Monday, July 21, 2014

ANANDA PROJECT—Release (Nite Grooves)
Spin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

In rock, you get local heroes, bands that are big in their town or region. In dance, you get the opposite. Take Ananda Project's Chris Brann: a god for house hipsters across the globe for his mid-Nineties releases as Wamdue Kids, but I bet he can walk round his hometown Atlanta, Georgia, without a nod.

A slightly pat reference point for Release: Everything But the Girl's Temperamental. "Breaking Down", with its jazzy-guitar flecks and forlorn vocals (courtesy of Heather Johnson, one of five guest singers) even sounds a bit like EBTG. But Brann's coming from the other direction: he's a trackmaster getting songful, rather than singer/songwriters getting their groove on. Release has the pump of club-oriented house, the kind of voluptuously thick kick drums that become a cocooning environmental pulse when heard through a massive sound system. But it also has the intimacy of music for home and headphones. And there can't be many house artists who put a quote from Edith Sitwell in the CD booklet.

"Cascades of Colour" is the stand-out. The plangent gravity of the melody, redolent of Harold Budd & Brian Eno's ambient albums, conjures deliciously mixed emotions---blue joy, sweet sorrow. Gaelle Adisson's multitracked vocals form a counterpoint lattice that sets your nape-hairs tingling. Close behind "Cascades" is the title track, with its "let your spirit free" invocations and pensive piano chords that suddenly roll backwards on themselves, psychedelic guitar-style, to form a seamless, timewarping Moebius Strip.

Throughout the album, there's a blurry, miasmic quality to Brann's production, the aural equivalent of Vaseline-on-the-lens. The way Brann arranges his drums spatially is like landscape gardening, making you gaze into the distance. On the vocoderized ballad "Expand Your Mind", snares crack like thunder on the mix's horizon, while hi-hats bustle right in your face. The wispy drum'n'bass excursion "Bahia" suggests an affinity with softcore junglists like LTJ Bukem and PFM, a common quest for aquaboogie wonderlands.

As with the Good Looking guys, New Age alarm bells occasionally ring: lots of liquidly chirruping birdsong, a Stevie Nicks-esque lyric about a "daughter of the moon" on the otherwise gorgeous "Falling For You". Mind you, in these despiritualized, money-mad times, maybe we need some of that. The opulence of Brann's sound doesn't connote aspirational "audio couture" (a slogan coined by Moving Shadow just at the point the label, and the drum'n'bass scene, started to undergo gentrification) but what New Agers call "abundance consciousness"--in plain, old-timer's English, counting your blessings. Release is the kind of record that reminds you to feel grateful to be alive.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Blank Regeneration: Luke Haines, New York in the '70s


New York in the ‘70s

Cherry Red 
director's cut, The Wire, May 2014

by Simon Reynolds

Pushed by music magazines and rock documentary makers, “the place to be” is a perennially alluring notion. The conviction that a single city – London, San Francisco, Manchester, Seattle, Berlin—is currently pop culture’s energy center, a vortex fermenting  new sounds and styles that will bubble up from the underground to transform the mainstream, draws the ambitious, the curious, and a legion of misfits chafing at the constraints of their suburban or small-town home.  Retro culture adds a layer of elegiac wistfulness to this “anywhere but here” impulse, instilling the belief that that there was “the time to be” too, that born-too-late sense of being one of History’s provincials, stranded faraway in time from the action.  

On New York in the ‘70s Luke Haines seems at once seduced by and sceptical toward this idea that certain towns at certain times buzzed with extraordinary energy.  A mildly provocative figure on the periphery of the U.K. pop/rock mainstream for two decades now, Haines was the driving force behind The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, and, since 2001, he’s been a prolific solo artist. New York is actually his tenth solo album. It also closes out a diverting if opaque-in-intent trilogy that began with 2011’s 9 and a half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling From the 1970s and continued with last year’s Rock and Roll Animals.

Haines’s meta-musician tendencies were apparent from the start:  The Auteurs’s 1993 debut LP was titled New Wave, featured songs with titles like “American Guitars”, and was framed by its author as a celebration of quintessentially English “wryness and dryness” (think Kinks) in defiance of then dominant grunge aesthetics.  More recently, “The Heritage Rock Revolution”, from 2006’s Off My Rocker At the Art School Bop, mocked the reenactments of past glories served up by rock’s nostalgia industry. “It’s a middle-aged rampage/NOW!” Haines sang, wittily inverting the chorus of The Sweet’s glam-anthem “Teenage Rampage”.   Whether tacking against the tide of the contemporary scene or playing games with history, Haines’s music always seems to be commenting on other music.

