Tuesday, May 27, 2008
The Royal Festival Hall, London
Melody Maker, 1987
by Simon Reynolds
I've never approached a typewriter with a stronger sense of temerity. I feel barely qualified to write down the man's name, let alone pass judgement, seek to pick apart the music.
On the night, it seemed a different matter, at least at first. Things weren't really happening. I could even tell what was wrong. Miles' band were laying down a frenetic funk-jazz hyrbid not dissimilar to that of Ronald Shannon Jackson or Defunkt; to me, it seemed that the funk regimen was too tight, too much of a rush, to give any player a chance to blow free, least of all Miles. At the same time, the sound was too fussy to work as funk - too much detailed work along the vertical, not enough thrust along the horizontal. On the roomier pieces, Miles was, to put it euphemistically, "over-democratic", sitting out almost entire songs with his back to the audience, while the guitarist or saxophonist soloed to their heart's content.
Then suddenly, Miles and band hit their stride suddenly I'm at a loss for words. Agape, i can only gesture at this sound with a phrase like "Neptunian funk"--a ghostly abstraction of terrestial dance shapes. Funk far too polymorphous and wayward to be contained by stable referents like "soul" or even "the body". There's no singular groove here, but a surplus of tangents. Too many colours. The keyboards spiral off into abrupt lunar pirouettes and backflips: the garrulous sprawl of the sound will lift off like a lagoon of flamingoes taking fright, or it'll collapse in on itself like a house of cards. In this decentred funk, Miles dovetails as a componment rather than star, his trumpet ranging from an involuted, hieroglyphic scribble to a broad blare.
On the cover versions, Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", Miles dominates - swoonily gorgeous, of course ("Human Nature" dwindles into an unbearably lovely meander) - but these toons are a just a little trite next to the unmoored oceanic swell of the rest of the set. I like it when Miles takes me out of my depth.
These are great players he's working with, and he gives them plenty of opportunity to shine (in the case of the guitarist, rope to hang himself). I particularly treasure the memory of Daryl Jones and his sweet, agonisted expression as he squeezed loose a chain of hexagonal bass clusters, half-squatting as though undergoing a difficult birth; also, Mino Cinelu's bloodcurdling percussion solo. But it's the sight of the man himself that lives in the memory. A slight, hunched figure, leonine - in his glitter pants, spangled jacket and shades he looks like an ancient Michael Jackson. His tongue, unfurled to signify exhaustion, is tree frog pink.
At the end, a large number of white, middle class, middle-aged people stream to the front to wring his hand in gratitude: it could be cringey, but somehow it's genuinely touching. Despite the barrage of obsequious palms, Davis remains untouchable -- something in his best music clings to him like an aura, makes him seem not of this world.
In A Silent Way
Melody Maker, 1988
By Simon Reynolds
Reissued under the auspices of CBS's Jazz Masterpieces budget-price CD series, In A Silent Way should present no problems for the jazz ignoramus. No homework or thorough schooling is required: In A Silent Way is as immediately captivating as it is infinitely complex. Besides, it belongs to "us" as much as to jazz - and this year more than ever. For In A Silent Way was the birth of "oceanic rock" (it was recorded in 1969, which surely has as much to do with A.R. Kane calling their album 69 as their undeniable obsession with oral sex). Like our own oceanic wanderers, In A Silent Way surfaced against a backdrop of impending apocalypse: it was a subaquatic Arcadia, an atoll of serenity in turbulent times.
Miles is at the heart of it, siphoning sheer serendipity from his instrument: the master of economy, every inflection is telling. But ever the democrat, he's economical with his own presence, and shares star-billing with a constellation of luminary players (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul on electric piano, John McLaughlin on guitar, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Tony Williams on drums). What they create for him to coast in and out of is an indolently funky swirlpool of sound as warmly wombing as the gulf stream. It's so seamless, so organically fused (this was the genesis of "fusion" , after all) that it's impossible to believe the fact of the matter, which is that these pieces are edited together from numerous sessions. Hancock, Corea, Zawinul and McLaughlin dart and dilate like a shoal of exotic marine life, conjuring up a cosmic Jacuzzi of spume and spindrift, anemone-intricate whorls of sound, "froth on the daydream".
"Shhh/Peaceful" is like learning to breathe again. "In A Silent Way" itself slows your metabolism down so far you feel you're watching dewdrops bud and blossom, with McLaughlin's guitar deliquescing in delicate traceries over the soft, somnolent single-note growl of Shorter's saxophone. "It's About that Time" makes you feel like a corpuscle in the bloodstream of God.
The Miles Davis ensemble convened for In A Silent Way recorded other amazing records, most notably the incomparable Bitches Brew. Afterwards, each went on to pursue their own version of what they'd discovered with Miles: Zawinul and Shorter in Weather Report, Corea with Return to Forever, McLaughlin with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Holland on ECM. For Miles what lay ahead was the fucked-up funk of On the Corner and the gloom catacombs of Get Up With It - some of the most disturbed and disturbing music ever made. In A Silent Way is like a little oasis of asylum before the storm. It makes a lot of sense, listening now. Immerse yourself in these healing waters. Prepare for a baptism of bliss.
Melody Maker, 1989
by Simon Reynolds
Aura is a most curious work. It was composed by Palle Mikkelborg in 1984, when Miles Davis was awarded the Sonning Music Prize, and recorded in '85 when Davis was in Copenhagen to receive the prize. Aura is intended as a portrait of the artist: eight pieces that each draw on different phases of Davis' oeuvre and each of which is named after a different colour that Mikkelborg detects in Miles' "aura". The ten letters of 'Miles Davis' have been rendered into ten notes,
from which Mikkelborg has derived a scale for the entire composition. And already Aura has been hailed as the most stimulating Miles release for at least a decade.
Mikkelborg's compositions provide the trumpet visionary with an adventure playground to test his genius. His recent WEA albums with Marcus Miller have been grounded in
state-of-art pop funk, and accordingly have run a rather straightforward gamut of emotions (from gaiety, happy-sad, mellow melancholy). Mikkelborg's complex compositions provoke the kind of unfathomable, untranscribeable emotions
we haven't heard from Miles since maybe On The Corner or Get Up With It. Once again, praise the Lord, Miles sounds lost in inner space.
Some of Aura falls into the fold of fusion. After a brief moment of cathedral immensity, "Intro" sets off into a jarring future-funk groove over which John McLaughlin writes his signature in white lightning. "Orange" is extrovert, even
swanky, powered by McLauglin's stratospheric graffiti and garrulous, amphetamine-gabbling keyboards. And "Blue" is a hodge-podge of 21st century reggae. But the best parts of Aura are closer to ECM. Where "cool jazz" (which Miles more or less invented) slowed down bop's frantic metabolic rate, ECM music is a quest for absolute zero, an almost petrified serenity. (There are creatures who live in the ocean underneath the Antarctic ice-cap, whose metabolic rate has been slowed down by the cold to the point where they live for centuries).
"White" is a pensive Miles soliloquy in an abbey courtyard full of apprehensive chimes and percussive rustlings, and coloured by an ominous synth glow. "That
silence is loud", quoth Davis of "White" in the sleevenotes. "Yellow" is a majestic, orchestral piece: twinkling clusters of harp against canopies of woodwind (together, it's like the night sky snowing stars) alternate with abrupt avalanches of horns that are terrible to behold. And "Green" is a tundra wilderness for Miles' bewildered musings, a basin of silence edged around by whispers and murmurs.
Aura is fifty per cent awesome, and never less than intriguing. I shudder with anticipation (and frustration) at the thought of the thousands of hours of unreleased Miles Davis tapes that still reputedly lurk in the CBS vaults.
MILES DAVIS with QUINCEY TROUPE
Miles: the Autobiography
Melody Maker, March 3rd 1990
by Simon Reynolds
On the Corner
Melody Maker, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
In the late Sixties, the influence of the counter culture percolated into Miles Davis' music. In A Silent Way was jazz's answer to Hendrix' "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be", a beatific lagoon of serenity. On 1970's Bitches Brew, oceanic rock turned murky and miasmic; Miles' labyrinth of cthonic catacombs perfectly caught the era's apocalyptic aura. The Sixties drive to "break on through" had unleashed terrifying voodoo forces; venture too far into the unknown, shed too many repressions, and you risk psychosis, the loss of the brakes and boundaries that make you human.
By 1972's On The Corner, the counter culture's boundless psychic spaces had suffered contraction. On The Corner is implosive, seething with volcanic but caged energies: it's jazz's answer to There's A Riot Goin' On. In the funk of Sly Stone and James Brown, Miles found a perfect musical analogue for the early Seventies 'the world is a ghetto' vibe. The bulk of the album consists of feverish, minimal-is-maximal varations around a single bass and guitar riff. The sulphurous fizz of the polyrhythms, the viscous malignancy of the bass, rhythm guitar that etches livid weals in your frontal lobes, wah-wah riffs that coil and bristle like rattlesnakes, or choke on their own venom: this is the sound of paranoia, totally wired, uptight, and coked to the gills. You feel like the air's burning in your lungs, like your heart's hammering against your ribcage and your nerves have turned to cheesewire.
Sometimes the feeding frenzy of sound subsides into a morass of despondency; Miles's trumpet gropes through dank chambers of the soul, inscribing cryptic hieroglyphs of despair on the dungeon walls. "Vote For Miles" is a unhinged sprawl of Indian raga drones, strangulated wah-wah paroxyms reminiscent of Loop's "Thief Of Fire", random volcanic-mud squelches of funk bass. On "Black Satin", a jaunty horn motif sashays with the murderous nonchalance of a whistling pimp; underneath the deadly cool, percussion simmers like a pressure cooker; overlapping waves of handclaps and tambourine veer up to smack you round the chops.
Like Bitches Brew, Dark Magus, Get Up With It and other Miles Davis' albums from this supremely fertile and fetid period, On The Corner combines a sense of claustrophobia and oppressive density with foreboding space and unfathomable depths. This music has the listener's faculties reeling in paradox: entrapment and liberation, dread and rapture, agony and ecstasy. On The Corner is one of the dozen albums (for a list, send a SAE) that anyone interested in the outer limits should own, or be owned by. Because it cleaves closest of Miles' masterworks to funk groove and rock impact (Davis was trying to reach out to a young, black audience), it's easy for the jazz novice to get into. But once you're into it, it'll take you as far out as anything Davis (or anybody else) ever recorded.
Melody Maker, 1992?
by Simon Reynolds
Recorded in 1975, Pangaea was Miles Davis's last album before he disappeared into the mire of illness and drug delirium that detained him for five years, a period in which he seldom left his penthouse dungeon and never picked up his trumpet. This album is the last in the series of live doubles Davis recorded in the early Seventies, but unlike Dark Magus, Live/Evil and Agharta, it has hitherto only been available in Japan. Throughout this period, Davis was engaged in taking on funk's groove appeal and rock's wig-out attack: On The Corner took its cue from Sly Stone and James Brown, "He Loved Him Madly" (off Get Up With It) was an avant-jazz take on the cinematic-panoramic bad vibes of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", and since 1970 Davis had been playing his trumpet through a wah-wah (both to enhance it's voice-like qualities and its sheer alien-ness). As a commercial gambit, this hi-jacking of popular forms failed: funk kids couldn't cope with the avant-garde density of the music, while the jazz old-guard were alienated by the sheer volume assault. But artistically, this was one of Davis' most fertile phases.
