Monday, March 27, 2023

June Tabor - Always



Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

So freakily fashionable has British folk become these past few years, forgotten figures like Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, and Vashti Bunyan are now hipster icons. Strangely, one female minstrel who rarely gets mentioned is June Tabor. Maybe it’s because, during what’s generally regarded as folk’s golden age, she was just a part-time musician squeezing performances in when her day job as librarian allowed. Indeed Tabor only got around to recording a debut LP, Airs and Graces in 1976, a decade after the first Incredible String Band and Fairport albums.

Like the Sandy Denny box, Always makes a convincing case for Tabor as not just a giant in the traditional music pantheon, but as a great singer beyond genre. The compiling pointedly showcases her accomplishments as an interpreter of songs with much broader provenance than folk. Alongside the heritage ballads you’d expect, there are unlikely readings of Costello’s “All This Useless Beauty,” Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” even Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation.” All are tastefully arranged and decked out with “beautiful playing” that mostly draws on the cream of UK folk musicianship but, in the case of Kris Krisofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride,” utilizes horn players from the Creative Jazz Orchestra.

Always suffers slightly from the box set’s tendency to avoid obvious faves and classics in favour of unreleased songs, alternate performances, and sundry other enticements for fans who already own all the albums. Like other career summations, it also attempts to display the full temporal span of the oeuvre (artists always believe that they only get better and better at what they do). Still, without wishing to, er, box Tabor in stylistically, I can’t help wishing there was less Nineties/Noughties material and more from the Seventies, when she sang either unaccompanied or with very sparing acoustic backing, as represented here by wintry beauties like “The Four Loom Weaver”, “The Fair Maid of Wallington,” and “Bonny May.” 

For all their narrative intent, these traditional songs aren’t really exercises in interpretation. Rather than drawing on the singerly arts of phrasing and dramatic nuance (leave that all crap to the Elaine Pages, please), they work through a different kind of technique, incantatory and keening. The singer seems to be in a trance of pure longing or grief, a trance that entrances. The way Tabor runs a “shiver” (Andrew Cronshaw’s word) through the marrow of the melody invokes something ageless, atavistic, heathen.

Tabor’s vocal gift lend itself towards darkness: ancient tales of murder and retribution like “Young Johnstone,” or more recent woes like the ANZAC soldiers killed and crippled at Gallipoli, as commemorated in “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. 

Oh, there’s joy too, now and then-- her skippy, chirruping vocal on “The Overgate” dances and glitters like a brook dappled with sunlight. 

But it’s the more haunted, desolated songs that truly bring out Tabor’s witchy beauty.

Obsessed with this haunting version of Lal Waterson song

Two more "Gamekeepers" - Koln in 1990, and on the Jools Holland show 

The whole program from which the rendition of "Gamekeepers" at the top of this post is taken - Flintlock's Fanfare - complete with June joining in a mass performance of "Yellow Submarine" near the end of the show (from 21.48)

Great rendition of "The King of Rome" at around 24 minutes into this Ken Russell doc on the English Folk Song  - plus interview with Tabor 

The whole Russell doc is worth watching - a very quirky take on the subject. 

Never heard this before - Tabor out-Slicking Grace (backed by the Oyster Band)

She also spars with Julie Driscoll with a take on "This Wheel's On Fire" (also backed by Oyster Band)

Tuesday, March 14, 2023



A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (Rhino)

director's cut, Blender 2006

by Simon Reynolds

That maniacal cackling is the gleeful sound of a genre having the last laugh. Mocked by most the minute it crawled from its crypt at the dawn of the Eighties, Goth has proved to be one of the wilder success stories of postpunk culture. In its purest form, the scene thrives as a globe-spanning underground. But more remarkable than its sheer subcultural staying power is the extent to which Goth’s tentacles have wormed their way into the mainstream. You can see and hear its imprint on modern metal, from the campy horror romps of Avenged Sevenfold to the wintry worldview of AFI (who who named their fan club The Despair Faction and appear on this four-disc box set covering the Cure’s “Hanging Garden”). Goth’s genes are equally discernible in emo’s eyeliner misery boys such as My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco, with their “any color so long as it’s black” clothing and vocal echoes of mope-rocker supreme Robert Smith. But the genre’s impact has spread far beyond music, touching everything from film (Tim Burton’s entire oeuvre, practically) to fiction, fashion, and art.

