Friday, 29 July 2011

GRAPHIC NOVEL: Grant Morrison's lost masterpiece, Zenith (1986)

[NB - This is an excerpt from a work in progress, in which GM occupies a longer sub-chapter, hence the abrupt opening here.]

The son of a socialist agitator and local hero, Grant Morrison was born in 1960, and grew up in Scotland with the mixed blessing that was an American submarine base nearby. For an activist, the nuclear-subs might be proof we were already living in Orwell’s “Airstrip One”, but the young Morrison couldn’t deny himself the pleasures of American culture that were sci-fi comics. In his recent history of the superhero genre (cum manifesto, cum autobiography), Morrison mocks his early imitations – hence the “space-Nazis” of the sub-heading – but his first great work was about just that. For the slow-witted, overly-credulous, or those who think their pets are telling them things, Morrison is always clear to make the distinction between events he chooses to find meaningful, and those we might dismiss or laugh off (as a defence against considering what a coincidence might be telling us, however trivial; that’s to say, what the part of our brain might be telling us, that it seized so readily on some chance configuration of events).

In the early-80s, Morrison revived his adolescent space-Nazis as backstory for an allegory about the cynicism of the age, and the decline of the superhero genre. (If that makes the genre sound overly important, bear in mind Morrison understands it as a mirror of culture-wide fears and fantasies; it’s anything but mere entertainment for him, which means that its decline is in some sense, our decline.) “Zenith” himself was the son of two superheroes who acquired their powers during the Swinging Sixties, following various experiments to channel extra-dimensional beings into their bodies. Come the 80s, a real-life superhero had no higher ambition than to live like a vapid Yuppie, and use his powers (of flight, principally) to further a career in music. While the 1960s stage in Zenith’s backstory was mirrored in the “real-world” by US and Soviet experiments to create super-soldiers, the MK Ultra programme, and a long history of dosing troops with what we now think of as club-drugs (MDMA in WWI, LSD in Vietnam) a further stage was added in Morrison’s speculative history. Again, riffing on the Nazis well-documented mysticism, Morrison imagined the Ubermensch as a project hybridizing magic and science: creating the perfect human as a vessel for yet more powerful “dark gods” from a parallel dimension.

Sadly, Zenith has become one of the great lost artefacts of late-20th century culture: out-of-print for years, like the second series of Twin Peaks, and simply because of legal wranglings. (If I was a little more paranoid, I’d say that’s how the Devil disguises himself these days: hiding inside faceless bureaucracy. Then again, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to say that the Forces of Conformity are literally at work when they tie up art in litigation…)

What makes Morrison most interesting within the incestuous world of science-fiction (comics, novels, and films) is his candour about the procedures, contemporary relevance, and efficacy of ritual possession. Not how fun they are to pilfer, and put on the page for a sheen of mysticism, but how life-changing they can be to put into practice. As a prodigious young writer (employed at 18 by the local paper), Morrison had mastered the thousand tropes of myth, folklore, and science-fiction, but it was in his late-20s - after sketching himself a role-model in Zenith - that he became a practitioner. Call it “chaos magick”, or a fin-de-siecle update of much the same the occult gumbo practiced by Yeats, Bataille, and Breton, under the influence of Crowley, Madame Blavatsky, and Swedenborg. Morrison claimed to have broken the fourth wall, and that he and his characters were passing back and forth, possessing each other. But that's another story for another time...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Psychedelic Furs, Book of Days (1989)

For anyone born in the 80s or later (I’m a ’79-er myself), it’s possible you think of the Furs as an also-ran with an awful name. If you happen to know they were on a major label for their entire career, you’ll be even more surprised (or disappointed) to see one of their albums in this series. So what if an album by a major label band is out of print, and few (if any) songs from it appear on those compilations with the tacky names? Some soft-rock peddlers ran out of tunes five years after having a hit with “Pretty in Pink” (of all songs!) – who cares?

More than most records I own – and I have a freakish memory for the circumstances in which I acquired most of them – Book of Days came into my possession in a most unlikely way. I was living in the neon-and-smog metropolis of Hong Kong, in the last year of Britain’s 99-year lease on the place, which makes me 16 and especially attuned to romantic despair. On the other side of the world, Britpop was peaking, but I was still months away from my first taste of clubbing in late-night expeditions to Camden, having snuck out of boarding school, which meant I was also months away from any kind of proximity to girls, under-age drinking, and waking up in strange places.

