Saturday, July 13, 2024

Dry Cleaning - all the thoughts

I have heard plenty of records I like since - and a few that I've loved - but nothing in the three years since has hit me like New Long Leg....nothing has taken me, taken over my listening, to anything like the same extent...  Nor provoked as many thoughts...

Here are the thoughts, all of them...



Dry Cleaning

New Long Leg

Albums of the Year, Pitchfork, 2021

One way to hear New Long Leg is as a cringe-tinged dramedy, like Fleabag or Girls, with Florence Shaw as the performer who knows exactly how to deliver her own script. This album is unlikely to win a Grammy but it really ought to get Emmys for writing and acting. The lyrics infest your brain with quotables that reverberate for days, but more than the words it’s the intonation that’s so funny and so heartbreaking: the grudging cadences, the way she can inject an unreadable alloy of earnest and ironic into an inanity like “I can rebuild.” The English expression “browned off” perfectly captures Shaw’s affect, a deadpan flatness that damps down the post-punky backing whenever it threatens to get too epic. The self-portrait painted here is of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes, offset by the tiny comforts of Twix bars and artisanal treats. There’s a personal dimension to the inner emptiness (a sapping break-up), but because New Long Leg’s release fortuitously coincided with the depressive pall that swept over the world thanks to lockdown,  Shaw’s interiority synced up perfectly with exterior conditions. It’s no coincidence that the most exciting rock record in years is about the inability to feel excitement. Timing and talent converged to make Shaw not just a voice of a generation, but a truth-teller distilling how it feels to be alive right now: “Every day is a dick”. *

* a mishearing of the lyric, apparently, but I refuse to hear it any other way



A slender harvest (aka faves of 2021)

Far and away my favorite and most listened-to contemporary recording of 2021 - New Long Leg by Dry Cleaning. 

Some disjointed thoughts: 

Florence as a modern day singer-songwriter, although without much in the way of sing or song going on.  As with the classic '70s female singer-songwriters, the backing band is all-male and the music lags a little, or a lot, behind the contemporary edge of mainstream pop. Back then the singer-songwriter template might draw on folk or country... here, today, the settled style is post-punk (40 years on, as fixed in its strictures as the blues). 

One counter-critique to the retromania argument is that it fixates on sonic innovation – form rather than content. It doesn’t take into account the possibility that the innovation might  occur in the domain of lyrics, emotional expression, persona, or other non-sonic aspects of the work, while the music itself might be relatively traditional.  Dry Cleaning’s music contains familiar elements; as able or apt as the playing is, nothing really innovative happens there. What is new: Shaw's language, delivery, and the subjectivity, the portrait of self.

Pressed to characterise Florence's affect, I would go for the slightly old-fashioned English expression "browned off.”  It's an affect that speaks to the blankness of the present – the feel of life in the Boring Dystopia (to use Mark Fisher's term). This blankness is different from the sort of emptiness that triggers the imagination and stirs daydreams; rather, it's a saturated  blankness, crowded with trivia of the type that snuffs daydreaming in the cradle. The mental space of this record is insanitary with inanity. "Scratchcard Lanyard," then - a "Transmission" for an era in which vision-quest of the kind that Joy Division could undertake is no longer accessible.  

Another Fisher notion - "depressive hedonism" – threads through New Long Leg.  Small pleasures snatched, or snacked (a profusion of references to treats, fast food, artisanal goodies, splashing out on gourmet mushrooms, a favorite cafe you used to frequent).  Comforts that don’t console (a different kind of full emptiness).

I’m not hugely au fait with the late Lauren Berlant’s work, but what I've gleaned seems to have applications.  The emotional landscape of New Long Leg teems with bad attachments, hopes  that impede flourishing, impasses, interpersonal skirmishes, a perpetual low-key state of ordinary crisis. So it's what Berlant might have called a new kind of affective realism. Part of that realism relates to the way the "songs" aren't stories, they don't resolve (often the track cycles back to the opening verse and ends with it).  Each piece consists of an accretion of disjointed perceptions in shuffle mode. Listening, the overwhelming feeling you take away, beyond browned-off, is accuracy. This is the texture of everyday life today, this how the mind moves. Focused goal-oriented thinking or sustained feeling-flow constantly perforated by the relentless telemediated blip-blip-blip of alarming nonsense  from outside one's immediate lived situation. Attention flickers back and forth across the battery of implanted aspirations, desire-triggers, ambient fears,, the tragic absurd and random grotesque.  

"Emo dead stuff collector" is a great line: the artist casually defining her method.  But Dry Cleaning is the opposite of emo – Shaw is a nondrama queen.  The deadpan flatness tamps down the musical backing, which, left to its own devices, could easily take on the epic swell of a post-rock group as the term is currently (mis)understood: dramatic instrumental guitar music with quiet-loud dynamics.

Her intonation and inflection stir a kind of expatriate ecstasy in me. There's an exquisite nostalgic pull:  "this is my people (for better or worse)".  The songs clearly translate (loads of Americans love New Long Leg, and even some non-Anglophones) but I can’t quite believe that it does or that it should. Surely only someone born and bred in that septic isle could even pick up these emotional frequencies, feel the full richness of the meagreness, the mustn’t-grumble stolidity.  

