TOP TEN SINGLES
1/ Daft Punk, "Digital Love" (Virgin)
hot pink electric jizz
2/ Missy Elliott, "Get UR Freak On" (Elektra)
3/ Brassy, "Work It Out" (Wiija)
coming on strong like a breakbeat-aware "Cannonball" Breeders
4/ Pay As U Go Kartel, "Know We" (Solid City)
4/So Solid Crew, "They Don't Know" (Independiente)
paired for peculiar "to know us is to playa-hate us" theme as much as for
twin-pronged spearheading of UKG-turning-into-UKrap phenomenon
6/ Aaliyah, "We Need A Resolution" (Blackground)
slinky and sinister, a new noir Aaliyah we'll never get to fully see, sob
7/ QB's Finest, "Oochy Wally" (Ill Will/Sony)
nearly entirely for the quavery full-of-Eastern-promise maiden-vocal sample--
filched from Gong, allegedly!
8/ I-Sound, DJ Scud & Errorsmith, Roots, Rock, Ravers EP (Transparent)
you know the coo: strickly old skool Y2K biznis---bass-2-dark-step rootskore for
the 'r-r-r-r-riginal ravin' kru -- FIRING!!!! (innit)
9/ Shut Up and Dance, "Moving Up"
comeback of 2001: more MC garridge biznis with hella catchy dancehall/soca vocal
10/ that goddamn dancehall tune [actually by T.O.K., title I forgot]
Inescapable, unidentifiable (by me anyway...)... the one with a sort of
soca/calypso/Harry Belafonte "day-o/daylight come and me carry the bananas" type
chorus going about the "cheechee man" (poss. homophobic bogey-figure?), beats
like dynamite detonating under your heels, and ultra-gruff DJ (Elephant Man?)
going about how his crew makes laws, fights war, represents the lords of
hardcore. Or words to that effect... One of the few dancehall tunes to relight
my fiyah this year.
Basement Jaxx "Romeo" (top video) and "Where's My Head At"
(double top video), Ginuwine "Changed My World" (or whatever it's called: the
deliciously caramelized ballad about how he doesn't hang out with the boys he
stays home with her alternately whispering sweet nothings giving back-rubs and
cunnilingering for hours on end); Sum 41 "Fat Lip" (plastic-punk so fake it's
beyond fake, toppermost video), Tahiti 80 "A Love From Outer Space" (sweet of
them to even remember A.R. Kane), DMX "We Right Here" (just the right side of
inane), Squarepusher "My Red Hot Car" (only the smirk spoils this slinky
TOP TWENTY ALBUMS
1/ PULP We Love Life (Island)
This is essentially Pulp's make-or-break record in terms of them remaining any kind of mainstream pop force. After the sales shortfall of This Is Hardcore, their career arc would logically point towards settling into a sort of Lukes Haines-level culthood: literate, mordant pop that reaps critical acclaim for its probing of England's seamy underbelly. But this would be settling for less: there's clearly a populist streak to Jarvis Cocker, a rabble-rousing, Everyman-championing impulse evident in the anthemic-ness of "Mis-Shapes" and "Common People," and his thrilling disruption of Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards.
Pulp are the kind of group whose music is somehow massively enhanced by massive popularity, and arguably diminished in corresponding proportions by its absence. So the choice of Scott Walker as producer of their comeback---while sure to make hipster sorts like myself moisten their underpants with excitement--is not terribly auspicious. Walker, after all, is the heart-throb crooner who whittled away his Sixties fame with four brilliantly pretentious solo albums, and whose sole recording of the last decade was the ultra-abstruse Tilt. While *Pulp* never approaches the forbidding orchestral density of that album, there is a Scott-like grandeur in the sheer size of the sound. And words-wise it's almost like Cocker's ratcheted up the ambitiousness levels to match the producer's visionary lyrical scope.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with the opening two-song suite of "Weeds" and "Weeds II (Origin of the Species)". As mulch-for-metaphor, gardening goes to the core of Englishness--Gardener's Question Time, landscape gardening at stately homes, allotments, the garden city movement. Even in pop, it's got potent resonances: the image of youth as "flowers in the dustbin" in the Pistols's "God Save the Queen," Flowered Up as hopeful blooms struggling up through cracks in the city pavement. "Weeds" is essentially a rewrite of "Mis-Shapes", replacing the first song's trope (misfits as the broken biscuits rejected at the factory) with those renegade plants that every gardener fears. Cocker uses the idea of weeds to symbolize the underclass, that enemy within Albion's green and pleasant land. Set to a majestic lumber that faintly recalls Led Zep's "Kashmir", the song vaguely heralds some kind of vengeance for this vegetable proletariat. "Origin of the Species" shifts up several gears in terms of complexity and provocation. Musically, it's a breathtaking panorama of symphonic funk, full of eerie spaces and soaring clusters of backing harmony. Lyrically, it transforms the insights of "Common People" about class tourists and slumming voyeurs into a grand indictment of the way the music industry operates: picking up on underclass innovations in style and expression, then mass-marketing them to a middle class audience eager for a controlled dose of life on the edge. Cocker brilliantly sustains the gardening imagery (cuttings, hothouses, poor soil, exotic strains, "very short flowering seasons", first bloomings swiftly followed by decay) but then almost overloads this already perilously extended metaphor by introducing the other connotations of "weed", as drug: "growing wild then harvested in their prime", and proffered at dinner parties as "a sensational buzz". But a searing rage surfaces through this elegant allegory, in lines like "take a photo of life in the margins... then get a taxi home" or the parodied condescension of "c'mon do your funny little dance." For clearly Jarvis feels this is how he's treated: as a freak on a leash, a token prole.
The two "Weeds" are just the start of a thread of imagery relating to flora and fauna, the English countryside, Nature as despoiled yet resilient and renewing. "The Trees" starts with the stop-you-in-your-tracks image of the protagonist armed with an air rifle and shooting a magpie to the ground, "where it died without a sound." The sheer poisoned vindictiveness of this act is an appropriate one-for-sorrow kick-off to a song about strolling through woods where you once had romantic trysts with a lover now departed. "The Trees" is a lyrical tour-de-force that risks absurdity but achieves a sort of Nick-Cave-aping-Jimmy-Webb pathos, from the heavy-hearted sigh of the chorus ("those useless trees/produce the air that I am breathing... those useless trees/they never said that you were leaving") to the lines "the smell of leaf mold and the sweetness of decay/are the incense at the funeral procession here today." The music is stunning, driven by a Walker-esque orchestral riff borrowed from a Sixties spy-movie soundtrack and encompassing an exquisitely forlorn electric organ solo that's pure Robert Wyatt.
Eight minutes long, "Wickerman" is the album's centrepiece: it's about a real river that flows underneath Sheffield, channelled through "dirty brickwork conduits." Cocker's lyrics make me think of John Cooper Clarke's "Beasley Street" or Morrissey's "river/ the color of lead." This is a stream of memory that carries Jarvis back to moments in love, like a first kiss in a shabby cafe where outside "a child's toy horse ride... played such a ridiculously tragic tune." This girl is a composite of lost lovers: he recalls another riverbank vignette, "except you were somebody else". The river is also a witness, a Cocker-like observer of ordinary lives, flowing beneath "pensioners gathering dust like bowls of plastic tulips" and passing an old sweets factory that burned down decades ago leaving "an antiquated sweet shop smell/and caverns of nougat and caramel." Finally, the river is also some kind of life-force, the polluted pulse of a bygone England, distorted by industrialisation yet indomitable. Jarvis imagines following its course all the way through and surfacing "surrounded by grass and trees". Like Neil Young in "Cortez the Killer", he knows he'll find "her" there.
*Pulp* has its share of songs that don't quite make it. Sparkling with semi-acoustic guitars, the obscurely titled "Bob Lind" recalls Felt or The Byrds at their best. Lyrically, though, it's got some good lines but is essentially well-trodden ground, about admitting you're a fuck-up as the only honest basis for real love. Narratively opaque and vocally strained, "The Night Minnie Timperly Died" seems like a botched anthem. rousing but fatally unclear as to what's it actually about. I still don't know what to make of "Birds In Your Garden," an acoustic guitar ballad adorned with simulated bird-song and a recorder. The song seems to want to be this album's "Something Changed", but the lyrics are just the wrong side of daft: two estranged lovers lie in bed, together but alone, until the dawn chorus tells the man to shag-and-make-up before it's too late. The final lines, in which Cocker confesses that "the birds in your garden... taught me the words to this song" are the glace cherry on top of a very sickly cake. An atrocity against good taste, for sure, yet there's a sort of corny majesty that recalls "Seasons In The Sun". Conversely, "I Love Life" is hard-to-stomach for its sourness. From the limping beat to Cocker's bile-choked, decrepit vocal, the song seems ready for the knacker's yard. Persevere, though, and this ailing ballad suddenly surges off with the idiot energy of early Roxy, Cocker howling from the gut like primal-scream Lennon.
*Pulp* lunges for greatness in its final stretch. "Bad Cover Version" goes for the Yiddish Grand Slam--kitsch, shlock, and chintz. With its massed backing harmonies and Three Degrees-like bells, it seems to come from the same rank cleft in UK pop meMORy that contains golden moldies like Brotherhood of Man and Paper Lace. Listening, you can visualize the BBC light entertainment orchestra: musicians with their kipper ties and headphones, the white-suited and baton-waving bandleader with his blatant toupee and smarmy grin. The words are some of Cocker's wittiest, flipping the old Who "substitute for another guy" idea and making Jarvis the definitive original and his successor the fake whose kiss tastes of saccharine. The song goes out with a list of gone-to-crap pop artefacts like the later Tom & Jerry cartoons, the Stones post-1980, own-brand cornflakes, and, rather cheekily, the disappointing side two of Til the Band Comes In by Scott Walker. "Road Kill" is all slow building grandeur a la "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", cymbal-smashes like sea-spray in slow-motion, up-swirling spires of sound. It's about another doomed love, heralded by the ghastly portent of a deer struck down and "dying in the road". Cocker sifts through precious memories, images like scars on his mind's eye: "all these things I see... though I don't see you anymore". Finally, "Sunrise" recalls Sixties balladeer Tim Rose, who specialized in a sort of anti-heroic grandeur, the doomed pathos of guys with a fatal flaw, condemned to spend the rest of their days alone and contemplating the ruins of their life. Likewise Cocker's protagonist hates the sun because its glare starkly illuminates his mountainous failures. If the clever-clever self-deprecation of lines about overfilling "the ashtray of my life" or how "my achievements in days of yore/range from pathetic to piss-poor" lean towards bathos rather than tragedy, everything changes with the shooting-star chorus and its sudden heart-rush of confidence that any life, however fucked, can be transformed. With its angelic choir nodding to "You Can't Always Get What You Want", the stratospheric-drive of the song's final minutes is the essential ascension after an album of largely unrelieved gloom.
Whether *Pulp* restores Pulp to the centre of UK pop culture or not (and I fear the bizarre contours of Cocker's lyrical imagination might be hard for punters to get their heads around), this record has achieved the sort of freestanding quality and distinction that ultimately makes popular impact irrelevant. Two or three of the songs I'd put right up there alongside their producer at his most godlike genius-like, "Plastic Palace People" or "Boy Child". There's no higher praise.
Pick Hit: "Road Kill"
2/ DAFT PUNK Discovery (Virgin)
Surely the best "Side One" of any CD in recent memory, those first six songs up
to and including the "I'm Not In Love" rip-off. "Digital Love" (Kieran's
favorite tune of the year, heavy-rotated to the point of almost being ruined for
me) does the kitsch/kosmik "camp sublime" like nothing since since World Of
Twist's "Sons of the Stage": yummy Supertramp lick, Van Halen-like frothing
geyser ejaculations of guitarspunk. Love that filtered sound on "Digital" and
"One More Time": sorta glossy and faded at the same time, like if plastic could
rust. A few dull patches of filter-house by numbers, but "Something About Us' is
a heartbreakingly tentative love song, and "Veridis Quo" is like the wistful
theme from an early Eighties French movie about a lonely girl in Toulouse or
something. I like the way they've stuck with the vocoder thing way beyond it
being utterly played-out. Are they saying something about the impossibility of
hearing "authentic" unprocessed human emotion these days? (It's also cool that
they then proceed to get Todd Edwards, famed for his vocal cut-up techniques, to
do a totally straight untampered-with vocal on "Face to Face"). Re. the topic of
inauthenticity, I think it was Tim Finney at Skykicking who was riffing on
Discovery being about "decadance". And there is something simultaneously witty
and eerie about the way Daft Punk fold in all the AOR lite-metal/FM soft rock
influences from the absolute null void of American radio rock (late
Seventies/early Eighties, New Wave never really arrived), as if to point out
dance culture's decline into similarly corporatized, anodyne edgelessness. Then
again, maybe they just purely and non-ironically dig ELO, Frampton, Boston,
Halen, et al..
Pick Hit: "Digital Love"
3/ CANNIBAL OX Cold Vein (Def Jux)
In mainstream hip hop, there's been this rap-meets-rave thing going on: B-boys-on-E like Ludacris and Ja Rule riding grooves built from techno riffs, sci-fi synth, and twisted junglistic beats. Meanwhile, there's a weirdly parallel syndrome on the underground scene, with indie-label rap getting ever closer to left-field electronica---a phenomenon signalled by the recent Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit with its mix of MCs and post-Autechre artists. Cold Vein takes this unexpected hybrid further still. Without borrowing anything blatantly obvious from electronica, the album shows that hip hop can be as texturally abstract and dysfunktionally beat-weird as the most glitch-wracked vanguard techno.
Cannibal Ox---Harlem-based duo Vordul Megilah and Vast Aire--are proteges of producer El-P, who founded the Def Jux label and is something like hip hop's Steve Albini: a fervent loather of the corporate music industry and a producer with a finely-tuned appreciation for the granular texture of different kinds of distortion. Sonically, Cold Vein is essentially a continuation of El-P's first band Company Flow--same mucky samples, draggy tempos, and sprained, lurching beats. The music's feel of more-dead-than-alive perseverance perfectly complements Vordul & Vast's cold cold worldview: a panorama of urban decay populated by obsessive imagery of vultures, dogs, rats, pigeons (rats-with-wings), and phoenixes rising from the embers.
El-P cites Schoolly D's 1986 debut as formative influence. Just post-electro, that was a time when rap's harsh stabs and punishing drum machine beats had more in common with Swans or indeed Big Black than the smooth R&B of Luther Vandross. Old skool electro is the common ancestry shared by underground hip hoppers and your Autechre types (who invariably seem to have grown up breakdancing in deserted shopping centres). Cold Vein's sound, though, is more like electro gone decrepit, its futuristic chrome sheen mottled with corrosion. El-P likes cruddy sounds: gremlins-in-your-ear, computer-malfunction bleeps, cheap synth bombast like a video-nasty soundtrack. His tracks seem to bleed from multiple stab-wounds, seep abject frothy liquids like the dying android in Alien. And his disjointed beats frustrate the boogie-down impulse (not for nothing was Company Flow's debut called Funcrusher). Add to this Vordul and Vast's lyrics--some of the most I-be-the-prophet-and-the-future's-not-looking-terribly-bright rhymes since Sunz of Man's "Soldiers of Darkness"--and you've got a classic of noir Gnostic hip hop.
Highlights? "Iron Galaxy," with its moon-walk groove weirdly reminiscent of Donna Summer's "State of Independence" and savage scratching that serves to remind that this particular technique of technology-abuse was the original glitch. "Straight off the D.I.C." stumbles and flails like some Cronenbourg biomechanical creature, half-videoplayer, half-Doberman. "Real Earth" swirls nauseously, a slow-motion maelstrom of sewage and industrial effluent. "Pigeon" is like some unholy merger of Tricky's "Aftermath" and Royal Trux's ghostown blues: a stately keyboard theme conjures vistas of imperial dereliction, Rome sacked and torched, buildings like broken teeth, dunes of smoking masonry. Following this decline-and-fall tableau, the final hidden tracko "Scream Phoenix" is the faint-glimpse-of-heaven that follows the season in hell, a la Maxinquaye's "Feed Me": a limping blues guitar figure and stricken angel-choir from the soundtrack of some worn-out videotape create a swoony/queasy effect last heard on MBV's Loveless. This is hip hop at its most visionary and challenging.
