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.

MUSIC: Harmonia & Eno, Tracks and Traces ’76

Harmonia & Eno, Tracks and Traces ’76 (Groenland)

For the uninitiated, Harmonia were one of those legendary collaborations from the fertile period of Krautrock without which no Electro, Techno, or Post-Rock, as we know them. Comprised of Michael Rother (from Neu!), and Moebius & Roedelius (better known as Cluster), the trio were re-united by Eno on a break between two of his best records, Another Green World (1975) and Before and After Science (1977). Any one branch of the family tree should prompt some intrigue, but taken together, you can see why this re-working of lost recordings (first released in 1997) was one of the most exciting discoveries for audiophiles, in recent years. It’s much more than pop trivia to note that Eno was (literally) on his way to work with Bowie, on Low; there’s a fairly useful metaphor in there, too.

Okay. That’s the bit that writes itself. As anyone who’s tried to navigate Krautrock knows, with or without Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler to hand, there’s a lot of unlistenable experimentation from the early years of Kluster, Neu!, and Kraftwerk, that sounds like the elevator music in a capricious spaceship designed by Douglas Adams. There’s also a lot of crossover with late-60s psychedelia made by German hippies whose commune-derived ideals meant that everyone got to “express themselves”. Fear not: there’s a melodic strength here, and a tastefulness in the choice of sounds that puts you in mind of some of the finest contemporary musicians, who can’t help but be captivating even when they’re at their most experimental and commercially suicidal (e.g. the offcuts from Kid A / Amnesiac that surfaced as B-Sides; Low on Drums & Guns; Sigur Ros on Von).

Coming relatively late in the day – when sonic experimentation didn’t take hours of re-wiring custom-built machines, and therefore could be combined with musical improvisation while the excitement remained – the predominant sense is of a microbial zoo where strange new sounds shuffle and jitter about, like little biological machines on the cusp of sentience or personality. That’s to say, the tracks-as-lifeforms are never entirely mechanical in their precise, looped rhythms, because the minimal melodic variation suggests the little critters exploring; groping towards consciousness or meaning. In the years before computers (as we know them), Harmonia & Eno used a lot of analogue reverb and gating, so that distorted or fuzzed pulses could be clipped rather than bleeding together – that’s where the submerged sound comes from. Around this time, Kraftwerk were talking about the Man-Machine, which has had an immeasurable influence on popular music, but Harmonia & Eno seem to have kept any ideas about the Machine-Organism to themselves: it’s something that the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada seem to re-discover periodically, without the need for rhetoric. This is the world under the microscope: another direction for instrumental music distinct from the soundscapes of ambient, the 100mph rush down the autobahn of ‘Krautrock’ and ‘Hallogallo’, and the emotional drama of post-rock.

For those who know the 1997 version, ‘Welcome’ is a stunning addition to the album that Krautrock completists already know contains some of the best work by all concerned. Taken from Rother’s tapes, it has both horizontal and vertical movement: his subtle slide-guitar raising the listener to the gentlest ecstasy. ‘Helicon 1’ by Mogwai had been a personal musical epiphany back in ’97, but so was ‘The Big Ship’ (from Eno’s Another Green World) when I heard it a year later – showing that the “post-rock dynamic” was neither new, nor incompatible with minimal electronica. Elsewhere on the album, ‘Almost’ is a masterpiece – an apex of beautiful songwriting for all concerned, although it feels most like Eno’s work. Starting out with the plaintive twitter of a mechanical bird, singing alone (vwi-vwi, vwi-vwi…! vwi-vwi, vwi-vwi…!) an almost subliminal electric piano echoes its rhythm, evoking its sadness at not being quite real. After a few bars, these are joined by a delicate, minimally processed piano played with classical grace, that promises a place where these machines can escape their destiny of mindless routines.

Conceptually, something similar is going on in ‘Les Desmoiselles’, which contrasts an almost idiotically chugging steam engine rhythm, with more elegant synth melodies, as if to question the definition of good taste. There are some clues to the foursome’s awareness of how groundbreaking their music was in the title of the track (as in ‘Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, Picasso’s primitivist reworking of an impressionist classic, inspired by African carvings). For listeners who grew up in the 80s, incongruous synth-tones were par for the course, due to pre-sets on keyboards, and many have (thankfully) been selected out of the breeding pool, since then; in the hands of Harmonia & Eno, though, there’s always an underlying awareness of the need to work out what each new sound best expresses, after all: pre-sets didn’t exist.

Closest to the whimsical side of 70s Eno is ‘Luneberg Heath’ (whose lyric runs “don’t get lost on / Lun-e-berg Heath…” over and over). The unidentified instrument here sound like a synthetic tuba, but the jolly idiocy of the riff allows for surprising emotional tweaks when it changes direction – think ‘NY Conversation’ from Lou Reed’s Transformer (a possible influence). Eno’s vocal has the subtle menace of his own ‘Dead Finks Don’t Talk’, ‘The Fat Lady of Limburg’, and various Roxy tracks – that bad-trip moment 70s songwriters do so well, when you’re about to plunge into Wonderland, or the clown’s about to peel off his face, but you have no idea how bad it’s going to be, beneath.

Central to the album is the fifteen minute ‘Sometimes in Autumn’ – their space-rock outing. It’s musically and sonically similar to the longer soundscapes Pink Floyd had been making (the side-long ‘Echoes’, from Meddle; Wright’s instrumental segments within ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’), and opens with a sort of minimalist version of a Roger Waters bass-riff (those two-note thrums approximating a helicopter). None of the artists involved were quite so varied within one album, or within one track, as here; its inclusion makes you think of the range of styles thrown into Faust IV (home to the original ‘Krautrock’), although fortunately not the dire sonic collage that is The Faust Tapes.

Yes, this is a collection of Tracks and Traces, meticulously edited in the late-90s, and again more recently, so that none of the musical ideas out-stay their welcome – in this respect, it’s not quite an album, and when the less melodically surprising tracks fade out, you feel like you’re moving along to the next case in the exhibit, whereas other albums by Cluster, Harmonia, or Cluster & Eno sustain a mood, and often a weird nervous energy, with their generally more urgent rhythms. It’s damning with faint praise to call this “the best collection of fugitive pieces by musical innovators you won’t regret buying” but that’s what it is.

