2015 6 Jul
Beside the poplar trees
Where I like to go
Away from busy rhythms of the city
To the languid river Mersey
Beneath the rain-filled clouds
The wind carries a song
Away from all the chaos
Into Fletcher Moss…
2015 3 Jul
Notes: This has long been my favourite Tom Waits record. Check out the layered word-magic of the opening track. There’s a lot ofwater: a pond, the sea, the ice in the drink, raindrops on the window, the ocean, the kiss, more ice. Contrast comes from the sepia-smokiness of the saxophone. Every track (especially the James Joyce-on-acid Modernism/Vorticism of Kommienezuspadt) is class. What is class? Oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.
Standouts: You could easily get lost in this one. It’s not so much an LP as cosmic psychic multiplex.
Title: Bad as Me
Notes: Three words in the middle of The Guardian’s review of this record sum it up: compassion, anger and sorrow.
Standouts: Too many to type out here. But New Year’s Eve demands a mention in particular for the way it incorporates the traditional composition Auld Lang Syne within the wider structure of the song. Robert Burns and Tom Waits under the same New Year’s sky. And no surname puns, either.
Title: The Black Rider
Notes: A distant cousin of Alice in that it was also (I believe) written for a stage play. The proscenium vibe just goes to concentrate attention on the lyrics and the playing. One minute there’s a saw being played, next minute there are faces in trees’. The overall vibe is of a vividly-imagined Europe. But one that no European (at least, no 20th/21st century one) would be able to ideate. Difficult to apply terms – but for me it’s neo-classical opera but without any of the negative associations or shades of meaning that the term implies.
Standouts: November, Russian Dance, I’ll Shoot the Moon.
Title: Blood Money
Notes: I love this one but I can’t listen to it anymore – and haven’t in over 10 years. That’s not a pejorative statement: the record carved its spiral right into the inner ear. No need to go back. Another distant cousin of Alice (and The Black Rider) Blood Money was also written for a stage production, this time for Woyzeck. Never seen the other stage plays, but like you I’ve seen the Herzog film Woyzeck. And the hilarious documentary scene where Werner Herzog visits the (then) present occupants of a house he once lived in, someplace (Munich?) and the occupants are a well-heeled, conservative looking couple. And he goes on at length, and he is funny as fuck. As he was also in the BBC interview in Los Angeles when he gets shot at by someone with an air rifle, doesn’t flinch, says “we have to leave” and an hour later reveals a wide, dark red wound to the BBC interviewer with the words “it was not a significant bullet”.
Standouts: [from memory] Coney Island Baby, Misery is the River of the World, God’s Away on Business, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Calliope, Knife Chase
Title: Blue Valentine
Notes: Some (few) records read like a novel, some (fewer) play like a movie. This is one of the latter. Obvz not a mega-millions linear narrative deal, but box office profit nonetheless. “I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings…”
Standouts: Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard, Kentucky Avenue, title track
Title: Bone Machine
Notes: Demented, death-obsessed. Heartbroken: “How do your pistol and your Bible and your
Sleeping pills go? Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?” The vocal personae are like acting roles or sculpture. This assuredly isn’t your run of the mill pop music. It’s got a holographic quality.
Standouts: The Earth Died Screaming, Dirt in the Ground, The Ocean, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,
Title: Closing Time
Notes: Waits’ debut is a thing of wonder. Infinitely listenable, it seems to be built from trad parts – a well-bashed piano, voice, strings, trumpet and so on. But it’s not trad at all – there’s a strong sense of psychoacoustics throughout – it’s like you’re in the same room as the singer, blue curls of cigarette smoke and the smell of hops. Some of the compositions here are fucking stunning. Lonely, for example, is Chicago house music avant la lettre. Despite being beatless. There’s a solidity to Closing Time, a charm, a weirdness. It’s unique.
Standouts: All of it.
Title: Foreign Affairs
Notes: Not one of my faves. Not really from a Waits period that I like much. But that’as not to say this is bad. Look at the way Waits can conjure up an entire universe in just a few seconds in Barber Shop. You can actually hear scissors on this, and if you concentrate you can smell stale cigar smoke and brilliantine. It’s kind of like a commentary on nothing. Fucking genius.
Standouts: Barber Shop.
