post-punk

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

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Cracking Up: The Jesus and Mary Chain Live at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

The Jesus and Mary Chain at Phoenix

The Jesus and Mary Chain have been on my bucket list of bands to see for many years, but even after the Brothers Reid unexpectedly reunited five years ago, I never thought they would come somewhere I could actually see them. So, clearly Laura and I had to fly to Toronto this past Friday to see them when they played their sold-out gig at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. With their songs of darkness and depression, sugar and suffering, rain and razors, equal parts Velvet Underground and Spector girl group, they ran a fascinating gamut between squalling feedback, grinding dirge, shuffling baggy, and pumping motorway melodies that capture the sensation of hanging your head out of the car window, and in the process, they came up with their own sound. There’s something appropriate about the fact that many of their songs, especially post-Darklands, sounded like runaway trains. The songs are bound to get away from them as they bash along towards twisted wreckage. They are always on the verge of falling apart, and in my opinion, that’s one of their most charming characteristics.

Opening band Nightbox was a laughably incongruent choice, as most opening bands seem to be, and played pale imitations of synthpop of the Van She/Cut Copy variety. And the lead singer reminded me too much of Jack Whitehall, but sporting Kings of Leon long hair and a vest fashioned from sweatshirt fabric, which was both humorous and deeply disturbing. Taking a glance around the venue, most of the other punters seemed to feel as underwhelmed as I did. Besides two girls at the front next to me, who were trying very hard to appear as though they were having the time of their lives whilst also trying very hard to push me away from the centre of the stage, no one was dancing, nor even smiling. Ironically, the irritating girls to my left seemed to be more excited and active during Nightbox’s set than The Jesus and Mary Chain’s. Perhaps my trusty, pointy elbow and the fact I wasn’t about to shift over had something to do with it.

The Jesus and Mary Chain at Phoenix

Once Jim Reid sneered the opening line of “Snakedriver” with that utterly disinterested expression on his face and casual lean on the mic stand, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. There were several of us who just couldn’t help singing and stabbing our fingers along with those highly recognizable guitar solos by William Reid, whose lofty hair was constantly edged with a backlit glow. As I suspected from looking at setlists from their US tour dates this past June, the song selection and order were nearly identical. Not that I’m complaining (okay, maybe I would have added “April Skies”). Despite the blistering opening salvo featuring the melodic drive of Automatic and Honey’s Dead, I knew I wouldn’t feel satisfied until there was a proper screw-up, preferably one that involved Jim yelling at his brother or other bandmates. I didn’t have to wait terribly long—they made it through at least half of their latest new single “All Things Must Pass” before having to start all over again to hit the correct key. Though William wore his signature sunglasses through the entire show, I felt like he was usually wearing a rather knowing, smug expression, turning the conflict between him and his brother into a hilarious pantomime; Jim would shake his head, throw up his hands, and blow frustrated sighs as if to say “see what I’m working with here,” whilst William would just go on shredding as though hitting all the strings would eventually produce what was needed. Phil King, John Moore, and Brian Young took backseat to the sibling antics, but that’s to be expected, and they did an admirable job minding the brothers and anchoring them just enough to avoid total implosion. Rather than walking catatonically into the mic stand as he used to, Jim was more apt to drop the microphone altogether and then swear. I reveled in the fact that Jim’s smiles were always painful grimaces—he looked like he was half-heartedly attempting to look gracious when the crowd went nuts in the face of all of their errors and general shambolic performance. His grins weren’t the only things under strain. For the last half of the show, Jim had his fingers stopping his ears in order to hear himself, but why would The Jesus and Mary Chain bother with ear monitors? That would be like asking them to soundcheck.

The Jesus and Mary Chain at Phoenix

They then returned to their early material with “Some Candy Talking,” full of furious clang and laconic delivery. I was even more excited by the insistent drumbeat of the outro because, according to earlier sets, I knew what was likely to follow it: “Happy When It Rains,” possibly my favourite song by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even with some bum notes and lyrical flails which had Jim reversing in more ways than one, I felt a shiver race up the length of my spine. Electric cool, indeed.

