on the porch, with a Pimm's in your mitt, you will love Air. But most of the time, they're meh. If you only ever heard Sexy boy, you might think that they specialise in excellent retro plodders, clever melanges of whatever they've grabbed from the past forty years of pop. But it's pretty much an outlier. The Daft Punkalike Kelly watch the stars also has some charm, but mostly their music is drifting noodling that you can pretty much take or leave. It does ooze talent, no doubt, and you could, if you were that way inclined, pick apart their songs and revel in how cleverly they've put them together from the elements of a cool record collection. But mostly I find myself nodding off. I am probably not the market for this though. It's really mood music for people who do not have moods.

So why do I have it? Well, it's not horrible. And sometimes you like to have drifting, slightly boring music on. Hey, we all have to do the ironing sometimes, right?

Aimee Mann

Female singer-songwriters fill me with horror. I am doubtless not the market for whiny, boring women who sing about how shit men are. So why do I love Aimee Mann, who, while not boring, is definitely willing to whine and has as her subject matter almost exclusively how shit men are?

I suppose the answer is simply that I gave her a chance. I had to, really. You can't escape from someone's music when they soundtrack a film. The film in question, Magnolia, has had mixed reviews (to say the least) but I really liked it. I particularly liked the music.

How couldn't you? What lost soul does not hear their story in Save me? And who does not know a woman like the subject of You do? This latter song is a big clue to Mann's appeal: it has the trifecta of a great tune, Mann's beautiful and distinctive voice and a wry lyric that shows off Mann's gift for the observational. These two songs, plus Wise up and Deathly, are enough for me to rate her highly. Most of this stuff is from the excellent Bachelor no.2 album, which came out around the same time (there is some story about Magnolia, something like PT Anderson heard the demos Mann was working on and liked them enough to say 'that's my soundtrack'). It also features my personal favourite Mann song, Ghost world. If you are going to sing about teen angst, this is the way to do it. Mann boots boring emo into touch with a lyric about how it looks to a teen who has muffed school and now doesn't know what to do with her life.

I'd love to be able to say that her other early albums, Whatever, I'm with stupid and Whatever are as good, and they're all decent, but none has the out and out quality of Bachelor, and none has the songs that really stand out for me. Mind you, I don't listen to them often, but when I do, I am reminded that they are very good albums. The quality is even, so you're not leaning on the skip button.

Her more recent material has been better in my opinion. Lost in space was another excellent album. The Mann template is in full effect: gentle midpaced rock (you could call them plodders) that gives space for her voice, full production (which gives her music a strong 70s feel), the love of Joni Mitchell that informs everything she does. The forgotten arm is, we're told, a concept album, but I've never listened to it closely enough to figure out the concept precisely. It's a character-driven thing though, a rock opera. But it's not as out of touch as that would suggest, and in That's how I knew this story would break my heart it has a track as good as any she has written, a beautifully affecting song that sounds exactly like heartbreak.

I think overall the reason I rate Mann and not other female songwriters is that she is just able to lift herself above the restrictions of the genre. There are tons of singers who make plodders with what they think are smart, observational lyrics. But few have any real idea how to write a decent tune or have voices that are anything but generic. Mann reminds me of the more reflective side of Paul Westerberg, and I think it makes more sense to compare her with him than with Jewel, say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Chosen lords

Cornwall is not just distinguished by being my home county (although I wasn't born there, I grew up there and it's where I feel at home), but also by being that of a group of top-rate experimental musicians (Redruth is the Detroit of IDM, you know). The daddy of them is Richard D James, better known as Aphex Twin.

He has a reputation for difficult music that is not always warranted, and isn't at all borne out by this set, which is a compilation of some of the standouts from his Analord series, which appeared only on 12" (but is available for, erm, unsanctioned download). While Aphex has been known to indulge in ferocious drill'n'bass, he also specialises in analogue-driven techno and acid homage. The Analord stuff is in the same vein as the Caustic Window stuff from the early 1990s, although rather more inventive and I think you could say mature.

