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skykicking - february



Wednesday 27

Tweet - Oops Oh My
Of course the music on "Oops Oh My" is amazing - is Timbaland, you dig - with its heatstroke shuffle, its eerie unidentifiable sounds and disembodied moans, its general blood-flushed pallor that has almost disappeared from the guy's oeuvre since Nicole's similarly awesome "Make It Hot". But there are two things that hit me faster, harder. For one, there's Tweet, the most sultry, rich-voiced chart R&B diva in ages. "Oops! There goes my shirt up over my head! Oh my!", she exclaims with a generous sense of decorum, affecting a gentle surprise as she watches her hands explore her body in the mirror (surely this is the sexiest song and narrative around right now!?). Tweet's vocals, lazy and delightfully langourous, come on like a trashy take on Angie Stone, filtering the latter's soulful "feeling" through a pop-veneer that confers a sort of cheap and nasty glamour, as if she were a drag queen's take on the soul-diva's "authenticity".

A tribute to self-pleasure was perhaps the inevitable result of female-fronted R&B's look-but-don't-touch policy; once you've bought the house you live in, the shoes you're wearing and the car you're driving, the next step in becoming an independent woman is procuring your own sexual satisfaction. But how do you suggest self-sufficiency without implying desperation and inadequacy? Can Tweet keep the two separate? As her dress drops to the floor, does she even consider the implications of her actions? How do you melt the ice maiden without leaving just a puddle on the floor? Tweet's only option is to put off thoughts of the future ("swallow my pride, let it ride", she says), and even her retelling of the sequence of events reads like neutral observations - she hasn't even begun to judge herself. As with most of the best pop, it's all a bit in the heat of the moment, and its that suspension of the present, the total inhabitance of here and now, not to mention the absolute certainty that masturbation-pop is so not the next big thing, that makes this so damn irresistible.

(the second thing that hits me is how damn cool it is when Missy murmurs, "I was feeling so good I had to touch myself!")
eleven-forty-four pm


Saturday 23

You know a movement's serious when it gets its own novelty hits, and with Middlerow's "Right Proper Charlie" it looks like it's the turn of ska-garage to become a bona fide honest to goodness style of its own. This is of course quite truthfully the last micro-genre I expected to take off; I had hitherto assumed it was merely a mad idea in the head of Mike Skinner aka The Streets (eg. "Let's Push Things Forward"). Which makes "Right Proper Charlie" an eerie sort of joke, sounding like a mish-mash of a hundred cliches that have yet to be invented. It's also not very good, really, but under the circumstances this minor issue can and will be glossed over.

"BRUV! Are you SURE, Bruv?" Someone yells, and then a choir of crooners, um, croon "here he comes, he's a right proper charlie, flappin' his gums, he's a right proper charlie, we all know one, he's a right proper charlie, you'll always have fun with a right proper charlie!" And then, over an ostentatiously mournful horn arrangement, a thoroughly silly bassline and brisk-but-understated beats you get what sounds like a karaoke version of The Streets covering Blur's "Charmless Man", with all of the dancehall - the wrong dancehall, mind - references you'd expect. Apparently this has come from the Ed Case soundsystem, which explains the presence of Sweetie Irie and the assortment of crazy sounds, but I can't fathom why they've seen fit to release what looks set to be the most obvious (but similarly prophetic?) joke-record the scene's had since "I Don't Smoke The Reefa".

Still, it's fantastic to hear records like these because you really get a sense of how open-ended the garage scene (with the emphasis on scene) is. It's always tempting to locate the genre's innovations within the hands of a select few auteurs - in my case, Horsepower Productions and The Streets most often - but as with Bump & Flex, Middlerow remind me that a seachange is exactly that: a tidal movement with an enormous group force behind it. "Right Proper Charlie" isn't lifechanging by any stretch of the imagination (please listen to The Streets before you pass any judgement on the feasibility of this genre) but it's funny and fresh-sounding, and its very anonymity bodes well for the future.
one-fifteen pm


Tuesday 19

Currently listening to Jorg Burger's Burger Industries compilation, which collates his released work from '91 to '93. I'm really enjoying it, but not quite as much as Burger's recent work as The Modernist for Kompakt. Unsurprisingly, this stuff is very different. Faster, harsher and even more relentlessly machinic than "Abi '81" on Total 3, Burger's early acid techno shares the same sonic make-up as his subsequent material, but retains a distinct feel. Perhaps its the Teutonic quotient: all of Burger's work feels Teutonic (even his gentle ambient pieces) but there's something much more uncompromising about this early stuff, which finds a particularly rigid (though thankfully not too grim or amelodic) midpoint between Hardfloor-style acid trance and Mills-style minimalist techno... lots of squealing, percolating acid riffs over brisk rhythms and, um, little else.

