Monday, 25 August 2008

JUST RESTING


Well, this blog has been running for the best part of a year and its simple pleasures have been extremely pleasurable to write and I hope even more pleasurable to read, but every blog reaches its plateau and I reckon it's happened with BiA. So while I'm not saying that it ends here, I'm definitely going to give it a rest for a little while.


The principal reason for this - in addition to natural fatigue - is that I've just launched myself brain-first into this certifiably insane new blogging project; every UK number one album ever? Send for the white coats now! And I'm only going to be posting there weekly, but hopefully the quality of the posts will be equal to five weekly BiA posts. For now, abundant thanks to everyone who's read this blog and responded positively, either in the comments boxes or via email. There will be more to come here in the fullness of time, and I may even clear up some unfinished business on this ruined city of a blog - but for now, enjoy the albums blog and modify your blog rolls accordingly!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

THE FALL: Rowche Rumble



A snatch of real seventies Britain just as the seventies were about to be snatched away, the ominously seesawing two chord (with occasional additional flattened extras) Farfisa organ has for me always conjured up Carla Bley's organ bursting into the middle of the democratic chaos on Charlie Haden's "Circus '68/'69" except that the song's drugged-up clouds defy anything or anybody being overcome, today or next century. It lumbers like its own ghost through the brown radiogram cabinets through which "Rowche Rumble" is best heard, trebly grotesque. Smith retches and tuts through his solemn list of pharmaceuticals designed to keep the 1979 housewife shaking her vac in the hope that it's a gold elephant; in the year of Britain's first female Prime Minister, a thorough throwback to building asylums in their own minds, to stop them from getting any ideas, whatever the size. Seventy years previously it would have been straight to the asylum; now they're confined to their shiny daytime bunkers and woe betide anyone who wanted out - and equally the ruinous non-raunch of "Rowche Rumble" helps you understand exactly why the breakout had to happen - it was freedom or "no culture or love, no gamble."

The groaning Farfisa is fortified by a characteristic, handclap-assisted Northern Soul beat on the bridge, heralding yet more controlled dissonance as Smith rants against the canting anti-drug voices there to make the illusion of community more bearable - they "do a prescribed death dance/While condemning speed or grass" (MES spits out an unanswerable rejoinder of "They got an addiction like a hole in the ass") before turning to stare the fourth wall down: "Physician, heal thyself" he intones, and then "Our Government's built an expense account" before a stern interrogation of his audience which remains unutterably terrifying: "What is the fear for? Whose do you think your body is?" He confesses to previously "abusing my body to a great end" but mumbles rhythmically that he'll never never NEVER NEVER do it again like a Freddie Starr impression of the Stranglers; as the internal world burns, drums and organ (and Marc Riley as Greek chorus) do a fantastic Nutopian job of buffing the song's anger around its severely enclosed cardboard box - the tribal memes, a year ahead of the Ants and the Wows, the violent closing signature scattering Smith's 70 pounds (rather than the housewife's 70p) of Swiss gnome placebos - "Rowche" equals "Roche" - into the woeful winds of Prestwich.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

WILEY: It's Only Right


Charging over city-sweeping Indian polyphonic orchestral lines like roughshod freight trains, “It’s Only Right” reminds me heavily of Chris and Dudu’s Blue Notes towards the end of the sixties – the hitherto unreleased Chris McGregor Septet 1969 recording Up To Earth, wherein the likes of Evan Parker, John Surman and even Danny Thompson manage to find common ground with the regulars - has recently been issued on CD for useful comparison purposes – with its mixture of collective noise and unique blend of rage and humour. Its rapid fire list of “only”s is like a supercharged equivalent of Scritti’s “Lions After Slumber” as skittle beats bowl over and under their vocal throws. Guest rappers Brazen and Flowdan take turns – or, more properly, solos – as the others riff vocally behind them. Its temperature steadily rises until Flowdan’s explosive barrage, as fearsome as his contributions to London Zoo, where the urgency of their delivery becomes life-enabling and he rants excitingly about their being “soldiers” bringing the track to a shrieking climax – again, I think of Shepp’s similar tactics with his crowning solo on “Mama Too Tight.” Fearlessly omitting “Wearing My Rolex,” Grime Wave entrances with its collusions of wit and rebellion and, at this late stage, Eskibeat wins us back again and grime is, for those of us who have quietly kept a discreet eye on its progress, once more vital.

