Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Hilliard Ensemble (Melody Maker, January 20 1990)


(via Nothing Else On)

bonus beats

A proposal by Paul Oldfield and me to write a profile of ECM Records and its chamber-jazz  on the occasion of its 20th birthday in 1989.  It would have been the third in a trilogy of pieces we co-wrote for the Guardian, including a moderately infamous critique of world music and a defense of hyper-masculine music like rap, metal and Electronic Body Music (for the deconstruction of male psychology it afforded). We were really pushing it with this one though and it's hardly surprising it wasn't given the green light.  Apart from the ideas in it, the length of the proposal itself is .... well, feature-length. A la Borges, it's a map of the territory that is the same size as the territory itself.

This year Germany's ECM record label celebrates its
twentieth anniversary. Because it doesn't promote itself, ECM
has always had a low profile: this despite its commercial
success in the Seventies with artists like Pat Metheny, Keith
Jarrett and Chick Corea, and a current roster that ranges
from acclaimed improviser Jan Garbarek to the Estonian
composer Arvo Part. This relative obscurity stems from the
label's founder, Manfred Eicher, who has zealously preserved
his vision of ECM as an island apart from the modishness and
market-consciousness of the music industry, whose output he
characterises as "environmental pollution".

But it's this very "apartness" that has proved so
attractive to the increasing number of pop musicians who have
fallen under ECM's spell during the Eighties.  David Sylvian
left behind his glam icon past as lead singer of Japan in
order to pursue a solo career in 'ambient pop', and has
recorded several albums with musicians from the ECM stable.
'Dreampop' experimentalists A.R. Kane have explicitly cited
ECM as an influence, and other groups (Cocteau Twins, Talk
Talk, Durutti Column, Hugo Largo) have much in common with
ECM's quest for "the most beautiful sound next to silence".

As well as it's influence on the pop avant-garde, ECM is
important because of the way it illustrates what both "New
Age" music and "world music" (those buzz concepts of the
Eighties) could and should have been like. New Age music
tends to be the aural equivalent of a Radox bath: it's
therapeutic, a palliative that helps sustain the listener
against, but also within the demands of modern, capitalist
life. Like vitamin supplements or homeopathic remedies, New
Age records are little capsules of pastoralism that enable
the stressed-out executive to cope with urban life. New Age's
soothing emulsions of sound, like Transcendental Meditation
for businessmen, are a tranquiliser rather than a path to
enlightenment. But ECM's "tranquility" is debilitating rather
than restorative: it's about fixing your consciousness on
something until you lose all sense of yourself and your
separateness.  The crystalline, open structures of John
Abercrombie's or Ralph Towner's music suggest not so much
withdrawal as a hyper-alert state of suspension, heightened

This "meditational" aspect of ECM music is close to
the Eastern idea of nirvana: the serenity that comes with the
cessation of desire. In his later years, Freud came to
believe in the existence of a "nirvana principle" or "death
instinct" inherent in all organic life: a drive that seeks to
return to the lowest possible point of tension. Freud
believed that human anxiety was caused by the repression of
this natural 'death instinct', resulting in a futile pursuit
of immortality through wordly achievement. 'Nirvana' is the
state-of-grace that comes with the recovery of contact with
the 'death instinct': a sublime inertia where you're wide
open to the world rather than restlessly engaged in leaving
your mark upon it.

'Nirvana' is, in fact, a kind of living death or 'life-
in-death'. So it's interesting that Manfred Eicher describes
ECM music in terms of entombment, of sound that is "burying
itself in a crypt of its own making". It's a metaphor that
connects with the very funereal/Egyptian images of 'cool
jazz' found in Miles Davis or Sun Ra. Other sources of this
meditational/monastical condition are the pervasive
Mediaevalism of ECM (its interest in liturgical, devotional
music) and also its attraction to the Romantics, with their
awe before the "sublime" and "terrible". (ECM's Russian
pianist Valery Afannasiev talks about music that should be
fatal in its beauty, such as Gesualdo's madrigals).

ECM suggest this blurring of boundaries, this blissful
oneness with the world, by their recurrent use of LP cover
images and titles that suggest immense, undifferentiated
spaces - polar landscapes, tundra, deserts, barren cliffs -
expanses that are unchanging over the millenia.  ECM's
artists never seem to have any referents, no locus in time or
space.  This nomadism, exemplifed by titles like "Wayfarer"
and "Paths, Prints", is based in the intuition that true
bliss is to be nowhere, bewildered in the wilderness.  (It's
revealing that the root meaning of "utopia" is nowhere).

