Thursday, September 14, 2017

RIP GRANT HART / HUSKER DU 1987 interview (the glam versus antiglam dialectic) + reviews of Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories


Melody Maker, June 27th 1987

by Simon Reynolds 

In Atlanta, Georgia, the Replacements play me a tape of Husker Du’s live appearance on The Joan Rivers Show. It’s more than a little mind-blowing. The band unleash the great grey gust that is ‘Could You Be The One’, then troop over for a ‘chat’ with the lady herself.

It’s one of the most embarrassing pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Rivers is clearly terrified of the band, doesn’t know how to place or approach them, stammers out something to the effect that they used to be kind of radical and underground, but now aren’t quite so radical and underground, isn’t that so?
What’s unnerving her is that the band aren’t selling themselves on any level, either as outrage or as light entertainment, aren’t making anything of this opportunity to project themselves. They’re polite, awkward, somehow not-there. It’s not so much that they’re deliberately aloof as that they’re irretrievably apart. Rivers asks a question and I think she’s saying: "Which one of you is the wild member of the group and which is the commie one?" – turns out she said "calming". Then they traipse off again, to play ‘She’s A Woman’, having left an irreparable crease in the sleek fabric of the show.
It made me wonder whether a group like Husker Du can interact with this thing Pop. The Smiths, at least, make a drama of their exile – their anti-glamour can be consumed as glamour.
But Husker Du refuse to act up – the ‘outrage’ they perpetrated on Joan Rivers was of an altogether quieter, less ostentatious order – they didn’t play up to the role of Misfit, they just failed to connect, to communicate on Pop’s terms at all – an eloquent incoherence. How, then, do they cope with things like videos?
Grant Hart: "The videos are of straight performances of the songs. Seeing as none of our songs are particularly etched in fantasy, they’re best portrayed naturalistically."
Like the other American thinking rock bands I’ve encountered (Throwing Muses and The Replacements) Husker Du loathe the exigencies of presentation and marketing, have a chronic fear of anything that suggests contrivance. American rock has never seen image and packaging as a means of expression in the way that much British rock has.
Perhaps this is because American daily life is more heavily saturated with showbiz glitz and advertising pizazz than British life, and so it seems more urgent to escape the all-pervasive environment of kitsch, escape from the escapist, into the authentic, the Real. Probably, it has a lot to do with the absence in America of the artschool/artrock interface that’s has been so hugely important in British pop history.
Either way, American rock (outside New York) has no notion of glamour as something you can radicalise: Throwing Muses will turn up for photo sessions in their tattiest, most everyday clothes, The Replacements will refuse to throw shapes for the camera and Husker Du will resist anything in the way of video presentation that’s redolent of advertising and its manipulation of the consumer.
Bob Mould: "The problem with videos is that, before they existed, you’d make up your own story, your own mental pictures, to go with a song. That’s what music’s for – attaching your own meanings to."
Somewhere along the way, pop ceased to be something that gave people a heightened sense of their own agency, and became something that programmed desires. What Husker Du hate above all is when things get fixed – they like to leave things open, in a flux. Maybe they’d get on better if they did give people one easy handle, if they weren’t so keen to leave things up to people’s imagination. Maybe the only way to get a hit is to work from the premise that most people’s imaginations are enfeebled, through under-use. As it is, they’re not even let near those kind of people.
Bob: "Our videos don’t get heavy rotation. Our records get played on college radio and on the progressive commercial radio stations. Whereas all the people in here - " (gestures at Billboard) "- get played several times a day on every radio station in America."
Ah, Billboard – whenever I look at magazines like Billboard or Music Week, it does my head in: I think of all the things that music means to me – dissension, speculation, complex pleasures, never-never dreams, the criss-cross currents of making sacred and sacrilege – and then look at how these people discuss pop – crossover between different radio sectors, aggressive marketing, instore promotion... Who knows which kind of talk is more out of touch with the ‘reality’ of pop.
"Well, yes, it all depends on whether your conception of success is related to the outside world or to your own mind. With us, it ‘s the latter, so every song is a ‘hit’."
Quite. What is a ‘hit’ these days? Something that wreaks havoc in the private lives of a few people, or something that resounds widely and weakly across the surfaces of the globe? We’re back with Stubbs’ dichotomy between the small and significant and "huge insignificances" like Alison Moyet or Curiosity Killed The Cat. Two rival definitions of impact – purity of vision or breadth of effect.
All I know is that Husker Du hit me – this feels like the elusive ‘perfect pop’, the swoon and the surge. In one sense (sales) Husker Du are a ‘small’ band – in every other sense they are massive – in the scale and reach of their music, in the way they give a grandeur to mundane tribulations and quandaries – a musical equivalent of the pathetic fallacy (thunder and lightning as the dramatic externalisation of inner turmoil).
What is it about this ‘perfect pop’ that dooms it to be as distant from real Eighties Pop as the moon? That the music is too imposing, while the band, as individuals are too self-effacing, hiding behind the noise? That the music’s too violent, while the feelings that inspire it are too sensitive. That the songs deal with the loose ends of life but refuse to tie things up satisfactorily, instead confronting the listener again and again with the insoluble?
All these things distance Husker Du from today’s secular pop, with its twin poles of levity and sentimentality. But there are more material reasons why they don’t belong. The very fabric of their sound has no place in pop ’87, a blizzard that makes no appeal to the dancing body, but dances in the head.
Move in close and you see activity too furious for pop – flurry-hurry chords, febrile drumming – step back ten paces and you can take in the sweep and curve of the cloud shapes stirred up by the  frenzy. Only AR Kane come close as sublime choreographers of harmonic haze. The stricken voices, the almost unbearable candour of their bewilderment and desolation, jar with Pop’s soul-derived universal voice of self-possession and narcissism.
‘Ice Cold Ice’, the fabulous new single off the Warehouse double, says it all – the chill of awe instead of the fire of passion, frost instead of flesh, the ghost of folk instead of the residue of R&B. Pop ’87’s aerobic humanism can’t take on this kind of enchantment.
But what do they think is the most unique thing they offer?
Grant: "The outlook, I guess... we’re creating music for human beings, not pop idols."
Bob: "I don’t see many people trying to be as honest as we are... I think the lyrics are enlightening without being too philosophical... I don’t think you associate a clothing style or a lifestyle with what we do... in that sense we’re not exclusive to anyone, we don’t exclude."
Do you agree that part of the appeal of being a band is the chance to prolong adolescence, to leave things open a little longer, to avoid the closures of adulthood?
Grant: "Well, there’s growing up and there’s growing boring, and the two are not necessarily inseparable. Generally, though, as a person gets established in their life, and the things that surround them are theirs rather than their parents’, they start to settle down. I see friends that are worrying about their bank overdrafts – all the things I worry about too, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And the next step is that you start playing the game, kissing up to the boss, all to ensure the security you’re afraid to lose. But what you do lose is the ability to live for the moment, because life gets so bound up with planning and providence. People get conservative as they look to preserving their life investment."
One of the first things to go when this settling down sets in, is music, or at least rock of the Husker Du ilk. People cease to be able to take on such music. It’s too demanding – literally, in terms of investment of energy and attention; but also in the sense that rock is like a reproach, can get to be an unwelcome nagging reminder of dreams that have been foregone. It becomes unbearable to listen to music, after a while.
Bob: "Well, almost everyone does give up music, sooner or later – it’s a matter of when..."