[previously published on DiS]

POETRY / CARTOONS: Silver Jews' frontman, and Actual Air author turns cartoonist

David Berman, The Portable February (Drag City)

Fending off the obvious questions – Why review David Berman’s cartoons? Why review cartoons at all…? – it saves plenty of time to be able to point to the article “Ten Years of Actual Air” in this month’s Believer. Ten years ago, the Silver Jews mainman published a poetry collection that ‘in poetry terms’ has sold triple platinum. So what? you might say, but as the author goes on to argue, “Who actually read Billy Corgan’s poems? Did you even know Jeff Tweedy put out a collection, at all?” Alternative-music consumers aren’t suckers when it comes to poetry, any more than Jewel’s fans.

What makes The Portable February so intriguing is that it’s Berman’s first book since a genuine landmark in US poetry; it’s his first since embracing Judaism; his first since “outing” his own father as a corporate lobbyist of the most diabolical stripe; and it’s his first “release” of any kind since dissolving the Joos. If you’re prurient about Berman’s output since his suicide attempt, you’re looking in the wrong place, but if you’ve been following the saga closely, you may be legitimately curious about how he can possibly think that cartooning is a meaningful alternative to the Joos, and how this works as an extension of his medium-transcending poetics.

So. Here are some notes I made on the book that I desperately wanted to be a sequel to Actual Air:

AA = 40% (US poet-laureate-if-they-had-one) John Ashbery; 70% Kenneth Fearing; 60% Wallace Stevens; 40% Kenneth Patchen-the-poet
TPF = 10% Gary Larson; 30% David Shrigley; 20% Pepperland; 40% Hopi Indian petroglyphs; 60% Outsider Art, e.g. Bobby Baker’s Mental Illness Diaries; 60% Kenneth Patchen-the-great-lost-US-poet, in ultra-naïve illustrator mode.
Why use percentages? Isn’t this all a bit “Pitchfork Media gives Music 6.8”? (As The Onion put it…)

When Berman’s in one-panel, Larson / Shrigley mode, he’s sometimes cringeworthy, e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, with CND button, marching in a protest, with placard that reads “US out of Transylvania”; OR, two caterpillars on a twig watching a butterfly, with a swastika on its wing, the one saying “it’s just a phase”. Hasn’t that cartoon about the butterflies already been done, by Larson or one of his imitators? (It’s a relief that the facing page to Frankenstein’s monster has a movie-theatre showing something called ‘Nightingales Imprisoned in Parallelograms © 1918’ – that’s the Berman we love.) The intriguing detail is the swastika – the joke works without it, but Berman dots them about TPF (as he did with the Joos’ artwork and lyrics), fascinated with the way that repetition nullifies but never eradicates the Nazi legacy, and/or his own neurotic tendency to see everywhere these (and other) signs of persecution / collective evil / human beings’ fondness for investing arbitrary symbols with enormous power. So, let’s assume TPF is meant to be taken holistically; it has rhythms as much as it has hooks (a tree – bird – star motif being one of the most common). Here’s The Portable February at its most quotable, sententious, self-contained:

“We start out Life having won a race AND Wind up humbled by the void”
“I lay in bed & listened to my clock radio. They played a song called ‘Sara’ every night. The lyrics went: “drowning in a sea of love, where everyone would love to drown.” It seemed evil, for someone to want to drown.” (NB – prone figure seems to have his head detached)

That’s almost it – you couldn’t put together all the text in TPF to make a single poem that might have made it into AA. That’s not to say that the two are entirely incomparable – you could (and probably should) come up with your own supply of fresh Bermania just by describing many of the squiggles – but as it happens, Berman is at his most interesting (and successful) when he deliberately departs from the syntax of the traditional 6–8 panel cartoon. Many of these are clever, even beautiful. Like a Joseph Cornell assemblage, disparate drawings or mini one-panel cartoons are slotted into unequal frames, some empty. There’s a suggestion of pseudo-scientific typologies; the three-dimensional collage that is a museum; the cognitive dissonance of stories about celebrities, murders, and the economy in the panels and photos of a newspaper’s lay-out. Implicitly, but undeniably, the puzzle to figure out Berman is the ongoing puzzle to figure out our own world, at a perceptual, pre-verbal level.

So, Berman subverts assumptions of linearity, causality, and so on, in a way that reveals the plasticity of the mind & imagination as much as it explores social mores, or whatever a cartoonist’s supposed to do. He’s not doing this all the time – there are an awful lot of zero-skill squiggles, with negligible humour – but this is meta-cartooning (or the visual branch of metafiction). One of the most linear examples connects its panels by panning in and out, focusing on a different detail from one panel to the next; taking us down a corridor, then focusing on the plug-socket, showing two-scenes through its holes, choosing the distant house in the left over the bird-tree-star scene in the right, flying through its window, and so on. Another multi-panel cartoon relates the grisly (if ambiguous) consequences of an animal visiting the butchers, flying away like a ghost or superhero, and then posits “Be Your Own Kin”, which can only have the most tentative relation to the above. All very dream-like.

Regrettably, the one thing I haven’t mentioned so far, that actually made me so excited about The Natural Bridge way back in 1995, and then AA, in 1999 (let alone TPF, in 2008) isn’t actually included here. “What is the Natural Bridge?” may be this writer’s rarest item of music-related ephemera, and certainly one of the more valuable in terms of developing a poetic sensibility. It’s hard to convey its charm, but it still makes me hope Berman will try harder if this is what he seriously means to do:

**“What Is the Natural Bridge?”**

It’s a contract between species (man brandishes paper at wild beast)
It’s science fiction without the science (tentacled creature brandishes tentacles)
It’s a rejected state capitol design (ah! So that’s what those futuristic buildings in TPF are)
It’s a promise between strangers (US flag, natch)
It’s made by your eye (two sides of a gorge with dotted line denoting bridge)
…and so on.

The best thing TPF may do is to send you back to AA with a renewed appreciation for its poetics. It’s a lot less weird than first impressions suggest. ‘Governors on Sominex’ is a traditional poem inasmuch as it patterns its sententia in a rhythmed fashion, dispersed among the “purely visual” (albeit fantastic) images; these sententia take the form of semi-abstract images (“she was the light by which he travelled from this to that”), and reveal the always-tacit impulse to console the reader in the sad realization of life’s repetitiveness – formulated through the abstract “new ways of understanding to throw at the same days”, and so on. In a sense, Berman crystallizes the essence of song & poetry alike in these lines, but the quoted lines are only successful – i.e. convincing rather than cloying – because of his deft balance between the familiar and the fantastic, showing the push from Experience to Ideal, whilst gently nudging the reader to understanding by hinting at what he’s aiming for.