Pick Hit: "Pigeon"
4/ THE AVALANCHES Since I Left You (XL Recordings)
(Take One, from Uncut)
You should hear the things people say about The Avalanches: "Basement Jaxx meets the Beta Band," "Stardust crossed with Stereolab," sample-based music with the freshness of Foxbase Alpha and the playful wit of 3 Feet High and Rising. With such mouthwatering parallels bandied around, you're almost set up to be underwhelmed by this Australian outfit's debut. Amazingly, Since I Left You lives up to the hype. At the end, you feel dazed and bemused, partly because you're concussed by its tumultuous on-rush of non-stop brilliance, but also because it's hard to put your finger on why the Avalanches are so special, so different.
It's not that there's anything unusual about the group's modus operandi (the album was assembled out of samples from 600 records scavenged during 18 months of field research in second-hand vinyl shops). Wagon Christ's Luke Vibert is no slouch at alchemizing stale cheese into soulful gold and even claims to prefer "shit records" as sample-sources; Bentley Rhythm Ace scour car boot sales for kitschadelic treasure; electronic clowns V/Vm bulk-buy unsellable CD singles and hilariously deface the oeuvres of Shakin' Stevens and Russ Abbott. Nor is it the case that Avalanches do anything especially complicated or technically advanced with their raw material: they loop the samples, layer the loops, drop them in and out of the mix, twist them into strange little riffs. So why is Since I Left You such a relentless loop-da-loop rollercoaster of thrills? Could it be because the group's delight at the sonic jetsam they've salvaged is palpable in every bar of the record? (You can just imagine the exultant whoops when they unearthed the soundbites about a chap called Dexter--same name as the Avalanches singer--who's "criminally insane" and "needs therapy"). Or is it just the sheer un-restraint and gratuitous generosity with which they pile it all on thick?.
Composed out of approximately one thousand "good bits" from other records, Since I Left You rarely feels bitty. The Avalanches's forte isn't technical so much as the art of listening and spotting compatibilities between disparate sounds. For it's one thing to take three or four sampled elements and make them work together, and quite another to take twenty or fifty (which is what many songs here sound like) and making them mesh them together as a plausible, integrated composition (while still retaining that uncanny sampladelic see-the-joins quality). Drawing on exotica, surf music, animal noises, film scores, Francoise Hardy-style Gallic girl-pop, and chartpop from the last five decades, Since hits hardest in the tingly treble zone: your ears are dazzled by acoustic guitars, Radio 2 strings, flute-twirls, harp-ripples, piano trills, dulcet snippets of la-la-la-ing female vocal, tinkling vibes, twinkling electric piano, bursts of heavenly choir. Into this wafts explosions of merriment, dinner table hubbub, football terrace fervor, foghorn blasts, and glorious non-sequiturs like "he also made false teeth." Gorgeously goofy hookphrases like "I got the bubbly/bubbling through me" pop to the surface, momentarily crystallising the music's effervescence. "Tonight", one of the few downtempo lulls, sounds like a Shirley Bassey ballad played on badly warped vinyl. And if tunes like "Frontier Psychiatry" (the one with the Dexter-is-a-loony samples) and "Flight Tonight" verge on Big Beat wackiness, others, like "Etoh" and "Summer Crane," evoke near-mystical feelings of tenderness and rejoicing, sensations of existensial buoyancy and the dizzy bliss that ensues when you lose count of your blessings.
Since I Left You is experienced as one long flow. Structurally (its onion-skin layers of crescendo, the absence of gaps between tracks) and emotionally (an almost painfully plangent euphoria) the record it reminds me most of is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. But really The Avalanches are the southern hemisphere's Daft Punk. Since I Left You makes a superb companion to the latter's own kitschadelic masterpiece Discovery. If the French house maestros have a slight edge it's only because their own particular brand of cheese---the Seventies shlock-rock of ELO, Frampton, 10 CC, Buggles--is slightly more unusual and piquant than Avalanches's EZ-listening and novelty pop. But unless we're very lucky and other contenders miraculously enter the fray, it'll be these two jostling for Best Dance Album 2001 at year's end.
(Take 2, from Spin)
When it comes to music, misery has a monopoly on credibility (just ask Thom and Trent), and a furrowed brow and tormented soul are essential if you aspire to "deep". "Happy" is a tough act to pull off without seemingly smugly serene (post-Astral Weeks Van Morrison, say), irritatingly jaunty, or simply simpleminded. There are exceptions, of course--Al Green, Brian Wilson, most Krautrock. Now Australian dance six-piece The Avalanches join this illustrious company. Just as the Eskimos have 30 words for different kinds of snow, The Avalanches revel in a thousand subtle shades of joy.
Dance music's own version of "deep" is the way connoisseurs use "dark" as a term of approval. "Dark" typically refers to genres where bass frequencies dominate and treble's been purged (along with melody, the human voice, and general pleasantness). On Since, by contrast, you barely notice the basslines (except when the groove from Madonna's "Holiday" frolics into the fray), while the pounding house beat is more rudimentary than even Daft Punk's. Instead, the Avalanches sound is all about the high end: swirling strings, spangly harps, billowing flutes, twinkly trickles of electric piano, dulcet feminine harmonies, plus the occasional male vocal pitched up to sound angelic. This densely layered cornucopia of radiance and rhapsody (a 1000 samples from around 600 records) is the result of a year spent combing Sydney's thrift-stores for used vinyl. On tracks like ""Two Hearts In 3/4 Time" and "A Different Feeling", the Avalanches tweeter assault resembles Stereolab's Francophile EZ listening crossed with Stardust's French filter disco. Treble not only evokes light, it creates lightheadedness. Since makes you feel dizzy, fizzy inside---a champagne-for-blood sensation captured on "Diners Only" with its catchy whispered chant "got the bubbly/bubbling through me/sparkling sparkling".
With no gaps between its eighteen tracks, just a non-stop groove, Since I Left You is so madly glad, it's demented. But it's not all relentless rejoicing. There are exquisite bittersweet tints to tracks like "Etoh", a sense of heartbursting euphoria shadowed by the intimation that all things must pass. And the downtempo "Tonight" is almost blue. But glumness is instantly banished by the following "Frontier Psychiatry", a Big Beaty jape dotted with wacky soundbites like "that boy needs therapy" and "he also made false teeth." "Summer Crane" ripples religiously like Steve Reich on X.. As its title hints, the album's underlying concept is about unburdening yourself--shedding the dead weight of personal history, cutting loose the ties that hold you back, floating off to some exotic elsewhere or into the ecstatic ether. ("You can book a flight tonight" goes one sample, which could refer to taking a vacation, or a drug). Gravity, in every sense, is abolished. The Avalanches ethos is a sort of positive irresponsibility, dereliction as a duty you owe yourself.
Pick Hit: "A Different Feeling"
5/ JAY-Z The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella)
This is supposed to be Jay-Z's big comeback. Which is odd 'cos he's only been "away" a year, and the last album sold a couple of million. Then again, the one before sold more, and the album before that shifted five mill. So the perception was that Jay-Z had fallen off significantly (and bar the Neptunes-produced monstergroove "I Just Wanna Love U," the last record did show signs of burn-out) while the hype is "Jay-Z reclaims the throne"--a coup almost unprecedented in the merciless, high-turnover world of rap supastardom.
Clearly the embattled star felt he had much to prove, because it's all nonstop Jay-Z: no verses farmed out to proteges from his Roc-A-Fella camp, and the only celebrity guest is Eminem, whose flow on "Renegade" is so dense and twisting it damn near sprains your brain. The CD booklet shouts out "To This Whole Fake Bulls**t Industry, Thanx 4 being so Fake and Keeping me on my Toes!!!," and the lyrics stomp down various upstarts who'd been sniping that Jay was slippin'. "Takeover" savages Prodigy from Mobb Deep and it absolutely DESTROYS Nas, ridiculing his output ("that's a one hot album in every ten years average") and boasting alpha-male style of fucking his girl ("you know who/did you know what/with you know who"). The track is based on The Doors's "Five To One" (Morrison hoarsely hollering "gonna win, yeah/we takin' over") and there's more inspired pop intertexuality when the chorus from Bowie's "Fame" is transformed into a series of deathblow disses: "that's why you're... LAAAAAME!!!".
If The Blueprint is a triumph, it's one of form over content: Jay-Z's got nothing new to say, but loads of fresh twists on the same-old same-old. Plus he's always been able to cherrypick the hottest tracks from the most inventive trackmasters, and the sonics here are relentlessly ear-catching. Almost every tune sounds like a hit: Kanye West's insanely catchy Jackson 5-based "Izzo," the swampy reggaematic fonk of Timbaland's "Hola Hovito", the drum 'n'bassy tympani thunder of Bink's "All I Need," Just Blaze's "U Don't Know" with its sped-up diva histrionics like parakeets on amyl nitrate, the crunchy-yet-wet percussion and snakecharmer melodics of Poke & Tone's "Jigga That N***a" .
Apart from Jay's mic' hogging, the most striking thing about The Blueprint is how deeply steeped it is in 70s soul. Ignoring the fact that this music's melt-your-hard-heart tenderness was originally radically opposed to big-pimpin' niggativity, Jay-Z deploys the timeless sweetness of Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland, and David Ruffin to sugarcoat his own ultra-cynical worldview The plea for social redemption in "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" gets flipped around into Jay-Z complaining about resentful haters: "where's the love?," he asks, as if it never occurred to him that rubbing your success in people's faces will rub 'em up the wrong way. "The Takeover" does a similar to The Doors, transforming the emancipatory, new-day-comin' hope of "Five To One"--"they got the guns, but we got the numbers"--into a purely privatized triumphalism: the victory of the Roc-A-Fella clan over all rivals, a dynasty that will never be overthrown.
Jay-Z's OG shtick involves the fact that he was wealthy through drug dealing before he became a rap star, and that "the rap game" is just a phase before even greater glories. "Put me anywhere on God's green earth/I triple my worth... I'm a hustler baby/I sell water to a well". The sole chink in these delusions of invincibility comes with "Song Cry", an almost-apology to the girl he lost through fucking around. The title's clever concept is that the music (more symphonic soul) sheds the tears Jay-Z's too tough to weep. Actually, that's not entirely true: in the wistful, dewy-eyed "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)" he gets maudlin' as he surveys the length and breadth of his own awesome saga. The sheer storied epic-ness of his journey from rags to riches to even more riches gets him all choked-up.
Rap's mystery is that people pay to be entertained by what they'd normally flee: vivid and detailed death-threats, bores bragging about their income and sexual conquests. Clearly a deeply unpleasant fellow, Jay-Z is also mildly evil. How about the line "I'm still fuckin' with crime, 'cos crime pays" for socially destructive myth-mongering? Ultimately, though, resistance is futile. If rap is 95 percent about the art of boasting and put-downs (and it's an argument), then Jay-Z is the champion of this particular art form. So give it up for the don of disrespect, the virtuoso of vanity, the king of conceit.
Pick Hit: "The Takeover"
6/ Blectum from Blechdom Snauses & Mallards and de Snaunted Haus (Tigerbeat 6)
Most experimental electronica is anal-retentive---every glitch and click prissily placed just-so. In contrast, Blectum from Blechdom are "anal-expulsive" (to borrow a coinage from their San Francisco comrade Lesser). But this female duo, who lurk behind the aliases Kevin and Blevin, aren't just sonic messthetes: they're positively obsessed with all things faecal. The sleeve of their Bad Music and Buttprints EP featured the imprint of their own hindquarters, and toilet humour is upfront in their name: Blectum echoes "rectum", while "blech" is the gagging sound American kids make to indicate revulsion. The music itself often sounds onomatopeiac, its squits and ploops practically demanding titles like "Audio Stool" and "Shithole".
Those two come from Blectum's debut EP Snauses and Mallards, whose nine tracks make up the first third of this CD. Vaulting past the Ars Electronica prize-winning album The Messy Jesse Fiesta, the rest of the record takes in all fifteen tracks from De Snaunted Haus, their most recent release. Here, Blectum usher us into an Ubu Roi-like fantasia of grotesque scatology and depraved sexuality, populated by unwholesome critters with names like snause, sea slurpent, and bee-grub. Snauses are vermin who live in toilets and ambush people at their most vulnerable, biting their toes off. They have a single "bitch-hole" through which they eat, excrete, breathe, fornicate and reproduce. Then there's Mallard, a scientist duck who experimentally breeds snauses with extra orifices for his perverted sexual research.
The macabre adventures of this bestiary---seemingly hallucinated by a ketamine fiend channel-surfing between wildlife documentaries, porn, and a Cronenburg movie---are recounted via between-track micro-dramas, performed by Kevin and Blevin in exaggeratedly thespian tones and sometimes fed through vocal treatments for added delirium. Breaking techno's taboo about using the human voice (one track is pointedly titled "In case you forgot, we talked on this record"), Blectum shatter glitchtronica's cool with goofy girlish glee and Pythonesque daftness. But the effect goes well beyond Ministry of Silly Voices, and frequently becomes genuinely unnerving and creepy.
The earliest Blectum performances took place at clandestine raves thrown by the duo in the basement beneath the concert hall of Mills, the Oakland, California music college where Kevin & Blevin are students, and whose illustrious alumni include Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Morton Subotnik. Blectum music reflects this high/low incongruity: toytown tekno riffs, shredded jungle breaks, and bursts of house's hi-hat/kick rhythm, are meshed disjointedly with musique concrete-style smears and scumbles of sound-goo. Tracks like "Bastard Child" recall 4 Hero at their 1993 darkcore peak: vocal samples like melted candles, loops that unspool like glaucous intestines, angelic-demonic shriek-riffs. It's a sort of devolved rave music, suggesting the alternate route London pirate radio might have taken if jungle had never solidified as a genre, and instead the first Generation E kept on taking the bad medicine while the music got iller and iller. Sheer unsanitary insanity, Haus De Snaus is an infirmary of sound, teeming with sickly melodies, fever-dream apparitions, degenerative nerve-disorder twitches, and wizened noises as perturbing as the plates in a medical text-book.
Blectum use a lot of dinky-sounding mechanistic melody-riffs suggestive of music-boxes, carny-shows, or player-pianos (Nancarrow is one of their favorites). It's a flavour that evokes the uncanny aura of automata and clockwork toys, making me flash on the the sharp-fanged demon-dolls in Barbarella, or the kitsch animatronic companions built by the prematurely aged android-designer in Blade Runner. Electronic musicians usually evoke childhood's idyllic-ness--Mouse On Mars's ice cream van tinkles, Boards of Canada's faded photo poignancy. Blectum, though, plug into the imp-of-the-perverse side of pre-pubescence: the sheer appetite for destruction that inspires surreal acts of vandalism or grossness, like smearing dogshit over the swings and slides at the local playground. The between-song skits recall the comic play-lets you might have tape-recorded as kids, complete with giggles and muffed lines. It's revealing that the only word for this kind of mischief and humour we have is gender-specific: puerile. Yet Blectum's scatomania seems somehow distinctly female, perhaps tapping into the same energies of body-disgust and self-abjection that fuels extreme practices like bulimia. If the girlfriend in Devo's "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')" ever got to tell her story, this music might be her riposte.
Probably an inspired aberration, Blectum nonetheless strike me in potential at least as harbingers of a sort of riot grrrl for electronica. With their private jokes, lo-fi approach, and brattiness, they're a bit like Huggy Bear if they'd been influenced by early Prodigy rather than early Pastels. More than anywhere in electronic music, they probably belong to the lineage of outsider rock: The Shaggs, the Residents ("Going Postal" could be straight off Commercial Album), Royal Trux's ultra-primitivist Twin Infinitives.
