Tuesday, 24 February 2015

From Russia With Love


Do you remember the year 2001? I don't. Maybe it was uneventful, or maybe I experienced an emotional trauma that has caused me to wipe the entire year from memory. After listening to this record, I suspect the latter.

I have recordings of old John Peel shows and I find it comforting to hear his voice. In the run-up to Christmas I attempted to listen to a different Festive 50 broadcast each day. A John Peel advent calendar, if you like. In the 2001 chart there was a song by Meanwhile, Back In Communist Russia. I didn't know the song but the band name sounded vaguely familiar so I decided to investigate. I discovered that I have this 10" mini-album. I don't remember buying it. I don't remember hearing it. I don't remember seeing them support Pulp at a gig that was broadcast live on Radio 1, but my diary tells me that I was there.

The Oxford band deal in hazy guitar and keyboard textures with sudden bursts of noise. There are brief moments of piano and drum machine that threaten to wander into the realm of "Kid A" but then lose confidence and come creeping back. You're probably thinking that this is nothing you haven't heard a thousand times before. The key element, though, is the series of monologues delivered by Emily Gray. While there are similarities to the structures of the Slint songs reviewed last week, rather than pieces of fiction these stories of lust and betrayal are very personal. Despite the wall of fuzz that threatens to drown her out, Gray's voice is crystal clear. We are left in no doubt as to what has gone on in her life, even if she would prefer to forget.

Particularly during the stark piano moments, I'm reminded of Arab Strap. Their frontman Aidan Moffat's words also tell of ill-advised liaisons so maybe these are the same stories told from the other person's perspective. But while Moffat is crude and boastful about his conquests, Gray sees nothing to be proud of.

It's possible that each song tells of a different relationship but they end the same way, with emptiness and despair.  We've all been there. You tell yourself that it will be the last time you get into this situation. But of course, it happens again. And again. You end up angry with yourself for not taking your own advice. At times, Gray takes out this frustration by indulging in self-harm, or maybe this is a means of distracting herself from the futility of the relationship. In other songs, it seems to be the partner who is abusive. This not a comfortable listening experience.

Eventually I realise what it really is that's making me feel uneasy. Emily Gray's voice sounds familiar. There are hints of Linda Steelyard of Prolapse, who featured in the first ever post on this blog. But, no... it's someone else... maybe not even a singer. Maybe it's the person who caused me to lose the whole of 2001. I wish I could remember.

Although she is haunted by most of her experiences, Gray does look back fondly on one brief period of her life. On "Blindspot/Invisible Bend", she is desperate to become reunited with the man in question and spends months trying to track him down. She becomes excited when she thinks she has spotted him from a distance, but it turns out to be someone else. There is a lesson in this anticlimax. By all means reminisce about the past but trying to recreate the moment or reconnect with those who shared it with you will end in disappointment. There is a reason why those people are no longer in your life.

By the time we reach "Morning After Pill", everything has become clear. I sense that the pill in question is not to avoid possible pregnancy but to erase the memory of the regrettable encounter. I'm left with the feeling that my life - not just relationships but everything - has been a sequence of one-night stands. Ultimately of little consequence. The final line of the album says it all:
"Please keep in touch..."  "I couldn't see the point."

Monday, 16 February 2015

Fill your pockets with the dust and the memories...


I had another blog post lined up for this week, but after the upsetting events involving David Pajo last Thursday/Friday, I felt that I had to write something by way of a tribute. If you're not aware of the story then you'll find it on most US music news sites, I won't go into the details here. Having discussed this on other social media platforms, the consensus was that it is not our place to speculate on Pajo's emotional state, other than to wish him a speedy recovery. I will just say that it's an indicator of the power of social media that so many people leapt into action and prevented a sad story from becoming a tragic one.

Pajo has been inspirational for a generation of guitarists who didn't want to be constrained by conventional chord structures. In recent years, he has performed solo under a variety of names and also in bands including Tortoise and Billy Corgan's post-Smashing Pumpkins project, Zwan. But the high respect bestowed upon him really stems from this 1991 album by his original band, Slint. Their first album, "Tweez", was produced by Steve Albini and although there is certainly some experimentation going on, overall it sounds more like an Albini project. Slint would have been consigned to the "other US indie" record fair crates were it not for the radical change of style that occurred on their second record. Having said that, "Spiderland" was largely ignored on its release and it wasn't until five years later, when a handful of up-and-coming bands started to cite it as a reference point, that the rest of the world began to take notice.

