Thursday, 26 September 2013

Babylon Zoo - The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes (1996)

Ah the nineties; weren't they great! Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Carter the Unlistenable Sex Machine, Shed Seven, Primal Scream, all that good stuff...

Babylon Zoo is of course remembered as the name attached to the only ever single to wobble the charts on the strength of an advert for trousers that wasn't a pile of wank. Unfortunately the mind-bending moon disco everyone liked so much from the telly was actually the Arthur Baker remix which serves the single as a five second prelude to what may as well be a completely different song, almost a prefix provided just in case you'd forgotten why you bought the thing in the first place. It's David Bowie saying that yes he knows how much you enjoyed Ziggy Stardust, but if you'd just give Black Tie White Noise a chance...

Well not quite, because even if it wasn't on the original menu, Space Man is still a decent song in its own way, that way being roughly a portastudio Nine Inch Nails covering Suede's interpretations of early 1970s Bowie. That probably shouldn't sound quite so much like a criticism, and I'm not exactly suggesting it's a bad thing so much as that the music isn't entirely unlike anything ever heard before. Babylon Zoo was, or perhaps is, an apparently textbook case of an artist becoming too famous too quickly, and whose work really would have benefited from a collaborator who could point out which parts sounded faintly ridiculous, or that once you're past the first two tracks on The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes, it's a tough job telling any of the others apart. They all seem to operate at a certain tempo, share a similar structure, the same effects, same mood, same ambiguous and occasionally slightly clumsy lyrics just crying out for recognition as the deep, meaningful testimony of a true visionary; which is a tough call with lines like pungent smells, they consummate my home...

The word on the street regarding Jas Mann, the person behind, to the side, and in front of Babylon Zoo, is that the music industry didn't treat him very well and he went a bit bonkers; and for the record, the street in question would be the one in which the design studio responsible for the cover of this disc was situated wherein laboured my lifelong chum who shall remain nameless and was always good for showbiz revelations of this kind, although I probably need to keep my trap shut regarding Alexander O'Neal and the alleged reasons for why all those people ever did was criticize... 

Anyway, having dissected the deep and meaningful lyrics of Jas, I fear he may have been a troubled young Mann even without the pressures of fame and producing a second single which didn't sound exactly like the first one. The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes would presumably be a person who sees beyond the lies of falsehood to the truth of the facts of this inverted Babylon in which the sane ones are the caged animals in the zoo who do knoweth about global warming and people telling you to be this or that and stuff, or at least that's how it sounds to me; with only Caffeine - one of several songs for which the chorus is actually the title spelled out letter by letter - offering variety, hinting at wonky brain problems, as the condition is known amongst psychiatric professionals, and possibly the difficulties of an orthodox religious upbringing - although to be honest I'm just guessing here.

There are all sorts of reasons why The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes fell so quickly into the bargain bin of history, and fairly good reasons, but still it's difficult to dislike with conviction. It's repetitive, but at least it repeats tricks that were worth repeating, and with a few minor tweaks here and there it really could have been a great album rather than simply a curiosity; and of course Animal Army was a fucking fantastic single even allowing for the mispronunciation of tyrannosaurus.

The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes is an oddly appealing failure that's still superior to the entire Primal Scream back catalogue for all its being the weirdo electronic rock equivalent of Come Back Mrs. Noah.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Curve - Doppelgänger (1992)

I seem to recall Curve as being somewhat frowned upon in at least one music paper, their crime being the impersonation of a more fashionable group by someone who once played session guitar for the Eurhythmics and was thus financed by Nestle or some other soulless conglomerate. Curve were, so it transpired, U2 pretending to be My Bloody Valentine, fooling the cool kids into liking something that wasn't cool like when some cuboid Nazi square bank manager slips a Def Leppard album in with your precious Huggy Bear discs, and you've already punched the air in time to the first four tracks before you realise your mistake.

I never quite saw the problem, and so far as I could tell, Curve had a couple of decent tunes in there somewhere, so I wasn't too bothered about Toni Halliday being married to Sir Alan Sugar. Now, two decades after the fact, having actually heard My Bloody Valentine and picking this album up on the grounds that I remember it sounding okay when my girlfriend of the time played it into a flexidisc, I have to wonder if Curve might not be due some apologies.

