Tuesday, October 30, 2007

THE 6THS, Wasps' Nests
Melody Maker, summer 1995

by Simon Reynolds



The 6ths is the brainchild of Stephin Merritt, the
Hoboken based songwriter whose four LP's under the name The
Magnetic Fields have won him a formidable cult rep in
America. Merritt is something like US lo-fi's one-man
counterpart to Saint Etienne. Like Wiggs & Stanley, he's
constructed his own bubblegum pantheon out of artists like
Kraftwerk and Abba, whose work he described as "the pinnacle
of Western civilisation"!. Merritt aspires to their sad-but-
bouncy air and sublime simplicity. A low-rent, 4-track Phil
Spector, he constructs pocket symphonies using outmoded drum
machines and cheapo Casio synths, cellos and tubas and toy
piano, plus a host of self-invented weirdo guitar effects and
other sonic Fripperies.

Like the Etienne boys, Merritt aligns himself with
shiny pop (Tin Pan Alley's hit factory system of hack
tunesmiths and puppet girl-singers) as opposed to worthy rock
(with its scruffy authenticity and earnest over-emoting).
This is very much a gay aesthetic, and unlike Saint Etienne,
Merritt actually is gay. A one-off project designed to propel
Merritt to the big time, The 6ths revives Tin Pan Alley's
separation of songwriter and singer. For "Wasps' Nests"*,
Merritt wrote the tunes and spun the arrangements, but all
but one of the 15 songs are performed by a 'stellar' cast of
indie semi-luminaries, such as Lou Barlow, Amelia Fletcher of
Heavenly, Chris Knox and Barbara Manning. Ironically, the
gorgeously understated melodies demand to be sung in a low-
key, undemonstrative murmur identical to Merritt's own
Ian Curtis-like voice. Furthermore, Merritt actually
instructed each guest to sing "with as little emotion as
possible"!

There are too many gems here, but three or four gleam
extra-brite. "Aging Spinsters" is enchanting toy-music, a
lattice of overlapping music-box chimes and plinky-plonk
synths that recalls early Depeche Mode or Orchestral
Manoeuvres; Merritt's glum, slightly stiff baritone also
exudes an early '80s vibe as he intones the strange chorus-
"marry young, Diane/I don't want to see you rot in the home
for aging spinsters". "All Dressed Up In Dreams" cascades
Smithsy acoustic gtrs around Mary "Helium' Timony's rendition
of a gently heartbreaking tale of being stood up in love.
Dean Wareham then presents the cad's side of the story in
"Falling Out of Love (With You)", flitting from idyllic
memories ("I was hoarse, you were mean/We designed drum
machines") to present-tense disenchantment ("every kiss/means
less and less"). Even that relic Mitch Easter shines on the
(warning: obscure early '80s reference) New Muzik-like
"Pillow Fight", contributing not just caramel-glutinous
vocals but a sunburst of a psych-guitar solo too.

If "Wasps' Nest" sounds just a little bit cute, then
think on: this is basically 1986's cutie aesthetic with more
expanded musical premises, Talulah Gosh meets Joe Meek meets
the Pet Shop Boys. For sure, it's not a record to smash the
barriers of sound, but it'll charm the pants off you.
Guaranteed.

STEPHIN MERRITT, interview
Melody Maker, summer, 1995

by Simon Reynolds



"For some reason, I'm completely incapable of doing anything new with the
pop song. Oh, how depressing!" So sighs curmudgeonly cult songwriter Stephin
Merritt, as we sit in in a small park** a few blocks from his downtown Manhattan
apartment.

This has not deterred Merritt from churning out pop songs with a heedless incontinence. Since 1991, he has recorded five albums and numerous 7 inch singles under the name The Magnetic Fields, all to mounting acclaim from US critics. This year he made his major label debut in the form of The 6ths' "Wasps' Nest", where his lo-fi synthipop ditties were sung by 13 indie semi-luminaries, ranging from Luna's Dean Wareham to Lou Barlow to Amelia Fletcher of Heavenly. In addition,
Merritt has other side-line groups: The Future Bible Heroes, an electropop
collaboration with boyfriend Chris Ewen, and The Gothic Archies (a 'Goth
bubblegum' band who perform Merritt melodramas like 'The Abandoned Castle of My
Soul'). Despite all these outlets, Merritt still has a backlog of some 100
songs. Cruel Fate has made him a prolific virtuosos at something he seems to
regard as futile and redundant. Yet Merritt's affliction is our boon, for his are
some of the most exquisite pop confections on the planet.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Stephin Merritt is America's
one-man equivalent to Saint Etienne. When you consider how mired the Amerindie scene is in the values of spill-my-guts singer- songwriting and garageland scruffiness, you'll realise how out-of-place his irony-clad and sugar-candied aesthetic is. From his synths and drum machines to his Abba fetish, Merritt isn't just an anomaly, he's a heretic against US alternative orthodoxy. So un-American he's almost English, in fact.

'Gay and Loud', the name of Merritt's song publishing company, suggests
queercore protest, ACT UP with guitars. But Merritt is really underlining the
fact that his is a gay aesthetic of 'passionate irony', in opposition to straight rock's earnest authenticity.

"In 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or
not", deadpans Merritt in his permanent tone of suppressed exasperation, like
he's explaining the bleedin' obvious to a slow pupil. "It's strange that a few
heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case. But the
rest of us know that we have quotation marks hovering over our heads as we walk
down the street."

Whipping Boy fans take heed: Merritt has no truck with the raw, blurting
expressionism of rock. Instead, like Pete Wiggs & Bob Stanley, he has a curiously
dispassionate, almost 'objective' appreciation of pop: not so much 'that song
moves me', more 'what a fab single'. He talks of his songwriting not in terms of
pouring out his soul, but as the crafting of "pretty objects I can treasure for ever".

"If you stick to the cliches in lyrics and in melody, then the emotional affect is guaranteed," he says. When I point out that his lyrics are full of quirks and idiosyncracies, he concedes that "occasionally I get clumsy, I allow myself to intrude in the song." In fact, his real gift lies somewhere in between: coming up with new phrases that sound so right they're almost like readymade cliches, e.g. "All Dressed Up In Dreams" from "Wasps' Nests", the perfect title for a song about being stood up in love.

Merritt mourns "the lost era of standards-writing", the separation of singer
and songwriter that underpinned the glory days of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill
Building and Nashville. He's enamoured with the anti-romantic mythology of the hack songwriting team (e.g. Goffin & King, Chinn & Chapman etc), artisans so skilled they could wack out a couple of sure-fire smashes before lunch, with minimal emotional involvement. This golden age ended when 1/ singers realised they could earn loadsa publishing dosh if they wrote their own songs 2/ late '60s rock culture decreed that you were only authentic if you sang your own words, no matter how poorly penned. And so began the singer-songwriter era, with Rolling Stone heralding the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as poets, and sneering at genres still based around the hit factory model (disco, bubblegum etc). Even C & W eventually succumbed to singer-songwriter-itis.

"I don't like country after 1979", scowls Merritt. "The last country song I
enjoy is 'You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly', sung by Loretta Lynn. With
classic country, as with classic pop, you instantly forget who did the song, it
assumes its own life. Which is as it should be, and as it will be again, when I
have my way."

A Canute of pop, Merritt has tried to turn back the tide of history. The
first two Magnetic Fields albums, "The Wayward Bus" and "Distant Plastic Trees"
were sung by Susan Anway, Merritt's very own Sarah Cracknell. And this year's
"Wasps' Nest" involved the nice irony of taking a bunch of lo-fi vocalists,
hitherto reknowned for their folkie authenticity, and forcing them into a Tin Pan
Alley bubblegum context. That said, and rather contradicting Merritt's creed,
it's also true that he sang on the last three Magnetic Fields records,
including "The Charm Of the Highway Strip", which has just been issued in the UK,
and the brand-new US release "Get Lost". Sheepish, Merritt stresses that "Get Lost"
will be the last album on which he sings his own songs.

Hardcore Merritt fans will be saddened if he does quit the mic'; the songs
seem inseperable from Merritt's glum, slightly stiff baritone, often compared to Ian Curtis. "I think if I were in Joy Division, it would be fine," says Merritt of his vocal limitations. "But I'm in the Ronettes, so it's not so fine."

Production-wise, Merritt has one foot in the Phil Spector/Brian Wilson
tradition of pop as 'pocket symphonies for teens', and the other in the
studio-as-instrument tradition of experimental pop (Eno as a sort of egghead
Spector, Kraftwerk as the Beach Boys with synths instead of string sections).
Like Eno, Merritt is vehemently opposed to what he calls "false realism" in
production, the notion that the most 'authentic' recording of rock is that which
mostly closely simulates the band live onstage.

Merritt puts as much effort into finding captivating and improbable sounds as he does into crafting his multi-tiered melodies. Not only does he fiddle with quaint synths, cheap samplers and unlikely instruments (toy pianos, tubas), he also messes with the electric guitar. One example is the Slinky Guitar, which, Stephin explains, involves taking one of those novelty coiled springs that can 'walk' up and downstairs by themselves, and attaching it tween the pick-ups and strings of two guitars. Pull the guitars 20 feet apart and the taut Slinky can then be plucked, bowed, etc to generate all kinds of strange sonorities. Shades of Sonic Youth-style 'reinvention of the guitar' here, surely?

Merritt snorts derisively. "It's just part of the ongoing invention of the guitar. The electric guitar has always been a prepared instrument. There's no official electric guitar, no Stradivarius."

Guitars notwithstanding, Merritt is really the ultimate anti-rockist. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, rather than the John Lennon/Mick Jagger/Keith Richards wing," he bemoans. He finds the whole ethos of white blues "offensive...buying records by white people who are imitating black peoplem so that you won't have to buy records by black people, is fundamentally racist." Yet his own musical universe, from Nordic synth-pop (Abba, John Foxx, Kraftwerk, Numan) to country (Dolly Parton, kd lang) to AOR (Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk"), is, he concedes, "so darn white! My concerns are completely not to do with rhythm, syncopation, or even energy. Which are the main concerns of 20th Century black popular music. I think my records could be listened to by the Klu Klux Klan!"

Not content with rewriting the pop canon so that Abba figure as "the
pinnacle of Western Civilisation, better than Bach", Merritt's disdain for rock
and his disappointed "disgust" with contemporary pop keep pushing him into
ever more perversely unhip regions of the past. His current listening includes
Cole Porter, musicals like "Hair", and Doris Day . "I don't think I really have any taste in music as such," he adds as a disclaimer. "My taste is organised around making my own records, as a form of research, rather than in being objectively good or reflecting any lasting values." God knows what effect his current inputs will have on his future output, but chances are the mysterious Merritt alchemy will work its magic, even on old Doris.


