Jawbox – For Your Own Special Sweetheart: Round 56 – Tom’s Selection

fy-300x300It was theme night at Devon Record Club and we were excited! Graham’s somewhat bizarre theme of ‘bands that did or did not have hair’ was interpreted by myself and Nick as ‘bands that are from Washington DC, one of which contains the producer of the album by the other’. Obviously, that was what Graham meant when he set the theme and surely Nick and I deserve bonus points for correctly deciphering Graham’s complex coding system. Rob and Graham, whilst undeniably picking bands that either had or did not have hair (although in the case of Gary Numan, maybe not), failed miserably to bring records that fulfilled all aspects of the theme seeing as neither of their choices hailed from the capital of the USA or had members that had even the remotest to do with the production of The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I. Losers!

But even if Graham hadn’t set the theme, For Your Own Special Sweetheart has always been high on my list of albums to bring to Record Club and I may well have brought it to Round 56 anyway. For some inexplicable reason (at least as far as I am concerned) Sweetheart never made much of an impact on its release and I knew that it would be a first time listen for the others. And despite the album taking a few plays to fully appreciate (Nick’s assertion that the songs sound a tad homogenous on first aquaintances being totally valid) I have always found the combination of skillfully written pop songs played with no little skill emanating from the hardcore end of US alt-rock pretty irresistable. Girls vs Boys managed it whilst throwing in a funky groove sex thing, Jawbox is much more straight ahead rock; invariably a pounding, pummelling start to a song evolves into something sweetly melodic and really rather beautiful…similar, I suppose to what Husker Du were doing towards the end of their career but with less tinny production and a musical path that harks back to early REM, Replacements and Buckingham Nicks rather than The Beatles and The Byrds. There’s a directness to Jawbox’s sound that can quickly become addictive and after a few listens individual songs begin to rise out of the homogeny of the album to reveal themselves in all their glory.

Graham stated that he found the first half of Sweetheart much catchier than the second. Maybe so, but I suspect what actually caught his attention was the inital one-two-three sucker punch of the bruising FF=66, the (ironically) sweet Savory and then the buzz saw call and response of Breathe. It’s breathless (!) stuff and a startling way to begin an album. Whenever I put Sweetheart on my turntable, I experience a little thrill of anticipation at what’s to come…and therein lies the problem! After such a supreme start the rest of the album can feel anticlimatic. But with familiarity this turns out to be far from the truth – highlights abound throughout the album and the committed listener is rewarded with such a rich and consistently excellent set of songs that it is remarkable to me that Jawbox are not now mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana, Pixies and Fugazi.

Jawbox went on to release one more (eponymous) album and then, evidently, band leader J.Robbins went on to produce…amongst others, The Dismemberment Plan. And having been given the chance to compare them, Sweetheart and Emergency & I couldn’t be much more different – the latter being varied, full of space and much less noisy. It was evident that the US musical hinterland had changed significantly over the intervening five years between the two respective releases, perhaps echoing the use of computer technology in music production as opposed to good ol’ fashioned blood sweat and tears. Jawbox went on to re-release a re-mastered version of Sweetheart a few years ago and it was received to unanimously glowing reviews, usually along the lines of ‘how did we miss this one first time around?’ Like many of my choices for Record Club, the answer to that question eludes me. My suspicion is that Jawbox themselves are just as mystified as the rest of us!

Nick listened: “Did they have any connections with other bands on the DC scene?” asked Tom, pointedly, as I was introducing Dismemberment Plan. “I dunno, I think the producer was in Jawbox” I replied, and he smirked, knowing what he’d brought along. One of those weird coincidences. There were similarities, I guess, but as Tom pointed out, The Plan’s record is much spacier, much poppier, much less gritty and dirty and underground, than this. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like this, but after the technicolour of Emergency & I this seemed a little monochrome to me.

