Monthly Archives: December 2011

From one of those albums released too early in 2011 and therefore destined to be overlooked by end-of-year discourse (myself included, guilty as charged).
“Rabbit Will Run” is the melancholy centrepiece of Kiss Each Other Clean: a multi-part contemplation on inevitability which shuffles through several styles but never outstays its welcome.
It’s the kind of thing NPR listeners fawn over—no bad thing.

Omar S’s brand of Detroit techno isn’t as hubristic as his public image but it can be as threatening. A worker at the city’s Ford factory, he makes music as efficiently as a modern assembly-line, but it’s also imbued with soul. On “Day“, about which I have written before, he even samples the Supremes.

This song, the title track of his most recent long-player, is characteristic of his output: the rhythm is clackety but metronomic; there are murmurings of synth that wend their way through the track; at the apotheosis, resonant pings bounce around the two channels. Like everything else he makes, it’s masterful.

When I saw Prinzhorn Dance School (officially designated the band least likely to be signed to a major record label) at a 10th anniversary party for DFA Records (whoosh, thump, namedrop) I was surprised by how much more, in the flesh, they reminded me of Gang of Four. There is of course a shared caustic sense of humour to both bands’ work, but seen on stage the music itself melds with my memories of the original post-punk poster-boys.

On their forthcoming second album, Clay Class, I think there’s to be a subtle shift from the brittleness of their debut, towards a more flowing style that’s occasionally interrupted by the shouty bits of old. If you will, it sounds a bit more informed by Gang of Four. No bad thing, if you found their old stuff a bit too primal.

The second song to be teased out from Clay Class is “Happy in Bits“, which lopes along quite a melodic little riff. The bass-line is as primitive as ever, which is how I like it, but it’s lower in the mix; lower than Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn’s angry/coital vocals, at least.

You know how Girl Talk mashes songs into one another? Well I’ve got a great one going on in my head right now: imagine The Weeknd’s “The Morning” leading directly into one of the solos in Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. I’m floating in the stratosphere already.

I guess my being rooted to this side of the Atlantic meant that Junior Boys never “happened” for me. The English equivalent of their sleek, refined electro-soul was Hot Chip, and then Hot Chip went ADHD, and then they matured into something (whisper it) superior to the Canadian twosome.

But “Parallel Lines”, which is the opener to their 2009 album Begone Dull Care, is just too porcelain-perfect to ignore.

Tago Mago at 40

I won’t forget the first time I heard Can’s seminal krautrock record, Tago Mago. Although history isn’t on my side—I wasn’t in a dingy basement in Berlin, or a warehouse party in New York, or a grotty den in Camden—the setting was so fitting it bears recollection. In the winter of 2008 I travelled across Rajasthan; my soundtrack was a combination of familiar favourites and things I was too young (or not-alive) to have appreciated when they first came out. Jouncing around in the back of an SUV as we journeyed through the desert-and-fortress vista, the album that did the most justice to the surroundings was Tago Mago, whose 40th anniversary is now being celebrated with a commemorative re-release.

Tago Mago is an album of split personalities. The first such division that strikes you is the alternately blissed-out and then frenetic freeform scat of the band’s vocalist Damo Suzuki. He sings and screams in the loosest approximation of English, and sounds perpetually terrified of mankind’s impending doom. The next thing you notice is how keenly the album is halved. The first half is lithely propelled along by Jaki Liebezeit’s instantly recognisable drumming, with subtly tricky polyrhythms coalescing into fragments of funk. Alongside Liebezeit’s continual presence is a palette of strangled electric guitar and limber bass-lines, which continue to crop up through decades of punk, post-punk and disco.

The second half is a freer affair which owes more to improvised jazz and the contemporary experiments in musique concrète. After the relentless eighteen-minutes-plus of “Halleluhwah”, this spacious second half takes you to the other side of the universe, or to another part of your consciousness. Menacing drones and industrial noise collide with Suzuki’s deranged wailing; now and again in drift primitive electronic rhythms. It’s the birth of ambient music, and it makes you realise how derivative all that followed inevitably was.

Of course, I came to love the album having already been a recipient of krautrock’s largesse, in that it had influenced plenty of albums I already knew. Far from diluting the experience, the benefit of hindsight made me appreciate more profoundly the sheer volume of different movements, aesthetics and genres that splintered out from this very special album. And I’m sure that when we consider the music that may emerge in the next forty years, a fair share of it will still be traceable to these seven sprawling, entangled pieces of music.

