Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sylvie & Babs - The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion (1985)




Yes, I'm well aware of it being Nurse With Wound, thank you very much, but I'm pretty sure it was listed as above when released, the reason being that Steve Stapleton regarded the Hi-Fi Companion as something quite separate and distinct from the Nurse With Wound canon, which it sort of is, or at least was. So I'm sticking with the original version of the story, plus I seem to recall the United Dairies mail order list had this down as something other than Nurse With Wound, and listed under comedy for what it may be worth - along with Hastings of Malawi, whatever the hell that was.

Of course, it's now difficult to get through a whole day without having to hear some cunt's aspirationally humorous plunderphonic deconstruction of existing bits of music, but back in 1985, 'twas not yet so overegged a pudding as it has become, and possibly because no-one had a sampler so it was harder. Sylvie & Babs were principally Stapleton and the gang making music with bits of other people's records, and - so I gather - making it the extraordinarily complicated way by splicing together inch thick strips of studio tape and so on in the spirit of Pierre Schaeffer and those guys as opposed to just sitting next to the radio with one finger on the pause button and then selling the end result to people with a photocopy of your knob on the cover like Hamilton Bohannon* would have done.

To start again at the beginning, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as industrial, then you're a fucking clown; you wear big red shoes; you have a bowler hat on your head with a giant flower coming out of it; and when you drive your car, you honk the horn twice every few yards and the doors have usually fallen off by the time you reach your destination, which will almost certainly be a clown shop which you're visiting in order to make purchase of clown supplies. This description also applies, albeit to a lesser extent, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as a noise group or - ugh - sound artists; although Nurse With Wound are very much about sound and the psychological and physiological effects it can have on the listener: so it's definitely music, but works more like a sonic analogy of the art of Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other Dadaist types than does music with tunes, verses, a chorus, or which is made using musical instruments. The next sound you hear on a Nurse With Wound record may often be the last sound you would expect to hear depending on whatever has gone before, which distinguishes them from those acts more obviously reliant on repetition. It can be hard work listening to Nurse With Wound, but also very rewarding because it's never quite like anything you will have heard before, possibly including previous Nurse With Wound albums. They're not something you can listen to all the time, but every so often, you'll find there's nothing better if the time is right.

Well, that's the theory anyway, and I haven't actually heard the last five-hundred or so records so for all I know he may be cranking out handbag house with Nick Griffin these days, but for the sake of argument, let's just pretend it's still 1985 and that I'm right. I failed to buy this at the time because there was other stuff I wanted, and Nurse With Wound were an acquired taste even by my standards; also, it wasn't that easy to get hold of their stuff. I had Insect & Individual Silenced, which was fucking great, but apparently not so great as to keep me from flogging it when I decided I really needed those first two albums by You've Got Foetus On Your Breath. Millions of years later, I find this on CD and notice that I actually know three of the people who appeared on here amongst the lengthy list of collaborators, which is weird. In fact, I've been in bands with two of them; and one of them was Andrew Cox who was my bestest buddy for a while, and who is no longer with us, and who I still miss like crazy; so I couldn't really not buy it.

I suspect all those bargain basement cassette versions of Nurse With Wound have spoiled the real thing for me over the years, because in 2017 Sylvie & Babs sound drearily familiar rather than weird and surprising, at least on first listen. The key seems to be getting past the point of trainspotting where it all came from - snatches of My Boomerang Won't Come Back and the like, which seem intrusive whilst they remain familiar, although maybe that was the point. After a few spins, it picks up - which again is the opposite of what I expect to get from a Nurse With Wound record given how they seem so often reliant on shock and surprise; but this eventually settles into a sort of musicality suggestive of narrative which is almost certainly in the ear of the beholder. I suppose this could be what differentiates Sylvie & Babs from Nurse With Wound - unless it's just my lugholes - namely that increasing familiarity with the material brings some sort of pleasure, just like you get from Sting and Coldplay, beyond which, one is drawn to focus on the bizarre acoustics at play. That made sense in my head when I thought it.

The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion is decent, and it's nice to hear Andrew's voice again - repeating the phrase it ain't necessarily so, in case anyone was wondering - but it isn't startling, and more than anything it makes me wish I'd found some other means of financing my purchase of those early Foetus discs. Time to get looking for another copy of Insect & Individual Silenced, I suppose.

*: Name changed so as to protect the annoying.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water (2000)


Outside of this album, I find it really difficult to get past the off-putting impression of Limp Bizkit as having been a bunch of jocks - essentially what happens when members of the football team start writing poetry because someone told them it was a great way to up one's pussy-getting average. I also have Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, their debut album, and I've tried to listen to the thing but it only seems to reinforce the aforementioned off-putting impression of dudes emptying cans of beer over their own heads whilst bellowing awesome! Maybe I need to give it a few more spins. I don't know.

So what's different here? Why does this one sound so good?

I wasn't going to buy the thing. I looked at their pictures in Melody Maker and understood them to be nu-metal - which sounded like a pile of wank to me, sort of like metal apologising for itself. I'd encountered Slipknot fans in Southend-on-Sea with their ludicrous black flares and eyeliner, the most harshly commodified rebellion I had ever seen - boutique punk rock at its most comical. I wasn't going to buy the thing, but I was curious at DMX apparently having turned up on one track, and there was some sort of poorly defined association with Eminem; and then my girlfriend's little sister gave me a freebie because she was working at the record company.

