Imagine, if you will, lo-fi retro-disco with a totally bloodshot dude doing stream of consciousness rapping in a style not entirely unlike the work of Wesley Willis (RIP). This, in essence, is Gary Cloud & the Gospel of Power’s “Puff Rider”, which is fun in a greasy, low-brow kind of way.
Now imagine it being remixed by one of the UK’s most talented electronic production teams. The result is still greasy and low-brow, but also sketchy and glistening. As I mentioned yesterday, Various Production are all over the place, and that’s part of what makes them so fun and irritating all at the same time. They never settle in one place, and they’re talented at coming up with curveballs like this one.
Mordant Music’s Dead Air is too much to absorb on a first hearing. It meanders through a multitude of electronic music styles and sounds vaguely like a wildly overdone soundtrack for a very technical documentary about the history of British television: many of the tracks feature semi-disconnected bits of media-obsessed narration (by Philip Elsmore, a former continuity announcer for Thames TV), the beats and synths sound like a cross between Boards of Canada and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and there’s a dystopian haze and confusion hanging over the music that suggests the grimy, egalitarian vibe of 1970s instructional films.
Mordant Music seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the idea of the library music they occasionally make for Boosey & Hawkes (as Boomkat astutely notes, Carrion Squared sounds and is put together exactly like a library music album). I would say they remind me of Various Production (who have a similar take on off-kilter electronic music, and with similar detours into glitchy folk and broad pop gestures) if it weren’t for their obsessive focus on mass media and their nostalgic use of raw analog synthesis. They’re using similar elements towards different ends. There’s a dialectic at work in their music that defies easy characterization; their relationship with the old television they base their work on isn’t really direct imitation, satire, or any other kind of ironized commentary. Dead Air sounds like the soundtrack to a dream about television.
Part of the appeal of listening to surreal music is that it often brings along with it surreal art:
cover to Hirsche Nicht auf Sofa’s Melchior snarfed from Brainwashed’s HNAS discography. You can get the 2002 reissue of Melchior from Mutant Sounds, or from a record store with a really good selection of used CDs in its experimental music section, like Amoeba. Also, [here](http://www.fakejazz.com/articles/coolerthanyou/hnas.shtml). Read that article and [this one](http://www.fakejazz.com/articles/coolerthanyou/hnas2.shtml) to get more of an idea what HNAS were all about.
Dark White didn’t make much of a mark; they (or he, as only one guy is pictured on the sleeve) made 500 copies of an EP in 1985 and disappeared. There’s nothing that original about The Grey Area, either. If you’ve heard WaxTrax!-era Ministry or Visage or a;GRUMH you’ve heard the various pieces of their sound. Sometimes the vocals are out of tune, or not delivered with much confidence. The recording is clean but unremarkable. The songs have the bouncing-octave minor-key synth lines you’ve heard in a million industrial / electro / electroclash / New Wave songs.
Of course, I like old dance-industrial a lot (as long as it’s not the turgid, tuneless churning of Antler-Subway bands like Noise Unit), and the way Dark White put everything together is actually charming. “Charming” may seem like an odd word to describe death-obsessed darkwave, but the band that made these tracks was young, and as such all the moodiness comes across as direct and earnest, and the whole package is so utterly and obviously a product of its time and place. The total Americanness of it all appeals to me. Over at Mutant Sounds, the commenters compare some of the sounds on the record to Big Black, and I don’t really hear that, but I do agree that the vocal delivery is pretty damn Midwestern.
Apparently this record trades for hundreds of dollars on eBay, so grab it from Mutant Sounds while you can.
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a bad version of June Carter and Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” (which most people know as Johnny Cash’s most famous song), but if there is one, neither of Wall of Voodoo’s versions are it. The pulsing synths and spare, spaghetti Western guitars bring out the sublimated tension that was sitting there at the heart of the song, hidden in plain sight, all along. (Cash’s decision to swathe the song in mariachi horns was an act of genius, but at odds with the song itself. I don’t miss them when they’re gone.)
There are probably songs with more famous backstories, but there can’t be many: June Carter and Johnny Cash met while they were both married to other people and Cash was a total wreck, due to various booze and pill addictions. Carter fell in love with Cash almost immediately, but was wise enough to realize he was a walking disaster area and kept her distance. She wrote the words for “Ring of Fire” during this time, and transformed what must have been awful feelings of unrequited love into a set of lyrics that are right up there with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in their clarity and urgency. They just jump right off the page. (I’ve wondered for a long time when, exactly, Johnny figured out what, and who, the song was about, and how that felt.) Eventually he got his shit together, got right with God, and married June, and they lived more happily ever after than not. The whole story is several sizes larger than life.