STEPHIN MERRITT, profile
Mojo, September 1995

by Simon Reynolds



"Interviews are hard – normally I don’t speak much. I spent most of my time in silence, listening to music or reading." So sayeth reclusive songwriter Stephin Merritt as we exit the public garden near his downtown Manhattan apartment in order to procure throat-soothing "libations". Although he named his publishing company Gay And Loud, he’s actually gay and near-catatonic.

Like his nearest UK equivalent Saint Etienne, Merritt’s work as the Magnetic Fields and The 6ths is infused with a camp affection for bubblegum and Tin Pan Alley. Like Saint Etienne, he’s drawn up his own capricious canon of pop, in which he encompasses Abba, Dolly Parton, Cole Porter, Kraftwerk and John Foxx’s Metamatic (the last two being as far as electropop progressed, Stephin suggests). And like Saint Et’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, he has a peculiarly dispassionate appreciation of pop. Merritt talks about his music not as the outpouring of his soul but as the making of "pretty objects I can treasure forever". So is this a gay pop aesthetic of "passionate irony" as opposed to a straight rock ethos of bogus, blustery "authenticity"?

"In 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or not," says Merritt in his fastidious way. "It’s strange that a few heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case."

Merritt began with a dual interest in bubblegum and experimental music, the connection being that both genres deploy the studio to spin webs of sounds that could never be reproduced alive. In this sense, Brians Wilson and Eno are both Sons Of Spector. Like Eno, Merritt is an eloquent critic of "false realism" in recording – the myth that it’s possible to reproduce the live sound of a band rockin’ out. Instead, he goes at great lengths to get "unrealistic", impossible sounds. Most famous is his ‘Slinky Guitar’, where that kid’s novelty – a coiled spring that can "walk" downstairs – is attached between the pick-ups of two guitars. Pull the instruments 20 feet apart and the Slinky can be plucked to generate bizarre harmonics. "It’s just part of the ongoing invention of the electric guitar, which has always been a prepared instrument," says Merritt. "There is no official electric guitar, no Stradivarius."

Other strange and lovely timbres are generated using a host of cheapo synths and drum machines, and unusual instrumentation like tubas and toy pianos. The myriad minutiae of Merritt’s "pocket symphonies" are just one of the joys of his work; gorgeous melodicism and delightfully quirky lyrics being the others. Ironically, Merritt wants to purge such idiosyncrasy from his work because he admires the direct emotional impact of cliché. He mourns "the lost era of standards writing", the separation of singer and songwriter that was the backbone of Brill Building pop and Nashville alike.

A veritable Canute of pop, Merritt has tried to turn back the tide of history. For the Magnetic Fields’ first two albums (the fourth, The Charm Of The Highway Strip, is reissued this month by Setanta), he hid behind vocalist Susan Anyway, only emerging to sing the next two albums in his Ian Curtis-like murmur because she’d gone away to college. Now he’s returned to the old methodology with his latest, tongue-twistingly titled project, the 6ths’ Wasps’ Nests album, wherein 14 guest vocalists from the indie world sing Merritt-penned ditties such as 'All Dressed Up In Dreams' and 'Heaven In A Black Leather Jacket'. While he’d rather have hired the likes of Christine McVie and k.d. lang, his manager Claudia enticed a legion of lo-fi luminaries into the studio instead. There’s a delicious irony in the subordination of a figure like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow – lo-fi’s very own James Taylor – to the puppet-like status of a Ronette.

These days, Merritt is more of an anti-rockist than ever. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, not the Lennon/Jagger/Richards one," he mourns archly. Detesting the very idea of white blues ("it’s fundamentally racist"), he admits that his own aesthetic universe – from Nordic synthipop to redneck C&W – is "so darn white!"

"I’m not so concerned with rhythm or syncopation, which are the main concerns of black music after Duke Ellington," he says. "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!"



* I've probably listened to Wasps Nest more times than any other album of the Nineties, on account of it being Joy's probably favourite album of that decade and certainly the one she finds most conducive for vacations and trips involving rented cars and her doing all the driving (cos i can't). Even after 643 listens I still love Wasps Nest, but strangely have not been nearly so swayed by
anything else SM's done, before or since. Odd, that.

* * I now live within sight of the little area of wooden benches and greenery at the foot of a cluster of vaguely brutalist apartment blocks where this interview took place, in fact if I crane and peer out of my window I can almost see where me and the grouch sat that muggy summer day.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

SAINT ETIENNE, Foxbase Alpha
Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds


"Never let a rock critic near a guitar", I once decreed, convinced that the sheer knowingness intrinsic to the rockcrit sensibility was deleterious to intuition, instinct and the semi-conscious pursuit of the sublime. Now I could probably extricate myself on a technicality (Bob Stanley mostly grapples with synths and samplers, not guitars), butthe fact is "Foxbase Alpha" forces me to eat my own edict.

Saint Etienne show that a certain kind of learned eclecticism doesn't have to lead to weak-ass whimsicalpick'n'mix. For this pop-about-pop approach to transcend its inherent limitations, your record collection has to be pretty weird. Stanley & Wiggs' taste is as idiosyncratic as it gets. For the life of me I can't fathom what the thread is that connects Phil Spector, lover's rock, Northern Soul,psychedelia, Neil Young's courtly love side, Sixties girl-pop and A.R. Kanish dub-noise, as part of a single, seamless aesthetic continuum. It ought to be a mess, but for the duration of this album, it works like a dream.

Foxbase Alpha is never-never pop, the soundtrack to an alternative universe, swinging England where World Of Twist are Number One and pop stars still wear gold lame. It's a record that charms you into a gooey stupor, rather than burns your eye with visionary vastness. Saint Etienne offer delight instead of rapture; their love songs are about tenderness rather than desire, lingering gazes and holding hands rather than gonad-motion. Saint Etienne's soul is rooted in the anorak-clad innocence of 1986 (hence their cover of "Kiss and Make Up" by cutie fundamentalists The Field Mice).

Much of Foxbase Alpha is C86 'perfect pop' on a post- house footing. "Carn't Sleep" combines the prosaic purity of Sixties girl-pop with pseudo-orchestral muzak, heart-pang bass and prickly rhythm guitar. "Girl VII" cuts between nonchalant reverie, an upward-spiralling chorus of rapturous strings and heart-in-mouth vox, and a peculiar litany of London tube stations and cosmoplitan cities: Tufnell Park, San Paolo, Dollis Hill, Bratislava.... The best of this side of Saint Etienne remains "Nothing Can Stop Us Now". The love-as-fortitude lyrics turn my stomach ("you smooth out all the rough edges/with love and devotion... just the touch of your hand/and I know we're gonna make it" -yeuuch!), and Sarah Cracknell's voice is just a little too creamy, but the flute-piping euphoria is irresistible.

But if Foxbase Alpha was all in this vein, it would be merely an exceedingly pleasant record. (Indeed, "Spring" and "She's The One" edge dangerously close to Mari Wilson/white Sade blandness). What makes it so relentlessly listenable are the weird experimental touches: "Wilson", a sound-collage of ridiculously antiquated English voices from a late Sixties decimal currency training record, looped over a flanged and reverbed beat as psychedelic as Dudley Moore's "Bedazzled", or the creepy, 23 Skidoo-ish tribal mantra of "Etienne Gonna Die", complete with acrimonious poker player movie dialogue.

Foxbase Alpha really comes alive on side two. "Stoned To Say The Least" starts as a foreboding trance-dance pulse, over which backwards guitar uncoils as beautifully as Stone Roses' "Don't Stop" and angelic synths hover; then the track escalates into an astral turmoil of feedback refractions and amp-hum. "London Belongs To Me" is staggering. Imagine a collision between the aesthetics of Talulah Gosh and A.R. Kane, twee and torrential, camp and sublime. The song begins as one of those idyllic interludes in a Sixties movie, a light-headed, walking-on-air shimmer of harpsichords, vibes, flutes and mellotrons. But at the chorus, everything goes topsy-turvy: gravity absconds in a mist of dub-reverbed percussion; Wiggs & Stanley's arrangement cascades stardust and moonbeam, a downfall of precious gems. "Like The Swallow" is possibly even more stupendous and accomplished. Starting as a symphonic samplescape midway between Scott Walker and Brian Eno, dizzy with detail, it mutates into an Ennio Morricone-esque epic, gongs chiming portentously, then abruptly disappears beneath phalanxes of drones like harmonised sonic booms, and the massively amplified sound of a solitary acoustic guitar, plucking an eerie melody. One of the most pleasurably perplexing things I've heard this year.

I can't figure the Saint Etienne aesthetic out, and that's the fun of it. This the name of the game in 1991: constructing your own alternative pop universe, hallucinating the hybrid styles that should have but never did happen. As such, Foxbase Alpha is the perfect companion to Screamadelica: both albums are examples of pop scholars transcending their record collections. No single element on either album is "new", but the coagulated composite of all that warped taste sounds breathtakingly fresh and unforeseen.


SAINT ETIENNE, PROFILE
The Observer, 20th October 1991

by Simon Reynolds


On their delightful debut album, Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne mix contemporary house rhythms with the string-swept melodrama of Sixties pop. Amazingly, the creators of this exquisitely crafted sound, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, are musical illiterates, who can't play any instruments except for rudimentary keyboard.

Instead, they hum melodic ideas into a tape recorder, gather a few records with beats or sounds that they want to sample, then go into the studio. Messing around on the mixing desk, Saint Etienne recreate the complex arrangements they hear in their heads.

Friends since the age of two, the duo had long fantasised about making pop music. "But because we lacked the patience to learn to play instruments we never thought we'd do it," says Wiggs. But when groups such as S'Express got to the top of the charts with sampler-based records that sounded lavish yet cost only a few hundred pounds to record, Wiggs and Stanley decided to take the plunge.

Their first single, a version of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', took two hours and £80 to make. Thanks to pop journalist Stanley's contacts in the music industry, the track reached clubland's top DJs as a pre-release single. Before they knew what was happening, the song was a dance-floor smash, and Saint Etienne had a career on their hands. Recently revamped as their fourth single, 'Only Love' dented the Top 40.

Stanley has now put his writing on hold, in order to concentrate on Saint Etienne and the duo's burgeoning sideline career as producers presiding over a mini-empire of protegés. There's Golden, a female trio on the verge of signing to a major label, while the duo Cola Boy has already signed to Arista. The latter scored the Top Ten 10 hit with the Saint Etienne-penned '7 Ways To Love', an insidiously catchy mix of schlocky Italian disco and Sixties Muzak.

Saint Etienne aim to renovate the grand tradition of stage-managed pop as exemplified by Phil Spector, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Stock Aitken Waterman — brilliant producers with a stable of interchangeable, photogenic vocalists that they manipulated like puppets. "We like that approach simply because a lot of the time it's produced such brilliant records," says Stanley.