One close, clinging day of drizzle and weak sun, I set off for a distant corner of Kowloon, aiming for the end of the line (that most portentous of places, on the map, but usually just a Croydon or Streatham, when you get there). In fact, I did find myself in an exceptionally Gothic-looking, industrial district of crumbling factories, broken windows, and pale skull-like faces staring from the gantries of factory windows, with loading-cranes overhead like a gallows’ arm. This being Hong Kong, former-industrial districts had no hope of being colonized by hipsters, or even being brightened up by graffiti, so I might as well have been in post-war Europe. This was where I found an old man sitting on the pavement, away from any other shops, or even stalls, selling vinyl-LPs out of an incredibly antiquated perambulator, with an umbrella perched over it (black and spiky as the Bat-sign). On the pavement itself were sun-bleached cassettes of Canto-Pop, and the records were 90% Chinese opera, but the three I found that weren’t 70s soft-rock (Bread, Mud, Rod Stewart) were: The Beatles’ Blue and Red albums, and the Psychedelic Furs’ Book of Days.

Now. All I knew at the time was the Furs’ guitarist had taught Andrew Eldritch how to self-produce, back in their post-punk days. I was, in 1995, a massive fan of The Sisters of Mercy; happy to overlook echo-drenched vocals, and tinny drum-machines, for the sake of smart satirical lyrics from a druggy demi-monde, in which the only sane response to the Cold War and environmental devastation was to “Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out” (one of the Sisters’ many fine slogans, endorsing political cynicism and mind-opening drugs in equal measure). If you’d told me the Furs were imitation Bowie, and a step closer to 80s Cure or Bauhaus than the Sisters themselves, I’d have dropped the record in disgust; I didn’t yet get Bowie, and still have no tolerance for the latter pair. If, however, you’d told me that this particular record was the better produced, better sung, synth-free masterpiece the Sisters never made, I’d have tipped the decrepit old man double… or that it could almost be the template for Suede’s immaculate debut, and may well have been since the latter was produced by the Furs’ keyboard player.

Half a lifetime later (!) I still listen to Book of Days (1989) about as often as, say, The Queen Is Dead (1986); another favourite from the 80s that got me through the grim 90s until British music got back on its feet. Starting out as a chart-friendly mishmash of PiL, and Bowie, before bringing chirpy keyboards to the fore as the Cure had done, on their third and fourth albums, the Furs’ fifth ranks with The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow for lyrical miserabilism. The guitar-parts had always been melodic and sinuous – only occasionally dirty and distorted – but for their dark masterpiece, the Furs layered up lead-guitars that billowed and tore at each other (having been put through wah-wah and chorus pedals), plus prominent melodic bass that carried the songs. In the background – effectively creating a distant horizon, or twilight soundscape, were lower-mixed guitar and keyboard lines that crept into your unconscious; it seemed like it wasn’t there but, in fact, the saxophone that solo’d on so many of their earlier albums, was blended into the furious guitars, adding an extra screech at the limit of the guitars’ range. Having pushed the keyboards and sax away (as if sensing the 80s were over, although they’d always used them more tastefully than most), the Furs were amazingly prescient in their use of cello, paired with acoustic guitars, in a few places. What Nirvana did five years later (trying to break out of their own formulaic sound, and in the process devising a new formula for every chart-metaller from Therapy? to Slipknot) the Furs did in 1989, twice as well.

Overall, it’s an immaculate album; definitely making my Top 50 (of more than 1,500, not including record-company freebies). Nonetheless, I’d write much the same piece on the strength of the title track alone. “Book of Days” is a level of Hellish despair never reached by Morrissey, Andrew Eldritch, John Lydon, Ian Curtis, or Justin Sullivan of New Model Army. Yes, it has a faint surrealism, or mysticism to it, but the core is unmistakeable, gut-wrenching social realism. (That’s to say, Butler’s lyrics – like all of the above – can overlap with, say, those of a Romantic like Robert Smith, but Smith, and uncounted others, either lacks the will or the ability to do social realism, and thereby reach greatness). Over guitars and drums dragging at a funereal pace, but still scraping the sky, Butler intones the life of a woman who never got away, although others have tried to, and in the first verse ‘she’s singing “Don’t forget me boys’, as they leave the unnamed, far Northern town, looking for opportunities in an era when Thatcher let British industry crumble. Two verses on, ‘…she’s thirty and she’s fading / there’s a wasted year for every train that passes’, and – believe me – she doesn’t magically get on the train at the end, either. Over the years, this has remained one of the most haunting songs I’ve ever heard; it sets the tone for most of the album; and much as I like miserabilist music, it’s hard to say whether I’d have gone back to it as often were it not for the alt-rock perfection of “House”, on the second side.