Grant: "But there are those who give everything up all the time and right from the start. So even to hold out for a while is not so bad."

Who do they feel are their kindred spirits in rock?
Bob: "Who’s at Number 186 in the Billboard Chart this week, ha ha ha ha! No, there are some like-minded groups about, groups that have abandoned the idea of pop stardom – we’ve even been accused of triggering that off... bands like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Black Flag... bands who can be widely successful in their own minds because of the psychic rewards of what they do. A band like R.E.M. that has a very internally run programme – they’ve got a manager that’s been with them since day one, they’re very homebase-oriented, having refused to move to New York or L.A. Similarly, we decided to stay in Minneapolis right from the start. Now things are turned around so that a friend of a friend knows a musician who moved from Hollywood to Minneapolis, in order to be discovered!
"I like the fact that we’re self-sufficient, that we look after our own finances, that we don’t have a set regimen dictated by a corporation or anybody. One of the results of the life we lead is that we don’t divide work and play. When I’m not working on music or doing specific administrative tasks, I’m writing or reading or drawing, but all these things have an input into the music."
How do you want people to be affected by the music?
Grant: "This may sound a little overwhelming, but I’d like them to come out a better person than when they came in, as a result of an effort by both audience and the performers. We’re appreciated by a different enough range of people – rednecks, hippies, punks, 50-year-old jazz buffs – that I personally am really satisfied that there’s so much love going down. I’m also proud of the pride we take in what we do... I wish they made drums like that!"
Is there a kind of politics in Husker Du, in that you deal with the discrepancy between the promise of America and most people’s lived reality of deadlock and impasse?
"There’s politics in the sense of people trying to gain control of their own destiny. Life is too short to worry about who’s on top at any given time – politics is like advertising, the basic products beneath the different wrappers are much the same – it’s more important to avoid being stepped on, to find a life that doesn’t involve a giant foot hovering over your head perpetually. The golden rule is: be neither a foot over someone’s head, nor a head under someone’s foot."
And are there ‘spiritual’ concerns, too?
Bob: "I’m a questioning person. I’d like to find out why certain things are the way they are and, if that’s spiritual, then I’m a spiritual person. Things like time interest me. I overheard a guy on the airplane saying that the Japanese are 25 years ahead of us. Now which 25 years did he mean – 1780 to 1805, or 1962 to 1987? How do you qualify time? Is time the same for a guy aged 25 who’s never eaten meat and for a guy of the same age who’s taken speed for the last 10 years..."
Grant: "In hamburgers!"
Bob: "A good question is so much better than a bad answer. If you had all the answers, why go on? There goes all your spirit, your reason for living."

Husker Du

Candy Apple Grey
Melody Maker, March 22nd 1986
by Simon Reynolds 
Listening to this vast, volatile music, swept up in its power and space, I suddenly realised that these attributes are the precise opposite of the experiences Husker Du actually sing about — the lived reality of inertia, claustrophobia, isolation. The paradox of transfiguration — Husker Du's music wrenches numbness into fury and exultation. Only the Smiths make an equivalent alchemy of the grey areas of existence.

The Byrdsy harmonies, the desolate purity of Hart and Mould's voices, a discreet trippiness, these are further clues. Husker Du (like the Smiths) use traces of folk, a roots music, to write songs about rootlessness. Both groups look to the ‘60s only to reinvoke what's most positive about the time — doubt about the costs of living a normal life, yearning for an indefinable more.

Husker Du's music trembles with all the nameless longings that ache beneath the skin. Sometimes they remind me of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — another power trio of virtuoso ability who created a rock noise that was spiritual. And I wonder if Husker Du's 'Somewhere' was our lost 'I Don't Live Today'.

But Husker Du have an ascetic quality that contrasts with Hendrix's febrile sensuality — their music rises above the body, refuses to solicit it (says don't dance, flip your wig). Their love songs are chaste devotionals, almost hymnal. Husker Du approach the world, and their loves, with a mixture of pained bewilderment and awe. Their flight from the flesh is the only response to pop's soulless, sweaty sextravaganza.

I think also of another ‘60s-obsessed group. Where the Jesus And Mary Chain make pop fresh again by juxtaposing its sweetness with noise, Husker Du turn pop into noise — flaying these songs into a haze, smudging voice into guitar.

The feared corporate bland-out has not happened. There's a touch more clarity, a few more ballads. But this was coming anyway — Husker Du had taken velocity and noise as far as they could. The only way forward for them is to become gentler. Husker Du's achievement is a musical violence untainted with machismo: a violence that, paradoxically, heals. All they've done is to bring out more clearly the grace and compassion that always did rage at the heart of their ravaged sound.

Besides, these soft songs are the cruellest. No music mangles my heart so completely. The intimacy of 'Hardly Getting Over It' almost destroys. 'Eiffel Tower High' features a sublime loop of melody that will crush the breath out of you.

