Wednesday, 30 January 2008

CAT POWER: Woman Left Lonely


There seems to be developing a feeling that Cat Power isn't what she was, as though she weren't permitted to be anyone else, or worse, getting too big for her externally fitted boots. One particularly idiotic reviewer of her recent performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire commented, after musing on the destructive capacities of depression, that: "in stamping out the weak parts of herself, (Chan) Marshall has also destroyed everything that was aching and haunting and beautiful in her voice." In other words, stay in the station we've allotted for you, lady; you're not allowed to get happy or confident and betray our self-pleasing fantasy of nihilism. The comment engenders even more depression in the constant reader when one realises that it was written by a woman.


Properly attentive listening to Jukebox tells a different, more obviously bifurcated story. This is her second interpretative album which balances hard-won new confidence with perhaps as much dread and emptiness as she has thus far expressed on record. It was recorded as live, in real time with a working band, and the ripples of aorta and pulsations of hairs and veins are immediately discernible in Gregg Foreman's throbbing, delayed reaction keyboards, Judah Bauer's guitar which can track as closely as the keenest of timber wolves (see Marshall's necessarily more tragic reading of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' (Wo)Man" with its no going back subtext) and cry as imposingly as any hurricane-inducing cloud (his vast Doric arches of sustenato on "Lost Someone") and Jim White's always elegant and relevant drums. Her downcasting of "New York, New York" induces thoughts not of hope, but of the arms held out, ready to strangle Ray Charles upon his return to Georgia; yet her luxuriously hissed "Don't Explain" threatens with cushions of steel.


Elsewhere, though, she sounds now capable of happiness; her cheerfully defiant version of Dylan's "I Believe In You" (I hope that in the future she essays Mark Hollis' "I Believe In You") segues into her own "Song For Bobby," one of the tenderest songs she has ever performed and one of the finest descriptions of the progression from childhood fan to peer admiration to actual, palpable love I've heard in music for some time, with admirably patient accompaniment. Although her upgrade of her own "Metal Heart" tries a little too hard to underline that which, in its original Moon Pix version, required no underlining, "Silver Stallion" is suitably sensuous and "Aretha Play One For Me" leaves the door slightly ajar to let in tomorrow.


However, she is often beyond despondency as the record reaches its close; the closing duo of Joni's "Blue" and Cave's "Breathless" is nearly too painful to digest with the former's post-Wyatt deathly slow two-chord organ seesaw oscillation (with organ eventually weeping into piano) and the latter nearly whispering its tears into the canyon of irreversible decline - those post-Julie Driscoll bends, those (deceptively) post-Beth Gibbons hoarse confidence inlets in her voice are always more effective the quieter the music gets.


My pick, though, is her "Woman Left Lonely," penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and best known in Janis Joplin's reading; rather than excoriate herself with yells and hollers, she spells out her desertion simply, plainly and (yet) invitingly, and is aided by the unsullying and steadfast accompaniment, including Oldham himself on the Hammond and deadpan vocal harmonies, gently pushing her expression(ism) onwards but leaving the listener with the feeling that once again she'll get through this; there is gentleness to balance the sudden forthright thrust, and finally Chan Marshall gets close enough to the mirror to see her own face, cautiously smiling back.

