Jim O’Rourke – Eureka: Round 12 – Tom’s Selection

There are many reasons why I love Devon Record Club. Amongst these is the fact that it has saved me a not inconsiderable sum of money this year – instead of rushing out and obtaining the latest flash-in-the-pan, I have gone back to my record collection and rediscovered/reappraised so many treasures I have either neglected, forgotten or failed to fully appreciate in the first place. I have gained so much enjoyment through doing this that I am beginning to wonder if I need any new music at all, which is surely in direct opposition to the point of being in a record club in the first place. Oh well…whatever.

Insignificance, Eureka’s immediate successor in the Jim O’Rourke discography definitely fell into the ‘wrongly neglected’ category; an album I have always greatly enjoyed but have rarely turned to in recent years. Eureka itself has always been, at least until the last few months, one of those records that I knew I was supposed to like but never ‘got’. Insignificance is a sparkly beast, crammed to bursting with hooks, riffs, dynamism and, to my mind, some of the most interesting, hilarious, devastating lyrics in modern music. The fact that Eureka and Insignificance look like two sides of the same coin (both bearing somewhat disturbing images by Japanese artist Mimiyo Tomozawa) underline O’Rourke’s desire to subvert and discombobulate. The records sound completely different and, with the benefit of hindsight, I reckon that it was the fact that Eureka wasn’t Insignificance Part II (I know this doesn’t make sense in chronological terms but I obtained Insignificance first) that had been blinding me to its magnificence for all these years. But in recent times and with fresh ears, Eureka has begun to occupy an increasingly prominent place on my turntable, and in my heart, so that when Nick announced that our next offering had to be from 1999, I found myself favouring Eureka over another of my most treasured albums, Gorky’s Zygotic Myncci’s ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’.

What makes Eureka so great? It’s hard to distill into words but, over and above the beautiful musicianship, skillful arrangements and glittering songcraft, is an overwhelming feeling that, to O’Rourke, the listener is there to be challenged and confused.  Take the final, seemingly throwaway track, Happy Holidays. On the face of it, this is just an afterthought tagged on the end of the album, acting as a coda. But on closer listening this is surely a paean to some of O’Rourke’s influences. In under two minutes the song shifts through four phases starting out as a Jeff Buckley strumalong, transitioning through some Robert Wyatt wailing into a bar or two of Todd Rungren before signing off with something resembling Craig Wedren from Shudder to Think. Blimey!

So, is he poking fun at the genres he is inhabiting so adeptly on Eureka or is this a work of reverence? Is his gorgeous cover of Bacharach’s Something Big asking us to laugh at the original or buy the back catalogue? Is his tongue firmly in his cheek…or not? I don’t think it’s possible to work out the answers to these questions by listening the album, but I love the fact that I am being made to think about it. It’s a difficult act to pull off (interestingly tonight’s offering from Nick, The Make-Up, elicited a similar discussion) but I personally feel that in Eureka O’Rourke has made exactly the album he wanted to make before he went into the studio and that part of his intention was to create a soundscape that would force these questions to be considered by the listener. Oh…and to make some bloody great music into the bargain!

Nick Listened: Tom’s back to bringing along records that I already own to DRC, which is very nice of him, except this one I have actually listened to, and quite a bit too. I’m quite a fan of O’Rourke’s work, whether’s it’s this era of his solo career or his contributions to Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Loose Fur, especially his attention to and care for sound and mixing. Eureeka was actually one of the first albums I thought of choosing for the 1999 theme, but I decided against it. Partly I decided against it because I much prefer its slightly more energised follow-up, 2001’s Insignificance, which I’ve listened too far more often in the last few years.

Hearing this again, for the first time in a long time, was great though. I’ve always loved the beatifically repeating and surreptitiously swelling opening track, but often found that after that my mind drifts off and I lose sense of the rest of the album; I’m aware of its loveliness but not its substance or content. The record club chatter wasn’t much help at making me absorb the rest of the LP, but talkig about and engaging with the record directly definitely helped, and Eureeka struck me, 12 years on from its release, as sounding like a really influential record – the likes of Sufjan Stevens feel like they might owe a debt to its textures, balance, and atmosphere.