For a rock song from the dire year of 1989, “House” is only approached (but not surpassed) by singles from The Stone Roses’ debut. After that, however, you’d have to wait for Suede’s debut (1993), or Radiohead’s The Bends (1995) to hear anything as catchy, but also sophisticated, in guitar-music. The very first ringing, chorused notes, instantly paint a vast, open, clear-skied soundscape; as soon as you hear the bassline though, ascending and descending the whole length of the fretboard, you know it’s a classic. What’s perverse is: a song that hit Number One on an industry chart for US radio-play somehow failed to become a hit; failed to even chart. Maybe the Furs’ fans were too keen on their synth-pop, or the band were perceived as old by the young fans of the Stone Roses, or actual house-music in its infancy. Somehow a song whose chorus was “we’ll shake this house” both did what it said… and resoundingly didn’t. Maybe the former-fans had heard the relentless misery of the album, and didn’t give the single a chance. For years, the album remained out of print, few of its songs made it onto the compilations, and it never appeared in the multi-packs of early Furs albums: a classic case of an album too early for its time… or the human mind unable to bear too much reality, as TS Eliot puts it.

So – how did the Furs get here? Most people know the band for “Pretty in Pink” – the 80s mega-hit that inspired John Hughes’ film, and (I’d argue) is second only to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent” for crystallizing what it meant to live in Britain through that two-faced decade of Young Upwardly Mobile Persons (with all their fashion crimes), whose embrace of laissez-faire capitalism was directly articulated to the conditions of Increasingly Immobile Persons: the dole culture fostered by Margaret Thatcher. Having described the later Furs as critics of the era, it’s impressive to see that “Pretty in Pink” could still be their archetypal song, rather than something they felt they had to atone for; like, say, Talk Talk, who made the post-rock / avant-pop classic Spirit of Eden only after several years of synth-pop anthems had granted them artistic autonomy.

A single line from “Pretty in Pink” – ‘…she lives in a hole in the side of our lives…’ – says it all; surreal, arresting, eloquent as McCartney’s ‘…wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door’, which AS Byatt described as having all the minimalist perfection of a Beckett play. Yes, “…Pink” is about a girl who ‘…loves to be one of the girls’, but as pop music there’s something very very wrong here; something rotten in Denmark. Musically, it’s what I define as great pop – i.e. it’s got a stronger verse than most 80s songs still in circulation on adult-oriented radio station, rather than just a bland space-filler before a catchy chorus (which seems to be the low benchmark for “good pop”). The greatness comes from the weird, dissonant guitars on the chorus, a kind of musical sneer or leer to match Richard Butler’s voice and lyrics, because “Pretty in Pink”, as he’s explained more than once, means “looks good naked” – as if this insecure girl ‘in the side of our lives’ might be a lovely person, but her real worth to men is only realized (to the wolfish male Id, voiced so well by Butler) when she gets undressed.

Not that this is wholly cynical – plenty of pop, rock, metal, and hiphop songs effectively titillate the listener and leer at women even while they’re pretending to denounce male lust; it’s this double-think that lets people defend a lot of formulaic Horror films and Thrillers. In fact, Butler’s lyrics here are co-extensive with a huge body of work in which he shows himself attuned to that weird discovery all young men make: that it’s only something thin (like a dress, or a mask-like layer of make-up) that nudges the sisters and female friends they knew growing up into that parallel universe of unimagined erotic possibilities, but also unimagined risks (of male resentment, unwelcome attention, violence). Sincere, sharply observed lyrics always have that admixture of the sad and the beautiful, when it comes to the difference between men and women, and in the very best lyrics (and poetry) a dash of surrealism can capture (rather than distort) the mystical sense of what it means to be in one body (and not another) for the duration of an entire life.

The Furs made a lot of good albums during an awful decade for music. Their first was self-important, and in an attempt to be solemn: slow, over-long and boring. Their second, Talk Talk Talk sneered at the bullshit and media-saturation of the 80s to show the class struggle and sexual tension beneath the “New Gold Dream”; yes, they repackaged Gang of Four and PiL as something more chart-friendly (still industrial-sounding, but less black), although at least they started in the right place. For their third and fourth synth-heavy albums (Midnight to Midnight, and Mirror Moves, they almost became the people they despised, although the always-clear, always engaging lyrics redeem the shiny happy music. After their lost fifth album, the Furs would meekly re-integrate keyboards, and tone down the drums. For a moment though… just for a moment, they saw the future. The one we didn’t want to see.

PS - if any of that seemed pompous, you can re-calibrate your seriousness levels here:

Friday, 22 July 2011

POETRY: Jerome Rothenberg's White Sun, Black Sun (1960) - the lost poetry debut of the greatest anthologist of the century

Performance-poet, translator, editor, and arguably the most important anthology-creator of the 20th century, Jerome Rothenberg was born in 1931 in Brooklyn NY, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Whilst serving in the U.S. army, stationed in Germany after World War II, Rothenberg was effectively witness to a moment of cultural collapse comparable to that which provoked the Dadaists’ radical experiments with poetry, theatre, and related arts, from 1916 onwards. As his poem “The History of Dada as My Muse” – and indeed the entire collection That Dada Strain (1980) – attests, Rothenberg views Dada as a manifestation of some universal impulse to dismantle cultural forms, questioning their ideological assumptions, rather than as an expression of dissent that channelled its energies into artistic expression and thereby (paradoxically) affirmed bourgeois values.

