Posts from 4th December 2001

4
Dec 01

FEAR (And Loathing) OF MUSIC

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FEAR (And Loathing) OF MUSIC

In TV or comic book parlance, “talking heads” refers to that bit where the action stops and the characters stand around explaining things: sometimes a vital part of a narrative’s structure it’s more often the function of a director who has, quite literally, lost the plot. David Byrne, then, might not have been any good at picking suits (he got the collar and chest measurements mixed up, poor thing), but he was a dab hand at choosing names.

Now, I would be the last one to underestimate a listener’s stupidity, but Byrne went a bit far even for me: half of Talking Heads’ songs seem to assume that their audience are Martians. You can try it at home – here’s how to write one:

1) Pick a subject. This should be something very mundane. The television, perhaps, or animals. Hey! We’ll pick computers.
2) Write about your topic in a simple style. Say nothing that is not obvious. How about – You can type on computers. Your words appear on screen.
3) HERE IS THE IMPORTANT PART. You now have to turn your kindergarten words into a penetrating reflection of the strangeness of modern life. You do this by singing them in a bug-eyed neurotic voice.
3A) If you don’t make the delivery sufficiently nutty you’ll have written a Kraftwerk song instead. And that would never do.
4) Embellish your initial lyrics, if you like, with extra ones of even more staggering obviousness. So your song on computers might now run: “You can type! / On computers. / THEY DON’T TYPE BACK! / Your words show up on the screen / People say the screen is black.”
5) Play weedy approximation of funk/African/Brazilian music behind devastatingly insightful words.
6) Approach bank. Laugh.

David Byrne applied this technique time and again. He considered cities: each had good points and bad points. What of animals? “They say animals are hairy”. Finally his observations reached a stunning peak: on “Once In A Lifetime” (named for how often anyone needs to hear it), he told the world that “There is water at the bottom of the ocean”. In other words, David Byrne made Jonathan Richman look like Hegel.

And people lapped it up. As countless jerky indie-poppers have learned since, if you say anything with a straight enough face people will take it seriously. David Byrne and his band made a pile of albums and one film pointing out to America how secretly weird it was. This is something nobody ever went broke doing: everyone wants to believe the place they live in has a paranoid Lynchian underbelly, it’s far more palatable than the boring reality. Sing that boring reality like a paranoid kook and you’re made, at least until you discover Brazilian music and blow your career out of the water with a series of records which sound like someone’s dad doing the samba.

ISAAC HAYES – The Theme From Shaft

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ISAAC HAYES – The Theme From Shaft

Wicky Wicky Wicky.

How far did Isaac Hayes’ balls drop? Was there some terrible sound of a couple of pool balls being let go from about three feet when it occurred. Because when Isaac sings, the deep bass sets up reverberations in the very firmament on which the earth is built. It also makes me want to shit.

“Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”

Er- Isaac –

“Who’s the man who would risk his neck for his brother man?”

Look – Isaac – the song is called the Theme From Shaft. Shaft is a movie about-

“Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about?”

Maybe its Alzheimers or something. I don’t know but it seems odd to me that Isaac Hayes, he of the improbably low slung cojones, cannot remember who he is singing about. The track is called the theme from Shaft. Shaft is a film about a private detective, a man who appears at least to risk his neck for his – ahem – brother man. (That’s brother man – rather than Brotherhood Of Man – only a fool and a fuckwit would try to save the mush merchants who peddled us Save All Your Kisses For Me). Isaac – the man’s name is Shaft.

Wicky Wicky funk guitar is one of the laziest inventions in music ever. Guitar, wah wah peddle and no talent whatsoever is required to make the sound of a train crossing some points. Couple it with a simplistic brass hit and you are left with a piece of merchandising which begs to be put out of business. The backing singers keep telling Isaac to shut his mouth. And you can tell that they mean it. Not only is he making a fool of himself with his forgetting the name of the song antics, but the bass rumble is probably pulverizing their spinal columns. Shut your mouth Isaac or you might find out the answer to this question:

“Who is the chick who wants to destroy all of music”

Me.

Yo damn right.

CREED — ‘My Sacrifice’ P.O.D. — ‘Alive’

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CREED — ‘My Sacrifice’
P.O.D. — ‘Alive’

Oh, these dastardly bastards, trying to poison the airwaves with their Christian values and their holier-than-thou righteousness. Listen to that Scott Stapp, singing about a SACRIFICE (just like a certain son of a Certain Someone did a couple of years ago). Or even P.O.D. — ‘I feel so alive / For the very first time / I can’t deny you’ — shouldn’t that be, ‘I can’t deny You’? According to this ILM thread, such actions brand these missionaries as ‘stealth Christian rockers’ — they pull you in with their grunge hooks and their lighter-fueled grandeur, seduce you with the promise of freedom and flight and BAM! down comes the Bible on your heretical little head, and soon enough you’re chained to the altar, drinking blood and eating flesh with the rest of those closet-hiding Pagans.

