Friday, 28 September 2007

LADY SOVEREIGN: Those Were The Days


The intro to this song demonstrates exactly why Lady Sovereign has what Lily Allen could never have; an opening “aah” which sounds like a weary, painful groan followed by an extremely nervous, semi-giggled spoken intro: “Uh, OK, this is, um, my cheesy intro, and this is my…(cue sudden burst of laughter)…YES! OK, um, this is a song all about how I grew up, so, um, yeah, like..” You can picture her standing before her parents or at the end-of-term school concert. But then she fearlessly VAMPS into a huge “YEAH YEAH!” as the track swings into action; an old-school groove decorated with hazy summer guitar, high swirling string synths and scratching. It sounds wonderfully natural and instinctive as she describes days which are too soon for me to think of as a different era – the mid-late nineties? – but for her clearly represent a spent childhood; halcyon times of Safeway trolley downhill racing, ten ice pops which melt in their pockets, water fights, swapping jungle tunes on cassette, and McDonald’s bumbags (“That was back then,” she warns, “so boy don’t mock it”).

But as the track progresses, although the music becomes no less cheerful, the memories become steadily darker; being chased by the local pit bull or the “odd character that every borough had,” stabbings, and it becomes clear that those days weren’t quite so rosy. Finally she looks at the present day, the Coffers community centre having been turned into an Asda, and concludes, grimly, “the Chalkhill Estate don’t exist no more – it’s just talk.” Real in a sense absent from subsequent copyists, her “Those Were The Days” makes this writer doubly detest Universal Music for sitting on her album for so long, allowing Allen to streak through with her packaged Asda variant. Funny, scary and moving, sometimes all at once; let’s hope she gets to make a second album.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

GARY NUMAN: Berserker




In a 1984 Christmas full of goodwill and self-congratulation, a prosperous season of feeding worlds like virgins, Gary Numan seemed to be about the most contrarian presence in that season’s Top 40. “Berserker” was arguably even more of an anti-rest of 1984 chart hit than the Council Collective’s “Soul Deep” (“Nothing here for me now,” muses Numan halfway through, “I can’t believe the noise”) and thus did not progress beyond #32. There is something very splendid and logical about the single appearing on what used to be the Pye label (by 1984 it had become PRT, with Numan appearing on his own “Numa” imprint) since it indicates a crash landing to the journey initiated by Space’s “Magic Fly” seven years previously. Where Howard Jones wanted to shake everyone’s hand, Numan passively indicated that anyone attempting to shake his hand risked electrocution.

“Berserker” as Viking or robot warrior? Once again, Numan dies every day and wakes up with a transplanted memory dependent on the presumed symbiosis of his fanbase (“My face, the picture’s changed/Do you remember me?”). But the single is especially hard in its impact; pitilessly squealing guitars, plutonium landfills of synths, atomic thunder of drums (“Now I’m fighting to breathe,” complains Numan, understandably). He has been waiting for someone, or something, for far too long, and is now prepared to “trade new dreams for old,” but there seems no question of love or salvation here; the stark brilliance of “Berserker” rests in Numan’s fantastic use of his backing singers (principally Tessa Niles, she who two years previously had warned Martin Fry that love had no guarantee) from the demonically angelic acappella intro of “I’ve been waiting for you” to the triple perspective Numan lends them on each of his three choruses (the anti-Glitter beat of “Do you wanna come, do you wanna come, do you wanna come with me NOW?”); on each occasion nascent hope crashes to the sodden earth of despair – the full arrangement in the first chorus, the “c-c-c-come-come-come” cut-ups in the second (a nod to Frankie) and a sudden, dry acappella “with me” in the third, while Numan mumbles his own doom, lapsing over beats and finally fading into incoherent oblivion, the girls’ ghostly “I’ve been waiting too long” chorale meanwhile predicting another era of girls to come. The least fashionable record of its month, and typically one of the most enduring.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

