Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Full Blooded - Memorial Day (1998)

Here we are again with some more evidence in support of our thesis quantifying just how badly the No Limit label screwed up at the peak of its success towards the close of the last century. The story, so far as I understand it, runs with No Limit blowing up against all expectations around 1996, shifting shitloads of records on newly minted reputation alone, then assuming this situation would continue indefinitely, the No Limit brand having effectively become a license to print money. I recall the Full Blooded album being relegated to one tiny corner of a two page spread in one of those glossy rap magazines, taking up not even a sixteenth of the advertisement as a whole, more like a thirty-secondth or something. So Memorial Day bombed because apparently its being on the No Limit label wasn't enough to guarantee nationwide sales, and it doesn't seem like it really had a lot of promotion.

Whilst we're here, the inlay of those No Limit discs were always abrim with in-house advertising, specifically promising forthcoming works from upcoming artists for which Pen & Pixel had already done the covers, possibly before the things were even  recorded; and yet so few of them ever dropped so we never got to hear those albums by Short Circuit, Two for One, DIG, QB, Popeye, Porsha, A-Lexxus, Samm, Tank Doggs or any of the the rest; and I always thought this seemed a bit crap - maybe not quite a broken promise, but like the diamond encrusted No Limit sphincter just couldn't cash the cheques its mouth had been writing; or even worse, like somebody somewhere didn't quite have as much confidence in the material as claimed and was terrified of backing anything less than a triple platinum disc. This looked bad - to me at least - because ideally you want a label which gets behind its artists rather than its shareholders, artistically speaking.

I wouldn't ordinarily give a shit, but it nevertheless seems a shame because Memorial Day is a fucking good record, and at least as distinctive as anything by Fiend or Mystikal or any of those other No Limit regulars who might be credited with changing the face of rap by some definition, or part of that face.

Memorial Day lurches into gear with weird swells of strings and nothing quite pinned down to a rhythm as Full Blooded loses it in front of a microphone, rapping with all the desperate menace of the guy in the parking lot who staggers towards you begging a dollar or a cigarette or the fuck whatever you got, man...

It's a dark album, in case that isn't obvious from the cover, and probably dark enough to qualify as gothic in some sense. In fact, fuck it - screw gothic, this is more like the real thing. Gothic may as well be kids in black clothes for whom a crap drawing of a skull and a shitty Neil Gaiman comic will serve as metaphor for the endless torment and pain of your dad expecting you to get a job so he can have his basement back; whereas this is more concerned with surviving day to day whilst trying to avoid being shot at, and with bereavement as a daily event of such crushing familiarity that singing pretty songs about it whilst wearing eyeliner somehow just doesn't seem quite enough. Oddly, whilst Memorial Day is hardly an uplifting album, neither is it entirely in the vein of grunting black metal types, and probably because it's all about surviving under grim circumstances rather than celebrating the details of the same; and this is greatly helped by the music, a dirty, sweaty, sludge of bluesy southern gospel with a few arcade games thrown in.

Wikipedia refers to this guy in past tense which seems a shame as he clearly had a lot to say, and was saying it entirely on his own terms without really sounding like anyone else out there, gruffly cramming those bars into beats with just the rhyme at the end of each line to let you know it was still entertainment, that we were still listening to a compact disc, and we hadn't quite crossed over into real life. Memorial Day may not quite represent some lost and unappreciated masterpiece, but I have trouble comparing it to anything else which has happened since, and it really deserves to be heard.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Andrew Cox - Past Imperfect (2014)

To get the usual disclaimer out of the way, I used to know Andrew Cox fairly well, or at least as well as it was probably possible to know him. Back when I was living in Chatham in Kent, Glenn Wallis of Konstruktivists gave me a large carrier bag full of cassettes which people had sent to him, and the best of these were Vice Versa's eight track demo - a damaged copy as individually stamped upon by an irritable member of Cabaret Voltaire after some show in Sheffield - and Andrew's Methods C60. I had vaguely heard of MFH, the band Andrew formed with his friend David Elliott, as a name from the fanzines, but Andrew Cox himself was unknown to me. Several years later shortly after moving to London, I found that by unlikely coincidence, Andrew Cox and David Elliott lived around the corner and so I introduced myself. Andrew and I became good friends, but he died in 2009 which was incredibly shit, all things considered.