Aphex's album that preceded this, Drukqs, was not universally well received. Some thought that it lacked the experimentalism he had previously been known for, as though he had pushed all the envelopes that he could, and had fallen back on the tried and trusted. It was a curious mixture of drill'n'bass, spiteful techno and delicate quasiclassical figures. Maybe it didn't break new ground, but that isn't actually a prerequisite of good music. You can do more and more of a good thing (and Aphex has done exactly that, because the Tuss material is basically supergood bouncy techno of the kind exemplified in Chosen lords by Batine acid or Fenix funk 5). I suppose you could say that it isn't all that coherent.

Chosen lords is, and even though it was culled from a much larger set of songs, it really works as an album. It is retro -- not surprisingly, given Aphex's love of old analogue synths -- but it would have been the best techno record of its day in 1992, and we'd be hailing it as a classic (as connoisseurs do the Caustic Window material, which is nothing like as good, although still far ahead of most techno).

What sets Aphex apart is his incredible knack for melody. They don't call him the Mozart of techno for nothing. It has been from time to time obscured by playfulness (and sometimes wilfulness: an urge to fuck things up that he doesn't always rein in) but here he lets the tunes flow. I particularly recommend the closing sequence: the menacing Cilonen, which pits burbling synths against a growling bassline, the upbeat recidivist techno of PWsteal.Ldpinch.D, and the fine, lowslung funk of XMD 5a are as good as IDM gets.

Of course, if you were into IDM, you'd already have this, but even those who are new to experimental music might enjoy it. You'll need to give it a chance. It's not ferocious, lightning fast or mean tempered, but it's not Leftfield either (although Leftfield would murder for some of the basslines on this record). This is a master at work: yeah, there are no boundaries getting smashed, but there is a guy who's totally comfortable within the limits he has set, making great acidy techno, sometimes threatening, sometimes plaintive, always wonderful.

Kings of the wild frontier

The first gig I ever went to was at a venue in Longrock. I think it was called the Barn. Not sure. But I'm sure about who it was. Adam and the Ants. Man, I loved that guy. I wanted to be him so much. Good looking, talented, dressed like a pirate or highwayman. If you can't see the appeal, where's your soul? See, even as a youngster of fifteen, I knew what life would have in store, and it wasn't the high seas or rapiers on the highway.

Have you ever felt fuck this age? Have you ever wished you could have been born in a time with no CCTV, no safety net, practically no rules. Yeah, I know, I'm romanticising it and I would have been born a peasant and if I'd survived past infancy, I'd have had a life of misery. And I know most pirates hanged. But let's face it, a life of excitement that ends in hanging is in so many ways preferable to a life of bullshit that ends in cancer.

You know, maybe that's where I went wrong. I should have aimed for romance. Maybe I still should. If I do, maybe I'll play Kings of the wild frontier as my soundtrack.

It actually holds up pretty well. Pop is much despised, but Adam and the Ants' brand of it was a spiky, post punky pop, and Adam was not just trading on his image, the way many of today's popstars do (at least not at that time). Dog eat dog was my introduction to Antmusic. It's not your regular pop music (the Ants had already carved out a very small niche as a decent postpunk band, with a penchant for writing about kinky sex and the like, as can be heard on Dirk wears white sox, which I also own but have yet to rip; it's not as good as Kings... but it's perfectly decent, although more solidly in its genre). It crashes in on a wave of tribal drumming and cattle-calling, indulges in some growling guitar and introduces the conceit of the album, which is that Adam is a native American.

WTF? To this day, I have no idea why he did that. Kings of the wild frontier is the maddest of concept albums. It's all about being a red Indian in the modern day. Of course, Adam Ant is not any sort of Indian. Back in the day, we did not know that he was deranged, but maybe we should have taken the hint.

I know, it does sound as though an album of songs about how the Geronimo in you is being worn down would be duff, but Adam Ant had a knack for a tune and the guitars, about as far back in the mix as you'll ever hear them, and rhythm mesh to make a menacing noise that, hearing it now, is as far from most pop as you can get and still have a hit.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Acid house had a brief flourishing at the end of the 80s and then seemed to die away, or at least transmute, as dance music became mainstream and youth drug culture shifted from coke to E. The whole thing obviously made an impression on Luke Vibert though.

A stalwart of IDM, Vibert records across several genres under different names. When he is Wagon Christ, he makes clever sample-driven, sometimes triphoppy IDM; when Plug, he makes some of the best dnb money can buy, light years ahead of the overhyped artists that draw today's plaudits; when Amen Andrews, the dnb is based around the Amen break; when Luke Vibert, and as here when Ace of Clubs, he focuses on acid.

