Panda Bear’s “Afterburner”, from last year’s Tomboy, is both immeasurably huge, and outrageously simple. Its efflorescence hinges on predictable but shifting melodic patterns, repeated on guitar and bass, and a clockwork rhythm that is seemingly unaware of the beautiful carnage unfurling above it. Effects wash over the song like tidal waves; the guitar is drenched in painfully beautiful reverb, and all manner of synthetic space-noises eddy and buckle throughout. At the song’s apotheosis, it achieves a chaotic state of bliss, and the listener must surely surrender. One thing that doesn’t give in, however, is that ever-present beat. Occasionally filled out by wooden blocks and pattering hi-hat, it is a rock that can’t be washed away by the powerful ocean around it.
I found a likeness in a song recorded almost forty years prior to “Afterburner”. Nestling in the middle of Bobby Womack’s landmark Understanding LP is a scuzzy pocket-epic called “Simple Man” which, honestly, would not have sounded out of place on a collection of Can B-sides. Atop a krautrocky rhythm rages a dense frenzy of electric piano, guttural machine noises, Womack’s crazed vocals, and his fluid guitar-playing. The beat is unwavering, and holds down all the dizzying madness overhead. It’s a scary cocktail, but appropriately, the song struts and gallops rather than swampily creeping along like a Can cut.
These two songs, so disparate in their origins and creations, can nonetheless be reconciled. They exhibit strong motion where there could so easily be a stodgy mess. The density in both tracks’ production is overwhelming, but not disconcerting—and you can thank their motorik beats for that.
Reading Nick Kent’s memoirs of his misspent 1970s as an ascendant music journalist (and hell-descending drug addict), I was struck by his simultaneous joy and horror at having helped give birth to punk. ‘Kenty’ is at great pains to point out that America didn’t ‘get’ punk, possibly because its only exponent of the genre was the too-weird Ramones.
Instead, America in the 1970s was gripped by a fever for funk and soul, kick-started by Sam Cooke in the 1960s and really set in motion by the 1969 release of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul (about which I waxed converted here). Kent is an inconsistent music aficionado: he extols the sophistication of Steely Dan but loathes the Eagles; he revels in the psychedelic wanderings of Hawkwind but finds the seminal post-punk act Public Image Ltd. rather dreary. The biggest revelation of the decade, for Kent, is the Sex Pistols’ breakthrough; on the other side of the pond, however, he raves about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
Kent, in spite of his odd preferences, is right to allude to soul’s importance. All through the 1990s, as punk’s descendants crept back into the alternative shadows, R&B morphed into something chartable and marketable without losing sight of its illustrious forebear. Hayes and Gaye played their part in setting up R&B’s dominance, and their magnum opuses should always be lauded.
But alongside Hayes and Gaye, there was a third man. Continue reading The third soul
Sounding like a cross between “Night Fever” and the Knight Rider theme tune, the lead single for the forthcoming Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, is a seriously catchy slice of music. “Stylo”, as it is titled, is also a star-studded affair, boasting some fairly unhinged wailing from a chap called Bobby Womack, and a rap at the end that appears to be telephoned in by Mos Def. And, despite my rather cynical tone, I rather like it.
Damon Albarn treads very gently over “Stylo”. Yes, the first verse is occupied by his wistful mumblings, but beyond that, it really sounds nothing like any of his previous work. It doesn’t even resemble a Gorillaz song. Entirely synthetic in its instrumentation, “Stylo” is a one-idea song that’s probably as addictive as crystal meth, and, let’s hope, not too representative of the album as a whole. Much as I’m enjoying it, I refuse to believe Albarn would seriously contemplate making a whole album of similar material – more likely, “Stylo” is a palate cleanser before Plastic Beach makes its entrance, replete with substantially more weirdness.
I say all this, and then I hear Bobby Womack literally crawling through my speakers with his deranged intrusions, and I think this song is utterly brilliant and terrifying at the same time.