Pangaea consists of two tracks that both clock in at around 45 minutes. The hectic funk-out of "Zimbabwe" would probably have been enhanced if subjected to the kind of studio necromancy wreaked upon On The Corner, but it's still a terrific blast. Better still is the meandering, brooding "Gondwana". The title of this piece is a clue to what Miles Davis was trying to do in those delirious days before he "retired", burnt out. 500 million years ago, Gondwana was the original super-continent, from which Africa, South America, India, Australia and Antarctica eventually split off. 200 million years later, Gondwana collided amidships with another super-continent, to form Pangaea, which contained practically all the Earth's land mass. Miles Davis' early Seventies music - drawing as it did all the dots between jazz, funk, African polyrhythms, Indian drone-music, and 20th Century European avant-gardists like Stockhausen - is an attempt to invent (or recover) a world music: the body-and-soul language that existed before Babel, before our Fall into difference and division.
Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West
In Concert: Live At Philharmonic Hall
Dark Magus: Live At Carnegie Hall
The Wire, October 1997
by Simon Reynolds
“Can the ocean be described? Fathomless music…” intones Conrad Roberts in a slightly hokey paean to Miles midway through Live-Evil’s “Inamorata”. I know what he was getting at, though, vis-à-vis Miles Davis’s early 70s output. No music makes me feel more inadequate or induces a stronger feeling of temerity--for ‘description’, however floridly imagistic, always seems like a reduction, and ‘explanation’ can only ever be a foolhardy projection.
In his brilliant 1983 essay ‘The Electric Miles’, Greg Tate argued for Davis’ early 70s music (still languishing in critical neglect when Tate wrote) as a sort of simultaneous culmination/dissolution of the jazz tradition. 15 years on, it’s tempting to align the electric Miles with aesthetic kinsmen outside the jazz lineage: the ‘oceanic’ tendency in post-pychedelic rock that encompassed Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, Yoko Ono’s Fly, Can’s Tago Mago/Future Days/Soon Over Babaluma trilogy, Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, John Martyn’s “I’d Rather Be the Devil” and “Big Muff”. To varying degrees, all this music was animated by the same impulse that drove Miles, a quest for a “One World” music, a fissile fusion of jazz, funk, rock, Indian music, electroacoustics. To varying degrees, all this music shared the same split methodology that underpinned Miles’ Teo Macero-produced studio albums of that era: freeform, unrehearsed improvisation followed by extensive studio-as-instrument post-production and editing in order to sculpt jams into coherent compositions.
As with the aforementioned avant rockers, chromaticism--rather than melody or harmony--is what the electric Miles is all about. David Toop notes in Ocean of Sound how Stockhausen inspired Miles to organize his music around “textural laminates and molten fields of colour”. But it was Jimi Hendrix who hipped Miles to the chromatic potential of distortion and effects processing; during this period Miles played his trumpet through a foot-controlled wah-wah unit, guitarist Pete Cosey deployed an arsenal of effects pedals, and percussionist Mtume spiced the polyrhythmic paella with exotica like log drums and kalimba. As a result, Miles’ music of the early 70s is as livid as a tropical disease, as lurid as the patterns on a venomous snake, as lysergic as his own cover art (Mati Klwarwein’s Afrodelic fantasia, Corky McCoy’s Fauvism-meets-Blacksploitation street scenes of superfly guys, true playaz and fine bitches in hot pants and high heels).
Getting back to Miles’ kinship with the post-psychedelic starsailors and aquanauts, the music of Dark Magus, On the Corner, Agharta, et al offers a drastic intensification of rock’s three most radical aspects: space, timbre, and groove (by which I something altogether more machine-like/mantrix than jazz’s freeswinging drive). Making what he imagined was a sideways shift towards the pop mainstream (ha!), Miles actually achieved was a culmination of rock’s trajectory towards kinaesthetic abstraction, aka the textured groovescape.
The music on these four double albumsm seem like excerpts from some continuous monster jam that lasted from 1970-75, when an understandably shagged-out Miles collapsed and retreated into coke-addled hermitdom. Black Beauty and Live-Evil are both form 1970, and feature the instrumental line-up of the In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew era (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette et al). The music is a darkside counterpart to Can’s halcyon flow motion universe. Miles’s ocean is no coral-reef arcadia or wombadelic paradise, but altogether more murky an miasmic, full of rip-tides, treacherous currents and chthonic undertown, not so much Jacques Cousteau as EA Poe (“Descent into the Maelstrom”).
It’s a realm of grace and danger. On Beauty’s “Directions”, Chick Corea’s Rhodes keyboards dart and dilate like shoals of poisonous jellyfish; Dave Holland’s bass sustains terrific tension (although his sound seems monotone and two-dimensional compared to the plasma-morphic, pulse-sculpturing of Michael Henderson--the missing link between Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins--on the later albums). “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” begins with the brontosauran heavy rock gait of Mountain, swiftly comes to a seething roil -- like magma in a caldera -- then subsides into an amazing drumless interlude of itchy-and-squelchy insectoid interplay. Lacking the grotto-like recessive depths of the Macero-sculpted studio version, “Bitches Brew” is over-run with scrofulous, scurrying detail, then unravels into a post-fever stillness of necrotic ambience. On Live-Evil, highlights include the discombobulated, three-legged falter-funk of “Sivad”, the eldritch timbre poem “Little Church”, and “What I Say”, shifting from strident freeway boogie (imagine James Gang jamming with Art Ensemble of Chicago) to an amazing drumspace interlude before careening back onto the two-lane blackstop.
By 1973’s In Concert, Miles’ group was the On the Corner ensemble that included Michael Henderson, guitarist Reggie Lucas, drummer Al Foster and electric pianist Cedric Lawson. The album was a stop-gap release, offering loose and intermittently inspired versions of “Right Off” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the awesome sitar-laced acid-funk of On the Corner’s “Black Satin”, plus previews of “Rated X” and “Honky Ton” from the next studio album Get Up With It. Even the Corky McCoy artwork reiterates the ghettodelic imagery of On the Corner, testifying to Miles’ determination to reach out to a young audience of black funkateers.
Throughout this period, Miles was infatuated with Sly Stone’s music; in the sleevenotes for Dark Magus, saxophonist David Liebman tells of how Miles made him listen over and over to one track on Fresh. From the Family Stone’s polyrhthmic perversity, Miles seems to have derived a model of musical democracy. But by Dark Magus, Miles and co-conspirators had gone several steps beyond Sly’s utopian funkadelic commune or Weather Report’s genteel “everybody solos, nobody solos” equality; this music was far more turbulent, closer to mob rule or a flash riot. By this point, conventional structuring principles have long since been smelted down by the infernal heat generated by the ensemble, leaving just riffs, vamps, blips and blurts of sound, and irregular escalate-and-ebb dynamics that resemble the feverish struggle between a body and a contagion, or a soup shifting between simmer and boil. This is a music strung out between spasm and entropy.
In mob rule, there are no ringleaders, but certain troublemakers stand out from Dark Magus's crowded mix: Pete Cosey’s writhing spirals of lead guitar agony; Mtume’s rattlesnake lashes of percussion and random eruptions of drum machine that recall Can’s “Peking O”, Reggie Lucas’ scalding, staccato rhythm guitar, etching itself into your brain like a branding iron. And of course, Miles’ slurred, smeary trumpet, breaking out across this music’s flesh like weals and blisters. Milies sounds poisoned, like he’s siphoning pus from a soul-turned-cyst.
“Can the ocean be described?” was Roberts’ rhetorical question. I think of chaos theory (“Dark Magas” as demonic Mandelbrot?) and Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome (“musical form, right down to its ruptures and proliferations, is comparable to a weed”). I think of post-Deleuzian cyber-feminist Sadie Plant’s description of the information ocean as “an endless geographic plane of micromeshing pulsing quanta, limitless webs of interacting blendings, leakings, mergings…” I reckon Miles was half in love with, half in dread of the ‘female’ will-to-chaso, the mutagenic, metamorphic lifeforce, exalted by Plant in her book Zeroes + Ones, that’s why Miles’s misogynist nickname for oceanic flux was “bitches brew”. I think also of the Afro-diasporic baroque that is wildstyle typography, then remember Greg Tate got there first with his description of Miles’ “scribbling blurbs of feline, funky sound which under scrutiny take on graphic shapes as wild and willed as New York subway graffiti”. Finally, I think of the word “protean”, which derives from the name of a shapeshifting sea god. That’s what Miles was, in his electrifying Electric Period: a Modern Proteus.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson
by Simon Reynolds
There’s an in-built contradiction with the Box Set. Monuments to artists who are institutions, their monumental scale and price ensures they sell almost exclusively to diehard fans; they, in turn, won’t buy the boxes unless they’re crammed with things they don’t already own. Free Reed took the “rarities and alternate takes” syndrome to the limit with their career summations of Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, and Dave Swarbrick. RT is no different: hitherto unreleased live renditions from 2001, or 1989, or 1996, are consistently chosen over definitive, much-loved studio versions from 1973. The tribute ends up omitting the very artifacts on which the legend was built.
The box’s copiously detailed booklet (and at 168 pages it’s more like a book) begins with a quotation from High Fidelity: Hornby’s saddo-hero informing his curious but under-informed girlfriend that Thompson is “a folk/rock singer and England’s finest electric guitarist”. Even if you’d add “one of” in front of “England’s finest”, the emphasis in that concise description is spot on. Thompson is an exceptional guitar player, a fine songwriter, a decent singer. Listening to RT’s five discs, you get the sense that the guitar is his true voice. His actual pipes, capable enough, are texturally rather plain. Still, that frugality of timbre suits the bleakness of his songbook, evident in titles like “Ghosts In the Wind,” “Cold Kisses”, “Night Comes In” and (bejeezus!) “Drowned Dog, Black Night”. Sometimes the wintry cheerlessness of it all makes you want to put on a sweater and huddle under the duvet.
Thompson fan-sites invariably feature guitar tabs and in-depth analysis of his technique, and “Shine In the Dark,” the most compelling disc in this box, showcases his virtuosity with extended live work-outs. “Valerie” starts as a Buddy Holly-like ditty but thankfully spirals loose into writhing ivy-trails of finger-picking. The blandly attractive AOR-chug of “For Shame of Doing Wrong” becomes the launchpad for some stingingly lyrical leads, while the accordion-laced “Calvary Cross” escalates into a sky riven by lightning-forks of raga-rock. “Sloth,” already loooooong on Fairport’s Full House, gets stretched to 13 minutes of lustrous tangles and needlepoint iridescence. Also deserving to be filed under “guitar hero” but appearing on disc one (themed around topical or social comment songs) is a 1995 live “Shoot Out The Lights,” on which Thompson’s zig-zag riffs have an almost postpunk angularity.
There’s a disc of rarities, another of cover versions (including an effectively fraught take on Britney’s “Oops I Did It Again”, and a fuzz-box sprint through Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”), and there’s Finding Better Words, billed as the essential RT songs but, naturally, spurning the recorded versions. A lo-fi run-through of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” offers accordions instead of the Island album’s wonderful brass band. A potent solo “Meet On the Ledge” fares better. But the Linda-graced “Dimming of the Day” underlines that he’s very much Lindsay Buckingham to her Stevie, as do versions of “Walking on a Wire,” “The Great Valerio,” and “Never Again,” twinkles of lovely desolation amid the workmanlike Disc One.
