Thursday, 27 March 2014

UGK - Ridin' Dirty (1996)

Many centuries ago, just before I discovered the internet and the joy of buying stuff from it, and a few years into most London record stores getting into the concept of selling mainly just the latest George Michael or Adequate Furry Animals shite - and very little else - I stumbled across a second-hand place in Camberwell, apparently mere days after someone's mum had cleared out his entire rap collection, thus meaning such an influx of golden nuggets as to cause my eyes to quite literally pop out on stalks. There on the racks was just about every rap disc upon I had cogitated over the previous couple of years, all cheap, and probably a good suitcase worth of stuff. Amongst these were four discs by UGK: the notorious Banned EP - boasting what is probably the most astonishingly and amusingly offensive rap number of all time, the sort of thing which makes Eazy-E sound like J-Live rapping about lettuce; and the first three albums, of which this is the third. Somehow, I hadn't heard too much by UGK, but I understood them to be essential listening, and I'd liked what I knew of them from their guesting on tracks by Jay-Z, C-Murder, and others. Anyway, they didn't disappoint.

I'm not sure UGK ever recorded exactly what you would call a classic album, but on the other hand I don't think they ever made a bad one; and Ridin' Dirty feels like some sort of aural landmark, epitomising the third coast sound at its height before the influence of crunk levelled everything out, reducing something previously too big and diverse for categorisation to a bloke with gold teeth telling you about his car. For those of you who've just joined us, southern rap has never really been any one thing, and has as such always sounded - to me at least - a little broader, more adventurous than forms originated elsewhere in the States, the west-coast g-funk, or one of those headachey New York types exorting us all to wave our hands in the air over sixty flavours of Roland cowbell. Like the south itself, southern rap makes its own rules.

Ridin' Dirty is produced by N.O. Joe, a name perhaps more famously associated with Scarface and Rap-A-Lot Records, and as such establishes a clear link between the bluesy-gospel roots of its practitioners - gumbo funk, as the aforementioned N.O. Joe termed it, evoking jazzy film noir soundtracks jammed out at three in the morning in smoky clubs, wah-wah guitar and soft stabs of electric piano over a deep, warm bass, all slowed down to the pace of the Gulf Coast heat. More than anything else I can think of, Ridin' Dirty is roughly what it sounds like living in Texas, hot, dry, slow, and with quite a lot of death around. It's not only a profoundly soulful listening experience, it's also quietly terrifying, as - I suspect - are many of the darker blues records once you get past the patter. UGK were gangsta rap in the truest sense, that being something entirely consistent with Chuck D's view of rap as being the black CNN. It'll probably be a while before the genre throws up anything quite so classy as UGK again, so this is as good a place as any to get yourself edumacated.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - The Vodoun Effect (2008)

My experience of African culture - at least my direct experience - is fairly and perhaps sadly limited. William Bennett of seminal power electronics group Whitehouse has recently taken to recording African inspired confrontational music as Cut Hands. Some have pointed out that this may represent overcompensation for albums titled New Britain and those idiotic statements about gangs of National Front skinheads being an inspiring sight, or whatever stupid crap it was he came out with in the name of annoying liberals; but even if Cut Hands really is something other than William Bennett sitting next to one on the bus, I'd argue that it doesn't really help given its use of Africa as just another set of scary things waved in your face.

On the other hand, my eyes were well and truly opened when the British Museum had a rummage through its basement and put together its African galleries a few years back - African galleries as distinct from the crowd-pleasing and already fairly well publicised Egyptian collection. Even aside from it being the land from which we all originally came, Africa - it turns out - was never really quite the land of black people living in huts, moaning about elephants, and not much else as portrayed in post-colonial entertainment; but the image persists because the place is enormous, poorly understood by outsiders, and for every shovel of sand excavated in Egypt, a mere teaspoon's worth of archaeological investigation is undertaken in the name of the rest of the continent. It therefore came as a surprise to view Africa in terms of its archaeology and realise that it was never a land of cartoon savages, but rather was home to a great number of civilised and quite sophisticated societies with a lot more going on than we had at the time, at least until the Romans showed up and taught us how to use toilet paper. For one particularly striking example, as Janaki Lenin writes:
Farmers of the rainforests of Nigeria, Africa constructed an extensive network of earthen walls and moats. Astonishingly, in some places, the walls are twenty metres high and the moats twenty metres deep. What makes this even more remarkable is that Sungbo's Eredo - meaning Sungbo's Ditch - is thought to have been built around 1150AD on the orders of a childless matriarch, Bilikisu Sungbo (although the dates don't add up, locals believe that she is none other than the Queen of Sheba). The fortifications span 160km encompassing an area of 1400km2, the size of Delhi. Nearby Benin City has even more spectacular walls and trenches, extending 16,000km and covering an area of 6,500km2. This is thought to be the single largest archaeological phenomenon on the planet, an enterprise larger than the Egyptian pyramids. The zooarchaeologist, Juliet Clutton-Brock, believes they may be evidence of man's earliest elaborate defense of crops against elephants.

