Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Miles Davis - live + reissue + memoir reviews

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: 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/mantric than jazz’s free-swinging drive). Making what he imagined was a sideways shift towards the pop mainstream (ha!), what Miles actually achieved was a culmination of rock’s trajectory towards kinesthetic abstraction, a.k.a the textured groovescape.

The music on these four double albums 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 hermithood. Black Beauty and Live-Evil are both from 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 and miasmic, full of rip-tides, treacherous currents and chthonic undertow, not so much Jacques Cousteau as EA Poe (as in “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”, which shifts 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 blacktop.

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 Tonk” 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 polyrhythmic 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 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. Miles 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 Magus 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-chaos, 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
Uncut, 2005

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.

Uncut, 2005

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.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Uncut, 2006

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.

Bend Sinister
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.

Monday, May 5, 2008

'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

Melody Maker, 1993

by Simon Reynolds

How to explain Urge Overkill? Maybe they don't even translate into English terms (just as, say, Denim don't mean a darn thing to the Yanks). As it happens, Denim and the rest of the kitschadelic crew are the best way to get a grip on UO. Like Denim, Urge are 'Against The Eighties'. Like Teenage Fanclub, Urge adore the Seventies because that was the era when it was riffs that made the teens squeal, not samples and sequenced beats. So where Fannies'fuse Status Quo and Smokie, Urge pay homage to the stadium-rock soundtrack of their adolescence: ZZ Top, AC-DC, Bad Company, The
Who's Live At Leeds, but above all Cheap Trick, pop-metal kooks whose blend of Beatlesy sugar-harmonies and hi-gloss thrash was the closest most US suburban teens got to punk.

And like Saint Etienne (who they really dig), with Urge Overkill you get a look (they once recorded a song called "Very Sad Trousers"), a lifestyle, an entire worldview. Like Wiggs & Stanley, Urge Overkill have created a sort of never-never-pop wonderland packed with private references and idiosyncratic iconography: a real
"Join Our Club" deal. Yessiree, it's our old chum Record Collection Rock: Urge was born after an intense session of staring at album covers and listening to records in order to formulate their idea of the ultimate band. Pop-about-pop, with all its flaws and limits, but born not of nostalgia but of dissatisfaction with what's on offer today. Urge say they're not retro but "now-tro".

Apart from a couple of best-ignored platters, the UO story really begins with 1991's The Supersonic Storybook. Everything you need to know about Urge comes crashing through on the opener, "The Kids Are Insane". The methodology is post-modern pick'n'mix: the title and scything rifferama are on loan from The Who, the is-
it-a-guitar-or-is-it-a-voice effect on the title chorus pays homage to Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" (and possibly Pete Frampton's voice box), while the mid-song roll-call of North American cities is lifted straight from a James Brown song. But irony is over-ridden by sheer immediacy and (ins)URGEncy: this is pure teenage rampage the way they useta do it. "The Kids Are Insane" is
Urge's anthem and manifesto. "We really believe that kids should just freak out," says drummer Blackie Onassis. "There's so much pressure to conform".

Other "Storybook" goodies include a cover of Hot Chocolate's "Emmaline", "The Candidate" (inspired by the Robert Redford movie about a Presidential hopeful) and "What Is Artane?", an eerie song about a pharmaceutical with horrendous hallucinogenic side effects.

"A friend of ours was paralysed," explains Blackie. "He suffered muscle spasms, so the doctors gave him this muscle relaxant called Artane. And he had such hellish hallucinations that he got us to take the pills away with us. We tried them and it was the worst. It's the only time I've ever felt: 'am I gonna come back?'. The
trip seemed to last about 2 days. We did meet one freak who claimed
he took it all the time, but I can't imagine there's a subculture where they do it for fun. We certainly weren't advocating it, just asking why the fuck they prescribe the stuff. But we did get the doctors to stop forcing 'em down our friend's throat."

Then came '92's Stull mini-LP. Highlights include the broken blues of "Goodbye To Guyville" and "The Barclords", a punky paean to a semi-fictional anarchistic sect not unlike The Justified Ancients of MuMu.

"The Barclords are a sort of musical Illuminati", explains Blackie. "Did you know Mozart was a Mason and 'The Magic Flute' is based around Masonic numbers? Plus, we've also always liked that idea of the band within the band: Ziggy Stardust, Cheap
Trick's 'Dream Police'."

The stand-out, though, is the bluesy jam of "Stull", a shimmering evocation of the Kansas ghost-town that's said to be the magnetic dead centre of North America.

"There's loads of UFO sightings there, occult goings-on. The song really captures the
eerie vibe of the place. People warned us not to mess with Stull, but we believe rock is the devil's music. We wanted to exorcise that demon."

And now, after leaving Touch & Go for Geffen, there's Urge's major label debut, Saturation. The band's Top 40 ambition can be gauged from the fact that they called in ultra-successful hip hop producers The Butcher Bros to buff and boost their sound. Ironically, the Bros gave them a total rock sound: "Saturation" is
all punchy riffs, glitzy lead-runs, choppy New Wave chords and groovamatic beats. It's their most consistent record, although I can't hear anything to rival "The Kids Are Insane" for mock-insurrectionary frenzy or "Stull" for soul.

Lyrically, the album is mostly Urge's usual retro-nuevo make-believe fantasia (lots of songs about drinking cocktails in Central America), but there's a couple of tracks with uncharacteric political themes. "Positive Bleeding" is about how "maybe if men had periods, the world would be a better place. It's also about how
sometimes there's no way to happy other than just BE HAPPY! There's so much pressure today, you need to cut yourself some slack. Apparently 80 % of our generation feel sexually dissatisfied, which would explain all the negative music around today. We see the whole LP as a sexual aid."

