Posts from September 1999

Sep 99

74. LAURYN HILL – “Doo-Wop (That Thing)”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

There’s something wearyingly earnest about Lauryn Hill, but then there’s something irresistibly peppy and kinetic about “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” which lets you forget all her chic authenticity and forgive the reactionary return-of-the-real marketing and turns the song into a bracing piece of finger-wagging righteous pop. “Doo-Wop” doesn’t sound much like doo-wop but that’s probably because doo-wop itself was never an easy thing to get a handle on, being too sonically subtle and idea-rich and culturally overlooked to ever really settle. So “Doo-Wop” is actually like doo-wop in that it sounds shaken up, Lauryn breathlessly rapping to keep pace with her own ideas as much as with that damned insistent piano.

“Doo-Wop” also works because it plays down the stern soul aspects of Lauryn Hill and plays up the hooky ones, again just as well since if you’re going to have lyrics this didactic – “How you going to win if you ain’t right within?” etc. – you’d better have something in the background that bounces as mightily and euphorically as “Doo-Wop”‘s main riff. Points also awarded for general even-handedness – women don’t sleep with useless men, men don’t be useless, then all shall be well. Hard to disagree with the sentiment, ditto the song.

Sep 99

Spearmint – A Week Away

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Are You Scared To Get Angsty?

You don’t decide to listen to this kind of music: it chooses you. Indie kids are born not made, see, and one day at the crossroads, after the seventeenth pointless, exhausting infatuation, after the twenty-fifth rebuff, and the thirty-eighth black-souled tramp across town with a walkman glued to the ears, a band like Spearmint comes up to them, taps them on the shoulder, and says “You’re mine. You don’t have to sell your soul, though. Just your life.”

At my age you get to blame it all on adolescence, when the penny drops that some of the pretty kids liked this music too, and then you feel a bit embarassed by how much the stuff meant to you. “The most passionate songs are the lonely songs, so easily outgrown” , as the personal guru of my teenagerdom put it. But it’s too late really, your emotional circuits have been rewired, and it doesn’t take much to take you back up to the bedroom with the C90s and the lyric sheets, just a boy with his heart in his throat and a sharp turn of phrase. Once the sensitivity bug’s bitten you, you’ll always walk around with an invisible bunch of daffs in your back pocket, no matter how often you buy Maxim and pretend otherwise.

And then you get to Shirley Lee of Spearmint’s age (pushing forty, apparently) and you’ve still not outgrown those lonely songs, so what the hell do you do? Making a record as catchy, clever and intimate as A Week Away seems like a good start. Shirley’s a boy, by the way, but then Big Daddy’s name was Shirley too: born not made, like I said. If I was to also say that A Week Away is pitched precisely midway between the Wedding Present’s strummed, strangled conversational confessionals and Pulp’s mass-observation art-pop, I’d be doing Spearmint a bit of a disservice, but only a bit.

I’d also be giving fair warning to the hordes of readers for whom pitiable whiteboy soulbaring is musically tumourous. Spearmint are not innovators, miles from it, but they are doing something that’s not been fashionable since the Stone Roses came along and convinced everyone that attitude was where it’s at and it was much better to wear something groovy on your chest than get something off it. Ten to one Spearmint won’t be fashionable either. Evens they don’t care, “Sweeping The Nation” and its success-or-bust ecstasies notwithstanding.

Spearmint play pop, but they don’t believe in pop as meat-rack or pop as role-playing glamour game or pop as craft, they believe in pop as the best way to inject a bit of honesty into the world. Sincerity’s not in general something I value in music, mostly because I’ve heard more than enough music which tries to excuse its pomposity or banality or overreach by coming over all heartfelt, and also because I can never hear enough music which uses its blatant money-making insincerity to cloak a stealthy stab to the heart. But Shirley Lee is either dangerously honest (almost every song bristles with authentic-sounding proper names in compromising situations) or fakes it well, and I like him whichever.