So, to swing back around in the general direction of the point, whilst I find African culture potentially fascinating, there's a hell of a lot of it and it's difficult to know where to start. Tsotsi was a great film; and I've never quite understood the appeal of Fela Kuti or that psychotically happy music they always seemed to use to advertise sporting events televised by the BBC; and that's about as far as I've got, until now.

To briefly fly off after another indirectly related train of thought, it could be argued that African art has had a profound influence on first world culture, at least depending on how much importance you place on the stuff hanging in our own art galleries. The influence of Picasso on contemporary art has been of undeniable significance, and of course Picasso would have remained just some randy Spanish bloke with the face of a plumber had he failed to notice that European painting was looking a bit saggy around the buttocks, and that those exciting angular wooden masks were just what the witch doctor ordered.

The same process has of course informed the evolution of rock and roll, and quite a lot of the music we listen to - with the possible exceptions of Beethoven, ELO, and all those Death In June bands - most of which can, roughly speaking, be traced back through rhythm and blues to traditional forms originated in Africa; and so in this collection of songs by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou from Benin in West Africa, I suppose it's fair to say I had an expectation of hearing the pure form of something or other, or, to paraphrase Nocturnal Emissions, what the music sounded like before they got hold of it, they being the agents of the spectacle. To be fair, I had that expectation because I'd already heard a little bit of it when Kevin Harrison posted a YouTube clip of Mi Ni Non Kpo on his facebook page, and I was so impressed that I ran straight to my nearest internet and snapped up a copy of this collection. Interestingly enough, this is not actually your strictly traditional African music in so much as Orchestre Poly-Rythmo were quite happy to reclaim some of that which had evolved from the original template on foreign shores, incorporating all sorts of bits and pieces from jazz, blues, soul, funk and all those other genres which have since come to carry unfortunate associations with overly-earnest middle aged white men. Yet even with the discernible influence of James Brown amongst others, there's an absolutely unique magic to these songs. Without actually sounding exactly like anything I've heard before, this nevertheless feels like a sort of ur-music, a pure seam of the stuff in raw form in which one may discern traces of almost everything else ever - Led Zeppelin, 23 Skidoo, Motown, Can, LCD Soundsystem, even acid house - it's all here, somehow. In fact it's quite tough to think of music which owes no debt to the greater whole from which this clearly derives; and if this claim were not in itself sufficiently preposterous, it might also be worth noting that most of these songs were recorded by sticking a microphone in front of the band and pressing whichever resulting recordings sounded okay as seven inch singles. The recording values suggest early soul records, or Billy Childish, or even Steve Albini, and there's real power in that sound, the sort of thing that might be lost in a better equipped studio, or even one with a roof.

So to summarise, William Bennett likes to pull scary faces, Africa is probably more interesting than you realise, elephants are serious business, Picasso was the Paul Simon of his day, and this CD is like a better version of every record you've ever heard. After 1,076 words of scrabbling around like I've dropped my contact lenses, the review probably isn't too likely to cohere into linear sense at this juncture, so the point worth remembering is probably that The Vodoun Effect isn't quite like anything I've heard before, and is of such robust and honest constitution that it actually feels like it's doing you good as you listen. The rhythms are fantastically inventive, the instruments don't always do what would be expected of them were they playing some more familiar form, and the whole thing leaves you in a frankly amazing mood without doing any of that pathologically happy stuff favoured by other, better publicised African recording artists.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

UNIT - Molti Nemici Molto Honore (2012)

