Saturday, February 12, 2022
Melody Maker, 1989?
by Simon Reynolds
From the start, The Residents had a parasitical relation
to the pop culture that surrounded them. The sleevenotes to
"Meet The Residents", their 1973 debut, describes how they
spent the Sixties scavenging together a collection of sonic
detritus: "cassettes of soldiers in
with impromptu instrumentation... reels from second hand
shops... sound effects and bird call collections from garage
sales ... even a few bootleg tapes of well-known pop artists
going avant-garde between takes". They were samplers long
before the invention of the Sampler.
The early Seventies were a time when pop culture had
become so pervasive, so totalitarian, that its myths and
protocols began to replace 'real life' as pop's subject
matter. Glam was one version of this meta-pop practice
(whether self-consciously articulated, as with Ziggy Stardust
and Roxy Music, or brutally vacant as with Glitter). The
avant-garde vandalism of The Residents was another. "Meet The
Residents", with its grotequely defaced Beatles cover, was
the birth of what has since become practically a genre of
plagiarism and misappropriation (Culturcide, Pussy Calore,
Laibach etc). Musically, "Meet The Residents" makes me think
of The Band, of all people: a polyglot commingling of
American traditional musics (R&B, proto-funk,
jazz). But in The Residents' case, it's as though this
poly-rhythmic bouillabaise is being played on invented
instruments, or has been adapted to non-Western scales with
only partial success.
"Third Reich 'N' Roll" (1976) develops The Residents
idea of the totalitarian nature of pop's rise to the level of
this planet's Esperanto of desire. It turns Sixties pop into
the soundtrack for Hitler's Blitzkrieg. "Swastikas On Parade"
is a segue of bubblegum classics like "Psychotic Reaction",
"The Letter", "Land Of 1000 Dances", competing with
divebombing Stukas, sirens, and machine gun fire, plus free
jazz gibberish and giddy constellations of Sun Ra synth.
"Hitler Was A Vegetarian" is a more downered trek through
songs like "96 Tears", "It's My Party", "Pushing Too Hard"
and "Gloria". Imagine The Clangers aspiring to the poignancyt
of Erik Satie. "Third Reich 'N' Roll' is probably The
Residents' masterpiece. As an added bonus, the CD includes
their hell-spawn (per)version of "Satisfaction", and "Beyond
Beatles' wiggier moments are reconstructed into a wholly new
"Fingerprince" (also from 1976) is re-issued for the
first time in its full length. Along with the Hawaian guitar
pastiche "You yesyesyes" and the hilarious "Godsong" ("all
that God wanted to be/Just a normal deity"), there's two
pieces of particular interest. "Jealous Westinghouse" ,
described as a mini-opera, consists of electro pulsations
like Acid House at 16 rpm and doggerel dialogue in a Muppet
hillybilly twang. "Six Things To A Cycle" (a ballet) is an
atypically tropical suite of of crazy percussion and
"Duck Stab" (1977) is another fine collection of
25th Century nursery rhymes, conceived in the spirit of Dada
and Alfred Jarry. It's accompanied by "Goosembump", a
project undertaken with Snakefinger, whose aim was to bring
to the fore the macabre overtones latent in kindergarten
ditties. All the sounds were produced from childrens' toys,
but were drastically peculiarised by "adult studio toys". The
result is a suite of nauseatingly rubberised nursery rhymes,
that at times ("Three Blind Mice") are creepy almost
Even more unsettling is "Eskimo", The Residents' 1979
elegy for the extinct Inoit culture of the now-thorougly
Americanised Eskimo. While their relativistic tolerance for Inuit
rituals (e.g. exterminating all superfluous
newborn girls) is a tad dubious, the album is a superb sonic
evocation of the irreconcilably alien Arctic lifestyle
(walrus hunts conducted in conditions of
disorientating white-out, 'arctic hysteria' induced by the
sensory deprivation of the long winter darkness).