Despite my previous post on music genres, it's inevitable that we'll get onto that topic when discussing Slint - partly because the album itself is so hard to categorise, but also because it has spawned a host of meaningless genre names invented by journalists with nothing better to do. In the late 1990s, the latest wave of experimental bands were being tagged as "post-rock" or "math-rock". Are these just the UK and US names for the same style of music? I've never been sure what math-rock actually is. Regardless of the classification, the influence of Slint was apparent.

It would have been easy for Slint to become part of the grunge movement that was developing at the same time but, while keeping much of the distorted guitar sound, they rejected the lazy delivery style of Mudhoney and their ilk, and produced something far more elaborate. In places their use of unpredictable time signatures would be better described as prog, but back in 1991 no one would dare admit that they knew the meaning of that word.

Slint's lyrics are also far removed from the anger and apathy found on other records of the time. Again harking back to classic UK bands of the early '70s, each song is a work of fiction. But the stories are incomplete and you are left to fill in the gaps for yourself. It's likely that your conclusions will be bleaker than the band originally intended. Brian McMahan's vocal delivery shows emotional detachment and is very matter-of-fact despite the grim nature of the subject matter. This only adds to the mystery. At times the words are almost whispered and are drowned out by the tortured sounds from Pajo's guitars so this is a record that really needs to be heard through headphones.

The complex nature of the album means it would be difficult for you to get an idea of the sound simply from me attempting to describe it to you, so it might be easier if I let you listen. As there are only six tracks on the album, let's look at each one in turn.

We kick off with a trip to the funfair and a visit to the fortune teller on "Breadcrumb Trail". The opening chimes sound pretty but don't be fooled; the next 40 minutes will be anything but comfortable. Rather than getting his fortune told, the narrator persuades the fortune teller to accompany him on the roller coaster. The sudden transition in the guitar sound and vocal delivery suggests it's a terrifying ride. But things calm down after the ride is over and you're left hoping that the two characters will meet up again once the funfair has closed.

"Nosferatu Man" is obviously inspired by the 1920s horror film. The lyrics are (I suspect intentionally) disjointed and difficult to follow. Rather than being a literal description of the film, the words seem to represent the desolation that seeps through the rest of the album. The dissonant guitar sound in the "chorus" (if you can call it that) adds to the feeling of uneasiness.

"Don, Aman" describes a character who feels alienation even in the company of friends - "Like swimming underwater in the darkness, like walking through an empty house, speaking to an imaginary audience." The distortion in the middle section emphasises this feeling of isolation before the final verse tells us that "he knew what he had to do." Hopefully what Don actually has in mind is not as gruesome as we are imagining.

Side 2 starts with "Washer", which is the closest the album comes to a conventional song structure. It's also the only track where the vocals show any kind of personal involvement and where it's clear, to me at least, what is happening in the lyrics. The words seem pertinent at the moment so perhaps we should move on for the sake of sensitivity...

"For Dinner..." is an instrumental track, which could be overlooked at first but it builds the tension in preparation for the album's standout song.

"Good Morning, Captain" has the sparsest arrangement on the album. The main guitar part consists of just two chords and never appears at same time as the vocals. This is the song whose lyrics I've spent the most time contemplating. They tell of the aftermath of a shipwreck and the captain of the title is apparently based on the Ancient Mariner, although I must confess I have never read Coleridge's poem in its entirety.
Halfway through the song, a child appears; I have always assumed that he is being reunited with his estranged father. It's not clear who utters the words "I'm trying to find my way home. I'm sorry. I miss you." I had originally thought it was the child, but listening to the song now it seems more likely that it's the captain, apologising for being away at sea for so long. Perhaps all would be clear if I were more familiar with the original poem. What's most puzzling is the barely audible line, "I want the police to be notified." I think I would prefer not to know what had happened in the past to prompt this. What follows is the most terrifying section of the entire album, with McMahan screaming so loudly that he allegedly made himself sick. It's a relief when the screams are eventually buried beneath the squall of Pajo's guitar.

Like the characters in the songs, you will feel alienated and detached from this album after the first listen. It takes time to become fully acquainted with these songs but your patience will be rewarded. More than 20 years on, "Spiderland" continues to be relevant and is deserving of its reputation as one of the most influential records of its time.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Bigmouth Strikes Again

I would like to set the record straight about my relationship with Steven Patrick Morrissey. This piece might come across as something of a hatchet job. If so then I apologise for any offence caused to his fans or even to the man himself - who I'm sure will be reading this. When asked which artist they associate with me, many would say Morrissey. They would say that I collect his records, which is true. They would say that I look like him, which has never been my intention. They would say that I worship the ground that he walks on, which is certainly not true. I have in fact heard myself referred to as "Morrissey Steve" to distinguish me from the many other Steves in my social circle.