My Bloody Valentine were nice enough, and Loveless is without doubt the greatest thing ever released by Creation Records - although  that's hardly a boast seeing as everything else the label ever put out was utter shite; but I just can't listen to it without visualising a bunch of smackies mumbling about rare Velvet Underground bootlegs.

Curve were, I suppose, My Bloody Valentine given hot baths, haircuts and a change of clothes, cruising along the interstate in an open-top Cadillac with guns and beer; and the weird thing is that if they really were just a steal of that shoegazing guitar drone schtick, then at the very least they saved the genre from the miserable buggers who invented it - invented by a loose definition of the term - and turned it into something that's good to listen to.

Curve's surge of guitars still sounds absolutely overwhelming, and the programmed elements strike a nice balance, going further than simply standing in for humans whilst holding back from anything that too obviously dates the music. The bass rumbles, and Toni Halliday's icy voice is a perfect complement to the burning wall of sound, if that isn't too purple a turn of phrase. There are few artists who have managed to seem simultaneously quite so primal and yet with such sophistication, making most of those corny old goth bands look like a Chas & Dave Halloween special; and Horror Head still doesn't sound quite like anything else recorded before or since.

Maybe Curve were really just Johnny Hates Jazz with leather jackets and a digital delay, but frankly who cares when it sounds this good?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

How To Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion (2013)

Four billion years ago when I played cowbell for a band called Konstruktivists, I spent some time dossing about at the offices of the apparently legendary World Serpent distribution company, scrounging free stuff and digging around for juicy morsels of industrial tittle-tattle - which member of Mnemonik Korpse Brigade had been seen stepping out with the singer from Foetal Banjo, who definitely wasn't a nazi-sympathiser
this week because they had a record by that Bob Marley, and so on. One of the more depressing nuggets of banter concerned Coil, who had apparently been paid several thousands of quid to remix something by Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor of said band, a massive admirer of Coil, would never get to hear the finished track it transpired, because Coil weren't going to do it even though they had already received payment, reason being that Reznor was American and ate McDonalds or something. They were going to keep his money and this was very, very funny.

Well, that's how I heard it, and it didn't strike me as at all funny. In fact it struck me as somewhat wanky, and so I never bought anything by Coil after that. Actually, I hadn't bought anything by Coil before that either, aside from Horse Rotavator which I took back to the shop as it turned out to be some twelve inch single with the wrong cover - Anal Staircase, which shouldn't have cost me the price of an album and was, in any case, not very good. To date, of all the Coil tracks I've heard over the years, I can count the decent ones on the testicles of a single scrotum; but if Trent Reznor likes them, well that's up to him I guess, although Lord knows why he should name his new band after a Coil record. Frankly I love the living shit out of Reznor's music and would happily have his babies were it not such an anatomically grotesque undertaking, so this seems rather like Elvis forming a band named Tommy Steele's Greatest Hits, but anyway...

Aside from turdy industrial bands dining out on past glories and producing records of mains hum with somebody mumbling something about Aleister Crowley over the top whilst having a wank, another musical travesty which once inspired my unalloyed hatred was trip-hop, the musical equivalent of a guy who raises his eyebrows in a knowing fashion as soon as you notice his take me to your dealer T-shirt. No thanks, man, he will tell you as you break out the Benson and Hedges. I don't smoke, well, not cigarettes anyway...

Trip-hop was the experimental music which wanted to be one of the cool kids and so, in an effort to distance itself from terminal bachelors with synthesisers and stamp collections, it named itself after hip-hop and claimed to have been into George Clinton back before anyone else had heard of him, apart from black people of course. In practical terms, trip-hop was actually a tape of a drum machine slowed to half speed and a girl with a squeaky voice singing dreamy observations over the top. Anyone could do it. At one point my milkman recorded his own trip-hop album.

Anyway, to finally swing around to the point, How To Destroy Angels are thankfully neither trip-hop nor in any way reminiscent of Coil, simply because Reznor has too much talent and probably couldn't fire a blank if he tried. That said, neither is it as tremendous as I was hoping. The eponymous debut EP that came out in 2010 was pretty damn great, so I'd been drooling with anticipation over this one for a while; and it's good but there's something missing, and it's taken me a few plays to work out what it is.