There's never been anything cultish or difficult about Husker Du — please don't deny yourself this beauty any longer. For I don't know how much longer it can last — already Husker Du repeat themselves, musically and lyrically.

For the moment, though, I live for this pain.

Warehouse: Songs and Stories (WEA)
Melody Maker July 1987

by Simon Reynolds

This is ROCK. Not rock’n’roll, not swingin’, groovy, lean and compact. Not even raunch. this is ROCK -- powerchords that would crack apart the sky. Husker Du don’t belong with the new authentics, bar bands sweating out a closeknit clinch with their fans. Unlike Springsteen (who by sheer presence can shrink stadiums back to the dimensions of the primal R&B joint), there’s no intimacy, no sweat, nothing earthy. Husker Du are making a monument, a mountain, a glacier, out of rock again, rather than burrowing along at grass roots.

Oblivion. “Nothing changes fast enough/Your hurry worry days/It makes you want to give it up/And drift into a haze”--“These Important Years.” Rock noise is the uptight white adolescent’s release, emptying the mind, then filling it with nothing but its own dancing frenzy. Noise as metaphor for inner turmoil and  its transfiguration. Over five LPs (and this is their second double) Husker Du have turned over and over the details of drift and bewilderment, yet still manage to wrest an improbably grandeur from the small squalor of everyday inertia. Fuck the chirpy, unforgiveable “Road to Nowhere”-- this is the true, hurting sound of the spirit chafing against the rut of existence, chafing at the intractable. The “violence” of this music is an attempt to flay past numbness, through dulled senses, to reawaken feeling.

“Think with your hips” has been the message of rock’n’roll, of pop. But this rock says: rise above, kiss the sky. Like U2/REM/J&MC, this music is psychedelia without drugs, a rock that has left behind loins, juice, even heat, and found a new, frosty kind of intensity. A celestial impulse.

This is a new sound. Heavy metal is bastardized R&B, R&B sexuality coarsened and stiffened and blunt. But Husker Du “bastardize” or metallize folk. They strip folk of roots and soil, blast it to the heavens. Imagine the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday.

Better than ever. Voices midway between scar and balm, savaging as they soothe. Harmonies that swell, soar, then bleed into the horizon. Divine lullabies like “Up in the Air,” cracked apart by blocks of noise. “No Reservation,” “She’s A Woman,” “You Can Live At Home,” “Friend,” “You’re A Soldier,” “Ice Cold Ice”…classic pop structures, almost borne under by the foaming weight of noise brought to bear. 

My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in rock noise. A soulboy’s bad dream. Style, rhetoric, tassled loafers, import 12-inches, blown, scattered to the winds. A million heads, lost in music, in worship. The return of ROCK.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen

The Observer, The, 9 May 1993

by Simon Reynolds 

With their jazz-tinged soft-rock and mordant lyrics, Steely Dan were critics's favourites and a staple of FM radio throughout the Seventies. After classic albums like Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and Katy Lied, and hits like 'Rikki, Don't lose That Number' and 'Reeling In The Years', co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went their separate ways in 1981. Fagen quickly resurfaced with The Nightfly, an elegant and witty album of veiled autobiography, concerning the dreams of a late Fifties/early Sixties adolescent caught up in the anticipation of Kennedy's New Frontier.

But after this successful album, Fagen succumbed to a mid-life crisis and a severe writing block. "I fell into a depression," recalls the singer, who is now 45. "I wrote every day but disliked what I produced. I went into psychotherapy, and eventually realised that I'd run out of steam."

In Fagen's absence, the legacy of Steely Dan lived on. In northernmost England and in Scotland, a crop of groups emerged – Prefab Sprout, Danny Wilson, Hue and Cry, The Kane Gang – who aspired to Steely Dan's blend of opulent music and sardonic lyrics.
One band, Deacon Blue, took its name from a song on Steely Dan's Aja LP. Even more unlikely, mellow rappers De La Soul sampled a lick from 'Peg', another Aja track.
Eventually, Fagen "figured stuff out, went through a transformation," and re-emerged. His creative ducts started flowing again, and the result is a new solo album, Kamakiriad. Set a few years closer to the Millennium, it's a concept album in which a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his ecologically sound, steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that's alternately futuristic and decrepit.
Fagen admits that it's a science fiction allegory of his Eighties experiences, although the word 'allegory' makes him grimace: "I remember they were always the most boring things to read at school. I hope the album isn't as dull as Pilgrim's Progress. But, yes, it's a journey of loss. I like the sci-fi idea because it divorces you from the present. It lends itself to a mythic, heroic plot, gives the story a magical quality. Plus you imagine all kinds of marvelous technologies."
From Steely Dan through his solo records, Fagen's work turns around a paradox: his music is steeped in the lush romanticism of jazz, but his lyrics are suspicious of romance, even cynical.
"Odd, isn't it?" laughs Fagen. "I've grown more suspicious of romance as I've grown older. When Walter Becker and I were first working together in the late Sixties, we were jazz fans, but the vocabulary of jazz had already been co-opted for commercial purposes. Our idea was to use that already corrupted vocabulary, with its romantic connotations, and combine it with anti-romantic lyrics."
The burnished, deluxe quality of Steely Dan's music was, it seems, always ironic. "It was pseudo-opulence. I remember that as a child I was conscious of the world moving from the aesthetic of the immediate post-War years, which seemed authentic, to the Fifties aesthetic, which seemed inauthentic. That pseudo-luxe sound I use is a symbol for a loss of authenticity, which was exchanged for an illusion of the good life. To this day, my parents' values are still bound up with comfort and convenience. A lot of values were dropped after the war. So I grew up with the paradox that the music I love, jazz, was commodified before I was even born."