Today's comedy industrial subgenre terms itself martial industrial, a musical affectation which favours the sort of pseudo-classical pretensions adopted by those who take themselves far too seriously, and tend not to be overburdened with experience of actual classical music, excepting perhaps a bit of Laibach, and that Robert Wagner because he was the Death In June of his day, and the fact that Hitler liked him is neither here nor there. The shorthand is that martial industrial is the work of stern-faced developmental teenagers who drown Elgar samples in a ton of reverb in hope of evoking the atmosphere of a military funeral, usually slapping the end result on a CD with a photograph of a stone eagle on the cover and titled Europe's Sorrow or The Defeat of the Dark Ones or something of that sort. The most entertaining aspect of such bands - if you can really call some smacked-arse-faced little wanker in a black shirt a band - will generally be the associated website which usually features a testy if barely literate disclaimer stating that just because a guy happens to be interested in racial purity or marching up and down whilst saluting, doesn't mean he should have to put up with the unfair and uninformed criticisms of those who don't know nothing accusing him of that which he will not actually name on his website just in case anyone has yet failed to make the wild leap required to associate those who bang on about the sanctity of white culture with raving Nazis; although to be fair, entertaining may not be quite the right word here. Anyway, I suppose it terms itself martial industrial through the promotion of martial imagery whilst aspiring to achieve the sort of effect that would have arisen from Genesis P. Orridge turning up on Gardeners' Question Time to playfully and subversively drone on about plants resembling the human penis; and the lesson here is that anyone trudging along under the banner of martial industrial is by definition a shitehawk, and classical composition is best left to those who know what the hell they're doing.

As a former member of UNIT, I may not be the most impartial judge of a disc such as this, although in my defence, and in case it supports some notion of my objectivity, I have to say I haven't found myself prone to gushing over much that has been released by the band since I departed back in whatever year it was - too much xylophone, or whatever the hell that thing was that seemed to turn every other song into a Ray Conniff Singers tribute, and just too much in the vein of School Farm Bungalow which remains more or less my most hated album of all time. Of course, amongst the great strengths of UNIT's Andy Martin are his eclectic tastes, absolute singularity of vision, and tendency to swerve off in some new and completely unexpected direction every two or three years, which probably accounts for this roughly speaking orchestral work.

Whilst I'm sceptical as to whether Molti Nemici Molto Honore was really recorded with a full orchestra, and close inspection exposes some moderate use of sampling, all bets are generally off where Mr. Martin is concerned, and it at least sounds very much like that which it purports to be in terms of recording and - crucially - composition. In other words, this has much in common with yer legitimate classical types, and nothing obviously in common with the martial industrial school of orchestral twattery.

Keeping in mind that my own understanding of classical composition is fairly limited, Molti Nemici Molto Honore is Schoenberg with a bit more of a tune, or at least a coherent series of themes emerging from the orchestra falling down a flight of stairs opening. There is an initial element of controlled chaos although this soon reveals itself as purposeful, working towards some sort of harmonic goal, and the emotional import of this goal is revealed in the subtitle, Music for the Last Day on Earth. It's hardly the first time such notionally apocalyptic ambition has been tackled by a musician, particularly one with at least a few minor skeletons in the cupboard of industrial subculture, but UNIT evokes the overpowering sorrow of its canvas by entirely musical means rather than the perhaps more traditional shock tactic of electronic noise. For the sake of argument and regardless of how it came together, one may as well admit defeat and term the four parts of Molti Nemici Molto Honore a symphony, because that's what they amount to as the themes develop, taking in the aforementioned electronic noise - albeit a variation owing more to Delia Derbyshire and Pierre Schaeffer than to any of the usual suspects - and even bringing in a passage of William Burroughs reading Towers Open Fire without losing the momentum to the fact that almost every other muppet to ever wheel out Burroughs has generally ended up sounding like a complete clown.

As a member of UNIT, I was always impressed by Andy's musical literacy which was such to at least have attracted the attention of serious composers such as James Dillon. Of all the musicians I've ever known, he is possibly the only one capable of pulling together a symphony amounting to something more than just fifty minutes of noises, and incredibly he now appears to have done just that, by some means or other; and it's probably one of the best things he's ever done.


