A Finer Whine: Benjamin Shaw’s There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet Reviewed

There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet album cover

When Tom Ravenscroft played Benjamin Shaw’s “12 000 Sentinels” on his 6Music show a few months ago, I was intrigued by the wry, abstract words and laconic vocal style. As such, it was an appropriate track for a DJ such as Ravenscroft. Though my full concentration wasn’t on the song because I was also at work at the time, it felt funny and pleasingly sad. Through the speediness of the Internet, I managed to purchase his 2009 EP, I Got the Pox, The Pox is What I Got, within minutes of first hearing “12 000 Sentinels,” and I subsequently preordered his first full-length album, There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet, which was released by Audio Antihero last month. To call Shaw lo-fi would be lazy, albeit convenient, and the term doesn’t encapsulate what his music and lyrics do to/for you.

This record is the audile equivalent of walking through the rain with a giddy amount of alcohol in your veins and a bum leg. Or navigating monkey bars made of Slinkies. Or performing children’s songs on a keyboard with depleted batteries. Or trying to thread a needle with melody while the end keeps fraying on you. The music is an endless dropping off, a cleansing cacophony, a perpetual winding down, lumbering on in circles of an ever more asymmetrical and meandering nature. For every right note there’s a wrong note or three, and the beauty of Shaw’s music is that it all works. All of it resolves even though your brain says it shouldn’t. Dissonance, wheezes, creaks, and static fill out the backgrounds with an ever-present hum of unrest even when the music itself sounds like a lullaby (for example, the instrumental “An Exciting Opportunity” sounds like short circuiting rain). Shaw creates a beguiling art on the ambivalent edges of adulthood, a place of drawn-out sighs and too much to cope with. His music and lyrics work together in a witty, measured fashion, where angst has ripened into a much finer whine.

After the brief introductory title track, Shaw displays his inventive lyrics on “How to Test the Depth of a Well.” I’m comforted by lines like, “So sit down with me on this fence/ cos if sorrow is money and money is rest/ then I’d call them tomorrow to get your bed ready for you.” One of my favourite songs is the saggy, defeated track, “Interview,” which flawlessly captures the atmosphere of job hunting. Shaw speaks for so many of us when he softly sings the frail lines: “I’ve got an interview tomorrow at ten/for a job I’ll hate.” Where he really mirrors my psyche is when he hopes to step in front of a pushbike or two, and concludes, “If I’m lucky, my head might land on the pavement, and my feet up in the air.” As friends will attest, this kind of thinking dominates my working life. He further explores the poverty of complacency in the penultimate track “The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines.” It features one of the best vocal deliveries of “celebrate good times, come on”; rather than a fist-pumping disco chant, it becomes a throwaway comment to append to staring into the abyss, half-muttered, half-exhaled. His specific brand of hope amidst the general dissatisfaction comes in the final verses as his broken voice reaches out: “I believe that it’s going to be just fine/If we keep our bodies full of lepers and our bellies full of wine.”

Shaw’s illustrations for the album cover and liner notes are perfect complements to the music with their combination of sketchy pencil drawings, wavering lines, and layers of seemingly incongruent images and textures. There’s something child-like about them, and also something quite twisted and morbid, not that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. The hunchback that graces the cover of both his EP and his album feels like a sympathetic shriveled soul that I could identify with.

For all of us pretend grown-ups slouching through life, knowing we have bad posture, but also knowing that we feel even more uncomfortable and tired in the shapes we’re expected to pull, Benjamin Shaw is our soundtrack. His music is a shrug, warming and absolving. All we can do is try, and that is all our soggy hearts can beat for.

Interview – Benjamin Shaw

The Birds Chirp and the Sun Shines – Benjamin Shaw

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Christmas From a High Horse Mixtape


After at least five years being brutally raped in the ears by Christmas music at the retail job I used to have, I’ve usually stayed away from listening to too much of it. Today I’ve opted to listen to The Selecter, which has made me more cheerful and festive than any Christmas tunes could. However, I will concede that not everyone else in the world is a grinch like me, and you may still like to have a Christmassy alternative, so we will provide that service. Rather than expand on my 2009 Christmas mix, I’ve opted to craft a brand new one.