When all’s said and all's done, this one’s for the fans.
by Simon Reynolds
So freakily fashionable has British folk become these past few years, forgotten figures like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, and Vashti Bunyan are now hipster icons. Strangely, one female minstrel who rarely gets mentioned is June Tabor. Maybe it’s because, during what’s generally regarded as folk’s golden age, she was just a part-time musician squeezing performances in when her day job as librarian allowed. Indeed Tabor only got around to recording a debut LP, Airs and Graces in 1976, a decade after the first Incredible String Band and Fairport albums.
Like the Sandy Denny box, Always makes a convincing case for Tabor as not just a giant in the traditional music pantheon, but as a great singer beyond genre. The compiling pointedly showcases her accomplishments as an interpreter of songs with much broader provenance than folk. Alongside the heritage ballads you’d expect, there are unlikely readings of Costello’s “All This Useless Beauty,” Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” even Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation.” All are tastefully arranged and decked out with “beautiful playing” that mostly draws on the cream of UK folk musicianship but, in the case of Kris Krisofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride,” utilizes horn players from the Creative Jazz Orchestra.
Always suffers slightly from the box set’s tendency to avoid obvious faves and classics in favour of unreleased songs, alternate performances, and sundry other enticements for fans who already own all the albums. Like other career summations, it also attempts to display the full temporal span of the oeuvre (artists always believe that they only get better and better at what they do). Still, without wishing to, er, box Tabor in stylistically, I can’t help wishing there was less Nineties/Noughties material and more from the Seventies, when she sang either unaccompanied or with very sparing acoustic backing, as represented here by wintry beauties like “The Four Loom Weaver”, “The Fair Maid of Wallington,” and “Bonny May.” For all their narrative intent, these traditional songs aren’t really exercises in interpretation. Rather than drawing on the singerly arts of phrasing and dramatic nuance (leave that all crap to the Elaine Pages, please), they work through a different kind of technique, incantatory and keening. The singer seems to be in a trance of pure longing or grief, a trance that entrances. The way Tabor runs a “shiver” (Andrew Cronshaw’s word) through the marrow of the melody invokes something ageless, atavistic, heathen.
Tabor’s vocal gift lend itself towards darkness: ancient tales of murder and retribution like “Young Johnstone,” or more recent woes like the ANZAC soldiers killed and crippled at Gallipoli, as commemorated in “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. Oh, there’s joy too, now and then-- her skippy, chirruping vocal on “The Overgate” dances and glitters like a brook dappled with sunlight. But it’s the more haunted, desolated songs that truly bring out Tabor’s witchy beauty.
DAVID BYRNE / BRIAN ENO
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
by Simon Reynolds
On its original 1981 release, this album was widely dissed for being “cold-blooded,” “detached”, an eggheads-in-the-soundlab experimental exercise. Yet Bush of Ghosts drips with emotional intensity, it’s just that the feelings don't come directly from the record's makers but from the found voices--Pentecostal preachers, Algerian Muslims--harvested by the duo from American radio and ethnic field recordings. In another sense, the whole project is framed by the conflicted emotions--uneasy fascination, admiring envy--that this material stirred in Byrne & Eno, at once attracted by the fervour of these true believers yet incapable (as progressive sorts trapped within modernity’s rationality and temperance) of accessing that kind of passion themselves.
Chances are, you’ll feel the same cold rush as Byrne and Eno the first time they heard the preacher who “stars” on “The Jezebel Spirit. ” The electrifying conviction of his cadences as he exorcises the slutty she-devil that’s possessed an unfaithful wife will make your hair stand on end, even as your liberalism recoils from the patriarchy he’s restoring (“Jezebel, you have no rights to her, her husband is the head of the house”). Elsewhere, it’s the mystical rather than moralising aspect of religion that enthralls Byrne & Eno: “Regiment,” for instance, entwines the ecstastic ululations of a Lebanese mountain singer with sinuous bass and arabesques of synth. Throughout Ghosts, the duo lovingly recontextualise their sources, embedding the voices in a sticky web of psychedelic rhythm, funky ambience, and some of the most counter-intuitive and contortionist basslines you’ll ever hear.
Tracks 1 to 5 (the original first side) are great, but 6 to 11 (side two) is a whole other plane, gliding you through a phantasmagoric sequence of steadily more untaggable and precedent-less groovescapes. Following “Moonlight in Glory”--falter-funk laced with the halting cadences of Scriptural chants and astral gospel plaints, as incanted by a literally isolated African-American sect from the Sea Islands off Georgia’s coast--“The Carrier” shimmers like a portent or future-ghost of The Unforgettable Fire. But instead of Bono, thankfully that Lebanese dude reappears to kiss the heavens. “A Secret Life” is an itchy microcosm as gorgeously infolded as Can’s “Quantum Physics,” while “Come With Us” pretzels bass-gloop and stereo-flickering sorcery into a disorientating audio-maze. Heading out into a non-specifically Oriental hinterland of gaseous gong sounds, “Mountain of Needles” sounds like God sighing with satisfaction at the end of the sixth day. Byrne and Eno, the Creators of an equally marvelous if somewhat more compact universe of sound, ought to have felt pretty pleased with themselves too.
It’s a pity that the immaculate construction that is Ghosts now has an extension tacked onto it: the inevitable slew of out-takes, most of them sketchy and substandard, diminishes the sense of conclusion achieved by “Mountain”. A couple of the bonus tracks work as intriguing footnotes (the ungodly exhalations of “Vocal Outtakes”, the needling stellar twinkle of “Solo Guitar with Tin Foil”) but overall, the effect is a bit like the Almighty following up the Cosmos with an encore of… Croydon.
Melody Maker, October 4th 1986
by Simon Reynolds
The Fall have not stopped being The Fall. It's all here, on this their 26th long playing record the wizened sneer, the unforgiving beat, the haggard guitar. The Fall roll on.
A vast body of work, around which a million words have been split, and still I don't feel nearer a notion of what they're about. The Fall don't represent or propose anything. They cannot be recruited to any scheme, clarified or filed away. They are this stubborn thing.
What spikes the lumbering wrath of The Fall is the vehemence of Mark E. Smith's invective. But these days even his targets remain shrouded and unclear. While The Fall's music has grown steadily more vivacious and approachable, Smith's writing has folded in on itself in an ever denser scrawl, beyond decipherment, let alone understanding. Sometimes the obscure object of his derision is recognisable as ... people like me, and then I'm suitably, pleasurably, chastened. The Fall, on leash, as periodic flagellation: "Who makes the Nazis? Intellectual halfwits." Ouch. I needed that. Perhaps that was the only thing I ever learned from Mark E. Smith.
The Fall are an example of the extent to which indie music has become a kind of commentary on pop--a system which purports to represent us, but in fact excludes most of our experience. Indie-pop is a kind of parallel system, unacknowledged by POP, but bound in reaction. Like, say The Smiths, The Fall write about all the matter - squalor, maladjustment, antagonism - written out of pop's script. If Mark E. Smith represents anything it is bloodymindedness, a recalcitrance towards those who would improve us out of our bad habits and prejudices.
They've been a bad influence. Groups like The Membranes and Age Of Chance think that anyone with "attitude" can get up and do it. The upshot of this is a kind of bolshiness without manifesto, an aimless spite: musically, a narrow interpretation of The Fall - beauty is a lie. These groups consist of nothing but anti-pop gesture. The Fall are un-pop too: anti-dance, anti-spectacle, unsensual but they have carved out a rival territory of alien beauty that they can exploit indefinitely. If the broad sweep of this music: has been established there's still endless scope for growth through internal complication.
Bend Sinister, their thirty-third album, shows that the Fall have a long way to go before they're exhausted. You've probably heard their version of "Mr Pharmacist", with Mark's great slovenly delivery, like his mouth was half-full of mushy peas. There are other indications that The Fall have been steeping themselves in Sixties garage music of late. Tracks like "Gross Chapel" sound as though The Fall have taken the wiry truculence of garage punk and bloated it into a juggernaut sprawl. "Shoulder Pads" is driven along by an absurdly jaunty keyboard riff that makes me think of Question Mark And The Mysterians.
As it becomes less and less clear what Mark E. Smith is on about, so The Fall's noise has come to seem more and more unearthly. When I listen I don't think of grime and rubble and delapidation, like I used to. I don't think of much at all. It's a noise to lose yourself in, something that clouds the mind, roughs you up a bit and leaves you a little deranged.
Friday, May 9, 2008
The Word, 2008
by Simon Reynolds
A confession: my copy of Dummy languishes in a cardboard box in the basement, one of many such boxes in which I keep the music I could never bring myself to get rid of but equally can't imagine ever actively desiring to hear again. Which is odd considering that Portishead's 1994 debut was one of my favourites of that year, but not so odd if you recall the chronic overexposure the album suffered over the ensuing couple of years, as chic-ly depressive background music in countless designer bars, trendy cafes and hair salons. Factor in the swarm of imitators churning out torch-tinged downtempo through the mid-to-late Nineties and you can see why Portishead got sick of themselves. In the almost 11 year gap between their second album (self-titled and essentially a recapitulation of the debut) and Third, the group struggled with the classic dilemma that faces all innovators (see: My Bloody Valentine), how to reinvent yourself (and thereby leave the copyists for dust) while still retaining your essential character.
Third pulls it off handsomely. Rarely resembling trip hop or the Bristol Sound, the sound is rockier, with a grating lo-fi edge (lots of distortion and painstakingly achieved rough edges) that will likely derail its prospects as dinner party ambience. The mood, though, is totally of a piece with Portishead's slim body of work so far. Once again, Beth Gibbons presents a portrait--vocally, melodically, lyrically--of a woman running out of reasons to delay her tryst with the Void. Running out language: again and again across these songs, there are references to an inability to verbalise: "The taste of life/ I can't describe/It's choking out the mind" (from "We Carry On," a title reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on... I'll go on" in The Unnamable) to "Silence" with its "wandered out of reach/too far to speak." The silence here is a despair too deep to be articulated, a blackness that threatens to seep up through the melancholic's speech and eclipse it completely. Hence the halting rhythm of some of Gibbons' melodies, creating a feeling that each line could be the last.
Musically, there's three sets of--on the face of it--incongruous influences that gel successfully on Third. Several songs have a folky quality. I imagine "The Rip" as music for the closing sequence of McCabe and Mrs Miller: Julie Christie's whorehouse madam dragon-chasing away her heartbreak in the Chinaman's opium den, a fancy triggered partly by the song's Leonard Cohen-esque vibe and partly by the line "white horses, they will take me away." With its ukulele strum and barbershop harmonies, "Deep Water" reminded me of Laurel and Hardy's "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine". On "Hunter" Gibbons' vocal has the fetching sadness of Opal's Hope Sandoval, while the song's sound has a faded-with-age quality, like a yellow-mottled silverplate photograph.
At the furthest extreme from this old-timey aura, Third also draws on early hip hop: the crashing drum machine beats of Schoolly D and Mantronix, the era before looped breakbeats and sampling took over rap production. On "Machine Gun", processing and delays make the colossal beat shudder and shimmer even as it stomps; Gibbons entwines her wuthering, peaky-sounding vocal around this imposing pillar of rhythm.
Finally, there's a potent infusion of Krautrock and psychedelia coursing through Third's veins. With its hypnotic organ pulse, cavernously rumbling drums and needling atonal guitar, "We Carry On" finds the interzone between Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and Sonic Youth's Sister. "Nylon Smile" could be a slowed-down loop from "Mother Sky"-era Can," while Small" is almost scholarly in its meticulous simulacrum of the moment when psychedelia turned heavy (Adrian Utley's guitar issuing fabulous reverb-splattery whinges and pings). There's the Cale-droney "Magic Doors" and there's "Threads", whose loping, hobbled beat and glinting guitar resemble Jefferson Airplane's "Today," except with its reborn bliss turned to dead-inside gloom.
