Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vogue estate - Stephen Emmer (1982)

It is not difficult to become overwhelmed with how so much music remains in ignorance. Imagine all the music that might be perfect for you yet languishes in obscurity! However the discovery of a new artist(s) often brings with it newfound delights which would have remained shrouded in obscurity. And so to Stephen Emmer, a Dutch artist, who in 1982 made an obscure little album called 'Vogue estate' - described (somewhere) as a film score without a film. It is reminiscent of the music I remember as a child in the car driving late at night, such as that by Jean Luc Ponty, his haunting electric violin in my ears as neon lights skipped by; exposure to the Associates also came then which is why it is some coincidence that I only found out about 'Vogue estate' because Billy Mackenzie appears on one of the songs. It seems that Michael Dempsey (bassist) and Martha Ladley (backing vocals) also appear (Martha sings on one of the songs) however the creation of this album (and the presence of any other Associates) otherwise remains a dense mystery. For once the 'net is proved useless.

Four songs caught my ear - 'vogue estate theme', 'wish on' (with billy mackenzie), 'eleven and then left', 'never share' (with martha ladley). If it was a film.... the opening would be in the mountains, the credits rolling over fir trees (somewhere like Switzerland with clean, crisp air) as pretty piano melodies float by. 'Wish on' is an altogether darker affair (should we not be surprised with Billy on board?) with rasping, hunted cello laid under discordant chords whilst Billy thunders away like an outtake from 'Sulk' - by now we are cruelly lost in the forest and he has no sympathy for us ('wish luck, wish on' he says). Conversation with him seems futile so we hide behind a tree until he vanishes in a burst of falsetto. But there is light amongst the trees in the shape of 'eleven and then left', following the pretty melody to the edge of the forest, where we discover a lonely, abandoned Martha Ladley (also of the muffins) singing her heart out. And there the film gets cut....

Friday, January 25, 2008

Beyond the sun - Billy Mackenzie

With Billy Mackenzie it always seems to be a wrench from the ridiculous to the sublime (which makes for exhausting and complicated relationships with his music), however I doubt it was his intention to leave such a bizarre trail of outputs. It comes to my mind (at the moment addled with guilt for dallying on the Internet all night trying to find evidence for the 'Vogue estate' album, rather than doing any serious work! (more on that another day) and mingled with exhaustion) that he always worked best with fewer people, although that is based purely on my assumptions made about 'Wild and lonely' which features no less than 22 collaborators besides Billy, and rumours about 'perhaps' which went through a number of producers. Before it was the stellar partnership between he and Alan which brings to my mind the hideous cliche, too many cooks... and probably too much money! It would be tremendous if it had all been intentional, some terrible joke concocted against an industry Billy reputedly hated. Maybe it is linked to the sad fate of the former 'rebel', the outsider who, when they become part of the system they struggled against, cannot help but succumb to its worst excesses in some kind of horrible inevitable perversity - given too much it becomes harder and harder to capture the magic of the 'struggle'... I cannot help but think of Foucault (the softer, finger puppet version though) who would probably say that it is part of the tension, the once dominated, in seeking the righting of their wrongs against the system, only becomes the system once they are in 'control.' Or I think it was Foucault anyway... Enough, lets think about music instead of this vain posturising of idle thought.

Prior to Billy's tragic demise, it seemed that he was about to drag himself out of the artistic mire he had fallen into. In a typical move for this consumer-orientated world it took his death for the back catalogue to be taken seriously. So emerged this collection of songs on Nude records (also home of Bowie-obsessed Suede for inevitable comparisons although Brett Anderson's voice is more of a thin wail than the rich outpourings of our favourite) which Billy signed to just before his death (unfortunately most of my research is from the 'net so I cannot verify it's truthfulness). However it seems that this collection was pretty truncated and represents only a small number of demos, tarted up posthumously by Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins) amongst others. Still it is a lovely collection, slightly mired by some bizarre juxtapositions of songs, mainly drenched in mournfulness. Retrospective listening cannot help but make some banal comment about the sadness in Billy's voice (also the strange mixture of anxiety/confrontation expressed by Billy on the cover image) and lyrics with regards to his eventual suicide but I do not see the need to do so. It hangs over the songs heavily enough for no further explanation to be needed.