What all of his music has in common is his brilliant invention and gift for composition. I don't think Benefist is quite at the pitch of YosePh or Lover's acid, but it pisses on just about everything else in this vein this side of Aphex. What you get is upbeat electro, built from wonderfully phat analogue sounds and squelchy aciddery. Songs shift, try out ideas and groove. The feel is summery--you don't get the darkness that often takes hold of Aphex Twin--and the beats are just relentless. Although the songs are not straightforward house, the best way, I think, to describe what he does is that he revolves around a centre. The ideas work concentrically, varying from a solid theme, and the songs never stop moving.

Unlike much IDM, I think you probably could dance to this. I never have (and never will) but I don't see why you couldn't. You'd probably have fun.

Various albums

Losing a singer should be fatal for a band. Often, the singer is what distinguishes the band, the noise that most clearly says "this is X". This is particularly true of bands that are really vehicles for the voice: you couldn't have a Eurythmics without Annie Lennox or a Police without Sting.

But of course some bands are capable of changing. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned A Certain Ratio, whose rather distinctive singer left. They became more funky, less punky. New Order, born out of the ashes of Joy Division, became pioneers in indie dance crossover, where Joy Division had been postpunk personified, and spawned goth (lots more about that when I get to the Js, trust me).

AC/DC also shifted, but they had already been making the shift. Losing Bon Scott just pushed the process along. Through most of the 70s, they had been what I suppose you could call a blues rock band, but had been getting heavier, more metally. This move continued after Scott died, and I think that, Back in black notwithstanding, they stopped being listenable.

I say Back in black notwithstanding because it's as good a heavy rock album as you're going to hear and probably AC/DC's best. Man, how good that would have been if Bon Scott had sung it! Where he had the edge over Brian Johnson is that his voice was more expressive, a leering monster's voice, with a lot more gravel and sauce. It's the voice of a man who intends to get into your pants by the end of the evening and will put everything into achieving it.

Still, this shift is fairly subtle, and the basic building blocks of AC/DC's sound have been the same for nearly thirty years. The rhythm section thumps out a solid boogie with mechanical precision, the rhythm guitar plays a tight, heavy line, and Angus is Angus. He fires out riffs and licks like they are going out of fashion, with an encyclopaedic coverage of blues and metal lines.

This sort of band, which ploughs a particular furrow album after album, can get tiresome, and I think they began to run low on creativity after Scott's demise, the music becoming less reliant on melody and more reliant on riffs that were progressively less hooky as they went on. The Scott albums though are great fun, and should be in your collection if you enjoy any sort of rock--download them and Back in black and you'll have all the AC/DC, indeed all the hard rock, you need. They're not as hard to love as most metal of the time because they are not pretentious or pofaced, and Angus, in his prime, had just a great feel for a hook.

The Best of A Flock of Seagulls

Of course, the flush of invention and excitement that surrounded synthpop faded as it dwindled into pap, and the punky, funky side of 80s music was transmuted into lead by clodhoppers like Curiosity Killed the Cat and others who spawned godawful blue-eyed soul. Indie music actually became resolutely rockist, and it became very rare for guitar bands to have "a dance element". Of course, they all rediscovered it by the end of the 80s, because baggy was selling, and dance music finally broke into the mainstream.
The 80s were characterised by a sort of brittle, plasticised pop, which is very much of its time. What I think people looking back do not realise, and when I watch shows like "I love the eighties" or whatever the fuck that's called, in which B-grade TV presenters reminisce about times they were not part of, what's striking is that no one says "We all wanted to be Bowie". But we did! I know I did. We all slapped on makeup and our mum's clothes, and became enormous posers. We all wanted that ineffable cool that Bowie epitomised in the late seventies, that deep Europeanism that informed his work in his Berlin period and echoed what is often seen as the golden age of modernism, from the decline of Austria-Hungary through the First World War and the early decades of the last century, until the Depression and the onset of the Second World War killed modernism stone dead, because we learned to our horror that the modern that we had been worshipping was a monster.

