The Candour and the Grandeur: Roy Wilkinson’s Do It For Your Mum Reviewed

Do It For Your Mum Cover

I first became aware of Brighton-based band British Sea Power in 2004 whilst working on an essay about the type of masculinity constructed in particular men’s magazines for my Rhetoric of Gender class. In the #9 issue of Upstreet: A Lifestyle for Men, I stumbled across an article called “Spirit of British Sea Power” wedged between articles on Robert Wyatt and on the electro-ethnic trend, along with fashion ads dripping in sultry, vacant androgynes. I suspect that the crucial paragraph that intrigued me in the BSP story described how the band arranged meetings with journalists by using ordinance survey coordinates and could range from Charles Lindbergh to Iggy Pop in conversation. It was also rather apparent that they didn’t take themselves terribly seriously, cultivating a sense of irony and surrealism. These ideas hooked me, and eventually led me to purchase their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, and of course, the next four. And, naturally, I had to buy a BSP t-shirt that has “Heron Addict” emblazoned on it, and I will likely one day purchase a British Tea Power mug. After reading Roy Wilkinson’s compelling band biography, Do It For Your Mum, which was published by BSP’s label Rough Trade, I realized that this popping up in an odd place to ambush and then entice fans was a habit and a useful tactic.

Wilkinson, the older brother of band members Yan (Scott) and Hamilton (Neil), managed the band until 2006, and remains The Secretary of their emailed “newsboosts.” The inscription on the book cover, beneath the sticker of an abstract graphic of a deer (perhaps a little lost roe) on a mountaintop, reads: “One band, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce.” Throughout his book, Wilkinson traces a convincing path through time and space, shifting from descriptions of sublime landscapes to those of the mundane, yet stressful, realities of running the day-to-day business of a rock band, and easily comparing his father’s atypical experience of World War Two to the atypical experience of his brothers’ band, much of the experience as about being apart from and disengaged with the outside world. Demonstrating that this fruitful sort of detachment runs in the family, he treads a careful balance between heartfelt belief and messy human frailty, and between Vaudevillian shenanigans and superhuman resilience, successfully turning delusion into a plausible career move.

I think it’s highly significant that Wilkinson is a music journalist by trade. Music journalists are the primary proponents for music mythology; the best of them have to write as though music and its creators are matters of life and death, writing as though music can mean something more. We fans take these pronouncements to heart whether they’re adulatory or scathing. It’s all part of the grand drama of music fanaticism; this kind of culture, encompassing music press, radio DJs, and independent record shops, allows us to pontificate and debate the merits of trivial aspects of song-writing and performance, bartering and bantering about cultural capital and making a plethora of lists. Excellent music journalists can create a captivating narrative from the music they review and from the bands they interview. Wilkinson is one of the excellent music journalists, writing his brothers’ band into transcendence.

Whether he’s describing how his brother Neil would attend PE classes in a “mildly homoerotic Smiths t-shirt,” how they couldn’t persuade Jarvis Cocker to accompany them into the forest to watch nightjars, or how one band member sawed off the tree branch he was sitting on and subsequently fell into injury, Wilkinson is as self-deprecating as he is self-aggrandizing. He was clearly not the best choice financially for band manager, a fact of which he reminds us at every turn, but he was a brilliant marketer and imaginative storyteller, using all of the innate quirks of the band to their advantage. He may lose thousands of pounds of the band’s money to corrupt policemen in Russia, but he exemplifies how one goes about becoming the perfect cult band.

Wilkinson’s biography ends up being more about music fanaticism than it does music creation. In addition to the Wilkinson patriarch’s ardent fandom and impassioned indie music research, a large part of the book is dedicated to describing the devotion of the myriad BSP fans, several who have seen the band play 150 to over 200 times and followed them up and down the continent in spite of full-time work commitments. They are fans with a particular sense of community, arranging pre-gig picnics on traffic islands. I wouldn’t believe there to be many casual BSP fans.

Despite this fanatic devotion, they’ve struggled with breaking through to the mainstream. The band’s encounters with other musicians and celebrities, along with Wilkinson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music trivia and apt descriptions and anecdotes, add colourful context to the plot and provide much of the farcical comedy and pathos as Wilkinson and British Sea Power watch their contemporaries, including The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and The Strokes, soar ahead of them in popularity. Wilkinson’s style is often delightfully understated and playful as in the passage where he cites his father’s description of their labelmates, The Libertines: “Dad had seen The Libertines in the NME: ‘Not sure about them. The tall one looks like a spiv. You can imagine him playing a jailbird in an Ealing comedy.’ Dad’s analysis held odd insight. Pete would indeed end up in jail—and, at least on one occasion, he would be sentenced at Ealing Magistrates’ Court.” I also feel as though I have to be a bit self-indulgent and reveal one of my favourite descriptions from Wilkinson. Referring to Mick Jagger on the cover of his Goddess in the Doorway album, Wilkinson paints him as a “half-finished animatronic rock mannequin from a fairground ride in France.” It is the underdog quality of British Sea Power that adds to their allure – I always believe in watching the underdog for the most interesting, obsessive-worthy art. It’s rewarding being a fan of a band that makes you work at being their fan.