Lets go backwards, as with posthumous albums it is difficult to ignore talk of endings. 'Nocturne VII' is deceptively quiet to begin, Billy almost mumbling, barely audible above a tender piano, slowly rising to a crescendo of voice, strings and piano until it fades away to whispers once more. Utterly moving. And then we get an example of the strange jarring musical juxtaposition that either delights or annoys (for another one try listening to 'Skipping' from Sulk and following it with something like 'Calling all around the world' from 'wild and lonely') - '3 gypsies in a restaurant' a rant about Hitler set to electronic eastern european tinged melody. It sounds as bizarre to write it down as it is to listen to. Next is definitely a return to form - 'Sour jewel' (such an image created by two lone words put together) a glammy, poppy, almost rocky (!) stomp which would not sound out of place (then, meaning 1997) amongst groups like Suede, Pulp, even Oasis if they were fronted by someone who could actually sing! For all his talk of chance, suddenly Billy comes over all fate - 'were you aware that we had to meet?' Perhaps it was a hidden command to all his past, present and future listeners? Then inexplicably 'and this she knows' is back to piano / voice ballad before you can say 'ulcragyceptimol' leaving you wondering if you had hallucinated the previous tracks. Still it has A fetching lyric about living by the sea - 'She lives by the sea / The sea gives her everything she's ever dreamt about.' 'Beyond the sun' is my favourite Ballad by Billy, a sweet paeon to a regretful life/end of life (?), although the allusion to 'crystal ships' is lost on me, it is his wounded plea to 'help me to understand / why others seem to plan / their memories' which appeals to me. I can't help thinking it's a good question as well. I was interested to see that Alan Rankine is listed in conjunction with 'At the edge of the world' which thrilled me a little - there is something about a lost partnership, for hoping that they still liked each other at least. This song has grown on me, partly for its low-key, soft rumble of bass and almost trip-hop- (sorry to use that horrible word) like melody. It's hard to describe exactly but there is a particular section where after an instrumental, Billy goes mmmm, returns to the refrain 'at the edge of the world / where the cold wind blows / in a sea of dreams / that seem to know' - its the last line when the bass kicks back in and something very special happens (another moment like this in 'Skipping' when Billy starts to sing 'Embarrassed etc.' for a second time, seems bored and gives up, makes a kind of half-hearted attempt at mmm-ing, returns to 'marvellous, lousy, could this be your safest way' with definitely more of a scottish burr than normal and then gives a small chuckle as he starts 'Ancestral etc' which for some reason makes me love this song to pieces). It the kind of moment which compels you to re-listen... '14 mirrors' is memorable for its strong chorus and meandering guitar although by now the lyrics are starting to concern about the narrator's state of mind. 'Blue it is' moves into un-quenchable sadness, just listen to the way he sings 'blue it is but I'll be there' and by 'Winter Academy' it is almost too much; in goes cynical detached listener, out comes a quivering wreck. Then we reach the beginning of our journey (although this is really the end) - 'Give me time' is tainted, fragile pop - now we know time is running out and there needs to be some certainty but will our hero ever find it? It is hard to tell if the atmosphere is made harder for what happened later; it was never finished, and because Billy never heard it as it is now. Was it meant to be so haunted? It is impossible to ever know.

So a tantilising might have been... but much more, one which should not be consigned to the fate of a ghoulish curio. Maybe I am getting soppy as I get older (and as I get more squeamish - I wonder if there is a link?) but I cannot help but feel there is real heart here. Rest in peace, Billy xx

(As an aside, writing this I was greatly indebted to the Billy Mackenzie Tribute site which has most of the lyrics to the Associates / Billy Mackenzie albums, very helpful for checking that you are hearing things correctly (which obviously I was not!). It also has a wealth of information including fascinating interviews with the Associates and Billy from the 80s and 90s.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wild and lonely (remastered) - The Associates

"Those first impressions They keep us guessing" sang Billy (Mackenzie) and we want to believe him. We want to believe that this was the musical direction he should have always taken, that the experimental years (the sulks, the fourth drawer downs and the affectionate punches) were the blips and this was what he wanted all along. To sound, not like an avant garde, pouting (impishly), always-close-to-hysteria glamour puss backed by some of the most audacious sounds ever to come from whatever hellish womb they were born in, but to sound more like, um, George Michael. Okay then. Not that I have anything against George Michael and his ilk (no, not really) but its never been my thing, that kind of pop which skates by in a haze of what might be called blandless if it did not actually turn my stomach with complete loathing. But still, lets give Billy a chance, after all in a singing contest he would blow George Michael away and far beyond the edge of the solar system before George even opened his mouth. I swear he is that good.

