Stuck in my head this morning, last night, and most of today: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Genetic Engineering” (off their largely unheralded 1983 Cold War concept album Dazzle Ships). A bouncier bit of toy-piano / Read’n’Spell fluff I cannot imagine. “Genetic Engineering” exhibits that puzzling tendency manifested in early 80s pop where the music is upbeat and full of cheer while the lyrics are fathomlessly cynical (think Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing” with its cartoonishly frenetic bass fretwork and sneering disdain for Ronald Reagan). This song has one of those 4-note arpeggiated major-chord melodies that jackhammers itself inextricably into your skull. Back when I used to do a lot of long-distance cycling, I’d get this exact kind of song stuck in my head during long slogs, and would want to never, ever hear them ever again by the time I finished the ride. Under less extreme conditions, though, it’s a super-fun companion to have for a day or two, and a useful counteractive to the bleak and dour stuff I’ve been listening to lately.
For indie rockers with very long memories, one of the only covers of this song was released by Washington, DC’s Eggs on a TeenBeat 7” in 1995. It’s faithful but sort of ramshackle and unravelled, but that was what Eggs were about in the first place, so it’s endearing, if nowhere near as charming as the original.
Stuck in my head this morning: “The Sideways Man” by the Digital Dinosaurs, a throwback to 60s-era Kinks disguised as a late-70s DiY tune. The bit that gets stuck in my head is the “ba ba ba ba bababa baa” backing vocals, which is also the bit that reminds me of The Kinks. You can find this song on the Angst in my Pants compilation or on Messthetics’ Greatest Hits (which I highly recommend). It’s less catchy than the usual stuff that invades my head while I sleep, but is insidiously accessible all the same.
Hyped 2 Death has more on the Digital Dinosaurs.
Some things happened, and then they stopped happening, and here I am, back again, with a huge pile of new music to hear and perhaps the cleverest recording I’ve heard in a long time currently on the stereo. I’ll get to talking about the huge pile in a little bit, but I wanted to urge anyone who likes their out-rockin’ both clever and loud to go check out this awesome Nurse With Wound / Spasm split 12” at The Thing on the Doorstep (yet another way-too-awesome MP3 blog I’ve discovered).
Its ability to be musical and strange in equal measure frankly confuses me. One side features Steven Stapleton’s / Nurse With Wound’s usual high surrealism (although more linear and rhythmically coherent than usual), and the other is a slab of slowly building, hard-rockin’ tribal psychedelia that reminds me of the Krautrocked heaviness Julian Cope tries so hard to harness, or maybe Electric Wizard in a particularly blown state of mind. It gets genuinely heavy, and Stapleton’s predictably unpredictable interventions just ratchet up the intensity by throwing things in new directions every few phrases. It remains curiously unadorned and unsentimental for all that, and so it stands pleasantly outside of time, sounding like it could have come out at any time in the last 40 years. Nurse With Wound makes this kind of mercurial mutability seem so easy, but I know it’s anything but.
I’m going to have a terrible time trying to find a copy of this for myself (United Dairies vinyl is deeply collectible and hence tough to find), but I’d really like one.
Writing this blog is leading me into interesting terrain, as this recent batch of additions to my library shows:
- The second half of Mordant Music's The Tower has been banging its way into my head far enough to make me take a leap of faith and buy the rest of their diverse and aggressively eccentric catalog.
- I realized that I was entitled to download a bunch of Severed Heads' Op series outtakes due to having bought Op 2 a while ago, so I grabbed those.
- Talking about Surgeon's awesome DJ sets reminded me to check his site to see if he had a more recent set than the ones I have, and indeed he did.