What is the secret of Goth’s persistence? Maybe it’s the way the Goth look fuses glamour and being an outsider, just as the scene’s tribalism reconciles the desire to be apart with the longing for community. Goth’s perennial allure also has a lot to do with the way the epic music and tortured lyrics give majesty to moroseness, elevating and ennobling adolescent angst. Above all, Goth is dead sexy, something this box set foregrounds with its kinky leather-and-laces packaging, modeled on a Gothette’s black bodice or thigh-length boot. Raven-haired and pallid, Goth’s ideal of erotic beauty is different to the mainstream’s (blonde, glowingly healthy, vivacious) and offers an empowering alternative for girls into being enigmatic and unapproachable while looking to keep all the fun aspects of self-beautification and adornment.

That scary-seductive she-Goth look was invented by Siouxsie Sioux (with a little help from Morticia Adams). Siouxsie & the Banshees 1981 album Juju, represented on this box by its tumultuous single “Spellbound”, set the sonic template for the Goth explosion that followed two years later. But one thing A Life Less Lived makes abundantly clear is that the most adventurous Goth music was made in the genre’s emergent phase, before it became a codified style--before it was even called Goth in fact. It’s startling to hear how wide-open this proto-Goth sound actually was, from the doom-funk stampede of Killing Joke’s “Tomorrow’s World” to the dub reggae infused clangour and cavernous hollows of Bauhuaus’ 1979 debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which appears here in video form on the set’s DVD disc. Even the later “She’s In Parties” has a discernible loping skank feel amid its metallic noise, then enters a full-on dub coda of ambushing volleys of studio-warped noise and deep rumbling bass

What united the Goth bands was a common ancestry in glam rock. Bauhaus and the Banshees covered T. Rex tunes and you can hear blatant traces of David Bowie’s mannered delivery in Bauhaus’ singer Peter Murphy and in Gavin Friday, frontman of Virgin Prunes (represented here by “Pagan Lovesong”). More than Bowie or Bolan, though, it was Alice Cooper who was the true ungodly godfather of Goth, his grisly theatrics and black humor blazing the trail for the likes of Christian Death and Specimen. A more highbrow, self-consciously poetic take on the blasphemy/debauchery combo came from The Birthday Party, whose “Mutiny In Heaven” is a grotesquely gripping sound-painting daubed with guitars that sound like they’re covered in sores and boils, the garishly vivid illustration to singer Nick Cave’s imagery of junkie squalor and “rats in paradise”.

Like many of the groups who inspired Goth, the Birthday Party fiercely resisted being tarred with its brush. Then and now, the problem with Goth is that a lot of it was simply defective as rock music, or, if not actively bad, then desperately ordinary beneath its glad rags of otherworldly mystery and underworldly menace. The most glaring deficiencies typically lay in the vocal department (singers tending toward operatic portentousness or cadaverous dirge-droning) and the rhythm section (the drummers either mustering a stiff plod or attempting a “tribal” feel by overdoing the tom-tom rolls). Some groups, like Sisters of Mercy and Alien Sex Fiend, dispensed with human-powered beats altogether in favour of drum machines. Others were so lacking in rhythmic feel or flair--the null trudge of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, the numb trance of Danse Society’s disco-Goth--they might as well have been using mechanical beats.

A Life Less Lived is undone by its own conscientious attempt to be fully representative of its genre. What would normally be a virtue becomes a liability, because Goth has always generated as much sonic evidence for the prosecution as for the defence. Perhaps that’s why the selection is bolstered by some unlikely inclusions, like Echo & the Bunnymen’s “All My Colours” (doomily intoned but hardly Goth) and Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Fall” (which seemingly qualifies because it’s from an album entitled Darklands). When three of the best tracks—by Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Skinny Puppy—come from a genre, industrial, that’s adjacent to Goth but very much a separate entity…. well, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that there’s simply not enough good-to-great Goth out there to fill up four CDs.

apropos of nothing, honest...


Siouxsie and the Banshees

The Scream: The Deluxe Edition


Uncut, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Knowing Siouxsie as Godmother of Goth, it’s easy to forget that the Banshees were originally regarded as exemplary postpunk vanguardists. Laceratingly angular, The Scream reminds you what an inclement listen the group was at the start.  

Sure, there’s a couple of Scream tunes as catchy as “Hong Kong Garden” (which appears twice here on the alternate-versions-crammed second disc of BBC session and demos). “Mirage” is a cousin to “Public Image,” while the buzzsaw chord-drive of “Nicotine Stain” faintly resembles The Undertones, of all people. But one’s first and lasting impression of Scream is shaped by the album’s being book-ended by its least conventional tunes. Glinting and fractured, the opener “Pure” is an “instrumental” in the sense that Siouxsie’s voice is just an abstract, sculpted texture swooping across the stereo-field. Switching between serrated starkness and sax-laced grandeur, the final track “Switch” is closer to a song  but as structurally unorthodox as Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something”.

