Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Wire, 2008

by Simon Reynolds

One of my favorite British expressions is "gutted". Crude vernacular for emotionally devastated,  "absolutely gutted, mate" is what you say when your team loses 4: nil or your spouse runs off with your best friend."  Thinking about the ever-escalating output of reissue culture, it struck me there's scope for a variant.  "Absolutely glutted, mate" would be the plaintive admission of the chronic music fan overwhelmed by the torrential output of new-old recordings. "Glutted" perfectly captures that over-sated sensation, the aural equivalent to chronic fatigue syndrome, where the auditory-pleasure centre of the brain is fried after years of trying to process, absorb, feel, too much music in too little time.

Reissue-mania --conceived in the largest sense to encompass both official rereleases/compilations/box sets and the sharity blog bonanza of out-of-print arcana--would appear, on the face of it, to be an unqualified boon.  Surely it's churlish to complain when so many remarkable treasures have been unearthed?  How easily we forget how ridiculously hard it was to get hold of legendary obscurities in the bad old days when records actually went out of print,  compared to today when everything under the sun gets reissued while the Internet/Ebay/et al makes finding recondite weirdnesses infinitely easier. 

Certainly there's plenty of fantastic bygone sounds encountered for the first time this year  I wouldn't wish to have foregone.  Postpunk's seam ought to have been mined beyond exhaustion after six years of  steady excavation, but gems are still coming through.  The Acute label provided some genuinely unknown pleasures with Memory Span and Flood Bank, their two 2008 reissues of music by The Lines (imagine A Certain Ratio with tunes) while  LTM launched their  "Auteur Label" series with fine anthologies of  Factory Benelux, Les Disques du Crepuscule and New Hormones (how wonderful to hear the hooligan-Neu! stampede of "Big Noise From the Jungle" by Pete Shelley's side project The Tiller Boys  approximately 27 years after it fell off John Peel's playlist).  Another great lost Manchester independent, Object, also received the LTM treatment with a label overview plus albums by Spherical Objects and Grow Up. At the other end of postpunk's timespan, ZTT followed its Andrew Poppy box set and deluxe double-disc 808 State reisues with a lavishly appointed box containing three discs of the label's monster-hits, oddities, and latterday twilight-matter, a DVD of ZTT's arty promo videos, a Paul Morley mini-memoir essay, but--frustratingly--not a complete set of his heroically pretentious sleeve notes.  Another area of personal passion, post-WW2 electronics/concrete/text-sound, was well-served this year by labels like Paradigm (Trevor Wishart's Machine, Lily Greenham's Lingual Music), Melon Expander (Warner Jepson's Totentanz and Other Electronic Works 1958-1973 ), Trunk (two CD's of attic tapes from Radiophonic Workshopper John Baker) and Creel Pone (too many to mention).  And there's always the threat of new obsessions budding, like the raw yet somehow unearthly funkadelic hypno-grooves of West Africa, a dense zone of hard-to-find magic surveyed by Richard Henderson in The Wire 298 and now dilettante-friendly thanks to splendid 2008 compilations from the Strut, Analog Africa and Soundway labels.

Did I say "threat"?  There is something vaguely menacing--to your wallet, hard drive capacity, spare-time reserves and musical digestive system--about the way that reissue-mania is constantly pushing back barriers, both geographically and in terms of that "foreign country", the past. Curator-compiler types like Bob Stanley, having run out of ways to remap the relatively recent pop past through the retroactive invention of genres (wyrd folk, baroque pop, junkshop glam, etc) are now moving steadily into the pre-WW2 era, discovering music hall or early gospel recordings.  Yet the horizon of the historical past--as something ready to be reappraised and repackaged--is also creeping up on our very heels. I was startled to realise that "retro" now encompasses not just music from my teenage/student years (as with postpunk) but the late twenties of my early days as a professional critic: Loop's 1987 debut Heaven's End was reissued last month, World Domination Enterprises and Disco Inferno reissues are in the pipeline, while Soul Jazz this year edged outside their "good taste" comfort zone with a Ragga Twins retrospective and An England Story, an overview of the Jamaica-into-UK tradition of toasters and mic chatters from dancehall through jungle to grime.  Archive fever's tentancles even reached the later Nineties this year with an overdose of heroin house: Gas's Nah und Fern box (reissue of the year?), a remastered rerelease of Monolake's HongKong, Basic Channel's BCD-2.  What next,  the double-disc Deluxe Edition of Oval's 94 Diskont?!?

Reissue-mania appeals to the best and worst in music-fan psychology. Worst first: sheer greed for sound-stimulus,  a ravenous, insatiable appetite for novelty combined with a neurotic anxiety about missing out on anything.  But there's also a call to the better angels of our nature:  a self-edifying impulse to become the most fully-rounded listener you can be combined with a drive towards redressing historical injustices,  genres like Italodisco, Freestyle or Eighties dancehall that suffered from critical condescension in their own heyday.  And yet for all that, speaking purely from a punter's point of view, doesn't it feel like it's all gotten a little out of hand?   I can't be the only one who visits UbuWeb's immensely laudable, ever-growing archive of experimental sound, text and film and almost faints at the prospect of all that (thoroughly deserving) creativity's claims on my attention. Surely I'm not alone in feeling oddly heart-stick upon reading about Honest Jon's access to EMI's  gargantuan treasury of 78 rpm recordings from across the globe made by roving sound-collector Fred  Gaisberg in the first decade of 20th Century, which has already resulted in the compilation Give Me Love: The Brokenhearted of Baghdad 1925-1929, with others soon-to-come documenting Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran, and the Belgian Congo? Even a Radiophonic fiend like myself felt a shiver of queasy ambivalence at the ostensibly joyous news about the monster cache of Delia Derbyshire material discovered this year, or the announcement that  Goldsmiths University is establishing an online archive of Daphne Oram's complete soundworks (which runs to over 200 tape reels). Queasy, because, to be perfectly honest,  my life isn't… that…. empty.

There's another downside to reissue-mania, affecting production as opposed to consumption. As young musicians develop in a climate where the musical past is accessible and available to an inundating degree, more and more you encounter artists whose work is a constellation of exquisite and "surprising" taste, a lattice-work of reference points and sources that spans the decades and the oceans but never quite manages to invent for itself a reason to exist.  This syndrome, which has been building for years, rose to the surface of critical consciousness in the Soundcheck section of  this very magazine last month. Celebrating Neil Landstrumm, Joe Mugsg had to do some fancy footwork to sidestep the counter-case that this sort of "wonky" eclectronica is mere post-rave pastiche. A  few pages later, Matthew Wuethrich, reviewing albums by Valerio Cosi, asked a salient question: "where amid all this din" of  influence-daubed, transglobally hybridized musicking could you locate the artist himself?  Glutted musicians make clotted music, it stands to reason.  But short of a rigorous, self-blinkering regime of privation and seclusion, it's hard to see a way out of that.

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