Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Fall - Reformation Post TLC (2007)

Being any member of the Fall besides the obvious one must surely be one of the worst jobs in the world, or at least the most thankless, right up there with Jimmy Savile's damage control or the man Jeremy Clarkson pays to wipe his arse for him. I gather this album was recorded with a whole new line-up following Mark E. Smith sacking the previous lot because one of them looked at him funny or summink. I just hope the pay is good.

I find the Fall fascinating, although not sufficiently fascinating to justify my having bought anything since 1988's The Frenz Experiment unless it turned up in a bargain bin, as did this one. Actually I've a few since the last record for which I paid full price, and they're mostly decent providing you don't expect another Slates or This Nation's Saving Grace or Hex Enduction Hour. To give credit where it's due, this in itself is pretty incredible considering that most bands formed in 1976 were already shit by 1981, and yet Mark E. Smith's bunch generally continue to entertain even as they put out their five-millionth album featuring the great-grandson of the original guitarist. I say generally continue to entertain without much actual certainty. The ones since this might be fucking brilliant for all I know.

Reformation Post TLC starts well with complete strangers somehow managing to sound like everybody else who was ever in the Fall, yet bringing something of their own to the table - the usual country garage racket with a bit of a krautrock feel like La Düsseldorf or one of those groups, plus some nice growly synth. When I say it starts well I mean it sounds big, beaty, a bit angular, a faint aftertaste of piss and vinegar, and not at all like the work of a band with a back catalogue stretching back three decades; but an hour of this stuff goes a long way. After two or three plays I had the impression of an amazing four-track EP - everything up to and including the surprisingly tender cover of White Line Fever - and then er...

Well, there's a couple of instrumentals and one of them lasts over ten minutes, and the keyboard player sings on The Wright Stuff, and there are a couple of songs where the lyric just seems to be the title slurred over and over, and Insult Song is probably funnier if you're actually in the Fall, and there's an ambience of Smith having gone off for a piss, or another drink, or passed out in the microphone booth, and the second half of the album feels like 1960s Doctor Who with William Hartnell conspicuously absent every two or three weeks due to poor health. Repeat plays reveal that I've somehow imagined most of this, and the later tracks sort of hold up - excepting the one he sings in a funny voice - but still Reformation Post TLC isn't what it could be. Nearly four decades on and I still can't work out if he's a genius or just some nutcase having a fight with himself at the bus shelter, but I suppose the enduring ambiguity should be taken as a good sign.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Villalobos - Alcachofa (2003)

Here's another one which sounds all new fangled and fancy to me (assuming my ear trumpet is functioning correctly) and yet which came out thirteen fucking years ago; so this review will once again feature my fifteen-year old self trying to tell everyone about the amazing way out sound of Procol Harum. Well, maybe it's not quite that. I can hardly be expected to keep track of absolutely everything, musically speaking, and I'd have to wade through one hell of a lot of shite to do so. It hardly seems worth it.

Anyway, trying to decide on my next Scientist purchase, I noticed the lad had recorded an album with some dubstep dude called Shackleton. The name intrigued me because that's also the surname of my cousin, and then YouTube suggested I have a listen to Shackleton's Blood On My Hands, so I did. The track was fucking phenomenal so I investigated further, but found most of his work a bit dull and overly reliant on the conceit of Gregorian chants as powerfully atmospheric - as opposed to just a bit obvious when heard on any record other than one with a picture of a monastery on the cover. Close inspection revealed that the fucking phenomenality of Blood On My Hands was due to it having been remixed by one Ricardo Villalobos, so then I listened to Dexter by Villalobos, which seemed similarly fucking phenomenal and here we are.

My first brush with what I understand to be minimal techno was Anton Nikkilä's Formalist which I reviewed in an issue of Sound Projector back in 1999. I didn't like it very much:

The sounds and structures suggest this has evolved from dance music, just as Rachel Whiteread's art has evolved from art which could be enjoyed by folk who aren't smart-arsed post-modern sperm swallowers. This is not the sort of techno one might describe as bangin', or indeed be tempted to have it large to. Formalist as the title suggests, is somewhat sparse, and sounds to be entirely computer generated. Most of the sounds are essentially percussive, and oddly inappropriate. The only thing that defines the weedy pencil-banged-on-the-edge-of-a-table sound as a snare is where it occurs. The bass drum sounds aren't particularly bassy. Some of the rhythms had me checking to see if the CD was skipping. It wasn't. This was how it was supposed to be. Even those tracks which don't sound like the aural equivalent to a festival of experimental animation shorts from Canada, fare only marginally better.

Leaving aside my own somewhat boorish testimony, I'm sure it really can't have been that bad. In any case, Alcachofa seems to be what Anton Nikkilä should have sounded like, possibly.

