Posts from 2nd February 2001

Feb 01

Stephen King’s “The Carpet”

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Our cup overfloweth with sixth form humour with this classic. A direct descendant of the “Monster Mash”, just not as scary or potato based. Their Casiotone 400 “Scary Sounds” option button must have been pushed – as creapy wafty noises compete with an accordian to create a genuinely unatmospheric backing to some imagined pitch of theirs of Stephen King’s next best-seller. In doing so they not only misunderstand Mr King’s ouvre (who has been way out of “The” prefaced horror novels for at least fifteen years) but create a pastiche so unlikely that even Dean Koontz would not nick it. When they get on to the bit where the hearth rug eats much of a small town in Maine the record both becomes horrifically poor, and yet laughably tame. Therefore a masterpiece in self-contradiction.


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A couple of weeks ago someone posted a question about the SFA in a classic or dud kind of way on I Love Music. I was a bit late to respond and be part of the dialogue – but coming across their last album on cassette this morning prompted me to think clearly on the subject.

Let’s start with an admission. I own almost everything that they have released. I do not own their B-Sides album because I own most of the singles. So this is pretty partisan. Not so much a review as a “what I like about them”. In the end that boils down to idiosyncrasy. From glitter band stomps to prog rock noodlings – from short, sharp pop thrills to calypso tinged singalongs – an album by the Super Furry Animals is never dull. Of course artistic dilettantism is often the mother of lack of invention – pastiches for the sake of them. Which is where SFA manage to break the mould. They cannot pastiche to save their lives – they can do a calypso beat but it will be on their terms. They are not pretending to be from the West Indies, they are Welsh people playing calypso (or whatever).

This brings us to Mwng – their all Welsh album. Of course I do not understand a word of it – which helps to clarify the appeal of the band. To be fair, their lyrics have always been on the whimsical side of pointless. And I cannot say that I have not been entertained by the lyrical content of tracks like “The International Language Of Screaming” or “Hometown Unicorn”. Its just quite plain that I do not just listen for the puerile rush of hearing a song about Albert Einstein’s parents. (It’s clear that Tanya could also have a field day with imaginary SFA songs too). It also has to be said that Gruf does not have the best or strongest of singing voices. Possibly uniquely in pop he sings in a strong Welsh accent even when he sings in English. This coupled with a lack of range makes at least the vocals sound pretty similar. Nevertheless the vocal line is pretty irrelevant to why I like them – and from the context of another sound in their arsenal it makes a lot more sense.

I remember an interview with the band in their early days when they talked about using sound, as opposed to music. I think that is a bit simplistic, but their aim was to construct their records much like dance records – to look for the perfect sounds rather than the song as a whole. While I do not think they succeed in doing this, I think the attempt has created a working ethos where the sound is more important than the tune. Luckily they are rather adept at putting these sounds into tunes. There may be little new or ground-breaking in what they produce – refernce points are firmly rooted in the history of pop – but it does not sound like anything else.

So back to Mwng. A more acoustic, folkie effort – perhaps to match the back to their roots language change. It is foolish to second guess, just as I am completely unaware what the songs are actually about (translations are available on the internet but I rather like it like this). Parts feel like Neil Young hitting big balls production Pink Floyd – and I know how terrible that appears but the key point is the actual sounds. Relatively low key, it nevertheless is beautifully crafted. Not to say there aren’t moments of fizzy pop loudness – there is a kind of “God – Show Me Magic” update which would wake you if the general downbeat nature of the album had lulled you to sleep.

In the end, the SFA could be underrated because of their whimsy. I think they may suffer from a similar problem that Madness did in the early eighties. Most of their column inches come from their stunts rather than their music – which they themselves are loathe to talk up. SFA do not act like a pop or rock band, but still do something interesting so they seem to stand on the edge of any scene. They have lasted to long to be part of any Welsh, or Britrock scene anyway. In the end there is a sound, and a use of sound you either get or you don’t. They are not a band I would ever dream of recommending to others therefore, and certainly buying an all Welsh album by them on my bidding would not increase my stock. In the context of their career though, and as a lovely record in its own right, Mwng does me nicely.

(Hopefully you will allow me the benefit of the doubt here on the lines that you should never review a record you like. I promise to never do it again.)

Say Something Else

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Me, Le Tigre and the Internet Backlash 

Kathleen Hanna has an idea. She sings it thoughtfully, like she’s still rolling it over in her head, like it’s still no more than half a hunch. “It seems so eighties / or early nineties / to be political / where are my friends?”. The next quarter-second is the gap between thinking of something and committing to it – and then: “GET OFF THE INTERNET! I’LL MEET YOU IN THE STREET!”