Emotions so opaque they’re like the point where colors mixed turn muddy. Like the percussively exhaled “ha” at the end of “Scratchcard Lanyard” - a mouth-snort of poisoned breath, equal parts derision, defiance, exasperation, indignation, hostility, exhaustion. 

Or the “well well well well” in “Her Hippo”.

The actual Southern Mark Smith arrives, finally.

Sleaford Mods -  if the place they wrote from wasn’t the Greggs and poundshop world of the lumpen-prole Midlands, but the aimless ennui of post-postgraduates whose fresher-year at uni occurred somewhere near the end of the Coalition. The well-fed fed-up.

eMMplekz / Baron Mordant – minus the electronics, the dyspeptic mise-en-scène shifted slightly, from petit-bourgeois to middle middle-class.  “Simple pimple, stomach stab” could easily be a Baron line. And mordancy is one of the inflection flavours on NLL.

An inventory of irritating sensations (“raincoat sweat” ). A list of listlessness. A catalogue of intractabilities. 

Rock poets, then and now. Half-a-century of contracted horizons captured in the shift from “we want the world and we want it now” to “just want to be liked.”   

The heartbreaking mildness of  “I like you… stay.”

I wrote here earlier about “every day is a dick” - about creative mishearings truer than the truth. Here's some other lines from New Long Leg (accuracy not guaranteed) that speak to me. Speak for me. 

“Absolutely huge fuck-up”

“Sick of that shit”

 “Thanks a lot”

“I don’t know, what’s the point” 

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”

“So full of poisonous rage”

"Do everything and feel nothing"

 “Too much to ask about, don’t ask”

“Time to get fed up”

"It's useless to live"


Speak-Sing Me a Song

Tidal, May 10, 2022 

Earlier this year, some commentators suggested that we had reached peak speak. Latecomer outfits like Yard Act were accused of wearing thin the winning Brit formula of sarky vocals and satiric lyrics over postpunky backing. But then Wet Leg turned up with their delicious blend of deadpan and lively. Adding a tinge of Ting Tings tunefulness to the style — the semi-spoken verses are crisp and savory, the choruses sweet like condensed milk — the duo’s debut album went straight to No. 1 in their native U.K. and hit the Top 20 in America. Wet Leg’s success may well recharge the genre, inspiring a fresh wave of bands.

Why is speak-sing so popular now? Perhaps because it’s the opposite of what pop has been for so long, one of those cyclical taste shifts like when grunge chased hair metal off MTV. Mainstream pop is like froyo, crammed with artificially intensified flavors. It makes sense that palates dulled by Auto-Tuned melodiousness and emotionally engineered uplift might find refreshment in jaded tones and mundane lyrics. From Dry Cleaning’s catalog of everyday humiliations and disappointments to the bleak social landscape depicted by Black Country, New Road and Legss, the speak-sing groups offer a dose of truth: bitter but invigorating.

Speak-sing’s roots go back to post-punk. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is rightly cited as the precursor supreme, but other ancestors include his Manchester neighbor John Cooper Clarke. There’s even a song titled in homage to the punk poet by contemporary band Working Men’s Club. On tracks like “Beasley Street,” Clarke intoned vivid and darkly humorous imagery of deprivation and desolation over dreamy backdrops spun by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett and his partner Steve Hopkins. Along with the intermittent lineage of rock-poetry, speak-sing also harks back to new wave’s interface between comedy and rock: Ian Dury’s character-sketch songs and earthy humor; the fast chat of Chris Difford on Squeeze’s “Cool for Cats”; the oh-so-English halting phrasing of Madness singer Suggs.

Dury joked that he’d invented rap on his single “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Pt. 3,” while there’s an early Fall song titled “Crap Rap 2.” In a way, speak-sing does resemble an organically evolved and authentic British equivalent to rap, rooted in native traditions like music hall and comic verse. By the 2000s, artists like Mike Skinner of The Streets were merging rap’s gritty realism with the new wave and 2 Tone tradition of observational lyrics drawn from ordinary life. Skinner started out emulating American MCs like Nas, then realized he could never hope to pass for the real thing and started using English speech patterns and slang. Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods — the immediate precursor to today’s speak-sing wave — likewise initially modeled himself after the Wu-Tang Clan, but then developed his own style of rhythmatized invective on tunes like “Jolly Fucker.” Coming from a slightly different angle, Ian Hicks of eMMplekz scathingly surveys much the same panorama of social squalor over dank electronic beats, resulting in a style he wittily dubbed “spoken turd.”

This current swarm of Brit bands fronted by talkers rather than singers is likewise grappling with a sense of the U.K. as a stagnant and deadlocked country. The decade-plus rule of the Conservative Party, the hideous surprise of Brexit (an upset felt particularly by young people who had never known a time when the U.K. wasn’t part of Europe), and the fizzling of hopes raised by Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive leadership of the Labour Party — these blights have served to instill a mood of rancor and resignation. Speak-sing is the right mode for confronting the shitscape of the present and finding a sour sort of laughter in the predicament. When you strip away melody’s distracting beauty and shun vocal acrobatics, the voice becomes a vehicle for words and nothing else. What counts is not the voluptuous texture of the voice itself but the stinging tone and the mordant tales that are told.