- Finally, I've been accumulating a pile of crud from Mutant Sounds, so I added all that to my iPod so I could get to know it better. There is some amazing music that's been dug out of obscurity by that blog:
- Tappi Tíkarrass, Björk's first foray into the post-punk sound that she refined in Kukl and the Sugarcubes, before she decided to become the most avant garde pop star ever;
- a bunch of long out of print Hirsche Nacht aufs Sofas (HNAS) records from a parallel universe where Nurse With Wound were actually German, instead of merely being obsessive fans of Krautrock;
- a whole pile of European art-damaged gothic post punk (Claustrofobia, Dark White, Epitaphe, Tango Luger);
- some early records by the fucking tremendous Wall of Voodoo, whose Call of the West combines the miserably American, empathy-drenched humanity of Raymond Carver or Robert Stone with Ennio Morricone's expansive sound and Kraftwerk's electronic pulse – anyone who thinks the Wall of Voodoo story starts and ends with "Mexican Radio" is very much missing out;
- a couple completely sui generis Japanese electronic / prog / jazz / avant garde records from the 70s, one of which was a collaboration between most of Yellow Magic Orchestra and the one Japanese Pop artist whose work I know well (Tadonori Yokoo – there was a semi-exhaustive survey of his work up at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo when I was there);
- and a pile of random singles from the Mutant Sounds archives, including an awesomely out of character John Duncan track and a deeply weird couple of tracks by Duppi, a Japanese band I'd never heard of and will probably never hear from again. Mutant Sounds is so awesome that there's no way it's going to last.
Here's the full list. I've appended links to sources for most everything. Downloading the albums posted by Mutant Sounds requires you to deal with quasi-filesharing services like Rapidshare, Zshare, Bodongo and Megaupload; these services' wack-assed stabs at business models make getting at the archives a pain, but I assure you that if you like boundary-pushing music, it's worth jumping through the requisite hoops. A lot of this stuff is begging to be put back into print, if only by somebody like Hyped2Death.
- Claustrofobia: Arrebato (Fobia) [ms]
- Dark White: The Grey Area (private) [ms]
- Epitaphe: Syndrome (private) [ms]
- HNAS: Melchior (United Dairies / DOM) [ms]
- HNAS: Music für Schuhgeschafte (Dragnet) [ms]
- HNAS: Willkür Nach Noten (Dragnet) [ms]
- Haruomi Hosono & Tadanori Yokoo: Cochin Moon (King) [se]
- Mordant Music: Baud With You / Shot Away (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Carrion Squared (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Dead Air (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Fallen Faces / Dead Air (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Filthy Danceheng (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Petri-Dish (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: The Tower: Parts I-XVII (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Mordant Music: Travelogues: A Beautiful Vesta (Mordant Music) [bk]
- Severed Heads: Op 1 (sevcom)
- Severed Heads: Op 2.3 (sevcom)
- Severed Heads: Op 2.9 (sevcom)
- Surgeon: Neck Face (www.dj-surgeon.com)
- Tango Luger: s/t (Invisible) [ms]
- Tappi Tíkarrass: Bítið Fast í Vítið (Spor) [ms]
- Tappi Tíkarrass: Miranda (Gramm) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Ring of Fire / The Morricone Themes (Index) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Two Songs by Wall of Voodoo (Index) [ms]
- Wall of Voodoo: Wall of Voodoo (Index) [ms]
- Tsutsui Yasutaka & Yamashita Yosuke: IE (Fiasco) [ms]
- whacked-out singles from the Mutant Sounds archives:
- Drinking Electricity: Shaking All Over / China (pop:aural)
- Duppi: Velvet Night / はつねつのみやこ (Night Gallery)
- Électric Max Band: Mick and Max / Knives, Feathers and Fire (Reprise)
- Electro Static Cat: Lethologica (Freedom in a Vacuum)
- Eskaton: Musique Post-Atomique (Eskaton)
- John Duncan / Andrew Chalk & Christoph Heemann: The Elgaland-Vargaland National Anthem / Old Hive (Die Stadt)
- Kevin Dunn: Nadine / Oktyabriana (dB Records)
- v/a: Earcom 3 (Fast Product)
Colin Newman’s “Round and Round”, the last track from his 1988 solo album It Seems, is a brilliant and maddeningly catchy exercise in looped anti-pop music. It’s especially impressive in the way that it flouts pop song conventions while sounding relentlessly poppy – the song is only Newman singing his elliptic, nonsensical lyrics over layered synths, with no percussion or rhythm section. It builds and builds, paying off in… nothing. It fades out and the album ends. It’s a completely typical move for Newman, who manages to combine both the most pop-oriented and most pranksterish tendencies of Wire (his most famous project) in a single person. And it’s a beautiful little song. I seem to be incapable of just letting it play through, rewinding it back to the beginning each time I hear it.