For “Just Like Honey,” they were joined onstage by a woman who looked like she had stumbled out of a corporate cocktail party. I later discovered that she is actress Jessica Paré. This fact still gives me no idea of who she is, nor why she would be an optimal choice to sing with The Jesus and Mary Chain. I find it a bit unnecessary to have anyone come onstage for the backing vocal, but due to the imbalance in levels, I couldn’t really hear her anyway. Paré made herself more useful for the next song, “Sometimes Always,” which was originally a duet with Hope Sandoval. This song was also the only unexpected bonus that we got, prefaced by Jim saying they usually never play it. It did end up breaking apart in the opening bars, but went forward after a quick regroup between William, King, and Moore. Thankfully, Paré then departed after an awkward half-embrace with Jim. The set proper ended with an extended, mind-atomizing version of “Reverence” complete with frantic strobing. I remember thinking that this just may be the perfect overload of my senses and perhaps the most joyous onset of epilepsy.

The encore was the expected Psychocandy triumvirate: “The Hardest Walk,” “Taste of Cindy,” and “Never Understand.” Since the stage at the Phoenix is exceptionally high, I felt like I was teetering just as much on the edge as the band was, hanging on by my elbows and craning my neck into a hyperextended tilt. By this point, I was a sweaty, battered mess, but euphorically unaware of how much my legs wanted to give out. Of course “Never Understand” accelerated into chaos, including a false start, but it was a brilliant, concluding collapse. Or so we thought.

Just as one of the roadies had unplugged William’s guitar, the house music went down again with the lights, and the band came trudging back out. Jim muttered about forgetting to play one of the songs before they launched into the sludgy “Sidewalking.” I couldn’t have wished for a better, more appropriate finale. For this second coming of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the centre cannot, and should not, hold.

Happy When It Rains – The Jesus and Mary Chain

Never Understand – The Jesus and Mary Chain

All Things Must Pass – The Jesus and Mary Chain

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The Re-action of Avant-Nouveau: The Pre New’s Music for People Who Hate Themselves Reviewed

The Pre New - Music for People Who Hate Themselves

As a fan of Earl Brutus, I was excited to hear that Jamie (Jim) Fry, Gordon King, Stuart Borman, and Shinya Hayashida, decided to form a new band, The Pre New, with Laurence Bray and Stuart Weldon. Their debut album, Music for People Who Hate Themselves, was released on April 2, and it covers an astounding amount of musical ground while remaining a cohesive, fascinating record. There’s an arty knowingness to their genre play and topical lyrical content that reminds me of other witty glam fans like Luke Haines and Lawrence (as much as Haines would likely loathe being compared to Lawrence). However, they also retain that trashier glam rock element that reminds me of a band like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. But perhaps due to their arty knowingness and trashy glam, the Pre New recall their earlier incarnation, Earl Brutus, most of all. The band’s description of themselves:

Imagine, for a moment, a modernist decadent block of flats from the 1950s, a work of art, utopian, a design for living. The building becomes rejected, vandalised and defecated in and is nearly ruined by the events and attitudes of the 1970s. Now in the first part of the 21st century it has now been fully refurbished into beautiful expensive designer apartments on sale in Foxtons in Shoreditch…That is what The Pre New is.

The focus may have shifted from Barratt Homes (see Earl Brutus’s “Blind Date”) to Foxtons, but the Pre New is still very much a continuation, hyper-conscious of its own self-reflexivity. According to Fry, the British Rail logo on the cover art acts as both a tribute to the late Earl Brutus vocalist/lyricist, Nick Sanderson, and as a symbol for the tension and dynamism of opposing forces, Newton’s third law of motion co-opted into the realm of musical pop art. While the colours used in the cover art could reference the Sex Pistols, Fry says they’re actually the colours used in this season of Polo Ralph Lauren. This ambiguity and possibility, this tension between past and future creates a pushmi-pullyu of musical and lyrical references. The record is threaded with the suspension of anticipation, the reminder of modernist impulses in limbo with unfulfilled futures. One of Earl Brutus’s most famous lines was “You are your own reaction” from “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” In many ways, Music for People Who Hate Themselves uses reaction as both a response to past events and re-action as in action repeated. Incidentally, the entry for “reaction” in my Oxford thesaurus provides this example of usage: “a reaction against modernism is inevitable”; the Pre New appears to be the inevitable reaction against the post-modern reaction. It feels like they are reaching back to a time before the 90s buzzword “new.” The Pre New sits on the brittle chest of the whole hauntology music genre and pummels it with incendiary fervour.