Third impacts as an indivisible whole, but if one was obliged to break down its achievement analytically and portion out credit for inventiveness, in first place would come Utley and his guitar, followed very closely by Geoff Barrow's beat-making and mood-shaping, followed very closely by Gibbons as vocalist-melodist. A slightly larger distance behind everybody would be Gibbons as lyricist. It's not that the lyrics aren't good--in their way, they're as chilling an anatomy of crippling uncertainty and alienation as Nico's The Marble Index, riddled with memorable lines ("wounded and afraid/inside my head/fallen through changes", "I'd like to laugh at what you said/but I just can't find a smile"). The words, though, are the only part of Third that has the faintest air of self-parody and deja vu to them. When, on the musically and vocally stunning closer "Threads", Gibbons confesses to being "worn out" and "tired of my mind", you might find yourself seconding that emotion, or recalling people you've known with depressive or self-destructive tendencies who end up exhausting the patience of even their most loyal friends. Overall, though, Third is so good it's got me thinking about venturing into the basement to dig out Dummy.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Melody Maker, November 9th 1991
By Simon Reynolds
Something wiggy this way comes… Royal Trux are Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty, the latter a refugee from Pussy Galore. There's some continuity between PG and Trux, but to apply the concept of "trash aesthetic" to Twin Infinitives would be to dignify it, imply a degree of coherence that isn't there. This isn't trash, it's garbled garbage, a spewed slew of cultural detritus that barely holds together as music. Sounds good to me.
If there are precedents, they're the early lo-fi Cabaret Voltaire (when the Cabs would cover Sixties garage psych group The Seeds, who made a career out of one riff) or the paraplegic rockabilly of Panther Burns. Broken blues or garage punk riffs jut out of a miasma of hissing, ultra-cheapo drum machine. On "Jet Pet", a contorted, funky wah-way riff recalls the Cabs' "Nag Nag", while the voice is mangled by a "futuristic" effect that's simultaneously naff and disturbing, like the purple rinse they used to put on T.Rex on Top of the Pops. In "Jim Versus the Vomit Creature", the gibbering hoodoo punkadelia of the Hombres is submerged under a million miles of reverb and treated hi-hat.
Elsewhere on this double album, Royal Trux regress even further, unleashing the sort of clamour made by a classroom of six-year-olds each given a simple instrument by their music teacher. "Chances Are the Comets In Our Future" is a hive of bedlam that sounds like jazz-less incompetents trying to mimic Sun Ra. Elsewhere, they sound like what would have happened if Elvis's Sun Sessions ever reached the Clangers' s planet. "Osiris" recalls Faust or Loop, a black inferno of techy guitars. The side-long "(Edge of the) Ape Oven" is less murky than the rest of the album; it's a "musaic" of incongruous, incompatible textures -- phased harmonia, shortwave radiation, fitful piano, dribbled half-wit vocals, deformed, disfigured guitar--that recalls Can's weirdest tracks on Unlimited Edition.
The more I listen to Twin Infinitives, the more I get gripped by the perverse logic that connects the apparently random spillage. This is the direction Amerindie noise should have taken after Daydream Nation and Hairway to Steven: everywhichway. Dance this mess around.
ROYAL TRUX, interview
Melody Maker, June 19th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Royal Trux are the kings of fucked up shit. At once primitive and futuristic, low-down and far-out, Royal Trux are currently unrivalled as exponents of the avant-garage mess-thetic.
Having boggled to their unearthly records, it's hard to imagine Royal Trux as creatures of flesh-and-blood. But here they are, sitting opposite me in a cafe on St Marks Place, the Main Street of New York's bohemian East Village. Neil Hagerty
(guitar/voice/weirdstuff) looks disarmingly ordinary; his partner Jennifer Herrema (voice/otherstuff) looks more the part, with her extravagant blonde coiffure, sunglasses pushed right down to the tip of her nose, kooky rings, and mouth that hangs open when she's not talking. Together, they exude a strange, appealing aura-blend of space cadet and down-to-earth.
Royal Trux formed in 1985, while Hagerty was still playing guitar in Pussy Galore. Personally, I never much cared for PG's conceptual primitivism, their drive to distil rockabilly, garage punk and hardcore down to its teen-delinquent essence: fuck you!/let's get ripped/kick out the jams! But there's a lot of crossover over between PG and Trux. Hagerty played a instigating role in PG's obliterative cover of ALL of the Stones' Exile On Main Street. This feat of homage/vandalism pretty much set the tone for Trux's crush collision of classic rock cliches and freeform freak-out.
Hagerty and Herrema started Royal Trux to find "something not trendy, something we felt we could do forever". They felt that the New York downtown noize scene in 1986/87 was going nowhere. Trux's untitled 1988 debut (recently reissued by Drag City) sounds like an attempt to scrape back all the layers of rock history and critical knowledge, and recover the primal, thoughtless urgency of rock'n'roll. The result is hoodoo-voodoo garage punk and rockabilly more ghoulish than The Cramps' wildest dreams. Cadaverous blues riffs twitch and jive amidst spacey keyboard noodlings midway between Sun Ra's Disco 3000 and ? And The Mysterians' "96 Tears".
But Royal Trux really started to get attention with the follow-up, 1990's Twin Infinitives, an addled sprawl of inspired self-indulgence and lo-fi experimentalism that defies description. Comparisons with Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Can's Tago Mago apply only in so far that this formidably, forbiddingly unhinged record seems to have slipped free of the physical laws that govern terrestial music. In a sense, the album was recorded on another planet, in that it was the product of a combination of
"hermetic isolation" and systematic derangement of the senses. The album was recorded, over an extended period, in San Francisco, after the first of many Trux migrations ("the Tuaregs of rock'n'roll" is how Neil describes their nomadism). Here, the couple quickly made a number of enemies. "A lot of people were offended by us - we were pretty wild, when we weren't working on music we were just running
around, acting like assholes, and totally into getting fucked up."
At first, Hagerty and Herrema worked with a wannabe session guitarist and rudimentary drummer, playing endless versions of the same four-song set (Velvet Underground's "Cool It Down", The Godz' 'Radar Eyes", Gram Parsons' "Wheels", Louis Armstrong's "Oh Lizzy"). After six months, the musicians split, and Trux started fucking around with the rehearsal tapes, cutting and splicing, looping and
reversing them. They hit upon the idea of writing "basic, classic songs and combining them with totally random and unconscious music". By this point, with their isolation from society deepening and substance-intake soaring, Royal Trux had gotten pretty estranged from reality. They started writing songs based on books they were reading by Philip K. Dick and Thomas Disch, "real complicated science fiction, which we'd try to compress into three minute rock operas".
"Neil was trying to reach VALIS," recalls Jennifer, referring to Philip K. Dick's idea of a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. "Our windows had been smashed out, and we ran an aluminum foil antenna out the window attached to an FM receiver."
Neil: "We were into anything that was connected with that paranoia-is-really-enlightenment thing. Our idea was that the less conscious thought we put into the music, the more the random electronic gizmo element would take over."
Jennifer: "But underneath all the weird shit, we still had our roots, the music we loved at school like AC-DC, Led Zep, Stones. We still judged everything in terms of whether it was lame or rocking. Even the weirdest noises, we'd think: 'shit, this scrungy noise is lame, it's like the last Led Zep record!'"
And so songs like "Edge Of The Ape Oven" compact together kosmik sound-debris and crass rock riffs. Royal Trux pivots around the collision of The Cliche and the
Anti-Cliche (the hitherto unheard and unimaginable noise). Like other visionaries - Suicide, Faust, Fall - they combine minimalism and maximalism, repetition and randomness.
Given free use of a giant warehouse studio, the pair spent nine months recording Twin Infinitives, using a stack of cheesy effect pedals, a disintegrating guitar, a clapped out Moog synth, and other thrift-store instruments. The result is one of the most groggily disorientating records ever oozed, so crammed with nuanced delirium it'd take a lifetime to fathom. Amazingly, it garnered rave reviews,
although Jennifer remains sceptical: "I wanted to have X-Ray spex and see who really liked it enough to actually listen to it". Royal Trux became a touchstone of uncompromising avant-garage-ism for those dismayed by the shift towards the mainstream made by the likes of Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers.
Shortly thereafter, Royal Trux embarked on a calamitous tour of the Mid-West, documented on the video "What Is Royal Trux?". The pair pushed the confrontational nature of their thang to the point of physical altercations with audience members.
"One guy threw a beer at us, and Jennifer lept into the audience and smashed a mug over him", remembers Neil. "We could have been completely destroyed by this guy, we were so physically weakened." They'd travelled by train, in order to give themselves time to get psyched for the tour, but instead consumed their entire supply of drugs. "A lot of the weirdness of that tour was really biological," recalls Jennifer, dimly. "Weird sensations going through your body. Onstage, we were in altered states".
That seems to be a big part of Trux's music, communicating these uncanny physical sensations. Twin Infinitives make me imagine the effects of really trashy, low-level drugs - solvents, cough medicines, veterinary anaesthetics, poisonous plants.
Neil: "At the time, we were into this little head trip about non-mitigated communication between nervous systems. Like telepathy."
After Twin and the tour, a long gap ensued before Royal Trux recorded their third album (also untitled). Released late last year in the States, it's the first Trux album to get a proper UK release. It's far more accessible and stripped down than Twin Infinitives.
"We wanted to take what we learned from the second album but put back the obvious elements of rock'n'roll," explains Hagerty. "We weren't consciously trying to reach out to people, but we weren't trying to push them away, either". The result is still pretty eerie: imagine the druggiest dregs of Exile On Main Streetboiled down into this pitch-black, treacley goo.
The Exile analogy isn't purely textural: the album took two full years between conception and completion, because the pair had slipped into the mire of junkiedom. They finally banged it out quickly in early '92, after they'd quit drugs but were "still in that disorientated state". That the album is haunted by heroin is
abundantly clear from songs like "Junkie Nurse" and the hideously voluptuous imagery of "Blood Flowers", a metaphor for the pattern made by blood spurting out [into the syringe chamber] as the needle enters the vein.
Neil: "It wasn't a pose, y'know. It was our reality, although we were also aware of being part of a grand tradition. But that life brings out a lot of strange conflicts. Opium is still beyond the pale of our culture. Dope is also a good metaphor for control and escape."
So what is the, erm, appeal?
Jennifer: "Biologically, our bodies produce endorphins, painkillers. Heroin is an endorphin and it's much stronger than the natural ones. Everything becomes so much more appealing, life seems so less hard. In normal life, there's starts and stops, but on heroin everything seems to roll along. But although it abolishes anxiety, it
creates new anxieties: a whole new set of stops and starts."
Eventually, Hagerty and Herrema got fed up with the ups-and-downs, the exorbitant and manifold costs. "We'd reached the end of the line, started dealing a bit," admits Neil. "And you see people who are older, been doing it for years and it's not gotten any better, and you start to think. I went into a rehab and this counsellor told me 'you've been on drugs since you were a kid and you don't know what it's like to do things straight. If you could see the world when you're clean, it's like a new drug'".
The counsellor was 'pushing' reality and Hagerty took the bait. So is the third album a sort of 'goodbye to all that'?
Jennifer: "I'd like it to be so, but it just doesn't go away. It still lingers, probably always will." And heroin still affects their decisions: they'd like to return to New York, but daren't 'cos smack is purer and cheaper there than their current base, Washington DC.