In the grand scheme of things, this sort of chicanery is no more insidious than the sort of Christianity casually offered up in other sections of life. Such praise and prayers have been inescapable, especially since the destruction of the World Trade Center. Kids in school pledge allegiance to one nation, under God, indivisible (or, at least, they did once upon a time). As an American, God supposedly blesses my home sweet home a whole helluva lot. Before any athlete worth an endorsement deal plans their trip to the Magic Kingdom, a shout out to the Man Upstairs is required. And I damn God more often that I should (especially since I pride myself on being an atheistic agnostic, or an agnostic atheist — depends on whether I’m drinking regular or decaf). Clearly, God IS Everywhere, and don’t be misled into thinking it’s not the WASP-looking God, either, lest thou wish to feel the fury of multiple Skechers & Doc Martens on thy booty.

There’s plenty of music being produced in the name of the Lord. You can’t step into a department store or a supermarket without hearing a song from an artist that’s given props to God. Of course, if the artist in question is making their dough talking about things (or doing) decidedly non-Christian — well, that’s the sort of stuff best kept for the confessional. Also, there are notable outfits working under the public radar (such as Low and the Danielson Familie) honoring their deities in the public eye (even if their songs don’t specifically reference that deity at all times). That’s all fine and good – you know where they stand, and can gauge their intentions on those terms. And then there are the accursed Christian Music outfits, dressing up the weekly sermon in the clothes of what’s thought to be pop. Yet another way to appeal to an audience prone to using Sunday morning as the perfect time to honor their need for sleep. (I doubt those movies starring Kirk Cameron are putting fannies in the pews.) While imitation isn’t a sin, such Xeroxing should be considered blasphemous.

But are these secretively Christian groups really a ‘danger’? How many impressionable people are really going to get ‘sucked in’ by the supposed dogma infesting these songs by Creed & P.O.D. (& Lifehouse, & maybe Michelle Branch, & tons of other folks), outside of those people (like us critics) LOOKING for signs of such half-assed brainwashing? With a little elbow grease and a whole lot of stubbornness, almost any pop song can turn into a hymn. (Take some Britney Spears singles, for instance – ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’? ‘Sometimes’? It’s so obvious!) Pull out the reflective, faceless lyrics, and you have music striving for the same sort of release that’s been sought by groups of all walks of faith, from Nine Inch Nails performing a hasty autopsy on the Almighty to Norman Greenbaum’s sky spirit. It’s convenient to forget that the blues dealt with Heaven just as much as Hell; even in the 21st century, that deal struck at the crossroads still hangs over the head of any person speaking their mind. Using the standard rock bombast associated with the Devil to say a few words about the Lord might superficially seem like an interesting turn of events, but it’s not at all surprising.

Who’s to say that the surreptitious crusade of Creed & other like-minded bands is any different or less worthy of consideration? What about the righteous path of destruction taken by folks like Limp Bizkit, or the non-committal secular pursuits offered via dance music, or even those crusty punk rockers setting their sights on the roads less traveled? They’re all seeking salvation, they’re all looking for answers, and they’ve all found their own way to deal with life and death and the birds and the bees. Religion’s been sold to folks many times before, in different forms and shapes. Caveat emptor; hopefully, they’ll make the right choice.

Of course, you’re welcome to disagree.

STUPID AND CONTAGIOUS – Nirvana, Then, Now

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It’s inescapable. Anytime some music documentary takes a look back on the 1990s, there’s bound to be THAT SEGMENT. You know, that point where some rock musician or rock journalist extols the unending virtues of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. His obvious gifts and talents, their seismic impact on the music industry, and (most importantly) how there’s a desperate need for a new Nirvana now that nu-metal and modern-day pre-fabricated pop music has assumed the same position in the social landscape that hair metal bands and, um, modern-day pre-fabricated pop music once occupied. And it’s never just one person, oh no – this topic finds folks like Gwen Stefani, POD, and Tom Petty offering their praise in unison, a resounding chorus of Hallelujahs, wistfully ruminating on what once was and what could have been. Every time they say the word “genius”, the myth becomes more unwieldy, and yet another overpriced copy of Nevermind gets scanned & sold at Sam Goody.