Wild and lonely... wild and lonely... conjures images of moonlit nights and starry skies, rambling through knee-deep grass, the trees swaying overhead with the slightest of breezes. But close your eyes and immediately its the synthetic-ness that intrudes - especially the fake trumpets and saxes which, if they are real, don't do a very good job of convincing. Many blame the production - if you adore cotton then this would be nylon, eager to please but ultimately itchy and unbearable. Maybe I'm being harsh... as Billy said, first impressions keep us guessing and my first impression was that 'Wild and lonely' was tolerable, if disappointing. So I listened again and again and got past the glacial distance between this and the pre-sulk goodness. Let's start with the good. 'Fire to ice' is a stonking opener, Billy not sure whether to be defiant or resigned in the face of abandonment; at turns annoyed, 'now you're feeling so pleased with yourself you're so sure and ease with yourself', then sighing 'I never could take good advice.' 'Fever' enters the room to a pleasant reception although again it catalogues the mixed feelings of still wanting the one who has hurt you even though you know it's pointless. A good metaphor in fact for my relationship with this album - technically I know its not the kind of thing I would listen to, it's too obviously pop and yet I find myself drawn to it, humming bits at odd moments. Except one song I won't be humming is the sickly sweet 'Calling around the world' which I can imagine S Club 7 singing.... best passed over quickly and banned from the ipod. 'People we meet' and 'Just can't say goodbye' maintain the upbeat tempo in the face of adversity, indeed it is a much calmer Billy (wild being a tad ironic in the circrumstances...); 'The Glamour chase' is reminiscent of eastern bazaars (not that I can explain why, it just has that feel to the music), whereas 'Where there's love' gets a bit too high and squeaky to make it enjoyable. Then... oh joy a song to be worth getting giddy over! 'Something's got to give' has a wayward feel, promising subversion beneath its pop gloss and you have to cling to it tightly as there is precious little here - Billy sings 'I'm at my most sincere' and all is right with the world. And it's enough - there is more granted but only 'Wild and lonely' the final track seems worthy of comment, a rather melancholy song of plaintive disappointment, a discordant piano at 'a lonely bar' - 'the floor you prayed on / takes away / a safety that was yesterday.' And Billy sings 'just to know I'll never be untrue' ... and it makes sense that he could save this album because he sounds so sincere even if the music doesn't. But then Billy could even sing a diana ross cover and get me dancing in the aisles... oh he already did (love hangover). Oh Billy, you are making me like pop music! You are making me destroy the barriers so painstakingly built after years of denial! But I love him all the more for it.

(PS there are 4 more songs added to the remastered versions, some covers and a long-winded remix 'fever in the shadows'. There is a suitable lack of drama which is why I see not point in making anything of them).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Affectionate Punch - Associates

I was shocked today to find out that Heath Ledger, actor, was found dead yesterday aged only 28 years old. It seems likely that a drugs overdose was involved although that is pure speculation at the moment and it does not seem right to inquire further. Whatever the reason, it is sad that the world has lost another talented individual. May he rest in peace.

I spent most of yesterday listening to the Associates, it seemed the right thing to do. I always lack the eloquence to say how much things mean to me but it is unhappy that Billy Mackenzie is not around to know how much people miss him and love his music. I recently joined a thread celebrating him and the music of the Associates and it seems that everyone is so much better at expressing their feeling for the music, for Billy and how it/he means so much to them. Not that it really matters, we all contribute in our own little way, even just by listening, loving and passing on the enthusiasm.

Imagine a place where music was always inventive. Imagine a place where music had influences but those influences were only a foundation on which to build rather than the reason for being. They were in the heart and not on the sleeve. Imagine music which sounded like nothing that came before it and nothing that came after it; kings of 'top of the pops' all too briefly, unable to live up to their own high (if torturously achieved) achievements and disappearing into limbo pursued by ghosts screaming "bring us another SULK!!!!" 'The Affectionate Punch' is both nothing like Sulk - which is far more hysteric, melancholic, mischevious, glamourous and epheremal - but everything like it (can be traced from it), sharing a sheer diversity of mood, an electricism found in the relationship between music and voice and an exuberance which is infectious - take 'A', where Billy for the most part sings the alphabet and makes it seem the most interesting and poetic thing in the world (Robert Smith of the Cure apparently does backing vocals on this but it is impossible to tell as Billy must have smothered him), or the jaunty 'Would I... bounce back', with Billy singing 'If I threw myself from the ninth storey would I levitate back to three, well would I' assured (then) of his own immortality. 'Transport to Central' is rather odd and creepy, however suprisingly there are some tender moments - surprising because regarding 'Sulk' and 'Fourth Drawer Down' there are very few moments which could be described thus ('18 carat love affair' is too tongue in cheek, 'Gloomy sunday' well, too gloomy) although Billy's later output could lay claim to many such moments. Anyhow, here we have 'Logan Time', sad and affecting, mourning either loss or absence - 'I talk such nonsense while asleep / I lie for hours without your heat.' And 'Deeply concerned' with its combination of gentle piano and Billy's wrenching sighs at the end convinces. Everything works - there is no dull moment, Alan's virtuosity on everything except drums the perfect foil e.g. 'Paper House' with its riffs reminiscent of celtic wildernesses and 'Even dogs in the wild' a song which attempts social comment but gives up halfway through, and Lastly, 'A matter of gender' which captures the excitement of wanton behaviour (perhaps). And there are bonuses! 'You were young' which worries with its too catchy refrain of 'youth is hope/ age is corruption', 'boys keep swinging' the cheeky Bowie cover and b-side 'Mona property girl' which first launched the Associates on an unsuspecting (and unfortunately unimpressed) public. I doubt it would impress more people now, pop if anything is sadly sliding into the mire, drowning under reality TV shows and the lack of 'Top of the Pops' which whilst rubbish was entertaining rubbish and now I have gone for several years (maybe 5?) without knowing or even caring what is Number 1. This speaks to me of the hope that pop always has, to be vital, strange, to be reflecting moods which we all feel if we allow ourselves.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In memory of Billy Mackenzie