Closer to an actress than a singer, Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw deploys exquisitely subtle nuances of intonation to deliver her lyrics: a disjointed jumble of images and incidents drawn from domestic drudgery and low-level conflict, inanities overheard in shops or traveling on public transportation, the prattle of PR and the absurdities of online life. Although Shaw calls herself “an emo dead stuff collector,” her affect — flat, numb, grudging, ground-down — couldn’t be further from emo, the genre of high-strung pop-punk.

That’s not always the case with speak-sing. Isaac Wood, the former singer in Black Country, New Road, and Ollie Judge, who fronts Squid, both gesticulate wildly with their voices over musical backing that can be as dramatic as post-rock in the Explosions in the Sky mold. Geordie Greep of the similarly maximalist experimental outfit black midi vaults between low-key recitation, fraught crooning and vocal freakouts. 

There’s a thin line between speak-sing as a rhythmically inventive alternative for those without conventionally attractive or agile voices — the Mark E. Smith path — and speak-sing as vocalists trying to hold your attention without the benefit of tunes. Yard Act cross the line for me: the sneer is smug, the lyrics swat clumsily at topics like gentrification (“Fixer Upper”) or national decline (“Land of the Blind,” “Dead Horse”). Home Counties offer a more entertaining version of this broad-strokes style of social comment. Named after the counties that encircle London and remain a byword for affluent complacency, the group poke fun at easy targets like “Modern Yuppies.” Lyrically, their EP In a Middle English Town resembles The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society with the sentimental nostalgia turned to spite. But the zany grooves and hooky arrangements of tunes like “The Home Counties” are irresistible.

Unlike Florence Shaw, too many speak-sing lyricists point fingers without implicating themselves in the malaise. Pioneers of the current wave, IDLES traffic in punky tirades like “Model Village” that can feel almost as blinkered as the small-minded provincialism under attack. Legss are probably the most interesting of the groups fronted by cynical blokes. They offer barbed commentary on the contemporary music scene in “Letter to Huw,” while in “On Killing a Swan Blues,” Ned Green confesses, “If I was an American, my experiences, they would’ve shaped me/Because I am British, they only make me tired.”

Although you can point to American precursors — the sardonic sing-song of Patty Donahue of the Waitresses, the Minutemen’s rapid-fire communiques, the tetchy rasp of James Murphy in early LCD Soundsystem, the drollness of Cake, and let’s not forget Lou Reed — there does seem to be something peculiarly British about speak-sing. The style plugs into a centuries-old wellspring of ranters and yarn-spinners. I used to think that the soul of England was crystallized in the expression “mustn’t grumble” — something you’d mutter when asked how you were doing. But the nation’s soul today is all about grumbling, whining, moaning, complaining. That festering stew of grievance is redeemed, with the best of the speak-sing performers, by rhythm, verbal panache and a dry, dark humor suited to these times.   


Dry Cleaning: It’s Spoken Rock ’n’ Roll, but We Like It

The New York Times, October 14, 2022

LOS ANGELES — At the Primavera Sound festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park, the British band Dry Cleaning played under the bright sunlight of a September afternoon. Festooned with tattoos, the guitarist Tom Dowse rocked out, grimacing and jutting out an impudent tongue now and then. A breeze wrapped the bassist Lewis Maynard’s long hair across his face, making him look like a headbanging plushie. The drummer Nick Buxton pummeled away as if in AC/DC’s engine room. But the vocalist Florence Shaw didn’t fit the picture at all.

Instead of snarling or roaring like the music would seem to demand, she delivered a jumbled sequence of alternately humdrum and surreal observations in conversational tones that shifted subtly between dismay, disapproval and daydream. Wearing a long black lace skirt and a sparkly gold camisole, she curled her fingers around the mic stand like the stem of a wineglass and pulled distractedly at the hair at the top of her head, as if having a knotty heart-to-heart with a close friend.

To twist a lyric from Dry Cleaning’s new album, “Stumpwork,”, it’s a weird premise for a band — but I like it. So do a growing numbers of others. The London group recently embarked on a world tour that will take it through 17 countries. Its 2021 debut, “New Long Leg,” entered the U.K. album chart at No. 4. That feat reflected both the record’s originality and Dry Cleaning’s position at the forefront of the “speak-sing” movement: a trend that encompasses groups like Yard Act, Wet Leg and Black Country, New Road who have little in common besides vocalists who incant barbed social commentary rather than sing.

Sitting at a garden table in Primavera’s artists-only enclosure, Shaw admitted that fronting a cult band was not on her bucket list. “It’s a very surreal turn of events,” she said, widening her eyes as if still surprised. “Totally unexpected. I like bands, but I never planned to be in one at all.”