In this art brut spirit (and their cover art does recall the compulsive doodles of insane artists like Wolfli), this CD closes with "Bad Music", one of two previously unreleased tracks. A Christopher Cross-like ballad, just piano and erratic vocals, "Bad Music" is genuinely awful. But it does serve as a Blectum manifesto, expressing both their accept-yourself ethos (like riot grrrl, they're anti-cool, pro-nerd) and their willingness to sample absolutely anything ("Right Time Right Place" trumps V/Vm by using the ghastly flute-riff from Men At Work's "Down Under"). "Good music," almost by definition, can only confirm and conform to established notions of quality and distinction; besides, there's simply way too much fine music in the world already. "Bad music," though, still has the capacity to surprise and delight, through its deformity or simple failure to reach its own aspirations. It's also true that pathbreaking genres (like darkside jungle in '93) often initially sound plain wrong. Self-consciously walking the diagonal between beauty and ugliness, art and trash, is a difficult act, but Blectum have pulled it off. Sadly, this CD might be the duo's final release, as the partnership, always volatile, is now in trial separation. But here's hoping Kevin & Blevin make up, and give us more of their jolie laide genius.
Pick Hit: "Bastard Child"
7/ N*E*R*D In Search Of...Virgin
N*E*R*D are The Neptunes are Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo, the Virginia-bred R&B/rap production team who are just coming off an astounding run of hits. The spate started in late 1999 with Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" and Kelis's "Caught Out There," blew up last year with Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U", Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," and Beenie Man's "Girls Dem Sugar," and continues with Ludacris's "Southern Hospitality". But if you expected their debut solo would be drenched in that deliciously chewy, sinewy James-Brown-for-the-Y2K sound that underpins the Jay Z and Mystikal tracks, or take the techno tinged brutalism of the Ludacris single even further, think again. In Search Of... is really a black rock album. True, there's hardly any guitar and the drumming is programmed not played. But songs like the dirty synth-bass riffing "Things Are Getting Better" have the hard, unswinging attack of rock. Basically, there's a reason Pharrell Williams is sporting an AC/DC T-shirt on the back cover.
Given that Williams & Hugo were once in a band with their Virginia Beach neighbour Timbaland, and right now are jousting with the podgy producer for control of the Black American BeatGeist, the obvious parallel for In Search of... is Welcome To Our World, the 1997 album where Timbaland stepped out of the shadows for the first time to claim some limelight (dragging his not immensely talented sidekick Magoo with him). There's a difference, though. For all trackmaster Tim's brilliance as rhythm composer, on Welcome he was talking loud (actually, sotto voce in a sub-Isaac Hayes deep 'n' low baritone) but saying fuck-all. Whereas N*E*R*D... well, they're on some kind of early Seventies cosmic/social consciousness trip, harking back to What's Goin' On/Innversions/Harvest For the World. Williams, in particular, seems intent on Really Saying Something, bringing back capital 'c' Content to the sonically radical but lyrically visionless black pop culture of the day.
That's the intent, at any rate. In terms of political acumen, the politicians-as-strippers analogy of "Lapdance" is only marginally more astute than OutKast's incoherent "Bombs Over Baghdad" (2000's most Over-Rated Single, surely?). But as black noise---that raspy riff like a wasp in your earhole, that coiled hypertense rhythm-track--"Lapdance" is as exhilarating as "911 Is A Joke" off PE's Fear of A Black Planet. And the post-election disgust it voices makes a neat parallel with Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?". "Provider" is one notch up the politics-in-pop sophistication scale, from soapbox speaking-out to first person narrative as cautionary tale, couched in B-boy blues similar to Everlast. The song's protagonist is a drug dealer who can only put bread on the family's table by going out each morning to face the streets and the prospect of not coming back, like, EVER. "Freddie's Dead"/"Pusherman"-era Curtis Mayfield is echoed musically as well as lyrically, with a beautifully fey and floaty mid-section. The kosmik stuff is a tad more subtle: references to the subconscious, phrases like "we are the dreamers," while N*E*R*D itself stands for No One Ever Really Dies. (It's fair to surmise that these boys like the odd puff). And there's more than a trace of full-on psychedelia in the mix: the staccato keyboard-stab and eerie, sneery melody of "Brain" recall Sixties garage-psych bands like The Electric Prunes and The Music Machine.
The difference between the Neptunes sound and the rest of the R&B pack is most apparent in the rhythms, which are stiffer and simpler than the fiddly-with-syncopation post-Destiny's norm. Williams & Hugo's unsupple beats evoke Eighties electro's drum machine sound, but rarely sound retro. What this means, though, is that the drums alone can't carry the song, as they do with so much modern R&B. And so "Truth or Dare" is the album's one dud because the riff, beat and Kelis's vocal lick are all based on the same drab pattern. After this mid-album falter, though, there's a seven song stretch of non-stop awesomeness, kicked off by "Run to the Sun"---a gorgeous Isley-esque song of astral love, all honeydripping interlocked harmonies, Roy Ayers-circa-"Daylight" keyboard ripples, heart-pulse bass, and teasing rhythm guitar. Then follows the Beatlesy "Stay Together; " the "black Jaxx" confection of clavinet, twangadelic guitar, lounge harmonies and dub-house off-beat keyboard licks that is "Baby Doll"; the thick moog sleaze and porno panting of "Tape You"; the exquisitely tight-but-loose slow grind funk of "Am I High". Best of all is closer "Bobby James," the lament of a teenage druggy on a downward spiral, reduced to panhandling for dope money. The phased falsetto and headspinningly intricate arrangement make you really feel the swoony chorus "I'm high as hell and I'm ready to blast/I'm just one hit away from being passed out."
This year's Stankonia, In Search Of.... is further proof of the Dirty South's hegemony over hip hop, and a gauntlet thrown down to Timbaland: raise your game again, son.
Pick Hit: "Bastard Child"
8/ MISSY ELLIOTT Miss (E) ...So Addictive (Elektra/EastWest)
Unlike, say Lil Kim, Missy can act the "crazy ho" but never seem to degrade herself. She's got the power, doesn't need to issue shrill micro-manifestos a la Beyonce Knowles, but just revels in her own identity. And appetite: "Dog In Heat', track 2 of her third and latest album, features some of the most cheek-flushingly heavy breathing since "Love To Love You Baby" and huskily droned lines like "slide/let's take a ride" that are genuinely erotic (something that barely exists in modern R&B, for all its graphic imagery).
There's more than hormones fuelling Miss (E) ...So Addictive, though. The title flashbacks to the dodgy puns of 1989, like "Everything Starts With An 'E'" by (groan!) E-Zeee Possee. The cover art recalls those ultra-crap "cyberdelic" videos of computer animations for post-rave chilling out: three little orbs go on a journey through a kosmic wormhole, you know the score. There's a woogly-oozy love ballad titled "X-Tasy", and another tune that shouts-out to "my XTC people". Short of covering the Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode', Missy couldn't be more blatant about where her head's at these days.
But where other "B-Boys On E" producers do little more than tack on a few techno-y sounds, Timbaland & Missy's production on So Addictive feels permeated with the MDMA vibe, electric with it. The sound is like a hyper-real painting, so sharply contoured and glossy that just listening makes you feel you've been dosed. Elliott's's forte is vocal arrangements: songs like "One Minute Man" teem with a swarm of multitracked micro-Missies distributed across 3D space. Timbaland's endlessly inventive beats offer a whole new bag of tricks for others to nick. "Get Ur Freak On" is a pure drum'n'bass roller, but with a dark-and-daft playfulness that went AWOL from jungle sometime in 1993. And there's even a full-on house tune. "4 My People", one of the few cuts where Timbaland relinquishes the controls (in this case, to Nisan & D-Man), is a chugging monstergroove that cuts suddenly from pumping euphoria to edgy paranoia, as if crossing that one-pill-too-many line.
And yet for all its brilliance, there's something lacking: call it "vision". Missy's never exactly been a "deep" artist, more a rare female recruit to the lineage of cartoon freaks like Bootsy and Busta Rhymez. Mostly she boasts about how freaky and funky and shagadelic she is. Her real genius is the way she says stuff: timing, intonation, contorting the words in her mouth, vocal syncopation that's as virtuoso as anything Timbaland does with beats. But if you'd thought maybe MDMA might have opened her up a bit (for the record, she steadfastly denies trying the drug) there's little sign of E-motional growth. True, there's a hidden track, a lovely slink of modern gospel featuring The Clark Sisters. But for all its talk of "pressing on to higher ground", elsewhere there's scant evidence of a new spiritualized consciousness. Missy's idea of God is, frankly, childish: a sort of agony uncle in the sky. Always there to listen uncomplainingly to her complaining, but never expecting anything in return, like attending church on Sundays (Missy, "witness for Jesus" and true believer, admits she never goes), let alone forsaking vice, deferment of gratification, humility, good deeds, or sacrifice of any sort. Like gangsta rappers who thank the Creator extravagantly in the sleevenotes, then spend the entire CD breaking commandments like Sin's going out of fashion, Missy appears to think she can have her disco biscuits and eat them too.
Pick Hit; "4 My People"
9/ SO SOLID CREW They Don't Know (Independiente/Relentless)
So I'm listening to the So Solid Crew album for the first time when this paramedic ambulance whizzes past my East Village window, and its stuttering siren synchs exactly with the syncopated 2step beat. Perfect: So Solid's music is nothing if not urban, in both the Souf-Lundun-innit and US-radio-euphemism-for-"black" senses. When it comes to the latter, it's hardly news that American R&B and rap have massively impacted Britain's own street culture. Just as the twitchy stop-start rhythm running through They Don't Know wouldn't exist without Timbaland, similarly So Solid's MC squadron are steeped in US rap---the songs teem with thugged-out slanguage like chasing "paper", smoking "trees", stealing another man's "honey", "spittin' " lyrics. The very concept of the So Solid collective with its thirty-plus associates is modelled on B-boys clans like Wu Tang, Roc-A-Fella, and No Limit: entrepreneurial dynasties with street roots and shady pasts.
So Solid Crew -- along with similar outfits like Pay As You Go Kartel, Heartless Crew, and More Fiyah Crew---are spearheading one of the most significant developments in recent British dance culture: UK garage's transformation into a mutant form of British rap, with MCs becoming as important as DJs and producers, and actually starting to say stuff rather than simply hyping the crowd. So while the hip hop stylings (the doo-rags on the Crew's heads, the ice and gold, the titles like "Ride Wid Us") are America-inspired, this is just a fantasy patina overlaying UK inner-city realism.
You can hear this distinctive Englishness in the wiry voices (making me flash on 3 Wizemen and the endless false dawn for homegrown UK rap) and in the sheer speed of the MCing. In Black British sound system culture from reggae to jungle, the mic' chat has always been hyperkinetic. So instead of the slurred growl of a DMX, the So Solid MCs are incredibly crisp, nimble, even dainty. On the title track, Asher D's line "they don't know about my flow" is enunciated with a prissy precision that's almost fey. Elsewhere vocal tricks, like the "human timestretch" bit on "Deeper," where Romeo slows down and speeds up, testify to the legacy of a decade-plus of London pirate radio MCing. Indeed So Solid run their own pirate station.
Sonically, So Solid are equally steeped in the hardcore continuum that runs from rave to jungle to UKG: you can hear it in the murky, viscous basslines, the icy plinking keyboard riffs. Alongside their satellite crew Oxide & Neutrino, So Solid pioneered the shift in UKG away from pop R&B crossover to a stripped-down electro-like sound. In the course of 18 months, UKG has gone from boom-time music to a recession soundtrack, its ominous sub-bass and rigid-with-tension beats evoking the desperate struggle for a share of the shrinking economic pie. Which is why nearly every song on They Don't Know addresses "haters" who resent So Solid's success. (Forgiveably, perhaps, given that the Crew's lyrics relentlessly rub the group's prowess, prestige and prosperity in the faces of non-VIP losers).
"Hater" is a concept that aims to discredit any egalitarian impulse, attributing it to envy. So Solid's pinched, paranoid outlook is the logical upshot of 22 years of postsocialist Britain and the emergence of a permanent underclass. "Solid" carries a faint melancholy echo of the days when people talked of strikes staying solid. But that idea of class solidarity has long since contracted to the gang, the click, the crew: a sort of micro-socialist haven within dog-eat-dog capitalism. For all its don't-fuck-with-us collective swagger, though, and the lyrical emphasis on living large, the overwhelming impression left by They Don't Know is of constraint. This is actually inscribed into the structure of their #1 smash "21 Seconds," where each MC has just a few bars in which to shine. On that track, and the whole album, you hear the hectic sound of talent squeezing itself through a tiny aperture. And while it's amazing how the street realities of exclusion and disadvantage continue to simultaneously obstruct and catalyse underclass creativity, who would actually want to live the lives that produced this grimly thrilling music?
Pick Hit: "They Don't Know"
10/ BRASSY Got It Made (Wiija)
Like Maximum Joy, if they'd grown up in Indiana and the only radio station in town played nonstop James Gang and AC/DC... Like Le Tigre, if they really rocked and really funked... Like PJ Harvey, without all the rock crit baggage of adulation/interpretation... Like Luscious Jackson, if they weren't so, I dunno, prim... Like Breeders' "Cannonball" crossed with Fatboy's "Punk To Funk".... Brassy are the more enjoyable, for not really being "about" anything, except maybe "the politics of sass".
Pick Hit: "Work It Out"
11/ BJORK Vespertine (One Little Indian)
Representing a new post-superstar phase of Bjork's life, Vespertine is all about craving sanctuary and solace, retreating from overlit public spaces. "Hidden Places" has this smudgy glow, like you're hiding under a blanket and the light's coming through the same colour. "Cocoon" is even more intimate. Bjork and her boyfriend make love in the middle of the night, half-asleep, in "a saintly trance"; they "faint back" into slumber, then Bjork wakes up again and he's still inside her. Bjork's whispered vocal--so breathy, it crackles and sparkles, as if covered in the furry spikes of crystals forming in solution--virtually pulls the listener under the sheets with the lovers.
A record about tiny epiphanies, Vespertine is riddled with "microsonics": the ultra-minimal texture-riffs and rhythmic tics that you find in the left-field techno subgenres "glitch" and "clickhouse", from whose ranks she's drawn her latest cast of collaborators--Matmos, Matthew Herbert, Thomas Knak, Martin Console. Alongside these vanguard techno programmers, Bjork's other main collaborator on Vespertine was harp player Zeena Parkins. The album's primary sonic colors are crystalline and prismatic---and that's down to Parkin's harp, an instrument called the celeste, and a music box Bjork had specially made out of glass (so it sounds even more plangent and resonant) rather than the traditional wood, with her own tunes scored on big brass discs. If you don't know the connotations of "vespers", Vespertine actually sounds like a precious stone or some Medieval craft of glasswork. Her best album yet, Vespertine reminds me of the jackfrost wonderland of Cocteau Twins circa "Gold Dust Rush" and "Spanglemaker", of the lush, bejewelled coldness of Siouxsie & The Banshees circa A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. The glittering sound fits the album's idea of inner riches, the treasure people keep hidden inside.
Pick Hit: "Cocoon"
12/ BASEMENT JAXX Rooty (XL/Astralwerks)
When Basement Jaxx's debut album Remedy materialized in 1999, dance music had arrived at something of an impasse. All the outer limits of post-rave music had been reached a few years earlier. It was hard to see how drum'n'bass could convolute rhythm any morer without tying dancers limbs in knots; hardcore gabba had taken concussive beats, distorted noise, and sheer velocity to life-threatening extremes; minimal techno had anorexically paring itself down to the brink of non-existence. In the absence of some new drug-technology synergy, the only way forward appeared to involve systematic cultivation of undeveloped terrain within these frontiers. Hence the spate of inbetween-sounds like tech-house, speed garage, progressive trance, nu-skool breaks, and other hybrids, which convulse committed clubbers into pro- and anti- factions, but understandably leave outsiders scratching their heads and wondering what the fuss is all about.
