Thursday, 26 March 2015

Blur - Think Tank (2003)

I never really understood that whole Blur versus Oasis thing. It seemed sort of akin to Roxy Music versus Showaddywaddy, or the Sex Pistols versus Racey, or even Cab Calloway versus the 1972 US presidential campaign; I mean did Oasis even really count as a band by the same terms? There was at one point this peculiar idea of Oasis being somehow more real, more authentic and therefore soulful by virtue of working class roots in comparison to Blur being all fancy and thinking they're lush and better than everyone else with their fancy foreign hats and weird Vesta curries, which in turn translates to thick and a bit shirty as a signifier of the genuinely working class, which is actually more of a middle or upper class characterisation, the incorrect assumption that working class equates to a bit dim.

Anyway, I always liked Blur, so I nabbed this when I saw it in a box of CDs someone had chucked out and left on a wall in Landells Road. I hadn't really kept up with the band, having been a little put off by the Gorillaz whom I always hated, as I tend to hate anything involving Jamie Hewlett.

Graham Coxon wasn't on this one due to having become quite fond of the pints or something along those lines, which is a shame, as it does sort of sound like something was missing from the formula, and that the something was probably himself. Think Tank is eclectic and experimental, although Blur were always keen to try out new things, but as a whole it has ended up sounding like an album of all the embellishments and electro-acoustic hundreds and thousands one might sprinkle over a track to give it that special flavour, lacking only the actual songs which were presumably still in a carrier bag on the kitchen table. It has the dynamic of Beck's Mellow Gold without taking off in quite the same way because it doesn't really find its identity, and in places it feels oddly forced and what with all the self-conscious glitchy laptop bollocks, you half expect it to break out into drum and bass; and the involvement of Banksy additionally casts a certain aroma of Nathan Barley over the proceedings.

Despite this, Think Tank makes for fine listening in terms of affording an appreciation of the patently considerable talents of those involved, but it is surely as significant that I've played the fucker three times today and I still can't remember the first thing about any of it. It's better than Oasis, but then so are every other group who ever entered a recording studio with the possible exception of the Electric Light Orchestra. Blur are apparently back together and have a new one out soon. I just hope this back together encompasses Graham Coxon and that he brings a few tunes with him.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Sigue Sigue Sputnik - The F1rst Generation / 2econd Edition (1997)

Number are also letters! Yay!

I seem to recall that I first encountered Sigue Sigue Sputnik as we were all sat around the telly watching The Tube or one of those shows. We all watched in bemused silence, and then Martyn Smith sneered, 'did I hear someone say Toxteth?' Toxteth was a song by Churchill's Shoe, a band featuring my friend Carl on vocals. The joke was that Carl had a ton of dyed hair and Sigue Sigue Sputnik were therefore just the sort of hopeless crap that he would listen to.

What a loser.

Ha ha!

A month or so later we were at some party and Love Missile F1-11 was playing. It took me a moment to recognise it. I didn't wish to appear too knowledgeable just in case anyone took the piss out of me for liking that which was quite obviously hairdresser's music. 'Is this what I think it is?'

'It's Sigue Sigue Sputnik,' said Steve McGarrigle.

'Oh,' I said. 'They were on the telly.'

'I didn't see that but I bought the single,' he laughed without a trace of shame.

Peculiarly, my friend Carl ended up designing a few of Sigue Sigue Sputnik's record sleeves, including this one. Martyn Smith on the other hand became known, I suppose, as the guy who drew Bastard Bunny, a violent dope-smoking skinhead rabbit - if you can imagine that - and the guy who drew the version of Bastard Bunny which achieved the not inconsiderable feat of having significantly less charm that it's earlier more badly drawn incarnation. He'd never liked Carl, and was probably still stinging from some observation on the general uselessness of Camden-based lifeforms sat on their arses all day smoking dope and listening to Pink Floyd, or whatever shite NME was pushing as the new thing that week.

Anyway, needless to say I bought the singles and the albums as they appeared, and I said oooh and so on when Carl told me about Tony James dropping in to pass comment on some record cover or other. Tony James is a very nice man, apparently.

Many years later I find The F1rst Generation as I trawl the racks of CD & DVD Exchange in San Antonio, Texas. 'Look,' I say to my wife, 'here's another one for which Carl did the cover,' because I am myself still slightly astonished by the fact, and that the thing should have turned up here, and how small the world now seems. I buy it of course, because it's Carl's cover and I have a vague memory of hearing a promotional cassette of early Sigue Sigue Sputnik demos which sounded like some band playing in a village hall, with real drums and everything.