Maybe I like him because his kind of honesty isn’t all it seems – lovelorn pop like this tends to be about using pop as a trojan horse, to say things (generally to girls) that you wouldn’t dare in real life. That’s why so many of these tracks will end up on fearfully inappropriate compliation tapes destined to gather dust in the cupboards of unwitting and unwilling beloveds. A thousand passed-over casanovas reach for a thousand biros when they get to the end of “Start Again” and hear “And I’m sorry…to be so blunt / But that boy… is a cunt“, and an indie star is born.

Who am I kidding? I live for this stuff too. And while the angst and the wit and the thrashy, simple tunes are what pulls me in to A Week Away, there’s plenty there to suggest lasting appeal for Spearmint. That involving attention to detail that makes them fill their songs with names and places and stupid everyday incidents, for one thing. The snappy soul samples they love to use, for another. Shirley Lee’s breathy, up-close voice, unflinching but never over-the-top. The way he makes sure all his songs peak and resolve. The whole of the gleeful “We’re Going Out”. And the rueful sense of perspective Lee brings to his classic indie-pop themes. We’re older now and we’re clever swines, but part of us is always going to be sixteen, and when that part next surfaces, let nature beat nurture and buy this album.


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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Even before they put their money where their matches were, the KLF, also known as the Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, furthermore known as the JAMMS, were the most brilliant pop-artists of the decade. They were witty with the left hand and baffling with the right; they had a sense of timing and event like nobody since Maclaren; they appeared to not give even the merest hint of a fuck; and they made records which were the best shotgun wedding of concept to rhythm this side of Kraftwerk. Ladies and gentlemen, they were a quite extraordinary band.

The general dreadfulness of their big-hit album The White Room and their typically quixotic decision to delete all their product on the day they called it quits has left pop’s memory of them fuzzy, and a couple of legend-sullying comebacks haven’t helped either. But before they quit in 1992 they never, ever, put out a bad single, though they did put out a couple of incomprehensible ones. One of which is “It’s Grim Up North”, which….well, which starts with steam train noises and keyboard shrieks, and turns into a list of Northern England towns and counties (“Grimsby…Glossop…Hebden Bridge…”) recited in an urgent, sinister Scottish accent over crashed-sequencer squiggles and a juddering bass pulse. A voice repeats the title over occasional clattering crescendoes, and then, gradually, the dance music drops away to be replaced with an immense orchestral arrangement of Parry’s “Jerusalem”. And as that too swells and recedes, we’re left with the sound of the wind across the moors and the occasional crake of a lone crow.

Maverick and compelling, “It’s Grim Up North” may be some kind of tongue-in-cheek tribute to the glory of the North, and if that’s the intention it works. As a Southern jessie born and bred, I’ve put it here for two reasons. Firstly it makes for a gorgeous sound. Bill Drummond’s delivery is syllable-perfect, reciting the history-steeped placenames like a great psychogeographical spell; the music which backs him up is restless and grand; the segue into the hymn is funny, audacious and surprisingly powerful. But secondly, “It’s Grim Up North” is a document of one of pop’s most individual bands at their imaginative peak. It boils down to a man in his late 30s, and a mate, doing exactly what they want to do, without fear or compromise or cant, and getting it into the Top 40 to boot. And that makes this not only an excellent single, but a genuinely inspirational one.

Sep 99

76. SHUT UP AND DANCE – “The Green Man”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

“The Green Man” is crude, heady stuff – a paranoiac hoover-noise vortex breaks into a primitive hardcore stomp with jittery shrieks and silvery stacatto jabs of synth, and then suddenly the stomp just stops and in comes a pretty chamber music riff. And then it happens a few more times. That’s pretty much all the description I can give you and anyone claiming more is telling fibs. So to explain – in my roundabout way – why “The Green Man” is so addictive I’m going to delve back to the very first edition of Freaky Trigger for a piece on the little-vaunted jungle-classical crossover, which Shut Up And Dance’s anthem kind of started…