Glam’s an obvious reference point for the Banshees, but The Scream also draws from the moment when psychedelia turned dark: “Helter Skelter” is covered (surely as much for the Manson connection as for Beatles-love), guitarist John McKay’s flange resembles a Cold Wave update of  1967-style phasing, and the stringent stridency of Siouxsie’s singing channels Grace Slick. In songs like the autism-inspired “Jigsaw Feeling,” there’s even a vibe of mental disintegration that recalls bad trippy Jefferson Airplane tunes like “Two Heads.” Another crack-up song, “Suburban Relapse” always makes me think of that middle-aged housewife in every neighbourhood with badly applied make-up and a scary lost look in her eyes. Siouxsie’s suspicion not just of domesticity but of that other female cage, the body, comes through in the fear-of-flesh anthem “Metal Postcard,” whose exaltation of the inorganic and indestructible (“metal is tough, metal will sheen… metal will rule in my master-scheme”) seems at odds with the song’s inspiration, the anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield.

Scream is another Banshees altogether from the lush seductions of Kaleidoscope and Dreamhouse.  McKay and drummer Kenny Morris infamously quit the group on the eve of the band’s first headlining tour, and their replacements--John McGeoch and Budgie--were far more musically proficient. Yet The Scream, along with early singles such as  ‘Staircase Mystery” and "Playground Twist" and the best bits of Join Hands, does momentarily make you wonder about the alternate-universe path the original Banshees might have pursued if they’d stayed together and stayed monochrome ‘n’ minimal.

The Creatures, Boomerang - Melody Maker, November 11, 1989


eMusic, 2006


4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 as an offshoot of the independent label Beggars Banquet. But it soon became its own entity, with a sensibility rooted in the adventurous, open-ended spirit and sonics of 1979, but tilted towards the darker, more existentialist side of post-punk- (Joy Division and the Banshees, rather than the politically militant Gang of Four). Crucial to 4AD’s burgeoning mystique was the lush andenigmatic artwork of Vaughan Oliver, whose role in establishing the label’s identity was as important as Peter Saville’s at Factory. 4AD’s earliest acts were proto-Goth outfits like Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, but the label really blossomed circa 1983 with a sound you could call, not unkindly, Goth-lite: delicately textured and gentler on the ear than the harsh ‘n’ hammy horror-show that Goth proper had degenerated to. 4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can Dance and Xmal Deutschland.  Just as the “4AD sound” was getting perilously close to formula, the label reinvented itself in the late Eighties, catching a wave of arty-but-raw, rootsy-but-weird rock coming out of America: the brilliant New England outfits Throwing Muses and Pixies. In the Nineties, the label diversified again, signing shoegazers like Lush while keeping an eye out for American talent like Nick Drake-like melancholics the Red House Painters. The label faded from earshot for much of the Nineties but has recently resurged with critically acclaimed acts like TV on the Radio, Piano Magic, and living legend Scott Walker.


After the Snow


Many British groups in the early Eighties struggled to shake off Joy Division’s influence. The cold marble beauty of their sound and the mature majesty it lent to adolescent despair proved so compellingly original it practically condemned a generation to non-originality. Following their Closer-damaged 1981 debut Mesh and Lace, Modern English stepped boldly into the light with a sound that found the interzone between Joy Division-style severity and Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark winsomeness.  The tom-tom churning drums frequently infringe Steven Morris trademark patterns and the bass drones melodiously a la Peter Hook, but the sparkling guitars and soaring synths could be Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. The bouncy gloom of a tune like the oh-so ironically titled “Life in the Gladhouse” is perfect for Goths who want to dance but keep their deep’n’mysterious cool intact. The sighing chorus “oh me, oh my” verges on comical but the great rolling beat banishes any reservations. Indeed throughout it’s the lithe exuberance of the rhythm section (drummer Richard Brown and bassist Mick Conroy) that makes After the Snow such a  winning slab of Goth-lite. That, and artful arrangements and mad-catchy tunes, such as MTV perennial and wedding-song fave “I Melt With You”.





Far from 4AD’s most famous or celebrated band, instrumental quartet Dif Juz were nonetheless reputedly the Cocteau Twins’ favorite group. Indeed Robin Guthrie produced this, their sole full-length excursion.  Soaked in reverb and echoplex (the group were huge dub fans but thankfully never stray into the faux-skank zone), Dif Juz’s dual guitar interplay resembles an out-of-focus Television or Durutti Column heard from the bottom of a lake. Impressionistic and rhapsodic, the plangent ripples and frenetic flurries scattered by guitarist brothers Dave and Alan Curtis dominate the proceedings, but Harold Budd-like piano peeks through on “Love Insane” (along with an offkey Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteaus) while Richie Thomas’ saxophone on tunes like “Crosswinds” recalls the serene fjord-scapes of ECM artists like Jan Garbarek. Listen expecting shapely song-structures or clearly signposted melodic pathways, and you’ll be frustrated. But if you surrender to the be-here-now meander of it all, the spangled eddies and lustrous whorls of the Dif Juz sound will carry you up and away.


