Monday, July 9, 2018

Position Normal and the dawn of hauntology

looking back at this 1999 review of Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense  I can see both the wistful-for-postpunk feelings that led to Rip It Up and Start Again and a preview of hauntology as a critical perspective


POSITION NORMAL
Stop Your Nonsense
SAINT ETIENNE
Places to Visit
Village Voice, 1999

by Simon Reynolds


The bursting of  Britpop bubble's has left the UK's (non-dance)
music scene in the terminal doldrums. A&R's and hacks alike
twiddle their thumbs and wonder why nothing's happening.  One
reason is that Britpop's make-it-big-nothing-else-counts
triumphalism has withered the left-field and virtually obliterated
the concept of independent music. Another is that all the purely
musical intellect around  has entered the dance arena, leaving
rock to  those whose only virtuosity is auto-hype, e.g. Gay Dad,
with their former pop journalist frontman and reheated Suede homo-erotic-rhetoric.


Position Normal's enchanting Stop Your Nonsense (Mind
Horizon) is a flashback to the infinitely more robust UK music
culture of  1979-81---the postpunk ferment which spawned genuinely
independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely
musical  bands like Pop Group, This Heat and The Associates, and
the countless one-shot flashes of DIY inspiration  aired nightly
on John Peel's radio show. It was an era when bands still operated
in the modernist conviction that absolute novelty was absolutely
possible.



Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based,  its homespun
imprecision feels closer to hand-made tape loops than digital
seamlessness; collage-wise, it's somewhere between Nurse With
Wound and De La Soul's debut.  Only Nonsense's stoned-to-say-the-
least aura locates the album in the post-rave Nineties.  Chris
Bailiff, the man behind Position Normal, is as fastidiously
attuned to the timbral colors of sound-in-itself as Aphex Twin or
Wagon Christ.  His favorite production trick is a combination of
reverb and filtering that make sounds glint like they've been
irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight pouring into a gloomy
room. 



He EQ's the Lotte Lenya soundalike on "German" until her
voice crumbles into a billowing gold-dust rush, makes a pizzicato
mandolin refrain glisten uncannily in "Jimmy Had Jane,"  and
reverbs the stark  piano chords of "Rabies" so they sound as
poignant as Erik Satie marooned in Keith Hudson's dub-chamber. On 
"Bedside Manners," a lustrous mirage of  echoplexed guitar
backdrops a  surreal medical monologue,  with guest-vocalist
Cushway perfectly capturing the  condescending cadences and smarmy
solicitousness of a English doctor.



In its semi-conscious way, Stop Your Nonsense is an essay
about Englishness and its inevitable evanescence. The album's
dream-drift haze is peopled with spectral traces of all those
eccentric relatives (The Fall, Ivor Cutler, Viv Stanshall, Ian
Dury, John Cooper Clark, Vini Reilly) written out of  the will
when Britpop pruned its family tree down to the straight-and-
narrow lineage:  Beatles>Pistols>Stone Roses>Oasis. 



Never overtly nostalgic, Position Normal's music triggers plangent sensations of
nostalgia,  at least for this expatriate. Perhaps because its
samples are pulled off crackly vinyl platters and reel-to-reel
tape spools foraged from thrift stores and garage sales, Nonsense
evokes the bygone, parochial crapness of Olde England--the quaint,
musty provincialism banished by the New Labour government's
modernising policies and by the twin attrition of
Americanisation/Europeanisation.



 Some of Nonsense's most magical
tracks  aren't really music, but melodious mosaics of  speech
expertly tiled from disparate, sepia-tinted sources.  "Lightbulbs" 
sets a cheeky little rascal against a 1970s hi-fi buff  droning on
about "my main gain fader". On "Hop Sa Sa"  Bailiff  varispeeds a
kiddies' choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle-aged
man's  quizzical "why not for donkeys?," and then, for a
inexplicably heart-tugging coda, transforms the title's nonsense
phrase into an ostinato hanging in an echoey void.