Rob listened: I guess I have to refer you to my rather tortured response to ‘Emergency & I’ and then observe that the first 30 seconds of the first track of this Jawbox record, as the metallic bass writhes and squirms and the singer grits his teeth and tries to spit out his words, really reminds me of Circus Lupus, who I really, really loved. It was great hearing this and Dismemberment Plan side by side and, despite the pain it caused me to writhe around once more on the sharp edge of my inarticulacy, I enjoyed trying to figure out what this record had that worked for me that the other one did not. My conclusion? It’s an age thing.  I don’t know how to explain it, but somehow this record seems the right side of my line, where the other one doesn’t. Will that do? Sorry, it’s all i’ve got.

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Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle – Round 56 – Graham’s Choice

Doubt if anyone noticed but I have been numan AWOL for sometime as a result of a bit of bother. On the upside I did manage to slip in ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at Round 53 while nobody was looking and two fellow members were being far too polite for their own good.

I don’t think anyone, including me saw this one coming. An impulse buy a few days before I hadn’t really had the time to listen properly myself. Why buy it?

Well firstly I was sticking to the prescribed theme of artists with a “generous amount or lack of hair”. Through his remarkable rug transformation, Gary ticks both ends of this spectrum.

Secondly, I keep reading and seeing documentaries where Mr. N. is now being held up as a innovator and still find it hard to believe that people like Afrika Bambaataa are talking about his influence of hip-hop. There might be something about the simplicity of some his tracks meant they leant themselves to be easier to mix? Apart from the inevitable ‘Cars’ the only track I recognised on this album was ‘M.E.’, and that was from Basement Jaxx’s  sampling for ‘Where’s your head at’.

I wouldn’t now describe myself as a ‘Numanoid’ but I was quite surprised by what I heard. I had expected more ‘pop’ as that is what I thought Gary was all about in 1979, but ‘Cars’ is really all you get on this album. ‘Metal’ is a stand out track and on the whole the sound is far darker, moodier, gothic (and quite dull on occasion) than I was expecting. I suppose pre-Midge Ultravox was my only reference point at the time, but Gary’s chart success had me pigeon hole him as a purely pop act.

At the end of the day he retired briefly in 1981 to fly around the world and got arrested in India, they don’t come much more Rock ‘n’ Roll than that.

Tom Listened: Graham stated in his introduction to this record that I would hate it. I’m not sure why he would have come to that conclusion as prior to the meeting my experiences of Gary Numan have been wholly positive – to my knowledge, I had heard two Gary Numan songs (you know which ones) and I like Cars well enough. Are Friends Electric on the other hand, I have always thought of as close to brilliant, the blueprint that Cars tried desperately not to ape (but failed) and a song that has stood the test of time, its standing in my mind being even further enhanced by The Sugarbabes glorious sample on Freak Like Me. Unfortunately, The Pleasure Principle seemed to contain a dozen versions of Cars – pleasant enough, certainly not something I would hate, but not really a boat floater either.

Nick listened: Despite Graham’s suggestion that I might have explored Numan’s oeuvre some time ago and then moved on, I never actually have; I’ve never properly listened to Kraftwerk either, and the reasons are similar; they’ve both been so completely and fully assimilated into so many other things that it seems to have obviated any desire I might have to explore them. I guess that’s how Rob feels about The Beatles. This was, as suggested, actually quite light on pop songs, but very pleasantly heavy on synth-y instrumentals, like simpler, less spooky versions of side two of Low. I really rather enjoyed it.

Rob listened: ‘Cars’ is better than ‘Are Friends Electric?’ I enjoyed listening to this. I’d always considered Gary Numan a little too earnest for my liking, or at least guessed his records would be that way. Somehow I had him bracketed with bands which take themselves just that teensy weensy little bit more seriously than they really ought to. And use too much black hair dye. Step forward Siouxsie and the Banshees, Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails and Chris de Burgh. In actual fact, the only thing these artists really have in common is that i’ve drawn lazy conclusions about them without ever listening and that I’m likely completely wrong about them. Except Chris de Burgh.

I enjoyed this, as I may have said. I thought the synth sounds were really substantial, which surprised me, and I could hear immediately how influential it had been, even if I couldn’t quite tease out the through-lines.