On Kamakiriad, Fagen is still playing his favourite trick of juxtaposing romantic music was with anti-romantic lyrics. The song 'On The Dunes', he says, "has a very romantic setting, but it's where the character reaches his lowest point," while 'Counter-Moon' is about "a moon that makes people fall out of love."
'Tomorrow's Girls' likewise concerns relationships going sour. "People change, and the extreme case would be if you woke up one morning and you’re suspicious that the woman in bed with you is actually an alien. I've put the song into a sleazy B-movie context, where aliens are replacing yesterday's girls with pseudo-women."
But the album ends happily in 'Teahouse On The Tracks', when the hero reaches a nightclub in a run-down urban zone called Flytown. Fagen admits it's a very old idea: "dance away the heartache".
The making of Kamakiriad saw Fagen reunited with his former partner, Walter Becker, a development which may presage the resurrection of Steely Dan. Lacking confidence, Fagen felt he needed someone to lean on. He and Becker have a telepathic understanding when it comes to making music, he says, and, they share a sense of humour. "I know when we've done something good because we start laughing at it. That's how I respond to excellence. I don't relate to art that doesn't have a sense of humour."


I like the obvious things you hear on the radio - especially "Reeling" - but  I've never managed to get fully into Steely Dan, despite a couple of efforts over the years. It's a bit too smart for me - "smart" in both the non-scruffy, un-scuffed superslick sheen sense and the clever-clever encrypted 'n' oblique sense. I don't see why I should be having to sit there puzzling out what a song is saying  (come right out with, man - time is short!). The cynicism that must have seemed so bracing and so valuable in its bleak disillusion in the Seventies amidst the surrounding soft-headedness .... it doesn't appeal that much nor seem necessary or remarkable in a New Wave, post-Costello world. 

But I love love looooove The Nightfly, so much more open-hearted and lyrically direct. 

Kamakiriad is not a patch on it, sadly. I remember getting to hear the album for the first time in a Manhattan listening session shortly before the interview - maybe even the same day - through some kind of incredibly expensive hi-fi set up, or possibly even off the mixing desk in a recording studio. Massive speakers, sound so crisp.   A couple of the tracks in particular sounded incredibly burnished and intricate, like your ears were staring into the inner workings of a clock, copper and silver cogs whirring and interlocking in perfect precision. Unfortunately, listening at home later on, off a compact disc on a much lower-end music system, the effect was more of a fussed-over sterility.  

Very nice guy though, Mr Fagen. I enjoyed meeting him, which is more than can be said of my other broadening-my-range Observer feature of that era, which entailed visiting Paul Simon at his office in the Brill Building.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Rock Beyond

Post-Rock, published as "The Rock Beyond"
director's cut version, Village Voice, August 1995

by Simon Reynolds

What to do when the industry calls the underground's bluff (all those complaints about  unresponsiveness, denial of access) and in the blinking of an eye mainstreams the entire Amerindie matrix of attitudes, sounds, tropes and traits? After punk reintegrated with metal to form a populist all-American hard rock (that's GRUNGE), how to revive la difference, resituate "us" on the other side of the pale?
Lo-fi was the US underground's response: a weak response, since lo-fi is just grunge with even grungier production values.  As the ersatz folk culture of used vinyl store clerks, record collectors and fanzine editors, lo-fi was always gonna prove a stylistic and cultural dead end (which won't stop Pavement, the genre's REM, from taking the sensibility into the mainstream, four albums down the line).

In Britain, grunge provoked the jingoist backlash of 'Britpop', whereby bands like Blur, Suede, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Gene ad nauseam rallied around a fetishized
Englishness. Beatles and  Pistols,  Who and Jam,  Buzzcocks and Smiths, have all been boiled down into an insular amalgam of anthemic choruses, tinny production and lashings of attitude; a white power-pop that symbolically erases not just America (grunge), but Black Britain (jungle, trip hop) and pan-European prole pop (rave).

But for other, smarter Brit bands, grunge provided the impetus to make a final break with rock.  In America too, the underground is rustling with the cogitation of a new breed of guitar-based experimentalists trying to think their way past the impasse of lo-fi's  retro-eclectic obscurantism.  Together they form a loose trans-Atlantic movement: POST-ROCK. The 'post' signifies a break with both the formal traits and the ideological premises of rock'n'roll. Post-rock means bands who use guitars but in non-rock ways,  as a source of timbre and texture rather than riff and powerchord (Main, Flying Saucer Attack, Skullflower, LaBradford, Stars of the Lid). It also means bands who augment gtr/bs/drms with digital technology such as samplers and sequencers (Techno-Animal, Scorn, Disco Inferno, Laika, My Bloody Valentine), or who tamper with the trad rock line-up but prefer antiquated analog synths and non-rock instrumentation (Pram, Stereolab, Tortoise, Long Fin Killie).

Post-rock has its own sporadic but extensive history, which these bands draw on as much for the suggestiveness of its unrealized possibilities as for actual achievements.  In terms of electric guitar, the key lineage runs from the Velvet Underground, through Krautrock (Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster et al) and Eno/Fripp, to such late '80s proto-postrockers as Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and A.R. Kane.  Bypassing the blues roots of rock'n'roll, the VU melded folkadelic songcraft with a wall-of-noise aesthetic that was half Spector, half La Monte Young. In the process Cale & Co invented 'dronology', a term which loosely describes 50 percent of today's post-rock activity.
Main offers a perfect illustration of the way post-rock emerges from rock's  chrysalis. Main-man Robert Hampson used to be at the helm of Loop, a bunch of  long haired acid-freaks with a fetish for the wah-wah pedal. Hampson's desire to go beyond the Stooges/MC5 matrix expressed itself through covers of  Can's "Mother Sky" and Pop Group's "Thief Of Fire",  but Loop never quite made the break with rock'n'roll. Forming Main, Hampson shed both his lank locks and, step by step, every last vestige of rock'n'roll: first riffs and song structure, then backbeat, eventually even distinct chords.