Monday, 28 January 2008

THE LIONHEART BROTHERS: 50 Souls And A Discobowl


This year’s Norwegian saviours of pop begin “50 Souls And A Discobowl” at the point where most other groups would end it, with unending drum crescendos and a purply speedy rush of what sounds like the collected middle eights of Stephen Sondheim jammed into a pocket-friendly pack of TicTac mints, careering like the happiest of kids up and down the semitone scale. Sounding nothing like anything that would be played in a 2008 disco – and all the better for it – Lionheart frontman Marcus Porsgren sings slowly and dazedly about his brightening vision of communal dancing, adding kisses of vibraharp and shakers along the way, chewing his mouth in politely rabid expectation – “And glamorous clllll-othes” he sings like Sufjan trying to smuggle into Johnnie Ray – before reasonably rampaging into the circuitously ecstatic chorus: “We meet, we integrate/We gaze, point out my mate/We feel, we love and hate/We kiss, we separate/We heal, we re-relate.” The “point out my mate” is the key interjection here, of course, paradise grounded in relatable social norms even when the norm is to be as abnormal as possible and/or permitted. After a long-ish instrumental break, featuring brass, flute and violin unisons, Porsgren returns with one Signe Stranger on theremin-like harmonies, and again there’s the rush to, or away from, the door; claustrophobically celebratory, like the Go! Team trapped in the lift with the Flaming Lips, Robin Sohrabi-Shiraz’s four-part horn arrangement discreet enough to sound like a jabbed Bontempi keyboard. Were that not enough, the melancholy euphoria is then augmented by cyclical figures from Nils Thore RÇ¿seth’s violin, followed by Sigrid Lien’s viola, which twirl into themselves, above the reliably steady Farfisa organ, to present a spectacle of Rachel Unthank and her mates integrating with Stereolab. All climax, all push, all anxiety – and all refereed immaculately by drummer Peter Rudolfsen – “50 Souls” reminds me a little of those immediate post-New Pop Brit indie singles (think Cook Da Books and similar, or maybe even “Palm Of My Hand”-period Pale Fountains) ecstatic on a low budget and restores an unexpected microstar of flavour to this openly promising year.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

GUYS N' DOLLS: There's A Whole Lot Of Loving

The parallel development of co-ed vocal harmony groups in Britain and America deserves close analysis (a less than subtle hint to publishing house editors there); whereas America reared the challenging, questing likes of the Fifth Dimension, the Free Design, the Mamas and the Papas and Rotary Connection, we have had Seekers both original and New, both editions of the Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz, S Club, Steps, Hear'say and Liberty X - all making a point of being wholesome and unthreatening; so much so that Bucks Fizz didn't even comprehend the radicalism their writers and producers were imposing on them. Perhaps it's the difference between a tradition based in folk clubs and gospel choirs (and/or jazz singing/scatting) and our own tradition of never-closing, all-round family-pleasing showbusiness. Then there are the place-them-whence-you-will oddities like the multinational Family Dogg.

Guys N' Dolls were, historically, the exact midpoint between the New Seekers and the Dooleys - six-strong, three boys and three girls, dressed as you would expect any 1975 British MoR act featuring Bruce Forsyth's eldest daughter to dress - and "There's A Whole Lot Of Loving" was their moment, reaching number two that spring behind the Rollers' "Bye Bye Baby." The opening looming crescendi of harps and crepuscules of creeping/creepy low strings suggests several eighties adventures to come, while the voices slowly emerge from the fog, offering love and maybe hope. There is the very strong hint of 1967 togetherness about this "whole lot of loving" and the song dips as heavily into faux-Americana as any pop hit since "Let's Go To San Francisco" - corners of Kentucky, Californian Redwoods, Hoover Dam dynamos and 49er miners (see that internal rhyme schemata there?) which were doubtless in Pete Sinfield's mind when he undermined it all in "The Land Of Make Believe" ("all the corn in Carolina - never!/Never EVER!") - before settling into a typical talent show-winning anthem of its time with luxuriously cosy harmonies, a Roger Cook-esque lead vocal (a deracinated Blue Mink also spring to mind here) and two key changes handled with far less ostentation than Oasis' "All Around The World."


(The spectre of the Mike Sammes Singers also comes to mind, and anyone treating that as a negative are summarily summoned to listen to their recent Music For Biscuits compilation on Trunk Records, composed of TV and trade advertising jingles with the occasional mysterious film soundtrack snatch - their "Dulux Super 3," commissioned to promote a new line of house paint, is constructed with such musical and lyrical ingenuity and genuine love [how many permutations of famous trios can they squeeze in? Amazingly, most of them] should put today's mealy-mouthed archive raiding to shame; and this is just one of a host of tapes about to be consigned to the bin and history after Sammes' death until Jonny Trunk nobly stepped in and saved the lot. Craig Douglas' 1968 Fairy Snow washing powder commercial is almost enough to make one forgive him for beating Sam Cooke to number one in our charts with "Only Sixteen")