Filigree & Shadow


With This Mortal Coil, 4AD boss Ivo pioneered a format since adopted by the likes of U.N.K.L.E.--the non-musician with loads of ideas surrounded by a floating pool of musicians and guest collaborators who help realise his vision. In this case, the project largely involved cover versions of obscure Ivo favorites and is perhaps best understand as a form of rock criticism and an act of canon-making. In the mid-Eighties, the choices Ivo made were striking: then largely forgotten post-psychedelic minstrels like Roy Harper, Big Star’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp. While the first This Mortal Coil album, 1984’s It’ll End In Tears, features the project’s single most successful reinterpretation (Liz Fraser’s awesome and damn near original-eclipsing version of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) Filigree & Shadow has the edge over the debut. Two more Buckley tunes (“I Must Have Been Blind” and “Morning Glory”) are joined by Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings” and a version of Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweller”.  The stand-out remakes aren’t from the singer-songwriter era, though, but postpunk: a clangorous treatment of Talking Heads’ “Drugs” and a version of “Alone” even more glacial and gripping than Colin Newman’s original on his post-Wire solo debut A-Z. Ivo’s overt over-arching concept for This Mortal Coil was a twin celebration of “the beauty of despair” and the timelessness of song. But one also suspects a secret semi-conscious motivation: claiming for 4AD the kind of maverick stature held by Elektra Records in its heyday.



The Moon and the Melodies



No one would claim this is Harold Budd’s finest half-hour (that would be his Brian Eno Ambient Series collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror), nor that it’s the Cocteau Twins’ peak achievement (too many contenders to list). But it is a captivating cul de sac off  the beaten track of both artists’ trajectories. And an apt pairing, given their idyllicism and mutual ardour for effects-saturated texture. Cocteau soundboys Guthrie and Raymonde do a good job standing in for Eno on “Memory Gongs”, cloaking Budd’s piano in a mist of reverb to create an effect like the autumn dawn-mist slowly rising. The instrumentals are nice but inevitably the most breathtaking moments come when Liz Fraser’s voice enters the soundscape. All updrafts, currents, tides and breakers, “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” is a mermaid torch song, while the shatteringly lovely “Eyes Are Mosaics” would be regarded as a Cocteau Twins classic if it had appeared on one of their “proper” albums.



Within the Realm of a Dying Sun


Dead Can Dance’s motto could be “anywhere but here, anywhen but now.”  At once somber and ornamental, their music forges links between Medievalism (DCD’s sound often recalls liturgical music designed for the reverberant spaces of cathedrals) and the non-West (you can hear threads of Middle Eastern, African, and Oriental music in their tapestry of exotica).  This Australian duo is also something of a split personality group. Lisa Gerrard’s voice is a thing of wonder in both senses of the word: awe is her primary emotion, awe is what her piercing ululations strike in the listener. Brendan Perry is closer to the mold of the troubled troubadours that inspired This Mortal Coil, figures like Tim Rose and Scott Walker. This means that his rather portentous lyrics (song titles like “In The Wake of Adversity”) sometimes weigh down his undeniably mellifluous singing. On Within the Realm, the split personality was splayed across the two separate sides of the original vinyl album. Side One frontloads Perry’s doomy ballads and gloomy instrumentals, while the reverse is devoted to Gerrard’s devotionals, like the dervish-whirling “Cantara”. Her singing is so bliss-rich that “In the Dawn of the Iconoclast” was sampled for the Ecstasy anthem “Papua New Guina” by the Future Sound of London.  Later in the group’s career, DCD would cross over to a mass audience of the sort of people that listen to New Age, Gregorian chants, and--euuch--Enya. But Within catches them at the perfect median point between the crypt and the chill-out zone.



Lonely Is An Eyesore



A prodigious feat of self-celebration from a label then at its zenith of eminence, this compilation of new tracks specially recorded by the 4AD roster came sumptuously packaged in a lavish-looking cardboard case with a three-way folding inner sleeve. Sonic contents wise, it’s a curate’s egg, ranging from the slight to the sublime. Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie” is  brash but empty dance-rock decorated with movie soundbites, while “Cut the Tree” is a typical slice of The Wolfgang Press’s brand of failed pretentiousness. But Cocteau Twins’ radiant “Crushed”  is one of their best songs ever and  “No Motion” is Dif Juz at their most dynamic,  crashing chords scattering shards of dazzle hither and thither. Best of all is “Fish” by Throwing Muses, one of the truly unique groups of the late Eighties. David Narcizo’s martial but static drums, the gyrating rhythm guitar chords of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston’s sidling bass create a strange feeling of suspended motion last heard in rock on Led Zep’s “Four Sticks”, while Hersh sings in a voice midway between a Stevie Nicks croon and a Gaelic pagan ululation. One of her more opaque verses--“lonely is as lonely does/lonely is an eyesore/the feeling describes itself”--provides the compilation’s name.




