Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Stereolab - Switched On (1992)

Music used to be much better than it is now, back in the good old days. Music is now rubbish. It used to be great, but now it isn't.

The debate, such as it is, rages on - if the term rage can really be applied to a discourse which chunders along with all the vitality of piss dripping from the leaf of a stinging nettle. My cousin or niece or whatever the hell she is opined as much on facebook a while back. People today don't know what proper music is, she boldy suggested. My dad made sure we only had proper music in my house when I was growing up, classics like the Jam, the Who, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene…

She's young, so I left it.

More recently, YouTube suggested that I might enjoy a twenty-minute sermon on the subject of why music used to be much better than it is now. The address is delivered by one of those YouTube pundits I generally try to avoid, a person identifying himself as Thoughty2. His avatar is a picture of himself scratching his chin, having thoughts, because that's what you do when you have thoughts. You scratch your chin and maybe raise one eyebrow a little. For a small fee, one can subscribe to Thoughty's private feed and gain exclusive access to what he describes as mind-blowing videos such as These Ancient Relics Are so Advanced They Shouldn't Exist or Who Was the Most Terrifying Pirate of All Time? The one about how music is now shit opens with Thoughty courageously flying in the face of the consensus by suggesting that Justin Bieber isn't as good as the Beatles - really going out on a fucking limb there, boy - before informing us that this has now been scientifically proven in a laboratory. I don't know what that scientific proof could be because I stopped watching after three minutes and I don't really care. I'm guessing it will be something about tonal complexity, harmony, and how the brain responds, which strikes me as different to saying that I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am by Herman's Hermits is objectively superior to World War 303 by Rozzer's Dog.

I have a problem with this sort of gormless nostalgia, which is after all only a variation on Peter Kay endlessly chuckling over discontinued chocolate bars - it's important because I remember it. Just like the ontological significance of Curly Wurly, music is a largely subjective experience which as such cannot be meaningfully quantified in any sense other than how it may do more or less of something done by some other piece of music; so it is therefore surely best judged in terms of how well it does whatever it sets out to do. Whether whatever it has set out to do was anything worth doing is another thing entirely, and there's probably not much to be gained arguing over it unless you're a complete fucking twat. Maybe Britney Spears is quantifiably more shit as an artist than, off the top of my head, Pink Floyd; but then ...Baby One More Time, still sounds decent to me, while Pink Floyd still sound like four hairy hippies having a really slow wank which they will later describe as amaaaaaaazing spelt with thirteen letters. The argument that Pink Floyd are quantifiably superior to Britney Spears makes as much sense as saying ...Baby One More Time is a better record than The Medium was Tedium by the Desperate Bicycles purely because it sold more.

The thing is that persons such as Thoughty and his ilk are people with no Elvis in 'em, as Mojo Nixon would have it. Their purpose is to commodify nostalgia and sell it back to us as a superior brand on grounds equivalent to the notion that it shifts 25% more grease than the products of leading competitors.

So nostalgia and the invocation of things past has always thrown me. I've enjoyed music which recreates some previous form, but I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea, and I still can't quite shake the feeling that Stereolab were only ever the krautrock Showaddywaddy - which isn't to say that I dislike them. In fact I have about seven or eight albums - Switched On, and then - tellingly - various things picked up at CD & DVD Exchange, because for some reason CD & DVD Exchange always has a ton of old Stereolab in the racks. I inevitably own albums by Neu! and La Düsseldorf and the rest, so I know where Stereolab were coming from; and I used to write to Tim Gane back when he was in the Unkommuniti, and that krautrock chug was already evident even on those tapes he recorded in his bedroom in homage to H.P. Lovecraft. Yet of all the albums, I've listened to Switched On a lot, and the rest only every so often when I'll dig one out and wonder whether it was as good as Switched On, which it never is. It's not even like the others are as repetitive as I tend to remember them being. Each album sounds a little different, representing some subtle variation on a theme, but the differences are such that it always feels as though someone found a previously undiscovered clip of 1970s Open University and a whole new seam of retrofuturism ripe for exploitation; and you begin to wonder if anyone in the band was ever told off for accidentally sounding like something which happened later than 1975. Maybe this sonic resuscitation of forgotten sound is justified as a one-off exercise in working within certain limitations, but an entire back catalogue?