I've never quite taken the view of rap metal being inherently worthless - although most of it clearly is - or that white guys can't rap, but Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water falters on both counts and the strength of the album is paradoxically that it works because of that. It isn't that Fred Durst couldn't rap, but he was never anything amazing in that department, and this whole thing would have sounded fucking ridiculous as a rap record with samples or whatever replacing the guitars. Durst's rhymes are mostly average and with that whiny upper register delivery he sounds like an eight-year old kid who just had his gameboy taken away from him, which itself accentuates the absurdity of all the homeboy schtick about Limp Bizkit being in da house and picking a fight with Trent Reznor for some innocuous comment or other; and it's because what is basically an American Walter the Softy crying into his ruined homework contrasts so starkly with the crushing riffs that we get a sound much greater than the sum of its parts. The beats are hard with a deep pensive bass and Wes Borland's guitar alternating between sharply gated walls of fuzz and something sounding surprisingly close to U2 without the bluster; all of which is pulled together as would be a hip-hop production yet without the end result sounding even like it's considered the possibility of calling itself rap. A few tweaks here and there and it could have turned out like one of those horrible whiny teenpunk bands, Green Day or Sum 41 or whatever, but the big difference is how that stuff parades its angst as a selling point, whilst all Durst's dirty laundry sounds so awkward and horribly personal - and with a bizarre mix of bragging and self-recrimination - it comes closer to the vengeful shit muttered under your breath when you're absolutely certain of no-one else being able to hear you. So despite everything, it's pretty intense stuff, like the volcanically impotent rage of the bullied kid who half feels that his muscular nemesis might even be right about some of that stuff. I should probably also point out that Durst sports a half-decent moody rock croon when he's actually singing.

That's why it works for me, and because the music is great.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bernadette Cremin & Paul Mex - Guilty Fist (2015)


Just to get the customary objections out in the open, whilst it isn't strictly true that I hate poetry, I probably hate enough of it to render the assertion more or less accurate; although, to break it down a little further, the specific sort of thing which brings me out in hives is poetry which knows that it is poetry and which introduces itself as such with either a wry Stilgoe-esque smirk or the sort of studied glacial nonchalance that can only be perfected by many hours spent gazing either into a mirror or up its own bumhole. It's the teenager who has somehow managed to have seen it all before and who understands just how shocking his words must seem to the audience at the - ugh - poetry slam, enunciating cock like the word might be new to us. It's my former housemate Steve poeting about how fucking her is like escaping from a drowning helicopter, when we all know he never even got close, and that the unlucky lady in question had more sense than to let that passive-aggressive little misanthrope anywhere near her ha'penny.

On the other hand, I very much like Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and others whose work I tend to think of just as writing, because that's what it is. So my criteria seems to rest upon how much the work is involved in the mythology of its own self-importance. In other words I like writing which just gets on with the communication without having to tell us what form it's going to take; and getting at last to the point, the writing of Bernadette Cremin, whoever she may be, very much belongs in this second category.

On the face of it, Guilty Fist is someone reading poetry to the accompaniment of suitably atmospheric music, except it's nothing so mannered as the description might suggest. Bernadette Cremin speaks her own words with the sort of gravity which demands you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention, and her testimony is spot on - clear and straight to the heart of the matter with chilling precision, neither showboating anything too ostentatiously shocking nor necessarily reducing everything to its lowest common denominator. She gets the balance exactly right, perfectly blending the narrative with the mood of the music, dispelling the suggestion of either being mere accompaniment; and this syncretism is further achieved when she slips into song and turns out to have a pretty decent bluesy voice.

Her subject matter seems to be highly personal and quite intense, so listening is a profoundly psychological experience. The music, mostly arranged by Mex, takes a downtempo direction with bluesy, jazzy, even occasionally pseudo-classical inflections. I'd say it reminds me a little of Portishead, except I never really liked them that much, and this is better. At times I'm reminded of In the Nursery when they were slapping marble columns on the covers of their records and pretending to be French, or maybe even Cranes, if anyone remembers them. Certainly there's a gothic element, gothic as in reading Mary Shelley with a glass of whine rather than dressing up like Nosferatu. Anyway, whatever it is, it's very powerful.

Treat yo'self!

Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)


The only reason for my failing to have nabbed this when it came out nearly thirty years ago that I've been able to come up with is that I was never a tool who based my record buying habits on whether or not a band was from Seattle and might thus be friends with that hunky Kurt with his dreamy blue eyes; plus it's not like I was short of stuff I wanted to buy that year. Mudhoney sounded like they might be the kind of thing I liked, not least because almost everything I played in the Dovers - the band of which I was a member at the time - was played through the same Electro-Harmonix pedal after which this was named, or at least after which the original six-track EP was named. This version also includes the preceding singles.

Still, better late than never seeing as this turned up in my usual store and there didn't seem like any good reason to not buy it. Nothing really stands out for the first couple of plays, but it quickly gains ground third or fourth time around. Mudhoney, as I now appreciate, were pretty much a slightly hairy garage punk band in the general vein of Iggy & the Stooges, wild but tuneful, and sounding very much like they'd be a blast live. The fact of their having been fans of Billy Childish isn't difficult to understand. In fact - if you'll pardon the supreme wankiness of such a digression, dear reader - they kind of remind me of the aforementioned Dovers, which is curious. I suppose we should have capitalised on having occasionally stood in the same room as Billy Childish, but never mind.