Rothenberg’s first publication was New Young German Poets (1959) for New Directions, a collection of translations that effectively introduced American readers to an emergent avant-garde who were ‘part of the generation that’s come of age over the ruins of Hitler’s psychotic Reich’ and were ‘opposing the inherited dead world with a modern, visionary language’. Here, we have the crux of Rothenberg’s subsequent work: a belief that ‘visionary language’, wherever found, will bring about cultural renewal, as well as a sense that there is a connection between Progress and genocide, parallels to which he later perceived in America’s mistreatment of tribal peoples.

New Young German Poets was followed by a book of Rothenberg’s own poetry, White Sun Black Sun (1960), in many respects resembling the work of Paul Celan, with its stark images collocating death, destruction, and torture without quite arriving at any of these, nor distinguishing between emotive metaphors and actual events, so that each poem hovers between nightmare and collective memory. Among the eyes and blades of Rothenberg’s personal symbolism (hinting at the pain of being a witness), the recurrence of colours, especially white and red and black, defamiliarizes the psychical fall-out of the Nazi atrocities without limiting itself to them. Until the late-1960s, Rothenberg’s vision swings between two extremes: as abstract and distant as newsprint in one line, to contrast the visceral, bloody, immanent reality of the next. Never primarily a Holocaust writer, though, Rothenberg considered poetry an exploration of the unconscious, and looked outward to other cultures, or to the past, for poetic practices convergent with the function of religion to bring about re-integration of the human (and even “other-than-human”) community. Below is an excerpt from “Words” (lines 16 – 31):

the sudden
movement of our lips
with breath itself
a language.
Also a language
rising from the earth
or footsteps
like a dance
our words a dance
of breath of
images the single
image of a sun
burning inside us
as we speak

“Words” can be read as a statement of Jerome Rothenberg’s core-beliefs about poetry prior to Ethnopoetics, and in spite of its tendency to abstraction (atypical for Rothenberg during this period, when he had declared himself a “Deep Image” poet), “Words” exemplifies Rothenberg’s commitment to re-oralizing poetry and conveying the “presence” of language. To carve the poem up into several discrete statements would be to ignore the form as an extension of content. For Rothenberg, ‘our words [are] a dance / of breath of / images the single / image of a sun / burning inside us / as we speak’ (lines 26 – 31). Evidently, the poet wishes us to perceive the fluid movement, or procession, of ideas throughout the entire poem, hence there is no sharp separation between words and images, poetry and dance: they are all syntactically connected, encouraging readers or listeners to apprehend their complex dynamic inter-relation, without the poem disintegrating into a mass of fragments.

To this end, Rothenberg introduced the concept of the “deep image” in 1960, a term first used in his Poems from the Floating World magazine, which presented ‘international poets outside the New Critical framework.’ The Deep Image school of poets was one of the major movements of the 1960s, bringing Jungian theories of the subconscious to the tenets of Imagism(e), which Ezra Pound had launched in 1912. In the words of Paul Christensen, Deep Image poets assume that ‘order lay in the depths of the mind, where individuality vanished into primitive holism’. Deep Image poetry is relevant here as a precursor to Ethnopoetics, which would differentiate itself from this mid-century American manifestation of primitivism by involving poets and anthropologists. Ethnopoetics would also focus on the orality of tribal and indigenous (formerly “primitive”) poetries, and the poetics extant in situ, rather than applying exogenous concepts and forms.

In 1964, Rothenberg and other Deep Image poets began performing the songs and chants of various cultures at a series of readings dedicated to ‘primitive & archaic’ poetry, held at the Poets Hardware Theater in New York. By taking shamanism as a model for poetic practice from the mid-1960s onwards, Rothenberg demonstrates that poets may still be healers, if only in the limited sense that they articulate collective anxieties at times of cultural crisis.

By the time Rothenberg formally instigated the Ethnopoetics project in 1968, he intended to address the violence of the mid-20th century (reflected in his early poetry) with a new creative principal: the model of the poet as shaman, visionary, and healer. This use of the shaman is the most thoroughly scrutinized aspect of Rothenberg’s poetry, the poetry of Ethnopoetics, and indeed it is one of the major topoi of 1960s and 1970s American poetry. Nonetheless, I intend to consider some extensions of (what is loosely termed) “shamanic practice” so as to sidestep the usual conclusions of criticism dwelling on the identification of avant-garde poets with these healers / madmen / seers. In Rothenberg’s poems “Cokboy” from Poland / 1931 (1974), various selections from A Seneca Journal (1978) and “Yaqui 1982” from That Dada Strain (1983), the cross-cultural visions and hybrid rituals suggest strategies for overcoming the limitations of normative conceptions of history, as well as cultural identity, rather than nostalgically invoking a figure from the past.