"The Stalker" is a diatribe about a growing problem in America: twisted types who become romantically fixated upon someone - usually a woman - and pester and persecute them (turds through the post as love token, that sort of thing). "We've had a lot of thankyou's for that song," says bassist King Roeser. "It's something we've had personal experience with... There's this group of people, from a circle we used to hang with, who've been playing nasty pranks on us. The song is a kind of 'don't fuck with us' message."

Urge Overkill have been a name to drop, a burgeoning cult, for some time in the States. But not everyone likes them. One rockcrit friend of mine complained that Urge "reek of insincerity. Which is why they're liked: insincerity is valued in the scene they come from." Slacker irony does pervade Urge's work (although I was
surprised by how passionate they were about what they do). But Urge's image is utterly opposed to the slack aesthetic: they fervently believe in looking sharp. Their clothes -monogrammed turtle necks, medallions, suits, rings - are made specially for them by a company called Meredith 900.

"It's a style house in New York", says Blackie. "They send us sketches every three months, and we send ideas back. We're kind of a secret project for them. Right now, they're helping us find a tour-able fabric. We need something breath-able but stylish, 'cos sometimes the suits are uncomfortable onstage. We're leaning towards
a nice thin cotton, something that doesn't wrinkle. Or rayon or a durable silk. We have vinyl suits but they get sweaty. The nicest clothes aren't that road-ready. When you embark on being fashion-conscious, it can consume you, but as long as it doesn't detract from the music, that's OK. In Urge, we sometimes don't know when to
say 'No'. All of our cuts now are anti-retro. We were into the Seventies but that's been done to death, and now we're trying to incorporate Sixties and Nineties style. The Nineties is starting to look good: rave fashion is pretty cool, although too many bright colours are a turn-off. We can do without dayglo and pastel!"

Urge's flashy image has provoked hostility in some sectors of the US indie scene, where nerd tastemakers regard stylization as synonomous with "Limey haircut bands".

"You get bands like Suede who are treated with suspicion here, but maybe they just wanna rock, y'know. No one told Ziggy Stardust to cool it. Fashion and persona play a bigger role in rock'n'roll than people realise. In order to psych yourself up, you've really gotta go for it. We've always thought denim was just as much of a
uniform as wearing vinyl trousers or a suede cape. When we started we wore suits 'cos so many bands roll into town looking like burn-outs and we wanted to counter that uniformity. Bands like Urge and Suede, who are trying to be flamboyant, get criticised, but it's not such a big deal for people who aren't bogged down in the indie scene. When I used to go see bands like The Godfathers and The Bad Seeds, I was blown away that they wore suits. We're still punks at
heart and for us, punk was never about rules, it was always about change, going against the grain. We're just Renaissance men, when it comes down to it. There's so much more to rock than feedback."

As well as grunge drabness, Urge also deplore the revival of crudely sloganeering, simplistically politicised rock.

"For us, music has always been an escape. So much music now is ideological, people screaming political viewpoints in your face, and like, where's the poetry?. The last thing the world needs is more politicians. We need bands like The Spiders from Mars, bands that really wanna rock. Rock has always been to the Left of the establishment, that's obvious. I get pissed off when politics eats into rock'n'roll. I prefer imagery and poetry, I don't want musical newspapers. People should get more serious about rock as a cause in itself, and let the other causes work themselves out. Obviously, the Nineties are really politically charged, and we don't want to
come off as indifferent to that, but at the same time we do just want to ROCK. We're also really interested in pop culture. On 'Saturation' we have a song about 'Beverley Hills 90210', 'cos we wonder why people are so into it, why do they love it so much? When people want to be entertained, they go for stuff that's far out. And a little bit of fantasy is healthy."

All this - their style-flair, their positivity, their commitment to POP - puts Urge Overkill out on a limb vis-a-vis American rawk. A few bands share Urge's now-tro approach. There's Monster Magnet's pastiche of biker-psych (Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf,
Hawkwind), but they're just a scuzzier Zodiac Mindwarp as far as I'm concerned. There's Pussy Galore offshoot The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Yardbirds for the skronk generation) and there's Raging Slab, monster dynamite boogie purveyors. Raging Slab put out a promo kit containing everything you'd need to watch a Seventies arena show: Thunderbird wine (tastes like perfume), brown paper bag and
tube of glue (to get high), hideous T-shirt, a lighter to hold up during the ballad. No Quaaludes, sadly, but aspirins for your hangover. So what would the Urge Overkill Kit hold?

"Mmmm. A nice pair of sandals. A silk shirt, real loose. Some understated jewelry. Sunglasses. A trigger or two of marguerita. Or some California Chardonnay: Cali wines are really good. A couple of accesories - a nice choker for the ladies, maybe a straw hat. And a totally open attitude."


Cocktail-sippin', womanising, suave muthaf***ers. "We want to
resurrect the era of the swinger, the playboy. That whole attitude
where having a good time is the priority".

JAMES BROWN: Urge are crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed man who knows
how to put on a SHOW.

JIMMY WEBB: Songwriter famous for epic orchestral C&W pop: Urge
once covered his "Wichita Lineman".

NEIL DIAMOND: The consummate entertainer. Urge covered his
"Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" on Stull.

THE WHO: "We're really into that phase when mod started to
loosen up and turn into hippy, circa '68. The Who were the best
dressed band, but then, overnight, they became the worst dressed!"

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: "The look we like is somewhere between
Carnaby St and early Sly and the Family Stone."

CHEAP TRICK: Metallic power-pop purveyors with a zany image.

SAINT ETIENNE: "The way they dress is right on the money. That
late Sixties English spy fashion, it's so neat. Those are some of
the nicest clothes ever made."