Main isn't so much a band as a studio-based research unit dedicated to exploring the electric guitar's spectrum of effects-wracked timbres and tonalities; said research is made public via EP's and LP's of bleakly bewitching ambience, dub concrete, and homages to electro-acoustic composers like Stockhausen and Berio. Appropriately, where Loop played gigs alongside sub-Hawkwind biker-psych bands, Hampson is now to be found collaborating with experimentalists like Jim O'Rourke, whose work in Brise-Glace and Gastr del Sol bridges the gap between Sonic Youth's 'reinvention of the guitar' and the 'prepared instruments' of avant-garde classical.
A clutch of American bands--Sabalon Glitz, Jessamine, Bowery Electric--are currently poised to cross the brink between neo-psychedelia and ambient, following in the footsteps of Loop/Main, Spacemen 3 and its sequels Spectrum and Spiritualized, and Skullflower and its offshoot Total.  If Sabalon, Jessamine et al finally lose the backbeat, they'll probably levitate into the stratospheric vicinity of The Stars of The Lid, Dissolve, LaBradford and Flying Saucer Attack: lustrous, meditational noisescapes, permeated with dub's echo and reverb but devoid of any audible traces of Jamaica

The other major strand of post-rock endeavor has jettisoned the dronologists'  guitar-fetish. It also avoids the potential aesthetic cul de sac that is pure ambience, by looking outside rock for different forms of  kinetic energy. Some use the looped beats of hip hop and rave (Techno-Animal, Scorn); others merge live funk and programmed rhythm (Laika, O'Rang, Moonshake).  On their seductive debut "Silver Apples of The Moon" (Too Pure/American), Laika blends hands-on playing and sequenced riffs, sounding  like they're equally influenced by Can at their fizzy flow-motion peak circa "Soon Over Babaluma" and by the jungle streaming out of London's pirate airwaves. Another Too Pure band, Pram, is releasing two brilliant albums via American this year, "Helium" and "Sargasso Sea".  Less technophile than Laika, (it prefers antiquated synths, home-made theremin, the wheezing respiration of the harmonium), Pram nonetheless often sounds like trip hop irrigated with the folky-jazzy fluidity of early '70s cosmonauts like Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt circa "Rock Bottom" and John Martyn circa "Solid Air".  Completing this Too Pure triumvirate, Long Fin Killie's glistening braid of pulses, tics and chimes warrants terms like 'systems folk' or 'Celtic gamelan'.

Tortoise is the closest American parallel to the Too Pure acts' fluent rapprochement between studio-magick and real-time improvisation. Its self-titled debut of last year
offers an unclassifiable all-instrumental hybrid of organic jamming and dub-wise aural anamorphosis, sounding at times like the missing link between Slint and Seefeel. With this year's "Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters", a collection of drastic reworkings of tracks from the debut, Tortoise has plunged headfirst into the remixology that's all the rage in England (where God, Scorn and Main have gladly offered their work up for butchery).  Other American groove-oriented combos--Cul de Sac, Ui, Run On--shun sweatless studio trickery and instead locate models of post-rock dynamics in the flesh-and-blood rhythm-engines that powered Can and early '70s Miles Davis.  Another sub-strand of post-rock activity (Stereolab, Trans-Am, Six Finger Satellite, Medusa Cyclone) aligns itself with the metronomic pulse-beat of the motorik aesthetic, as coined by Kraftwerk and Neu!, who
bridged the gap between the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" and Giorgio Moroder's Eurodisco.

Although these strands of post-rock stretch across the Atlantic, there are real and telling differences between British and American post-rock, and most of them revolve around British bohemia's susceptibility to the influence of black music, whether African-American, Caribbean or homegrown. US post-rock can almost be defined by the absence of dub as a living legacy, and by the avoidance of hip hop.

Dub's vast impact on British left-field rock goes back to the late '70s, to the kinship punk rockers felt with Rastafarian reggae's spiritual militancy and millenial imagery of exile and dread. And so The Clash covered Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves" and Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time", while Johnny Rotten went from the metallic KO of Sex Pistols to the anti-rockist Public Image Limited, whose "Metal Box/Second Edition" introduced a significant segment of his following to Lydon's true loves, dub and Can. Brit-bohemia's enduring open-ness to the Jamaican sound-world, from ska to dub to ragga, explains so much of what's bubbled up from UK subbakulcha in the last two decades: you can trace the reverberations of Jah Wobble's bass through Killing Joke and On U Sound to The Orb, or witness how Specials-fan Tricky ended up collaborating with  Mark Stewart (formerly of '70s avant-funksters the Pop Group,  later a solo artist with On U).

Nearly as important as dub as an influence on the Brit post-rockers is Brian Eno. From the early '70s onward,  Eno was connecting, in both theory and practice, the dots between the dub of Lee Perry and King Tubby, Teo Macero's labyrinthine production of Miles Davis, Can's fractal funkadelia, Cluster's Op Art guitar-tapestries, and so on.  Eno's notions--the studio-as-instrument,  recording as the architectonics of 'fictional psycho-acoustic space'--are the organizing principles of post-rock. Most rock producers strive for a glossed-up, embellished simulation of the band in performance. Dub's fluctuating mix tampers with that 'realism', makes the band's presence  hazy and mirage-like; although Tubby et al worked with live bands, they halo-ed different instruments, different parts of the drum kit, with echo and reverb, so that each strand of sound appears to exist in its own distinct acoustic space.  Following Eno and dub, post-rock uses effects and processes to sever the audible link between what you hear and the physical act of a hand striking a guitar-chord or pounding a drum-skin. Where a rock record creates a mental picture of a band onstage engaged in strenuous collective toil, post-rock offers a blank canvas for the imagination.
Sampling and a related technique called 'hard disk editing'  (where sounds are chopped up and rearranged inside the computer's virtual space) dramatically increase the possibilities for disorientation and displacement. With sampling, what you hear could never possibly have been a real-time event, since it's composed of vivisected musical fragments plucked from different contexts and eras, then layered and resequenced to form a trans-chronistic pseudo-event.  You could call it 'deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence'; you could also call it 'magic'.