The really sad thing about Goldie’s sixty-minute symphonic monsterpiece ‘Mother’ was that dance music could not prove immune to the notion – which has plagued pop since the sixties – that somehow canonical classical music represents the zenith of ‘development’ of a music form, and that to be counted an ‘artist’ you should aspire to it. Again and again – from Procul Harum, through Deep Purple’s Concerto For Group and Orchestra, the fretboard aerobics of an Yngwie Malmsteen (who makes his debt to Bach remorselessly plain in interviews), William Orbit moving from Bass-o-matic to his turgid ambient-classical projects (‘Water On A Vine Leaf’), and finally to Goldie – pop acts have desperately doffed their creative caps and tugged forelock to the classical tradition. And that’s not even counting people like Orbital, who point up the tendency for critics to use ‘classical’ as a superlative every time they run up against something with a veneer of shiny complexity.

The reason it doesn’t work is twofold.

1) If I want to listen to complex, baroque classical music, I will listen to, um, classical music. Just like a garage remix of a Lighthouse Family single isn’t going to be as satisfying as a proper garage tune (or as a Lighthouse Family single, if you insist on liking that sort of thing), so Goldie ‘doing’ a symphony isn’t going to be as good as “Terminator” or an actual Arvo Part symphony. The 1990s’ fetish for eclecticism has radically opened up the sound-bag for cannier operators, but many others have ended up bogged down in an insecure need to prove themselves polymaths and genre splicers. We should demand eclecticism of listeners, not of artists.

2) Classical music is devalued coin. It sounds like film and advert music, frankly, unless you actually sit down and force yourself to ignore its current context, which is a difficult and really artificial way of approaching music. Of course this doesnt apply to most 20th century classical music, but then that’s too much of a disputed ground, artistically, for rockers to get the instant cachet they seek by chewing on the hem of Tchaikovsky’s dressing gown.

The most successful pop/classical crossovers, like Shut Up And Dance’s, are generally those which brutally subsume the classical tradition as more raw materials for the pop process, rather than emasculating the most vital musics of our time as a sacrifice to an imagined posterity. Tracks like “Night On Disco Mountain”, “A Fifth Of Beethoven”, “Straussmania”, Deodato’s reading of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, fuck it, even “Hooked On Classics”, I suppose, have more energy, originality and beauty than the whole of ‘Mother’. In the face of “The Green Man”, the urge to slow, to ponder, to unburden oneself ‘artistically’ suddenly seems a paltry one: its acceleration and physicality are surely art enough.

Sep 99

77. LAPTOP – “Gimme The Nite”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

“Gimme The Nite” hit me first time as funny, catchy, clever and good for maybe two listens. After three listens, it stopped sounding brittle and started sounding brilliant. Laptop’s deadpan dyspepsia is like the Magnetic Fields taking off Thom Yorke, and the contemptuously mechanoid instrumentation is in similar territory. In fact, on the strength of their singles so far we can surmise that Laptop are what Radiohead might be if they had synthesisers and senses of humour. OK, it’s a big stretch, but there’s the same horrified agony-cum-ennui at the crushing weariness of modern living and its senseless yet inescapable pursuit of commodities, and something of the same blunt, coal-black irony. It’s just Radiohead are singing about pigs in cages and Laptop are singing about not being able to get a shag on a Saturday night.

Well, not really: the character in the Laptop song is singing about that. This single is a sustained piece of terrific character acting, the singer’s voice pitched perfectly between cracking desperation and constipated louchness. He moans like a lounge-suited elephant and so the synthi-guitars behind him do too, over a fingersnapping drum machine backing and kling-klang electro-pop one-note riffs. And behind all that snatches of (actually very sharp) dialogue drop in and out – a pitiful singles bar charmer and his incredulous, sniggering intended, probably lifted from an American sitcom I’d affect not to like. Laptop’s own chat-up lines are considerably worse even than the “C’mon, just one drink” antics of his samplee: “I’ve got a feeling you’re like me / A damaged package full of uncertainty” makes me grin every time. And in only a couple of minutes, the complete soul-shrivelling awfulness of being on the pull with the clock running out is butterfly-pinned to your ears by this diamond record, as good an argument for monogamy as I’ve heard all decade.