The odd thing about New York in the ‘70s is that the period Haines is revisiting—post-Warhol decadence, protopunk, the Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs milieu—is that this was the point at which rock itself took a self-reflexive turn. The New York Dolls were Stones impersonators and girl-group fans who quoted The Shangri-Las and hired their producer Shadow Morton to do their second album;  Patti Smith covered The Who and Them, wrote elegies to Jim Morrison and Hendrix;  Suicide’s Alan Vega channeled Elvis;  The Ramones and The Dictators were virtually scholars of teen delinquent rock.  So what does adding another layer of reflexivity and reference contribute,  when the music in question is already self-consciously tangled up and tangling with rock history?

Listening to New York in the ‘70s, it’s not readily apparent what Haines is trying to say.  Just like that flatly descriptive album title, the songs sit there, blank regenerations of time-honored templates, ranging from precise pastiches of legends like Suicide (“Drone City” duplicates  “Frankie Teardrop” complete with psychotic gulps and gasps)  to generically NYC/1970s-evoking songs in a “Loaded” Velvets/ Lou Reed-solo style.  Not content with giving his ditties titleslike“Alan Vega Says”, “Jim Carroll” , “Dolls Forever”, and “Lou Reed Lou Reed”, Haines often lets his lyrics devolve into a string of citations and famous-first-name allusions: Debbie, DeeDee, Bill (as in Burroughs), and so on.   

Lloyd Cole, another Manhattan-infatuated Brit songwriter, dubbed this lyrical technique “proper noun as metaphor and simile” and claimed to have invented it (Bryan Ferry got there first, surely?).  Cole is a telling comparison, actually: like his immediate predecessors Orange Juice, he translated Reed-isms into an authentically U.K. realm of   bookish bedsit romanticism (girlfriends who drive their mother’s old 2CVs, etc). But on New York Haines does nothing with the source material: takes its nowhere, barely even twists it.

Really, the only tint of difference is tonal: droll, with a hint of smirk. New York in the ‘70s ought to be filed under parody-rock, next to Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoia, the XTC side/psych project Dukes of Stratosphear, and ex-Bonzo Neil Innes’s tunes for The Rutles. As the literary critic Linda Hutcheon observes, parody sanctions what in any other context would be dismissed as derivative and redundant. Laughter (and perhaps also a smidgeon of appreciation for the craft involved in these replicas) excuses what otherwise is merely empty impersonation. 

The mirth on offer here is thin fare, for the most part. Certainly compared with New York’s  immediate predecessor  Rock and Roll Animals, whose Mighty Boosh-like conceit --rock history reimagined as an anthropomorphic children’s fable, starring “Jimmy Pursey, a fox...   Gene Vincent, the cat...  and a badger called Nick Lowe”-- was strong and strange enough to sustain a whole album.  The only time New York strays into a similar zone of surreal whimsy is “Cerne Abbas Man”, in which the 180-foot-high priapic figure cut into Dorset hillside turf aeons ago comes alive and goes to war with the Lower East Side’s junkie poets.   Swinging “his giant glans straight into Manhattan,” the original Rude Man gives Richard Hell the “heebie-jeebies” and jolts “the ghost of Johnny Thunders,” who rasps “don’t point that thing at me, buddy”.  The idea seems to be a battle of primordial mojo between ancient Albion and “mythic motherfuckin’ rock’n’roll,” with the older culture wiping the floor with those young pretenders from the New World. 

The blurb for Post Everything, the second of Haines’s two Britpop memoirs, argues that “if it feels like there's nothing new under the sun, that's because there is nothing new under the sun”.  The same applies to New York in the ‘70s which oddly resembles a project from the early ‘90s, roughly contemporaneous with The Auteurs: Denim, a group created by Lawrence from Felt, in which he swapped his own VU/Dylan/Television fixations for Seventies English glitter pop at its most lumpen and trashy.  New York and 1992’s Back in Denim share the same boxy sonics and vocals that clone Lou Reed’s sing-speak drone.  But not only were Denim’s hooks zippier and lyrics funnier,  Lawrence’s polemic also had real bite at that point in time: songs like “Middle of the Road”  junked hip taste and canonical rock for the uncool thrills of plebeian tat.   What came through too was Lawrence’s love for the music, his delight in rediscovering records by The Glitter Band and Hello.

