Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Radio One Sessions Volume One 1981-1983 - The Associates

Radio hasn't been the same without John Peel.  He was one of the rare DJs who managed to transcend the usual constrictive categories that bedevil how we must identify the sounds that entertain (or not) our ears.  If anything he was promiscuous, playing anything and everything that took his fancy.  It made for an interesting experience!  And throughout all the ramblings about the Associates I think I have more than enough times conveyed that is something I liked about their approach to music - they did what they liked and, for the first three and a half albums, it worked.  So bring these two worlds together, the environment of the Peel session and the brains of an inventive, willful couple of artistes and there is hopefully fireworks, loud sizzles and bangs and ooohs and aahs.

Collected here are four sessions, three for John Peel (with Alan Rankine 1981, 1982, without Alan Rankine 1983) and the last for Kid Jensen (1983).  Stripped of obsessive compulsive production tendencies the first two sessions are Sulk made raw, anarchic even, without the shiny glossy polish which would pronounce them POP!  Yet its never shambolic or indulgent. Growing addiction to spangly 80s guitar (check!) is well served here (too much girl, I can't do technical terms)  'Me myself and the tragic story' complete with feedback and spooky oooohs from Billy Mackenzie sounds less like a current affairs programme as it does on 'Sulk' (as Arrogance gave him up).  If Billy Mackenzie seems subdued then he is BACK in full force for a hectic 'Nude spoons' and 'It's better this way'.  For some reason unbeknown to me I never really warmed to 'A matter of gender' however it improves with the addition of shimmery guitar and slightly more anxious vocal.  By now the late nights and hedonism must have been setting in. 'Ulcragyceptimol' has its sense of fun, 'Put me down, I'll be a good boy, honest' sings Billy and you don't quite believe him so he gets increasingly squeaky about it (it worried me when I looked at my iPod recently and realised how many squeaky male singers exist there, maybe its a subconscious affectation of mine?)  Skip forwards to 1982 for the second Peel session or, it's alternative title, 'some more reasons to weep for the break-up of messrs Rankine and Mackenzine.'  Instead of its resultant cheesy 80s stomp, 'Waiting for the Love boat' is far more subtle, although obviously starved of a sufficiently deep enough drum Billy Mackenzie is forced into sombrely proclaiming 'bom bom bom' at regular intervals over muted guitar and what sounds like a glockenspiel.  'Australia' too is less frantic, instruments wreathed in fog, whilst half chewed words emerge like spectres in the distance.  Nothing pedestrian about 'Love hangover' either with its sparse beginning, voice and piano, sounding like some arty performance at the Barbican with cats wailing in the background before funky song proper.  By 'A severe bout of career insecurity' there has to be something really spectacular to keep up the subversiveness.  Its not enough that the lyrics seem to be detailing some kind of breakdown (although inevitably its probably about something else entirely). Exhibit A - affected, sullen accent to singer's voice.  Exhibit B - breaking into the Sound of Music halfway through.  I am definitely a fan of the misuse of hideous musical 'songs' (grumble had to sing them in school choir grumble grumble).

Then it gets all serious.  No more larking about in the studio.  Two what might be called 'Torch songs' (or those songs people now might wave their lighter too, guess that's safer than a torch but must also be dying out now with the smoking ban) 'God bless the child' and 'This flame'. Theoretically such things should move my stone eyes to tears but despite the beautiful Mackenzie voice, sparse piano, it ain't happening.  Maybe because I just watched a film about a gigantic scary monster taking over Manhatten and my mind is full of images of monsters biting people before they die a horrible death from explosion.

The last session for Kid Jensen in 1983 covers four songs which would end up on Perhaps.  Due to the increasing reliance on mechanical means of instrumentation (although I can hear guitars, they're alive!) there is little discernible difference between these and eventual album versions, though it could also be my cloth ears.  'Helicopter helicopter' would benefit from being trimmed as a crunchy bassline does not for an interesting experience make.  'Theme from Perhaps' is Perhaps minus singing so you have an opportunity to appreciate the wobbly synth rhythms which curiously sound more dated now then the earlier stuff.  'Perhaps (Schizophrenic version)' was not broadcast and it is evident after one listen why not: prefiguring Prolapse by several years (Scottish band with strange shouty male singer and melodic if combative female singer) a strange Scottish man shouts and (kind of) sings his way through a rambling story which seeks to offend on every level.  This is Steve Reid.  Somewhere in the background Billy Mackenzie sings away to himself (fittingly in the explanatory notes it explains that he was lying on the studio sofa with the microphone between his knees, evidently he was only half awake and so did not realise the butchery going on).  Lurching from mess to the subdued grandeur of 'Don't give me that I told you so look you' is one of those classic Associates moments, sadly spoilt by murky cheesecloth dropped over the speakers.  And closing with 'Breakfast' was a good move, although it doesn't quite hit the giddy heights it deserves.