Position Normal's fondness for  "found sound" (the patter 
of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market; creaky-voiced
Aunty Betty leaving a phone message for  Doreen)
reminds me of  Saint Etienne's penchant for  punctuating their
early albums with snatches of movie dialogue and cafeteria chat
eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. Like Bailiff,  Saint Etienne are
sampladelic poets whose subject is a lost Englishness. The trio--
singer Sarah Cracknell,  soundboy Pete Wiggs, and Melody Maker
journalist turned Spector wannabe Bob Stanley--started out as part
of  that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of
Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of the later
Britpop's loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod-stylist--
proudly English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-
pop, Nineties 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 excresences,
including the "found sound" interludes. 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 equally by
The Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz  Charlie Brown music. 

A a pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne's
six-track EP  Places To Visit (SubPop) 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 Foxbase
Alpha'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 heart-string bassline out of "Wichita
Lineman", and radical stereo separation (don't try this one on
headphones). "We're In the City" is cold 'n' bouncy dancepop in
the vein of So Tough's "Clock Milk," with deliciously itchy
percussion.  And "Artieripp" is a tantalizing tone-and-texture
poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars. 
      Recorded in four different studios and drawing on diverse
talents like  O'Hagan and avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O'Rourke,
Places shows that Saint Etienne belong among the ranks of the
sound-sculptors. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration
with To Rococo Rot). Saint Etienne are aesthetes who love 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. 


Another take on Stop Your Nonsense, for Uncut

POSITION NORMAL

Stop Your Nonsense
Mind Horizon Recordings
Uncut, 1999
*****

Sampladelic nutter debuts with the missing link between The Residents' *Commercial Album* and Saint Etienne's *Foxbase Alpha*.




Chris Bailiff, the 27 year old eccentric responsible for *Stop Your Nonsense*, used to perform under the name Bugger Sod. It's a moniker that captures the spirit of amiably insubordinate Anglo-Dada  he's now perpetrating as Position Normal. If you wanted to get pop historically precise, you'd place *Nonsense* at the intersection of three genealogies. There's the bygone John Peel realm of post-punk DIY weirdness 1979-81
---Native Hipsters's "There Goes Concorde Again", Furious Pig, Virgin Prunes. Then there's the more recent lineage of Krautrock-influenced lo-fi that includes Stereolab and Beta Band. And because *Nonsense* is all done with samples (plus some guitar and the occasional "real" vocal), you'd also have to mention  Saint Etienne's eerie "found sound" interludes on their first two albums, Wagon Christ, and Bentley Rhythm Ace (if they abandoned Big Beat boisterousness for ambient chill-out).



      The Bentleys, who scavenge carboot sales for ultra-cheesy vinyl, and Wagon Christ, a sampladelic wizard who specialises in alchemising cheddar into gold,  may be the most apt contemporary parallels. Position Normal's sample sources sound like they've been plucked from charity shops and skips--warped spoken-word albums and crackly E-Z listening platters; faded BetaMax videos,  ancient reel-to-reel tapes, and worn out answer-machine cassettes. Accessing the dusty, disavowed memories purged from a nation's attics and cellars, Bailiff has reanimated all the fusty English quaintness that Blair-ite modernisation and cappucino culture have allegedly banished. Maybe it's just where my head is at right now, but  *Nonsense* triggers sepia-tinted  flashbacks to  *temps perdu*: chalk-dust motes irradiated in the shaft of light streaming from a classroom window; a paper bag of boiled sweets from the row of jars behind the counter; butcher shops with bloody sawdust on the floor.



      *Nonsense* contains too many highlights. "The Blank" rubs clangorous Fall circa "Rowche Rumble" guitars up against quiz-show samples ("what is the blank?"). "Jimmy Had Jane" is like Ian Dury meets The Faust Tapes: a baleful Cockney voice crooning about a sordid sexual encounter perpetrated by a bloke with "pickled egg eyes," offset by the eerie glint of a filtered 'n' reverbed ukelele. "German" is Lotte Lenya marooned in King Tubby's dub chamber. "Bucket Wipe" sounds like the carefree whistling of a Martian postman. "Nostril and Eyes" could be fragments of *Under Milkwood* reassembled into surrealist sound-poetry: "is there any *any*? Rank, dimpled, drooping... Smudge, crust, smell--*tasty* lust." 