Providing they haven't turned into Supertramp in the intervening years without my knowing - which is possible given that I've only just realised they had albums other than this one - Mudhoney lacked the musical sophistication of Seattle favourites Tad, who I suppose might be characterised as a concrete mixer rendering expertly played Led Zeppelin covers; but on the other hand they sound a shitload more fun than Nirvana ever did, and I realise that view is probably mainly just me and no-one else. It's self-loathing and booze through a fuzz pedal cranked up far too loud, and yet you can sort of tell it wants you to have an air-punchingly good time; so there are none of those songs about only wanting cool people at their shows. I really wish I'd bought this at the time instead of that shitty Revolting Cocks record.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004)


This is one of those albums where I've had to forcibly extricate myself from all the irritation generated by everyone else who liked it before I'm properly able to appreciate the thing. I didn't bother buying it at the time mainly due to having got a bit bored of Mike Skinner's face looming out at me from every other page of newspapers I probably shouldn't have bothered reading in the first place. The Grauniad in particular couldn't get enough of the fucker, the most excruciating case of which I seem to recall being a twenty page illustrated feature based around Mike explaining his philosophy whilst playing board games in some local pub with his parents - and no I haven't made that up; I expect Dynasty Crew were busy that day, or maybe they were just too scary and nobody ever compared Bare Face What to Squeeze or other civilised songsmiths specialising in bitter-sweet kitchen sink balladry. Whilst not having anything against Skinner personally, and having enjoyed some of the beats he recorded for others, and at least recognising him as a force for good by some description, I just couldn't get past the Streets being rap for people who don't like rap - Stephen H. Morris for example, who in his musical history of the Medway towns compares Kids Unique to the Streets, presumably because that's what he's heard on Jo Whiley sandwiched between tracks by the Kaiser Chiefs, Editors, and all those other unlistenable indie wankers. It's rap for people who don't like rap because of all those black people sexist rappers singing about drugs and guns, like they do.

The irony is, I suppose, that I'm not sure the Streets quite count as rap, at least not unless we're adding Ian Dury, Bernard Cribbins, and George Formby to the canon. It's certainly urban in so much as that the influence of rap, hip-hop, garage and the rest are obvious, but that isn't quite the same thing.

Skinner spins a decent story once we've got over that thing he does of self-consciously meting out one syllable per beat, like it's some kind of reading exercise during school activities week. It sounds like he's drawing attention to his own shortcomings so as to let us know he's not taking himself too seriously and he won't be twisting his fingers into funny shapes like those rappers do, at least not unless he needs to make air quotes around any of those spicy words which kids on the street are always using; but yeah - once we're over that hump, A Grand Don't Come for Free is a highly listenable album. It's also a concept album, although the story is difficult to follow - something about splitting up with his girlfriend, having a shit day, renewing the TV licence, then finding that the missing thousand pounds was down the back of the telly all along, although where it came from in the first place is never quite clear. As belching working class concept albums go, A Grand is nothing like so rounded or satisfying as Sham 69's That's Life - and yes, I really did just write that sentence - but has some wonderfully tender moments, notably Could Well Be In, Blinded By the Lights, and Dry Your Eyes, none of which do anything which would startle Paul McCartney. The beats, as you might expect, are great, seamlessly working soft soulful acoustics together with the buzzing and bleeps of grime and the like - never cluttered, always clear and with a very much human pulse. It's a very good album aspiring to be a great album, but never quite getting there because the narrative just isn't as compelling as it thinks it is, and Skinner's voice isn't sufficiently interesting to keep it all rolling along for the duration; and it's only a great rap album if it's the only one you've heard; which is still a thumbs up, roughly speaking.

Front 242 - 06:21:03:11 Up Evil / 05:22:09:12 Off (1993)


Dammit - I used to love me some Front 242. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off - the second of these paired albums - when it came out, despite the alarm bells which went off when I noticed them subject to full page advertisements in various Vertigo comics of the time. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off when it came out and never fully warmed to it, which is why I didn't bother buying the other one. It sounded like half a record, something incomplete, which I guess is exactly what it was as I now realise. These two were originally meant to be a double CD, two halves of the same thing, roughly speaking a concept album about good and evil...

I suppose I could leave the review at that.




Front 242 were the greatest thing ever, at least for a short time, at least for most of the period beginning with Official Version and concluding with Tyranny > For You <, providing you don't hang around too long in the general vicinity of Front by Front. Sadly, 1993 seems to be the point at which they lost sight of what made them great in the first place, the moment where those lesser artists upon whom they'd had such a massive influence started to make the better records. Richard 23 didn't have a whole lot to do with either of these albums so I assume his input was in some way crucial, even if it was just telling the other two when something was crap. This was the point at which they turned up in Melody Maker wearing tracksuits and baseball caps and with a rapper now in the band.

So I already had 05:22:09:12 Off on vinyl, but I saw the two CDs for ten bucks which seemed like a good buy, potentially. It turns out that the two discs actually feature slightly different line-ups of the crumbling band, so I suppose the division is justified. 06:21:03:11 Up Evil features collaborative work with members of Parade Ground, whom I vaguely recall as being one of a million EBM also-rans perpetually clogging up nineties compilation albums with grunting tracks about working, obeying, stomping, marching, wearing Doc Martens and being really strong. Consequently the album is mostly generic techno of the kind made by people who don't actually dance - overproduced, too much going on, and with an excess of reverb invoking the same mood as is featured on every other cunt's record. It misses the point of what made Front 242 so special, namely that it wasn't the repetition. Unlike all those other aviator-goggled clowns, Front 242 worked because their music was composed along lines closer to the classical and orchestral than to the traditionally dance-orientated. There's repetition, but beyond the repetition there'll be some new element entering the picture with almost every bar, often details occurring just once during the track; so whilst it's nevertheless all very much programmed, it's a highly individual approach to programming. By contrast 06:21:03:11 Up Evil is mostly just your bog standard thump thump thump thump pulse pulse pulse rumble rumble obey my commands, weaklings goth chord goth chord and back to thump thump thump... It lacks variety.

