Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Blur - Leisure (1991)

It could be that I've remembered some of the details incorrectly, but I seem to recall this - Blur's debut album - greeted with a degree of cynicism, subsequently sinking into mumbling about how such a band could have had such an inauspicious beginning. It was baggy, as was everything else at the time, and the record label was EMI pretending to be an indie so as to be down with the kids, meaning this was actually Phil Collins trying to pass himself off as the first four Wire albums, or summink.

However: bollocks.

Blur were fucking great, and this was a fucking great debut by a fucking great band, which was fucking great. Suggestions that the lads should have maintained their integrity by saying no thank you, Parlophone, we were actually hoping to sign with United Dairies, aren't really worth taking seriously, beyond which we're left with the notion that Blur somehow lacked authenticity, which usually translates into failure to have been born in Manchester; because being from Manchester is not only a biographical detail, it's something in the music, something which defies definition, rather conveniently. Being from London is different and means you're not real, you sip cocktails with Eamonn Holmes at the weekend, and when you walk like a monkey and claim to be mad for it, you're just pretending.

Leisure is like a spikier version of early Pink Floyd, plenty of substance abuse, and some swagger, but it's balanced by a certain chemical ambiguity, a sense of come down or hangover which is neither mad for it nor necessarily sane for it. The baggy aspect may simply have been timing, or it may have been something emphasised in production, but it seems significant that for an album which hints at the psychedelic experience with such conviction, Leisure still doesn't sound dated, and is easily as good as anything the Stone Roses ever came up with. These be some killer songs, regardless of Damon Albarn having eventually turned into Sting.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Shellac - 1000 Hurts (2000)

'What the hell is that?' my wife chuckled from the other room as I was listening, and I didn't really have a reply aside from simply naming the artist, which probably wouldn't have answered the question. I assume it was kill him, just fucking kill him over and over which caught her attention, that being the refrain of Prayer to God, the first song on side one.
To the one true God above, here is my prayer,
Not the first you've heard, but the first I wrote.
Not the first, but the others were a long time ago.
There are two people here, and I want you to kill them.

It's a song about a guy who has discovered that his wife is having an affair; except, it isn't. It's about the impotent rage of the guy, helpless and overwhelmed by something too terrible to consider, which is why he's praying, asking a God in whom he probably doesn't believe to kill the fuckers because it seems as good a solution as any. I guess this sort of thing has been a fairly common feature of Albini's lyrics, namely the stunted fury of the little guy, like a self-portrait of an angry Robert Crumb, eyes bulging, sweat on his brow, shitty crumpled suit and his fist shaking at the sky - either for the piano which has just been pushed from the top of a tall building and which is about to crush him in the most stupid way imaginable, or at an unjust and uncaring universe. This guy comes back again and again, too smart for his own good, forever the subject of indignity, doomed.

Hey man... I wanna have a fight with you,
Regardless of my feelings on the subject
it appears that I am going to.

Weirdly, I find that this folksy small town focus reminds me a little of the Talking Heads back before they went all world music, and it's probably why Shellac works so well, or at least works a whole lot better than simpler, angrier stuff recorded by lesser bands. The strangeness of the material also helps, the song about arranging the numbers in a different order, for example. It makes no fucking sense, and yet has an emotional impact for no reason I can quite identify beyond qualifying as the cogitation of someone with problems.

The production shouldn't even require an introduction at this point - finely crafted and at least as powerful as being right in the same room as the band, maybe even in the same room as the guy asking God to kill his wife or the one who wants a fight. This is music crafted - rather than merely played - for the sake of music, for the appreciation of something beautiful, or beautiful by its own awful terms - no shortcuts, no short hand, no additives, no artificial flavouring.

Shellac are amazing.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Infinite Livez vs. Stade - Art Brut fe de Yoot (2007)

Infinite Livez is arguably the closest rap has come to producing an analogy of the Residents. His Bush Meat was amazing and a definite contender for some all time best list or other, so I bought this and probably listened to it once. Being the work of Infinite Livez, I knew it would be screwy, but I suppose I wasn't prepared for just how screwy it turned out to be - almost like one of those things which isn't actually rap but, on close inspection, turns out to be some pal of Damien Hirst recontextualising an intrigueing blend of improvised jazz, situation comedy, world music, soul, French cuisine, Nordic cinema, a different type of improvised jazz to the first batch, Andy Warhol, and rap. It was what I imagined cLOUDEAD probably sounded like, although as it happens, cLOUDEAD are pretty much a vapourwave version of De La Soul, or summink.