Title: Franks Wild Years
Notes: Expansive, ambitious. A must-see sight for your itinerary is “I’ll Take New York”. Look at how the vocal is dwarfed by the instrumentation: especially the slightly threatening Coney Island organ. The whole thing is pure tragicomedy, the character drowning in false hope while traffic speeds past. For me, there is a touch of Varèse’s Amériques here – the vibe of the out of town guy arriving, and suddenly finding there’s as much to overwhelm and threaten as there is to aspire to.
Standouts: The above-mentioned, I’ll Be Gone, Innocent When You Dream, Train Song
Title: Heartattack and Vine
Notes: Some good songs, but the persona and the production don’t work for me. The arrangements are filmy when there could be field recordings instead of strings.
Standouts; On the Nickel, Jersey Girl.
Title: Heart of Saturday Night
Notes: Diamonds on my windshield is a wonder. Is it about Saturday night traffic or cosmology? You kind of get the feeling here that the diamonds are actually stars and the car is a warp-speed starfighter. Galaxies are merging.
Standouts: The above-mentioned.
Title: Mule Variations
Notes: There needs to be a word for stuff that is Gothic but without the vampire element. Cos this is it: creaky floorboards, cobwebs, cracked sky, broken moon. A beautiful work of art. A triumph. Genius. I love this record.
Standouts: Too many to type out.
Title: Rain Dogs
Notes: I like all of this. Except Downtown Train, for some reason.
Standouts: Cemetery Polka, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Rain Dogs, Anywhere I Lay My Head
Title: Real Gone
Notes: Is Hoist That Rag a protest song? I don’t think it is: it’s too good for that. Too universal. The album cover art does look like wet oil on dried blood though. Real Gone is a work of incredible beauty. It is full of intricacy and idiomatic glitch. Take song Top of the Hill for instance: kind of like if Micmacs had starred Benigni and been directed by Tony Scott in monochrome with occasional bursts of cartoon colour.
Title: Small change
Notes: Step Right Up still entertains. The shtick/persona/jazzteroid intrudes too much on the rest of it. Not really to my taste, this one.
Standouts: Step Right Up.
Notes: I kind of view this as being the same record as Rain Dogs. There is a quantum leap between Heartattack and Vine and this. Suddenly, Waits is another artist with this. So much here that works brilliantly – the compulsively fascinating art house weirdness of Dave The Butcher, the car boot sale heartbreak of Soldier’s Things, and others.
Standouts: the above, plus Frank’s Wild Years, Swordfishtrombone, In the Neighborhood.
2015 28 Jun
Title: “David Bowie”
Notes: Fucking bonkers. Fucking hilarious. Fucking genius. A drawer filled with Schneekugeln. Miniature universes with their own weather systems. Pick them up and shake them. But watch out, some of these ornaments contain heavy water, and plutonium snowflakes.
Standout tracks: All of them, really. Sell Me A Coat in particular.
Title: “Space Oddity”
Notes: Remarkable development from the previous record. Much more first-person p.o.v. Oddly folky but not in a Pentagle kind of way. Production is wonderful – it’s like a hymn to magnetic tape and expressively deficient microphonics.
Standout tracks: Letter to Hermione, God Knows I’m Good.
Title: “The Man Who Sold The World”
Notes: Another big leap – but is it a leap forward? The vocal personae are largely adenoidal. The band sounds trendy. Led Zeppelin III wasn’t Led Zeppelin’s best moment (not even their second- or third-best moment). But to my ears, this is something that aims for the same approximate space as III, and doesn’t really get there, or anywhere, much.
Standout tracks: none. The first 15 to 18 seconds of Saviour Machine are quite good.
Title: “Hunky Dory”
Notes: The cover art is total shit. Music: a bit plinky-plonky. Entire LP sounds like a demo from an alternate universe where you can just dream the music in your sleep into the A&R brain rather than hand a recording of it in to the A&R department (or get a motorcycle courier to do so on your behalf). Hunky Dory sounds to me like it was recorded, produced, released and consumed in an era well before Space Oddity. Maybe creative time isn’t linear. I don’t like this record.
Standout tracks: None, again. The stammered, repeated voiceless palato-alveolar affricate consonant in ch-ch-ch-changes is great though. Fuh-fuh-fuh-fucking genius! Do I hate this record? Of course not. That would involve having to listen to it more than like twice.
Title: Ziggy Stardust etc.
Notes: Some of the better elements of the artist’s earlier work come back into play, like right back to the first LP, (albeit without the smell of Edwardian-era carpets and wallpaper). Whole thing still too honky-tonky and plinky-plonky for me.