05:22:09:12 Off is marginally the better record with the grammatically dubious Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed recalling the majestic solemnity of Tyranny > For You <; except once you get past those two and dispense with the underwhelming rapping of Animal, you could still be listening to the first record. So we have two cracking tunes and the rest of it may as well be that scene from The Matrix where Samuel L. Jackson takes Neil to his underground kingdom of totally awesome tattooed crusties and they all listen to really loud rave music. There's also a Foetus remix of one of the tracks, I suppose, but the most that can be said about it is that it answers the question of what Front 242 would sound like if remixed by Foetus. This really didn't need to be two discs where a 12" of Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed would have done just as well.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

MERZfunder (2016)


Kurt Schwitters was an artist associated with Dada and Surrealist art movements, but mainly Dada. His best known work mostly comprised collages of found objects - bus timetables, scraps of newspaper and so on - and of all the Dadaists, he seems a strong candidate for the one who best tapped into the appeal of random images and juxtapositions, the way our eyes might fixate on a particularly interesting pattern caused by damp on the ceiling. Certainly he seems to be the one whose work has remained an enduring influence on everyone from Billy Childish to Nurse With Wound; and it turns out that he lived in England for a while, which I didn't even realise. He lived in Cumbria, specifically the town of Ambleside, and whilst there he turned a local barn into art. This barn is now known as the Merz Barn and, as the name probably implies, MERZfunder is a compilation aimed at raising money so as to ensure that the thing is preserved for the benefit of future generations. I guess England probably doesn't really have money to spare right now, especially not for art, the province of the liberal media elite, homosexuals, and people who don't like football.

This seems worth supporting, I said to myself, even though I don't ordinarily do downloads. The Shend from the Cravats is on there, and it features 114 songs by all sorts, so I envisioned something in the vein of the Residents' Commercial Album or Morgan Fisher's Miniatures compilation. I realised I was mistaken in at least one respect when the thing took over an hour to download. As stated MERZfunder features 114 individual pieces of music, but of course being associated with no physical format, it's under no obligation to keep it snappy. There are a couple of tracks of at least twenty minutes duration, and plenty of around ten - all adding up to nearly eleven hours of music.

Jesus.

Needless to say, reviewing this as I might review the latest collection of Miley Cyrus hits could take years being as I've thus far only listened to the thing all the way through once - albeit over successive weeks, so I'll stick to just the facts embellished with comments where I feel qualified to offer them. Contributors I've heard of include the Astronauts, M.Nomized, Band of Holy Joy, the aforementioned Shend, Security, Hagar the Womb, Neil Campbell, Rapoon, and Nik Turner whom older boys and girls may remember as having had something to do with Hawkwind. I've actually only heard of Security because I used to be in a band with one of them, although I've also had intercourse with both the Shend and Neil Campbell - not sexual intercourse, obviously; so this is one of those reviews of something featuring blokes I know, but given that the contributor credits for this thing probably account for a decent percentage of the current human population, you probably know someone with a track on this collection too, dear reader, statistically speaking; and accordingly MERZfunder features every single style of music ever, more or less.

As you might expect, there's Dadaism aplenty in myriad forms - everything from the sound of marbles chucked at a dustbin into which someone is doing a poo, to peculiar songs written by aspiring Martians. There's punk, free jazz, reggae, trad jazz, easy listening, ambient, just plain strange, and everything in between. Numbers which have impressed me enough to mention them here include Woefully Tired by Pampered Fists, the Shend's Pixie Denial, In the Here and Now by Deviant Amps, and the Staggs track which forges techno with a sample of Jon Inman saying I'm free! I feel fairly confident that the other hundred tracks are probably also decent on the grounds that I don't recall skipping any during my first marathon month's worth of listening. Another year might pass before I've heard MERZfunder all the way through more than twice, but in the meantime the sheer scale and range of the thing becomes a quality in its own right, almost amounting to pins stuck in random lists of names by virtue of how long it will take for this thing to achieve familiarity. I'm sure Schwitters would have approved.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fat Joe - Jealous Ones Still Envy (2001)


This being a rap album, it has occurred to me that I might like to skip the usual preamble about middle class wankers, given how I always end up writing the same thing. It would be nice, but I'm still reeling from Monday's facebook encounter with one David Yeomans, an Australian gentleman with a home page dominated by the Sonnenrad and praise for President Trump. The Sonnenrad is a symbol which was very popular amongst high-ranking members of the Third Reich, and surprisingly Yeomans is not a fan of rap music.

Hip hop is not my thing though, I do not like the beats or the culture and environment it emerged from. To support it is to popularise ghetto culture and that is wrong. You cannot say it doesn't either, just remember the number of teenagers in Australia with gang bandannas and acting like "homies".

Furthermore:

Yep, but it is a very destructive one and a very vicious one. For the most anyway, I will not deny there are a small few who do not sing about rape, violence and drugs, but it is the minority, and for certain not the popular ones.

I'd bother to address some of this, but 1) the opinion of a person who knows nothing about the subject upon which they have chosen to opine isn't really worth taking seriously, and 2) neither are the views of anyone with a big fat Nazi sun wheel as the masthead of their facebook page, so screw you, Dave.

This was Joe's first album following the death of Big Pun, his partner in rhyme and best buddy - a bereavement which led to the hugely acrimonious bust up with Triple Seis and Cuban Link of Joe's Terror Squad. I never quite worked out what happened there, but it sounded like a series of stupid misunderstandings piled one on top of the other. Anyway, at the time I was surprised that he even had a new album, given the circumstances; but I suppose I shouldn't be because those circumstances are what shaped this record. There are lighter moments, but it really isn't a happy collection.

He is really singing a lot about rape, violence, and drugs, Dave.

Joe has often spoken about how, whilst Pun was lyrically a natural, he himself has always had to work at his art, but it doesn't really show here. He isn't in Pun's league in terms of the weirder crossword puzzle clues, but there's nothing shabby or obviously laboured about Joe's testimony and he makes up for shortcomings with a delivery which renders almost every other track a declaration of war - complete with the trumpets in a few cases. King of NY and My Lifestyle both attain face-punching levels of bellowed swagger you wouldn't ordinarily expect to hear outside an M.O.P. record; and then M.O.P themselves guest on Fight Club a couple of tracks later so that all gets a bit sweaty and no mistake.

I guess they must be his "homies", Dave.

