SUPERTOYS LAST ALL SUMMER LONG


TV On The Radio: Nine Types Of Light

If the magisterial TV On The Radio had, by September 2006, acquired a reputation as doomsayers, it was only their response – as true artists – to a geyser of fear in full profusion midway through Bush’s second term – there or thereabouts the very belly of the beast. Two years on and within a tortuous hair’s length of salvation, Tunde Adebimpe hollered on ‘DLZ’: “This is beginning to feel like the long-winded blues of the never”. Now, years after the war, they put the pieces back together again under the soft light breaking over peacetime, LA County.

Nine Types of Light is an album about finding yourself again in the quiet. “In isolation: a transformation” sings Adebimpe on ‘Killer Crane’. In a recent interview with The Guardian Adebimpe spoke about the strain of adjusting his mindset to the new era, after a decade of dread and defence: “Panic can become a very fruitless security blanket and it makes it easy to default to the negative” he confided “…The truth is you’re lucky to feel anything”. On ‘Second Song’ it is the enveloping power of music that stymies Adebimpe’s night-terrors (“when the night comes I’m feeling like a pyro”) and for once he “doesn’t have a single word to say”. Blissed out, with his “restless mind” quietened, he informs us that while we struggle to define the “heartless times’ he’ll be getting down to the business of making babies, like any veteran worth his salt.

On the album’s centrepiece ‘Killer Crane’ Adebimpe departs their new lodgings in Sitek’s LA digs and travels out to the Pacific; the trembling low-end building the suspense. On the edge of America he releases his trauma, memories and dark thoughts to the wind, in the form of the titular representation / psychic projection / power animal / wot-not. The killer crane soars “after the reign / after the rain-bow”. Over the chorus’ flower-child woodwind and cello-like synths he remembers the times before the strife, a vision of long-ago happiness he once dreamed about on the frontline: “Sunshine / I saw you through the hanging vine / a memory of what was mine / fading away”. It ends in mellow harmony, with a couple of strums of acoustic guitar flicking the switch off again. Adebimpe is “suddenly unafraid”. Truly a timeless depiction of redemption.

To paraphrase Ron Kovic, it’s as if for TV On The Radio America feels like home again. Bathed in a dusky vapour, the euphonious opening three tracks exhale nine years of tension. The first – ‘Second Song’ is a study in relaxed simplicity. There’s church organ, a piano and a crescendo that positively gleams. Whereas before the horns and brass would convulse and alarm, on Nine Types they pump your chest full of melodic goodwill, while the synths at the beginning of ‘Keep Your Heart’ – gossamer, pinkish chem-trails – might have been molten and diabolical a couple of years back. Then there’s the woozy little fireflies spinning and flitting around the verses of ‘You’ or the plaintive oriental xylophone at the start of ‘Will Do’. “The plan was to make music in real life, for real life” Sitek told Rolling Stone. Throughout, the arrangements are sketched and the production is unobtrusive and forgiving, shorn of the hi-tech grandstanding of yore and culled of both that beastly quality and the live-wire paranoia that plagued the high end, while the vocals are one-take and unfinished. As opposed to the poly-rhythms of before, its most transcendent moments are steadied by Bunton’s metrical, softly luxuriant hip-hop beats. Exampled in the barely perceptible (but indispensable) electric caramel that coats the YYY’s ‘Turn Over’ and ‘Gold Lion’ it’s Sitek’s skill as a handsome texturologist which benefits Nine Types… most keenly.

It’s not all tenderness and summer evenings though. As Adebimpe attests on the twitchy ‘No Future Shock’ he still sleeps with his gun. The ogreish funk carnage kicked upon ‘Repetition’ echoes the thoughts of men constantly looking over their shoulders, eyes peeled for the next sign of danger “the cracks will be obvious before too long” Adebimpe frets on ‘Repetition’. A throwback to Return To Cookie Mountain, the swaying and brilliant ‘Forgotten’ is a typical New Yorkers’ take on the Orange State, full of mordant foreboding and talk of plastic paradise. It’s a strange land they’d rather just forget: “Hold tight / our lover’s day written into the sky / we’ll fade into the night” caterwauls Malone. Final track ‘Caffeinated Conscious’ almost sounds like Faith No More while ‘New Cannonball Blues’ is stern and domineering (unfortunately save some swooping Stevie Wonder-like brass, like ‘No Future Shock’ its a very stilted, uninspired relation to the vibrant pop-funk which populated Dear Science).

Since their inception the Brookynites have obsessed over a cataclysmic idea of romance, forever married to the defiant image of those lovers kissing beneath the shadow of the Berlin Wall – “and the guns, shot above our heads / and we kissed / as though nothing could fall”(they even went as far as covering ‘Heroes’ for the War Child album). It’s a macabre notion of romantic endeavour best summarized on Dear Science’s ‘Stork And Owl’ as such: “Death’s a door that love walks through / in and out / in and out / back and forth / back and forth”. The dilemma is, how do they sustain the passion of love in their love songs, when their protagonists are no longer shagging like it’s their last night on earth? The quintet have always appeared to subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s view that the only true romance is a doomed one. “They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever” quipped the writer, “…the very essence of romance is uncertainty”. Now that life seems less perilous, is the power of their heartbreakers somehow depleted? Another of Wilde’s truisms comes to mind – his conviction that “Where there is no extravagance there is no love”.

