Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Vanity compiling

Away from the cybernoise about the latest sonic innovations in grime and glitch, a couple’s going away afforded an opportunity to prepare an iTunes compilation, the modern version of the mix tape. Following the golden rules of such compiling – that it is essentially an ego trip for the compiler, showing off his knowledge, educating the receivers rather than pandering to them – I moved quickly on my chosen themes of mainly acoustic rock and mellow ambient (they’re going to Asia after all). Soon enough I was knocking tunes off the list rather than adding any more. The likes of Drake and Bikini Atoll did the mellow acoustic side, Six Organs, Sufjian Stevens and Joanna Newsom did the nu-folk/acid thing, while Massive Attack vs Les Negresses Verte, Oneiro (Derrick Carter), Cinematic and stuff on Kranky rocked the more the ambi-esoterica. A centrepiece was Rufus Wainwright’s weary Oh What A World (co-incidentally, this was one of the tunes Crosstown Rebels’ Lazarus chose to highlight as one of his top five tunes ever in an Old Street indulgeathon, before the proper business of their album launch party got going over the road). After I’d sourced a picture of the two, photoshopped it, brought it into Quark and whacked some fonts and colours round it inna complementary fashion, it was ready. Bar a pretentious French intro recorded to sound like it was at an airport and one quick but irritating rejig (my blank said 80 mins; iTunes was insisting on less than 75). Et voila, bonne voyages. Can I do something more meaningful now?

Murray, Dan, Leo and co’s outlet for Sonic Truth is now over at the new site. Alerts of the new stuff will still appear on Research.asp, but you should go there now for all further Cull cold blog action. rsvp

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Music and message

Recent “interblog action” on the state of play of Dance Inc, incorporating House Holdings, Techno Securities and Breakbeat Futures, inspired some thinking. It strikes me that we are in a similar situation to the mid-80s, dance as cottage industry, underground cool, but they were arrived at through asymmetrical paths related to socio-economic development.

Early-late 80s house, as well as non-rap electro and techno, was developed primarily by marginalised black and/or gay men in completely alternative sets, people after alternative settings to escape the reality of exclusion. The music was primitive futurism – the blunt tool of 4/4 was laced with sentiment about the future or escape or the cyberworld, gleaned from Toffler or Phillip K Dick or just instinctively felt, because this was preferable to the Stark Reality. The lingering disco scene was also escape, but continued to prefer the hedonist release of a more humanised disco. This was anti-market business. Nobody got rich from this clandestine enterprise, disused urban venues were hired at minimal costs, vinyl produced on dirtcheap presses. Nevertheless the white mainstream, particularly in the UK, the land of the great referrers, co-opted the sound.

As the 80s ended we entered a post-political world. Without a cold war ideology of MAD fear, Kapitalism realised an expansion of products and consumers was necessary to keep its momentum going (as K-Punk says it’s always changing, the incessant roadworks the most basic symbol of that. “What are you improving”. “I dunno, but we’ve been told to spend our budget”). So black (or later ‘urban’) and gay cultures were officially waved through into the mainstream. Please enter on our terms. The process parodied identity, but now the impetus and the need for whole swathes of society to escape underground was now greatly diminished. More people are enfranchised. This results in the grotesque parade of visual r&b/bling, which is all about a black culture that realises it’s getting paid and is going to make damn sure that everybody knows about it. Why should ‘they’ care about being a major label plaything any more than the rest of us work in mediated industries and buy Burberry and Whoppers? Earlier, as house and techno went overground, the original beta testers toured the world to deservedly get payday for their R&D. The music and the culture – catalysed by British hedonism - became pavlovian. Riffs got bigger, venues got bigger, an “industry” developed. People who’d blunted reality at the Hac in the late 80s were amazed that the four-four beast still lived, but everyone wanted their moment. Dance is still so big that the entire mainstream press can review the Chemical Brothers LP as evidence that it’s alive or dead, without realising that anybody with a depth of knowledge of techno and house has seen them as irrelevant since, ooh, they changed their name at least.

There was a boom but never a bust of Dance Inc. Because an explosion creates thousands more fragments. A vital contingent development was in technology, both in the means of production of music (Reason is apparently the new bomb of music software) and the online means of disseminating the files and the buzz about it. What we have now is a healthy underground in a modern, cybernetic context. This is why genres like electro-house can come along and still be relatively fresh. In infinite space and time we will never have every sonic cadence covered. And ever more sophisticated means of production/reception mean it can prosper while satisfying an audience of only a few thousand worldwide; rather than a few thousand in Chicago. Black or gay men still make wonderful music, but no longer as part of a homogenous movement. There is less need for that identification now. Now the choice for Consumer no 1 – white western male (who constitutes the majority of the blogosphere) – is as mind-blowing as some of the music being made. In fact, as the update mails hit the inbox from the record shop portals, I have to choose NOT to engage with some of this output – I like surfing on the surface of every pool not drowning in one.

