Monday, July 28, 2008

the Forum, London
Melody Maker, April 2nd 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Beyond the Pale
Village Voice, April 2nd 1996

by Simon Reynolds

typo alert -- "every strand of sound is utterly intermingled and distinct" should be "every strand of sound is utterly intermingled and indistinct"

these reissues in honour of Kevin #1's return to live action and Kevin #2's new record

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Mark Stewart
Melody Maker, autumn 1987

by Simon Reynolds

typo alert: "mindlamp" should be mindclamp
typo alert: "nothing hangs in this music" should be "nothing hangs together in this music"

Melody Maker, November 21st 1987

by Simon Reynolds

in honour of Mark Stewart's first album for twelve years, Edit, and the documentary ON/OFF - Mark Stewart by T√łni Schifer

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Town and Country Club, London
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Stars We Are
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Can we trust Marc Almond? I don't know if we can trust someone who uses the word "I" so often - in 1988, the year of the eclipse of the self. Is he really the man, as he so incessantly claims, to take us to the borders of experience
("I'll take your heart to limit", he promises), or lure us to our doom in the "labyrinth of hopes and fears" that is his soul?

Marc Almond seems a little too happy in his abundant awareness that he's one crazily mixed up kid. His ideas about himself are just a little too collected. And he's far too confident that we all share his fascination with himself. Is he really that uncomfortable with himself and the world? His work smacks more of of self-possession, than of a soul possessed or dispossessed.

Of course, there's still a place for autobiography, or storytellers who use the first person singular - Nick Cave springs immediately to mind. But in 1988, the real "heroes" are on a suicide mission. They are vanquished by, and vanish into, some Other - whether it's the Loved One, or the blue Beyond, or some irretrievable, halcyon memory of continuum at the mother's breast. Guy Chadwick, A.R. Kane, My Bloody Valentine... they want to gaze, not be gazed upon; they disappear, rather than dramatise themselves in the spotlight, centre stage.

And so the production style of the moment is the Haze, where the voice blends and bleeds into the sound. Almond, revealingly, chooses to ape the production of Sixties
"entertainment music", where the voice is mixed upfront and diction crystal clear. Every painfully ill-fashioned word (random extract: "in my hand/like grains of sand/a thousand million moments of emotion") is pushed to the fore of our

The cabaret idea is to give pain poise, even grandeur. The models are Scott Walker, Gene Pitney (there's a cover of his "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart"), Piaf, perhaps Tim Rose. Almond doesn't realise that the broken, beaten or deficient voice actaully communicates more these days (Vini Reilly, Band Of Holy Joy, The Valentines). He's even, finally, learnt to sing "properly". Like his lyrics, his
vocalisation is outre: what we get are the hallowed mannerisms of passion. It's over-demonstrative, full-bodied, plummy.

His words have always been prosaic, never quite purple or baroque enough. What inflamed them was his singing, that bruise of a voice. What was great about Almond was the way his voice didn't flow: it was the grain (the body's resistance to the voice) that gave his songs their special, glowering intensity. But The Stars We Are contains Almond's most controlled performances, and that sense of hysteria, of something being torn from the body, has gone.

As for the "classicism" of the arrangements, for all the wide-screen, windswept tumult of strings, horns, tympani and grand piano, this music isn't quite lush or flushed enough. It sounds a little cut-price, some-expense-spared. Almond's
ambitions fall short in much the same way that The Associates' Perhaps wasn't the passionade it could have been. Only "Your Kisses Burn", with its kettle-drum calvacade and Nico's frost-bite hauteur, is truly grandiose. The Stars We Are fails because you can't get that Scott Walkers feel in modern studios (you need compressors etc). But neither is it as dignified a rapprochement with modern technology as Walker's recent Climate Of Hunter, or as radical a deconstruction of orchestral pop as Skin's brilliant Shame, Humility and Revenge. Instead, what we get is faintly fetching, period drama. Hommage.

