Why “Life is a Rollercoaster” Could Make Me Sad: On Sound It Out and Memories of Teesside

Sound It Out

The beleaguered record and its shops have been the subject of much anxiety and many elegiac musings in the past decade. As more independent record shops close down and large music chains tread the uncertain path of receivership, the fetishization of music, especially vinyl, has kicked into feverish proportions. Directed and produced by Jeanie Finlay, Sound It Out: The Very Last Record Shop in Teesside, UK, is one of the more beautiful, understated tributes to independent record shops and their fans. Finlay has created an empathetic portrait of the struggle of the last independent record retailer in northeast England, and its standing as a cipher for community and escape. Between static shots of the grotesque bulges of chemical works, the more than apt metaphor of Teessaurus Park, and the seemingly ubiquitous closing out signs in shop windows, she captures the daily activity of the Stockton record shop, its workers, and its customers. Although so much of the film primes you to pity the inhabitants of the area and to abhor the sheer, paint-peeling malaise, you ultimately feel drawn into the world they make for themselves in a tiny, cramped shop on a nondescript side street. Despite the fact that I find it unfortunate that this documentary claims nearly all record collectors are male (I can’t dispute their statistics, but I can dispute their broad gender assumptions), it does present the little, joyous details that make music fans the curators of their own glorious worlds.

Finlay doesn’t profile the typical “hipster” music fans one might associate with independent record shop culture. The majority of her interviewees are fans of the indie-kid-sneerworthy: metal, makina, Meat Loaf, and Status Quo. While my own musical tastes (and music organizational habits) most align with Chris, the quiet insurance auditor sporting a Boards of Canada t-shirt, I could understand B&Q worker Shane’s excitement over seeing his favourite band, the Quo, a ridiculous number of times and living off the high for a fortnight, and I could identify with Gareth, the metal fan who needs music in his ears nearly all the time to escape his mundane environment. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Finlay shows the various music fans singing, playing air guitar, DJing, and reading the liner notes to their favourite songs; the implication, of course, is how all of these fans are equally absorbed in something beyond their circumstances. Finlay, originally from Stockton herself, never patronizes the shop’s patrons. As the film progresses, you find yourself focalizing through Tom, the shop owner. Though he admits to disliking some of the music being purchased in his shop and though he often wears a facial expression halfway between nonplussed and resigned, he still wants to talk to every customer and sees them as equally passionate as he is. You may begin the film by laughing and cringing at the idiosyncratic habits of the fans Finlay chooses to follow, but by the end, you realize that you probably have more in common with them than you do with your non-music-fan friends. You also realize that this documentary is about far more than the sad reality of record sales and record shops.

Sound It Out Shop

It seems that almost any discussion involving UK culture turns into one about social class. Whether a band is too public-school-educated to be authentic, or too working class to be taken seriously, economic class and its calcification find their way into the popular music discourse. With its scenes of people attempting to sell stolen goods to Tom and the discussion with many interviewees ending in talk of unemployment, Finlay’s documentary becomes about much larger, complex issues of dying industry, social decay, and the ways in which they are forgotten and ignored. Growing up in a house in which money was a constant concern and in which the security of said house was in doubt for well over a decade, I felt class quite pertinently, much more than race or gender. While I would consider myself to be in a more privileged position than many of the people featured in Sound It Out, I feel quite strongly working class. It’s not just class that makes me feel more affinity for the documentary than many might. In one of the key thematic moments of the film, Tom says that records hold memories. In my case, this visual document of aural collection forced me into some serious recollection of my own.

My first two trips to England were to Teesside. For better or worse, my first impression and understanding of England came from spending a total of five and a half months—over the course of two years—living in a private housing estate called Ingleby Barwick on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees. The first trip happened just after high school graduation, the second immediately after my first year of university. Needless to say, I was relatively ignorant when it came to the sociopolitical and cultural climates of the UK. As a citizen of a former British colony, which didn’t revolt but slowly slipped away through a series of British North America Acts, Britishness was still very much a part of my subconscious and my enculturation as a Canadian; however, I had no personal ties to Britain, nor did I have Internet access until I was nineteen, and was thus separated from the quintessential context of life in other countries that weren’t Canada or the United States. Most of my knowledge of England, and for that matter, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, came from cultural exports. High school English classes were dominated by the usual male suspects of the British canon—Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Hardy, Blake, and Shaw—and my childhood was filled with surreal, pastoral notions of England like those found in Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Narnia, and the stories of King Arthur. As a child, for all I knew, all English people were characters in Mary Poppins or Robin Hood, and as laughable as it may seem now, I remember being distinctly disturbed and confused when confronted with Billy Elliot and its depiction of a history never taught in school. And by the time I was seventeen, I had the skewed idea that Britain was dominated by synthpoppers in extravagant outfits, boy/girl/girl-boy pop groups with stilted dance routines, and a smattering of Britpop bands about which I had very vague conceptions of champagne supernovas, common people, and paranoid love in the 90s. Until I visited it, to me, England and its less than United Kingdom were a homogenous mass with vastly more history than my home country. And more castles. And perhaps more chimney sweeps.