Rothenberg acknowledges that for centuries American and Western European poets have been looking to tribal and indigenous peoples to understand their own culture (resulting in various “primitivisms”) but his own approach, after Dadaism, entails a more creative cross-breeding of cultural traditions. A specific culture’s “poetry” (as Rothenberg conceives it) is not a monolithic canon of texts that progressively accretes layers whilst retaining a solid core of classics, but instead a living corpus comprised by innumerable performances (of oral poetries) and readings (of literal ones).

[This essay splices together the openings of Chapters 1 & 3 of the author's doctoral dissertation]

BOOK: Carson McCullers' lost masterpiece - Clock Without Hands (1961)

Among the foremost writers of the American Deep South, Carson McCullers remains second only to William Faulkner, and has been compared to many of the finest writers in the English language. Generations of writers have re-discovered her, although curiously enough, for all the successive schools of literary criticism that have emerged, McCullers has never been claimed as a queer writer (say), which might have drawn more attention to what makes her so remarkable. Not that this is the best fit, by any means, since the predominant preoccupation of her stories, above race or “existential issues” are anxieties about gender and sexual identity, puberty, adolescence, and life as a heteronormative woman. To borrow a term from anthropology, we might say that McCullers excels in her exploration of liminality, although this may be a more abstract way of saying that McCullers' major concern seems to be with "passing" (a term of considerable importance in studies of race, and a comparable significance in queer- and gender-studies). Most critics have focused on representations of music, race, or freaks in her work, but none (that I am aware of) have suggested that these might be connected. As an unsuccessful musician, McCullers may have seen an analogy between “making the grade” and “passing (examinations)” and the performance of racial and/or sexual identity. The freak is one who cannot pass… and as such compelled to over-compensate.

Biographically, McCullers presents a counterpoint to a better known heroine of the melancholy teen intellectual, Sylvia Plath. Both were recruited for the long-defunct Ms. magazine; McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was an instant success, displaying a sophistication surpassing many another novel, let alone début novels. What drew attention at the time was its depiction of race, but it would have been apparent to a readership acquainted with Beckett and Joyce that here too was an existential parable of enduring resonance. At the centre of the narrative is a mute, John Singer, who accommodates the projections of an array of characters, each comforted by his silence, and inspired. Among these are a black doctor campaigning for civil rights, and a gynandrous young girl much like McCullers herself, determined to become a famous composer – a plan disrupted by her younger brother’s accidental shooting.

McCullers’ second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, confirmed her talent, but was not a huge leap. The protagonist hardly merits the word, having only ever made two or three conscious decisions in his entire life. There are echoes of Camus in the depiction of a mentally subnormal soldier who eventually commits a murder, but the novel is more interesting as an act of catharsis for its author, then entangled in an unhealthy relationship with a serviceman, himself a failed writer.

The Member of the Wedding, McCullers’ third novel centres on another pubescent female identified by one reviewer as a cousin of Mick Kelly. Frances Jasmine, AKA F Jasmine, AKA Frankie – one novel for each section of the novel – is if anything a more complex figure. The three names signal that the novel is a rite of passage, an anthropological concept with which McCullers was probably acquainted from the work of Arnold Van Gennep. As the title suggests, the novel explores FJ’s desire to be a “member of the wedding” that is to say, to be the third party in the marriage of her older sister and her fiancé. The allegory should be self-evident, but what interests me is the use of grotesquerie in this novel, much more than its predecessors, to express sexual anxieties. Images of the protagonist crossing the threshold of the kitchen carrying a knife foreshadow later sexual violence, and the visit to the freakshow reflects a prepubescent discomfort with the body. If I have my timeline correct, McCullers was by this point paralysed, and her husband’s drinking problems worsening. In the novel, F Jasmine’s sexual initiation is with a soldier on leave; not only statutory rape, but almost actual rape.

Grotesquerie is exaggerated to a fabular degree in the title story from McCullers’ best known work, the collection that followed. The Ballad of Sad Café stars a lesbian emotionally involved with a hunchback, and if it superficially lacks the pathos of earlier works, the author’s deliberate and almost callous emphasis on deformity reveals a growing contempt for humanity. Miss Amelia, the etymology of whose name – “limbless” – suggests both castration and psychical immobility – is not unsympathetic, but shown to be emotionally stunted. The fight resolves very little; it renders sexual violence comic rather than tragic, precluding notions about the nobility of suffering.

McCullers’ greatest literary achievement – displaying all the techniques of the earlier works at once – is Clock Without Hands, a novel currently out-of-print, but surely not lost forever. Like Absalom Absalom, the novel maps the socio-historic process of integration and/or assimilation onto a homosexual seduction or coming-out narrative. In fact, the seduction is never achieved, and Jester is unable to prevent the lynching of a half-caste, the son of a man his own father failed to defend years before, in his first and last court case before his suicide. I'll say no more, since that should be intriguing enough - it's well worth tracking down.