The record roars into life with the snotty spitfire of “I, Rockstar,” exhorting you to burn down Foxtons. Halfway through its unhinged chaos, it breaks into a heavy dose of nasal sighing that recalls “(Curtsy)” from Earl Brutus’s Your Majesty…We Are Here. Foxtons appears for the second time in “Cathedral City Comedown,” which mocks “the perfect recipe” of bourgeois life and the “death of England.” Sneering, bashing rock drifts into a psychedelic detour before driving back with a vengeance, augmented by grungy banks of synth buzz. This railing against the significance of property ownership in conjunction with “civilization” status ends with Borman reciting poetry about roundabouts, pound shops, Letraset, the rotting ripeness of England, and of course, the burning of Foxtons. The humourous melancholy of contemporary society is lampooned again in the first single to precede the album, “Do You Like My New Hair?,” which I first heard when Jeremy Deller sat in for Jarvis Cocker on his Sunday Service show last year. Suffused with razor-sharp synths and plashy guitars, it’s the sunniest, most indie pop song on the album. Fry sings “Text me/SMS me…M and S me/S and M me/B and Q me,” conflating consumerism and communication culture. The Pre New return to the emptiness of real estate in the track “In the Perfect Place,” which features Sarah Cracknell. It’s an alternately snarling and glimmering Kraftwerkian track that provides a perfect balance between the dreamy Cracknell and the heavily vocodered Fry. Fry sings like a forlorn appliance while Cracknell, known for her breathy coolness on Saint Etienne tracks, sings details that an estate agent would likely point out to interested buyers. Though Cracknell is ostensibly the only human element to the song, she sounds like a shiny android agent. Fry’s vocodered pronouncements continue on “Albion (You’ve Done Nothing Wrong),” which was released as a single on Valentine’s Day this year. It sounds like a pile driver dirge and was supposedly originally intended to be chucked into Buckingham Palace’s backyard in time for the Royal Wedding. Instead, the song becomes an absurdist indictment of England as a whole. The country is satirized with appropriately shallow acronyms like “lol” and “omg.” In addition to the second appearance of the archaically modern Letraset, the Pre New deride the instant, superficial celebrity of Susan Boyle with the line, “I, too, dreamed the dream/Karaoke machine/Obviously.” The song concludes with haunting, almost robotic, lines from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic, Beethoven-referencing television play The Ghost Trio. In a brilliant correspondence with Earl Brutus’s “You are your own reaction,” and this current band’s name, The Ghost Trio is divided into acts entitled “Pre-action,” “Action,” and “Re-action.” Beckett’s motifs of waiting and time provide the perfect shades of gray for this album’s themes.

The short interlude of “A Song for People Who Hate Themselves” is a sleazy saunter of a tune with drums banging away like the swinging hips of a cartoon femme fatale as Borman recites lines like “bring me the head of Susan Boyle” over top. It is a reply and extension to Earl Brutus’s “On Me Not In Me.” As he repeats a bitter “now what?,” he seems disappointed by the state of futuristic imaginings, but he is also daring you to attempt a response. His remark of “we slide this way/we slide that way” could be an acknowledgement of the band’s ambiguous flux and the album’s ongoing slippage between genres. “I Believe in Jackie” is a foray into surf-rock guitar twang, which melts into a pumping electronic groove, signaling the rock-dance dichotomy of following track, “A Night on Leather Mountain,” the DAF-referencing disco paean with camp macho vocals. Snarling guitars smash into 8-bit figures as Fry announces “I need disco/I need Berlin.” The song then transitions into an instrumental ambience with a woman speaking over top of ghostly German radio transmissions. She discusses the stagnated waiting of the Cold War, and ends with “It never kicked off,” which could just as well be applied to the hopes of modernism in general, before the track bursts into blistering, epic synthpop.