And, of course, ten years after Nirvana dropped Nevermind on the great unwashed, there are a good number of people understandably hesitant to anoint Kurt Cobain a savior and place him in the pantheon. Their voices aren’t as loud as the folks touting his greatness, but what these people say is just as powerful, and just as damaging. The most recent stone thrown at this cultural Goliath is, not surprisingly, the latest biography to be published about Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven. Written by Charles Cross (a long time editor of the Seattle music paper The Rocket, and a friend of both Cobain and Courtney Love), this book offers readers a truer portrait of Kurt than previous books were able to portray, delving deep into the psyche of one of rock’s most enigmatic superstars, giving fans a better understanding of this tragic figure, this disenfranchised voice of a disenfranchised generation. Of course, I’m just quoting articles and press clippings – I’m not in any hurry to run out and actually spend money on a work so invasive & willfully slanderous. The excerpts published earlier this year by Spin (with squalid depictions of Kurt’s upbringing and his pre-Nevermind life) were more than enough. Kurt’s story is one that most people can, unfortunately, identify with – the tale of a child from a broken home struggling desperately to find somewhere to belong. It’s a sad story. It’s a painful story. Perhaps, as a counterbalance to all the unabashed praise being offered, it’s also a necessary story – a way to humanize the myth, to bring this person and his works back down to Earth, to remind people that he was just as fallible as the rest of us (songwriting skills notwithstanding).

In a review of this book, Robert Christgau calls Cobain “the first class-crossing idol of substance since Springsteen discovered barbells”. Cobain was “a geek you could get wasted with, a shy guy whose cuteness cried out for mothering, an arty weirdo with a common touch.” He was, according to common knowledge, a rock star that didn’t want to be a rock star, an upstanding example of the punk rock ethos made manifest, a true artist. Cross’ book tells a different story, of course – “Everything I do,” according to an excerpt from Cobain’s journals (given to Cross by Love for use in this book), “is an overly conscious and neurotic attempt at trying to prove to others that I am at least more intelligent and cool than they think.” Kurt struggles to stay valid in the eyes of his peers, saying the right thing to the right people, always stuck in this never-ending battle to be simultaneously accepted and embraced while being revered from a distance. He shuns rock stardom while fabricating answers to imaginary press conferences; he scoffs at the mainstream while constantly working to make his music more palatable. Again, from Cross, on Cobain’s exposure to the fierce feminist stances espoused by Tobi Vail & Kathleen Hanna – “The same man who read bizarre European pornography now used words like ‘misogyny’ and talked about the politics of oppression”.

In other words, (or in the words of Green Day, one of the only bands to truly benefit from Nirvana’s success), Kurt Cobain was a walking contradiction, and (in the eyes of the media) he ain’t got no right. He sold out by signing to a major label; he didn’t sell enough, releasing a bunch of trash after Nevermind. He pissed on his fans by releasing the unlistenable In Utero; he cowed to the mainstreams’ whims by sanding the sharp edges off of Nevermind. He’s a tortured artist that can pinpoint precarious emotions with just a short phrase; he’s a tortured fuck-up whose mumbled nonsense is passed off as poetic brilliance by self-absorbed idiots. Somewhere in the middle of all that contention is the boring old middle ground that no one wants to bother finding (since it clearly isn’t as invigorating or exciting as taking sides). And, of course, it’s that middle ground that’s the truest of all – fight as hard as you want on either side of this debate, but to take one side is to only accept half the story.

It’s no different than all those musicians and critics stating matter-of-factly that Nirvana’s coup d’etat of the Billboard charts in 1991 changed EVERYTHING about music, as if things could be so simple. Of course, it takes an understanding of what most folks visualize when discussing popular music’s landscape around this time. Here’s a short summary:

1) Pop music and pop (hair) metal rule the charts; nothing of substance sells; boo
2) Nirvana & alt-rock / grunge kick those soulless bastards in the nuts with true ART; yay
3) Nirvana is gone; alt-rock & grunge follow suit; oh no
4) Pop music and pop (rap/nu) metal rule the charts; nothing of substance sells; boo

