Wednesday, July 26, 2023

RIP Sinéad O'Connor ("That Voice" paragon)

Sinéad O'Connor

Hammersmith Odeon, London

Melody Maker, January 2 1988

by Simon Reynolds

So, Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” *--the clubland secret, the cult trophy--went High Street provincial, Top Ten Top Shop. A monopoly on suffering invested in soul/jazz/gospel, by a London hipster elite over five years ago, has now been installed as a pop cultural hegemony. I like to think that the massive success of “My Baby Just Cares” indicates the final exhaustion of the process (carried through by Absolute Beginners, The Style Council, Alison Moyet’s “That Ole Devil Called Love”, Working Week, the risible Carmel and her “ba da da oh yeahs”, Swans Way, countless copyists, endless reissues) whereby vintage jazz-and-soul have become both an oppressive model of authenticity and a ludicrous sepia cartoon. I can’t get to this music anymore, can’t cut through the dense cloud of signifiers, the berets, the suits, the cigarette smoke…

What fascinates me now is a certain troubled space, a potential, that has recurred in AOR over the years. Not a “period”--I have no knowledge, no images (bar details one prefers to shut out of the mind: capes, sideburns, facial hair) and thus no nostalgia. The traces of real desperation in Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” have plunged me into vertiginous retrospective fascination with the dolorous languor of Stevie Nicks (“Dreams”, "Sara", “Gold Dust Woman”, “Gypsy”) and other mysterious figures like John Martyn, Sandy Denny, Roy Harper. The West Coast sound (from which followed both UK folk-rock and American AOR/FM-oriented soft-rock) came about when folkies like Jefferson Airplane went electric without any intervening period of involvement in R&B. I think Sinéad  O’Connor must have made a similar leap.

She takes the attractiveness of AOR and turns it into beauty, through her voice and her subject matter. She makes the A in AOR stand for ‘adolescence’, a phase that’s both more embarrassing and more noble than the even keel of adulthood. Similarly, her voice combines awkwardness and grandeur.

It’s a voice that burns like ice: like Grace Slick, the prototype for all ice queens, it goes through you like a lance of stalactite. Unlike your Tina Turners, pain is not signified by gritty timbre, exaggerated tremulousness or a heave from the gut; like her ghost-folk peers (think Kristin Hersh) , the voice is pure and clear, and emotional disarray is expressed in swerves, catches, lapses, somersaults, abrupt leaps between octaves. On “Mandinko” Sinéad  towers, then collapses immaculately, like a house of cards; on “Never Get Old”, there’s an exquisite shudder, almost like tape drop out. Sinéad’s voice is majestic but never robust, like Lennox; rather, it’s harrowed but defiant.

Hersh has described what she does as a real female violence. Women bottle up their anger, turn it inwards, sometimes as self-mutilation. Sinéad O’Connor’s work is an exorcism of all that. It’s music that’ll appeal to girls who want to be different rather than normal, boys who think problems are more attractive than strengths, and anyone who believes suffering imparts depth.

The gig was marred a little by a lack of atmosphere: the philistine fans of headliner INXS’s Noo Wave techno-rock preferred to loiter in the lobby, her band are able but faceless, and Sinéad herself seemed a little sullen--a thin, pale figure in punky tartan. But when she got into it, the results were spellbinding, in particular the sublime “Never Get Old”, her voice traversing a terrain wherein met Tim Buckley, Clannad, Ofra Haza, ECM’s languid Scandinavian neo-jazz, Liz Fraser and raga. Never mind. Autonomy has rarely been so seductive.


For more on That Voice 

Of course I love the Nina Simone song. The stance in the review was in response to a specific moment of soulboy hegemony, as suffocating as it was insufferable. 

And in fact Sinead became a bit of Simone-like figure - not the "My Baby Just Cares" Simone, but the Simone sternly passing judgement on injustice. 

I was like, oh my God, this is like recording Nina Simone” - David Holmes on working with O'Connor on her as-yet-unreleased album No Veteran Dies Alone

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Tips for '94


My picks for "ones to watch for '94", in a January 1994 issue of Melody Maker. The other writers picks are right at the bottom.

Foul Play makes sense.  (Later in '94, the "mysterious outfit" became less mysterious as I met Brad + John in a cafe in Belsize Park, where I lived for most of the year, for an interview). 

The other nomination, though, is a bit of a head-scratcher, because clearly I must have been pretty taken with Keiji Haino at precisely the time of writing  - but it's not something I followed through with, at all. 

If memory serves, Kevin Martin - we used to hang out quite a bit in those days and back then he was  almost as much a critic as a musician, had a column in the Tower Records magazine  - Kev gave me a tape of Fushitsusha.  