I'm not sure what ratio of this music can be attributed to Reznor, his singing wife, or to Atticus Ross, and although it all sounds like a more overtly electronic Nine Inch Nails to the point of Reznor's vocals being conspicuous by their absence, it's probably significant that Atticus Ross is apparently better known for film soundtracks, which is what a lot of the music here resembles. The great strength of Nine Inch Nails was always the contrast - soft acoustics rattling away next to something that sounds like someone rummaging around inside a transistor radio with a screwdriver and somehow producing a tune; but also the overall contrast of albums brimming with those short and shirty numbers like Discipline or The Hand That Feeds preceding the epic and tortured finale, the song that sounds like he's been through the wringer, and now he's sitting down and having a fag and a cup of tea and asking himself why me? Every single track on Welcome Oblivion is a grand finale; they're almost uniformly brooding, all building up to suns falling out of the sky in slow motion, and it's exhausting. Additionally whilst I would hardly suggest that Mariqueen Maandig was drafted in as singer simply because whilst it was nice to have her at the studio making sandwiches for the menfolk or standing by with a sticking plaster in case one of them should cut his finger, she probably kept knocking things over and making a fuss as women tend to do and was thus best left in the booth with a microphone; whilst I would hardly suggest such ideas as have here been shoehorned in for cheap sexist chuckles - she has a great voice, but in combination with the ponderous tempo of most of the songs, it bears annoying comparison with trip-hop shite of yore, and just inspires questions of how much better it might have sounded with Reznor's vocals.

That's a lot of slagging for what is on paper a great album, particularly as there's not a single clunker to be heard. I suppose the best way I can put it is that Welcome Oblivion is thirteen monumental tracks that unfortunately tend to merge into an amorphous mass of brooding awesome when stood next to one another.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Tha Dogg Pound - 2002 (2001)

Has there ever been a record label that blew it in quite such spectacular fashion as Death Row, or which learned so little from its mistakes and continued to blow it over and over? Losing both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, they spent the next decade boasting about how peachy it was to be rid of such two-faced talentless homosexuals whilst embarking on a series of increasingly desperate attempts to cash-in on what little of the two-faced talentless homosexual back catalogue they had retained - lame greatest hits collections released side by side with compilations sagging with witless crap about Dr. Gay and his NWAids.

Oh wait - gay rhymes with Dre.

I get it now.

Worst of all, as the label wasted time and brain cells on laboured concept albums suggesting that Dr. Dre enjoys man-on-man penisary action with Eminem in the mistaken belief that anyone really cared that much, the Death Row roster otherwise boasted Lady of Rage, Above the Law - one of the greatest rap groups of all time - and Crooked I - probably the best new west-coast MC at least since Xzibit - and did nothing with them. None of these artists were recording albums about the day when Dr. Dre did a poo in his pants in the dinner queue and some of it come out of his pants and he thought it was chocolate pudding and ate a bit of it and smiled and a man saw him do it, so Death Row didn't bother and just kept them around to make the fucking tea or something.

It would be annoying if they, as a label, didn't make such great records - well maybe not great records, but definitely better than they ought to be. Actually, it's still annoying; and ignorant and a waste of everyone's time even leaving aside degrees of homophobia so raging as to make Pat Robertson seem reasonable; on which subject - guys, this whole obsessive fear of gay people thing: It's stupid, it's really kind of weird, and honestly it says more about you than it does about anyone else.

Tha Dogg Pound's 2002 - presumably named in the hope of further annoying Dr. Dre who had just released 2001 - somehow illustrates this. Tha Dogg Pound were never quite the rap group you couldn't live without, but neither were they bereft of qualities, and there's always been something very listenable about Kurupt in particular. This compilation, distinguished by appearances from Jay-Z and Xzibit, both of whom spent some time on Death Row's list of enemies who smelled of poo and wee but were fine if it helped flog a few CDs - was put together after Daz and Kurupt jumped ship, presumably tired of all the money sidelined for their own material being spent on proving that Dr. Dre once saw a man's willy and said he liked it and a man heard him saying that he liked it. So 2002 is offcuts and remixes, an afterthought released by a label who'd just blown it yet again; and in spite of everything, it's still a pretty great album - nothing that's going to change the universe, although It'z All About That Money comes close enough, but it's a fat, nourishing sound, a good square meal. If Death Row could have put out just one album without pissing off the artist responsible, or wasting time banging on about people who'd had the good sense to take their talent elsewhere, that would have been a truly great record, but I guess the time is past.