You ask, why spend two summers in one of the most depressed regions of the UK? At the time, I had a friend whose father was a pilot working for a company that spent half the year flying to vacation destinations out of Canada and the other half of the year flying to vacation destinations out of the UK. My flight, accommodation, and food were either essentially free or at a low cost, and I was always more than willing to see more of the world. I had only been to parts of mainland Europe the year before as part of a school trip, and while I wasn’t quite an anglophile yet, I did quite desperately want to experience England. My friend ended up living numerous springs and summers in the UK, and I joined her on three more of them, one in the East Midlands, and another two in Cardiff.

That first summer in Ingleby Barwick nearly twelve years ago was most definitely full of rain and oppressive grey skies, but viewed through the golden, naïve lens of the youth telescope, it was a genuinely fun time. We were living in a house which was an average size by Canadian standards, and we were generally shuttled about by my friend’s father, who drove us to tourist spots like Whitby, York, Edinburgh, and even all the way to London for a few days. I knew that our two closest cities were Stockton and Middlesbrough, but the rest of my sense of geography was a bit fuzzy. Though Ingleby Barwick seemed to be a predominately residential area with its own pubs, convenience stores, schools, and Safeway, I didn’t grasp the significance of this hived-off community. In my Canadian mindset, it felt like many artificial suburbs do at home. I didn’t think much of it, and I suppose I didn’t spend enough time in Stockton and Middlesbrough to observe contrasts. I was still too fascinated by the more superficial differences like high street chains, heavy accents, Citrus Sharp Polos, and of course, castles.

We spent a few evenings hanging out with some local kids by the convenience store car park. They seemed just as bored and disenchanted as any adolescent would be living in a suburb without reliable transportation to bigger cities. Andy, Stuart, Mary Ann, Sarah, and David taught us the difference between pants and trousers, who PJ and Duncan were, and what L plates meant, but unsurprisingly, larger issues of culture didn’t come up. It was only on an excursion to Middlesbrough with our new tour guide Andy that I began to gain an inkling about the context of our vacation spot. While both my friend and I were university-bound, Andy was hoping to get into Teesside Tertiary College, but didn’t sound terribly confident about a future career. In one of the shops we went into, we struck up a conversation with the thirty-something owner. When we mentioned the cities we had visited and were planning to visit, he told us he had never been outside the Teesside area. He looked tired. I felt uncomfortable.

When I returned to Teesside for four months in 2001, I decided to work in order to earn some extra money for the following year’s tuition. I worked part-time at a pub in Yarm despite knowing almost next to nothing about beer, and got to know regulars who were very much like Sound It Out’s older, cheeky gentleman, who tells us you can find anything in Tom’s shop except for loose women from Taiwan. I also worked at an uncannily archaic movie theatre in the Teesside Leisure Complex. If the Grace Brothers owned a movie theatre, this would be it. My friend ended up working at the bowling alley in the same leisure park, and it was she who ended up bearing the brunt of our social ignorance. The fact that she was an outsider taking a job away from local people probably already made it a rather bitter situation. But when she unthinkingly mentioned where she was living, that her father was an airline pilot, and that she intended to be a medical doctor, the ostracism ensued. As much as the first summer had been about giddy exploration, the second summer was about slow dawns of reality. I started to see the north-south divide. I started to see the council housing a short bus ride away from Ingleby Barwick. I started to see the boredom borne from poverty and unemployment rather than from suburban isolation. I didn’t really receive the same negative treatment as my friend did. In fact, I was quite friendly with those I worked with. Michael, my co-worker at the theatre, even wanted to give me a mix CD, but he became part of the theatre’s high turnover and quit before he could. I often wonder if my co-workers’ attitudes towards me were different because I was more than just a tourist in a foreign country; by living with my friend and her family, I was also a tourist in a different social class. Perhaps that same difference in treatment and my liminal position of less affluence and less entitlement were what soured our friendship seven years later. Eventually, my halcyon holiday in another person’s privilege turned a bit Brideshead Revisited/The Line of Beauty, and the long stints in the UK ceased. And I haven’t been back to Teesside since 2001.