Blue Bell Knoll



It’s so hard to pick a Cocteau Twins album as the One. Head over Heels is their early classic, and EPs like Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spangle Maker and Love’s Easy Tears are mid-period highs. Still, Blue Bell Knoll is their most flawless and sustained record. You can hear a smidgeon of Kate Bush on the title track opener, but Fraser soon sheds all ancestral traces to assert her candidacy as one of the five or six most original vocalists of the rock era. Likewise the group, having started out as a sort of soft-core Siouxsie & the Banshees, now mature into a sound without parallel or peer. Lindsay Buckingham to Liz’s Nicks, spangle-maker Robin Guthrie drapes his lover in iridescent canopies of guitarstuff. Fraser’s sculpted gush of liquidized language is almost entirely indecipherable but always sounds rich in private, non-verbalisable meaning.  Sometimes these sweet nothings seem like songs for swooning lovers, sometimes they seem literally like baby-talk, making you imagine an Eskimo mother chirruping to her newborn. The Cocteaus struggled after this album:  when you’ve made songs as sublime as “Carolyn Fingers,” ‘Cico Buff” and “Ella Megablast Burls Forever”  what do you do for an encore? They made a mistaken pop-wards move, Fraser singing first in better enunciated gibberish and then in distinctly plain English. She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.







Combining the raw power of The Stooges with a penchant for all-American grotesquerie reminiscent of David Lynch, Pixies seem like an unlikely match for 4AD . But they were an arty group. Singer and main songwriter Black Francis cited the Surrealists as his big crush, and gave them the nod in Doolittle’s opener “Debaser”, the lines “Slicing up eyeballs” and “I am un chien Andalusia” paying homage to the Luis Bunuel film. Given his Charismatic Pentecostal background, it makes sense that Pixies music would be a valve for Francis to vent all his repressions in a "stream of unconsciousness" (as he put it).  The title Doolittle, from the children’s books about the doctor who learns to talk to the animals, suggests the Freudian notion of man as “the sick animal”, sick precisely because he cannot accept his own bestialism. Hence the gorgeously fatalistic “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven”, “I Bleed” and “Hey,” which bore witness to Francis’ grim fascination with the bare necessities and base fatuities that comprise the biological facts of life to which “we’re chained” -- sex, birth, excretion, death . Others like the rampant “Tame” and heavy-breathing “Dead” revel in the carnal nitty-gritty. Following hard on the heels of the group’s rabid opening salvo Come On Pilgrim and ragged classic Surfer Rosa, this album was Pixies’ peak. After this they veered off into a lighter-and-cuter pop direction, as if scared by the dark voids they’d glimpsed on Doolittle.






Where Pixies and Throwing Muses brought something new to 4AD, His Name Is Alive seem transparently to be that rare thing: the American 4AD obsessive, purposefully endeavoring to make music to caress Ivo’s ear-drums.  His Name Is Alive is essentially a solitary obsessive, Warren Defever, drawing on a fluctuating cast of

accomplices to help realise the noises in his head.  Those sounds have a spidery exquisiteness that couldn’t be further from the late Eighties/early Nineties Amerindie norm. The vibe of Livonia (which sounds like a fantastical imaginary land but is named after Defever’s hometown in Michigan) is very much the reclusive studio-whiz alone with his sound-warping boxes. If the effect is sometimes overly precious and forced in its faux-mystery, the culprit is often singer Karin Oliver, who sometimes entrances but often merely grates with her wavery shrillness. Still, Defever’s menagerie of strange processed noises and aberrant guitar parts generally keeps things diverting.



Joy 1967-1990



Signing New York indie rocker Kurt Ralske was another example of 4AD stretching beyond its usual parameters. His music as Ultra Vivid Scene had far more in common with the Sixties-referencing meta-rock of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 than with the Cocteaus or Dead Can Dance. Like the Spacemen especially, Ralske’s songs play clever games with the language of love, drugs, and religion, equating them as expressions of a human ache to fill the hole at the heart of being with a holy absolute--the sweetest girl, the perfect prescription, God’s grace.  At its least, it’s like Matthew Sweet with hipper reference points, both musically (Velvet Underground, Suicide) and philosophically (Barthes, Bataille). But at its most--“Guilty Pleasure”, “Extra Ordinary”--it’s reminiscent of Prince in his neo-psychedelic mode.  The opening triptych of “It Happens Every Time”, “Staring At the Sun” and “Three Stars” makes for an irresistible salvo of swashbuckling psych, while “Special One,” featuring Pixie Kim Deal’s wonderfully carefree backing vocals, feels as euphoric as mainlining helium.