Le Tigre’s new From The Desk Of Mr Lady EP kicks off with “Get Off The Internet”, another spiky disco-garage (not that garage, silly) fusion, just like the ones that made their album so tough and so good. It came out in January 2001 and I would call its timing brilliant. The predicted commercial backlash against the Internet – the ‘correction’ of an inflamed market which saw 50,000-plus jobs vanish in the USA last year – has spread fast, chiming with the wider culture on- and off-line. The amount of time Americans are spending online has started to slide, and saying you work at a ‘dotcom’ leads to worried looks from relatives: meanwhile the newspapers rustle and whisper “recession, recession” and the music mags smack their lips, only half in irony, at the thought of hard times coming.

The sneaking feeling that the Internet is a greyer and lonelier place to be, or at the very least that there might be better things we could do with our time, infected online culture too. Two months ago I thought maybe one of the people whose sites I read regularly was planning to write a book – now I can name five or six who are, easily. That’s a good thing – but it’s telling that these people aren’t seeing online projects as the way to channel their creativity any more. For me the disillusionment hit in November and kept growing – of course the Internet was a magnificent way for anyone to say anything they wanted, but what was being said? I’m not pretending I was the first or even the millionth person to start thinking along those lines, of course, but when doubt hits, it hits hard. There seemed to be so much potential, so much spirit, online, and so little will to turn that spirit into anything which could materially improve the offline world.

Obviously, I was and am part of the problem. The parts of the web in which I move – personal sites and music criticism – are good for hand-wringing articles like this one, for making lonely people feel less so and for telling you about a few good records. Two out of three of these are worthy goals, but for all the web veteran’s typical sneering at e-commerce, the potential it offers for the elderly or housebound, say, to buy groceries and books and medicine is more useful than anything anybody will ever write in a weblog. I personally have done nothing in two years online to make anyone’s life comparably better.

In one of those elegant coincidences popular historians adore, the jokey ‘Bloggie’ awards for weblogs were given out on the day before news broke that, the company which provided the ‘Blogger’ service upon which maybe two-thirds of weblogs depend, had run out of money. The much-vaunted ‘weblog community’ reached a peak of self-celebration – or self-disgust, for those who hated the idea of the awards – and then found itself suddenly confronted with the realities of a market in freefall and a social and economic system in which ‘self-expression’ is a synonym for ‘money-loser’. “It feels like the end of an era” noted Salon Magazine, correctly – and fittingly, the era ended with eloquent and emotional essays by Pyra’s founders and staff, themselves webloggers.

I know what you’ve been thinking, of course: “Why should we judge online achievements by the offline improvements they effect? Why should ‘usefulness’ be a criteria for anything?”. And I agree with you – a vast part of me does. But I don’t know whether that’s the part I should be listening to, because the other part of me is saying that while uselessness and beauty and abstraction and frivolity are wonderful things, they are considerably more wonderful as part of a world that is as just as we can make it.

All of which wheels us back to Le Tigre, whose record I have been listening to unceasingly since mid-January. This being the 00s, irony piles upon irony: I downloaded the track from Napster, I am writing about it on the web, and what is more this lashing song is the first pop record about the Internet to have ever remotely convinced me. Needless to say it has not ‘done the rounds’ of the ‘net community in the way Barcelona’s synthpop novelty, “I Have The Password To Your Shell Account”, did last year. The Le Tigre track suggests things about the Internet and the culture it interlocks with that the ‘net community may be uncomfortable with. The net community might respond that they are ‘bored with’ these things, which these days tends to mean the same thing.

The point Kathleen Hanna is making is that a combination of fashion and lack of will have pushed politics off the agenda of traditionally liberal individuals (musicians, young people), leading to a situation where the politicians who still are able to muster some energy – the right wing, as it turns out – have the country almost literally handed to them. Judging by her invocation of the street, she’s not a supporter of oppositional party politics, but the sort of grass-roots, group action which a lot of people online pay lip service to. (How many times have I seen No Logo recommended on web pages? Maybe thirty, mine included. And how many times have I read first-person accounts of grass-roots action on web pages? Maybe three, mine not.)

Hanna’s suggestion – and a suggestion, one hurled chorus line, is all it is – is that the Internet is complicit in this loss of will. Why might she think this? Because the community of the Internet allows physical and social bonds to atrophy in favour of distanced emotional and intellectual bonds. Because the culture of the Internet then becomes one of discussion rather than action. Because the mechanics of the Internet – screens and mouse clicks – favour novelty and the reduction of information to tiny chunks, meaning even the discussions reach conclusions painfully rarely.

There are exceptions, of course. But I think if that’s what she means, Hanna is right. She is also, of course, leaving a hell of a lot out.