It’s easy to be cynical about schemes like Record Store Day. At the same time, Sound It Out shows just how important such a ploy is for independents. I may hold a more favourable perspective on the Internet and its role in mail order records, including the easy distribution it affords tiny record labels, than the subjects of Finlay’s film; however, I do still empathize with the need for some sort of physical sanctuary, where you can flip through dusty racks and experience serendipitous finds, and where you can talk to shop staff who want to share their favourite music with you. Even the last true record shop in my hometown doesn’t seem as friendly and as lovingly stocked as Sound It Out, or a myriad other British record shops I’ve been to. It’s a large part of why I’ll keep coming back over the Atlantic to buy my music.

Unfortunately, in all of my time in Teesside I never visited Sound It Out. At seventeen and eighteen I was still finding my musical tastes, and I wouldn’t have known what a haven a place like Sound It Out is. No matter. My musical education really started whilst in the UK, and I will always appreciate that. My time in Teesside works in strange tension with my musical memory. Incidental repetitions can embed deeper memories than they should or than you would like. If I were ever to hear Ronan Keating’s “Life is a Rollercoaster” again, I’d likely feel a bizarre bittersweetness. And sometimes I still wish I had that mix CD from Michael.

For more information, visit the Sound It Out site.

Silver Dollars – Allo Darlin’

So Forlorn – King Creosote

Mountaintop – We Show Up on RadaR

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Myxomatosis #2 – Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit

I do realize this mix is two days late, or thereabouts. Perhaps sometime in the near future one (or both!) of us will be able post on regularly and on time.

As a young child my favourite book was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.  I had been given a bunny for one of my first Easters and it was a fairly insignificant toy to me until I became very ill when I was five years old.  My toy bunny was a constant companion throughout a year spent in and out of the hospital and operating room, and it showed.  After over a year of childish anxiety and tension released through worrying my bunny’s synthetic fur and body, he didn’t much resemble a bunny any more.  For obvious reasons, then, I found a special significance in the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.  Realizing that I probably haven’t read it since I was a child, I just reread it for the purpose of this post and, sure enough, my eyes welled up all over again.  That toy – and book – were the beginning of my affection for all things bunny.

Since then, my love of rabbits has most often manifested itself in my being drawn to cute illustrations and toys, as my attachment to them is primarily sentimental and I tend to want to revisit aspects of my childhood repeatedly.  This particular mixtape was also initially inspired by the Myxomatosis title (despite myxomatosis itself being a seriously unfortunate end for our little friends) given to our biweekly playlists. Somehow, though, the word evokes just the right amount of macabre creepiness for our mixtape posts. I’m also never against a tune having to do with a rabbit, whether it’s a tale of familial tension in which a coat represents wealth (“Rabbit Furcoat”), as aids to magicians (“Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat”), or as a character that’s ostensibly wading through a wasteland of industrial noise (“Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along”).

Even though there’s lots of death and darkness in this mix, please enjoy a mixtape that’s dedicated to rabbits, springtime, and many future Myxomatosis mixtapes.

Download Myxomatosis #2

Animal Collective – Who Could Win a Rabbit

David Sylvian – The Rabbit Skinner

Denim – Silly Rabbit

Girls – Honey Bunny

Iron & Wine – Rabbit Will Run

Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – Rabbit Fur Coat

Joanna Newsom – Jackrabbits

Kilburn & the High Roads – The Badger and the Rabbit

Moloko – Killa Bunnies

of Montreal – Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

Paul Westerberg – Mr. Rabbit

Sparks – Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat

T. Rex – Rabbit Fighter

The Cramps – Swing the Big-Eyed Rabbit

The Jesus Lizard – Happy Bunny Goes Fluff-Fluff Along

The Magnetic Fields – Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits

The Moldy Peaches – Little Bunny Foo Foo

The Shins – Red Rabbits

Throwing Muses – Rabbits Dying

Tom Rosenthal – Man & Rabbit

UNKLE ft. Thom Yorke – Rabbit In Your Headlights

Zeigeist – Bunny

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I Love Your Solitude, I Love Your Pride: CN Lester’s Ashes Reviewed