David Elliott's efforts to get the work he recorded with Andrew as both MFH and Pump heard have been commendable, as is this latest release gathering a selection of Andrew's solo work harvested from old tapes, not least because the poor old bugger deserves wider recognition even if it's unfortunately posthumous, and because Andrew recorded some great stuff in his time.

Much of what is gathered here was ground out on primitive equipment, some of it home-made, but is of such quietly inventive composition as to render concerns about sound quality entirely superfluous. It has that stressed quality of those very early instrumental Throbbing Gristle jams with Albrecht D - at least prior to the member of that particular group most resembling Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served? deciding he wanted to be Lou Reed; so Past Imperfect is too abrasive to be considered entirely ambient without being necessarily harsh, or being as limited in terms of mood as anything which might ordinarily be labelled industrial or - God forbid - dark ambient. My friend Carl described this disc as the Forbidden Planet soundtrack as recorded by Nurse With Wound, a comparison which works quite well and which I believe Andrew would have enjoyed. If - I suppose - lacking sophistication in certain respects, this is music which nevertheless could not have been made with more modern digital technology. It's all about getting the most evocative atmospheric effects out of that which is to hand, and in this capacity Andrew worked some real magic.

Lordy - how I miss him.

Available from Forced Nostalgia.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Tears - Here Come The Tears (2005)

Almost regardless of quality of music, I usually experience varying degrees of unease with anything veering too close to nostalgia, specifically anything which sounds a little too much like it's pretending that a day spent twiddling around with state of the art analogue sound synthesisers will conclude with a well deserved pint of Double Diamond and the latest hilarious episode of Mind Your Language on a brand new Grundig colour telly; but then again I have a lot of time for Stereolab who are in essence the krautrock Showaddywaddy, I always preferred the Dukes of Stratosphear to XTC, and so far as I'm concerned Back In Denim is probably one of the greatest debut albums ever recorded.

Accordingly whilst I was very much a fan of Suede at the time, and even to the point of seeing them live more than once, I always had reservations, at least regarding the level of acclaim squirted in their direction. Sure they were good, but I couldn't help wonder whether there might be a subtext to the praise as a nation of geezers in skinny jeans breathed a collective Hurricane Andrew scale sigh of relief to have the guitars and drums and some bloke pretending to be David Bowie back after the wilderness years of homosexual synthesisers and that weird thumpa thumpa rappers' housey music or whatever the fuck that was supposed to be. It was a bit like Roxy Music crossed with the Smiths but without having to hold your nose while Morrissey reads out yet another list of everything which has ever failed to meet up to his exacting standards. Moreover, whilst there were some great songs, and Bernard Butler is clearly a talent, he tends to write arrangements in the sense of Burt Bacharach rather than tunes in the sense of Steve Jones serving up big chunky chords and then burping the word bollocks in your face. Subtract the trimmings and Butler is - at worst - some bloke endlessly noodling away in a guitar shop, which is probably why Coming Up was always my favourite Suede album.

I found this one in a cardboard box outside someone's house in Landells Road in East Dulwich. There were a few books, odds and ends, and a stack of compact discs most of which were decent. Either someone had moved, or been forcibly moved out as a relationship imploded, which if true would be appropriate given Brett Anderson's preferred subject matter - the poetry of the depressing details, unrequited love and discarded rubber Johnnies gathering dust under the bed. As kitchen sink drama, it seems appropriate that the music to which he scores his tales of almost-woe should carry a faint whiff of 1974 or thereabouts, the years during which it had become obvious that there was no bright future ahead, yet with mainstream culture still grinning away in fat day-glo lettering as though there might be; and if that's too wanky a way of putting it, let's just settle for stating that the music really does its job, nostalgic or otherwise.