Monday, 18 August 2008

CATERINA VALENTE: The Breeze And I


"Rock Around The Clock" was one thing - or at least it would be before 1955 was out - but this still feels astonishingly radical for a 1955 top five hit. Admittedly there may have been the faint air of travel agent exoticism as a reason for despoiled British record buyers to buy into it, and at times one can easily visualise Morecambe and Wise bounding onstage in their frilly shirts, comedy sombreros and overactive castanets.

But that cheapens an extraordinary record for which I can find no proper comparison in its peers; it was orchestrated by Werner Muller from a 1929 piano piece called "Andalucia," written by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, a man to whom even Ravel bowed. A breeze? Muller's strings and aggressive post-Kenton brass make it sound like a terminal hurricane, swirling gales almost beyond tonality, smashing up against stone or iron gates; Valente's voice laments on a distant volcanotop like a rather distressed Yma Sumac.

After one final non-tonal trumpet scream, however, the song itself gently emerges, although the whirligig of strings never lets up in its comments, Valente nobly battling the elements as she sings of love lost and hopes torn - her swooning regret on the "care" of "you no longer care" would have been sufficient to refloat the Titanic - with an echoing pride which puts me in mind of some of the early Gerry Anderson puppet show closing themes (especially "Aqua Marina" from Stingray); she covers four-and-something octaves so silkily you only notice and count them after she's done, but her "strange, mournful tune" indicates that, devastated as her world is, she will survive, as the orchestra sweeps back in for a final imperious snarl.

Friday, 15 August 2008

NAS WITH KERI HILSON: Hero


There are so many anthems in this miraculous year of hip hop which I ought to be hearing sung and/or shouted in every street, bus, train and house I pass and "Hero" bulges with intentional bigness. Nas' burningly intense and righteous sleevenote to the New Album Which Has No Name (Reclaim!) pulses with as much justifiable anger as Shepp's did in the sixties, and given the welcome miscegenation of which "Hero" is just one of many recently added parts it becomes even more absurd that this music should have to plead or yell for proper air time or respect.

Now Nas takes it upon himself to stride out into the streets with his banner of stellar hope; swim in the tremulously twinkling starlights of the verses, plucked harp strings from a Vangelis arpeggio until everything is SLAMMED together in an unbelievable all-Human-League-choruses-at-once resolution, Keri Hilson coming over the mountain top as Nas reluctantly agrees to heroism. Astral bodies converge, converse and fuse as the rapper continues on his quest, even though he be beset by "crooks and castles" alike. He reflects on his fallen colleagues who had to be content with breaking into shops rather than having shops closed especially so they could shop but his most ferocious roars are reserved for the "universal apartheid" that corporate media are keen to promote everywhere, the continued conspiracy on the part of mainstream radio, television and press to present their willingly traduced demographic with the illusion of greater choice even as they narrow any real "choice" down to make it as invisible as possible, and on the part of multinational record companies to prevent Nas from using the words and terms he knows that he needs to use and cleanse; over a sudden surge of angry rock guitar he yells "Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce or Billy Joel they can't sing what's in their soul!" "Think about these talented kids," he warns, "with new ideas being told what they can and can't spit" and we know why he has to go on, as the colours of the chorus again unfurl and crystallise in the black-blue sky with its awe-filled surges, its Barack-ushering in panopticon of hope. Number one by November, please.

Monday, 11 August 2008

FLO RIDA WITH WILL.I.AM AND TIFFANY VILLARREAL: In The Ayer


You know, I think we're going to have to get over "My Humps" and what have you because whenever will.i.am is engaged in extracurricular activity he is creative to a degree which isn't particularly noticeable in the Peas environment; think of the tremulous quiet of a rebel shout that was Mos Def's "Umi Says" or the various things he's done for and with Estelle (not least "American Boy").

Or indeed the super-stratospheric "In The Ayer." I'm pretty sure that ex-prison officer (and ex-2 Live Crew associate member) Flo Rida didn't have intentionally stuffy semi-broadsheet newspapers in mind when he called his new album Mail On Sunday but it's an apt title since its music represents everything likely to induce arrythmia in Associated hearts everywhere.