CN Lester is a London singer-songwriter and classical mezzo soprano who first cropped up on my radar several months ago when I joined the wild and mostly wonderful world of Twitter.  My obsession with music coupled with my passion for the LGBT* community as well as Lester’s work and LGBT* activism put us in each others’ Twitter paths and so it felt highly appropriate as well as beneficial to both parties that I write about their debut album, Ashes.  Happily for everyone, Ashes is a beautiful album and an absolute joy to discover, from its sleeve, adorned with shelves full of vintage books, to the songs themselves, featuring hushed vocals that push Lester’s expressive piano parts to the fore.  The fact that the portrait of Lester on the album’s cover is in black and white is rather indicative of what their music is like – full of contrasts, fragile and strong, broken yet hopeful.

The title track, “Ashes” opens the album on a contemplative note.  Lyrically concerned with struggle and with grasping the ephemeral, however fleetingly, these words are accompanied by a lone piano track that lilts, pauses, and tumbles, effectively underscoring the oblique nature of the words.  Whether the song’s meaning is clear to the listener or not, however, the sometimes sad beauty of “Ashes” is immediately apparent – it’s a lovely album opener.  “Tongue” is more urgent but no less melancholy, this time musically augmented with gentle acoustic guitar.  The power and potency of physical memory is considered here, with brief lyrical flashbacks to a past relationship explored in lines such as “A gaping hole where your lips met mine/Empty jaws where our love had hung.”  The memories of this relationship are investigated in both fond and scathing terms – the emotional connection and subsequent loss has been dealt with, but sensory memory works differently, pervading unexpectedly into scenes of everyday life.

There’s something quite tentative about the way “Shiver” begins, slowly and softly, but the piano builds steadily, particularly after the first stanza: “He’s got a stop to his fury/Waiting for the blow to come down/He’s got a weight and he moves it/Weighting with a weight in his hand.”  There’s a little break between the second and third verses in which Lester introduces a major-key interlude, and it’s brilliantly disarming.  These eight measures counter the haunting, although elegant, remainder of the song with a little sunshine.  “Fractals” is entirely more beautiful than a song about the experience of being bipolar has a right to be, capturing the multiplicity of life and experience sensitively and honestly, whether that life is affected by mood disorders or not.  There’s an inevitability to the structure and melody of the song that captures the continual spinning of the lyrics.  “Fever” is unabashedly joyful, and it feels incredible at this point in the album to revel in happiness.  Guitar-led and exuberantly punctuated with higher notes, Lester has lovingly captured what was clearly an amazing moment in their life with this song that – almost? – feels as good.

“Lullaby” has a gorgeous, tumbling piano line and a soothing feel to it that befits its title, and “Joan of Arc” is a lovingly rendered Leonard Cohen cover.  Bonus track “I’m Your Man”, another Cohen cover, fairly seethes with contrasts: the synths and sleazy-sounding muted horns present on Cohen’s 1988 album recording are replaced by a comparatively restrained piano part, but the swagger and lust are retained, making it immeasurably pleasing as a subversive, genderqueer take on the aggressive heterosexism of the original.  Certainly there’s something almost universally identifiable in Cohen’s lyrics, about need and control in equal measure, and the initial surprise of those words being sung in a significantly less masculine voice provides perfect counterpoint to lyrics that could be interpreted, at least in the original, as creepily obsessive.

Throughout all of this, Lester’s voice is an anchoring constant, offering strength and steadfastness in a sea of emotional pain.  The influence of classical vocal training is obvious here, giving these piano ballads an elegant splendour that belies their often difficult lyrical content.  And when Ashes offers the occasional reprieve from its themes of pensive sadness, its perfect, imperfect humanity is revealed fully and powerfully.  For all its contrasts and iterations of black and white, Ashes is ultimately an exploration of nuance, subtlety, and the shades of grey that are an integral part of any black and white photograph.  There’s a most familiar emotion that lies between joy and sorrow, one that’s filled with the small pleasures of the everyday, and in Lester’s very capable hands and voice that liminal space is brought to shimmering light.