Graham Listened: A hat-trick of albums that I had never heard was the reward for my failing to find anything from 1999 that I wanted to bring along for a listen (though not played, there  was nearly judge’s warning issued when my copy of the Chemical Brothers 1999’s Surrender was found in the cd case of  1997’s Dig Your Own Hole!). Anyway Tom’s choice vexed me a little. I really enjoyed the variety/songwriting/arrangements etc, but on the night felt that I needed to know where Mr O’rouke was coming from. I was struggling to get whether he was being coy/amusing/ironic/playful/serious with the style and variety of the album. Clearly my problem as perhaps I should have not worried and just listened, but there seemed to be something about the album that had me questioning the artist. Should have just sat back and enjoyed I suppose?

Rob listened: Jim O’Rourke sits somewhere in the middle of my list of artists I should know something about but don’t. He flits and floats about around some of my favourite bands and records but I’ve never bothered to investigate him properly. In discussion I was surprised to find that so many people (inside and outside DRC) are so realtively heavily invested in him. I loved the record as it played (I have heard it before i the background) and ‘Women of the World’ stuck around as head music for about a week afterwards. Picking out the references and pastiches was good fun too. Most of the records the DRC have been animated by have been those where the artist’s intent is far from clear, and this worked well in that regard.

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MAKE-UP – Save Yourself – Round 12: Nick’s selection

I picked 1999 as a theme because it feels, to me, like it’s perceived as a fallow year. 1997 felt like a marquee year for big modernist rock releases, Radiohead, The Verve, Spiritualized, Blur’s step towards American experimentalism, Oasis’ grand folly, plus the big-beat monopoly of The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Prodigy’s US breakout. 1998 was a transition year, the moment Britney landed, the last year when something definably 90s happened. 2000, with XTRMNTR, The Marshall Mathers LP, At The Drive-In, Kid A, Queens Of The Stone Age, PJ Harvey, Supreme Clientele, Coldplay’s debut, and Stankonia, feels like the beginning of a new decade. But 1999 feels like The Flaming Lips and piss-all else.

I first heard MAKE-UP in 1999, and while I really love it, and have subsequently bought a handful more albums by them (although I’ve never investigated Nation of Ulysses, the group they evolved out of), I’d never claim it as a classic nor expect all that many other people to love it. I do think it’s great fun, though, for pretty much every second of its 35-minute length.

I understand Nation of Ulysses as a shouting, testifying, politically-charged, DC post-hardcore band who ran their course and then, in the mid 90s, under the leadership of singer Ian Svenonious, adjusted line-up slightly and transformed into a late 1960s underground gospel-garage dirty psychedelic band. Whether they’re pastiche merchants, parodists, or loving adherents of a certain aesthetic is not clear – there’s such care in the way this album, and all their others, is recorded, in the way the band present themselves from record sleeves to matching yellow jumpsuits, such passion in the onstage testimonials to the power of rock and roll, of soul, of jazz, of gospel, that if this is pastiche or performativity then it’s of the type that is so committed as to overwhelm any initial motivations. MAKE-UP blow notions of authenticity out of the window; there is no inclination of where the line between the real people end and the “band” (as gang, as performance, as philosophy, as presentation) begins – at least one other album by them claims to have been recorded live in front of an audience despite (apparently) not having been.

Save Yourself itself is murky, funky, sexually-charged (comically so – despite Svenonious claiming in an interview around the time that advertisers only used sex as a selling tool in order to encourage people to procreate and thus ensure the existence of future markets to buy products, and not because sex itself is an intrinsically pleasurable activity – again, where does performance end?), driven by blacker-than-black, echoing, reverberant, subterranean basslines and decorated with lashes and storms of properly dirty electric guitar plus squalls and swoons of excitable brass. There’s a two-minute song built around an irresistible organ riff and entitled “White Belts”; a lascivious paean to the angles and edges of shapes with multiple sides (“I’ll be your tetrahedron” indeed); a song called “C’Mon Let’s Spawn” with brass which can only be described as erotic and which, joy of joys, fades out and then back in again. The album climaxes with an eight-minute cover of “Hey Joe” which turns the song into a duet between Joe and his maltreated lady, which devolves into accelerating guitars and a bizarre telephone conversation. It’s brilliant, but it’s the sound of 1969, not 1999.