Half of Jealous Ones Still Envy sounds like the work of a man who just had his best pal die, and who's going to keep on cracking skulls until the pain goes away - supported by dirty, steel-toecapped east coast beats of the kind which otherwise customarily fail to score in the pop hit chart parade, which nevertheless became one of our fat friend's specialities - namely smuggling that grimy, uncommercial shit right into the heart of clubland and getting everyone moving like it's Britney Spears. The other half of the album makes concessions and is arguably more musically populist, but somehow without it ever quite feeling that way. The bittersweet What's Luv?, for example, could almost be the theme from My Little Pony, and yet there's a rough edge keeping it in line with the rest if you listen close. Only the Latin-tinged It's OK really spoils the pattern with a little Ricky Martin dance, but Joe is of Latino heritage so I guess he has as much right to indulge as anyone - although it's the only point at which I noticed what a long album this is.

I spent roughly fifteen years listening to little else but rap music, and mostly the stuff where they sing about rape, violence and drugs; and with hindsight I've noticed how this period was also the one during which my life became pretty tough going in certain respects. It makes sense, because there's nothing like this kind of music when you feel as though you're living under siege conditions by one definition or another. It really gets you through the tough times. Coincidentally, since January the 20th, I've found myself listening to a lot more rap than has recently been the case, and I've a feeling I may be listening to little else over the next couple of years.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mex - Intense Living (1981)


Mex should require no introduction, but then by the same token the Annoying Orange shouldn't be president, so if he does then I refer you to the reviews I wrote as reproduced here and here so as to avoid having to repeat myself.

Intense Living was the second album and it's a huge pleasure to have it remastered and on a fancy compact disc and everything. As with Alternative Pop Music, it's still a little rough around the edges and I suppose might be termed lo-fi if you want to make a virtue out of the fact - which always struck me as a bit pointless, personally speaking; but the material and the sheer joy and punky spirit of the whole enterprise - or possibly post-punky spirit - should compensate for how difficult it is to hear Cliff Silver's wristwatch ticking away during the quiet parts. Where the first tape was mostly just Mex, so far as I recall, this one was Mex aided by the aforementioned Cliff Silver from Sad Lovers & Giants, and with a live drummer - or possibly a tape of a live drummer - and it's very different. In fact, it was very different to every other tape I bought that year.

I seem to recall my corner of 1981 involving a lot of long coats, many of them worn by myself, some sucking-in of the cheeks, and a fairly austere embrace of the return to year zero proposed by punk, or by some elements of punk. In the mean time, Mex had added shameless disco to the ingredients of his pop perfectionism, and not even the studiously cool kind of disco favoured by chiselled Mancunians with trumpets. I'm talking walking basslines, wah-pedal funk, flares, glitter balls, and a synth borrowed straight from the Open University Department of Television Signature Tunes. Add to this Mex's occasional Duane Eddyisms and somewhat whispy - at least on this occasion - vocals, and the result was a tape which just didn't sound like anything else in my collection, and didn't even seem like it was trying to sound like anything else.

Some of it has dated, I suppose - the short-wave radio twiddling of Alien Transmission - but not in a bad way, and the whole nevertheless sounds as great now as it did back then. If you require references, it might be argued that the first Denim album had something of Intense Living about it, and there are bits which remind me of LCD Soundsystem; but I'm reaching, because neither of those were ever embedded in my consciousness quite like Sea of Green, Full of Eastern Promise, or Keith in America.

Genuinely wonderful.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Ghost - Opus Eponymous (2010)


You've probably seen the pictures - a sort of demonic skeletal pope fronting a band of five identically anonymous guys in devil masks known only as the Nameless Ghouls. You may have wondered what they sounded like, or not as the case may be. I didn't because I assumed it would almost certainly be some guy throwing up into a food mixer as a thousand overdriven guitars thrashed out grunting riffs at five-hundred miles an hour; but a regular reader suggested I might like to give this a listen, and so I did, partially due to feeling a little guilty about all the fun I've had taking the piss out of Al Jourgensen whilst knowing said regular reader to be quite the fan; and partially out of a slightly craven sense of gratitude for the fact of my now apparently having a regular reader.

Amazingly, aside from a general enthusiasm for Satan, Ghost sound nothing like I expected, and I mean not one single box ticked - not even the same ballpark. Death metal seems a little bit of a stretch, as does black metal when you consider the names ordinarily associated with the genre; really it's more like the sort of thing which would be arbitrarily labelled heavy metal back when Black Sabbath were still something new. Ghost seem to recognise the musical arms race which has resulted in bands like Marduk and other church-burning types as a bit of a mug's game. It seems to have begun with the pursuit of pointless widdley-widdley guitar solo virtuosity - the sort of thing which only a complete fucking bore could ever appreciate - then going from one extreme to another until you end up with what may as well be someone grunting whilst stood next to a cement mixer. Ghost have wound it all back to a time predating even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, resulting in hard rock with a few proggy touches invoking the Glitter Band at least as much as Strapping Young Lad. The customary grunting and growling is eschewed in favour of a beautiful, clear voice, not quite so operatic as to be annoying but more in that direction than you might expect from a guy dressed as a demonic pope. Musically, it almost touches on Queen or even the Who from around the time of Tommy; and it really is pop - all the darkly chugging riffs and the vocal harmonies and the pseudo-psychedelic swirl of a church organ. Once you start listening to this thing, it's difficult to stop.