Stuttering electro and cabaret/vaudeville merge to create the next brief interlude “The New Black Hole.” Slinking ride cymbal accompanies visions of an apocalyptic Los Angeles, already referenced in earlier songs, and then the track swiftly expands into “The Pre New Anthem,” a modernist manifesto as rave anthem. Fry intones “This is a premix/This is a preview/We came before you /We were brand new/We are Pre New/This is what we do.” Earl Brutus crops up once again in the lyric “Action time/Satisfaction/You are your own reaction” along with further references to Pop Art, futurism, and the death drive. It ends with what sounds like the TARDIS, a machine for another cult time traveller, which is highly apt for what follows: the only song fully recovered and resuscitated from the last days of Earl Brutus, “Teenage Taliban.” It begins with a profanity-laden brawl, breaking glass, and car alarms, and then goes on to poke fun at the ridiculous rules and tyranny of adolescence with the freedom of middle-age perspective. The closing track, “Transfer,” is an ethereal wisp of a song that foregrounds the sound of measured exhalation, which now recalls both the opening track “I, Rockstar,” and in turn, “(Curtsy)”. It is literally the breathing room at the end of the record; with its flatline of synths, tendrils of glockenspiel, and minimalist drum machine beats, it ends up becoming nearer to a cathedral of ventilation. The sound of breath could be that of trepidation or meditation. Nearly four minutes into the song, it merges into an echoey swirl of Earl Brutus, eventually ending with “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” It’s like hearing a song from another room. Or opening a stage door into the past. As the chant of “You are your own reaction” fades into oblivion, you’re left with a bittersweet sense of palimpsest. While it could have just been another reference to Letraset, “Transfer” instead becomes a poignant, out-of-time tribute.

There are specters on Music for People Who Hate Themselves: lost friends, lost futures. Nevertheless, there are also vibrant comments firmly grounded in the present, moving forward on an alternative trajectory. This album is a response to personal and collective pasts through an energetic repetition and refashioning. This band is an industrial project for the cyberspace age. Since unfortunately so few bands seem to have picked up the Earl Brutus torch, the Pre New had to step in. They are their own reaction.

You can stream and purchase Music for People Who Hate Themselves on Soundcloud.

Do You Like My New Hair? – The Pre New

A Song For People Who Hate Themselves – The Pre New

The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It – Earl Brutus

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Willful Regression: Graham Coxon’s A+E Reviewed

While Blur continue to plumb the depths of their fans’ enthusiasm and nostalgia, reuniting this summer for the second time in three years to play a special one-off concert in Hyde Park to cap off London’s Olympic festivities along with The Specials and New Order (I’ll be honest – this did tempt me for more than a couple of seconds.  Happily good critical sense – as well as Larissa – intervened), guitarist Graham Coxon continues to evolve as an artist.  A+E, his eighth album in a solo career that began with 1998’s The Sky Is Too High, is unlike anything he’s ever done and it’s definitely not a stretch to say that his solo work has always been more interesting than that with the band that made him astronomically famous.  As fans will know, his albums are notable for not relying on the skills of session musicians, instead with Coxon calling on his own formidable musical talents to play most of the instruments himself.  He’s mastered countless guitar styles, not least of which is the finger-picking folk he used extensively on his last album, 2009’s The Spinning Top, an elegant, pastoral, sprawling concept album about a single man’s life, from cradle to grave.  And speaking of which, part of what pleases me so much about A+E is the wilful regression and contrast between the two albums.  Where The Spinning Top is lush and beautiful and peaceful, A+E is raucous, youthful, and angry.  Of course, sneering punk music is generally far more up my alley than folk, and Coxon’s self-imposed regression into the seemingly juvenile fascinates me, so it’s clear that I find this foray intriguing.

It’s also no secret that this is far from Coxon’s first dip into lo-fi punk and experimental guitar shenanigans.  His first four albums are all pretty rough, and as he was in Blur when he released all of these, it’s easy to assume and is probably mostly accurate that many of these noises were meant to distance himself from Blur and alienate himself from their sometimes teenybopper fanbase.  He was known then for his love of American college rock and indie punk bands in particular (that influence being a major reason why Blur switched styles between The Great Escape and Blur) and the influence of groups like Pavement, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. is as evident now as it was then.  On A+E, the departure from this style comes in the form of electronics and an undeniable krautrock feel.  In fact, the record is pretty much half-and-half loose, messy punk, and the driving motorik influence of krautrock, giving these songs a dark yet dancey feel that’s incredibly appealing.

