Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sleaford Mods - Retweeted (2014)

When I first heard Mr. Jolly Fucker by Sleaford Mods I felt compelled to seek out more, so startled was I by the sound - so basic, so exciting, and so face-punchingly angry. Within a couple of hours of poking around on YouTube, I knew I needed to get my hands on every last squeak and fart ever recorded by this group. It was therefore a bit disappointing to realise they - or he if you insist - had already pooped out at least four albums of material that I would probably never get to hear, despite this being the age of everything that ever existed becoming available once again. I used to be so good at this sort of thing, knowing what was out there and what was what, as a stack of early Foetus singles and Unkommuniti tapes are my witness.

Retweeted, collecting the best of that early stuff, was therefore well worth the wait, and well worth the additional wait of my having to buy an amplifier and record player so I could play the thing.

I can sort of see why the band - now that there's definitely two of them - seem to have drawn a line between this - mostly Jason Williamson and others - and Austerity Dogs onwards with Andrew Fearne pushing the buttons. It's hard to tell quite what the difference is, but there definitely is one. I never quite got those Wu-Tang references mixed up with all the other efforts of everyone scrabbling to describe the band - Crass meets John Cooper Clarke, Roy Castle fronting the Fall, Swans covering Splodgenessabounds... but anyway, I can see it here, or at least I can see Sleaford Mods as more or less an English Mobb Deep - as has been mentioned in some interview or other. Even without the occasional NWA reference or Illmatic sample, it's that same sensation of taking a piss in an alley behind the kebab shop and it's raining, and you're stood in a puddle with shit shoes and wet feet...

Where the hell was I?

Much of Retweeted sounds even angrier than the recent material, at least to me, although it could be the punk rock samples, loops from various Pistols and Alternative TV records evoking certain associations with punch-ups and a surfeit of crap lager. The slightly annoying thing is that I realise I was trying to do this myself a few years ago, right down to looping Pretty Vacant in an attempt to spin my own yappy yarns of minimum wage misery with some sort of local underpinning; but not too annoying, given that the stuff on this record does it about twenty times better than I ever managed, and without trying quite so hard; and in case it needs stating, the lyrics were brilliant even back then, terrible, hilarious, and strong enough to strip the paint off most walls. The more I listen to Sleaford Mods, the more I notice how bad so much music has been for at least the last couple of decades. I suppose, if you want to get snippy, this is just some fat old codger praising music which kindly references Ronnie Biggs' Biggest Blow and other crap left laying around by my generation, and I should probably be listening to Skrillex or Neutral Milk Hotel or fucking Ha Ha Tonka - which really is the name of some band; but bollocks - simply being an old cunt with a long memory doesn't necessarily render one's experience any less valid or even vital than that of a twenty-year old told to wait another two decades before forming an opinion. So maybe this is old people's music because teenagers spend their money on ringtones of autotuned Pokémon themes rather than Sleaford Mods, but so what, and does it really matter?

Jason Williamson's sleeve notes state that he isn't particularly proud of these old tracks, which I can sort of understand, although he probably should be, not least once you consider the competition. Retweeted remains a genuine racket, a real joyful noise, and it does what music was always supposed to do, and which not much of it has been doing for a while.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Three-6-Mafia - Mystic Stylez (1995)

Some years ago I happened upon a day time chat show in which one of those Jesusy evangelical backmasking obsessives confronted the lead singer of Venom - or possibly some other Venom personage.

'You record backwards subliminal messages on your records in order to warp young minds and turn them to Satan,' he blustered, apparently believing he'd just exposed the truth of a major conspiracy.

'Yes,' the Venom bloke agreed helpfully. 'Yes, we do!'

Three-6-Mafia seem to be coming from that same place, or at least they were in 1995, which I notice is now, rather terrifyingly, as long ago as was Jailhouse Rock when I myself first started listening to music. Anyway, whatever terrible claim you may have heard of that there rapper's music, Three-6-Mafia do that shit with brass knobs on and a big fuckin' smile on their faces; or, they used to. I'm not sure quite what they're up to these days as I drifted away when Gangsta Boo jumped the increasingly blingy ship. What recent stuff I've heard has a bit more of a club vibe, all squeaky synths, crunk juice and riding spinners. It's okay in so much as it does it's job, but I much prefer their earlier, more conspicuously evil incarnation.

Mystic Stylez was recorded back when the cost of those ice-grill vampire fangs imposed a fairly low budget on the recording of this, their first and best album. At least that's how it appears - gas-powered samplers creaking away, cracked casings, masking tape, distorted effects through what sounds like a vintage spring line reverb, and an album that may originally have been issued as a series of 78s, judging by the sound quality. It's the same basic griminess which is always attributed to the Wu-Tang Clan, but Three-6-Mafia did it better, underpinning the whole with a bass so deep that most of the time it's a feeling rather than notes; and compositionally it's nothing like the music of those Staten Island kung fu obsessives. Agonisingly slow beats invoke the more pants-wettingly terrifying John Carpenter soundtracks, contrasting with the staccato flow of triple time galloping raps wherein Juicy J and the gang do their best to scare the living shit out of you; and they succeed with a vertigo inducing sound akin to being knifed through a cough syrup haze. The science, so to speak, may not be lyrical by the terms of J-Live or related worthies, but it's exactly as lyrical as it needs to be.