Stay tuned for Top Albums of 2011 lists from both Laura and me.

FAHH Christmas Mix

Noël Blanc – Coeur de Pirate and Michel Legrand
Silent Night – Can
It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas – Pet Shop Boys
21st Century Christmas – Saint Etienne
Christmas Everyday – Jonny Cola and the A-Grades
Fruitcake – The Superions
Candy Cane Withdrawal – Paris Street
Hallelujah (Christmas is Here) – Sunturns
Christmas Day – Squeeze
Stockings – How to Swim
My Favorite Christmas (In a Hundred Words or Less) – of Montreal
Post-Christmas Time – Parenthetical Girls
Slashed Wrists This Christmas – Gruff Rhys
Tinsel Politics – Standard Fare
Hit Er Miss Christmas – Mother Mother
Tesco at Christmas – Frank Turner
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Paper Moon
Christmas Feels Like Halloween – The Sky Drops
The Christmas Wars – Darren Hayman
Christmas Eve – Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci

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The Unknown Mind: Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell’s Psychic Life Reviewed

When I belatedly heard about this collaboration just a few months ago, I was beside myself in giddy anticipation.  Post-punk/dub bassist Jah Wobble, of Public Image Ltd. fame, and Julie Campbell, whose debut as LoneLady was, for me, one of last year’s musical highlights?  Yes, please…and I’ll probably want a second helping, if that’s a possibility.  Happily, their pairing on Psychic Life delivers, ultimately warranting all the fuss that they’ve been at the centre of for a while now.

Julie Campbell’s album Nerve Up as LoneLady is post-punk influenced in the best ways possible: it is sparse, echoing, rhythmic, and often desolate guitar rock.  Campbell’s expressive voice perfectly complements these elements of her sound in its ability to either accentuate the music’s sharp corners or glossily slide over them in disconcerting ways.  The guitar sound achieved on Nerve Up also reminds me of Keith Levene’s famous metallic sound heard on PiL’s legendary Metal Box album.  Taken as a whole, Nerve Up is an icy, crystal soundscape that manages to rock as well; not at all unlike, in fact, PiL’s best work.  Actually, another one of the things that crossed my mind upon listening to her LP was how it could quite possibly benefit from some fleshing out in the bass department.  Or perhaps rather, I noticed how the style she’s already working in is a style that has often been a vehicle for interesting, driving bass parts.  Enter Jah Wobble and Keith Levene (yup, he appears on Psychic Life too).  How appropriate.

According to Wobble, he and Campbell met because of mutual misunderstandings about what the other musician was looking for in a collaborator.  After their initial meeting, however, it was clear to Wobble that he had found the “idiosyncratic and quirky” frontperson he didn’t quite realize he was looking for in Campbell, who also (obviously) happened to be a big PiL fan.  This meeting prompted Wobble to take another stab at making a post-punk album – in his words, “a grand ambition [of his] for about 20 years.”  Wobble and Campbell’s meeting took place in February, and already the two have released an EP and now this full-length.

Psychic Life kicks off with a kind of post-punk/funk/disco hybrid called “Tightrope” that includes the first line “It’s true: I’m not adapting to the machine.” It’s also the first track of three that feature Keith Levene (also known for his work with PiL) on guitar.  You can dance to it, definitely, but know that these are the words Campbell is singing while you do that: “the cries and whispers piercing through like an arrow/light and shade/boundaries/edges all remove from me.”  These themes of alienation, isolation, and uncertainty continue through the album but are never more upbeat and danceable than here on “Tightrope.”  Next up is the title track, and this song in particular sounds like it would fit nicely on Nerve Up.  Its beats and Wobble’s bassline work in effective contrast with the reverb on Campbell’s voice and the moody washes of synth that help bring the shadowy lyrics into sharper focus.  She sings “I can’t accept the functioning world/These were our spaces ringing with play/Shadow grows like ivy/At night I can hear psychic life” and you can feel the extreme melancholy brought on by time and derelict isolation, whether it occurs in the parks you grew up playing in or the recesses of your mind’s long-neglected urges.

