Thursday, June 26, 2008

Uncut, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Jarvis Cocker’s solo debut is not so much a curate’s egg as a game of two halves. The first “side” triggers a sinking sensation reminiscent of hearing Morrissey’s Kill Uncle for the first time: has our hero truly lost his touch? From the cursory intro-instrumental “Loss Adjuster” through the 70s plod-rock of “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” to the clumsy corn of “Heavy Weather” (Jarvis in “timeless power of cliché” mode) and “I Will Kill Again” (Jarvis in “MOR with a heart of darkness” mode), it’s all dismayingly unconvincing and lacklustre in execution. Aiming for third Big Star-style wrecked majesty but ending up closer to half-finished Nilsson, “Black Magic” does at least feature some clever production touches. Whereas the plinky glockenspiely arrangement of “Baby’s Coming Back To Me” is worthy of, ooh, Side Two of 'Til The Band Comes In.

Then something changes. “Fat Children” is the pivot. Unpromising at first with its club-footed indie stomp-rock and opaque lyric about psycho youth (redolent again of shite-period Moz), the song blossoms with the dreamy coda’s wordless wails and incandescing guitars. A hilariously mordant whinge at humanity’s worthlessness, “From A to I” predicts the fall of Western civilization and points the finger at every last one of us: “Evil comes from I know not where/But if you take a look/Inside yourself?Maybe you’ll find some in there.” Its shimmery epic-ness not a million miles from the Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”, “Tonight” also argues that change starts with the individual: “you cannot set the world to rights/but you could stop being wrong/oooh, tonight”--this wracked “oooh”, mingling contempt and compassion, anguish and hope, being something of a Cocker trademark. “Disney Time” recalls Milan Kundera’s contention that kitsch is “the refusal to admit shit exists”. It’s the shittiness of the world, Cocker notes, that makes us take shelter in feel-good movies and infantile happy endings.

“Julie” is prefaced by the opening sentences of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, a novel about a 12 year old girl undergoing a existensial-sexual crisis triggered by the wedding of her elder brother (who just happens to be named Jarvis, an unlikely moniker for the 1940s South). In Cocker’s “remix”, a troubled teenager with a developing body fends off sweaty lads and lecherous adults, protected by the feeling of invincibility granted her by pop music.

Best comes last, with “Quantum Theory”, which sounds exactly how everyone, deep down, wishes The Drift did: Scott IV: the Sequel. A lambent ambient-orchestral arrangement, teeming with tingling sublimimals, frames Cocker’s dream of a parallel-dimension paradise where “everyone is happy… fish do not have bones… gravity can not reach us anymore… you are not alone.” When he croaks the closing refrain, “every thing is gonna be alright” Jarvis sounds broken but a believer despite himself; the cynicism and misanthropy, tinged with shame and self-loathing, that’s belched forth elsewhere on the record evaporated clean away.

There’s such a distance, such a journey, between the first song “Waste Your Time” and this luminous closer, it’s almost like two different albums, two different artists even.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
The Observer, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

With this book Fredric Jameson sets himself a daunting task. His aim is to define the postmodern Zeitgeist - arguably a contradiction in terms, since one defining characteristic of the "postmodern condition" is its lack of a sense of itself as 'zeitgeist' or 'era'. Jameson manfully seizes these and other contradictions with both hands: his project is to root a rootless culture in its economic context, to systematise a condition that is hostile to systems, and to historicise a phenomenon whose main effect is the waning of historical consciousness. But then, as a Marxist, Jameson retains an oldfashioned commitment to lucidity and overview. "Closure" (coming to conclusions, actually saying something) holds no special terror for him.

What Jameson has to say is of an analytical rather than judgemental nature. He doesn't take sides because he doesn't see postmodernism as an option, a fad or genre to affirm or repudiate. Rather, it's the unavoidable condition of late Twentieth Century existence, the cultural air that we breathe. In Marxist terms, postmodernism is the "superstructure" generated by the economic base of "late capitalism," (multinational corporations, mass media, information technology). Modernism was the "emergent" culture of an age when modernisation was still incomplete, and there remained a backdrop of peasant simplicity and aristocratic decadence against which a cultural vanguard could dramatise itself, with its idea of the artist as prophet and the work of art as a monument to the future. Postmodernism arose when the modernisation process was complete, and nature was superceded by the media. The new no longer seems that new; a sort of nostalgia without anguish (inconceivable to modernism) becomes possible, as exemplified by the rapid turnover of period revivals in film, fashion and pop music.

For Jameson, postmodernism represents a seismic shift in our very concepts of space, time and self. Modernism was the expression of the bourgeois subject (the grand auteur, the angst-ridden individual). Postmodernism creates a new kind of decentered subject, "a mere switching center for all the networks of influence" (Baudrillard). The media's "endless barrage of immediacy" destroys perspective, invades our consciousness and erodes the individual's ability to formulate a point of view. In art, modernism's themes of authenticity and meaning give way to pastiche and a fascination for the surface image; emotional affect is superceded by freefloating euphoria and sublime vacancy. Van Gogh is replaced by Warhol.

Jameson's provocative argument is that this new decentered subjectivity is a kind of schizophrenia. Unencumbered by past memory or future projects, the schizo inhabits a perpetual present that is intensified to an unbearable degree. The experience of space and of the vivid materiality of the world is enhanced at the expense of temporal consciousness. This heightened sense of here-and-now has been long the goal of the mystic or drug fiend, but for those who can't return to focused, productive consciousness (the schizophrenic and, increasingly, postmodern man), the experience is one of ego-shattering disorientation.