There was another alternative: frolicing through dance music's own back pages. And so Daft Punk's brand of "filter disco" simultaneously harked back to and renovated house's Seventies roots; big beat slammed Sixties surf music, ska, and garage punk into old skool hip hop and acid house; others, from Les Rhythmes Digitales to i/F, rediscovered Eighties electro and synthpop. And it was all great fun, while not exactly delivering the future-rush and shock-of-the-now that, say, jungle transmitted in its prime. And then there was Basement Jaxx with their house-not-house cornucopia that pick'n'mixed freely across all these options and more. What's great about Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton's sound is the way they go from cartoon disco like Deelite at their groovalicious peak to sick drug-noise perfect for humid murky catacombs; from tunes that resemble Prince's Sign of the Times if he'd come from Chicago rather than Minneapolis, to samba-house beamed in from that Brazil-as-utopia that haunts the imagination of many British dance producers. And yet every track has that special Jaxx signature.
Like Prince's Paisley Park fantasy, Jaxx-music conjures the sense of a freakadelic demi-monde you'd just love to inhabit full-time for real. In that spirit, the queerly titled Rooty is named in homage to Buxton & Ratcliffe's most recent South London club. Album opener "Romeo" is so Sheila E you just have to smile, and "Breakaway" makes me flash on "Baby Wants To Ride" by Jamie Principle, a long-lost house pioneer with an unhealthy Prince obsession. With its broken beats and dirty bass, "S.F.M. (Sexy Feline Machine)" is one of the few tracks here that substantiates a rumored 2step garage direction, and it's nowhere near as full-on foray into that London R&B-meets-house style as Remedy's "U Can't Stop Me." So far, so groovy. But there's a side to Basement Jaxx that's a bit too ditzy-ditty and quirky-verging-on-twee, and "Jus 1 Kiss", I'm afraid to say, just makes me think of Wings: intricately ornamented, but as sickly and unsatisfying as a meringue. "Broken Dreams" also has McCartneyesque shades of clever-clever craft, but for some reason its confection of Spanish horns and jaunty bassline makes for a lovely slice of happy-sad. It's also one of several tracks where a weird effect on the vocal makes it sound glossy and faded at the same time--sort of like, if plastic could rust.
Midway through, Rooty takes a timely turn from silly love songs to dark dirty lust. "I Want U" has the awkward, angular almost-ugliness of Jaxx's most compelling music, e.g. Remedy's "Same Old Show". Singer Mandy's exaggerated London accent ("I've bin finking") recalls UK punkettes like Honey Bane and Hazel O'Connor. "Get Me Off" is a hot 'n' horny pummel, all panting breath and brooding oozy bass swelling and ebbing like oily surf after a tanker spill. "Where's Your Head At" rocks harder still, with a bombastic synth-riff that recalls Never Mind the Bollocks (but is actually sampled from Gary Numan's "This Wreckage") and a jeering thug-chorus that's pure Oi! These three brutal blasts of headbanger house make for a neat parallel with Daft Punk's inspired merger of disco and FM soft-rock (ELO, Supertramp, Frampton, Buggles) on Discovery.
After the monsterfart electro of "Crazy Girl", though, Rooty rather peters out, with the ill-advised juke-joint Dixieland flavor of "Do Your Thing", all piano comping and diva scat, and "All I Know"---winsome, wistful, slight. Despite its many delights, there is a feeling emanating from Rooty that Basement Jaxx didn't really know how to top Remedy. When you've made your reputation through impurism and hyphenated hybrids, you can't really scale back, the only way forward is further into ever more spectacular and farfetched fusion. And the risk is that you'll throw so many things into the pot you end up with the sonic equivalent of that poly-ethnic cuisine so trendy nowadays. Buxton & Ratcliffe have such impeccable taste that they've mostly avoided that calamity. But Rooty's sheer brevity, at 43 minutes, suggests loss of confidence, or even that a number of tracks were pulled at the last minute owing to last-minute jitters. If they're looking for tips, I'd say jettison any remaining Latin influences or notions of "jazzy" and instead build on the lumpen thump of "I Want U"/'Get Me Off"/"Where's Your Head At". That glorious sequence adds weight to the theory that dance music, in the absence of strong influences from or secret affinities with rock, tends to the pale and uninteresting. Acid house, after all, got its name because it reminded co-creator and Sabbath-fan Marshall Jefferson of acid rock; whenever purists get worried about dance music going awry they always raise the specter of "heavy metal house". And everybody knows clubland cognoscenti got shit for brains.
Pick Hit: "Where's Your Head At"
13/ Hood Cold House (Domino/Aesthetics)
Hood make mope-rock for the laptop era. This English quartet are survivors from a brief early Nineties moment of mingling between UK indie dreampop and techno. Reared on the guitarhaze of A.R. Kane and My Bloody Valentine, these groups had their heads flipped around by Aphex Twin. While some of these outfits, like Seefeel, gradually went all the way into abstract electronix, others, like legends-to-a-few Disco Inferno, remained attached to the song and the voice. Updating this indie-meets-electronica formula, Hood offering glitch with a human face, their sound poised somewhere between the jackfrost fragility of New Zealand janglers The Chills and the faded-photo poignancy of Boards of Canada. Crunchy filtered beats jostle with bright acoustic guitar, crestfallen analog synths waver alongside mournful horns. But just as you've got Cold House pegged as a way-underground cousin to Kid A and Vespertine, another element comes in from far left-field: hip hop. Abstrakt-to-the-max rhymes from Dose One and Why? of Bay Area crew cLOUDDEAD feature on three tracks, ranging from surreal lines like "sometimes the sunset doesn't want to be photographed" to stuff that's more like a braid-of-breath than actual decipherable words.
As Cold House's title suggests, the dominant mood is desolate (Hood come from Leeds in the infamously bleak North of England) . On "The Winter Hit Hard" gale-force winds of dubbed-out drumming buffet a frail sapling of a vocal melody, and the entire album teems with images like "there's coldness in this sky" or "your cold hand in mine". This heat-dearth is as much a matter of internal affect as climate, though. TK's fallible voice recalls too-sensitive-for-this-world folk minstrel Nick Drake, and the lyrics manage to stay just the right side of "precious" as they flick through snapshots from what seems to be the drawn-out death throes of a relationship. Pained insights flash by concerning regret, the oppressive weight of the past, dreams "snatched from your grasp," and the way the world seems dead, stripped of all enchantment, after the love had gone. For Hood, life's a glitch, and then you cry.
Pick Hit: "The Winter Hit Hard"
14/ GREEN VELVET Whatever (some label)
"La La Land", one of the standout tracks on Whatever, revives all those classic early rave metaphors that involve imagery of madness, brain damage, derangement, the pursuit of oblivion through concussive bliss. It's sung by a hardcore hedonist who's always "looking for the after-party to begin." The chorus is brilliantly catchy---"something about those little pills/unreal/the thrills/they yield/until/they kill/a mill/ion brain cells" (the rhymes work better if you adopt a black American accent, with the 'd' in 'yield' left unpronounced). But if that chorus sounds like a "Just Say No" warning, the lines "la la land is the place I need to be/the place that sets me free" contradict them. Is this profoundly ambivalent, or just a cowardly refusal to adopt a consistent standpoint? Does Jones accept that drug-abusers are seeking things the real world can't offer, escaping an intolerable world into a chemical utopia? Or does he simply not want to alienate his primary market, drugged up ravers, by unreservedly condemning their self-destructive pleasures?
Moving on from the black comedy and sick humor of previous Green Velvet output, Whatever is surprisingly serious, even militant. "When?" is straightforward anti-racist protest, a "don't judge me" plea to purge from your mind the prejudices and ethnic stereotypes caused by media brainwashing. The only hint of comedy here is his anti-humanist quip "we're *all* inferior". Propelled by a harsh, scouring riff, "When?" is a bit like if Mad Mike let his anger come out through a vocal tirade rather than just song-titles and slogans etched into the vinyl. Elsewhere, the spirit is pure punk rock: the staccato, accusatory "Stop Lyin'", the "don't mess with my mind" aggression of "Dank", the searing instrumental "Minimum Rage" with its title punning on the bottom-level income earned by American 16 year olds at fast-food restaurants and similar dead end jobs. "GAT (The Great American Tragedy" is an anthem for teenage freaks who start dressing weird and acting out, only to get the condescending "you're just going through a phase" treatment from parents and elders. Jones delivers the chorus-howl "THIS IS *NOT* A FUCKING PHASE!!" with the percussive phrasing of early Eighties US hardcore punk bands like Bad Brains and Negative Approach. This is slamdancing techno, moshpit rave.
Whatever's sound has a retro-Eighties feel, at times closer to industrial and EBM than even the most tracky of modern house. Songs like "Stop Lyin'" are clockwork mechanisms pulsating in strict time, all square-sounding, stiff beats and 16th note sequenced bassline patterns that chatter and pummel. "Gendefekt" is a rigid grid of quantized drums and eerily spiralling synth-noises that make you think of the DNA helix; Kraftwerk's Computer World, lost in a ketamine void. Propelled by slinky bass-riffs that writhe and squirm through your ears like frantic mind-worms in a hurry to get to the center of your brain, "Sleepwalking" ---the new album's absolute killer tune--is like Cabaret Voltaire on amyl nitrate.
Pick Hit: "Sleepwalking"
15/ MATMOS A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure (Matador)
Matmos's fourth album brings a whole new slant to the notion of body music. This San Francisco glitch-techno duo--Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt--have made an entire record where each track is partly based on the sounds of medical technology, with special focus on plastic surgery. Opening track "Lipostudio... and so on" isn't musique concrete so much as music liquide, bubbling with abject squelches and slurps that make you visualize cellulite being siphoned out of sagging butt-cheeks. "L.A.S.I.K.", based around laser eye surgery, teems with unnerving hissing noises that suggest a white-hot beam burning through your cornea, plus gristly, grisly whirring that evokes mechanical saws perforating bone and cartilage.
You don't need to know Matmos's modus operandi or sample-sources to enjoy the music, though (indeed the "euuuh, gross!" factor might make ignorance a blessing). Several tracks offer body music in the traditional sense--grooves to make you move. The partially erased skank of "Memento Mori" recalls Pole's dub-techno, while "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qui" is pounding Herbert-style glitch-house riddled with itchy creaking sounds, like everyone on the dancefloor's dressed in rubber and tinfoil. Like their SF-based friend kid606, Matmos are adept at digital signal processing (DSP), the texturizing techniques that electronica producers use to make drums sound like buckling metal or fireworks exploding. DSP virtuosity, and Matmos's ability to sculpt real-world samples into compelling musical shapes, are why Bjork invited the duo to collaborate on her new album.
If there's a problem with modern left-field electronica, though, it's that all the editing and processing software allows for almost infinite degrees of tweaking and treatment. The challenge is to create a structure to guide the listener through what might otherwise be a chaos of intricacy and nuance. On "California Rhinoplasty", the disparate sonic debris from a nosejob is given coherence thanks to the hypnotic groove, whose muffled pumping bassline is like the calm anesthesized heartbeat of the human being whose face is undergoing voluntary vivisection. Influenced as much by Dadaist collage artist Kurt Schwitters (Schmidt teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute) as sampling culture, Matmos have captured with uncomfortable vividness the sheer surrealism of the modern vanity industry, the Medieval tortures people gladly submit to in pursuit of physical perfection.
Pick Hit: "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qui"
16/ HERBERT Bodily Functions (!K7)
Is this a trend or what? Swiftly following Matmos's cosmetic-surgery-sampling A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure, here's British producer Matthew Herbert with his own album of glitchy, off-kilter house built from sounds of the human organism. Not only do both records feature tracks using laser eye surgery noises, but Matmos's Martin Schmidt actually makes a cameo appearance on Bodily Functions as a sample source. Herbert's no trend-jumping opportunist, though--if anything, he built this particular bandwagon. His last album, 1998's Around The House, subtly wove domestic found-sounds into its voluptuously textured grooves, and in his more avant-garde alter-egos like Doctor Rockit and Wishmountain he's been messing with musique concrete for years.
Pushing vocalist Dani Siciliano's smoky croon into the spotlight and weaving in vintage-jazz acoustic instruments like horns and double bass, Bodily Functions is more languid and torch-songy than Around The House. It's not quite as instantly ear-grabbing either, but it does represent a definite advance in terms of production finesse. You'll need headphones to really revel in the obsessively micro-managed arrangements on tunes like "Suddenly"---an intricate honeycomb of chambers-within-chambers and muezzin-riffs that writhe in spidery spirals. As accomplished at piano as he is at Pro-Tools, Herbert has pulled off an exquisite merger between traditional manual musicianship and today's digital virtuosity.
On "I Know", for instance, the jazz drummer's repertoire of rimshots, drags, flams, and cymbal splashes mesh imperceptibly with radical processing and computer editing.
Herbert is one of house music's most visual-sounding producers---his music seems to make you listen with your eyes, or peer with your ears. Gurgling and gelatinous-sounding, "Foreign Bodies"--the track featuring the pulsing blood-flow of Matmos's Schmidt--fits the album concept: you feel like you're travelling in a microscopic submarine through the arterial system, dodging flotillas of white corpuscles, virus shoals, and treacherous clumps of chloresterol. Mostly, though, it's kinda irrelevant how Herbert procured his sounds. Because effects are dance music's primary instrument, it's doesn't really matter if the hi-hats are "really" scrunched-up chip packets, or just hi-hats treated to sound like someone crumpling a Doritos bag. What does count is Herbert's flair for marshalling his menagerie of creaks, crinkles, burps, scrapes, rustles, and hiccups into sensuous grooves. The result is house music sublimely poised between ungainliness and elegance.
Pick Hit: "Suddenly"
17/ THE BETA BAND Hot Shots II (Regal)
What I like most about The Beta Band is that they're head-in-the-clouds, barefoot-in-the-grass, tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippies. Circa The Three EPs, the group's sonic laxness offered a welcome relief from Britpop's straight-and-narrow, reminding me of all the disparate stuff excluded from the latter's restrictive mod/New Wave canon---Roy Harper, Traffic, Family, Caravan, Kevin Ayers. Without ever sounding like any of those bands, Beta Band seem plugged into their entirely other realm of "quintessential Englishness": folkadelic whimsy and meander, dappled epiphanies, drowsy meadow bliss. But it was all filtered through a tune-full and rhythm-conscious post-Madchester/Screamadelica sensibility, banishing the spectre of retro.
Mind you, what's irritating about the Beta Band is, of course, that they're such fucking hippies. Perhaps you concurred with the band's own verdict, that 1999's self-titled debacle--sorry, debut--was somewhat unfocused? But you probably never heard the infamous second disc of the original planned double album, briefly circulated to journalists by their American record company. I did, and we're talking Gong-like levels of let-it-all-hang-out plot-loss.
Hot Shots II sees Beta Band once more "on point"--R&B/rap slang for having your shit together. Which is not inappropriate, because R&B producer C-Swing worked on this album. So Hot Shots is sharply produced in a fully contemporary sense--ultra-glossy, big-sounding, with huge bottom end and tuff beats. There's even some interesting fusion between modern black urban sounds and Beta Band's psych-rock tradition. Hold on, don't cum in your pants, we're not talking Timbaland-meets-Tago Mago or anything. But killertoon "Broke" shifts rhythmically from 2steppy beats'n'bass into full-on dancehall ragga, while closer track "Won" (a Nilsson cover?) is a bizarre and brilliant composite of Hollies-like chorus, floor-trembling reggaematic funk groove, ace rhyming from an unidentified MC, and a lick nicked from "Rhythm Stick" by Dury & the Blockheads.
C-Swing's haze-less production actually suits The Beta Band's neo-psychedelic premise--the brightness and separation of sound creates that slightly disorienting sensation of perceptual crispness that accompanies putting on your first pair of glasses, having your ears syringed, or being high as a kite. "Quiet" is awesome: echoes of Piper At the Gates of Dawn or long-lost Brit-psych outfits like Tintern Abbey, but with a massive, tub-thumping groove as powerful as The Chemical Brother's own freakbeat-meets-bigbeat classic "Setting Sun". On this track especially, but throughout the album, the monk-like close harmonies seem sculpted in three dimensions: the way they soar, arc, cluster and braid is breathtaking.