This placelessness distinguishes ECM from the "world
music" that it has supposed to have prefigured by a decade or
more.  ECM do draw on ethnic music, but this is world music
without any of the Western, liberal ideologies attached to
it: there's nothing rootsy, convivial or feistily "authentic"
about it.  Different cultures are crossed at will. An artist
like Stephen Micus uses instruments from every conceivable
time and place, and even invents his own. These ethnic or
ancient musics are often "inauthentic" too: where music
hasn't been written down (e.g. for the albums of Mediaeval
songs) new music is composed, or music from completely
different times and places borrowed for the accompaniment.

Nor is there world music's dogged adherence to Third World
or folk sources. ECM musicians also borrow from elitist,
court cultures, as in Paul Hillier's troubador courtly-love
songs from 12th Century Provence, or Micus' use of
instruments from early European orchestras. Or there's Arvo
Part, who gave up writing serial music, and turned to a
minimalist, neo-Mediaeval partsong. Or the improviser Keith
Jarrett playing a Bach stripped of baroque mannerism or
modern musicianly interpretation and "feeling".  Unlike world
music, ECM doesn't try to rediscover pop's Dionysiac values
elsewhere; unlike "authentic" classical performers, it
doesn't try to recreate music as it was.

ECM music, then, is a quest for nirvana through the
transcending of time and place. ECM music offers the listener
a gentle apocalypse (an "end of history" and an "end of
geography"): a tiny foretaste of eternity. Perhaps this
timelessness is actually the most timely phenomenon today:
perfect rest at the heart of the pop world's hyper-active
clatter, an "endless end" to pop's relentless turnover of
the new.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022



The Guardian, April 28  2016

by Simon Reynolds

If there’s a single word that describes Drake, probably it would be diffuse.  It’s a catch-all that captures the way his tracks seep out the radio like glistening vapour and conveys also the slippery drift of his voice back-and-forth between rapping and singing.  “Diffuse” fits Drake’s indistinct aura too: half-black and half-Jewish, he’s the all-pervading master of an American street art who’ll nonetheless always be an outsider on account of his Canadian nationality and middle class upbringing.  Drake’s vagueness carries through to his unfixed lyrics: endless celebrations of his own success and stature that are almost always creased with unease and ambivalence, plus his patent brand of not-quite-love songs that combine suppurating sensitivity and emotional evasiveness.

Take his inescapable megahit of 2015 “Hotline Bling”, whose woozy lilt and hang-dog sensuality walked such a fine line (like everything Drake’s done) between addictive and annoying.  What would you even call the emotion in this song? Drake pines for a former sexual arrangement that seems to have been at best undefined; he expresses mild distress that the girl appears to be flourishing in his absence, or at least going out partying a lot.  As pop romance goes, it’s not exactly “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”. It’s not even “One In A Million” by Aaliyah, the Nineties R&B princess whose minimalist R&B was such an influence on Drake and his principal producer Noah “40” Shebib.

As determined as he is indeterminate, Drake has diffused himself all across the rap ‘n’ R&B radioscape this past half-decade, maintaining ubiquity not just with the steady stream of his own hit singles but with innumerable “feat.” appearances in other people’s songs, ranging from superstars like Rihanna to rising MCs like ILoveMakonnen to the ghost of Aaliyah herself. Last year’s collaborations with Future - “Where Ya At” and “Jumpman” – have remained staples of US urban radio deep into 2016.

Drake’s success at spreading his sound and self far and wide owes much to his actor-ly adaptability and seeming desire to be everything to everybody. He’ll swagger baleful and paranoid on a moody, bare-bones track like “Energy”. He’ll quiet-storm it on moist ‘n’ misty ballads like “Marvin’s Room”. He’ll put out a boppy ditty not a million miles from Justin Bieber’s recent “tropical house” hits with his new single “One Dance”, which samples an old track by UK funky diva Kyla. 

But the diffusion of Drake also has something to do with the way he has defused hip hop, uncoupled it from the explosive content once at the core of the genre.  Raised primarily in an affluent Toronto suburb, a successful TV actor in his teens, Drake shrewdly avoids street realities like crime as song topics. (Whenever he’s got even close to this subject matter – referencing lawyers and the prison commissary on “Where Ya At,” claiming to have “Started From the Bottom” - it’s been jarring and unconvincing).  But nor is Drake a conscious rapper. As a mix-race Canadian, he probably feels it’s not his place to comment on American racial conflicts: Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, the sort of issues an MC like Kendrick Lamar can address and is driven to address.