Boredoms – “◯” (circle) from Vision Creation Newsun

As Save Yourself is only 35 minutes long, I picked a big track to go with it – the storming, psychedelic, tribal rave-up that is the opening track from Boredoms’ masterpiece. I think of VCN as being an album from 2000, which is about when I first heard of it, but it was actually released in autumn 1999 in the group’s native Japan. Boredoms are another group who evolved out of a punk band, only this time the punk band wasn’t another unit with a different name; it was Boredoms themselves. Over 15 years they moved from shouty, near-incoherent, cyberpunk beginnings into a relentlessly experimental, rhythm-worshipping collective who bridge the gaps between dance music, The Wire-friendly avant-garde noise, experimental indierock, prog, and blissful ambient. Over it’s near 14-minute length, “◯” sums up the entirety of its parent album – repeated guitar riffs and raucous multiple-drummer rhythms disintegrating and rebuilding into and out of calmer, disorienting lulls of sound. I find it exhilarating and irresistible.

Tom Listened: I really liked the first track on this album. It felt not unlike Kill The Moonlight era Spoon and set the album up beautifully; tight, taught and spare it really whetted my appetite for more. Unfortunately, for me, the rest of the album failed to come close to those initial heights and I found the rest of the songs to be a bit of a cliched mess to be honest. It seemed as though the album’s production was deliberately muddied to give it that late 60s Nuggets garage rock sound so that, whereas Jim O’Rourke is updating the sounds of the 60s within a modern context and, to my mind, creating an homage in the process, Make-Up on Save Yourself came across as pastiche. It wasn’t awful, but after the excellent first track (Save Yourself) I was expecting the unexpected.

Graham Listened:

A band I had never heard of, but that’s why I enjoy DRC. This was great stuff. Once I was updated on the band’s philosphy and mission, I could really appreciate their sound was for themselves and their followers only. Commercialism was not going to cause them to stray from their path. In fact it sounded to me like a couple of tracks could have easily been transformed in to bright/catchy/poppy hits, but that is clearly not where Make-Up wanted to go. Still their militant funkamentalism (I hereby copyright that expression!) was really enjoyable.

Low – ‘Secret Name’ – Round 12: Rob’s choice

This was one of my Christmas albums in 2000 (I assume). I certainly remember sitting down at my parents house to listen to this alongside my other choice, A Silver Mount Zion’s ‘He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms’ – which makes me wonder just how much more downbeat festive listening could possibly get. I listened on headphones and vividly recall waiting for something to happen. When, over the course of the album, nothing did, I remember thinking ‘well, that was a waste’. Turns out I wasn’t listening closely enough. Everything was happening.

Perhaps listening to A Silver Mount Zion next made ‘Secret Name’ sound like the Supremes, but one way or another Low felt like a band worth sticking with. I liked ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ a deal more – although now I prefer this – and we’ve been together ever since. Only a few years later did I go back to ‘Secret Name’, now attuned, and discover the real treasure.

Low get some lazy stick for being just a slow band, but think for a moment about just how much more difficult it is to make low-tempo music hang together. Surely most idiots can paw and bang away frantically at guitars and drums and create some energy. It takes incredible craft, genius almost, to create such power from space, from restraint, from a gentle two-step.

Listen to Alan Sparhawk’s singing. Every word has to be perfectly phrased and delivered or else the entire song would be punctured. He can’t just roar his way through his performance and as a result each vocal line is a string of pearls slowly, carefully, magically being pulled from his mouth.

And then there’s the other voice. The sequencing may be accidental or very deliberate, but holding back Mimi Parker until part way through the third track ‘Two Step’ is a killer move. When she finally fills her lungs and starts to sing, not only is it a gorgeous moment, it lifts the whole record onto another level and it never looks back.

The sound of ‘Secret Name’ is not distant or removed, it’s warm, intimate, close. But beneath the surface there are strange sounds scratching, on ‘Don’t Understand’ and ‘I Remember’. This initially seems like exceptional care for a record-maker like Steve Albini to take but his stated aim is capture a band’s aesthetic, and here he does so perfectly. With hindsight this seems like their first step away from their stripped down roots towards a (marginally) more dynamic sound. I think it’s Low at their beautiful, devotional, heartbreaking best.