With Hot Shots so tautly disciplined, it's almost like The Beta Band's hippie-dippie, baggy-slacker side can only seep out in the lyrics. Which can be charming in an "it's all too beautiful" style ("daydream/fell asleep beneath the flowers" goes the chorus of "Squares"), or grating (the I'm-just-a-simple-man shtick and spliffheads-solving-all-the-world's-problems doggerel of "Life"; the facile anti-intellectualism of "Eclipse", which imagines humanity united around a pizza pie). Intermittent lyrical inanities aside, Hot Shots II is almost too focused. At times you wish Beta Band had cut themselves some slack, sprawled a bit, self-indulged. You get glimpses: the "Strawberry Fields"-like coda to "Dragon" conjures a dew-brocaded idyll you wish they'd stretched out for ten times its length. Perhaps the strangest thing about Hot Shots II is that it makes the debut's addled goofiness sound better that it did at the time. Somewhere between those two extremes lies the perfect Beta Band record. For now, Hot Shots II is a very fine thing.
Pick Hit: "Won"
18/ The Human League Secrets (Papillon/Chrysalis)
They couldn't have picked a better time for a comeback. After several false starts, the Eighties revival is finally ON. And it's not just smirky weren't-we-ludicrous retro-TV: young, smart bands from Ladytron to Adult are paying tribute the best way, by finding fresh twists to synthpop'slegacy. . Something's definitely in the air: in one of those Zeitgeist/synchronicty, before I even knew there was a new League album coming, I recently picked up Reproduction, Travelogue, and Dare second-hand, while of all sudden friends seem to be waxing nostalgic about "Being Boiled".
Entering that barely populated category of the non-disgraceful comeback, Secrets * sounds* just great: the confidence, conviction, and sense of renewed delight in their own existence is palpable. Opener "All I Ever Wanted" has almost the exact same creaky robot-fart bassline as "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (the 1998 cult hit by neo-electro outfit i/F that kickstarted the techno scene's interest in all things Eighties). "Love Me Madly" is a marvellous blast of controlled hysteria, with great rhymes ( "you're really making me anxious/you know everybody blanks us") and OTT metaphors like "I'm tethered to a trainee hellcat". On "Shameless", the squeaky-clean synths, crisply reticular beats, and chittering 16th-note basslines make you flash on Computer World and the Moroder-produced Sparks of "Beat The Clock" and "Number One Song In Heaven".
Secrets is retro-nuevo, the League staging their own revival ('cos who could do it better?). State-of-art FX coexist with pure-1981 one-finger synth-tunes and rudimentary arpeggiated refrains. Oakey & Co have found a way to modernize their classic "Love Action"/"Fascination"--era sound without losing its distinctive League-ness. And that distinctiveness resides in a certain unsupple, boxy quality. Today, electronica producers just press a button to make their tracks "swing"; computers can give the music "feel" by adding tiny rhythmic irregularities. Paradoxically, it's their stiffness and squareness that makes the League *human*. But--and here's the weird thing--the one place this isn't happening anymore is the vocals. Something's been lost, a certain shaky fallibility. Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley especially sound characterless, the girl-dancing-around-her-handbag-at-the-disco charm ironed out. Mostly likely the culprit is Autotuner, a studio device that corrects errors in pitch. Maybe such perfectionism is necessary to compete in the pop marketplace of fembots like Aguilera and Spears, but it brings a certain Bucks Fizz-like plasticity (bad plastic-ness, as opposed to good plastic pop) to the backing vocals, and Susanne's lead vocal on "Never Give Your Heart".
As a result, Secrets is incredibly strong--there could be six or seven hit singles here--but it's limned with a certain hollowness. Human League have never exactly torn their songs from their hearts. The group was one of the inventors of pop-about-pop, the missing link between M and Saint Etienne. Massive popular success was an essential component of their music, it would have been embarassing, humiliated, without it. Despite this Abba-if-they'd-read-Nik-Cohn self-consciousness, the League's classic-era songs managed to connect with people, be "moving". But it's hard to imagine punters today using Secrets songs to soundtrack their lives. The love/hate tunes like "All I Ever Wanted" and "Liar" are standard-issue romantic scenarios. And when Oakey tries to "say" something, the results are either opaque or clumsy. "The Snake" seems to be some kind of rallying call to a new consciousness ("come and join us" on a "journey of the mind"), and "Reflections" gestures confusedly at the kind of E-piphany that's granted to people of the night but dissipates as the chemicals leave the system next day: "fragments of meaning" indeed. State of the Nation address "Sin City" is a diatribe about Blair's Britain ("confidence at a standstill", "tension you could handle", "our principles blurred") and attempts a reckoning with the lost utopian rage of punk and/or Socialism. But it reminds me of Weller's "Town Called Malice" (there's even a line about "a town without pity") and is ultimately the sort of statesmanlike speaking-out that doesn't really suit Oakey (remember "The Lebanon"?).
Ironically, some of the best things on Secrets are the seven all-too-brief instrumentals: the Kraftwerk-circa-"Neon Lights" intricacy/delicacy of "Nervous"; the pulsatronic drive and filtered bass booms of "Ringinglow," which could mash up the venue at Gatecrasher, Sheffield's temple of trance; the butterfly wing-flutter of "Lament". On these tracks, Human League situate themselves on the continuum that runs from Moroder to Paul Van Dyk: the quest for an authentically European soul, clean, serene, non-earthy, unearthly. A qualified triumph, Secrets reminds you of the League's pioneer stature as electronic musicians, as much as their brief reign as a meta-pop dream come true.
Pick Hit: "Love Me Madly"
19/ RADIOHEAD Amnesiac
Not nearly as cohesive as Kid A or (to my ears) tuneful (I'm serious!), a collection of good bits and not-so-good bits: the goodest bit, to my ears, being the Alice Coltrane-infused dirge-haze of "Dollars & Cents", which most reviewers seemed to find the weakest song (just as they did with my fave from Kid A: "In Limbo"). Other good bits: "Like Spinning Plates" (the best of the three or so Autechre-ish glitchtronic contraptions, with a Robert Wyatt circa Rock Bottom like quality of enervated melancholy) and the Beatles/Nilsson esque rolling grandiosity of "You and Whose Army". "Pyramid Song" is too epic to truly love, but, hey, great bebop bomb-drop drumming! Bad bit: the last song, much as one conceptually approves of the idea of dragging Humphrey Lyttleton out of the retirement home, is a godawful racket.
Pick Hit: "Dollars & Cents'
20/ POSITION NORMAL Sofarsofine (c/o top floor, 9 Corsham Street, london N1 6DP)
Not as sustained in its brillianceas Stop Your Nonsense, but this duo's a brand of macabre whimsy--midway between The Residents, John Cooper Clarke's Snap Crackle and Bop, and Chris Morris's Blue Jam--is still enchanting. It staggers me that these guys now have to self-release their own record.
Pick Hit: "Sunny Days"
Disparate as hell out there. No idea, frankly, what's coming around the corner. It was interesting when ILM had a thread on emergent trends, and the trends everyone cited were uniformly ones that had been going for a year, if not two. In other words, I don't think anybody really knows what is the coming thing or leading edge in pop culture.
For me personally, certain areas that have been thrilling or sustaining for various lengths of time (last two three years, in the case of R&B/street rap; last nine-ten, in the case of rave/dance) feel like they have petered out (hence the dearth of represensation on my faves charts), although how much this is personal burn-out and how much is a real objective downturn is hard to determine. Still, my demand of any music-zone is to be constantly surprised, and both those areas fell short dramatically this year. Whether it is a terminal exhaustion of novelty-resources or just a cyclical thing (in R&B the end of one Beat-Geist, but not yet the onset of a new one), who knows.
What else? The experimental end of electronic music--meaning everything from glitchcore to microhouse--is as stimulating as ever, but suffers somehow for being hermetic, incestuous, sealed off from the wider pop world (bar TV ads and Bjork's Vespertine, of course). Not enough "social energy" there, basically.
As for electric guitar music... The back to raw rock'n'roll/rebel danger/black leather thing in rock just seems laughable wishful thinking, played-out before it even starts. It's just a middle class snob/rock scholar alternative to nu-metal, which arguably is genuinely threatening on some levels (if only coiffure) and certainly resonates with the youth. The currents of interest in postpunk and synthpop/New Romance seem more productive, potentially at least: so far it's either on the level of hipster scholarly reconditeness (although it's exciting in itself that one of the American bands on Troubleman Mixtape would care enough to rip-off an early A Certain Ratio tune riff-for-riff), or still too couched in hipster irony (Electroclash) to betoken a real regeneration (which would anyway take the wholesale reconstruction of an entire culturescape/episteme of attitudes, extra-musical inputs, social/political context, etc--i.e. neither possible, nor desirable). Still, the idea of music based around angularity, awkwardness, tension, wilful oddity, abstruseness (without actually being math-rock), nervous energy, a certain lack of warmth and flow, seems both appealing and potentially resonant; as do pretentiousness and over-reach and excessive literacy. Conversely, right now, for whatever reasons, the idea of psychedelia and space-rock, dreampop and blissed sonic blurriness, seem totally uninteresting. So, please, I know it's been ten years since Loveless, but please no shoegazer revival!
What else? Oh there was pop, which even the pop fans and Britneylecctuals thought had a bad year.
So, in summation: the same-old-same-old sense of exhaustion on multiple fronts and of lack-of-pattern, coinciding paradoxically with an absolutely unmanageable surfeit of good-to-great and interesting/stimulating records. Go figure.
TASTY TRENDS of 2001
Dynamite, "Boo"/Genius Kru -- "Boom Selection"/Pay As U Go Kartel, "Know We"/Gorillaz, "Clint Eastwood" (Ed Case Remix)/Shut Up And Dance, "Moving Up"/So
Solid Crew, -- They Don't Know/Oxide & Neutrino, "Up Middle Finger", Execute/The
Streets, "Has It Come To This"/More Fiyah Crew, "Oi!"/etc etc
The new and often genuinely nasty face of UK youth culture. Proof yet again of the endless productivity of "the streets" as both social reality and pop myth. This MC cru thing in 2step seems to confirm the final utter victory of hip hop values over rave ones in the U.K. (although arguably that hip hop/rave border never really existed in Britain, was always porous; maybe the most exciting
subzones of UK dance were always permeated with hip hop values, like
hardcore/jungle; maybe it's always been just a "street beats" culture, at least in London). At any rate, ain't no love in the heart of that city no more; to be a raver just means you're someone who steps out and parties at the weekend, there's no cluster of values or attitudes attached to it (unless "bad attitude" counts).
Artists, Poker Flat Recordings Volume One (Poker Flat)/Hakan Libdo -- Tech
Couture (Poker Flat)/Various Artists, Superlongeivity 2 (Perlon)/ Andrew
Weatherall, Hypercity: ForceTracks (Force Inc)/ Various Artists, Staedtizism 2
Slinky 'n' intricate, or pared to the brink of barely being there/existing, luvvit luvvit
luvvit to the bone. Don't know about cutting a rug to it, but it's good for when
you have company round: just the right combination of stimulation and
unobtrusiveness. Kudos to Philip Sherburne for having the cojones (and sharp
ears) to coin this most useful and appropriate term. Neologists unite! Death to
Nobukazu Takemura, Sign (Thrill Jockey)/Fennesz, Endless Summer (Mego)/Tagaki
Masakatsu, Pia (Carpark)/Manitoba, Start Breaking My Heart (Leaf)/Susumu Yokota,
Grinning Cat (Leaf/Skintone)/ Various Artists, Putting the Morr Back in
Morrissey: A Morr Music Compilation (Morr)/etc etc
Not, I hasten, entirely serious about this coinage---I'm just a perennial sucker
for electronic music's mini-tradition of ice-cream van tinklers and
spangly-tingly music-box chimeology. The first three are at the glitchier end of
the kindermuzik spectrum, with Masakatsu's 18 minute "Videocamera" especially
poignant. Fennesz's is supposed to have something to do with Brian Wilson, but
I'm with Gareth at 1471 here: there's nothing in the actual music to really
betray that, and knowing it doesn't actually enrich your experience of this
often lovely album. Manitoba reside in that blurry zone between postrock and
electronica a la Hood, but without vocals. Grinning Cat is plain pretty in a
vaguely Reichian manner. Slightly disappointed that the Morr comp isn't actually
a series of IDM covers/tributes to the Smiths-- Boards of Canada seem like a
perfect fit for "Back To the Old House"--- but lovely stuff, esp. the second
Unreleases (K)/Various Artists, Disco Nouveau (Ghostly International)/etc
I've come across) but the bands loosely arrayed around New York's Electroclash
organisation are a whole heap better. Dig that Berlin (the group not the city)
drum-sound on certain tracks on the C2001 comp. Chicks On Speed, who played at
the Electroclash festival, fall into that quite small category of things I like
but don't "get"; usually it's either get/like, or get (meaning "see
through")/dislike. Seems like some fabulously arcane private humour at work, or
very Berlin (the city not the band) verging-on Sprockets type art school
sensibility. But it sounds cool so what the hey. The Ghostly International comp
is the most all-the-way-through enjoyable thing I've heard in this
neo-electro/Eighties synthpop vein since the Interdimensional Transmissions's
From Beyond several years ago.
More a trend-let than an actual fully-fledged trend. But Troubleman Unlimited re definitely on the 1979 tip. Bit too much horrible-racket harshcore, math-rocky herky-jerky frenzy and lowest-of-the-lo-fi scritchy scrawn on this 47 track double-CD of the new sub-sub underground, but it's cool to know that there's all these bands searching out and cherishing obscure singles by pragVEC
and Grow Up and Fatal Microbes: at least they're looking for different seams of
influence to mine. Erase Errata seem especially steeped in the untypical girls
of UK postpunk (Delta 5, Raincoats, Essential Logic) and post-No Wave
(Contortions, Bush Tetras, Ut). The result is a dislocation dance itchy with
ideas and nervous energy.
BUBBLING ON THE BRINK OF THE TOP 20
WAGON CHRIST--Musipal (Ninja Tune)
----Receiver EP---(Ninja Tune)
Pick hit: "Bend Over," the bad-bearded one's best since 1995's "Scrapes', which features on both of this records. The 'ardcore-flavors on Receiver are enjoyable, like a sort of middle-aged, downtempo adaption of rave.
THE STROKES Is This It (BMG)
First listen: what is this shit? Second listen: hmmm, there's something here. Third listen: boy this is good. Ultimately as a reproduction-antiquey and pointless as Harry Connick Jnr, of course, but top tunes.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Wir (Ladomat)
Heard from the wrong slant of mind, this might seem "slight", but repeated listens unfurl quirky New Pop/Eighties-tinged house of substantial charm, vaguely in the vicinity of Shantel. Killertune: Sensorama's "Echtzeit"
GUSH COLLECTIVE---Collected Dubs (Indigo)
How do you say "criss" in German? 2step from Deutschland, surprisingly undeniable.
Like Sandra Bernhard meets Alan Vega, produced by Keith Forsey and Lenny Dee.
One of our last guitar heros. Neil's's got the licks and then some. Bonus points for not sounding like any of Royal Trux's recent, excessively copious output.
LE TIGRE--From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP
---Feminist Sweepstakes (Mr. Lady)
Something hugely irritating about Kathleen Hanna's belief that cos she's got "something to say" she can just shift from fronting a half-assed rock band to fronting a half-assed dance outfit. But at their closest to full-assed, they're sorta undeniable, like a rad-feminist dyke-positive Bananarama circa "Really Saying Something". The politics of sass Pt 2.