Sep 99

79. PIXIES – “Planet Of Sound”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

No good indie kid ever forgets their first insult. It was the late 80s, I was at school, and Nick Smith (local, well-bred, gangly, wanker) accused me of listening to “stupid weird noise shit”. A pretty good summary: reader, I nearly burst with secret pride. What was I listening to: “Debaser”, by The Pixies, the best single of the 1980s.

Except it wasn’t a single until 1997, which I suppose makes it eligible for this list. But something wouldn’t feel right about that, not to someone like me who loves the quaint old notion of the single as a perfect consumer package, a time capsule and time bomb both at once. Anyway, “Debaser” had it all but missed its true place in the sun. “Debaser” was enormous, more cool and glossy and modernist than anything that came out of American alt-rock in the decade it secretly gave birth to. And “Debaser” was also the giddiest, stupidest pop record I’d ever heard – the spanky bass opening, Joey Santiago’s guitar fills reeling all over the place, Black Francis’ hyperbolic geek-yelp, and the glorious noo wave “Dee-bay-sah!” harmonies behind. The whole package was a righteous rocket ride that managed to both rewrite my pop rulebook and frankly spoil me for loud guitar pop for the rest of my days.

Obviously though, the band didn’t stop with “Debaser”: a lot of people think they should have and a lot of people are wrong. “Planet Of Sound” is a stupid knockabout throwaway, Black Francis getting pie-eyed and growly about being a reluctant passenger on some sort of space taxi with the rest of the band doing their best impression of badass rock’n’roll greasers, all teenage caveman riffs and fuzzed-over slugbass. But the impression isn’t exactly convincing – it’s still the Pixies, still the same bizarro version of pop music despite all the punker posturing. They were never a band to inspire arm-slicing devotion and matt black lower-case websites, they never kept any kind of faith, they never did much you could call meaningful except make sci-fi/surf/Spanish/stooges music which burst with life and never closed its mind to anything. I wish they’d been more successful because they’d have worn it well, but I suppose their ‘place in history’ is assured. They were a band I loved like no other and I will not see their like again.

78. URBAN TAKEOVER – “Bad Ass”/”Drop Top Caddy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

One tiny peevelet of mine about pop criticism is the gawping that results when a mainstream band dares to use an ‘unusual’ word in a song. The classic example being Oasis’ “Acquiesce”, mentions of which dwelt gushingly on the title as if Noel Gallagher had just started a self-funded teen literacy program. (Though to tell the truth Noel seemed just as pleased with himself.) Anyway, given the fuss resulting from a working class Northerner using a three-syllabler it’s odd that nobody noticed the delightful way “preponderance” creeps into “Drop Top Caddy”. Probably because when this sublime double A-sider, the finest jungle 12″ I’ve heard since 1995, sidled out everybody was concentrating on Be Here Now anyway, no doubt watching out for further verbal gymnastics from the people’s poet.

Hold on – finest jungle 12″ since 1995? Are you sure? Well, yes: jump-up (which is the micro-genre of drum’n’bass Urban Takeover busy themselves with) was the best thing to happen to jungle since its unsurpassable early peak. It bypassed the acqueous sump which ‘intelligent’ drum and bass had fallen into, and cocked a streetwise snook at the skunk-raddled dystopianism of tech-step. In its place came a remorselessly efficient dancefloor music which harked back to and tarted up all the stuff which made jungle so cool initially – movie samples, joint-twisting acceleration beats, and massive souped-up basslines. If the stuff being put out by Aphrodite (who is half of Urban Takeover) lacked anything, it was the bubbling primeval invention-glop which made early jungle as unpredictable as a million bees. “Bad Ass”, despite its merciless rump-empowerment, is laid-back, something which early 90s hardcore never was. That insouciance also makes jump-up tunes to an extent interchangeable, though “Bad Ass” and “Drop Top Caddy” nose it for, respectively, the magnificent build-ups and the seismic waveform bass. As a last superbad hurrah for drum’n’bass, it’ll more than do.