Nine Types of Light offers a far less opulent, dramatic ecology when compared to their earlier work. But it speaks of a more mature, less fatalistic, more realistic notion of love; one of caring, understanding, patience, soulful connection. Obviously it’s a less arresting interpretation, but it grows on you until its lambent warmth is in your bones, much like the album. The bombs no longer fall but “we’ll fall together in time, just the same…” Adebimpe harks on ‘Killer Crane’. More poignantly in the context of the entire album and TVoTR’s new musical era, as he sums it up on ‘Will Do’: “You don’t want to waste your life in the middle of a lovesick lullaby”. John Calvert

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John Foxx: Interplay

After a run of relatively oblique collaborations, Interplay sees John Foxx’ return to the role of pop architect, ably assisted by The Maths (aka Ben Edwards, Benge) who has graduated here with flying colours from studied technologist to certified song producer. With his memory banks reset by Edwards’ box of retro delights, Foxx has taken the opportunity to reassert the grand arches of the mind on the pop of his salad days – a formula which rapidly became intellectually superficial and increasingly less expressive in his wake. Foxx’s methodology seems to be “Elaborating outwards on his internal structures”, as he put it in a recent interview with Ballardian historian Simon Sellers. The result is roughly what Ultravox would sound like in 2011 if Foxx had never left.

Benge came to Foxx’s attention with his Twenty Systems LP, which with a ‘gear-gasmic’ attention to detail documented the development of the synthesiser in a year-by-year account of 20 individual machines introduced from 1968 to 1987. Obviously a dream appointment for the Londoner, Benge has seemingly played Rick Rubin to Foxx’s Johnny Cash – emboldening the old hawk and acting as a conduit to his former self. Comprised entirely of early analogue tech, with Metamatic’s Arp Odyssey, the CR-78 drum machine and the seminal Yahama CS8o (think Vangelis) recommissioned, Interplay even manages to invoke some of the hand-made charm, the novice imperfections and the happy randomness which riddled early synth-pop. And with Foxx joyously letting rip for a spectacular vocal performance, there is also a little of the gaiety the electro pioneers displayed as they lived out their small-town dreams. Benge is a fetishist, this much is true, but his ability to draw out such intangible essences marks him out as an artist first and foremost. The Twenty Systems project was an almighty testimony to the unfulfilled potential of the synthesiser, but more importantly where Interplay is concerned it was a treatise on how technology alters meaning.

It’s important to note that Interplay has nothing to do with regression, nor does it descend into over-familiarity. In fact, although the title is in reference to Foxx’s purportedly syncretic relationship with his attuned collaborator, it could just as easily describe both Interplay’s genuinely vital interaction with electronica’s ongoing evolution and the push-and-pull between a contemporary feel and Foxx’s classic sound.

The album begins with the sound of Foxx being sucked backwards into the mainframe, first discorporated then reformed within the corridors of perpetual circuitry. Abruptly the audio snaps into focus, assuming into a lockstep pitter. From here on in we rove a non-space virtuality, an interzone if you like. The 808 beats and EBM modulations click and clack like wire-frame fingers against the perspex backdrop, before ceding to the wet silver solder of various piercing effects, while Foxx’s vocals – taking from William Burroughs’ croak on the Naked City recordings – lag and surge on a mutilated channel. It’s in homage to the New Yorkan cold wave which the duo feasted on throughout the process; a scene which with its mythology of ‘controlling electricity’ (i.e the hands-on appeal of rudimentary synths) chimes loudly with Foxx’ increasing disdain for imitative software. Additionally Schoolwerth & Co’s devotion to harsh beauty and lo-fi violence matches Foxx’s descriptions of the original step-sequencers; that being the sound of the loudest overdriven guitar note played forever with just the application of a single finger – the same technology Foxx has been getting to grips with again on Interplay. That said, if you compare Foxx’s breadth of reference to the Wierd / Captured crew’s hermetically sealed pastiche – all circumscribed beats and slavish mimesis – you will soon get an idea as to where the new breed are going wrong.

‘Shatterproof’ is followed by the satirical, pop art ‘Catwalk’, a high-fashion surface-dream in the Bowie/Roxy/Madonna/Fischerspooner vein, with a slight tang of The Idiot-period Iggy to match the story charts Foxx’s journey through the night in a (self-effacing) quest to land a model. A highpoint of the year so far, the archetypal Foxxian sound is paired with some bulldozing sub-bass. It’s a retro-active dream come true and perfectly communicates Foxx’ exhilarated lust as he meets with the marauding flash and ugly underbelly of the fashion world – a hulking universe all of its very own, both seductive and sinister in equal measure.

On ‘Evergreen’ Foxx returns to his long-running preoccupation with an overgrown future London. There’s borrowed imagery from Ballard’s The Drowned World – tropical ruins and such like – beneath which Foxx models a sort of memoir; bearing witness to an unremitting hunger for innovation spanning a 30-year career: “I will always return to this place / for a glimpse / for a trace” he testifies “ever changing / ever new / ever restless / ever true” – the life and times of The Quiet Man, an artist perennially “overlooked and never seen / ever lost / never found” but “forever evergreen”.

