December 19, 2003

03'S MADELEINES (part 1)


Intermittent insomniac radio silence breaker.....

K-punk would love to provide you with one of those end of the year round-ups that everyone else is doing - but I'm just not systematic enough about remembering what came out when. And, not having yet managed to secure (sufficient) freebies, nor being a radio junkie like Luke, nor an obsessive collector like Matt, I haven't got close to hearing fifty albums this year, so choosing a top fifty would be a little difficult.

Better than choosing the best in some ways would be to choose the 03 Madeleines: those moments that will later recall twenty zero three. (Though it's almost impossible to say what they are now.)


Junior Boys - Birthday/ Last Exit ep.

The record without which no self-respecting end-of-03 round-up is complete.

So much has been said about the J-Beez, and their uniqueness lies in the fact that they can be placed next to the musics in the category below - the contemplative, uneasy listening of Sylvian and Foxx/ Budd - as much as in the company of anything more conspicuously contemporary. Their triumph is a triumph of visionary diagonals over marketing angles, doing what is so right as opposed to what is required or what is inevitable. The Junior Boys are obvious in that retropective way that everything groundbreaking always is: of course there's no reason why Daryl Hall shouldn't swoon with Sylvian and Timbaland.+ And of course that obviousness eluded all the labels who rejected them in the early days: (see the Hyperdub interview, if you doubt it).

+ Note: re-Timbaland. Be honest: Jeremy is more interesting than Tim these days. As Simon says, who can muster much more than indifference for Timbo now?


Sylvian - Blemish.

John Foxx and Harold Budd - Transluscence/ Drift Music.

Blemish - so much rawer than anything else Sylvian's done - is by far the most convincing act of divestment Sylvian has produced since Japan. Every moment in his career post-Japan has been an attempt at exorcism and unmasking, at scrubbing the make-up off. But the poses - however exquisitely they were realised - seemed just that: self-conscious postures, tasteful concoctions. The faces were still too well made-up: concealing all blemishes perhaps. Blemish's rawness is due in no small part to its re-embracing of syntheticity. Although in large part simply treated guitar and voice, we're never allowed to forget that this is a work of digital editing. You can hear the joins, and couldn't think for even a moment that this is some acoustic as-live, technologically-innocent communion.

I've not got round to saying anything about the Foxx/ Budd album on k-punk (partly in fear of turning k-punk into a Foxx fansite --- :-). But it's another side of Foxx, a side that has previously only come out in the Cathedral Oceans LPs (contirbutions to Oceanic music - I hesitate to say 'Oceanic Rock' - as lovely as anything in the genre, by the way). Foxx's reputation as a synth-pop pioneer has occluded his more contemplative side. But even on Metamatic, his most ostensibly bleakly techical effort, Foxx explored a kind of urban pastoral: a fascination with the fragile beauty and lost moments of the city, with its collonades and arcades, with its unexpected possibilities for intimacy, with its delicately-perfumed ghosts and elegantly-poised statues. On Transluscence and Drift Music, these themes are explored worldlessly, in a series of slivers of pure mood. The titles give you clues - 'Spoken Roses', 'Long Light,' 'A Change in the Weather', 'Sunlit Silhouette', 'Someone Almost There.' Like many of the main players in Art Pop, Foxx - an accomplished digital artist - has a sensibility shaped by the visual, and his collaboration with Budd allows him to create what are in effect photographs in sound: delicate, dilated presents, as insubstantial and ephemeral as autumn mist, on the edge of absence and presence.


The Rapture - Echoes

Richard X presents his X-Factor

The same malady, given different expression on either side of the Atlantic. Then dressed up as Now. As you'd expect, being British, Richard X is more upfront sarky irreverent in his disinterrals of the late 70s/ early 80s than are the po-faced Rapture, who are more Serious Artists in Denial. As I said in one of the many pieces I wrote for NY Press but which never appeared in the paper (grinds teeth), the X album has a lineage going back at least as far as The Who Sell Out, with its allusions to adverts and its knowing nods towards its own commodification. Like The Who album, the Richard X LP is Art Pop, Pop's answer to Pop Art: a collage of transvalued junk and junked-up haute couture. I found it irresistible. Is there anyone out there who didn't dig the Human League vs Chaka Khan thing? And I needn't mention the still-seductive sleaze of the Sugababes/Numan vampiric union? Check also X's reinvention of one of Spandau Ballet's greatest moments, 'Chant No1.' The use of Pop (Idol) Mannequins - Liberty X, Javine - is both an immersion in (what passes for) Pop Now and a meta-commentary on it. After all, what are the Pop Idol judges always looking for? 'That X-factor....'

