15
Feb 19

Album-A-Day #5: Tarkus In Black Vinyl, Please

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This is a document of my album-a-day listening project. Each entry originally comes out as a tinyletter and subscribers to that get framing content and non-music miscellanea as well as the LP reviews. When a new letter goes out, the previous letter goes up here.

Here’s what I listened to for this edition:

#28: Deena Abdelwahed – Khonnar (2018)
#29: Trevor Horn – Trevor Horn Reimagines The Eighties (2019)
#30: Drebae – Babyboy (2018)
#31: Shmu – Lead Me To The Glow (2018)
#32: Nadia Struiwigh – WHRRu (2018)
#33: Busted – Half Way There (2019)
#34: Half Man Half Biscuit – No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin Hedge Cut (2018)

Let’s move through these from the abstract to the definite. One thing these listening projects have taught me is how many excellent female electronic producers there are working now. When I first listened to and read about dance music they were rare, or presented to us as rare. A novelty-hungry algorithm is better at bringing them to light than curators are – same goes for rappers, I suspect.

Holland’s Nadia Struiwigh, for instance, lurks just above Spotify’s 1k-listeners line. Via a chain of robot recommendation, I found her 2017 debut Lenticular, and was excited to discover a new record from her last year. WHRRu – (where are u? who are u? or just a string of characters) – lurked on my downloads page until I was ready for its heavy, enveloping textures. What I liked about Lenticular was how it reminded me of the expansiveness of 90s ambient music: big, echoing sounds for lonely places. There’s more of that in WHRRu – sometimes gloopily warm (Boards of Canada are an acknowledged inspiration, as on “Soundshag”), but sometimes cavernous. “Ppda”’s lonesome rave sounds like being alone in some sublime warehouse, feeling noises bounce off the walls with no bodies to absorb them.

Deena Abdelwahed, from Tunisia, put out a techno record last year, Khonnar, which is just as heavy but far less open. Her music has a sense of claustrophobic struggle, its rhythms close to industrial in places, even while its vocals often draw on the liquidity of Arab song. (Not always though – “Ababab” finds communication reduced to a broken babble of consonants). The record is an angry one, for a dark time of migration and unasked-for change – specific meanings I have to draw out from interviews (the fact one song is about “love as refuge, intercultural relationshops”, for instance) but the overall tone is hard to mistake. Try “Fdhiha”’s dry cyberpunk rattle for a good way in.

To balmier climes! I don’t know why Spotify recommended me Shmu – I do know why I downloaded his LP; the dayglo cover appealed. If I’d read the blurb, with its witterings about cassettes melting in the sun, I might not have bothered. That description isn’t wrong about what’s happening here – a bubbling, stakes-free mush of nostalgic diffidence. Smeared vocals, detuned guitars, synths with an oily rainbow film. Queasy if you listen too long. But not actually bad – it’s pretty and loose, amiable prog-pop: it might be a child’s memory of listening to Elephant 6 records.

Drebae’s short debut Babyboy LP is a collection of brief, dextrous raps, out at the very end of last year, devoted to smacking down assorted haters. Drebae is queer, which both is and isn’t obvious in the raps – ever since Dre and Tupac looked like they robbed Liberace, the luxe end of the hip-hop lifestyle has been open to the reading he thoroughly enjoys giving it on standout cut “Elegant”. The cutting, confident tone’s sustained across the whole record – the musical quality is a bit more variable, driving, hooky production on the best tracks giving way to trap-by-the-yard on others.

The last three records this week are by veterans – or in the case of Busted, relative newcomers making a tactical claim to veteran status. Two LPs into their reuinited career, Half Way There tries to sound like they always did, but grown-ier, striking the old balance of the goofy and the emotional and the self-aware, except now self-aware means songs called “Nineties” (not very good) and “Nostalgia” (good) and “It Happens” which is “The Ballad Of Matt And James And Charlie”, awkward and a bit stirring. Not enough jokes, for my taste – though the best joke, that there’s a song called “Reunion” and it’s not about Busted, it’s about pulling at a school reunion, is also the best tune.