Pretty soon jungle and electronic music took up all of my bandwidth, the avant-rock stuff got shunted aside pretty much.  

Vague memories of actually seeing Haino, much later, playing in NYC.

Listening to this again - almost certainly for the first time since - it really don't sound like my cup o' tea at all!

Whereas this, this is what I want played at my funeral. 

Apropos of nothing: a place Kevin liked to meet was Bunjie's Coffee House, in Litchfield Street (where The Mousetrap played for decades, and where I saw it as an 11 year old). Much, much later I learned Bunjies had been a legendary folk cellar.  Now I get a retrospective thrill at the idea of having once been in a space through which passed Anne Briggs -  and who knows what other folk goddesses and occasional god -  and breathed song into the air.  But in the early '90s such ancestral vibrations would have meant nothing to me. I remember the food being cheap and cheerful, if a little dull, and the decor utilitarian -  seem to remember tiles everywhere.



These sort of joint-prophecy / tip-sheet / ones-to-watch session always interesting to look back at -  kudos to those who mentioned Liz Phair, Elastica, Mu-ziq, and, at least in terms of predictive accuracy, if not quality assessment, Echobelly, Oasis, Sleeper, Guided By Voices....

  But then Fin? Not to be confused with Fin De Siecle (also ?). Southpaw? Not to be confused with Paw (also ?). Throneberry? Thrum? Ad, or maybe AD - either way, ? Honky? Baby Chaos? AC Acoustics? 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Bad Influences

 11 Rock Visionaries who are Pernicious Influences

Spin, March, 1991 

by Simon Reynolds


MORRISSEY: The poet of maudlin moping, martyred monkishness and sexy celibacy; the man who turned nerdhood into an art form. Unfortunately an army of droning clones (Housemartins, Wedding Present etc) thought that being a nerd made you an artist, and proceeded to inflict the contents of their diaries upon a longsuffering world.


LOU REED: "The guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock'n'roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide" (L. Bangs). Also opened the floodgates for 1001 non-singers sporting sunglasses after dark and peddling fake street romanticism.


SYD BARRETT:  The original acid-baked fruitcake, and (in Pink Floyd) inventor of psychedelia as regression-to-childhood. Thus the model for such mad-as-a-hatter jackanapes and professional scrambled eggheads as Julian Cope and Robyn Hitchcock.


DAVID BOWIE:  Each of his myriad incarnations has spawned its ghastly progeny: Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus, Sigue Sigue Sputnik), 'Young Americans' era plastic soul (ABC, Spandau Ballet), Thin White Duke (Gary Numan).


THE BYRDS: Ever listen to college radio?


NEW YORK DOLLS: Sired Hanoi Rocks, who (together with Aerosmith) birthed the entire LA glam sleaze scene.


THE WHO: Blame them for The Jam and the UK's late Seventies Mod revival, and maybe all New Wave to boot. Pete Townshend also invented the rock opera.


VAN MORRISON: Mystic visionary with the voice like gargling phlegm. Unfortunately Van inspired Ireland's "raggle taggle" movement: Celtic soul-stirrers like Hothouse Flowers who believe that if you sing like you're gargling phlegm that makes you a mystic visionary.


BLONDIE: Pop as Pop Art, blank and chic and deliberately shallow. But Debbie Harry's Eighties children (The Primitives, Darling Buds, Transvision Vamp) were merely two dimensional.

LESTER BANGS: As well as the thousands of fanzines that follow his creed to the letter, LB also created a canon (Iggy, Velvets, garage) and coined an attitude (punk, who-gives-a-fuck) that's been aped by countless dismal noisenik combos.


PRINCE : The first post-modernist superstar, who constructed himself from components of his ancestors (Hendrix + James Brown + Little Richard + Todd Rundgren + Clinton).  Since then Prince has become a genre in himself: i.e. chameleonic/ musical magpies like Terence Trent D'Arby and Lenny Kravitz.  Also invented "positivity", the platitude of the Nineties.


Just putting this NME piece from later in 1991 here, drawing no conclusions, casting no aspersions... 

A refined iteration of the same idea for a book published in the 2000s

12 Great Artists Who Are Terrible Influences

By Simon Reynolds

 There's an almost mathematical relationship between a band or singer's devastating originality and the number of copyists they spawn.  Now, that's not always such a bad outcome:  the legion of Stones clones include lots of thrillingly insolent Sixties garage punk outfits, plus Aerosmith. But sometimes the very best bands are the absolute worst influences.  Here are a dozen   rock 'n' pop visionaries whose largely impeccable recorded legacy trails behind it a tarnishing wake of travesty and lameness---the stains of being seminal.  


