Sunday, February 27, 2011

Underneath the Pine
Carpark Records
The Wire, February 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Have you noticed? Pop music sounds shit these days. I'm not talking about deficiencies of playing, singing, or writing (although doubtless these all play their part). No, I'm referring strictly to sound quality. Compressed, ProTooled, AutoTuned, and God knows what else, modern pop is engineered to cut through on iPods, smartphones, computer speakers: it reaches the consumer's ear pre-shittified, essentially. Meanwhile, down in the underground, it's the opposite: everybody wants their records to sound expensive. That makes perfect sense: if the mainstream sounds cheap 'n 'nasty and chartpop hurts your ears, ideas like lo-fi and noise become meaningless. "Slick" and "shiny" cease to be hallmarks of sterile, soul-less professionalism: they become ideals. They are also achievable goals these days. Digital audio workstations, soft synths, and sundry technologies of tweaking, tinting and tidying-up have placed the kind of production quality and session-player tightness that in the Seventies and Eighties required weeks of £ 500-a-day studio time within the reach of bedroom operators.

Where hypnagogic pop outfits generally look to back to the cocaine-crisp gloss of Eighties AOR and Seventies soft-rock, or to New Wave at its most synthetic, the coordinates for Toro Y Moi's sound lie more with black music of the same era: the utopian luxuriance of disco, jazz-funk, and those Eighties mid-tempo club grooves that cognoscenti and collectors nowadays seem to term "boogie". Listening to the skipping 'n' sliding beats of Causers of This, the debut LP from South Carolina's Chas Bundick, it seemed clear that these influences were mediated to a large extent by Daft Punk and J Dilla. But on Underneath the Pine, Bundick's dropped the digital tricknology for a sound that's all live instrumentation and no samples. In fact, the two albums were originally meant to be non-identical twins released into the world in the same year, 2010, to showcase different facets of Bundick's talent.

That Toro Y Moi are considered "indie" only highlights how confused and meaningless the term has become in the post-Ariel Pink/Panda Bear era. Opener "Intro/Chi Chi" features shoegaze guitar over its nimble, sinewy bassline and rippling hand-percussion, resulting in a cross between Slowdive and "Southern Freez". But otherwise the only real clue that this isn't a slab of vintage discofunk are a slight excess of reverb and Bundick's singing. Pale and introspective, dreamy and faraway-eyed, his often multitracked vocals float alongside the grooves rather get down 'n'dirty inside the music's engine room of rhythm. Bundick has talked about belonging to the tradition of danceable pop with "depressing subject matter", which suggests New Order as a reference point. Taken from the lyric to "How I Know", the title Underneath the Pine is an oblique reference to where Bundrick would like to be buried, while the album's recording was colored by the fact that the sessions started immediately after the funeral of a friend.

Not that you can really tell from a casual listen: on the surface, most of the music is upbeat, all succulent sensuousness and palatial polish. The sound is dominated by keyboards of every hue and grain: warm-milk swirls of Rhodes, smoky electric piano out of In A Silent Way, squelchy synths that summon the NYC postdisco of Peech Boys and Vicky D, gnarly distorted organ like Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North. "How I Know" is almost too sumptuous with its wedding-cake layers of keyboard timbres: upper register tinkles, fairy tale twinkles, bright Steve Reich pulse-work, thumping lower-octave booms.

That song occurs at the end of what is something of a soggy center to this album, where deities of rock overproduction like Todd Rundgren seem present in spirit if not as overt influence. "Divina" is sickly like Black Forest gateau, intersecting with that style of gussied-up, orchestrally embellished American indie that I call "cutesy-poo". "Got Blinded" is better, its white-on-white-on-white glare reminding me of the video for "Imagine", but the cooing vocals have a fragrant flutteriness vaguely redolent of Flora Purim. (In interviews, Bundick cites space disco and soundtracks, figures like Mandre and Morricone and de Roubaix, as prime influences on this record, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't some Brazilian fusion-funk in his iPod). Thankfully Underneath the Pine burns brightly at both ends. "New Beat" , the second track, is a glitterball groove that suddenly loses its way in a Miles-like maze; "Go With You", the tune that follows, is aquafunk of the sort we've not heard since Happy Monday's Hannett-produced and reverb-refracted Bummed. In the closing stretch, "Light Black" describes itself perfectly: dazzling yet dark, silky but sinister, its velvet-glove pummel eventually heads off into a stranger region, like Tim Buckley if he'd tried to fuse the astral vocalese of "Starsailor" with the gritty R&B of "Devil Eyes" from Greetings From LA. Closer "Elise" passes through similar weird-zones, sounding in places like Matching Mole meets the Blockheads, a stoned Chas Jankel languidly rinky-dinking the ivories while Wyatt gets gaseous a la "Instant Pussy".