In my mind, British Sea Power is one of those bands with extensive and eclectic influences from places well beyond music, making them much more interesting and unique than their peers. Their music draws from history, nature, science, literature, mythology, film, and current events. They are fans of Betjeman and alcohol. They can utilize Czech politics just as effectively as bird species. They put on bone-breaking shows with elaborate props in unexpected places, write obscure lyrics that require some excavation to make meaning, give even more obscure interviews, and provide interesting juxtapositions in the way so many of my favourite artists do, smuggling subversive and witty themes into popular anthems. Despite describing the events that formed the band and formed the Wilkinson family itself, the book still retains the aloof, sometimes enigmatic, quality of British Sea Power. Wilkinson writes quite emotionally and candidly about his own dreams and failures, and crucially, about their father’s competitive hopes and commitment to the band; however, his younger brothers and their bandmates seem to hover in the taciturn middle distance, completely unflappable and rather impenetrable. They don’t appear to get fussed over anything, still giving rather vague or seemingly superficial quotes when they actually do speak in the book. Of course, this only sustains the band’s mystique and allows fans to fill in the gaps. The members of British Sea Power clearly haven’t minded being different their entire lives, which adds an unpretentious honesty to their character.

There are ostensibly only 2011 copies of the limited edition of the book (mine is hand-numbered with a neat “306”), so please hurry to the Rough Trade site to purchase yours. It is exactly this kind of inventive rarity that works so well for the British Sea Power brand.

British Sea Power makes you think. Their art form is crunchy and perhaps the only truly revelatory thing about them. I think the world needs more bands willing to put themselves out there as a lifestyle choice. Do It For Your Mum also makes you think. Roy Wilkinson empowers you to believe that music fans can will themselves into an extraordinary lifestyle and choose to put their oars in less trammelled waters, pulling upstream for the perversity of it.

Childhood Memories – British Sea Power

Living is So Easy – British Sea Power

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I Will Be the Sun: My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind Reviewed

My Brightest Diamond is the solo project of Shara Worden, whose voice has graced such albums as Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and The Age of Adz, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love (as the fairy queen), David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love (on the track “Seven Years”), and many other projects besides.  This, her third LP as My Brightest Diamond (following 2006’s Bring Me the Workhorse and 2008’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth) finds Worden exploring her quirky singer-songwriter side instead of the more rock-leaning territory traversed on her first two albums.  Her music spans many genres and tones despite the general overarching patterns found on those albums, and All Things Will Unwind is no different.  These songs, led by string arrangements, unusual phrasing, and charming wordplay, often approach the level of experimentation that musicians such as Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom have become known for.  Worden, like Apple and Newsom, has a hugely expressive and distinctive instrument in her voice and uses it in conjunction with the instrumentation (here provided by chamber ensemble yMusic) to magical, mystical effect.

Opening track “We Added It Up” in particular reminds me of Fiona Apple’s more chamber pop moments, like the title track (and opener) of  2005’s Extraordinary Machine.  The two songs share a bouncy cabaret feel, accentuated with string flourishes, although “We Added It Up” remains firmly in a much folkier realm, using acoustic guitar in addition to yMusic’s strings.  Worden’s voice floats brightly on top, telling of contrasts in love (“If I was charge, then you were cash/ If I was toast, you were the match”) that end up cancelling each other out (“We added it up to zero”).  The instrumentation suddenly stops for the refrain of “love binds the world” and it becomes clear that Worden isn’t using the word zero to mean nothingness or worthlessness; rather ‘zero’ is used to convey a kind of functional neutrality, the way that two strong, opposing personalities in love can cancel out the potential for chaos by balancing each other.  Perhaps this sentiment becomes too clichéd in its deconstruction, but I think that’s the point of this song that initially seems rather inscrutable.  Complication – the actual complexity of the relationship – is present in the tune’s structure and delivery.

