Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The Police - Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Simon Morris, Ceramic Hob and celebrated musicologist, recently posited that the Police and Nirvana were essentially the same thing, and he's right. In both cases, there were three of them, they were very popular, they combined rock guitars with a whining noise, and Nirvana's first album was called Bleach which references the collective hairstyles of the Police. That being said, there are differences in so much as that whilst the Police sang songs about isolation, prostitutes, an inflatable sex toy, and the end of the world, Nirvana's oeuvre focused primarily on having a tummy ache and wanting only cool people in attendance at one's pop concert. Also one of their best songs ripped off Killing Joke.

Of course, I actually like Nirvana, albeit not quite so much as several other bands from their neck of the woods, so I'm writing this primarily because I dislike sacred cows and it's funny to upset those who believe Kurt died for our sins, when I'm pretty sure the coroner's report would have described a very different cause of death. Further to the posthumous reputation of the man, it differentiates from that of Sting in so much as that he is remembered as a tortured Jesuseque genius, yet was probably just a regular bloke who spent too much time thinking about things; while Sting, on the other hand, often appears to hold to an absurdly elevated opinion of his own artistic and spiritual credentials, and yet is widely understood to be a bit of a goon, albeit with the redeeming feature of having helped take the piss out of himself in that Zoolander film. The outcome of this, given public opinion being what it is, is that the Police will probably never be rescued from their own reputation as stadium-filling bores.

Still, I can't quite get with the flow on this one, and the music still sounds great to me. They came along to hog the charts at just the right time, when my ear had become attuned to anything with a vaguely punky vibe, and yet before I'd fully developed the cynicism by which I would deem music anyone else had heard of - let alone people working in Wimpy Bar - as cheap, populist, and therefore unacceptable; and the Police must have had something going for them because not even Sting's subsequent ascent to full goonhood has tarnished my regard.

This was the album recorded here and there whilst on one of those massive world tours full of screaming girls, the album composed at the height of their fame, and accordingly it's a bit uneven with the feel of a scrapbook, or even a travelogue - at least compared to the first two, both of which felt pretty solid and consistent. On the other hand, Zenyatta Mondatta works because there's nothing truly terrible here, and two tracks in particular are about the best things ever recorded by any combination of those involved; and because Bombs Away and When the World is Running Down are of such phenomenal quality, I've played this thing to death over the years to the point of it having become embedded in my psyche, and it's become so embedded in my psyche that objections along the lines of either Outlandos d'Amour being a better record, or it's the Police, man, get a grip you cloth-eared twat, for fuck's sake! simply don't register.

It's a smoother record than were the first two, luxuriating in sounds and studio polish of a quality foreshadowing at least two of these people making names for themselves as composers of film soundtracks. There's some of the cod reggae, although it's mostly closer to cod ska, and to be fair, none of it really resembles an impersonation because the cod element was more a starting point than anything; unless you just really need to loathe Sting and all ships in which he hath sailed - which I can sort of understand.

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da is probably about as irritating as you remember it being, and there seem to be a lot of instrumentals, and I never quite warmed to Behind My Camel, not even when it was inexplicably pinched by Ice Cube for something or other; but beyond these minor niggles, Zenyatta Mondatta holds together beautifully as a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

It's just a good album.


Wednesday, 18 July 2018

808 State - ex:el (1991)

Ordinarily I'd have no truck with the sort of self-conscious typographic gymnastics which flout the convention of titles beginning with an upper-case letter, but Ex:el looks weird, so just this once…

This probably wasn't the best album recorded by 808 State, but it's the only one I bought - apart from the thing they did with MC Tunes - so it's the one I'm going to write about. I know they paid their dues and all that, and one of them was A Guy Called Gerald, but listening to this in 2018, I can't help think of all those camouflaged knobs who spent the latter part of the eighties impersonating Front 242, scowling and chanting about obedience over the usual sequencer riffs, all wearing sunhats and blowing whistles by the next decade, having decided that all that techno stuff is dead easy and was only what they'd been doing all along anyway, plus the clubs are a lot safer now that it's not just black people*…

I went back and listened to Newbuild on One'sTube so I know that wasn't where they were coming from at all, and yet that's what ex:el sounds like for the most part. It's too expensive, although as such seemed very much at home on ZTT - acid house which Trevor Horn would be able to understand through being a patently better standard of dance music. Mostly it's beats with a series of jazzy riffs noodling up one after the other in orderly fashion - which is what camouflaged knobs thought acid house did, and which I suspect may have been responsible for intelligent house, or whatever it was called - the ponderously shit stuff. Like most things aimed at either the feet or the arse, intelligent is rarely anything like so satisfying as stupid, which is why the best track here is Cübik because it's a great big slab of square wave during which we can close our eyes and pretend we're listening to Altern-8. The thoroughly overrated Björk provides characteristically arbitrary vocalisations on two tracks, underscoring the image of a band pissing about in the studio, trying out stuff to see what will happen; also underscoring the truism that the best techno albums tended to be collections of established bangers - because that's the best word I could think of - and techno artists shouldn't make albums in the same way that, for example, Yes, made albums.