Red Mecca is a Cabaret Voltaire album I only picked up a month or so ago. It’s from the early “industrial” phase of the group, which is to say that it’s a mixture of experimental electronic sketches and tense, treble-heavy garage rock submerged in an acid bath of electronic squelch and unusual treatments (this perspective on their sound is also something I picked up only recently). Every so often they managed to float across some well-concealed rocking, too, like “Red Mask”, a droning, insistent and somewhat aimless song that misses being a goth club track mostly due to its compressed, reedy sound and the messy synth blurts and scribbles over the top. The song is constantly on the verge of falling apart, but instead the music and Stephen Mallinder’s near-chanted, surly vocals combine to hold each other together, making for a memorably crabbed and sketchy version of rock and roll.
A couple months or so, British post punk old-timers Wire put out Read & Burn 03 on Pink Flag, their own label. Since the last Read & Burn came out a few years ago, it’s sort of strange that they’d continue the old series. It’s especially weird as the record sounds less like the material on those EPs and the album (Send) that drew from them, and more like their late-80s material. I think their 80s output is a brilliant fusion of Dadaistic wordplay with strangely conventional, polished art rock, but a lot of people hated it. Since this carries over the tightness of their new material, it might be appealing to people who thought A Bell is a Cup Until It is Struck and the other albums of that period were a little too slick and diffuse.
If you’re a fan of Joy Division or Devo or ever liked a song by ABC or Human League, you really ought to read Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again. As this blog pretty well reflects, I am a die-hard music snob who’s devoted the majority of his life to stashing useless bits of music trivia into every semi-empty corner of my brain, and I still found it useful as a way of (re-)framing a lot of the music I love. Reading it has considerably enriched my music collection, even if my bank account has shrunk correspondingly.
One of the ways I found it most valuable was the way that it inclusively pulled a lot of my favorite old industrial groups into the context of British post punk. I’ve always liked Cabaret Voltaire, but once Reynolds pointed out that they essentially started as a garage band with some weird electronics (which they are: they cover the Velvet Underground and “Theme from Shaft”), it put them in a whole new, more interesting light. Instead of focusing on their aggression and coldness, now I listen for the weird skeletal rock, funk and dub / reggae that informs a lot of their early material, and that brings out the fact that, at root, they’re as much like early Bauhaus (“Silent Command” almost is a Bauhaus song) or Television as they are like Throbbing Gristle. It adds a whole new dimension to their music. Thanks, Simon.
1: One of these days I will probably be unable to resist blathering on endlessly about the many, many ways in which this term has been abused, but today is not that day.
What’s wrong with you, she said,
are you crazy?
You can’t say things like that,
you can’t say things like that.
You’re back to making waves.
Her messages are plain.
I wanna be her slave.
There’s a fire in my brain.
What’s wrong with you, she said,
are you crazy, or something?
You can’t say things like that,
you can’t say things like that.
“Kowtow” by China Shop (from Hyped 2 Death’s Homework #10: American DiY 1978-1989 A-C) is yet another beautiful piece of post punk psychedelia, with its woozy backmasked guitars, stylized vocals, drum machine rhythms, and mournful Let’s Active atmosphere (if you ever liked REM and you’ve never heard of Mitch Easter’s band, you should do something about that). The combined effect is a startling mixture of jangle pop and electronic psychedelia, and the oddly affecting (and affected) singing seals the deal. I need more of this stuff.
Speaking of music with which I have an obsessive relationship, I find myself wondering what, exactly, happened to Wire between Pink Flag and 154. Wire's debut album is all tense, dry minimalism, bitten-off cynicism and single-serving songwriting. Their third album, released only two years later (and shortly before the initial attempt at the band imploded -- what came back is still one of my favorite bands, but a very different entity), is a cold maze of serpentine paths dead-ending into miasmic bogs. Very pretty miasmic bogs full of exotic plants and mallards, but there's definitely more chill than pop here. It's a masterful product of the studio.
Wire's one of those chameleonic bands that has been through so many phases that people have completely lost sight of how remarkable their constant reinvention has been. Pink Flag is recognizably a post-punk product, but next to 154, Magazine at their coldest sounds like a bunch of fuzzy bunnies, and at least Public Image's seminally dour Second Edition sounds human. I love 154 without reservation (there are very few albums I have listened to more over the course of my life), but it is a very forbidding monument. How did they develop into something so forbidding, austere and coherent so quickly?