The record was so persuasive that many overlooked or forgave the fact that Guys N' Dolls themselves do not sing on the record (though certainly sang the song live, and perfectly, on TV at the time); the song was composed by the British team of Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow - themselves briefly pop stars a few years previously as the bubblegum group Butterscotch - whose most profitable composition has turned out to be "Can't Smile Without You," recorded shortly thereafter by Barry Manilow, and it is Martin himself who sings the male lead, though familiar voices such as Tony Burrowes and Clare Torry back him up in the choruses; the band was later recruited and assembled via advertisements). But there is such stupidly glad hope in the record that it is forgivable. And buried deep within the ranks of Guys N' Dolls were two less than glossy faces - those of David Van Day and Thereza Bazar, who a few years later would act as glad midwives to the birth of New Pop. Thus the premonition of that lexicon of an intro; if you had put a bet on the likelihood of British pop being changed by two members of Guys N' Dolls and Tina Charles' bass player, you'd probably be able to live off the interest on your winnings by now.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

BRITISH SEA POWER: We Close Our Eyes


Is the shoegazing revival now officially on? First, In Rainbows - it can't be denied - then the Magnetic Fields' highly entertaining, if thoroughly misanthropic, Distortion, and now Do You Like Rock Music?, the third album by Lake District refugees British Sea Power, all pointing back to various parts of the early nineties. But all point to different futures, and BSP are by far the most surprising of these pointers.

Not many writers have yet been able to manage to articulate exactly how and why this is such an extraordinary album - though most have expressed surprise that it should be BSP pushing this particular envelope - but to these ears the central reason for its success is abundantly visible; most of the record was made in Montreal, under the watchful eye of Godspeed!'s producer Howard Bilerman, and with contributions from some of the Black Emperor faithful, and in intent and delivery Do You Like Rock Music? stands as a fundamentally Canadian record. The inevitable Arcade comparisons have been made, of course, though with the exception of the opening, escalating chant of the opening "All In It" their influence is more pronounced sociologically; the loosening up, the letting go, the feeling of community, pervades this record as it didn't quite manage to puncture their previous two. And in tracks like "Lights Out For Darker Skies" the band rocks and vocalises in a manner very reminiscent of Sloan.

The overall feeling, though, is one of deferred apocalypse; "Hey Lucifer" brilliantly defies death with the aid of the old Scottish World Cup "Easy, Easy" chant and the Syd-like swoon of singer Scott Wilkinson's slide down the song's title. At the other extreme, "Open The Door" is a humble-sounding and patient hymn of offered redemption ("Are you gonna live or die?") which implies the Zombies meeting Kitchens of Distinction. The album's clear dramatic peak is "Atom" which begins with a beautifully troubled, ethereal float through self-doubt before steadily escalating to a climax of screaming chaos, over which Wilkinson chides "What's wrong with you lad?" There are so many touches of deft Quebecois tenderness and balance; witness for instance the lovely crouching down of a sigh which bridges the two halves of "Canvey Island," the tacitly stellar pause for thought.

Nonetheless I still don't think that, even with the Canadian input, Do You Like Rock Music? would have carried its full magic without the crucial presence of Bark Psychosis' Graham Sutton on mixing duties - they remain among the most undervalued musical acts of their decade (listen to Hex, if you can find a copy, and lament how little of Britpop chased up its implications) and, if 2004's phenomenal but scarcely noticed ///Codename: Dustsucker is anything to go by, of this decade too. Sutton seems to make the music float and converge from unexpected angles; as Martin Hannett did with the Mondays' Bummed, he seems to extract the music from the ground and guide it towards the universe. Everything is fluid, aqueous and untethered; thus a song such as "Waving Flags" is how Coldplay should have ended up sounding - harking back to Slowdive and the Cocteaus (and also, lest we forget, to those other noble and ignored stalwarts of this particular decade, Clearlake) but never settling into blandly brown terrain; naturally instead of forcibly graceful.

"We Close Our Eyes" is the big setpiece which closes the album and is about as far away from the Go West song as life is from death. In its gloriously unrepentant length - over eight minutes - we hear GYBE! fusing with Bark Psychosis; intermittent dots of comet-promising blips, switchboard improv static, those seemingly hand-free guitars, all gradually coalescing together to meet the returning chant of "All in it, all in it, all in it and we close our eyes" until it reaches a euphorically raging coda which celebrates and advances the music others would have been wise to take from their nineties starting point; it is the meeting point between the communal anger of "Moya" and the galactic torrents of "All Different Things" and still beyond the end of achievement range of most of BSP's supposed British peers. As with My Bloody Valentine and Talk Talk before them, they have sneaked to the front while everyone was looking elsewhere and run away with something approaching the future. Shoegazing turns into stargazing.