Just to bang on about this one for the umpteenth time, the most misunderstood aspect of this kind of rap is not so much that it encourages or glorifies violence, that it's sexist or homophobic, or that it's lacking in redemptive qualities; the most misunderstood aspect is that it necessarily requires either the approval or endorsement of anyone still getting misty eyed over the era of De La Soul and socially responsible messages heard over a coffee shop tannoy system. This reduces to the notion that rap by definition must do only one thing, subject to the approval of people who don't actually like much rap when it comes down to it. Three-6-Mafia were always more Eazy E than anything else, with that same amoral glee taken in whatever it is that will piss you off the most; and because not only are these records done for themselves, for their friends, and for anyone else who wants to hear them - as opposed to anthems of moral guidance for the greater good of humanity - but because, sometimes smash it up is as legitimate an argument as anything with more syllables and a friendlier smile. So not only do they commit all the supposed cardinal sins as defined by rap's most vocal critics, but they added a few of their own on this album, Venom-style showbiz Satanism and cannibalism to name but two. In any other genre, this may have come across as faintly ridiculous, but here it not only works, but it's fucking chilling - an hour or so of cold funky sweats and adrenaline rushes which place the listener directly at the centre of the robbery, the street shooting, and the raw terror; and if you really need it to, yes - at least some of this can be considered a metaphor for the horror film of daily existence in one of the more frequently shat upon demographics.

As I've almost certainly said elsewhere, Mystic Stylez is why I find it difficult to take all those power electronics clowns seriously. It's not so much that Three-6-Mafia necessarily ever did any of the stuff described here for real, but they're almost certainly closer to some of it than William Bennett or even Michael Gira ever were, and they're not stood in an art gallery handing out tastefully shocking limited edition prints of it. Mystic Stylez sounds like no other album ever recorded, even in the context of the Three-6-Mafia's own catalogue. It's probably one of the darkest records ever made, and possibly one of the finest; and Break Da Law is still the greatest inducement to the dispensation of good old fashioned pissed-off get back since Straight Outta Compton.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Expandobrain - Mother of God! It's Expandobrain! (1986)

Here's a bit of an oddity, I suppose. Amongst a few tracks I taped off a John Peel show broadcast sometime in 1987 was Thyroid by Expandobrain. Peel didn't seem to know much about them, and I never heard their name again, which seemed a shame because Thyroid is a face-punchingly great song. Many centuries later I live in America and have somehow survived for three years without a turntable - or record player as is the correct terminology - due to the complications of stuffing my entire life into boxes and shipping it to another country; but now, at last I am fully equipped and once more spinning the living shit out of my beloved vinyl collection, and someone has invented the internet since I last considered Expandobrain. Sadly it transpires that they really were as obscure as I imagined, so there's not a lot out there, although I now at least have a means of getting hold of the album from which Peel played a few tracks. It's taken one hell of a long time, but it's been worth the wait.

I can't even remember what else was going on back in 1986 when this was recorded, and certainly not in terms of Americans with guitars. I was only ever an infrequent listener to John Peel's show, and I never really liked Sonic Youth, and I'm not sure I've ever actually heard any Hüsker Dü. The cover - very much resembling something scribbled on the back of an exercise book at school - namechecks Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Live Skull, Swans, and Moving Targets, regarding which I've heard one Meat Puppets track and have a stack of Swans albums which sound nothing like this. I suppose Dinosaur Jr. - another band to which I've never really taken - were around by then. I don't know where Expandobrain fitted in, but I suppose it doesn't matter.

I was anticipating Thyroid and a load of tragic b-sides, partially based on how good an album is likely to be when you've waited this long to hear it, but incredibly this one turns out to be good right through to the last track. Expandobrain - actually Expando Brain which looks wrong to me because I've thought of the name as a single word for nearly three decades - were your basic guitar, bass and drums in some guy's garage, fast and punky but tuneful, the sort of thing that Steve Albini might have ended up producing had they lasted, although for all the twangy angst and pounding tension, there's something wonderfully upbeat in here - reminding me a hell of a lot of the more recent Parquet Courts, maybe some sort of happy medium between the Monkees and a less wanky Sonic Youth with a touch of an angrier, more sarcastic REM before they became an international chemical processing franchise.