On “Escape Routes” Worden explores the idea of monogamy, and not in a sceptical, cautious way.  No, “Escape Routes” is concerned with the giddy excitement associated with the initial stages of lifelong commitment (“Oh to exercise the act of falling in love with you over and over and over/ Let’s close off all our escape routes/ Let’s not put it off tonight”).  At the same time, the verses of the song acknowledge that love and its expression is necessarily imperfect (“It takes a lifetime to learn how to love”), yet looks forward to the different phases this monogamous relationship will inevitably go through (“It starts with a flicker that bursts into flame/ Then it fades to an ember with fights/ And with fingers pointing out blame”).  This enthusiasm for commitment is accompanied by twisty, turn-y string lines that evoke the unrestrained head-over-heels quality of love… but with a hint of trepidation.  Lyrically no anxiety is present, but the repetitive falling figures in the music and the use of minor keys lend a sense of unease that works to complicate this paean to monogamous love, suggesting that maybe “closing off all our escape routes” is not the wisest decision.

Things get weird on “Ding Dang,” on which Worden is backed by a sparse, eccentric blend of percussion and dissonant violin, all working in a seemingly meandering, non-linear way.  The lyrics that go along with this music are, appropriately, about unexpected change and being thrown off an established trajectory.  Worden’s delivery on this song is particularly earthy and folk-y, due to the use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, and her emphasis on unusual words and phrasing.  She ends the song on an especially surreal, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-ish note with the lyric “All things are not as they appear/ That which was far has become near/ With a twist or two you’re grinning ear to ear.”

Worden’s words become a bit preachy on “There’s a Rat” and “High Low Middle.”  On the former, she addresses “Bankers, lawyers, thieves/ Guv’nors, mayors, police” and takes them to task for taking advantage of (presumably working-class) artists like Worden and other underprivileged communities.  She continues this lyrical theme on the latter song, tackling wealth disparity between the rich and poor (“Are you fat or are you eating up your hat”) and criticizing the self-conscious effort of some middle-class people not to appear too well-off (“Keep yourself low, but not too low”).  This is not to say that the stance she takes on both songs isn’t right on, but the lyrics are overly literal, rendered (surprisingly, considering the subtlety and nuance of the rest of the album) artlessly.

All Things Will Unwind is a challenging album, overflowing with lyrical and musical ideas and demanding close and careful listening.  It’s probably quite a polarizing album, precisely because it requires a bit of patience and reflection to understand and appreciate.  It’s definitely not as immediate as My Brightest Diamond’s previous work.  But like the best in challenging music and art, All Things Will Unwind is ultimately a very rewarding album as well.  Despite a couple missteps, Worden’s ambition and creativity continue to serve her well, as All Things Will Unwind is unlike anything else I’ve heard this year and unlike anything else she’s released: all the better for it.

My Brightest Diamond – We Added it Up

My Brightest Diamond – Escape Routes

My Brightest Diamond – Everything is in Line

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Give ‘Em What They Want: Modeselektor’s Monkeytown Reviewed

Modeselektor is Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert, two Berliners who with this, their third LP, manage to change and stay the same simultaneously.  They show no sign of altering the often glitchy, hip-hop infused electronic dance blueprint that’s worked so well for them in the past, and why should they?  Monkeytown basically has everything you could want from a good electronic dance album; it displays a delicious sort of cohesiveness in its diversity.  From guest rappers and urban-influenced tracks to ethereal, hypnotic swathes of sound interspersed with bleeped staccato hiccups, Monkeytown manages to never sound staid.  More than that, it’s a thrilling listen from front to back and rewards close, thoughtful listening as well as uninhibited dancefloor enjoyment.

“Blue Clouds” opens the album and sets the tone well in that its beats are frantic with a pervading sense of calm by way of a slower, dreamy figure occurring at the same time as well as a relatively stripped-down sound.  In the world of Monkeytown this is the sound of austerity and serves as a jumping-off point for the rest of the album.  This smoother, sophisticated sound is picked up again eight tracks later on “Green Light Go,” another moody cut in which increased electronic punctuation slowly builds, then unexpectedly falls away to a passage comprised solely of vocoder-processed vocals.  The song builds up again in layers of voice and synth, upbeat yet melancholy.

The hip-hop contingent is present and accounted for on “Prententious Friends” and “Humanized”, the former a rather ridiculous take on the snobby acquaintances of its title.  “Pretentious Friends,” featuring guest rapper Busdriver, injects a shot of humour into the album.  The music, however, is unflagging, with Modeselektor’s beats perfectly accentuating Busdriver’s flow.  There’s also a fun vocal figure near the end of the track, with some unusual harmonies and reiteration of the song’s title.  “Humanized” features Anti Pop Consortium and is an entirely different affair: underneath a stuttering beat is a far more urgent vocal delivery that gives yet another dimension to this varied album.