Denim got away with it somehow, or got away with a variation on this sort of necromancy, but there seemed to be a peculiarly militant purpose there. Billy Childish justifies what he does by arguing that if something still works, then you may as well put it to use, which is after all why so many blues records still sound powerful half a century later; but I just don't know with Stereolab. There's a track on Sound-Dust which sounds like fucking Lily the Pink, which is just being cunty for the sake of it, if you ask me - which you sort of did by virtue of your having read this far.

It's all bollocks.

Switched On was the first Stereolab record I heard, given to me for my birthday by my girlfriend of the time, and I didn't really listen to it until a few nights before we were about to split up, nearly a year later. She was moving away and I knew it wasn't going to last much longer, which was probably for the best but it was a weird time. I was confused, upset, couldn't sleep, and I stayed up one night listening to this record over and over until about four in the morning; and it sounded perfect, almost happy with a profound twist of melancholia, a feeling which couldn't even be described in words. It's in the drone and the repetition, the contrast of the chug with sweet voices, and the key change which takes three or four minutes to build to a peak and then pulls your heart out when it flips over. None of their other records ever came close for me, not compared to this one; and that is what music is about - not some wibbling crap longing for the security of the familiar because it's scary out there, or mathematical equations supposedly proving that Bob Dylan is 87% more betterer than Stormzy because he doesn't need to say cunt or bollocks to express himself. I couldn't give a shit what Switched On does in terms of musicology or whether anyone else in the universe gets the same out of it as I do. I only care what it does when I listen to it.

See also all other music ever.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Hare and the Moon - The Gray Malkin (2010)

Just to get it out of the way, I was once quite partial to the neofolk. It's appeal, at least for me, lay in the juxtaposition of musical forms which had, by that point, become indelibly stamped as innocuous through childhood memories of watching Val Doonican or the Spinners on the telly, in stark contrast with the subject matter, the black uniforms, the whole ambiguity of are they or aren't they? - which has obvious appeal when you're young, irritable and disinclined to think about anything in too much detail. Then as you get older, you realise that they are - or were in a few cases - which is probably partially why we're in the mess that we're in now and why no-one seems quite certain as to whether Hitler is still a bad guy or just someone who went about things the wrong way. Anyway, the realisation left something of a bad taste in my mouth because really, I knew on some level that there was more to our neofolk banner carriers than simply not liking reggae. Having one of the more corpulent representatives of the form visit me in my own home, take up space on my sofa, use my artwork, call me a fairy on his website, and then turn out to have really, really, really disliked reggae all along was also annoying, and has subsequently somewhat sucked the fun out of listening to the one Sol Invictus album that wasn't shit.

So, it takes work to get me listening to neofolk, and I notice with some sense of relief that the Hare and the Moon wisely shun the term on their Bandcamp page, rather citing their influences as M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Black Sabbath, amongst others. This is actually a cassette edition of their second album issued by the ATSLA label in 2014, kindly sent to me by the man from ATSLA. It's a bit strange getting a cassette tape through the post in the year 2018, but strange in a good way because I prefer physical objects to things downloaded. I tend to appreciate music stored on physical media due to the greater effort expended in creating it, obtaining it or listening to it. Also, having spent the last couple of years digitising tapes from my own collection, some dating back to 1980, I have come to realise that reports of cassette tape as an unreliable, second rate medium have been grossly exaggerated. Of the hundreds of cassettes I've digitised so far, I have encountered no discernible reduction in sound quality, excepting on a couple of Memorex tapes, and Memorex were always shit so it's no big surprise. By contrast, I've lost count of the number of CDRs which have since degraded into digital slush.

Cassette tapes were a wonderful and democratic medium. Almost anyone could record something. They were cheap and easy to duplicate and to send to other people. One could listen to a cassette tape without requiring a fucking password or expensive glitch-prone technology. The odd one might get chewed up, but it was pretty rare if you kept your tape deck clean and stuck to decent quality tapes; and maybe they won't last forever, but most of them will probably last as long as you're alive and I don't know why anyone would need them to last longer.