I don't know. The review is in there somewhere. Just pick out the bits you like. As I already said, Mother of God! has been worth the wait, and as a lost or potentially forgotten gem - which it really, really is - you might be advised to hunt it down now before obscurity and collector mania pushes the price up through the roof.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Fleapit - Music from the Ditch (2002)

It seems strange to consider that I almost sent this one back to Amazon when I first heard it, such was the gap between my expectation and what I found on the disc. Fleapit had turned up in some issue of Hip Hop Connection, three fat red-faced Welsh farmhands in wellies conducting their interview from a caravan in a muddy field over a game of Scrabble which allowed for words like bollocks and pissflaps. There was something compellingly crappy about them, and I just had to hear what they sounded like. The surprise was - I suppose - that on first listen, they just weren't quite so weird or disgusting as anticipated, and the wonderfully named Junior Disprol rapped with that general urban twang that everyone seemed to have at the time, sort of like Tim Westwood but less annoying. I'd probably expected him to sound like Jethro, so it felt as though I had been diddled.

Thankfully I never got around to returning the disc, having finally understood that there's no such thing as too many records, CDs or whatever - excepting those records of Nick Cave hooting and hollering about Jesus while some bloke rattles a broom handle around inside a dustbin. If you get rid of them, one day you will miss them, I realised, and so I knuckled down and renewed my efforts to get to grips with Fleapit.

Gradually I came to appreciate that Music from the Ditch is actually fairly close to what I expected, just not in the execution. It dates from that period before grime really took off, when UK rap was really beginning to develop its own sound, divorced from everything sounding like DJ Premier with Small Faces samples. Secondson - who pulled these tracks together and I gather may later have had some association with the similarly Welsh Goldie Lookin Chain yoots - really nailed it here, bringing his own sound to the table with a nice clean mix of skipping, head bobbing beats, lush orchestral flourishes from sixties cinema, and all sorts of details from 1970s schools programmes, Tales of the Riverbank, material washed up during a youth misspent by means similar to my own. I think it was also the clarity of the mix which threw me off. I'd been expecting something with a faint trace of rotten eggs about it.

The tone is set from the start with the brilliantly horrible opener of Ma! He's Making Eyes At Me picked out on a drunken guitar in an empty village hall, evoking horrors at least as shabby as anything Jimmy Savile ever committed in public, and from there the album sinks ever further into a polysyllabic morass of bewildering references to He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, regrettable sexual encounters, and how it feels to have Stephen Hawking call you a fucking twat.

On reflection, I'm glad Music from the Ditch doesn't sound anything like their publicity promised which, practically speaking, would have been somewhere between Goldie Lookin Chain and the Wurzels. This, on the other hand, is better because it rocks like a bastard, and takes itself seriously enough to eschew crowd pleasing rustic chuckles, so the reward is all the greater in the long run.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (1973)

Arguing against the sort of cultural relativism by which an episode of  She-Ra: Princess of Power may be considered equal to anything ever committed to celluloid by Stanley Kubrick, my mother suggested that for any sentiment or observation one may care to share, there will be better and worse ways by which to express it, and in certain cases, a single optimum way. She used this argument to support her belief that certain ideas discussed in Shakespeare cannot be found discussed with such eloquence anywhere else and thus represent the highest form of the art regardless of whether or not you happen to like Shakespeare. Having finally recovered from deep feelings of inadequacy inspired by what such a system of values may say about my beloved collection of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic DVDs, I have come to realise that she's probably right. This, I would suggest, means that For Your Pleasure really is one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded, and if not the greatest then it's at least top two - the other one being either 8-Way Santa or Infrared Riding Hood - never could quite decide between those two.

I know the fucker's now over forty years old, but it still has the sharp edge of something recorded yesterday, possibly through Roxy Music having sort of stepped sideways and removed themselves from anything that could be identified as a rock continuum. They were of course lumped in with glam rock - some might say epitomised the form - but I never could quite square what they did with all those Double Diamond guzzling bricklayers wearing their birds' green eye-shadow and burping woah woah woah I'm back on Top of the Pops. Roxy Music felt more like pop art, but pop art done properly with style and attention to detail, as differentiated from all that commodified crap Andy Warhol used to splash around with all the choreography of a chimp's tea party. Style, yes - there was some sort of art deco thing going on here; not so much style over content as style as content. Listen closely and most of the tracks on For Your Pleasure resemble compositions more than songs in the traditional sense, particularly the extended freak outs vaguely invoking Pink Floyd indulgence but sharper and colder in form, more like the work of Neu or Faust or one of the German groups. Probably more than anyone who came before, Roxy Music were making art, something a million miles from the sweaty boozepit in which all the usual old hairies were trudging out their fuzz-metal version of Robert Johnson. Some of it sounds so mannered that it made even David Bowie at his most cross-eyed sound like Lieutenant Pigeon. This was the opposite of ELO.

I dislike the cultural retrofetishisation of the 1970s not least because it keeps bringing back the turds it took us a whole fucking decade to mash around the s-bend with a sink splodger. It giggles and expects us to listen to the Rubettes on the grounds of it being funny how they all wore those matching suits and caps, and it washes over just how different Roxy Music were to everything else at the time; and that without them - even more so than Bowie - there would have been no Adam & the Ants, Siouxsie & the Banshees, any of that angular postpunk racket, cold wave or whatever the boutique collectors' labels are calling it this month.

For Your Pleasure is as good as it will ever get.