Monday, 21 January 2008

GETATCHEW MEKURYA: Shellele


The parallel worlds of music history are perhaps endless. I'm very grateful for the appearance of the Very Best Of Ethiopiques 2CD package since I've long been looking for an excuse to dip into this most tantalising of archives - at 23 volumes and counting, it's rather a costly and time-consuming exercise (so much for there being "nothing happening" in music) to absorb all of the compilations individually so this primer is more than handy.


Mekurya strikes me as the most instantly significant of the artists collected here; "Shellele" carries a recording date of 1972, but it could just as well be 1956, or for that matter 1906 - the saxophonist, who is apt to dress in full military battlegear when performing, bases his playing on the century-old tradition of ululatory war cries known as Shellele; loud, acerbic, incantatory and very individualistic. Thus does "Shellele" the tune come across to these Western ears like sixties Gato Barbieri jamming with Johnny and the Hurricanes; that throaty rasp which instinctively sparks off an awkward mixture of awe and fear set against deadpan organ and rhythm. The fifties of Raymond Scott and Sun Ra as well as Joe Meek may well spring to mind but Mekurya is swift to demolish any cosy lounge notions by spitting out rapid lines of rough pointillism; surely a direct influence on Pharaoh Sanders but more obviously prophetic of Evan Parker with the slap of tongue against reed, the furtive scramble of a line. Like Mingus, he always threatens to break into scarifying total freedom but never quite does. But the groove is ominously hypnotic, stealthily threatening; another joining of unlikely aesthetic dots, and clearly Volume 14 - the volume devoted to a more thorough examination of the music of this particular Negus - is the place to start the in-depth listening.

Friday, 18 January 2008

SPOON: Don't Make Me A Target


More delvin' into Belbin - see what I did there? (See me - Ed.) - with Spoon, who along with Of Montreal, the National and Momus are the most reliable of promo/CD senders; every so often another of their albums reaches me, and with the notable and predictable exception of Momus, every one of them gets neatly filed away and scarcely listened to, though I never deem them atrocious enough to warrant binning (really, readers, take it from me: there are brighter and better things to do with one's life than struggle into town with a pile of promos to get a fiver back for the lot of them from MVE). Spoon are clearly creative and inventive and yet I can't find a convenient place in my world for them, nor have I sufficient will to create a new place for them, but neither can I let them go and I will need to investigate further.

In the meantime, "Don't Make Me A Target" comes from last year's highly rated Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and with its sleeve-bearing heart of protest - "nuclear dicks with dialect drawls" - is a most heartening presumed anti-Bush tirade which uses its bitemporal procession ingeniously; staccato guitars in the "Cold As Ice"/"No One Knows" fashion meets up with Britt Daniel's prematurely weary but admirably vituperative half-tempo vocal ("He smells like the inside of closets upstairs/The kind where nobody goes"). As his anxiety and gradual ire intensify with the repeated title the music steps up a semi-subtle gear, the piano becoming more prominent and a noise guitar eventually battering its way into the right channel, mixed up with AMM-style bandwidth radio interference. This eventually subsides and we are left with a medium-sized musical question mark. Obviously I need to know more. Now where did I put that box?

Thursday, 17 January 2008

THE FIERY FURNACES: Ex-Guru


I've been drawn back to the Fiery Furnaces because of David Byrne's forthcoming interpretation of this song, which in the manner of Kirsty MacColl's "A New England" adds a juicy extra verse about said ex-guru throwing his record collection in the bin. The Friedburgers had slowly drifted out of my consciousness since Gallowbirds Bark - potentially great pop minds losing themselves in well-meaning but ineptly-assembled indulgences - but Widow City is a smart collection, even if wearing its richness on its hidden pop sleeve and even if, as a duo, they cannot equal the unknowing boldness of, say, Pavement at their peak; the truly golden wonder of discovering their own readymade world as they struggle to master their instruments (on "Here" you can hear that last quarter rattling around Malkmus' soul).