But this postmodern "hyperspace" is, argues Jameson, precisely the emergent terrain of late capitalism, with its fax machines, cable TV, satellite link-ups and data networks. To apprehend our place in this new totality of global capitalism, we need to evolve a new kind of consciousness, which he likens to that of the alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who can watch 50 TV channels at once, or SF writer William Gibson's cyberpunks, who inhabit a computer-generated "virtual reality". Despite his guarded enthusiasm about much of postmodernism's cultural output (video installations with their flow of images that resist being reduced to a single meaning, buildings like Los Angeles' Westin Bonaventure hotel), Jameson sheds Marxist tears for some of the casualties of postmodern theory. In particular, he mourns the postmodern rejection of "totalizing" theories, and of the notion of a "lost totality" (the alienation-free existence which Utopian politics seeks to recover). Advocates of postmodernism claim that these concepts lead ineluctably to totalitarianism (the Gulag, Pol Pot, the hubris of social engineering). But Jameson clings to the conviction that without totalizing concepts, the individual cannot understand his relationship to the system of late capitalism, and thus loses any political agency.

Jameson's solutions are suggestive if somewhat sketchy. He deftly turns the TV addict's practice of "channel-switching" into a metaphor for what he calls "transcoding". A sort of postmodern version of the dialectic, this involves pick-n-mixing world views and combining their partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Jameson also calls for a new science of "cognitive mapping", whose task is to plot the disorientating globalism of late capitalism (financial speculation in Tokyo or London can wreak havoc on peasant life in Paraguay), and coordinate local struggles against it. In other words, before you can do anything, you must first get your bearings. Postmodernism might be a calamity for oldstyle revolutionary politics, but Jameson concludes that the globalisation of capitalism will spawn a new international proletariat with forms of resistance we can scarcely imagine.

This "light at the end of the tunnel" is tentative and hard-won. Throughout Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism, Jameson painstakingly follows every lead and takes on every conceivable objection to his ideas. He really works for the few glimmers of hope that he allows himself. Oscillating between the intoxication of the latest postmodern theories and the sobriety of the Marxist tradition, Jameson confirms my belief that the most lucid and productive analyses of postmodernism have come from those who are hostile or at least deeply ambivalent about its implications.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Anathemas and Admirations
Village Voice Literary Supplement, September 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

WORLD OF TWIST, interview
Melody Maker, November 2nd, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

"When I went to see Hawkwind as a 14 year old kid," recalls Gordon King. World Of Twist's guitarist, "I was awestruck. I thought 'where the fuck do they live, what kind of people are they?!' I was fascinated. Seeing Nik Turner walking around with someone's head on a axe, behaving like a twat, or Bob Calvert narrating some of his drivel - I just thought it was a really heavy trip. 10 years later, you listen and you have a really good laugh."

That's as good an evocation of the confused drives behind 'kitschadelia' as you'll get. Kitschadelia is what happens when an aspiration to the monumentalism of pre-punk, is checked by post-punk irony. Seen through the primal gaze of the quintessential pop kid, The Sweet's plastic insurrection, Gary Glitter's barbarian bubblegum, Marc Bolan shrouded in Top Of The Pop's cheapo purple haze effects, were truly apocalyptic, genuinely alien. In retrospect, you have to laugh at the crass sensationalism, the naff, over-stated effects; at the time, your eyes were blown.

World Of Twist aren't alone in hankering for the lost innocence of what Nik Cohn called SUPERPOP. There's St Etienne, with their dreams of gold lame, limousines, and a Phil Spectoresque empire of puppet-proteges. There's Teenage Fanclub, whose Bandwagonesque is virtually a concept album about Seventies glam'n'metal. In the States, Urge Overkill's ironic-yet-awesome anthems like "The Kids Are Insane"
resurrect the stadium rock of their adolescence. Partly, bands are playing with the idea of superstardom, as a way of coming to terms with the insignificance of being a rock band in 1991. Partly, it's a genuine envy of the days when rock was titanic, hysteria-inducing, before punk demystified the process, enabled/obliged us to see through the spectacle.

"The finest age you go can through with pop is when you're thirteen," avers drummer Nick Sanderson. "It's all totally fresh, you're so obsessed."

"You can be so snobby about everything," adds Gordon. "You can be at school and everyone's into Gary Glitter and Slade - which I did like, I admit - but I'd sneer and say 'I like progressive'. I had long hair, an Afghan coat and a gas mask bag. I was three years ahead of my contemporaries, and hated by everyone. I didn't have a girlfriend til I was 18! You forget that that still goes on - there's probably some 13 year old kid with the modern equivalent of a gas mask bag with World Of Twist's logo on it, and he's sneering at the kids who like Carter".

Like Gordon, Nick was obsessed with Genesis, Bowie, Roxy Music, Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator. "If I'd known then, aged 13, that one day I'd be doing an interview with Melody Maker, the progressive paper, I'd have cried tears of absolute joy. It was my first music paper."

Gordon: "It's got the best name as well. Born in a different era. But I've got to pick you up on one thing, Simon - Melody Maker seems to have dropped the folk rock coverage. Why is that? There was some lovely, lovely bands on that scene. What happened to Gryphon?"

From their unlikely beginning as prog rock fiends, Nick and Gordon moved on to Northern Soul - all nighters, spending forty quid on rare singles. Then came punk. "When punk happened, I had to hide half my albums when people came round," remembers Gordon. "All the prog stuff."