“Phantasms Rise…” is moodier still and contains the signature Levene guitar work that Metal Box has become synonymous with.  If it weren’t for Campbell’s vocals, shifting like inky smudges over his abrasive shards of sound, you might demand to know when John Lydon, his crazy eyes, and his atonal rhythmic speaking are going to emerge.  I mean, I love Lydon, but this musical dissonance and atmosphere is a perfect fit for Campbell and she for it, helping to move the track beyond simple jarring dissonance to something more beautifully atmospheric instead.

“Rainlust” is a much warmer, full-on funk jam that’s made a bit unusual because it’s one of two songs here on which Campbell primarily speaks, rather than sings.  As ever, though, the lyrical theme is upheld in words like “Far and remote are the names of the dead/I remake the image broken in sparks/Treason is real, I disconnect/I’m becoming stiller as though carved in stone.”  Here, she seems to be trapped; whether this is involuntary or self-inflicted we can’t tell.  As well, the question of whether her stillness is physical or psychical goes unanswered.  While the music grooves on in warm bass tones with no sign of that icy guitar sound so prevalent elsewhere on this album, here the chill is in Campbell’s spoken delivery and in the lyrical content. “Slavetown Pts. 1 and 2” are musical departures for this already diverse album: here we get a taste of jazz.  Strange as these songs might be, I think they belong here, adding another kind of bass playing to Psychic Life’s layers of styles.  Okay, the horns might be a bit much, but Campbell is admirably up for the task of singing on this song, switching styles nimbly and successfully.

Psychic Life ends with “Isaura” and a return to the cooler tones heard on “Phantasms Rise…”  On “Isaura”, though, electronic-produced sounds are at the forefront of the song instead of Levene’s otherworldly guitar tone.  The words, too, reflect the influence of electronics: “I did not run on, but ran inwards through dead-ends and circuitries.”  Here she navigates a maze of dead-ends and openings, caught in a never-ending nightmare.  It’s a fitting album end: you can picture her staring into an abyss of code.  This is an apt metaphor for the expanse of emotions and functions that is the mind: these functions can turn on us, and although ostensibly there’s a way out, the control that the psyche has over life can be debilitating when there’s a short circuit.

Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell – Phantasms Rise…

Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell – Isaura

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Prince Brings Welcome 2 Canada to Winnipeg

I would guess that most people think that Prince is an eccentric artist. Laura and I would lean more to seeing him on the batshit insane side of the spectrum, presented rather eloquently in a lengthy anecdote from Kevin Smith. I suspect being exceptional and living so insularly for decades can augment mental health issues. At the end of the day, with Prince you have to take the genius with the batshit. Having missed Prince when he performed in Winnipeg nine years ago because the tickets were too expensive for my then university student self, I vowed we were going to get some decent tickets to his December 8 Welcome 2 Canada show. We ended up with sixth row floor tickets on the south side of the stage. In preparation for the gig, Laura and I ate purple food while watching all three Prince films—Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge—ending up only mildly mad after attempting to follow Prince down a rabbit hole that ultimately winds up being his own ass. All of those films, and Prince’s value itself, comes down to some of the most charismatic live performances of all time. His incredible music and stage presence mesmerize you into forgetting just how insane he is. Or at least convince you that it’s not worth worrying about.

We staggered through the -26°C night on our platform shoes to get to the MTS Centre for about 8:00PM. A claw of massive screens hung directly above the centre of the stage, which as many will already know, was in the shape of Prince’s love symbol. The $400/person “purple circle” sections were set up like mini-cabaret clubs at each stage corner, and were illuminated by purple, naturally. At roughly 8:30PM, the lights came down and Prince’s singers and band walked by us on the floor, wheeling a Prince-sized box; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that it contained the tiny artist. It frankly wouldn’t be any weirder than the rest of the things he does.

Prince at piano

The only half-decent photo I could take before security got to me.