Drake has plenty of company in rap when it comes to being resolutely apolitical. Still, even the most party-hard, commodity-fetishising gangsta rappers have still communicated some sense of the social backdrop that explains their feral drive for success and all its spoils. Jay-Z, DMX, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, T.I., Future – always there’s been somewhere in the back of their music an idea of overcoming: the rap game was usually chosen as an alternative to destructive (to others and ultimately to yourself) outlaw ways of making money and making a name. That didn’t make the tyrannical postures and gruesome threats, the callous sexism and name-brands flaunting, any less ugly, or even justify it, exactly. But it at least provided a context. Gangsta rap wasn’t about The Struggle, but it had struggle in it. 

Drake’s innovation as a rapper is that the only adversity he’s ever really claimed to have faced is the adversity of fame itself. It is virtually his only subject. Even the not-really-love songs are part of this, since they stem from the fracturing of relationships that comes about when someone is constantly travelling and constantly tempted.  In “Doing It Wrong” Drake croons ruefully about how “we live in a generation of not being in love and not being together”. And apparently millennials do find the lyrics of Drake’s softer songs -  which have the pleading, needy tone ‘n’ texture of R&B ballads but are resolutely irresolute and emotionally non-committal - highly relatable.

Right from the start, with his 2009 breakthrough mix-tape So Far Gone, Drake was writing about the problems caused by celebrity.  Whether this was an act of imaginative anticipation, or because he been  pre-famed through playing disabled basketball star Jimmy Brooks in the popular teensoap Degrassi: The Next Generation, it’s hard to say. But on songs like “The Calm” Drake was already moaning about feeling over-stretched and cut-off:   “to keep everybody happy I think I would need a clone.... feeling so distant from everyone I’ve known....  all my first dates are interrupted by my fame”. 

Drake has repeated the same themes, the same mood (bi-polar oscillation between triumph and torment) across his subsequent albums Thank Me Later, Take Care, his masterwork Nothing Was the Same, and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He will almost certainly return to those themes and that mood on his imminent Views From the 6.  Authenticity matters as much for Drake as for any rapper, and authenticity means writing about what you know. Fame is pretty much all Drake knows.

It’s a tribute to his powers of invention, his strange and grotesque genius, that Drake has so far managed to find so many compelling variations on such a restricted set of themes :  the dream that turns out not be not as dreamy as you’d expected;   feeling alone even in the midst of an entourage and a wild party; plaints, already fairly familiar in rap, about how money changes everything and creates mo’ problems than its absence. Haters and gold-diggers were long established in rap as inevitable accoutrements of fame about which you could whinge-boast (hip hop’s equivalent of the humble-brag).  But Drake went the next step and talked about the hollow-inside feeling that came with conquering the throne and acquiring all the trophies. As he croons in “All Me”, “Got everything, I got everything/ I cannot complain, I cannot” – but still, still, he complains: about feeing empty, feeling numb.  Picking up on pointers left by Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak but pushing further ahead, Drake made having a spiritual void into rap’s new status symbol. Morose and maudlin became the mark of mega-stardom, not Maybach and Margiela.

From the Clipse to T.I., the trap was rap’s reigning metaphor during the first decade of the 21st Century, a reference to the place where drugs are sold but also the idea of that life as a dead-end (along with the related idea of luring and enslaving the clientele, mostly members of the dealer’s own race, class, community). In Drake’s decade, the 2010’s, fame itself – the escape-route alternative to crime pursued by gangsta rappers – has become a trap of its own. The godfathers of gangsta, NWA talked about “reality rap”; Drake’s self-invented genre is unreality rap, or perhaps hyper-reality rap.  Both the mise-en-scene and the topics of his songs – penthouse suites, after-show parties , VIP rooms,  award shows, inter-celebrity dating, internet gossip, the proliferation of the public self as an image and a meme – are remote from the life-world most of us inhabit. We gawp at it from the outside.  Drake’s art is all about achieving access to this hyper-real world – a realm of front, rumour, bravado, optics, public relations – and then bemoaning how unreal it feels to live inside it.  As spun by 40 and Drake’s other producers like Boi-1da, the glittering insubstantiality of the music – which resembles Harold Budd, Aphex Twin, Radiohead circa Kid A as much as Timbaland, the Weeknd or DJ Mustard – is the perfect aural match for the mirrored maze of modern celebreality.  The airless sound evokes the sealed vacuum of loneliness-at-the-top.

