Thursday, 22 May 2008

THE SHORTWAVE SET: Harmonia


"Them there days, those temporary days, they're over boys, move on."

The easiest thing would be to say that the second Shortwave Set album was one of the great 1968 albums - the beginnings of burnout just after the initial burst - but the record, whose eleven songs are linked in an ever-strengthening 39-minute chain, warns against unthought-through nostalgia, from its title (Replica Sun Machine) downwards, or sideways; the above observation is taken from a song entitled "Now 'Till 1969." There is also a song called "Yesterdays To Come" down whose steely corridors (additional spiking courtesy of Van Dyke Parks' characteristically challenging string chart, shuddering with warnings not to proceed backwards) the group sing of "all our tomorrows" merging into "a fine lament" for a past which is ungraspable, if not unlearnable.

This is not to say that Replica Sun Machine doesn't contain hope within its reluctantly dark cloisters, but the Shortwave Set's euphoria is always guarded, and usually with good reason; the slow warnings of benign Armageddon in "Replica," behind whose cobwebbed floorboards emerge the patiently vast temple of Parks' strings, as though glimpsing but a solitary brick of St Paul's from underneath the cistern; the trembling body swerves of Those Lying In Power described in "House Of Lies." The unresolving "Sun Machine" ends up saying goodbye even to the replica, welcoming a "poor imitation," eyes shielded from the unspeakable horror of the next dawn.

Though still made on a comparatively low budget, this is nonetheless, and perversely, the Shortwave Set's big budget album; the SE8 junk shop findings replaced by the calm anti-authority of Dangermouse in the producer's booth, Parks and John Cale dropping by to dabble subtle dashes of magic into the group's broth (for instance, the return of the "Sunday Morning"/"Northern Sky" celeste in "Glitches N' Bugs") though Cale largely confines himself to "atmospherics," mainly the abstract drifts of links between the songs; both Parks and Cale's contributions come to full fruition as they take over "I Know" for the elegantly distorting long fadeout.

I'm not sure, however, that expert gloss is a long-term substitute for happy accidents - the beauty of The Debt Collection lay in its seemingly "unproduced" approach, that they were making it up as they travelled along and stumbled across unforeseen Cortesian revelations, that Millican and Nesbitt and Humperdinck and MFP Hawaiian ukuleles and Tomita could be deployed to help produce a new awe. This is a potential trap in which the Shortwave Set need to be careful not to make themselves too comfortable.

Nonetheless, when the songs are so strong - as they certainly are here, by and large - when Ulrika's voice comes through so forcefully, yet non-imposingly, on the 1980 Clash-with-Ellen-Foley diatribe that is "No Social," its strength is still natural. The key songs, though, are the first and the last; forget that "Harmonia" is the name of an obscure Krautrock group and listen to what they're trying to convey in its ruinous majesty - a guide to a better life, while the next nine songs describe what happens if we hesitate to take the right path, cling to an entirely unhelpful yesterday; the "maybe next time" and "maybe sometime" warnings which "Harmonia" conveys in its milky breast - on your own, in a dream that seemed about you, then you called my name, told me how to find you, and it is THEN that you have to embark on that path towards the future; it must be THIS time...and you grasp the nettle and find it is a feather. Then, at the other end of whatever blast has occurred, "The Downer Song," the patient campfire/after the fire singalong ("there's something wrong, there's something wrong") as a "Genetic Engineering" voice (but now female) repeats "Love one another...love one another...love one another...NOW" throughout. That's "now" as in "not yesterday" and a hundred thousand reasons why it - and we - matter.

2 comments:

stan said...

Maybe I was looking in all the wrong places, but your year-end round-up from a couple of years back is the only place I have ever seen "The Debt Collection" mentioned. Naturally, that one mention was all that was needed for me to seek it out. Suffice to say, it has been embraced by the whole family as one of the regular selections for car trips.

The new one, however, well, I wish I could be as upbeat as you. Seems to me that something has been lost with the addition of Actual Production Values. Too often the album drags. Granted, "Harmonia" is a rich beast of a song, and there are a couple of other high points, but I find my concentration wandering. (And, don't you think that in places they sound just a little too close to Broadcast?)

What I think I will do is put it on the back burner for a little while, and then dip into it again. That sometimes works.

(And speaking, as we weren't, of Harmonia (the band), there is a section of the fourth track on "Live 1974" which is basically a slice of dub reggae done on (mostly) electronic instruments, years before Rhythm & Sound. My history isn't as strong as yours (or even close), but is it possible that a bunch of German electronic musicians in the early 1970s would have had access to such music? Or is it an extraordinary coincidence? (The former is a question I also found myself asking while watching the first series of "Life On Mars", and wondering whether Manchester police would have been exposed to the riddim down at their local boozer.))

Marcello Carlin said...

Interesting. I'm not at all sure of how speedily or how soon (or late) dub made it to Germany; it's entirely possible that they came up with the notion independently (taking the Can/Amon Duul studio-as-mixing-desk notion to its next logical or illogical destination) but given that this was the same year as, for instance, "The Sad Skinhead" by Faust (which is reggae pastiche rather than dub, admittedly, but the tropes do stray elsewhere into Faust IV), infiltration/influence can't be ruled out. Any German readers able to help me out with the history here?