Nick: "You had to rewrite history. It was very Stalinist. Me, I had to put all my albums at the back of the collection, make out I didn't listen to music."

Gordon: "During punk, the band that finally drove my dad into a fit of rage was XTC on So It Goes - the most innocuous of the lot. All his pent-up fury went on them".

Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of punk was irony; after the Pistols, you could never quite return to the life- and-death seriousness of imagining rock as a world-changing force. In some ways, the spirit of punk lives largest and most visible in Vic Reeves, who's as much a part of the kitschadelic sensibility as any of the bands. As it happens, Gordon's turn of phrase (lots of arch expressions like "super", "hopping mad", "slap-up nosh") is tres Vic.

Post-punk irony is both curse and blessing. Pre-punk, rock stars took themselves seriously to the point of madness.

"We recorded the album at Real World, Peter Gabriel's studio," says Gordon. "And he's a classic case of a man who's lost touch with reality. The title of the studio's so ironic. He was a childhood idol of me and Nick, and we were dead keen to meet him. But he was really shy. Worse thing is, he makes such strenous efforts to stay in contact with the real world. It's almost touching. Like he kept making cups of tea for everybody in the whole room. It's little gestures like that, where he's trying to say 'I am normal'. Yes all went mad, too."

Punk's more immediate effect, though, was to discredit the idea of spectacle, of the performer as superhuman or otherworldly. Apart from a few shamanic, glam-influenced figures like Siouxsie and Adam Ant, the main thrust of punk was demystificatory, icon-oclastic. The first group to break ranks and reinstate the idea of spectacle was The Human League - a big influence on WoT.

"The best gig I've ever seen was Human League at the Lyceum, just before the girls joined. It was just so strange. I used to go all the big, progressive shows - Hawkwind, Genesis, all the dinosaur groups - so I wasn't aware of the irony involved in the League. I just thought, after four years of sweaty pogoing and ordinary blokes onstage, that this was the kind of SHOW I'd secretly always wanted."

In fact, Human League were the first kitschadelic group, the first to go back to yesterday's idea of the future. They even covered Glitter's "Rock'N'Roll". WoT hate "politically motivated pop", bemoan the recent overdose of drab realism, lament the fact that TOTP is a barren zone, devoid of aliens and freaks. Acid house, great as it was/is, has only contributed to the new facelessness. Like the League back in '79, World Of Twist stand almost alone against the resurgence of "ordinary geezer-ism" (Carter, drongo bands, knob-twiddling rave technicians). WoT want to bring back awe, fascination, a gulf between audience and band.

"We're trying to do something a bit larger than what everyone else does. But it's not like we're really arrogant. It's just that, from when I used to go and see bands as a kid, the ones I remember are the really massive groups."

Quality Street, World Of Twist's debut album, sounds larger than life. At the risk of labouring the Human League analogy, I'd say it's a Dare for the Nineties.

"It's the only pop album available, isn't it?" says Nick.

World Of Twist dwell on a most peculiar planet of sound. The album ranges from monumental moog-mantras like "Sons Of The Stage", "The Lights" and "On The Scene", to glutinously saccharine love devotionals like "Jellybaby" and "Speed Wine". The stand-out track, "The Spring", cuts between mock- orchestral lavishness and seriously cosmic trance-rock, while cryptic lyrics conjure an Ecstasy-addled vision of pop utopia. Bubblegum sitar, corny horn flourishes, Northern soul beats, Dave Gilmour/Loop guitar curlicues, mucoid spurts of synth, aciiied frenzy - it ought to be a mess, but the absurdly motley inputs come together like a dream.

"We're all fired up by such different things, we're too old for that unity thing," says Nick. They're an absurdly motley crew. Visual technician and Catweazle-lookalike Adge's ideal night, says Gordon, would be a rave; "my ideal night would be a Northern Soul all-nighter." Nick's would be a weeekend in pre-glasnost East Germany. He used to be morbidly obessed with the late, unlamented DDR - with the dimly lit drabness, the all-pervading misery, the surly restaurant service. "Everybody wore crap versions of Western clothes, Finnish jeans - they all looked like Mark E. Smith. I went so many times, they wouldn't let me in anymore."

And then there's crooner Tony Ogden, who (according to Gordon) listened to things like MC5 "way back when they weren't cool like they are now", but who is now more enamoured of mid-Sixties pop cabaret like The Honeycombs. "They had very peculiar sound for the time, the vocals were recorded on ten tracks, sped up and slowed down". A jittery, cagey fellow, Tony's contributions to the interview are coded and evasive. Asked where the obsession with sweets (Quality Street, "Sweets", "Jellybaby") comes from, he replies "it's a purely accidental, confectionery connection." Nick adds "'cos, personally, I'm more of a savouries man."

A lot of songs about are the exhiliration of pop, the thrill of neon-blitzed Saturday Nite, being "on the scene". Does World Of Twist music come out of your life or out of a love of pop?

Tony: "We're a celebration of pop, no doubt about it. We're a celebration of everything - except life! It's a celebration of celebration as well. There's so much celebrating going on, you wouldn't credit it. Serious!"

What's your ambition for World Of Twist, your dream state of total achievement?

"We want to make both the best and the worst record of our time."