Two major crimes here: creating the template for West Coast country rock (The Eagles etc) with 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and being the major source for the jangled-guitar and pallid-vocalled sound that made Eighties American alternative music such an unrocking wasteland.



According to Lester Bangs (see later entry), "the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock'n'roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide." Reed also opened the floodgates for 1001 non-singers sporting sunglasses after dark and peddling bogus street romanticism.



Inventor of psychedelia as regression-to-childhood on The Piper At the Gates of Dawn and rock's first major acid casualty, Barrett inspired a raft of wannabe lunatics on the grass such as Julian Cope and Robyn Hitchcock.



Blame them for Paul Weller, the late Seventies Mod revival, and the rock opera.



Mystic visionary whose voice is the missing link between gargling phlegm and talking in tongues. Unfortunately the grumpy Ulsterman would inspire the "raggle taggle"-era Dexys of "Come On Eileen"/Too-Rye-Aye infamy, along with subsequent Celtic soul-stirrers like Hothouse Flowers.



The trouble with DB's constant artistic evolution and restlessly rapid procession through personae is that each of his myriad incarnations spawned its own set of misshapen progeny: Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus and other Goths, Sigue Sigue Sputnik), Young Americans era plastic soul (ABC, Spandau Ballet), Thin White Duke/Low (Gary Numan, the New Romantic movement). Thankfully, the seed of Tin Machine has, so far, fallen on barren ground.



Okay, they (or rather Johnny Thunders) gave us Steve Jones's glorious guitar sound, and the group stirred strange fancies in the heart of the young Steven Morrissey (q.b.). But they also helped, via Hanoi Rocks, to sire the LA Sunset Strip hair metal/glam scene of the Eighties, from Motley Crue to Guns N'Roses.   



As historically potent a figure as all but a handful of bands, LB's proto-punk manifestoes of the early Seventies shaped a canon (Iggy, Velvets, garage punk) and coined an attitude (who-gives-a-fuck, noise annoys) that's been aped by countless dismal combos from the late Seventies onwards, even though Bangs himself was far more open-minded taste-wise and emotionally sensitive than the bastardised cartoon version of his gospel.



The first postmodernist black superstar, he constructed himself from components of his ancestors (Hendrix + James Brown + Little Richard + Todd Rundgren + George Clinton) only to end up a genre himself: that breed of chameleon/musical magpie/pasticheur that includes Terence Trent D'Arby and Lenny Kravitz. 



Have they inspired a single decent band? Okay, the Sundays and Suede had their moments and that T.A.T.U. cover was fun, but  Housemartins, Bradford, Easterhouse, Echobelly, Gene…  Most recently the Smiths have pooled genetic material with The Cure and injected some UK miserabilism into America's emo genre.



One fantastic album (Dummy) of trip hop torch songs became the blueprint for a mid-90s deluge of downtempo mood-muzak that provided chic-ly depressive ambience for a thousand boutiques, hair salons and designer bars.



A great and original group, but oh, the plague they've visited upon the house of Noughties British music, in the form of numberless rock bands that don't actually rock and vocalists wheezily fixated on strained upper register singing (most notably Coldpay's Chris Martin) as the true modern sound of feeling a bit shit about the state of the world and/or the state of your self.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Beta Band



Uncut, 2001

What I like most about The Beta Band is that they're head-in-the-clouds, barefoot-in-the-grass, tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippies. Circa The Three EPs, the group's sonic laxness offered a welcome relief from Britpop's straight-and-narrow, reminding me of all the disparate stuff excluded from the latter's restrictive mod/New Wave canon---Roy Harper, Traffic, Family, Caravan, Kevin Ayers. Without ever sounding like any of those bands, Beta Band seem plugged into their entirely other realm of "quintessential Englishness": folkadelic whimsy and meander, dappled epiphanies, drowsy meadow bliss. But it was all filtered through a tune-full and rhythm-conscious post-Madchester/Screamadelica sensibility, banishing the spectre of retro.

Mind you, what's irritating about the Beta Band is, of course, that they're such fucking hippies. Perhaps you concurred with the band's own verdict, that 1999's self-titled debacle--sorry, debut--was somewhat unfocused? But you probably never heard the infamous second disc of the original planned double album, briefly circulated to journalists by their American record company. I did, and we're talking Gong-like levels of let-it-all-hang-out plot-loss.