I should start by saying that I am a great admirer of (most of) his recorded output. There is no question that the Smiths are one of the most important bands of my lifetime. They changed my music tastes forever when I first heard them in my teenage years. I return to their records more than any others in my collection. I can quote all of their lyrics, and often do as there is usually a line that seems pertinent to any situation in which I happen to find myself. Morrissey's solo work was never going to match the splendour of the Smiths and although I can't quote all of his recent words faultlessly, I have still collected and enjoyed his releases.

For me, his solo career peaked relatively soon after the break-up of the Smiths. Nobody could fault his 1992 album "Your Arsenal". I also have a fondness for the singles released at that time, particularly 1991's "Pregnant For The Last Time", when his music first began to show traces of rockabilly. This was largely down to the backing band he had now put together. Guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer were the most proficient musicians he had worked with since Johnny Marr. They also looked great - but more on that later.

After two more impressive albums in the late '90s, the quality of his work began to decline. I find a lot of his music from this century to be rather wishy-washy and I haven't committed many of the lyrics to memory. The latest album, "World Peace Is None Of Your Business", shows signs of a rejuvenation with the songs telling the interesting stories we would expect, in contrast to the lyrics about nothing much at all found on "Ringleader Of The Tormentors". Perhaps there is scope for a full review on these pages at a later date.

But enjoying someone's music is very different from idolising them or wanting to be like them. While talking about the availability of Morrissey dolls, someone jokingly suggested that I might have a shrine dedicated to him. There are stereotypical fans, who go to every show on a tour, fight over scraps of his shirt and do indeed have shrines - I used to know someone like this. I don't consider myself to be in this category, I certainly hope I'm not anyway. More than anything, I have never referred to the man as "Moz".

Morrissey fanatics, male and female, often attempt to copy his appearance. You might be surprised to learn that my hairstyle is not based on Morrissey's in particular. A 1950s rockabilly look does sit well with many of the bands in my collection, and a better example of someone who has influenced my style would be Alain Whyte. Look at his neatly-styled quiff in the video for "Glamorous Glue" above, then compare it with the hairstyle of the singer - I would say that a rockabilly look was never really what Morrissey was going for. One of the most bizarre questions I've ever been asked was nothing to do with hairstyles. A complete stranger, not considering that I might genuinely suffer from hearing loss, said to me, "Do you wear that hearing aid to look like Morrissey?" I can't remember my response but it probably wasn't polite.

Trivial matters of fashion aside, the main reason that friends associate me with Morrissey is probably that he is such a high-profile artist. Those who follow me on social media will know that if I had a shrine to anyone then it's more likely to be Kristin Hersh, Michael Gira or Amanda Palmer. None of these get much news coverage, so people focus on my interest in the one artist they know something about. Unfortunately his high profile is often for the wrong reasons and I don't want people to assume that I agree with some of his outrageous statements. A friend, who I hoped would know better, said that he thought that Morrissey was the person who had the most influence on my life. I was quick to point out that there are many aspects of Morrissey's character that I strive to avoid.

It's fair to say that he's now known more for being outspoken than for his music. You could argue that everyone should stand up for their principles, but in Morrissey's case the line between principles and blatant attention-seeking is becoming increasingly blurred. Let's not waste time discussing all of his controversial quotes, but just look at the top of this page for an example of one of his outbursts that would embarrass any sane member of his fanbase. This is why I don't want people to think that he has any influence over my life.

In recent years, he's become notorious for scrapping gigs and entire tours. I was saddened when the news broke about his serious illness, so obviously he can be forgiven for any cancellations due to health problems. But abandoning a gig at the last minute due to his own petty niggles with the venue or audience shows a disregard for the fans who already have tickets. I respect his decision not to eat meat and he is entitled to promote this viewpoint, but trying to enforce it upon others is another thing entirely. My vegetarian friends are realistic enough to accept that some people choose to eat meat. Come on, Moz, what makes you any different? He's currently in the news for demanding that a venue stops selling meat if his performance there is to go ahead. Tantrums like this have caused even the most fervent fans to say that he's a bit of a twit.

I deliberated for a long time before deciding to buy a ticket for his forthcoming tour. At first I was reluctant due to the high cost, the size of the venue meaning it will be difficult to get a good view, but mainly the risk of the show being cancelled. What finally settled it for me was the thought that this might be the last time that I get to see him. Not so much a morbid prediction based on his current state of health, just that he might retire from touring due to his dissatisfaction with humanity in general. Assuming the show does go ahead, I'm sure I won't regret my decision.

So, I hope that has cleared a few things up. Morrissey and I have had our ups and downs but we are still friends. Nothing more.