Astoria, London
Melody Maker, April 6th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

World Of Twist are fascinated by yesteryear's quaint ideas of the futuristic: Tomorrow People typography, obsolete synthesisers and man-made fabrics, astro-lamps, fiber optic ornaments and other long-lost fads - all the drek
that Victor Lewis-Smith's Buygones used to rake up. This kind of penchant usually leads to negligible whimsy of the Half Man Half Biscuit ilk. But World Of Twist have somehow evaded the belittling gaze normally associated with camp'n'kitsch, the odious trait of looking down on pop culture's preposterous excesses from a position of superiority. World Of Twist's music is of a different order of magnitude: it seems to look down on you.

Their songs are monumentally absurd, ziggurats of tinsel and tack. World Of
Twist are sublime (original meaning: an experience so vast and unmanageable it inspires speechless, humbled awe) and ridiculous.

Let the bubblegum apocalypse unfurl... A bedlam of flanged bass, phased cymbals, dry ice and stroboscope mayhem, then it's straight into the single, "Sons Of The Stage".
Those obscenely fartacious moogs spurt like spume from a whale's blowhole, then percolate in sensurround like a man-made sargasso sea. Tentacles of dralon, rayon and orlon enfold your limbs; the chorus "the floor's an ocean/And this
wave is breaking/Your head is gone and your body's shaking/There's nothing you can do and there is no solution/Gotta get down to the noise and confusion
" is
Dionysian doggerel to ignite teenybop bacchanalia. The closing pseudo-orchestral coda is like a symphony for perspex instruments.

The folk responsible for this kitsch-adelic fantasia are a motley bunch: singer Tony Ogden looks like a malnourished Bryan Ferry, a cut-price fetishist in that hideously
inorganic, black gloss shirt; wizened techno-wizzard Adge really does seem to come from some 1971 timewarp; guitarist Gordon King looks and plays like a fugitive from Loop; blowsy Julia Vesuvius is a bird and no mistake. But this is fine:
they have the blemished and decidedly mortal look that pop groups had before the video age. And World Of Twist are not rock'n'roll, not soul, not even "dance" (although they partake of elements from all the above), but pop in the
purest and most bygone sense of the word. Their domain should
really be the discotheque, if such places still existed, rather than the nightclub or the rock venue. World Of Twist's "roots" are those phases when pop has been most rootless and inauthentic (glam, Northern Soul, Hawkwind), when subcultural
styles have been co-opted and travestied by bubblegum mimicry. It's so right that they should cover "She's A Rainbow", from that period when The Stones shamelessly jilted authentic R&B to hitch a ride on flower power's coat tails. And their version of MC5's "Kick Out The Jams" reveals the counter culture anthem to be pretty much on the same level as The Sweet's "Teenage Rampage": a gloriously vacant blast of
insurrectionary hot air.

"The Storm" is a neon kaleidoscope, a planetarium fallen into the hands of acid freaks. One mesmering miasmic mantra (possibly entitled "On The Scene") makes me momentarily imagine them as The Velcro Underground. "Life And Death" has
the most epic, life-and-death bassline since "Keep Feeling Fascination" (the Human League are a righteous reference point for WoT); future schlock-waves of glutinous moog engulf us in plastic bliss. The kitsch-quake cometh, and it'll blow your

"Sons of the Stage"
singles review column, Melody Maker, March 23rd 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Camp is all about a belittling delight in the quaint artificiality and over-stylisation of bygone pop culture; an aesthetic response wherein affection is mingled with contempt. Camp in pop has meant--Pet Shop Boys, Transvision Vamp, all that sorry school of shite.

But now here come World Twist, with an astonishing single that reconciles these opposites and offers the dizzying possibility of a “camp sublime”.

“Sons of the Stage” is a bugger to describe, which is always a good sign. Imagine a sound somewhere between Can and Vic Reeves, oceanic rock and a lava lamp. It’s camp and it’s cosmic. Kitsch-adelia is the best term I can find to evoke the flatulent fanfares of symphonic Moog, the spirograph curlicues of acid rock guitar, the monstrous, stomping beat. Yet underneath the arched eyebrows and laconic Northern irony, World of Twist are obviously fired up by an ardour for the imposing idiocy of pop, its vacant menace and preposterous splendour, as manifested by bubblegum barbarians like Glitter, the Sweet, David Essex. The lyrics set up a fantastical scenario of communal freak-out, joining the dots that run from acid rock through Northern Soul to Hawkwind and “Teenage Rampage” right up to rave culture. After this camp bacchanalia, the final coda--a fake orchestral fantasia of phased guitars and babbling Moogs--is a plastic apocalypse worthy of Prince, at once tacky and sacramental.


Monday, June 16, 2008

1979, UK; BFI DVD, 2008.
director's cut (boom boom), Sight and Sound, June 2008.

by Simon Reynolds

In the interview accompanying this new edition of Radio On, director/writer Chris Petit uses the word "autistic" on three separate occasions to describe the mood he was aiming for. Embarking on his debut screenplay while still Time Out's film editor, Petit wasn't concerned with plot or character, dialogue or drama; his real interest was "buildings and weather". Watching Radio On almost thirty years after it was made, you do get the sense that more creative energy was invested in location scouting than psychology and motivation. The minimal narrative--a man, Robert B. (David Beames) drives from London to Bristol to investigate his brother's mysterious death--is a mere ploy to set the movie in motion and introduce the principal character: the urban landscape of late Seventies Britain.

Somewhere between Martin Parr's Boring Postcards and Anton Corbijn's Control, the movie has, as Petit notes, a documentary value first if not foremost. These clapped-out vistas of service stations, fly-overs, industrial estates, and business hotels rarely made it into UK cinema of the period. Radio On is not picturesque, then, but it is superlatively filmic, thanks to Martin Schafer's B/W cinematography, so high-contrast that glossy darkness frequently swallows up almost the entire screen, while during night scenes electric lighting burns through the murk with magnesium ferocity.