Then comes ‘Watching The Building On Fire’. An expertly composed Ballardian allegory, John and his robotic gamine (Ladytron’s Mira Aroyo) scour the landscape. They see a man fall 1000 miles away, plunging from a flaming 1000-storey building located “at the edge of today”. Helplessly they relive the scene endlessly – across “a million lifetimes” – both hypnotised and tortured, always crashing in the same car. Again and again the man falls, with the duo paralysed within the looping memory. There’s a vaguely soporific air, a future daze – unshakable no matter how immediate the song in question. The vague suggestion is that actually it’s the duo that die in the fire: “sometimes you find out too late” intones Fox, while in the breakdown Aroyo whispers “Looking out from this window / over all the streets / shadows far below us / moving like a sea.”. You can assume she jumps. The track fades out into infinity with the duo trapped for eternity. Not until then do you consider the 9/11 connection. Like with the “building on fire” the images of that day – the blue sky and grey plume – will be relived in pixels long after we are dead. It’s an unforgettable collaboration – weirdo, sublime pop – and a serious thrill for acolytes of the genre.

Led by a voyaging Kraftwerkian rhythm, ‘Summerland’ is a gentle preamble to electro kiss-off ‘The Running Man’, featuring ‘real’ bass and guitar that propel the song towards a slightly hostile climax. Next up is a dose of ethereal darkwave in the shape of ‘Falling Star’. Listening to the naif preset rhythm and snow-pure synths, you can sense how far the countless years of reinvention have taken Foxx from his lowly beginnings. A contender for ‘the big single’, the cyber-gothic ‘Destination’ – with its big ululating synth riff a la ‘Plaza’ and super-massive chorus – is Foxx at his most straight-forwardly epic since The Garden.

To finish, the sombre Roedelius-esque ‘The Good Shadow’ hangs tenderly in a far-off firmament. Foxx’s voice is fading, merging with the white background. “I’ll always be with you” he reassures, retreating into the great beyond, “every day / every day”. You can bet it’ll be an emotional experience for the long-time fans. Somewhat comfortingly, somewhat tragically and in a super-chic acceptance of self, Foxx promises himself to the shadows, where he will drift the sacred geometry of the city, of all cities, for all time, as was always his ‘destination’. Time is a modern concern after all, and age is only a state of mind. A decade of copyists – from La Roux to Led Er Est wiped off the map: they should very well bow and curtsy at the feet of the man.

Nearly every year the 58-year old finds time between lectures to upload another vessel from his ever-flaring mind, so doubtlessly this won’t be the last we hear of John Foxx, but Interplay is such a perfect summation of his career that a more poetic and poignant full stop to his grand adventure would be very hard to imagine. John Calvert



Gang Of Four: Content
May 7, 2011, 11:03 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Album Reviews: Noted Artists, The Quietus

This record gives you migraine. Ha, funny one. Like in the song. But it’s true – a tangible stiffening above the neck and a centimetre behind the eyes. The impulse is to crack your jaw the way people crack their knuckles. A sciatic irritant of an album – exasperating, declamatory and asininely triumphant from start to finish – Content tests your concentration and the enamel on your teeth. Stand up, sit down, hyperventilate, bite your nails, grow a moustache, burn your clothes, rent a mini-digger, take a photo of a man walking, buy a monocle, laugh outrageously until you scare yourself, learn to fence, learn origami, burn your clothes, go to church, alphabetize you cereal boxes or wear a gas mask when driving, but do anything to escape its clammy grasp and the torturous void that is total neural non-engagement. It’s shoe shopping with your mum when you’re nine, it’s watching Blockbusters with Bob in 1986, it’s Human Traffic; the extended version, it’s waiting for Neil from work to get to the point of his story, it’s a Ron Howard film, it’s Broken Social Scene Play The Hits, it’s Mad About You starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, it’s a sigh, in a Rumbelows, in Wrexham, 27 years ago, on a wet Tuesday. Your only lucid thought when listening to Content is something like “hmmph, this is disappointing, like the way life is, and always will be, forever”.

A repulsive bit of snark there, I hear you say… and if only the once great Leeds band deserved a more measured response. But after a week of desperately trying to like Content – entertainment on a par with an emergency tracheotomy – my critical faculties are shot, reduced to random sex sounds, Cockney rhyming slang and swinging punches in a cupboard.

After grimacing like emphysemic Russians for a couple of years they’ve managed a pellet of something approaching the sound of ‘quintessential’ Gang Of Four. Once a radical new mode of dissent – a weeping laugh, dancing the h-bomb – so numerously has it been stripped for parts that any semblance of treasonous cool and incisory newness has long since perished, bleached in the fires of 2004, besmirched by the shit-flecked tendrils of lesser spirits. You’d have thought they’d have picked up on this fact. It’s possible they did, but calculated that collecting their long deserved reparations was going to take playing it safe.