Almond's confession rise a little too easily to the surface: there's no sense of a violent unblocking. He's neither a consumptive nor a self-exorcist, but a product of
this century's incitement to self-analysis. We live in a therapeutic, counselling culture, where we're urged to a constant interrogation of ourselves, in order to penetrate the essence of our being. Madness, perversion, criminality, aberration, are no longer considered pathological, but as something within us all, and possibly the founding truth and mainspring of our identity. We're encouraged to gather more and more data about ourselves, and then reveal it the caring "experts". This
neurotic drive to self-probing and public baring has in the past driven Almond to the extreme of writing an anthem to masturbation, "Mother Fist". But some forms of self-knowledge are just banal, and Almond's writing reminds me more of the
current spate of singer-songwriters, or Cosmo-consciousness, than the haunted, hunted men he evidently admires -- the black, bitter solitiude of Scott Walker, Tim Rose's terrible burden of shame.

His work is like some exhaustive, protracted and public diary, all bald depiction and naff fantasy ("She Stole My Soul In Istanbul"!). The insatiable quest for self-knowledge that can drive someone to rewrite a diary from two years back, in order to include the insights of hindsight, can be touching in a friend. Certainly, it's better than being in poor contact with your heart of hearts. But is Almond's
relentless self-scrutiny turning up anything worth bringing to public attention? I fear not.

He was immensely special for a time, up to and including "Soul Inside", if for nothing more than his capacity for being embarrassing. And he's still an endearing presence. But what's likeable is his "innocence". He never seems borne under by the experiences he's (apparently) had, never sounds as though he's seen too much, or can't live with himself. It's this halo of ingenuousness that's the flaw in his art.

Like that other charming man, Morrissey, it could be that the seam of his troubled self is exhausted. But he's one of our last characters, you cry! Hmmm. Certainly, Marc Almond- like Julian Cope, Jobson, and all those other never-wozzers - makes the journalist's job easy. Just get them onto their favourite subject, and they're off, and you can put up your feet. I distrust those who fete the Last Eccentrics, in the same way I distrust people who say they only read biographies: people who subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, invariably secretly reckon themselves to be Great Men too. 1988 is the year of "the end of me", and poor old Marc Almond -I think we can strike him off our agenda of bliss.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Melody Maker, September 1987

by Simon Reynolds

All of This and Nothing: The Best of the Psychedelic Furs
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Friday, July 18, 2008

ach, enough of this "fragrant" bollocks

Angel Dust
Melody Maker, June 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Melody Maker, autumn 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Melody Maker, June 16th 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Lazer Guided Melodies
Melody Maker, March 12th 1992

by Simon Reynolds

Sunday, July 13, 2008

and that brings Arsequake Week to a close

next up -- something rather more fragrant

Friday, July 11, 2008

Grindcrusher - The Ultimate Earache
Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Angels In Pigtails
Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Thursday, July 10, 2008

ULU, London
Melody Maker, early 1989 (?)

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, 1990 (?)

by Simon Reynolds

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Union Tavern, London
Melody Maker, 1990?

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

God's Balls
(Sub Pop)
Melody Maker, early 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mean Man's Dream
Melody Maker, 1987

by Simon Reynolds

Fulham Greyhound, London
Melody Maker, 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Born Too Late
Melody Maker, early 1988

by Simon Reynolds

THE TELESCOPES, the Falcon, London
Melody Maker, 1989

by Simon Reynolds

WALKING SEEDS, Mean Fiddler, London
Melody Maker, January 28th 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Saturday, July 5, 2008

We Love Life
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

This is essentially Pulp's make-or-break record in terms of them remaining any kind of mainstream pop force. After the sales shortfall of This Is Hardcore, their career arc would logically point towards settling into a sort of Lukes Haines-level culthood: literate, mordant pop that reaps critical acclaim for its probing of England's seamy underbelly. But this would be settling for less: there's clearly a populist streak to Jarvis Cocker, a rabble-rousing, Everyman-championing impulse evident in the anthemic-ness of "Mis-Shapes" and "Common People," and his thrilling disruption of Michael Jackson at the Brits.