What I find interesting I guess is how much light it sheds on the divide between Europe and America in terms of what was done with acid house, and how it was interpreted by either side. When I think of my favourite American post-acid music - all the second wave Chicago house on Cajual and Radikal Fear and of course Green Velvet all by himself - it's obvious that there was a real devotion there to house's pleasure-principle aesthetic. The pleasure-principle is barely audible in acid house itself, which always sounded to me like house with all the pleasure stripped out of it, leaving only that nervous, wired buzz, a sort of ghostlike memory of the sensation of pleasure that is no longer present in a tangible form.

The trick of the Chicago second wave house, then, was to recognise how pleasure  ghosted acid house, and to strengthen its aura until it seemed to rather illuminate the mindless compulsion. If initially house seemed to veer sharply from the pleasure-centric nature of the first wave into acid's dirgelike self-flagellation with barely a pause for breath, then second wave Chicago house dedicates itself to constantly teetering on the edge, pinpointing the moment where the overload of stimulation causes a system malfunction. Even listen to someone like Green Velvet, whose work is probably the most rigid and self-flagellating of all second wave house, and you can hear a real sexiness there. "The Stalker" in particular has the most lascivious snare/hi-hat pattern ever, a deleriously drawn-out stop-start shuffle like a deliberately restrained sexul caress whose constant delay of culmination is acutely painful. I like too how Curtis reflects that in his stories: in "The Stalker" his obsession causes him to declare "I'm losing my mind" with an almost erotic sigh, and he talks about buying daisies and staining them with his blood to make them look like roses. You can imagine the object of his affection being horrified and disgusted, but at the same time feeling inevitably turned on by it all.

Compare/contrast with the frenzy of Burger Industries, where any loss of control is through an asexual, thoroughly German devotion to velocity and sonic intensity. There's an architectural grace to Burger's work even at its most full-on, like a perfectly formed and well-oiled machine manufacturing goods at a breakneck speed (the title's clearly no coincidence, and nor is the name of the record label, Structure). As with his later work as The Modernist, Burger loves layering simple rhythms and Moroder-like grooves to create impossibly thick sounding tracks beset with internal friction (Andy Kellman describes The Modernist's sound as "prickly", which is absolutely spot on) and the effect is that of a hundred machines labouring in a strange harmony (pumping out weapons probably).

If second wave Chicago house highlights the role of pleasure within acid house, Teutonic acid techno does away with it almost entirely. There's little of the self-doubt present in acid house (that whole "oh my god I have become a sex/drugs machine and that is going to far!" sensation), and the becoming-machine drive is instead actively pursued. If there's a self-flagellation at work here, it is purely for self-improvement. The pain is not the focus, but the necessary by-product of a need to tone oneself, to strip away any excess or unused flesh and bodyfat. The left over ambiguity is not a desire to turn around and retreat back into humanity, but more a profound uncertainty. "If I am now a machine, what feeling will I (or should I) have? Do I have any at all?" What's nice though is that this material is early enough that the becoming-machine aesthetic has yet to become orthodoxy. Occasionally Burger will throw in a hip hop breakbeat or moments of warm and radiant ambience, which gives the compulsion surrounding it a pleasingly unconscious feel, as if its representative of impulses that are yet to be fully articulated.