Until a few years ago, the 33-year-old earned her living as a visiting lecturer, teaching fashion drawing and illustration at art colleges. Then her friend Dowse suggested she contribute to a new band he’d pulled together with Buxton and Maynard. The three men had a long history of playing in various hardcore punk and noisy groups, mostly as a sideline to their primary occupations. But when Shaw came along to add her spoken-word collages to their tough, clangorous sound, something clicked.

On paper, the formula looks like it ought to be irritating — pretentious, or simply awkward — but ultimately, it makes a magical sort of sense. While her bandmates weave riffs and textures drawn from across alternative rock history, Shaw doesn’t raise her voice, but commands attention through timing and phrasing, along with the shuffle-mode flow of her perceptions. Lines that could be from a transcript of a tetchy interpersonal skirmish will be followed by a pensive fragment plucked from some regretful or aggrieved interior monologue. Shaw has invented a strikingly original mode of nonmelodic songwriting that floats somewhere between stand-up, poetry and the fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies of a female comic auteur like Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

“She’s brilliant, she really reminds me of myself!” said Jason Williamson, the vocalist in Sleaford Mods, widely regarded as the progenitor of the current wave of British speak-sing groups. “There’s this mixture of extremely realistic observations with absurdism. Things that are just really bizarre. It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but then it does. She conveys meanings with just one word.”

Expertly deploying pauses and stretching out syllables, Shaw is a virtuoso of intonation. “I am very interested in small differences,” she said. “I really enjoy that game where you put the emphasis on a different place in a sentence — and it means something completely different. The same words can sound scared instead of proud.”

When Dry Cleaning was recording part of the new album in a Bristol studio, Shaw went out on foraging missions, trawling the streets for overheard remarks, shop signs and unusual sights, which she’d jot down in her phone’s notepad. Another expedition involved visiting a “car boot sale,” a flea market particular to the U.K. in which ordinary folk park their cars in a field and sell bric-a-brac from the trunk. Shaw also likes to collect words. “Stumpwork,” the title of a song as well as the new album, is something she’s been aching to use for ages.

“I like the sound of it,” she said. “It’s a type of embroidery, like the braiding on military uniforms or American sportswear. Originally it was used to described the raised characters and padded people in tapestries.”

Musically, “Stumpwork” is a conscious and concerted effort on the part of the band to show it’s more than post-punk. Leaving behind the first album’s gaunt sound and tense bass lines, the new LP shifts forward in time to the early ’90s and lo-fi “slacker” bands like Pavement. “I was thinking a lot about Stephen Malkmus when I was doing my guitar parts, that sort of wonkiness,” Dowse said, explaining that he played a Jazzmaster guitar because “it’s what all the ’90s groups like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. used.”

Compared to “New Long Leg,” in some ways “Stumpwork” is an American album. The debut felt like a wet, wintry day, a mood mirrored lyrically in lines like “it was chucking it down” and “raincoat sweat.” In contrast, “Stumpwork” has the dazed, heat-hazy vibe of a drunken summer afternoon. Although Shaw still drops the odd glum line like “looks like strains and setbacks are on the way,” the ground-down despondency of “New Long Leg” has opened up to allow for moments of carefree joy and quiet contentment.

If there’s gloom here, it stems less from personal life than from the political atmosphere. The track “Conservative Hell” expresses the outlook of the band and many of their generation. “Scandal after scandal, the levels of corruption and lying at the top of the government, and it feels like it’s almost completely unchallenged,” Dowse said. “I think it’s numbed everyone out.”

 On “Stumpwork,” Shaw gets explicitly polemical now and then. She’ll talk about seeing “male violence everywhere” or distill the U.K.’s dire deadlock into the three-line panorama “Nothing works/everything’s expensive/And opaque and privatized.” But her true forte is the micro-politics of ordinary life: petty humiliations and hassles, the way that advertising and media implant desires and anxieties in your head. “I’m not hugely well-informed about politics, really,” she said. “But I’m quite sensitive to how things feel and I know they don’t feel good!”

That remark ended with a burst of laughter. Smiles and merriment are a constant in her conversation, in marked contrast with how Shaw comes across on record and onstage. The blanket description “deadpan” annoys her because it misses the subtle shades of gray she works with. Referencing a review that described her as sounding like “a bored fashion model reading from the pages of Grazia magazine,” Shaw noted that another time, “Someone said our gig was great but we spoiled it by smiling between the songs. Like we were breaking character. You can’t win!” Cue another burst of laughter.

Williamson placed Dry Cleaning in a British lineage of groups who combined observational humor, gritty social realism and the vividness of everyday vernacular: “They’re a classic English band in the vein of the Jam, the Specials, Ian Dury and the Blockheads.”

One way that Englishness manifests in Dry Cleaning is the gap between the music’s dramatic intensity and the mildness of Shaw’s emotional palette and low-key delivery. “There can be something very tender about that,” Shaw said. “Because in a way it’s sort of a failure to express oneself at the right moment.”

“Missing the moment that you should get really angry and instead feeling it later — that’s a real hallmark of my life,” she added. “I think I’d much rather be a person who could emote functionally, at the right time. But it takes me a long time to process things and a lot of my performance is about exorcising those residual feelings. Maybe that’s a bit British.”