We're now deep into the territory of sound with no acoustic point of origin, or at least which has been edited beyond recognition. Some of what can be heard on this disc may have come from something once labelled snare or hi-hat, but it's hard to say for sure. The sound is roughly like something audio editing software might dream about, sonic offcuts and slivers of signals tastefully arranged, tonal qualities emphasised, with graphic EQ deployed as an instrument in its own right. The repetition is intense and focus is drawn so fiercely to certain aspects of the composition as to fool the ear into missing everything else. It sounds minimal and a little dry, but the fifth or sixth listen will nevertheless reveal tiny hitherto unnoticed details. Approximations of melody come from combinations of dubiously musical sources repeated until something takes form, ticking and clicking on and on until the organic-digital divide comes to seem meaningless.

It's bollocks, but that's the best I can do. This music genuinely defies description, or at least my description. I'm not sure I've ever heard anything so weirdly abstract carry off such a compelling impersonation of banging dance floor populism.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Alec Empire - Generation Star Wars (1994)

I've always liked the idea of Alec Empire without really having heard much of anything in which he's been involved, I suppose excepting the Sham 69 cover, regarding which I much preferred the original. His name returned to me as I was reading Simon Reynolds' excellent Energy Flash, a history of dance music since acid house and techno; and a few days later I happened across a copy of this, apparently his first full length album.

The first thing that occurred to me as I listened was I could have done this. I own half of the equipment listed on the sleeve, have on occasion faked the rest, and fuck it - there are a few tapes I've done which sound a lot like this stuff so the process is no mystery. Just listening, I can tell exactly how it was done. I was expected to find myself confused, as I often am with the more labyrinthine and technologically baroque production of, for example, Front 242, but no matter; after all, Empire has always been very much in the spirit of punk - not just the aggression and the anti-establishment message, but the hard, raw sound and the DIY attitude - something anyone could have done. This shouldn't be taken as a criticism. There's nothing wrong with simplicity, with taking things back to the rock 'n' roll basics, and when someone curls a lip and sneers I could have done that, the salient point is usually that they nevertheless didn't.

Alec Empire's musical career seems to have been facilitated by the increasingly weird twists taken by all the subdividing strands of dance music in the early nineties, the point at which the disco biscuits ceased to pack a punch and as this particular stretch of the dance floor was getting dark and kind of nasty. There isn't even really a bass line anywhere on this lot because the bass mostly comes from a drum machine shoved through a fuzz pedal or equivalent effect. Consequently Generation Star Wars sounds one hell of a lot like one of those really noisy early Nocturnal Emissions albums - overdriven production line rhythms, distortion, and something more ethereal looping away in the background by way of contrast. I'm not even sure you could dance to this, or at least not all of it, although it would doubtless sound magnificent in a club.

This came out in 1994, somewhere within the general vicinity of my having a letter published in Melody Maker moaning about their lack of coverage of experimental types such as Konstruktivists, Nurse With Wound and others, cheekily informed by the fact of my being a member of Konstruktivists at the time. Their reply was something along the lines of how the musical future lay not with the cranky outsiders I'd mentioned, but on the dance floor. With hindsight, and particularly since having listened to this, I'm slightly embarrassed to realise that they were probably right.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Lil' Flip - The Leprechaun (2000)

I bought this one from Amazon, which offered me the opportunity to spread the good news of my having purchased a CD by sharing it on facebook. Being a good capitalist, I did just that because I like to keep my friends informed about my daily purchases. Thus did the album cover show up on my facebook page, inspiring my friend Eddy's comment of I'd hang onto the receipt for that one, if I were you.

Yes, I've also seen the cover show up in social media driven lists of worst rap album artwork of all-time, or Pen & Pixel's weirdest affronts to common sense or whatever; but I personally believe they have it all wrong, and that this might actually be one of the greatest record covers of all time. I mean seriously - look at the thing. Say you've just come across it in the record store. You take it from the racks and, having returned your eyeballs to their sockets, you stare at that cover, and somehow your brain fails to formulate a thought amounting to fuck - I gotta hear this shit right now!?

I should fucking cocoa.

I suppose The Leprechaun is old enough to be considered a classic. Classic might be a bit of an overstatement, but it is a great debut. Lil' Flip was dubbed the Freestyle King by DJ Screw - with whom he was loosely associated - which naturally he mentions once or twice on the album, thus giving the impression of having won formal competitions. It might be argued that the claim is undermined when, during the introduction, Flip promises to freestyle the first and last tracks on the record, because if he's that amazing, why not just freestyle the lot? His freestyles aren't bad - and in case anyone still didn't get the memo, freestyle means just making that stuff up on the spot - but there are probably a million more deserving of the regal title. He sounds kind of young on this album, and is prone to bigging himself up as the young tend to be, in contrast to which he's good but by no means the greatest rapper you will have heard if you've bothered to listen to anything since the Treacherous Three.