But "Ex-Guru" is a terrific snap of post-psychedelic/arsequake pop; Eleanor takes the vocal, a winsomely hopeful tale of airport seminars, nephew's seaplanes in the Bahamas and thwarted obsession, over deceptively straightforward 1979 electro squelches, blossoming out into mellotron moodiness on the chorus ("She means nothing to me now," sung in precisely the manner intended to provoke extreme doubt). The second verse gets more virulently vibrant; she burns her clothes with eucalyptus juice, rips out the floor and paints all the platforms puce (the best use of the word "puce" in pop, without question), all the while trying to persuade her listener, with increasing desperation, that she's OK and will cope. The song suddenly detours into grinding Sub Pop guitar growls and biscuit tin beatboxes before a stately 1967 flute and harpsichord delicately rephrase the melody in time for the final chorus. With the sneaking wink of a question - "Does she kick up a thunderstorm when she thinks of my betrayal?" - Eleanor wanders off, lets it lie, tries another flavourful jam jar. Hopefully the scope of flavours is limitless.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

ELVIS PRESLEY: Stranger In My Own Home Town


There is a terrifying sense of urgency about Presley's '69 Memphis sessions; his bark and bite are not signs of a spirit fierily renewed after ten full years of vertical cryogenic freezing, but the last desperate glare of a fading lightbulb, the last chance he's going to get to express his own self before it is fully subsumed in the service of showbusiness and the awkwardness of opulent existing. If "Long Black Limousine" now seems more than ever a frightening premonition of his own passing - and his screams are those of fear overriding rage - then his reading of the Percy Mayfield R&B reliable is his last and biggest fuck you to whoever didn't deserve fucking. His stance, from his off-mike hums and grunts emerging from the rhythm and orchestral masses at the beginning, is one of supreme defiance, an extended middle finger of a pelvis towards the kids on Sunset Strip who pushed past him into the topless bar and had no idea who or why he was. He's ridden back into town; its citizens either do not recognise him or choose to turn their eyes, if not their minds, away by lack of virtue of their self-imposed shame. If Mayfield "came home with good intentions/About five or six years ago" he could, and did, sing the buried reasons for his lack of acceptance - murder, or worse? - but with Elvis it's clear he's metaphorising about an all-round family entertainment hell which kept him from participating in any meaningful game (could a place for him ever have been imagined in anyone's 1967?). But despite the lack of welcome from his erstwhile peers, he snarls and winks "Oh but you can't keep a good man down" - he's not quite dead yet.

The performance overruns its natural end by double the time; you can sense the band preparing to wind down after Presley's "final" chorus two-and-a-half minutes in, but no, he won't, or can't, let it go; he drawls a beat behind the beat, he attacks each new repetition with reinforced dynamism until eventually he goes somewhere beyond words, now mere markers to guide us towards his comparatively naked emotion. Reggie Young dips in with that Joe South-patented lead guitar-as-sitar effect, but the most insistent respondent is drummer Gene Chrisman, who is a revelation throughout the entire record; he hammers, prods, nudges Presley insistently, turning up the intensity radar until everything - horns, strings, backing choirs - seems wholly improvised. It finally fades out at 4:39 but Elvis still won't let it lie; as the track disappears we hear his terrifying roar of "PLAY ON PLAY ON PLAY ON!" as though the band is his oxygen mask, as though he'll drop down lifeless if the song ever ends. The glory of that fade is that we can imagine it hasn't actually ended, nearly forty years on.

Monday, 14 January 2008

ELECTRONIC: Forbidden City


There has rarely been a more assertive start to any Joy Division or New Order record than the "There's not a hope" with which Bernard Sumner commences "Forbidden City." In light of their increasingly rock(ist) exploits as the nineties wore on the consensus on Electronic is currently undecided, although both Sumner and Marr have treated it exactly how it was intended; as light (or heavy) relief from their primary day jobs. Admittedly I do miss Neil Tennant's regular input in their early days; "Getting Away With It" would have been the perfect 1989 Christmas number one since it effortlessly sums up much of what was indispensable from its parent decade with the input of three of its most crucial musicians (five if you count the two Lexicon Of Love refugees, drummer David Palmer and arranger Anne Dudley; the latter's closing string coda smartly bookends Lexicon's prelude).