Tom Couldn’t Resist Taking The Bait: Just listened to both Cars and Are Friends Electric? You’re wrong, my friend!

Hookworms – ‘Pearl Mystic’: Round 56 – Rob’s choice

Hookworms - Pearl MysticThat psychedelia, as a tag for music, has stuck around for so very long without ever becoming a cheap signifier for something old-hat, hackneyed, done, is perhaps largely due to the differing definitions it has worn down the years. For some it’s flower-brained Californian hippy-pop, for others it’s fractured, demented New York hip-hop. For some it’s desert-fried, mono-chord guitar chugathons, for others it’s endlessly-fired circuits of twisting electronics.

For me psychedelia has always been either music made in the throws of an altered state, or music made in an attempt to recreate, or indeed induce, an altered state. From ‘Hey Mr. Tamourine Man’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ through Roky Erickson to My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, the Flaming Lips and Sleep, psychedelia is music which aims at transportation, not documentation.

Hookworms, a 5-piece band from Leeds, may or may not consider the noise they make to be psychedelia. They may or may not be irritated by the shorthand others employ in grasping for the tag when trying to describe the heady rush of their exploratory guitar music. So be it. I use the term happily to describe them because their songs seem so clearly to be setting their sights on both outer and inner space and then firing massive fucking rockets in their attempts to get there.

‘Pearl Mystic’, their debut album, came out earlier this year. It sounds like the work of a band who have been furiously figuring this stuff out for a decade. Corrosive riff-driven fugue states follow exquisite meditations which ratchet up into yet more intense, acidic exercise. Above, below and around all this is MJ’s vocal sound, fractured and bubbling through frazzled guitar amps, a device apparently designed to mask his embarrassment at taking singing duties and one which ends up turning him into an electrifying, gabbling surge of liquid sound.

It’s quite something. Potent and wild yet delivered with incredible control and assurance. Hookworms remind me of no-one so much as Loop and Spacemen 3, which is high praise. At a time when we’re expected to get behind the idea of Jake Bugg and warbling old David Bowie as the best that Britain has to offer, I say we need a Hookworms infestation and we need it now.

Tom Listened: Back at the bum end of the 80s, Spacemen 3 were my band. I went through a brief but intense period of infatuation that lasted about a year and stemmed from the release of Playing With Fire and then strengthened when I subsequently acquired The Perfect Prescription. Strangely, given my dislike of the whole drug taking culture that was prevalent whilst I was at university, I found a real connection with the psychedelic nature of the music and the quasi-religious content of the lyrics. It was as if the connection to drugs through the music was enough for me (and far safer as far I was concerned)…to paraphrase a Spacemen 3 album title, ‘Not Taking Drugs to Listen to Music to Take Drugs to Because Someone Else Has Taken The Drugs For Me’.

But going back to the records 25 years on is a strange and somehow hollow experience. In my mid 40s I no longer need to feel connected to some sort of counter culture that existed in the ever more distant past and, in isolation, I’m not sure the music Spacemen 3 produced is as ground breaking or interesting as I once thought. Playing With Fire still has its moments, sure, but much of it just seems cliched and adolescent now. Perfect Prescription seems even more tame, many songs just bimbling along carried by an acoustic guitar riff with some dreamy sound effects and wispy vocals laid over the top. It’s not bad per se, just not as relevant to me anymore.

Which gets me, in a round about way, to Hookworms. I enjoyed Pearl Mystic in much the same way as I have recently enjoyed Spacemen 3. Pretty undemanding, very accessible but ultimately it didn’t really speak to me in the way my favourite records do, I didn’t feel a connection to it. That said, the songs were generally lengthy and quite complex in structure – they may well take a bit of uncovering, but on an initial listen I’d file this next to my Spaceman 3 and Loop albums as a record that the 20 year old me would have thought was amazing.