Yet, no matter what the objection, it's impossible to think poorly of the guy and The Leprechaun is still a great record. The beats are in the vague area of what you might expect given Flip's point of origin - smooth soulful sounds scored to stuttery rhythms of the kind No Limit were so good at before they blew it and ditched their best producers - and a leisurely southern pace in accordance with the climate. I've been to Houston a few times and that place is like the surface of the fucking sun for about half of the year.

What seals the deal is Flip's personality, at least as he speaks it here. There's a little gunplay but not a whole lot, and very little outlaw material. He's funny, not particularly prone to overuse of naughty words, and openly boasts of not caring for either alcohol or the ciggies - although this potential straight edgery is somewhat negated by the lad's stated fondness for purple drank, which the internet describes as a mixture of a prescription cold medication with a soda drink like Sprite or Mountain Dew, plus ice and Jolly Rancher candies often added for colour and taste. The cold medication should contain promethazine (an antihistamine) and codeine. There's plenty materialism, but I'm guessing Flip may have earned the right to get excited about occasionally getting milk on his cereal instead of tap water. The bragging comes with an unexpected self-deprecating undertone and doesn't even quite sound like bragging so much as a young dude astonished by his own good fortune.

In summary, Lil' Flip comes across as a genuinely nice guy and The Leprechaun is a summery kind of album which makes you feel happy when you listen to it. It's as simple as that. It isn't gangsta, and it isn't - ugh - positive rap. It's just good music.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Dandy Warhols - Come Down (1997)

My first brush with this lot was Every Day Should be a Holiday  getting a ton of playage on the wireless, and I assumed it was almost certainly the first Ian Brown solo single seeing as he'd just left the Stone Roses and apparently had something coming out. It was the combination of burping Roland 303 suggesting baggy's rave ancestry with harmonic sixtiesisms redolent of a certain familiarity with mood-enhancing substances; until I actually caught Robert Dougall introducing the record as being by a band I'd never heard of with a terrible name.

I never had much time for Andy Warhol and always found both him and his work kind of dull, which I suppose was the point.

The Dandy Warhols, thanks in part to the popularity of an advert for a kind of telephone you can carry around in your pocket, seem to have come to represent the corporate idea of a quirky independent band, the musical equivalent of That Seventies Show if you will; but having had entire decades without mainstream media, I missed most of that and by the time I found out, I already liked this album so it was too late. They probably are Jefferson Starship, but fuck it - this is a great record nevertheless, which I state as someone who is not ordinarily well-disposed towards anything which sounds like it might represent an exercise in nostalgia.

Come Down amounts to the Beach Boys fused with the Velvet Underground, maybe with a faint trace of either the Pixies or Sonic Youth, but with the considerable advantage of neither Lou Reed nor Thurston Moore being involved in any capacity. It isn't the most shockingly original thing you've ever heard, but it does what it does exceptionally well. In fact it probably does it better than anything it may or may not have ripped off. People wearing head bands and saying far out may be pure arseache in most contexts outside that of the decade upon which this leans so heavily, but I'd say the Billy Childish defence applies here, at least providing you ignore the advert for a kind of telephone you can carry around in your pocket.

The Billy Childish defence, from what I can remember, runs something along the lines of how the Milkshakes were simply playing the music they wanted to hear, the music which sounded the most powerful to them regardless of what anyone else might think; as distinct from rock 'n' roll cabaret acts in crepes and drapes doing their best to keep your mum and dad happy by reminding them of the good times. Not that there's anything wrong with nostalgia in itself, not beyond that I've scratched at least one jangly Beatles obsessive and found a hankering for culture before all those blackies ruined it with their thumpa-thumpa music, but revived forms of expression aren't always inherently necrophiliac in intent; and if any of that makes any sense whatsoever, that's why Come Down sounds so great to me. After all, no-one listens to Beethoven because they miss the 1820s.

So this whole disc is really just raw tunes and euphoria, and the pattern of wallpaper doesn't really matter; and if it's bankrolled by the man, it still doesn't sound like it on this with the soft psychedelia of the harmonies, uncluttered production, and those organ riffs worming their way into your subconscious. If only the Stone Roses had been this good.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Nocturnal Emissions in Dub (2010)

As I keep saying, I don't really do downloads, but I'd bought a couple by Blank Banshee and then there was Peter Hope so it seemed like I should at least give this a shot what with Nocturnal Emissions being one of the few bands whose work I've been consistently buying since way back even before I'd had sexual intercourse.

