Thursday, 28 January 2016

Bourbonese Qualk - 1983-1987 (2014)

It seems strange that I should only ever have knowingly heard one piece of music by Bourbonese Qualk prior to this - something on some compilation or other, a track I can barely remember beyond that it incorporated a loop of someone saying the name of the band. It seems strange because I knew of them well enough to have a couple of their more artistic flyers blu-tacked to my bedroom wall when I was a kid, Recloose Organisation advertising which had come in the mail with someone else's tape, and yet somehow I never got around to actually picking up an album to see what it sounded like. It also seems strange that around the time I was sticking their publicity material to my wall in an effort to impress on my parents that I was weird and yet immensely discerning, Bourbonese Qualk would have been living in the same Camberwell squat as a girl with whom I was eventually romantically entangled. She mentioned having once been acquainted with Steve Tanza of the band. She may even have powdered his nuts for all I know.

Additionally there is my friend and former bandmate Andy who helped run a venue called the Recession Club somewhere in Hackney back in the eighties, and who recalls putting Bourbonese Qualk on with some rancour, claiming they behaved like spoilt rock stars, or words to that effect, although it may have been self-important public school boys - one of those anyway.

Anyway, whilst there have been many occasions of my passing over a Bourbonese Qualk release in order to purchase the work of a recording artist with whom I am better acquainted, it's a different story in the San Antonio branch of CD Exchange where a Bourbonese Qualk disc cannot fail to stand out amongst the oeuvre of Brownsville Station, Michael Bolton, and every album Pat Benatar ever recorded.

I always imagined they would sound more like the Residents for some reason - probably the silly name - or else that they would sound formless and abstract by terms far beyond my powers of prediction, or at least not industrial, which thankfully they aren't. More surprising than anything is that they remind me fairly heavily of Rough Trade era Cabaret Voltaire with touches of 23 Skidoo or even Portion Control; which isn't to say that they lack originality so much as that this material quite clearly belonged to a particular era - distorted vocals, wailing reverb, and a rhythm through digital delay with the repeat time way down and the feedback up high. Had they signed to Factory Records, I don't think anyone would have been too surprised.

This may not seem like much of a recommendation but context is everything, not least when you consider what else was around during the eighties, not least Pat Benatar. Bourbonese Qualk may have trodden a vaguely familiar path but you can still hear them pushing it, trying to break out of the familiar, striving to bring new sounds to the fore, to communicate something; and to be fair, on the strength of this collection, they made a better job of it than Portion Control for the most part; and the more I listen to this one, the more I notice how greatly it differs from that to which it seemed initially quite similar.

As I've said before, better late than never, I guess.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Above the Law - Time Will Reveal (1996)

This one got me through some tough times. The most recent of these has been Christmas, which was okay in some respects - I mean probably better here than it has been in Syria - but nevertheless a pain in the ass by my terms, and at least sufficiently annoying as to inspire two paragraphs of whining which I've deleted because you probably wouldn't have found them that interesting. To get to the point, my ire was at least of such quality as to demand something to drown out the sound of stupidity as I worked on pulling Christmas dinner together, and Time Will Reveal seemed like a good choice because it's kind of uplifting whilst simultaneously being the hardest album of all time, it could be argued.

Whilst I'm proposing candidates for the most something ever, Time Will Reveal is probably also the greatest rap album of all time, or at least it sounds that way if you're me. There are undoubtedly other albums which are more lyrical or with a higher quota of drive-by shootings, but none of those albums are Time Will Reveal. Of course, this one has an unfair advantage in being the work of Above the Law who may as well be considered as being in a field of their own, particularly in rap terms - one fandabidozi album after another, and not one filler track to be heard. At least some of this is down to Cold 187um or Big Hutch or whichever name he's going by at the moment, not just a fine lyricist but the man behind the music of Above the Law and as such possibly the most underrated rap producer there's been. Cold 187um brought the p-funk to rap at least as early as Dr. Dre's better popularised efforts, but stuck at it, taking it somewhere completely original by the time we got to this one, Above the Law's fourth album. Time Will Reveal is cinematic rap at the widest stretch of it's metaphorical screen, with all the warmth and soul of one of Prince's better efforts but without the clutter or the sense of trying far too hard, or even working up too much of a sweat.