[updated from notes for a postgraduate seminar, from July 2005]

MUSIC: God’s Mama, God’s Mama (SM Press), 2010

God’s Mama, God’s Mama (SM Press), 2010

It’s tempting to use anaemic Reviewer’s Algebra for this – “Lydia Lunch fronts The Birthday Party”, say – because, God’s Honest Truth, it’s the sound of the vagina dentata gnashing. Where so many female vocalists in Really Heavy Bands play on the contrast with whispers, drawls, or the deliberately thin voice of their inner child, Sibyl Madrigal, a Texan performance poet, growls and snarls to match the post-punk / slowcore grind. Poe’s ‘Black Cat’, as read by Diamanda Galas, springs to mind. As a poet, though, Madrigal never loses sight of the imperative to be intelligible, and you’d almost wish she didn’t because this is a mixture of Swampland and Spiderland, Revisited, after the first two tracks. No criticism of the opening salvo, but they’re more explosive; Alex Ward’s chorus guitars on ‘Death on the NHS’ shriek like an incoming missile, before the verse guitars scrape metal on metal, PiL- or GO4-style.

Taking a cue from Angela Carter, ‘Just Stephen’ puts the blood and guts back into fairy tales – then the lips and eyebrows for good measure. It’s Psycho merged with “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”, soundtracked by Slint. You might think you’ve heard this before – it’s second wave feminism, after all, and Mogwai nabbed the same riff – but small details like the mad matriarch’s injunction against “big naughty bad” and Stephen’s “wibbley-wobbley dance” are what make this. Next up, ‘Carpet Shark’ nails the sensation of a bad trip in two words. At the album’s centre, ‘Solid Shit’ could have been the band’s moment of indulgence at 2am in the studio – a catalogue of squelchy blues clichés – but the band have the technical ability to pull off a Zappa homage, and the lyric fits with the album’s confrontational mission. Similarly, ‘Goon Spy’ can nod to Shellac like they’re equals, rather than cribbing, because “This ain’t some kind of metaphor; this is real!” is an ideology, not a copyrighted catchphrase; plus, Albini hasn’t covered female voyeurism. Yet.

On the second side, Madrigal proves herself relentlessly inventive in her iconoclasm. ‘Mad MacB’s Love Lament’ drops the witchiness for a hideous falsetto (Crone turned Maiden). It’s the deformed inner child of X-Factor contestants squealing for attention; the way Wire-readers hear chart-music; the song Lynch thought too horrible to have the Lady in the Radiator sing. We’ve already had one take on Bad Motherhood (‘Just Stephen’) but ‘Sow Souwester’ doesn’t even humanize this particular Earth Mother; over a freeform backing, Madrigal oinks and grunts the apotheosis of the sow-goddess. The album’s closer ‘We Come from Fish’ brings everything together: it’s a refutation of Creationism, a shamanic dive into the pre-conscious, a reclamation of hatewords (used by men and self-hating women, alike). Plus, it rocks as hard as Slint, Shellac, Codeine, Come; whoever you care to name. 20 years ago, Kim Gordon deadpanned: “England didn’t invent punk-rock; girls did.” It’s a provocative stance, and the girls of this decade’s post-punk revival have certainly lasted longer. God’s Mama point to the flaw: where are all the Women still making punk?

[Not previously published]

MUSIC: The Triffids... and a meditation on obscurity

The Triffids, Come Ride with Me: 10xCD BOX-SET (Domino)

Way back at the beginning of the Britpop era, the Melody Maker published a paperback of Great Lost Albums, in which Andrew Mueller asked rhetorically “Why REM, and not the Go-Betweens?” It’s a question I’ve pondered for many rival bands, because the answer is always a sad combination of market forces and the unglamorous X-Factor competition that naturally selects (or de-selects) all artists. A band like the Go-Bs might be too twee, or too loose, for mass appeal, whereas an REM would get in the back of the van, and learn how to play to tough crowds. (Of course, REM also had a great intuitive surrealist whose voice sounded sensual before his actual meanings crept up on you, whereas liking the Go-Bs required a taste for metaphors that walked the line of ridicule.)

So – in a race between Australians only – “why The Go-Betweens AND The Bad Seeds, but not the Triffids?” Pitching their tent somewhere between the Twee and the Bad-Ass, The Triffids should have been contenders… and almost turned coming-from-the-most-remote-city-on-earth to their advantage. They had the literate lead-singer, with the heroin habit (David McComb); they had a future member of the Bad Seeds (Martyn P Casey); they had a female singer for duets and twee solos (Jill Birt); they had their own take on country rock… and they had string arrangements years before the Bad Seeds. Oh Yes, and they had that sine-qua-non of Antipodean pop: the male voice choir, sounding both spiritual and rugged.