Ultimately, TPF may not provide the deep immersion of Actual Air, which felt like spiritual consolation for Gnostics and Agnostics alike, in an exquisite expression of Whitmanian cultural democracy (mobilizing the symbols of your daily lives to approach metaphysical truths). In its best moments, though, and taken together, TPF approaches the inexhaustible allure of a melody; pleasurable in itself, and all the more reassuring for countering the compulsion to seek the New, to Use Once & Destroy, by pushing towards an openness of interpretation that may well be the characteristics of Art that makes it so threatening to Commerce: that you can come back to it, that it isn’t built with inherent vice, that its value is ‘made by your eye’.

GIG: The Lost Songs of Richey Manic, Live

Manic Street Preachers @ The Roundhouse, Camden May 28, 2009

It’s a strange ritual, the initiation by Electrical Audio, and only for the pure of heart. Shorn of overdubs, and naked but for your instrument, you confront a man known as “Whippet”, and in less than an hour you’re shown your true worth. Some have passed through into legend (Spiderland, In Utero, After Murder Park), others have been pure, but their weapons were wrong (Mogwai, GYBE!), and then… then there’s the rank failures, like Razorblade Suitcase. Whether it comes to be regarded as great or merely good, Journal for Plague Lovers was always going to be an important release.

So. Leaving aside discussion of the lyrics of Richard James Edwards (as we’re calling him now), Manic Street Preachers have learned to play Journal for Plague Lovers live, under the tutelage of Steve Albini, and they’re going to do so tonight, in its entirety. You already know it’s the best album they’ve made – sonically – in years, and if you haven’t played it on shuffle with the rest of their opus, you should. Tonight’s show at The Roundhouse, Camden, could almost be a “Don’t Look Back” set, for an album that would have been legendary if anyone dared to believe Richey’s carefully guarded folder of lyrics would ever surface.

Studying the set-dressing (lots of smoke; that banned album-cover, by Jenny Saville; nothing else), and listening closely to the wording of James Dean Bradfield’s introduction, you can tell this series of shows isn’t meant to be a wake, or an elegy, or a requiem for the dead. There’s no painful sense of Richey’s absence… and no attempts to assert his presence by making the stage a shrine. As friends and band-members, the Manics have worked through the rituals, the legal protocol, and even the ritual of authenticity (only half-jokingly) described above. This is the band, remember, who played without Richey, in 1994, so as to pay his hospital bills. Theatrical by design, not by nature.

Anyhow: as a performance, you get the same sense that Journal is a muscular record, a well-poised record, a typology of thoroughly modern characters (‘Me and Stephen Hawking’, ‘Jackie Collins’ Existential Question’) that almost complete Edwards’ intellectual trajectory from the Political to the Personal – he wants to believe in the “table for two / such a sweet delight…” but can’t quite relate. This doesn’t make the record (and its lyrics) a failure; rather, it’s an exemplary struggle to share everyone else’s normality. ‘Marlon JD’ is greeted with the most furious pointing of fingers, and LED-displays on cameras glow like cigarette lighters during the acoustic numbers.

Having only heard it three or four times though, the record stands up pretty damn well – in fact, it’s almost distracting to watch how efficiently JDB darts about the stage, trading his white Gibson for an acoustic, and introducing the string quartet, so that the performance feels seamless, unlike an actual Don’t Look Back gig. It occurs to me that this is what “Lifetime Achievements” are for – doing the duckwalk like Chuck Berry, spinning around on one foot, gabbling out all those lyrics – JDB should get some kind of Trooper of the Year award. If only Nicky hadn’t injured his back it wouldn’t look so much like James is over-compensating, or as Nicky puts it: “up at 7am for an interview on breakfast television; running around, playing four guitars at once… Mister James Dean Bradfield: my ultimate guitar hero…!”

A Greatest Hits set follows. It’s not yet apparent which of the new songs would have made the grade – ‘Peeled Apples’? ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’? – but that’s no criticism. ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is up first, in a double gesture of confidence and historical importance: this is how good we were from the Word Go, and this is how unfazed we are, when it comes to matching past glories. ‘Your Love Is Not Enough’ follows – the only song, it seems, from the three later (and lesser?) albums – but sounds strong. Having focused so heavily on “Richey’s album” in the first set, the second set only has one song apiece from Gold Against the Soul (1993) and The Holy Bible (1995), those documents of his physical decline… and mental peak. After ‘No Surface’, ‘You Love Us’, and ‘Tsunami’, we get the defiant singles ‘La Tristessa Durera’ and ‘Faster’. Either song could have been the highlight, but the best are delivered as a fistful, with ‘If you tolerate this…’ (from This Is My Truth…) and ‘Little Baby Nothing’ (from Generation Terrorists).

For my money, singles tend to be a guide to what you can leave off an album, or a Best Of… but maybe there are other things going on here. Yes, ‘Australia’ and ‘You Stole the Sun from My Heart’ boast choruses as dramatic and exuberantly sing-along as those earlier selections from Everything Must Go (1996) and This Is My Truth… (1998), but their emotion is weaker; these are songs of retreat… and, granted, retreat from something more devastating than many of us face so young, or can articulate, but they’re not songs about confronting the horror (“the horror…”), or wallowing in it. This isn’t an ad hominem criticism, or attack on Nicky (and James and Sean); just an explanation of why so many later Manics songs don’t have the same impact. Take that line from ‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next’ – “I’ve walked Las Ramblas / but not with real intent”. Prior to The Holy Bible, Richey became a voyeur in the fleshpits of South-east Asia, indulging himself to understand humanity… Las Ramblas, on the other hand, is a European red light district, making the song both a critique of alienation (or the abstraction that allows us to tolerate so much), and an enactment of the process.