When Prince finally emerged from within the stage, His Royal Purpleness had gone monochromatic in a sartorial move that befit his 53 years. His black suit included an asymmetrical jacket, and pants that draped over his ever-present heels. He acknowledged all of the audience by strutting that strut that makes 5’2” look like 6’2” to every side of the stage and basking in the ensuing screams. Then he stood behind his LED-rippling piano and opened with “When Doves Cry,” getting the audience to sing half of the lyrics without him. He then did a bit of “Sign O’ the Times,” and apparently followed it up with parts of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and “Forever in My Life.” I don’t remember those last two all that clearly since that was the point at which I was warned by security that I would be kicked out if I tried to take any more photos. This was to be expected since I had already been lectured by the security guard checking my bag at the door and then had to sit in the venue staring at a scrolling red banner along the arena perimeter announcing the fact you will be removed if you try to take photos or video footage. This kind of practice from Prince had already warranted a rant from me in 2008—there’s no point rehashing it here. If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have waited to attempt a better shot when he actually walked around to our side while free of fog. If I ever get the chance to see him again, I’ll act more prudently. After this jarring interruption, Prince went on to play the rest of a megamix of sorts, which included just the tantalizing opening bars of “Darling Nikki,” “Hot Thing,” and “I Would Die 4 U,” before proclaiming we weren’t ready for that; apparently, we were ready for longer versions of “Raspberry Beret,” “Cream,” “Take Me With U,” and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which were played throughout the set proper. However, I’ll always be ready and waiting for “I Would Die 4 U.”

Prince and Larry Graham

A photo I found online but for which I couldn't find the credit.

After some jumping about to “Housequake” (of course we know about the quake), a smooth rendition of “Joy of Repetition,” and his introduction of Maceo Parker, the legendary saxophonist who used to play with James Brown, and Larry Graham, the equally legendary bassist with Sly & the Family Stone, Prince picked up his telecaster and launched into a three-song funk jam session covering “Everyday People,” “Stand” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” sneaking in a snippet of his own “Alphabet Street.” Unlike the strange ADHD sampler set, this segment did feel like proper music played by passionate musicians. We were also treated to a cover of The Time’s “Cool,” which segued into a bit of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Throughout the show, he made the expected comments (if you had been following the reviews of previous Canadian tour stops) of “Call the babysitter, I’ve got so many hits we could be here ‘til tomorrow” and “Real music played by real musicians.” We saw a fair amount of the powerful backing singers since most of Prince’s attention faced the opposite direction. The times that he did make it around to our side, I marveled at his face; perhaps he wears a placenta mask to bed every night, or maybe he made a deal with that intimidating god featured on Around the World in a Day’s “Temptation.” Or it could have also been a fantastic make up job. Knowing Prince, it was probably all three.

Partway through the set, Prince gave a cheeky signal to our side of the floor, beckoning us to the stage. Like other pint-sized commanders before him, including Marc Bolan and Napoleon, he knew what he could do to an audience. After a split-second of uncertainty, people ran for it, and started grooving directly in front of the stage. It got quite farcical as one woman actually tripped and fell on the floor during the scramble forward. Of course, because it was a Prince show, security wasn’t having any of this harmless, impromptu dance party. And like all royalty, Prince had abandoned us in our moment of strife with authority. I felt a dizzying rush of mini-rebellion, a mini-revolution would perhaps be more apt in reference to Prince, as it took some time before the couple of security guards on that side of the stage forced all of us back to our seats.

The last song of the set proper was, of course, Purple Rain, which ended with Prince conducting the audience in the obligatory “woo hoo hoo hoos” and arm waving, and confetti cannons released a shower of purple and gold over each stage corner just in time for his epic guitar solo.

Prince returned for the first encore in a white suit, just as sharp as the black one, and performed the “Let’s Go Crazy”/“Delirious” medley, “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette.” He slowed down the verses to “Little Red Corvette” to a jazzier pace, keeping the chorus at its regular tempo. Near the end of the song, he led the audience in a call and answer session with males singing “Slow down” and females responding with “hoo-hoos” that emulated the guitar figure during the bridge of the original song. Though it was an interesting arrangement, I would have preferred a version closer to the original if only because “Little Red Corvette” was my favourite Prince song in high school. Then again, he did tell us earlier that he was the DJ and that he was controlling the music we would hear tonight. And as per Jonathan Richman, if you want to leave the party, just go.