Only it’s not just safe; this is a defanging. Out goes the scything atonality, the brooding stretches of space, the shadows and the tensile pulse of Thatcher-era upheaval – basically anything that made them great before Here. What you’re left with is a dead zone between funkless funk and berkish indie-rock, both rendered blithely anodyne and abrasively insipid, so very little of which sticks in the memory. 30 years past their prime they’ve returned with the same old rope, but purged of its incendiary social context, the shock of the new, and the burning intent of a group of young leftist heroes. And what do you get if you take the fish from the water? A dead trout and a very bad smell. On Content, the aesthetic has never sounded more weak and weary than in the hands of the very men who invented it.

For a record made from 99% perspiration and another 99% careful contrivance, its almost destitute of artistic prudence. The songs are flat and gross, further exacerbated by Gill’s frowsy, dim production, comparable to a senile man driving a car – heavy on the pedal, heavy of the brakes and no real destination in mind. Any remaining hope of a defining agent finding purchase in this soup is extinguished by rampant over-egging on the part of each individual member, who in the end cancel each other out with inelegant force.

The problem is there’s no dichotomy to the music any longer. They’re all moving in the same direction and getting nowhere fast. Back in the day it was often bassist Dave Allen’s job to carry both the melody and the rhythm, allowing the guitar freedom to scratch at the song in angry isolation, denaturing that beautifully stiff funk before plunging beneath the surface with your shredded nerves. On Content, Gill seems to be spread very thinly, splitting his time between sustaining the energy, adding filigree, melodizing and compensating for a lesser bassist to Allen in Thomas McNeice, while simultaneously wheezing after the inanely gallivanting drums. Most of the time he only succeeds in clogging the mix, piling on random chicken scratching and lunging hoots, fret-spanking away at King’s ridiculously poor singing. The best track ‘You’ll Never Pay For The Farm’ has Gill working against, or laterally to the thrust, imposing nuance, traction and syncopation on the stomping rhythm. However, no matter how much lip-biting and elbow grease afoot, manically so on ‘Who Am I” or the groooo-vay ‘I Party All The Time’, the songs are never anything other than lumbering.

So what’s the message beneath the din? After all, Entertainment and Solid Gold are lyrically among the most intensely analysed albums of their era. Well, who better than Gang of Four to challenge the great sensory saturation of the new millennium; pontificating here on the hysterical urge to conform driving social media, the stultifying effects of information pollution, and the erosion of the self therein; a coercion of the senses, if you will. Despite some cliched tosh like “the shoppers are asleep” and “the cameras never lie” its an early artistic interpretation of the Facebook syndrome, even if King’s genius for deeply-layered metaphor is diminished, rendering his congested discourse slightly artless. Still, a literal commentary is nearly as commendable.

Their very, very worst moments arrive when the rhythm section or Gill’s guitar mimics King’s clipped vocals (or vice versa), as on ‘Do As I Say’ and ”I’ll never Forget Your Lonely Face”. The effect is fist-gnawingly monochromatic, speaking volumes about both the combo’s emaciated touch for groove and their failing ingenuity. Take for example the ham-fisted transition two thirds through ‘Do A I Say’, or the coda to “a Fruit-fly In The Beehive” where the only way they could think of ending is just to let the air down on the tyres. It’s supposed to establish circularity, or symbolize the innate meaningless of life, or something else artsy. Really what it does is leave you twiddling your thumbs, wondering if it’s really true what they say, that you can fit a full grown stoat in a milk bottle. An open letter to all of those dinosaurs about to reform: sit down and stay down. If Gang of Four can’t manage it, what chance do you have?John Calvert



The Streets: Computer & Blues

You’ll have to meet us halfway on this, but Mike Skinner’s swansong plays like a cracking old wake – Skinner’s of course. Convenient, eh? Naturally, we’re talking about the Bostonian family saga, pitchers-to-the-heavens, Motown-finale type, not your… well… funereal wake, with the cucumber sandwiches, the concerted frowning, the ‘somebody please say something… anything’. There’ll be the quiet moments of reflection (‘We Can Never Be Friends’); teary smiles (‘Roof Of You Car’, ‘OMG’); a little boozy dancing (‘Without You’, ‘Trust Me’); some of Dad’s air guitar (‘Going Through Hell’); surprising revelations (‘Outside Inside’); the odd unwelcome appearance (‘Those That Don’t Know’) and after brushing over the mad Howard Hughes years at the end – a solemn toast goodbye, in the shape of ‘Lock the Locks’. Most of all there’ll be the glad memories of your best times together, when the man was in his prime. The self-produced Computers And Blues is such a surefooted return to the Skinner’s glory days that you wonder what he’s been at since A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Storing his wee in jars, probably.

He lost his way in quite spectacular fashion on the shrill, cloying A Hard Way (two words: Pranging Out). While Everything is Borrowed regained some of that lost ground, it was a second consecutive album of cheap and flimsy build. The songwriting was sedentary and the barebones production both uninspired and half-hearted. Vindicating his worst critics, Skinner had become a caricature of the people he was smart enough to satirize, or worse – a tuneless novelty act of sorts, more Danny Dyer than Ian Dury. It was a confounding undoing of the man who introduced grand narratives, character arcs, and even some intertextuality to dance music, as best seen on the immensely fertile AGDCFF, arguably the greatest British concept album the pop charts could entertain since the 70s.