Sep 99

80. OPUS III – “It’s A Fine Day”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

At a pinch you could have imagined this shiver of wide-eyed, wide-pupilled kinder-folk being plucked out on guitars, with Kirsty Hawkshaw being contextually transformed into some wild, wildly annoying, forest sprite. That’s the beautiful – and frightening – thing about dancefloor music: the way the simplicity, regularity and purity of its sounds allow you to surrender to music that you’d otherwise take as cloying or dumb or worse. Even I, not somebody who usually needs excuses to embrace the obvious, would have baulked at the suggestion that a shinehead imp singing about how it’s “gonna be a fine night tonight” could be anything other than faux-Bjork gurgle.

But so it was and is: Hawkshaw’s vocals (later used by Orbital to career-best effect on “Halcyon”) are a fabulous fairytale coo, lilting atop a solid breakbeat dub backing. The effect is one of ravely reassurance – heard amidst the further-up, further-out frenzy of contemporary hardcore, “It’s A Fine Day” sounds even more special, a precious lullaby for a sleepless generation.

Sep 99

81. LAMBCHOP – “Your Sucking Funny Day”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Kurt Wagner thoughtfully massages his cheek with his tongue and launches into another tight, cryptic slice of something. ‘Alternative country’ doesn’t seem to fit, certainly – there may be grief and melodrama and pedal steel in Lambchop’s music but there’s also a lustrous southern soul brass section and that beautiful, arch singing. Most of the time Kurt sounds pretty bruised, but the reasons why disappear down trenches between the lines, and you’re left with people eating all the sausages and separating wood from screws and interfering with sprinklers: in Lambchopland these tiny actions bear impossible, gnomic weight.

So here’s my take on what’s happening in “Your Sucking Funny Day”, the bowdlerised single version of a differently and predictably-titled track from Thriller and also Lambchop’s most flat-out commercial tune, opening with a war whoop and a burst of horn power and rattling along like it actually meant to sell something. What I get out of it is that mixed sense of envy and contempt the terminally outsiderish bear for the bought-in, in this case possibly the suburban bought-in. So sunshine bores the daylight out of Kurt, sure, but the music’s too gung-ho to suggest he means it one hundred percent. Or maybe that’s not it at all: I’ve used “Your Sucking Funny Day” to articulate a hundred and one goofy emotions to myself, infatuation, joy, spite and more, but after all that the one and only thing I know for sure about the song is quite how hard that horn riff swings.

Sep 99

82. PORTER RICKS – “Redundance”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

How to stop time: people talk a lot about the imperceptible shifts of detail in ultra-minimal techno tracks, but I don’t think any listener truly notices them until after playback. That would imply a sense of focus which the music abolishes: listening to Porter Ricks, what you’re aware of, always, is the loops next to each other and identical, not minutes apart and different. Repetetive activity is as oddly comforting as it is numbing, it frees your mind by taking it to the edge of immobility.

Repetition’s a strange thing to write about: done right it’s revelatory, done wrong it’s water torture. The trick appears to be to skirt as near to the edge of actual lock-groove repetition as you can without getting there. Porter Ricks will only rarely do anything as vulgar as change rhythm or tempo: once the basic elements of each numbered “Redundance” track are introduced, they prefer just to play with weight, pulling parts back and forward in the mix to subtly lead the dazed listener around their rhythmazes. “Redundance 3” is typical, its muted production-line bass and beats coccooning the listener while quicksilver zig-zags of rhythm dart up to the ear and then recede as swiftly, like bleached-white deep-sea fish at bathysphere windows.

I’ve picked the epic “Redundance” single-pack not because of any feel-the-width reason but because it caught Porter Ricks on an exciting cusp, introducing sly synopated elements into their underwater zen dub. The result, on the magnificent “Redundance 5”, is stylish car-factory swing, Plutonian Astaires in top hats and tails tapping and softly shuffling through great grey vistas of pulse and clang. The most boring claim in electronic music is that a record is making the genre ‘human’ – which usually means slapping some horrific slow synth slush over the top of mock-funky beats – but paradoxically “Redundance” remains one of the warmest, most comforting techno records I own.