 "Rabies" shifts from a helium-addled Frank Sidebottom ditty to shatteringly poignant Satie-esque piano chords drenched in cavernous reverb. "Lightbulbs" and "Hop Sa Sa" expertly crosshatch shards of speech (a chirpy schoolboy praising "a lovely bit of string", a hi-fi buff boasting about "my main gain fader", a kindergarten choir singing a song about monkeys) into melodious mosaics.

      The many samples of children's voices, the cover picture of a little lad utterly absorbed with his Scalectrix, and the title *Stop Your Nonsense* (a cross grown-up telling off an incorrigible brat) all suggest that if Position Normal is "about" anything, it's regression as a refusal of the state of dreamlessness commonly known as "adulthood".  As such, *Nonsense* plugs into that British absurdist comedy tradition of  cracked whimsy and renegade daftness that includes Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, and Reeves & Mortimer . Above all,  *Nonsense* has charm--not in its degraded modern sense (Robbie Williams's cheeky-chappy grin) but  "charm" as casting a spell on the listener, charm as enchantment. My favourite record of 1999, so far. 




<

      The Beta Band, Lo-Fidelity Allstars,  Royal Trux>>





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


prototype version of Voice piece


The bursting of  Britpop bubble's has left the UK's (non-dance) music scene in the terminal doldrums. Last year, when Pulp's This Is Hardcore unexpectedly flopped sales-wise and panicked labels began purging rosters of the sub-Oasis dross they'd paid silly money for, New Musical Express did a cover story on the death throes of the UK music industry. Strangely, they blamed everything under the sun except the Britpress's own collusion in Britpop's coke-addled  triumphalism and dumbing-down of  music discourse. Today, long after the goldrush, A&R's and hacks alike twiddle their thumbs and wait, wait, for something to happen. Some wonder why you never get bands like Roxy Music or The Associates anymore, artpop explosions of glamour, literacy and sonic wizardry. One reason might be that all the purely musical intellect has gone into the dance arena, abandoning  pop to those who have the gift of the gab but not a musical bone in their bodies--like Manic Street Preachers, or this season's great white hype Gay Dad, with their ex-pop journalist frontman and reheated Suede homo-erotic-rhetoric.


In many ways,  Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense is a flashback to the infinitely more robust UK music culture of  1979-81; the postpunk ferment which produced truly independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely musical  bands like The Pop Group and This Heat, plus the countless one-shot flashes of DIY inspiration that were aired on John Peel's radio show. It was a time when eccentricity was encouraged and bands operated with absolute confidence that there were still millions of new things to do; the idea of consciously referring back to the pop past would have been disgusting.  Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based (plus a bit of guitar and a few 'real' vocals), it has a homespun imprecision that feels more like hand-made tape loops than digital seamlessness; collage-wise, it's somewhere between Nurse With Wound and De La Soul's first album.

Only the album's stoned-to-say-the-least, mildly hallucinatory aura gives the game away that this is the late Nineties. Like Beta Band and Wagon Christ, Position Normal's Chris Bailiff exhibits a fetishistic attention to the texture of sound-in-itself that is the hallmark of  post-Aphex/post-Tricky music-making. Bailiff's fave production trick is using a combination of reverb and EQ-tweaking to make sounds glint uncannily likely they've been irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight pouring into a gloomy room. He uses it on a music-hall mandolin refrain that's the magic heart of "Jimmy Had Jane" and on the Lotte Lenya soundalike in "German", and again for the second half of "Rabies", whose stark, plangent piano chords sound like a sistraught Erik Satie trapped in a dub-chamber dungeon. "Bedside Manners" features a similarly shimmery mirage of lustrous, echoplexed guitar, over which guest-vocalist Cushway intones a surreal monologue of medical non-sequiturs, perfectly capturing the  condescending cadences and smarmy solicitousness of a English family doctor.

