Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Top 10 of the decade - eighth entry

Bloc Party – She’s Hearing Voices (2004)

(series growing here)

In dance the turn of the century initially brought more of the same – more house and techno, more garage, more jungle – as if to explicitly downplay the importance of a new millennium to escapist consumption of tailored sound. This was until grime’s desire to authorise, dubstep’s later experimentation in a different tempo and time signatures and to some extent house’s minimalisation/digitisation wrought a welcome broadening out, leaving what you could call post-dance still in fecund shape as the decade ends.

It was in guitar music where the need for innovation was most pressing. OK, those of us who had been actively celebrating its demise in the 90s after its last great leap forward with Pixies, MBV, Dinosaur Jr didn’t expect innovation as such but some energisation, after all the sludge of Oasis and grunge and the tired poses and hackneyed themes in most of Britpop, would be welcome. Guitar music would always be lucky in some respects, it had the benefits of an overground infrastructure always willing to support a band at the first scent of ‘greatness’ (you could be a skaghead nicking your bandmate’s stuff but also the ‘saviour of British pop music’). But it could stymie a band stylistically as the earnest messianism of bands like Coldplay became something A&R men wanted to repeat.

As a punter, and grateful recipient of my partner’s industry freebies, most of the digging would be far away from the new gear but into a post-punk era which was being knocked into shape by Simon R’s Rip it Up (the talk at Boogaloo seemed an important moment), general blogland curation and some excellent comps such as Andrew Weatherall’s Nine O’Clock Drop in 2000. With the dancier, electronic sounds of the era already being recovered through lingering involvement in electronic house scenes, this digging would include the more obvious bands that I’d always had half an eye on such as the Banshees, Cure, Fall and Talking Heads, more ‘seminal’ acts like ACR, Public Image Limited, Gang of Four and Magazine and occasional forays even further in to bands like Pere Ubu or Mission of Burma (there was always more to discover but listening habits meant I didn’t get much further, even with the guidance on hand). The ideas! the manifestos! the experimentation! Luckily all the decent new bands that were to break through were also casting aside recent history and taking the same inspiring route.

All this is an incredibly long-winded intro into saying that Bloc Party make the first of two entries for ‘indie’ music with She’s Hearing Voices, the version available on import from US label Dim Mak’s ‘Bloc Party ep’, the original Banquet ep or as a 7” single in its own right on the Trash Aesthetic label, not the vastly inferior re-recording on the album Silent Alarm. This was another Corky recommendation (and on his decade top 10) and had everything I would look for in revitalised indie music – energy, edge and the drama of the female schizophrenic subject all driven by the frenetic but tight drumming of Gordon Moakes and the clipped stylings of Russell Lissack on guitar. It’s not a post-punk pastiche by any means but renews the spirit of the era. As Pitchfork said in review of the Bloc Party ep: ‘Luckily, Bloc Party fare much better musically than they do rhetorically-- there's nothing ambiguous about their rollicking, poppy post-punk.’

Bloc Party have their critics for often joyless workouts live, Kele’s strained vocals, occasional indie-schmindie tendencies (Voice is further described in P’Fork as ‘sounding like Isaac Brock jamming with TV on the Radio’). It’s fair to say that this is the one effort of theirs that I’ll take with me into iTunes obsolescence, but then I favour bands’ singular moments. Trash veterans Kele and co are on the right side of the divide, not willing to churn out identikit long players, exposing prejudice in their blokish male industry and embracing experimentation on their own terms as well as enlisting others (there is a great remix album of Silent Alarm – although Alkan turns in a lazy edit of my fave – and a fantastic Burial re-rub of Where is Home on the Flux ep).

On stage it’s all about the rhythm section and you see proper dancing unlike for most guitar bands. I was a little harsh in that Boogaloo Rip It Up review for lumping in Bloc Party with your Killers or Franz Ferdinands simply working in 70s/80s styles because that was the thing to do again, because She’s Hearing Voices is a great emblem for late-period UK indie conceived in post-punk but transcending its influence.
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Monday, October 26, 2009

'Boy cuts up BNP leader!

Days late i know, but Cassetteboy rows Griffin back from the ingratiating, hands-on-Greer performance on Thursday to reveal his true mindwords. let's hope for an end to the media's blind fealty to King Impartiality which only serves to give the BNP a bounce within our impressionable X-Factor electorate who think he had a hard time from the liberal vanguard.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mr 'Weekender' dies

RIP to Liam Maher, the lead singer of north London baggy troupe Flowered Up, who passed away on Tuesday. With their renowned hedonism always jeopardising their recorded progress (though as Robin Turner says they had no such problems live), both frontman and band never made as much of a mark as they could have. But Maher (centre) leaves behind the 13-minute epic Weekender as his one calling card.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top 10 of the decade - seventh entry

Justice – Waters of Nazareth (Erol Alkan’s Durr Durr Durrrrrr re-Edit - Ed Banger 2005)

(series growing here)

Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé’s clattering excess and crowning achievement was another for metropolitan post-ravers not too fussed what the genre is they’re swimming in as long as it shakes them around their patch of Hoxton dancefloor. Personally, it belongs in my grower category: France’s Ed Banger records with their diverse roster of acts (rather than invisible producers) such as Busy P (the label’s founder), Uffie and DJ Mehdi and engraved art on the covers were getting good recognition, and Justice themselves had broken through with their overhaul of a Simian track eventually known as We Are Your Friends (probably a tune to make it mainstream decade-best dance comp). I had known about Waters for a while. It was when my mate Ian in Brighton, usually not one to perceive quality in house or electro as he leant towards stuff with breakbeats in, said how much he liked it that I thought I’d try and discover it anew.