Saint Etienne have no time for the traditional rock belief that such 'manufactured' pop is 'shallow' and 'inauthentic'. "We like pop because it's fast, instant, and glamorous," says Stanley. "Rock groups like The Doors lack humour and suffer delusions of Messiah-like grandeur." The new Saint Etienne single 'People Get Real', due out in January, is a riposte to snobs who "venerate ‘real soul’ and condemn house music as inauthentic."

With their fondness for kitsch and camp, you might expect Foxbase Alpha to be a collection of tacky, disposable singles. In fact, it's an accomplished album whose span ranges from classically-concise pop to eerie instrumentals and grandiose production epics that recall Ennio Morricone; its diverse influences include dub reggae, the noisy dream-pop of AR Kane, Scott Walker's orchestral ballads, and Joe Meek. "Meek was the only interesting British pop figure before the Beatles. On records like ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and ‘Telstar’ he pioneered multi-tracking, echo and over-dub."

Saint Etienne's music has a distinctly English aura, something that's brought to the fore on songs such as 'Girl VII', with its litany of Tube stations, or 'London Belongs To Me', an idyllic reverie of summer in the metropolis. Saint Etienne's never-never pop is imbued with nostalgia for a lost swinging England, for the days when musicians wore groovy gear and knew how to behave like stars. "If we're successful, we'll get all our clothes tailor-made," daydreams Stanley. "We've already had gold lamé suits made for us. Next on the agenda are some bespoke velvet trousers."


SAINT ETIENNE, interview
Melody Maker, 25 April 1992

by Simon Reynolds



THE PRODUCT

"We want to write songs and then deconstruct them," says Bob Stanley. "We want to get weirder and more album oriented. It would be easy to do stuff that's weird that people would find hard to get into, but it would be really brilliant if we could combine both the pop instantness and the weirdness."

Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne's critically-acclaimed debut album, was undoubtedly the most deliciously disorientating suite of sound produced last year, and now it looks as though Stanley and his partner, Pete Wiggs, want to expand on the ambient weirdness found on the second side of the LP.

Ironically, their new single, ‘Join Our Club’, is probably the least idiosyncratic thing Saint Etienne have done (it's an all-out bid for a chart hit), but other completed tracks for the new album indicate a more exploratory approach. A track called ‘Calico’, for instance (which features an eerie rap by Q-Tee), is psychedelic, dub-crazed film music, a James Bond theme from an alternative universe, pure kitschadelia.

"The new stuff we've been doing is even weirder," Stanley explains. "Some of it's a bit scary. We spent six weeks in the studio and ended up with two songs and loads and loads of scary bits of songs."


THE EMPIRE FIGHTS BACK

Saint Etienne are diversifying, not just because it's sound business practice, but because one moniker isn't enough to contain all their ideas and impulses. In a couple of weeks, they'll be releasing the first singles for Ice Rink, "a beautiful pop label specialising in maverick genius", funded by Creation. Pete and Bob's sonic empire consists of Oval ("a South East London group, friends of ours, they use real guitars and have two girl singers"), Elizabeth City State ("a bit soulful, lots of string arrangements, their first single's gonna be called 'V-Neck'"), Golden (three girls singing sombre, sepia-tinted Sixties folk harmonies over a House groove) and Sensurround (featuring John Robb, music journalist and ex-Membrane). He and Pete are already planning the Ice Rink compilation, which they hope will consist "entirely of Top Ten hits, but we'll do it whatever happens."
"We're not Svengalis," says Bob. "We might produce the groups, but they're writing all the songs and have their own sounds already."

Not that Saint Etienne have a problem with the Spector tradition of producer megalomania and conveyor belt brilliance. Pete and Bob have no truck with the trade rock belief that ‘manufactured’ pop is ‘shallow’ and ‘unauthentic’.

"We like pop because it's fast, instant, and glamorous", says Bob. "Rock groups like The Doors lack humour and suffer delusions of Messiah-like grandeur".

The B-side of ‘Join Our Club’, ‘People Get Real’, is a mellifluous diatribe against people who venerate ‘real soul’ and condemn House music as ‘unauthentic’. "It's about Kenny Thomas," Bob adds, "and the impending jazz-funk revival. Jazz funk, Kiss FM, it's miles more offensive than any heavy metal."


POP FOR POP'S SAKE

Sometimes it seems like Saint Etienne songs are born of Pete and Bob's rarefied, pop-for-pop's-sake aesthetic, rather than being examples of heart-felt, thorn-from-personal-experience communication. Pop as object (‘What a fab single!’) as opposed to pop as subjective outpouring (‘That really moves me’).

"We're somewhere between the two," says Bob. "Neither of us have really suffered enough to write anything really heartfelt. But the songs aren't totally vacuous. We like disposable pop, but we also like music that's enduring and high art. I'll still be listening to Tim Buckley or Laura Nyro in ten years, but I doubt if I'll be listening to disposable Stock Aitken Waterman-type pop in a year, it's just good for its moment."

Are they motivated to make pop by anything apart from a love of pop?

"Not really," Bob replies. "We definitely want to do something that's not been done before. I've never wanted to be in a group unless there was at least a chance of being as good as my favourite groups. During C86, a lot of my friends were in groups doing really shit music, and they kept asking if I wanted to be involved, and my argument was that unless I could get string arrangements on my records I never wanted to make one. So now we have, by default, using samplers. I won't be happy until we've written songs that can make people burst into tears, something that terrifyingly beautiful. I want to change the way people record, to create sounds that are widely imitated. Some of our next LP is getting there, a lot of it sounds frightening. Some of it sounds like the Far East. It could be brilliant, but it could be our downfall."


HOW DO THEY DO IT?

A Saint Etienne song starts with the pair humming melodic ideas into a tape recorder. Then they gather a few records with beats or sounds that they want to sample, and go into the studio. Messing around on the mixing desk, Pete and Bob recreate the complex arrangements they hear in their heads.

"It's all production and arrangement," Pete explains. "Production in getting other people to do stuff. Our engineer, Ian [Catt], helps us realise our ideas. We just record the basic track and then play with it until it sounds like we want it to sound. It's an advantage that we're not musicians, we just have sounds in our heads, and no preconceptions about their feasibility or what sounds right. Anyone could go in and make a record, but not everybody can make a good record."


HEROES AND VILLAINS

So who, in their opinion, are the all-time most pernicious forces in pop since the beginning? Who's had the most malign influence? Pete says The Doors. Singer Sarah Cracknell says Tina Turner. Bob says Eric Clapton and Cream. Pete, warming to the theme, adds Frank Zappa. And let's not forget Phil Collins.

"The worst thing about people like Phil Collins," grimaces Bob, "is that his records have taken on the status of classics for people like Capital Radio. They're the songs people will remember the Eighties for. They've become bonded to the time and, historically, will suppress what ever else came out at the time that's more deserving.

"Then there's James Brown," Bob continues. "We don't like funk. We don't like slap-bass. I can't get into Parliament and Funkadelic at all, it's too prog, too muso."

And how about heroes, the artists who should have changed the face of pop?

"David Essex," they reply. "The production on 'Rock On' doesn't sound like any record ever made, and his first couple of albums were totally weird. Cockney Rebel were weird, too. Early Fall doesn't sound like any records ever made. There was hardly a wasted B-side back then. The Fall should have given up in the early Eighties. No one's ever picked up on the deliberately badly recorded approach of a track like 'Spector Vs Rector'. Erm, who else? TV Personalities, of course."

"I really admire people who can sit down and write reams of hit singles," says Bob. "I don't just mean Lennon/McCartney or Goffin & King. Martin and Coulter were amazing – they wrote 'Back Home' for the England World Cup Squad in Mexico in 1970, then they wrote 'Sugar Baby Love' for the Rubettes in '74, which is total genius, just one of the most perfect songs ever written, and then they wrote a brilliant disco hit of few years later called 'Automatic Lover' by Dee D Jackson. What talented blokes! Any old style, Martin and Coulter could write a song to order."
Saint Etienne don't like anything that's overwrought (Robert Plant), and are totally opposed to over-emoting. Sarah's vocals are very cool and contained, a stand against what she calls "the arrogance of passion. That kind of thing's about taking yourself too seriously."


CURATOR VERSUS CREATOR

"We were talking to a friend about our record cos our friends never really say what they think about it," says Bob. "And he said it couldn't possibly be the future of music because it used loads of things that had been and gone, and stuck them together. And I said: same as Primal Scream and Massive Attack."

It seems that the state of the art is ‘record collection rock’, pop based around the elaboration of your own idiosyncratic hierarchy of taste. The only scope for new frissons comes when hitherto outlawed, neglected or denigrated sound-sources are introduced to the canon of admissible influences. Screamadelica, Bandwagonesque, Foxbase Alpha – this meta-pop can be glorious, but are there limits to it?

"I don't think there are any limits to it at all," says Bob. "It's a lot more limiting when you get someone forming a band who's only heard music from the last two years, and thinks Jesus Jones are better than The Beatles. If someone's got a large record collection, there are so many loose ends in pop history that nobody's ever followed up that there's limitless work to be done reinterpreting the past. It's never gonna be a dead end."

Obviously, pop's always worked like this. Even The Rolling Stones began as obsessive collectors of blues records. The difference between then and now, though, is that the Stones went on to create, inadvertently, the soundtrack to their era. Today's record collection rock has drifted off into its own self-referential universe, with little connection to life as she is lived.

"I can appreciated the Manics and Fabulous trying to agitate against that, saying that E has turned an entire generation into brain-dead idiots. There is so little energy about in music. I suppose somebody who's connected with the outside world would be into The Prodigy. Techno's the pulse of Young Britain, it's so exciting that you probably don't need Fabulous or the Manics if you're young."

With this new breed of rock scholars like Bobby Gillespie, Norman Blake and Stanley & Wiggs, sooner or later one has to deal with the word ‘trainspotter’. When Bob tells me he's desperately searching for the one and only album by New Musik (early Eighties New Wave abominations) I can't help admiring the sheer sickness of his obsession, but I also wonder whether he's really a suitable role model for a generation.

Wiggs and Stanley aren't candidates for shaman-hood, that's for sure, but they do mourn the disappearance of freaks, aliens and mad prophets in pop (the Kevin Rowlands, Adam Ants and Gary Numans). They know they just don't have it in them to be that stellar, that egomaniacal. They belong in a different category – the great British eccentric.

Here's Bob on Pete: "Peter often has trouble communicating with people. It's weird, but he's a completely different person on the phone. There was one time he was in Paris, and he was ringing me every two hours. He rang just to ask if he should buy this doughnut he'd seen in a bakery. He was ringing his family all the time, too. By the time he got home he'd spent over a hundred quid in calls."

Here's Pete on Bob: "Bob is fascinated by lasers, he visits the London Laserium at least twice a week, and even has a low wattage laser installed in his bedroom. When he dies he wants his coffin to travel through a laser tunnel projected down the aisle of the crematorium."