Less anthemic, but, no less energetic, the final portion of the set has a historic feel to it: one of the earliest Manics songs, ‘Sorrow 16’, is dedicated to their first label, Heavenly, and then ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ segues into ‘Motown Junk’. When the South Wales Quartet sidle onto the stage, you can tell we’re going to be played out with ‘Everything Must Go’ and ‘A Design for Life’, with strings that could have been scored by John Barry. Neither song has ever been a favourite, and both were unpleasantly ubiquitous in ’96 / ’97, but there’s nowhere to go, at a gig, and no better track to skip to. Listening in depth for the first time in years, there are no nuances to discover – these are still a pair of songs about compromised and debased idealism, with an irony that’s uncomfortable; i.e. everyone “gets” the irony of singing about selling-out & getting drunk, but do they get the complexity of the ideas that have been put on hold for the duration of these songs? Doesn’t irony grate because it makes it seem uncool to say any more… like Duh, of course?! Still, the Manics didn’t pursue that direction, and those songs were a necessary line in the sand: this is what lies outside the venue, and at the end of the night; the (impoverishment of) values that defines the world out there.

[Unpublished review]

MUSIC: various minor releases & re-issues

Cultural Amnesia, Enormous Savages (Klang Galerie)

Ooh! A lost post-punk band whose handful of cassette-only releases (1981–1983) is now being made available. In theory, **Cultural Amnesia** should be of interest only to Coil completists, given that John Balance co-wrote three of the tracks, and the band are absent from all the Indexes on my music shelf. As it happens, this turns out to be a genuine discovery, from the period when British psychedelia and prog was being played with the energy of punk. Half the time, the vocals may be redundant – satirical sketches consisting of “I am a banker / I have a car” or pseudo-mysticism like “I can tell you nothing that you do not know / I can show you nothing that I have not seen”. As the band’s conceptual framework indicates, this might once have been a performance artist’s clever detournement of tribal fetishes and rituals, recreated in the First World – but after a few decades, such musical Desmoiselles d’Avignon have become emblematic of the avant-garde at its most static. So, ignore the lyrics, and check out a psych-rock band where the synths and rhythm section Drank the Lemonade, and the vocalist and guitarist Ate the Cake. Cultural Amnesia couldn’t reinvent music (and didn’t want to trick their audience with the novelty synth-sounds of the 80s) but they could at least change the ratios between rock’s components, growing hypertrophied mutant limbs to match their ambitions. If Camberwell Now are one of your Great Lost Bands of the Decade, this will reassure you that there are other fine lost bands out there.

De La Mancha, Atlas (Crying Bob)

In no way Quixotic, nor Spanish, **De La Mancha** (from Denmark) claim to be the next big thing after Sigur Ros, and the artwork of their new album has a suitably glacial feel, to ensure journalists pick their metaphors accordingly – that would be Atlas (out now, on Crying Bob). With their grandiose claims, and misleading influences before, De La Mancha are more likely to remind you of Oasis, and indeed inhabit a stratospheric realm between (early) Oasis and Ride, with a smidgen of Elbow or Doves. The Sigur Ros resemblance is apparent occasionally – in ambient, trumpet-led instrumentals – but mostly it’s a slow-build to wall-of-sound / hurricane guitars.

Flatline Skyline, All Sound / No Vision (Mechanoise Labs)

As far as contemporary comparisons go, this isn’t far off XinliSupreme or Tweaker (i.e. NIN-member, Charlie Clouser). Either way, it’s punishingly abrasive noise, with bursts of beauty. In their hydraulic-press rigidity, though, the rhythms hark back to Cabaret Voltaire, Coil, Throbbing Gristle; in between, the clean soundscapes that introduce many tracks (and continue beneath the grind) recall early Labradford. Nicely paired with Cultural Amnesia, it’s a sign that being on a micro-niche indie-labels never meant lacking in ambition, and perhaps these are the “genuine” indies, inasmuch as there’s no mirroring of major label formulae (with less gloss, or more attitude).

Greycoats, Setting Fire to the Great Unknown (Sneak Attack Media)

Astonishing – the Minneapolis-based Greycoats namecheck Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, and claim that their singer “recalls Morrissey”. Couldn’t they have just said, “We sound like U2. U2, U2, and more U2. Oh, and Coldplay, but that kinda goes without saying.” In no respect do they resemble Sigur Ros, or Radiohead (unless track 8, ‘Watchman’, is supposed to be their crib of ‘Street Spirit’). In the first three tracks, we get plenty of “Woah-oh!” of the kind Bono quit before The Joshua Tree, and even a lyrical echo of ancient U2 track ‘Two Hearts’. On the sleeve, the boys dress up in military regalia, and occasionally batter the snares in something like a tattoo. Having only made it through one Coldplay record, this sounds similarly smooth and digestive; only distinguishing itself by swapping some of the crescendos for white funk breakdowns.

Lord Gammonshire’s Guide to Everyday Sounds (Bitter Buttons)

“File Under UNPOPULAR: Whimsical PROG” says the back-cover. How droll…! “For fans of Caravan, Stackridge, Vivian Stanshall, and others”, says the press release, with a daring degree of obscurantism that makes you realize there are some things worse than saying “prog” (which might at least imply the guitar work-outs of Yes, or the brain-scrambled weirdness of Gabriel-era Genesis). Sadly, theirs is far too accurate a description… Had [X + Y] who comprise Lord Gammonshire half the wit of Stanshall – whose Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End is one of the greatest feats of British Surrealism – there’d be ample reason to wade through their quirky musical porridge, but sadly not.

Odawas, The Blue Depths (Jagjaguwar)

At a time when the rhythmic and spiky synth music of the early-80s is being pillaged by popstrels and indie-bands alike, it’s good to see a few people recreating the smoother, organic sounds of the early-90s: Laurie Anderson (especially _Strange Angels_), Vangelis, the Pet Shop Boys (their album tracks rather than singles). As the title suggests (or sets mental alarm-bells clamouring) Odawas drift perilously close to providing a soundtrack for candle-and-crystal shops – there are songs here called ‘Song of the Humpbacked Angler’ and ‘Our Gentle Life’. What keeps you listening – and I do mean listening, rather than slipping into a coma, is the detail of the songs, the strength of the melodies, and the fact that these swooping, gliding, syrupy sounds have been painstakingly constructed, and not just played by using the “whalesong” pre-set on the keyboard, or turning the Decay dials to maximum. In keeping with the whimsical / magic realist feel of the song-titles, the vocals are very Jonathan Donahue (i.e. Mercury Rev); wandering wide-eyed beneath the waves in a way that says “gosh, look at the treasures of Poseidon…” whatever the actual lyrics might be about. With the Rev long since gone-ghastly, however, this could actually be the record 90s prog fans have been waiting for; Odawas have that extra hint of sadness that keeps them from cloying, their melodies playing out like sunbeams seen from a few fathoms down, where the darker waters are visible at the same time, and for all the colours on display, many of them will fade with the depth. It’s hard to say who’s going to make the first great synth record of the decade to focus on “glide” and “swoop” rather than “stab” and “batter”, but as an aquatic companion to SVIIB’s more aerial _Alpinisms_ or Ribbons’ alien worlds, this is a good sign of more directions to explore.