Possibly Modeselektor’s most famous fan is Thom Yorke, whose voice graces “Shipwreck” and “This”, lending those tracks a compelling strangeness that’s difficult to define.  On “Shipwreck” Yorke’s vocals recall his work on his own solo album, The Eraser, due in no small part to the hyperactive, uneven beat working below his voice and bringing a sense of urgency to the song.  This feeling is intensified by the highly manipulated sound of the vocal track: Yorke’s voice sounds familiar yet distant, buried in twitchy rhythms – the distorted quality of his voice tells us that he’s losing this fight, and the last few seconds of the track seal his fate; the bass rises ominously in the mix as his voice becomes overwhelmed by a simplified beat, and then it’s all over.  “This” features Yorke’s vocals more prominently, at least in regard to volume.  Here that finely sliced vocal track becomes rhythm along with everything else, and another vocal track is added just after the two-minute mark, this one providing melody instead of texture.  These two tracks voiced by Yorke bring a haunting component to Monkeytown that perfectly complements the electronics at work behind Szary and Bronsert’s music.

Dance time gears up on “Berlin” a slower groove featuring vocals by Miss Platinum.  This track has a lot more mainstream appeal than some others on Monkeytown, clearly due to its far less erratic feel and melodic pop vocal.  “Berlin” does break down just past the midpoint of the track, with Miss Platinum’s multi-tracked voice surrendering to the distorted soundscape surrounding her, but I think it’s this track’s tempo that keeps it within the realm of mainstream pop even when descending into electronic weirdness.  Indeed, the weirdness drops off at the end of the track, leaving Miss Platinum’s soulful voice to shine on its own.  “Grillwalker” immediately kicks off into such a deliriously appealing syncopated groove, you totally don’t realize it barely has a melody.  That clean beat devolves into atmospheric washes of sound about three-quarters of the way through, but the tempo is picked up again promptly and the reintroduction of that cheeky little figure feels unequivocally affirming.

While it’s true that personally my least favourite tracks are the ones that contain rapping, it certainly isn’t fair to say that those tracks stand out as alien amidst an otherwise cohesive whole.  Monkeytown covers a ton of different ground, but no single track here feels out of place.  Rather, these stylistic ideas seem to appear in pairs or groups, ensuring that a style or genre appears at least twice on the album with a lot of overlap besides.  Nothing really stands out as strange or unfitting because everything is strange here, keeping the listener interested but more importantly creating a diverse album of disparate influences and ideas that are connected through their seeming disconnection.

 

Modeselektor – Shipwreck

Modeselektor – Berlin

Modeselektor – Green Light Go

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Secrets and Sleeptalking: Trips and Falls’ People Have to Be Told Reviewed

Trips and Falls People Have to Be Told

I first learned of Montreal group Trips and Falls via a random browse through Song by Toad Records, the offshoot of the Song by Toad blog. The core of the band began with Jacob Romero and Paul Gareau with added vocals from Ashleigh Delaye. Gareau has now been replaced with Ian Langohr, and it seems as though Ashleigh Delaye has a more prominent place in the band line-up. The song that originally gripped me with its shambolic bittersweetness was “Prelude to a Shark Attack” from their 2009 debut album He Was Such a Quiet Boy. The record contained other intriguing song titles and premises like “Breaking Up with My Mormon Missionaries” and “And in Real Life He Wears Corduroy Pants,” and the music veered from an offbeat melancholy to a playful acoustic sound that flirted around the greyer edges of twee. The music could be cinematic in some areas while claustrophobic in others; music box glockenspiel was pitted against noises like malfunctioning technology. In many ways, it seemed like the perfect soundtrack to a mumblecore film. Earlier this year, I was happy to hear that Trips and Falls had produced a sophomore album, People Have to Be Told. Overall, the record feels like an anxiety dream with plenty of relentless, accelerating guitars and drums, and patches of woozy reverb. A motif of secrets recurs whether they’re hidden or exposed, making for a furtive atmosphere with bursts of volatility when the restraint seems to be too much.

Romero’s vocal style is much like The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson, while the music tends to utilize the off-kilter unexpectedness of artists like Simon Bookish and the ambling sinister sound of Timber Timbre. The album begins with “I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry,” which swings from ethereal boy-girl duet to harsh dissonance. The second track,”Good People Are Always So Sure They’re Right,” recalls the detached, macabre storytelling of songwriters like frYars. Romero sings of a murdered woman, and through the course of the lackadaisical melody and blood stains on the floor, you discover that she is buried at sunset. Her murderer is eventually executed when exposed by his loquacious tendencies, and the song ends in shredding guitars, which speed up and explode like maniacal laughter. The next song, “I Learned Sunday Morning, on a Wednesday,” is a melodic release of tension with a bouncy romp of a rhythm and fuzzy guitars; it’s a bit of a disorienting jig through reckless, amoral abandon: “There’s no use in trying to scare me, ’cause you know I’m already dead.”