Kap is so accommodating now – look at all those people who now COMBINE the normal life of working to pay the bills and have a second life as a producer or musician. Can’t imagine Dylan doing that. Or Ron Hardy. I can write this here now as my work allows for creative downtime. Kap is so diverse too. With such a multitude of genres – eg, early hardcore, Ixxy & Sharky hardcore, new hardcore, eg – one thing is clear: Dance is not dead. Dip in to taste. But now we are just making music or consuming it. No protest, no escape... Grime has rage, but its testosterone hustle is not against the machine. Without much of a context (rave lost its next-level potential, eg), dance is pure commodity fetishism. As the fin de siecle 19th century writers and painters talked about l’art pour l’art, for us now it is mostly music and rhymes for their own sake. [Perhaps, as the west despite its wishes continues to absorb diverse ethnic minorities and subcultures are created, in a generation’s time perhaps we will see music being formed out of the genuine margins again].

What’s interesting is how nominally ‘dance’ sounds fertilise with the non-dance microscenes of post-rock, illbient, dance sounds not used in dance ways, etc. This is probably because they are still seen to be progressive. Whether as producers or consumers of these sounds, there is an implication that these scenes are more progressive or modern than the mainstream. But, though possibly slightly more discerning, we should be aware we are playing the consumption game in virtually the same way.
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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Local heroes make worthwhile return

Gang of Four, The Departure, 10,000 Things, Leeds University, 24 January 2005

Initially, it doesn’t bode well. Poor ticket sales forced a venue change from the huge but soulless Refectory to the much more compact Stylus Bar (home of many a cattle-market alcopop student piss-poor disco. The Stylus is possibly a better venue as its balconies afford a better view for persons of restricted growth and it has a decent bar, unlike the Refectory. Perhaps the £20 ticket price was a tad steep for a band that, although reputedly the godfathers of punk funk, many of the new NME readership have only heard of, not heard.

Openers 10,000 Things play to a near empty hall and make the de rigueur racket you’d expect from twin guitars, bass, drums and a vocalist who wears braces. I can’t say if it was especially good or bad as it had so little impact. The lack of atmosphere and audience didn’t help matters much and the scant audience in front of the stage were hardly moshing (the old men were still at the bar at this point). The Things play a cover of Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods that adds nothing to the original and might as well be karaoke – it’s by far their best effort of the night; says it all really. One more song and they are gone, back to the pub rock circuit, just another Leeds band trying to hitch a ride on the Kaiser Chiefs coat tails.

The venue filled up before The Departure and the audience was by now mostly male and 40-something, with a smattering of kids. They open with a version of their last single Be My Enemy that’s so ropey that I don’t recognise it until the chorus (nb, I own a copy). It gets interesting towards the end when the bassist starts to get busy but it’s all over too soon. The studied cool of their records is replaced by a much rockier live incarnation and the kids down at the front are even moved to nod their heads in time to the music – rock n roll ain’t dead! The Departure sound like a pastiche of an 80s sound that never actually existed, a 1980s remixed and remodelled by the corporate whores in their major label HQ bunker. Having said that the set improves as it progresses and at one point they even manage to sound as bombastic as the Chameleons or an Interpol tribute band. The crowd remains fairly aloof and last year’s single All Mapped Out provokes barely a ripple of interest but is actually the highlight of the thirty-minute set.

Post-Departure there was a real buzz in the air. Keith ‘Cunt’ Allen is in attendance, as is Robochrist, a few Pale Saints, a Three John, a Lucky Royale and a host of local DJs, promoters and wannabes. All were eager to see the supposed forefathers of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Radio 4, The Rapture and just about any band with guitars and bass these days. Dry ice was pumped on to the minimally lit stage (a rare concession to cliché). Andy Kershaw strode onto the stage and recounted his time on the Ents Committee at Leeds University. Kershaw spoke of all the bands he booked during his time here in the early 1980s and how he booked bands including The Jam, Boomtown Rats, The Ramones and The Pretenders but the best two gigs he presided over were The Clash and, of course, Gang of Four’s triumphant return to Leeds in December 1980.

Kershaw departs and Jon King, Andy Gill, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham take the stage to resounding cheers. They look older, thicker round the waist, worn by time but not dulled by it. The opening bars of What We All Want sound as fresh as they did on record a quarter of a century ago, with bassist Allen taking centre stage flanked by Gill and King. King, Gill and Allen swap positions for Not Great Men and King bounds about waving his arms around like a man possessed, much to the crowd’s delight. Clattering drums abound through Ether and at this point I’m wondering exactly what the connection is between Gang of Four and “Art Rock” because, believe me, all that Bloc Party et al grasped was the style, not the sonic substance or the still-pertinent message. King whips out a melodica at one point and in another song utilises a microwave oven as a percussion instrument. Highlight of the evening has to be Anthrax, which begins with squalling feedback before Burnham pounds out the rhythm and Allen’s bassline weaves its magic over the top, the lack of a guitar part freeing up Gill to share vocals with King to mesmeric effect. Drums thunder through Naturals Not In It and this leads into set closer To Hell With Poverty with King encouraging the audience to “get drunk on cheap wine” before leading the band off stage to rapturous applause and immediate pleas for an encore.

Which after a few minutes is We Live As We Dream, Alone before launching into an explosive Damaged Goods, demonstrating just how piss-poor 10,000 Things are. The driving bassline is counterpointed by scratchy guitar – this is the art-rock/punk-funk blueprint in action and it has the faithful jumping. The refrain of “goodbye goodbye goodbye” seemed so final but after a brief exit Gang of Four return again for a blistering rendition of I Found That Essence Rare that has the whole place singing along. King, Gill, Allen & Burnham stand arms aloft at the stage’s edge and bid farewell. Tonight’s Leeds' finest came home and boy have we missed them.

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