"Not Available" was actually recorded in '74, in
accordance with N. Senada's "theory of obscurity": the idea
that creating music in the understanding that it is never to
be heard, is the only way to avoid subconsiously pandering to
an audience. But Ralph Records slipped it out surreptitiously
in '78, when The Residents were falling behind their deadline
for "Eskimo". It's not that radical, actually: its cheapo,
pre-programmed beats making it a distant, Dadaist cousin to
shopping mall or funeral parlour muzak.
"The Commercial Album" (1980) is probably the best
introduction to The Residents. It consists of 40 pieces each
exactly one minute long. The idea is that, since most pop
songs contain a verse and chorus repeated three times within
three minutes, if you condense that span down to one minute
(the length of most commericals) you get the kernel of the
song without the extraneous matter. Here, the result is a
collection of 'jingles' as intricate and succint as a haiku
poem (one of the prettiest is called "Japanese Watercolour")
and a sound somewhere between the Human League circa
"Reproduction" and the Suicide of "Dance".
After "The Commercial Album", The Residents seemed to
lose their way. "The Mole Trilogy" and its sequels "Tunes of
Two Cities" and "The Big Bubble" amount to an impenetrable
allegory of something-or-other. Only the most dedicated fan
could be bothered to slog through through the dank, drab
textures of "The Mole Trilogy" to reach enlightenment. Then
there's the flaccid "God In Three Persons", a couple of live
albums, and a fine collection of material by Snakefinger
(their favourite collaborator, the now deceased guitarist
Philip Lithman). The "American Composers Series" (The
Residents 20 year project of tributes) has brought back a
measure of rejuvenation to their sound. It seems we can
apprehend more clearly the nature of their alien-ating method
when they bring their warp factor to bear on something we
know already. The mystery continues...
Monday, February 7, 2022
The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small… Stay As You Are
Melody Maker, October 16th 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Forget the retro-parochialism of Blur et al: this is truly English music, so English it’s barely rock. Everything about this band--from Rosie’s pure, un-American tones and junkshop keyboard, to the way the percussion (played on a homemade kit) is a decorative thread in the tapestry rather than a driving backbeat, to the name Pram (with its whiff of domesticity, mundane modesty, and quaintness) suggest that Pram are reviving that tradition of squatland anti-rockism (The Raincoats, This Heat, early Scritti and other Peel favourites) that petered out in the early Eighties.
Like their precursors, Pram refuse the simpleton satisfaction of kick-ass dynamics in favour of pleasurable perplexity, abstruse enchantment, and cerebral stimulation. This is exactly what I want to hear right now.
Pram are siblings of the American lo-fi anti-grunge revolt (Thinking Fellers etc) but without the wisecracking absurdism and overly obvious Krautrock influences. Instead songs like “Radio Freak In A Storm” (a clucking, wheezing sonic contraption, all hazy harmonium and squawking trumpet) make Pram the only band I’ve ever heard who appear to be influenced by The Raincoats’ neglected mistresspiece Odyshape. The Raincoats compositional method was closer to knitting than jamming; Pram share that homespun approach.
They aren’t always a rarefied, non-physical proposition: the eerieness of ‘Loredo Venus’ woozes around a rumbling, dub-funk bassline. But mostly, this is meditative, mesmeric head-and-heart music. After years of full-blooded, testosterone-pulsing music, Pram are valorously anemic.
Lyrically, the vibe lies somewhere between personal politics and magical realism: imagery of dislocation, dazed anomie, the kind of spooky stagnation captured by the Mekons at their most haunting and rootless. Trapped lives, festering desires, and forlorn fantasies of transcendence. The 17 minute ebb’n’sprawl of “In Dreams You Too Can Fly” does for dejection what Tim Buckley’s Starsailor did for the erection, i.e. make it cosmic. “Cape St Vincent” is kindermusik for the orphaned of this world, while “Dorothy” faintly recalls early Eighties keyboard-based acid-trance gods The Blue Orchids.
The future of British music lies in un-rocking rock, either by demoting the guitar to a bit part (the Pram method) or feeding the guitar through the sampler’s digestive tract (MBV, Seefeel etc). The Stars Are So Big suggests that Pram will have a large role in that future: a future that’s looking brighter every day.