Several million years later, second and third spins suggest I simply wasn't listening hard enough back in 2007. Art Brut is fucking strange for sure, but nothing like so abstract as I remember. Stade - pronounced starred, as in John Le Mesurier starred in Dad's Army - seem to be one of those laptop glitch outfits, although not bearing quite such a sonic resemblance to Farmer's Manual as I recall. The noises, clangs and beeps cohere into solid beats on a couple of tracks, whilst Infinite Livez' random vocal outbursts and apologies for being disgusting likewise assume rhythm and soul at certain intervals, leaving us with an album which allows some insight into what might have happened had Marvin Gaye been a member of Nurse With Wound; and I'm not shitting you here. I had no idea Livez was in possession of such a soulful singing voice as he demonstrates on tracks like, even though the contrast of vocal style and subject is truly disorientating. Imagine if R. Kelly had possessed actual talent and had been a bit more up front about what he used to get up to in his spare time. Actually, while we're here, Infinite Livez pisses all over D'Angelo as well, although thankfully not in any literal sense.

It seems that everybody else had the same reaction to this when it came out. We listened to it once and decided it wasn't proper rap, an argument which I now understand to be bollocks, and an argument which doesn't matter because Art Brut fe de Yoot sounds like nothing else I've heard - pants-pissingly stupid yet with bathfuls of heart and soul. The one after this was called Morgan Freeman's Psychedelic Semen, and needless to say has just been added to the list.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Bollock Brothers - Never Mind the Bollocks 1983 (1983)

I'm sure I can't be blamed for assuming this would be complete shite before I heard it. Jock McDonald, having become a name by way of some Sex Pistols bootleg or other, was beginning to look a lot like the Jonathan King of punk, and there was the band with Johnny Rotten's little brother, and then there was the Bollock Brothers, so named as to present the impression of trying far too hard whilst simultaneously not actually trying at all, not even a little bit; all of which may as well have been Bryan Ferry crooning Scott Walker numbers at Astrud Gilberto by comparison with covering Never Mind the Bollocks in its entirety.

You would think so, wouldn't you? Nevertheless, this one manages to be fucking ridiculous, bloody awful, and yet somehow amazing all at the same time, and amazing because it's fucking ridiculous, bloody awful, and so on and so forth.

The 1983 version is a synthpop revision of the original utilising some sampling, some speak and spell, but mostly it's not even the proper stuff, instead occupying a point somewhere between early console games, karaoke tapes, and the kind of synthpop one would routinely encounter when children's telly tried too hard. Had an episode of Crackerjack ever concluded with Peter Glaze and Don MacLean grinning through a saucy seaside cover of Bodies, it would have sounded like this record.

However, the weird thing is that if you turn it up loud enough, it works in spite of itself. For starters, although the songs are reproduced with fannish fidelity to the originals, there's some additional fucking around with the formula - the chirpy sax sample on God Save the Queen, and how Holidays in the Sun keeps threatening to turn into Tubular Bells for example. Also, we have Pursey-esque guest vocals from Michael Fagan who made the front pages after breaking into Buckingham Palace back in 1982, who somehow makes the songs his own with additional lyrics, turning God Save the Queen into an appreciation of herself, for one example. The rest is sung by Jock McDonald who wisely avoids the stereotypical Lydon impersonations you might anticipate, instead relying on his own voice, which actually carries the songs very well and has something of Mark Perry's post-adolescent wail to it.

No, I don't know what the point was either, but in some respects it sort of saves Bollocks from itself by pissing all over the legend, annoying the kind of purists who missed the point in the first place, reminding those who might need reminding what a great album it was, beating Richard Branson at his own game, and generally being a shitload of fun - and stupid fun, which as we all know is the best kind. Whilst I tend to wince on principal at discussions of the queer narrative - mainly because I still don't think such partisan labels are always helpful - this version of Bollocks goes somewhere in that direction, serving as a reminder that Johnny Rotten at age twenty was one hell of a lot more Kenneth Williams than he was ever John Wayne, or even Joe Strummer.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Residents - Mark of the Mole (1981)

My first proper gig - large venue, no-one from school in the band - was the Residents' Mole Show at Birmingham Town Hall, so it's probably peculiar that it should have taken me nearly forty years to get this given how much I enjoyed the aforementioned Mole Show. Partially it was just how it worked out, Mark of the Mole hardly being the sort of record I could find at my local WHSmith, and when I stumbled across a copy at some better stocked place it was usually just after I'd spunked away all my pocket money on yet another live Throbbing Gristle album. Intermission somehow made it to our local record shop during the six months of the place managing to stay open, so I bought that, and it was great, and then the next thing I actually found was George and James, which wasn't very good at all and which pretty much killed my curiosity regarding new Residents material. I liked the old stuff, the weirdly discordant tunes plucked out on bits of wire stretched across the back of a chair, the music which didn't really fit anywhere, which sounded like it was recorded on another planet. It seemed as though they had lost something since they bought their Emulators, and the charm of endless wacky cover versions had begun to wear thin. Oh yes - it's Shakin' All Over sung by Herman Munster with the guitar riff on something which sounds like a cow playing the tuba - ha ha…

