Posts from 1st December 1999

Dec 99

MOVEMENT – Layo and Bushwacka ‘Low Life’

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Revelations, even small ones, hit you unexpectedly. Mine comes about halfway through ‘Spooked’, the third track on Layo & Bushwacka’s Low Life, when, having explored some rather tasty crunchy electronic sounds, punishing bass and snappy breaks, the track suddenly pivots on a completely unexpected funk groove and is sent careening back in the direction from whence it came. Intelligent? Probably. Does it make me want to dance? Definitely.

In the world of dance music, the successful artist-based album is something of a holy grail, especially for those dance acts who make music you can, you know, dance to. Generally stabs at the form result in little more than compilation releases, or conversely towering follies of overreaching ambition. The successful attempts (Dig Your Own Hole, Remedy etc.) have generally been great party albums, but while the dance world has always talked about making ‘meaningful’ dance albums, the results have usually been dire. Leftfield came close to something that worked with Leftism, and were so afraid to try to repeat even that partial success that after a four year silence they went electro instead. So it is wonderfully refreshing to find Low Life, Layo & Bushwacka’s first full-length album, to be an artistic statement curiously light on pretension.

Layo & Bushwacka are part of emerging group of artists including BT and Hybrid who, in the wake of jungle’s current demise, are attempting to combine the rhythmic futurism of drum & bass with the sophisticated textures and melodies of techno, house and trance. Unlike their more trance-based peers though, the duo were originally purveyors of tek-house, an exquisitely produced but often generic sounding substyle drawing from both techno’s mechanistic preoccupations and house’s sensual pleasures. It’s a genre that yields excellent producers, but few significant artists.

As a result, the group’s use of breakbeats differs greatly from the almost rococo patterns of hyperventilating beats preferred by their peers: instead they keep their breaks simple, precise and brittle. They’re far more interested in constructing a groove, in reinforcing the all-important relationship between the bass and the beats (which are pleasingly inorganic and grainy, distinct from current jungle’s flat authenticity) and then discovering what works well on top. To use a jungle analogy, while artists like BT and Hybrid resemble Goldie and Omni Trio in their romantic ambition and grand, complex arrangements, Layo & Bushwacka remind me of Roni Size’s early best work. The focus is always on the effect of the breaks and the bass; the added melodic and textural detail merely reflects the emotional resonance of that minimalist grounding.

What Layo and B realise is that dance music’s power to emote has little to do with either conventional ‘musicality’ or the intelligence of the arrangements. So ‘Dead Man Walking’, for me the emotional center point of the album, consists of little more than sharp but simple breaks, floaty keyboards and the most boomy, reverberant bass heard since LFO or the early days of jungle. What makes me teary-eyed is the strange melancholy the duo produce through the warp and weave of these contrasting elements. The serene and sunny keyboards rub up against the aggressive beats to create a creeping sense of unease and mournfulness miles away from the bombast of current trance and jungle. Similarly, ‘Low Life’, the album’s only vocal track, begins with a startlingly sparkly disco-funk opening, but then quickly plunges into a twilight zone of wobbly bass and creepy atmospherics. The duo relegate Robert Owen’s mumbled vocals into the background and concentrate on the groove, ruining chances for any crossover pop success.

Could you accuse Layo & Bushwacka of being ‘too subtle’? ‘Tasteful’, even? Of course, and you’d be absolutely correct. The release these songs offer is guarded – no sweet refrains, no sudden bursting synthesiser lines that sound like the heavens opening up. The songs pivot on morphing bass lines rather than catchy samples. It’s easy to resent the album for being at once too commercial for genuine experimentation, and yet too clever to offer any visceral thrills. But the truth is that the ‘science’ in Layo & Bushwacka’s approach is about zeroing in on what makes all their influences great dance music, and then exploiting it. On the dance floor this stuff sounds even more relevatory than it does using headphones. And then the duo will throw in an odd ball, like the Freq. Nasty-meets-Basement Jaxx of ‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, or some explosive (and surprisingly catchy) techstep drum & bass in the form of ‘Perfect Storm’, and ‘tasteful’ no longer seems to apply.