The weakness of Busted for an old poptimist like me was always the bits where fucking Charlie would do one of his fucking emo tracks and strand the album in a mire of repugnant feeling. Of course for the fans – and for the band, not unreasonably! – these were not at all a weakness, so they return unashamed. I still don’t like them. But the problem with that poptimist line of attack is that it boiled down to “please don’t make the music you actually love; you aren’t very good at it”. Which is a bit of an arsehole thing to think, true or not.

Busted’s reunion is if anything too dignified. This is not a charge you can level at Trevor Horn’s Trevor Horn Reimagines The Eighties, in which Superproducer Trevor Horn decides his monumental productions – and others – from the 1980s were, in fact, too minimal and sets out to right this with the help of an orchestra and a grab-bag of BRIT Awards regulars and X-Factor alumni. There’s a burgeoning market for symphonic renderings of old hits – it’s what’s keeping the Elvis industry going – but even so this is a rum project.

Horn’s version of the 1980s peaks and ends in 1984-5, the season where he owned pop: 8 of 12 tracks come from those years, nothing later. Most of it – no, all of it – is misguided, but sometimes it’s misguided in diverting ways. Much sounds like frustrated pitches for songbook musicals that will never be made. Some is as bad as it sounds – Simple Minds doing “Brothers In Arms” as “Belfast Child II”. Some isn’t – Matt Cardle’s noble attempt to weather an orchestral battering on “The Power Of Love” (the most supremely unnecessary remake). Some is just mediocre and a little sad – what convinced the man he had something to add to “Ashes To Ashes”? And so on. It ends with a megalomaniac take on “Blue Monday”, the project at its most berserk and foolish.

And so to the most bloody-minded, cross, enjoyable album I heard this week: the fourteenth by Half Man Half Biscuit. Truculent and reliable. The theme is as it has always been – the comical cruddiness of modern life, its pretensions, its hypocrisies, its pop-cultural compost heap. I read someone suggesting – or perhaps just stating – that this is folk music. That has plenty going for it as an angle: the band’s muscular reduction of transit van indie, their everyday broadsides, as a vulgar response to our crummy island. It’s sometimes sad, which you imagine folk music ought to be. Often angry. And very funny – as on “Knobheads On Quiz Shows” and many others – which folk music definitely should be.

Of course the band make more sense to me now I’m in my forties, even if their hoard of references is still anchored a few years before my time, a waterlogged memory barge crammed with ITV starlets and 70s sportsmen. The irascible character of HMHB finds echo in strains of angry Englishmen I’ve far less sympathy with, though – the Amis-Clarkson vector. What makes Nigel Blackwell different? He’s not posh, which helps; not a snob; his characters often snarl as a finger-up response to life closing in. His targets are genuine fools, not the young and the misunderstood, and he responds with impatience, not malice.

But I also relate because of all those references – the sense of a sharp mind full to bursting with junk, pointless memories, people and things belched out at some point into our lives by some idiot broadcaster, filling our heads like microplastic beads in a fish gullet. The people who made the money off this cultural chaff are dead or old or rich, the rest of us wade on into middle age, each carrying around a katamari of the stuff. Half Man Half Biscuit boil it up into soup, recycle it into art, or at least a quick laugh. Sometimes they even remind us of caring about it in the first place. They inhabit their times even though their times are junk: maybe that makes them folk music after all.

Comments

  1. 1
    dworkman on 16 Feb 2019 #

    Me and a couple of friends booked to see Trevor Horn at the Royal Festival Hall last Autumn, as he promised to be performing – we had no idea about the new album. It was the most bizarre evening – Two Tribes was the first song of the night! He did two Dire Straits covers, one of which was the encore! We still talk about that evening now…

  2. 2
    Tommy Mack on 19 Feb 2019 #

    Busted are one of those bands like KISS that sound amazing in my head and always disappoint in real life. Not as much as KISS obviously but somehow it never comes across as being as funny*, catchy or punky as it ought to be. Obviously, I am a million-year-old curmudgeon now and was hardly Busted’s target audience first time round.

    *Except the cheeky look on Matt’s face when the schoolma’am’s thrashing him with the riding crop in the video for What I Go To School For. I pissed myself laughing at that.

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