The Comforts of Madness



Shoegaze was an obvious fit for 4AD--after all, many of these British bands were inspired by the label’s groups, especially Cocteau Twins and AR Kane.  If Lush were 4AD’s shoegaze-as-pop gambit, Pale Saints were the artier proposition, making music that was dense, at times overwrought, but always interesting. The name “Pale Saints” fits them to a tee. Ian Masters’ blanched vocals have a pure-of-spirit, devotional quality, resurrecting that monk-like quasi-Gregorian chant style introduced by British psychedelic groups like Tintern Abbey. Riddled with imagery of nature and the elements, songs like “Language of Flowers” hark back to the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. “Sea of Sound” sounds like the missing link between Neu!’s “See Land” and Flying Saucer Attack’s Distance, conjuring mind eye’s images of a pink-and-gold cirrus-streaked skyline at dusk. “A Deep Sleep For Steven” is a cavern of a ballad, its walls daubed with mercury-splash guitar and echoing to the rumble of drums from some remote interior cavity. And “Little Hammer” is a delightful neo-psychedelic oddity, the sepia-tinted melancholy of what sounds like a ghost-town’s out-of-tune piano (but is more likely a hammered dulcimer) offset by incongruously vivacious percussion.



The Drift



Ivo first approached his hero Scott Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow. Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The Drift. Walker’s four astonishing solo albums of the late Sixties showed that he was a kind of cinematographer of sound, using intricately detailed orchestration, opaque-but-vivid lyrics, and his elegantly anguished voice to paint the kind of motion pictures that scar your memory and fill the subsequent days with a vague feeling of disquiet. With The Drift, the 63 year old Walker clearly aimed to make a work on a par with the great European modernists of film, such as Ingmar Bergman. Accordingly the themes are heavy (songs about the gruesome execution by mob of Mussolini and his lover, about twilight-era Elvis conversing with his dead twin Jesse) while the execution is challenging for artist and listener alike, involving bizarre gambits like pounding sides of dead meat for percussion, horns that caw bleakly like crows, harrowingly atonal string parts, and, on “The Escape”, eruptions of hair-raising demonic laughter. The lyrics that issue from Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--evoke atmospheres of grotesquerie and malaise. The Drift makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. It is a powerful album, albeit one that is easier to admire than to love. The Drift may not get that many repeat plays but, like one of those great European modernist films, it’s something you’ll want to experience at least once. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Total recall: why retromania is all the rage (2011)

Total recall: why retromania is all the rage

The Guardian, June 2, 2011

There's no single thing that made me suddenly think, Hey, there's a book to be written about pop culture's chronic addiction to its own past. As the last decade unfolded, noughties pop culture became steadily more submerged in retro. Both inside music (reunion tours, revivalism, deluxe reissues, performances of classic albums in their entirety) and outside (the emergence of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive, endless movie remakes, the strange and melancholy world of retro porn), there was mounting evidence to indicate an unhealthy fixation on the bygone.

But if I could point to just one release that tipped me over the edge into bemused fascination with retromania, it would be 2006's Love, the Beatles remix project. Executed by George Martin and his son Giles to accompany the Cirque du Soleil spectacular in Las Vegas, the album's 26 songs incorporated elements from 130 individual recordings, both releases and demos, by the Fab Four. Hyped as a radical reworking, Love was way more interesting to think about than to listen to (the album mostly just sounds off, similar to the way restored paintings look too bright and sharp). Love raised all kinds of questions about our compulsion to relive and reconsume pop history, about the ways we use digital technology to rearrange the past and create effects of novelty. And like Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Love was yet more proof of the long shadow cast by the 60s, that decade where everything seemed brand-new and ever-changing. We're unable to escape the era's reproaches (why aren't things moving as fast as they did back then?) even as the music's adventurousness and innocence make it so tempting to revisit and replicate.