Hot Shots II sees Beta Band once more "on point"--R&B/rap slang for having your shit together. Which is not inappropriate, because R&B producer C-Swing worked on this album. So Hot Shots is sharply produced in a fully contemporary sense--ultra-glossy, big-sounding, with huge bottom end and tuff beats. There's even some interesting fusion between modern black urban sounds and Beta Band's psych-rock tradition. Hold on, don't cum in your pants, we're not talking Timbaland-meets-Tago Mago or anything. But killertoon "Broke" shifts rhythmically from 2steppy beats'n'bass into full-on dancehall ragga, while closer track "Won" (a Nilsson cover?) is a bizarre and brilliant composite of Hollies-like chorus, floor-trembling reggaematic funk groove, ace rhyming from an unidentified MC, and a lick nicked from "Rhythm Stick" by Dury & the Blockheads.

C-Swing's haze-less production actually suits The Beta Band's neo-psychedelic premise--the brightness and separation of sound creates that slightly disorienting sensation of perceptual crispness that accompanies putting on your first pair of glasses, having your ears syringed, or being high as a kite. "Quiet" is awesome: echoes of Piper At the Gates of Dawn or long-lost Brit-psych outfits like Tintern Abbey, but with a massive, tub-thumping groove as powerful as The Chemical Brother's own freakbeat-meets-bigbeat classic "Setting Sun". On this track especially, but throughout the album, the monk-like close harmonies seem sculpted in three dimensions: the way they soar, arc, cluster and braid is breathtaking.

 With Hot Shots so tautly disciplined, it's almost like The Beta Band's hippie-dippie, baggy-slacker side can only seep out in the lyrics. Which can be charming in an "it's all too beautiful" style ("daydream/fell asleep beneath the flowers" goes the chorus of "Squares"), or grating (the I'm-just-a-simple-man shtick and spliffheads-solving-all-the-world's-problems doggerel of "Life"; the facile anti-intellectualism of "Eclipse", which imagines humanity united around a pizza pie). Intermittent lyrical inanities aside, Hot Shots II is almost too focused. At times you wish Beta Band had cut themselves some slack, sprawled a bit, self-indulged. You get glimpses: the "Strawberry Fields"-like coda to "Dragon" conjures a dew-brocaded idyll you wish they'd stretched out for ten times its length. Perhaps the strangest thing about Hot Shots II is that it makes the debut's addled goofiness sound better that it did at the time. Somewhere between those two extremes lies the perfect Beta Band record. For now, Hot Shots II is a very fine thing.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Rothko 'n' roll


"So if A.R. Kane were late Matisse (oceanic mysticism, blocs of garish colour) and MBV shift between action-painting chaos and Klee naivete, then Seefeel induce the same kind of serene exaltation of the soul as Rothko's lambent, blurry canvases....

" 'Signals' is Seefeel at their most radical and radiant. Fuzzy harmonics, like a harp played underwater, simply hang tremulously in the air: this really is Rothko'n'roll."

Funnily enough, Rothko is invoked in another album review in the very same Melody Maker issue (October 23 1993), in this amusing assessment of Cocteau Twins's Four Calendar Cafe by Simon Price

As indeed is Matisse. 

Rothko and Matisse are deployed as favorable reference point in my Seefeel review. Whereas Pricey thinks R + M are "merely Interior Decor" that compares unfavorably with Proper Artists like Dali, Picasso, Munch, and Gilbert & George.  Pricey further avers that the Cocteaus, at their least, veer perilously near to background-sound prettiness (alt-rock slow jams aka Goth-lite as seduction soundtrack). 

The Quique review incidentally is one of the very first - possibly the first - times I used "post-rock", albeit adjectivally rather than as a genre-tagging noun. A few weeks later it'll crop up in a feature on Insides

Along with the diss to Rothko and Matisse, I take exception to Simon's claim that you only need two Cocteaus albums. You need Head Over Heels and Bluebell Knoll but you'd also want the Harold Budd collaboration and you definitely have to have some of the EPs - Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spanglemaker, Love's Easy Tears. So that's effectively four album's worth of material that is the core canon, the imperishable essentials. 

I used to be quite ill-disposed to Treasure but I've come round to it a bit. It inches into the Zone of Fruitless Intensification (in their case, the Zone of Froufrou Intensification) but there's some great songs like "Lorelei". 

That stretch of  Tiny Dynamine  - Echoes In A Shallow BayAikea-Guinea - Victorialand is where I lost track of them at the time for a while. Subsequent attempts to give that mid-period patch a relisten, I tend to glaze out. 

You know, I don't think I have ever listened to Four Calendar Cafe

Heaven or Las Vegas is where I got off the bus. Funnily, it appears to be many Americans's entry point (at least judging by my students). 

As for the early phase before I got on the bus - Lullabies and Garlands and Peppermint Pig - they just seem too much in the shadow of the Banshees. 

Cocteaus, of course, were the biggest influence on Mark Clifford.