I talked a lot about this record whilst playing it for the Club. Too much, but talking’s pretty much what we do. Only latterly did I explain that Low are a trio from Duluth, Minnesota who play guitar, bass and drum (usually singular). Whether you know them or not, you should be spending time with them.

Tom Listened: I am really grateful to Rob for bringing this album to the record club, not just because I thought it was majestic, beautiful, delicate, quietly stunning etc,etc but also because I have since gone back to Things We Lost In The Fire, yet another great album that has wrongly been gathering dust on my shelves for quite a while.

Secret Name sounded less accessible than TWLITF and listening to it has helped me appreciate the slower, denser songs on the latter album. I find it difficult to predict the effect of listening to a new album by an already cherished band on the albums I already own by them. Sometimes the new album comes to overshadow the previous work to such an extent that I rarely go back to the older albums (for example, since getting Noble Beast by Andrew Bird, I rarely go back to The Mysterious Production of Eggs, even though it was one of my favourite albums of the last decade). Sometimes new work sits alongside the older albums to form part of an equal whole (I would count the American Music Club albums in this category, all are pretty much equally brilliant and equally flawed). And occasionally, as has been the case with Secret Name, a new album makes me appreciate what I already had more than I ever did.  To my mind, the fact that Secret Name was so slow, so measured has helped me look beyond the ‘pop classics’ of Dinosaur Act, Sunflowers, Like a Forest and In Metal (you know, the ones that actually have a beat!), to see the true beauty in all those ‘dirges’ that I had always dismissed in less enlightened times.

Nick Listened: Low are a band that, for some reason, I’ve always shied away from. It’s perhaps too easy to dismiss them as “slow and miserable” and decide not to investigate, and, frankly, sometimes one needs a reason not to investigate a band / artist because if one investigated every one you had a soupçon of interest in, you’d be skint and overloaded and bored of music in no time at all. My dismissal of Low in particular has infuriated my wife, who likes them a lot; I think in part her affection for them also fueld my dismissal, not because I don’t like my wife’s taste in music (we have huge crossovers), but because I’ve already stolen enough of her interests and tastes and feel I should leave some things alone so they can be hers. Also, I heard bad things regarding the use of dynamic range compression on Drums and Guns…

Over the last couple of years I have listened to Low’s Christmas album quite a lot (when seasonably appropriate), and I’ve grown to appreciate, and, well, really quite like it. I also really quite liked Secret Name; I’m a fan of Albini’s engineering, especially when it’s partnered with less aggressive music (Electrelane and Nina Nastasia, for example) where the juxtaposition of his stark, live-in-a-room approach (and awesome drum sound) juxtaposes intriguingly with songs, melodies, and playing that you wouldn’t expect. It suits Low’s delicate, measured, geological tempos beautifully.

I shall be getting out my wife’s Low CDs and giving them a spin. They may be slow, but they’re not miserable.

Graham Listened:

Well then, so far nothing has caught my attention at DRC in the way this album has. I had some preconceptions about what Low were all about, but one listen blew them all away. The space/drama/intensity all made a huge impact and I will be in search of more. I was surprised that Low don’t seem to have featured in any film soundtracks and can only assume they must have declined offers in the past.

Melt Banana – ‘Cell-scape’: Round 11 – Rob’s choice

Melt Banana - Cell-scapeMelt Banana are one of those bands. I find myself frequently invoking false archetypes when introducing records at our meetings. It’s lazy and reductive, but sometimes it helps. Melt Banana are one of those bands who sound like a joke the first time you hear them. They’re also one of those bands it would be easy to bracket with poorly considered national stereotypes. Once more, these can be illustrative in some instances, so i’ll trot a couple out. They sound like hyper-accellerated electro-death-thrash from the year 2050. They’re from Tokyo.

The joke bit comes when you first get to hear them in full flight. Their songs often last no more than 30 seconds, and in that space of time pack in four shifts in signature, half and dozen stop-starts and enough tinitus-replicating vocals to send you to check either your turntable or your inner ears. Much as Ichirou Agata’s guitar playing is both exhilarating and blistering, it’s Yasuko Onuki’s vocals which get me every time. She sounds like a pixie being squeezed to death and fighting hard to get free. She sounds like a particularly deranged DJ scratching a Pinky and Perky record. She sounds amazing. The whole band sounds amazing. It’s… sort of hard to explain.