Better late than never, I guess. It took me a couple of plays to hear past my expectation of the formulaic weirdness of the Residents as wacky covers band, but I got there, and I realise Mole was probably the best Residents album since maybe Fingerprince. It sounds played rather than programmed, and played by Residents rather than wacky entertainers giggling inside their giant eyeballs. The music develops organically, without too much suggestion of anything happening just for the sake of being fucking weird. It's that same alien folk music which first caught my attention and it tells a story, and the tragedy of the Moles driven from their homes survives the surrealism of its telling. I liked both Eskimo and The Commercial Album, but I never really played either that much. For all of their qualities, I always felt they were laying it on just a little thicker than I liked, whatever it was; but Mark of the Mole is perfect.

Mark of the Mole was the first part of a trilogy which was never completed, and online sources seem to suggest that this was due to disillusionment with the expense of the Mole Show and how the undertaking didn't really turn out as the lads had hoped. I always understood that the Moles were actually the Residents struggling to get by in our society, but I didn't realise that part of this reflected on the apparently poor critical reception which greeted the previous two records; and I guess this was, if anything, what went wrong with the Residents. They wanted a hit single, or wider acclaim, or the stuff you're probably not going to get much of a sniff at when your album sounds like it was recorded on Mars. I guess maybe that's why there was a time during which they seemed to be turning into a surrealist comedy turn, something to match the sales of Weird Al Yankovic; and I guess that's why I've heard more recent stuff, and it's all right but I still feel the spark has gone. I still feel like they stopped exploring and became a tribute act recreating material in the style of their former selves, but maybe - and hopefully - I'm wrong. I guess I'll just have to track down The Tunes of Two Cities and see how it all panned out.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Shangri-Lies - Drain / Greed / Hunger (2019)

Shangri-Lies was a collaborative effort undertaken by Peter Hope with members of Chakk, Moloko and Sweet Exorcist, here with three tracks which first appeared as a 12" back in 2012, now remixed right up the wrong 'un by various New York Haunted luminaries and issued as a fell length album. The original tracks - included here, naturally - constitute killer material of a standard you would probably expect from such names who, lest we forget, had already left their respective marks indelibly stamped upon the face of techno and didn't actually need to do anything else ever again - bleeps, filters, shuffle, bass ping, that sound your PC makes just before it crashes - except pinned down to a beat…

Generally speaking I still don't really know how I feel about the remix, but whatever I feel is irrelevant in this case given the transformations effected by David Harrow and others, yielding what are essentially seven entirely new tracks. Listen close and you'll probably be able to work out where they came from, but it's not obvious without looking at the track list. I never quite know what to say about dance music because beyond whether it's good or bad, further discussion seems a little surplus to requirements; but this collection distinguishes itself by demonstrating just how far techno can be stretched, pulled, bent out of shape until it kind of resembles some Throbbing Gristle outtake, whilst - against all odds - still banging like techno rather than some tediously overproduced chill out room brainfart. It turns out to be pretty fucking far, let me tell you.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Salford Electronics - Communique No. 2 (2017)

Salford Electronics is one of the Grey Wolves, whom I gather have now ceased trading as a collective concern. I have to admit that I'm only loosely familiar with what the lads have been up to during the past couple of decades. I'm assuming they didn't have a Bavarian oompah phase or spend a couple of years as a sixteen piece ska band, but my estimation of where this disc stands in relation to the last few Grey Wolves releases, sonically speaking, will probably be somewhat off target, so you may have to bear with me.

The Grey Wolves I remember were nothing if not confrontational, where Salford Electronics seems to be a less demonstrative concern. Somebody somewhere will already have described Communique No. 2 as dark ambient, which I'm not going to do because I'm trying to discourage the use of such silly terms, and because the music of Lustmord is always described as a dark ambient, and this is much better than Lustmord—pardon me, I meant Lustmørd. The plain black cover seems as initially inscrutable as the ten electroacoustic soundscapes on the disc, but as with patterns seen once you've gazed into the shadows for sufficient length of time, some sort of narrative emerges after a few plays; or rather a non-narrative because Communique No. 2 feels like what we're left with once all the words have been used up, nothing left to say, which it could be argued constitutes a statement in its own right. There are no songs, tunes, melodies, nor even rhythm - well, not exactly - just a pseudo-organic noise resembling that which endures when there's no-one left behind to operate the machinery. It's the sound of concrete, underground car parks, waste disposal machines going through the motions in a world denuded of humanity - what happens to the cities after we've gone, like an urban cousin to Nocturnal Emissions' invocations of the natural world. It ceases to be ambient once you turn it up to the sort of volume at which it deserves to be heard.

Very impressive.