The album takes a delightfully creepy turn once more as Romero’s vocals delve into a grittier, lower register for “Is That My Soul That Calls Upon My Name?” It hints at dark desires and urges, which need to be suppressed under some quasi-religious sense of morality and guilt. The frantic song menaces with pulsing guitars and the dry rattle of snare, circling and circling whilst the narrator debates the unforgivable temptations, which are never named. Delaye joins back in for the stop-start musical dialogue of “Marginally More Than Mildly Annoying.” As she and Romero verbally spar about the state of the relationship, the music dashes about, lunging, feinting, side-stepping. It’s a fun track that sounds like the equivalent to running up and down stairs in a romantic farce. They return to a sparser arrangement with the resigned beat of “That is a Big Door!” The breathy duet feels like the tired frustration of inertia, the inability to understand and to move someone else.

Another duet ensues for the beautiful acoustic ballad, “This is All Going to End Badly.” The vocals push and pull in vulnerable harmony as though seeking reassurance and skirting emotional sabotage. The lyrics ache with a yearning to trust oneself as much as to trust another. The music goes to a dimmer, more distorted place for “Why Should Now Be Normal?” The grungy guitars provide a rumbling dreamscape accented by winks of glockenspiel. “I could tell you everything you want to hear…it’s better if you stay inside.” The album concludes with “That’s What She Said,” a shimmering, hazy duet that sounds haunted. It begins with the cryptic line “I know you better than you think you do/And the only way you’ll get out of this is if you give in.” Ending in a gentle, interwoven vocal round, much like the one in “Prelude to a Shark Attack,” the song is like a heavenly lullaby, but also unsettling. As their vocal lines overlap and repeat, the lyric “The stories that I know would put you to sleep” mesmerizes.

I find the lyrical content on this album to be vaguer than on the debut, and there’s less of the twee naiveté, but some playfulness remains in the song narratives, albeit an often macabre playfulness. The cardboard sleeve of the album displays multiple overlapping silhouettes of people, all of them with one hand to their mouth as though telling a secret; however, there are two people in the centre facing each other, holding each other’s face rather than facing outwards like the rest of the figures, who are whispering into other’s ears or speaking away into the air. Or perhaps they’re shouting. There is both a hushed secrecy and an irrepressible urge to speak in the imagery, playing off the album title. Which people need to be told? The other in an intimate relationship? A stranger in a confessional? The album debates what is latent and silent, what is thought and what is spoken, what is held back and what is revealed. How do you read someone else? How do you explain yourself? How do you get others to define you? The music and lyrics evoke these themes while at the same time conveying a sense of troubled slumber and the honesty of the unguarded moment. With these thoughts in mind, I come back to the first line of the first track of the album: “In the middle of the night, I can hear, hear you breathe, you always say such beautiful things.”

I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry – Trips and Falls

That’s What She Said – Trips and Falls

Prelude to a Shark Attack – Trips and Falls

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Isolation: Zwischenwelt’s Paranormale Aktivitat Reviewed

At the urging of some of my friends, I’ve been getting into classic ‘90s TV series The X-Files.  I missed The X-Files the first time around as I was eight when it debuted in 1993, and as a teenager didn’t get into the (by then) long-established show.  Clearly though, the cultural significance and legacy of the series endures, and a couple of my friends are committed fans who are guiding me (admittedly not much of a sci-fi person) through their favourite and most significant episodes in an effort to convert me into an X-Phile.

My progress so far has been slow, and I’m only halfway through the first season, but so far one of the episodes that has stood out to me is “Ghost in the Machine,” about a software company’s central operating system that’s designed to work using artificial intelligence.  This machine has been “learning” while it’s been installed and operating, and has figured out how to kill people.  The climax of the episode occurs when a virus that’s promised to destroy the program is apparently successfully deployed.  However, the episode ends on an unresolved and creepy note when the COS comes back to “life” and it is suggested that it will continue killing people.  Yeah, okay, “Ghost in the Machine” is totally predictable and unoriginal, but the ending certainly appealed to the child in me and my imagination was piqued at the thought of a “machine gone wrong”; the machine designed to learn things that will contribute to the company’s needs and productivity, not attack its employees.  Original or not, it’s an unsettling episode that reminds us of the all-consuming role technology plays in our lives.