Pulp are the kind of group whose music is somehow massively enhanced by massive popularity, and arguably diminished in corresponding proportions by its absence. So the choice of Scott Walker as producer of their comeback--while sure to make hipster sorts like myself moisten their underpants with excitement--is not terribly auspicious. Walker, after all, is the heart-throb crooner who whittled away his Sixties fame with four brilliantly pretentious solo albums, and whose sole recording of the last decade was the ultra-abstruse Tilt. While We Love Life never approaches the forbidding orchestral density of that album, there is a Scott-like grandeur in the sheer size of the sound. And words-wise it's almost like Cocker's ratcheted up the ambitiousness levels to match the producer's visionary lyrical scope.

Nowhere is that more apparent than with the opening two-song suite of "Weeds" and "Weeds II (Origin of the Species)". As mulch-for-metaphor, gardening goes to the core of Englishness--Gardener's Question Time, landscape gardening at stately homes, allotments, the garden city movement. Even in pop, it's got potent resonances: the image of youth as "flowers in the dustbin" in the Pistols's "God Save the Queen," Flowered Up. "Weeds" is essentially a rewrite of "Mis-Shapes", replacing the first song's imagery of broken biscuits with the renegade plants that every gardener fears, and that for Cocker symbolize the underclass as the enemy within Albion's green and pleasant land. Set to a majestic lumber that recalls Led Zep's "Kashmir", the song vaguely heralds some kind of vengeance for this vegetable proletariat.

"Origin of the Species" shifts up several gears in terms of complexity and provocation. Musically, it's a breathtaking panorama of symphonic funk, full of eerie spaces and soaring clusters of backing harmony. Lyrically, it transforms the insights of "Common People" about class tourists and slumming voyeurs into a grand indictment of the way the music industry operates: picking up on underclass innovations in style and expression, then mass-marketing them to a middle class audience eager for a controlled dose of life on the edge. Cocker brilliantly sustains the gardening imagery (cuttings, hothouses, poor soil, exotic strains, "very short flowering seasons", first bloomings swiftly followed by decay) but then almost overloads this perilously extended metaphor by introducing the other connotations of "weed", as drug: "growing wild then harvested in their prime", and proffered at dinner parties as "a sensational buzz". But a searing rage surfaces through this elegant allegory, in lines like "take a photo of life in the margins... then get a taxi home" or the parodied condescension of "c'mon do your funny little dance." For clearly Jarvis feels this is how he's treated: as a pet freak.

The two "Weeds" are just the start of a thread of imagery relating to flora and fauna, the English countryside, Nature as despoiled yet resilient and renewing. "The Trees" starts with the stop-you-in-your-tracks image of the protagonist shooting a magpie to the ground with an air rifle---an appropriate one-for-sorrow kick-off to a song about a dead love affair. It's a lyrical tour-de-force that risks absurdity but achieves a sort of Nick-Cave-aping-Jimmy-Webb pathos, from the heavy-hearted sigh of the chorus ("those useless trees/produce the air that I am breathing... those useless trees/they never said that you were leaving") to the lines "the smell of leaf mold and the sweetness of decay/are the incense at the funeral procession here today." The music is stunning, driven by a Walker-esque orchestral riff borrowed from a Sixties spy-movie soundtrack and encompassing an exquisitely forlorn electric organ solo that's pure Robert Wyatt.

Eight minutes long, "Wickerman" is the album's centrepiece: it's about a real river that flows underneath Sheffield, channelled through "dirty brickwork conduits." Cocker's lyrics make me think of John Cooper Clarke's "Beasley Street" or Morrissey's "river/ the color of lead." This is a stream of memory that carries Jarvis back to moments in love, like a first kiss in a shabby cafe where outside "a child's toy horse ride... played such a ridiculously tragic tune." This girl is a composite of lost lovers: he recalls another riverbank vignette, "except you were somebody else". The river is also a witness, a Cocker-like observer of ordinary lives, flowing beneath "pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips" and passing an old sweets factory that burned down decades ago leaving "caverns of nougat and caramel." Finally, the river is also some kind of life-force, the polluted pulse of a bygone England, distorted by industrialisation yet indomitable. Jarvis imagines following its course all the way through and surfacing "surrounded by grass and trees". Like Neil Young, he knows he'll find "her" there.