Standout tracks: Still none. But the intro to Starman (ie the first 18.5 seconds of the track) is definitely an off-cut from Space Oddity (or time travel). It’s like a green screen blanket made out of pure cosmos. Total genius. Another chroma key world.
Title: Aladdin Sane
Notes: That weird squeal that Robert Plant does at the start of Immigrant Song? Sonic puke. You can hear it on Block Buster! by The Sweet, you can hear it on Rubber Bullets by 10CC. And you can hear it here. To be fair to Bowie, though, there is some forward motion here. One of Bowie’s most genius attributes is that there are stylistic echoes going forward and back between works that are otherwise discrete. It’s not like X sounding a bit like Y. It’s like X and Y come from the same place, the same iration, but different simultaneous iterations of the iration.
Standout tracks: Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Misty Mountain Hop, Going to California. Oops, wrong fucking LP.
Title: Pin Ups
Year: Fuck knows
Notes: I’ve never listened to this one.
Standout tracks: silence
Title: Diamond Dogs
Notes: The opening seconds sound like the Immigrant Song screech being pitch-shifted down and echoing, briefly, around the base of a garbage can. It’s a great 3 seconds. The rest of the record – when compared to the previous half-decade’s output by the artist – is like fresh air. At last. The title track even references an oxygen tent – as well as the Immigrant Song screech. It’s like meta-commentary stand-up comedy.
Standout tracks: Bowie’s cover version of the Generation X song “Rebel Rebel” is prescient. How did he know they’d sound like that a half-decade later? It’s a mystery. “1984” tries the same prescient trick, doing an Isaac Hayes except that hook was well in the past by then. The “Twilight Zone” sample at the end ain’t fooling anyone.
Title: Young Americans
Notes: More prescience. Young Dave foresaw Donald Trump’s hairstyle and nicked it for the cover art. Largely, the music is nicotinised soul. You imagine a lot of coughing and phlegm in the smoking zone. Although there may not have been a smoking ban in 1975? The smokers are all dead, so no-one can check. (Marlboro Red please. And a double espresso. Danke.)
Standout tracks: Young Americans, Fame, Right.
Title: Station to Station
Notes: Lyrical genius. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love. It’s too late to be grateful … I won’t let the day pass without her.”
Standout tracks: Station to Station, Wild is the Wind.
Notes: If Station to Station was like plate tectonics – plate to plate, stationary-stationary – then Low is the place it hinted at trying to get to but never quite found the coordinates for. It may feel like there has been an eternity since the last truly great David Bowie record in this post, but a quick look at the above text, the calendar and some magical arithmetic on a Casio calculator puts the distance at ten years. 1967 is the debut LP year, 1977 is Low. I’ve checked twice with the Casio and it does compute. Only 10 years passed between 1967 and 1977. The weave of time and space must have a central fuck up, or crack up, or a whole book of crack ups. How did we get here? Via Sell Me A Coat and the Immigrant Song high-register honk? Maybe. By the way, I saw a Blood Transfusion Service van driving up the street on Friday. Ordinarily this would be unremarkable, of course, but then I saw a horde of vampires running after it. The blood van stopped at the red light, and the vampires sprinted close, within kicking distance of its number plate. Saliva dripping from their fangs. A blood frenzy. Then the lights changed to amber and the transfusion service van was off at 30 miles per hour into that generalised granular dark concrete greyness that is typical of your usual UK street. A literal disappearance, an unplayful camouflage. The vampires ran on in vain, in the drizzle.
Standout tracks: Art Decade, Warszawa, Sound and Vision
Notes: Lighter than low, less listlessness. Production almost dubby by comparison. Funny cover art.
Standout tracks: V-2 Schneider, Sense of Doubt
Notes: Unbelievably influential – most of UK pop for the whole of the 80s intertextualised (copied) this record. Stylistically a masterpiece but emotionally it’s kind of empty. It’s like Hollywoodisation as a statement. Really, really fucking weird.
Standout track: Red Sails
Title: Scary Monsters etc.
Notes: This has the absolute worst cover art. (Actually Pin Ups is equally bad.) Fucking Pierrot? Fuck off! Musically I like this one a lot. It’s Dave back in full-on pop music mode after a ling time in avant-garde mode. Some real classics here. Ashes to Ashes is a piece of art so successful that it actually enters the limbic system the first time you hear it, and never lets go.