If the previous Best Of (_Australian Melodrama_ – worst artwork EVER) suggested The Triffids were unsure where they stood (but had the songs to guarantee cult status) the box-set explains it all: you’d be overwhelmed if you had this much material to choose from. Basically, this 211 (that’s Two-Hundred-and-Eleven) track box-set offers up a slightly re-sequenced Best Of; 4 CDs of early material, running to almost 5 hours; 3 live-shows from St Kilda (1984), LSE (1984), and Melbourne University (1988); and the Jack Brabham sessions.

Perhaps most desirable here is CD2: _Early Singles and EPs_. Without being overtly twee, it’s where the banded sounded the closest to The Go-Betweens, or early Belle & Sebastian. Gradually, the darker songs creep in (‘Twisted Brain’ and ‘Left to Rot’), but so do the songs with simple violin arrangements, culminating in ‘Beautiful Waste’ (Track 13) where trumpets join the strings. By ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ (Track 15), where the Hammond swirls eerily as the drums pound, they’ve shown themselves almost the equal of the Bad Seeds, even managing to pull off a nine-minute cow-punk epic (‘Field of Glass’).

The six early cassettes offer a glimpse of the Triffids in their wonky DIY phase: a little bit Half Japanese, a little bit Moldy Peaches; often, uncannily like Beat Happening before Beat Happening. Granted, they lack the laugh-out-loud jokes of the AFNY bands at their best, but it’s always endearing, like The Quadratics in Todd Solondz’ debut, _Welcome to the Doll’s House_, especially on Track 5 with its coconut percussion and everyone a beat behind everyone else, or a note below, yelping “grow old! Grow old! Philosophical stroll – if you can’t dig it, it’s your bad luck!” By their fifth cassette, The Triffids have written the first track to get a proper release (‘Farmers Never Visit Nightclubs’), and tightened up considerably, with prominent, chiming bass lines; plus, McComb’s geeky, adolescent lisp has all but vanished, as the singer flirts with a more yobbish persona, not unlike The Feelies (in the US) or The Television Personalities (in the UK). Still, they’re not faking anything, being aware of their own preposterousness when they sing: “surfer boy, surfer boy / in chains and leather” (Track 6) against chirpy keyboard lines and the first female vocals (hopelessly out-of-key). In fact, the punk stylings are gone as soon as they arrive, replaced by a dalliance with 60s pop pastiche. It’s here that the Triffids sound most Belle & Sebastian with a nice line in comic juxtapositions (“Now the orderly takes your elbow / now the angels want back their halo”).

Moving on… it’s impressive just how tight and crisp-sounding the live albums are, compared to the foregoing five hours. For a ten-album box-set, there’s very little sense of the material being repetitive, and it’s great to be able hear the 1984 and 1988 sets back to back (the latter opening with ‘Wide Open Road’, with supreme confidence; it’s keyboard-heavy in lieu of a choir, but this makes it a desirable alternative rather than a weak compromise). To be brutally honest, the St Kilda set (April 1984) sucks – sound and song-choices both – but by October 1984 they’re playing some of their classics, and by 1988 they’re playing a set to rival the Best Of. The only mystery is why they repeatedly murder ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’, having learned nothing from 1984 to 1988. David McComb is a fine crooner in his own right, so why leave out all the grace notes and glide, belting it out one word at a time? To be fair, the Elvis-in-Hawaii arrangement (for the 1988 version) is a reverent fan’s joke, but it’s not a classic cover. In a similar vein, the retro-country and synth-schmaltz pastiches on the Jack Brabham sessions (CDs 9 & 10) occasionally fall flat as jokes, as they hadn't when the band actually were kids, but you get unlikely covers of Kraftwerk and Madonna, and it's worth digging around for tracks like 'Femme Fatale' or 'Into the Groove'. Look out for an interview hidden on CD5, as well.

MUSIC: Lost albums of the 2000s

Lost albums of the 2000s

[a short survey of the not-very-obscure for, anticipating the present project]

As the sharks circle, it becomes apparent we’re going to need a bigger caveat for what constitutes a Great Lost Album… The 2000s was the decade when every serious music fan went online, and the idea of “Lost Music” changed radically – there’s always a troll out there ready to denounce you as a shameless bandwagon-jumper for buying Jandek CDs from Amazon (“…compact discs! I bought the first LP when Sterling was recording as The Units, back in 1978!”). Speaking of Jandek (famously touted by ubergeek Kurt Cobain, along with The Raincoats and Daniel Johnston), it’s likely he came out of hiding, and played his first live set of groaning, crashing freeform noise rock, precisely because of his Internet fanbase. So, maybe Glasgow Sunday (2004) is the first great “found album”? His metaphysical quest narrative, Manhattan Tuesday: Afternoon of Insensitivity (2007), replete with classical piano and minimal drones is also kinda stunning, establishing him as the one of the greatest improvisers around.

