Monday, February 04, 2008

A splurge of Billy Mackenzie - Outernational, Transmission Impossible, Auchtermatic and (with Paul Haig) Memory Palace

Take these together - it becomes clear quite how eclectic and varied Billy Mackenzie's gift to music was. It's not always an easy or straight-forward journey (even if you would desire it so!) At times it can be frustrating - especially when 'Outernational' goes too far into the kind of 90s laid back electro that has you fast approaching torpor rather than feeling anything remotely approaching interest (something which also inflicts 'Wild and Lonely'). It's all a bit too sedate at times and horribly smooth. You long for a stumble, an ounce of imperfection. But just as you begin to despair Billy rewards you with gems such as 'Colours will come', which, despite its admittedly soppy sentiments, never fails to lift my spirits on a dull day, something to do with the sense of conviction with which it is delivered (why it works on this and nothing else is a mystery I am still unravelling). I find the rest of the album a bit of a blur, songs seem to segue into each other with little distinction, oddities such as a cover of 'Pastime paradise' could perhaps be more jarring, but, the torpor wins out. A curosity more than anything else.

'Transmission Impossible' and 'Auchtermatic' crystallise Billy's plans for two separate collections of songs, which Nude buggered up by trying to combine all the 'best' bits onto one album (Beyond the Sun). Both enable more of Billy's final work to come to light, presenting slightly different versions of songs like 'Beyond the sun' and 'At the edge of the world', on the whole slightly more raw, stripped down versions which showcase Billy's voice perfectly - after the melodrama and vocal distortions of earlier albums like Sulk especially, its refreshing to have more clarity around the magic his voice weaves with its stunning textures. 'Transmission Impossible' is best heard alone in the dark, without distraction; a series of tender ballads, mornfully delivered in the richest of voices, simply accompanied for the most part with piano. And that is all it needs. I would hesitate to call 'Auchermatic' more upbeat; it does have 'Sour Jewel' to kick things off, however this is tempered by 'Pain in any language' and 'the soul that sighs', the former particularly seems to me an exercise in anguish set to music. Billy also does an Elton John with a song about Marilyn Monroe, 'Norma Jean', however it is nowhere near as cloying and horrible as 'candle in the wind' so I breathes a sigh of relief. With relief the lyrics on both albums veer from quite accessible to quite baffling (one favourite is 'the wall was high / and the gallery seething / at times like this / all I want to do is spin) the pensive, 'um', face expressed by Billy on his own cover to 'Transmission...' sums it all up perfectly.

Lastly there is 'Memory palace' a joint collection of songs Billy made with Paul Haig (former of Josef K) when they had no career to speak of and some time hence to noodle about in a studio and make the music that they wanted to make with no interference. Rather then it being horribly indulgent (which it could be), it's actually a lot better then some of the record company sanctioned stuff. On a first listen, styles veer wildly (and I am rubbish at categorising such things so probably get this wrong) from melodic pop-type songs (take a chance) to more electronic-led efforts (stone the memory palace) to rock (listen again, give me time).

Expect the unexpected... and even then, expect something else. The most compelling singers, the most interesting bands, for me, are the ones which keep you guessing, remain a mystery as to what drives them, what stimulates the creative output. Where the music is more important than anything else, not the life which goes with it or the kudos it brings. Something must have kept Billy going until it all became too much. It is that which these, and his other albums, celebrate and even if its all we can 'have' (posession seems such a vulgar desire after all) of his unique talent its perhaps more than enough.

1 comment:

Sid Law said...

There is another MacKenzie "posession" which you can have! Did you get to hear "Eurocentric" a CD by Billy and Steve Aungle? Steve finished off the tracks and production after Billy's death. It was released for a day by Paul Haig's ROL and then pulled. Stripped back versions of the songs on it eventually reappeared in their original demo forms as "Transmission Impossible" and "Auchtermatic". There are conflicting reports as to why Eurocentric was pulled (read Steve Aungle at his Wordpress blog to hear his side) ranging from jealousy to MacKenzie Estate/ Family requests. I got the CD the day it came out and I think it is the best of the posthumous releases of "late-period" Billy MacKenzie. The production shines and Billy has never sounded better. It is really just Billy and Steve, so not too many cooks there and only one pair of hands at the mixing desk controls. If you can't track a copy down let me know... cheers I've very much enjoyed browsing through your reviews here.