Zwischenwelt’s Paranormale Aktivitat reminds me of this episode and of the whole X-Files series in general.  Obviously; both the TV show and the album are about unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity.  But it feels like there’s further parallels between the two: Paranormale Aktivitat would make an excellent soundtrack to The X-Files, particularly in its most alienating (pun partially intended) moments.  Paranormale Aktivitat also seems like music from the perspective of technology: unconcerned with feelings and emotions, ambivalent towards its being perceived as strange or sinister, and despite being engineered by people, expressive in a way that we can’t quite comprehend as human.

Zwischenwelt is the current project of Detroit techno icon and former Drexciya member Gerald Donald.  On Paranormale Aktivitat, he’s joined by New York DJ and producer Susana Correia, Spanish producer Penelope Martin, and German vocalist Beta Evers for an exercise in sparse, eerie, electronic sounds that perhaps sound a bit like a homicidal computer if it were to produce an album of music.  The lyrical content and song titles read as a veritable list of parapsychological phenomena: “Apparition,” “Clairvoyant,” “Multiple Existence,” “Premonition,” and “Telekinesis” being a few.  These often mechanical songs and the sounds that comprise them are given human presence by Beta Evers, whose detached Nico-style delivery alternately warms and chills.

“Clairvoyant” opens with an upbeat synth pulse overtop of which are much faster notes that could possibly be danceable if it weren’t for the fact that they’re composed of disconcerting microtones that do more to unnerve than relax.  Wisps of ghostly sound underpin Evers as she sings about “scenes of time and space in my mind’s eye.”  And that’s very possibly the least chilling cut on the album.  “Diapsiquia,” “Enigmata,” “Materialization,” and “Multiple Existence” form the lyric-less centre of the album, emphasizing the feeling that these sounds can’t be rationalized by human interference.  “Diapsiquia” is punctuated by a thudding bass synth; it really could be the theme music for a science fiction show or film.  “Materialization” combines a droning backbeat with a familiar-yet-unnerving semitone figure highlighted with a metronome-like pulse in the foreground.  “Multiple Existence” opens with a screeching blast of cold air before giving way to yet another dissonant series of semitones that march with discipline on to an uneasy and unresolved conclusion.  Evers’ voice is heard in snippets, thoroughly processed and camouflaged to fit in with her cold surroundings.  Just when you think there might be something resembling a syncopated and funky beat at the beginning of “Telemetric”, another pulsing, more insistent beat slides against it, taking the song into the realm of something approaching electronic dance music as programmed by ghosts.

The artists behind Zwischenwelt can clearly take a concept and run with it.  But I think that Paranormale Aktivitat is more than just a well-executed album with a strong theme.  It’s so strongly evocative of something other than here and now that it transports the listener to someplace significantly more unsettling, more disturbing.  It’s the sound of a nightmare-made-real populated by intelligent machines or the desolation that comes from staying up night after night, interacting with nothing but the blue glow of the computer monitor.  Isolation: Ian Curtis sang about it, but Paranormale Aktivitat is how it sounds.

 

Zwischenwelt – Clairvoyant

Zwischenwelt – Materialization

Zwischenwelt – Multiple Existence

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Redefining Our Terms: The John Peel Lecture

Pete Townshend - Peel Lecture

At the recent 2011 Radio Academy Radio Festival, Pete Townshend delivered the inaugural John Peel lecture, which was broadcast by BBC 6Music. It was entitled “Can John Peelism survive the Internet?” and it can be read at the Guardian and heard on the BBC iPlayer. In their introduction to the lecture, hosts Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe, describe Peel as a “maverick” and a “pioneer.” I feel like Townshend only addresses how we can follow in Peel’s trailblazing footsteps for part of the lecture. Perhaps the confusion comes from the fact Townshend’s lecture seems to have two different strands of argumentation: (1) we need to find a way to help the music industry survive the Internet and its digital components, and (2) John Peelism, which Townshend defines as careful, considered listening and promotion of music, is essential for new, perhaps unpolished, music to thrive.

After opening his lecture without a real commitment as to whether the Internet is or is not threatening John Peelism, and without a clear thesis, Pete Townshend criticizes Apple’s iTunes, the iconic music e-retailer that has been arguably the most successful at selling music in the digital age. He argues that, while iTunes supplies artists with distribution and royalty payments, it doesn’t fulfill the other purposes that record labels traditionally did, including:

1. editorial guidance
2. financial support
3. creative nurture
4. manufacturing
5. publishing
6. marketing

He explores the ways in which iTunes could provide the services of one through six. However, his revised business model for iTunes still just looks a lot like the old record label days, except this model would become a monopoly if iTunes remained as powerful as it is now.