Much like Basement Jaxx’s Remedy, Low Life fires most of its hard-hitters early (the speaker shredding funk-noir of ‘Spooked’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, complete with Bushwacka’s even more intense remix), and then starts playing around with different styles, dividing rather neatly between all-out breakbeat assault (‘Bad Old Good Old Days’, ‘Perfect Storm’, which is better techstep than most in the jungle community have been able to make since ’97, and the polyrhythmic closer ‘Ear Candy’) and softer, more soothing textures. They don’t always pull it off; ‘Kusekhaya’ is a pleasant but pointless stab at world music, and while I really enjoy ‘Brass’ with its dubby bass line and kitsch Rhodes keyboard licks, I disapprove of it on the grounds of its dangerous proximity to acid jazz.

‘Deep South’, though, is nine-minutes of slow-building deep house bliss. Layo & B manage to replicate house’s endless hypnotic pulse using breakbeats, ending up with something not too far from 2-step garage. But whereas 2-step is sparse and skeletal, ‘Deep South’ is a bath of sound, complete with bottomless bass, luscious keyboards, timestretched insectile percussion and a sexy trumpet solo. The duo cleverly combine this with some fantastic gospel samples (much more successfully than I found Moby’s heavy-handed approach to be), evoking sweltering summers in bayous overflowing with fecundity. It’s the kind of thing Larry Heard would be making if he hadn’t faded into insignificance.

Low Life probably wouldn’t be the best dance album of the year even if Basement Jaxx hadn’t made Remedy. It’s too diffuse and indistinctive artistically, and Layo & Bushwacka have some way to go before they escape the ‘Leftfield who occasionally go jungle’ tag. But to me, even more so than Remedy, it is a sign that dance music, like rock music, is all the more healthy for its lack of direction. That Low Life, which should be overworked and over the top, reveals itself to be beautiful, fun, and above all the most eminently listenable album of 99, is a minor revelation.

Tim Finney

15. TREMBLING BLUE STARS – “Abba On The Jukebox”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

The saddest songs are often the simplest songs. “Abba On The Jukebox” is seven minutes long and feels like a miniature, a Zen sketch of heartbreak. A short, high-toned guitar phrase over tick-tock drum-machine beats, sighs as backing vocals and a list of memories: that’s all you get. “Land’s End at dusk, a day of churches, her getting her hair cut…” What Rob Wratten discovered with the Field Mice is that if you say something plainly enough, your words work harder and you can give the most ordinary phrases the emotional weight of novels. As pop listeners we’ve got used to the idea that the best way to express a feeling is to be artful or poetic or clever, so songs as naked as “Let’s Kiss And Make Up” or “Anyone Else Isn’t You” could slip under your defenses and take you over. What he discovered with “Abba On The Jukebox” is that you didn’t even have to go that far – what makes this song so poignant is that the loss between the lines, the knowledge that these things he’s desribing can’t ever return or be remade, goes unmentioned.

Speaking literally, “Abba On The Jukebox” needn’t be a sad song at all, but you’d have to be stony-hearted and obtuse to mistake this limpid, keening music for any sort of celebration. At best it’s a coming-to-terms: the song’s litany of places, snapshot moments and tiny private actions is a way to map out a love by looking at its edges, to understand the shape of something too bright and raw for direct inspection. Halfway through the memories run out and we’re left, like the singer, with a future devoid of event. It lasts three minutes or so, it might as well last forever: it is not, precisely, unpleasant, which of course makes it all the more terrible.

SIGHS MATTER: The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

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A triple album box set, three hours long, containing 69 songs, covering almost as many genres – well, it has to be crap, hasn’t it? Surely it must betray signs of Prince-like lack of quality control? Amazingly, it doesn’t. The Magnetic Fields – masterminded by Stephin Merritt, the artist formerly known as Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths and the Gothic Archies – have produced the best album of 1999.

69 Love Songs does exactly what it says on the box. There are 69 songs, and they’re all songs about love. But they’re also about the love of songs. More specifically, American songs. There are references to Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Billie Holiday and those who toiled in the Brill Building.