So we had a ton of bands who had mad hair and clothes and adopted futurism, or simply revelled in the present in the hollow, vain way that was the keynote of the 80s. A Flock of Seagulls, among the New Romantics, were not the most successful, did not have the broadest oeuvre and are now largely forgotten, but, man, they had the best hair. The singer had the most wtf construction on his head.

Anyway, the music is mostly pop and very much of its day. On a couple of songs, I ran, and in particular, Wishing, they lift and spread out into something a bit deeper and more satisfying (although I wonder whether I feel that way mostly because Wishing was a huge favourite of mine back in the day; I've always been a sucker for the wistful, even when the words that express the wistfulness are such transparent nonsense: if I had a photograph, I wouldn't spend my life just wishing? Umm, what?).

It's not the sort of stuff you can listen to often, because music, and me too, of course, has moved on so much. Music from the 80s doesn't translate particularly well, in large part because the early synths that bands used have a sound that we wouldn't use much today, and the production was more flashy than we'd now find tasteful. But it's decent enough when you want to get a bit nostalgic, and I sometimes do.


The early 80s were a great time for music. Punk had changed our ideas about popular music, washing away the notion that technical ability was the measure of merit and installing creativity as our new god. Postpunk spawned a ton of great bands, some of them looking back to garage and underground rock of the late 60s/early 70s--stuff like the MC5, Velvet Underground, Iggy--others creating a new type of expression out of punk, funk and reggae, among other ingredients, and still others looking for inspiration to krautrock and Bowie, who was then a Colossus in music, way ahead of the pace, not the tired hack that he is today, always chasing the latest cool thing.

Punkfunk is a much abused label these days, slapped onto any of the bands--and there are tons of them--who hark back to the postpunk bands who had a bit of groove. In retrospect, bands like Gang of Four were not actually all that funky; it was more that they weren't as straight ahead as some of their contemporaries. They were being compared for funkiness with Elvis Costello or other new wave stuff, which very much eschewed danceability.

A Certain Ratio were more funkpunk, I suppose. Their combination of scratchy guitars and chunky basslines made them bastard sons of Parliament, rather than Iggy or the Doors. Early songs like Do the du or their cover of Shack up are fast and furious, but they are limber and bouncy too. The other side of their coin was the miserabilism that Manchester specialised in at the time--they had the deepvoiced singer and the gloomy feel too, particularly on big clunky numbers like Flight. I don't know the story of their singer, but I know that he chipped after a couple of albums, and they ended up with their bassist taking over, which all sounds rather familiar, but had a spell of making much deeper, much more funky, largely instrumental albums, of which Sextet is probably the best (although Sextet can hardly be called instrumental because it features a female voice, whose I don't know, the voice is more colour than anything else).

The centrepiece of ACR's sound then, and throughout their career, has been Jeremy Kerr's bass playing, pinned ultratightly to Donald Johnson's drums. On a song like Day one, a personal favourite, they are rocksolid. I could listen to the rhythm section alone, it is that good. Add in the piano and wahwah guitar, and it's as good an example of early 80s funkpunk as you're going to get. If you like this sort of thing, you are in for a treat after the breakdown, as the wailing horns kick in and the song floats off into the aether.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Headlines and deadlines

It's become fashionable to find a lot to love in pop idols. Justin Timberlake's last album was extremely well received (despite not actually being much good; but it was produced by Timbaland, so whatevs), and Britney's artistic star rises as her depicted life nosedives. But this is more an outcome of reviewers' desire to get all postmodern on us than it is a fair judgement of the records. It remains true that these are just pretty faces fronting slick operations that are all about getting CDs into shopping baskets and not about building temples of sound.

In the 80s, by way of contrast, the too cool for school reviewer wouldn't be seen dead giving a positive appraisal of Duran Duran, Haircut 100 or aHa, but all three had a lot of merit. (Funnily enough, the same reviewers affected to love pop of earlier eras while hating anything that wasn't "serious" in their own.) They were all pretty boys, who made music that was immediate and mostly shallow, but a lot of fun. In retrospect, it's clear that while it didn't compete well with postpunk or early synthpop, which was experimental and exciting, it was still much more palatable than most of the pop of today, or of any part of the 90s.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming any great artistic chops for aHa. They were not the greatly misunderstood lost Beatles of the 80s. But they made fun, effective pop. I have a soft spot for Morten Harket's histrionic vocals and the clunky synth lite that backs him, and I don't think you can hate the enormously insincere Hunting high and low, which sets a high for bombast that few this side of Meat Loaf would even consider trying to top. But try to stop yourself singing along with it.