The Rapture's TARDIS zeroes in on roughly the same time co-ordinates, although they don't pull X's trademark trick - splicing ultra-caucasian cold synthetics with r 'n' black Soul. The funk in Echoes comes not direct from source but from postpunk white appropriation of funk. Yes, there's something absurd about revisiting the hysterical male-odrmas of the late 70's and early 80's. Yes, it should be as verboten and pitiful as Oasis or the White Stripes. And yet, I couldn't help succumbing. A guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Pornography was always my favourite Cure elpee (you'll be surprised to know), and hearing it spliced with the Pop Group and Gang of Four, hearing the Rapture find that yelping abstract machine that connects Robert Smith to Mark Stewart, well, how could I not enjoy it? An attraction also (see Dizzee below) is that it severs angst from its current associations with sub-metal bombast.


Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner

So much was said so soon that there's a kind of discourse-drought and unwarranted weariness surrounding this now. Yet 'Sittin' Here' and 'Brand New Day' are some of the best songs about depression since Joy Division. With so many teenagers suffering from depression or depression-related illnesses now, DR is the voice of a generation whose spokesmen have been all-too tired, predictable and LOUD lately.

Jeez, I realise I've got a lot more to say about this year than I thought. See next time for entries on Now Pop (Timberlake et al), Girls Aloud, Dido, Christina/ Beyonce.

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December 07, 2003


For one insane minute after I posted that rant on the Pop Idol Xmas record, I began to wonder if my vitriol might have been a little ill-informed, since it was based only on a cursory half-listen to the single. Then I caught the end of Pop Idol tonight, in which the Pop Idol Twelve (appropriate name, that; sounds like a group of terrorist suspects up in court - crime: cultural murder) performed their long slow slaughter of Lennon.

'And sooo thees eees Chreestmas......'

They ALL sound the same. Close your eyes, it's impossible to tell any of them apart.

They ALL pronounce words in that stupid Mid-Atlantic accent.

They ALL layer on the vibrato.

Question: BEFORE Pop Idol, did EVERYONE sing like this? Did Pop Idol merely pick up on a trend in karaoke r'n'boybland emoting, or did it INVENT it?

War is over? It hasn't even STARTED....

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... about Erase the World:

1. The poetry of the writing. Check his evocation of Yorkshire, for instance. I was all-but packing my bags...

2. The existential fixation on death.

3. The willingness to buck fashion and defend the indefensible. I wholeheartedly agree about Manilow's 'Mandy' (and while I find charitable thoughts towards Westlife quite beyond me, if we have to put up with them picking young girls' pockets, it might as well be with a song that it isn't actually physically intolerable).

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Isn't this, from the Loaf , just perfect?

'Extraordinary this brain, the one I reluctantly inhabit. It just seems to want to reflect badly upon every event that it encounters. The body lies down and then the brain pours bitter vitriol on the day. And I can't seem to tame it, no matter what training I apply to it. It just doesn't like living.'

As a Loaf fan, I find myself torn when faced with the latest, felicitous developments in Sean's life: pleased for Sean, but worried about the future of the Loaf sitcom. Loaf leaving the ranks of the Single Male? Whatever next... All this going out and getting a life, where will it end? Lest we forget, check these words of wisdom:

"So yes, at the moment I am SINGLE. How ashamed I am! Christ, I should hand myself in to the nearest police station. And I don't own a property, I don't own any LAND. And my greatest crime (should I confess it? Yes I shall) I haven't BRED. I have gone against nature, I have rebelled against the laws of nature. I should be strung up."

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It's not personal, really it's not.

(After all, we know so little about her. She's perfected that smiling art of PR deflection, of projecting a sweetly vacuous wholesomeness. Fair enough, that's not the issue.)