And Pete on Pete: "The reason I am in a band is that I do whatever the decade dictates: in the Eighties, I was a top businessman; in the Seventies, I was a kung-fu expert; and, in the Sixties, I was a child."




SAINT ETIENNE, Places To Visit [joint review with Position Normal, Stop Your Nonsense]
Village Voice, July 28-August 3, 1999

by Simon Reynolds


....Position Normal's fondness for "found sound" interludes, like the patter of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market, reminds me of Saint Etienne's penchant for punctuating their early albums with movie dialogue and cafeteria chat eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. The trio started out as part of that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of later Britpop's loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod—fervently English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-pop, '90s Italo-house, and A.R. Kane's halcyon dub-noise as it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield. Trouble was, the trio's futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to gradually iron out all their experimentalist excrescences. Reconvening in 1998 after a four-year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker still on Good Humour, abandoning sampling altogether for Swedish session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired by "Lovefool" Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz Charlie Brown music.

A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne's six-track EP Places to Visit is an unexpected reversion to...everything that was ever any good about them. "Ivyhouse" is angel's breath ethereal like they've not been since their debut album's dubtastic "London Belongs To Me." Produced by Sean O'Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas, "52 Pilot" features sparkling vibes, an elastic heartstring bassline out of "Wichita Lineman," and radical stereo separation (don't try this one on headphones). And "Artieripp" is a tantalizing tone-and-texture poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars.

Drawing on diverse talents like O'Hagan and Chicago avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O'Rourke, Places resituates Saint Etienne among the sound-sculptor ranks. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration with German art-techno outfit To Rococo Rot). They're aesthetes in love with the Pop Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places to Visit will work like Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them back on a truer course.


SAINT ETIENNE, Sound of Water
from Faves of 2000

by Simon Reynolds


This one seems to have disappointed the fans; I reckon it their best since So
Tough
, integrating the two sides of their collective personality (pure pop
enchantment versus studio-as-instrument sorcery) as never before. A soft
soundclash of digital programming (with help from German post-rock unit To
Rococo Rot) and lushly arranged acoustica (courtesy of detail-freak Sean O'Hagan
from High Llamas/Stereolab), Sound of Water glistens and ripples with exquisite nuances. It's beyond headphone-friendly: wearing a pair is virtually de rigeur, just to catch all the scintillating near-subliminal subtleties--like the Pierre Henry/Jean-Jacques Perrey analog blarps and pnoots peeking out from the crannies of "Sycamore"'s lush harpsichord-and-harmony arrangement. Like their other albums, Sound of Water offers a cornucopia of pop equations (Petula Clark + [Mouse On Mars X Angelo Badalamenti] = "Downey CA") and alternative-history
scenarios ("Late Morning" is from the parallel universe where Burt Bacharach
teamed up with Steve Reich to become a two-man hit-factory). Two tracks stand
out for me. The twinkling snowscape production of "Just A Little Overcome"
enfolds what might just be the groop's most accomplished and beautifully poised
piece of songwriting and singing yet---"adult", but in a good way. "How We Used
To Live"'s triptych structure shifting elegantly from orchestrated/observational
pop (Montague Terrace in Yellow, Scott Walker minus the existensialist
paperbacks and Ingmar Bergman movies) through Orbital-gone-Eurovision shimmy to
Rotary Connection-style cosmik jazz. Saint Etienne have grown-up gracefully.


SAINT ETIENNE, Smash the System: Singles and More
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds


Listening to this double-CD anthology, your first reaction is: Saint Etienne were cheated. They should have spanned the Nineties with a string of Number Ones, yet despite strenuous efforts, they never even cracked the Top Ten. Cheated, then, but what can you do? Pop is a cruel mistress, and anybody touting a vision of "perfect pop" is cruising for a bruising. See, pop aesthetes are never really affirming the totality of everything that sells (the only real definition of pop: hit for hit, Iron Maiden and Dire Straits are two of our biggest "pop" acts ever) but instead hone in on those precious few sublime flashes amid the crass and the crud. Their distilled and eternalized vision of "pure pop" inevitably gets more and more out-of-step with marketplace realities as time goes by.

This doesn't invalidate the notion of never-never pop---some of the best music ever has come about through being dreamed against the times. But any discussion of this Saint Etienne career retrospective ought to address their "failure": the fact that they never really connected with the populace as yer actual bought-by-kids-at-Woolies chart fodder. Their singles typically lingered in the chart somewhere between two and five weeks, suggesting a compact, tautly defined fan-base. Saint Etienne simply lack the common touch (could a song called "Hobart Paving" ever really become an "our song" for some everyday couple?). Even when they later adopted a "competitive" sound (modelled on the Europop that dominated mid-Nineties charts), some sort of subconsciously self-sabotaging impulse, their pop aesthete's integrity, ensured that the lyrics remained too-damn-smart.

Another quality that made Saint Etienne jar with the Nineties chartpop scheme is the romantic chasteness of their love songs. Saint Etienne were the missing link between two quintessentially English moments, C86 and Britpop (they were part of that superior prequel for the latter that included World of Twist, Denim, and Pulp). Their lovely second single "Kiss and Make Up" was a Field Mice cover, and a trademark C86 cutie-pop sexlessness runs through the discography. Sarah Cracknell's gritless, un-sultry voice---sometimes divinely fragrant and airy, sometimes too sweet 'n' creamy, like sipping condensed milk---has as much in common with Amelia Fletcher from Talulah Gosh/Heavenly as with Northern soul or Petula Clark-style Palladium pop. Contrasted with today's rampant, sexually explicit R&B, it's striking how demure and above-the-waist Saint Etienne songs are--all about TLC not carnal ecstasy, devotion rather than desire. There's even a sort of running theme about holding hands: "It's too hot to even hold hands/But that won't stop us from making plans" coos "London Belongs To Me" ( a heinous omission from this comp), "just the touch of your hand... and I know we're gonna make it" purrs "Nothing Can Stop Us Now," while "Join Our Club" features the classic Cracknell listener come-on "I know you want to hold my hand/I know you're gonna love my band". And they expected this sort of virginal stuff to play with today's kids?!

Any Saint Etienne best-of missing "London Belongs To Me"' and So Tough gems like "Leafhound," "Calico", and the Rush-sampling "Conchita Martinez", has got some problems. But there's more than enough included to remind you why Saint Etienne warrant worship. "Carnt Sleep" recalls A.R. Kane's own doomed pop move "i": a lovely wistful skank, all reverbed rimshots, prickles of rhythm guitar, and plaintive piano. Featuring nymphet rapper Q-Tee, "Filthy" anticipates the Chemical Brothers with its looped break, stinging wah-wah riff, and deep rolling bass. "Mario's Cafe" is delightful English observational pop with Dury/Squeeze-style references to the Racing Post and bacon rind, and delicious early Nineties pop allusions (the girl who dreams of an evening with PM Dawn's Prince B., people talking about the KLF on TOTP the night before). And then there's "Avenue", one of the all-time great lost should-a-been Number Ones. Commercially suicidal at almost eight minutes, it's a mad mash-up of Dollar, Kate Bush, "Good Vibrations", and "Papua New Guinea", with a lyric as indecipherable (thanks partly to Cracknell's ultra-breathy, soaringly celestial singing) and enigmatic as an Alan Resnais movie. A special mention for engineer/programmer/unoffical fourth member Ian Catt, who clearly earned his "Avenue" songwriting credit.

When "Avenue" stalled at Number 40 in October '92, it was an indictment of the modern world, not Saint Etienne. The group should have turned their back on chartpop, gone weird; instead, they did the opposite. Towards the end of the first disc, this compilation turns into a document of Saint Etienne's misguided quest to score that elusive Top Ten hit, involving the gradual ironing-out of all the experimentalist lumps in their sound (the dub-wise cascades, the found sound interludes, the strange codas like the trippy Magical Mystery Tour bit that ends "Avenue"). "Who Do You Think You Are" is typically perverse: a blatant chart bid, but surely pop scholars Wiggs & Stanley must have known that the bubblegum original didn't even make the Top 20 in 1974? "Pale Movie," a "Fernando"-meets-Paul Van Dyk shimmer is lovely, but others from the Euro phase ("He's On The Phone", "Angel", "Burnt Out Car") sound facelessly efficient, all chugging sequenced basslines and trance-lite beats.

Saint Etienne then took a four year sabbatical and returned in 1998 with Good Humor, replacing their synths and samples with a more organic sound (Swedish session musicians, influences from The Cardigans and Vince 'Charlie Brown' Guaraldi). The clutch of tracks here from this phase seem oddly chastened-sounding, modest in ambition. With last year's Sound of Water, though, Saint Etienne seem to be trying to carve out a post-pop identity--discreetly experimental, "adult". Songs like "Just A Little Overcome" (not included) are as good as anything they've ever done. So hopefully this compilation is just greatest hits-and-misses so far, a first instalment of towering "pop" genius.


SAINT ETIENNE, Travel Edition 1990-2005 / PSAPP, Tiger My Friend
Tracks, 2005

by Simon Reynolds


When it comes to female vocalists, England’s true forte isn’t divas--all those brassy, belting Aretha-wannabes like Annie Lennox and Joss Stone. No, it’s the demure singer. In mainstream terms, think Dido. But there's also an indie lineage of small-voiced singers that started with Alison Statton (of Young Marble Giants and Weekend) and Tracy Thorn (of Everything But the Girl), and that's where Psapp’s Galia Durant belongs. She projects a subdued, self-contained sensuality, an attractive blend of aloofness and vulnerability. Tiger, My Friend resembles a contemporary update of the sort of stuff Tracy Thorn and partner Ben Watt did in the Eighties: achingly melodic almost-pop that’s ultimately too introverted to barge its way into the charts. It’s the sound of the English “bedsit”, those cramped apartments (bedroom and sitting room combined) where students and just-out-of-college kids live and fall in and out of love. This being 2004, though, bedsit doesn’t mean Thorn & Watt’s lightly jazzy acoustic guitars, but the sort of chirruping electronica spun by Durant’s partner Carim Clasmann out of quirky samples of cat’s miaows and glitchy drums that skitter like an egg-whisk on cellophane.