It has come to my attention that Molti Nemici Molto Honore, meaning many enemies, much honour is a slogan derived from Italian Fascism, famously adopted by Ezra Pound and inspiring the title of a song by Death In June. Whilst I like to think I know Andy Martin reasonably well, and so have few doubts as regard to his intention, I feel that aside from anything, this does rather leave me looking like the twat who brought that funny little Von Thronstahl man along to the dinner party and is now discretely circulating amongst guests explaining no, it's okay really, it's just that he doesn't like reggae.  That's all it is. I tend to believe that artists should be judged by their own testimony, and so I can't really speak for UNIT - who just for the sake of clarity, were originally named after something from Doctor Who rather than it being the more neighbourly form of Authoritarian Punishment Unit or whatever - but I should probably at least qualify my interpretation of this unfortunate reference. For starters, it's nothing to do with Death In June whom my client has summarised as a bunch of clowns on a number of occasions, and I suspect it's probably nothing deeper than a phrase he found amusing - there being a certain brutal poetry in the language of totalitarianism - for the same reason we both once spent a good hour or so chuckling over Saddam Hussein's promise of a war which would produce a line of bodies with a beginning, and no end! The Fascist source might be regarded as a bonus in that it's likely to piss some people off, woolly liberal baiting being an act from which Andy Martin has been known to derive some pleasure from time to time. I can see where he's coming from in so far as much of the three or four previous albums were dedicated to the subject of his enemies, specifically previous members of the band - thankfully not including yours truly - and I can see where he's coming from in so far as he was treated very badly by a couple of them and was left justifiably furious. That said, I really wish he'd chosen some other title here. Aside from that I can't see how it relates to the content of the actual CD, I'm not sure its author really appreciates how many of the evil fuckers are now out there taking this sort of association absolutely seriously. Anyway, that's how it looks to me.

I'm not actually sure how you're supposed to get hold of this, but you might try the link to the UNIT website in the left hand column of this page under Some Stuff.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Sleaford Mods - Austerity Dogs (2013)

It seems that in certain quarters there is a generally held view of Sleaford Mods as being the next big thing, perhaps suggested by a recent write-up in Mojo or some magazine of that sort. This seems unusual in so much as somehow I've heard of them prior to the predicted enmassivisation, and that they're fucking great, in contrast to the general trend of the last few hundred next big things being mostly toss, Neutral Milk Hotel for example - Neutral Toss Hotel would have been more like it...

Already the usual suspects are queueing up to forge the definitive summary of the Sleaford Mods sound resembling a fusion of John Cooper-Clarke and the Wu-Tang Clan, which it doesn't; or The Fall, which fails to get any closer, as is usually true of almost every band ever described as sounding like The Fall; or they're punk hop, whatever the fuck that's supposed to be. I'm not sure if anyone has yet suggested Suicide fronted by Pitman on the grounds of blue-collar rude words spat out in an East Midlands accent; or Nocturnal Emissions circa Songs of Love and Revolution mashed up with Skinnyman; or Swans covering Splodgenessabounds because it's an amusing image and not much worse than any other description, but if not, you can have those for free.

Sleaford Mods build songs up from raw loops of what sound like someone's rehearsal tapes captured on a mono-portable cassette player in 1978, and a sort of Tourette's attack of lyrics that really capture the feel of turning up for agency work at a Parcel Force depot at 6AM on a freezing Monday morning only to be told the failed Footballer's Wife from said agency was too busy painting her nails to send your papers through to the gate; and so you're screwed once again. Specifically, Austerity Dogs sounds to me exactly like life in England just before I escaped, at least life for the belching majority who somehow failed to end up in their dream jobs once they left school. Sleaford Mods are not only the opposite of  anything you will ever see on The X-Factor, one voice of the underwaged and supposedly unemployable silent masses against which the British Government has recently declared out and out war, but they're one of those once in a lifetime bands - depending on your definition of what constitutes a band - of such fierce and comic honesty that almost anything stood next to them will inevitably end up seeming affected, ridiculous, and divorced from reality.

The only phone on the road is chlamydia-ridden phlegm stained,
where the fuckers sell processed peas as weed.
It's cold when I look out my window.
Another local pub burned down to the ground.
I hated those fucking Motown nights anyway.
It's Jive Bunny meets Lucy fucking Pinder...
...on ice!
To be honest, Austerity Dogs is so good as to make all efforts to write about it completely pointless - simple, powerful music and brilliant words, and I just can't stop listening to the fucker. As with the cold leftovers of last night's kebab hastily consumed on the way to work in the hope of staving off a hangover, it may not be pretty but it's undeniably nourishing.

Available from Norman Records and probably some other places.