The third album is just great, but the one you have to hear is Cats and Dogs, set for UK release in couple of months. Trux's most conventionally beautiful and undeniable record, Cats and Dogs is less jarring than its predecessors, more of a gorgeous dream-time blur. Stones raunch vaporised into a billowing fug of bluesy fumes, it'll have you swooning from a contact high. Recorded in a Virginian country home, with a proper band, it's at once organic and
disembodied, raw and spectral: a consummation/condensation of everything Trux learned doing the first three records.
The standout track, "Turn Of The Century", starts like the bottleneck blues on the soundtrack to "Performance", then crumples and wilts into dust-hazy ghost-town of sound. This and other songs like "Skywood Greenback Mantra" and "Up His Sleeve" have a dissipative, mirage-like quality not heard since Daydream Nation. But there's also one return to the avant-gardism of Twin Infinitives, with "Driving In That Car (With The Eagle On The Hood)", a clammy, creepy cenotaph of sound that fills your head with rippling, shimmering murk. With its junkshop synth and dub-like spatiality, "Driving" is a product of Trux's love of electronic music (Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire) and the trance-mantra tradition (Terry
Riley). Neil even used to be pals with techno whizz-kid Moby: there's so many more strings to this band than a Stones fetish.
When I ask what the song's about, though, I'm none the wiser.
"The title was something Jennifer used to chant onstage when she forgot the words," says Neil. "Finally we turned it into a song. It evokes for us some kind of movie Nazi driving around in a low-rider, with a big eagle on the hood. He's cruising downtown, and he's baaad!"
I haven't a fucking clue what they're on about (and out of kindness, I've spared you their baffling explication of "Turn Of The Century"). But that's what great about Royal Trux: they may be straight now, but they're still floating free way beyond terra firma, still broadcasting on a wavelength that barely translates into common
sense. Tune in and turn on to these drop-outs.
Cats and Dogs
Rolling Stone, September 2nd 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Demi-gods of the lo-fi underground, Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux have released a slew of weird records since 1988. Most infamously unfathomable is the double platter Twin Infinitives, which ranks as one of the most out-there avant-garage albums of the past decade. Cats and Dogs is Royal Trux's fourth, and most accessible, LP so far, but it's still pretty disorientating. At its groggy best, it's the missing link between The Stones' Exile On Main Street and Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. The Stones fetish dates back to Hagerty's first band, Pussy Galore, who once covered ALL of "Exile" in an extravagant act of homage/desecration.
Two words provide a handle on Trux. The first is junk: they're fond of using thrift-store instruments (decrepit, outmoded synths, cheesy guitar effects) and the pair used to be heroin addicts. The second word is dissipation. Hagerty and Herrema's voices sound drained, ghoulish, as though the years of druggy excess have left them ghosts of their former selves. Hagerty's guitarwork accentuates the wasted vibe--it seems to drift and dissipate like narcotic fumes. Tracks like "Friends" and "Skywood Greenback Mantra" slip back and forth between grinding, low-down raunch and woozy blues. Hagerty's elegantly sloppy solos ripple like heat-haze on the horizon.
Two songs stand out as Trux pinnacles. "Turn Of The Century" is a shimmering mirage of bottleneck blues, echoey piano and multitracked vocals gabbling spectral imprecations--a real ghost-town of sound. Cryptic and crypt-like, "Driving In That Car (With The Eagle On The Hood")" is a slight return to the experimentalism of Twin Infinitives. With its hypnotic trance-beat and clammy, cadaverous synths, the track recalls Suicide at its most sinister.
The futurism of "Driving" aside, Cats and Dogs offers traditionalism bent out of shape, so that it's less a case of Black Crowes-style homage and more like, say, The Stones from an alternate universe. Haunting, baffling stuff, and highly recommended.
ROYAL TRUX, interview
Mojo, March 1995
By Simon Reynolds
Rewind to 1990. Tiny US label Drag City releases Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives: four sides of garbled avant-garde weirdness, recorded on junk shop instruments under the influence of Phillip K. Dick's paranoiac sci-fi and what sounds like the entire pharmacopoeia of brain-frying chemicals. Oft compared to Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Can's Tago Mago and The Clangers, Twin Infinitives makes Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema the kool kings of lo-fi.
Fast forward to the present. Major label Virgin unleashes Royal Trux's Thank You, 39 minutes of low-down Sticky-Fingered raunch'n'roll, recorded live'n'smokin' by Neil Young producer David Briggs. Thank You looks set to propel Trux into the Black Crowes retro-boogie arena league.
"Wh'appen?" you cry.
Well, in between Twin Infinitives and Thank You, Trux released two brilliant albums (the haggard junkie-blues of Royal Trux; the avant-raunch of Cats And Dogs), expanded from odd couple to five-piece combo, and slowly got fed up with being the kind of hipster's choice that garners rave namedrops and minimal sales. So just how committed are they to reaching out to 'the people'? In the statement which accompanied advance tapes of Thank You, Hagerty actually invokes no less than Grand Funk Railroad as an ideal: a band loathed by critics but loved by America's rock heartland.
"It's just the fantasy of a certain attitude which that band had," drawls Hagerty. "Like when they titled one album Good Singin', Good Playin'. When I was a kid, my friend's older brother had 'cool' LPs in their collection, but Grand Funk and that brand of generic mid-Western rock band was their main source of musical nutrition."
The 'funk' in Grand Funk also seems to relate to where the Trux are at now. With it's sultry percussion and supple, rhythm-guitar-driven grooves, Thank You harks back to the early '70s when rock was still dance music, played from the hips.
"Our music used to be a head thing, now it's more physical. Most rock today is like a church service, everyone sitting down, but we like the idea of people dancing, in a total-release, dervish way."
Thank You resurrects the era when bands 'jammed' and pursued vital intangibles like 'feel' and 'vibe'. It was David Briggs who persuaded Trux to do it live. "We recorded almost all the album in a couple of days, with just a few overdubs and the odd fixed vocal," Briggs says. "I approached the album as if it was a gig, with stage-lighting, a full PA, letting the sound into the room. It was an exciting way to make a record."
So will the album turn Trux into stadium-rock stars? Maybe, maybe not. They're still an eccentric band, to say the least. Even when you can decipher Jennifer's elegantly wasted growl, the sci-fi-meets-dirty-realism lyrics are fairly unfathomable. Even after Hagerty's exegesis of "Sewer Of Mars", I'm none the wiser.
"It's about someone who's the lowest of the low, y'know. He's a sort of psychic scam artist. I got the idea when this guy invited us back to his house 'cos he had all this codeine. I saw this cane up against the door, that used to belong to the guy's dead wife. And I got up and kicked the cane over. The guy was really gratetful, he said I'd freed him of the psychic burden of his wife's cane..."
Perhaps those arenas will have to wait after all.
ROYAL TRUX, Thank You (Virgin)
LAUGHING HYENAS, Hard Times (Touch & Go)
by Simon Reynolds
Where could US underground rock 'go', after Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation reached the outer-limits of 'reinvention of the guitar'? Why, back to 'the source', of course--black R&B (and the late '60s/early 70s white appropriations thereof), in a quest to relearn the lost fundamentals of 'groove' and 'feel'. Hence the backwards journey taken by a new breed of blues fundamentalists like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Come and Mule (formed, coincidentally, by two refugees from Laughing Hyenas). I can only marvel at the timelag syndrome that bedevils Amerindie's relationship with black music: unlike British bands, US rockers only seem comfortable venerating African-American pop when it's dead and buried, e.g. Big Chief vis-a-vis early Funkadelic. Doubtless, we'll have to wait twenty years before the US underground wakes up to the booty-coercing futurism of SWV, Craig Mack and Underground Resistance.
Just to make sure we know exactly where they're coming from, Laughing Hyenas namecheck Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker in interviews, and insert the word 'blues' into not one but TWO songs on their new LP--'Hard Time Blues', with
its risible "I bin down since I could crawl" line, and the maudlin, country-inflected "Home of the Blues". The Hyenas used to be a noise-core outfit, whose sole distinguishing feature was the flamethrower vocals of John Brannon (who used
to sear ears in the ultra-taut hardcore unit Negative Approach). Despite their blues affectations, the Hyenas purvey what used to be called 'high-octane rock'n'roll', firmly rooted in the late '60s sound of their native Detroit; Brennon now sounds like Iggy if he'd been fixated on Jagger rather than Jim Morrison.
While the band can't swing for toffee, they do rumble effectively. But Brannon's slurred roar ('take me fo' a ride', 'reach out yo' han'', ad nauseam) has less to do with Robert Johnson than with The Stooges of "I'm Sick Of You" and "Not Right". If heavily-amplified, fuzzed-to-fuck self-pity is your particular cup of poison, drink deep. Me, I'll take my blooze bastardisation from those who take Ozzy rather than Muddy as blues-print, i.e. Alice In Chains (who could really make something of Hyena titles like 'Slump' and 'Each Dawn I Die').
Like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that other offshoot of garage-skronk pioneers Pussy Galore), Royal Trux have at least earned the right to go atavistic. Having proved they can push the envelope (with the drug-damaged lo-fi chaos theorems of Twin Infinitives and the Exile on Main Street filtered through Daydream Nation of Cats and Dogs), it's only fair that Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema should be allowed to contract their raunch'n'roll to fit the contours of Black Crowes-style retro. On their major label debut Thank You, Trux retain the supple boogie glide of "Thorn In My Pride", the baleful thrust of "Remedy", but purge the hokey Humble Pie over-emoting that makes Crowes stick in craw. Thank You is Sticky-Fingeredto the max, its sinewy riffs, grinding bass and seething percussion harking back to 'Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?". What sets Trux leages above and beyond Laughing Hyenas is that they funk, in that fierce white-boy fashion that early '70s rock had down pat, but which punk extinguished when it replaced syncopation with thud-thud-thud.
Song-wise, Royal Trux don't really write tunes so much as riffs; Hagerty & Herrema's elegantly wasted unison drawl functions as a vocal equivalent to rhythm guitar, just another twist'n'tug factor in the all-important groove. Herrema's haggard croon (you can practically hear the nodes forming on her distressed larynx) is at its vicious best on "You're Gonna Lose"--offset by Hagerty's gloating backing
chorus, she expectorates the venomous put-downs, and proves herself one of the best "bad" singers since Alice Cooper circa "Elected". Overall, though, what with lyrics that are as incomprehensibly Philip K. Dick-like as ever, Thank You isn't about songs and singing, but grooves and guitar. The album was produced by David Briggs (who worked on many of Neil Young's '70s albums), and appropriately Hagerty's short solo on "Map Of The City" has a jalapeno-sting redolent of
'Southern Man'. Generally, Hagerty avoids the gaseous, mirage-like soloing that made Cats and Dogs such a gloriously narcotic haze, and concentrates on a rhythm/lead hybrid that's tres Keef.
Best comes last with the aformentioned 'You're Gonna Lose' and the snakehipped, sultry 'Shadow of the Wasp'. The highest praise you can offer Thank You is that it's like time travel. While this ultimately underlines the inadequacy of the Amerindie state-of-art (basically antiquarianism, or at best, lo-fi's retro-eclecticism), it also indicates that Royal Trux have made a muthafunkin' fine record.
Monday, May 5, 2008
BON JOVI / DIO / METALLICA / ANTHRAX / W.A.S.P.