Spot the author in the crowd (hint: on the right side)


snippet from 

How Rock and the Royals Jostled for Britain's Cultural Identity During the Queen's Lifetime 

Pitchfork, September 13, 2022

....Since their eviction from Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral, and the rest has never seemed remotely likely, the most that a progressive-minded Brit can hope for are signs of modernization, a spring-cleaning of attitudes and protocols, the faintest hint of humanity. Generally that has come in the form of brides from outside rather than the inbred tribe itself: Di, “the People’s Princess,” with her caring common touch and love of Duran Duran. Meghan Markle seemed for a moment to promise a multicultural and emotionally-irrigated monarchy fit for the 21st century. Even a non-Royalist like myself was touched by the sheer soul power of the wedding ceremony. You can see her and Harry as spoiled celebs with heads full of Paltrow-y nonsense and also feel that for a moment there, the stiff upper lip was (thankfully) loosening a bit.

Perhaps that’s why Dry Cleaning, a group otherwise unsparing in their bleak depiction of entropy in the UK, first made their name with the “Magic of Meghan,” off their 2019 EP Sweet Princess. Far from a piss-take, the song, singer Florence Shaw has said, was born of genuine, if brief, infatuation. “I had just broken up, and I was clinging to that story to distract myself from the abyss. I transplanted all my normal thinking about my own life onto thinking about their lives for a few weeks.” It’s a neat encapsulation of the way the Royal Family really do function like pop stars—permanently for some people, and for others, only in moments of weakness. Maybe one day, there’ll be no dreaming in England’s future—no need for distraction from the intractable.


Dry Cleaning -  Stumpwork

Atemporal Faves of 2022 

I feel bad for Dry Cleaning as this excellent album has barely figured on the end of year lists – mystifying to me, as it’s clear that they’ve pulled off that tricky trick of keeping everything good about a beloved debut but twisting things and adding things just enough for it not to feel like reiteration. I suppose the sheer shock impact of a new lyrical voice and delivery that you got with New Long Leg was always going to be hard to pull off again. And the musical approach last time – cold, dry,  slightly claustrophobic – enhanced that impact. Here, the backing boys really come into their own, exploring lots of other textures and feels, and instead of staying within the debut's postpunk zone they are referencing other historical phases of guitar reinvention / uninvention like lo-fi and bliss-rock. “Anna Calls from the Arctic” is gorgeously ethereal, a whole new mood and flow for Dry Cleaning. The second half of “Conservative Hell” (the escape from hell?) is a glowspace of abstract dream-noise worthy of A**l P**k’s The Doldrums. The dirgescapes of “Liberty Log” and “Icebergs” are wonderfully expansive ways to bring the album to its close, pointing to a third album that I for one am excited to hear.


Snippet from Ghosts of My Life afterword

I have nothing but a hunch to go on, but – at the risk of being misguided by my own taste – it seems to me that the most Mark Fisher-y of groups today is Dry Cleaning. It’s the one band in recent times that I could imagine having pride of place in a Ghosts of My Life 2. The music is stubby, stubborn postpunk,  turned through time into a kind of British blues, a traditional mode with perennial application. But it’s speak-singer Florence Shaw’s words and delivery – deadpan, grudging, ground down – that really cut through. Her affect speaks to the blankness of the present – the feel of life in what Mark called the Boring Dystopia, where our minds are insanitary with inanity. Turning around a hard, Hook-y bassline, “Scratchcard Lanyard” is like “Transmission” for an era in which vision-quest of the kind that Joy Division could undertake is no longer accessible. “An emo dead stuff collector”, Shaw offers the self-portrait of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes. “Depressive hedonism”, another Fisher concept, threads through Dry Cleaning’s songbook: small pleasures snatched, or snacked (there’s a profusion of references to treats, fast food, artisanal goodies, splashing out on gourmet mushrooms, a favorite cafe you used to frequent). Comforts that don’t console.

I feel Mark would have recognized Florence Shaw as the arrival, after so many decades, of the Southern Mark E. Smith. Dry Cleaning as a Sleaford Mods whose milieu isn’t the Greggs and poundshop lumpenproletariat of the Midlands, but the purposeless drift of middle-class postgraduates during the era of the Coalition, Brexit, and the endless fraudocracy of Boris Johnson, their hopes raised and dashed by Corbyn and Momentum. Just like Mark wrote about Sleaford Mods, one could ask about Dry Cleaning and other speak-sing bands like Legss, “who can convert this bad affect into a new political project?” Seeing clearly is a start, but as with that old adage about mirrors and hammers, merely reflecting the shitscape of now is not enough. 

Of course, I could be completely wrong: the chances are quite good that Mark would have conceived an intense dislike for Shaw and her band, for righteous reasons of his own devising. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

RIP James Chance / James White



Off White 

Infinite Zero/American

Lost Chance 

Mojo, 1995?

by Simon Reynolds

     After the nihilism and noise of  No Wave came the era of mulatto mutant disco. For one short moment, England and New York were in sync.On both sides of the Atlantic the sharpest ex-punks were cooking up piquant hybrids of funk, punk, freeform jazz and dub. A Certain Ratio, Pop Group, Gang of Four, Bush Tetras, Defunkt, ESG--all briefly belonged to an international
avant-funk movement.