The late 1990s were the decade where I fell half in love with America, and the Internet was a big part of that: after spending my teens bleak and horrorstruck at how untalented most of the people I was meeting were and how lazy I was, it was beautiful and inspiring to find people online getting off their arses and writing, writing, writing about the stuff they cared about. Most of them weren’t great writers, but they were getting better; some had the seeds of something amazing; all of them were at least doing it. So I did, too. America turned for me from a stereotype into a place where people my age were creating fantastic things. This is the story of the Internet, of course, the story every ‘web community’ from Geocities to Blogger rests itself on – you can do it! And yes, you can do it. But the story doesn’t end there – the question which the web communities don’t ask, the only question worth asking really, is: what do you do next?

Kathleen Hanna asked that question when she helped found Le Tigre, and she’s asking it in the song she’s singing, the one that I’m listening to at a time when a lot of people online are finding themselves forced to ask it. I’ve been asking it myself for a while: I’m writing this article to try and maybe convince myself to answer it, and soon.

Pitchfork review the new Tricky EP

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Pitchfork review the new Tricky EP. Key sentence which makes me distrust this piece (talking about Juxtapose): “While probably worthwhile record for those that prefer Tricky’s hip-hop material, it seemed largely inessential for a fan of his more creative output.”. I don’t know, something about the ‘hip-hop’/’more creative’ juxtaposition there rubbed me up the wrong way. (cf the notorious indie piece, point #17). Letters page is still great, though.

Infelicitous sentences #2: “In order to join the fray I really need to commit to going to a dance club and just sit and watch and listen and take notes.”. James also makes some points about something I wrote which I’ll reply to later but now it is the end of my lunch break and I hear that grindstone calling.

It’s back-slappin’ time!

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It’s back-slappin’ time!: Alistair Fitchett chucks some complements my way and makes me blush, though as he guesses my pop culture knowledge is sometimes at the expense of other parts of my cultural life: I sure as hell wish I read as many books as he does. Anyway, here’s a compliment right back: Tangents is the indie zine you can trust. Meaning: Alistair and his enviable cohort of writing aces have an eye for what’s actually worth hearing in the rough-and-tumble world of indie – I’ve never regretted checking out a band they’ve raved about (except for Baxendale!) and I will most certainly be keeping an ear out for the Life Without Buildings LP. What’s his secret? Well, though there are big big differences between the ‘Gents approach and FT (they’re about making an individual definition of Pop, we’re about having fun with what we’re given), the key similarity is that both ‘zines are into a range of stuff which stretches well beyond indie. In Tangents’ case that’s jazz and art and books, in our case it’s top 40 pop, but I think it gives them (and hopefully us) the perspective to filter ‘alternative’ music with a slightly finer sieve. Enough gushing, I think.

The hottest music writing in the world

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The hottest music writing in the world right now is not on the web, it’s in the music section of the Village Voice, which under (I believe) the editorship of Chuck Eddy has become the place where the wittiest, cleverest and most-up-to-date rock critics hang out and write about anything that takes their fancy. This fortnight it hits a particular hot streak which had me twitching with envy – Scott Woods of talking about 2step, Alec Hedley Bemis writing up the various recent Angus MacLise/Dream Syndicate reissues, and Kembrew McLeod having fun with O-Town and S Club 7.

It’s not that any of these pieces are saying new stuff – they’re all very well-written, but the Woods is an intro, the McLeod treads a well-worn path and the Bemis I disagree with – but jeezus, what a line-up of topics. That’s the kind of range FT would love to achieve, and we don’t have advertisers to worry about.

For about the thousandth time in the last six months, I wish I lived in New York.

The Usual Excuses

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The Usual Excuses 

Bowery Electric’s “Freedom Fighter” is bewitching and worrying, and not just because it was made by a band I’d put down as America’s most useless. In fact the beat Bowery Electric use on “Freedom Fighter” sounds as familiar as ever, but that for once works in the song’s favour, in the same way as the ‘boring’ chorus in “Hip Hop” does – it slows the tune down, adds a layer of numb menace. It’s the rhythmic equivalent of a drone – where Bowery Electric used to go wrong of course was in putting the rhythmic equivalent of a drone behind the drone equivalent of a drone and the resulting drone-squared was like a banquet of cardboard.

Anyhow “Freedom Fighter” came out years ago, but I avoided it because it was them. It found Bowery Electric getting lyrical and tuneful, and sampling Nick Drake (clever move), and ending up like Saint Etienne rewriting Disco Inferno’s “Last Dance”.


DUEL II! – Duel Of The Dead

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DUEL II! – Duel Of The Dead: it’s back. This week, Morrison v Lynott.