Computers, by comparison, shines. Despite the moody artwork and the title – vaguely suggestive of some type of techno alienation – it’s a hopeful album, golden and thankful (accounting for Skinner’s anxious introspection, that is) For the most part he stays commendably loyal to the organizing theme, occasionally sprinkling electronic nods to ones-and-zeroes and digi disorientation, evoking a kind of hip hop The Sophtware Slump and espousing the man-machine schtick without the usual embarrassing results. Ultimately, though, the concept is a Mcguffin. Computers is about Skinner’s future, which over the course of the album he resolves is going to be just fine, diamond, and so on.

With its immeasurably more intricate, substantial production, such as on ‘Computers And Blue’ it’s as if Skinner is finally ready to make an effort again, for old times sake; one for the road. He restores intensity to his sound with ‘Outside Inside’, and in dynamic, dramatic ebb and flow with his ruminations he incorporates a host of both narrative and abstract vocal cuts – mostly female. Pulse-quickening boosts of energy, they add big splodges of colour and dimension to ‘A Hard Way’’s rudimentary matrix and Cohen-esque air of one-man-and-his-troubles. There’s also, finally, some bass – sultry and satisfying on ‘Outside Inside’ and the brief ‘ABC’, re-injecting a bit of urban London into the equation. After plinky dreck like ‘Never Went to Church’, which was as if Peter Andre burst a slimy peck and out popped Gary Lightfoot, this is all extremely refreshing. Perhaps the nadir of his career, it was a firm example of Skinner’s weakness for grandiose aspirational moments getting the better of him, or to be cynical about it: his attempt at contriving another ‘Dry You Eyes’. The ‘meaningful’ bits can and do work (the “picking up to run” outro on ‘Empty Cans’ is a genuine lip-wobbler) but up until Computers the outcome was all-too-often inane, cod-profound melodrama. ‘Blip On A Screen’ and the acoustic ‘We Will Can Never Be Friends’ avoid the same fate by a hair’s length, but remain the weak moments here.

That said, it’s the passionate, euphoric songs that elevate the album – easy and bushy-tailed crowd-pleasers like the feel-good ‘Without Thinking’. The most addictive home-made chart-filler since Jamie T’s ‘Sticks And Stones’, it rivals any of his best singles, while ‘OMG’ ignites into the kind of sugared femme-garage Jaimeson and Sweet Female Attitude made in the early Noughties. Another corker, ‘Trust Me’ applies a gladdened Philly soul-disco backdrop to a brisk insight into a day in the life of Skinner: the homebound stoner. ‘Soldiers’ is either about poverty or metaphorically Skinner’s meditation on the Afghanistan conflict, which sounds about as advisable as Richard Bacon at a holocaust conference, but it’s another genuinely moving outing. Aged by Procol Harum-style Hammond organ, the bliss-infused ‘Roof Of Your Car’ has Mike stargazing in hot summer pastures. Skinner’s fame and riches excepting, it smacks of the type of scenario that crops up Ken Loach dramas like Sweet Sixteen or Spike Lee’s Clockers, in which an alert working-class figure in the Mark Renton vein adjourns to the countryside for a taste of life outside the urban prison. A clutch of deluxe Skinner-pop, these tracks serve to remind you that, firstly, that he can write a tune, but more acutely of how utterly likeable he is. Owning any kind of personality in pop is rare, but a wholly genuine, endearingly flawed charisma is precious, and he will be missed in quite the same way Jarvis Cocker was during is post-Pulp Parisian exile.

There’s nothing of the unassuming genius that informed ‘Blinded By The Lights’ and the epochal ‘Weak Become Heroes’, but Computers And Blues pips even AGDCF for tunes. Right down to ‘Puzzled By People’, beginning aptly with a sampled “Love Is The Answer!”, it’s an extremely listenable parting gift. His last salute before passing the baton to anthem-maker Example, ‘Lock The Locks’ begins with elegiac horns. Explaining his decision to depart the airwaves, Skinner confesses with slight contrition that “Even though it looked random, my heart had left / I was just going in tandem”. Computers And Blues is a fitting end to any act’s career; life-affirming, triumphant, reconciling and best of all a novel turn from Mike Skinner: a genuine British original; supremo purveyor of “dancing music to drink tea to’. So, let’s put on our classics and have a little dance, shall we? John Calvert



Wire: Red Barked Tree

Despite fear-mongering from the messageboard Taliban, and some irate letter-writing from pearl-clutching oldies, Red Barked Tree is a Wire album, through and through. Amongst the primary colours and even numbers still resides that perennially cunning unit.

It’s ironic that in 1977 the punk conservatives denounced their subversive archness as apathy or vacuity, and today in another guise – stylistic departures like the philosophical ‘Adapt’, the folk-rocking title track, and ‘Bad Worn Thing’ – it’s perceived as compliance, meekness and ordinariness. Red Barked Tree‘s critics are put-off by a perceived air of mid-life conciliation, or disgruntled that post-punk’s very sharpest of postmodernists would stoop to such creaseless co-option. They deal here in decorous guitar-band regularities, emotion, and literal concerns – unabashedly direct and bouncily zealous. And in terms of form, hardly a crumb of cheeky conceptualism is mustered between 11 tracks: it’s all reason and logic.