Nevertheless, post-1992 Electronic does have its merits, and "Forbidden City" is pre-eminent amongst that list; it sounds like their most hopeful song yet harbours one of their least hopeful lyrics. Certainly Sumner's voice has scarcely sounded more actively enraged; the song concerns itself with a particularly messy break-up, and not necessarily one involving romantic partners, snipes being fired bilaterally ("I wish I'd been around when you started this," "You're in a trance/And I'm not so fond of you"). The song eventually arrives at a resigned conclusion: "And it's too late to wash my hands/We're caught in a trap set for a man."

Marr's guitar lines are bold and blue though dip for the ineffable melancholy of the B flat-C-D "chorus" - and the anticipated sadness is cleverly built up by withholding the chorus until after the second verse; the first leads you to the edge before bouncing back with deliberate frustration into the second, delaying its release. Then Marr's guitar peals out fortissimo McGuinn lead notes for the third verse ("There is a wind that blows in the Northern sky") though again Sumner defers any implication of joy by a barely suppressed feeling of resentment at Manchester, or Tony Wilson, or other such adored points of reference: "If I had the sense/I'd leave here tomorrow"). With every chorus the bass (also played by Marr) arches up an ominous octave and back under "caught in a trap." Then the intensity becomes even harder to touch without burning; Marr's guitar break is more of an elongated feedback howl than a solo. Thereafter Sumner returns to double the anticipatory pace of the song ("Would you lie to me?"); again there is a misleading build-up before he repeats the sequence and then sinking back into elegant despair with the final round of choruses. Behind him Marr's guitars subtly but naturally expand and sigh into full post-Cocteaus lamenting and provide a natural and logical (and restrained) beauty to Sumner's grief (echoed by his own, slightly bitonal responses of "Would you lie to me?"); the elegance quietly bolstered by Karl Bartos' slowly modulating synths, the suppressed brutality underlined by the final and (again) delayed drum sign-off from Black Grape's Jed Lynch. Structurally a perfectly imperfect pop/rock song, its patient build-up was largely lost on all bar the loyal, and it stopped at number 14 on our 1996 charts, but it remains one of Sumner and Marr's most secret triumphs.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

TINARIWEN: Ahimana (Oh My Soul)


I think of the Brotherhood of Breath; spirits improvising their stories through life, forced by violence into a cornered sort of exile, even if that corner is a fairly vast northerly corner of the Mali desert. And once again I think of the ethos of Toronto; Tinariwen is a group of indeterminate size according to the needs of any given song, with four guitarists who can make four guitars sound as light as anything this side of Ornette's Prime Time and that side of Broken Social Scene, and others who filter in and out, but never away.


I caught up with the Aman Iman (Water Is Life) album over Christmas and it strikes me as one of 2007's most deeply sensual albums; superb for headphone listening - and let us remember not just Zeppelin but the Saqqara Dogs and Blind Idiot Gods of the mid-eighties world who were already feeling the effect of the North African traffic - but far too pulsatile to fit into any background (it has some of the year's sexiest, as well as deepest, bass playing). Songs which are cyclical but never back into a cul-de-sac since with every revolution their fabric is slightly but crucially different; a delicacy to its rhythmic complexity which does not fade into white bread. A parallel world of blues, maybe, but then there was the Grateful Dead as well...


On David's compilation he selected the serpentine prowl of "Assouf" but I've gone for "Ahimana" as it is for me the album's most enticing and revelatory track; improvised on the spot with some of its words made up and others stretching back centuries, its guitar thrust is a compelling roundabout of cumulative stimulation. It begins with some rueful reflections on leaving Libya behind before consolidating into a call and response dialogue between man and woman (though sung by only one "lead" singer - how diminishing it is even to consider such concepts in this brightly blue context) which culminates in the "woman"'s voice complaining, or simply reflecting, on how her father is "interested in cows and female camels." A desert estampie, a lowdown yet elevated wandering Toureg rave-up; sliding like a perky red balloon up the trouser leg of provocation, and decidedly undiluted - a dance, a summary and another route towards a certain tomorrow.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