We begin with “Advice”, a snotty punk number that is the antithesis of anything and everything that appeared on The Spinning Top.  His lyrical bile (“Just shut the point/ Tough break man, it’s not enough/ Completely tough, fucking enough”) is accompanied by a shambolic riff that breaks down even further at the end of each phrase into feedback and out of tune guitar squeaks.  Also, it’s fantastic.  Possibly the only advice necessary for this track is to play it LOUD.  “City Hall” plunges us headfirst into the drum machine-produced motorik beat that appears several more times on the record.  Its repetition is contrasted by well-placed jabs of guitar and horn honks alongside jazzier guitar figures and a subdued but equally repetitive lyric.  “What’ll It Take” is where the dance element is fully introduced in a heavily electronic, synthetic, spiraling way.  I realize that the point of much of this album is a kind of a ‘70s and ‘80s-influenced charming cheapness, but for me this track crosses the line into cheesy cheapness, the repetition here not quite coming off.  It may need more of a melodic sensibility to prop it up, or at least one or two more hook ideas, but the glaring simplicity on “What’ll It Take” makes it a pass for me.  That said, I do have some time for the ending, where he shouts “What’s wrong with me?” over increasingly frantic electronic noise.

Things pick up again, although not necessarily tempo-wise, on the droning “Meet and Drink and Pollinate.”  While the focus here is on the lower end of the guitar’s range, what stands out as a highlight is Coxon’s heavily processed voice with almost no variation in the notes.  This robotic romp is capped off with a sax solo that undercuts the midtempo droning effect, albeit played in the saxophone’s lower register.  Next up is album standout “The Truth”, a dark, post punk influenced, apocalyptic dirge with a monster riff.  The rhythm section is on display here, bass and drums enmeshing to create a wall of ominous sound that’s as dystopian as the words.  As Coxon sings “Slide into the dark, it’s taking shape around you/ Pretty soon it’s all that you will know” I’m reminded of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” if it were done in a different genre or Coxon’s own “You Never Will Be” from Crow Sit on Blood Tree.  There’s a menacing, looming guitar figure on top of all this sludge two-thirds of the way through, where it’s more evident that the bass is subdividing the beat, and a perfectly-fitted little hip shake is injected to intoxicating effect.

“Seven Naked Valleys” sounds positively lightweight in comparison (even though it’s not).  A groovy number that’s a vehicle for some deliciously raunchy sounding saxophone, it’s also got bizarre bleeping electronic noises, a woman’s sampled voice, squealing guitars, all on top of a reliably steady motorik beat.  These sounds converge at the end of each verse, and when Coxon ends his vocal phrase on a trio of ascending notes that are almost a strain, some extra noise is introduced too, and it sounds awesomely chaotic.  “Running For Your Life” is perhaps more unabashedly fun than anything else here, although no less gleefully boisterous.  Yes, it’s about escaping a gang of bullies, but between the hastily-delivered vocal lines and pop-punk riff that alternates with an all-out squall of noise, it reminds me a bit of the state of childhood: loud and busy and enthusiastic.  If cleaned up and prettified, this wouldn’t be out of place on an album like Happiness in Magazines or Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, but there’s something really addicting about the messy, lo-fi production that’s used to offset any commercial potential the melody may have.  The album ends on a mellower note with “Ooh, Yeh Yeh”, a blues-influenced song that forgoes dissonance and loudness for pretty harmonies and contentment.  It’s an appropriate ending, too, as Coxon has spoken about how the sessions for A+E yielded two albums’ worth of songs, with the punkier half showcased on A+E and the blues and soul influenced ones to potentially be released as an album later this year.

I’m always a fan of an album that totally cuts out the ubiquitous love song, so I think that factors into why I like A+E so much.  Mostly, though, it’s the combination of Coxon’s advanced and sophisticated musicianship with songs, production, and techniques that purposely obscure his skill.  His ability as a pop songwriter and performer has been pretty thoroughly explored on albums Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, and of course even his immense talent for guitar playing was challenged and improved on The Spinning Top.  What happens after that?  Well, for lesser musicians the answer is to retread old territory, and I suppose that, in his move from musical sophistication to simplicity between albums, Coxon’s doing some retreading of his own.  The success of his dive into krautrock and electronica is partially due to his constant willingness to experiment, and to embrace methods and techniques he hasn’t totally mastered in order to express himself.  A+E is an angrier and darker album than he’s released in years, but it’s also a much more fun album than he’s released in years, and Coxon’s joy in trying new things and embracing the results readily comes through.