I'm something of a fish in only a small quantity of water when it comes to reggae, because yes, that is indeed what we have here, in case you were expecting old Emissions numbers with a bit of echo on them - which actually I was. I don't have much reggae, beyond one Scientist album and er... the Police, I suppose, but I'm familiar with the form having been exposed to a fair quota of it over the years - mostly around people's houses, the occasional club, and that slightly bewildering year when my own father - very much your archetypal truck driving Dire Straits fan - kept his wireless tuned, or possibly even locked, to some local Coventry station playing all that dancehall-digital rasta stuff that was around in the early nineties.

So yes - this is Nocturnal Emissions' reggie album, which could have gone horribly wrong but succeeds regardless because, let's face it, Nigel Ayers is probably the only person to emerge from that whole weirdy music scene who could pull off this sort of thing without looking like a complete wanker. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised considering Binary Tribe and Futurist Antiquarianism, to name just two, upon which he respectively appropriated trancey rave and jungle. The key to Ayers' success seems to be an absolutely genuine engagement with whichever genre he's dipping toes into, combined with a refusal to just churn out some faithful impersonation. So unlike certain clowns I'm not even going to mention, he always brings something new to the table. Also, he effectively lived in Brixton for at least a decade so it's not like we're talking Controlled Bleeding's zydeco album.

Nocturnal Emissions in Dub is woven from musical and non-musical sources, some not a million miles from what you will have heard on Fruiting Body and the like, yet woven into something almost resembling instrumental lovers rock crossed with the digital stuff of which my dad was such a fan. It has a bit of that high-definition television quality on headphones, doubtless having been composed as waveforms copied and pasted across different parts of a screen, but over speakers with the volume up loud, it's serious business - relaxing, atmospheric, a fair bit of arsequake, and characteristically inspired; so to commit what may seem something of a bland statement, it really does sound like a reggae album by Nocturnal Emissions.

My only criticism is that Bodmin Parkway unfortunately reminds me of that DWP television commercial from a couple of years back where Mariella Frostrup cheerily reminds benefits claimants that they could be penalised for claiming the wrong kind of family tax credits over some nice reggae riddums designed to put you at your ease. It's not so much the music as the combination of the music with samples of announcements made over a British Rail tannoy so plummily voiced that they may as well have been samples from a Richard Curtis romantic comedy; but it's one track on a great album that logically shouldn't have existed in the first place, so I'm not complaining.

Any chance of volume two?

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Cure - Faith (1981)

Here's another one I bought when it came out, albeit as a cassette because it had a film soundtrack for something called Carnage Visors on the other side, which seemed like a good deal. My dad bought a new family music centre that Christmas, and somehow I managed to persuade the folks to let me play Carnage Visors on it as we ate Christmas dinner, myself, my parents, and my granny. I still have the tape, although it's in a cardboard box full of other tapes presently on a different continent, but the memory was of sufficient strength as to cause me to shell out for this vinyl reissue when I saw it in Hogwild, my local independent record store.

It feels weird buying a Cure record in 2016, not least because I've hated everything they did since this one, pretty much. Love Cats was shit. That mega-twee Caterpillar song was wank served with a soupçon of shit, toss, and arse. Lewis Carroll through a flange pedal worked fine for Siouxsie & the Banshees who at least had the sense to move on once the affectation had done it's job. Since Faith the Cure have been a fat clown crying into his guitar, as Henry Rollins memorably, entertainingly, and accurately put it. I've heard Pornography but I can't remember a thing about it beyond that it failed to change my mind. Faith was the last good thing where the Cure are concerned. This was where it came to an end, but Jesus - what a record to go out on. Seriously, you should hear this thing.

This was the Cure as a Joy Division tribute act, so ran the generalisation, although listening to it now the differences seem too pronounced to take seriously. At most they were Joy Division without the Black Sabbath, and it's not exactly like the Divs were the only band placing this sort of stark emphasis on their rhythm section that year. Not even the mood is particularly similar. Without bothering to check, I vaguely recall reading that Robert Smith was massively depressed around the time of recording Seventeen Seconds and this one, and it shows; but it goes beyond boo hoo into near existential nausea, the numb, almost comforting feeling of understanding that there's no point to anything. The mood is as much to do with a distracted guitar jangling away and bearing no resemblance to anything on Unknown Pleasures, as Smith's disconsolate wail - a voice that became an unlistenable whine on later records but here works beautifully; and beyond the voice and the guitar there's all that space betwixt the twinned basses and percussion so dry it sounds vacuum sealed, and it seems like there's something haunting all that space between but you really have to listen closely to pick it up.

There's not a poor song on here, and at a perfect eight tracks it's too short to outstay its welcome, and - fucking hell - All Cats Are Grey is one of the greatest things ever recorded, working that sombre mood like not even Elgar managed. Lordy, the Cure were really something back then. It's a shame they couldn't have just called it a day after this masterpiece.