Sick muthafunker James White was a key player in all this miscegenated mayhem.  Swiftly following up the 1979 debut Buy, White changed his band's name from the Contortions to the Blacks, and released Off White on the ultra-hip Ze label.  The opener Contort Yourself encapsulates White's sonic and lyrical shtick. Over brittle funk guitar, neurotic bass and a hissing hi-hat disco beat, James spurted the infantile squall of his bebop sax and rapped nihilistic nursery rhymes: "now is the time/to lose all control/distort your body/and twist your soul".  Next came the vile misogny of Stained Sheets, a duet juxtaposing Stella Rico's needy, orgasmic whimpers with White's sadistic contempt. A blankly ironic cover of Irving Berlin's (Tropical) Heatwave segues into Almost Black, the most dubious homage to blackness since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay The White Negro.  That said, Off White's febrile funk remains queerly compelling, even if you're left feeling so soiled you have to take a shower afterwards.

Lost Chance was recorded two years later, when White had changed his name to Chance and hooked up with a brand new bunch of sidemen. Live and lo-fi, this 1981 set showcases Jimbo's unhealthy James Brown fixation, with covers of I Got You (I Feel Good) and King Heroin, alongside Contort Yourself rehashes like Melt      
Yourself Down.  As with ACR, Pop Group et al, funk figured in Chance's white bohemian imagination as voodoo possession, a cold-fever compulsion, which in turn made it the ideal vehicle for the avant-funksters themes of addiction, obsession and control.  

Of course, nobody noticed that Michael Jackson was at that exact same moment working the fascist groove thang in far more convulsively thrilling and spooky fashion, with Off The WallTriumph and Thriller, and in a million-selling pop context to boot. Now, that's really sick...

[postscript note: some errors here - no Wiki or discogs in those days - he was Chance before he was White; Buy and Off White were simultaneously released, if I recall right, to make some kind of statement]

James Chance and the Contortions

Soul Exorcism


melody Maker, 1990?

By Simon Reynolds


Thursday, May 9, 2024

Steve Albini RIP

Shocked and shaken by the way-early death of Steve Albini.  

Saddened too.

People I've met through this music thing are thinning down in number, it feels like. 

I interviewed Steve three times.

The first time was with the rest of Big Black, somewhere in North London, in 1987.

The second time, a photographer friend instigated it. The location was a Lower East Side bar and it was a thorough and very interesting interview. But for some reason I never wrote it up - perhaps there wasn't a hook to hang it on. This would have been 1989, or 1990 - maybe he was between bands? 

(Some while ago I made a list of a lifetime's interviews-never-even-transcribed-let-alone-written-up - and it was larger and more shaming than I'd anticipated). 

The third time was when Big Black's discography was being reissued, or perhaps first-time-issued on compact disc - including all the earliest Albini-alone stuff, plus a live concert of them at their peak. This took place late summer '92, I think. Location was a recording studio in North London (Southern Studios in fact - home of the record label). He was there to remaster the records being reissued, 

Another thing I hazily remember is that Steve was also copying,  for his personal aural delectation, hours and hours of  never-released master tapes of music, or anti-music, made by members of Crass before punk. That's how I remember it. Did he play me any? Was it droning dimly in the background? I have the faintest memory-trace of something in the vicinity of Metal Machine Music or perhaps even Roland Kayn. Abstract, abrasive, atonal - but this aural  after-image may just be a phantom memory. Or even a dream (I can't be the only one who's had dreams about imaginary albums - in my case always by actually-existing artists).  But I distinctly recall him saying that was what he was up to in the studio, while also remastering. I wonder what he could have been talking about? 

At any rate, here is Steve Albini being forthcoming and forthright, drily witty and rigorous in his logic, as he was in the earlier two encounters. I liked him a lot, even though some of his opinions I found fairly incomprehensible. 

Melody Maker, November 21 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Reissue-mania rages unabated. And now it's getting eerie, for they're dis-interring the recent past, stuff I
wrote about at the time. To whit: the entire Big Black catalogue: from the early EP's ("Bulldozer", "Racer X", "Lungs",), right up the band's final out-with-a-bang-not-a-whimper performance at London's Clarendon, captured in the form of the album/video Pigpile.

But what you really need to hear is Big Black's two LP's Atomiser (1986) and Songs About Fucking (1987). Combining catharsis-through concussion noise with a morbid interest in the extremities of human experience, Big Black were an absolute pinnacle of the sickfuck /ear-gouge aesthetic.
"Songs" like "Jordan, Minnesota", "Kerosene", "Bad Penny" still chafe your eardrums and pummel your guts something grievous. And then there's the Big Black legacy, which stretches from Hole (Courtney Love recently put "Kerosene" at top of her Top Ten Records That Changed My Life) to the
English skronk scene (Silverfish etc) to the ghoulish thrash of Therapy?. Ah well... I guess, like most great bands, Big Black's influence has been largely dire and occasionally productive.