'Monsters of Rock', Castle Donington
Melody Maker, August 29th 1987
By Simon Reynolds
For this festival-virgin, Donington was a brutal deflowering; as futile and squalid as I could have hoped for. I always used to enjoy the music press's ritual encounters with the unbudgeable stagnation of heavy metal: they don't happen so frequently these days, partly because the papers realized how pointless these confrontations were, partly because because of a certain critical rehabilitation of metal. Listening to HM records at home, it's possible to isolate, salvage and enjoy elements of power, aggression, noise. But in the festival-context, where you encounter the totality of the subculture, you're overwhelmed by the sheer size and span of its dumbness; as a critic with dreams and schemes you're chastened by the realization that the word 'rock' means totally different things for different people. For these people, it's a celebration of the lowliest aspects of existence, vaguely in the name of breaking free and being yourself and letting loose inhibitions. Festivals are a chance for these people to live out their version of rock'n'roll with a thoroughness that's just not feasible in everyday life.
A crucial element is mud -- for how else can you wallow? The preceding week was a sweltering blaze, but the weather's not about to let the side down, and Saturday obliges us with a downpour. Within minutes of arrival, I'm soaked to the skin. The soil around here is rich in clay; eerie maroon puddles abound, while the Exits and Entrances degenerate into treacherous slopes the colour of a working man's caff cup of char. A bloke loses his balance and toboggans thirty foot of quagmire on his belly. A plucky paraplegic headbanger tries to negotiate the slope in his wheelchair. Girls's bare legs are streaked with red slime; high heels sink hopelessly into the mud. Others have come prepared, wearing binliner souwesters, or huddling completely enshrouded in giant sheets of transparent PVC. Troll-like figures squat on leather jacket oases. A 15-year-old bloy lies prostrate, comatose, his dank stringy hair mingling with the murdered grass; a few inches from his lips, a small pizza-shape of vomit. Unconscious before even the second group have come on.
If most people here seem experienced (as festival-goers), in another sense Donington is a vast celebration of virginity (or at least chronic sex starvation) camouflaged. The crowd is a huge sea of gormlessness. There's a dearth of fanciable men. People are either chubby-chopped or hatchet-faced, blubbery or scrawny. Common syndromes include the unsuccessful moustache; the Viking look; blokes with receding hairlines who nonetheless endeavour to grow long, straggly locks. The women tend to be buxom wenches or Sam Fox clones; there's a lot of electric blue make-up about. Everyone looks as though they're from Saxon peasant stock--coarse fair hair; rude ruddy health or underfed sallow. Everyone looks oafish.
W.A.S.P., then, is probably more a case of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant than We Are (Active) Sexual Perverts. "Any of you rock heads come here looking for PUSSY???!" bellows Blackie Lawless, and there's a massive roar of assent -- desperate, brave-face, wishful thinking. Lawless leads chants of 'Fuck Like A Beast', then 'I Wanna Be Somebody' -- both hopeless, never-to-be-requited cri de coeurs. Then some "theatre": Blackie wheels on a gallows from which a semi-naked girl is chained by her wrists, flailing ineffectually. Blackie looks to the crowd, that familiar wide-eyed gape at the depths of his own depravity, the extent of his daring. He draws out a scimitar, looks round again as if to say "Shall I?". Dumpy traitors to the sex smirk along with their boyfriends at the naughtiness of it all. Blackie slits the girl's throat, drinks deep and turns to face us quenched, drooling gore; glazed eyes appeal to us to share his disbelief at the enormity of his own evil.
W.A.S.P. are staggeringly bad at what they do churning out a leaden, thudding sound that no amount of climactic guitar-smashing can redeem. ANTHRAX are superb. The irony of a group of anti-nuke pacifists who've named themselves after one of the most ghastly weapons of biological warfare, should be obvious. Like hardcore punk, which they closely resemble, there's an unacknowledged fetishisation of the very violence and oppression they denounce. Anthrax get high on the extremity of the language of war and apocalypse. It's as though only imagery that sensationalist is fit to accompany their music, which is located not far from the point where the exponential curve of velocity/noise hits vertical. Anthrax aren't about uninhibited wildness or release; they take the rhythm-as-manacle idea to its logical limit -- rock as supremely regimented, mechanized carnage. When Charlie Benate pedals the floor tom and bass drum it's like an abbatoir slipping gears and locking into a perpetual cycle of mutilation.
They're great fun. Scott Ian -- manically stomping around the stage - is one of the charismatic metal guitarists. They play "God Save the Queen", getting the HM audience to sing "no fewcha"; it's stronger than the Pistols version, but lacks the edge. Anthrax play a blinder, but get less applause than W.A.S.P., perhaps because they're "sexless". They're driven by a pure, almost hygienic fascination with speed and violence.
METALLICA are like Anthrax only heavier and harder. That might be good on record, but tonight at least it only means they're gruelling; a dismal slog. Their death machine grinds remorselessly, with none of Anthrax's kinetic grace. "Seek and Destroy" and "Master of Puppets" attain a certain pleasing level of punishment, riffs like meat-cleavers. The singer's inter-song banter involves appending the word "fucken" to every noun or verb.
Where Anthrax and Metallica are clearly units, Bon Jovi and Dio take their names from their "charismatic" frontmen. The bands are servile, relegated to a backing role. Both Ronnie James Dio and Jon Bon Jovi are as much totalitarians of passion as Mick Hucknall or Terence Trent D'Arby, histrionic and over-expressive. DIO are melodic metal, that's to say they traffic in melodramatic, structured songs rather than chanted hooks (in Anthrax's case, flechettes). Someone once described this kind of glam metal as tart rock: pretty, hygienic guitar, purple lyrics, operatic singing, poncing preening frontmen. I'm fascinated by this sub-culture where it's actually a sign of manliness to have flowing Silvikrin locks. Tart metal seems to be a kind of male soft porn which functions for the delectation of both the girlies and (covertly) the boy fans.
One last wander before Bon Jovi. There have been many appeals to rock'n'roll solidarity tonight ("We Are Rock'n'Roll Children", etc), but in practice it doesn't extend more than a few rows ahead of you. People are quite happy to sling one gallon canisters of liquid thirty yards through the air in order to deal someone a blow to the back of the head, in the process dousing everyone beneath the missile's trajectory with a comet's tail of beer, or worse, still-warm piss. As anticipation of the headliners grows, the bottles and canisters teem like spermatozoa in the night air. It's cold: people are lighting bonfires, standing in bedraggled, post-apocalyptic clinches. There are massive queues for the food stalls (vile greasy grub that is breaking out furiously all over people's faces) or toilets (the bowls are smashed, so most people urinate in copses or into empty beer bottles). I pass a Samaritans stall, and consider making a brief distraught visit. Cholera breaks out on the right flank of the crowd. It occurs to me that the Americans don't have events like this: true, they've got a stadium circuit, but perhaps only the British would put up with the torpor, the lousy facilities, would actually pay to stand up for over ten hours solid.
BON JOVI cocktease the audience. After a very long delay, giant vidscreens cut to… Bon Jovi's dressing room! Bon Jovi making their way through the backstage maze! A superb baiting of the breath. And then amid a fanfare of fireworks and dry ice… Bon Jovi descend a Ginger Rogers' staircase…
I enjoy everything about Bon Jovi tonight except their music. In this sodden, beleaguered context, the lasers, the slick bombast, the no-expense-spared showmanship were as welcome as Hollywood razzamatazz in the Depression. Everything must have been rehearsed with military precision, every pout, preen and strut, because it was video-taped, quick-cut and blown-up on the vidscreens as it happened. MTV was inflated to the dimensions of a circus. I enjoyed, so help me, Jon Bon Jovi prancing about on the top of the lighting gantry, enjoyed their guitarist's solo (it blended most pleasingly into the giant, ziggurat riffs of Zep's "Dazed and Confused"). But the music isn't heavy metal, it's harmony rock, all rococo synth and soul-rich singing (euucch!). The tunes are trite, as trite and appallingly sentimental as the philosophical and emotional repertoire of the band. The titles tell the whole, stunted story: "You Give Love a Bad Name" (the Bitch who "promised me heaven/gave me hell"), "Wild In the Street", "Tokyo Rose", "Together Forever" (a ballad about friendship as syrupy as anything by Lionel Richie).
Bon Jovi constantly refer to "rock'n'roll" but there's nothing here that fits my definition of rock - no sense of provocation, no idea of change or movement, no impossibilist reproach to the world and its limits. The fantasies here are perfectly feasible -- it's possible to live a monied playboy life of rocking out and screwing foxy chicks, it's just very very unlikely that any of their fans ever will. Bon Jovi aren't rock'n'roll, they are showbiz, and showbiz is all about the idea that the world is as it can only be. Metal bands may call their music "heavy metal" but really they deal in light entertainment: their job is take people's minds off things. Tonight, Bon Jovi did a damn good job of taking my mind off my wet feet and incipient hypothermia.
Friday, May 2, 2008
The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music
by Simon Reynolds
Stereolab is one of the more intriguing groups to emerge from Britain's now-kaput dreampop scene. And this mini-LP is the group's most artful gambit yet. The title and packaging is a sly parody-homage to the "exotica" genre of the '50s, when tropical-scented, easy-listening albums by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, etc, were designed so that the modern bachelor could (a) show off the stereophonic range of his state-of-the-art hi-fi, and (b) get his date "in the mood" before making his move. It's a good joke, and a logical evolution for dreampop, since My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive et al. always made for a consummate seduction soundtrack.
Stereolab knows its musical history (it titled a recent single "John Cage Bubblegum") and on this album it explores the secret links between trance rock, ambient and Muzak. The result could be dubbed "kitschadelic": at once tacky and celestial, synthetic and sublime. On the opener, "Avant Garde M.O.R.", Laetitita Saider's serene and listeless vocals (midway between Nico and Astrud Gilberto) float through a fragrant mist of acoustic guitars, marimbas, and mood synths. "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Mellow)" could be the sort of jaunty, piped music you'd hear in a carpet store, but instead of being below the threshold of audibility, it's at full volume, so that its weirdness is in-your-face. The sequel, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Foamy)" sounds like a Muzak vent that's fallen into a swimming pool.
The pace picks up on Side Two (New Wave), with "We're Not Adult Orientated". At first, the song's reedy Farfisa and staccato beat really do sound Noo Wave, but the track develops into something that's less like the Cars and more like the motorik style of the German band Neu!, a brimming, tingling, exultant onrush of sound that simulates the sensation of gliding down the Autobahn.
At times, Stereolab's parody of blandness is very nearly merely bland. But at its best, Stereolab is making the Muzak of the spheres.
Melody Maker, July 16th 1994
By Simon Reynolds
The improbable magic of Stereolab resides in the partnership (romantic and professional) of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier. Gane is the boffin in the sound laboratory, tinkering away to create mutant hybrids like ‘avant-garde MOR’ and ‘ambient boogie’, gene-splicing Popol Vuh chords to a Canned Heat bass line. Sadier is the dulcet-toned chanteuse who sings about how capitalism is "not eternal, imperishable", like she’s the missing link between Francoise Hardy and Ulrike Meinhof. Improbably, Sterolab’s Marxist muzak and motorik mantras have become extremely popular.
Stereolab proclaimed their easy-listening fetish in the title of the first of their two LPs of ’93, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Subsequently, books like Research’s Incredibly Strange Music and Elevator Music have begun the rehabilitation of this stuff into the canon of ‘cool’ music. It’s suddenly very trendy indeed to collect Fifties and Sixties exotica, stereo-testing albums, moog records et al: all the stuff Tim has been exploring for over a decade. Does this dismay him?
