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

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.

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

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.

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.

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
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

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


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
(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.