Now I don’t particularly want to defend or attack iTunes. Apple found a way to do what Amazon has also done: immediately providing everything all at once, easily searchable and easily obtainable. Like Amazon, iTunes has been very successful. It is this ease that seems to irk Townshend, and it crops again in the context of “sharing” music. He states: “The word ‘sharing’ surely means giving away something you have earned, or made, or paid for?…It would be better if these ‘sharers’ had to set aside time to listen, and to work at listening, and thereby do honour to the creative work of musicians even if their final judgement was that the music they heard was not for them – not worth stealing, not worth sharing.”

I agree with Townshend in as much as I, too, am quite tired of people not taking time to listen, or even to think or reflect on anything they obtain from the Internet. I’ve been guilty of the digital music gluttony of the last decade, storing up more music than I could ever feasibly listen to; I’ve had to curb this tendency for my own sanity. This sick feeling of what Nicholas Carr terms “the shallows” is what keeps me writing longer, in-depth reviews and features on blogs. Merely uploading tracks or supplying links to the things you like isn’t engaging with anything. A thumbs-up stamp of approval is frankly a lazy way of expressing yourself.

But like Townshend, I’m veering into the idea of John Peelism rather than sticking to the first premise. Instead of revamping the music industry model to fit within new media, I think the real issue is a need to reexamine the entire discourse of the music business (indeed, some are questioning the validity of capitalism itself).

Pete Townshend had his heyday during the decades in which music as an industry was in its ascendance. Many people, Townshend included, cannot get their heads around a new system because they are still thinking through the media they grew up with: a world shaped by literacy and print, which can be extrapolated into the industrial model of mass production lines of uniform products. There was a pre-print era in which artists didn’t even assign their names to their work; artists were merely tradespeople, not the romantic, individualistic genius concept that permeates our Westernized culture today. The market value of art is often a troubling notion, and this contentious idea is why outsider art, or art brut, is so intriguing; it’s literally art for art’s sake, usually completely outside of the capitalist market logic. This outsider attitude begs the question: should music be an “industry” at all?

I don’t think music and business are harmonious concepts — either you favour art for art’s sake, or you view art as a consumer product, which must be subject to the same capitalist system as the rest of business ventures. To me, you are lucky if your uncompromised art becomes a hit of mass appeal. If you want music to be an industry, you need to accept that you are at the mercy of the mass market. If you want music to be an art, you need to accept that you may not make a living from it. At the end of his lecture, Townshend points to the fact that there is also always the publically funded model to consider, but, at present, I think that it only stretches so far and is only supported in limited contexts. We also need to bear in mind that much of the music we think of as “legendary” and “well-known” now wasn’t necessarily successful or known to a large audience when it was actually created. We have to realize that even now the music we love and think is worthy of wide recognition is not undoubtedly being received as such; the target market of mp3 blogs and 6Music are not the mainstream public.

Now, to address Townshend’s second strand of the survival of John Peelism…

If anyone is embodying the spirit of Peel these days, it’s the bloggers. The Internet and mp3s have allowed all of us to have a shot at being Peel. The problem we run up against, though, is the fact culture, and perhaps the way time itself is experienced, has accelerated, paving the way for phenomena like Simon Reynolds’s “retromania” and the common complaint of “information overload.” The processes of organizing, curating, and filtering have become increasingly important, and there was a time when radio DJs fulfilled the role of curator and filter. I think that role is now filled by blog, podcast, and news feeds, in addition to blog aggregators and online recommendation systems.

John Peel has become a rightfully beloved relic of a different media landscape. He is as romantic a figure as music journalists like Lester Bangs and Nick Kent, or broadcaster-cum-record-label-creator, Tony Wilson. Within the last couple of decades, broadcast has become narrowcast. We can’t go back. We also can’t blame the Internet for restrictive playlists — the radio industry has always had the power to limit what was broadcasted. John Peel was notable because he was the exception to the rule of playlists. In fact, the Internet has opened up restrictions on playlists by allowing a choice of independent podcasts and online-only radio stations, which can allow pockets of freedom from heavy rotation.

In terms of the monetary value of music, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. At least not yet. The viability of music as art or business really comes down to the fans regardless of the Internet, or whatever the next big media shift will be. Or perhaps whatever the next big economic system shift will be. However, the question of whether John Peelism will survive the Internet is a different one, and it depends on how you define John Peelism. If you define it as keeping curiosity about new music alive, and promoting the music you love and listening to it with attentiveness and critical faculties, I think there will always be music fans who feel the need for John Peelism, but they may change the terms and methods over time. We have to be mindful that we don’t just follow, but become pioneers and mavericks, exploring new and different ways of discovering and engaging with music. I’m not sure if John Peel himself would want John Peelism to survive the Internet.