THE HERD: Paradise Lost


Another hopeful assemblage of post-Mod beat boys whom Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley used as an experimental crucible for ideas too outré even for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, featuring puppy-eyed teenage guitarist and lead singer Peter Frampton, the Herd’s time was relatively brief; “From The Underworld,” their debut hit with funereal bells, undertaker’s plunking bass, Gregorian chanting and an Oedipal lyrical complex (though Scott Walker’s “Oedipus” offers a subtler and yet somehow far more hysterical variation on the same theme), still gets the occasional radio play, but the follow-up has seemingly become lost to follow-up and never gets revived. A shame, because as gaudily great as “From The Underworld” is, “Paradise Lost” is arguably much, much stranger. The kind of single which could only have appeared in 1967 – it was released at the very end of the year, reaching the Top 20 in early 1968 – its beginning is enough to make the listener wonder whether they have purchased a Frankie Vaughan single by mistake; sliding “Stripper” brass, high-kicking “Don’t Bring Lulu” drums, awaiting the arrival of top hat and cane; but then it meticulously dissolves into a sombre variant on the “Underworld” model with mournful motets of plainsong as Frampton muses: “In the deepest dungeons of my mind/I dredge the shadows” ...as I said, only in 1967 could something like this occur. As he cries over the “scene of my innocence departed,” the song opens up to allow pirate radio beat boom harmonies and cavernous chambers of choir and brass.

Essentially dwelling on the loss of a certain kind of sexual innocence…remember, Frampton was sixteen going on seventeen at this stage…he wanders confused, thinking of the now surrendered self-pleasures of youth (“Once I could love without desire/Her glance could warm me without fire”) but sounding hurt and almost enraged about his inability to…get the real thing (“Experience has dulled my eyes/With repetition, wonder dies”) or his agony over the fact that he can never experience it again for the first time (“She was my promise and my dream”).

As the cascades of “Teenage Opera” trumpet fanfares make metaphorically clear, “Paradise Lost” is less to do with Milton than with “Pictures of Lily” (do you see the alliteration there?), but since he hasn’t actually lost his virginity yet (the tantalisingly unreachable sweetness of the Vaughan Williams solo violin balanced with the irretrievable loss of childhood of the lullaby glockenspiel) all he can do is wearily turn the pages again and go through the mechanics as the dream fades and the crass “Stripper” stomp returns, this time not to be moved, until someone finally comes to show him the way.

Monday, 24 September 2007

KEVIN DREW WITH J. MASCIS: Backed Out On The...


The yellow-dominant package which houses Spirit If…, an album billed as “Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew,” is a smashing contrast to the raspberry red-dominant package which housed the last BSS album. Its brightness, especially when set against the sunny yellow spine of its new neighbour, Pacific Street by the Pale Fountains (there is an ineffable, if inexplicable, logic to my filing system), would be enough to cure approaching Seasonal Affective Disorder on its own.

As you would expect, Spirit If… could just as well have been credited as “Broken Social Scene Plays Kevin Drew” since more or less all of BSS turn up in the course of the record’s fourteen tracks (they were recorded over a span of two years); this reminds me heavily and pleasantly of the venerable seventies days of Ogun Records when sundry permutations of the same basic circle of twenty or so musicians worked in interchangeable bands playing the tunes of whoever was leading them at any stage. Indeed, Keith Tippett once confessed to my dad (Calton Studios, Edinburgh, solo recital, 1980) that he had a tendency to get so carried away with the music that he’d forget whose band he was playing in and had to look to see who was in the horn section to work it out; not an easy task when, at one stage, the personnel of Harry Miller’s Isipingo and Tippett’s own Sextet were identical except for the saxophonist – and yet the each group’s music was radically different from the other.