Then the house lights came on, but knowing that he had done four encores on average during this tour, Laura and I were not to be moved, and neither were a large number of the audience who waited out the break. As predicted, Prince came back on for two more one-song encores, performing “Kiss” and “Controversy”; the former featured an extended spot of dance moves at its end. There were no frenetic movements or splits, but there was some more ass-waving. Somehow during these last couple of songs, Laura and I had attempted another coup of the stage along with other people in our section, but got pushed back to a row that was one further back than our initial seats. In my crazed concert brain (the condition I suffer when at exciting gigs), this was unacceptable, especially since so many people from the rows in front of us had made the mistake of heading home after the second encore. Despite the hindrance of my three-inch green platform shoes, I climbed over two rows of folding chairs to land in the fourth row. By the time Prince began his fourth encore with a sensuous performance of “The Beautiful Ones” at his piano, I had hurdled my way to the third row, and Laura had decided my plan might be worth pursuing and joined me. A cover of Sylvester’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” morphed into “Baby I’m a Star,” and the wrenching of my lower back from chair hurdling paid off. This time when Prince beckoned to our side of the stage, I wasn’t pausing for anything. Security gave up as those of us still left on that side of the floor ran full-tilt at the stage and ended up dancing a few feet under Prince for the next minute or so. At this point in the show he was sporting a more casual, long-sleeved shirt with black-and-white images on it, white pants, and a black fedora. I could see every detail of his smug, placenta-coddled face. And I was in love with him for that space in time. That’s the uncanny power of Prince: sometimes he makes you feel a bit like Unity Mitford. The song ended with backing singers and members of the band throwing drumsticks, tambourines, and raspberry berets into the crowd.

Despite saying that he had the day off tomorrow so he could go all night, the show did end here as he was lowered back into the bowels of the stage. And perhaps into his small box. The house lights and house music came on, and an army of stage crew came down the aisles to dismantle the spectacle. The fans were scraping up little mounds of the purple and gold confetti off the floor and taking it home as considerably less expensive souvenirs (and probably better value than a $40 tambourine or a $40 raspberry beret that makes you look like an overgrown girl scout).

Unsurprisingly, the YouTube videos of his Welcome 2 Canada performances appear to be in the process of being taken down, so watch them while you can to get a glimpse of why Prince will always draw enormous crowds to his live shows. I could have done with longer versions of his own songs and a few less covers, more movement from Prince to the south side of the stage, and less security nonsense, but I’m very happy that I finally got to see him live. He may not believe in the Internet. He may have some sketchy attitudes toward women. He may no longer grace the top of the charts. But he did put on a show. For two and a half hours, we were in the infinite dance party of Prince’s brain, and it was an unforgettable experience. And unlike Bono, at least he keeps his crazy preaching for offstage. And for heathens like Kevin Smith.

Little Red Corvette – Prince (Live in Dublin, July 30, 2011)

Controversy – Prince (Live in Dublin, July 30, 2011)

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One Last Time, With Too Much Meaning: Magazine’s No Thyself Reviewed

Thank Devoto, Magazine are back and they’re making indie rock fans everywhere choke on our proclamations that long-broken up bands should stay that way and resist the temptation to reform, tour, and perhaps record.  At best, these reformations simply cannot attempt to reclaim the power and (usually youthful) anger that our favourite and most articulate punk and post-punk bands possessed in their heydays, and at worst they serve as little more than vanity projects or one-last-hurrah tours that squelch both long-time and new fans’ enthusiasm with aging, jaded rockstar apathy.  As a post-punk fan who wasn’t born when these bands peaked, never mind initially formed, I have taken an interest in some of my favourite groups’ activities over the last year or two, most memorably seeing Gang of Four in Toronto early this year as they promoted their recent Content album.  While seeing Andy Gill and Jon King live was one of the highlights of my year, and indeed of my gigging experience thus far, Content didn’t quite have the resonance for me that the gig had.  Where Gang of Four tried their damndest to make the kind of self-aware, political, and angry record that defined them during their 1979-82 peak, Content lacked the kind of tongue-in-cheek playfulness that No Thyself contains in spades.