CN Lester – Shiver

CN Lester – Fever

CN Lester – I’m Your Man

Find out more about CN Lester and order Ashes at their website.

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Myxomatosis #1 – Acceptable in Electric Dreams

This is the first in our bi-weekly mixtape series, Myxomatosis. If everything goes according to plan, Laura and I will alternate mix posts every second Sunday. Factor in the daylight savings time change, and my mix is nearly on time.

Simon Reynolds has been getting quite a bit of mileage out of his book-length theory on “retromania,” a combination of Derridean hauntology and prosthetic memory. Most recently, he’s inspired an entire issue of Spin, which has relaunched as a bi-monthly, and bid us to “raid the past, dream the future.” Realizing that the digital, networked environment has irrevocably shifted and altered the monetary value of the intangible and tangible, Spin has turned back to previous mandates of incorporating cultural analysis into the music magazine format, a recognition which I thought would have/should have happened sooner. You have to capitalize on what defines the medium you’re using, and bite-sized album reviews, superficial short features on uninteresting, but popular artists, and up-to-the-minute news blurbs are much better suited to the online environment. Now if only the NME could remember its own roots…it still probably wouldn’t be as effective as The Quietus.

Nevertheless, I do find it interesting that the only way to relaunch is to rewind. Even Wax Poetics celebrated its 10th Anniversary and redesign, including a new logo, with a special issue on…Prince. Or perhaps I’m only noticing this retroactivity because I’m now of a certain age. Maybe this is how people of my generation begin an unseemly Mojo/Uncut devolution. It could also be the reason the latest meta-Muppets film had both such a sentimental and unsettling effect on me. I felt like it had broken into my brain and used my memories like some insidious soma against me, the predictable marketing demographic that I evidently am. But I almost cried during “Rainbow Connection.” You also end up forgiving everything because of how self-reflexive and self-aware the film is. Using similar logic, Simon Reynolds manages to find something positive about Lana Del Rey rather than about Adele in his article in the relaunched Spin.

While I agree that we’ve entered a hyper-accelerated culture and an infinite present where we turn back to the past faster than it can settle into becoming the past, I don’t know if I feel particularly alarmed about it. Originality is a tricky term to begin with, and the more you learn, the less things seem truly original. There often seems to be as much joy in repetition as there is in puzzling out new things. Time, the companion in all of this retromania-mania, is equally as fraught a term. It may be that the only decade I actually lived through in real time was the 1980s. Everything seems new and present to you when you’re under ten.

I’m a Calvin-Harris-huggable child of the 80s. Courtesy of my older sister, I spent my first seven years hearing the sounds of Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol, Van Halen, Pat Benatar, and the Footloose soundtrack. I religiously watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Muppet Babies. I also absorbed The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and The Little Shop of Horrors, and as stated on the About page on this blog, I watched Labyrinth roughly 40 times in the third grade. And perhaps even more strangely, I relived the 80s in the 90s on a diet of syndication and synthesizers, consuming John Hughes films and the Back to the Future trilogy just as readily as New Order, Prince, and Duran Duran. I always did have an overdeveloped sense of nostalgia–even as a child. I had a panic attack at age seven when the year turned into 1990.

I needn’t have worried about missing the 90s the first time around because I not only relived the 90s in the noughties, but I continue to do so in this decade with the Britpop zeitgeist zombie rearing its nationalistic head at this year’s Olympics. It just so happens that the Internet has made it possible for everything to be syndicated.

In this week’s mix, you’ll find a medley of authentic 80s fare and neo-80s revivalists. Make connections where you will.

Download Myxomatosis 01.

Super Popoid Groove – Win

Wild Boys – Jef Barbara

Dirty Mind – Prince

Rocket – Goldfrapp

Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds

Reunion – M83

Your Silent Face – New Order

Blink and You’ll Miss a Revolution – Cut Copy

Marble – LoneLady

Nostalgia (7″ Version) – The Chameleons

Changing the Rain – The Horrors

The Romance of the Telescope – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Nuit – Xeno and Oaklander

Cymophane – Care

Enola – Black Umbrella

Golden Age Saturday – Cleaners From Venus

Beverly Kills – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Crush the Flowers – The Wake