So yes, this is a nice thing to have received in the post; and to finally get to the point, the Hare and the Moon tap into the folk tradition and the folklore of the British isles and its countryside without any of the bollocks I've grown to find so distasteful, or any of that whining about one's culture being under assault. I grew up in the British countryside, which was actually sort of terrifying. My childhood was spent within a stones throw of Meon Hill in Warwickshire, famed for witchcraft related murders having taken place in living memory; so as a child, the background noise of my existence was very much the sort of thing invoked by M.R. James and seen in The Wicker Man, which is why I now live in a city. The Hare and the Moon capture the rhythm of that world very well without necessarily sounding like an historical re-enactment of anything. Traditional instrumentation is here blended with the electronic to produce a fusion which reminds me a little of Eno's work with David Bowie; and so, something I might ordinarily have avoided turns out to defy expectations, and to provide a breath of very fresh air. Had neofolk been a bit more like this than how it mostly turned out, the world might have been a better place.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Consumer Electronics - Crowd Pleaser (2009)

I was never exactly drawn to Consumer Electronics. I liked Filthy Art, which was on some tape about a million years ago, but never felt I really needed to own more, just as I've never felt I needed too many Whitehouse albums in my home; but having come to precariously know Philip Best through mutual facebook friends, and having realised that there seems to be a lot more to his work than I initially realised, I bought this - albeit mainly because the lad had found a stash of unsold copies in the cupboard under the stairs and was selling them off at regular price; and it really seemed like I should buy one before they end up going for silly prices on Discogs.

So here we are.

I saw Whitehouse live several decades ago, back when Best first joined and they entered their terrorising the audience phase. It made such an impression on me that I duly ripped them off for a performance piece as part of the art foundation course I was taking at the time. I invited fellow students into a room, then shouted at them through an amplifier. Everyone was shocked, and it did a job, but sounds fucking comical on the tape recording made of the event - just me screeching and hoping no-one notices that I hadn't actually put much thought into the general thrust of my abuse. There's one point where nervous laughter breaks out and you can hear me squeak, you're not supposed to be laughing, like a sort of power electronics Frank Spencer. Once I was done, there was a question and answer session during which one particular knobend asked whether I'd been influenced by the Vyvyan character from the Young Ones. That's how good it was.

Not that any of that was Philip Best's fault, at least not directly, but that was what I'd been reminded of when listening to the occasional spot of Consumer Electronics on YouTube. It somehow sounded too much like a fight on a council estate or the worst EastEnders episode evah; or it didn't but that's the best I can do to describe my reservations. On the other hand, I don't think you really like power electronics as such because that isn't the point, besides which, the form always seems more at home in a live setting, given that the point is probably our reaction more than our appreciation. Nevertheless, even without necessarily feeling the need to listen, I was intrigued by the seemingly philosophical dimension which had begun to intrude upon the last few Whitehouse albums, at least meaning it had become more than variations on Nilsen was a good lad and now I'm going to do you up the wrong un'.

So, to get to the point, what the fuck do we actually have here?

Accustomed as I am to listening to screaming rackets, Crowd Pleaser is tough going even by the standards of that with which I've become familiar, wherein the noise has some kind of obvious aesthetic appeal comparable to interesting patterns seen in broken concrete. The instrumental Oily Possibilities on the second side has an element of this, up to a point, but otherwise all parts of the whole seem dedicated to denying the listener even the smallest pleasure. It's electronic noise pushed beyond any aesthetic potential towards something you simply don't want going into your ears, something which is impossible to experience without feeling uneasy, something which comes pretty close to duplicating the physiological reaction you would experience in a live situation; and here's the distinction which I didn't really get - this is, I would imagine, why Best all but tears out his own throat in vomiting up the dialogue, tirade, or whatever you want to call it. It's not supposed to sound cool or reassuringly nihilistic like that nice Michael Gira or Nick fucking Cave crooning about black holes and humiliation. It's not about a tidily dark atmosphere in the traditionally Bohemian sense, but is more like the thing sucking all of the atmosphere out of the room. This isn't even I'm Coming Up Your Ass or anything so obvious or easily quantified. If it's about anything, it's something so fucking awful that there's no point trying to describe it, which is possibly why this exists as a record rather than an essay. It's a fight or flight panic response jammed on eleven, or half-memories of horrible childhood shit I'm not even going to bring up because it's nobody's business, and it makes most of those other noisy lads and lasses sound like cabaret turns.

