poetry

Springing Back: The Monochrome Set’s “Platinum Coils” Reviewed

The Monochrome Set - Platinum Coils

The Monochrome Set, formed in 1978 out of the ridiculously nutritious ooze of the post-punk milieu, is most often described as a grievously underrated band that should have become much more famous, and whose impact is written all over the style of later bands. Their story also often includes their connection to Adam and the Ants. At the end of the day and the beginning of the twenty-first century, I think we all know who aged more gracefully and with more dignity; whilst The Monochrome Set’s frontman Bid has remained a dandy gentleman, Adam Ant has become a hostage to nostalgia and his own highwayman persona. Despite the Ants’ massive success in the early eighties, Bid’s band, including core members Lester Square and Andy Warren, was always the more interesting and intelligent one. And they steered well clear of the peculiar, postcolonial posturing in which several of the New Romantics indulged. Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the first phase of The Monochrome Set’s output, which includes “Strange Boutique”, Love Zombies, Eligible Bachelors, and The Lost Weekend, and several brilliant pre-Strange Boutique singles released on Rough Trade, but I hope to get more acquainted with the Japan-release-only years of the band’s second phase. Those first four classic records pulsate with ideas and lyrical genius, and contain stylish, avant-garde pop poised between surf rock, jazz, vaudeville, baroque, doo-wop, Spanish guitar, rockabilly, gospel, and circus music, casting sharp, post-punk shadows with the tension of a perpetual showdown at high noon.

It’s been seventeen years since The Monochrome Set released an album. In the meantime, I’ve been busy enjoying Bid’s other band, Scarlet’s Well, another aesthetically pleasing project, but with a different group of musicians and a more fantastical narrative structure (the album art is as exquisite as the musical concept, images of a dream-world that recall art nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley, medieval illuminations, and children’s book illustrations). Nonetheless, I was very excited when The Monochrome Set self-released “Platinum Coils” a few months ago. The shiny mirror-like sleeve features Lester Square’s wonderful monochrome illustration of Bid’s head effectively exploding with a surreal collage of objects, many of them from previous centuries and decades, and spouting ephemera like a cornucopia of medical references and human figures. The cover art also deliberately echoes their debut album, from the arch quotation marks around the title to the image of the diver in full flight, which has now shifted from the front to the back cover. The three inside panels of the sleeve are filled with “The essence of Platinum Coils.” At first glance, this fundamental nature of the album seems to be an alphabetical list of word association; a stream of consciousness meets a series of weirs to shape it into a selective dictionary. It begins with “A” and “Aardvarks,” and ends unexpectedly with “Yum.” You come to realize that these are the words that appear in the lyrics of the record itself; they become representative of an attempt to impose order on randomness, thus, ironically making less sense. The album’s content is appropriately eclectic and dream-like, that latter adjective not pertaining to woozy gentleness, but to synapses firing conflicting flare signals into the night.

With the opening explosion and spry guitar line of “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome,” you’re plunged directly into the quick-witted world of The Monochrome Set. I find it a bit difficult to describe their signature sound, but it’s all over this album. It’s post-punk skiffle. Or indie quickstep. Or rockabilly tango. At any rate, their music is a far more colourful affair than their band name would indicate. The chorus, which features the lines “There’s a kitten on my hip, and it’s going on a trip/Up a river to my head, where it’s purring,” is beguiling and playful, yet its medical subtext belies another less frivolous level. In the surfy dance number “I Can’t Control My Feet,” the dreamscape features a cast comprised of a nurse, a porter, and a man with no hands “tripping the wax fantastic,” echoing the medical undercurrent of the first track. In doing so, this song reveals a second theme running alongside the surreal quality of slumber and dreams: incarcerated madness. The import of the album’s title, then, becomes clearer: platinum coils are medical instruments used to treat brain aneurysms. After a little research, I had a better understanding of the context of the title and the album’s content. Bid had apparently undergone this procedure for a brain aneurysm a couple of years ago. It turns out that “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome” actually creatively refers to the catheter used to deliver the platinum coils to Bid’s brain, which shows just how fortunate we all are that his sharp brain remained intact.