It’s useful to remember, though, that however astringent the band got on Pink Flag, or dark as 154, the blowhard guttersnipe punks always sounded histrionic and bloated next to Wire’s kittenish response to the movement, and what they saw as the endless possibilities it proposed for the future of art. As has always been the case, it’s a joy in the creative process that defines the Londoners, a larksome quality appearing here in a far easier, more naked incarnation. The very same sense of ‘play’ that informed their debut is buried, somewhere, on lairy efforts like ‘A Flat Tent’ and mod-rocker ‘Now Was’; an essentially good-natured and unpretentious approach once adopted by their greatest admirers, Minutemen. Red Barked Tree reclaims the essence of their best work – the irreverence, the serene self-assuredness and the melody, but it’s their lesser recognized attribute – a gamely grace – that eclipses all else here.

Sounding wholly refreshed and with big mouths intact, the trio have pulled together a freestanding, populist record with such winning flair it’s hard to imagine a young British guitar band performing with as much class, purpose, or presence. By turns brash (‘Smash’), and cutely curt (‘Two Minutes’), Red Barked Tree finds Wire liberated, fitted for their glad-rags, throwing caution to the wind and almost intoxicated, at times to the point of senselessness. In the process sacrificing a little of the mystery of Send and the evidently transitional Object 47, the soiled new wave of hate-letter ‘Please Take’ (a sequel to ‘One Of Us’) and vitreous pop like ‘Bad Worn Thing’ take Wire further than ever before from the ‘neurasthenic’ anti-punk of yesteryear.

That said, the gently grooving rhythms, the sing-along choruses and the excited chord changes find their footholds in the calibrated constriction of ‘classic’ Wire; namely some crisp dynamics, punchy playing and the repetition – protracted to the point of concussing the listener on the surging ‘Moreover’. And while the majority of the tracks are full-bodied and forceful, and often frothy with fuzz and friction, they are carried by sparsely efficient drumming, which when pitted against the low bass region gives rise to an anxious undertow. Naturally, as products of the post-punk generation their songs are full of contradictions: simultaneously friendly and unfamiliar; arithmetical but rolling; and rabble-rousing but vaguely neutral. The overall outcome is a sound much like a summer cold – woebegone and chilled but caressed with ripples of tingly heat, valanced by Newman’s nacreous rhythm guitar that twirls though the wet, refined production beautifying everything it touches.

One of the many proverbial life-isms that litter Red Barked Tree, on ‘Adapt’ Newman exhorts: “Go east / Go north / Go south / Go west / Leave mouths open / With your best / Adapt to change / Stay unimpressed”. Amongst other readings, it’s likely lyricist Graham Lewis is reflecting here, smiling back on three decades of tampering, deconstruction, and the rearranging of the weights and measures of music. More so it’s perfectly encapsulating of a joie de vivre only now have they got around to basing an album on. John Calvert



Swans Review For The Quietus

Swans will always be a draw for life’s spiritual derelicts, a certain constituency in peaceful agreement that the world is cruel, human nature is animal, the west is still wild, and pain is truth. After all these years, still Michael Gira talks about his music in terms of physical suffering, of purification in hydrochloric rainstorms, of strangling his songs of “blood and light”. On ‘No Worlds/No Thoughts’, when his smashing denouement finally lands and Gira’s eyes roll back in his head, you could tan off the unholy mush descending his inside leg as the knot in his stomach liquefies. Self destruction is his drug of choice. Like many of industrial’s past-masters, it looks like he’ll never soften, never give up, the last of the zero men. Obsession is a talent like any other.

What they’ve always excelled at is capturing chronic disenchantment as it ossifies into dangerous psychosis, the exact moment when depressions stops making you stronger and starts to kill you. Bad nerves, irrational dread, paranoia, boredom, bluebottles dying on a windowsill while your father’s doppelganger scratches a tunnel through his scalp. Just as average Tuesday afternoon hawking electrical wire in East Kilbride, except with the quiet desperation exaggerated to levels of deafening fury. For Gira, in more ways than one compromise just isn’t realistic.

Yet on My Father there’s an audible shift in conceit. It’s not a hopeful album, nor thankfully one of triumphalist indignation. But even at its most drunkenly burdened to a fashion it’s gallant, an album of stature, noble at a stretch. It’s that noxious undertone of debasement characteristic of the no-wavers that’s missing, the abject resignation. Gira’s not ‘on his knees for water’ this time. Have no fear, though, he still knows what ugliness sounds like, but the signature guitar squall, the dulcimer on ‘Jim’ and the e-bow whirring on ‘Inside Madeline’ brush a layer of white ash over what is an epiphanous rather than shredding album. While, on the most part the drums establish motion not barbarian tyranny, and Gira himself is searching (if forcefully), not hectoring. It’s ordered, clear minded and present, and unlike the miasmic Soundtrack…frequently epic to an almost quasi-mythic degree.