Fleeting moments as fireworks are.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Silent shout - the knife

Wednesday is gloomy, despite the crisp winter's day there has been only a focus on excessive workloads to which there seems to be no end. So instead of reaching for something to lighten to mood I decided to descend into the darkness of the world of the Knife.

Brother and sister, the Knife have worked hard to keep their identities a secret (although looking them up on the web it becomes clear that they can be unmasked however I prefer to retain the mystery) through a series of elaborate masks and refusing to embrace the commercial side of the music industry. They produce astonishingly twisted electronica, often with synthesised vocals which can be playful as well as disturbing. Very rarely do they have any relationship to organic sound - 'Silent shout' is perhaps the darkest of their three albums so far in the atmospheres created.

Opening song 'Silent shout' pulsates with shimmering waves of sound beneath lyrics of loneliness and frustration. 'Neverland' is more garish, its stomping, repetitive beat prefaced with simple descending chords and and offbeat clatter. 'I'm dancing for money that burns in my hand' - it goes without saying that this vision of neverland is not a pleasant one. Standout tracks are 'We share our mother's health' with its crazy popping synth loops and grating vocal sounds, and 'Like a Pen' which has an adorable frenetic bassline, the background swoops and whistles very eery on top of this (both songs also have sweet cartoony videos to accompany them). As for the rest, 'Marble House' is stately cabaret; 'One hit' sounds like Zippy (un)masked as a pervert singing about the fate of women to a ludicrously catchy beat (sample lyric - 'for a reasonable salary I will wash the world'); 'Na na na' builds gentle lullabies from the machines and 'Forest Families' describes some sort of enforced flee - 'they said there were communists in the family, I had to wear a mask' - the sounds bubbling under convey dark wintery woods dusted with snow. And such is the world of The Knife, 'far away from the city' with 'trees... apples, fruits maybe' and 'clean air' but the flip side that it almost in perpetual shadows, maintaining an effective ambiguity.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

turn on the bright lights - interpol

Describe the words that come into your head when listening to this album?
Melancholy, introspective, gloomy, mournful, languishing, obscure, hopeful, complicated

How would you describe Paul Bank's singing?
Not lacking in emotion as such but seeking to detach himself from anything that messy, often failing to do so. A cross between a human and a dalek.

How would you describe the instruments?
The guitar parts are melodic and tuneful, often pondorous (like on Leif Erikson) which is connected to the sense of melancholy. I have not paid much attention to the bass line but it rumbles pleasantly beneath the surface. The drums are not a huge feature either, not sure if they are that exciting as drums go?

How do you feel about the lyrics?
I am not sure if they are wilfully obilque but most times I have no idea what they are going on about. Poetical you might call them, or two clever by half if you dislike that kind of thing. It doesn't lessen my enjoyment as I am fond of bands who try to be too clever, maybe it's kind of an endearing failing. I would say that my favourite lyrics are in 'Obstacle 1' which I cannot decide between 'she can read, she's bad' and 'she can't read she's bad' which would bring two completely different meanings to the song. I cannot bear to find out what the lyrics are actually are as I am more inclined towards 'She can't read, she's bad' and I suspect it's all wrong.

What would you say were your favourite songs?
'Obstacle 1' , 'Untitled' (immediately upon hearing this I knew I would love the album), 'Say Hello to the Angels,' 'PDA' and 'Leif Erikson.' Obstacle 1 and PDA are the most upbeat songs however they unsettle in terms of the lyrics (e.g. 'we have 200 couches where you can sleep tonight' - is this referring to a traumatic stay in hospital?) yet they puzzle me the most in terms of their subject matter - just what is being sung at the end of PDA? 'Say Hello to the Angels' is more schizophrenic with its changes of pace and surprisingly cheeky lyrics 'I can't control the part of me which swells up when you move into my air space.' This combats the idea that Interpol are dour and lacking in humour. Leif Erikson on the other hand is affecting and tender.

And your least favourite?
Probably 'Stella was a diver and she was always down' which has a fabulous title but I quickly tired of the actual song since it seems to go on and on in an uninteresting manner. I haven't listened to it for a long time however so I might revise this harsh opinion.