Which brings us to hip hop, and once again the contrast between the avidity of its embrace by British underground rock versus the hesitancy of the US post-rockers. It was the weird noises on rap records that first inspired My Bloody Valentine to invent its 'glide guitar' sound; later, the band looped beats and sampled their own feedback on "Soon" and the "Loveless" LP; currently, MBV is struggling to incorporate the breakbeat-science of jungle, hip hop's successor, into its swoon-rock tumult. Similarly, Hank Shocklee's densely layered Bomb Squad production for Public Enemy is cited as a crucial influence by the likes of Disco Inferno and Techno-Animal, while Scorn creates paranoiac groovescapes strikingly similar to those stalked by East Coast horrorcore rappers Jeru the Damaja and Nas. In Britain, staying unaware and uninfected by hip hop and its homegrown offshoots (trip hop, drum & bass) can only be achieved by a strenuous feat of cultural inbreeding (congratulations,  Britpopsters!).  But in America, where you'd think it'd be even harder to ward off rap's influence, white bohemians shy away, perhaps feeling hip hop is the cultural property of African-Americans, and not to be dabbled with lightly.
As for techno-rave having any impact on American post-rock, forget it. A cluster of bigotries form a near impenetrable barrier: the premium on live performance, the
lingering legacy of 'disco sucks', the hatred of machine rhythms. The upshot of all this is that UK post-rock outfits, influenced by various admixtures of dub, hip hop and techno, tend to be studio-centric sound laboratories for whom live performance is an irrelevance; whereas American post-rockers remain deeply committed to the band format and playing live.  Instead of drawing on contemporary black and club music, they revisit those brinks in rock history when eggheads pushed rock's envelope beyond bursting point: Krautrock, obviously, but also Tim Buckley circa 'Starsailor'; the Canterbury scene (Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Henry Cow etc); the freeform passages and proto-ambient lulls that punctuate the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, and were developed further by Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth.


If you wanted to trace the tangled lineages of post-rock, you couldn't do much better than to check out two landmark anthologies compiled for Virgin by Techno-Animal's Kevin Martin, 
"Isolationism" and "Macro Dub Infection" (both released over here by Caroline).  Each unravels the cat's-cradle of connections radiating from the figures of Brian Eno and King Tubby respectively. "Isolationism" was conceived as a riposte to 'ambient', at least in its degraded modern version as womb-muzak for raved-out spliffheads. Returning to Eno's original idea of ambient as environmental music, and cueing off Uncle Bri's musical peak "On Land", 'isolationist' music artists create entropic hinterlands of sound;  a nowhere-vastness that externalizes the inner void left when the utopian imagination withers and dies.

 While the "Isolationism" anthology spans guitar-freaks like Main,  techno renegades like Aphex Twin and avant-droners like Zoviet France,  "Dub Infection" is even more wide-ranging, encompassing trip hop (Tricky, New Kingdom), techno (Bedouin Ascent, Wagon Christ) jungle, (Omni Trio, 4 Hero) and post-rock (Laika), as well more obvious dub resurrectionists. (Significantly, the only white American outfit to appear is Tortoise, with the awesomely peculiar sound-maze "Goriri"). Perhaps this multiracial mix prophesies the dissolution of 'post-rock' itself into a broader anti-category, a sort of perimeter region where all the post-s gather to trade ideas: refugees from rap, from rave, from jungle...  anybody who feels shackled by genre, by the expectations attached to identity and community.    


What does the emergence of  post-rock say about the Zeitgeist? If music, as Jacques Attali famously claimed, is prophecy, mirroring-in-advance future changes in social organization, then the 'post' in post-rock seem to chime in with other tendencies in the culture (e.g. computer games, virtual reality etc), ones which seem to indicate the emergence of a new model of post-human subjectivity,  organized around fascination rather than meaning, sensation rather than sensibility.

Form and ideology go hand in hand, as ever. With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to deliquesce into ambience, post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the Song and the Voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller, the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom or site of social resonance. The more 'post' a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of the soundscape.  A band's journey through rock to post-rock
usually involves a trajectory from narrative lyrics to stream-of-consciousness to voice-as-texture to purely instrumental music. In the process, there's a dismantling of trad-rock mechanisms like "identification" and 'catharsis' (which is replaced by plateau-states of bliss, awe, uncanny-ness, or prolonged sensations of propulsion, ascension, freefall, immersion). In post-rock,  'soul' is not so much abolished as radically decentered, dispersed across the entire field of sound, as in club musics like house, techno and jungle, where tracks are less about communication and more like engines for "the programming of sensations" (as Susan Sontag said in 1965 of contempoary art from Rauschenberg to The Supremes). Music that's all surface and no 'depth', that has skin instead of soul.
Above all, post-rock abandons the notion of rebellion as we know and love it, in favor of  less spectacular strategies of subversion; ones closer to notions of 'dissidence' and 'disappearance', to the psychic landscapes of  exile and utopia constructed in dub reggae, hip hop and rave.  At the heart of rock'n'roll stands the body of the white teenage boy, middle finger erect and a sneer playing across his lips. At the center of post-rock floats a phantasmic un-body, androgynous and racially indeterminate; half-ghost, half-cyborg. 

For the time being, the margins must remain the zone for this future-music's research-and-development. On both sides of the Atlantic, popular taste and critical opinion clutch tightly to the certainties and satisfactions of song and singer, and their attendant fictions of community and resistance, while the biz demands 'charismatic personalities' (Juliana Hatfield! The bloke from Live!!!) as the focus of its marketing schemes.  For post-rock to go mainstream would require a Dylan figure--a Stipe or Vedder, say--shocking his folkie audience by appearing onstage with a sampler, as Dylan did when he went electric.  (And what is the electric guitar now but the new acoustic guitar, signifier of grit and earth and folk-blood?).

A final, emotionally-ambivalent thought about the difference between rock and its post-. Let's consider the Stones' "Gimme Shelter", described by  Greil Marcus, accurately, as the greatest piece of recorded rock'n'roll ever. Consider specifically the all-too-brief instrumental prequel, the way Keith Richards' soliloquy of a solo conjures a shattering pitch of ecstatic anguish and longing.  For a multitude of reasons, the historical conditions that made 'Gimme Shelter' not just possible, but of oracular significance, are gone; not only has rock's grand narrative petered out into a delta of micro-cultures, but the possibility of writing a redemptive narrative itself seems to be fading.  A post-rock band would take that intro's appalling poignancy, loop it, stretch it out to six minutes or more, turn it into an environment. Because that limbo-land between bliss-scape and paranoia-scape, narcosis and nightmare, is where we postmoderns live.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

after "Chime" - Orbital's later releases

Orbital 2

Melody Maker? 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Orbital would deserve a place of honour in the pantheon of
'spiritual techno' if they'd only ever recorded 1990's shimmering,
hymnal "Chime" and the poignant cyberdelic symphony "Belfast".  After
an undistinguished phase (a so-so debut LP, the indifferent
"Mutations" EP), the Hartnoll Bros had something of a creative
renaissance with last autumn's entrancing "Halcyon". Now this new
album (untitled, like the first) puts them firmly back in the
firmament, only a couple of clouds below The Aphex Twin.