Nirvana was able to seek refuge in two camps, with one foot tenuously dipped in the waters of grunge, and one grimy boot firmly set in the world of punk rock. Of course, most folks remember that, following Nirvana’s success, other bands from their area of Washington realized success as well. Since the majority of these groups shared vaguely similar physical and sonic characteristics, major media outlets were more than happy to group them all into one big happy family – hence, “grunge”. As a result, other bands, either through shrewd calculated maneuvers or through sheer dumb luck, were able to ride these groups’ coattails and achieve similar types of success. Even those that came from Nirvana’s neck of the woods found themselves measured against Nirvana, wrongfully tagged as trend-hoppers; the criticism primarily focused only on one group, though – Pearl Jam. Anyone that’s given those two groups a cursory listen knows there isn’t much to compare, other than the equipment and the flannel. Pearl Jam (and Soundgarden, and possibly even Alice in Chains) belonged in the canon of Classic Rock (where their first album proudly reigns, swapping squid with Led Zeppelin & Aerosmith) even as they flew the self-righteous flag of “grunge”. These folks were as bombastic and metallic and (most importantly) expressive as any arena rock act – when played at a loud enough volume, thoughtful self-castigation doesn’t sound much different than good old fashioned thoughtless rock and roll. Nirvana was always a pricklier beast, despite their success, despite the melodies, despite the crowd-pleasing sheen fashioned by Andy Wallace & Butch Vig for Nevermind – I’ll get to that, though.

Regardless of these self-evident differences, Pearl Jam was jumping on the bandwagon, said the critics. Poseurs, they were. Fuck ’em where it hurts, those thieving shits. Then came the 1st wave of imitators – folks like Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots, bands clearly borrowing their moves and sounds from the Seattle stable. Definite poseurs, said the critics. String ’em up and let ’em hang – God, they’re so FAKE; they’ll get what’s coming to them (that being multi-platinum records and that ever-popular quarter-hour, of course). And now, ten years after the fact, there are groups crawling out of every possible nook and cranny in your stereo speakers, groups copying the copiers, with the integrity of the copy weakening with each drop of toner. Now, the original poseurs have tenure and credibility. Now, the originators are now producing Greatest Hits packages and box sets. Now, one of the most popular groups in this particular style of music actually began as a group covering songs from the groups they shamelessly emulate. Once upon a time, a visit to some seedy bar somewhere in New England (probably around the Western Massachusetts area) would give you a chance to witness a group called Stain, a group offering faithful renditions of any number of tracks off of Ten or Dirt. Now, this group (after adding a D to the end of their name) is everywhere, a fixture on the Billboard charts, sharing space with like-minded folks such as Creed and Godsmack and Tantric and Puddle of Mudd. In some ways, music of the past 10 years hasn’t changed much at all.

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THE SOUND IN FALLING SNOW

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Piano Magic’s Seasonally Affective

Memory: winter, 1986. I am eight years old. Snow has been falling since six p.m.; I wake – compelled awake, no less – sometime after midnight, peering with squinty eyes through a slatted blind. There is nothing but white, white stretching outward on the ground, white blotting out the sky, the moon, the stars. But something…moving. Lost out there, in the storm. A cat, perhaps? Yes, yes, it must be. Some small animal, must be.

SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUM

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Jan Jelinek, Bjork and the Evolution of Glitch

These past two weeks I’ve been listening fairly constantly to Jan Jelinek’s loop-finding-jazz-records, and thinking about beauty. Beauty in IDM and glitch techno is something I’ve been meaning to write about for literally ages, but I never got around to it because in my head it kept on unfolding into an impossibly long epic as painful to read as it would be to write. So now I’m just writing, with very little idea of what I’m going to say next – in other words, the way I usually write about music.

Now that the glitch is accepted almost as orthodoxy among the techno and IDM community, with even the most abrasive works of Thomas Brinkmann or DAT Politics provoking little more than arched eyebrows, the movement, as Mille Plateux are eager to insist that it is, must find itself new challenges. One alternative is to attempt to combine the sound with already existing styles such as hip hop to house, and even rock when Radiohead can be bothered. Jan Jelinek’s aim meanwhile seems to be a simpler and very sympathetic one: to make the glitch a thing of beauty.

It’s easy, with records like this one, to focus on the process of its production (hinted at even in the title) rather than the music itself. The idea of piecing together samples and loops from old jazz records to make a glitch album is an intriguing one primarily, I think, because it acts as a nice counterpoint to the dub-obsession of so many glitch artists, particularly those on Jelinek’s own label, ~scape. Listening though, I don’t notice much about the specific sounds Jelinek uses that I can identify as particularly jazzy – usually they’re all too bitty and isolated to even identify as specific instruments, with little to differentiate them from the ambient drones used more commonly by other glitch techno artists.