It is of course easy to succumb to these sorts of dualistic divisions between Chicago and Germany, between sex and the machine. Too easy perhaps, which is why though I'm really enjoying Burger Industries I find "Abi '81" more enticing. While its rippling groove and, yes, prickly synth and percussion arrangement is consistent with the music on Burger Industries, there's a certain languidness to it that reinfuses the sexuality orginally purged from the mix. Subtle, sexy and somehow deeply untrustworthy, the poise of "Abi '81" reminds me of the female android in "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?", existing in the exact point where robotocism and desire converge, where the rigid tick of electrical process transforms into the warm pulse of sensation and desire. Another analogy? If Burger Industries at times sounds like how scrubbing yourself with steel wool might feel, "Abi '81" is like having your erogenous zones stroked with nettles.

And maybe this is part (only part) of what makes the whole micro-house project so appealing: if so much great dance music has documented the descent from erotocism into roboticism, micro-house might be the first music which chronicles the opposite progression, with obedient labour-droids waking up one day and suddenly discovering that they have sex drives. Burger as The Modernist understands the same essential truth as Green Velvet does: there is a very fine line between pleasure and pain.
eleven-forty-five pm


Friday 15

<blatant self-promotion>So, like, obviously the best thing about the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll '01 is that a paraphrase from one of my comments ended up as the title for a commentary section.</blatant self-promotion>
eleven-oh-four pm


Saturday 09

Last night on a whim I pulled out Heather Nova's Glow Stars album from '93, and thought of the ILM thread What's so wrong with a girl and her guitar? My answer to that question, now as then, is that while there's nothing at all wrong with a girl and her guitar (or her piano, for that matter) it seems a shame that the Lilith Fair aesthetic - preferencing song over sound, lyrics over performance, purity of voice over charisma, live chops over studio manipulation - is so pervasive among female singer-songwriters, such that "female singer-songwriter" and "girl and her guitar" are not only largely synonymous, but mean exactly what they say and no more (no "female singer-songwriter-studio-wizard", no "girl and her guitar and her samples and her hot rhythm section").

I've even heard the argument put forth that women are suited to songwriting where men are suited to soundsculpting. It's such a nineties argument; in the eighties - pre the Lilith singer-songwriter explosion - artists like The Raincoats, Kate Bush, Lydia Lunch and Jane Siberry were totally up there with the guys as far as sonics go, and the subsequent reduction of musical horizons for female artists has a strong revisionist air to it in my opinion. It depicts an unbroken (and unproblematic) passing of the baton from Joni Mitchell to Tracy Chapman, and from her to each participant in the Lilith explosion (excluding, of course, Missy), steadfastly ignoring anything that might spoil the picture. There are, of course, females doing amazing things sonically right now. Tellingly however, very few of them are considered "singer-songwriters".

I've got no problems with the singer-songwriter style - Joni Mitchell was one of my first musical loves - but I wonder why it's so rare to find it reunited with an appreciation of sound, unless in some sort of overly-obvious tribute to previous female sonic trendsetters. Which is why I've decided that I really love Glow Stars, an album that seems to me to perfectly stradle the enforced Platonic divide between songs and sounds. On the one hand, Heather's penchant for balladry and personal lyrics, not to mention her impossibly pure vocals, represents the singer-songwriter tradition distilled. On the other hand, the album avoids easy categorisation by reaching out to a sorely neglected but theoretically obvious musical source: dreampop.

For while Heather's songs are effortlessly melodic, frequently their arrangements go out of their way to avoid melody, choosing instead gorgeously unresolved soundscapes: eerie guitar drones, hushed organs, gentle ambient percussion and Heather's own soaring harmonies. Listen to the otherworldly "Frontier", with its descending veils of A.R.Kane sugardust, or the dazed summerpop of "Second Skin" (very Cocteau Twins circa Heaven or Las Vegas?), or the One Dove-like clicking percussion and keening vocals of "Spirit In You", or the designed-for-David-Lynch-films blasted guitar noise of "Shell", which could almost be Labradford gone pop. With its spiderwebs of sound and gentle plateaus of noise coating "proper" songs, Glow Stars reminds me of The Kitchens of Distinction or The Verve's first album, gently negotiating that space between writing songs to sing and music to float inside.