There is far too much invention, miraculous inspiration and creativity at work in Spirit If… to sum up properly at this early stage; suffice it to say that it is a major work, possibly more superficially “structured” than BSS’ “own” music but with so many unexpected facets and detours in its architecture that it continues to put most of the pabulum which currently passes for “alternative” or “indie” in this country to deserved humility. But in “Backed Out On The…” Drew achieves the remarkable feat of making his guest collaborator J Mascis interesting again. Beginning with modest pearls of individual, twinkling guitar notes, gradually resolving into stellar, delicate interplay like a sky shedding unnecessary grey, Drew and Mascis (together with Metric’s drummer Joules Scott-Key) suddenly move into fuzztone overdrive. Their excited thrash, combined with Scott-Key’s monstrous drum figures, make me think how good Be Here Now could have been if only Oasis had been that little bit braver.

Drew (lead) and Mascis (unmissable back-up) rage joyfully against what might be ambulance chasers, fairweather collaborators, sellouts or non-committal bystanders – “You thought you were leaving temporary grieving,” “You think it’s the season, temporary treason,” “If the lies they don’t fit ya, better trade some spit” – with the central motif of “Backed out on the cocks!” throttled out in splendid damn-you spleen, and at one point (3.59) barked out. In banishing betrayal and false prophecy they are clearly having one hell of a time – witness all the whoops, cheers and studio chatter which litter/decorate the song like tickertape punctum. Perhaps the most directly rock (but never rockist) performance yet to come from the BSS camp, and maybe even their first hit single if radio can tolerate “make sure they fuck you,” it also symbolises one of the collective’s central tenets: “Everyone can write this song, but they can’t write you and me.” Freak scene, we were born to run.

Friday, 21 September 2007

THE MIKE WESTBROOK CONCERT BAND FEATURING NORMA WINSTONE AND MIKE OSBORNE: Love Song No. 4


Mike Osborne died this morning, aged 65, following a lengthy battle with cancer and too much else besides. He had not been well for over a quarter of a century; the last time he played publicly was in early 1982, but while he was still here there was always the hope, however hopelessly remote, that he might one day pick up his horn and play again, even though he had little or no recollection of his musical past, his mental collapse having wiped the memory. At his most intense – which was most of the time, but best documented on side two of his 1974 trio album Border Crossing (with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo on bass and drums respectively) – he sounded as though he were playing against the death clock, knowing that he was running out of time, fully aware that every supersonic run he played shortened his lifespan just that little further. Indispensable to every group which he formed or with which he played – Mike Westbrook and John Surman’s various bands, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, Harry Miller’s Isipingo, Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Kenny Wheeler’s big band, his own Trio, Quartets and Quintet, his duo with Stan Tracey, Tracey’s shortlived and unrecorded free jazz big band Tentacles, and let’s not forget renegade free-folk singer/songwriter Mike Cooper (three decades before “free folk” became another lifestyle option) – his was maybe the most distinctive voice on alto saxophone ever to come out of Britain, and easily on a par with the international flux of altoists who came to the UK from Jamaica (Joe Harriott, Bertie King), South Africa (Dudu Pukwana) or Australia (Ray Warleigh). Along with peers like Elton Dean and Trevor Watts, Osborne had a sour intensity in his tone and approach, an exceptional emotional canvas.

His song was so long and, in the end, so cruelly curtailed (mostly by himself) that it seems vulgar to extract a “song” from his works, too many of which still languish out of print; but “Love Song No 4” is one of the most distinguished individual recordings to emerge from British jazz in the seventies from Love Songs, an album which, although returned to circulation by unlikely but welcome popular demand, still remains underrated, not least by Westbrook himself. Over Chris Spedding’s careful guitar, Norma Winstone sings, pained but composed, about a collapsed love affair. Soon she is joined by Osborne’s alto; as Winstone moves into abstract scatting, they circle ecstatically and mournfully around and into each other, an early orgasm of a late spring. Eventually the song speeds up and the rest of the horns enter for its second section before dropping back to ballad tempo – Malcolm Griffiths’ trombone meditation over hushed horns predates Dexy’s’ “I’m Just Looking” by a decade – and then George Khan’s harsh, scratchy tenor returns to rush up the tempo again. Finally Winstone is alone – “Saw you yesterday,” she sings at a funereal, out-of-tempo pace, choosing her pronunciations with extreme care – “It wasn’t me you held so tenderly…it wasn’t me who walked away”…as the final “away” shivers out through chambers of compression into the void.