Drake’s ascendance happened so instantly it felt effortless, achieved without struggle, almost to the point of seeming unearned.  In “Thank Me Now”, Drake rapped about how he “can relate to kids going straight to the league” - a reference to high-school players so talented they skip the stage of playing college basketball and go straight to the NBA. In the same song, Drake declares “damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous.” 

Drake does love his sports analogies and allusions. “30 for 30 Freestyle,” from the Future collaboration What A Time To Be Alive, is named after a celebrated ESPN series of sports documentaries.  Drake even framed his feud with Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill using baseball and basketball references. He named “Back To Back,” the second of his counter-attack tracks, after the Toronto Blue Jays’s serial defeats of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993, and namechecked the basketball consultant / power-broker William Wesley in the song’s second line.

The rise of Drake shows that rap has become a merit-based system that works just like sports. The old metrics of credibility and authority – based around where you came from, your experience, “the strength of street knowledge” as NWA put it, as well as around technique and chutzpah– no longer counted as much as sheer proficiency:  the skill with which an MC could manipulate the tropes of a genre that is codified almost to the point of having rules.  Like sports, rap has become a self-perpetuating and enclosed system in which star players and rival teams compete for the pole position and for superior stats. We follow rap like we follow sports: as excited onlookers thrilling vicariously to the clashes, the victories, the glory.  It’s got nothing to do with real life.

Monday, April 11, 2022

junkshop glam, or, the hardrock continuum

 Various Artists

All The Young Droogs: 60 Juvenile Delinquent Wrecks, Rock’N’Glam (And A Flavour Of Bubblegum) From The 70’s

Pitchfork, January 29 1019

The title of this glam rock box set is a cute twist on “All the Young Dudes,” the song Bowie  gifted to Mott the Hoople and that became their biggest hit. People, then and since, took it as an anthem for rock’s third generation – the kids who were babies when rock’n’roll first arrived,  missed out most of the Sixties too, but come the Seventies craved a sound of their own. The Bowie / Mott / Roxy side of glam – literate and musically sophisticated - is not really what this collection is really about, though. “Droog” is the true clue – a near-future slang term for a teenage thug from A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of the Anthony Burgess novel. Scandalous on its 1971 release, the film was blamed for a spate of copycat ultraviolence and chimed with existing UK anxieties about feral youth and rising crime: soccer hooliganism, skinhead “bovver boys” in steel-capped Doc Martens brutalizing hippies and immigrants, subcultural tribes warring on the streets.

All the Young Droogs largely celebrates the music that sublimated and safely vented the disorderly impulses of working class kids in the not-so-Great Britain of the early Seventies. It’s packed with the  coarse ‘n’ rowdy rock whose shout-along choruses and stomp-along drums unleashed uproar down the discotheque as records and shook concert halls from foundations to rafters when bands played live.  Compiler Phil King’s focus, though, is not the huge-selling glitter bands like Slade or The Sweet, but the nearly-made-its and the never-stood-a-chancers: “Junkshop glam,” as collectors and dealers call this stuff, a term that exudes the musty aroma of digging through cardboard boxes of dirt-cheap singles.

Nowadays, some of those 7-inches sell for hundreds of pounds. Junkshop glam has followed the same trajectory as earlier cult sounds like Sixties garage, Seventies punk, and DIY -  from utterly dejected and almost value-less in the immediate aftermath of its release, to the basis of a vinyl antiques market. Indeed the interest in the  second and third divisions of glitter started when collectors of those earlier styles had exhausted those seams,  then realised that glam - beneath the vocal hysteria and campy affectations – was raw basic rock. Another supply of short sharp shocks and punchy thrills opened up in the nick of time.   

Glam as punk-before-punk is an argument convincingly made on the first disc of Droogs. titled “Rock’s Off”. Ray Owen Moon’s “Hey Sweety” launches things with a stinging attack and pummeling power just a notch behind The Stooges, although the oddly phrased title-chorus diminishes the menace slightly.   Most Droogs inclusions are fairly frivolous affairs lyrically -  anthems of lust, celebrations of rocking out - but Third World War anticipate punk themes with the proletarian plaint and Strummer-like sandpaper vocals of “Working Class Man.” Hustler forge a link between The Faces and Cockney Rejects with “Get Outta My Way”, which is like Magic’s “Rude” recast as pub boogie:  the hilarious lament of  a longhair hassled by his girl’s disapproving Dad.  In Supernaut’s “I Like It Both Ways”, the bisexual protagonist’s own dad think he’s “INSANE!!”: during the middle-eight he’s confused by stereophonic propositions from a girl in the left speaker and a boy in the right.  Other highlights include the chrome-glistening grind of James Hogg’s “Lovely Lady Rock” and the grating lurch of Ning’s  “Machine,” akin to being run over by a bulldozer driven by a caveman.