Which brings us back to ‘No Thoughts/ No Words’ and its brilliantly employed chimes, another choice of instrument which carbonates poignancy into My Father…when many of its predecessor’s simply heaved in hangdog turmoil . The chimes begin as a call-to-arms, before evolving into ringing taunts that propel the exhumed infantry further into apoplexy, before finally forming a torrential downpour as the godless bastards impact enemy barricades. Carried on winds of screaming noise, you get a picture in your mind of a suicide charge, the skull-faced vanguard in horseback pursuit of Gira’s sanity. His hope being that one day he’ll be blissfully cleansed of thoughts, of entire worlds. He told The Quietus My Father… is a quest, and that’s how it plays out. That or a redemption. Maybe if the he builds this cathedral high enough he’ll meet that rope half way.

Of course Gira’s not going to get the old gang back together without a bit of blizzarding wrath. He may be in the process of forgiving himself but we aren’t getting away that easily. Gira explained matter-of-factly to the Quietus, that for My Father he opened his car boot and freed his demon brother., which doesn’t bode well, not at all. Who else but Gira could paint his birth as the genesis of a parasite, like on ‘My Birth’: ‘I’ll kiss your red mouth, because I love you to death / I’ll swallow your sorrow/ ingest your tears/ I’ll steal your tomorrows / give me your flesh” Many you could name probably, but maybe not with such penetrating poetry. The entire lyrics sheet merits transcription.

And so the great annihilator returns. 28 years and still going, it’s safe to say the Sisyphean New Yorker has an enormous faculty for dissent. The swarming forces of evil congress, marshaled by war toms, Norman Westerburg’s ribbons of silver drone and the capillaries of groaning guitar parts that thrust at the low end. The back-line slams in unison often, on ‘My Birth’, ‘Inside Madeline’ and ‘Eden Prison’, while the bygone instrumentation propagate raspberry-blowing glossolalia. The flaming discord on ‘My Birth’ recall a hysterical New Orleans funeral procession, and ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’ quits a single-note mandolin run to bang tunelessly on a piano, smothered by The Shining’s queasy drum-rolls while Spitfires grapple flat spins over cratered lands.

Once again Swans anchor their collapsing visions in a folk/country foundation. Ever bedecked in tan leather Stetson, it’s easy to make sense of Gira’s preoccupation with the era of men and horses. He fetishizes the indomitable vistas, the proximity to tragedy, the cotton-dressed gangrene, the Spaghetti grime. You imagine it grants him much succor from the glass-encased experience of living safely today. The slow-mo fountains of blood in Peckinpah’s Westerns spill from men of their own devices, outlaws like Gira, in control of their own fate and dying his fantasy death at 24-frames-per second – perpetual, ecstatic, an ejaculation of fear. The Cowboy archetype will forever been distorted by artists like Swans, shunted against apocalyptica for the sake of a sparking juxtaposition. The implication being that rather than the birth of a nation, the frontier was the beginning of the end. And pitting the very paradigm of masculinity against end times has always been a favorite pastime of Gira’s.

The immolating campfire in ‘Reeling The Liars In’; the whirling Comanche ambush on ‘Eden Prison’; saloon threnody ‘Jim’; porch lullaby ‘You Fucking People Make Me Sick’ (featuring a 3-year old Saoirse Gira) – the Wild West is an endless inspiration for the melt-in-the-mouth villainy on My Father. 1968’s Blue, an existentialist western of lingering close-ups and dialogue-scant meditation, ranges ‘the time after time’ with not a drop of pioneer spirit to be had. The tagline went “To escape his past, he had to destroy it” which could underline Gira’s no wave biopic. It’s how his epitaph should read.

A good lot of running time is spent throwing coal in the furnace, the steamer huffing fatalistically towards a fault in the line or a collapsed bridge. Such levels of suspense combining with the Death Valley undertones positions My Father forever at that hellacious sunset in the desert, perched on the eve of cataclysm – the final meeting point of three men, or three sides of man. Gira’s fractured psyche cocked for mutual termination, ten mile shadows stretching out of shot. Its always the 11th hour on My Father. John Calvert



Blonde Redhead Review For The Quietus
November 19, 2010, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Album Reviews, Album Reviews: Noted Artists, The Quietus | Tags: , ,

Once upon a time Blonde Redhead were beautiful. It took a decade of suspiciously designer no wave, but with 2004’s Misery Is a Butterfly they finally came into their own. A blood-chilling collection of songs, the mothball smell of antique desolation filled a very eerie setting of falling sand-timers and decaying flowers, ornate with dramatic strings and a porcelain sorrow. It was without doubt one of the releases of the year from a time when New York had more than five different sounds. Then, as befitting of an album of such transient delicacy, no sooner had they found their voice than it was gone.

They followed it up with the velveteen 23 – their indie-hit. Whilst on Misery… they’d proved their artistic autonomy, their 2007 release felt like regression. The plucked carefulness of their zenith was flattened for carpeting. It was facile and comparatively banal, and like in their no wave days relied too heavily on borrowed magic, this time that of French perennials the M83. Penny Sparkle is a step backwards again towards contrivance and duplication. Once described by the NME as “Some of the most wildly original music-makers in America”, the difference this time is that they’re targeting the damn well sacrosanct tract of Scandi avant-pop, and have bastardised it in the process, stepping on one pinky toe too many.