Rather, the jazziness that I, at least, can discern within the album (and I must add the disclaimer here that I am hardly a suitable judge in this regard) is in Jelinek’s treatment of his samples. It’s in the way he stretches them into warm, wavering chords that don’t sound ambient or spectral so much as relaxed and comfortable. Combined with the often random seeming flecks of percussion and skips that always hover just on the edge of forming a proper groove, the experience reminds me of all the times I used to put on Davis’ Kind of Blue before I would go to sleep, hoping to “get” jazz by osmosis. Loop-finding-jazz-records affects that same dreamy, distracted air which that album gave and still gives me. It is, however, a distraction that is only seeming, disguising the intense concentration of expert craftsmanship.

The album is undeniably one of the more beautiful glitch records I’ve heard, and for that I love it, but I actually think Jelinek could stand to allow even more beauty into his work next time around. Unlike the live renditions of his work that I have heard, which were considerably more beat-driven and house-affiliated along the lines of Luomo or Herbert, there’s a certain restrained prettiness to loop-finding-jazz-records which, though certainly enjoyable, gives the music the appearance of reserved formality. It may turn out that this slightly arch chill is in fact one of the defining and best qualities of Jelinek’s work, and yet I can’t help but wonder what might happen if he let his guard down a bit.

In doing so I find myself frequently, if perhaps only half-heartedly, comparing Jelinek’s album to the Schematic label’s compilation Lily of the Valley, an album I have treasured for some time but have found it difficult to write about. Unlike Jelinek’s work, much of the music on Lily of the Valley goes some way towards snubbing its nose at prettiness, but such a move does not at all prevent it from straining towards a certain beauty. This beauty is one of emotional expressiveness rather than formal loveliness, and while it is reasonable to expect the two to often coincide, Schematic’s artists seem to have an uncanny ability to portray emotions in flux, striking delicate balances (or powerful imbalances) between light and dark that force them to delve into more shadowy corners of the glitch/IDM/electro landscape than Jelinek might feel comfortable with.

The roughly conjoined sections in Richard Devine’s opening “Anthracite T. Vari”, for example, seem to toss and turn with a petulant destructiveness, the deliberately ramshackle glitch and self-consciously jagged DSP processing of the initial stages indicating to me an incoherent and unsympathised – because unsympathetic – anger. This small-voiced rage is slowly, eventually subsumed within mournful, wise ambience, giving these later stages of sad melodicism a context and edge that actually renders them more affecting. Maybe I’m projecting when I say that this track simply has to be an elegy for the loss of the innocence of youth (and maybe the loss of youth’s freedom to be incoherent), but it suggests such a narrative to me too powerfully for me to entertain any alternatives.

Excepting the lovestruck-but-bittersweet sonics and butterfly stomached underwater percussion of Takeshi Muto’s “Muto Love”, nothing else on Lily of the Valley hits me with such force as Devine’s piece, but much of the album seems steeped in that aforementioned emotional expressiveness. Most often the music strikes me as attempting to recreate the singularly magical, if frightening, world of the isolated child. Like a musical homage to Alice in Wonderland, many moments here offer up a vision of the world as an alternately fascinating and fearful place that often inspires but only occasionally satisfies an earnest desire for the security of home. Indeed, the musical selections are as diverse as Alice’s alien world, ranging from the spooked-out soundscapes of Jeswa’s “Poema Singleo” to the more familiar Aphex Twin-like wistfulness of Delarosa & Asora’s “Lily’s Theme”, or the fragile optimism of Phoenicia’s “Monday (Disjecta RMX)”, or the starry-eyed wonder of 09’s “Seven Milliseconds”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on her latest album Vespertine Bjork has gone further than almost anyone in forging a deliberately emotional brand of glitch/IDM, utilising glitch’s fetishism of the mistake to create a beautiful but accurately flaw-riddled map of her experience. Of course, in a certain fashion she is only half-successful, as unstable glitch rhythms have never sounded more natural, more eternal than on this album, set against the backdrop of lushly orchestrated and choir-adorned love songs. The glitch has traditionally been an aural signifier for the digital world, the cast-off remainder of a thousand simultaneous and precisely calculated divisions; on tracks like “Hidden Place” or “An Echo, A stain”, though, the eddying whirls of glitch rhythms more closely resemble networks of microscopic organic lifeforms, clustering and dispersing with a fluidity that transcends the stiff grace of mathematics – a patternless profusion shaped and sculpted by the demands of nature.

