Babes in Toyland – ‘Spanking Machine’: Round 34 – Rob’s choice

babes in toyland - spanking machineMany of my very favourite albums sounded , and still feel, like debuts, even if they weren’t. ‘Songs About Fucking’, ‘Goat’, ‘Feels’, ‘Clear Spot’, ‘White Light, White Heat’, ‘There Is No-one What Will Take Care Of You’, all arrived like breaches with the orthodoxy, simultaneously shocking, baffling, offensive and intriguing. It just so happened that their creators were a few records into their careers.

So, when Tom asked us to being a debut album, I immediately thought of first releases which had a similar transgressive impact rather than those which simply foreshadowed greatness to come. In truth I chose ‘Spanking Machine’ almost immediately, wavering a little in the run up, drawn by ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ and ‘Exile in Guyville’.

But ‘Spanking Machine’ is a true debut. The first time I heard Babes in Toyland, via John Peel’s late night Radio One show, they sounded impossible, like nothing I’d ever imagined I’d hear. Traumatised and compelled in equal measures, I bought the album and it delivered a heavy payload. Today, having spent the intervening 23 years digging around mostly american alternative rock music, I still can’t piece together a credible explanation for where Babes in Toyland’s sound emerged from. Few if any of their predecessors had anything like their savage intensity, their black-hearted wit, their body-blow combination of neanderthal bluntness and explosive female emotion.

From the rollicking delta punk of ‘He’s My Thing’ and ‘Swamp Pussy’ to the teetering scream therapy of ‘Vomit Heart’ and ‘Fork Down Throat’, the record veers from clattering mosh starters to lurching musical breakdowns. It’s one of the most honest records I’ve ever heard. So many artists write and record with some thought, big or small, for whether people might listen and what they might think. ‘Spanking Machine’ is pure self expression from three women who came together with no idea of the unholy, primal racket they were about to make.

The result has integrity, rage, blood and body fluids. It has Lori Barbero learning to play the drums by beating the living shit out of them, Michelle Leon hitting her bass like a field gun and Kat Bjelland simultaneously shredding a guitar and her vocal chords, screaming like a grown woman channeling Regan MacNeil. Most of all, it carries a dangerous rock and roll charge which remains volatile and incendiary even to this day.

Footnote: If you happen to find yourself blogging about Babes In Toyland’s debut album, make sure you include the name of the band in your Google Image search if you value your sexual innocence and your browser cache.

Nick listened: It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between Tom’s choice, which we played directly before Babes In Toyland, and Rob’s; from minimal, shy, winsome electronic boys to snarling, growling, thrillingly luddite girls. I was aware of the name Babes In Toyland but not really of their sound or ethos, beyond them being a rock band. Spanking Machine isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally listen to for pleasure, being at the brutalist end of the rock spectrum, but as a one-off DRC choice it was a great choice, particularly compared to what came beforehand. Not sure quite what Rob means about records that sound like debuts but aren’t though…

Rob attempted to clarify: I guess that was a vaguely made point even by my standards. I meant to say that a good proportion of my very favourite records and artists sounded shockingly new the first time I heard them, even if the records themselves weren’t debuts. They were debut musical experiences for me. So when Tom set the theme, I began looking for debut albums which also carried the full shock of the new, hence ‘Spanking Machine’, rather than those which might be lesser known works of artists who went on to create canonical works, say ‘Bleach’ or ‘From Her To Eternity’.

Tom Listened: Despite not knowing the debut album of one of his favourite recording artists (you will have to go and confess to high priest of American Indie-Folk…Cardinal William of Oldham), I agree with pretty much all else Rob says in his write up for Spanking Machine (he’s better when not dealing in facts, you see). I also agree with Nick.

Spanking Machine has been gathering dust in my collection for the last twenty years or so and it was thrilling to hear the first two thirds of the album again. I was surprised at the variety of sounds on offer both within and between songs and realised that there is much more (well, alright…more) subtlety to the Babes debut than I assumed. However by the half hour mark I was beginning to feel exhausted – aurally pummeled – and the last few songs passed by in a blur of vague recognition and a remembrance that Spanking Machine was one of those records that I often used the vinyl equivalent of the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. One side was usually enough; thrilling, visceral and brutal.  Both, for me, in one sitting and it bordered on masochism!

