Thursday, 25 July 2013

Micall Parknsun - The Working Class Dad (2005)

For roughly a decade of my life I listened to rap music almost to the exclusion of everything else, which was partially to do with circumstances. I was working at Royal Mail as a postman which, regardless of what you may have heard, is one tough fucking job day after day with the early starts, heavy weights, climbing stairs, and having complete strangers calling you a cunt more often than you would like. I needed something to drown out the jangly indie-guitar toss of the crap station to which the sorting office radio would invariably be tuned, and because a lot of the younger guys liked their rap, it rubbed off on me in a big way; so that was what I'd have on my walkman for four or five hours a day, because it just seemed to work in a way that nothing else did; and the more I listened to rap, the weaker and more mannered everything else began to sound.

Stand them next to UGK or Three-6-Mafia in their heyday, and even the most violently offensive power electronics act will look like an art gallery installation with everyone mincing around sipping red wine and scoffing cheese footballs; and after you've been listening to rap for a while, even the most profoundly sensitive guitar-strumming artist of the last few generations becomes a sulky poet eating his ice cream in front of a velvet curtain, because there is a certain kind of blue collar bad day during which that knob from Razorlight telling you that everything's gonna be all raaaaaht just doesn't make you feel any better.

Of course, now that my life has become somewhat less shite, I am once again able to appreciate other genres without becoming irritable, but rap really does something unique and special. I think it's down to the lyrical content and the relation of artist to image - as in how they come across - all of which vaguely ties in to that stuff about keeping it real as opposed to keeping it overwrought and solitary in an empty room clutching a single rose like Coldplay man or Bonzo from U2. Rap has one hell of a lot of words and as such can often amount to a hell of a lot of content compared to other forms of music, content as in material delivered to your ears rather than simply interpreted by the listener. This means a rap record that's doing its job provides a good visceral kick in addition to a mammoth pile of issues upon which one may choose to cogitate, and will tend to reward repeated listening because there's so much to take in, certainly more than most can digest in one sitting.

Quite aside from the minor stroke of genius of naming himself after a long-running English chat show host, Micall Parknsun makes rap records that do their job - pissed off and quite vocal about the fact for all sorts of reasons without that being his entire schtick, and without quite fitting neatly into any existing rap demographic. English MCing at least for a while seems to have been of a surprisingly high lyrical standard, with even the also-rans quite capable of holding their own against artists who would be hailed as worldbeating in the States. I'm not sure Micall Parknsun is even that big a name in the UK let alone anywhere else, and yet he ranks effortlessly alongside recognised lyrical greats from over this side of the pond, and I'm pretty sure this isn't just my being swayed by references to Blankety Blank and Les Dawson, lest it seem like I'm reliving those months during which Roots Manuva's greatest talent was apparently the ability to mention cheese on toast in a song, at least according to the music press of the time. The production is similarly spot-on, mostly falling somewhere within the general area of UK hip-hop as it stood around 2005, maybe a distant DJ Premier influence mixed up with 1960s film soundtracks, but better than that probably sounds and with some great deep bass. The Working Class Dad is eight years old now, which seems incredible, so I guess if the guy was ever going to be massive then maybe it would have happened already; still, I guess it's never too late, and he's definitely deserving.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

El-P - I'll Sleep When You're Dead (2007)

Although the situation may have changed since I became a fat old man insisting that although some of these youngsters may be able to knock out the odd tune, Tears for Fears and Red Box pretty much remain the unchallenged gold standard for contemporary rock and pop excellence - hip-hop was once fiercely bifurcated into two major schools, and may well still be for all I know. These schools, as seen through my own particular postman-tinted spectacles, were backpack and everything else.

The latter category incorporates all the stuff with the swearing and some guy telling you he's going to cut off your face and use it to wipe his arse, plus a lot of stuff that doesn't do that, or even anything like it, and as such serves to indicate how deeply pointless is any attempt to draw up categories for such an eclectic and wide-ranging musical bracket. Backpack on the other hand tends to entail high-minded rap gentlemen telling you how to play chess without recourse to rude or disrespectful words, talking about lentils and whole food in the assumption that if you're not on the team then you're probably a bit of a tosser and thus in need of a particularly condescending form of education.

El-P has on occasion been lumped in with this latter category by association, which has always struck me as a little unfair given that his talents go some way beyond repeating the words wisdom and understanding over and over as though mere reference to such qualities instils intellectual depth; and politically he takes a blunt instrument stance, as opposed to just sort of standing there sneering at you for eating a sausage. Lyrically his barrage of words is often overwhelming, but it somehow works like a Burroughs novel, random assault by imagery; and it's powerful in the way that a dose of epsom salts can be powerful.

Musically, El Producto doesn't sound quite like anyone else, with the peculiar exception of early Nocturnal Emissions albums, at least in terms of the aesthetic and touches such as rhythm used as effect rather than as rhythm in the traditional sense. I'll Sleep When You're Dead is broken bits of sound welded together, even hammered into shape when they don't quite fit, and is as such the least digital thing I've heard in a long time.

The sum of these parts resembles nothing else, a gritty hybrid of  raw anger and science-fiction narrative which leaves no target unscathed by its razor-edged wit. In theory it should make for very uneasy listening - and it should be noted Habeas Corpses is probably one of the most harrowing narratives you'll ever hear on a rap record - but somehow this is one album that just glues itself into the CD player and refuses to budge.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The The - Naked Self (2000)

Today's weird little nugget of synchronicity is my listening to this album whilst out on the bike, then stopping off at the supermarket on the way home to hear This Is the Day piped over HEB's public address system - weird because I was bonkers for This Is the Day when it came out in 1983, back when I was a spotty English teenager who hadn't quite worked out how to use a comb; and that was what got me into The The in the first place; and because it's strange to be
in a supermarket in Texas thirty years later hearing the same song as opposed to - I dunno - Willie Nelson or something...