Bjork realises, I think, the suggestive power of the glitch, mirroring as it does the mistake-fetishising oddness of her own vocals. On “Cocoon”, underneath what is one of her most roughly unadorned performances and some of her most painfully personal lyrics (“he slides inside, half awake half asleep. We faint back into sleep-hood. When I wake up a second time in his arms- Gorgeousness! He’s still inside me!”), a collection of vinyl pops and jittery beats provide a rhythm halfway between the steady breathing of sleep and a surprised, startled exhalation – if beats had mouths to form a perfect “O”, these would do so. Far from submerging herself into impersonal and inhuman soundscapes, Bjork uses the glitch to better capture her basic humanness, and the constant, beautiful fragility of everyday life.

The two most stunning songs on Vespertine – the near-ascension of “Undo” and the raw music box balladry of “Pagan Poetry” – don’t actually use glitches in their arrangements, but they are just as marked by glitch as a movement and methodology, not only in their lustrous tapestries of sound, but in their willingness to admit the presence of mistakes, and to reach past them towards beauty regardless. In the latter track, Bjork sings, “On the surface, simplicity, but dark currents beat in me.” It’s an apt description of Vespertine itself, which uses direct songwriting and the overwhelming largesse of orchestras, choirs and Bjork herself to partially – only partially – veil music as complex and fragile as human skin under a microscope.

On loop-finding-jazz-records, Jan Jelinek seems determined to show that mistakes can be beautiful, too – as formally pretty as if they weren’t mistakes at all. If something vital still somehow eludes him, it is because he manages to fulfil his aims so successfully. Glitch’s greatest promise – and one it only occasionally realises – lies in its capacity to achieve a wild humanity: a passionate intractability in the face of the demands of order, like a heart palpitating wildly under the constraints of reason.

Many refer to Vespertine as being merely the most accessible, commercially viable end of glitch as a movement. It is, however, also at the centre of a separate movement, which includes not only the artists at Schematic, but also the warm desire of Herbert and Luomo’s mistake-riddled house music, or the by turns foreboding and heartbreaking techno-pop of Cologne’s Kompakt label. These figures, though divergent in style, share a knowledge that emotions resemble cracked glass more readily than a smooth metallic visage, and that the robot is cut off from humanity most fundamentally in its inability to make mistakes; dissatisfied or impatient with the search for the soul within the machine, they have elected instead to locate its heart.

Tim Finney, 4 December 2001

STICK AROUND – Pulp’s We Love Life

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This is a very difficult album to review. This is usually quite a good thing since initially difficult records are usually the most enduring. But Pulp were Laura’s favourite band. In the final stages of her illness one of my stock catchphrases was, “Come on Laura, you’ve got to hang on at least until the Pulp album comes out!” She always laughed at that, and at the time we thought that she might do.

What I cannot fathom is the general media presentation of We Love Life as a “Jarvis-happy/back-to-normal-again” record after the presumed dark night of Hardcore. Lyrically this album is at times as bleak as lyrics can get, and musically…it’s as if Scott Walker took an electron microscope to the band’s little tics and magnified them to telescopic proportions.

You immediately feel the difference right at the start of the opening track “Weeds.” The drums rebound from channel to channel, echoing and resonating with a literally wall-shaking bass reverb. I don’t think I’ve heard drums as loudly and three-dimensionally recorded since Trevor Horn’s early ’80s work. Guitars slash in, making one feel initially that they are trying the Achtung Baby tack. The lyric itself isn’t one of Jarvis’ best, being a rather strained rewrite/remetaphorisation of “Mis-Shapes,” and when the drawled refrain “We’d like to get you out of your mind” comes in, one could almost be listening to Oasis (specifically “Fucking In The Bushes” plus vocals).

I was rather dubious about the whole thing at this stage, but of course should have known better — just as the song is about to climax, it slows right down and segues into “Weeds II (the origin of the species)” where the band moves into another gear which you feel Oasis wouldn’t be able to find. Jarvis does his Barry-White-on-Worthington’s talkover reciting a treatise on weeds which could equally read as self-analysis. “A charming naivety, very short flowering season; no sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.” He then expands on the meaning of “weeds” projecting into cannabis to be consumed at dinner parties and to subsume the original “weeds” back into their proper places. The Swingle Singers hover distantly behind him like a floating citadel.