It's not even about the records. I'm highly partial to many of them; not only 'Slow' and 'Can't Get...', but most of the old SAW tunes, too.

I think what I hold Kylie responsible for is trailblazing the rise of the Performing Arts Pop Star (the PAPS).

There's something ironic about the triumph of the Performing Arts aesthetic, because PAPS are actually very unconvincing performers - precisely because they have 'professionalized' performance, turned into a series of learnable 'moves' and 'techniques'. In the case of Kylie, I suspect this distantiation has something to do with being a (bad) actress: she has to always let you see that is her doing the Performing. She has to own it , she is incapable of going with it. Letting yourself go, getting carried away, are of course very unprofessional .

Whereas great performance is always about being possessed , taken over. Or at least being capable of projecting that illusion. A comparison that will no doubt invite derision: Alex Parks. Alex is almost the diametric opposite of Kylie. What she's incapable of doing is looking detached, of being arch or meta. Believe it or not, she's actually much more comfortable on television than Kylie. Kylie can't ever forget, or let us forget, that she's On TV; there's always that aura of self-consciousness, which finds its alibi in Camp. Alex entirely lacks this. Her every micro-gesture screams Affect. In fact, is there anyone less Camp than Alex?

Interesting how this cuts across issues of sexuality by the way. While Kylie, for all her vaunted gay following, is almost parodically, pornographically heterosexual, but thoroughly Camp (a bit like the allegedly hetero Robbie), Alex, zero-degree-camp, is sexually ambivalent, achingly androgynous.

Who could now harbour the delusion that there is anything remotely subversive or unsettling about Camp? Camp is the ruthlessly enforced meta-aesthetic of the time, a justification and underpinning for conservatism of all stripes (including sexual conservatism). And Kylie is its Pop Queen.

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December 06, 2003


Documentary from 99 on The Clash repeated tonight on BBC2 to commemorate the first anniversary of Strummer's death. Well, the music is unredeemable: a frustrated, frustrating, blocked, blunt, ugly sludginess. None of the Pistols' cascading Glam power, none of Lydon's sorcerous incandescence, just honest-to-goodness lo-fi Brit garage rock and Strummer's social worker rabble-rousing.

(Spit on me, and I know I'll lose brownie points hereabouts for this, but I always thought that The Jam were much better at this sort of thing. The ramrod-inflexibility and devoid-of-funk whiteness of the early Jam (almost the anti-type of the Style Council's flailing attempts at soulfulness and jazzfunky 'sophistication') was just much more effective than The Clash's inchoate bluster. Both bands essentially boiled down the Kinks' Brit Invasion sound into a council estate rock for the 70s (The Clash throwing in some earnest but awful reggae into the mix, of course) - yet The Jam made better use of their resources. 'Going Underground' and 'Eton Rifles' bristle with class nuances and ambivalences in a way that The Clash's faded placards never did. 'What chance have you got against a tie and a crest,' remains a great line, too.)

It's obvious now that The Clash paved the way for U2: as the Clash (by then top-five in America) imploded with impeccably anti-careerist timing in 1982, U2 were waiting in the wings, and five years later they would complete the job that The Clash had started, selling American mythmusic back to the Americans.

All that said, who could not feel more than a pang of nostalgia for the seventies when watching the documentary? Music as an (anti)social force, as cultural electricity. Music as more than music... All gone now... What the early Clash in particular must be celebrated for is the abstract sense of potential that they embodied: anything could happen.... All gone now...

And now, and NOW, isn't everything jaded before it has even been released? Everything's cornered. There's always an angle , a marketing strategy, a masterplan, it's all sewn up. Yeh, that was always the case to some degree, no doubt - but has mainstream Pop - at any time since the Fifties - been so bereft of cultural energy? A blind, implacable marketing mechanism, autistically indifferent to new input, permanently set to recycle .....

It seems almost gauchely obvious to complain, but isn't that Pop Idol Lennon travesty just typical of this? Even I can't watch Pop Idol now, by the way. Watching ITV at the best of times is a soiling and debasing experience. Pop Idol takes this to a new level. You can't watch without your reality flattening out into a endlessly unscrolling tabloid page in which everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator: you feel contaminated, greasy.