Well, whatever those tracks were, they aren't here, these being proper studio demos. The problem is, I suppose, similar to that of certain electronic bands doing live albums lacking the rough edges, noodling and screw-ups which tend to make live albums interesting. This material is so similar to that which ended up on Flaunt It! as to make very little difference.

Bum ching bum ching - video camera spacecraft heroin ladyboy - bum ching - Duane Eddy riff, and then Tony James twiddling the knob on his digital delay for five minutes...

Sigue Sigue Sputnik were never really about songs as such, so Martin Degville's contribution is more or less singing lists of things which sounded futuristic in 1987 or whenever it was, which tends to preclude anything devastatingly unusual emerging from this lot. Of course, they were basically Suicide garnished with a bit of T-Rex, more about general impression than anything musical in the traditional and potentially self-important sense, which was also what made them exciting during those first fifteen minutes. They were named after a Moscow street gang because the original Sex Pistols had been a New York gang, but despite the undisputed genius of the man who brought us the excellent Dancing With Myself, quickly devolved into a band seemingly gathered on the premise of Sid Vicious having been the most pivotal Sex Pistol. I'm not even sure why this should be, although I suppose the self-conscious futurism was doomed to get old pretty quick as such things always tend to. I suppose it could have been the presence of Martin Degville, seemingly the living embodiment of whatever point Martyn Smith had been trying to make, a man whose charisma and raw talent might best be summarised by the fact that I was once able to reduce Carl to speechless hysterics by using the words Martin Degville solo album in a sentence, and his laughter set me off, and we ended up rolling around on the floor breathless with hilarity for the next thirty minutes.

Martin Degville solo album - just think about it.

From what I can tell, my friend Daphne seems to view Sigue Sigue Sputnik as a parody of capitalism, satirical through being pushed to an extreme. I can see what she means, but I've a feeling her interpretation credits the band with more conscious purpose than is probably their due; and this really was supposed to be just a big, loud, crass, uptempo noise in an era without a whole lot of anything to inspire good cheer, and it dated so fast because it wasn't designed to do anything else. Surprisingly, for all its flaws, the enthusiasm remains fresh and so this is actually a very listenable collection in spite of itself; and it's bloody stupid of course, but bloody stupid in a good way. I just wish they could have found someone a bit less knob-esque to handle the vocals.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Dayton Family - What's On My Mind? (1995)

When my music tastes began to expand in such a way roughly amounting to my switching to rap to the exclusion of everything else for more or less a decade, it didn't take me too long to work out that there wasn't much point paying attention to anything said in Melody Maker or other music papers catering to fans of Oasis and Primal Scream. The good stuff, whatever form it might take, probably wasn't going to be the sort of thing which would appeal to someone fancying a change of tone from a steady diet of Jarvis Cocker and that bloke who wrote the Father Ted theme tune. Happily both Tower Records and Maestro in Peckham carried issues of Murder Dog, an American import covering the sort of thing which had drawn my interest, and that was where I first heard of the Dayton Family, amongst other regional acts failing to make significant inroads into the fanbase of  Thousand Yard Stare.

Lacking an internet, I was obliged to buy my music from shops in the form of round things, which placed certain limits on what I could get hold of; so when this turned up in the racks of Rat Records in Camberwell, before I'd even got to the third syllable of holy shit I'd already bought the thing; and I was not disappointed.

The Dayton Family were named after Dayton Avenue in the city of Flint, Michigan, one of those urban strips concerning which the first ten Google hits will be posts on forums advising you against going there under any circumstances. Needless to say, whilst many of the tracks on this album describe life on Dayton Avenue, not many are likely to end up as soundtrack to television commercials for real estate or urban development. This is because the Dayton Family are, it could be argued, fucking terrifying.

It may not surprise you to learn that the album is probably not for you if you dislike sex, violence, or swearing as themes, because specifically What's On My Mind? speaks principally to other folks living on either the same street or one of equivalent shittiness. In case the usual disclaimer is necessary, it's an amoral glorification of everything you might be scared of in the same way that an episode of The Wire constitutes an inspirational testament to the economic benefits of investment in the crack industry. As may be obvious, this is some angry shit, gangsta for sure, and yet it steers a path between the righteous moral fortitude of Public Enemy and the fully ign'ant fury of NWA. In fact, once you take the beats into account, you may notice that What's On My Mind? is very much its own thing.