In between there's stand-out track "Still Sound". I first heard the song unawares, on Los Angeles's public radio station KRCW, whose celebrated and influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" programming template mixes up genres and eras. As so often with this and similar "alternative" stations, I couldn't tell if the song was a current release or made thirty years ago. "Still Sound" could easily be a lost Loft classic, or a track laid down during the sessions for Ultramarine's 1991 Every Man and Woman Is A Star, or some immaculate Arthur Russell-emulating simulacrum forged by Faze Action at the turn of the millennium. Again, only the listless vocals tie the song to the contemporary context of, ugh, chillwave. "I go for a timeless feel," Bundick has said. In that sense Toro Y Moi are exemplary hypnagogues, scrambling history to make real nowhen-and-everywhen pop.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Upon reflection, it's hard to see why Lloyd Cole has
been so thoroughly vilified, why his name (particularly round
these parts) is so ineradicably besmirched. What must be
most galling for Cole is that his detractors aren't
consistent. Most recent example: Guy Chadwick, feted for very
much the same brand of Americanisms and plangent poignancy
that has hitherto brought only a shower of ridicule on Cole's
head. And there's the Blue Aeroplanes, who've long been
allowed to style themselves as Beatnik poet rockers without a
chorus of jeers.

Besides, most of the sins associated with Cole - over-
writing, name-dropping, terminal irony - he grew out of a
long time ago. Musically and lyrically, the new album "Lloyd
Cole" is his leanest and sparest yet. Recorded with Fred
Maher (drummer on Lou Reed's "New York) and Robert Quine
(legendary guitarist, most known for his days with Richard
Hell and The Voidoids) it's his best, most refreshed album
since "Rattlesnakes".

But for some, Lloyd Cole will remain the guy who put the
"nancy: into poignancy; a bogus bohemian; a clever-dick.
There's an abiding confusion about "authenticity" here. In
this post-modern age, our dreams are inevitably mediated
through images and icons drawn from cinema, literature, pop
history. When your mind is packed and bustling with this
detritus, it's inauthentic not to reflect it in your writing.
The Jesus and Mary Chain and Birdland have been celebrated
for work that is nothing but flagrant homage, an
iconographical inferno. Lloyd Cole, though, is derided for
twee name-dropping, smug knowingness.

There's no denying that Cole has frequently been
embarassing, usually when attempting the epic ("Forest Fire",
"Brand New Friend"). Other times, he's been merely droll.
But I've been touched by some of his delicately wrought,
underplayed vignettes. For "Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken",
"Patience", "2cv", "Why I Love Country Music", "My Bag", and
a substantial portion of the new record, I can manage to take
Lloyd Cole seriously.

What Lloyd Cole excels at is the evocation of a certain
kind of autumnal melancholy: the wilting of youthful
idealism, love losing its bloom, romance stagnating into
habitude. Cole's character's tend to be trapped in
relationships that have inexplicably died on them ("Why I
Love Country Music", "Mercy Killing"). Or they're desperate
for a chance to relive a bohemian life prematurely exhanged
for white collar sell-out ("Hey Rusty"). The opening track
on the new album is called "Don't Look Back", but it's
precisely the poignancy of retrospection that is Cole's
forte. And in a broader sense Lloyd Cole, along with the rest
of his generation of learned rockers, can't help but
communicate the feeling that the present era doesn't compare
with pop's glory years.

In person, Cole radiates a strange mixture of unease and
unshakeable confidence. He answers questions with the
brisk concision of someone who has a very clear idea of what
he's all about. Every so often a half-smile darts fleetingly
in between the terse replies, but mostly he seems rather
guarded. Well, this is the Melody Maker, after all. I put to
him what I've suggested above: that his forte is the
melancholy of lost innocence, a sense of fading possibilites.
Is this a glance back to a period of despondency before you
became successful, or is it how you really feel?

"Generally, my overview of life is that optimism is fairly
redundant. Certainly it causes more unhappiness than a
realistic, pessimistic approach to life. I don't think I
expect that much from life."

Why do you think people respond to this? How much is it
to do with people leaving college and realising they're
destined to succumb to settled mediocrity rather than do
something spectacular with their lives?

Lloyd frowns at the allusion to the dread word
'student'. "I don't know exactly who I talk to. The only way
I can think that people find it pleasurable is to think in
terms of blues. That it's some kind of catharsis for them,
enables them to feel better about their own lives. Blues can
be incredibly uplifting, even though, if one were to analyse
it coldheartedly, it's pretty depressing stuff."

But blues is more about abjection, whereas your thing is
more about disillusionment, the slow relinquishing of dreams.
The characters in your songs aren't laid low, more...