In fact, No Thyself could serve as a textbook of sorts for making a successful comeback as middle age creeps in and self-discipline falters.  Of course, of all the middle-aged rockers making comebacks in the last several years, Howard Devoto was sure to stand head and shoulders above the rest, at least lyrically, right?  The man who formed Buzzcocks with Pete Shelley in 1975 only to depart two years later to form Magazine, an entirely artier and more experimental project, also made an acclaimed solo album in 1983, Jerky Versions of the Dream, and formed Luxuria in 1987 with Norman Fisher-Jones (aka Noko).  He’s also collaborated with an array of other musicians for various one-off projects, notably reuniting with Shelley and in 2001 releasing the LP Buzzkunst under the name ShelleyDevoto.  Throughout these projects, he’s always seemed too smart for mere rock posturing; indeed, his work in music has veered toward the aggressively arty, sometimes inscrutable end of the rock spectrum.

Magazine’s reformed 2009 line-up was almost identical to their “classic” line-up from about 1979-80: Devoto, John McGeoch, Barry Adamson, Dave Formula, and John Doyle.  The one exception came in the form of Noko, who took the place of guitarist John McGeoch (who passed away in 2004) for touring.  No Thyself sees Magazine with one further personnel change: Jon “Stan” White has replaced bassist Barry Adamson, but otherwise a tried-and-true line-up of former Magazine members and a seasoned Devoto collaborator have unleashed No Thyself on 2011’s musical clime.  As it turns out, Devoto and the current incarnation of Magazine have proved hopeful fans right and doubters wrong.  And, I have to say, it feels like a triumphant fist pump to write that.

No Thyself is a monster – no, I’m not just talking about the bizarre yet somehow completely appropriate Odilon Redon cover art featuring a grinning, furry, cyclopean creature.  A simultaneously immediate indicator of interesting things to come is, of course, the title.  No Thyself suggests a denial of the overblown and inflated rockstar ego I mentioned earlier.  With this title, Magazine are denouncing any kind of passive, resting-on-their-laurels approach in favour of active engagement with the strange world they see around them, imbuing today’s social climate with a sharp, dry sense of humour and a willingness to explore content that other bands wouldn’t go near.

No Thyself leaps into existence with “Do the Meaning” (and No Thyself’s only cut co-written by Pete Shelley) and the words “one last time, with too much meaning,” a clever play on the phrase “once more, with feeling” (this aphorism surfaces later in the song). “Do the Meaning” is a pleasing play on words, reducing ‘meaning’ to a dance move, but more than that the title emphasizes that meaning is something we must actively engage with in order to reveal meaning instead of passively waiting for meaning to reveal itself to us.  Devoto has spoken about the multiple meanings that his lyrics have and how his point is often to accentuate their plurality rather than any simple, single interpretations.  “Do the Meaning” feels like a reflection on No Thyself’s very existence; a call to arms for Magazine to jump up and pick up where they left off (or perhaps slightly before they left off, 1981’s disappointing Magic, Murder, and the Weather being a less-than-prime jumping-off point): smarter, sharper, and more dryly funny than roughly 98% of bands out there.

The next cut, “Other Thematic Material,” plunges listeners into a discomfiting series of pornographic descriptions that feel a bit like being a fly on the wall during any old (hetero)sexual encounter: provocative just because these things aren’t spoken of in most company, and particularly so because these passages are broken up with more typically banal things that are spoken of in polite company.  “Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies)” continues to provoke as Devoto commends Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain for using suicide to end their lives while young, productive, and universally acclaimed.  Serving as a kind of wry, wearied, and experienced response to The Who’s famous refrain “I hope I die before I get old,” “Hello Mister Curtis” shares the same sentiment but with different reasons behind it.  However, Devoto, who turns sixty next year, is clearly far past the youth that clung to Curtis and Cobain when they died, both in their twenties.  He does end the song expressing a desire to end up like Elvis did, namely “on some godforsaken toilet.”  Delightfully cynical stuff indeed.