Proem, _Til there’s no breath_ (Non-Response)

Damn, that’s a sinister album cover – the HR Giger-ish alien worlds kinda clash with dedications to (solo artist) **Proem**’s young family. Perhaps he decided to make this album of “Sleepcore / Dark Ambient / Drone” (as the sleeve says helpfully) as a remedy for new fathers? On the first few tracks, think: those moments in Lynch films when a flame fills the screen, and the ripping sound it makes flickering suddenly explodes around you. These are the sinister sounds of the kingdom of the insects… but by the second half, the horror and Gothery has subsided, and you’ve entered the serene territory of Stars of the Lid, or Labradford.

Holly Throsby, A Loud Call (Woo Me)

These days, Will Oldham’s patronage is a valuable commodity… and a fair indication of potential stars in the making, who manage to retain their cult-status, more or less: Jason Molina, Devandra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom, have all benefited from an early blessing from the Bearded One. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it makes you raise an eyebrow, just as Holly Throsby’s list of support slots does (which includes Oldham, Banhart, Newsom, plus Mark Kozelek, Bill Callahan, Dave Pajo, Low, and many others). With her lulling, gentle strum, and mild-mannered vocals Throsby is pleasant enough, but most of the songs quickly drift into the background… well before the duet with Oldham that’s supposed to be such a selling point. Reminiscent of Oldham’s simplest songwriting (on _Master and Everyone_), ‘Would You?’ feels lazy (and a touch cynical); rather than develop the imagery or hint at some mystery, Throsby fills in the song’s gaps (Q: Would you have an affair? A: Nah, probably not…) with Oldham’s voice. All in all, the album feels like the work of a professional support act; the kind of self-effacing, pleasantness that guarantees repeat business, without any threat of taking centre-stage.

MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993)

MUSIC: The Magnetic Fields, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993)

Given that so many of the artists tagged “Alt.Country” actually consider themselves Rock or Indie, and most grew up with Punk, Hardcore, and 70s Soft Rock, the question of authenticity goes out the window; in fact, you could almost say that Alt Country is Inauthentic Country. For those involved, you might as well use synths and drum-machines alongside your slide and fiddles (like Smog, or Sparklehorse), and in a sense you are being true to what it means to be "country", in the 21st century.

Years before the question of tracing lines of influence ever bothered me, **The Magnetic Fields** already seemed to have made an Alt.Country classic, in the form of The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993). In many respects the most coherent concept album in The Magnetic Fields’ oeuvre, Highway Strip was the first album Stephin Merritt sang in his own voice, having delegated vocal duties to Susan Anway, on _Distant Plastic Trees_ (1989) and _The Wayward Bus_ (1991). Their, her stylized vocals underscored the irony of a chanteuse singing these ‘Gay & Loud’ songs (as Merritt called his publishing company). The seeds of Merritt’s interest in Folk and Country as a conceptual counterpoint to his Futurist electronica are apparent early on, though, in songs like ‘100,000 Fireflies’, which closes _Distant Plastic Trees_ –

I have a mandolin – I play it all night long
It makes me want to want to kill myself
I also have a dobro, made in some mountain range
Sounds like a mountain range in love
But when I turn up the tone on my electric guitar,
I’m afraid of the dark without you close to me

At the end of the song, Merritt hints that Country music’s a state of mind, and the country itself (the boondocks; Hicksville; Nowhere, Idaho) is just a metaphor for an unhappy couple’s solitude:

You won’t be happy with me, but give me one more chance
You won’t be happy anyway
Why do we still live here, in this repulsive town?
All our friends are in New York.
Why do we keep shrieking, when we mean soft things?
We should be whispering all the time.

Given that Merritt’s made “a career from being blue” (as he jokingly sings on _69 Love-Songs_) it’s no surprise that when he first chose to sing in his own voice, Merritt adopted a country-singer persona, even if he only kept it up for a whole album, on _Highway Strip_. It’s the music of misery, after all. If the irony weren’t glaringly obvious, consider the fact that he also released _Holiday_ in 1993, to represent his carefree electro-pop side, as on _The Wayward Bus_ (and in spite of its title taken from John Steinbeck – him again!)

In fact, there’s a more sincere, and more sophisticated engagement with the traditions of Country Music than many in the Alt. Country genre. Released three years before David Lynch’s _Lost Highway_ (1996), Merritt’s album reflects a longstanding preoccupation in American culture that screenwriter Barry Gifford picked up on, when he sent the split-minded protagonists along the lost highway, and into the desert, to consult the vampiric figures feeding on them (respectively: providing them fast women… and the eyes of the crowd on them, until each addiction destroyed them). Like Gifford (himself a peripheral figure in the later years of the Beat Generation), Merritt would have been thinking of Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’ when he wrote the opening track, ‘Lonely Highway’, and there’s a gradual build-up to a complex mythology, from that romantically exaggerated, but otherwise realist, setting. The opening-verse of Merritt’s opening-song sounds straight (i.e. literal), unless you assume there’s a camp pun on the name of the town / the name of a (male) lover:

I’m never going back to Jackson
I couldn’t bear to show my face
I nearly killed you with my drinking
Wouldn’t be caught dead in that place

So far, so Country, but then we get a stronger taste of Surrealism, in the second track. Remember, Surrealism drew on the richly metaphoric poetry of exotic cultures, in an age of European pillaging, but it also drew on the urban experience of images and ideas colliding in the metropolis: the weirdness (i.e. seemingly fated meaningfulness) of chance encounters; the unexpectedly poetic beauty of scientific neologisms like “magnetic fields” for André Breton & co. This is ‘Long Vermont Roads’ –

Your eyes are long Vermont roads
With a tacky song on the radio
And your eyes are toothless young men in Tennessee

But after all those trains, and all those breakdown lanes
The roads don’t love you, and still they won’t pretend to