Like the front cover picture depicting floating jellyfish, Glow Stars largely resembles a ghostly waterworld of constant ebb and flow. The jellyfish are Nova's songs: discrete and fully-realised, but somewhat at the mercy of the aqueous sonics they're immersed in. I can't help but think of S. Reynolds and Joy Press's discussions in The Sex Revolts about "flux", there largely in regards to Mary Margeret O'Hara. But where O'Hara's flux inserts itself in the performance of the lyrics with her schizophrenic renditions of otherwise sensible narratives, on Glow Stars the willfully unresolved element is not the performance of the lyrics (which is usually straightforward) but the performance of the music.

Important to note (and this is what distinguishes Heather from, say, Lush) is that the music is not built out of flux, but rather destabilised by it. Heather's vocals are clear, close-up and intimate, dominating the music, and her tunes are the first thing that hit you. This is in marked contrast to the washed-out vocals and almost accidental melodies of most dream-pop, and it confirms that, whatever else it is, Glow Stars is first and formost a collection of songs. In the hand of a more mercenary producer they would become ringing, unblemished guitar-pop; instead they live a precarious, fragile double-life that is all the more precious for its delicacy. Listening, I get the feeling that these songs, if pushed either way (be it towards haze or clarity) would lose their appeal (ironically, Glowstars is in truth not a proper album but an album-length collection of demos).

If any further proof is needed, listen to Heather's subsequent albums. The follow-up Oyster contained better songs than Glowstars: moments like "Heal", "Truth & Bone", "Doubled Up" and "Walking Higher" were sharper, crisper and more affecting than her previous work. It also contains the best thing she ever did in "Island", a mini-epic that seamlessly combined the linear perfection of the ballad with the crashing, wracked incoherence of Throwing Muses. From its mournful quiet-dirge beginnings and too-collected deadpan vocal delivery it spirals into an awesome release, with Heather sounding caught between Hersh and O'Hara. "You know that dream where your feet won't mo-move?" she wails, paraphrasing O'Hara's "Body In Trouble" ("ya wanna c-come but ya b-body won't let you") and then culminating with a hissed conflation, "a kiss/a kick/a kiss/a kick/a kiss kiss kick", that is as perfect an evocation of "flux" as you'll find.

But Oyster, with its general swing between a harder rock sound (very timely in '95) and sparse ballads, had little of Glow Stars' subtle magic and blurry disorientation. It's a more enjoyable, more friendly record undoubtedly - in some ways I like it better than its predeccesor - but it can't help but seem like a regrettable triumph of the song, and a step away from what initially made Heather sound so unique. The rot, as such, had clearly set in: Heather's next album Siren (what an inappropriate title!) was as straightforward and unproblematic a reproduction of the Lilith aesthetic as you could hope to find, except that it's, well, more melodic - the Lilith Belinda Carlisle, perhaps.

It's still a nice record: on a good day the perfect chime of the guitars and the huge choruses sound charming; at other times though it just seems too eager to please, like a dog that just sits there grinning at you and waiting for you to notice it. The grin's a bit forced too - many of the tracks sound "jolly" but in a rather typical way (ie. "up" pop songs), and you'll certainly find nothing as touchingly whimsical as "Glow Stars", with its disorienting shifts between slightly silly ukulele strum and disembodied atmospherics. Only the closing track "Not Only Human" recalls the fluid sonics of Heather's first album, and even then only as a dim, passing shadow. I haven't checked out the new album South yet; I'm not excited by the fact that the first single was cowritten with Bernard Butler.

Maybe Heather's story reflects the Lilith story, charting the narrowing of sonic possibilities throughout the nineties. But narrow doesn't equal shut, and if more artists started taking their cues from records like Glow Stars, maybe we could start working out ways to make "girl and her guitar" a bit less of a dirty word.


Tuesday 05

So perhaps I posted my thoughts on The Dismemberment Plan a day or two too soon, because as much as I really liked Change then, I really really really like it now - it and Kylie would make a revised personal top ten for last year, Change in particular is up there with anything else from 2001. So my "issues" with the album have faded somewhat - a lot of what I thought it came close to achieving I now think it does achieve, or comes so close to achieving that it hardly matters, and all the other stuff the album does (eg. the rock stuff) is so equally good that approaching the album with certain demands seems particularly useless. Still, my ideas from the last post exist independently of my opinion of the album, and since they only seem about half-explained (as Josh correctly implies) I may as well expand upon them. So, some additional thoughts:

Josh says he doesn't think Remain in Light grooves as much as I suggest it does. At first I was going to e-mail him and tell him he was a mentalist, but then I listened to the album again and... well, no, Josh is still a mentalist as the whole thing grooves like a mofo, but the misunderstanding almost certainly arises from the fact that when I talk about groove my meaning is a bit ambiguous. I tend to use the word in two ways: in the ordinary sense, as the rhythmic pull/swing of a record ie. the groove in a house track; and, in some more vague sense, as an approach to making music that may not necessarily express itself in the overriding presence of grooves in the first sense.