Merritt had originally intended to release an album of 100 songs, but then settled for a more realistic 69, both for its sexual connotations, and its "typographical possibilities". He mocks himself in (Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy: "I took a pen in my own hand and wrote you a hundred tunes. Now, I’m crazy for you, but not that crazy."

If you have never heard the Magnetic Fields, you may be wondering what this album sounds like. Merritt’s morose bass voice is a bit Leonard Cohen, a bit Tom Waits. Doing Erasure. And country. And improvised jazz. And 18th Century Scots reels. And world music. And disco. And Broadway show tunes. And ABBA…

Merritt doesn’t just mess around with genres, but with genders, too. On When My Boy Walks Down The Street, he sings: "Amazing, he’s a whole new form of life, blue eyes blazing, and he’s going to be my wife." On the country ballad, Papa Was A Rodeo, Merritt sings to someone called Mike. At the end of the song, we discover Mike’s a woman: "Papa was a rodeo, mama was a rock’n’roll band, I could play guitar and rope a steer before I learned to stand. Home was anywhere with diesel gas, love was a trucker’s hand, never stuck around long enough for a one-night stand."

Stephin Merritt is gay. By all accounts, he’s a bit of a loner, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is a bit of an obnoxious twerp, a shy, intelligent, social misfit. I can relate, y’know?

He sings about love in all its many-splendoured forms: about being unloved, about looking for love, the first flush of love, falling head over heels in love, true love, and – at length – about the end of love: "Meaningless? You mean it’s all been meaningless? Every whisper and caress? Yes yes yes, it was totally meaningless." Or, hilariously, in a duet that sounds like the couple in I’ve Got You Babe thirty years on: "Do I drive you up a wall? Do you dread every phone call? Can you not stand me at all?" "Yeah! Oh, yeah!"

He is not the first songwriter to wonder who wrote the book of love, but his book is a more realistic one: "The book of love is long and boring, no-one can lift the damn thing. It’s full of charts and facts and figures, and instructions for dancing."

There are loads of instantly catchy ditties, but repeated listens continue to pay off. You’ll be walking down the street and suddenly realise that for the last three minutes you’ve been singing to yourself a song about shooting an early 20th Century Swiss linguist to defend the honour of Motown’s finest songwriters.

And then there are the little oddities, rubbish really, but too constructed to be mere filler. The thrash trash of Punk Love, or Experimental Music Love which consists solely of the title repeated, echoed, phased and bounced, and then there’s this one: "Wi’ nae wee bairn ye’ll me beget, untwinkle little ee. My ainly pang’ll be regret, a maiden I will dee." Hmmm, yes…

Merritt’s songs may be calculated, but they so badly want to be loved, even if they pretend they don’t. They confess all without telling you anything they don’t want to. They are hugely admirable, bloody clever, but hard to actually like, to choose as something to spend your lunch hour with. Too clever for their own good. And all the better for it.

I’ve always loved those recommendations in some magazines and record shops. "If you liked Mariah Carey’s album, you’ll like this one by Whitney Houston". "If you liked REM’s Automatic For The People, you’ll like Semisonic". What would they say for this album? "If you like 69 Love Songs, you’ll like" – what? "Nothing else"? "Everything else"? "A few very carefully chosen records which no-one else likes, and anyway, you’re a total cult"?

There is so much to say about this album. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there are four other vocalists apart from Merritt (Claudia Gonson, Shirley Simms, Dudley Klute and LD Beghtol). I haven’t raved about the fabulous camp disco of Long Forgotten Fairytale. Or how No One Will Ever Love You is meant to sound like every track on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk album all rolled into one. And succeeds. Or that it’s available either as three separate discs or in a box containing a 72-page booklet. Or how Merritt’s next project leans towards European cabaret and features Marc Almond, Neil Hannon and Momus among others.

69 Love Songs is Merritt’s most successful release yet. The entire first pressing sold out on the day of release. Laura Lee Davis recently made it her featured album on her GLR radio show. She played three tracks from it, and I thought to myself, "not those three tracks, they’re hardly representative." But no three tracks could possibly convey the breadth of this project. This is an album which needs to be listened to in its entirety. And loved. But are you ready for that kind of commitment?