Saint Etienne specialize in a different sort of almost-pop and vocalist Sarah Cracknell is the queen of another kind of demure Englishness, rooted in Petula Clark rather than Astrud Gilberto. Her voice can be wonderfully fresh and fragrant, but also a tiny bit cloying at times, like sipping melted ice cream. This handy if somewhat compressed anthology follows Saint Etienne’s 15 year journey from lovely homespun dance pop (like their soft reggae cover of Neil Young “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) through the experimental majesty of “Avenue” (Kate Bush meets Abba) to their mid-Nineties struggle to score a UK Top Ten hit. That fruitless period ironed out a lot of the group’s charming quirks, replacing them them with a rather characterless Europop sound of chugging sequenced basslines and trance beats, and then gave way in turn to an even more wan phase of trying to imitate The Cardigans. Thankfully, 2000’s Sound of Water saw Saint Etienne return to form with a mature sound that discreetly secreted avant-garde touches inside intricately layered pop, like the 8 minute long song-suite “"How We Used To Live." 2002’s Finisterre, represented here by its haunting title track, suggests a continued second wind for this great British group, whose singles all reach #1 in a parallel pop universe far superior to our own.



SAINT ETIENNE Presents Finisterre: A Film About London
Directed by Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans
Village Voice, November 30th, 2005

by Simon Reynolds




“Finisterre”, the title track of Saint Etienne’s 2002 album, was an aesthetic manifesto that among other things imagined leaping straight from the Regency Era
to Bauhaus-style modernism, in the process skipping almost the entire 19th Century. In a way, that’s what this DVD--an enchanting meander through London that’s less a documentary than a visual poem--does too. You get little sense of the city as Dickens would have understood it: the hustle-bustle of a place somewhere people work and produce. Finisterre’s first images are a suburban train heading into London at the crack of dawn, before the commuter crush, and the only sense of commotion and congestion come much later with footage shot at various gigs and bars.

There’s a sense in which the city could only be made beautiful by minimizing the presence of its inhabitants, who are either absent or typically appear on the edge of shot. Directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans strip away the hubbub to reveal a secret city of silence and stillness, reverie rather than revelry. The film is literally composed largely of stills--buildings, graffiti, faded posters, half-deserted cafes, store fronts. People, when they appear, are rarely in motion. The gaze of this flaneur-camera aestheticizes everything: a homeless man becomes a compositional figure (mmmm, look at the curvature of spine) and a neglected playground generates attractive patterns of rust-mottled metal and stained brickwork.

It would have been heavy-handed to use such images as signifiers of urban decay and dysfunction, but a teensy dose of Ken Loach wouldn’t have gone amiss. A different Ken (Livingstone, the Mayor of London) gives his thumbs-up in the DVD booklet, and no wonder: it’ll trigger a tourism micro-boom by luring Saint Etienne’s already Anglophile fanbase abroad. Watching Finisterre made this London-born expatriate yearn to hop on the next flight home, too. But I suspect this is actually the last word in a certain way of looking at, and living with, a city that’s unmanageably vast and often pretty grim. File it next to Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic walking tours or the greasy spoon memory-work of Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafes-- forms of mourning for a city that’s always dying. Finisterre is a beautiful film about London. But beauty is only half the story, because cities are always rebirthing themselves too, and birth ain’t a pretty sight.



[These reissues dedicated to Sally Shapiro and Johan Agebjorn, makers of the wondrous Disco Romance]

Thursday, October 18, 2007

MY BLOODY VALENTINE, Loveless
Melody Maker, winter 1991

by Simon Reynolds


It was always going to be one of the year's most momentous and anxiously awaited records. Where their 1988 peers have either turkeyed-out (S. Youth, Buttholes, Loop) or gone into inexplicable hibernation (AR Kane, Young Gods), only My Bloody Valentine have upped the stakes with each of their sporadic releases. The hope was that the sequel to Isn't Anything, when it deigned to turn up, would unfurl a whole new frontier.

And that new frontier is sorely needed. While MBV have been semi-absent, they've also been omnipresent, as an abused, near-exhausted influence. While there's a grain of truth in the assertion that the Scene bands don't sound that much like the Valentines, it's not for lack of trying. All the Scene bands conform to the vague model that MBV coined - dazed-and-confused guitar-blur, swoony vocals, lyrics about the chaos of desire, etc. But it's equally true that not a one has come close to the MBV sound, that sensual turmoil that seems to seethe and smoulder under your skin. Instead (exempting only 50 per cent of Slowdive and Moose) the Scene groups make bliss bland, offer rapture-by-rote. Those of us who are a little harder to please have been hoping that this LP would shame the imposters back into oblivion.

Loveless isn't, quite, the record to do that. But it does reaffirm how unique, how peerless they are. On Loveless, My Bloody Valentine are the same as before, only more so - more lustrous, langorous, inchoate, phantasmic. Whatever umbilical cords that still tied them to the Velvets/Mary Chain lineage or the Byrds/Husker Du/Dinosaur continuum have now been wholly severed. Where your Rides and Chapterhouses are easy to dis-assemble into their constituent parts, MBV are an amalgam, an alchemical brew, a simmering alembic of all-new sound. They've never been more them.

Throughout Loveless, MBV sound pregnant, like their music is about to metamorphosise to a higher state that they themselves can't quite conceive, just as a liquid doesn't know what lies ahead when it's on the threshold of turning into gas. "Loomer" isn't 'rock' so much as magma, a plasma of sound that barely conforms to the contours of riff or powerchord. "To Here Knows When" , too, hardly qualifies as rock: the rhythm section is a dim, suppressed rumble; there's no riff or chord-sequence, just billowing parabolas of unfocussed sound (sampled feedback, actually) and a tantalising Erik Satie melody that fades in and out of earshot; Bilinda Butcher's vocal is at its most pallid palimpsest and eclipsed. "To Here" remains MBV's most suicidal song - commercially, obviously, but also in the sense that the group as human entities are dissipated, dissolved, drowned.

The phrase "to here knows when" sounds a bit like a 'koan', those paradoxes that Buddhists meditate on for decades until enlightenment strikes. Sticking with the Zen analogy, I'd say that MBV play tantric mantras. A mantra is 'a song without an author': on Loveless, MBV's physical presence as players is even more absent than on Isn't Anything, the group are just the faintest membrane, a feather on the breath of God. Tantric refers to a Zen sexual discipline, where intercourse is sustained indefinitely at the brink of orgasm, leading to an out-of-body, transcendental experience. On Isn't Anything and the preceding EP's, MBV went beyond the thrust and grind of phallic rock, to reach a polymorphous state of omnidirectional sensuality: a state that's been called having "a body without organs"

All of Loveless is suffused with an apocalyptic, pre-orgasmic glow, the the sound of an annihilating intimacy. MBV music is a smelting, melding crucible of love in which every borderline and boundary (inside/outside, you/me, lover/beloved) is abolished. Instead of the normal perspective of rock production (bass here, guitar there, voice there, with the listener mastering the field of hearing), MBV are here there everywhere; they permeate, irradiate, subsume and consume you.

"When You Sleep" is drowsy, dozy, heaven-scented pop that seems to be about hovering over the beloved, made dizzy by the newborn vulnerability. "I Only Said" is a cauldron of scalding sweetness, turning on a wincingly exquisite motif (sampled feedback again). On "Come In Alone", a similar motif is the only distinct, focal element in a asphixiatingly lovely bliss-bath; sluggish rhythms succumb like limbs in a viscous quagmire; overall, the effect is like drowning in honey. "Sometimes" is an aftermath ballad, Kevin Shields' vocal huddling forlorn in a crater overshadowed by a looming precipice of grunge. "Blown A Wish" is yet another Ecstasy-blitzed bower, sickly and soppy enough to give even Liz Frazer tooth-ache, while Bilinda's hyperventilated 'oooh's and 'aaaah's sound like she's got hummingbirds in her stomach. It's swoony, but in the end, it's too much: like staring into lover's eyes whose pupils are so dilated they're black holes pulling you to your doom. "What You Want" is another symphonic maelstrom that ends as a New Age haven of looped, lyrical flute sounds, like the gold at the end of the rainbow.

Despite its title, Loveless is very euphoric, very blissed, apparently devoid of a dark side; the jagged, Sonic Youth-y edges that previously hinted at voodoo, id-energies have been smothered in soft-focus miasma. And yet, and yet, the bliss gets to be scary, suffocating, and that's the fascination, the edge. MBV offer an appalling nirvana; you're subsumed in a primal "we", an overwhelming here-and-now, that has you gasping for air, aching for open space. After all this muggy amorphousness, it's something of a reprieve to hear the punch and (relative) clarity of the closing "Soon". The subsonic churn of the bass and drums locates a primeval funk groove midway between rock and house; the glazed mesh of guitars and vocals like spectral emanations, are implacable and impenetrable, even as they penetrate you, pass right through your body like a ghost.

If there's scope for criticism here, it's that while My Bloody Valentine have amplified and refined what they already were, they've failed to mutate or leap into any kind of beyond. "Soon" and "To Here Knows When" are the most radical moments on the album, and remain signposts to the future: the first posits an under-explored avenue of funk/noise fusion, the second proposes absconding from rhythm into ambient drift. Throughout Loveless, MBV teeter on the brink of the beyond. You can sense a scarcely imaginable infra-rock coming through their songs like a flame burning through a sheet of paper. You can hear this future explicitly in the inter-song doodles and a track called "Touched" - tantalising glimpses of where MBV could be at already. The prologue to "When You Sleep" is an eerie mosaic of overlapping drones that sound like a brain effervescing on an overdose of Ecstasy. "Touched" sounds like the muzak of the spheres: a whale singing the Delta blues is intermingled with what sounds like Radio 2 heard from a wireless at the bottom of a swimming pool. I'm a little wistful that MBV didn't devote a whole side to such ear-baffling studio sorcery.

But no worries, My Bloody Valentine have delivered. Quibbles aside, this is the mutha-lode: along with Mercury Rev, Loveless is the outermost, innermost, uttermost rock record of 1991. All you need.

Monday, October 15, 2007

AMERICAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK: A SURVEY OF THE STATE OF THE ART
Melody Maker, summer 1993

by Simon Reynolds


Because of the regional diversity and sheer vastness of the country, American rock evolves slowly, steadily, organically. In Britain, rock proceeds in leaps and bounds. Partly, this is because rock isn't rooted in the indigenous culture, and Brit-bands come to it already slightly detached, and so feel free to warp it,
overlay it with art-school conceptualism and style. Partly, it's because of the "unhealthy" (as the Yanks see it) influence of the weekly music press, with its high fever of rhetoric, its hysterical turnover of trends. And so America generates a steady stream of solid bands and far fewer "all mouth and no trouser" types (it's hard to imagine US equivalents to the Manics or Huggy Bear), while Britain spawns a scourge of chancers and charlatans. But, and it's a big but,
such mediatised self-consciousness also means that Brit-rock can
sometimes think itself through to formal breakthroughs that are inaccessible to the Americans.

Right now, US rock is much as it's ever been: diverse, but also samey (it's all based in guitars, bass and drums). Grunge isn't going to go away, even after being mainstreamed by the majors: its roots - the born-to-lose dejection of teenage wastelanders - will always abide. There's commercial grunge (ROLLINS, QUICKSAND), anti-commersh grunge (KYUSS, UNSANE, PAIN TEENS), proto-grunge (MELVINS,
TAD), smart-grunge (AFGHAN WHIGS, WALT MINK), even ambient grunge (EARTH), but it's all grunge, and it has nothing more to offer me.