Punching in a Dream – The Naked and Famous

We Have Everything – Young Galaxy

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Life and Death Made Strange and Wonderful: Band of Holy Joy’s How to Kill a Butterfly Reviewed

BOHJ - How to Kill a Butterfly

I first became aware of London-based Band of Holy Joy when frontman/BOHJ constant, Johny Brown, did guest vocals and lyrics on Vanilla Swingers’ debut album. I then managed to track down three albums (More Favourite Fairy Tales; Manic, Magic, Majestic; Positively Spooked) and an EP (The Big Ship Sails) out of their twenty-seven-year-spanning discography. With its long and fluid roster of former band members over the years, Band of Holy Joy have been described as a parallel, inverse version of The Fall; where Mike E. Smith’s project seems like an endless subtraction and whittling of art into ever sharper shapes, Brown’s band has thrived on its own fluid democracy and expansive creativity. The current line-up for the latest album, How to Kill a Butterfly, includes Andy Astles, Christopher Brierley, William J. Lewington, James Stephen Finn, and Inga Tillere. This album also features backing vocals from members of Jonny Cola and the A-Grades and Something Beginning with L, and Jon Clayton on cello. There’s something arcane and mystical about Band of Holy Joy; their music is the perfect accompaniment to psychogeographic perambulations, following urban ley lines all the way out to the humming countryside. This record is filled with tales of flight and death. And it is one of the most uplifting records I’ve ever heard.

The album package is exquisitely designed as a blood-crimson book containing ghostly images which radiate through technical scientific diagrams of anatomy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’m reminded of almanacs like Aristotle’s Masterpiece, popular manuals that hybridized folk alchemy with early modern science, gleefully displaying monstrously impossible children. This record, too, is often concerned with birth and sex, which seem to flirt and meld with the headiness of mortality. See the tango-inflected track “Between a Nightingale’s Song and Now”: “Starstruck and killed by the life we loved/The sport of death in every spurt of come.” Brown introduces the liner booklet with a mini-essay of sorts. He shifts back and forth, alternating between optimal instructions for killing butterflies and for making records; both are delicate procedures. How best do you preserve fragile, colourful insects? How best do you preserve ephemeral sound? This record becomes an answer, straddling that line between expiration and beauty, an aural wunderkammer. After all, the wunderkammer is a displayed collection of natural, curious specimens, essentially a chamber of aesthetic deaths. Brown concludes his essay by writing: “We’ve killed a butterfly and made a new artifact…talk about visceral tangibility opposing archaic practices.” He manages to pin down the intangibility of music and its tension with the beauty of the well-crafted object.

After an introduction of eddying wind, Brown pleads for an emotional thaw and baptism in the opening song “Go Break the Ice.” As the violin accelerates into a counter-wind of sorts, Brown’s idiosyncratic quaver leans precariously close to overwrought, but continually catches itself in a gripping performance of otherworldliness. His vocals pitch into diaphragm-heaving bellows on “Oh What a Thing This Heart of Man” as he bids us to “strike out now.” Despite the bewildering disappointment probed within the lyrics, the swelling musical backdrop and the pronouncement of “You’re either with life or it’s against you” imbue the song with conviction. This internal mapping is a breathtaking maneuver through the baroque curls of brain matter and their inexplicable machinations. The album starts to become something akin to a life manual.

The band explores northern mapping on songs such as “These Men Underground” and “Northern.” The former contains the oscillation between pensive, staid verses of grim industry and an incredible girl-group-style chorus that is pure elation of temporary escape, the rush of release—even if it’s as doomed as transplanted wings on a man’s shoulder blades. The latter is a similar alternation of wistful, slow verses and a psychedelic 60s go-go party of a chorus as Brown meditates on migrating away from the north:

I catch the light sometime
A dirty blush of cloud
Over the drifting of the crowd
History and ambition fuel an endless fire
Of famine migration sadness and desire

Granted, Brown is originally from Newcastle-on-Tyne, which may account for the recurring theme, but the concept of “the north” remains a fascinating one. So many countries, including my own, have varying ideas of what “the north” means, but it is often still consolidated into one location of preconceived notions, assumptions, and otherness, the cultural differences wrought from arbitrary geography. Where does “the north” begin? Perhaps for Canada it is the tree line. Perhaps for England it is the northernmost band of the M25. For Brown, “the north” is an industrial north, proud and pining, dirty and damp, grey and grand.