The magic of "In The Ayer" as it appears on the album (as opposed to sundry subsequent remixes) is its complete understanding of the importance of the singular moment in the pop song, the breakthrough point, the peak which everything else in the record leads up to and away from (transformed). It's a stormer of a post-"Planet Rock" electrobomb (not surprising given its sampling of the long forgotten "Jam The Box" by Freestyle Express), its "ayers" a clever counterpart to Nelly's "herre"s with starkly stellar curtain raisers of Numan grindcore synths; will.i.am's choruses authoritatively naughty, Flo Rida's verses anxiously eager to get moving - bend with that 16 rpm "ride with me" halfway through verse two and don't avoid that "ain't gon' treat our city like the Mayor (Mayor)."

But the punctum here is Tiffany Villarreal, the backing singer; she appears in only two choruses but makes both of them count; in the first, indeed, she is only audible in the second half, singing unison with a relishable tang to her tongue, but the second - at 2:18 - is the key to the whole record; the Southern robot of her deadpan "DAMN" in response to will.i.am's "Oh hot damn," and then the equivalent "JAM" to "This is my jam" and suddenly it becomes a radiant National Grid of pop currents. On the original this moment materialises only once though it becomes an unstoppable refrain on remix.

Nevertheless, after the second chorus, the song suddenly turns a darker corner, heralded by will.i.am's "Alright now, STOP!" The key drops, the skies darken ("It's a STICK UP stick up stick up!" - the tripartite call and responses here the counterpart to their lighter hearted equivalents on "American Boy") and eventually we return to the chorus in a lower key, will.i.am now intoning a baritone "DAMN" and "JAM" before the light burns itself out.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

R. KELLY: Touched A Dream


What, really, is deep soul? As Dave Godin invented, knew and used the term, it meant music whose emotions reached out from within the fabric of a song or a record to touch the listener without noticeable mediation, dilution or interference. It represented a rare emotional directness which, even if the song was being acted out melodramatically, by its natural force transcended notions of showbusiness or artifice and punctured – can you tell where I’m going here? – the listener directly. Usually ascribed to the peculiarly intense branch of sixties soul (though considering the tenor of the times, its intensity was perfectly understandable and not at all peculiar) it nonetheless doesn’t – or shouldn’t – recognise any temporal boundaries. It’s about how expression of a particular emotion or emotions in a specific way can reach and hopefully change the listener. The dazed joy of Jaibi’s “You Got Me” is as recognisable in its depth as the mounting dread of Kenny Carter’s “Showdown.”

And it has survived, sometimes in the strangest of pockets; one example from the seventies of which I’ve very recently been reminded is “Lean On Me” – not the Bill Withers song – recorded by Melba Moore in 1976. If you only know Ms Moore from her disco hits (“This Is It,” “Love’s Comin’ At Ya”) then this will come as an especial surprise. For two-thirds of its duration it comes on almost like a standard Vegas floorshow ballad with chintzy orchestration and backing vocals, but the already peculiar intensity of Moore ’s voice keeps you anchored and waiting for the explosion. As the song progresses her reiteration of faith takes on near-operatic tones, but it’s only in the closing third that she explodes, quite unexpectedly, with shrieks, squeals, growls and a near ahuman climactic 30-second sustenato of a dog whistle of a high note. It is like the exact halfway house between Linda Sharrock and Jennifer Holliday, and you are left stunned, floored by her staunchness, her demands for reception of her unquestioning love.

“Touched A Dream” is unmistakably deep soul in its intent and execution, even if one finds it hard to accept from R Kelly; if you can negotiate your way past the hits, the gloopy schmaltz of “I Believe I Can Fly” or the rather odious R&B laddism of “Ignition” – remix or no remix, the spirit of Rod Stewart at his hot-legged worst is never far away from the latter – there are plenty of gems to find in his catalogue, but “Touched A Dream,” which currently only appears on his greatest hits compilation The R In R&B, is exceptional. The rhythm is midtempo and the beats are firm but not overpowering. Waking up, Kelly is evidently still astonished by what he and his Other achieved the night before and he makes his revelations sound like the morning after Barack’s victory (fingers crossed) when everyone has woken up on a brilliant day.