 In a probably semi-unconscious way, Nonsense is a kind of essay on Englishness. Its spectral haze is full of indistinct echoes of all the eccentric relatives--Viv Stanshall, The Fall, Ivor Cutler, Ian Dury, John Cooper Clark--written out of  the will when Britpop's family tree got trimmed down to the straight-and-narrow lineage of  Beatles>Pistols>Stone Roses>Oasis. Never overtly nostalgic, it triggers powerful sensations of nostalgia, at least for this expatriate: a sense of  the bygone, lovable crapness of England, now banished thanks to the New Labour government's modernising policies and the twin pressures of Americanisation and pan-Europeanism. The sepia-tinted, time-worn atmosphere probably has a lot to do with the sample-sources--crackly vinyl pluced from thrift stores and garage sales. Some of my favorites on the album aren't  music as such but expertly tiled mosaics of  sampled speech from utterly unconnected sources. On "Lightbulbs,"  a little rascal cheeks a hi-fi buff  droning on about "main gain faders". On "Hop Sa Sa"  Bailiff  varispeeds a kiddies' choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle aged man's  quizzical suggestion "why not for donkeys?," and creates an inexplicably poignant coda by turning the songtitle's nonsense phase into an ostinato hanging in an echoey void.

These and Nonsense's other "found sound" assemblages (the patter  of Cockney stallholders in a fruit'n'veg market; Aunty Betty leaving a phone message for Doreen)
remind me of the interludes with which Saint Etienne peppered their first two albums Foxbase Alpha and So Tough--snatches of movie dialogue, cafe and bar chat caught on dictaphone, and so forth. Like Position Normal, but rather more self-consciously, Saint Etienne traffic in sampladelic essays on lost Englishness. They started out as part of a superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim and the pre-megastardom Pulp. The sensibility was mod-stylist rather than Britpop's lad-boorish --  proudly English but metropolitan and cosmopolitan, equally open to Sixties French femme-pop and Nineties Italo-house, and as enamored of the dub-noise splendor of A.R. Kane as the Motown-beat of Northern Soul. But being morbidly obsessed with scoring a UK Top Ten hit (a doomed fantasy they should have abandoned when their masterpiece "Avenue" stalled on the threshold of  the Top Forty), Saint Etienne gradually smoothed out the experimental lumps (including those found sound interludes) and got increasingly characterless and sleek. Reconvening in 1998 after a four year sabbatical, Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell slimmed down further still for Good Humour, which abandoned sampling for Swedish session musicians and a clean, crisp sound inspired equally by The Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi's lite-jazz incidental themes for the Charlie Brown cartoons.

 A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Et's maxi-EP-or-is-it-a-mini-album  Places To Visit (SubPop) is an unexpected and welcome reversion to... everything that was ever any good about them, basically. Its six tracks were recorded in at least four different studios and draws on such diverse collaborative talents as Sean O'Hagan of avant-EZ outfit High Llamas and post-everything hired gun Jim O'Rourke (who supplies "electronic wizardry"). On "Ivyhouse,"Saint Etienne are dubby and angel's breath ethereal in ways they haven't been since Foxbase Alpha's "London Belongs To Me." The O'Hagan produced "52 Pilot" features sparkling vibes, a elastic-band bassline out of "Wichita Lineman", and radical stereo separation (don't listen to this one on headphones). "We're In the City" is cold'n'bouncy dancepop in the vein of So Tough's "Clock Milk," with deliciously itchy percussion sounds and a neat Kraftwerky interlude. And  "Artieripp" is a tone-and-texture poem as tantalizing and deftly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars; apparently, Saint Etienne are soon to embark on a collaboration with To Rococo Rot. Overall, here's hoping that Places To Visit has served a similar function for Saint Et as Music For The Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: a sideline project, a rejuvenating chance to stretch out and mess around,  that ends up setting them back on course. For Saint Etienne have always been pop aesthetes -- interested less in songcraft as a means of  emotional expression and more for the  purely formal contours of its loveliness; like their US counterpart Stephen Merritt, they're interested in expressing themselves but in crafting
"pretty objects to treasure for ever."


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