Elsewhere, Devoto continues the theme of mortality on “Holy Dotage”, a frustrated treatise on the sharp division between body and mind that occurs in old age.  That frustration comes through in the typically elegant Devoto turn-of-phrase: “Dim, diminished seventh of myself/ My fat mouth is slobbering on the inessentials of my soul/ I’ve reduced them to one.”  In his holy dotage, he’s “more mortal than ever.”  This is contrasted with some of the most upbeat, aggressive rock music on the album, providing a satisfying burst of youthful vitality despite the inevitability of old age and subsequent death.  “Of Course Howard (1979)” has Devoto addressing his 27-year-old self and an apparent holier-than-thou attitude that seemingly ended up creating rifts between him and people once close to him.  An absolute stand-out, Devoto has staggeringly produced a deconstruction of his own youthful personality, looking back and seeing his mistakes for what they were: arrogant and hurtful.  Creating such a precise, sensitive, and yet cunning song as he realizes the depth of his errors, “Of Course Howard” serves as one hell of a confession: something one is haunted by, something obsessed over, and finally tossed away into the wind, out of one’s control, to be interpreted and made meaningful by others.

Widely hailed as the fourth Magazine album that should have been, this series of ruminations on sex, aging, and mortality gives listeners much insight into Devoto’s current state of mind.  Obviously, nagging thoughts of death pervade as he approaches sixty and reflects on his life and work.  But his twisted sense of humour is far more pronounced as well, taking these reflections from the realm of the self-serving to the unexpected and productive, all while being wholly entertaining along the way.  A dark album all the way through and yet never sinking into depression or hopelessness, No Thyself is Magazine as they once were and have now reclaimed being: powerful, cutting, cunning, and of course, still way more intelligent than most.

Magazine – Do The Meaning

Magazine – Holy Dotage

Magazine – Of Course Howard (1979)


Lachrymations of a Jester: Momus and John Henriksson’s Thunderclown Reviewed

Momus and John Henriksson's Thunderclown Cover

Momus, aka Nick Currie, has always tread the tightrope between darkness and humour throughout his prolific songwriting career. He’s worked through several genres, some more experimental than others, becoming known as a provocateur poet for tackling subject matter few are willing to do in a song. This year’s release, an album entitled Thunderclown, was created in partnership with John Henriksson, and it is one of my top albums of the year.

The description of the record at Darla Records is a solid piece of propaganda:

“The collaboration began with John sampling obscure vinyl 45s from his collection then gathering Swedish and French musician friends to add live sax, organ, celesta, lapsteel, marimba and vibraphonette, breathing new life into these museum pieces. The compositions were then sent to Momus, who altered pitch, key and structure and crooned new songs over them. We could talk about the current interest in what Simon Reynolds calls Retromania, or cite the slogan ‘Modernity is our antiquity,’ but basically this is a deeply-felt album in which Japan-based Momus — slowed down by John’s sedate and haunting backings — expresses more loneliness and self-doubt than we’ve heard before, and might even be channeling Swedish John’s own recent history of heartbreak in the city of Paris.”

If I hadn’t already been a fan of Momus and willing to buy any album he puts out, that paragraph would have convinced me.

To me, this collection of songs is about the haunted bleeding through the happy, the nicotine stain through the white picket paint, the frown spidering out beneath the painted smile. Henriksson’s deft selection of musical backdrops utilizes nostalgic music from old films and musicals, which Momus has then warped and pulled into a rather grey taffy. Scratchy, crackly vinyl meets unwieldy, unraveling celluloid in an understated soundtrack to disappointment. As per his usual wordcraft and ability to create worlds populated with beautifully realized characters, Momus’s lyrics are layered with so much meaning and allusion that they could easily be turned into an essay on poetry.

The opening song, “Love Wakes the Devil,” sounds like a wonky calliope at a broken-down carnival, which is an apt soundscape for the worn world of a thunderclown. Momus sings in laconic, gentle tones about how he will show us the backside of love, and proceeds to lift the dirty tent flap to expose love with verbal dexterity:

Love wakes the devil
And love has no rival
For cutting survival
When you’re suicidal
And love is reliably
Hopelessly horrible
Tauntingly terrible
And that’s just the good side of love

We are first introduced to the thunderclown in the titular second track, which meanders through noises like wounded elephants, howling brass, ghostly vocal samples, and skewed bossa nova. Figures of the past, like Captain Cook, Errol Flynn, and Napoleon, make appearances in juxtaposition with the slums and bloody snow of the thunderclown realm. Then “Willow Pattern” stumbles in like an inebriated lullaby, laying Momus’s vocals over top of a sample from the Inchworm song used in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen. While utilizing the same Inchworm melody for his chorus, Momus sings, “O willow tree, willow tree/The pattern of my life is killing me.” He manages to reference the English fable/promotional tale behind Thomas Minton’s china pattern while also tearing the mask from a fairy tale writer (from what I know of Andersen, he was a rather unhappy, anxious man who fell in love with unattainable people of both sexes).