Standout tracks, the above-mentioned, plus Up the Hill Backwards, Fashion, Teenage Wildlife
Title: Let’s Dance
Notes: More shit cover art. C’mon Dave, wtf? But God, I love this record. So, so much. Modern Love is so great that I almost puke with joy when I hear it. China Girl reprises the ersatz orientalisms of Red Money. But I forgive it because it’s a great song, and brilliantly song. Great song follows great song. Then about halfway it begins to run out of steam. I love populist stuff and Let’s Dance does populism well . There’s no millionaire’s guilt here – no “I can see those fighter planes”. It works for me.
Standout tracks: the first 4 or 5
Notes: The cover art is quite good. The music is all very pleasant. Should come with a health warning though for the awful cover version of God Only Knows. Jesus, the original is depressing enough. Listen tothis one and you may find yourself on the phone to fucking Dignitas.
Standout tracks: Don’t Look Down, Neighborhood Threat
Title: Never Let Me Down
Notes: Some good songs (Time Will Crawl, Glass Spider, Shining Star). 80s production is at its high watermark here. But this record is remarkable for its sense of absence. It’s like Dave’s true self has moved on but a kind of Dave shell has stayed behind on microphone duties. Terrible, awful, crap cover art. None of the music is awful.
Standout tracks: the above-mentioned
Title: Tin Machine
Notes: Tit machine, morelike.
Standout tracks: nil
Title: Tin Machine 2
Year: Fuck knows
Notes: never heard this LP. Any good?
Title: Black Tie etc.
Notes: Crap title imho. Musically no real surprises. Plenty of good tunes. A very good recorded – but was it marketed well? Some of the songwriting here is worthy of a Légion d’honneur.
Standout tracks: Jump They Say, Looking for Lester
Notes: Mystifying. Occasionally truly great.
Standout track: Algeria Touchshriek, Strangers When We Meet
Title: Earthling, Hours, Heathen, Reality
Year: 1997 – 2003
Notes: Reality is the most comfortable of these – but all have their moments
Standout tracks: Days, Thursday’s Child, The Dreamers, Everyone Says ‘Hi’
Title: The Next Day
Notes: Where Are We Now? Is a classic, no question.
Standout tracks: the above-mentioned, plus If You Can See Me and The Stars Are Out Tonight
2015 27 Jun
Robert Plant: “This is a thing called ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’. This is a name of the little cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, and ‘Bron-Yr-Aur’ is the Welsh equivalent of the phrase ‘Golden Breast’. This is so because of its position every morning as the sun rises and it’s a really remarkable place. And so after staying there for a while and deciding it was time to leave for various reasons, we couldn’t really just leave it and forget about it. You’ve probably all been to a place like that, only we can tell you about it and you can’t tell us.”
I guess I have, Robert. Summer Solstice 15 years ago. Here. It was magical. But I spilt cider on my mobile phone and knackered it.
2015 25 Jun
It was probably a bit presumptuous to attempt a review of Codex prior to receiving a copy of it, but I think it was a worthwhile exercise. My idea of what it might be like based on verbal descriptions wasn’t all that far off, really. D’you remember The Overload by Talking Heads and how it was reportedly an exercise in the emulation of the sound of Joy Division (who they’d never heard)? Well it was a bit like that for me, in a way. Talking Heads got uncannily close in some respects, but the original JD and the Heads’ inventive pseudosimulacrum have different axial tilts – so they throw out different thought-particles into the cosmos. I say “pseudosimulacrum” because, well, it could hardly be a straight simulacrum if the Heads hadn’t heard the source material.
So Codex isn’t unlike what I’d imagined, but there’s more there than I’d expected. First plays were through in-ear JVC phones. Maybe it’s cos of bone conduction with in-ear phones (i.e. sound travelling through your actual skull) but it lacked nuance, and was oddly 2-D. Later plays through a mono Bose loudspeaker did the trick though – there are all kinds of subtle layers and dynamic shifts going on that I’d missed before. You do really have to pay attention to this one though – to the untrained ear this could sound lobotomised like lift music or a Hamlet cigar commercial at 16RPM. To a more tuned-in ear, though, Codex is the kind of journey into sound that you don’t get to buy a ticket for that often.