Well, maybe that's just me. They were my sister S's favourites in her early teens, and I think you grow to like most things if you hear them enough. But I sneakily taped them when she wasn't looking in the 80s and even now I feel a little lift when I hear I've been losing you, transported the dancefloor of KCs in Gloucester, a bit drunk, never going to pull, pretending not to like it as in my head I sang along with every word.

Hyacinths and thistles

Stephen Merritt is a bit of a hidden treasure of pop. Those who know of him love him, but they are relatively few. The Magnetic Fields albums, particularly 69 love songs, are fantastic showcases of his songwriting talent and nouveau crooner's voice, velvety and deep, a more soulful Leonard Cohen. The songwriting is on display in his 6ths project, although mostly others do the singing. I think that the project lacks a little on account of that, because Merritt's voice is so suited to his songs, and he picked such a lifeless bunch for this album. Given the talent on display, I found the album a bit disappointing, and have only listened to it a couple of times. Only the Sarah Cracknell track had any real Oh wow factor, and I put a lot of that down to the shock of recognition (possibly lacking with Marc Almond because his track is so weak and it doesn't dawn on you that it's him; you know it from the first note).

If you're a connoisseur of adult pop, you might find a place in your heart for this, but you're more likely to love the Magnetic Fields, where Merritt's range and invention are much more rewarding. It's not a bad album, but you aren't missing much if you never hear it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The fall of math/One time for all time/The destruction of small ideas

Some experimental music (and the same can be said of any experimental art) seems to be making a proposal: let's take this direction and see where it goes. This type of experiment works with what there is and takes it somewhere new. Other experiments are way out there. They don't begin with what there is; they begin way off the scale and stay out there. Other experimental stuff is nothing more than the sound of guys who simply have no decent ideas, and cannot work in an accepted idiom.

I tend to prefer the first type of experiment, because let's face it, the second is largely unlistenable, and the third is no good because, simply, if you are experimenting because you're bad, your experiments will also be bad.

Most postrock is in one way or another one of the first kind of experiment. At least, the first band in each subgenre of postrock is. Several bands stretched the boundaries, but this kind of music can quickly become generic. It's a bit like IDM: you have guys like Aphex, Autechre and Squarepusher, who are genuinely innovative, and then you have others who hear it, like it and do it themselves. Not that the generic bands can't be good: Chris Clark, for instance, is clearly Autechre lite, but his work is excellent.

65daysofstatic fit in the postrock genre, and definitely the song structures and dynamics are not a million miles from those of Mogwai, say, but they distinguish themselves in a couple of ways. Notably, they incorporate elements of electronica, and particularly glitch, in a way that, despite its brazenness, feels organic, or at least does by the third album. The heavily treated instruments on the first record, Fall of math, hold the listener at arm's length, and distract slightly from 65's strength in composition. One time... shows much better integration, although the set is on the whole weaker. Both the first two albums are indulgently heavy. It's curious that electronica and heaviness fit so well together (several metal bands integrate electronica to some degree or other, although 65 is not at all metal). Destruction... is somewhat more restrained, but no less powerful. I read somewhere that 65 had aimed for a quieter album, and I think that it's more successful, because whereas the first two yelled and got in your face, the third growls. It's much more reliant on keyboards, and features some really sweet piano. It has a broader emotional range too: Fall of math aimed for a paranoid, apocalyptic fury (and hit it bang on fairly often), and One time..., although slightly drier and fuller, was fairly narrow (which is not a criticism; some bands have made entirely satisfactory oeuvres out of basically one idea, one emotion, or none at all). Destruction... doesn't exactly let the light in, but it feels broader, more human. I think that's what distinguished the first album: the electronics were used to dehumanise the music, to drain it of anything you could sympathise with and render it ice-cold and hard. Which makes for a fine album, and I enjoy listening to it when I put it on, but not one you fall in love with. (For the same reasons, I doubt you could fall in love with Confield or Untilted.)