So ex:el isn't bad, but apart from Cübik and maybe one or two of the others - depending on just how many of those fucking things you've taken - it's more or less a collection of theme tunes and incidental music for regional news programmes.

You'd be better off with the real thing.

*: Because the internet is mostly thick twats these days, I feel I should explain that I present this statement as an example of the sort of thing a camouflaged knob who had spent the latter part of the eighties impersonating Front 242 might say. I am therefore commenting upon a fucking stupid observation rather than making one.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)

As a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Throbbing Gristle, I'm fairly well accustomed to disassociating art from the shitheads who created it, which is handy given Billy Corgan's unfortunate transformation into the tinfoil-hatted Infowars Uncle Fester; because I was once quite partial to a spot of Smashing Pumpkins, or at least to this album. The Pumpkins seem to have benefited from the rush to find something else which sounded a bit like Nirvana back in the early nineties or thereabouts. They didn't particularly sound like Nirvana, beyond a certain emotional thrust and a propensity for huge riffs played on fuzz guitar, but never mind; besides which, I personally always thought they were better.

The secret of their success, or the success of Siamese Dream, is that at heart it's actually just corny old country rock such as dominated the seventies and tended to be sold beneath an airbrushed logo of letters made out of swooshy marshmallow. It's shaved off its handlebar moustache, swapped the flares for leather trousers, and the lyrics are about a million times better, but it's the same thing we recall from Boston, REO Speedwagon, all those I'll Be a Kentucky Fool for Your Lovin' bands. The difference is mostly in a production which has given everything the warm, comforting glow of a codeine haze, and most of that seems to come from the guitar fuzzed to a point approaching soup.

I once mentioned my love of this album to my friend Paul, who said that he didn't know anything about the Smashing Pumpkins except that he only ever saw the name on T-shirts worn by self-harming teenage girls with too much make-up. I can see what the appeal was. There's a strength to the music, a muscular quality but its buried fairly deep beneath layers of all sorts of wounded stuff and with not much posturing involved - like a much more powerful Smiths without the suggestion of whining. I suppose then, this is probably where all those fucking awful emo bands came from, giving us another reason to shun the Corgan, but as is often the case when you go back to the source, this was where someone got the formula exactly right. It's a tender - and almost perfect - album, contrasting vulnerability with an underlying strength, and listening to it feels like recovering from something horrible. It's overwrought, but then that's what it felt like being a teenager, so far as I recall.

...and extra points for writing a song about preferring outer space to having to spend another moment on the same planet as Everett True.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Rimarimba - Chicago Death Excretion Geometry (1987)

Rimarimba was a name which turned up on tape compilations back in the eighties, specifically the Real Time series put out by Unlikely Records. Robert Cox was the man behind both Unlikely Records and Rimarimba, so it sort of felt a little as though he was sneaking this stuff into my home by wrapping it up with the music of acts I actually wanted to hear, Attrition and others; and it sort of felt that way because it's exactly what I would have done. I didn't actually dislike the music of Rimarimba, but it seemed repetitive and fiddly and not entirely my sort of thing; and then suddenly, thirty years later, I bought this album because it was there, affordable where the first two now cost a fucking fortune, and I somehow felt it my duty to buy the thing, like maybe I owed Rimarimba an apology. It felt as though I should at least make an effort, besides which I always find it pleasing when it turns out that some tape dude has made it onto vinyl.

Rimarimba works much better at length - as opposed to broken down into five minute snatches on some cassette - and with a better understanding of what he was trying to do - thanks in part to extensive sleeve notes of the kind one would expect to find on a classical recording. Simply, this is systems music in the vein of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and so on, and as such really needs a broader span of time in which to build up momentum and achieve its effect. I gather this is mostly programmed - sequences of notes, tunes which repeat over and over, change, or are replaced with fresh sequences - and yet it doesn't quite sound so, retaining an organic sense of progression, and the instrumentation is such that it could be played by a small orchestra without anyone giving themselves a hernia. Not being classically trained, as Cox clearly is, I don't fully understand the promises made in the sleeve notes regarding the structure of the music or what he was trying to do with it, but it nevertheless feels like a satisfying, rounded piece of work, not quite hypnotic but definitely immersive, which leaves faint traces of mood in the consciousness even after the needle has lifted from the end of the second side - sort of how the ambling melodies of village church bells can stay lodged long after one has passed by.