Okay. Maybe it isn't that strange, or no more so than any of the tunes to which the Anglophile cashiers of San Antonio apparently like to listen as they work, most of which seem to have been playlisted by myself when I was seventeen. I haven't yet heard anything by Alternative TV, Throbbing Gristle, or Domestic Bliss whilst buying  my grits, chitlins, collard greens, ammunition, or BBQ supplies, but I expect it's only a matter of time.

I assumed this to be the new album when I picked it up and was a bit embarrassed to realise it's thirteen years old, embarrassed because Matt Johnson is clearly a genius approaching Thirlwell proportions and deserving of support. When he first began recording, or specifically recording albums that were sold in the shops to which I had access, I was convinced that the future of music lay with the multi-instrumentalist one man band, or at least the one man plus singer band. This prophecy was deduced from the general excellence of Soft Cell, Foetus and others who, like Brian Eno before them, recorded music as they saw fit, unfettered by the obligations that come with membership of a full band - every song being required to feature a part for the euphonium just so that Bingo won't feel left out. On the strength of Nine Inch Nails, I'd say it wasn't too bad as a prediction, leaving aside the obvious futility of ever predicting that any one thing will be the future of anything.

Even with other musicians drafted in, The The still feels very much like a personal vision on Naked Self, which is probably why the guy has always been such a great communicator, namely that we all know how a personal vision feels. For my money this quality became sidelined during the years of The The as a full band, and whilst Johnny Marr's guitar playing was undeniably great, that material still carried a tang of compromise in comparison to this.

I bought Naked Self fully expecting a huge disappointment, the continued stumbling efforts of someone who really should have jacked it in some time ago to concentrate on his hotel portering, but it could quite easily have been recorded immediately following Soul Mining. This isn't to suggest it sounds necessarily dated, for Matt's music has always had a timeless, somewhat universal quality for all its being sprung from the aforementioned personal vision. Weirdly, this might even be the best album he's done, allowing for the possibility that he's probably squeezed out a few more since; and Shrunken Man is a cracker.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Foetus - Hide (2010)

The measure of a genuinely classic album - pretending for a moment that it's possible to be make objective judgements about such things - is that it sounds like the single greatest album ever recorded during  listening, and only as it ends will you recall having regarded other records with similar fervour. Foetus is distinguished for me by having churned out a good few albums which figure in this category, and Jim Thirlwell is one of those rare artists who seemingly sets out to improve upon earlier works rather than simply repeating former glories. He's been doing it since Deaf from way back whenever the hell that was, each one better than the last. Admittedly there was a bit of a fallow period lasting roughly from Thaw to Flow - great albums all, but a bit too much of that generic noise rock landfill, gargling crude oil whilst pretending to be a guy from Tennessee who's just married his own mother. It sounded great on Hole and Nail, but by 1988, that one string of the bow was wearing a bit thin, not least for having been photocopied by a thousand growling clowns, and if you don't believe me just dig out Ministry's Industrial Rock is Like Really Awesome album and try listening to it now without smirking.

Thankfully, Thirlwell seemed to tire quite quickly of that sort of unreconstructed cobblers, and so from Flow onwards he returned to providing greater emphasis on musicality than on sheer roaring texture. Contrary to dimwitted belief, he was never really industrial in the first place - in fact any person using the term industrial in relation to their music who isn't a former member of Throbbing Gristle should probably feel free to either grow up or piss off - but such associations tend to stick, no matter how wide of the mark they may be, and so the man's actual talents often tend to be either overlooked or misunderstood. Thirlwell is above all a composer, as even his early Philip Glass inspired efforts will reveal. His work is almost always narrative in that it tells a story, even if it's a non-verbal story and the progression isn't always linear. His music is assembled with expert care; and the quotation or cut and paste of other musical genres is more of a grappling with musical language than just sticking a load of unrelated crap together in the hope it will freak someone out. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that it could be argued he's closer in spirit to Rogers & Hammerstein, or at least to The Residents, than the Sex Pistols or Nurse With Wound.

Hide takes a few spins to sink in, but once it does, it's as tenacious as one of those terrifying Australian fish that swims up your hampton. Initially it comes as a shock, not least because this time he's added opera, psychedelia and mariachi music to the blend whilst somehow still producing something that sounds like Foetus. This is what I mean by grappling with musical language - the operatic Cosmetics cuts no corners, avant-garde classical time signatures all over, bits of Schoenberg, professional singers all expertly woven together by a master's hand to produce what is essentially the genuine article, as opposed to just some kid with a sampler and a Beethoven CD. The sheer overwhelming quality of song writing - or perhaps I mean composition - remains strong throughout, and although it's hard to pin down the actual thrust of the narrative, it feels like there is one - I'm guessing something roughly environmental, although that may be a little simplistic as an interpretation.

Hide is distinctly a Foetus album whilst also sounding like nothing you will have heard before, which is quite an achievement for something which quotes so freely from other genres. If there was ever any doubt, aside from being one of the few artists who can whistle mournfully during the bridge of a song without sounding like a knob, Thirlwell really is a musical genius.