Tag Archives: society

You belong: yes, you belong!

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I can’t really believe I haven’t blogged about Hercules And Love Affair yet, particularly since I practically discovered them. Well, almost.

Way back in early September 2007, I decided, on a whim, to pay a visit to the DFA’s Myspace. Not being overly fond of Mr. Murdoch’s social networking empire, I did so warily, mainly in an attempt to see if my favourite label at the time had signed anyone interesting. Pretty much the first thing I heard upon navigating my way there was the sparse and beautiful “Roar”, by Hercules And Love Affair. I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but I knew profoundly from that moment that they were going to be big. There was something ethereal and elusive about the music: the way Antony Hegarty’s breathy moans were encircled by gurgling bass and whirring synths; the locked-in beat that was clearly emanating from a TR-909. It was instantly racy, sensual and, well, pretty gay.

In an interview with Pitchfork, the creative force of the whole escapade, Andy Butler, spoke of visiting a clothes store called Smylon Nylon, where the shopkeeper took great care in choosing the music played in the store. Upon meeting Butler, and noting his conscientious love of the music, he said, “Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!” It is this feeling of cultural history, and the undiscovered, supposedly tainted, history of gay culture in New York, which imbues virtually all of Hercules & Love Affair’s music. Their eponymous debut, released early last year, not only draws upon several decades of dance music history, but also succeeds in alluding to the societal concerns of Butler, and the scene he tries to represent. In the same interview, Butler recalled that “When making this record Antony always told me that I should draw from my experience and draw from who I am for the lyrics. He said that it’s important to be sincere”, and the thematic concerns in tracks like “Blind” and “Athene” certainly intrigue the listener on a greater level than just the precision and joy of the music. It is a truly important album, in that it brings an oft-forgotten tranche of music and history into a mainstream audience, and with an irresistable sensuality and sense of emotion.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to catch the band on their all-too-short tour last year (though, judging by their locations, it might not necessarily have been an comfortable experience for an impartial and thematically uninvolved fan). Luckily, they’ve recorded a fantastic session for Pitchfork.tv, which shows just how wonderfully the elastic grooves of the album have been translated into a live setting. With an eight-piece band in front of him (but sadly no appearances from Antony), Andy Butler’s music has taken on a renewed sense of euphoria and nostalgia, albeit at the expense of some of the haunting sorrow and emotional heartbreak that fills a good portion of the album. I can only hope this troupe of performers continues to make such brilliant music.

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Tonight: five piece soul band!

Something that came up during my interview with Vivian Girls last night – yes, I will say more about it; no, I’m not just trying to hype it up mercilessly – was a discussion about what breeds a certain explosion in music creation. I contrasted the societal foibles that seem to inform British songwriters, with the predominantly positive artistic environment that catalyses American music-making. Primarily, I was comparing the canon of social commentators in British music (The Kinks, Blur, The Jam &c.), with the explosion of alternative and experimental music streaming out of Brooklyn (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls themselves).

This morning, while listening to Prinzhorn Dance School’s eponymous debut (released in 2007), it became clear to me that this tradition of commenting on the oddities of British society is still very much alive today. I like to think of Prinzhorn Dance School as being a recent band that time has already forgotten, for no good reason. The truth is, I regard them very highly, both musically and lyrically. There are clear links between their sparse, minimalist instrumentation and that of Shellac, and they also share that band’s taste in dark, violent humour. Their debut album was perhaps a tad long, but it boasted remarkably intricate song structures, and some of the best post-Albini production, courtesy of James Murphy, giving the whole work a wonderfully resonant, spacious sound. In Pitchfork’s review of the album, the critic wrote,

Only 70% or so of Prinzhorn Dance School’s debut album is made up of music. The rest is…well, it’s hard to say. What do you call the space in a song that lingers between the guitar parts, vocals, and beats?

And I really can’t put it much better myself. This lingering space fills the album with a sense of dread and anxiety, without resorting to melodramatic musical gimmicks. In the absence of trickery, the natural harmonics of guitar strings are allowed to float around unhindered. The almost militarily precise drums emit a kind of padded reverb. The bass sinks faster than the Titanic. The whole affair is rather industrial, like being inside a tightly packed machine that never slackens – a sensation depicted more visually in the video to “Crackerjack Docker”, above.

Combined with the sardonic and painfully unsettling lyrics, it makes for an uneasy listen. It’s not an example of my famous ‘scary music’, but it’s certainly pretty dark. In the song “Do You Know Your Butcher”, for example, the band reflect upon the unintentional scene of murder one might imagine –

If you go in for the counter,
There’s blood on the hands,
Fur on the floor
Meat.

An awful lot of it is about implied violence and enigma in the most innocuous of settings. It’s a bit like being in a Coen Brothers film. In “Don’t Talk To Strangers”, the pair deliver what seems like a public information film gone horribly wrong –

Don’t talk to strangers,
Just get into the car.
Don’t talk to strangers,
Or they’ll find out who you are.
Don’t talk to strangers,
I’ve got pills in a jar.

Just like their precursors, Prinzhorn Dance School are writing about the deep-rooted sense of dread in suburbia; the terror of doing nothing; the feeling of irrelevancy as we sit in cars, in traffic, our minds elsewhere. All this makes them one of more curious signings to James Murphy’s DFA label: I really hope the mixed reaction to their debut was a product of critical uncertainty about their pretensions, as opposed to a genuine dislike of their strange sense of humour. I could say, “but at least Pitchfork liked it,” but that would be missing the point. Pitchfork liked it because they can see beyond what could pass for being extremely pretentious. Pretentious is not what Prinzhorn Dance School are about. Yes, the music is certainly uncompromising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed – albeit with a wry smile on one’s face.