The missus has a piece coming out in The Wire on Le Tigre, but here's her old man's tuppeny worth. I think the most feminist thing a woman involved in the arts can do is be excellent. That is why Bjork and Polly Harvey and ----------- [add your own favorites] have done more for women-in-rock, and women outside rock, than Kathleen Hanna, for whom music is clearly a vehicle rather than an end in itself. To be excellent involves a belief in brilliance as an idea, a goal, a value. You have to want to excel, which either means playing by the rules and winning, or coming up with a new set of rules so devastatingly idioysyncratic and new (Raincoats, Yoko, Blectum, etc etc) that they threaten to make the old values irrelevant and outmoded. I don't think Hanna as ever done either of these things, flirtations with ecriture feminine aside. Instead she has the true dilettante's delusion that whatever medium is being infiltrated is actually piss-easy, and that it's ideas (usually extra-musical ideas) that count more than craft. Ideas do count, and indeed you could argue that pop or rock music without the edge that comes from non-musical ideas or inputs, is ultimately worthless. Some of the greatest bands have been constructed around the alliance of a non-musician (with good ideas and taste and some kind of character-driven "fire", charisma/neurosis drive) with people who were actually competent or even virtuosic at music. Sex Pistols is an obvious example: Jones's ability and will-to-rock and Matlock's tunecraft would have been nothing without Rotten, but Rotten would have been nothing without Jones and Matlock (or later, without Wobble and Levene). Johanna in Le Tigre at least has a commitment to the idea of excelling, and a properly humble awareness of how much skill goes into making dance music, but until Hanna forms a group in which she is outnumbered by aspiring musicians, Le Tigre will always be a less than a fully-assed proposition.
case for a label I'd previously regarded as supremely trivial.
uber-hipster who was into Ives and musique concrete before he reached the age of
ten. And the way he migrates between musical universes, Fahey to Fennesz, lap
steel to laptop, it's all very rhizomatic and unrooted, but they used to have a
word for it in the olden days: gadfly. You wonder whether there's an aesthetic
core there, like where's his stick-with-it-ness? Still, this album is one of the
minor pleasures of the year. The contrast between the all-American-rocking
semi-muscularity of the music and the pleasing wimpiness of his voice is faintly
suggestive of Big Star, without actually sounding like Big Star.
anyway) doing kind of drill 'n' bass GBH on the original pieces, but with real
mash-up rinse-out Amen-tumbly drumkit-falling-downstairs feel of your original
94 ragga-jungle. In other words, not unlike Hvratski's own immortal repro of
"Catstep" by kid606.
Better than Beta Band? These Welsh-language songs create the happy side effect
of making you feel like your hearing is mangled on drugs---or at least, that the
singer's mouth's mushed on shrooms..
MUM--Yesterday was Dramatic-- Today Is OK (Tugboat)
VARIOUS ARTISTS/ANDREW WEATHERALL--Hypercity: ForceTracks Force Inc)
HELLFISH-- One Man Sonic Attack Force (Planet Mu)
MICE PARADE -- Mokoondi (Bubblecore)
cLOUDDEAD --cLOUDDEAD (Mush/dirty loop music)
CHRIS CLARK--Clarence Park (Warp)
VARIOUS ARTISTS--Clicks & Cuts 2 Mille Plateaux
LESSER -- Gearhound (Matador)
CEX -- Oops I Did It Again (Tigerbeat 6 )
FLOPPY SOUNDS -- Short Term Memories (Wave)
TO ROCOCCO ROT & I SOUND---Music Is A Hungry Ghost(Mute)
SO-CALLED ARTISTS---untitled (Mush/dirty loop music)
MARUMARI Supermogadon (Carpark)
SAFETY SCISSORS Parts Water (Plug Research)
MONOLAKE Cinemascope (Monolake/Imbalance)
DNTEL Life is Full of Possibilities (Plug Research)
VARIOUS ARITSTS Electric ladyland: clickhop version 1.0 (mille plateaux)
VARIOUS ARTISTS Tigerbeat6 Inc
BUBBA SPARKXXX Dark Days, Bright Nights (Beat Club Records)
VARIOUS ARTISTS --Staedtizism 2 (^scape)
(Take one, from Spin)
Neu! has got to be one of the most beautifully apt names to ever grace a band. The Dusseldorf duo's cruise control surge of steady-pulsing drums and quicksilver guitar creates the sensation of gently hurtling into a dazzling future--a world where everything is glistening and newborn. Forming Neu! in 1971 as a breakaway offshoot from Kraftwerk, drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother pioneered the style that critics christened "motorik": a unique twist on the thread of white line fervor running through rock'n'roll, from Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go" to Canned Heat's "On The Road Again" to The Modern Lovers's "Roadrunner". Neu!'s music tingled and throbbed with urgent anticipation, yet exuded a distinctly German serenity. Appropriately, the culture that had invented the autobahn also spawned, with Neu! and Kraftwerk, the most sublime sonic expressions of motion-as-state-of-grace. Now, after years of only being available as bootlegs, Neu!'s motorik trilogy gets an official CD reissue on Astralwerks.
"Hallogallo", the first track on the self-titled debut, is a wordless manifesto calling for fresh frontiers, new horizons, cultural renaissance. Ten minutes long, built from just Drummer's pounding drums and Michael Rother's iridescent overdubs (Neu! had no bassist and seldom used vocals), this is supremely transcendent and entrancing rock. Like the Velvet Underground a few years earlier and Television a few years after, Neu! sketched a blues-less blueprint for rock's future, and artists from Bowie/Eno to PiL, the Fall, and Stereolab picked up their glittering trail of clues. On "Hallogallo" and "Fur Immer" (the equally exhilarating and lengthy epic that kickstarts Neu! 2), Dinger & Rother's approach is minimal-is-maximal. What sounds initially like mesmerising monotony on closer listens is revealed as an endlessly absorbing tapestry of subtle shifts and intricate inflections. Dinger especially was il maestro at playing rhythmic accents around the basic four-to-the-floor beat while maintaining the feel of monolithic relentlessness.
Motorik wasn't the only card in Neu's hand, though. The grinding clangor and harshly chiming harmonics of the debut's "Negativland" flash-forwards to Sonic Youth's EVOL and Sister. "Lila Engel," from Neu! 2, is a neanderthal stomp that might, in some parallel universe, have displaced "Rock'n'Roll, Pt 2" as every sports fan's fave yell-along. And that album's entire second side consists of drastically accelerated and slowed-down versions of the single "Neuschnee" and its B-side "Super": a surprisingly entertaining and conceptually stimulating manoeuvre, albeit born of sheer desperation (Neu!'s recording budget ran out too soon!). Neu! 75, the duo's masterpiece, is also their most placid record, its first side gradually decelerating from the poignant, piano-cascading canter of "Isi" through the snowcapped majesty of "Seeland" to the beat-less seascape lull of "Leb' Wohl," all breathless blissed gasps and lapping surf. But really it's "Hallogallo", "Fur Immer," "Neuschnee," and the pedal-to-the-metal proto-punk roar of "Hero" (from Neu! 75) that represent Dinger & Rother's claim for a place in the rock canon. No band has ever surpassed these hymns to the glory of going-nowhere-fast.
(Take 2, from Uncut)
Don't wanna folderol about Neu!'s pervasive influence and ahead-of-their-timeness. Yeah, the rollcall of debtors is long (Bowie cribbed notes for Low/Heroes, Stereolab's hocked up to their elbows, Spiritualized blah Sonic Youth yawn...), but these monumental records STAND ALONE in their astonishing beauty and soul-smiting might. Don't even wanna blather overmuch about Neu!'s innovativeness, 'cos that perpetuates Krautrock's image as sound-laboratory research, whereas this stuff was TORN from the heart-and-souls (muscles 'n' ligaments too: this is physical music) of Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger---a chalk/cheese, yin/yang duo who didn't get on except when making music together. Indeed, bad blood's the reason it's taken so long for these official re-issues of Neu!s oeuvre to materialise.
No guff today, then, just gush. Briefly members of Kraftwerk, guitarist Rother and drummer Dinger released their debut as Neu! in 1972. 10 minute opener "Hallogallo" is both blueprint for their "motorik" sound and a wordless cultural manifesto. Rother's talked about Neu! being inseparable from the late Sixties/early Seventies moment in Germany (student radicalism, anarcho-hippie communes, Red Army Faction, etc) and truly their music tingles with hope-against-hope idealism, yearnings for rebirth, breakthrough, new frontiers. With Dinger setting the beat on cruise-control for the heart of the sun, Rother overdubs a golden horde of guitars: gaseous with sustain, light-streaks of psychedelically-reversed tone-color, glistening flecked rhythm chords.... The result is the whitest music since the Velvets yet oddly close to the black aesthetic Amiri Baraka dubbed "changing same": the groove that just keeps on keepin' on, yet absorbs you with its endlessly shifting inflections and accents. Rest of the debut's less motorik, more avant-rock: "Sonderangebot" could be an alternative soundtrack to the alien obelisk scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, while "Negativland" meshes clockwork bass-and-drum pulse-groove with howlround guitar-scree to create an unusually disturbed and menacing vibe for this usually rhapsodic group.
Neu! 2 basically reprises the debut's winning formula--at least until the budget ran out, and Rother and Dinger had to fill up Side Two with sped-up and slowed-down versions of a recent single! It opens with 11 minute epic "Fur Immer", whose driving Dinger-pulse seems to churn up a radiant slipstream of Rother-dust in its wake. More weirdshit follows: found sounds, eerie ambience, interrupted by the caveman stampede of "Lila Engel" (imagine "Rock'n'Roll, Part 2" meets "Sister Ray"). Then it's onto the 78 rpm and 16 rpm versions of "Neuschnee" and B-side "Super": not as irritating as you'd expect, highly listenable actually, and, sheer desperation aside, conceptually clever in John-Cage-meets-turntablism stylee.
The fissile Neu! separated for a few years, then reconvened for one last blast: their masterpiece, Neu! 75. Piano-and-synth instrumental "Isi" could be Krautrock's "Penny Lane", except it's wistful for the future rather than nostalgic. "Seeland" is like a first-class sunset, Rother's celestial pageant slowly unfurling over Dinger's ceremonial stealth. "Leb'Wohl" lowers your metabolism further still with its becalmed oceanside idyll, then "Hero" revs up again as its glorybound protagonist hurtles down the road-to-nowhere in a dazzling blare of chord-strum and wind-tunnel vocals. After Neu!'s final disintegration, Zen-scented Rother followed the "Seeland" path into a pretty but placid solo career, while velocity boy Dinger contined Neu!'s proto-punk speedfreak side with his terrific band La Dusseldorf. But it's with the holy Neu! trinity that Rother and Dinger etched their lofty perch in the rock pantheon. There's nothing "educational" or difficult about this music: Neu! should thrill anybody who's ever felt rock's rush.
Natty Universal Dread, 1973-1979
(Blood and Fire)
A Jamaican Story
GREENSLEEVES 25th ANNIVERSARY REISSUES: DR. ALIMANTADO, AUGUSTUS PABLO, EEK-A-MOUSE ET AL
NINEY THE OBSERVER Microphone Attack: Niney the observer 1974-78 (blood and fire)
In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim--whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall. Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint. Songs like "Is Dread In A Babylon" and "Every Nigger Is A Star" capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of postcolonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from the Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".
Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart of the Congos reissue, and typically for the label, this 3-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object. Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ, et al. Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/ release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this thirty CD colossus.
All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic---there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song. What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only scratches the surface of reggae's ocean of sound
The Complete 70's Replica CD Collection 1970-78
The mystery of the riff--so crucial to rock, so oddly neglected by critics. Or perhaps not so oddly neglected, given that they're almost impossible to write about: just try explaining why one monster-riff slays you where another fails to ignite. A killer riff is by definition simplistic--which is why rock, as it gets more sophisticated, tends to dispense with them in favor of wispy subtleties. Whereas riffs just seem to bypass the aesthetic faculty of "appreciation" and go straight to the gut. Riff-based music seems lowly, literally "mindless" because it connects with the lower "reptilian" part of the cerebral cortex which governs flight-or-flight responses and the primitive emotions of appetite, aversion, aggression.
Talking of reptiles, Black Sabbath--perhaps rock's all-time greatest riff factory--irresistibly invite metaphors involving dinosaurs. For a group that wielded such brontosauran bulk, though, Sabbath were surprisingly nimble on their feet. Listening to this box-set, which comprises all eight albums of the classic Ozzy-fronted era, it's surprising how fast many of their songs were, given the Sabs' reputation as torpid dirgemeisters for the downered-and-out.
But even in manic mode, Sabbath always sound depressed. Rhythmically as much as lyrically, Sabbath songs dramatise scenarios of ordeal, entrapment, affliction, perseverance in the face of long odds and insuperable obstacles. Tony Iommi's down-tuned guitar, in tandem with the awesome rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler, creates sensations of impedance and drag, like you're struggling through hostile, viscous terrain. But let's not discount Ozzy's role: his piteous wail is one-dimensional, sure, but it sounds utterly righteous in this Sabbath context of trial and burden. He's even genuinely moving on forlornly pretty ballads like "Changes".
With a few exceptions (Lester Bangs, notably) the first rock-crit generation abhorred Sabbath. Criticism always lags behind new art forms, appraising it using terminology and techniques appropriate to earlier genres. So the first rock critics (typically postgraduates in literature, philosophy, or politics) treated songs as mini-novels, as poems or protest tracts with tasteful guitar accompaniment. Expecting rock to get ever more refined, they were hardly gonna embrace Sabbath's crude putsch on Cream, which stripped away all the blues-bore scholarship and grossly amplified the heavy dynamics. Riff-centered rock--Zep, Mountain, ZZ Top, Aerosmith---was received with incomprehension and condescension. But while Seventies critical faves like Little Feat and Jackson Browne have sired no legacy, over the long haul Sabbath's originality and fertility have been vindicated. Sabbath are literally seminal, their chromosones popping up in US hardcore (Black Flag/Rollins were massively indebted), grunge (Nirvana = Beatles + Sabbath x Pixies), and virtually every major HM phase from Metallica to sludge-metallers Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age to Korn-style nu-metal.
Sabbath dressed like hippies: check the kaftans and loon pants in the inner sleeve photos of these CDs (which are miniature simulacra of the original gatefold elpees). And they clearly hoped to contribute to the post-Sgt Pepper's progressive tendency: hence pseudo-pastoral interludes like the flute-draped "Solitude," an idyll amidst Master of Reality's sturm und drang. Critics, though, deplored them as a sign of rock's post-Sixties regression , mere lumpen bombast fit only for the moronic inferno of the arena circuit, or even as a symptom of the long lingering demise of countercultural dreams. In retrospect, with Sixties idealism seeming like a historical aberration, Sabbath's doom 'n' gloom seems more enduringly resonant, tapping into the perennial frustrations of youth with dead-end jobs from Coventry to New Jersey: concussive riffs and narcotic noise as the cheap-and-nasty route to oblivion. Sabbath's no-future vision always becomes extra relevant in times of economic downturn, like the recession that backdropped grunge, or the precipice ahead of us right now.
Looking back, the much-derided Satanist aspects seem relatively peripheral and low-key. In old TV footage of Sabbath, the group seem almost proto-punk, their sullen, slobby demeanour recalling The Saints on Top of the Pops. There's little theatrics, and the music is remarkably trim and flatulence-free. But then no one really raves about Iommi's solos, do they? The riffs are what it's all about, and Sabbath's output on that score is rivaled only by AC/DC. "Sweet Leaf", "Iron Man", "Paranoid", "Children of the Grave," "Wheels of Confusion", the list goes on. So we're back with the mystery.... just what is it that makes for a killer riff? Something to do with the use of silence and spacing, the hesitations that create a sense of tensed and flexed force, of momentum held then unleashed? If I had to choose one definitive Sabbath riffscape, I'd be torn between the ballistic pummel of "Supernaut" and "War Pigs", whose stop-start drums are like slow-motion breakbeats, Quaalude-sluggish but devastatingly funky. "War Pigs" is also that rare thing, the protest song that doesn't suck. Indeed, it's 'Nam era plaint about "generals gathered... like witches at black masses" has a renewed topicality at a time when the military-industrial death-machine is once more flexing its ungodly might.
Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire & Beyond
Lenny Kaye's 1972 anthology Nuggets was a rock archivist's masterstroke, a feat of canon rewriting that deposed the post-Sergeant Pepper's aristocracy and elevated the forgotten garage punks of the mid-Sixties, from The Seeds to Chocolate Watchband. Rhino's 1998 four-CD update of Nuggets dramatically expanded the original double LP. Now this latest instalment extends the Nuggets premise beyond the USA to encompass the one-hit-wonders and never-wozzers of mid-Sixties Britain: that all-too-brief golden age of amphetamine-cranked R&B and mod-on-LSD that's roughly bookended by "My Generation" and Cream's Disraeli Gears. Just the names of these long-lost groups--Dantalion's Chariot, Wimple Winch, Rupert's People, The Idle Race--induces a contact high, before you even play the discs.
Back then, singles made their point and left. This short'n'sweet succintness allows the compilers to cram 109--that's one hundred and nine--tracks into four discs. Here's just a handful of gems. Tintern Abbey's "Vacuum Cleaner", with the saintly-sounding David MacTavish singing a proto-Spacemen 3 love-as-drug/drug-as-God lyric ("fix me up with your sweet dose/now I'm feeling like a ghost"), splashy cymbals, and a billowing solo of controlled feedback. Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything": Van in I'm-A-Man mode, awesomely surly and swaggering. The Sorrows's "Take A Heart": a Brit-Diddley locked groove of tumbling tribal toms and spaced-out-for-intensified-effect guitar-riffs. The Eyes's "When The Night Falls" takes that drastic use of silence and suspense even further: powerchords like Damocles Swords, caveman tub-thumping, tongues-of-flame harmonica, and an insolent you-done-me-wrong/go-my-own-way vocal. Fire's "Father's Name Was Dad," a classic misunderstood teen anthem: society gets the blame and the kid surveys squaresville from a lofty vantage, cries "I laugh at it all!"
One group stands out as a "why?-WHY?!?-were-they-never-massive?" mystery. Not The Creation, and not The Action--both had terrific songs but were a little characterless. No, I'm talking about John's Children's. Their two offerings here are astoundingly deranged, the monstrously engorged fuzzbass like staring into a furnace, the drums flailing and scything like Keith Moon at his most smashed-blocked. "Desdemona" features the then shocking chorus "lift up your skirt and fly", daft lines about Toulouse-Lautrec painting "some chick in the rude" plus the stutter-bleat of a young Bolan on backing vox. "A Midnight Summer's Scene" captures mod sulphate-mania on the cusp of mutating into flower power acid-bliss: it's a febrile fantasy of Dionysian mayhem in an after-dark park, maenad hippy-chicks with faces "disfigured by love", strewing "petals and flowers," prancing the rites of Pan.
John's Children's merger of cissy and psychotic highlights the major difference between American garage punk and British "freakbeat" (as reissue label Bam Caruso dubbed it for their illustrious Rubble compilation series). The Limey stuff is way fey compared with the Yanks. You can hear a proto-glam androgyny, a "soft boy" continuum that takes in Barrett and Bolan, obviously, but also the queeny-dandy aristocrat persona of Robert Plant. At the same time, because these bands were schooled in R&B and played live constantly, the music has a rhythmic urgency and aggressive thrust that gradually faded over subsequent decades from the psychedelic tradition (think of Spiritualized's drum-phobic ethereality). This, though, was music for dancing as much as wigging out.
Nuggets II isn't solid gold. There's a slight surfeit of boppy shindig-type rave-ups and sub-Yardbirds blues that just ain't bastardized enough. Personally I crave more tunes with truly over-the-top guitar effects, aberrant bass-heavy mixes, phased cymbals, drastic stereo separation, and other psych-era cliches. The "British Empire" part of the subtitle allows in Australia's The Easybeats (godstars for the duration of "Friday On My Mind") while the "Beyond" pulls in groovy Latin American acid-rockers Os Mutantes. But to be honest, a lot of the Commonwealth-and-beyond stuff just ain't that hot. And inevitably one could compile another 2-CDs out of heinous ommissions. Forget the quibbles, though, this box is a treasure chest of vintage dementia.
The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)
Send in the clones. Because originators are relatively scarce, and "secondary talents" often perform a useful function, filling in gaps left by the innovator's erratic, all-too-brief trajectory. That's my case-for-the-defense regarding the deeply derivative Radio Birdman. Formed in Sydney, Australia by Michigan native/exile Deniz Tek, the band were based with uncanny fidelity on the Stooges/MC5 proto-punk model. The name Radio Birdman comes from a line in the Stooges' "1970" and the songs teem with Detroit-specific references to Woodward Avenue and Strohs (Iggy & Co's favorite beer). "I-94," from the second album Living Eyes, is named after the highway that cuts through Michigan's industrial heartland, and songs like "Murder City Nights' take the Detroit shtick to the brink of schlock.
So what makes Birdman stand-out from the legion of Stooges-imitators cherished by Frenchmen in leather jeans? Singer Rob Younger's hoarse grunt was merely adequately Iggy-esque, and the rhythm section's rolling thunder is potent but never approaches the loose 'n' lethal swing of Funhouse. So really Radio Birdman's enduring cult is mostly down to Tek: his guitar's spare, stinging lead/rhythm hybrid, and his overall band-vision, which worked up the latent militarism in Stooges songs like "Search and Destroy" into fullblown deathwish rock, sorta Jim Morrison-meets-Sam-Peckinpah. Listen to this anthology--the first time Birdman's music's been properly released domestically--and you'll find song after song about self-immolation ("gonna burn alive", vows Iggy-tribute "Do the Pop") and going out in a blaze of glory. "Alone in the Endzone," for instance, is about a bomber pilot hurtling over "burning desert sands" on a mission that's turned kamikaze: his crew's dead, there's not enough fuel to make it back home, but he's deadset on dropping his payload.
Like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Birdman inhabit a male-only world of camaraderie in the face of death. Warrior-wannabes just looking to explode and vent all that pent-up masculine emotion, they regarded the fairer sex as an energy-sucking distraction: "Non-Stop Girls" declares "can't use non-stop girls/cos all my love has gone/To another world", while the suicidal "Smith & Wesson Blues" reckons you're never alone with a warm gun. There was a dodgy side to all this sado-machismo: Birdman named their tours things like Blitzkrieg and Aural Rape, and wore black shirts adorned with the band's Germanic-looking logo, prompting accusations of flirtation-with-fascism from some quarters. But combat * rocks*, and Deniz Tek's insane clone posse tapped into masculinity's dark heart, appealing to the part of you that watches Apocalypse Now for the ninth time.
Smash the System
Listening to this double-CD anthology, your first reaction is: Saint Etienne were *cheated*. They should have spanned the Nineties with a string of Number Ones, yet despite strenuous efforts, they never even cracked the Top Ten. Cheated, then, but what can you do? Pop is a cruel mistress, and anybody touting a vision of "perfect pop" is cruising for a bruising. See, pop aesthetes are never really affirming the totality of everything that sells (the only real definition of pop: hit for hit, Iron Maiden, Queen and Dire Straits are some of our biggest "pop" acts ever). Instead they hone in on a precious few sublime flashes amid the crass and the crud, distilling an idiosyncratic notion of "pure pop" that may simply be too refined for the rough-and-tumble of the pop marketplace. And these never-never pops, being based on what *was*, typically get progressively more out-of-step with those ever-changing market realities as time goes by.
This doesn't invalidate the Wiggs & Stanley approach---indeed some of the best music ever has come about through being dreamed *against* the times. But any appraisal of this career retrospective ought to address Saint Etienne's "failure": the fact that they never really connected with the populace as yer actual bought-by-kids-at-Woolies chart fodder. Their singles almost invariably lingered in the chart somewhere between two and five weeks, suggesting a compact and distinct fan-base. Saint Etienne simply lacked the common touch (could a song called "Hobart Paving" ever become an "our song" for some everyday couple?). Even when they later adopted a "competitive" sound (modelled on the Europop that dominated the mid-Nineties charts), it was as though some kind of subconscious self-sabotaging impulse (their pop aesthete's integrity) ensured that the lyrics remained too-damn-smart.
Another quality that made Saint Etienne jar with Nineties chartpop is the romantic chasteness of their love songs. The group were the missing link between two quintessentially English moments, C86 and Britpop (they belonged to that superior prequel for Britpop that included World of Twist, Denim, and early Pulp). "Kiss and Make Up," their lovely second single, was a Field Mice cover, and that trademark C86 cutie-pop sexlessness runs through the discography. Sarah Cracknell's voice---sometimes divinely fragrant and airy, sometimes excessively sweet 'n' creamy, like sipping condensed milk---has as much in common with Amelia Fletcher from Talulah Gosh/Heavenly as with Northern soul or Petula Clark-style Palladium pop. Contrasted with today's rampant, sexually graphic R&B, Saint Etienne's songs are strikingly demure and above-the-waist---all about TLC not carnal ecstasy, devotion rather than desire. There's even a sort of running theme about holding hands! "It's too hot to even hold hands/But that won't stop us from making plans" coos "London Belongs To Me" ( heinously omitted from this comp), while "Join Our Club" features the classic Cracknell come-on to the listener: "I know you want to hold my hand/I know you're gonna love my band". And they expected this sort of virginal stuff to play with today's shagging-by-age-thirteen kids?!
Any Saint Etienne best-of missing Foxbase's "London Belongs" and So Tough gems like "Leafhound," "Calico", and the Rush-sampling "Conchita Martinez", is seriously flawed. But there's more than enough here to remind you why Saint Etienne warrant worship. "Carnt Sleep" recalls A.R. Kane's own doomed pop move "i" with its wistful skank of reverbed rimshots, rhythm guitar prickles, and plaintive piano. Featuring nymphet rapper Q-Tee, "Filthy" anticipates the Chemical Brothers with its looped breakbeat, stinging wah-wah riff, and deep rolling bass. "Mario's Cafe" is delightful English observational pop which combines Astral Weeks-like orchestration with Dury/Squeeze-style lyrical references to the Racing Post and bacon rind, and throws in some delicious early Nineties pop allusions: the girl who dreams of an evening with PM Dawn's Prince B., people talking about The KLF on Top of the Pops the night before. And then there's "Avenue", one of the all-time great lost shoulda-been Number Ones. Commercially suicidal at nearly eight minutes, it's a soaring, celestial mash-up of Dollar, Kate Bush, Smile, and FSOL's "Papua New Guinea", with a lyric as indecipherable (thanks to Cracknell's ultra-breathy singing) and enigmatic as an Alan Resnais movie. A special big-up is due Ian Catt, Saint Etienne's engineer/programmer/unoffical fourth member, who obviously deserved his rare songwriting credit on "Avenue".
When "Avenue" stalled at Number 40 in October '92, it was an indictment of the modern world, not Saint Etienne. I still reckon the group should have retaliated by turning their back on chartpop, gone weird. Instead they did the opposite. Towards the end of the first disc, this compilation turns into a document of a misguided quest to score that elusive Top Ten hit, involving the gradual ironing-out of all the experimentalist lumps in their sound: the dub-wise spaciousness, the found sound interludes, the strange codas like the trippy Beatles-esque fade to "Avenue". (Contententious argument: Saint Etienne, anti-rockists who *wanted* to be a consumate singles group, were ironically better as an album band). "Pale Movie," a "Fernando"-meets-Paul Van Dyk shimmer is lovely, but others from Saint Etienne's Euro phase ("He's On The Phone", "Angel", "Burnt Out Car") sound rather faceless, all chugging sequenced basslines and trance-lite beats. Worn out, Saint Etienne took a four year sabbatical and returned with 1998's Good Humor, replacing their synths and samples with a more organic sound (Swedish session musicians, influences from The Cardigans and Vince 'Charlie Brown' Guaraldi). The clutch of tracks here from this phase seem somehow chastened, oddly modest and mischief-less. But with last year's Sound of Water, Saint Etienne seem to be trying to carve out a post-pop identity--discreetly experimental, "adult", with songs like "Just A Little Overcome" as good as anything they'd ever done. So hopefully this compilation is the greatest hits-and-misses *so far*, just a first installment of towering pop genius
The Original Sound of Sheffield--The Best of the Virgin/EMI Years
Conform to Deform--The Virgin/EMI Years
It's hard to believe today, but back in the early Eighties the "New Pop" ideal of mainstream entryism was so dominant, and the alternative (staying indie) so discredited, that even the leading lights of industrial music had a bash. Clock DVA, SPK, and Throbbing Gristle (renamed Psychic TV) all formed alliances with major labels, glossing up their music seemingly in hopes of getting on Top of the Pops. What's most surprising in retrospect is not the group's eagerness to "sell out" (hell, everybody needs to make some bread), but the major labels' belief they could sell the stuff to Joe Punter.
Invariably, the post-industrial popsters stiffed in the marketplace and, tails (or pierced dicks) between legs, they rejoined erstwhile comrades like Nurse With Wound and Coil in the margins. Still, flouting received wisdom, it's not always true that compromise ruins a band's sound. Sometimes it an improvement: the radio-friendly Nirvana of Nevermind is just plain better than the Subpop stuff. Even a failed attempt at mainstreaming can serve as a timely escape for a band that's hit an aesthetic dead end. So while I'd still rate Cabaret Voltaire's first phase from "Nag Nag Nag" through Red Mecca to "Your Agent Man" as their definitive legacy, it's undeniable that by 1982 they'd taken that approach as far as they could. It was time for a change: a new arena, bigger horizons, a shifted sound.
On their first two post-Rough Trade albums, The Crackdown and Microphonies, the Cabs are basically trying to do a New Order: marry postpunk's angst with the party sounds of electro and Latin Freestyle that ruled Manhattan clubs like the Funhouse and Danceteria. If they never pulled off a "Blue Monday" or "Confusion", they got close with "Crackdown", "Just Fascination," and especially "Sensoria", which gave an ultramodern sheen--all chattering sequencers, pert chugging basslines, and robotic handclaps--to the classic Voltaire vibe of twitchy, under-surveillance tension. The result---Shannon for J.G. Ballard fans---was only a few leftward steps from Depeche Mode in their "political", Neubauten-infatuated mode. But Stephen Mallinder's sultry vocals were always too subdued and moody for full pop impact. And melody was never the Cabs's strong suit.
By the time a dance culture based around largely instrumental music arrived, in the form of acid house, Cabaret Voltaire was running out of steam (understandably, after thirteen years and umpteen releases). Remixes of post-1988 Cabs tunes by dancefloor luminaries like A Guy Called Gerald and Rob Gordon show both how much the Cabs had in common with acid and bleep, but also how they needed assistance to really infiltrate that arena. Hooking up with Sheffield deejay Parrot as Sweet Exorcist, though, Richard Kirk did enjoy the ravefloor impact that eluded the Cabs, with early Warp releases like "Testone". Avant-funk finally had its day, as 'ardcore.
The three-CD Conform to Deform is flawed: there's hardly anything from 1985's under-rated The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, and an entire disc dedicated to live versions seems an odd decision (although the Cabs could be a formidable and forbidding live experience). Some tracks haven't dated well: "C.O.m.a" is all stop-start edits, Fairlight gimmicks, and other modish mid-Eighties techniques, but, unlike equally of-their-time efforts by Art of Noise and Mantronix, the effect is "period charmless." The single-disc The Original Sound of Sheffield, though, makes a strong case for the Cabs's crossover era. An essential companion/sequel to the first-phase Cabs singles compilation The Living Legends, this "greatest near-misses" tells the story of how one pioneering postpunk outfit tried to adapt to the challenging climate of the 1980s.
In this "pop will regurgitate itself" era, sampling and referentiality is so par for the course, it's barely comment-worthy. Flashback, though, to a time when the debates about bricolage and (re-, mis-, and ex-) appropriation were more urgent: the late Eighties of Def Jam, the JAMMS, M/A/R/R/S, Steinski, that moment when the sampler suddenly got much cheaper. Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald had been messin' with music by iconic artist for years, using traditional tape-editing techniques, and he seized the opportunities presented by the new digital technology. The result was 1989's Plunderphonic CD: songs by Elvis Presley, James Brown, Count Basie, Stravinsky, and others, vivisected and rebuilt into grotesque mutant alter-egos. What was different about Oswald's approach was that each track focused on a single artist, and usually a single work. This sort of aural Pop Art mischief wasn't unprecedented, either in the academy (James Tenney's 1961 Elvis-deconstruction "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) or in pop itself (The Residents Reich'n'Roll), but Oswald's cover (per)versions were especially extreme.