Things stay stompy and simplistic on the second disc “Tubthumpers & Hellraisers,” but with a slight shift towards pop.  On Harpo’s “My Teenage Queen,”  a lithe, corkscrewing melody contrasts with a hammer-pounding relentless beat, which is interrupted by an unexpected outbreak of hand-percussion like a belly-dancer abruptly jumping onstage to join the band.  Frenzy’s “Poser” sneers sweetly and Simon Turner’s “Sex Appeal” is a delicious bounce of bubblegum. Compared with the ferocious first disc, though, this radio-friendly fare often feels flimsier, stirring those doubts familiar with similar archival salvage enterprises: is this really lost treasure? Or is it deservedly obscure?

Shrewdly, on the final disc “Elegance and Decadence,” King  switches gears and zooms in on what some  call “high glam”: the Bowie-besotted, Ferry-infatuated side of the genre, which appealed to older teenagers and middle class students with its thoughtful lyrics, its witty cultural references and arty name-drops, and the exquisite styling of the clothes and record packaging. The backings favored by performers like John Howard, Paul St John, and Alastair Riddell are svelte and lissome, shunning the beefy power-chords and leaden kick drums of the more thumping and  lumpen glitter, in favor of strummed acoustic guitar and swaying rhythms. The vocal presence on these songs is likewise willowy and androgynous: sometimes an unearthly soar above the mundane,  other times highly-strung and histrionic.

The most fetching specimens here in this post-Hunky Dory mode are Steve Elgin’s “Don’t Leave Your Lover Lying Around (Dear),” with its saucy asides about how “trade is looking good,” and Brian Wells’s archly enunciated “Paper Party.” Bowie-esque themes of fame and fantasy abound, with titles like “Spaceship Lover”, “Ultrastar”, and “Star Machine” (the latter by actual Bowie offcut Woody Woodmansey’s U Boat). “Criminal World” by the debonair Metro – who described their style as “English rock music, but influenced by a hundred years of European culture… Baudelaire and Kurt Weill” -  would  be later covered by Bowie himself on 1983’s Let’s Dance, a well-deserved compliment. Even more genteel-sounding is “New York City Pretty,” which could be an out-take from Rocky Horror, so closely does Clive Kennedy mirror Tim Curry’s phrasing.

Like other retro-actively invented genres such as  freakbeat, part of the appeal of junkshop glam is its generic-ness: the closeness with which artists conform to the rules of rock at that precise moment.  In many cases, these performers were arrant opportunists: a year or two earlier, they’d been prog or bluesy-rock artists. Some would adapt yet again and adopt New Wave mannerisms - replacing fluting aristocratic tones for gruff working class accents, swapping escapism and decadence for lyrics about unemployment and urban deprivation. Indeed Droogs contains an example of glam juvenilia from a future prime mover of punk: “Showbiz Kid” by Sleaze, the early band of TV Smith of The Adverts.

Although this kind of aesthetic flexibility seems suspect and unprincipled, it usefully reveals a couple of things about rock. First, it points to a sameness persisting underneath all the style changes. From today’s remote vantage point, the differences – once so significant and divisive - between Sixties beat groups, bluesy boogie, heavy metal, glam, pub rock, and punk start to fade and a continuum of hard rock emerges.  The dominant sound on Droogs is situated somewhere between The Pretty Things, Ten Years After, The Groundhogs, on one side, and the Count Bishops, Sham 69, Motorhead, on the other. I’ve picked British names but you could just as easily throw Steppenwolf, Grand Funk and Black Flag in there, or for that matter, AC/DC.

The other thing that Droogs shows is that originality is both uncommon and over-rated. Herd mentality, which is to say the willingness of the horde of proficient but not necessarily creative performers to be influenced by the rare innovators in their midst, is what actually changes the sound of the radio. It’s the arrival of the copyists that definitively establishes a new set of musical characteristics, performance gestures, and lyrical fixtures, as the defining sound of an era.  Send in the clones, then, because sometimes you can’t get enough of a good thing.