2015 25 Jun
Music listening during the past week. The following are the week’s repeated plays and fascinations rather than the constant background of stuff that always gets played (stuff like Harold Budd’s Bordeaux and Jan Garbarek’s Officium).
Crass – The Feeding of the 5000 (album, 2012 reissue). Notes – this is performance poetry/jazz/standup comedy and it sounds just as good as it did when I was 12. A towering work of pure art.
The Police – Wrapped Around Your Finger (track). Notes – The Police never made a cohesive album and all serious music fans hate their guts. I think each of their albums has two or three genius tracks on it. This is one of them.
David Sylvian – Gone to Earth (disc 2). Notes also been listening to Secrets of the Beehive in full, as well as Darkest Dreaming from Dead Bees on a Cake. Disc 2 of Gone to Earth is pure psychoacoustics, unemburdened by words, save for Joseph Beuys’ mysterious meditation on “the age of overcome”.
Benjamin Britten – Cello Suites (suites). Notes – a bit depressing.
The Streets – Original Pirate Material (album). Notes – one of few records that unfolds like a novel. The central character isn’t a Holden Caulfield, a Meursualt or a Raskolnikov. No-one notices the darkness around, but it bleeds into every beat, every syllable.
The Future Sound of London – Max (track). No notes.
Mark Hollis – The Colour of Spring (track). Notes – great song for practising your singing.
David Bowie – Low (album). Notes – all serious music fans love Low. I also love Tonight and Never Let Me Down, so I guess I’m an unserious music fan. Low is great for many reasons – but the main reason it’s great is that it’s got Art Decade on it.
I also listened to Clouds Across The Moon by the Rah Band a few times because the singer’s accent is really great, fixed in time and (Thames estuary) space.
2015 22 Jun
It occurred to me today that 2015 is the 20th anniversary of Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services. I wonder if there will be any events held to celebrate it?
You walk into the exhibition space, you’re kind of struck by the vibe of sterility in there. The walls and flooring are of a shade of white that place you in a nowhere, endless. Lots of little paper cut-out figures all over the floor. Your first instinct is to pocket one of the fuckers – the artist must have known this would be the case – and the gallery staff are watching you very closely. It’s almost like theatre. The video installation starts up, its audio a kind of measured, processed, cleansed language of corporate euphemism. The mannequins are unsettling: humanlike enough to be humanlike, but with limbs at slightly odd angles, like almost-there cyborgs, not space chimps.
“With this work Landy suggests our complicity in sustaining society’s potentially dehumanising processes through hierarchies of valuation: ‘everyone is complicit in the whole thing'”.
It’s a long time since I saw this installation – probably a decade or more. But it’s stuck with me – the humour of it, as well as the sheer fucking beauty of it.
2015 20 Jun
Never had any interest (at all!) in art as a kid. Was only interested in sound. The sound of electric light, TV static, shortwave radio scans, people’s accents, the cadences in the lines of Dr Seuss books, theme tunes, advertising jingles, ice cream van chimes, rain on pavements and windscreens and Dutch elm leaves, diesel car engines, the railway, disembodied tannoy voices, silence’s unsilence (mild tinnitus or a faded imprint of the creation of the universe?), TDK D90 experiments, echoes, etc.
Having zero art knowledge/interest of art until about the age of 24 was a good art education. These days I’m fascinated by art. It doesn’t need to be any good: it just needs to be honest. There is commercial artwork on breakfast cereal packets that will travel through centuries, while there are things hanging in your local city’s Kunst-cathedral that are basically just fucking tat and that will be forgotten about.
Today, I spent about 20 minutes staring at Sepolcro di Cecilia Metella, the Piranesi etching. One of the most interesting things about Piranesi is that you sometimes recognise things in the work that you have already seen in a dream. The same thing happens with de Chirico (and sometimes even Frits Thaulow). This isn’t oneiro-semiotics though, or science or criticism. We are just chimps after all, space chimps with access to a shared/shareable (collective) dream brain/consciousness. Piranesi may well have been a time traveller – the Sepolcro is full of broken circles, portals. The sepulchre looks like it’s about to revolve. In typical piranesi style, there is weird shit in the sky – a Rorschach-blot clown-phantom wearing the devil’s trilby. Fucking hell, did Piranesi watch Tarkovski’s Sacrifice? Or read Dr Seuss? No semiotics please – this is better than that. Even for them what knows fuck-all about art. Piranesi = fucking genius.