Of course, the raw pop appeal contrasts dramatically with both the subject matter and a bizarre image amounting to a metal equivalent of the Residents. Thematically, it's Satan all the way - Antichrists, Elizabeth Bathory, omens, witches, the black goat with a thousand young, and all that other good stuff which once kept Hammer Films in business. I'm mainly accustomed to Satanism as a sort of intellectual game played by slightly inadequate misanthropes who took Ayn Rand too seriously, so I've never given much thought to the possibility of it being an actual religion as an inversion of Christianity - as opposed to just kids flashing their arses from the rear window of the coach during a school trip. If it is an actual religion in some sense, then I suppose Ghost might be its representatives. They sound serious, but then they would do, I suppose. It could be the genuine thing or it could be Spinal Tap, and for me that's their great strength, thematically speaking - there's just no knowing beyond that we're clearly expected to have a blast listening to it, which we do.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Skids - Days in Europa (1979)


With hindsight, I wonder if it was this album which pretty much finished off the Skids. I don't particularly recall any widespread public reaction against the initial release of the record sporting a cover looking one hell of a lot like Nazi propaganda, but then I was fourteen at the time so maybe I wouldn't. The Absolute Game, the album which came after, sold better, but they otherwise seemed to have disappeared off the mainstream radar by that point. It can't have helped that Richard Jobson was clearly fascinated by the period of European history between the wars, and particularly the art. There seems to have been quite a lot of it around at the time, what with Bauhaus and then various New Romantic types invoking that whole cabaret thing. Jobson dismissed suggestions of Nazi sympathies as nonsense, as of course he would, and I have to say there's nothing on this album suggesting the sort of dubious nostalgia peddled by Death in June and the like. Mostly it seems to be about the contrast of the optimism and even idealism of that era - regardless of the thrust of at least some of that idealism - with how it all turned to shit, so far as I can make out. Thematically a lot of Skids material seems to have been about beautiful losers by one definition or another.

And the memory shall linger,
And the memory shall fall,
It was a day in Europa,
My regression recalls.

Hail to the mighty, the ritual begins,
Hail to Apollo, the cleanser of sins,
Hail to Europa, she always wins.

So far, so Von Thronstahl, but the key is probably - at least hopefully - in the delivery, which is more the ruined decadence of Diamond Dogs than Laibach. I suppose it's possible that someone might genuinely have been simply exploring contentious ideas and images, and given Jobson's parallel obsessions with Busby Berkeley and Wilfred Owen, I'm going to assume that was the case for the sake of argument; but also because we've all forgiven David Bowie, and musicians are by definition mostly idiots who do stupid shit without any appreciation of the consequences; and as an optimist I'm applying this to any subsequent records which may or may not have had the word joy in the title.

The Skids were musically a massive glam stomp scored to what seemed like the world's biggest guitar - the late Stuart Adamson's somehow characteristically Scottish riffing which can't really be described without mentioning bagpipes - big slabs of sound bisecting each bar like the abstract forms of constructivist art. It invokes a certain Celtic cultural identity although thankfully expressed without being at the expense of anyone else's cultural identity; and it's given form by Jobson enthusiastically hooting away like a big, happy modernist bloodhound - ever a champion of style as substance. Away from the Skids, Adamson's music donned a traditional fisherman's sweater then deteriorated into folksy homilies about women called Morag forlornly awaiting the return of Johnny from the wars, but let's not dwell on that.

Aside from the kerfuffle invoked by albums with pictures of Aryan sporting personalities on the cover, and the unfortunate patronage of national socialist wingnuts like Von Thronstahl, Days in Europa is actually not so good as it really should have been with Bill Nelson at the desk - amazing singles and then some other tracks, but really nothing like so convincing as either Scared to Dance or The Absolute Game. I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I dug out one of those for a spin, but never mind.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Placebo (1996)


This may have been the last decent vinyl album I bought before farsighted music biz Nostradami declared the medium dead and forevermore fit only for saaad mylar-bagged trainspotters with creases ironed in their underpants. I say decent vinyl album here to mean one which played fine and which hadn't been pressed on vinyl distilled from recycled squeezy bottles - as was the case with albums I bought by both Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls which sounded like they had been mastered on a Woolworths C60 found at the bottom of an old suitcase; and there's probably some kind of poetry in there somewhere, Placebo being a cross between Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls, a bit.

I understand Brian Molko to be something of a tool - according to the testimony of at least one friend - and I additionally have the problem of trying hard not to recall their subsequent transformation into one of those turdy indie festival mainstays beloved of Jo Whiley and similar vessels of corporate spontaneity, particularly with that fucking abominable friend with weed single, whatever it was called; so I'm restoring my ears to an earlier setting, back to when they played Nancy Boy on Top of the Pops causing me to flounce down to the record shop and nab this before the place was converted into a branch of Iceland. I may be remembering wrongly, but mainstream rock had spent the previous couple of years turning itself back into bumfluff heavy metal but without either the tunes or the sense of humour - an endless parade of shuffling Barrys wiping their noses on their sleeves and jangling out a few vaguely baggy chords during the metalwork lesson. Rock was succumbing to testosterone poisoning and this seemed momentarily like an antidote - not only joyously faggy, but joyously faggy with a terrifying attitude problem.

Placebo's strength was in wringing something so catchy and hooky from what, on close inspection, was actually kind of self-involved and cranky, a glam post-grunge drone of oddball guitar snob chords with more than a whiff of Albini about it; and doing it without the lumberjack shirts or BO. In other words it was the contrast between hard and soft - the bruised intensity of Albini's Shellac, yet unashamedly effeminate. As an album, this one feels like some sort of emotional breakdown with tunes. It's all over the shop and yet remains beautiful and elegant from start to finish.