I came across them when their third album ‘Scratch or Stitch’ came to me as a reviewer. I had no idea what to make of them so I filed them away until a couple of years later when, inevitably, I heard John Peel playing them. They’re one of those bands too. The ones Peel would throw on just because they sounded nothing like anything he’d ever heard before. The trouble with those bands, the ones John Peel used to play, the ones that sound like the soundtrack to a particularly bent Chris Morris sketch, the ones for whom you have no frame of reference, is that they often turn out to be doing something genuinely original, something that worms (or blasts) its way into your body and refuses to leave. Melt Banana are one of those bands.

I had no idea what the Club would make of them, but it was important to bring this record along. It’s their most accessible, if not their most typical, and sooner or later, I had to play it. There’s little point me trying to describe it any further, but you really ought to try to hear it if you can. Suffice to say that as the first track proper, ‘Shield For Your Eyes A Beast In The Well On Your Hand’ kicked into it’s full fury, Nick started to laugh uncontrollably. Like I said, laughter is a frequent reaction, but then it’s the giddy rush that gets you. One of those bands.

Tom Listened: Hmmmmmmmm………like sticking your head in a food mixer full of bees. Beguiling yet painful. Cell-scape certainly conjured up the ghost of John Peel, and you can definitely imagine Him giggling away to himself off air as he inflicted Melt Banana on his loyal listeners waiting eagerly for the next Wedding Present re-issue or something. And whilst it was a tough listen I sort of liked it, a bit like I like pulling off scabs or watching England lose at cricket or cycling up a 25% gradient Devonian lane. Much like Cell-scape, those other (dubious) pleasures are not something I actively seek out but if I happen upon them I am kind of glad they were there. Another intriguing offering from the Monstershark.

Nick listened: This was great fun; bonkers, head-shredding millenial cyberpunk tempos and juxtapositions (those guitars! those drums! that tiny squeaking girl’s voice atop the maelstrom!) made either no sense, or else perfect sense, after the really rather beatific, minimal electro opening that could almost, sans the squals, have been something from Kompakt. The Japanese music that people like I come across, for the most part (stuff mediated by Pitchfork essentially), is stuff like this, and Boredoms, and Acid Mothers Temple, and less crazy stuff like Cornelius and Susumu Yokota, and it paints a very strange picture of what contemporary Japanese culture must be like. Especially when you consider other cultural objects from Akira to Audition to Battle Royale to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. I’ve never given J-Pop any listening time, but things I’ve read suggest that it’s just as mental compared to our pop music as this kidn of stuff is when compared to our… alternative? experimental? I have no idea of when or where I would ever listen to this again, but I’m glad I have.

Graham Listened: Yikes !!! I can’t recall ever describing an album in such a way, but this was certainly out there. Saying that, I was getting in to the complexity/mania/tightness of the playing but the vocals just kept getting in the way for me. Good listen to know what Japanese counter-culture can produce, but can’t say I would try it again. Should I find myself in a neighbourly noise dispute, it’s good to have this as an option to deploy.

Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible: Round 11 – Graham’s Choice

The  choices were limited in my collection with the countries remaining, however an impromptu rendition of Catatonia’s Road Rage by a fellow member at the weekend inspired me to reconsider Wales.

I began my introduction to the album with a query over whether I would be playing this to, or inflicting it upon, fellow members. The album cover and track titles indicate that it may not be a “lightweight”, but is it empty pomposity?

Anyway, I admit to being confused about the Manic’s at their beginning, not knowing whether they were glam/punk/post-punk/hard rock. Certainly their apparent self-importance irritated many in the press and kept me from taking them too seriously. However the singles from the first 2 albums and the more favourable reviews of this album caught my attention and I invested.

Leaving aside a couple of the more radio friendly tracks (Yes, Faster – and even they remain interesting) this is a dark experience, with styles being explored which I never expected from a band who while political, seemed to me to be on the road to “rockin-out”.