From Eden to wilderness

There are two distinct musical strands to Wild Beasts’ more exploratory recent work, which are combined to dizzying effect: the first is characterised by jaw-dropping, bottomless bass tones (see the backbone of “Lion’s Share”, the serrated “Plaything”, and the foreboding back-end of “Burning”); the second is an emphasis on the ambient and the pastoral (the delicate plucking of “Loop The Loop” and “Deeper”, the bewildering middle section of “End Come Too Soon”). In the past, I’ve mentioned the relationship between this aesthetic and certain trends in electronic music; now, I want to project backwards twenty years or so, to examine the influence had upon the latter aesthetic by Talk Talk.

Like Wild Beasts, Talk Talk picked up more critical acclaim the further they retreated from more boisterous and unsubtle compositions. “It’s My Life” (1984) may have been a hit and spawned a standout final single for No Doubt, but it was once they started burning incense and candles while improvising with orchestras that they produced their best work. 1988’s Spirit of Eden is a fascinating and obtuse entry point to their métier, so let’s start there. Six leisurely paced, disarmingly complex songs which stretch to forty minutes, the album can seem frustrating at first. There might be a few bars you can whistle to, but these moments are fragmentary, and blow away in the slightest breeze before they can be repeated.

The arresting opener, “The Rainbow”, has about three false starts before it gets going for certain. First, we hear a lazily atmospheric passage—a few jazzy notes on a clarinet, some overtone-rich chords struck from an abrasive-sounding electric guitar, both set to an indistinct wash of strings. Then, nothingness. Some moments later, as if telegraphed in from the beginning of the universe, a few groanings and murmurings of primordial soup. And finally, over two minutes in, a wonderfully resonant guitar enters with what you might call the opening credits. The four minutes which follow are similarly abnormal: strange chords begin on piano and are then resolved on organ; Mark Hollis indulges in his trademark disturbed-narcoleptic vocals; occasionally, the clouds break to reveal fragments of the titular rainbow.

As strange an opener as “The Rainbow” is , if anything the songs which follow are even stranger. Few will forget the haunting chorus of “Eden”, in which Hollis unleashes a nauseous wail, which clashes gloriously with the maxed-out Hammond organ. Nor can one fail to notice the tropical percussion breakdown near the end of “Desire”, with its knowing incongruity. At every turn, Spirit of Eden surrounds you with warmth and weirdness: some songs peter out into drifting silence and then cut back in with a radically avantgarde coda or middle-eight; others dare you to question unusual textures and chord progressions. Halfway through “I Believe In You” there is a gloomy passage of filtered organ and jazzy drumming which, thinking laterally, has found its way into everything from Sigur Rós and Tortoise to Doves and Four Tet. It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to those early Can records: here is fundamentally original music which has gone on to inform and predict countless and disparate genres and trends.

At its most nuanced, Spirit of Eden also sets an extremely high bar for orchestral arrangements in post rock. Unique atonal collisions of horns are nowadays the speciality of Radiohead (see “Codex“, “How To Disappear Completely“), but they bear the indelible stamp of authority from a composition like “I Believe In You”. Looking to younger forces, These New Puritans’ grimly beautiful Hidden also bears a great debt to Spirit of Eden—consider the fragile, gently resolving woodwind at the end of “Fire-Power“, and the insistent funeral march of “5“.

And, finally, Talk Talk’s rich pageant is also present on Wild Beasts’ Smother: you can feel it most perceptibly in the leisurely paced “Loop The Loop”, but it also creeps in elsewhere too.It’s a great challenge to weave in microfragments of other people’s defining characteristics, but Wild Beasts pull it off time and time again. Like the luxuriantly stretched-out gurgling sample that runs beneath “Reach A Bit Further”, they take a little morsel of Talk Talk’s heritage and tuck it into the quantum folds of their finest work. There is no other way even a band as daring and non-canon as Wild Beasts would have the balls to do what they do in the centre of “End Come Too Soon”. When all semblance of songiness cuts out, to be replaced by an abstract sonic edifice of yearning and regret which builds to a pulverising akmē, the spirit of Eden is well and truly alive.

For your consideration: this year’s alternative, accidentally-festive Christmas banger.
(Following 2008’s “Ready For The Floor“, which was guaranteed to make the post-turkey washing-up go faster, and 2010’s “Hannibal“.)

I think this might be the most beautiful remix in the history of sound.

With thanks to Tamara Berber, who told me to listen out for the harmonic pings at around the 3:50 mark.