It was downhill from this point on, from what I heard, but it probably doesn't matter. Not many bands start off this well.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Master P - Mama's Bad Boy (1992)


I have a facebook friend called Melissa-Jane. She's one of those facebook friends you have as a facebook friend because she's your friend on facebook. She works at some kind of community yoots place in my old hood, and thus occasionally posts slightly demonstrative status updates about hanging out with da mans dem and the most bangingest dubstep producer being a fourteen-year old member of her yoots group. I'm sure she's listened to a fucking shitload of dubstep in her time, so she should know. Her other notable facebook posts have included a few house exchanges, people with names like Toby and Jemima, owners of a cottage in the Lake District very keen to swap for a few weeks if anyone has anything around the Dordogne; and some crowing over Jay-Z speaking out against overuse of the word bitch, because it's sexist to call a lady a bitch and that's bad. He's probably read my blog post, she snorted brayingly, because she had written a blog post about Jay-Z's sexist song 99 Problems. How can he say bitch, she probably asked in the blog post, when he is married to Beyoncé who is a lady and bitch is a word for lady? I say probably because I only remember the general thrust of it, most of which was qualified by Melissa-Jane explaining how she herself only listens to real rap, like that nice J-Live dude. Apparently J-Live has a significantly more respectful attitude to bitches than Jay-Z. I tried pointing out that Jay-Z nicked 99 Problems from Ice-T, but she didn't seem particularly interested; so I unfollowed her because 1) I don't really like excessively middle-class people, particularly not those who bang on about being down with the kids, 2) J-Live is rubbish, 3) no good ever came of knowing someone named Melissa-Jane, and 4) bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks.

Anyway, to get to the point, if we imagine some sort of metaphysical realness sphere - for want of a better term - the kind of thing Plato might have envisaged had he grown up around Bedford-Stuyvesant, then this Master P album would be at the exact opposite pole of our hypothetical sphere to Melissa-Jane, everything she stands for, all her treasured J-Live twelves, and everyone she's ever known or met. Mama's Bad Boy be some surprisingly ig'nant shit, and that's why it's a classic. It might of course be argued that I'm just some ageing cracker getting his anthropological jollies from things which scare middle-class people, but none of y'all bitches be sayin' that shit to my face, and Mama's Bad Boy is still a great album.

As the millionaire entrepreneur behind No Limit Records, Master P should require no introduction, but Mama's Bad Boy dates from way back when he very much did require an introduction. Musically it's a bit rough around the edges compared to later No Limit productions - your basic north California variation on the g-funk of the day - although the bass is nice and it has a warm studio feel, predating beats written inside a silicon chip and all that; but it works because that stuff still sounds great, a touch jazzy, summery with a nice low boom-bap contrasting hard against the lyrics. Master P has never been the world's greatest lyricist, but he sounded reasonably decent back in 1992, although to be fair there was less competition back then, and as always he makes up for what he lacks with personality - and of course the enduring magic of ig'nant.

It's poverty, shootings, waiting on that bubble up and the usual. Women tend to divide into those conducive to sucking a dick and those from whom one catches a venereal disease; and I'm awarding extra points for the creative retooling of We are the World:

We are the world,
We are the dealers,
We are the ones that sell crack-cocaine,
So let's start selling...

It doesn't even rhyme! That's how much of a fuck Master P doesn't give on this album. We're a long, long way from Arrested Development.

We need the ig'nant shit because sometimes life can be so crap that it's the only thing which makes any sense and which doesn't sound like bullshit; and yes, there's a certain aroma of celebration in some of the judicious beatings and shootings described here, and it's very irresponsible, and I'm sure Melissa-Jane would give Master P a piece of her mind should he wander into a certain yoots club; but if it bothers anyone, there's a heapin' helpin' of context at the end when our man - I'm guessing about eighteen years of age when he dropped this record - shouts out to everyone he knew at school who didn't live to appreciate his success, and it's one hell of a long list. So as with most ig'nant rap, yes it's funny because this is the sound of kids entertaining their friends and making them laugh; and it's funny that the term ig'nant will probably upset those who feel we should know better; and maybe it isn't Shakespeare or Chaucer or Common or Doseone or any of those boring wankers; but unfortunately it is real, at least on its own terms. Mama's Bad Boy is what happens when you cram people into run-down housing between a liquor store and a gun shop, so just be thankful that one good thing came out of it on this occasion.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Pixies - Head Carrier (2016)


'Holy shit,' I exclaimed upon finding this in the racks, having failed to anticipate that they might have had plans beyond those reunion EPs which ended up collected as Indie Cindy. 'Is this actually a proper new album?' I asked at the counter, because obviously I had to buy the thing even if it turned out to be just forty-minutes of Black Francis farting into a bucket lovingly and puzzlingly pressed up as 180gsm vinyl.

'Yes,' they both said. 'It's the new album.'

'Is it any good?'

'Yes,' said the woman.

'Have you heard the last one? I mean it was okay, but...'

'Yes. Don't worry,' she elaborated, 'this one's much better.'

It isn't that Indie Cindy was bad in any sense, but it just wasn't amazing where their first four studio albums were. It was material from a band getting back together after years apart, and it was a compilation, and for all that it had working in its favour, it very much sounded like both of those things. It was an assemblage rather than a complete self-contained entity, whereas Head Carrier really is the new album and very much feels like it.

I'm still getting used to the notion of contemporary Pixies in the year 2016, trying hard not to recall what I thought of the Rolling Stones back in the early eighties, and whilst I'm still not sure this is quite up there with Trompe Le Monde, it comes pretty fucking close, and the more I listen the better it gets. This older, wiser Pixies initially seem to lack some of the shock of their younger selves, as expressed in all those asides to violent Buñuel-esque images, but the stories told are as peculiar and distinctive as ever, like a more visceral take on the Talking Heads in their folksy Americana period. This one fixates to some extent on the martyred St. Denis of Paris, commonly depicted carrying his own severed head - hence the title - but how it all works is probably up to you. Musically we're back with that fucking massive guitar sounding darker, warmer, and less digitised than on the Indie Cindy material, and with Paz Lenchantin as a perfect fit for Kim Deal without any suggestion of karaoke; and it does what a Pixies record should do given that Black Francis originally formed the band with the stated intention of their being the greatest rock band of all time. We sort of lost sight of that on Indie Cindy, but Tenement Song and the faux-Tejano of Plaster of Paris are as powerful and chilling as any of their past greats.