Rob recanted once more: Oh for goodness sakes. This point about debut albums clearly got so munged up in my pointless tiny head that I conflated my list of debuts and not debuts. If you lot hadn’t made such a big deal I could have just removed the whole stupid paragraph.

Graham listened: The remaining debuts I looked at for this round just didn’t inspire me to pitch up with anything this round. If I had chosen anything and had to follow this, well, game over. Never heard it, so hung on by fingernails all the way through. Possibly the artistic/aural equivalent of flower pressing with a brick, awesome.

Junior Boys – Last Exit: Round 34 – Tom’s Selection

Over the past decade I have become increasingly predisposed to the possibility of enjoying synthesised pop music. Throughout my twenties I hung on to Neil Young’s somewhat derisive line from his 1992 song Natural Beauty, ‘an anonymous wall of digital sound’ and made most of my music purchases accordingly – guitars, bass and drums will do thank you very much. I would occasionally dabble in an Underworld or Sabres or DJ Food release but nothing really grabbed me. I guess I have The Postal Service’s Give Up album to thank for my change of heart; an album that at first set my teeth on edge but gradually became a firm favourite despite Ben Gibbard’s undeniably insipid singing voice and the decidedly adolescent nature of the lyrics. If I have any guilty pleasures in my record collection (according to Rob there is no such thing but then I  reckon there is not much Catholic blood chugging through his veins), Give Up would surely be towards the top of the list. Whatever, it opened up a genre of music that I would probably have otherwise dismissed and I now look forwards to the latest offerings from, say, Hot Chip or Metronomy as much as any other band. So whilst my original choice of debut album was discarded on account of the recent glut of post-punk at the club, I was just as excited by the prospect of playing Junior Boy’s first record: Last Exit.

Last Exit is a curious album. If it qualifies as pop it’s only just. Atmospheric definitely and not necessarily easy to comes to terms with. On face value it can seem at times to be ridiculously simplistic but this is a red herring. The complexity is there but as it is shrouded in minimal bleeps and blips, skittering drum patterns and barely there vocals it may take the casual listener a while to recognise. This is a record to play loud and listen to carefully. It works as background music too, but the payoff is greatly reduced.

So what sets it apart from the myriad other ‘blip pop’ albums around? Well, for me it’s the space, the emptiness, the way that notes and beats seem to coexist on this album without much sense of what each other are doing  so that, suddenly (and invariably immediately prior to full alignment) they drop out of the song altogether a bit like with the planets where the constituent parts chance upon an instantaneous moment of cohesion every so often. It’s all just maths after all! But that’s not to say that Last Exit feels in any way random or willfully difficult. This is a meticulously constructed album with subtle melodies (especially on album highpoints Teach Me How to Fight and Birthday), gentle grooves (see Bellona and Under the Sun) and consistently effective song-writing.

Maybe Neil Young was (partly) right at the time he wrote the lyrics for Natural Beauty. But had he been able to to transport himself twelve years into the future he might have discovered an album of digital music that blew his theory out of the water – an anonymous wall Last Exit most certainly is not.

Nick listened: A lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou), and I’d listened to Junior Boys expecting great… nay, ASTONISHING things. Nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps. And what I got was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – just not at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.

Eight years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, doubtless (Birthday, High Come Down), and some delicious grooves (Under The Sun), plus moments of vatic beauty, but were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? I wasn’t sure.

I was delighted that Tom faced his electronic trepidations and chose this record, and was able to play the vinyl, after I was so used to MP3s and then a CD; the warmth and hum of vinyl, which normally feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human. If my CDs weren’t packed up ready for moving, I’d have dug it out as soon as I got home so I could listen to it again. An intriguing record, but still, for me, hard to truly love.

Rob listened: First things first, that’s a truly Catholic attitude to guilt Tom! Confess your most minor discretions and hope the biggies go unnoticed. If your idea of a guilty pleasure is the Postal Service, then you need to get out and start sinning much more heavily.