Upbeat, easy-going songs like “Free, Free, Free,” “Mein Kapitan,” and “Cauchemar” are humorous with their extensive, bizarre wordplay, but they, too, paint a more pathological picture of institutionalization. “Free, Free, Free” is a dialogue between a patronizing nurse and a patient craving liberty; the June Bridesian shuffle of “Mein Kapitan” narrates a story about a patient who seems to believe he’s in the military and is being coaxed back into his cell with an inventive array of things, including Immanual Kant, Lou Reed, and peaches (it incorporates the magnificent line “if he plucks with plastic pick a minor sixth, over which, lunatic licks”); and “Cauchemar” is a mandolin-scintillated song about nightmarish, pill-induced delusions, ranging from sergeant major to vampire viscount to Grand Inquisitor, and the pleas to be restrained for fear of shooting a buttock in the trench, sucking arteries, pricking sinners in the sacristy, and any other tongue-in-cheek, euphemistic misdemeanours. The latin-infused, slinky “Waiting for Alberto” is one of my favourite songs on the album because it embodies dream logic in its hyper-realistic, but ludicrous details:

I’m waiting for Alberto
Will he bring me pears or apples or a bag of exotic
I hope it’s not bananas, bananas make me ill
With his mental pencil moustache, in a minute, he’ll be here
Smoking with curses; pinching the nurses’ bottoms
Oh, haven’t you met him

At the same time, the song represents the real mundanity of waiting for entertaining visits from friends whilst in a hospital bed. This experience is transformed into a fantastical, classy composition via Bid’s elegant turns of phrase and artful storytelling; for example, the chorus is sung in French and can be translated as “Oh, heavyweight, climb the thirty-nine steps/One shoots the shit here,” beautiful Hitchcockian reference and all. Bid’s jaunty, rich vocals convey the knowingness of the lyrical dexterity over top of the plinking, advancing guitar, sighs of Helena Johansson’s violin, and a wonderful guitar solo that mimics flamenco and shady French alleyways.

The tempo slows in “On My Balcony,” a jangly ballad that feels like drifting down a tributary of oblivion. There’s a mournful anonymity in the narrator’s position of watching from a lofty, unnoticed perch, which, due to Bid’s brilliant lyrical skills, could be a hospital balcony, but also a romantic, lonely tower in a dark fairy tale. This detached vantage point resurfaces in “Streams,” in which the narrator watches people slip by to excellent guitar and bass lines bobbing along with the ride cymbal.

The remainder of the album is more quick-paced. “They Call Me Silence” is a sinister creeper of a song as Bid’s vocals slip and slide in a menacing wraith formation. The music glides along like a spy tango as Bid sings of a sense of immobility and muteness, and a sabotage of the senses. It makes me think of what is left when the voices in a person’s head cease. The cinematic purview shifts as the spaghetti western facet of the band comes to the foreground in “Les Cowboys.” It features some excellent guitar twang, side shuffle bass, and clopping percussion; however, even the strange adventures of the “cowboys” are corralled by surgeons, nurses, and the day ward. The penultimate track, “I’m Happy to Be Here,” is a jolly, rolling track with periods of energetic syncopation, and ultimately, anticipation. The poignant imagery of “Slide down slowly to the floor, lie at my bony feet/Curl up like a fawn upon a grave, you’d look so sweet” takes on further meaning when you read about Bid’s brief collapse due to decrease in blood pressure whilst in hospital. The music flickers with life and celebratory fervor. The song’s last line is “Waves are lapping at your feet, come, sweet, and leave the shore,” which evokes freedom and the relief of release. The album ends with the brief track “Brush With Death,” a loose, wonky instrumental, which was penned by Andy Warren and appropriately features brushes across the snare. It sounds a bit like elevator music for Bid’s trip through levels of recovery. And it sounds like a variety show conclusion, complete with rim shots and soft shoe shuffle. Both connotations are appropriate.

“Platinum Coils” is a truly welcome return. Despite the fact that the record is replete with consciousness lapping at the edges of trauma, it is equally funny and witty, conveying the lucidity and profundity to be found in mental interruptions, half-sleep, and near-death experiences. In a way, this album is about taking stock. Gratitude for Bid’s recovery, check. Breadth of The Monochrome Set’s career, check. Refreshing musical hybridity, check. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antics, check. Language acumen akin to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, check. Clever clever band, check.

Order “Platinum Coils” from The Monochrome Set’s website.

Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome – The Monochrome Set

Waiting for Alberto – The Monochrome Set

2 Comments

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

2 Comments

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
Unreliable
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

Leave a comment