For a moment there, Love looked like it might herald the opening of a new frontier of revenue-generation for rock legends keen to exploit their own archives. Would the Rolling Stones be next, I wondered? So far, surprisingly, the Beatles mash-up has proved to be a one-off, although Kate Bush's "new" album Director's Cut does rework songs from 1989's The Sensual World and 1993's The Red Shoes (a disappointing move for an artist once so forward-looking). But Love was a chart success and its platinum sales contributed to a remarkable statistic: the Beatles were the second-bestselling albums artist of the 2000s, shifting nearly 28m units. Indeed the Beatles book-ended the decade with 2000's singles anthology 1 (whose 11.5m copies made it the best-selling album of the 21st century so far) and 2009's massive reissue programme of the entire back catalogue.

Now the Beatles are the Beatles: they tower over the history of pop, so why wouldn't they be giving Eminem (the noughties No 1 bestseller with 33m) a run for his money? But think again, think comparatively: let's contrast pop with other commercial art forms such as film or fiction. David Lean and Stanley Kubrick's 1960s movies are epoch-defining classics and doubtless tick over nicely in DVD rental and TV airings, but neither dead director was breaking box office records this past decade. The quality fiction bestsellers of the 60s – zeitgeisty novels by JD Salinger, Philip Roth et al – remain a presence in our culture but did not trouble any noughties bestseller charts. Equally, there are no modern directors copping licks from Dr's Strangelove and Zhivago, nor authors styling novels after Portnoy's Complaint. But there are still bands ripping off the Beatles. Some are even pretty great, such as Tame Impala, whose latest LP Innerspeaker is a bit like the band decided Paperback Writer b/w Rain was rock's unsurpassable peak and decided to stay there, for ever.

Cinema isn't immune to retromania. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch still gamely fly the postmodern flag with films that are pastiche genre exercises or larded with in-joke references to cinematic history. The remake has become a fixture of the movie business, not so much for pomo reasons but because it's what people in the industry call a "presold concept". Unlike with rock, where most of the biggest-grossing tours involve reunions or wrinkly legends from the 60s and 70s, people won't go into the multiplexes to see a rereleased classic or blockbuster from yesteryear. But they will, seemingly, turn up for glitzy, pointless updates of major movies, such as the recent travesty of Arthur starring Russell Brand. TV has got in on the remake game, too, with new versions of The Prisoner, Charlie's Angels, Hawaii Five-O, and Britcom faves such as Minder and The Likely Lads. You also have the retro-chic series Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes, whose appeal depends heavily on the sensation of utter immersion in the past through a fetishistic focus on period details of clothing, decor, food and so forth.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that pop music is the area where retromania really runs rampant. There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history, the way the past accumulates behind it and hampers it, both as an actual sonic presence (on oldies radio, as reissues, through nostalgia tours and now via YouTube) and as an overpowering influence. If you want further proof, there is no better evidence than the record that at the time of writing enjoys its 16th week at No 1 in the UK album chart: Adele's 21. In the US, her success (No 1 album for nine weeks, No 1 single with Rolling in the Deep) is so unusual for a British artist these days, it's tempting to see it as a flashback to the glory days when the Beatles and Stones sold black American music to white America. Except that those bands were doing it with contemporary rhythm-and-blues. Adele is literally flashing back to black styles that date from the same era as the Beatles and the Stones.

Adele is not quite as retro-fetishistic about it as Amy Winehouse, with her beehive, or Duffy, with her black-and-white video for Rockferry, her sample of Ben E King's Stand By Me in Mercy, and her name's echo of Dusty Springfield. But there is no doubt that her "anti-Gaga" appeal is based around the return to bygone values of gritty soulfulness. Adele's 21 consists of "timeless" songcraft influenced by Motown, southern soul and country, framed by "organic" arrangements featuring horns, banjos and accordions, with the whole package given just the slightest lick of modern slickness. The production involvement of Rick Rubin almost proposes Adele as somehow already an iconic veteran like Johnny Cash, in need of reverent rescue in the form of a "stripped down" sound.

I lived through the first revival of all this in the 80s, with Dexys Midnight Runners, Carmel, Style Council, the Christians, and the rest. It seemed corny and retrogressive then. In 1984, should someone have said to me, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine Alison Moyet emoting into a human face – for ever", I'd have laughed at them. I'm not laughing now. And just wait until the industry – desperate and with dollars signs in its eyes – floods the market with facsimiles.

Retro is not a completely new phenomenon, of course: pop has an extensive history of revivals and creative distortions of the musical past. What is different about the contemporary retromania is the aspect of total recall, instant recall, and exact recall that the internet makes possible. Fans can drown themselves in the entire history of music at no cost, because it is literally all up there for the taking. From YouTube's archive of TV and concert performances to countless music, fashion, photography and design blogs, the internet is a gigantic image bank that encourages and enables the precision replication of period styles, whether it's a music genre, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative reworking of the past – the misrecognitions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the 19th-century gothic revival – is reduced. In music especially, the combination of cheap digital technology and the vast accumulation of knowledge about how specific recordings were made, means that bands today can get exactly the period sound they are looking for, whether it's a certain drum sound achieved by Ringo Starr with help from the Abbey Road technicians or a particular synth tone used by Kraftwerk.