Going back a bit, into the mists of time, the first dedicated fansite I ever saw was at university, in 1997, when green-on-black computers were dying out. That was for Slint, who reformed early in the decade, having made THEE cult album of the 1990s with the prog-metal reviving, post-rock foreshadowing Spiderland (1991). There’s a reason Slint fans were some of the first to exploit the internet: it’s smart, erudite, nocturnal music. Mainman Brian MacMahon broke silence with The For Carnation (2000), which superfan Stuart Braithwaite described as sounding “like Leonard Cohen in the jungle” – yeah, it’s that good. Thinking of slowcore / mathrock / the roots of postrock, check out The New Years: the Kadane Brothers’ post-Bedhead band, for the 2000s. Similarly, Early Day Miners are a great lost band; that’s to say, they’ve had a great career at the intersection of slowcore and post-rock, with very few people listening. Their best records are: Let Us Garlands Bring (2002), All Harm Ends Here (2004), and Offshore (2006), which extends their epic set-closer, originally on Garlands, into a 37 minute album.

In a sense, the early years of many a fine band will be peppered with “lost albums”. Okkervil’s Will Sheff rudely claimed to “pay the rent” for Shearwater (his mate Jonathan Meiberg’s band) by indirectly advertising their existence. Check out Winged Life (2004), for an even-split between Meiberg and Sheff’s most accessible and upbeat alt-folk compositions, although it’s the Talk Talk-tinged Palo Santo (2006) and Rook (2008) that have taken Shearwater out of complete obscurity, and The Golden Archipelago (2010) already has some of the most beautiful songs of the NEXT decade on it, no matter how it’s produced. Assuming you HAVE heard of alt country poet laureate Jason Molina, the man behind Songs:Ohia / Magnolia Electric Co, it’s worth pointing out that J-Mo makes great limited edition albums in his sleep. Mi Sei Apparso Come Un Fantasmo (2001), a Neil Young meets Codeine reworking of some S:O classics, plus four unreleased songs, is worth tracking down, as are Pyramid Electric Co (2004), and Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go (2007), the latter written and recorded in one day.

Moving over to hiphop, it was startling to see the absence of Anticon / Big Dada artists in Pitchfork’s recent rundown of the decade. Where was cLOUDDEAD’s astonishing debut, described at the time as “Cypress Hill play Kid A”? (I’d say Digable Planets meet the Marx Brothers.) Surreal, experimental hiphop was taken to another level by the collective, led by Sole, himself responsible for the superb Selling Live Water (2002). Only in the last few years has Why? (one-third of The ’DEAD) become a minor indie star for US college students, who probably mistake him for a Silver Jews fan. With Subtle, DoseOne (another third of cLOUDDEAD) made a bizarre This Heat-does-hiphop concept trilogy something like The Neverending Story meets (Pink Floyd’s) The Wall. Sadly, it’s not great-great, but it’s part of an unparalleled career that continues with Themselves. More racially mixed, the Def Jux label arose in the 2000s, centred on CoFlow mainman El Producto, a corpulent ginger guy. His production for Cannibal Ox made The Cold Vein an instant classic, but his two solo albums to date have earned him the tag “the Trent Reznor of hiphop”.

Assuming you’re all Pitchfork’d up, you probably do know about Meadowlands (2004) by The Wrens, which could easily have been a sad mid-life crisis of a record, nostalgicized by US college-rock fans turned journalists, and was narrowly pipped to album of the year by… oh some Nucks with strings. In fact, the Wrens had an even more despairing story of divorce, despair, debt that they managed to make sound engaging, if not emotionally generous – their twin-guitar and piano-attack probably helped, too. Thinking of bands fuelled by romantic misery, check out (Australian Red House Painters & Low fans) Art of Fighting. Centred on one of the more sickeningly gorgeous couples, it’s as if Jeff Buckley stopped showing off (oh, and hadn’t died; that too). Their first full-length, Wires (2002), is their best, although there IS a lost mini-album for obscurists: Empty Nights (1999).

Hohum. What else? There’s a guy who works in a mental hospital, who keeps putting out records as Super XX Man. There Will Be Diamonds (2008) combines the charming naivety of Half Japanese and Daniel Johnston, with the gut-wrenching beauty of Galaxie 500 and Yo La Tengo in their prime. Nadja have started re-recording their CD-Rs of ambient-doom-metal (or extreme shoegaze); These Are Powers show there’s life-after-Liars for the sacked rhythm section who made They Threw Us in a Trench; Marnie Stern’s outstanding guitarisms (Sleater Who?) mean that her yet-more-obscure influences Ocrilim and Hella won’t remain lost forever… and so on. Here’s to a decade where no-one gets lost… they just take the time to develop without so much pressure.