"Worn out. They're burnt out cases. But I still feel
that the way I write is connected to the sense of realism you
get when you listen to, say, Robert Johnson singing 'I'm
gonna beat my woman til I'm satisfied'. He's actually
confronting the nature of his problems, the hideousness of
it. Certainly, in 'Don't Look Back', I attempted to take my
worst fears about the kind of character I might become and
put them into a song. I was writing about how the closer you
get to death, the easier faith becomes. It's roughly about
what might have happened if things hadn't worked out for me."

* * * * * *

Do you have any regrets about your early music, the way it's
saddled you with an image you no longer deserve (literary,
Americanophile etc)?

"I think what I'm doing now is a lot more natural. When
I started, I'd just come out of studying literature, so in a
way it was quite natural for me to write like that. I think
I developed the idea of the proper noun as metaphor and
simile. That's one of the few innovations in songwriting
that I'm responsible for. To hear it referred to as name-
dropping, doesn't seem very nice. It certainly wasn't name-
dropping, I'd never met anyone like Norman Mailer, and I
never even read Simone de Beauvoir. But I knew what she
represents as a figure, so I thought she could easily be used
as a metaphor. As for the literary thing... Well, sure,
next to Billy Idol I look like a literary, intellectual guy.
Next to the genuine article, I look like a pop singer.
I don't even regret anything, although I do think I over-
estimated what the possibilities of the Pop Song were. I
over-reached at times, wrote more to say less, so to speak."

Whereas nowadays your appraoch is, in the words of "A
Long Way Down": "the reason it's a cliche is because it's

"You get to the point where, in writing, the obvious is
the best thing to do. I shied away from that for a long
time. I think you have to be a better writer to use the
obvious, and still make it sound fresh. Maybe I feel
confident enough to do that now."

Do you feel you have a peer group - Morrissey, Paddy
Macaloon, Roddy Frame, Costello et al?

"I feel a certain affinity to Paddy. I think when he
writes a nice, simple song it's usually rather beatiful.
Sometimes he has the same problem as me, of trying to do too
much. I don't feel I'm part of movement so much... but I
guess the three of us, and old Edwyn too, have promoted the
idea of sensitivity. The idea that you can be sensitive and
still be a cool dude."

Is country rock very much your musical home?

"It's difficult for me to say, cos I really don't listen
to country music. I listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain. I
think it's my words that are country more than anything else.
My attitude probably has more in common with country than
with traditional rock'n'roll. The irony and the melancholy,
the funny/sad lines like "the last word in lonesome is me".
For me, this ability to find humour in tragedy is very much
what keeps one alive".

Your reference points are certainly very un-black. I
remember you once claimed that soul had become a bad
influence on British pop, in that passion had been elevated
over literacy.

"I was talking more about the influence of soul on
singing. With the exception of Dylan and the Velvet
Underground, rock singing has developed out of Gospel and the
blues. The whole idea of passion in delivery has become
method rather than real passion. I just find it intolerable
to listen to. Like a bad Simply Red record: it's all
technique, whereas when you listen to Otis Redding singing
"Try A Little Tenderness", that's real passion, he's
completely out of control."

What do you feel about the direction the culture's going
in - the materialism, and the inevitable backlash against

"I almost felt quite smug when a journalist reminded me
that two years ago I had predicted a new hippy culture, a
backlash against yuppiedom. And we really have it now,
even in the adverts. Do you have the commercials for that
Honda car called Infinity over here? Really, it's most
incredible. There's this flock of geese making this V-sign
against the sky, and this guy talking in a very gentle voice
about how 'we take the forms of nature'. They don't even show
the car, they just have the name at the end: Infinity."

Although he's always argued that pop and politics are
poor bedfellows ("well-meaning gets to be an excuse for
clumsy writing") Cole is not averse to the occasional bout of
denunciation. He's good at portraits that are simulataneously
vitriol-laced and poignant, cruel and compassionate: witness
his put-downs of a New Age casualty's beatific certainty
("Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken"), or of soul-less social
climbers and yuppie mercenaries (the latest example being 'A
Long Way Down', off the new album). That one's almost a
morality tale. a la 'Wall Street'.

"Yeah, it's a slow version of 'My Bag' really, except it
wasn't specifically about cocaine, just about that mentality.
I wrote it for this film that never got made, about a painter
from Glasgow, who gets sucked into this New York high life
culture, and abandons his roots, his sense of morality, his
sense of proportion."

Cole himself has been in exile in New York for two
years. Does he still find it a romantic place?