Also on the despondent tip, there's the blues fundamentalists like PALACE BROS, MULE, RAILROAD JERK, COME, maybe JESUS LIZARD: bands that know the blues began with the likes of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, and not (as grunge believes) with Ozzie Osbourne. The nouveau bluesologists are flanked on one side by the misery-guts contingent (RED HOUSE PAINTERS, CODEINE, MAZZY STAR, IDAHO) and on the other by avant-raunch units like ROYAL TRUX and THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION. These Stones-fetishists also have something in common with the slacker bands, which range from lo-fi (PAVEMENT, THINKING FELLERS, TRUMAN'S WATER, SMOG, SILVER JEWS, NEW RADIANT STORM KING, THE GRIFTERS, UNCLE WIGGLY, ERIC'S TRIP, ad infinitum) to
neo-cosmic (MERCURY REV, FLAMING LIPS, RADIAL SPANGLE, CRAWLSPACE, CUL DE SAC). At the more Anglophile end of this freak-out spectrum, you'll find the MBV-aligned (SWIRLIES, DROP NINETEENS, MAJESTY CRUSH, MEDICINE) and the 4AD/FACTORY fixated (UNREST, HIS NAME IS ALIVE).

At the opposite extreme from all the above (bands who at least pay lipservice to the idea of pushing the envelope), there's the unabashed period-stylists, who indulge in what theorist Joe Carducci calls 'genre-mining': extracting the last few nuggets of pleasure from the near-exhausted seam of a retro genre. Some are earnest
(THE POSIES, UNCLE TUPELO, DILLON FENCE, for whom 'pure pop' is and alway shall be Big Star/Neil Young/Gram Parsons). Some are playful, rehabilitating discredited styles just like our own kitschadelic popsters Denim, Saint Etienne and Pulp: RAGING SLAB (Lynyrd Oak Arsansas), URGE OVERKILL (Cheap Trick), WHITE ZOMBIE/ MONSTER MAGNET (biker rock), BIG CHIEF (Funkadelic). Finally, there are those whose
retrogression is ideologically motivated, involving a return to one or other version of 'punk': the Gang of Four agit-pop/angst-rock of FUGAZI, GIRLS AGAINST BOYS, SIX FINGER SATELLITE; the DIY amateurism/authenticity of labels like K, SIMPLE MACHINES, KILL ROCK STARS and other Grrl-aligned elements.

Amid all this overlapping confusion and musical overproduction (so many fuckin bands!), you can discern four distinct responses to the problem of making music in rock's fourth decade.

1/FUNDAMENTALISM: a return to basics, whether that's cathartic riff-power or heart-felt songcraft.

2/ MAXIMALISM: trying to stretch the limits of gtrs/bs/drms
(very hard, this late in the day).

3/ IRONY: a tongue-in-chic exhumation of rock's most excessive, OTT styles-and-
sounds.

4/ ECLECTICISM: joining the dots between earlier pinnacles of extremity, reviving and combining avant-rock methods, following under-explored routes into the Beyond or the Bizarre (Krautrock, Beefheart, The Fall, acid rock).

Of these, the ironists (Urge Overkill et al) offer the most entertainment, while the post-Pavement schizo-eclectics offer the most stimulation. But both strategies tend to degenerate into 'record collection rock': up-your-own-ass oneupmanship (what can we rehabilitate next?!). Lo-fi weirdness-for-its-own-sake has a long
history in the US (F/i, VERTICAL SLIT, SUN CITY GIRLS, MX-80, PERE UBU), but, I suspect, not much of a future. Already, with the likes of GUIDED BY VOICES and ARCHERS OF LOAF, it's petering out into a dead end of wacky inconsequentiality. Lo-fi bands have invented their own kind of muso virtuosity (odd time signatures, using
antiquated gtr effects to explore the textures of fuzz), and the genre seems destined to go the same way as jazz: eventually, its audience will be composed entirely of other musicians, who can spot the references and appreciate the form-bending mischief.

British avant-rock also faces contracting audiences. But to my ears, it feels more vital because it's in touch with developments outside of rock: the sound-sculpting innovations of hip hop, techno, ambient and dub. Bands like Seefeel, Insides, Papa Sprain, Ice, Scorn, Stereolab etc probably don't even warrant the term 'rock'
anymore, since they're based around layers and textures, rather than riff-dynamics, around using the studio-as-instrument rather than simulating a 'live' band. Effects-laden guitars are one element in a futurist armory that includes samplers, sequencers and drum machines.

All of which poses the question: why have American rock bands flinched away from embracing the sampladelic revolution? Obviously, rave culture is not as highly developed or pervasive in the USA as it is in the UK. Techno's influence is further limited by the Amer-indie conviction that "disco sucks", that 'real music' requires a human drummer. But what about hip hop, which is all-pervasive in America,
broadcast via MTV or boomin' from jeep sound-systems on every street corner? US rockers have either flirted with rap in a half-assed, facetious manner (Sonic Y's Ciccone Youth project) or they've emulated it wholesale (Beasties, Consolidated). Only Cop Shoot Cop have hijacked rap's sampler method and militant spirit and deployed them in a rock context.

The only explanation for this failure of nerve on the part of white American rock is the fraught politics of race in the US. White bohemians think rap is "cool", but they're wary about laying a finger on what they feel is Black cultural property.
Whereas Britain's remoteness from this racially-charged situation has meant that its most quick-thinking bands could respond almost instantly to rap's challenge, whether that took the form of gimmickry (Age Of Chance, Pop Will Shite Itself) or genuine, organic radicalism (MBV's looped beats and sampled feedback on "Soon" and "Loveless").

Because of its failure to respond to the only futuristic pop forms to emerge in the last decade (rap and rave), American underground rock can "advance" only by taking backward steps. Bands seek out and follow relatively untrodden trails within rock history, colonising and developing the territory. But the limits of that terrain were pretty much mapped in the late '60's and early 70's; the frontier has long been closed; a new one is needed.

American bands struggle to find new permutations on the basic real-time interaction of gtr/bs/drms mode that is the heart of rock and roll. And they find them, but the odds against such reinvention increase every day. The heart of rock'n'roll, as the sage Huey Lewis put it, is still beating. But in Britain and in Europe, bands are tearing out that heart with an electric claw, rewiring their nervous systems and
mutating into cyborg-rock.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Snauses & Mallards/de Snaunted Haus
The Wire, 2001

by Simon Reynolds


Most experimental electronica is anal-retentive---every glitch and click prissily placed just-so. In contrast, Blectum from Blechdom are "anal-expulsive" (to borrow a coinage from their San Francisco comrade Lesser). But this female duo, who lurk behind the aliases Kevin and Blevin, aren't just sonic messthetes: they're positively obsessed with all things faecal. The sleeve of their Bad Music and Buttprints EP featured the imprint of their own hindquarters, and toilet humour is upfront in their name: Blectum echoes "rectum", while "blech" is the gagging sound American kids make to indicate revulsion. The music itself often sounds onomatopeiac, its squits and ploops practically demanding titles like "Audio Stool" and "Shithole".

Those two come from Blectum's debut EP Snauses and Mallards, whose nine tracks make up the first third of this CD. Vaulting past the Ars Electronica prize-winning album The Messy Jesse Fiesta, the rest of the record takes in all fifteen tracks from De Snaunted Haus, their most recent release. Here, Blectum usher us into an Ubu Roi-like fantasia of grotesque scatology and depraved sexuality, populated by unwholesome critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. Snauses are vermin who live in toilets and ambush people at their most vulnerable, biting their toes off. They have a single "bitch-hole" through which they eat, excrete, breathe, fornicate and reproduce. Then there's Mallard, a scientist duck who experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverted sexual research.

The macabre adventures of this bestiary---seemingly hallucinated by a ketamine fiend channel-surfing between wildlife documentaries, porn, and a Cronenburg movie---are recounted via between-track micro-dramas, performed by Kevin and Blevin in exaggeratedly thespian tones and sometimes fed through vocal treatments for added delirium. Breaking techno's taboo about using the human voice (one track is pointedly titled "In case you forgot, we talked on this record"), Blectum shatter glitchtronica's cool with goofy girlish glee and Python-esque daftness. But the effect goes well beyond Ministry of Silly Voices, frequently becoming genuinely unnerving and creepy.

The earliest Blectum performances took place at clandestine raves thrown by the duo in the basement beneath the concert hall of Mills, the Oakland, California music college where Kevin & Blevin are students, and whose illustrious alumni include Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnik. Blectum music reflects this high/low incongruity: toytown tekno riffs, shredded jungle breaks, and bursts of house's hi-hat/kick rhythm, are meshed disjointedly with musique concrete-style smears and scumbles of sound-goo. Tracks like "Bastard Child" recall 4 Hero at their 1993 darkcore peak: vocal samples like melted candles, loops that unspool like glaucous intestines, angelic-demonic shriek-riffs. It's a sort of devolved rave music, suggesting the alternate route London pirate radio might have taken if jungle had never solidified as a genre, and instead the first Generation E kept on taking the bad medicine while the music got iller and iller. Sheer insanitary insanity, Haus De Snaus is an infirmary of sound, teeming with sickly melodies, fever-dream apparitions, degenerative nerve-disorder twitches, and wizened noises as perturbing as the plates in a medical text-book.

Blectum use a lot of dinky-sounding mechanistic melody-riffs suggestive of music-boxes, carny-shows, or player-pianos (Nancarrow is one of their favorites). It's a flavour that evokes the uncanny aura of automata and clockwork toys, making me flash on the the sharp-fanged demon-dolls in Barbarella, or the kitsch animatronic companions built by the prematurely aged android-designer in Blade Runner. Electronic musicians usually evoke childhood's idyllic-ness--Mouse On Mars's ice cream van tinkles, Boards of Canada's faded photo poignancy. Blectum, though, plug into the imp-of-the-perverse side of pre-pubescence: the sheer appetite for destruction that inspires surreal acts of vandalism or grossness, like smearing dogshit over the swings and slides at the local playground. The between-song skits recall the comic play-lets you might have tape-recorded as kids, complete with giggles and muffed lines. It's revealing that the only word for this kind of mischief and humour we have is gender-specific: puerile. Yet Blectum's scatomania seems somehow distinctly female, perhaps tapping into the same energies of body-disgust and self-abjection that fuels extreme practices like bulimia. If the girlfriend in Devo's "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')" ever got to tell her story, this music might be her riposte.