Radio On was an Anglo-Germanic production, jointly funded by the BFI and Wim Wenders' Road Movies company. Interviewing the German director for Time Out, Petit had plucked up the courage to say, "actually, I've got this script". Amazingly, his hero not only part-funded Radio On, he loaned Petit his cinematographer Schafer plus his wife, Lisa Kreuzer, as female lead. Even more remarkably, Petit ended up in the chair despite being a first-time director.

The influence of Wenders' road trilogy is a strong presence in Radio On, but equally important is another crucial mid-Seventies trilogy: J.G. Ballard's Crash/High-Rise/Concrete Island. The latter, a short novel about a modern-day castaway trapped on scrubland beneath the Westway flyover after being injured in a car crash, leaps to mind during the long aerial shot of Robert driving out of London, the camera lingering lovingly on the gash-ugly industrial wasteland that surrounds the fly-over. Another literary reference point is Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age, a novel often aligned with punk as a document of the climate of malaise and bunkered-down anomie in mid-Seventies Britain. Filmed in the month of January, Radio On exudes a coldness both physical and emotional. One song on the marvelously apt and evocative soundtrack sings plaintively about being "free from the frozen years at last".

Petit uses pop songs to externalize the feelings that his taciturn and blocked characters can't or won't express. That's not especially radical in itself, but music is deployed in an unconventional way that hovers ambiguously midway between diagetic and non-diagetic. A tune, ostensibly played on the in-car stereo, might abruptly dip down in volume but continue to play without fading away; Devo's stilted subversion of "Satisfaction' is made even more disjointed and alienated by being chopped into shards with sizeable chunks of silence in between. In the interview, Petit says he consciously reversed cinema's vision-over-sound hierarchy, aiming to make "sound with pictures". Hardly surprising that dance culture's terminology features in the title radio on (remix) , the 1998 mini-movie included with this DVD that "stalks the past" by revisiting the movie's original locations--places like Silbury Hill and Heston Services--to see how they've changed, while also subjecting the original film to computer-editing processes of deceleration, freezing, and zoom.

You could almost imagine the original Radio On as a series of unofficial promo videos made by a director responding to the mind's eye triggering potency of the era's vanguard pop: the experimental end of glam, German electronic, New Wave. Bowie's "Heroes" and "Always Crashing in the Same Car" are brilliantly deployed, as are Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" and "Ohm Sweet Ohm". But oddly, British postpunk--seemingly, the obvious Ballardian musical analogue--is absent. Joy Division's "Transmission" and "Shadowplay' would have been a perfect fit. Still, postpunk does appear to have determined Robert's look: he wears Ian Curtis's Eastern Bloc overcoat and physically looks like the 5th member of Wire.

Radio On's title itself comes from The Modern Lovers' proto-punk anthem "Roadrunner", a hymn to the American dream of perpetual mobility. Jonathan Richman sings "I'm in love with the modern world", but Radio On's vision of modernity is unlovely and loveless. Robert's motto could be "only disconnect". A New Wave hit single used repeatedly on the soundtrack spells this out: Lene Lovich's "Lucky Number", where the singer goes from aloof autonomy ("my lucky number's one" ) to discovering that "two" (coupledom) is better by far. But Robert keep on looking out for number one.

There's a series of brittle interactions with aggrieved-seeming English women, from Robert's live-in girlfriend (always seen shivering and swaddled in layers of clothes or a duvet) who moves out without him even noticing, to the dead brother's lover (a bony, raven-haired girl with a striking resemblance to postpunk ice queen Siouxsie Sioux). Even doing his job as an all-night deejay at a biscuit factory, Robert lacks empathy. Reading out a female worker's request for "Help Me Make It Through the Night," he says "here's something better" and plays Ian Dury's "Sweet Gene Vincent" instead. His (im)passive aggressive demeanour eventually triggers female violence: in a pub he keeps getting in the way of a snooker game, provoking one of the women players to kick over the stool he's sat on.

Radio On's permafrost thaws slightly only a couple of times. Intimacy of a sort develops between Robert and Ingrid, a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) searching for her five year old daughter. The movie's first smiles are cracked and Robert tags along on Ingrid's quest for a while. The other moment involves male bonding kindled through music. At a derelict petrol station in Chippenham, Robert meets a rockabilly-obsessed singer (a cameo from the then not-very-famous Sting) and the two men duet on another love-by-numbers song, "Three Steps to Heaven" (originally by Eddie Cochran, who died in a car crash on the nearby A4--how J.G.B. is that?) But these are ships-that-pass encounters. Ingrid ruefully notes, "last night I hoped we would sleep together… but we won't". About to drive off from the petrol station, Robert cheerily says "see you around Eddie", only for Sting's character to snap "no you won't" with unexpected bitterness.

In Radio On, the automobile is an ambiguous symbol, representing less autonomy than autism, promising not the freedom of the open road but the emptiness of a life unmoored from emotional ties. The road movie, as Petit knew from the off, wouldn't translate to the UK's spaghetti junctions and landscape-scarring bypasses, but that was the point. Just compare the word "motorway"--as dourly, phlegmatically British as "mustn't grumble"-- with "highway" and "freeway": it simply doesn't set off the same utopian resonances of transcendence and liberation. Robert's vaguely American-looking 1950s beaut of an automobile is out of place, a relic. Along with Wenders road movies, Petit admired Monte Hellmann's Two-Lane Blacktop. His equivalent to the latter's nihilistic closing image--the celluloid catching fire in the projector as the race drivers hurtle to nowhere--could easily have been when Robert steers his car to the edge of the precipice above a grim quarry. (Unconsciously or not, an echo of the denouement of another anti- road movie, Spielberg's Duel). But suicide would be cheap resolution and catharsis of the kind Petit determinedly avoids and the movie doesn't end there, not quite.