"My only problem with Incredibly Strange Music," says Tim, "was that it seemed to be trying to attract people for trashy, quirky, kitsch reasons. They concentrated too much on the idea that ‘This is the wackiest music you’re ever gonna hear’. But I think it’s really good music, really extreme if you take it out of its context as background music. It did a lot of avant-garde things earlier than other more artistically serious forms of music did; it made shockingly original connections and juxtapositions of styles. A lot of the reason why it’s popular now is simply that it’s very modern music."
Tim first got into bachelor pad music when he was a fan of Throbbing Gristle, who had cited Martin Denny’s exotica as an influence on their "muzak for death factories". Now he knows the field inside out, and as I’d hoped, regales me with a succession of wonderfully bizarre tracks by legends like Perrey & Kingsley and Dick Hyman, my favourites being a moog version of James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Turn It Loose’, that sounds like Aphex, and what sounds like The Clangers playing ‘Louie Louie’ in the style of The Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’. It’s easy to see how you could get obsessed, especially as the sleeves and graphics and pseudo-scientific liner notes are such a gas.
Often the artwork depicts a bespectacled, grave-looking composer standing in front of an early synthesizer, a huge bank of dials, switches and meters. Similar ‘This is the future’ iconography appeared on the sleeves of Krautrockers like Cluster and Harmonia, and musique concrete composers like Pierre Henry. All this lends credence to Stereolab’s exploration of the hidden links between muzak, trance rock and avant-garde minimalism. The sleeve to their new single, ‘Ping Pong’, completes the chain; it’s another primitive synthesizer, warped through a psychedelic fish-eye lens.
"My big attraction to this music was that it was about the future. Cos it was done in the Fifties and Sixties, the idea of the future was quite crass – but also full of optimism and infinite possibilities. And that’s different from now, where the future isn’t about infinite possibilities at all."
What’s so delightful about Stereolab is the way they connect this disregarded, ultra-square background music with the ultra-hip canon of underground rock: the Velvets, The Modern Lovers, Faust, Neu!, Suicide. Of all the mantric dronologists, Neu! are the key source for the ‘Lab’s sound; they have that same sense of bursting but restrained optimism, a feeling of cruising steadily into a golden future. Stereolab use the motorik beat perfected by Kraftwerk and Neu!, an unsyncopated, uninflected pulse-rhythm.
"That metronomic beat is very important, and it’s really disliked by drummers cos it’s boring to play. It’s very strict and yet it’s wild, too. The travelling thing... I’ve always liked that state of going somewhere, the anticipation."
Is that sense of eyes-on-the-horizon, calm euphoria related to the politics in Laetitia’s lyrics, like ‘Wow And Flutter’, with its joyous certainty that capitalism is "not eternal, imperishable, oh yes it will fall"?
"I often think that what Tim and I do is completely polarised," says Laetitia. "Tim does something very simple musically, one chord with a twist, and then I write this really complex lyric. But both the words and the music are trying to look ahead, to progress, so yes, I think we have the same aim."
Stereolab's new single ‘Ping Pong’, is the classic sugared pill: irresistibly perky French Sixties pop with ba-ba-ba-ba-ba harmonies, coating some heavy-duty Marxist analysis. The chorus "Huger slump/Greater War/And then shallower recovery", is all about capitalism’s recurrent, structurally in-built crises.
Laetitia: "I had a discussion with a friend, and he was saying, ‘Capitalism is all right, cos recovery is in-built. There’s a slump then a war and then you have to rebuild everything and that stimulates a recovery.’ And he thought that was all right! I thought that was perfectly shocking!"
‘Ping Pong’ is Stereolab at their most exquisitely oxymoronic – subversive MOR – but it does make me wonder if the band are engaged in a rather rarefied and esoteric project. Is it really likely that they can enlighten anyone via such oblique strategies?
Laetitia: "It’s not that I want to change people’s minds... But I personally have been changed by Malcolm’s lyrics," – the latter being the lyricist in McCarthy, Tim’s previous group – "radically changed. Before, I just didn’t think about my environment or who was pulling the strings. So I’m hoping that if I can open one person’s eyes, then that’s enough."
"It’s very important to adopt a very critical point of view, both with music and with what you say in lyrics," adds Tim. "With us, it’s to do with finding out about stuff, pushing yourself a bit. I don’t know how important what we do is in a world perspective, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it."
"I was going to say something like ‘We are the world’," continues Laetitia. "But, y’know, everything you do is one little tiny thing better, or tiny little thing worse, in the world."
And so we talk about the pitfalls of politics in pop, about violent revolution (Laetitia believes that bloodshed is necessary), about Situationism and how the idealism of the late Sixties curdled into terrorism (literal, with the Baader-Meinhof, and cultural, with punk). Stereolab’s ‘contribution to the struggle’ may be subtle to the point of imperceptibility, at least by traditional combat rock standards, but at least they don’t simplify politics into slogans and low-com-denom platitudes. Instead their role is to complexify, puzzle, intrigue. Let’s call them eso-terrorists: their arcane games with music history, the abstruse, deathly dry wit of their song titles, are all an attempt to get the listener thinking, to foster a critical environment around the band rather than the poorly grounded solidarity and consensus that surrounds most political interventions in pop.
Although they hate to be contextualised, if the ‘Lab fit anywhere, it’s with the lo-fi – their current faves include Trumans Water, Smog, Sebadoh, LaBradford, Pram and Flying Saucer Attack. Tim prefers to use ancient, artificial-sounding drum machines as used by Cluster or Sly Stone, where there’s "no programming, you just press the ‘cha cha’ button... I like to use more archaic things and force them into NOW, as opposed to using instruments which give a ‘now’ sound, but it’s harder to do something original".
All this connects to Stereolab’s minimal-is-maximal aesthetic. Their prolific outpouring of EPs and LPs (the new one, the awesome Mars Audiace Quintet, follows ‘Ping Pong’ shortly) make up a seamless body of work which sounds "always the same, always different". Mining a narrow seam of sound, the ‘Lab unearth endless treasure.
"I don’t want to be eclectic, it’s about getting the fullest and deepest out of one area," concludes Tim. "Cos that restriction actually gives you more freedom."
CHARLES LONG & STEREOLAB: THE AMORPHOUS BODY STUDY CENTER
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
director's cut ArtForum, May, 1995
By Simon Reynolds
Within minutes of taking a seat at "Bubblegum Station", the centrepiece of this collaboration between sculptor Charles Long and UK soundscapers Stereolab, I enjoy a little epiphany. "Bubblegum" is an enormous mound of plasticine that the viewer is invited to mold and mark. I'm hacking off some pink stuff using one of the scalpels helpfully provided, and this guy gingerly sits at the next stool and starts grinning shyly at me. I take off the headphones (through which Stereolab's specially commissioned soundtrack is piped) and the guy asks: "Are you the artist?". I should have said 'yes', of course--since the very point of "Bubblegum Station" is to erase the distinction between creator and consumer--but instead I politely explain that we're all allowed to participate in a work-in-process. So the guy fiddles with a nodule of plasticine, then seems to get embarassed and slopes off to look at the other exhibits.
Separating the irretrievably adult from those still in touch with the inner child, "Bubblegum Station" is definitely the hit of The Amorphous Body Study Center. The plasticine mass is pocked and protuberant with residues of collective creativity--coral fronds and tendrils, etched hieroglyphs, and a few figurative offerings (a dice with nines on each side, a shark, a motorcar). There are pink blobs under each stool, too (Long's original inspiration for the piece was the bubblegum deposited under desks by bored schoolkids), and somebody has wittily sculpted one lump into an udder.
Stereolab designed each composition (there's one per installation) to sound right whenever you happen to put on the 'phones. In this case, "Melochord Seventy-Five" is a typical slice of Stereolab mantra-rock, based around a blithe three-note melody and a minimal chord-sequence for guitars heavily phased to sound as pinkly inorganic as the plasticine: imagine a sort of Velcro Underground. With their repetition-aesthetic accentuated by the fact that each track is on repeat-play, Stereolab abolish time, encouraging you to become totally absorbed in the polymorphous pleasure of palpating the pink plasma. This was big fun.
"Bubblegum Station" is also the piece which most substantiates the rather lofty concept behind The Amorphous Body Study Center. Long's desire is to focus awareness on, and reaffirm the status of, the body, which he believes is threatened with obsolescence by the advent of an information-based culture. Certainly, there are technology-driven historical forces (the on-line revolution, CD-ROM, the explosion of cable, virtual reality) that are devolving the human body into what Arthur Kroker calls "geek flesh", i.e. blobs of atrophied muscle'n'sinew jacked into the cyberdelic domain, whose only form of exertion is clicking the mouse. But there's an equally powerful counter-trend working towards a unprecedented intensification of bodily awareness and the exploitation of physicality as a resource, involving a plethora of therapies, regimes and rituals (the mania for fitness and working out with weights; body-piercing and tattooing; the unstoppable rise of dance music, etc).
Long reckons that "the biological body is ignored politically and exploited economically with its vulnerability now being its major characteristic'; his "Study Center" is designed as a therapeutic haven, a space in which simple physical pleasures can be rediscovered. Hence "Buloop Buloop", in which viewers sit around a water-drinking installation and sip life-giving H2O from paper cups while contemplating Long's glossy, undulant objects. This would actually be quite pleasant if the seats--the metal, easy-wipe kind you might find in a kindergarten--weren't so uncomfortable. Still Stereolab's "Pop Quiz"--a locked groove of Muzak-of-the-spheres, all heart-pang strings and caressing feminine harmonies over a lurching, waltz-like beat--soothes away the aches.
On its critically acclaimed albums like The Groop Played 'Space Age Batchelor Pad Music' , Transient Random- Noise Bursts With Announcements and Mars Audiac Quintet, Stereolab--a London-based outfit whose core is the creative/romantic partnership of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier--have explored the secret links between between ultra- square '50s/'60s easy-listening (Martin Denny, Esquivel, Perrey & Kingsley et al) and ultra-hip underground rock (Velvet Underground and their Krautrock successors Faust and Neu!, etc). Stereolab effortlessly blend neo-psychedelia (the metronomic throb of the 'motorik' beat, one-chord guitar-drones) with mood-music (dulcet girl-pop vocals, Moog- synth gurgles). It's an aesthetic I call 'kitschadelia", based in a fascination with yesteryear's quaint notions of the "far out"; a half ironic, half genuinely poignant nostalgia for the days when people thought the future would be fabulous (vacations on the moon, your robot-butler bringing your fried egg and bacon every morning--in pill form, naturally). Like kindred spirits Pram and LaBradford, Stereolab like to use outmoded, artificial-sounding proto-synthesisers such as the Moog, the theremin and the Ondioline. Long's sculptures like "3 To 1 In Groovy Green" share this kitschadelic quality, their outre hues evocative of '60s man-made fabrics, their globular shapes redolent of the squiggles of oil inside a lava-lamp.
"Good Separation In Soft Blue" [above] is Long's most kitschadelic creation. It looks like something from the set of "Barbarella": five white cushions surrounding a Miro-esque blob of pale blue, which seems to have extruded a smaller version of itself on the end of a long thin tendril. Through the headphones waft "Space Moment", possibly Stereolab's sublimest slice of avant-garde MOR yet. Call it 'systems muzak', an imaginary collaboration between Steve Reich and Mantovani: a locked-groove of spangly sounds and a roundelay of fragrant Francophone sibilance braided out of the phrases "de la deliquescence" and "la cohesion socialise". Like Long's sculptures, Stereolab's quirky surfaces often conceal polemical purposes (the band's 1994 single "Ping Pong", for instance, framed a Marxist critique of capitalism's cycles of slump and recovery in deliciously, frothy girl-pop redolent of '60s Gallic chanteuse Francoise Hardy), but both are more successful on the textural as opposed to textual level-- captivating the ear and eye with zany loveliness.