If “Weeds” is a re-perspectivisation of “Mis-Shapes,” then “The Night that Minnie Timperley Died” is a bookend of sorts to “Sorted For Es & Whizz.” The doomed “beautiful girl” attends a rave-type shindig where her brother is DJing. But here even the pretence of community exposed in “Sorted” has been wrecked. Instead we have “football scarves, the girls drink halves & her brother’s crying ‘cos he has lost his decks.” Needing air, Minnie goes outside where a man offers her a ride. Inevitably murder and/or rape occurs (it’s not made absolutely clear in the lyrics in which sense she “died”) all “‘cos you looked like one of his kids.” Unfortunately the music doesn’t find the invention to animate the lyrics.

“The Trees” I’m slightly ambiguous about. For sure, if Pulp have shot their bolt commercially speaking, the final nail must have been Jarvis’ strangely out-of-tune-can’t-really-be-arsed performance of this song on TOTP. The kids (all there to see S Club 7, Steps and Natalie Imbruglia) couldn’t have but wondered exactly who these daft old buggers were. Lyrically it’s essentially a rewrite of “Whispering Grass,” but although this, as with other songs on the album, purports to be about a breakup, you can’t help but feel, as with Sinatra’s “No One Cares” album, that this goes beyond mere saloon bar lamenting and into something more sinister and/or final. The song does start with Cocker cocking his air-rifle at a magpie, shooting it dead. He then notes “Your skin so pale against the fallen Autumn leaves (another subliminal Sinatra reference) & no-one saw us but the trees.” Is he reminiscing, looking at the deceased magpie or has he stumbled across the body of Minnie Timperley? “You try to shape the world to what you want the world to be. Carving your name a thousand times won’t bring you back to me” (it should be noted that Sinatra left off “Gloomy Sunday” from No One Cares as it was “too damn cheerful”). A driving string riff (sampled from the long-forgotten Tom Courtenay (?) ’60s spy flick “Otley”) certainly keeps the song moving, but Cocker’s vocal is almost determinedly numb throughout (I must admit, the ghastly spectre of the Thompson Twins briefly peeked through the chorus for me). Not the only time on the album where Walker seems intent on reviving 1968 pop to such a degree that you wish he had found a Fairlight compressor to make the job complete (and they still do exist — Geoff Emerick used one on Costello’s Imperial Bedroom). I like the Wyatt-esque organ solo, though.

All of this pales, however, before the astonishing “Wickerman,” the epic centrepiece of this album just as “I Spy” and “Seductive Barry” were the secret hearts beating at the core of the previous two albums. An unthinkable Brit counterpoint to Gillian Welch’s even more phenomenal “I Dream A Highway,” the lyrical concept here is of an Iain Sinclair/Peter Ackroyd-style imagined/actual journey through the course and history of the underground River Porter in Sheffield; detritus recalled and mixed with recollections of Jarvis’ own coming of age while he is clearly reassessing his life as it stands (one clear signpost, where talking about a supposedly legendary suicide viaduct bridge, he intones firmly, “there’s no way you’d get me to jump off that bridge. No chance. Never in a million years.” So even here he is not completely devoid of hope). Then Jarvis goes into a “Night Of The Hunter”-style reverie (“Occasionally catchng a glimpse of the moon, thru’ manhole covers along the route”). Inevitably, at the end of the song time circles in on itself and he considers returning to the source — “I may find you there & float on wherever the river may take me . . . Wherever it wants us to go.” Gillian Welch’s “abandoned boats.” Time becomes an irrelevancy.

Musically the piece is phenomenal; starting off with an almost REM-like guitar motif, it then dramatically expands into slowburning orchestral Technicolor. Now you see why they needed Walker; one incidentally notes the industrial thump/hum which takes the track to an end is the same one which terminated “The Electrician” 23 years previously. A magisterial piece of work.

After that, the title track is a bit of a comedown. A rather ill-advised attempt to rawk out and starting with an uninspired Larkin dilute. The irony of the song is of course double-bolded and double-underlined, so that by the time he squawks the climactic “you’ve got to fight to the death for the right to live your life” (recorded of course before 11 September) in front of a “Kashmir”-type climax, it has kind of made the point more than it really needed to.

A relief, then, to get back to “The Birds in Your Garden,” which is more traditional Pulp and probably would have made a safer first single than the “Trees/Sunrise” double-header. A fine song with an extra beat combo push that ought to put it in alongside forgotten late ’60s pop operatives (the Casuals? Grapefruit? Barry Ryan?), and clearly a deliberate touch of Scott’s, it’s ostensibly a song about taking advantage of life while it’s there — “Take her now. Don’t be scared, it’s alright” — although of course this remains ambiguous, given what we know became of Timperley and knowing that Cocker is a keen shot with an air-rifle (“Cut her off quick,” said the crow — Lanark, Alasdair Gray) — although I think I might be over-exaggerating here and this is simply about a young kid nervous of sex/commitment. Then again, the final line — “Yeah, the birds in your garden, they taught me the words to this song” — well, make of that what you will.