So I bought it (the second version with remixes, still at laughably expensive import prices) probably in late 2006/early 2007 and the quality of the little fragments I’d heard were finally confirmed. So:Me’s cover artwork, the engraved church organ, the gothic graffiti of the band logo (incorporating the † in the t of justice) all add to a highly-fetishisable package. I favour Alkan’s slightly leaner re-edit although little of the original is lost in the bid to make it that bit more dancefloor-(un)friendly. Like La Rock in my Top 10, this is another that is just too unclean for part-time hedonists who, fresh from meeting up with 'the guys' at All Bra Bum, like to party on to music they might not have even heard before. Every six months. For someone’s birthday. Christi-cakes, that was a c-razy night!

Nevertheless, this is music for less discerning, more party-hard times, where experimentation with a populist edge flourishes. Waters of Nazareth is a glorious analogue din, guitary riffs resampled so many times their dirt is almost tangible, Justice’s signature bass-sound rubbing you up the wrong way, thumping and nagging, simple but emphatic drum machine patterns tick-ticking away and occasionally the main tune sails in impassively over the bombsite below. It’s not progressive, sophisticated or one for dance music connoisseurs looking for the sonido nuevo but like many of the best 00s tune does a fine job of messing with what producers already have to play with. Call it electro-house if you like, but it has little of either early electro’s robot-funk or similarity with the majority of 00s post-clash schmaltzy low-grade synth funk; Waters of Nazareth drifted free from the generic flotsam.

Tunes as big (both in its sound and popularity) take on a second life. Use on the careering, dangerous, etc Grand Theft Auto console game makes sense, but the wiki entry tells uncomfortably of appropriation by the Top Gear knobs (‘when Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May drove three cheap rear wheel drive cars in an ice race in France’ – ha-ha), and there is a TV advert for an electronic retailer like Comet that pays skinflinted compliment by having someone cover over its latest call to buy shit, but cultural mediators always want to be associated with such big moments even if that entails complete defamiliarisation of context.

I bought the Jus†ice album on its release in June 2007 but, even though the awards from the dance music industry flowed, have never got on with it. Phantom has some admirable guitar excrescence, and Let There Be Light is good but basically ploughing the same turf as Nazareth, and was on its original 12” release. De Rosnay and Augé are to be admired for their singular approach, developing a sonic palette geared for uneasy listening and wildly different from many of their peers (the wiki entry talks about their setup) but the same components are used over and over again on †, so much so that it’s almost a concept album, the concept being let’s see how far we can go with this set of default sounds. All those cut up bass licks, grungey pads and compressed vocals seem to be fed through a very strange sepia filter (some tunes sounds like the outro of 70s US detective shows) which makes it queasy in a nice ariel pinkish way but also reduces some of the impact. I haven’t taken † down the Exchange yet, but it’s surely only a cull or two away. Perhaps the new album due for release next year will see them hit form, perhaps their lot will now always be ‘will this do’ rerubs of major-label cred-hunters such as Kravitz and U2.

No matter, Nazareth takes its place in the canon (which may appeal to their French catholic sensibility, given the religious imagery) as their must-have, the classic. Digitally, Justice’s moment sits nicely in the iTunes library, next to the earlier d&b JUSTICE (my favourite here being Tate Modern). Justice, certainly more Daft Punk than Bob Sinclar.

So that's entry No 7. Just three to go in your (sorry my) top tunes of the decade I really hate calling the noughties! I reckon i'm timing it nicely for just missing the cut as 1 January 'Twenty Ten' (again, eurrgh!) gets going.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All roads lead to Leeds

Owen is right in his extended b/side of his West Yakshire BD Urban trawl. Southerners always seemed to feel more comfortable in Leeds than any other place in the north outside Manchester. While I was there, there was a huge contingent of London and home counties wealthy perhaps not up to the challenge of a Russell Group university but ready and willing for hedonism in a city that was clearly on the up. It was gritty, a goths’ lair and in need of a makeover, but it was a big city where stuff happened (important stuff like Back to Basics or Orbit or Vague winning club of the year). It was cool to be there and cool to tell your friends in provincial academic outposts that you were there. One could shock with ‘my friend lives on Britain’s most burgled street’ (that one off Brudenell Road). What separated Leeds from Sheffield at the time may have just been more clothes shops. With civic pride renewed after Leeds bagged the championship it was mostly about scrubbing up old buildings themselves – Queens Hotel, Town Hall, Civic Hall on Calverley Road, the arcades – or reuse as in the stalls at Granary Wharf and riverside buildings off the Calls.

