Posts from 15th December 1999

15
Dec 99

4. THE ORB – “Little Fluffy Clouds”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

This record taught me two things, the most important things I learned this decade. First of all it taught me about repetition and how it could work to structure a song, and then go beyond structure to become the song itself. When I felt the light, economical sequencer runs of “Little Fluffy Clouds” pool and ripple in my head was when pop took on an abstract dimension for me, when I realised that I could find myself in a song as much through stability as variation. Up until then I’d used music to explain things, not to explore: I’d listened first for the lyrics, then for a general tone – rage, joy, frustration, boredom – that I could call my own. I still think that’s about the best way there is to haul yourself through adolescence but you’ve got to stop somewhere, and I stopped in Arizona, where the skies always had little fluffy clouds.

The second thing I learned was how unexpectedly gorgeous the recorded human voice could sound. Rickie Lee Jones, sampled by the Orb from some forgotten interview, sounds distracted, close and sexy even before her voice is cut-up and refracted by the band. As well as every little hesitation, you can hear the filmy smack of saliva as her lips part, the wet sound of tongue unpeeling from palate: it’s no wonder she detested a track which sounds like somebody built a studio inside her mouth. But she enraptured me – hearing “Little Fluffy Clouds” was like hearing a spell, and then realising that the same spell was being cast every time someone opened their mouth to speak near a microphone. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a piece of dance music to wake me up to vocal texture, play and inflection, but it did, and ironically that gave me a way to love the songs I did already even more, just by listening to the how as much as the what.

Between them, repetition and the voice could take me everywhere. Into dance music, obviously – “Little Fluffy Clouds” wasn’t quite the first dance record I liked, but it was the first one I had no choice but to like – but also into drones, into harsher electronic sounds, into avant-rock, into soul, into melodramatic pop. Coming back to the Orb single now, I was a little worried that it might sound clumsy, even silly. Wrong – the track which started all this off for me is still just as dreamy. To make a comparison I wouldn’t have known about then, the bucolic “Little Fluffy Clouds” sounds like Kraftwerk going off to get their shit together in the country – Alex Patterson had learned a lot from their Spartan approach, but he’d also absorbed the rich fluidity of musicians like Manuel Gottsching, whose entrancing E2 = E4 was the root of so much 90s ambient music. And, of course, Patterson’s take on minimalist transcendence comes with a thick side order of English pothead humour. Almost a decade after this song changed my life the plummy opening monologue can still make me smile, with the truth of it as much as anything else: “Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer – the droning of lawnmowers, the thwack of leather on willow – has been added a new noise…” Dance music – which is what The Orb are making him talk about – was a revolution that happened one head at a time. This was my turn.