Probably an inspired aberration, Blectum nonetheless strike me in potential at least as harbingers of a sort of riot grrrl for electronica. With their private jokes, lo-fi approach, and brattiness, they're a bit like Huggy Bear if they'd been influenced by early Prodigy rather than early Pastels. More than anywhere in electronic music, they probably belong to the lineage of outsider rock: The Shaggs, the Residents ("Going Postal" could be straight off The Commercial Album), Royal Trux's ultra-primitivist Twin Infinitives.

In this art brut spirit (and their cover art does recall the compulsive doodles of insane artists like Wolfli), this CD closes with "Bad Music", one of two previously unreleased tracks. A Christopher Cross-like ballad, just piano and erratic vocals, "Bad Music" is genuinely awful. But it does serve as a Blectum manifesto, expressing both their accept-yourself ethos (like riot grrrl, they're anti-cool, pro-nerd) and their willingness to sample absolutely anything ("Right Time Right Place" trumps V/Vm by using the ghastly flute-riff from Men At Work's "Down Under").

"Good music," almost by definition, can only confirm and conform to established notions of quality and distinction; besides, there's simply way too much fine music in the world already. "Bad music," though, still has the capacity to surprise and delight, through its deformity or simple failure to reach its own aspirations. It's also true that pathbreaking genres (like darkside jungle in '93) often initially sound plain wrong. Self-consciously walking the diagonal between beauty and ugliness, art and trash, is a difficult act, but Blectum have pulled it off. Sadly, this CD might be the duo's final release, as the partnership, always volatile, is now in trial separation. But here's hoping Kevin & Blevin make up, and give us more of their jolie laide genius.


BLECTUM FROM BLECHDOM, Fishin' in Front of People
KEVIN BLECHDOM, The Inside Story
BLEVIN BLECTUM, Talon Slalom
KEVIN BLECHDOM, Bitches Without Britches
Village Voice, June 26-July 2, 2002

by Simon Reynolds


Experimental electronic producers love to talk about incorporating mistakes and digital dysfunction into their music. Listen to their records, though, and it's hard to imagine anything less messy: Pristine and prissy precision rules, with every last glitch and blerkkkpt fastidiously placed just so. But where 99.7 percent of electronica is paradoxically anal yet sterile, Blectum from Blechdom are fecal and fecund. Not only is this female duo's music full of loose ends and soiled sounds, but like some transgender IDM version of Beavis and Butthead, they're obsessed with all things abject and icky. Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum used paint and their own posteriors to personalize the sleeves of the early Blectum EP Bad Music and Buttprints, while the mini-album De Snaunted Haus relates the unsavory adventures of critters called snauses: toilet-lurking vermin who scuttle out to bite off people's toes. There's also a character called Mallard, a depraved scientist who like some cross between Donald Duck and Mengele biologically engineers snauses with extra orifices for . . . oh, I'll spare you the grody details. Suffice to say, The Busy Busy World of Richard Scarry it ain't.

The first time I heard De Snaunted Haus, I immediately thought of the movie Heavenly Creatures, the true story of a pair of excessively imaginative schoolgirls whose private fantasy world becomes so absorbing that it snowballs into shared psychosis. According to the duo, the snause stories started as a private joke that took on a monstrous life of its own. Likewise Blectum's music seems peopled with mangled and misshapen life-forms: mutants spawned in the audio lab, gargoyle gurgles as horribly compelling as the plates of growths and goiters in a medical deformities textbook. Sounding at times like the Residents gone rave, Blectum have coined one of the most idiosyncratic and enthralling sonic vocabularies in the vastly oversubscribed realm of left-field electronica.

An album of live material, Fishin' in Front of People (Pthalo) mostly documents the early Blectum phase before De Snaunted HauS's between-track skits and mini-plays. So there's less macabre whimsy and fewer silly voices to distract you from the experimentation (Kevin and Blevin are actually students at Mills College in Oakland, California, through whose portals such avant-icons as Morton Subotnik and Pauline Oliveros have passed). Shunning MIDI and sequencing software, Blectum hand-trigger their loops and beats, creating a disjointed anti-seamlessness that's real funky, albeit in a lurching, three-legged sort of way. They like textures that feel tacky to the ear's touch, tallow-waxy like intestines moistly unspooling, and they're big into vocal science, warping some unnamed diva's a cappella funhouse-style across the octaves on a sampling keyboard.

All this creative alchemy is based in the duo's passionate, rather volatile friendship. Right now Blectum from Blechdom are in a weird possibly-split-up, probably-gonna-reform limbo. In the meantime, there's a welter of solo activity. Picking up from the duo's love of dinky/plinky music-box-style melody-riffs, Kevin Blechdom's three-inch CD The Inside Story (Tigerbeat6) offers nine player-piano-like miniatures, ranging from charming clockwork naïveté to carny-show grotesquerie. Conversely, her imminent solo album for Chicks on Speed's label takes the vocal element and taboo-tweaking of Haus De Snaus to the dizzy limit. Up against Inside Story's instrumentals, Bitches Without Britches (those Blechdom gals sure love alliteration and internal rhyme) comes off a mad-catchy song-fest: Kevin's high reedy voice fluting over ornate-but-thin synthesized orchestration and dementedly overdriven drum machine. Imagine some three-way collision of Tori Amos, the Frogs, and Stephen Merritt, operating with a studio outlay restricted to under $100. Kevin is clearly the Blechgirl most infatuated with the idea of transgressive bad taste, and on Bitches she goes for the Yiddish triple whammy: schlock, kitsch, chintz. Covering Tina Turner's "Private Dancer" is a low blow indeed, but pales next to her paean to boyfriend kid606 a/k/a "Mr. Miguel." Trilling like some helium-huffing composite of Enya and Kiki Dee, Kevin rhymes "heart" with "private part" and sings choice verses like "Mr. Miguel/we're doing just swell/and it's only getting better/because my pussy's feeling wetter."

Where Kevin goes for full-frontal crudity, Blevin has a more oblique slant on the basic Blechdom sensation of things-not-quite-right-here. The cover of her superb solo album Talon Slalom (Deluxe) captures this, with its cheesy-yet-creepy painting of a woman wearing fur-trimmed ski goggles. Expanded to its full dimensions on the inner sleeve, the image is revealed as a found object: a bizarrely ill-conceived optician ad depicting an eagle's giant talons gripping the skier's skull (the bird of prey, seemingly confused by the fur, has swooped down on what it thinks is a tasty mountain hare). Things are no less awry on the CD itself. "Rockitship Long Light Years" samples an awesome female voice (Wanda Jackson gone lounge?) belting out what might once have been a raunchy double entendre: "come and take a trip/in my rocketship." The clanking, creaking groove makes me think of a coal-powered spacecraft from some steampunk parallel universe, puffing and straining as it struggles to reach escape velocity.

"The Way the Cookie Crumbles Straight From the Horse's Mouth" is the first of no fewer than four songs dedicated to boyfriend/musician J. Lesser. Chopping, time-stretching, and generally fucking with some classic blissed-out house-diva samples—phrases like "my vision is clear" and "feeling good" — Blevin makes the sort of sonic Valentine's Day card that a glitch-fiend like Lesser would appreciate. Like "Mr. Miguel," it's touchingly indicative of Blectum from Blechdom's distance from the IDM fraternity that they'd wear their hearts on their sleeves (or discs) so flagrantly.

published under the headline: Endangered Feces
and with the subhead
Blectum From Blechdom: They Came, They Saw, They Rectum

Monday, October 1, 2007



FLEETWOOD MAC, Tusk
from Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered booklet, free with Melody Maker, 1995
[director's cut version]

by SIMON REYNOLDS


If anyone remembers Fleetwood Mac's Tusk at all, it's as
the surprise flop sequel to 1977's Rumours. A soft-rock masterpiece (gorgeous melodicism charged with the emotional carnage wreaked by the inter-band tangle of break-ups and infidelities), Rumours was also an unprecedented blockbuster, selling a staggering 21 million copies worldwide. In America (where FM were just made for FM radio), the LP was even huger: 31 weeks at Numero Uno in the Billboard Charts (that's two-thirds of a YEAR!) and total sales that, at 14 million, still make it America's second best-selling LP ever. In the USA, Rumours was what happened instead of punk; even in Britain, where FM radio barely existed, it was the album in every suburban hi-fi cabinet, right next to Dark Side Of The Moon.

And so, by the fall of 1979, a tremendous head of anticipation had
built up vis-a-vis the long-awaited follow-up. Los Angeles' Mayor Tom Bradley
even made October 10th Fleetwood Mac Day to celebrate its release. Two years in
the making, Tusk had swallowed up an astronomical, and back then virtually unprecedented, $1 million. Instead of Rumours # 2, though, fans were confronted with a sprawling double album, dense with detail, alternately over-done and oddly incomplete, and seemingly devoid of hits. Record biz insiders
dubbed it "Lindsey's folly", a monument to the hubris and
Brian-Wilson-complex of de facto producer Lindsey Buckingham (the guy who'd originally turned around the one-time Brit-blues band's ailing fortunes, when he and his folk-rock-maiden lover Stevie Nicks had joined in '74). Sheer post-Rumours momentum resulted in solid sales of 4 million, although whether anybody who rushed out to buy Tusk on its day of release made it through the four sides more than once is a moot point (the number of mint second hand copies in circulation suggests otherwise). A virtual radio black-out completed the sense of non-event.

Tusk ranks as one of the great career-sabotage LP's in pop history, alongside The Clash's Sandinista, ABC's Beauty Stab and Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique; one of those albums by bands apparently on a creative and commercial roll who nonetheless wilfully confound their audience, motivated by artistic frustration, or fucked-up/fucked-off confusion, or simply because they've succumbed to a kind of collective death-wish.



The album that Tusk most reminds me of, though--as anti-populist refusal of the soft option and the easy money, as cocaine-addled exercise in superstar experimentalism--is Sly and the Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On. Musically, there's the same obsessively nuanced production, the same oddly disjointed rhythms; mood-wise, the same consumer-unfriendly aura of uncertainty (offputting to punters who felt they'd propelled their heroes up into the dizzy heights, and that the least they could do is sound like they were having fun). Hell, even the same two year gap between megahit (Stand, in Sly's case) and its down-tempo sequel. Tusk is soft-rock's Riot, a band's trademark sound fractured by the same forces of out-of-control fame and fortune that sent Sly spiralling off into paranoia and addiction; the document of a band half-defeated by, half-struggling against the soul-destroying poisons of luxury, sycophancy and party-powders. It's white So-Cal suburban blues.