I really enjoyed ‘Last Exit’ and have listened to it a couple of times since. It’s unwinding a little more each time. Having neither a time machine or a crystal ball, I can’t comment on the extent to which it may or may not have opened up the future of electronic pop music, but its corners and curves seem to me to have been passed down through the bloodline, perhaps smoothed by evolution, and can be seen beneath the skin of The XX, about whom similar claims continue to be made.

Graham listened: Having been ‘largin it’ (well in the kitchen anyway) to some of the Olympic opening ceremony dance tracks the night before, tonight would surely be an epiphany in my journey towards appreciation of modern electronica/dance? Nope. In parliamentary terms I refer the other honorable members to the answer I gave in Round 32 about Four Tet.

Fever Ray – Fever Ray: Round 34, Nick’s choice

Despite the massive acclaim, I didn’t like Silent Shout by The Knife initially; something about the production put me off, the density of it. I know it’s meant to be oppressive and strange, but it’s also meant to be pop, or catchy at the least, and the weight of the sound, the saturation of it, made me take against Silent Shout at first. I’ve grown to like it more over the years, and feel like I’m probably just half a dozen plays away from really, really liking it now.

But the debut solo album by one half of The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson, clicked with me straight away, even though some people consider it to be even weirder, more oppressive, more unnerving and obtuse. The beats are less directly dance-oriented, the synthesisers and electronics more about atmosphere than about hooks, and, crucially for my ears, the production opens up, explores space and textural richness, and in doing so creates an almost tangibly beautiful landscape for Dreijer’s strange songs.

Because the songs on Fever Ray’s eponymous debut are nothing if not strange, concerned with the oddness of domesticity, observations and tales about both childhood and motherhood, lyrics about watering neighbours’ plants, about dishwasher tablets, about riding bicycles. Dreijer sings of living “between concrete walls / in my arms she felt so warm”, presumably a reference to her new status as a parent when she recorded the album.

In some ways, Fever Ray’s album is like a weird cousin of Kate Bush’s Aerial, an album concerned with washing machines and children and maintaining sensuality despite (or because of?) these intrusions on adult life. But, as ever, I’m not focussing on the lyrics, as strange and beguiling as Dreijer’s vignettes may be: I’m taking in the pure sound of it. The slow-burning, thrumming introduction of If I Had A Heart; the beautiful final third of When I Grow Up, synths and guitars intertwining like lovers; the sparse, crepuscular vistas of Keep The Streets Empty For Me; and Karin’s vocals throughout, digitised, filtered, altered, made massive, cavernous, android and unreal even as she sings about the most mundanely human topics possible.

Fever Ray is an incredible debut, an incredible record, the kind of thing that rewards attention and only gets better over time. I like it more than any single thing by the renowned group it’s an offshoot of, to the extent that thinking of it as a side-project, or solo excursion, seems ridiculous.

Tom Listened: Rob lent me this album a while ago. I turned a cursory ear to some of it and was happy to return it to him knowing that I could cross it off my intended purchases list. While listening to it at record club I worked out what the problem is with it (as far as I am concerned anyway). It’s sequenced in such a way that the most accessible songs appear later on in the album. In this day and age, it is so rare for this to be the case that I reckon I unfairly dismissed this as being too bleak (Silent Shout was darker than my sensitive soul can cope with anyway) to bother with without ever having reached the latter half of the record.

Well, giving this a proper listen last Wednesday, I can now see what all the fuss is about. I think I’ll always find Karin Andersson’s vocals to be a bit too ominous/alien for my taste (that acceptance speech thing doesn’t help) and I struggled to see the beauty in the tracks when it was pointed out but I did enjoy this much more than I thought I would and could see it really clicking in with a few more listens.

Nick responded: See this is one of those odd things about music and ears and brains and stuff; I’ve always thought that Fever Ray started with its catchiest songs (at tracks 2 and 4) and then got darker and more impenetrable from there!

Rob listened: Whoever said ‘Silent Shout’ was supposed to be catchy pop? It’s a nightmarish glimpse into a forest world of dark desires and degenerative disease, and quite brilliant for it.