The Osborne/Winstone duet – so controlled, so carefree – defines what was so special about the altoist; roughly equal parts Dolphy, Coleman and Jackie McLean (listen to his solo on Part VII of Westbrook’s Metropolis for an example of how the McLean influence persisted), his passion was uncut, his strength unmodified, his tone commanding but never tyrannical and frequently vulnerable; if his playing on Isipingo’s Family Affair (recorded live at the Battersea Arts Centre at the beginning of 1977) involves a new, more frightening form of intensity, it was because that was the way he felt he was heading – the Brotherhood gradually dissolving into Europe or becoming early casualties, Surman moving into the ECM camp, the old alliances coming to an end – and his solos on “Jumpin’” and “Eli’s Song” nearly defy repeated listening; phenomenal and brilliant, both technically and emotionally, but the fuse rapidly streaking towards the final detonation. That didn’t waste much time in coming. But listen to “Love Song No 4” and find as many of his records as you can to appreciate this most damaged of geniuses. I am currently too numb to approach anything resembling objectivity.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Sally SHAPIRO: Hold Me So Tight


This year’s “Young Folks” but with added “Pacific State” input? Think spiralling oceans of synths, limpid modulations through heartbreaking chord changes, stout Cortez looking over the roof of the disco and finding Avalon. The noble, lucidly dreamt poignancy of Global Communications, Lawrence (the German techno one, not the Felt/Denim/Go-Kart Mozart chap), Casinos Versus Japan, Jeff Mills with his XL3 bathing cap on…there is a certain kind of maximalistic, generously melodic techno to which I could listen and in which I could swim forever. Combine with the admirably hurt song structures of the Pet Shop Boys at their most distant (and yet, paradoxically, their closest) and a lyrical bent derived from the average C86 seven-inch, filtered via Saint Etienne when they let go and allow themselves to drift (side two of Tiger Bay, “How We Used To Live”), and you would have something like the six divinely felt minutes of “Hold Me So Tight.”

Sceptics have questioned whether Sweden’s Sally Shapiro actually exists, but there she is, photographed twice, beaming but cautious of eyes, on the cover of her Disco Romance CD; one Johan Agebjörn appears to be the principal musician, songwriter and producer behind her wary smile. It is New Pop, but not quite Annie or Abba, even though it is as happy to pause for extended thought as either. “I Will Be With You” may be the standout track (though for the time being I do not intend to discuss it publicly), but “Hold Me So Tight” is blessed with near equivalent magic.

Shivering its way into illuminated splendour out of an unspecified cold, Shapiro counterpoints the music’s epic majesty with observations on how ordinary days and circumstances can lead to transcendence; she sings plaintively (and hesitatingly but affectingly in the upper range) about meeting her Other in a store (“you were in my way”); they get to talking “about the rain falling on the streets” and end up as “friends meeting twice a week.” In the bridge the chord changes double in speed to mimic her belatedly excited increased pulse rate (“I may be wrong but I may be true/But I think you like me too”) before diving off the springboard into an Esther Williams eternity of a chorus, countering night (“I see a lantern shining bright/I know you’ll be mine in no time in the moonshine” – note the ingenious triple internal rhyme used to bring the chorus to the first of its two rhetorical climaxes) with day (“So be mine in the sunshine”).

The music waxes and wanes as they dance in the club and internal fireworks explode - “I looked into your eyes, you gave me a smile…/And nothing else existed for a while,” Shapiro sings as though she wants nothing else to exist, ever – before the song comes back into focus, not afraid to absent the beats for half a verse at a time, constantly altering its perspective, finally letting the glorious melody take over, dissolve and rekindle in volcanoes of benign borealis. So the small (“we were never meant to go walking along”) is turned into the immortal; the death of New Pop is deferred yet again, and another great song attracts me to its attention at the time when I needed to find it.