Would you think there is much mileage in the accusation that Interpol sound like Joy Division?
I guess there are more similarities than differences in terms of the atmospheres and moods created in the songs. However I think Joy Division are more abrasive and unsettling. Interpol can be intense yet they lack the spirit of punk I think which seems to permeate Joy Division; although not being that familiar with Joy Division's music as I only own one album I would have to reflect for longer about my response to this question. I would say that Interpol draw on the late 70s, early 80s new wave/new pop influences which I am currently diving head first into and that is not a bad thing!

Any final thoughts?
I bought this album after reading a review in NME and seeing an image of the band in their suits and I was not disappointed. There are some good ideas and it struck a chord in me at the time, which continues to reverberate now. I don't think it will become one of those CDs I am embarrassed to own!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Alternative Eighties - various artists (BMG 2002)

I bought this CD on the premise that it was cheap and seduced by the 'alternative' in the title, as my memories of the 80s were of pretty crap music and bands with bad hair. However as I have since discovered not that many of the bands represented here are very alternative at all in terms of being alternative to the 'mainstream' - indeed they may actually only be alternative to other 80s complilations! And not all of the tunes are strictly from the 80s, although a few sneak in via reissues. However it's somewhat refreshing - you won't find the usual suspects such as Wham, Duran Duran, Human League and Culture Club here.

Some of the reasons to give this complilation a willing ear: 'Boys don't cry' by The Cure before they became completely miserable; Echo and the Bunnymen's serene and sulty 'Killing Moon'; the best song ever to get in the top 10, 'Party Fears Two' by the Associates (their inclusion finally answered the puzzle of whence came that naggingly gorgeous piano riff from Radio 4's Weekending); 'Birthday' by the Sugarcubes with its daft, childlike lyrics; the rumbling 'There's a ghost in my house' by The Fall. 'Blue Monday' is a bit obvious from New Order but it's still a good tune. I remember my history teacher at school tried to introduce us to the Icicle Works on one of the last days of term and we all sneered but 'Love is a wonderful colour' is appealing in a bombastic kind of way. There are also not too many songs with the dreaded honking saxophone solo, although 'Brilliant mind' by Furniture sneaks one in. There is no respite!! I won't admit to having a soft spot for 'The King of Rock and Roll' by Prefab Sprout and will blame it instead on the giant hot dog in the video.

Yet there are also plenty of reasons to give this a wide berth. For a start it has the Blow Monkeys, Elvis Costello and the Style Council, peddling their horrible light soul funk jazz whatever... such artists should be kept far away from me. So should the Bluebells with the hideous 'Young at heart' which has troubled the charts for too many weeks in its time - they make me want to vomit, although not as much as Marti Pellow or Simply Red. I also cannot understand the inclusion of Erasure, surely they have always been mainstream? The rest are tolerable but I wouldn't rush out to overdose on information about the Passions, Bauhaus, The Only Ones, The Primitives, The Lotus eaters or the Psychedelic Furs or a whole host of bands with the prefix 'The'. They probably all use saxophones too.

As with all these compilations its rather frustrating that they could have included so many more bands who actually deserve the title of 'alternative' but then it's probably just a lazy cash in to coincide with some resurgance in the popularity of the 1980s. Still it has its uses especially if my idea for an 80s disco comes to fruition...

Boring fact - Michael Dempsey is possibly the most featured bass player here, appearing as he does on 'Boys don't cry', 'Party Fears Two' and 'The first picture of you.'

Sunday, February 17, 2008

the garden - john foxx

After his flirtation with (mainly) synthetically created sounds on 'metamatic', John Foxx offered up in 1981 'The Garden', abandoning the starkness and clean lines of moderism for lusher songs inspired by the beauty of nature, romantic overgrown old ruins, Catholicism, the warmer weather of southern Europe, superstition... its complete antithesis. However its not so simple as a break, more a contination of 1979's 'Systems of romance' (recorded when in Ultravox). Not only does it combine conventional instruments and song forms with creative useage of synthesised voice and instrument, it features Robin Simon on guitar and, most cheekily, it contains a song with that very title! There are enough ideas in 'The garden' however to prevent it from becoming repetitive - and if it does stray towards recognisable themes and textures, that is partly my own fault for binge purchasing. Highlights are surely 'Systems of Romance' and 'Night suit' which nudge closer to the jauntiness required for dancing, whilst 'Europe after the rain' is a gorgeous song to open with, its seductive imagery not quite hiding a plaintive air that longs for the warm nights and fountains Foxx sings of to replace the grey sodden cities left behind. And even better, although this is an album of the 1980s there are no saxophones to spoil the atmospheres created, hurrah!