The next track, “Precocious Young Miss Calloway,” is a skipping melody that would easily find itself in a musical children’s film of the 50s while the lyrics discuss the frustrated, complicated love lives of a series of characters who are perpetually performing. The thunderclown makes a second appearance in the first verse:

While the icicle vendetta might require the blue sombrero
I’d prefer to say the twilight made me don the blue beret
I say, would you mind most awfully if awkward Aubrey Mabersley
Accompanies Melinda to the thunderclown parade?

By marrying the blue imagery with the dark implications of the name Melinda (and vaguely connoting Aubrey Beardsley), Momus has set up a slightly droopy atmosphere of shambling sexual oddities. Placed against the sentimental strains of cinematic violin music, “The Criminal” is a surreal list of similes for the narrator bereft of his lover, including a king without a guillotine and a chair without a brain. Plodding on from the heartbroken wanderings of the grieving narrator in Paris, Momus and Henriksson decelerate even further into “How I Met Your Mother,” which is hypnotic with its dripping globules of sound, feeling like the sonic equivalent of a Saskia Olde Wolbers film. Momus turns the recent past of 90s rave culture into something quaint and archaic, blending the distorted balladry and swirling static with lyrics about arm waving and naming your children after narcotics.

“Baloney Polonius” picks up on the clown/fool theme again by mocking the blustery character from Hamlet, using Marshall McLuhan no less. The music complements the lyrics perfectly, sounding like an early Disney parade song gone awry. Shakespeare’s foolish character is given a suitably bumbling tune that could easily fit a bouncing Tigger or a Pierrot doing a softshoe. The music really starts to stutter and misstep with the pregnant, knowing pauses of “The Teacher,” a song about an educator who may be “letching her students during the lecture” and who becomes a target of a student’s revenge. As the teacher is left behind to her hot-for-teacher hell, the music softly pushes forward to fluidity again. Laden with anaphoric statements about the future from someone who wants to live in the past, “Futura Bold” features some bongos along with vocodered voices mumbling out of a garbled 50s version of the future. Eventually kindly bass arpeggios trundle through looking for imaginary honeypots in a geometric world predicted to be dominated by Bauhaus headlines of modernity.

“We Don’t Have to Make Children” is a jazzier number with a walking bassline and fluttering sax while “Shangri-La” bobs along on a river of entertainment toward death and a Frank Capra paradise, which is, of course, never what it seems. On the final track, “Gibbous Moon,” Momus creates one of my favourite turns of phrase on the album: “Thy nothing will be done.” Against what sounds like the quaver of sawblade and piano arpeggios, Momus proclaims, “I have become the thunderclown,” a bogeyman figure to be dismissed. With its evocation of half in and out of shadow, this song is an appropriate final curtain for this suite of decidedly sour scenarios. Viewing the world from the position of a tired outsider, much like the “Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus he references, Momus catatonically sings of how the masses distract and anesthetize themselves to get through reality. The weeping philosopher who believes in the contrariness of life or the knowing buffoon performing for unknowing superiors is not far from the mocking deity from whom Momus takes his name.

Momus and Henriksson have produced a fascinating pastiche from the patches that humanity uses to keep the gloom out. This double act has torn these nostalgic illusions to shreds and stitched them back together into a costume that fits even less comfortably or fashionably than it once did. Their record will haunt and follow you like stormy weather or like a clown dragging his feet through the interfering static of the polarized past.

For more info and ordering links, see Momus’s website http://imomus.com/, and for lyrics and videos for Thunderclown, see http://imomus.com/thunderclown.html.

Willow Tree – Momus and John Henriksson

Futura Bold – Momus and John Henriksson

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