In addition to his ecstasy, Kelly also invokes the spiritual plurality which is a direct inheritance from the legacy of Coltrane; nature seems to open herself up to him totally – the rhetorical tripartite preacher-like intensity of his trio of “Last night”s, the raining down of heaven, the sun, moon and stars coming together, the angel speaking to him (Blakean soul!) – “he said us forever,” visions of a tropical river. He makes rewriting the book of love sound like cleaning up the original scrolls of the Bible.

His view expands; eagles, massive choirs, and ultimately the real transcendence: “Last night, I saw the world living in peace and harmony.” His voice steadily increases in intensity, dazzled over the conversion of his fantasy to a reality, and soon we are in “Can’t Get Next To You”/”Voodoo Chile” territory where Kelly is capable of jumping mountains and touching skies, confirmation/consummation furnished by the divine chord change over the “fly” in “over the sea, baby, we can fly” (well, YES!). By the time he’s seeing “the flowers the trees the birds the bees” – he’s given up pausing for breath by now – he’s launching to take off and that he does over the final furlongs of the song; he soars over the world and breaks free of any known “song” format, practically speaking in tongues – “love making queen,” “love making king,” the invocation of God, reciprocity and “amorocity;” the spiritual babbling brook is unabated and he climaxes with a howl of “That’s why I ain’t gon’ let the Devil steal my joy from me,” a sentiment whose history goes back almost beyond any of us. He whoops with justification and starts the hard work of climbing back down to Earth as the song’s radiant happiness dances into the deepening distance.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

RED RAT WITH CHICO: Girls Dem Highway


Released three or four years earlier, this might have been a number one in the wake of “Oh Carolina,” and it’s not Red Rat’s fault that things had “moved on” (others’ definition; not necessarily mine) by 1997, but everyone with warm ears – ask Ian Brown for confirmation - was blown away by the album Oh No!...It’s Red Rat!, an absolutely key record in the advancement of ragga and dancehall, or maybe back to redder basics.

Producer Danny Brownie very cleverly structures and mixes “Girls Dem Highway” to make it sound strangely old and familiar; the “Reet Petite” blasts of brass, the general 1955 timewarp feeling, countered by Red Rat’s pratfall sensitivity. Chico – nothing to do with The X-Factor – sings with a cream as smooth as the skin Red Rat desires, from his opening ululatory “I-need-I need-I-need-a-lover!” to his confident frat sweater delivery of “I’m searchin’ in the alley/I’m searchin’ in the street.” The purity of his quest, as he sees it (“I’ve got to find a lover to make my life complete,” “I need a girl from round the way, I need a new beginning”) is offset, and possibly exposed as a fraud, by the cataleptic sopranino shrieking and toasting of Red Rat who tosses in highly unsavoury concepts like “girl snatcher” and “bounty hunter” and is extremely particular about which sort of girl he would like (he chews and swallows 20 lollipops in his squeal of “CUTE!” in the phrase “cute face” before matter-of-factly adding “I’m not being rude, I’m just blunt”). “Every day I-a give her what the doc prescribes!” he wails like a cross between Terry Scott and Shabba Ranks at 78 rpm as the music gently swings behind him with subtly infiltrative nineties beats, before turning to his best Dick Van Dyke Cockney (“Ex-cewuse ME! Can Oi speak to yew for a minn-itt?”) and launching into a hysterical, semi-decipherable pledge of love before concluding “I’m just being a baby…I’m a GOOOOD BOYYY!” a la Ranking Norman Wisdom. Unlike the Sean Kingston of “Beautiful Girls” – where the youthful purity is just a front for another dreary laddish moan about the opposite sex – Red Rat’s absurd philosophising is narrowly excusable since he is acting exactly like an excitable 14-year-old who might like girls if he ever meets one; for the time being, though, revel in his (despite all the puerility) confident rhythm attack (“Trendsetter EY! Hotstepper EYY!! Cool dresser!!!”) and his anguished sign-off desire for a girl “who wears spandex and leather.” Tighten up, lad!