That's the best I can do without vanishing up my own bumhole in trying to describe this thing, even though I'm probably already half the way up. Crowd Pleaser seems designed to spend as little time on your turntable as possible, which is itself bizarrely fascinating. Consumer Electronics treat us mean to keep us keen, I suppose you would say.

I'll shut up now.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)

Fuck it - let's do this. Nevermind is the greatest rock album ever recorded and the work of the most profoundly sensitive man-genius ever to die for our sins. We know this because of its enduring popularity and the undeniable lasting influence it had on everything which followed, or at least quite a lot of what followed. I don't think Nevermind made much difference to, off the top of my head, anyone inhabiting fields of music which weren't white blokes with guitars, but - you know…

Personally I found it all a bit mystifying at the time. They sounded okay, and they had some pretty songs, but there were about a million other bands I liked more, bands whom I felt did the same thing better. Nirvana weren't even top of the Seattle pile in my house, but still, I suppose, they had something which spoke to indie kids already bored with sun hats and the Stone Roses. Nirvana sounded big and they rocked, and the McCartneyesque simplicity of those riffs was hard to ignore, and Butch Vig's mix was just so fucking nice and tidy, and there was Kurt with his dreamy blue eyes looking a bit sad, and didn't you just want to take him home and make him some soup, maybe watch Three Men and a Baby on VHS with him - something funny to cheer him up a bit?

Well, I didn't, but clearly he communicated something of the sort to a certain cross-section of his fans; and you could hear the words, and he wasn't like totally gross like that fat guy from Tad.

I'm so ugly, but that's okay 'cause so are you.
See! He understood!

Lithium just sounds like some glam stomper with a fuzz guitar to me. Maybe it's the chorus with its presumably unintentional homage to Olivia Newton-John's A Little More Love. You could stripe it onto footage of the Bay City Rollers and no-one would know the difference.

Then we come to Polly.

Polly wants a cracker.
I think I should get off her first.
I think she wants some water,
To put out the blow torch.

The song seems to reference the popular seventies joke about the person who paints their parrot with emulsion because they would have preferred one of a different colour, and who then changes their mind.

'I told you the paint would kill it,' says the man in the shop.

'It wasn't the paint,' explains the star of the joke, 'it was the blow torch I used to get rid of the first coat.'

Polly always sounded like it was trying too hard to my ears, yet another example of the slightly tedious mainstream surrealism similarly favoured by Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton and all those other useless wankers - the formulaic juxtaposition of innocence and horror which squares, people without imagination, and twelve year-old boys always seem to think represents something profound.

Pippi Longstocking with an assault rifle!

Winnie the Pooh in the gulag!

Alice scoring 'ludes in Wonderland!


Did I shock you?

Did I blow your mind?

I'm not even going to bother with the song about how they only wanted cool people at their shows. I don't like gun wielding shitheads either, but there must surely have been a better way of putting it than In Bloom.

Still, the bottom line is that nothing I could say here will ever matter, because Nevermind is just too big to pick a fight with, and even I have to admit it's a great record providing you don't overthink it. Nirvana was grunge beating the music industry to its own commodification, and that's their genius and their significance, which is why we'll still be seeing dunderheaded murals of Kurt high-fiving John, Jimi, and Sid for many years to come. He was never the messiah - nor even a particularly amazing song writer, for that matter - and the real tragedy is that I doubt he ever regarded himself as anything of the sort. Most likely he would have been mortified by the idea.

Nevermind is toe tapping tunes nicely sung and recorded, but that's really all - no more, no less. I had this on tape, then ended up buying the record on a day when I just really wanted to buy an album, and this was the only thing in the store I could imagine listening to. More than twenty years later, I still haven't played it much because I've had no reason to do so. All of its parts are right there on display with nothing to draw me in any further. There is as little mystery in the grooves as in the sledgehammer allegory of the cover, an image which even an episode of sixties Star Trek would dismiss as a bit obvious.