It just kind of slides past, cool and vaguely jazzy, and with just the right balance of terrifying. It doesn't sound like anything squeezed out of electronic boxes or written upon a screen. It's expressive and yet neither does it commit the sin of either muso or whole food tedium. It's very much its own animal, its own unique mood with combinations of bass and melody which might not be found in nature and nevertheless prove to be a perfect fit when brought together here; and once these strange silky hooks get into your skin, there's no getting free.

I get the impression that certain industry types hoped Above the Law would duplicate the success of NWA, which probably wasn't an unreasonable expectation given the influence each had on the other - most definitely a two way thing it should be noted. It never really quite happened, despite the relative success of Black Superman, but that's probably due more to public taste than the music. Time Will Reveal was the first album for Tommy Boy, and it tangibly sounds like they really went for it, working hard to make the best record they could come up with, perhaps as a fresh start after Ruthless fell apart. It's a pisser that it wasn't the massive hit it deserved to be, supposedly thanks to lack of promotion on the part of Tommy Boy, but it's probably a testament to the quality of this band that even Legends - the next album for Tommy Boy, apparently recorded in a hurry as a combined fuck you and fulfilment of contractual obligation - even Legends sounds better than the best of most other rap acts.

Time Will Reveal is cinematic rap at its finest, and cinematic because if you're going to share stories this dark, you may as well do it properly; but as with the finest blues, soul, or whatever else, there's something cathartic in the terror, even something redemptive. Actually, fuck it -  Time Will Reveal really is the greatest rap album of all time. You're welcome.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Spiro - Pole Star (1997)

Back in the days of me yoot when I was just a boy pushing me bike up the hills of Shipston on me way to buy us a Hovis, I responded to an advertisement in WHY, the local listings rag. I'd been recording my own music, or at least my own noises, and some guy was selling a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder from what I could tell, one of the proper TEAC jobs. Weirdly, the seller turned out to be someone living in Shipston, and weirder still the address was a house to which I delivered a daily newspaper on my paper round. The person selling the tape recorder, whom I hadn't actually met despite delivering his newspaper each morning, was Jon Hunt, a boy a couple of years older than myself. I later realised he was probably the closest thing Shipston had to celebrity*, being the man behind the Ideal Husbands, a local band which had released a single called Town Planning. I think it had been played on Peel's show, possibly.

Anyway, I wasn't aware of any of this as Jon showed me the tape recorder and I realised I would need to save my combined pocket money and paper round wages for about a billion weeks in order to afford it. I told him as much and so instead he sold me a cassette tape of his songs, not the Ideal Husbands but a solo work entitled Who is the Captain of this Ship?

I was initially phased by the tape including a cover of Chim Chim Cher-ee from Mary Poppins, and not even an amusingly punky cover with sneering and references to doing a poo down the chimney stack but not really caring about it. In fact the music was quite unlike almost everything else I was listening to in whichever year that was, being both gentle and generous in spirit, well played, and it didn't seem like it had anything to prove. I might have likened it to a less angst-ridden The The had I known of Matt Johnson at the time.

A year or two later Jon had Who is the Captain of this Ship? pressed up as a vinyl album, opting to hand produce the sleeve by means of silk screen for whatever reason. The design had seven colours, each of which had to be printed individually on every cover before we could add the next colour; and I can't remember exactly how many copies he'd had pressed, but it wasn't less than five-hundred. It was a lot of work. He drafted five or six of us in to help, and so we spent a couple of days as a human production line at the local art college turning out cover after cover. Annoyingly this was at the end of the college year, so I somehow never got my complimentary copy of the finished record with the hand-printed sleeve; then against all odds I found one a couple of years later in a junk shop in a village way over on the other side of the country.

To at last get to the point, I always wondered what became of Jon Hunt. Given the quality of his album and the fact that it really didn't sound like the work of someone who was just pissing about, it didn't really seem too likely that he would have packed it all in to become a floorlayer; and my unvoiced question found an answer when somebody invented the internet. He moved to Bristol and joined this bunch, and this was their first album as Spiro.