Anyways, here's Steve Albini, all set to appraise the "living legacy", his acquaintance with his own oeuvre refreshed after eight hours of remastering at Southern Studios in North London. I've interviewed him a couple of times, but it's easy to forget how likeable he is, easy to assume he's identical with the twisted, obsessed geek that so often inhabits the songs. In reality, he's an appealing fellow. His virtues include admirable rigor and fastidiousness of thought, a dry sense of humour, scrupulous
honesty, and against-the-grain contrariness: he says that far from objecting, he'd rather I smoke, because he prefers the company of smokers - "they tend to be more tolerant and less judgemental than non-smokers".)

Re-listening to his own music, it transpires, was not always a comfortable experience. "I haven't heard those early Big Black records for five years, and it's horribly embarrassing, like if someone uncovered your high school year book pictures and wanted to publish them nationally". The embarrassment abates a bit when Big Black ceased to be the 19 year old Albini "fucking around on my own with a drum
machine", with the arrival in 1982 of guitarist Santiago Durango and, a bit later, bassist Dave Riley. "When it was just me it was far more stylized and affected than when it was performing rock band that wrote songs as a collective."

The way Albini tells it, Big Black's collective identity was based not on convictions about how rock bands should sound but how they should conduct themselves. "We had an ideology about how we dealt with people inside the music scene, the way we'd operate as a team internally. We constructed an archetype of a perfect rock band, which we tried to live up to."

That ideology was basically the punk belief in "complete control". "We were inspired more by what punk rock purported to be, rather than what it actually was. The exemplar of independence and ethical conduct today are Fugazi, where they call their own shots, don't have a manager, don't have a
booking agent. And we did all that stuff ourselves. It's actually quite easy."

It was this ferociously uncompromising idealism that culminated in the decision to end Big Black at the height of its white-hot fervour of creativity, critical esteem and popularity in '87. The pretext was Santiago's long-delayed decision to become fulfil his familial obligation to become a lawyer. But really, Big Black were sick of the problems generated by their burgeoning success. And so they opted for
one of the great feats of bloodymindedness in rock history, a premature auto-destruct rivalled only by Jane's Addiction.

"As we got bigger, people tried to make plays for the band, appeals to our vanity or our ambition, or tried to coerce us into doing things. And it was obvious that the only way to short circuit that was just to break the band up. We were never comfortable with the notion that there were people
in the audience that we didn't know personally. Finally, we'd play a show to several hundred and it'd be a real stretch to find three we'd want to talk to. In the beginning there's a sense of kinship with the audience. As it gets bigger, that community gets diffuse, and you can either accept the fact that you're a star entertainer. Or you can completely sever yourself from the audience, like we did."

Albini is sceptical about the notion of a Big Black legacy. 

"See, what I considered the most important thing about the band was the way we conducted ourselves, not the series of noises that came out of the speakers. To me, the least significant part of any band is the stylistic elements. Any truly great band is going to have consistent stylistic elements. But they're also going to have ideals underneath that are the foundation for the style. Unfortunately with Big Black it's the superficial elements that've been mimicked." 

According to Albini, the list of culpable copyists who grabbed hold of the substance but not the spirit range from Godflesh and their grindcore ilk to "a lot of the disco- industrial stuff" (Wax-Trax etc). Nor can he see many examples of a positive influence. "There are people that think similarly, but I think it'd be awfully presumptuous of me to say they'd been inspired by us. As well as Fugazi, there are many smaller American bands doing things completely indepedent of the music industry/alternative scene."

It's strange to think of Big Black as idealists, when so many of their lyrical obsessions seemed to partake of a brutally nihilistic worldview, a vision of human life as governed by power-relations of domination and submission. 

"When I think of Big Black I think of our motivations and ethics. The lyrics are paid an undue amount of attention, I'm not joking when I say they were largely an afterthought. It was whatever we happened to be interested in at the time. We were disenfranchised middle class Americans, and so we had
the same sort of death and freak obsessions that everyone from that era had. I do think that those themes are universal, to an extent. De Sade explored a lot of the same territory. I don't actually share de Sade's worldview, but I think it's sort of fun to put on that hat and actually think that way. That's where the personalities in the songs came from. I was interested in imagining the motivations for extreme behaviours that appear totally preposterous."

Big Black's anti-Romanticism was signalled very clearly in the sleeve note salutation on Songs About Fucking to "all bands who don't write love songs", which recalled the Futurists' proclamation that the nude in painting was an exhausted idiom, sentimentalized and enfeebled.

"Every so often you'll find someone who has an angle on the love song that isn't completely beaten to death. But it just seems like such a small domain for 90 percent of pop to be centred on. I don't know why there aren't more songs about three-cushion billiard, which I think is the most beautiful, graceful thing a human being can do. I don't understand why there aren't songs about taxidermy or fly fishing. There are so many things that people do for satisfaction, that don't centre on rubbing genitals."

By 1987, the post-hardcore/noise-horror bands' fetishisation of real life at its most graphic and ghastly
seemed to have reached a dead end. There seemed like there was no way to up the shock effects, the torturous noise levels. And so the aesthetic petered out (until it's recent resurrection with the grunge movement). By '87, the obsession with psychopaths and serial killers seemed to be just another kind of conformist cliche, a stock narrative.