Country singers love their puns… but goddamnit do they hate faggots, which makes their forced analogies so appealing to pilfer, albeit affectionately, for a Noo Yawk Bohemian like Merritt. In that second verse, Merritt transforms “breakdown lanes” into another symbol – part metaphor, part synecdoche – after all, it’s the place you literally pull over, the hard-shoulder you cry on, when you’re driving away from your lover (and maybe it’s where you pick up hitchers for a good time, too). By the third song, we’re truly on the Lost Highway:

Some roads are only seen at night
Ghost roads – nothing but neon signs
But sometimes the neon gas gets free
And turns into walking dead like me

It’s possible, even likely, that Merritt was thinking of the vampire symbolism in Bret Easton Ellis’ _Rules of Attraction_ and _The Informers_ when he wrote many of these songs. Gifford’s vampire had its own duality (i.e. represented forms of addiction that were both literal and figural), and Ellis focused on the dealer-as-vampire (also, the emotionally-cold user-as-vampire), but either way the vampire is one of the most polymorphous and perverse of symbols, in a psyche that’s already supposed to be polymorphously perverse (sez Freud). By using vampires again in the next track, ‘I Have the Moon’, Merritt defamiliarizes hackneyed notions of eternal love:

…we have walked in ancient times
And we’ve been burned for many crimes
We have ended many lives
But we never really died…

…all of which is gushingly sad, drawled out in Merritt’s world-weary tone, but reminds us all (as listeners) how many people we seem to have been, each time we embark on a new love, and each time we realize we’re those lovers – we’re going through the motions that put us on a path that stretches back to the beginning of time. Sometimes old songs – not just country songs – can do this for us young’uns, sick of contemporary schmaltz; they make you realize people felt the same things decades ago, people who “were born and then they lived and then they died / seems so unfair, I want to cry” (to quote Stephen Morrissey). From a heterosexual perspective, the song’s doubly moving, because it’s the first one in which the singer (or his persona) comes out at the end, revealing the vampire as a double metaphor of love that should never die (but flames up and shrieks when it does), and the homosexual inhabiting a nocturnal world, whose lover may not have come out:

I’d like to come and comfort you
But I’d be blinded by the blue
You have the sun, I have the moon
You’re bound to die under the sun
But I’ll be doomed to carry on
You have become like other men
But let me kiss you once again
You have the sun, I have the moon

The album isn’t all appropriations of Country music, to serve the interests of listeners (and a songwriter) supposedly excluded from the genre. Leaving aside the modern classics for hip young metrosexuals, Merritt digs up Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman, who every primary-school child knows is the symbol of aspirational but downtrodden America. In ‘Crowd of Drifters’ Merritt doesn’t specify the demons at any point, only that:

Sometimes the road is too long
You meet all kinds of people
Some of them cast no shadows
They have no reflections
Take a look in your photobook
I’m not there anymore

I was a travelling salesman
I got lost on the back roads
Fell in with a crowd of drifters
Sometimes the sun is too bright and
It burns you like acid…

Without forcing the analogy, Merritt tricks the listener into hearing wage-slavery as spiritual death. Maybe the anonymous people on the road “cast no shadows” because they’re thin – emaciated by poor diets and broken sleep in Motel rooms – or they only come out at night. Maybe, their lack of ‘reflections’ may be a lack of capacity for self-reflexion, or a trope for their one-dimensional existence (no depth to their characters; no Ego or Id, only the Super-Ego piloting them along).

Is the singer no longer “in your photobook” because he was never quite there, or his face has ceased to have any meaning, to be noticed? Has he been taken out in some frustrated gesture of banishment, and then forgotten – he was written off so long ago? There’s something delirious, sleep-deprived, early-morning dream-logic about the lack of resolution. The burning sun in the second verse, again, doesn’t force the vampire metaphor: it also captures the sting of the late-afternoon sun reflecting off fenders and hoods onto weary eyes.

This guy doesn’t have nothing though: he has a car; he has that good old phallic symbol of autonomy and masculinity. Continuing his symbolic trajectory through American myth-history, Merritt introduces a female character in ‘Fear of Trains’ (track 7), a song that would be almost academic in its exhuming of white men’s guilt, if it weren’t for its jaunty train rhythm… although even that manages to be pointed; the use of trains being class-coded, a mark of social stratification, and an instrument of economic subjugation:

It was the Army train that took her Daddy from her
It was the Bible train that took her Momma too
And that high loud whistle made her horse run away
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was you

It was the Government train that took away her childhood
It was the KKK that took away her past
It was the white man’s will that hers be broken
But that barefoot girl could run too fast

In ‘When the Open Road Is Closing In’, the singer has simply become the road; realizing that the highway is the beginning and the endpoint of automation: curbing your life to a straight line, and making you one-dimensional in the process. The sequencing of the album isn’t strictly (reverse) chronological, but its penultimate track suggests that The Charm of the Highway Strip is only slightly removed from The Charm of the Railway Track, which came before. On the rails, the destination is a vanishing point that only the driver can see, while the passengers are looking at a procession of blurred images. On the Lonely Highway, every driver may be isolated in their metal shell, but the passengers on a train are often just as lonely among strangers, and lack the comforting illusion of autonomy. There’s not much to say about the final instrumental, but given the historic parallels between the events of 80 years ago, and the events of 2008 – 2009, a track entitled ‘Dust Bowl’ is a poignant message that where we’re coming from (historically) is often where we’re going.

Finally, if there is as strong a connection to Bret Easton Ellis as I’ve suggested, Merritt must have loved the fact he got to put a “Merge” sign on the back of his minimalist sleeve – alluding simultaneously to Kraftwerk’s _Autobahn_ and the dark punning in Less Than Zero, not to mention subsequent novels about spiritual, cultural, and moral vacuity in contemporary America. In the novel, the narrator ponders Freeway etiquette (“people are afraid to merge”) without ever thinking of his insight as an epiphany. Like Ellis, Merritt more than once transforms ghosts and vampires from the stock figures of horror-movies (personifying guilty memories or predatory sexuality) into emblems of distinctly fin-de-siecle anxieties: ghostliness as emptiness, and the vampire as insatiable, unfeeling consumer, drained by the late-capitalist economy. Sounds like an Alt.Country album to me, and a classic one at that…

[slightly edited from previous publication on DiS]

MUSIC: This Heat, Deceit (1981)