It takes a good few listens to fully set aside some of the preconceptions expected from the first 2 albums but it’s a worthwhile experience. The chaos of Richey Edward’s life and health are well documented and the lyrics he contributes reflect this. There are delicate moments where you might least expect (listen to 4st 7lbs).

What makes this album more interesting to me is the leap from here to the more educated anthemic sound of Everything Must Go. There are some hints on this record with some guitar riffs and solos that briefly begin to head in that direction. In fact if some of the tracks would be enhanced by less solo twiddling and more development of the sound-scapes (is that a word?) that were created. Dark, moody, gritty and aggressive are the best words I can find to describe the feel of the album and anything more sophisticated in descriptive terms would seem superfluous. I can only point to influences (maybe darker moments of the Skids/Clash/Joy Division from my collection) and can’t really identify a “this sounds like”, from the same time period.

I’m not sure how much “welshness” is communicated by this album as anorexia, fascism, Marxism, class war, ethnic cleansing etc., etc….. seemed to transcend national borders the last time I checked. A quick check on the wiki page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holy_Bible_(album), does confirm my suspicions that the performance of Faster on TOTP (Top of the Pops for young-uns) did lead to a record number of viewer complaints as a result of Bradfield’s black balaclava. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hMqpR9AogI . Surely that alone deserves the album being given an open minded listen?

Rob listened: I’m afraid an open-minded listen wasn’t possible for me. I spent much of the length of this record trying, and largely failing, to express my once lurid but now fading disdain for the Manic Street Preachers. I won’t try to crystallise it here as I couldn’t manage it in 50 minutes on the night. Suffice to say I hated their empty spray-paint posturing when they started out, I never liked any of their records, progressing from bland punk-u-like to bland anthem-rock, and I could never understand why so many people seemed to think they were worth spending time on, although as it happens, it seems like Nicky Wire is probably a nice chap to spend an evening down the pub with. But that’s the point of this Club. I know this is a well-regarded record and I would never have heard it had Graham not brought it along and had the good grace to explain why he liked it whilst I whined without focus. I’m glad he did. I still didn’t like it. I’ve been mentally boycotting them since the early 90s and my mind has been determinedly closed to them ever since.

Tom Listened: Unlike Rob I am pretty ambivalent about The Manics; having really disliked their early posturing and empty rhetoric, I slowly came round to them and on a trip to the French Alps with some of my students in 1996 I warmed enough to the powerful, if somewhat unsubtle, sloganeering of Everything Must Go that I purchased it on my return, listened to it a lot that Summer and have barely played it since. Interestingly for me, the bits of The Holy Bible I liked least were the bits that sounded most like A Design For Life…the straightforwardness of EMG may have contributed to its (relatively) huge success, but makes for a much less interesting record than The Holy Bible and it felt a shame that some of the songs on THB often seemed to lead into a disappointingly predictable chorus or middle eight just as they were developing into something really interesting. At times the album sounded not unlike some of Rob’s more ‘out there’ offerings, I just wish the Manics had had the bottle to produce the consistently radical record that The Holy Bible so frequently suggests was there for the taking.

Nick listened: I’m also pretty ambivalent regarding the Manics; many of my friends adored them when I was 14/15/16, which is around the time of this album’s release and Richey’s subsequent vanishing, so I heard The Holy Bible, and was eulogised to about its intensity, trauma, and really deep and meaningful lyrics, man, at great length. And I quite liked it; not enough to ever buy it or invest in the philosophy and aesthetic offered up by its creators, but enough to think of Yes and Faster as great songs (if not quite as good, perhaps, as the sublime Motorcycle Emptiness and La Tristessa Durerra from their previous records), and the album as being a worthy whole. Their subsequent career has held little or no interest for me, and, as I said on the night, I think this is largely down to James Dean Bradfield’s identikit rock guitarist style and rock vocalist voice – songs on THB threaten to go down fascinating, dark alleys only to suddenly u-turn into brief foot-on-the-monitor moments of stadium rock celebration. It’s a really interesting trick, but not one that holds all that much appeal for me – it’s almost like the opposite manoeuvre to that pulled by The Boo Radleys or Super Furry Animals, who threaten cheesey pop gratification only to go weird on you at the last minute. Still, I’ve not heard this in probably 15 years, and it was a worthwhile revisit.