Despite being scrupulous about identifying his sources, and circulating Plunderphonic on a non-commercial basis, Oswald was persecuted by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (largely because CBS were upset by his reworking of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and forced to destroy all remaining copies of the CD. For years, the only way to hear it has been to contact various Copyright Liberation outfits who'd tape it for free. But now, finally, Oswald has secured permission for all his "electroquotes" and has re-released Plunderphonic, plus some of his earlier and later collages, in a deluxe CD box. There's an extensive booklet, which goes into fascinating detail about Oswald's techniques and diverse approaches to each different song-treatment, along with all the related issues of originality, copyright, artistic signature, etc, that Oswald is exploring.
Listening to the set's two discs, a certain Oswald "signature" emerges: a partiality for choppy, fractured rhythms and weird time signatures. The herky-jerky cut-up of "Hello I Love You" sounds like the Magic Band reduced to eking out an existence as a covers band, with the players uncannily imitating the Doors's instrumental and vocal timbres, but restructuring the tune in the jagged spirit of Trout Mask Replica. Extracts from Plexure, Oswald's attempt to compress the entire pop universe into one 20 minute piece, offer a frenzy of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, etc, an FM radio inferno that spawns monstrous hybrids like Annie Lennox amalgamated with Fine Young Cannibals inna Cronenburg/The Fly-stylee. There are also moments of beguiling delicacy, though: offcuts of Juan Carlos Joabim bossanova rewoven into a beautiful quilt of lilt; "Strawberry Fields Forever" condensed into a quintessential quiver of wistful ethereality; a varispeeded "White Christmas" that makes Bing's croon droop and ooze like a Dali dreamscape. "Pretender" is a sex-change version of a Dolly Parton song descending from only-audible-to-dogs ultra-treble to a testosterone-thick basso profundissimo, and executed using a Lenco turntable that goes from 80 rpm down to 12 rpm.
The most stunning of Oswald's plunderphonic feats is "Dab", his infamous unravelling of Michael Jackson's "Bad". Attempting to bring sorely-needed electricity to what he felt was musically lifeless, Oswald does his usual Beefheart/Zorn-style thing at first, transforming the song into convulsive cyber-funk. Halfway through, though, the remake ascends to another place altogether. Micro-syllable vocal particles are multitracked as if in some infinite hall-of-mirrors vortex, and this ghost-swarm of
nano-Jacksons strobes stereophonically from speaker to speaker, while simultaneously billowing back and forth through dub-space. The opposite approach to Plexure's maximalist assault, "Dab" creates a new universe within a finite, not-especially-great pop song. It's one of the most cosmic (micro-cosmic?) things I've ever heard. And it alone justifies the not-cheap admission price to Plunderphonics 69/96.
23 Skidoo were prime explorers of an area of sound that opened up in punk's aftermath, when people were looking for a forward path to take them as far from rock's reeking corpse as possible. Funk, it was decided, was the new music of danger, the most suitable rhythmic template for experimentalism or militancy. Based on a quite small range of instances (the psychosis latent in James Brown's frenzies, the voodoo grooves of Tago Mago and On The Corner, Sly Stone's darker moments, Fela Kuti, , Last Poets) a notion emerged of funk as a rhythmic metaphor for control, addiction, possession, exorcism. Mix in ideas borrowed from vanguard s.f. writers Ballard & Burroughs (sounds like a haberdashers!) and paranoid vibes from Seventies auteur movies like Klute, The Parallax View, and The Conversation, and voila, you've got the future.
Bridging avant-funk's pioneering first-wave (Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio) and a less distinguished second-wave that formularised the genre (Hula, Chakk, Shriekback, 400 Blows), 23 Skidoo have enjoyed a spectral presence in Nineties dance culture, despite the out-of-print, terribly-hard-to-find status of their recordings. The bassline to their single "Coup" was copied note-for-note by The Chemicals on "Block Rockin' Beats", while early darkside jungle circa 1993 was often bizarrely Skidoo-like. And the group's ethnological forgeries and tape-looped exotica pre-echoed the world music sampling of your Loop Gurus.
Mind you, this sort of talk--precursors, legacies, heirs, groups that were, yawn, ahead-of-their-time--is of academic interest only. Why listen *now*? Because 1981's Seven Songs especially still sounds bloodcurdlingly intense. A malevolent tumble of congas, feedback, and gutteral chants, "Kundalini" is as much Birthday Party as Gap Band. On "Vegas El Bandito," seething slap-bass and brittle-nerved rhythm guitar are offset by dank, lugubrious trumpet, whose ailing wail is pure Miles homage. The track immediately cuts into "Mary's Operation", dropping everything but the horn, which is multi-tracked and mingled with tape-loop drones. The resulting gloomscape of wilting and billowing sound devolves further still into the churning cosmic cistern of "Lockgroove". "New Testament" is like dying machinery, a drum track massively slowed down, its rapid-fire percussive events elongated, snares smearing and cymbal-smashes blossoming pendulously. "IY" showcases Skidoo's strength (percussion) and weakness (vocals), but "Porno Bass" is just ill: booming bassdrones reverberate in a cavernous murk, while Hitler fan Unity Mitford, plucked from some ancient radio interview, rails against pop for displacing "manly" activities like sports, hyperstimulating young people's libido, and generally being "the sign of a degenerating race". When the rancid nutcase opines that youthful "ears become degraded by wrong style and senseless reiteration", Skidoo mischievously double-loop the word "reiteration".
Seven Songs's closer "Quiet Pillage" references exotica king Martin Denny, whose Polynesian-flavored "Quiet Village" was a massive 1950s hit. "Quiet Pillage"'s vibe of humid disquiet (sorta Apocalypse Now: The Day After) and its plinky metallic chimes look ahead to 1984's Urban Gamelan, made after an expedition to Indonesia. "GIFU" is basically an alternate mix of "Coup", Skidoo's most straightforwardly funky single, with a Viet-Cong war-cry "G.I., fuck you" added for anti-Western Imperialism edge. Mostly, though, the album supplies precisely what the title suggests: gamelan-influenced drumstrumentals, all tuned percussion, hand-cymbals, and gongs. Well-produced compared with the hastily executed debut, Urban Gamelan frequently teeters on the thin line between minimal and underwritten. Its gently ominous atmosphere (space age bachelor padded cell music) grows on you, but it lacks the turbulence and sheer de-civilising ferocity of Seven Songs.
1997's "Firestarter" might have been their US breakthrough, but in Britain The Prodigy were massive almost from the git-go. Their second single "Charley" was a #5 pop hit in the summer of 1991, and the follow-up "Everybody In the Place" was only kept off the top spot by the re-released "Bohemian Rhapsody." Back then the Prodigy were pop ambassadors for hardcore, staple sound of England's early Nineties rave scene and the hip hop/techno mutant that eventually evolved into drum'n'bass. All convulsively strobing keyboard vamps, frenzied breakbeats, and bruising bass, hardcore always was the "the new rock'n'roll". It's just that Liam Howlett had to add guitars, punk-snarl vocals, and videogenic hair-rebel shapethrowing before the non-rave world was convinced that Prodigy rocked.
Experience: Expanded is a reissue of Prodigy's 1992 debut album with an extra disc of remixes and B-sides. Sounds slightly dubious, I know, but actually it's a radical enhancement of an already bona fide classic. The B-sides offer ruff proto-jungle bizness, and the remixes are the absolute killer versions that slayed 'em on the ravefloor in 1991-92 (then reappeared in slightly-inferior remixed form on the original Experience). So this retrospectively "corrected" Experience now includes the definitive "Alley Cat Remix" incarnation of "Charly", with its cartoon feline's miaouw smearing into the miasmic churn of the distorto-synth riff, and the superior "Fairground Remix" of "Everybody In the Place," a dementedly whirling dervish-machine that was actually popular on rollercoaster sound systems.
Experience is all about speed--not just the synergy-rush of E's and whizz (UK slang for amphetamine) with exponentially-soaring b.p.m rates, but an entire emergent culture of hyperkinetic thrills, from videogames to snowboarding. And in 1992 that gave The Prodigy and their hardcore rave brethren real resonance for Brit-kids languishing under Tory tyranny: when your culture is all about blockage and stagnation, reaching escape-velocity becomes paramount. Things haven't improved a whole heap since, which might be one reason Experience still packs such a mighty buzz.
... Native Hipsters
There Goes Concorde Again...
Armand Van Helden
Heavenly versus Satan
for the pretty cruelty of "our love is heavenly"
Dieselboy The 6ixth Session (Palm Pictures)
It always amazes me that quite a few people still haven't noticed that drum'n'bass is, like, dead. Every year I hear the same reports of regeneration, a return to the old skool darkcore vibe, or ragga-jungle bizness, or more complicated mash-up beats, and yet when I check the stores or comps like this one, it's still the same old grrr-grrr basslines and jackniking two-step/chases-scene-propulsive beat. Dieselboy's sound--his taste in other people's tunes--is almost verging on gabber: incredibly fast 180 bpm rigid-with-sulphate beats, mentasmic/terminator type death-ray noises, Mover-like atmospherics.
THE CLIENTELE Suburban Light (Merge)
Paid cash money for this based on two eloquent testimonials, one by Tom Ewing on Freaktrigger, and the other by Dennis Lim in the Village Voice, but I must admit to being only partly won over. The guitarstuff's nicely diaphonous and as-seen-through-spring-rainy-windowns, just as promised. But the singer... well, I can't help thinking we'd be better off he couldn't sing, if he was more a Lawrence in Felt type drone-presence. As it is he sounds a bit sappy and sapped and Hollies-like. As for the other elements of the group's sound---well, being the drummer in the Clientele must be world's most demeaning job, surely.
This here piece was all set to run in the Village Voice a few days after Aaliyah's death, but had to be pulled because it wasn't written as an obituary/tribute, but is obviously a mixed review with a fair few snarky comments in it. Not sure exactly how much time needs to have intervened before you can "speak ill of the dead", but here for better or worse here goes.... Needless to say I was a massive fan and was gutted to hear of her death, but in this piece I ponder what it actually means to be an Aaliyah fan. If it had run the Wednesday after her death, it might have been titled: "Aaliyah, we hardly knew you"....
I was going to call myself an Aaliyah fan---after all, she's made two of my
all time favorite singles, "One In A Million" and "Are You That
Somebody?"---but somehow the idea of an "Aaliyah fan" seems faintly absurd.
There's dozens of websites devoted to the singer whose name is Swahili for
"most exalted one", but beyond her obvious beauty and vocal skill, what are
these folk latching onto? The sites are uniformly thin on biographical
content or back story. Of all the premier league R&B goddesses, Aaliyah
seems the most blank: she doesn't even have a persona as such, let alone
exhibit actual this-is-me personality. This is a young woman who's been involved in the music industry for most of her 22 years, working her way up the rungs from the age of nine. In a recent Billboard interview, droning fluent bizspeak about the importance of "versatility" and the need to pace your career, unfurling cliches about creative "chemistry" and thriving on "pressure", Aaliyah comes over as a
dour professional and a workaholic strategist who's cannily diversified into
movies like Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned.
More than just impersonal, there's something almost immaterial about Aaliyah
(it's hard to imagine her flossing her teeth, or wiping her bottom). Aaliyah might be best understood, and enjoyed, then as a figment--a phantom of cathode-ray dazzle and studio-processed breath--concocted by an ensemble of stylists,
choreographers, make-up artists, personal trainers, lighting technicians,
video directors, song-doctors (like her main writer, Static from Playa),
and, not least, trackmasters like Timbaland, her primary production foil
until now. Timbaland has said he uses Aaliyah as "a probe" (itself an oddly
depersonalized phrase), a vehicle for testing his most far-out ideas in the
"urban" marketplace. That metaphor fits "One In A Million", the 1996 smash
whose stutterfunk kick drums created the rhythmic template for the last five
years of R&B and rap, and it works for 1998's "Are You That Somebody?",
which took the stop-start groove thing to the brink of rhythmic arrest. But
the sole novelty of last year's "Try Again," its acid-house Roland 303
bassline, was fresh only in context (urban radio), while this year's "We
Need A Resolution" continues the decline in daring, showcasing no new moves
whatsoever. Everything in the song is decidedly deja for Tim-watchers, from
the snake-charmer flute motifs ("Big Pimpin'") and tabla-like percussion
("Get UR Freak On") to the sinister slither of the reversed-sounding
techno riffs ("Snoopy Trak," off Jay-Z's Vol. 3). With his two other cuts on
Aaliyah's new album being the catchy but unstartling "More Than A Woman"
and "I Care 4 U", a five year old, Missy-penned out-take from the One In A
Million album sessions, there's a suspicion that Timbaland shot his wad on
So Addictive and is all innovated out for the time being.
The other producers involved in Aaliyah-- Keybeats, Inc (a/k/a Rapture &
E-Seats), Bud' Da, and J-Dub a/k/a Rockstar-- aren't probing any outer
limits either. The result is an album that is unspectacular, but very
listenable. From the ungainly title/chorus down, "We Need A Resolution"
wasn't exactly singular as a single, but its midtempo understatedness works
just fine as an album opener. The same applies to most everything here:
Aaliyah's all album tracks and no obvious hits, but it's expertly paced and
programmed, the whole stronger than any individual part. Make it past the
first, underwhelmed listen and its cumulative seductiveness kicks in.
Rapture & E-Seats's stand-out "Rock The Boat" is all diffuse sensuality and shimmering sleekness. The song's "adult" lyrics--"stroke it for me/work it to the middle/change positions"--are something of a maturity move for Aaliyah, and not wholly convincing. She doesn't really do "hot", it doesn't suit her gritless voice, at times so snowy-textured and sparing with the melisma that it's almost white. Showing more skin than usual, draped in snakes and caked in vampy make-up, she looked uncomfortable in the "Resolution" video, and you can't really imagine
her mucking in with the harlots of "Lady Marmalade". Until now, her two
primary modes have been near-virginal devotion ("One in a Million", "4 Page
Letter") and tension, a yearning-but-holding-back wariness of love. Both
"Are You That Somebody" and "Try Again" are premised on the idea of Aaliyah
as hard-to-get, while "Resolution" is all about people not getting (it) on.
Outside these two modes, Aaliyah doesn't fare so well. The twittery-vocaled
anti-wife abuse schlock of "Never No More" is a calculated display of
versatility, announcing "I can deal with heavy topics". "U Got Nerve" is a
weak stab at Beyonce-style toughness, and "I Refuse", from its
I-am-woman-hear-me-roar defiance to the baroque'n'roll bombast of J. Dub's
arrangement, is a "Bills Bills Bills" knock-off two years tardy. Mind you,
this Austro-Hungarian Rhapsody might be the album's most authentic Aaliyah
moment, given that her all-time favorite band is apparently Queen!
On two songs, you get a glimpse of Aaliyah as a potential auteur, rather than just a key component of hit records, the brand name front for a collective of expert technicians. Bud'Da's "I Can Be" is Aaliyah at her most frosty, shrouded in a skein of glassy guitarscree that seems to belong more on a Banshees or Cocteaus album. And the J.Dub-prod. "What If," daubed in garish metal-funk guitar, even sees Aaliyah rock out with a modicum of sass. The song's sheer
overwraughtness feels cathartic after so much mature'n'demure restraint.
Hints, if not of darkness or deepness, of at least an aspiration in that direction: Aaliyah as ice queen of Gothic R&B! "I Can Be" especially is a glimpse of the more audacious album Aaliyah could have been, if, for instance, the singer had
done a collaboration with Trent Reznor as she once improbably contemplated
with apparently genuine enthusiasm ("I think he's a genius!", she gushed).
For the time being, though, Aaliyah is a fine third album. And Aaliyah
remains a exquisite cipher.