Graham Coxon – Advice

Graham Coxon – The Truth

A+E is out today and is available through Graham Coxon’s 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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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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Long Live Sheffield: Former Lover and Nature Set Split Maxi-Cassingle Reviewed

Former Lover Nature Set Cassingle

It was an unfortunate day in 2008 when The Long Blondes had to disband after only two albums due to guitarist/songwriter Dorian Cox’s stroke. While rumours continued to percolate around Long Blondes frontwoman Kate Jackson’s yet-to-be-released solo album, I hadn’t heard anything more about the rest of the band, especially about what had become of Cox. Then at the end of last October, I received an email out of the blue ether, announcing his return with a new band called Former Lover. And they were apparently releasing a limited edition maxi-cassingle with fellow indie Sheffield band Nature Set. This was fantastic news. For one thing, I really love the word cassingle. Luckily, I also discovered that I really enjoyed both bands’ work. Fronted by Myrtle with Cox on guitar/organ and Daniel Dylan Wray on bass, Former Lover is an exciting departure from the scratchy vintage pop we had grown used to hearing from Cox. Instead, we get some minimal, yet seductive post-punk that relies heavily on the bass guitar for melody lines. Nature Set, which includes another ex-Long Blondes member, Reenie Hollis, and Daf, Claire, and Marie of garage-punk band Navvy, is a high-octane contrast with buzzsaw guitar and wonky synths. The sunshine yellow cassette has no label, but comes in a cardboard slipcase that has a DIY stamped design reminiscent of The Orphan Arms’ aesthetic. The analog format definitely serves both bands’ styles of music, allowing for the constant creep of static on Former Lover’s songs and fleshing out the fuzztones of Nature Set.

The first side I’m cued to slip into the tape player is the Former Lover side. Myrtle’s detached yet sweet, Alison Stattonesque voice is a clinical complement to a musical background that makes me think of sodium-lit car parks and cheap, brown-wallpapered motels from the 70s (the retro aesthetic is also cultivated in their music videos). With the three songs’ knocked-up pauses and obvious drum machines, they evoke the seedy and the synthetic. “He Doesn’t Have to Know About You” begins with a psychotic, pared-down bass figure that recalls “Stand By Me,” but twists it into something unresolved, unhinged, and voyeuristic. The song even includes what sounds like a much harsher, sharper güiro, a mechanized güiro, in fact. To supplement the languid bass, there are fabulous scribbles of distorted guitar that sound like someone slowly losing his/her mind. In a singsong, matter-of-fact vocal, Myrtle provides the chorus of “He doesn’t have to know about you/And she doesn’t have to know about me/For the record.” She even sets a time limit on the relationship: “until we’re thirty-five at the most.” The second track, “Unlust,” carries the fullest guitar line, but still keeps gaps of tension and a metallic iciness in the random clangs of percussion. There are more lyrics of a fantastically straightforward nature, such as “I suppose my lust for you is wasted/So I suppose I should divert it somewhere else.” The final track is “Heartbreak Button,” an understated tango set to the weirdly flat whip of a drumbeat you would find on the opening of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Between stabs of organ, Myrtle pleads “Don’t press the heartbreak button…please,” damping her desperation by reverting to the mechanical stance on love and sex that is present in the previous tracks. At one point, the song becomes particularly chilling as the narrator asks “I was a good person/Wasn’t I?,” which sounds like the kind of unsettling, doubting question you hear from a person clinging to an unhealthy relationship.

With their snarky female backing vocals and pop sensibility, there’s a bit of Kenickie about Nature Set. Their opening track, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now,” taunts and seesaws back and forth to a punchy bassline and a counter melody on synths. The drums pound through the bridge as synths continue to build with alarm-like quality and the electric guitar crescendos to a roar. “Hands” begins with the proclamation that “this week has gone to hell” and the narrator has “done nothing worthwhile.” It blossoms into a punky version of a 60s girl group song complete with a Spectorish bassline on methamphetamine and wide-eyed Sarah Records vocals. There’s a brash honesty to the lyrics, including “I’m not wishing it could last,” and the chorus is a blast of blissful melody as it delivers more candid observations: “It’s all right here in my hands…I still want more than I’ve found.” Closing track, “I Am a Planet,” is a swift, spinning slap of crazy. The vocals build upon each other in rhyming recklessness while arcade synths buzz in the background and the drums crash. It’s the perfect, incendiary collapse for the end of the cassette.

I truly hope I’ll be hearing more from both bands in the near future. Long live the Sheffield indie scene. And long live the impractical, yet enchanting cassingle.

Purchase the cassingle for only £2.50 at Naked Under Spacesuit.

Heartbreak Button – Former Lover

I Am a Planet – Nature Set

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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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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)

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