For “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs,” “The Repentant,” and “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” Brown recites free verse over undulating soundscapes. In fact, these songs are reminiscent of the band’s weekly Radio Joy podcasts in which there are often spoken elements and readings backed and embraced by esoteric music and found sounds; dream narrowcasts, nocturnal transmissions. “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs” lovingly documents a seven-year-old’s nascent understanding of new life and the compulsion to collect and curate it, often extinguishing it in the process. The world-weariness of age sets in on “The Repentant,” which takes comfort and relief in the knowledge we are temporary. The song’s narrator literally embodies the excess and putrescence of humanity with brittle bones that could be as easily crushed as an eggshell. The music shambles with street energy and city friction; an entire urban procession of observation and surveillance is present: protestors, tourists, students, police. The last sentiment of the song is a provocative, but fortifying perspective on what it means to be humane:

You clamour now to save the planet. But I say this…maybe the planet will do ok without us. Maybe the planet is going to be fine. Maybe the planet doesn’t need our saving. Maybe this planet can get as polluted with as many chemicals as it can ingest. Maybe the planet will continue in all its very mutations. Does it matter? Not to me. What matters to me…and what I think it all boils down to…at the end our days, having lived through all our ways, and with the memories that have stayed, deep down inside, what matters to me, surely, is how we treat each other.

The final track, “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” picks up on this sense of hope. It sounds like a crystalline call of dying and newborn stars pulsing out of deep space. The staccato melody also seems to mimic the precise flow of electricity and binary code. As Brown mesmerizes with his instructions on how to take back the silence, the song becomes an alternative, self-help relaxation recording in which you need to lance the chemicals boiling in your appliances and to pull the plug on their electrical support. He entreats you to baptize yourself in the quietude. The album comes full-circle as it ends with the sound of wind, now solicitous where before it was lonely.

How to Kill a Butterfly is raw, and honest, and sweet even when grotesque and surreal, like butterflies nibbling on the carcasses of piranhas. It doesn’t profess an irritating hippy-crusty-traveler ethos, nor does it pander to some middle-class, “back to the land,” pastoral utopia. It is folk music informed by the city. You can feel the powdery and fractal spectrum of sound, iridescent in your ear. This record is life made strange and wonderful. In it, we are all time travelers and space travelers, tenuous collections of coal dust, road dust, stardust, butterfly dust.

Purchase How to Kill a Butterfly at the Band of Holy Joy shop.

These Men Underground – Band of Holy Joy

The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs – Band of Holy Joy

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Repeat Again: Prinzhorn Dance School’s Clay Class Reviewed

Anyone who is familiar with the music of artists Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn, aka Prinzhorn Dance School, is already familiar with their artistic concept: the rawness associated with outsider art meets the sparseness and power of post-punk music.  Their band name – and stage names – come from Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist who famously collected the art of his patients and inspired Jean Dubuffet to coin the term art brut when developing his own artistic philosophy, which focused on an appreciation of so-called “low art” and primitivism instead of polish and conventional beauty.  Art brut, later termed outsider art in English, is widely defined as art made by people without artistic training, outside of professional and academic spheres, but it was initially used to describe the pieces made by Prinzhorn’s psychiatric patients as well as by prisoners and children.  Dubuffet’s art often included the incorporation of such raw materials as straw and sand in order to capture the roughness he valued as “authentic”.  True to this conceit, PDS’s music is simple, repetitive, sometimes disturbing, and in both music and lyrics is certainly highly evocative of the raw and untrained.  How respectful and ethical this mimicry is is perhaps not my place to say, but as a novel approach to the chill of post-punk music it works, if in a rather heavy-handed way.  It often draws the ear away from the music itself and towards an appreciation of the structure and design that is integral to the music.  It also works as a welcome reprieve from maximalist trends in dance music, serving as a thought-provoking palate cleanser with that dance backbone still intact.

Clay Class, appropriately, comes after the drawing class that was 2007’s Prinzhorn Dance School in the band’s artistic development and, following the skill set established with their first LP, this second album is more fleshed out than PDS’s self-titled debut outing in 2007.  Slightly more fleshed out, that is.  That album practically assaulted the ears with its glaring blasts of silence amid a framework so spare and sharp that it practically bristles with discomfort and irritation, begging for the listener to keep their distance.  The starkness of the production used on it certainly proved a point about musical simplicity and power, but it also perfectly complemented lyrics about the mundanity of working class life; the empty routine of eat, sleep, work.  The repetition of the lyrics echoes the repetition of the music, both working together to compound the effect of stultifying sameness, unvarying boredom.