Up-and-coming Stockholm, production duo Van Rivers & The Subliminal Kid have been left to carry a tiring band on Penny…. The result is something equidistant between Bjork’s enchanted post-punk and the synth unbehagen of The Knife’s, yet neither as sublime, cutting edge or exotic as either. Courtesy of the Fever Ray producers, they have the mise-en-scene; there’s the increased emphasis on percussion now piloting the songs, the rustling, popping, crawling electronics, the groaning depth of the drum sounds. Yet still it’s BRH’s most fallow, numberless release to date. Why?

Like the best in sadistic Film Noir, since the Eighties the best Scandinavian music accounts for both side of the modern coin – that Weberian nightmare of hyper-rationalism, and its negative: the absence of reason – ambiguity, ambivalence, the futility of absolute truth, godlessness and the relativity of morality, all that big, serious stuff. Music which, in a very real sense, transubtantiates the schema of 20th century social theorists into aural form, and some mint pop if we’re lucky.

For example, Nihilism – the sacred text of punk – once interpreted by Jean Baudrilliard like so: “The apocalypse is finished, all that remains is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us.” Consider the systematized tundras from Spiderland then Sigor Ros, Bjork’s voice caroming across the sub-arctic over Nelle Hooper’s gasping pistons, the fingernail of Norway as it curls towards the endless steppes of Northern Russia. And another from ole’ JB: “We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated” – could you dream up a better blurb for Fever Ray’s new’un?

And then you have Penny Sparkle, which by comparison materialises such informant texts as iTunes’ ‘Indie Big Ones’ and The Dilettante’s Guide To Being Handsome And Sad All At Once. The north of Kiel sound is utilitarian but fictive like constructivist architecture. It’s severe but perception-altering like a Cubist art. It’s The Scream meets Belgium Teckno meets The Residents. In contrast, transposing their shop-worn song style onto alien territory, the trio have instead turned in something a bit buttery, too vanilla, and relaxing where it should have been disquieting. I think it was Snuffkin Moomin who once said “One can never be entirely free, if one admires someone else too much.” He really did, in an episode once. Weird bastard.

Typically of the New Yorkers the handling of texture is impeccable, some of the deftest synth-work you’ll hear all year. But melody determines ‘sound’ as much as denatured atmospherics and harsh rhythms. Herein lies their folly. When Beth Gibbons goes all microtonal with Portishead like say on ‘Threads’, and her chromatic notes seem to feed from her soul rather than free it, Gibbon’s tune is just as vital as Geoff Burrow’s inky production. In carrying Mikino’s dolorously earthy melodies over from previous albums they’ve compromised the tone of despair, the tension, the essence of modernity. Her despondent mewing doses the music with too much sumptuous relief; it’s too human in these circumstances. There’s just too much pathos to the way she annunciates her sadness on the title track, the vocals sitting on top of the dubby touches like cream on diesel. It’s their undoing on Penny Sparkle. Tastefulness in music is the anti-despair.

Besides that Penny Sparkle isn’t exactly an enthralling listening experience. The likes of ‘Oslo’, ‘Love or Prison’ and ‘Will there be Stars’ are cripplingly enervated, coming and going like the sad little food cartons that travel brightly lit Go Sushi!’s. While smooth, soothingly cinematic and endowed with a certain enigmatic poise, the songs aim for detachment and find lethargic restraint, or confuse grace and mystery with an aggravating coyness.

Towards the end they’ve appeared to have tired of the pretence. With ‘Everything is Done’, ‘Black Guitar’ and the return of guitars to the fore, come echoes of Misery and its nouveau vague allure. Suddenly on ‘Spain’ we’re returned to the set of Misery’s maudlin spy-caper. Decadent zoom shots retreat to a binocular-draped spooks, nefarious men in woollen suits conspire on windy Mediterranean esplanades and denatured stock – a ‘tragic glamour’ as the All Music Guide described Misery…. ‘Spain’ might also be the first case of a band overtly influenced by the XX.

It’s thirsty work delimiting what is an intoxicating diversion in the shape of Penny Sparkle – legitimately ‘good music’ – and distinguishing that from its more meaningful superior: true Art. Sure there was Portishead and Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain before it, but Misery was more natural and less stringently postmodern than either of its influences. Penny is wan and crass in comparison to the pretext. After listening to Penny for a while, Karin Andersson’s much analyzed voice-fuckery begins to make more sense. In stratifying her voice, male on female, she suppresses her womanhood, femininity being too closely related in ideological proximity to religion, which fucks with her secular temple of drab infinity or her art-bitch feminism. I think so, anyway. That, or because it’s ‘I hope that’s not a big brown shit in my pants’ terrifying (she did cite Miami Vice as an influence once). It’s easy to enjoy the songs on Penny… but to this reviewer the mimicry and awkward recreation on show is like those people talking in the cinema when all want to do is soak up the joys of widescreen delight. And would you fight a grown man if he’s talking through vital plot points, even if he’s wearing rings? Now that’s modern art. John Calvert