"I agree to an extent, although those themes go back a long way, to the blues and Appalachian murder ballads. I don't think we actually did it to an obsessive degree. But the bands that mimicked Big Black and our peers, did develop a "let's write about 'grody' things" aesthetic that very quickly burned itself out."

At times it seemed like hardcore bands identified with serial killers as the ultimate heroic outsiders. Albini denies that BB ever celebrated "lowlife" or psychosis. Nonetheless, the characters in songs like "Kerosene" (a bored man who combines his small town's two sources of release - blowing things up and screwing the local slut - in a single self-immolatory catharsis), or "Power Of Independent
Trucking" (a fuck'em, forget'em redneck nomad) did come across as vaguely impressive figures. Their singlemindedness is almost heroic, because they're decisive, they act. 

"What interested in me in those subjects was examining the scenarios in detail and finding the degree of absurdity or obsession that was expressed. The ultimate interest lay in seeing how close these characters were to you, coming to accept that everyone is capable of extreme, absurd, and preposterous behaviour like that, under certain conditions."

Along with limit-experiences, Big Black struggled to reach the extremities of aural punishment. At the time, Albini declared that even though he was losing his hearing in the right ear, he could never get the band to sound loud enough. He still feels that "when I see a band I like, I want to be overwhelmed, pinned to the wall, induced to vomit."

For many, the bankruptcy of this sado-masochist aesthetic, with its concealed machismo and latent misogyny, was finally revealed in the name of Albini's post-Big Black combo, Rapeman. Albini is still unperturbed by the outcry that surrounded that ill-fated band (whose music, incidentally, he rates higher than Big Black!). He shrugs it off as a very local-to-England knee-jerk response on the part of the tattered remnants of left-wing politics.

"The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynist seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time. Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in
which we operated."

After R***man, Albini's pursued a very successful career as a producer. He grimaces at the idea: ".... It's such a pejorative term, one I associate with a mode of thinking, a way of life, that I shun and abhor." For all his protestations, the list of bands Albini has sprinkled his glitterdust upon is legion: from "big names" like the Wedding Present, Breeders, Pixies to a swarm of minor post-hardcore bands (many done for love rather than money, like Jesus Lizard). Most recently he's scuffed up Silverfish's
latest ball of scree. 

Albini's has long contributed rants and (excellent) fiction to the influential US fanzine Forced Exposure, Most recently he penned a column of "Eyewitness Record Reviews", the idea being that these were the only truly informed reviews ever written because he was involved in making the
albums. Picking only on bands who'd ignored his request NOT to be credited on the sleeve, Albini passed vitriolic verdicts on the platters and the personnel behind them, concluding with the fee he charged.

Albini has similarly trenchant opinions on the state of the rock underground. "Until about six months ago I thought we were in the absolute fucking depths. But very recently, there's been an upswell of unknown bands, and my opinion of the rock community has improved significantly." He cites
eccentric labels like Drag City, and "really independent" bands like Arc Welder, Shorty, The Dijdits, Slint, Jesus Lizard, The Idiot, as the wave of the future.

"Nirvana's success has triggered a buying frenzy on the part of the record industry. On one hand that's bad, 'cos some good bands will be tempted to sign to the majors and will of course be destroyed as all good bands are. But on the other hand, it's good: a whole load of real horseshit bands will be taken out of the picture. Bands that sign to a major have typically eighteen months: a year of being treated
like kings, then the album comes out, it fails to meet the sales expectations, they spend six months in limbo and then the band collapses. But there is a population of bands who recognise the stupidity of signing to major, like Jesus Lizard, who've told them to get fucked. And I think those bands will be the foundation of the next significant phase in American music. We're in the shit now, it's going to be
horrible, a lot of indie labels are going to form unholy alliances with majors and they'll be crushed. But the end result is going to be very positive. It'll destroy the incentive the majors have to eat up indie bands, and wipe out the bands who are weak enough to think they can cash in."

Albini admits, with a twinge of ruefulness, that he's sorely tempted to get back into the fray himself. "Not a day goes by where I don't miss being in a band. Personally it would be hugely satisfying to just do it. But I also think the one thing that's missing in the music scene is restraint; people are constantly releasing things".

Instead, Albini has a new focus for his energies: three cushion billiards, a game which he finds has almost Zen-like properties in terms of the discipline and focus it demands. "It's very humbling, especially if you're used to the instant gratification of playing rock. Executing a particular shot,
you either have the right stuff or you don't. It's completely unforgiving. I'm good enough to make a fair game with someone who's national tournament calibre. But it takes 50 years to be good at this game. I'm 29, and I've only been playing for three years."


In truly eerie timing, Albini and his band Shellac are cover stars of the new issue of The Wire, pegged to their new long-awaited album To All Trains.

Here's a much older Wire piece  - 1994, thirty fucking years ago - with Albini doing Invisible Jukebox and scattering caustic opinions hither and thither.

Unless I'm misremembering, the interviewer Jakubowski is an alias then used by Nick Terry of Lime Lizard / The Lizard / Terrorizer renown.