Having spewn forth from the Butler spigot, Here Come The Tears takes a few plays to do its job. As ever he noodles so much that it's difficult to really latch onto what he's doing until you've given it a few spins, but it's worth it when you get there, and his lack of immediacy should not be confused with predictability. Anderson as ever pushes the lyrical details so far that they border on parody, or would do were it not for the delivery which dares you to laugh at such small, inevitable horrors as the bin bags in which the clothes of a dead partner are left out for collection by the Salvation Army. It's inevitably not so immediate as Coming Up, but still at least as good as anything these two did together as Suede.

So there you have it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

U2 - Zooropa (1993)

Where did the time go? With each passing year, Bongo of U2 becomes ever further removed from that soulful wide-eyed Muppet Baby version of Joy Division which sounded so fresh and so utterly devoid of artifice in 1980, and ever closer to that which John Doran of The Quietus amusingly described as Smaug the Dragon with a mullet and two grand wrap around shades sitting on a giant mountain of gold, dressed like Che Guevara, talking about us and making peace signs any time someone gets out a camera.

More surprising for me has been realisation of the fact that they were never really so amazing as everyone thought they were. A Day Without Me and I Will Follow sounded like the greatest songs ever recorded that time I first heard them on the radio, but for some reason I never bothered to buy the album. The somewhat overwrought but still reasonably convincing Pride (in the Name of Love) was an - ahem - our tune in the Simon Bates tradition for myself and my first ever girlfriend, but then we were both pretty young and our other our tune was Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat, so Lord knows what was going on there.

More recently I found that the song which Bongo's humble Oirish farmhands recorded for some Batman film had become lodged in my head, whatever the hell it was called; so screw it, I thought, and promptly Amazoned me a greatest hits disc. Unfortunately it turned out that U2 have had so many greatest hits as to require two volumes of the same, and I was sent the wrong one. No problem I decided, recalling the passion with which I once loved the three listed above, but listening to the fucker was another story. A Day Without Me, I Will Follow and Pride still sounded okay, but I'd forgotten about the rest, all those exhausting anthems, lonesome prairie-scale epics dedicated to being just a straightforward kind of fellah who, much like the Murphy's, isn't bitter, striving for the grandeur of a Thomas Cole landscape but coming closer in spirit to one of those hokey old west paintings full of noble savages and homespun horseback heroes. Never has anything with such celestial aspirations sounded quite so lard-arsed and stodgy, so lacking in basic nutrients as the never ending and pretty much interchangeable wailing ballads which comprise most of U2's back catalogue. By the time they recorded Rattle and Hum, it had begun to seem like even U2 were sick of it, at least revealing themselves to be a competent rock band once someone had taken away their fucking chorus pedal and told them to stop being such wankers.

I have most of Zooropa nailed into the back of my skull because my girlfriend of the time - not to be confused with the earlier one with whom I shared Pride as an our tune - had the album and played it to death. I didn't mind as it sounded good to me, and in fact it sounded so good that we went to see them live at some massive park in Leeds, a concert which I recall as immensely enjoyable despite costing over a hundred pounds a ticket once we accounted for missed coaches and resulting taxi fares. Weirdly, listening to it now, Zooropa still sounds good. The U2 of Zooropa and Achtung Baby - its predecessor - had apparently tired of being the aural equivalent of a plate of school mashed-potato ten miles in circumference and had asked Brian Eno to help them to be less crap - and I believe those were their actual words. I can't be bothered to verify whether or not this is true, but I seem to recall that as the recording for Achtung Baby began, Eno pointed out that the songs were rubbish and made the boys go away and then come back again after they had written some better ones.