However, I can’t say much about ‘Fever Ray’ that Nick hasn’t already covered. For me it’s an almost perfect record in conception and execution. Eerily familiar yet tantalisingly alien, Karin Dreijer never puts a foot wrong. The sounds are melt-in-the-mind perfect, her vocals a woozy, half-remembered dream and the whole package one of my favourite records of the last ten years.

Graham listened: Another new one on me and connected with it pretty much straight away. The use of synth and electronic sounds to create the atmosphere and feel of this album intrigue me opposed to the way their use on a lot of electronica/dance alienates me. Evoked some familiar atmospherics to that of early Cocteaus but also more weirdly I was reminded of the type of feel Depeche Mode were after with Songs of Faith and Devotion, strange?

Skids – Scared to Dance – Round 33 – Graham’s Choice

“Britain’s answer to Jimi Hendrix”. That quote drew nervous looks from fellow members when I began my introduction to this round. Luckily that was John Peel’s opinion when he first heard Stuart Adamson’s guitar work and we were all spared a possible ‘fret-work – noodle-fest’.

In 1983 I just loved Big Country. I was bored with U2 and Big Country came along with some great tunes and weren’t too weird.

After ‘The Crossing’ I quickly lost interest as the albums never seemed to capture the power and intensity of their live shows, which were simply phenomenal.

Around the same time I started rooting out Adamson’s earlier work with Skids. Although I was familiar with the well known singles like ‘Into the ….’ and ‘Working for the ….’, the band had pretty much passed me by in 1979 (I was convinced that ELO’s Discovery was the best album ever during most of 1979). Of the 3 albums featuring Adamson before his departure, this is my favourite and probably neatly captures all the good things Skids had to offer. It is probably only me, but while I have never really thought of Skids being influential, I keep hearing things at DRC that still remind me of them.

‘Into the Valley’ and ‘The Saints are Coming’ are brutal and not the most sophisticated offerings, but still have great energy today. Proof that when Adamson kept his guitar work focussed and Jobson kept a lid on pomposity, they could really deliver.

Much of what they deliver on the rest of the album is a mix of post-punk experimentation, over excited ego trips and naivety, depending on the mood of the listener. There is a fair selection of quirky on this album. The crashing guitars on ‘Of One Skin’, that start and stop as if the band were being cranked by hand and  the fantastic ‘Big Countryish’ riffs on ‘Charles’, while Jobson rants about the modernisation of industrial manufacturing.

The same heady mix of pomposity and naivety led to the repackaging of the band’s second album as a result of overtones of right wing/fascist imagery.  Any fears of such leanings could be quickly dispelled by listening to my track choice of the night, Skids ‘TV Stars’. Any band that have a song with “Albert Tatlock” (Coronation Street 1960-84 ) as a chorus, can’t be taken too seriously.

The tensions between Adamson and Jobson led to the band’s demise, but equally helped brew some little gems on their first 3 albums.

Rob listened: I too was a teenage Big Country fan, albeit one album later than Graham. Hearing tracks from ‘Steeltown’ on Piccadilly Radio led me to the album, probably one of the first 3 or 4 I owned. That in turn led me to U2, the opposite of Graham’s short journey and, ultimately, turned off by Bono and chum’s empty bombast I bounced back towards the Smiths, the Fall and the deal was done.

Great to finally listen to the Skids properly. When Adamson’s guitar starts to yowl like possessed electric bagpipes it’s a wonderful thing, one of the best sounds in rock. ‘Scared To Dance’ seemed to hold all the power and posturing that made the band so electrifying as well as much of the tension and pretention that may have ultimately brought them down.

Nick listened: I was not a teenage Big Country fan, because I was a toddler, so I had no journey to or from U2, no memories of Big Country on the radio. I was sent a Skids compilation by a friend many years ago, though, and quite enjoyed it. I quite enjoyed this, too, but Richard Jobson, in my world, is a TV presenter, and Stuart Adamson is just another guitarist, rather than Britain’s answer to Hendrix (Hendrix wasn’t a question, was he?).