Destruction... also plays less on the stop-start dynamics of the first couple of albums, and several of the songs return to a somewhat more standard rock. There's even a pumping 70s-feel rocker in Distant glow..., which could almost be Yes: the keyboards are wonderful spacey analoguey sweeps and burbles.

But it's still experimental, and the math rock label is not misplaced. A lot of the joy in 65daysofstatic is in the clever interplay of ideas, the shifting tempos and sliding composition. I doubt that you'd find this appealing if you weren't previously into postrock, postmetal or noise in some way, but if you are, you'll find plenty in this to chew on.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Campfire songs

I've always been a sucker for what you might call "alternative voices". New Order were (and still are) my favourite band largely because Barney's voice is so distinctive. Of course, when you put a little more thought into it, you realise that all voices are somewhat distinct; it's just a matter of degree. But in music, as in all art, degree matters. (Well, it used to. These days, it seems that stating that you are an artist is enough: you do not actually have to have any content. The other day, I had cause to read the blog of a woman who thinks she is a poet. She puts words in stanzas and they say things about her life. That is all. Insight none, adroitness with words, none, depth, none. Nothing. Yet people say she is a poet and she's part of a scene. Maybe I'm envious. Not of her talent--she has none--but of her brass. I would never claim to be a poet, even though I am much more talented than she is, so much so that it's not even a contest. And I think there is some relevance to my subject here, because what makes her writing so grey and uninspiring is that anyone could write it. That's the problem with art in this age. Postmodernism has taught us to value everything by its own standards, so that it is hard to criticise work on merits that do not apply, or it doesn't claim, but it has opened the door to the utterly mundane. For me, art is something elevated. I don't mean "refined". I mean "above life". I mean that when I see art, I understand something that I didn't understand before seeing it. I don't think I am experiencing art if I think that any schoolgirl could write it, paint it or sing it.)

Sometimes you find yourself respecting an artist without much liking their work. I think that that is only possible if you clearly distinguish your sense of aesthetics from your taste, and few of us can truly do that. Most things I like, I like because they appeal to me in some way. I mean, I might admire Stendhal in some ways but I'll leave reading him to you. I mostly feel that way about the career of Natalie Merchant. I love what she is about but god, do I have to sit through it?

Mostly no. That's the beauty of the CD, I suppose. When we listened to music on vinyl, it was just too much bother to get up and pick up the stylus to skip over the duff tracks. But with CDs, and particularly with iTunes, you don't need even to bother with the stuff you don't like. So I ripped only a few of the tracks from Campfire songs (and I have nothing else by Ms Merchant, although truly, I do admire her: I think that I would have liked her music more had she taken a path into alt.rock and not so much into alt.folk, because I hate to say it, folk is so fucking dull most of the time that it's unbearable to listen to--but maybe it's simply her eschewing of tunes you can hum, or inability to write them, that turns me off).

Anyway, she has a beautiful, intriguing voice, and she's fey and interesting as a person, but I never fell in love with her or her music. There is a limit too on how often you can enjoy a song about wifebeating (What's the matter here).

On a side note, curiously, when I watched Carnivale, I was struck by how much Clea DuVall resembled her. I don't suppose she actually does, but she seemed to have the same vibe. Both seem to be a bit not of this world. I quite like that, although I suppose it's true that I'm just flattering myself to think that I'm not of this world either: I think it's a lie sensitive but mundane men tell themselves because they find it hard to fit.

Sea of the dying dhow

I reviewed this here.

I also strongly recommend Laurentian's atoll, which has an extended version of Water, which is very nice. It's one of those songs that very much straddles the divide between metal and alt.rock.

!!!/Louden up now/Myth takes

Often you read a description of music that leaves you salivating, but when you hear it, you're left fairly unmoved. If I tell you that Band X makes mostly upbeat party music, heavily influenced by turn of the 80s punk-funk, you are going to want it. And if it's LCD Soundsystem, you'll be glad you got it; if it's the Klaxons, not so glad.

If it's !!!, you're likely to be thinking, meh. It's the most meh music you could imagine for the most part. I have quite a lot of music like this in my collection. There's nothing wrong with it. You could put it on in the background and you're not all switch that shit off. But you're not loving it. (I'm listening to some like that now, as it happens: Mono's Gone, which is a collection of EPs that just aren't as good as their albums, but aren't so bad that you hate to listen to them.)