Radio On shies away from a political reading. Petit was adamantly opposed to social realism, studies of the fine gradations of the class system, and other hallmarks of 1970s British cinema (he singles out Abigail's Party as his antithesis). Nonetheless, political reality leaks into Robert's bubbleworld, forming an ambient backdrop of dislocation and tension. The radio drip-drips endless bad news from the IRA and Baadher-Meinhof to a West country porn ring that (it turns out) might have some connection to his brother's death, along with heavy snow that paralyses much of the country and the perennial bathos of no-score draws on the football results. There's a 'Free Astrid Poll' slogan spraypainted on a London wall and a tiny hint that Ingrid originally left her daughter with her estranged husband when she got involved in some kind of radical wildness. Society is falling apart but Robert is all uncomprehending detachment: as he tells an unbalanced hitchhiker, a squaddy gone AWOL from his Northern Ireland tour of duty, "I never understood what the problems were".

When Robert strolls past an industrial park en route to his car, a sign on a warehouse wall advertises Shock Absorbers. Cars have them, but they can also be them, insulating their occupants from the Real and the Social. "Here in my car/I feel safest of all," sang Asbergers sufferer Gary Numan in 1979's "Cars". "I can lock all my doors/It's the only way to live." Is there a glimmer of hope at Radio On's end when Robert abandons privatized transportation (as favored by car ownership fan Margaret Thatcher) for the shabby, inefficient, but resolutely collective British Rail? Perhaps that's to read too much into this resolutely oblique, brilliantly opaque movie.

Friday, June 13, 2008

We Started Nothing
The Word, June 2008

by Simon Reynolds

There are so many mysteries in pop. The mystery of creative chemistry: how two talents can mesh sublimely but separately never come close to scaling those superhuman heights again. The mystery of fleeting genius (those
fully-formed wunderkinder whose immaculate debuts are followed by fizzle)
and its converse, the slow-starter (unpromising plodders, like Pulp and My
Bloody Valentine, who get great all of sudden mid-career) . Today, though, the mystery that concerns us is the group with one Untouchably Perfect Song but nothing else that comes close.

I mean, if you've done one shatteringly sublime tune, wouldn't it be a doddle to knock out another half-dozen? Brilliance ought to be like a tap, surely, something you can turn off and on. Apparently not, judging by We Started Nothing. I can't work out if it's foolish or shrewd that the Ting Tings open their debut with "Great DJ," this Salford-based girl/boy duo's one true Godlike Moment. It's like the reverse of the set list that puts the big crowdpleaser at the end. For the rest of We Started Nothing offers a well-paced sequence of craftily crafted songs that rarely get much beyond "good".

Why is "Great DJ" so superior? Partly I think it's down to the song's deceptive simplicity. The guitar-strum that kicks off the tune and recurs regularly hovers just a notch above inane; the chugging groove, pumping and stomping at the precise intersection of rock and funk, doesn't draw attention to itself; there are clever little touches (like that delay-echoed guitar riff that backflips out of the mix at the switch from chorus to verse) but they're sparingly applied and low profile. As for the glorious nagging melody, it's what Ian MacDonald, in his classic Beatles book Revolution in the Head, would call "horizontal" (Lennon's way) rather than "vertical" (McCartney's). There's not a lot of notes, basically. Its
catchiness is all in the rhythm and the feel of the phrasing: the way Katie
White shapes the words in her mouth (pronouncing "boys" as "boiz", for instance) and above all the chorus's pulsated vowel-riffs of "ah ah ah ah ah" and "eee, eee, eee, eee, eee," (an indie-dance response to Rihanna's "Umbrella"?). Not forgetting "'thedrumsthedrumsthedrumsthedrums", that dizzy-making evocation of the power of the Beat That Just Don't Stop. This song is the best tribute to the deejay since Deelite's "E.S.P," and the best rock song about raving since World of Twist's "Sons of the Stage," with lines like "Nothing was the same again. Blowing our minds in a life unkind/Gotta love the bpm" hinting that "Great DJ" is about losing your Ecstasy virginity.

Rhythmatized speech rather than la-di-da singing, "Great DJ" is funky because it seems effortless. Most of the rest of We Started Nothing feels
like it's trying too hard. "That's Not My Name" is over-sung and over-sassed, like one of Girls Aloud having a stab at Cameo's "Word Up". Indeed, I wasn't surprised to learn that White's past included a stint in a girl group. The angry lyric draws on experiences of being patronized by pop industry puppeteers, but the softly mocking crooned bit ("are/you/calling me/'dahlin'?") works better than the chorus's finger-jabbing defiance. Where that song's pelvic choppiness recalls New Wave hits like Toni Basil's "Micky" and the Knacks "My Sharona", "Fruit Machine" harks back to the scrawny dance-rock of the B-52s, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" sounds like a stiff-jointed take on Indeep's "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life" and the polyrhythmic flickers of "Impacilla Carpisung" palely echo Remain In Light.