     Orbital know their drone theory, and the opening "(Time
Becomes)" reworks an idea of systems-music pioneer Steve Reich: two
tape loops of the same phrase ("time becomes a loop") run in and out
of synch. Actually, this Moebius-mantra irritates rather than
mesmerises, so it's a relief when they abandon conceptualism for real
substance, in the form of a four-part electro-symphony.  "Lush 3-1"
is a tantalising, tremulous shimmer-swirl of synth-textures that
feels as sensual as spring rain. Orbital ooze a panoply of plangent
tones that seem to sing from the deepest chambers of your heart; an
inner choir of babytalk oohs-and-aahs that resembles nothing so much
as the hyperventilating harmonies on MBV's "Loveless".

    "Lush 3-2" introduces an ethereal girl-voice whose ecstasy could
be either ecclesiastical or sexual, an unearthly horn-section, and a
rubbery bass-line that itches in your bloodstream.  "Impact (The
Earth Is Burning") slips deeper into a squelchamatic Roland 303
acieeed groove, topped with Seventies sci-fi movie dialogue.  The
symphony's last movement, "Remind", is their drastic remix of Meat
Beat Manifesto's "Mindstream", stripped of every last trace of the
original so that it's all Orbital and even more luscious than before:
a brimming, blossoming efflorescence of ever-widening wonderment, the
sound of a cup of joy overfloweth-ing. The goosepimples run riot!

     On the flip, "Planet Of The Shapes" is a hissing and clicking
contraption that could belong on LFO"s classic "Frequencies" LP. It's
dank and morbid, until the sunburst entrance of sitar chimes and
flute-twirls. "Walk Now" shimmies nicely, but the didgeridoo (which I
always thought was the ancestor for the Roland 303 acid drone) is
already a techno cliche.  The Detroit-styled "Monday" is crisp-and-
spry, glassy-and-classy, but a bit inconsequential.

    Best comes last, with "Halycon & On & On", a fully-developed
version of the last single.  Here, the tremulous New Age euphoria of
Kirsty of Opus III is modulated on a sampling keyboard and swollen
into the full-blown mystic bliss of Saint Teresa. Kirsty's breathless
gasps are looped into a locked groove of almost unendurable ecstasy,
such that your insides shimmer and shudder.  "Halcyon" is further
proof that rave culture is all about clitoris envy.  Where the multi-
orgasmic disco of Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" invited male
lust, techno's sped-up girl-vox conjure a hyper-real, supra-human
rapture that (male) ravers identity with and aspire to.  It's what
postmodern theorists call "gender tourism" (in rock terms, think of
Brett Anderson's swoony languour). As warm as plasma and as eerie as
ectoplasm, Orbital's (out-of-)body music is the true sound of

[tk - review of Snivilisation, 1994]

The Middle of Nowhere
Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

            Orbital's place in the Rave Hall of Fame would be secure if they'd only ever released three tracks--1990's spangly-tingly "Chime"; its original B-side, the heart-string tugging techno-symphony "Belfast"; and 1992's "Halcyon+on+on,"  9 minutes of densely braided, wordlessly rhapsodic vocals that make you feel like you're hovering on the brink of a swoon. "Halcyon," especially, showcases Orbital's forte--melody and harmony, as opposed to dance music's real domain (rhythm, timbre and space). Orbital's beats, rarely more than adequate, are generally relegated to a relatively low position in the mix;  texturally, Phil and Paul Hartnoll favor plangent, plinky, melodious timbres that barely stray from the orchestral spectrum (pianos, strings, woodwinds, and so forth).  All of which explains why Orbital's music is simultaneously utterly lovely and yet somewhat conservative, at least from the stern perspective of  purist club fiends and avant-technoheads.
  In truth, after Snivilisation's  flirtation with jungle breakbeats in '94, Orbital lost interest in keeping up with the state of the art. The Middle of Nowhere picks up where 1996's In Sides left off--stirring soundtrack music in search of a movie. With its piping string cascades, trumpet solo and wonderstruck female vocal, opener "Way Out" recalls John Barry's James Bond scores. Throughout  the album,  Orbital eschew the infinitesmal subtle shades of the digital palette in favor of deliberately quaint synth-tones--the soundpainter's equivalent of using only primary colors. As if to signpost this deliberate retrogression, "Style" starts by sampling  instructions for playing the stylophone, an incredibly rudimentary toy-synth popular with Brit-kids in the early 1970s.

            The riffs too are enjoyably oldfashioned--corrugated, rectilinear stabs that flashback to  vintage rave anthems by Cubic 22 and The Scientist, the 1991 Euro-hardcore sound  dissed as "heavy metal techno".  The guitar-laced "I Don't Know You People" actually recalls English punk bands like The Ruts and The Stranglers, right down to the thuggish bassline and baroque organ vamps. But then Orbital basically are a rock group in electronic clothing. They've played the Royal Albert Hall,  they've released a live single, and they sell shitloads of albums to a hugely loyal fanbase. In the high turnover world of dance culture, Orbital have endured, precisely through downplaying any rhythm-science that might confuse your average beat-deaf  rock fan, and concentrating instead on crafting tunes that sing in your heart. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Paula Abdul