Judged by its cover alone, Deceit (1981) is the great prophetic record of the era – the front depicts a scream beneath a mask that is a collage of: Mushroom-Cloud between-the-eyes; JFK & Khruschev shaking hands; Stars & Stripes across the tongue; Ron & Nancy on the forehead. These are the images still familiar in 2008. The lyric-sheet is scattered with the same clippings, and some more helpful captions. Much of this is identical to the collage ingredients for OK Computer (1997) and its singles: what to do in the event of a bomb, or when the siren sounds; where tactical nukes are deployed, worldwide; those oddly dehumanizing line-drawings of how to prepare your fall-out shelter. Deceit came out in 1981, though – a couple of years before Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative); before Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein; before the first massacre of the Kurds. Ten years later, GW1; ten years further on, 9/11; then the War for Oil, then the Credit Crunch; and only this week can we see real hope of a decline in Republican war-mongering and financial mismanagement (the legacy of Milton Friedman, via Reagan & Thatcher). You know most of this; the point is, to get a sense of history… but also a sense of “prophecy” as a meaningful term in the context of avant-garde music.

Back in 1979, punk in the sense of scuzzed-up glam or sped-up blues had already exhausted its capacity for subversion. Nonetheless, a door had clearly been opened for the experimentalism of post-punk (in a loose sense), and within that (or overlapping), a kind of proto-industrial music that has little to do with Ministry, NIN, or Front 242. Alongside Lydon’s definitive nail-in-the-coffin of the Pistols – Metal Box (1979) – This Heat’s debut was the sound of re-invention and refutation, both musical and ideological. Heavier than Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire, the industrial analogies (at the time) require some contextualizing: industrial as a simile (metal on metal), industrial as a reflection of process (customized machines), industrial as an allusion to critiques of the “military industrial complex”. The best (or worst) was yet to come, however…

Deceit (1981) is prophetic, for a start, in that it’s glossolalic – it’s gibberish, it’s speaking in tongues, it’s too many ideas at once, and if you throw them at the wall, some of them are bound to stick, and look like a warning three decades later, if not like Revelations. Thing is, prophecy often attracts the wrong people, and gets ignored by the rest, when they assume it must refer to some specific event in the future (i.e. Kabbalism), rather than referring to the horror here and now, but visibly imminent to those who can see the historic patterns (…which is one aspect of Gnosticism). Track 5, ‘Cenotaph’ spells this out: “his-tory / his-tory / repeats itself / repeats itself // Poppy Day – remember poppies are red / and the fields are full of poppies” – it’s literally a song about decoding symbols, and not letting the signal become noise; it’s not a Fuck You to the jingoism and self-righteousness of the generation who “served” (as Sid, Siouxsie, and others claimed their Nazi regalia was meant to suggest), nor does this song disrespect the dead, but it does demand that we re-consider our values. The most recognizably “punk” track on the album, ‘SPQR’ (Track 4), identifies another repetition, and how we’re taught by rote to repeat the values, and sometimes the mistakes, of our parents – right back to the imperialism and centralized government of 2,000 years ago: “we’re all Romans / we know all about straight roads / every road leads home / home to Rome / amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.”

The devastating industrial freak-out, ‘Makeshift Swahili’ (Track 8), condenses most of these ideas into one song, although you wouldn’t know it at first from the Dalek-voice: “…makeshift she sings / in her native German / you try to understand / what she’s trying to say / she says ‘You’re only as good / as the words you understand / and you, you don’t understand / the words.’ / CHORUS: Tower of Babel!!! / Swaaaaaaahili!!! / It’s all Greek to me!” The middle-eight introduces a pretty guitar figure, and a second voice relates a fragment of history that might have been dropped in as a sample, years later: “ ‘we give you firewater / you give us your land’ / ‘white-man speak with forked tongues / but it’s too late now / to start complaining…’” The sinister drones resume almost immediately, and then the song explodes with an intensity surpassing punk at its most violent – Charles Hayward shrieking “Rhubarb! Rhubarb! Rhubarb!” Granted, this track may not be the most obvious demonstration of the genius of This Heat – Yes, Babel remains the best-known parable of the dangers of imperialism (if not globalization) collapsing under the weight of its ambition; there are also hints that language is power, and literacy was an instrument of subjugation, in the case of the Native Americans, rather than being the gift of enlightenment (see also, Gang of Four’s contemporaneous Entertainment!). These allusions operate according to the collage-principles of juxtaposition and partial-tearing to create new meanings – collage being the best known Dadaist strategy – but This Heat also employ sound-poetry and a kind of automatic-speaking akin to channelling and possession (these being associated with Dadaism’s loopier, more magic(k)al experiments, pre-WWI). Art-history lesson almost done, it remains to point out that when inter-war Surrealism re-visited Dadaism, it used the slogan “Surrealism in the service of the revolution”, and was firmly Marxist in its orientation. If 1970s English Progressive Rock was a debased surrealism in the service of trippiness, This Heat brought the revolutionary spirit back.

What of the rest of the album? It’s a complex beast, whose intra-textualities are as numerous as the inter-textualities. The use of loops, drones, found-sounds, and unusual percussion (girders, dummy-heads) was so elaborate that you have to look to The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ for a precursor, and as far ahead as Aphex Twin when describing the more danceable and abrasive tracks. A guitarist as evil – but subtle – as Charles Bullen wouldn’t be found until Dave Pajo (of Slint), and if you want a comparison for the first album, only liars have come close, with Drum’s not Dead (2006). Personally, I can hear the ghost of Nico channelled into This Heat’s weird mix of fucked-up lullabies (Track 1: ‘Sleep’), and drone-based proto-industrial nightmares. The drawing of parallels between the End of Rome & the Cold War Era is also very Nico, and the phrase “the sound of explosions” on ‘A New Kind of Water’ (Track 10) feels like a reference to Eno’s “bomb-noises” for Nico’s The End. (Eno also recorded Manzanera’s pre-Roxy band, Quiet Sun, who included one Charles Hayward, later of This Heat. Rhubarb Rhubarb.)