Hence the noughties phenomenon of the 80s revival. It actually started in the later years of the 90s and just kept going: a friend quipped that it has now lasted longer than the actual 80s did. La Roux's Elly Jackson, whose tunes could be placed right next to Yazoo or Eurythmics without the least bit of temporal disruption, declared recently that "synth pop is so over . . . If I see anything more 80s-themed, I'm going to bust". The gall of the gal! Black Eyed Peas's last big hit The Time borrowed its chorus from the 1987 smash (I've Had) The Time of My Life by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, suggesting that the 80s-extraction industry has run out of good stuff.

Peas's maestro is also a pioneer of 90s recycling: the non-80s parts of The Time sound like boshing techno-rave from the early days of Berlin's Love Parade. On the radio, every big R&B hit sounds less like R&B and more like Ibiza-trance or circa-1991 hip-house. Guest rappers such as Pitbull or Ludacris are obliged to spout party-hard inanities just like the MCs of Technotronic and CC & Music Factory once did.

Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".

The deeper you venture into the underground, the more music involves pilfering from the past. This is one of the central mysteries that propelled me through the writing of Retromania: how come the very kind of people who would have once been in the vanguard of creating new music (bohemian early adopter types) have switched roles to become antiquarians and curators? In the underground, creativity has become recreativity. The techniques involved are salvage and citation; the sensibility mixes hyper-referential irony with reverent nostalgia.

Some of the music made in this spirit, from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti to the output of labels such as Ghost Box and Not Not Fun, is among the most enjoyable and thought-provoking of our time. The book is not a lament for a loss of quality music – it's not like the well-springs of talent have dried up or anything – but it registers alarm about the disappearance of a certain quality in music: the "never heard this before" sensation of ecstatic disorientation caused by music that seems to come out of nowhere and point to a bright, or at least strange, future.

What seems to have happened is that the place that The Future once occupied in the imagination of young music-makers has been displaced by The Past: that's where the romance now lies, with the idea of things that have been lost. The accent, today, is not on discovery but on recovery. All through the noughties, the game of hip involved competing to find fresher things to remake: it was about being differently derivative, original in your unoriginality.

All the cool obscure resources such as Krautrock or acid-folk have been excavated long ago, which is why the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Hype Williams and LA Vampires started looking to 80s mainstream pop, megastars such as Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald and Sade. For today's underground bands, enough time has elapsed that the overground sounds of yesteryear seem exotic and mysterious. Certainly it's a lot less obvious to draw on this stuff than the Velvet Underground, Neu! or My Bloody Valentine. But as even these mainstream resources get exhausted – and when I talk about pop's addiction to its own past, the analogy is less with drugs than with the west's oil addiction – the cutting edge of hip music is looking to the pasts of foreign countries. For instance, the latest crush of Los Angeles cool-hunters such as Ariel Pink and Puro Instinct is Soviet new wave music, readily findable on YouTube. Associated with the youth subculture known as Stilyagi, the Soviet new wave offers a slightly askew mirror-image of western pop of the 80s.

The hipster underground is also where musical retromania intersects with the related phenomenon of vintage chic. From the fad for collecting quaint manual typewriters (either as decorative objects or to actually use) to the continuing boom for vintage clothing, there is a striking parallel with underground musicians's fetish for obsolete formats such as vinyl and cassette and with the antique-like trade in early analogue synthesisers. But the trend that is most emblematic of our time-out-of-joint culture is the vogue for digital photograph apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, which give snapshots the period look associated with cameras and film from the 70s and 80s. (See also ShakeIt, an app that mimics the Polaroid and works faster if you actually shake the iPhone.)

What does it say about our era that so many people think it's cool to place these pre-faded, instant-nostalgia filters on the images that will one day constitute their treasury of precious memories? When they look back to the early 21st century, their pics will look like they were taken two or three decades earlier, summoning up a long-lost era they don't have any reason to feel nostalgic about.

Just like retro video games such as Mega Man 9 that simulate quaint 8-bit visuals via a modern console, these retro-photo apps embody a central paradox of contemporary pop culture. We have all this futuristic technology at our disposal, endowing us with capabilities that would have seemed fantastical in 1972, but it is getting used as a time machine to transport us into yesterday, or to shuffle and share pop-cult detritus from long ago. We live in the digital future, but we're mesmerised by our analogue past. Hipstamatic-style apps also raise another question: when we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch? Or will we just find a clutter of reproduction antique sounds and heritage styles?