Whether or not they did, Zooropa - and this works just as well for Achtung Baby - is a great album because it's a great Brian Eno album. Listen close and it's not hard to imagine Low-era Bowie singing over some of those tracks, or even Johnny Cash - welcome guest vocalist on the closing number, and known in this house simply as Uncle Johnny on account of Mrs. Wax Cylinders being related to him by marriage.

At the time we all thought U2 had reinvented themselves as Nine Inch Nialls, but the truth emerged as they gradually slid back into flag-waving anthemic landfill mode once Brian Eno took his knob twiddling abilities elsewhere. The clues were there all along, of course, particularly in the somewhat soporific Stay (Faraway, So Close) which no doubt tries to contrast its gentle Thomas Kincadisms with wife-beating lyrics so as to make a barbed point, but just ends up sounding like a paean to the admirable docility of women who stay with abusive partners; which is creepy. Then of course there's the politics trumpeted with all the passion of ten adult male Nelson Mandelas but which, on close inspection, mostly amounts to arguments ending well you can believe what you like but personally I'm against the killing of children. I can understand the logic of Bongo believing himself in a position to effect real change for the best, but standing next to Adolf Hitler with a big grin will only ever serve to make Hitler appear a little more humane, and so his band became the Judas goat by which those they purportedly oppose get to feel just a little better about themselves.

Well, that's how it looks from down here.

Even with this in mind, Zooropa remains a great album, albeit a great Brian Eno album.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Severed Heads - Gigapus (1994)

Much like Australia's flora and fauna, Australia's Severed Heads always seemed to inhabit some peculiar evolutionary tangent to everything else, not least to those artists generally but probably wrongly regarded as their kin through a shared habit of pissing about with drum machines. Formed in the late seventies, even the sarcasm implicit in their name was at least a decade ahead of its time - mocking the likes of Throbbing Gristle and SPK whilst later presenting the delicious contrast of something which may as well have been named after a horror film yielding some of the sweetest pop music you could ever wish to hear.

Seriously, Severed Heads were never merely an interesting band, one of those acts with which you might bulk up a tape of Skinny Puppy and Front 242 for the sake of variety. There was something absolutely vital and fundamental about them. My first Severed Heads record was Rotund For Success picked up at Greenwich market probably only a year or so before Gigapus came out. I'd heard the name and assumed it might be my sort of thing. It so transpired that it was my sort of thing, and within three weeks I'd obsessively tracked down every other record I could find by them.

In search of comparisons, it's a tough job where Severed Heads are concerned. Aside from an obvious lack of boogie-woogie piano, guitar riffage, or a man in silver trousers stood screaming from a podium, they never sounded or felt like any of those other electronic bands, except I suppose bits of Chris & Cosey if you squint a little. They peddled none of the usual drearily industrial fixations, never marched up and down a stage exhorting audience members to work that body, and early Brian Eno albums are the only records I can recall doing anything similar, although the resemblance is nevertheless thin. Leaving aside those weird understated songs which tear out your heart, I guess the clue to the Severed Heads sound was always their pushing forward, creating music some way in advance of its time, notably on the Big Bigot album which you would swear features sampling technology, although apparently most of it was done with tapes and elbow grease.

Gigapus was their last major release prior to Volition Records imploding, and with subsequent albums appearing as CDrs direct from the band - an inauspicious tail end to the story one might suspect, although it should probably be noted that even this was ahead of the trend, or at least ahead of persons such as myself developing the expectation of CDr only albums usually being shit. Gigapus sounds odd to me in so much as it seems to represent technology having finally caught up with the band's ambition, all of these sounds being tailored digitally rather than through sleepless nights of messing about with tapes and effects boxes. Nevertheless, Gigapus still avoids sounding quite like anyone else using the same clobber. It doesn't hold together quite so well as Rotund For Success, not least because the instrumental tracks are in the majority, but neither is it the disappointing last real album I feared. In fact, it's hard to believe that Gigapus was recorded two decades ago. At the risk of committing hyperbole, Severed Heads really were one of the greatest bands of all time, and even this - not quite one of their greats - serves as further evidence of the fact.