Wall of Voodoo must have known they were onto something when they recorded their version, because they did it twice. The first version is slow, sparse, and tense, and is the star of their debut EP. The second version, which they released on a single with a medley of Ennio Morricone themes performed live as the B-side, is considerably punchier and features one of Stan Ridgway’s best early performances. Ridgway has a terrific and uniquely American voice, and it’s in peak form here. There’s also some near-perfect post punk guitar soloing here, all feedback and atonality, which cuts against the grain of the original song but is in keeping with the sublimated urgency of the lyrics. While Wall of Voodoo wrote plenty of great songs (“Can’t Make Love”, “Lost Weekend”, “They Don’t Want Me”), this may be their best performance.
It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, every time I hear “Polygon Window”, it gives me chills. Richard James made some genius music before he turned into techno’s very own Rumpelstiltskin.
A Guy Called Gerald’s Black Secret Technology has always occupied its own niche in the drum’n’bass firmament. There were a lot of records that borrowed its basic elements (erratic sub-bass, chopped-up tinny breakbeats, sampled soul and R&B vocals) but none that capture its weird sound, which stands outside the continuum that extends from old UK hardcore through modern drum’n’bass. It’s a really weird mixture of cheap plastic retro-futurism and soul, with murky midrange and bass that goes from nonexistent to room-shaking with no transition, and vocals that are the furthest thing from slick. Even though seemingly everybody loves this record, people copied Goldie’s schmaltzy theatrics and pristine gloss and left AGCG’s much woolier (and more interesting) sound alone. Goldie was reaching for the stars, and AGCG wanted you to know that he made these songs for you himself, with his own hands.
Gerald evidently knew he had his hands on something special, because he kept tinkering with Black Secret Technology for years after it was initially released. I’m not really sure how many versions I own, because I have it twice on CD and once on vinyl, and all three versions sound different, even though there are only two distinct track listings. I keep both the CD versions on my iPod at all times, because I think it’s interesting to listen to the two of them back to back and try to figure out what errors Gerald thought he was fixing in the reissued version. I’ve never figured it out. Both of them sound pretty much perfect to me the way they are.
“Understand Me” is perhaps the best lead song off any Jon Spencer-related project. It is, in fact, the first song on Pussy Galore’s deeply unhinged blues-punk meltdown Dial M for M*th*rfucker, and I have loved it ever since I heard it on KBOO sometime in early 1990, with its erratically bleeped intro and all. It is a fantastic – and hilarious – song.
However, I have never been able to understand a goddamned word of what Spencer was singing, as he sings like Mick Jagger at the tail end of a three-week cough syrup bender. Nothing about Pussy Galore was ever particularly intelligible except their decision to cover the whole of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (they owe Keith and Mick a lot, in their way), but then again, that never got officially released. So never mind.
“Dick Johnson” is another great Pussy Galore song, but its title is not ironic. It’s only awesome.
Ursula K Le Guin, a very wise author, critic, feminist, anthropologist, and all-round God Who Walks, once wrote a spirited essay entitled Genre: A Word Only the French Could Love. At some point, I’ll discuss this essay in depth, especially as it pertains to music, but for now, the title is enough. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my time on earth trying to file the art I like into little boxes that are partitioned into subboxes that have little halo-like graphs of signifiers and tags rotating around them in a complexified hyperdimensional paraspace. It’s always been lots of fun, but I eventually decided I wasn’t sure how edifying it all was.
These days I’ve shifted to cleaving to another notion stolen from literary critics, which is that an interesting piece of art is a finished work that has something wrong with it. This notion of the problematic comes to me from a quote of Randall Jarrell’s (“a novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it”) cited in an interview with Samuel R Delany, who was using it to point out that even The Dispossessed – Ursula K Le Guin’s most successful novel – was flawed, but it really gets to the heart of what is special about the music that has stayed with me the longest: it exerts a kind of Lovecraftian hold over my imagination because there’s something going on that just doesn’t quite work, signs of a reach exceeding a grasp.
Smoosh all that together and you get Mordant Music’s The Tower – Parts VIII-XVIII. They don’t seem to have any idea what they want to be when they grow up. There’s some bathtub electronic experimentalism in the vein of early Tangerine Dream, a hint of Mogwai’s bombastic instrumental post rock, some bass-heavy dubstep miserablist isolationism (Shackleton once put out a record on Mordant Music’s eponymous label), a lot of Glenn Branca’s rigorous and tendentious guitar drones, but none of it’s in the service of any kind of structured program. The net effect is as if they’ve somehow captured on disc music in the raw, a protean cloud of sound, but it’s more beautiful and affecting than most of the outsider electronica it superficially resembles. It’s remarkable, and surprisingly accessible, even though it’s far from perfect. It would be far less interesting if it were perfect.
Even though Surgeon got his start ripping off Jeff Mills, both in his production and DJ styles, his DJing sounds much better these days the further he strays from his hard techno roots. Listen to one of his DJ sets where he plays edgy dubstep like Vex’d’s “Fire” and straight-up industrial noise like Whitehouse (or even the bizarre punk-funk glitch edit of “Iron Man” he busts out in his live set from Emergency a year or so ago), and compare it to the sets where he stays within the confines of the techno ghetto, and it’s striking how much more fun and loose the former are.