I would say it's folk music, except the more I listen, the less such labels seem to fit; which I suppose is handy because I've never been quite sure where I stand with folk music. Certainly I dislike anything overly twee, or in which chartered accountants pretend to be eighteenth century crofters and tailor their speech patterns accordingly so as to encompass sentences such as I did see a maiden fair, because the verb to see had no past tense until Nikola Tesla invented the word saw in 1941; and I've never really given much of a shit about real ale; and I might read The Lord of the Rings again at some point, but it's by no means certain; and neofolk can folk right off and take its limited slipcase edition of Mein Kampf with it, so far as I'm concerned.

From what I can tell of the artwork and website, this band of four look very much like a democracy, and yet repeated play of Pole Star leaves me in no doubt as to the involvement of the guy who recorded Who is the Captain of this Ship?, so I'll assume the distinctively fine balance struck between the bitter and the sweet is either his doing, or else he's been lucky enough to hook up with some seriously kindred spirits. The instrumentation is acoustic - guitar, accordion, mandolin, and violin, and somehow it manages to sound just as you might anticipate from that line-up whilst remaining astonishingly fresh, as though this is the first time you've heard anything of this kind. In fact the mood is such as to evoke the notion of hearing music itself for the very first time. It's somewhere between the instrumental simplicity, the ornate melody, and an apparent reluctance to just trot out anything too familiar or obvious for the sake of tradition, but there's something very fundamental about the sound of this group, primal without the primitive. There's no trickery or pissing about, and yet the entire disc sparkles.

So this is what Jon Hunt did next, and nosing around on the band's website it's pleasing to note that Spiro seem pretty popular in certain circles and have played this stuff to audiences all over the world. So it's not just me.

...and you can probably buy it here.

*: Possibly excepting Frank Spencer's wife from the telly.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Sweet Exorcist - CCCD (1990)

Although it might be pointed out that there are a number of things considerably worse than weirdy industrial types trying to get down with the kids - nuclear war, asphyxiation, and finding oneself forced at gunpoint to consume human faeces being but three - this isn't to say that weirdy industrial types trying to get down with the kids isn't pure arseache. There's the Porridge version of house music for one horrible example, a particularly mystifying response to the genre bearing more resemblance to what happens during the second half of an extended 12" mix of almost anything released by Duran Duran back when people were still buying their records. Of course you don't really expect too much from Porridge, the poor old fucker, so it's not really news when he does something which isn't very good.

Cabaret Voltaire on the other hand had much further to fall, and two decades later I still haven't fully recovered from the sight of Stephen Mallinder wearing a giant stopwatch and moonwalking backwards across a stage whilst exhorting all the ladies in the house to put their hands in the air and wave them like they just don't care. It didn't help that the record sounded like Stock, Aitken and Waterman, but the biggest mystery seems to be that Richard H. Kirk quite clearly knows how to cook up the real thing when he feels like it, as this one demonstrates, at least allowing for the involvement of the other bloke, the one who wasn't in Cabaret Voltaire.

In fact, it's startling how good this record is and how much it gets right without sounding like an impersonation. Listen closely and I suppose it's not a million miles from what Kirk was doing around the time of The Crackdown, but the whole is a very different sum of its parts. Rather than attempt to merely replicate the sound of dance music as was, Sweet Exorcist instead went for the effect and achieved something which sits very comfortably amongst all those original Detroit and Chicago acid tracks specifically because it's different. Very few of those original tracks actually did what everyone always remembers them doing, specifically that Roland bassline squiggle with the same four to the floor bum-tsk-bum-tsk beat. Sweet Exorcist instead brought the sine wave back to dance music, bleeps and pings as last heard on either games consoles or Kraftwerk records, I suppose; and they brought the sine wave back dry, without too many effects cluttering up the sound - this being the detail which the likes of Porridge always get wrong. This is an intensely electronic sounding record with virtually nothing occurring which wasn't originated inside a box of some description, although it's organic in tone at least in so much as that it doesn't feel particularly digital. Percussion aside, the sounds here provide notation without quite being musical, all building up into intense cat's cradles of clicking and pooting towards a hypnotic, even somewhat trippy whole that seems almost divorced from its own ingredients.

I think I've just reviewed a dance record as Jilly Goolden, but never mind. Normally this sort of thing would be a side project at best, but it's actually better than at least a couple of Cabaret Voltaire albums.