It's not all punk-funk, though: slowie "Traffic Light" is beguiling enough in its vertical-melodied way, with White singing in a higher, more frou-frou-feminine register than usual, but the big bashy drums (her partner Jules de Martino's original vocation) seem overbearing in this context, like Cozy Powell gatecrashing Virginia Astley's garden party.

Two tunes get within spitting distance of "Great DJ": "We Walk", with the languid strut and self-possession of its loping groove, and "Be The One", bopping along on a boisterous high-toned bassline that recalls long-lost Peel favourites Girls At Our Best. Both songs benefit from more relaxed, plaintive singing. But the closing title track reverts to sinewy discopunk, fine at first but then veering unexpectedly into sweaty funk-rock, all horny huff-and-puff and faux wah wah guitar, unpleasantly redolent of that last album by Fatboy Slim where he tried to sound "live". The Ting Tings work best when they're trying for the absolute opposite: the sound of a rock band trying to simulate the machine-beat relentlessness of electronic dance

Which brings us back to where we started: "Great DJ". A perfect pop single because it's simple but not stupid, instant yet durable (repetition doesn't erode its charm, which is fitting because the entrancing power of repetition is its subject). Its perfection dazzles out of your mind thoughts of what it's made out of, where it's from, where it belongs; for its duration, it seems self-birthed, a genre of one. Most of the rest of We Started Nothing is too easily broken down into its constituents and sources, antecedents and models. That said, while one great song does not a great album make, it's more than 99 percent of groups achieve. And there's always next time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

director's cut, The Times, May 23rd 2008

By Simon Reynolds

Nico Muhly's apartment is a sixth-floor walk-up in Chinatown, New York. During the long ascent, the out-of-breath visitor passes a garment sweatshop operating 24/7 and a discernibly seedy gentleman's club. Sealed behind a steel door, the young composer's home is a haven of refinement. Muhly has even cooked lunch--a first time occurrence for this reporter, despite having interviewed getting on for a thousand musicians over the years.

It's cauliflower cheese, and Muhly decides to pop it back into the oven to brown some more. A willowy figure with a pale boyish face and trendily tousled hair, wearing furry slippers and a loose-fitting brown cardigan fastened with a dainty safety pin, the 26 year old asks me to whisk the salad dressing while he sets the table. We chit-chat about the parallels between music and cuisine, touching briefly on the mystery of why there's never been a symphony about a soufflé ("Because a soufflé speaks for itself?" he suggests), with Muhly concluding that, for him, where cooking and composition connect is "the idea of making something of use. You've been to those restaurants where it's like 'this is petrified squid vagina, with a foam of infant's tears'"--he means the fashion for molecular gastronomy, probably-- "At the end of the day, you have to eat the food, so it can't be that unpalatable. Likewise, I'm not going to make music that you need to have a degree to take apart. "

And nor do you. As heard on his new album Mothertongue, Muhly's work is immediately understandable and attractive, even when it's deploying the musique concrete sonorities of whale meat or drawing inspiration from esoteric 16th Century texts about sea monsters, astronomy, and drunken choir masters. There are gathering expectations that his music, with its rich melody, glistening textures, and rapturous emotionalism, has the ability to reach beyond classical's usual audience. Like his mentor Philip Glass, on whose film soundtracks he's assisted for several years, Muhly criss-crosses with ease between the worlds of classical (writing ballet scores, organizing Carnegie Hall programs of his work, discussing a future opera for the Met) and pop (collaborating with Anthony Hegarty of Mercury Prize winners Anthony and the Johnson, doing session work for Bjork). As much as its draws on the ecstatic flickering patterns of Seventies minimalism and the radiant tones of 16th Century choral music, the loveliness of Muhly's music seems to be an expression of his personality, his deep-rooted desire to please the listener.

Or indeed eater: the cauliflower cheese is scrumptious, and the whole meal is immaculately presented, apart from a few hairs, courtesy his two cats, in the side salad--one of which he plucks off an lettuce leaf on my plate with a quick dart of the hand. Quick and darting could describe Muhly's conversational style: he talks with incredible rapidity, a mercurial flow scintillating with insights and witticisms. He's almost too bright, one of those people whose company makes you feel stolid and sluggish. "Nico's so full of energy, so incredibly well-read," enthuses John Berry, the artistic director of the English National Opera, who's in discussions with Muhly about him composing a stage piece for ENO. "He's one of this younger generation of composers who've spent a number of years crossing between genres--classical music, pop, film, multimedia. Composers who come up through the traditional route of music colleges and the conservatoires don't have the flexibility of someone like Nico, who's equally able to work with orchestral music and electronic music."

It was Muhly's keyboard skills--computer and piano--that secured him an apprenticeship at Philip Glass's film soundtrack company when he was still a second-year student at Columbia University in New York. In five years, Muhly has worked on eight soundtracks, taking the venerable minimalist composer's scores--"written out longhand, because he's old school"--and "playing it into a computer which I then manipulate against the picture and make changes where needed." In the process, says Glass, "Nico has gotten very good at 'spotting' the film--seeing where the music goes--and also how to work with directors, who are often not well-educated about music, to the point where he's starting his own career as a film composer. He's very rapidly developing his own voice and identity as a composer, which doesn't generally happen until you get to your thirties, but Nico is in his mid-twenties and already has a sound that's his own."