Teenage Kicks – The Undertones

An Old Cricketer (For John Peel) – Shirley Lee

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Dark Days: Veronica Falls Reviewed

All right, here we have another young rock band doing their darkly melodic, vaguely atmospheric, wholly derivative thing from Oakland’s Slumberland label.  That sentence was not meant to sound nearly as contemptuous and sarcastic as it did, as I have a lot of good things to say about this debut from London’s Veronica Falls.  As Larissa’s mused to me about the most recent Horrors release: is it okay that I really quite like this while at same time knowing how completely unoriginal it is?  While the primary influence on the Horrors’ Skying is a whole lot of Echo and the Bunnymen (we even saw them this summer, complete with frontman Faris Badwan sporting a leather trench coat à la Ian McCulloch), Veronica Falls are drawing on a slightly wider palette of influences, such as sixties girl groups, the jangle-pop of Bristol’s Sarah Records, and a big dose of the sweet-yet-roughly unpolished pop found on Olympia’s K Records in the early ‘90s.  Veronica Falls themselves have said the following about their influences and listening habits: “We love bands like Beat Happening, Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500, and Felt, but we also love over-emotionalism.  We all originally bonded over the sinister sides to love songs from the 50′s and 60′s.”  Sounds a bit like a recipe for sounding like, hmmm, lots of other bands on Slumberland Records, but Veronica Falls are charming and different enough to carve out a compelling space for themselves in a music market/scene largely dominated by a kind of fetishism for anything ‘60s or more generally anything retro, tempered with a ‘90s-reminiscent, sweet-sounding, easily-digestible pop sound, itself a kind of self-aware reformulation of ‘60s pop.

Oh, and speaking of an obsession for all things vintage, the promotional photos for both Skying and Veronica Falls utilize a very similar vintage aesthetic: multiple exposures and heavily overexposed shots of band members posing outside wearing jean jackets and cardigans are themes for the promo pictures and music videos for these bands’ respective albums.  Perhaps the comparison between the Horrors and Veronica Falls is even more apt than I initially thought.

For one thing, a major difference between Veronica Falls and contemporaries like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, and labelmates The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (all of whom have released albums this year) is VF’s Britishness.  The other three bands are American.  There is a particular sense of place that is relevant in Veronica Falls songs like “Beachy Head,” about the famous cliff and suicide location on the South coast of England.  VF perhaps sound American due to their influences and a current glut of like-sounding bands working out of the U.S., but their subject matter provides a welcome counterpoint to musical territory that has undoubtedly been well-trod by others.

Veronica Falls deal in distinctly darker and more surreal subject matter than the aforementioned groups.  Opening track “Found Love in a Graveyard” and much else on Veronica Falls reminds me of the sound of Chin-Chin, a Swiss group whose 1985 album, Sound of the Westway, was reissued last year by Slumberland.  There is also a definite parallel between Veronica Falls and Chin-Chin in regard to their song titles and content: VF’s “Misery” is a lovely, sweetly melodic, and upbeat song about the familiarity of depression.  Sound of the Westway is dominated by song titles such as “Dark Days,” “Jungle of Fear,” “Why Am I So Lonely,” and “Room of Sadness.”  While their sound is more rock-oriented than VF’s, the music is written in major keys and is upbeat, giving a feeling of positivity that undercuts the lyrics.

But for me, what it often boils down to with otherwise derivative albums like this is their catchiness.  There, I’ve said it.  The fact that they’re singing about falling in love with ghosts helps a lot too, but this is one of those cases where the pure pop rush of the songs makes up for their unoriginality.  In this case, as I’ve mentioned, ‘pure pop rush’ doesn’t mean that there aren’t more complex and complicating elements to their sound, but what ends up hitting home most are the melodies, enhanced by their execution and production.  I’ve now had single “Beachy Head” on repeat for the last two days and it continues to be straight-up addictive.  Boy/girl vocals help a lot too, and Veronica Falls offers plenty of those.  And of course, I’m able to forgive a lot, in music and in life more generally, if someone’s really self-aware of what they’re doing and the negative connotations it may have.  Veronica Falls project this aura of self-awareness; they don’t seem like they’re cashing in on a trend as much as they’ve found that their tastes happen to be trendy right now.  So while Veronica Falls might not be a challenging or boundary-pushing album, it is perfect pop for dark days; for when your shoes are damp from dragging feet through dirty puddles.  It’s wallowing and uplifting at the same time.

Veronica Falls – Misery

Veronica Falls – Beachy Head

Chin-Chin – Dark Days

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