Steve Pitts production is hard and sharp, uncluttered and thus leaving plenty of room for bluesy stabs of electric piano kept in line by the relentless pulse of tinny drum machines underpinned with a ton of bass. It has an oddly organic feel for something so mercilessly programmed, even on those few basic tracks which could almost have sprung from a couple of Roland boxes rigged together. It would be g-funk but for hints at some sort of gangstafied version of the theme from Mission: Impossible.

Of course, what makes the album are the Dayton Family themselves, three angry guys and not a weak link between them, all shouting a variation on the same machine gun delivery, hardly a pause for breath and not a syllable left unused; and all this hitting you in the face for about an hour, as exhausting and exhilarating as running from the cops - probably - if you've ever had to do that sort of thing, and obviously I haven't. Lyrically they may not be big on acrobatics but the power of the stories is overwhelming:

A lot is on my mind, there's a lot of pressure pressing me.
America and it's system, I figure that they testing me.
I fall and catch myself, falling in my wisdom,
Daddies raping daughters and having sex with them,
My mother's turning tricks, and I'm no keener I know,
My sister had a baby and she's eating off the floor.
I'm going through a thang.
My mind's about to crack.
Somebody took my sack.
I gots to take it back.

See? If you can't tell the difference between that and 50 Cent talking about what a great party he just went to and how they had cake and everything, then you're an idiot. The ancestry of What's On My Mind? may not be obvious within the first couple of listens, but it's nevertheless your basic hard, grinding blues in response to the modern equivalent of whatever was pissing off those guys way back whenever, stories which really need to be told rather than lifestyle advice, and this is a classic album of its kind. Those who would disagree are doubtless welcome to pop over to Dayton Avenue, Flint, and take it up with someone there.

Yeah - I didn't think so.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Peter Hope & the Exploding Mind - Hot Crow on the Wrong Hand Side (2015)

Older readers may recall Peter Hope as the tonsils of the Box, one of Sheffield's numerous finest, and this came my way specifically due to my having written about The Box @Doublevision a few months back, which is nice, and very much a trend I am keen to encourage.

Peter Hope seems to have become the living embodiment of the Def Jux independent as fuck maxim and presently runs the Wrong Revolution label, purveyors of all sorts or noisy oddities, discs, tape cassettes, and whatever the hell else they feel like doing at any given moment. His seemingly frenzied activity somehow presents the impression of some grizzled Beefheartian outsider living in a van by the river and scaring the shit out of anyone foolish enough to be out walking their dog at that time of night, which is almost certainly wrong, but that's nevertheless the impression I've formed and Hot Crow on the Wrong Hand Side does nothing to dispel it.

It begins well with Red C, a sort of Suicide-style grind scored for mains hum and antique drum machine; which runs into Hot Crow which sounds like it began life inside the dashboard of some LA lowrider driven by a bald, angry guy with his beard knotted into a gang sign - or more specifically we go from Alan Vega to a sort of distorted Lench Mob in the blink of an eye, and from thereon the swerves continue in similarly random and dramatic fashion. Oh Death is the next track, roughly a descent into gut-wrenching delta blues for Casio VL-1 played with hammers, and here is revealed the key to Hope's appeal, namely that he has a seriously great voice. I'm not sure about range or the technical stuff, but he really can sing, and as such probably qualifies as one of the few people whose music has ever been spuriously qualified as industrial about which this can be said; or can at least be said if we're working with the assumption that Bowie can sing. That said, any resemblance to Bowie's sausagery is defeated by their being significantly less room for parody. On the other hand, maybe I was thinking of Lux Interior...

This is an odd album, and nothing like I anticipated. It sounds quite basic whilst obviously being born from some sort of laptoppy sampley thing, cubase running on a computer cannibalised from reconditioned 1970s Grundig tape recorders springs to mind if that isn't disappearing a bit too far up my own journalistic sphincter; or, it could just as easily have been mastered on cassette, if you prefer, and this isn't invoked as necessarily a bad thing. Unlike certain laptop glitch bores whose names I've thankfully forgotten, this is just enough of a mess to keep it interesting each time you listen, distorted without turning everything into a Ramleh album, and not quite like anything else I've heard for a good few years, a surprisingly funky racket.