Next comes “Bob Lind — the only way is down)” — the subtitle I think would have sufficed here — beginning with a subtle Hall & Oates lyrical reference. Again, I have to say that musically this is standard, unremarkable Pulp, but the lyrics cut deeply if, like me, you can apply them to the possibility that the partner has not left for a younger man but has left this world for good. The business of coping, the doomed attempts at reconciliation with a not very sympathetic world (“Can I give you all the love I have? — it’s not much but I’ll try & raise a loan”) because the author cannot admit that he is “a fuck-up, like the rest of us.” And the line about “You want someone to screw your brains out; I’d say they’re running out of time & they’d only go & cut themselves on the daggers of your mind. This is your future” — that’s so true. You want to get back to normality somehow, but because the whole business of bereavement floods your mind and you can’t talk about anything else, people will keep a distance from you in fear of impaling upon your problems with the jagged edges of their own.

“I just fell down, could you please help me up? ‘Cos if you help me maybe I could fall in love again.”

Yes.

(Brief diversion: one of the (inadvertently) saddest records I know is “Fastlove” by George Michael. The man who 14 years previously said fuck young marrieds, I want to live/be free, now faces the consequences of such a life, making saddo pick-up attempts in his BMW, soundtracked by an excerpt from “Forget Me Nots” — which was released and charted at the same time as “Wham Rap”)

Next is “Bad Cover Version.” This is not the quasi-Engelbert MoR extravaganza Reynolds claims in his Uncut review, but a replica of ballad form upon which Cocker projects his cynical update of “The Winner Takes It All.” For me, though, the song tries a bit too hard to impress with its faux-cynicism, such that it ends up as a Stuart-Maconie-does-Pulp lyric complete with rather naff comparison points (“a later Tom & Jerry” etc.).

Better is “Roadkill,” a quiet meditation on mortality and the road which could have come straight off that undemonstrative masterpiece of accepted loneliness, East River Pipe’s “The Gasoline Age.” Sad and accepting of his position in life and the realisation that what was is no longer. Dignified like Sinatra’s “Where Do You Go?” is dignified (as indeed would its distant cousin, Lionel Richie’s “Hello” had it not been for That Bloody Video).

The long dark night of the soul ends, as it only can, with “Sunrise.” Initially resentful of the sun rising as he was of the trees, as I sometimes am (why the hell should I have another day to suffer through? I could have gone last night! Better to crawl under the duvet and never come out again). But of course he knows better than this, instinctively, and rises to face the world again. “But you’ve been awake all night,” he concludes, “so why should you crash out at dawn?”

With which he exits the stage and leaves the band and choir to lead him out of the abyss. It powers towards three separate climaxes, as if to say for fuck’s sake don’t go! Stay around! Don’t leave hang on there’s joy and beauty yet people still to meet and to love and stay here don’t desert us don’t kill of what’s left of her in you you need to stay alive for her sake and yeah I’m projecting me onto Jarvis Cocker now but can you really blame me because I respond to what it says and what it says is HANG ON STICK AROUND and you realise he’s talking to you.

“Yet at midnight if here walking,
When the moon sheets wall and tree,
I see forms of old time talking,
Who smile on me.”

(Thomas Hardy, “The House of Hospitalities”)

Marcello Carlin

Careless Talk Costs Lives

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Careless Talk Costs Lives is a new music magazine that most emphatically believes pop writing is not dead. It’s run by Everett True, Steve Gullick, and Stevie Chick and contributors include several quite familiar names – Freaky Trigger’s outgoing editor Ned Raggett and ILM star Kate St Claire, for two. The link is to an ILM thread where the concept and prospects for the mag were discussed – so how do you buy it? Mr True says:

“You can buy the first issue by sending a cheque for £3.50 made payable to EMINENT Management and production. You probably won’t find us in your local store right now, because I’m deliberately going underground for the first few issues to build up a good solid support. And… THEN! We pounce.

Eminent’s address is: Studio 4 4th Floor The Old Truman Brewery 91-95 Brick Lane London E1 6QL

Mark the envelope ref: Careless Talk Costs Lives, and please write your name and mailing address on the back of the cheque. Subscriptions are £15 for six issues. If you’re abroad, add on a sensible amount of money to compensate. Any queries please talk to Colin on colin@carelesstalkcostslives.com”

It’s out on December 12th.