ALY and A.J.: Bullseye


Looks like it's time to invoke Larkin's Law again; the sisters Michalka may be a foolish pair in many ways - teaching evolutionary theory in schools is, according to them, "disrespectful," which makes one wonder whether teaching English in schools is, according to me, "discontinued." So it's wise to concentrate on their music. "Potential Breakup Song" presumably doesn't need any further introduction from me since most should now be familiar with its seamless mix of Del Shannon, Roy Vedas and Girls Aloud, its ingenious tripartite Autotune hooks ("Iplayedalong Iplayedalong Iplayedalong"), the fourth wall nod of needing just the one breakup song for their album and the exuberant dagger of a chorus: "YOU'RE NOT LI-VIIIIIN'!" The Insomniatic album veers a little too obediently towards Lavigneland in places but at its best - "Like Whoa," "Flattery" - it leaves Girls Aloud standing in their present tangle.

"Bullseye," though, is my favourite track; a creditable crunch of a post-rock rocker which grinds with the elegance of Elastica - note the triple-deck turn-on compliment of "You didn't ask me for my number/Wait...you didn't ask me for my number?/...'cos you've already got my number!" - and stands proudly astride its huge magnet of a chorus, even stretching out a passing pinkie to the Go-Gos in its middle eight. Since there are only two girls singing, or at any rate chanting, there isn't the unison dilemma which dogs even the better parts of Tangled Up; they have a common purpose and are easily discernible, Autotuned or not. Bubblegum of thrusting distinction with just the hint of an inverse sting: "Naturally you seem to just get me/So obviously you're pretty smart/Heheheheh...."

Monday, 7 January 2008

RADIOHEAD: All I Need


I don’t quite know what to do with, or about, Radiohead right now; for me they are still too tied up with Oxford and all that my Oxford history entails, all the way from the time when they were called On A Friday, were regularly third on the indie night bill at the Jericho Tavern and hadn’t quite worked out whether they wanted to be U2 or Dinosaur Jr or Then Jerico, right up to the open-air South Park performance which Laura was too ill to attend (and therefore I didn’t go either). I would also venture that the best way to understand Radiohead’s music would be if you had been living in Oxford throughout the nineties and very early noughties; there is so much about them that is intrinsically Oxford (or Abingdon, or Cumnor Hill, or Botley) that it’s hard for me to reset my critical faculties for them; instinctively I still think of the sudden, backwards retreat of a fade to “Spinning Plates” which in that last summer felt like Oxford and Laura and life vanishing into irretrievable nothingness (the reverse of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road”), but then there were also the ignored omens of OK Computer (that is, ignored by me until it was too late) and the silvering autumn delineated by Kid A; I thought its freeform contraflows slightly timid in comparison with, say, Primal Scream’s Xtrmntr and wished that Thom Yorke had the chutzpah to come out with something as goofily absurd as “Bomb The Pentagon” (why do I get the immediate picture of Bobby Gillespie being made by his mum to stand in the corner wearing a dunce cap on 10/11? “Aw maw, gies a break”…).

Still, most of Kid A and about half of Amnesiac have endured, and Hail To The Thief is maybe this decade’s most marooned album (i.e. everyone knows it’s good and hugely underrated, but where to place it?). At this point I have to applaud Radiohead for the staunch impersonation of back to basics, honest just-like-you-and-me blokes which they have recently been purveying, both online and in print; they currently teeter on the Stunning Return To Form tightrope but that is not entirely their doing. From its downloaded status onwards, In Rainbows has been heavily sold as their Return To Rock with Clear Singing of Comprehensible Songs (as though no one with a soul would have missed “Everything In Its Right Place” or “You And Whose Army?”).

It is an alluring proposition but one inevitably doomed and masked. As Coldplay demonstrated when they stepped into the Kid A breach seven years ago, Radiohead’s floating voters of an outside/mainstream audience were perfectly content with cheerily cuddly platitudes – “I will fix you,” “Give me real, don’t give me fake” – delivered in Chris Martin’s geography teacher falsetto-as-vulnerability/compassion default setting and didn’t much care for adventures into abstract electronica with free jazz attached and words which savagely magnified the smouldering rage at the centre of “Bring down the Government” in “No Surprises.” Despite protestations that Yorke filtered all of this into his own solo record The Eraser, In Rainbows is neither a comfortable nor comforting listen, and is unlikely to return them to the crossroads of crossover; it took just 50,000 sales for the album to enter the chart at number one this week.