But it’s never clear what Haines really feels about the proto-punk New York of the Seventies.  (Personally the period after Loaded and before Marquee Moon strikes me as historically significant and importantly transitional, but surprisingly thin in terms of actual musical achievement). My guess is that his younger self’s fascination for the era of Max’s, Mercer Arts Center, etc, and for that whole bohemian quest for some kind of truth or ultimate reality (Patti Smith’s “outside of society/is where I want to be” ) via hard drugs, onstage self-harm, and other extremes, is cancelled out by a middle-aged man’s feeling that  such anti-heroics were misguided and futile. All a bit silly.  Like a man who’s fallen out of love but can’t leave the relationship, Haines sees through the myth but is unable to move on.  So he’ll keep on picking at and picking on rock history; he bickers with it, parrots back what it said in an arch mocking tone.   

various Melody Maker pieces, 1986
by Simon Reynolds

Friday, May 30, 2014

wot do u call it: grime before grime

More Fire Crew
More Fire Crew C.V.
(Go Beat)
Uncut, 2003

by Simon Reynolds

Someone’s gotta coin a snappy name for the genre represented by So Solid Crew and the hordes who came in their wake.   UK garage doesn’t cut it anymore, it’s misleading.  Listen to the debut from Leyton crew  More Fire and you’ll hear hardly a trace of house ‘n’ garage.  2-step’s swing and sensuality is  banished in favour of  hard-bounce riddims and punishing textures.  More Fire’s primary producers, the Platinum 45 team, draw on the most anti-pop, street vanguard elements in black music history:  electro’s angular coldness, jungle’s bruising bass blows,  ragga’s lurch and twitch.

“Oi!”, More Fire’s  Number 7 smash of 2002, made for the most exhilaratingly extreme Top of the Pops appearance in living memory. For pop punters who like a nice choon and fans of Artful Dodger-style softcore garage alike,  “Oi!” had the shock impact of punk: “is this even music?!?”  The answer, eventually, is “yes”. But it takes several listens before what initially seems hookless reveals itself as incredibly contagious. Platinum 45’s idea of melody seems derived almost entirely from videogame musik and mobile ring-tones.  Their dry rhythms connect backwards through time to Schoolly D and  pioneering dancehall riddim “Sleng Teng”, and sideways across space to current rap like The Clipse’s  “Grindin” (a drum machine on auto-pilot).  If James Brown was a 19 year old from an E4 estate who’d mispent his youth in a purple haze of Playstation and hydroponic, this might be his idea of future funk.  Factor in the rapid-fire jabber of Ozzie B, Lethal B, and Neeko,  with its blend of gruff ragga grain and uncouth Cockney, and you’ve got music that instantly creates a massive generation gap.

Can this sound, brutally shorn of pop appeal, sustain a whole album? If you make it past the incomparably dreary “Intro” (in which More Fire refute the charge that they’re one-hit wonders and damn near hammer coffin-nails in their career),  you’ll find an album that’s highly listenable. Alongside Platinum 45 stand-outs “Smokin’” and “Politics”, two killer tracks are guest-produced by members of Roll Deep, hot crew of the moment. Wiley’s “Lock Down” pivots around a bubble-and-squeak bassline similar to Roll Deep’s insidious  “Creeper”, while Dizzee Rascal (the MC/producer to watch in 2003) contributes the  asymmetrical anti-groove of “Still the Same”  over which he spits rhymes in trademark edge-of-hysteria style. 

Lyrically, no ground is broken. Haters are castigated,  ho’s get humiliated, weed (strictly high-grade) is hymned, and “soldiers, fallen” are mourned as mawkishly as Bone Thugs or P. Diddy.  But the art of  MC-ing doesn’t really involve opening up new areas of content, it’s about finding fresh twists on the same restricted set of themes. What we’re witnessing with this genre-without-a-satisfactory-name that More Fire Crew exemplify and excel at, is the final arrival--after many false dawns--of an authentically British rap. No longer a pale copy of the American original, different but equally potent, it’s something to celebrate.  

Interview with Neeko of More Fire Crew

Q: Do you get much inspiration from American rap or are you coming more out of the tradition of MC-ing that runs through UK garage and jungle back to hardcore rave?

A: We've got nuff love for hip hop and it takes up most of our listening time. But the garage vibe came from jungle and the main bones of it come from heavy jungle influence--that's what gives it such a British Flavor. Our favourite jungle MCs were Skibadee, Shabba and Stevie Hyper-D.

Q: Were you aware the word "Oi!" has this dodgy connotation, as the name of this punk/skinhead movement with a reputation for fascist allegiances? More Fire nabbing their catchphrase almost seems like a jab in the eye for the racist scum.

A: We didn't even know about that! That's wicked that we can change perception on something like that, turning something totally negative to a positive thing without even realising!

Q: The whole garage-fronted-by-MCs upsurge seems unstoppable at the moment--so many crews coming through, so many new rhythmic ideas bubbling. Tempos are slowing and it seems like the music is turning from UK garage into UK rap. If so, will this sound ever break America?

A: It's anyone's guess where Garage is going with all the madness surrounding UK urban music at the moment. It's just not getting the support it should be. The good thing is that it's still thriving in its own way. People are still pushing the boundaries. I think a lot of UK hip hop will come through now, but with a totally British flavour through all the garage influences. The MCs coming through right now have the talent where they  can rap at 90 b.p.m. or 140 b.p.m. We'll break the US soon, but we need to focus on cracking the UK market properly first. It's no good going over half baked!