Two recent electronic albums adopt differing attitudes to the past. One is met with a touch of indifference; the other, a mixture of adulation and castigation. Continue reading Colour: the sixth sense
Another season, another chance to dust off the well-thumbed treatise on the future of DFA. Sinkane’s late-summer grooves recall the humid soul of Marvin Gaye but without the social commentary. Meanwhile The Juan MacLean, now the trading name of John MacLean and Nancy Whang, go stratospheric on In A Dream. Continue reading Luxury problems
There is a lost art form and it is the special disco version. Beloved of James Murphy, and neophytes like my friends and I, these are endlessly strung-out 12″ edits suitable for dancing to in people’s living rooms. Embarrassment doesn’t enter into the equation.
Over breakfast, reading Giles Coren and Matthew Parris in The Times, I was forced to conclude that schooling kills creativity, and economists’ predictions are not so much dismal science as abysmal science. I suppose I am doubly screwed, then. Continue reading Unfriends like these
“He said, everything is messed up round here,
Everything is banal and jejune;
There’s a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me,
In this idiot constituency of the moon.”
—Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “We Call Upon The Author”, 2008.
We are in an age where adults behave like children. This great unraveling is evinced by the music bludgeoned into the ears of thirtysomethings. Banal, mawkish, sub-literate pop that does a disservice to the genre’s great tradition. The gloss and sheen and sensuality of the 1980s and 1990s, when Prince, Sade and Whitney roamed (let alone Destiny’s Child and TLC), have been cast out of the temple, and false idols are worshipped. We must be at the nadir, with no brainy, chart-friendly pop to call upon. One Direction and their rudderless ilk seem to signal the eschaton. Continue reading Music for grown-ups
It’s bottomless, the end of the world. You’re falling, you’re being swallowed up, you’re disintegrating, the universe expands, everything recedes to a singularity. That’s certainly the vision of Lars von Trier in Melancholia, and of Yannis Philippakis in “Moon”.
That’s not what James Blake‘s “Retrograde” is about—though the music video stylishly depicts an asteroid devastating a creepy country house—but that’s certainly what the song sounds like. Those keening, careening synths in the chorus, grating against each other like enraged celestial bodies. The forlorn piano-work, filtered through a decaying, ruined air. And the bass, monotonic, rumbling and tumbling around the lowest end of the audible spectrum when it occasionally chooses to intrude upon the song.
“Ignore everybody else—we’re alone now,” Blake urges his lover, but he’s chased by his own ghostly echo. Then, in the chorus, he has a revelation: “Suddenly I’m hit / Is this darkness or the dawn?” But all around him everything is exploding; the musical fireworks speak of an inner turmoil.
On Blake’s debut LP, there were undoubted weak spots, principally when he settled back on his piano stool, diverted his voice away from the laptop, and came off sounding too meek, too plaintive. “Retrograde” promises a lot: the piano’s there, but it’s smouldering; the vocals are unmeddled-with, but imbued with a lustful sleaze. The song hangs on a wordless, soulful vocal hook, which spirals into an effortless grace, but “Retrograde” won’t settle for mere prettiness and artifice. It’s uncomfortable in its own skin, threatening to run away but never actually doing so—like the title of the album it comes from, it’s overgrown. But distinctly not overwrought.
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.
I thought One Life Stand would surely stand the test of time as the acme of Hot Chip‘s love affair with love. Just look at that title! With its lush, soulful electro-pop about monogamy and brotherhood, it seemed to set a benchmark that I didn’t think the band would try and beat. And yet. Continue reading Hot Chip — In Our Heads
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
You can sometimes trace a direct lineage from seminal albums through to their modern descendants. Sometimes, though, it’s just a genetic fragment, a heartbeat or a swagger that travels through the generations. When we talk about Can’s lasting influence, we can feel the ur-krautrock’s presence everywhere. When we talk about Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, we have to feel the fabric of modern music between our fingers, and bring it up to our noses to inhale the waft of Hayesian heritage.
The four songs that make up the album are diverting and ingenious. They walk around you, several times, making a mockery of conventional song structure. They are arranged like masterpieces—think of the cinematic interplay between strangled electric guitar and soaring strings on “Walk On By”. They know when to ride sparse, motorik beats, and when to let the piano parts expand to fill the universe of emotions—as on “Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic” (see above). Everything is produced in a way that suggests the studio is a living thing—especially on the wandering “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, with its ambient, barely-there organ drone and Hayes’s “velvet sledgehammer” monologue, which eventually lead into something grander and more significant.
On the face of it, Hot Buttered Soul shouldn’t be so un-derivative. Two of the songs are “covers” (albeit in the loosest possible sense), and the album was pieced together from several recording sessions—a far cry from the deranged-genius-cabin-fever-vibe we associate with most truly original works. But, somehow, it feels vital and inspirational in the correct sense of these words: it gave life to soul as a progressive, expansive genre (consider Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly, released three years later in 1972); and it provided a rich seam of sounds and textures that artists would tap into in the decades to follow.
Capped with Hayes’s inimitable, husky set of pipes, the album manages to strut and preen, but also to serenade and emote. It’s no wonder the music it sired was, taken as a whole, so schizophrenic.