“Happy in Bits” opens Clay Class and right from the outset it’s apparent that there is a new warmth present in the mix.  While still a good distance away from the sound of more conventional post-punk bands, the silence isn’t as aggressive here, becoming an ingredient in the mix rather than its most important component.  Repetition and simplicity still reign supreme, though, and the lyrics “I’m glad you’re here/building on sand/So glad you came/Drawing in wax” while repetitive and evocative of a hospital patient receiving a visitor and the associated bittersweetness of that visit, also serve as a welcome of sorts to the listener.  There’s even a semblance of melody in a tumbling guitar part that follows this phrase.  So while there’s less atmospheric alienation here than anything on Prinzhorn Dance School, “Happy in Bits” also lyrically shows that there are moments of real contentment in the company of others.

“Usurper” isn’t as friendly, dealing with feelings of being unwanted and the experience of being pushed aside and replaced.  A child is specifically mentioned in the lyrics (“Do you look in a child’s eyes and say/Usurper, replacer”) along with mention of the cyclical, circular regularity of being supplanted by someone/thing different and novel.  “Seed, Crop, Harvest” revisits a favourite PDS theme of regularity, the inevitably of the seasons, even when experiences feel new (“Got off the treadmill/Got off the breadline/It’s a new dawn/It’s harvest time”).  An ominous bass line underpins swathes of guitar in the intervals between verses and it’s particularly clear here that PDS’s approach to musically exploring their ideas of rawness and alienation has shifted.  “I Want You” furthers this stylistic change; the song is positively sweet and gentle with its thrumming one-note guitar part and simple, charming harmonies.  The lyrics tell a drastically different story: between repeated declarations of “I want you” are discomfiting verses of obsessive jealousy or smothering love or both.  The words “I want you/suffocate your soul/cage your freedom/in a loving prison” offer creepy counterpoint to what could be a little love song.  I suppose, in its disturbed way, it is a love song, but from a psychologically and ethically muddled perspective and as such surprises and stands out on Clay Class.

“Your Fire Has Gone Out” addresses the meaningless of boredom and instead of keeping lyrics sparse, paints a depressingly grey picture of travel and experience without interest or passion.  The lyrics also point to the sameness of large cities, all looming buildings and office drones, public transit and loneliness in the presence of thousands of people.  “Crisis Team” is about the emotional depression that comes with winter and its pervasive chill.  After a couple of verses that repeatedly mention whiteness, coldness, and death, a refrain is introduced that tells of a scary kind of co-dependency.  The words “I need your crisis in my life/Can’t breathe with no accident” are sung in a hauntingly pretty melody that lends poignancy to this confession of addiction to emotional turmoil.  Economic depression is the subject of “The Flora and Fauna of Britain in Bloom” and lyrics about unemployment and poverty are contrasted by images of cold, uninviting, and neglected parks. “Sing Orderly” perfectly encapsulates the mostly meaningless minutiae of the everyday, interspersed with occasional mentions of the need to be looked after and cared for.  “Shake the Jar” ends the album on a less depressing, depressive note than most of the preceding songs, with the refrain “Shake your jar/Rattle your tin/Rattle their cages/Let the fight back in” alongside an almost jaunty little bass line and punctuated with unexpected percussive hits.

Despite efforts to make their music easier to digest, Prinzhorn Dance School still sound very much like themselves on Clay Class.  This feels like a pretty ideal combination – the music is still stark and bare but with less of the minimalist production that made their debut album sound like the aural equivalent of a skeleton.  Despite this progression, PDS’s unique viewpoint isn’t compromised at all and they manage to provoke and surprise, alienate and disturb in all the best ways possible.  Draping their framework of a sound with a few more guitars doesn’t detract from the poignant isolation of their lyrics; indeed, it fills out their sound perfectly so that it emerges on just the right end of unembellished sharpness and loneliness.  An accomplished follow-up to a debut album that was far from subtle in concept and execution, Prinzhorn Dance School have proved with Clay Class that they’re worth watching for the long haul.

Prinzhorn Dance School – I Want You

Prinzhorn Dance School – Sing Orderly

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