"Not really. See, I'd been over quite a few times before
I moved there. When I was younger, the idea that I could
make a living writing songs and go live somewhere like New
York seemed impossibly romantic. But now, it's just my
everyday life. I don't see too much romance in my life these
days. Just luck. I've been incredibly lucky."

The nearest he's come to selling his soul to the high
life is hiring out his face for an afternoon, posing for a
series of adverts for Amoretto (an almond liqueur) that
appeared in fashionable magazines.

"I got paid the equivalent of five months rent for five
hours work. It's the highest paid work I've done outside
live work. And I direly needed the money. It didn't do me any
harm, cos it was kind of a cool campaign, and I checked out
the the kind of people I was being associated with. They're
mostly hip, upcoming young actors. I can't complain, I was
the only one they used two photos of. And they did humour me
by taking my photo outside a porno theatre in Time Square. On
the original shot, the words 'Wild Wet and Willing' were
clearly visible behind me. But in the event, they fagged
out, as we say, and printed the shot with the background out
of focus. That was a shame, cos it would have made me feel a
lot better about the photo."

Cole's approach (if not dirty realism, at least slightly
tarnished and off-colour realism) is at the opposite end from
British rock's current extremist and hunger for oblivion.

"I have quite often been in pursuit of oblivion, but
usually with a beer and whisky. But I remember seeing Ray
Manzarek on some TV documentary, and he said: 'Jim Morrison,
yeah man - he was living on the edge of reality'. And I
just thought: 'fuck! how can a 45 year old man still be
thinking like a 12 year old kid?!'. I'm not really interested
in that kind of glamour. There's enough glamour for me in is
just being able to exist as a writer, and not having to work
in a bar."

Does this attitude (being more interested in projecting
your work than your self) make you rock rather than pop?

"I did start out with the aim of being a pop star, but
within a year all my ambitions were achieved. I'd got on the
cover of NME, I had appeared on TOTP. So I had to find
something else. Now I just want to get better, do all kinds
of things with the music. Recently I've been writing
rock'n'roll songs, while at the same time having four or five
Walker Brothers, orchestral epics up my sleeve."

Do you think it's true that you have a healthier than
normal proportion of girls in your audience?

"It's not boys music, that's for sure. Which I'm glad
about. Certainly no one's gonna accuse me of being
misogynist. If I'm perceived as the sensitive, New Man,
that's fine by me. I always try to champion sensitivity,
argue that it doesn't mean you have to be a wimp. Which is
very much the James Dean thing of being cool but not

One of the best songs on the album, "Undressed" appears
to be an admission of voyeurism.

"Absolutely. For what of a better word, it's a post-
feminist realisation that looking at naked bodies is not a
bad thing. You can get so hung up on being right-on and anti-
sexist, you go in the opposite direction, and almost end up a
frigid male.

Is it also about emotional voyeurism?

"Yeah. Half the song is about nakedness, and the other
half about emotional nakedness and vulnerability. That's why
it opens with the line 'you look so good when you're
depressed', because women do. If a woman looks upset, she
just looks more beautiful. It's really unfair!"

Six weeks ago Lloyd married his American girlfriend
Elizabeth, an Orange Juice fan "who doesn't mind my stuff".
He says that these days he's at his happiest "waking up
in the morning with my wife. I usually find it very hard to
get up and go to work." Apart from matrimony, his life is
occupied by writing songs, hanging out in local bars and pool
halls with musician buddies, and the occassional game of

"Y'know," he says as the interview dwindles towards its
close, "recently I've been quite enjoying the realisation
that I'm possibly closer to the end of my career than to the
beginning. I just don't want to do it for ever. Do I have my
my eyes on anything else? No. Having babies, maybe."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Germfree Adolescents Expanded
Blender, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Barging in front of the Sex Pistols’ and Buzzcocks’ debuts, Germfree Adolescents is the best British punk album EVER. What clinches it is the sheer raunch of X-Ray Spex’s sound. Everything in the music--the punk-boogie grooves, the saxophone’s braying insolence, the blasting blare of Poly Styrene’s vocals--swings and jives. Heard at its utmost on “Art-I-Ficial” and “Let’s Submerge,” the result is a noise so powerful and so fine that sometimes all can you do is laugh out loud. Far from being date-stamped “1978”, Styrene’s lyrics--blistering diatribes against consumer society and mass-marketed youth exploitation--are more pertinent and penetrating than ever. Eventually the contradictions of having her own rebellion turned into a commodity (explored here humorously, with “Warrior in Woolworths,” and anguishedly, on “Identity”) caused the singer to have a breakdown. This expanded reissue adds the crucial early single “Oh! Bondage Up Yours!,” punk defiance at its most in-your-face, plus a pair of nice but inessential BBC radio sessions.

how weird for Poly to have her story/sound turned into a movie