Opening track ‘Sleep’ tells us we’re all unconscious, lulled by commercials (hence “softness is a thing called Comfort”), and these operate on us like Pavlov’s dogs (CHORUS: “stimulus and response”). ‘Triumph’ might be suggesting a parallel between Neighbourhood Watch (imported from the US in 1982 – a landmark in the history of surveillance), and the early years of Nazism, when Riefenstahl assembled her filmic montage Triumph of the Will. ‘SPQR’ is sung in the first person plural and refers to the supposedly democratic electorate as “unconscious collective” – Cold War propaganda and sci-fi alike often fantasized the enemy as an insectile hive-mind, but this song isn’t about an external enemy: the enemy is now internal. ‘Independence’ (Track 9) is, quite literally, the Declaration of Independence. Ask yourself, as a UK-citizen, have you ever read it? Do you know what it says? Could you imagine trying to implement its ideals now? Doesn’t its endorsement of revolution sound – well, “un-American” (as the Patriot Act defines “American”)? The climax is post-punk masterpiece and personal favourite, ‘A New Kind of Water’, which layers un-synchronized drums, bass, and a chiming guitar line – a distant siren that hasn’t yet been recognized as a warning signal. As the parts cycle, and change in volume, the notes interact differently. The initial chorus vocals are those of impotent, infantilized consumers (“we were told to expect more / and now that we’ve got more / we want more”). After that, the vocal delivery is soulless and hollow – Winston Smith at the end of 1984 – we have hope, it says: ‘a cure for cancer / we’ve got men on the job.’ Urgency increases… the drums begin to pound… you realize the apocalypse is here and you wish you were in Neverland (“fly away Peter / hideaway Paul…”). The title of the final track is written in Japanese characters, transliterated into Romaji (‘Hi Baku Shyo’), and then translated into English (‘Suffer Bomb Disease’). There are no words in this murky, marshy soundscape – maybe this is the world in which only cockroaches have survived. Maybe English-speakers are only tolerated as slaves of the victorious “Yellow Peril” (hence the Romaji-script). Then again, maybe the bomb has already dropped, and we became insects without realizing it.

This Heat (1979) 8 / 10

‘24 Track Loop’ also available on In the Beginning was Rhythm (SoulJazz), revealing the dancier, dubbier side of post-punk.

“Health & Efficiency EP” (12”: 1980; CD: 1998)
[Starts like Supergrass – “here’s a song about the sunshine! / dedicated to the sunshine!” – and then breaks down into a kind of punk/jazz instrumental] 8 / 10

Deceit (1981) 9 / 10

Made Available: BBC Sessions, 1977 (1996)
[Live versions of “best” / most song-like tracks from the first album, a version of ‘Makeshift’ some might prefer, and more noise-scapes] 8 / 10

Repeat (1998)
[Extended version of ‘24 Track Loop’; percussive B-side to “Health” EP, 12”; various experiments from 1979] 6 / 10

‘Meridian’ EP (1982) / The Ghost Trade LP (1985) / ‘Greenfingers’ EP (1986)
[Collected as All’s Well that End’s Well (2006)] 8 / 10

MUSIC: The Whiskers, War of Currents (2009)

Welcome to your new favourite band… kinda like your old favourite band.

Okay, so that’s subjectivity raised to the n-th degree, but The Whiskers – who formed through the mediation of a Frog Eyes message board – often sound like a microscopically observed homage to not just one weird band, but the whole damn Axis of Krug, namely: Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach, Destroyer… and even throws in some of their tourmates for good measure, like Xiu Xiu and Elfin Saddle. Perhaps in an effort to throw off the older influences, the new album builds its surreal ballads up from seesawing acoustic riffs stretched out to 6, 7, 8 minutes, and adds brass – entering Neutral Milk Hotel territory – but with a cast of vampires, ghosts, swans, and seamstresses sewing wings onto doomed lovers, the shadow of Spencer Krug is cast over much of it.

Formed around Connecticut-based brothers Thom and Jim Stylinski, the Whiskers are a shifting, pan-American collective who make quirky chamber-pop or freak-folk. You could call it a Prog revival, if it’s understood that The Whiskers are far more accessible than that makes them sound, if not instantly likeable. Albums #1 & 2 (_The Whiskers_ & _The Distorted Historian_) took the Frog Eyes formula of lo-fi garage-prog with rapid-fire lyrics starring mythical figures, and substantially improved on it with f/x-heavy synths and programming that explodes in several directions at once. That might make the Whiskers sound like a completely different band, but it’s those unplayable, machine-generated sounds that replicate Frog Eyes’ dozen-ideas-a-second, while (paradoxically) having more emotional impact for being tight in a way Frog Eyes just aren’t. (Alternative comparison: If you ever wished Magnetic Fields would re-make their first two albums with Stephin Merritt on vocals, instead of Susan Amway… look no further).

With their third album, _War of Currents_, The Whiskers have largely retired the synths, and taken a crack at the multi-segmented epic song, with the example of _In the Aeroplane Over the Sea_ or Sunset Rubdown’s _Dragonslayer_ behind them. In a nutshell: it’s a masterclass in epic songwriting, which only falls short of greatness in its reluctance to vary the (new) formula. Then again, unlike yer-akshel 70s progsters, The Whiskers never bore or jar by dropping in unnecessary movements; always unifying their songs with a strong riff or chord progression.

Granted, there are other precedents for this 7 track, 42 minute album, but with songs like ‘The Seamstress’ you have to wonder whether they’re not attempting a deliberate patchwork of Krug-isms (in this case: ‘The Mending of the Gown’ spliced with ‘Shut Up, I am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings’). When Krug sings about chameleons and leopards, morticians and magicians, you know he’s fretting and sometimes snarking about the nature of performance, even as he mythologizes it; when Stylinski adopts these (and adds a few of his own, like ornithopters and wing-walkers), for better or for worse, it feels as if you’re just getting the fantasy, without an obvious route back to the personal. (Not that he doesn’t have his own quotable moments: “you married on the ferris wheel / honeymooned in the haunted house / you were buried in the cemetery / I want to blow the winter out of the sea…”).
Elsewhere, the Stylinski brothers deliberately mimic the vocal interplay of Bejar / Mercer / Krug on the Swan Lake records (those three songwriter showdowns), and as if they’re worried no-one’s got the point, they even pull Dan (Destroyer) Bejar’s trick of quoting classic pop songs with completely different melodies (on ‘Birds of Paradise’: “bird-bird-bird / bird is the word / everybody’s heard / about the bird…”). Somehow, it always comes across as affectionate rather than lazy; fun rather than tired, so keep watching this space for genuine greatness.

All three albums are available to download or order on CD at

[Re-published here since the sad demise of the band... not completely unmourned]