The new Henry Moore Institute stood out as one of the few ambitious projects of the time, while it always annoyed me that they were trying to humanise the square near the university’s science buildings and Roger Stevens lecture theatre with potted plants and the like – stark and stripped back (or maybe purpled up as in Warp 10) was always this futuristic oasis’ best look.

The group I lived with (all from the south) were always more keen to explore the centre’s back-streets and alleys than the rest, whose universe comprised LS6 (Headingley and the rundown ‘student slum’ between Otley and Burley Roads up to Hyde Park), LS2 (the universities themselves) and if they were in town the main shopping areas by day and the main clubs. This is 92-95, before bars really took over. We liked to go to Whitelocks pub in Turks Head Yard for a pint of Youngers No 3, down Call Lane and The Calls before there was hardly any reason to go beyond the Corn Exchange and to places around the ‘legal district’ to the west of the main square. We felt we got to know the city, but the pace of change was accelerating and return visits became an exercise in tracking the new developments.
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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pop's 'trancey keyboard autopilot'*

The ’00s won’t be remembered as a classic for the mainstream of popular music. A flood of sexed up r&b (Miss E and co will have a legacy but hard to remember why crunk et al was given any credence), the last years of the tedious bling of hip-hop, landfill indie so much of a dirge its place only could ever be the charts courtesy of major label marketing (with figureheads from the last two scenes collaborating in a worthy music hell), polysexual placeholders such as Scissor Sisters and Beth Ditto, lingering 90s icons such as Take That and Kylie and the rest the result of the now highly over-televised talent spot route. Laugh at the talentless twats; then choose the cream in your very own hex factor.

But as a new decade approaches pop continues to renew itself. We have this pop-urban-electrohouse/trance mutant now, where London’s grime/funky/garage mans and American r&b heads spit fewer but more catchy and inane lyrics, add synth patterns from Tiesto and Guetta and wrap it over a slightly digital, occasionally glitchy/mnml house backbeat. Get a false emoter such as Taio Cruz or Autotune in for the chorus. Have some birds in the video. Job done. Number one, bruv. Bluetooth me that because I like it but don’t want to buy it.

As an older music consumer, an amateur who never opted out of pop (before we were all obliged to opt back in sometime around Britpop), I don’t get it. The innovations only serve to highlight my alienation at a time when ‘going out’ is increasingly becoming an abstract concept because my London network is thinning out, in itself making one more reticent to try new options. But this isn’t about my sob story. These highly miscegenated novelties, they don’t work for me. Every part is diluted, there is not enough drive from any of the major components, nothing to feel really passionate about, certainly not an 80s-style manifesto in sight. This also has no relation to the late 70s, early 80s shift when popular disco was infused with trance-inducing sounds for truly minimal payoff such as I Feel Love (today it would be I Feel You Up or something similarly crude). It isn’t quite lacklustre enough to have a feeling of ‘will this do?’ but does carry with it a sense of canny exploitation on everybody’s part. As someone who always did ‘high street’ and the med holiday route, however reluctantly, as well as have one foot in ravier scenes, the changes in pop make much less sense than the continuous cross-pollination of garage/dubstep/funky/whatever it is this week.

But I do understand really. They are pop at its most impure. Synths have been a la mode since electroclash and the 80s are such a popular pilfering source that even dour indies such as Snow Patrol and Editors are now foregrounding their sound with synthetic lines. I can understand why grime talents wanted to broaden their appeal, why ultimately everything always comes back to the 4/4 (or souped up US garage variants) as the format of most unifying appeal (rhythmic experimentation is strictly an underground preserve), why in the dying days of New Labour consolidation it makes perfect sense to have a road man like Skepta roll over ‘white’ forms of dance. This is a dance that knows half the game now in our modern discos is the good old sharking of the opposite sex, not ‘losing it’ or being ‘lost in’ the music (that is so dreadfully 90s). It has to be showy. And – cheer up mate it might never happen – it has to be up for a laugh. In the game.

So none of these developments are gambles – just as DJ Hell’s collab with P Diddy is calculated to appeal to an ‘adventurous’ audience, these are calculated to appeal to every impulse of a youth population who are told to go and enjoy themselves on the first ladders of easy credit, preferably via the higher education route. Over-indulgence is our modern day national service these days. Sex, drugs and brock and roll, yea we dun these by the Tuesday how are we going to fill out the rest of the week? More of the same. Repeat the spectacle, then watch the representations on phones and laptops, and fill the rest of the rest of the time with music channels, pumping out the audio-visual dreck.

It may be true that the pop charts are dying as a relevant exercise, but ‘pop music’ itself is not going away, the youth still huddle round well crafted products with mass appeal. And this could be ‘their’ sound they take with them for later curation. And like any other era with their treasured artefacts most will be dead proud they were there for it too.

*a term used in guardian guide's review of Chipmunk's Oopsy Daisy
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