Today is for remembering the fabulous Billy Mackenzie, he of the angelic voice and equally angelic smile.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
(Spirits of the dead, Edgar A. Poe)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fourth drawer down - Associates

Tomorrow being, tragically, the anniversary of Billy Mackenzie's death (a prospect which I can attribute some of the miserablism I feel this week as it is never very fulfilling to be reminded that someone so talented has disappeared from the world even if it was not one in which they could live adequately or even bear to) I thought it was timely to reflect on the various albums which are starting to obscure the sight of my CD player at home so large is the pile growing. Picking one at random gets me to 'Fourth drawer down' a claustrophobic and schizophrenic album if ever there was one. It is captivating however in its monstrosity and anyone idly surfing the net for information on the Associates cannot miss the stories behind the making of this album, seemingly an excuse for crazy experimentation involving such things as cups stuck on heads, fish stapled to coats, weeing into guitars, putting drums into water, you know the usual stuff, fuelled apparently by copious amounts of drugs and vampirish nocturnal habits as that was the only time they could get into a studio. Still if artists are going to be wildly experimental and apparently imbue copious amounts of drugs then it would be fabulous if only the results could be half as inventive and compelling and nightmarish as the gems served up by Mr Mackenzie and Rankine for consumption (the hacking cough at the end of 'Q Quarters' inspired this terrible pun in case you were wondering).

'White car in Germany' immediately unsettles with its dirge-like ponderousness and booming vocals detailing a pessimistic, if obscure, site-seeing tour - what happened to the future being bright and all? Whilst 'A girl named property' must never ever be played whilst walking around a grey city on a miserable wet day for fear of civilisation crashing down (best save it for food shopping in the local capitalist-friendly supermarket, the brightly coloured vegetables become ever more disturbing when set against the elegant and melancholy backdrop). 'Kitchen person' ups the tempo to well above 11, hardly pausing for breath - guitars pushed to their limits, giddy glockenspiels, shuddering bass lines - it is with delight that you find Billy M singing through a vaccuum cleaner tube and wonder if any household item is safe in this pair's hands.... Haunted by the discordant sound of organs to sink down to the depths amongst the weeds with 'Q Quarters' convinced that Alan R must have stolen a submarine for this one (suddenly drums in the water start to make sense), the lyrics made doubly sinister by the matter-of-fact delivery ('washing down bodies seems to me a dead end job'). Extreme paranoia seems to inflict the narrator of 'Tell me easter's on friday' and the fear is only lifted with the infectious bounce of a tune that is 'Message oblique speech' well as bouncy as this collection gets. Try guessing what the lyrics mean.... 'An even whiter car' sounds like the Berlin wall falling also this predates that event by several years. 'Fearless (it takes a full moon)' is not immediately appealing, more gloomy than doomy, but 'Point Si' takes us back to greatness. A couple of instrumentals next, in the intensity of 'Straw Towels' it is almost possible to sense the overdose which consigned our two fearless musical innovators to matching hospital beds and 'Kissing' is fun, less twisted than its predecessors and (almost!) hints at disco. Just when you think it's about to become normal we find Billy M singing in the bath, water dripping (clearly not well by the dreadful coughing), frightful sounds in the background - oh its only 'kitchen person' and 'white car in germany', of course! - a suitably bizarre ending. Although I find the entire album only possible if in sane mind (kitchen person is sure to drive me over the edge one day I can tell) and stable condition I cannot think of anything (yet) which could possibly compare to its inventiveness. I'll let you know when I do.