We Love Life has its share of songs that don't quite make it.. The obscurely titled "Bob Lind" is a semi-acoustic shimmer that recalls Felt or the Byrds, but lyrically it's an autopilot effort, about admitting you're a fuck-up as the only honest basis for real love. Narratively opaque and vocally strained, "The Night Minnie Timperly Died" seems like a botched anthem. And I still don't know what to make of "Birds In Your Garden," an acoustic guitar ballad adorned with simulated bird-song and a recorder. The song seems to want to be this album's "Something Changed", but the lyrics are just the wrong side of daft: two estranged lovers lie in bed, together but alone, until the dawn chorus tells the man to shag-and-make-up before it's too late. The final lines, in which Cocker confesses that "the birds in your garden... taught me the words to this song" are the glace cherry on top of a very sickly cake. An atrocity against good taste, for sure, yet there's a sort of corny majesty that recalls "Seasons In The Sun". Conversely, "I Love Life" is hard-to-stomach for its sourness. From the limping beat to Cocker's bile-choked, decrepit vocal, the song seems ready for the knacker's yard. Persevere, though, and this poisoned ballad suddenly surges off with the idiot energy of early Roxy, Cocker howling from the gut like primal-scream Lennon.

We Love Life lunges for greatness in its final stretch. "Bad Cover Version" goes for the Yiddish Grand Slam--kitsch, shlock, schmaltz, and chintz. With its massed backing harmonies and Three Degrees-like bells, it seems to come from the same rank cleft in UK pop meMORy that contains golden moldies like Brotherhood of Man and Paper Lace. Listening, you can visualize the BBC light entertainment orchestra: musicians with their kipper ties and headphones, the white-suited and baton-waving bandleader with his blatant toupee and smarmy grin. The words are some of Cocker's wittiest, flipping the old Who "substitute for another guy" idea and making Jarvis the definitive original and his replacement the fake whose kiss tastes of saccharine. The song goes out with a list of gone-to-crap pop artefacts like the later Tom & Jerry cartoons, the Stones post-1980, and, rather cheekily, the disappointing side two of Til the Band Comes In by Scott Walker.

"Road Kill" is all slow building grandeur a la "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", cymbal-smashes like sea-spray in slow-motion, up-swirling spires of sound. It's about another doomed love, heralded by the ghastly portent of a deer struck down and "dying in the road". Cocker sifts through precious memories, images like scars on his mind's eye: "all these things I see... though I don't see you anymore".

Finally, "Sunrise" recalls Sixties balladeer Tim Rose, who specialized in a sort of anti-heroic grandeur. Likewise Cocker's protagonist hates the sun because its glare starkly illuminates his mountainous failures. If the clever-clever self-deprecation of lines about overfilling "the ashtray of my life" or how "my achievements in days of yore/range from pathetic to piss-poor" lean towards bathos rather than tragedy, everything changes with the shooting-star chorus and its sudden heart-rush of confidence that any life, however fucked, can be transformed. With its angelic choir nodding to "You Can't Always Get What You Want", the stratospheric-drive of the song's final minutes is the essential ascension after an album of largely unrelieved gloom.

Whether We Love Life restores Pulp to the centre of UK pop culture or not (and I fear the bizarre contours of Cocker's lyrical imagination might be hard for punters to get their heads around), this record has achieved the sort of freestanding quality and distinction that ultimately makes popular impact irrelevant. Two or three of the songs I'd put right up there alongside their producer at his most godlike genius-like, "Plastic Palace People" or "Boy Child". There's no higher praise.