More pix from the exhibition here
Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Melody Maker, 1996
by Simon Reynolds
On cold paper, the idea of Stereolab does not read so very appealing: Krautrock obsessive droning out neo-Neu! monotony, gussied up with Radio 2 strings and Francophone harmonies, and topped with his lover's Living Marxism style analysis of the economic substructure. So why does the reality of Stereolab sound so betwitching, so uncontrived, so sheerly and strangely and sublimely pop? Beats me.
As it happens, Emperor Tomato Ketchup marks a significant break with the Neu! meets Gallic E-Z listening formula that has sustained Stereolab so well over the seven (Jesus, is it really that many? Yes) preceding albums. The motorik beat, the Sean O' Hagan string arrangements, the dulcet harmonies of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, are still present. What's new, though, is that much of "Emperor" is almost funky. Apparently, Tim Gane wrote most of the songs starting from basslines, as opposed to two-note guitar chords (his previous modus operandi), and he's been listening closely to the riffs and percussion ideas of Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band circa Fly. And so Emperor was conceived as an exercise in swing, almost a big band thang. On top of this, touring with post-rock groove collectives like Pram and Tortoise has surely rubbed off on Stereolab. In fact, approximately half the album was recorded in Chicago with Tortosie's John McEntire at the mixing desk.
The new space and polyrhythmic tension that has infused Stereolab's sound is immediately apparent from the opening "Metronomic Underground", a succulent,
lazy-funk matrix of analog synth-squelches, itchy-guitar riffs, percolating Rhodes organ, bubblicious bass and multiple vocal harmony parts, with every element dovetailing so neatly, so in-the-pocket, that listening is like taking a Zen crash course in breathing correctly. Indeed, there's a mantra-like vibe to the the main lyric--"crazy, brutal, a torpedo"--a self-description which Laetitia intones like she's trying to calm herself down, keep a lid on her inner fire. Also on the funky tip are "Percolator", which percolates (there's no other word) with a frilly bassline and jazzy time-signatures, and the wonderfully frisky "Les Hyper Sound", absolutely rrrrrrollin' with some serious B-line presha, crisp snares, and a perky nursery-rhyme vocal that rips the piss out of sectarianism in pop music.
In more trad 'Lab vein, "Cybele's Reverie" is string-swept, Francophone bizness--simple luvverly. "OLV 26" is like early Kraftwerk meets late Spacemen 3 via Suicide, featuring authentically crap clapped-out drum machine and glue-on-fingers synth. "The Noise of Carpet" is a Buzzcocksy sprint that lays into a layabout friend, a chronic fatalist who has an excess of what the Marxist Gramsci called "pessimism of the intellect", but lacks its essential, counter-active opposite, "optimism of the will". Sadier bemoans the fact that someone so smart is no use to the Struggle.
After Side One, you're thinking this may very well be Stereolab's best record yet. The second side is patchier, kicking off with a brace of undistinguished mid-tempo hypno-grooves, but it also has the most startling stylistic departures. "Monstre Sacre" is a gorgeously lugubrious ballad about Sadier's dead mother and the importance of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. "Motoroller Scalator" chugs along with an almost Wilson Pickett-like locomotion, while Laetitia asks rhetorically: "What's society built on?". (The answers are 1/ "bluff" 2/ "trust" 3/ "words"). "Slow Fast Hazel" verges on Al Green downhome funky-soul balladry, with its heartstring-tugging violins and wah-wah guitar trickling down like God's silvery tears. Finally, "Anonymous Collective" strips it down to drum and bass: no, not DJ Hype, but an awesomely baleful, slow-simmering dirge-funk redolent of Can circa Tago Mago, over which Laetitia recites her Marxist mantra: "you and me/are molded by some things/way beyond our acknowledgement".
Reconciling cold intellect and sugary sentiment, avant-rock and pure pop, Stereolab are an inspirational one-off; trying to pull off the same miracle would be pointless and redundant (although this isn't dissuading an emergent wave of Stereolab clones from having a go). If you haven't succumbed to this band's charms yet, dilly-dally no longer. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the sound of a band in its prime.
STEREOLAB , interview
director's cut, Rolling Stone, 1996
by Simon Reynolds
Over six years, eight albums and countless singles, Stereolab has built up one of the most seductive and stimulating discographies in modern music. Effortlessly reconciling avant-garde oddness with pop pleasantness, hypno-groove intensity and ravishing melody, esoteric ideas and easy charm, this London band has won a devoted cult following in Britain. Its fifth album, 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, actually went Top 20, despite being released via the band's own indie label, Duophonic. And in America, Stereolab remains a favourite with hipsters, despite the fact that its records come out via major label Elektra.
A six-piece with a fluctuating line-up, Stereolab's core is the romantic/creative partnership of guitarist/songwriter Tim Gane and singer/lyricist Laetitia Sadier. Sipping Guinness in the bar of London's National Film Theatre, the couple exude a married-in-all-but-name vibe: they share Laetitia's rolled-up cigarettes and disagree with each others opinions in a gently chiding way.
Sadier grew up in the suburbs of Paris, the daughter of tank-manufacturing father and a mother who was a frustrated singer. She attended Nanterre, the same college as late '60s radical student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, but left early in disgust when she realised that '80s students were more interested in "getting good marks" than discussing Marx. After a spell as a "bilingual assistant--basically a secretary", she met Gane, who was playing in her favourite band, the left-wing English indiepopsters McCarthy. They fell in love, and a year later she moved to London.
Gane grew up in East London, and is what you might call a 'career musician'--if only because, in his career class at high school, when the students had to write letters to potential employees, he sent applications to the post-punk label Industrial and to venerable trance-rock band The Fall. That group's leader Mark E. Smith summed up The Fall's credo in the chorus: "repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it". That lyric is a good entry point into the Stereolab aesthetic. Gane is a fervent believer in a bunch of M-words: minimalism, the mesmeric power of mantra-like monotony. Like Can's Holger Czukay, he believes that restriction is the mother of invention,
When Stereolab formed in 1990, the breakthrough occurred, says Tim, with two discoveries. "First, I changed the way I played guitar very slightly. I worked out this chord that only had two notes in it, instead of three or four. And as soon as I had that chord, the songs just came, it became super-easy to work out loads of lovely melodies to go with it. The simpler the root-source of the chords, the more notes fit with it. The second thing was picking up a Farfisa keyboard for sixty dollars, the kind of organ used by the '60s garage punks, and by Suicide later. It's only really good for playing two notes drones.I came up with this chord and found the Farfisa all within one week, and it seemed like destiny. Stereolab was born".
Rock's less-is-more, minimal-is-maximal tradition began with Velvet Underground (who drew on the avant-drone ideas of New York contemporaries like La Monte Young), and was carried on by the Modern Lovers and above all by the 'Krautrock' bands of the early '70s. Of these, Neu! is a particularly crucial influence on Stereolab. In many ways Germany's neo-psychedelic/proto-punk equivalent to Television, Neu! invented a sound known as 'motorik', based around chiming guitars and a chugging, metronomic beat that simulated the sensation of gliding serenely down the autobahn.
"Loads of bands we encounter in America are really into Neu!," says Gane. "Neu! did minimalism and drones, but in a very pop way. And the music was very rhythmic--the longer tracks are far closer to the nature of techno than guitar rock."
If Stereolab is cruising down the freeway, the band travels down the middle-of-the-road. For the other big aesthetic input is Gane's fascination and fondness for muzak, Moog albums, exotica and stereo-testing records. Stereolab's name is actually borrowed from a long defunct '50s label which specialised in albums designed to show off the newly-invented stereophonic majesty of the hi-fi (percussion leaping zanily from speaker to speaker, etc). In 1993 the band pre-empted the Juan Garcia Esquivel revival by titling a mini-LP ... And The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Slightly dismayed by the current vogue for 'hip easy listening', Gane says he's "not into the kitsch element, I'm more into the futuristic side--the way orchestral big band music was crossed in the '60s with early electronic music. Stuff that was originally done for cynical, commercial reasons often resulted in some very strange combinations and juxtapositions of sounds. That's something that you can't really recreate--it never sounds as good when it's revived."
Although Stereolab has dabbled with string arrangments and lite-jazz time signatures, the M.O.R. influence mainly comes through in the vocal melodies, which are decidedly non-rock'n'roll. Sadier and Australian-born backing singer Mary Hansen harmonise in honeyed tones that recall Nico and the kind of '60s French chanteuses, like Francoise Hardy, that Laetitia was exposed to in her youth. Despite her dreamy, dulcet tones, Sadier rarely sings about affairs of the heart, though. More often than not, she's pondering philosphical quandaries, grappling with the contradictions of capitalism and the class system, sometimes even anticipating violent revolution. Which brings us to another M-word: Marxism.
"From the start, my lyrical vision was 'don't talk about yourself'," says Sadier, who simmers with a quiet intensity (on the new album she describes herself as "crazy, butal, a torpedo"). "Thank God, it's changed a bit since then, but there was a vision of trying to write about the collective side of reality". And so on 1994's "Ping Pong", Sadier sang about capitalism's cruel cycles of slump-and-recovery over irresistibly perky, frothy M.O.R. And on the new album Emperor Tomato Ketchup, she lashes fashionable cynicism and political passivity on "The Noise of Carpet" and "Spark Plug", and probes the economic substructure of everyday life in "Anonymous Collective": "you and me/are molded by some things/Way beyond/Our acknowledgment".
Emperor Tomato Ketchup is probably Stereolab's best record yet. Certainly, it's the first to break decisively with the Neu!/motorik mold that's shaped most of the band's output so far. Parts of it are almost funky. "I wrote about 70 percent of the songs from basslines, rather than guitar chords, which was a different approach," says Gane. "But more than funk, I was into the idea of swing, in that big band sense. The first track, 'Metronomic Underground', originally consisted of about about seven riffs that I wanted to lock together like a big band. I was also obsessed with the riffs and rhythms of Sun Ra, Don Cherry and the Plastic Ono Band circa 'Fly'". Another influence cited by Tim is contemporary 'post-rock', "bands we play with like Pram and Tortoise." In fact, roughly half the album was recorded in Chicago with Tortoise's John McEntire producing and contributing percussive ideas.
Stereolab is admirably fearless about appearing arty. In the last two years, the band teamed up with sculptor Charles Long for a project called The Amorphous Body Study Center: the 'Lab wrote music that was piped through headphones into the ears of New York gallery-goers as they contemplated Long's gaily-colored, kitschadelic objects. And the band has collaborated with avant-garde sound-collagist Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, resulting in the Crumb Duck EP, one track of which can be found on last year's Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On Volume 2), a CD collection of the band's innumerable limited-edition, vinyl-only singles. But for all Gane & Sadier's lofty and sometimes arcane interests, Stereolab's truest instincts are pop.
"If you listen to 'Good Vibrations' by the Beach Boys," says Tim, "that's a wonderful melodic song, but it's also a very strange and odd selection of sounds and bits stapled together. It's far odder than what people today imagine you're able to get away with in a pop single. You can get away with weird stuff in the dance music area, but with guitar pop, it's like the rule book is written, and everyone is sticking to it. But we want to push things."
"Subversion isn't doing something totally new that no one listens to," says Laetitia. "It's taking a bit of the old and putting something underneath it that goes against all that's been done before."