Monday, 4 August 2008

KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN/THEATRE OF VOICES: Stimmung (Copenhagen Version)


Listening to the performance of Stimmung by Theatre of Voices at the Proms this Saturday just past, I almost cursed the New Seekers and Bucks Fizz for not having the gumption to do a cover version – certainly it could scarcely be further out there, or anywhere, than the former’s Tommy medley or the latter’s “My Camera Never Lies” – since in any version it is a deceitful lullaby; you can lie back and let the microphonic and vocal overtones and undertones feed through you, only to be jarred by a sudden surge of rasping dissonance, or the hint of a meaning above “just intonation.”

I won’t go through the compositional and organisational mechanics of Stimmung here since this should be about how Stockhausen’s blue colours my air; enough to say that in the cupped cautiousness of Singcircle’s mid-seventies Paris Version or the more confident and overt theatricalism of Paul Hillier’s subsequent Copenhagen Version – the latter has been recorded but is still best experienced live, as it was on Saturday, with the vital room for mistakes and intuition – we can discern six people sitting in a room, around a table like the Knights or the Bront√ęs, quite unlike the room everyone else is in now, and how their stories intermingle into one slow and subtle attestation of unattributable faith. Or you could simply view it as eighty minutes or so of long, self-phasing drones interspersed with occasional mutters of variable volume.

Certainly the Paris Version came to my teenage attention at more or less the same time as Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians – a comparison at which Stockhausen would instantly have bridled, since he would have argued Stimmung as being the natural extension of one word, or even one syllable, rather than repetitive rhythms; nonetheless, polyrhythms and repetitions provide Stimmung with its vital mechanics, though the speed is necessarily far less busy and workmanlike than Reich’s. Yet its patiently unfolding meadows are a joy to absorb, not least because of the hindsight which allows us to discern the processional garbling of meaning into reverberative syllabic fascination as it would subsequently be filtered through Kraftwerk and Faust and even unto Timbaland and the Neptunes. Some of Stimmung is very sensual indeed, which is hardly surprising since many of its “words” are based on erotic love poetry that Stockhausen wrote for his wife in – guess the year, can’t you? – 1967, and the twelve most sensitive ears on the planet may go so far as to spot the Van Morrison in Stimmung; once more, when least you’re expecting it, The Word reveals itself – “Barbershop!,” “Thursday!” And how could I get this far without acknowledging the unending humane drone which begins and ends Escalator? If Music For 18 Musicians exposes the industry behind making music, then Stimmung prolongs and emphasises the art and for many still provides the easiest starting point for one of this past century’s most remarkable aesthetic arcs.

Friday, 1 August 2008

STEREO MCs: Elevate My Mind


I'm not too sure that I approve of the general past tense of this blog; the trouble is that the new music which matters takes time to get analysed, and quite often defies analysis - most of the time I just want to revel in its giddy nowness or enjoy it in strict privacy (i.e. with my wife). But cubes from the past have their own amiable way of refracting onto the present. Right now I'm reeling from the astonishing rejuvenation of hip hop, largely from where I'm sitting a rejuvenation directly from New Pop; listen to Li'l Wayne's "Mr Carter" or Nas' "Hero" or DJ Khaled and the rest of the world's "Out Here Grindin'" or Jiggs' "Walk In Da Park" and the mind's internal rotation is at least as active as it was in 1981, when movements in music were equally as new.

But "Elevate My Mind" is 1990, from Supernatural, the Stereo MCs album everyone forgets about (see also: all other Stereo MCs albums bar Connected) and its grey semi-raving remains a useful tonic; indeed the general talk about Midlands internal depression ("So I release more charge from my battery," "Out the bed, clothes, answer the door") and thence the greater world, if "greater" is the correct comparative ("There goes the Mayor, his nose is brown") and its pretend-nonchalant delivery seem to be a direct precedent to the Streets, although the song's roll is more evidently willing to rumble; its stirring churn is as wobbly but purposeful as any long-defunct East Midlands tram link and Cath Coffey's distantly positioned euphoria is deliberately ambiguous - "I wanna go higher" seems from several miles to be an invitation to colour and life but the corresponding "White Lines" sample reminds us of the potential crash. Still the Nottingham trio shamble through to engage in a haphazard communitarianism; seeing the rave, self-hatingly reaching out to touch it, but forward, always forward: "Don't hang about!"