Impossible and irrelevant to moan about Cowell's aesthetics. What you have to admire about him, actually, is his undisguised instrumentalism - his total indifference to content. In that respect, he is a metonym for remorseless Kapital. (The News of the World actually gave away a free Best of Simon Cowell CD a few weeks ago - you'd have thought that this was a bit of a double-edged sword for Cowell, whose c.v. is hardly packed with lasting Pop milestones. It could have looked less like a hagiographic round-up of his achievements than a shaming revelation of what his 'legacy' amounts to: records that you'll find going begging every week in carboot sales up and down the country.) But that's missing the point somewhat, of course: Cowell's reputation, such as it is, is not based on any musical judgement, needless to say, but on a commercial eye for short-termist exploitation. And what's worse about this, is that those he's exploiting are wide-eyed aware of it. What he is hawking in every sense, is success, success as end-in-itself, the Reality Teleology.

Old news, old news, and it wouldn't matter, if there were any ALTERNATIVE. Yet here it comes: unavoidable, ineluctable, a force of nature. 'Christmas (War is Over)': everyone in the video smiling and simpering, singing in that fifteenth hand let's-get-it-on orgasmic r and b moan, American vowels and Craaaaaig David bo-selecta yowls. (Incidentally, when did that become the Only way to sing?) The Pop Idol contestants have long made an art out of total insensate inability to connect with what they are singing about (anyone remember the Abba travesties of a couple of years back?), but this is genuinely stupefying. Needless to say, any trace of Lennon's irony or cynicism has been scoured (Cowelled) clean - the song's gleaming picked-clean skeleton a monument to Cowellite capitalism's indifferent capacity to use up and process anything.

And has anyone seen The All New Top of the Pops? It's like the seventh circle of Hell. Tim Cash. Those sf teeth, digitally enhanced smarm, a 'man' (though I wonder if he really can be human) devoid of even the hint of personality. A kind of 'professional' poise incarnate. And the All New Top of the Pops - as it seeks to detach itself from the charts, it frees itself up to be a marketing vehicle for the Industry. It's airless, impenetrable, the sound of Inevitability, of what has Already Been Decided...

Metkoub. It is written.

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December 04, 2003


.... even Sir Lord Penman is back posting. Well, if that isn't motivation enough to take up the cudgels once again....

... just about every group ever seems to have been Progged . Not to sound like a killjoy or nothing, or like I'm missing the point of this joke, but is Prog really equivalent to 'Any Producer of a Concept Album'? Madness' The Rise and Fall, you what? Surely this kind of concept album - a bit like the Kinks' ones, or even The Small Faces' Ogden Nut Gone Flake - have more of a lineage in cockney music hall? Which provokes the thought, how does rock opera fit into this? Tommy, Quadrophenia, all that.... Also, I get that The Fall could have been Prog at certain points in their career .... but Live at the Witch Trials? Live at the Witch Trials is their least Prog, most snotty, amphetamine-garage elpee. Hex Enduction Hour, with the 18 minute (or whatever) 'Winter' and the ridiculously elongated 'And This Day', that'd be closer.... Wouldn't that be the influence of Can and VDG, partly?

Can hardly avoid commenting on the John Foxx inclusion, for 'The Garden', in Synthpop Prog, now can I? Not sure about this one: I've always thought it to be a noble but flawed attempt to return to a bucolic pastoral after the urbanoia of 'Metamatic' (actually, it's not even very 'synth' pop; synthesizers feature, but as part of an ensemble of 'real' instruments). But, no songs above four minutes... no absurd time-changes.... no overarching narrative concept....BUT as for ArtPunk Prog: Ultravox's ha! ha! ha! is a must.

Just what is the relationship between Art Pop/ Rock and Prog any how?

As for Prog Cinema: Lindsay Anderson ('O Lucky Man', 'Brittania Hospital') must be added to the list....

Now for that absence. Can only echo IP's comments on laziness (I think Roland Barthes wrote some paean to laziness, didn't he?) but which I can't celebrate in quite the same terms, since for me it is a direct consequence of work, its flipside. THEY'RE making me do something therefore IN MY OWN TIME I'll do absolutely NOTHING. 'Energy is eternal delight': lethargy is eternal misery.

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