With this second, more expansive use of the term I guess I'm referring to anything that seems to disrupt the songfulness of a song in a physically felt and cyclical manner. "Groove" as the third choice between narrative and noise, connoting neither stately progression nor absolute freefall, but rather a sort of restless directionless. In dance music the absence of focus on the song makes grooves unproblematic, which is why the word can be so used so easily, so neutrally (House in particular refines this restless directionless down to a simple suspended moment; it could be the embodiment or the apotheosis of groove, I guess). In rock however there is usually a tension between groove and rock's tendency towards progression (with their sudden linear switches in time signatures and rhythms, prog rock and emo are fairly extreme exampes of this "progressive" urge).

And here is where I have to be careful, because obviously some sorts of grooves actually tend to be accomodating towards rock as an idea. The Stooges, for example, whose grooves are focused in the overpowering riffs. But riffs, no matter how brutal, always suggest some sort of forward motion to me, of being slammed forward in bursts, fits and gasps. The groove I'm talking about avoids this sort of motion, and perhaps that's often why rock music in which this sort of groove appears sounds like it's had its middle punched out of it (even literally, in terms of a relative lack of mid-frequency sounds). As such it always strikes me as being oxymoron-rock, rock that is in and of itself a critique of rock. Rock that debilitates its own original function just as Remain In Light and Change do for punk and post-hardcore specifically.

And maybe this is why the grooves I'm talking about almost necessitate the decentering of the guitar, because the guitar as a focal point always seems to suggest travel, even of the "spacing out" kind. Groove on the other hand is like jumping between stills of the same image, arriving at the same place despite movement from then to now. It's about each element of the music seeking to constantly recreate itself so as to frustrate the search for a narrative. Being anti-narrative, "groove" also democratises, resisting the urge to give one instrument an organising role: on Remain In Light, and on parts of Change, the rhythms, the bass, the guitar, the keyboards, the vocals (urgent and key: both David and Travis have a tendency to slip into falsetto, or something near it, their high, "weak" vocals the opposite of "commanding") etc. all seem to work together in a loosely interdependent manner, with no single aspect more important than the other. Josh is correct in suggesting that it's all about song structure, or to be specific, about how the song attempts to achieve unity.

Rock, with its emphasis on unified mid-frequency noise, envisions a surge; Groove-based music, with its wildly divergent interdependent parts, is more of a structure, a house you can step inside and wander about in. The drumming on Remain In Light and on Change (particularly The Face Of The Earth and Ellen & Ben) emphasises this: the way the drum hits fall all around your ears, dazzling them with a strange sharpness arising from the lack of filled-in spaces around them, where the guitar noise should be. (It was the drumming here that originally inspired me to run with the whole The Dismemberment Plan/Talking Heads comparison after initially dismissing it as groundless)

And so with Remain in Light when I talk about "groove" I'm as much referring to the foregrounding of the repetitive bass and rhythm sections (even when they're "monogroove"; perhaps especially when they're monogroove), the sudden snatches of shrieking guitar in Seen And Not Seen, the hypnotic interweaving vocals on The Great Curve, the graceful shimmer of the keyboards on Once In A Lifetime, the gorgeously fragile percussion of Listening Wind as I am to its "grooves" in the ordinary sense of the word. Crucially though, the guitar, the rock elements, are decentered but not banished, which allows this music to still be rock, albeit rock that is constantly eating itself (hence the idea of rock that is consumed by grooves). It creates a tension that might be lost if the rock was totally excised. I tend to enjoy Remain in Light more than My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, perhaps for this reason.

... Does this explain the idea better? Or am I doomed to incomprehensibility?
eleven-thirty-eight pm





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