^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

You only have to look at the record to get a pungent whiff of
not-rightness. Something's askew, from the oblique cover (an expanse of dun
and beige textures, with a B/W snap of a dog savaging someone's ankle), to the even then terribly dated '70s prog packaging (inner sleeves within inner sleeves,
trompe l'oeil, pseudo-surreal photos of the band) to the obtuse, inscrutable title (the perennial jester Mick Fleetwood's l'il joke, 'tusk' being his personal
slang for the male sex organ). The not-right aura was positively trumpeted
by the title-track single that trailed the LP, a daft little ditty whose mock-tribal rhythms, peculiar 'found sounds' in the back of the mix that sound like a restive mob, and pompous, punctilious horns (courtesy of the University of Southern
California Trojan Marching Band, recorded live at Dodger Stadium) now strangely
make me think of Faust at their silliest ("The Sad Skinhead", maybe). A 'novelty' hit, and doubtless by dint only of the blind-loyalty of the fans, "Tusk" sounded, to this 16 year old PiL-head, exactly like the hippy dinosaur drivel I'd read punk had set out to destroy. Mind you, I'd probably have felt the same about Faust, back then.



So I never actually heard Tusk the album at the time; but a few months
later I astonished myself by tumbling head-over-heels for "Sara", the Stevie Nicks song that provided Tusk's one bona fide hit (in the USA, anyway). Gushing out of the radio in, I guess, early 1980, the single's gold-dust rush of sound was the perfect aural analogue of the song's central, arresting image: "drowning/in the sea of love/where everyone would love to drown". Unaware of the metaphor's ancient history--which goes back through Romanticism's wombadelic dreams of "the sea of seas", through Zen, perhaps all the way to primordial memories of when life emerged from the briny deep--I was hooked by that line, and the oozy, swoony way Stevie sung it. I'd felt that oceanic impulse, the urge to merge, to be subsumed in the plenitude of "us" rather than stranded within the paucity of "me". Drowning in the sea of love--yeah, I could go for that.

Of course, it never occurred to me to buy the single; hard-earned egg-stall
money was reserved for 'relevant' releases, e.g. Gang of Four's second LP Solid
Gold
(whose dessicated drudgery I now wouldn't submit myself to if you paid me).Only when time enough had elapsed for the punk-indoctrination to fade, and I
could actually listen to forbidden fruit (e.g. Led Zeppelin), did I actually buy
Tusk, along with pretty much everything else Stevie had breathed on. I'd gotten this mad notion that Nicks' lachrymal, lump-in-throat (headful-of-snow?) voice was a precedent for the clotted, inconsolable-ness of Kristin Hersh.

Those who supervise admission to the Canon of Rock do not take Ms Nicks seriously, to put it mildly: "mooncalf", "space cadet", "hippy-chick" are the sort of pejorative hurled her way. And it's sort of understandable: how seriously can you take someone who named her publishing company Welsh Witch Music? Who--for her last interview with a UK rockmag--had her personal affects transported, at her own expense, to the photographer's studio, where her boudoir was
painstakenly recreated? In mitigation, I might propose her as the American Kate Bush (the same fascination for mythopoeic fancy, Celtic lore and old Albion). Actually, I'd rather up the stakes and make the case for Stevie as a pre-punk Liz Fraser, blessed with a voice so language-liquidising, so milk-and-honeyed, it's almost edible, definitely pre-Oedipal. Not only does Tusk contains two of Nicks' greatest songs--"Sara" and "Beautiful Child"--it also catches the Voice at its most perfect blend of husky and luscious, poised midway on the long dying arc from the nymph of "Dreams" (1977) to the rock survivor of the '80s/'90s, when age and abuse had worn her pipes down to a Marianne Faithfull croak.

A word of warning: the CD of Tusk contains a sacrilegiously truncated
edit of "Sara". Avoid this travesty and hunt down the vinyl dubble, for the full
six-and-a-half minute glory. Siphoning sheer nectar from her throat, Stevie is cradled in Buckingham's shimmerscape production--cascades of scintillating acoustic guitars, susurrating plumes of angel-breath harmonies, drums that seem to billow in out and of the mix (I imagine a totally wired Buckingham, hunched over the mixing desk, Lee Perry with a Cali perm and chest hair poking out his open shirt). At the second verse, there's a key change, the rhythm shifts to an uncanny urgency, it's like we've passed through the looking-glass; Stevie's singing becomes modal as she falls into reverie. The lyrics are elliptical, but charged with dream-time vividness: "I think I had met my match/he was singing/and undoing/the laces". The chorus is more affirmative, less otherwordly, then the song plunges back again through veils of gossamer haze into the mystic-zone; so liquefacient and iridescent is Stevie's voice, as she sings "the starling flew for days", it seems to chime and twinkle. Then the chorus--just a little too uplifting--and the song cruises off into a glorious slow-fade. I've never been able to figure out what "Sara" is about: is it a love-song to a woman, or a strange account of some kind of emotional
menage-a-trois, or just a mystical hymn to Love itself, its oceanic powers to
dissolve boundaries? Actually, I don't really want to know.

Elsewhere on Tusk, Stevie's in her Billie-Holiday-of-FM-radio mode.
The tale of a ships-passing-in-the-night tryst with an old flame, of consummated lust and unrequited love, "Beautiful Child" is exquisitely written, from the tentative, aching, dagger-in-your-heart melody to lines like "your eyes say 'yes'/but you don't say 'yes'", and it's framed in another bejewelled
Buckingham arrangement. The final stretch never fails to crush the breath out of me: a roundelay of double-tracked Stevie, plus backing harmonies, with all the voices repeating the lyrics from the last verse in counterpoint. The effect is like the heart is literally broken, a clockwork device gone out of synch, or like the lover's inner monologue is in 'random shuffle mode': self-confounding thoughts tread on each other's tails, clash and overlap, furrowing out a locked-groove of unresolvable anguish. All this is emphasised by the fatalistic trudge of the rhythm section as the song fades (yet paradoxically mounts in intensity)--like leaden steps that take you further and further into exile-from-paradise.

"Storms", the third and last Nicks gem, is also on the
angel-with-a-broken-wing tip. Drizzled in honeyed guitar, Stevie casts herself
as an elemental wild-child: "never have I been a calm blue sea/I have always
been a storm". "Angel" plays on the persona she established with "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)", the Celtic witch who "rules her life like a bird in flight",
the proto-feminist sprite forever eluding male grasp. "Sisters Of The Moon"
harps on the Woman-as-Mystery shtick too, but the stompin' stodge-rock brings to mind unwelcome images of Stevie whirling her scarves around onstage, and when she
belts, there's a glottal wobble that reminds you why so many people regard her as
kin to Kim Carnes et al, as opposed to unacknowledged precursor to Hersh, Fraser, Merchant and Archer (Tasmin, that is).

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

And what of Fleetwood Mac's other two singer/songwriters, Christine McVie
and Lindsey Buckingham? (It's ironic that the band are named after the rhythm
section, although Mick & John's supple, poised grooves--schooled
in the British blues-boom--are vital to this music's sway, the way it breathes).



I've never cared much for Christine McVie's air-freshener tones.
Greil Marcus hailed her as "the premier white female singer of the ['70s]" and even "rock's answer to Lorelei" (the siren of Germanic legend whose dulcet tones lured Rhine boatmen to shipwreck). But for me, her clarity of expression wholly lacks Stevie's grain-of-the-voice viscosity. (It seems appropriate that before marrying McVie she was Christine Perfect). Still, she has sung some of FM's (the band and the medium) prettiest songs, and on Tusk she has one stone killa in the baleful "Brown Eyes", a song trembling with the tentativeness of someone on the edge of falling in love but who's been burned too many times before. Elsewhere, McVie whips up her usual meringue of diabetic harmonies for songs like "Honey Hi".



As for Lindsey--eight songs and total hegemony over the mixing-desk make
Tusk his album, really. The production is credited to
"Fleetwood Mac (special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham": is that a hint of sarcasm, or just Buckingham insisting on pre-eminence? Cramming every cranny of the soundscape with detail, fanatically tweaking the minutiae, overdubbing 'til the cows come home, Buckingham earns his special mention, and then some. In his guide to albums of the '70's, Dean of American rock-crits Robert Christgau notes the surreptitious avant-gardism at work here: the way the "passionate dissociation of the mix" means the music works "like reggae, or Eno--not only don't Lindsay Buckingham's swelling edges and dynamic separations get in the way of the music, they're inextricable from the music, or maybe they are the music."



All this is particularly evident in the placing and dislocation
of the drums and in the intricate lattice-work of the harmonies. This So-Cal hallmark, from the Beach Boys to the Eagles, is on Tusk taken to an almost pathological pitch of complexity: on "The Ledge", peculiar acoustics turn the harmonies into a vocal labyrinth, while the backing voices on
"That's All For Everyone" overlap, intertwine and converge in 3D,
like the celestial geometry of close-formation jet aerobatics. Buckingham
is also a bit of a bitchin' guitar player: dig his hornet-in-your-earhole fuzz solo on "Not That Funny" (Faust again, this time "It's A Bit Of A Pain"), or
the gently weeping C&W filigree that adorns "What Makes You Think You're
The One" (where Buckingham's saccharine sneer is reverbed like John Lennon on "Instant Karma").

Buckingham's songs--which I don't respond to as emotional statements
so much as peculiar sonic objects--range from lurching ballads encased in
wedding-cake arrangements to an odd strain of hillybilly boogie, like
the 1.58 minute canter of "That's Enough For Me" (imagine Carl Perkins filtered through Boston's "More Than A Feeling").


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Back in '79, Greil Marcus was one of the few critics to defend Tusk, decrying its disappointed reception as sure and sad proof of "the growing conservatism of the rock'n'roll mainstream", and declaring that "the stand Fleetwood Mac has taken with Tusk is as brave as that Bob Dylan took with John Wesley Harding --braver, maybe, because Fleetwood Mac cannot rely on Dylan's kind of charisma, or on the kind of loyalty he commands.... With its insistence on perceptions snatched out of a blur, drawing on (but never imitating) Jamaican dub and ancient Appalachian ballads, Fleetwood Mac is subverting the music from the inside out, very much like one of John Le Carre's moles--who planted in the heart of the establishment, does not begin his secret campaign of sabotage and betrayal until everyone has gotten used to him, and takes him for granted".

Perhaps this is to attribute too much to a record only half of which really withstands close scrutiny. Still, Marcus' inclusion of the Tusk piece in In The Fascist Bathroom [aka Ranters and Crowdpleasers], his anthology of punk-related writings, is a striking feat of recontextualisation. Only 30 pages later comes a treatise on PiL's Metal Box. There are unlikely parallels between Tusk and Box: both were long-awaited double albums released late in '79, with bizarre packaging; both were essays in anti-rockism shaped by the input of dub; both were attempts (probably semi-conscious in Fleetwood Mac's case) to sidestep an audience's expectations and tamper with one's own mythology. But Marcus' juxtaposition appeals to me especially, because Metal Box was the absolute soundtrack of my angst-wracked adolescence, while "Sara", an 'aberration' in my punk-conditioned taste, was a brief glimpse of something ("the sea of love") beyond the prison-cell of misery-me.