They've still got it.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Fall - Reformation Post TLC (2007)


Being any member of the Fall besides the obvious one must surely be one of the worst jobs in the world, or at least the most thankless, right up there with Jimmy Savile's damage control or the man Jeremy Clarkson pays to wipe his arse for him. I gather this album was recorded with a whole new line-up following Mark E. Smith sacking the previous lot because one of them looked at him funny or summink. I just hope the pay is good.

I find the Fall fascinating, although not sufficiently fascinating to justify my having bought anything since 1988's The Frenz Experiment unless it turned up in a bargain bin, as did this one. Actually I've a few since the last record for which I paid full price, and they're mostly decent providing you don't expect another Slates or This Nation's Saving Grace or Hex Enduction Hour. To give credit where it's due, this in itself is pretty incredible considering that most bands formed in 1976 were already shit by 1981, and yet Mark E. Smith's bunch generally continue to entertain even as they put out their five-millionth album featuring the great-grandson of the original guitarist. I say generally continue to entertain without much actual certainty. The ones since this might be fucking brilliant for all I know.

Reformation Post TLC starts well with complete strangers somehow managing to sound like everybody else who was ever in the Fall, yet bringing something of their own to the table - the usual country garage racket with a bit of a krautrock feel like La Düsseldorf or one of those groups, plus some nice growly synth. When I say it starts well I mean it sounds big, beaty, a bit angular, a faint aftertaste of piss and vinegar, and not at all like the work of a band with a back catalogue stretching back three decades; but an hour of this stuff goes a long way. After two or three plays I had the impression of an amazing four-track EP - everything up to and including the surprisingly tender cover of White Line Fever - and then er...

Well, there's a couple of instrumentals and one of them lasts over ten minutes, and the keyboard player sings on The Wright Stuff, and there are a couple of songs where the lyric just seems to be the title slurred over and over, and Insult Song is probably funnier if you're actually in the Fall, and there's an ambience of Smith having gone off for a piss, or another drink, or passed out in the microphone booth, and the second half of the album feels like 1960s Doctor Who with William Hartnell conspicuously absent every two or three weeks due to poor health. Repeat plays reveal that I've somehow imagined most of this, and the later tracks sort of hold up - excepting the one he sings in a funny voice - but still Reformation Post TLC isn't what it could be. Nearly four decades on and I still can't work out if he's a genius or just some nutcase having a fight with himself at the bus shelter, but I suppose the enduring ambiguity should be taken as a good sign.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Villalobos - Alcachofa (2003)


Here's another one which sounds all new fangled and fancy to me (assuming my ear trumpet is functioning correctly) and yet which came out thirteen fucking years ago; so this review will once again feature my fifteen-year old self trying to tell everyone about the amazing way out sound of Procol Harum. Well, maybe it's not quite that. I can hardly be expected to keep track of absolutely everything, musically speaking, and I'd have to wade through one hell of a lot of shite to do so. It hardly seems worth it.

Anyway, trying to decide on my next Scientist purchase, I noticed the lad had recorded an album with some dubstep dude called Shackleton. The name intrigued me because that's also the surname of my cousin, and then YouTube suggested I have a listen to Shackleton's Blood On My Hands, so I did. The track was fucking phenomenal so I investigated further, but found most of his work a bit dull and overly reliant on the conceit of Gregorian chants as powerfully atmospheric - as opposed to just a bit obvious when heard on any record other than one with a picture of a monastery on the cover. Close inspection revealed that the fucking phenomenality of Blood On My Hands was due to it having been remixed by one Ricardo Villalobos, so then I listened to Dexter by Villalobos, which seemed similarly fucking phenomenal and here we are.

My first brush with what I understand to be minimal techno was Anton Nikkilä's Formalist which I reviewed in an issue of Sound Projector back in 1999. I didn't like it very much:

The sounds and structures suggest this has evolved from dance music, just as Rachel Whiteread's art has evolved from art which could be enjoyed by folk who aren't smart-arsed post-modern sperm swallowers. This is not the sort of techno one might describe as bangin', or indeed be tempted to have it large to. Formalist as the title suggests, is somewhat sparse, and sounds to be entirely computer generated. Most of the sounds are essentially percussive, and oddly inappropriate. The only thing that defines the weedy pencil-banged-on-the-edge-of-a-table sound as a snare is where it occurs. The bass drum sounds aren't particularly bassy. Some of the rhythms had me checking to see if the CD was skipping. It wasn't. This was how it was supposed to be. Even those tracks which don't sound like the aural equivalent to a festival of experimental animation shorts from Canada, fare only marginally better.

Leaving aside my own somewhat boorish testimony, I'm sure it really can't have been that bad. In any case, Alcachofa seems to be what Anton Nikkilä should have sounded like, possibly.

We're now deep into the territory of sound with no acoustic point of origin, or at least which has been edited beyond recognition. Some of what can be heard on this disc may have come from something once labelled snare or hi-hat, but it's hard to say for sure. The sound is roughly like something audio editing software might dream about, sonic offcuts and slivers of signals tastefully arranged, tonal qualities emphasised, with graphic EQ deployed as an instrument in its own right. The repetition is intense and focus is drawn so fiercely to certain aspects of the composition as to fool the ear into missing everything else. It sounds minimal and a little dry, but the fifth or sixth listen will nevertheless reveal tiny hitherto unnoticed details. Approximations of melody come from combinations of dubiously musical sources repeated until something takes form, ticking and clicking on and on until the organic-digital divide comes to seem meaningless.

It's bollocks, but that's the best I can do. This music genuinely defies description, or at least my description. I'm not sure I've ever heard anything so weirdly abstract carry off such a compelling impersonation of banging dance floor populism.