Saturday, February 5, 2022
Fantagraphic Books, Inc
VLS (Village Voice Literary Supplement, early 2000s)
by Simon Reynolds
Cartoonist Daniel Clowes's stories are set in some all-American twilight zone of Hopper-esque diners, lugubrious motel rooms and desolate streetscapes. Time and place are deliberately left non-specific--it's the Big City, any-postwar-year-- allowing Clowes to indulge his fondness for the kind of quaint furnishings and appliances (e.g. barber's chairs) that now sell as overpriced antiques in "architectural salvage" stores. Some of the stories in Clowes' new collection Caricature veer into the full-on noir surrealism of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron (his famous Twin Peaks-like serial driven by non-sequiturs and a mystery narrative that never resolves itself). But most develop further the seedy realism of his superb 1997 graphic novel Ghost World, conjuring a world that's all the more uncanny because the blatantly supernatural rarely occurs. Caricature's most poignant stories seem autobiographical: brink-of-puberty vignettes "Immortal, Invisible" and "Like A Weed, Joe", and "Blue Italian Shit", a memoir of life as johnny-come-lately punk at the tail end of the Seventies. From the title story's fairground caricaturist to the decrepit cartoon superhero in "Black Nylon" and the pugnacious epigone in "MCMLXVI" (who believes American culture peaked circa 1966) Clowes's forte is stalled lives and blocked dreams. Nobody can rival him when it comes to the physiognomy of anomie--he's a virtuoso at jaded eyes, non-commital mouths, and the myriad facial nuances of affectlessness.
Tuesday, February 1, 2022
WithThe Observer Music Monthly, October 15 2006
Tis the season to be spooky. From the label Ghostbox to
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums, the notion of spectral music is the meme
of the moment. Last year Infantjoy’s debut Where
the Night Goes featured a cover of
With is something
of a ghost version of Where the Night
Goes, encompassing remixes of the
latter’s tracks by various kindred, erm, spirits in the electronic field as
well as all-new tracks like “A Haunted Space” (sensing a bit of theme here?).
“Ghosts” itself rematerializes in a spare, stealthy treatment by Popolous that
gives even more prominence to the gorgeous vocals of Sarah Nixey, whose uncanny
Kate Bush-like tones conjure up a parallel pop universe where the raven-haired
Sound’s insubstantiality, the way that music always elude our attempts to fix and define, is a major Morley obsession, and in this spirit With keeps hazy the question of authorship and attribution, so that you’re never quite sure who’s remixing whom. “Someone with Handshake” for instance, appears to be a collaboration between two guest producers, Someone and Handshake, with Infantjoy’s involvement quite possibly limited to having convened the encounter. Unless the track’s digitally mangled voice, which sounds like it’s covered with furry spikes like a crystal forming in a solution, is actually Morley’s. By the track’s end, its heavily-processed beats are so encrusted with gnarly texture, the groove almost grinds to a halt.
Infantjoy confirms Morley’s membership of a select group of rock writers who’ve crossed the line into music-making without disgracing themselves. A concept album about Erik Satie, Where the Night Goes formed a 20th Century modernism continuum with the Art of Noise: the Futurism and Dada coordinates of 1983’s Into Battle, the Debussy-meets-drum’n’bass of AoN’s resurrection in the late 1980s. The claims for Satie are slightly overblown (“just about every radical musical movement of the past one hundred years” traceable back to Trois Gymnopedies and “furniture music”? Tell that to Duke Ellington, James Brown, King Tubby, and a good dozen more--mostly black--innovators). But the fantasy underlying this polemic-- an alternative history of pop in which America and rock’n’soul never existed, a straight line from Russolo through Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, Kraftwerk, Eno, Oval, to, well, Infantjoy--makes for a compellingly dissident vision, with an absorbing, eerie sound to match.
reissued in acknowledgement of the return to action of the Art of Noise (can't work out if Morley is involved in this incarnation of AoN) with the just-out Balance - Music for the Eye and Dream On with the Art of Noise