Some of it rises above the mehness. Heart of hearts is a belter, a driving funker that keeps it up for fiveish minutes. (But note how hard it is to say anything about it: it just sort of goes about its business--the bass pumps, the drums thump, some chicks chick it up, some guy sings something about hearts of hearts.) Maybe I'd like it more if I went to more parties. It's hard to get into the party spirit when your view is the curtains.

Monday, April 07, 2008

blah blah blah boo hoo boo hoo

I am now going to review everything I have in itunes. And talk about my liquor cabinet.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008


i am so lonely.

do you ever have days that you think no one is like you? well, no one is like me. on a bright clear day i am proud of that. but it's a foolish thing to love yourself for. because rewards don't flow to the obscured.

i have no one to laugh with.

i have no one i can even talk to. i am withering like a flower unplucked. i have no one to share anything with. i feel like i will drown and no one will have even noticed i was in the water.

i have no one to tell about my misfortunes, and they are killing me.

i want to let it go. i want to drift away. i want to leave this coast and see where i wash up. i do not want to be chained.

i am my own jailer though; i know it. no one of us is any different.

did you ever feel you wanted to step through a mirror and be laughing in the sun?

did you ever feel you were six million steps from your next laugh?

did you ever feel that not feeling would be better?

i have no one to tell about my misfortunes, because they are nothing, not even a story. suburban man has life of quiet desperation; not a headline, nothing to report. but i still feel as though i could touch you.

i feel as though i could reach out and touch you, a touch so tender you would forget all the other times you had been touched, and would live from then on for another touch the same. i feel as though i could lift you up, enrich you, paint gold in the cracks of your life.

but what can i do? fester in a basement in a quiet road in a quiet suburb of a town where everyone's in bed by ten. i feel a pain in my side and i say, if it's cancer, i lose, but if it's cancer i have an excuse to just let go. and i don't know what i'm saying but what i'm saying is killing me too.

what can i do? if i knew, i'd do it. i'd be doing it if i knew it. it breaks my heart to have no good choices, but what do you do when your heart is already broken?

I have a picture; it recurs. I dreamed it and I see it in the day. It is a flower, maybe a rose, maybe a tulip, I'm not sure and it doesn't matter. There is a single tear, or a drop of water, a drop of water, maybe a tear, sliding down the inside, into the cup. That is it. That is all there is.


i am so lonely.

do you ever have days that you think no one is like you? well, no one is like me. on a bright clear day i am proud of that. but it's a foolish thing to love yourself for. because rewards don't flow to the obscured.

i have no one to laugh with.

i have no one i can even talk to. i am withering like a flower unplucked. i have no one to share anything with. i feel like i will drown and no one will have even noticed i was in the water.

i have no one to tell about my misfortunes, and they are killing me.

i want to let it go. i want to drift away. i want to leave this coast and see where i wash up. i do not want to be chained.

i am my own jailer though; i know it. no one of us is any different.

did you ever feel you wanted to step through a mirror and be laughing in the sun?

did you ever feel you were six million steps from your next laugh?

did you ever feel that not feeling would be better?

i have no one to tell about my misfortunes, because they are nothing, not even a story. suburban man has life of quiet desperation; not a headline, nothing to report. but i still feel as though i could touch you.

i feel as though i could reach out and touch you, a touch so tender you would forget all the other times you had been touched, and would live from then on for another touch the same. i feel as though i could lift you up, enrich you, paint gold in the cracks of your life.

but what can i do? fester in a basement in a quiet road in a quiet suburb of a town where everyone's in bed by ten. i feel a pain in my side and i say, if it's cancer, i lose, but if it's cancer i have an excuse to just let go. and i don't know what i'm saying but what i'm saying is killing me too.

what can i do? if i knew, i'd do it. i'd be doing it if i knew it. it breaks my heart to have no good choices, but what do you do when your heart is already broken?

I have a picture; it recurs. I dreamed it and I see it in the day. It is a flower, maybe a rose, maybe a tulip, I'm not sure and it doesn't matter. There is a single tear, or a drop of water, a drop of water, maybe a tear, sliding down the inside, into the cup. That is it. That is all there is.