Listening to Mothertongue, the influence of minimalism , as pioneered by Glass and Steve Reich, is readily apparent in its bright timbres and repetitive pulses. Muhly describes hearing Reich's Music for 18 Musicians as a life-changing revelation: he thrilled to its compositional clarity ("it's music that literally makes its construction clear") and tensely ecstatic flutter. But Muhly's true passion is for English church music of the 16th and 17th Centuries, composers like John Taverner, Thomas Weelkes, and William Byrd. The ardour was ignited in his early teens when he sang in a boys choir in Providence, Rhode Island. "The boys choir is the most English institution there is," he says. "You only get them in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada."

Although it started as a youthful crush--"I just felt this very serious emotional connection to the music"--as Muhly developed as a fledgling composer at Juillard he began to articulate intellectual reasons for the path he'd chosen. "I liked the fact that this was music for worship, that it didn't call attention to the composer at all. Even erased the composer. Whereas the Romantic tradition in music is so manipulative. With church music, there's all this emotion, but it's not "I feel this," it's "feel this". To me it's almost a golden space to compose in. And it's completely outside all the bullshit arguments about style that you had all through the 20th Century, like Schoenberg versus Stravinsky. While that was happening in Vienna and Los Angeles, you had someone like Herbert Howells just peaceing out in Oxford." When I look blankly, Muhly explains. "Howells was this 20th Century composer who wrote a whole lot of services for the Church of England. It's just pure English stodge--almost the exact consistency of what's hanging off this spoon". And he holds up the serving ladle gloopy with congealing cauliflower cheese.


"The Anglican Church, she has long tentacles" quips Muhly, in reply to a question about how someone growing up in New England got besotted with ecclesiastical music from Old England. He's being interviewed onstage at the Merkin Hall in mid-town Manhattan, in between performances of pieces from Mothertongue. After a few more minutes chat, during which Muhly explains how one of the texts for the piece "Wonders" is a letter from "an angry parishioner written to the Dean of Chichester complaining about Thomas Weelkes quaffing ale and cussing in front of children", his musicians troop onstage. They are mostly young men of roughly the same age as Muhly and with similarly hip hair, plus a punky-looking female violinist and the more conventionally concert hall elegant mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer.

Among the ensemble, freshly arrived from Iceland, is Muhly's record producer and principal collaborative foil, Valgeir Sigurdsson, whose light beard and twinkling eyes make him look like a kindly Satanist. His instruments are a laptop and a sky-blue bass guitar. Muhly himself switches between piano and celeste, the latter played with appropriately quaint and courtly body movements. There's a pink watering can onstage, mystifying at first, until it turns out to be the sound-source for the simulated rainfall of "Shower", the second part of "Mothertongue", the four-part composition that gives the album its title.

Pt. 1 is called "Archive" and on the album it involved Fischer singing a lead vocal against a multi-tracked babble of her own vocal parts. The lead and "back-up" Fischers sing from a libretto woven out of colourless but privately resonant data: all the phone numbers, home addresses, and so forth, that she could remember in the studio. Live, though, this vocal "bed" is provided by two male vocalists, Caleb Burhans and Helgi Hrafn Jonsson, so what they sing is drawn from their own personal data-banks.

"I started thinking about all the information that makes us go," explains Muhly. "If we strip away everything else, what do you know? It was a way to express this huge anxiety we have about the number of numbers we associate with ourselves and the pieces of information we can't forget even if we try to."

The most anxiously ecstatic sequence of "Mothertongue" is called "Hress", a hard-to-translate Icelandic word describing someone who's over-joyous, absurdly excited and "up for it". Muhly learned it when it was humorously applied to him by laidback Icelanders when he came over to work at Sigurdsson's studio. If Anglophilia is Muhly's deep, abiding passion, both musically (he identifies intensely with Benjamin Britten's music) and several other ways (he makes a point of pointing out the cheddar in the cauliflower cheese came from England), his rival infatuation is for the tiny island that gave the world Bjork. It was through doing some piano playing for the latter that he hooked up with Sigurdsson, her studio engineer for many years. Since then Muhly has been a regular visitor to Iceland, working on his own music and other recordings for Sigurdsson's Bedroom Community label, and relishing the mellow vibe of the musicians' community there. He's even learned Icelandic, despite its challenging grammar.

"Hress" isn't the only Icelandic imprint on Mothertongue. There's the whale meat too. Cetacean flesh--banned almost everywhere else on the planet, but something you can buy in the supermarket in Iceland--contributes to the sound-palette of "The Only Tune", Mothertongue's stand-out piece. The composition is based around a macabre folk song about two sisters walking along a riverbank; jealous, the elder pushes the younger into the river; a miller fishes her corpse out and fashions her hair, nose-bone and other body parts into a fiddle and fiddle-bow; but the violin will only play a single, desolately mournful melody. "It's been done in so many versions," says Muhly, clicking on his computer so I can hear one by Jerry Garcia. "But they're all so ploddy and traditional, and I'm like, 'Listen, it's bitches killing each other! It's awful and violent."

Hence the idea of using sound-textures evocative of carnality and carnage: tangled human hair being combed, the scraping of butcher's knives, raw whale flesh. "It was marinating in a bowl, so there was fluid and it made these slurpy sounds as we sloshed it around," recalls Sigurdsson. "That's what we recorded."

Muhly is a whale meat fan ("it tastes like beef, basically") and a convert to the Icelandic position on whale-hunting: he believes Green-minded Western opposition is a sanctimonious waste of energy ("couldn’t you just fight for gay marriage? Deal with that one, and hate crimes, and then we'll talk about the whales"). So did he eat the "instrument" at the end of the recording session? "No, by that point, the meat was disgusting! But it was just scraps I'd cut off a bigger steak. And that, I stir-fried with a little ginger and some soy. It was delicious."