Paula Abdul

New York Times, May 12th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Just as there are those who worry about additive-riddled junk food, so too there's an unofficial "campaign for real music."
Adherents fret about the unauthenticity of mainstream pop performers who, in the tradition of Milli Vanilli, mime to backing tapes when supposedly performing live. For these people, Paula Abdul has become the focus of the latest crisis of confidence.
The session singer Yvette Marine has claimed that the lead vocal on two tracks from Ms. Abdul's first album, Forever Your Girl, which has sold seven million copies, is a composite voice. Ms. Marine claims that her original "guide vocal" was used to beef up Ms. Abdul's singing and has filed a false-and-deceptive-packaging suit against Virgin Records, which has denied the charges.
Although the allegations are not as threatening to Ms. Abdul's credibility as the Milli Vanilli revelations were to theirs, they are timed to cause maximum embarrassment: Ms. Abdul's second album, Spellbound (Virgin 91611; all three formats), will be released this week. The controversy has reawakened familiar anxieties about the dehumanizing effect of technology on music. As pop production grows steadily more complex, it also becomes increasingly specialized. The person who sings the song is less and less often the person who wrote it, while the sound is more and more the creation of the producer.
Most songs on Spellbound consist of rhythm tracks and keyboard sequences programmed by the album's producers, V. Jeffrey Smith and Peter Lord. Session musicians were occasionally employed to lay down rhythm guitar parts or saxophone and violin solos, but they sound incongruously "organic" amid the inhuman perfection of the metronomic beats.
This way of making records was the norm in the Tin Pan Alley era of the '50s, and it has continued to be the rule in black pop and dance music. But such division of labour cuts against the notion of authenticity that emerged in the countercultural '60s, when it was expected that singers would be responsible for the meanings of their own songs. This notion is what lies behind the hostility toward manufactured pop. The fear is that the artist's style will be totally superseded by the producer's trademark commercial sound, and that the gritty spontaneity of rock-and-roll will lose out to programming expertise.
It has been a long time since pop records documented live performances; instead, their simulation of them is constructed painstakingly in the studio. No longer is it necessary for musicians to play in one another's presence. Vocals rarely take place in "real time" but are a collage of the best-sung phrases edited from numerous vocal takes. Bad notes can be corrected by altering the pitch; weak voices can be thickened by multi-tracking.
For most people, this surgical procedure seems distant from the "raw expression" of Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. It's hard to accept the fact that this techno-pop is music, but it's also unlikely that today's 16-year-old pop consumers care; all they hear is the immediacy and effervescence of the product.
Paula Abdul's unusual route to pop stardom was via her award-winning choreography for promotional videos of artists like Janet Jackson, ZZ Top, George Michael and INXS. This background makes her particularly emblematic of the state of modern pop, the suspicion being that she was given a recording contract because she's videogenic rather than a gifted natural singer.
Ms. Abdul's 1988 debut, Forever Your Girl, was clearly modeled on Janet Jackson's 1986 album, Control, whose widely influential techno-funk sound was created by her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Like Ms. Abdul, Ms. Jackson has a serviceable rather than astounding voice, and so Mr. Jam and Mr. Lewis devised a breathless, dynamic electro-pop sound based around clipped, urgent hooks rather than complex melodies and soul diva singing.
Ms. Abdul's debut album cleaved to the same effective formula. The crucial difference was that Ms. Abdul replaced Ms. Jackson's soft-core feminism with a more traditional female persona, as can readily be seen by contrasting the album titles Control and Forever Your Girl.
Spellbound builds on that winning approach. Musically, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord have constructed a state-of-the-art dance pop that mixes influences from house, swing beat, rap, Prince-style pop-funk and "Euro-black" groups like Snap. Lyrically, Ms. Abdul's persona is flirty but wholesome. Although tracks like 'The Promise of a New Day' and 'Rock House' feebly gesture at the social-awareness-by-numbers of Janet Jackson's second album, Rhythm Nation 1814, most of the songs are gushing tributes to boyfriends.
New songs like 'Rush Rush', 'Spellbound', 'To You' and 'Will You Marry Me' reiterate the sexually apolitical attitude of previous hits like 'Knocked Out', 'It's the Way That You Love Me' and 'Forever Your Girl'. Even when wronged in love ('Foolish Heart', 'Blowin' Kisses in the Wind'), Ms. Abdul's persona is aggrieved but hopelessly devoted, her voice tremulously verging on a Betty Boop whine.
The best tracks on Spellbound are those that make the furthest departure from the Abdul norm. 'Vibeology' combines Parliament-Funkadelic influences and contemporary house mannerisms with results as sultry and engaging as Deee-Lite; Ms. Abdul sings dance-floor doggerel like "I'm in a funky way" in a cartoonish chipmunk squeak. 'U', one of the handful of tracks not produced by Mr. Smith and Mr. Lord, is also excellent. Composed and produced by Prince's Paisley Park organization, the track combines a military beat with a staccato, hard-rock riff and jazzy harmonies – Prince's trademark – to eerie effect. It's the best thing Prince has been involved in since his 1988 album Lovesexy.
The main vein of Spellbound, however, is precisely what one expects from Paula Abdul: brisk beats, stuttering synthesizers, stammering bass lines, nervous tics of rhythm guitar and a profusion of hooks designed to snag consumers by the ear. The music sounds spectacular; its endless crescendos and hyperactive rhythms are designed to go in sync with the rapid-fire quick cuts of the videos, the jut and thrust of the choreography.
A phenomenal number of man-hours go into each of these spectacles of effortlessness. For the videos, there's storyboard writing, makeup, lighting, interminable takes, editing, tinting, special effects. Musically, there's programming, arranging, treating, remixing and, in the case of Spellbound, processing the entire album through Q-sound, a technique that makes records sound more three dimensional, so that every snare kick hits the listener in the gut.
If it seems like there's no spontaneity involved in this process, it's best to remind yourself that this isn't rock-and-roll. Ms. Abdul belongs to the tradition of show-biz entertainment in which every inflection and gesture is choreographed and rehearsed to the point of robotic precision. She has said that it wasn't a rock or rhythm-and-blues icon that inspired her to enter the business, but Gene Kelly. What Ms. Abdul's music offers is the sterile exhilaration of a Hollywood blockbuster, where every edit and sound effect is designed to fit into the listener's reduced attention span.
Just as these spectacles are diverting at the time but leave you feeling empty afterward, Spellbound is louder than life but lacking in resonance. As with junk food, you might occasionally want to get high on all the empty calories and additives, but you can't live off the stuff.