Much of this milieu is referred to in the album’s lyrics: “You used to be alright – what’s happened?” or “You’ve gone off the rails” could be extracted from messageboard postings by Coldplay turncoats, and the subject(s) of “A pale imitation with the edges sawn off” can I think easily be guessed. And despite the general feeling conveyed that this is a brighter and more hopeful Radiohead – the CD is not enclosed in a mock library book or street map this time, but in a workaday package more usually found in the kind of junk mail encouraging the recipient to consolidate their Christmas-inspired debts). In Rainbows nearly swallows itself up in its ideations of death, though the grisly scenario at the end of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggio” is rescued by the last minute “I hit the bottom and escape.” They wouldn’t necessarily have done that on Hail To The Thief. “Nude” is a classically structured 6/8 rock ballad which culminates with Yorke crooning “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.” “Bodysnatchers” is U2 filtered through a partially opaque prism; it “rocks” but try to touch it and you’ll be incinerated - Yorke even invokes Lydon with his hysterical screech of “I have no idea what you are talking about!”. “Reckoner” (wherein the words "in rainbows" appear) is stealthy rock whose balance is purposely offset by the too-crisp, too-close auxiliary percussion happening in the left channel and the Massive Attack strings which hover into view at song’s end. “Faust ARP” reimagines Lennon’s “Julia” as an unreachable nightmare.

And yet there remains hope, more hope than has been contained in the previous four Radiohead records; the brisk “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” takes its standard Friday night social scenario by the scruff of its neck and finds Yorke imploring both boy and girl to seize the moment and each other; his “Come and let it out” betters Oasis’ “Go Let It Out” by virtue of having a definable “it.” The closing “Videotape” revisits the farewell-for-now-dear-listener moonscape of “Motion Picture Soundtrack”; the tape may be slightly frayed (the shuddering blur obfuscating the first “Red, blue, green”) but Yorke finally turns to face his listener with infinitely more genuine guidance than a squadron of Coldplays could ever muster, despite or because of the looming presence of Mephistopheles beneath (or within him); his extremely slow delivery of the album’s payoff/raison d’etre, “No matter what happens now you shouldn’t be afraid because I know today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen” is very moving indeed and doesn’t suggest a collapse into hell.

Turning to “All I Need,” however, which is the album’s clear masterpiece, I wonder whether Radiohead don’t owe a goodly part of their regeneration to Canada; the sherbert rush of the latter stages of “Bodysnatchers” aren’t that far removed from Broken Social Scene, and I cannot imagine “All I Need” without the precedent of Arcade Fire, the Barack Obamas of 21st century rock whose subtle generosity is now seeping through all necessary musical quarters – how much more satisfying than the standard pseudo-trick of stamping one’s feet and yelling. Like Arcade Fire, “All I Need” owes a good deal to a certain perspective of Springsteen, most notably in the “Streets Of Philadelphia” drum pattern which empowers it. But OMD is markedly present, too; the dreamlike distortion of the synth bassline, and Godrich tweaks his knobs and slides with enough deviance to bring Red Mecca-era Cabaret Voltaire into the picture too. Meanwhile, Yorke croons of the missed chances, the pleading outsider, which he chooses to represent and stand for – the “animal trapped in your hot car,” the “days that you choose to ignore,” finally, and simply, “just an insect trying to get out of the night,” or not so simply if you consider the double-edged threat/embrace of “I only stick with you because there are no others.”

Behind him, the music steadily builds up its might, first allowing in huge Trevor Horn vibraharps, and finally, as the song reaches its natural outcome, Phil Selway’s drums dramatically crash into the “middle of your picture” and mighty block piano chords chime something approaching release, closely followed by synths melting into strings. “S’all wrong!” cries Yorke. “S’alright!” reassures Yorke, and the latter is how he ends it, with a glorious major sixth chord – it’s alright because you were patient and open-minded enough to continue trying to penetrate the Rochester core, so with In Rainbows, and Radiohead in general, there’s no option save for me to keep on working, to take those ripples on a hitherto blank shore and use them to create brighter rainbows.