Nick listened: Tried Spacemen 3 when I was at university but didn’t get along with them, even though I already knew and loved Spiritualized. Never knowingly listened to Loop. But that’s by the by; I’ve actually been talking to MJ from Hookworms on Twitter for ages, and didn’t really know he was in a band for several months – he was just a nice guy whose path I crossed and we got talking about music. So I’d been wanting to hear Hookworms for a while, but hadn’t seen a physical copy in Exeter, and didn’t want to try too hard in case I didn’t like it. Which meant I was delighted when Rob pulled it out and stuck it on the turntable, and even more delighted when I enjoyed it. I was in Bristol at the weekend, so I bought myself a copy, and have listened to it a couple of times since. Thinking back to what Rob said under the Darkside post, I find it amusing that he’s so enamoured of this but so so-so about the Darkside, because for me they both have a similar purpose, they both feel psychedelic, where psychedelic is about creating or exploring altered states. I guess they just go about it in different ways.

The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I: Round 56, Nick’s choice

The-DismembermentPlan-EmergencyAndIThe Dismemberment Plan have just released a new album; their first in a dozen years, after they split up, almost due to lack of interest, in 2003. Their previous album, Change, was their fourth, and this, from 1999, was their third. I love it.

Formed in Washington DC in the early 90s, The Plan, as their fans called them, were in that heritage of DC post-hardcore bands like Fugazi and Jawbox (J. Robbins, the latter’s singer and guitarist, is co-producer here). Unlike some of their forebears, though, The Plan didn’t have any kind of manifesto or ideology; they were just a good time party band, for gawky kids who didn’t quite fit in. They took the jerking, stop-start guitar thrash of post-hardcore and mixed in a bit of everything else they liked; hip hop, 80s synthpop and New Wave, funk, indie pop.

The result is a technicolour riot, far more flamboyant than their local progenitors were, and far more dorky, too: where Fugazi sang about mortgage foreclosures and house repossessions and the perils of capitalism, The Plan sang about following girls across the country and not knowing how to talk to them, about no one dancing at their gigs no matter how hard they tried, about imaginary fights where you get beaten-up by giants.

Emergency & I pushed The Dismemberment Plan over the parapet of indie rock circles in a way that, had it happened a decade later, might have seen them become one of the biggest bands on the planet. But in 1999 a 9.6 or whatever from Pitchfork didn’t mean quite what it did for Arcade Fire, even if it did make them a big deal in small circles. Maybe they were too dorky, but it was that dorkiness, as manifested in the socially-inept fantasy of “You Are Invited” – literally about receiving a magical invite that gets you into all the coolest parties you could only usually dream of attending – that marks them out as something special; if they’d been cool or didactic they’d not have captured the awkwardness of being in your early 20s quite so well.

And they do capture it with amazing insight and prescience, Travis Morrison’s lyrics a tumbling stream-of-conscience that seem to predict the likes of Facebook (“Memory Machine”), capture the frustrations of lust (“Girl O’Clock”), perfectly render the pain of dying, urban, post-adolescent romance (“The City”), and, occasionally, reach some kind of zenith of almost Joycean American tone-poetry (“Back and Forth”).

Which is all good and all, but which would be dull if the music backing it wasn’t twitchy and hooky as hell, a maniacal rhythm section and a hyperactive guitarist competing to show off the most but not in a bad way, keyboards and crazy production touches making musical colour match lyrical colour daub for garish daub.

I was thinking aloud on Twitter earlier about what makes a band “important”, and I think I was using the term pejoratively to refer to self-important proclamations about self-important music; Emergency & I feels important to me, but in a very personal, insular, microscopic way.

Tom Listened: I have spent a long time agonising over The Dismemberment Plan since Nick played it at record club. Nick lent me Emergency & I a while ago – I had been keen to hear it ever since it appeared in very high positions in some round up lists on the internet around the turn of the millennium. I guess the cover art caught my eye and the name stood out and, on reading about the band, the music sounded like it should be right up my street…

However, it never quite worked out for me and The Plan (or is it The Dismemberments?) and I returned Nick’s CD a little bemused as to:

a) Why I hadn’t clicked with the album.

and

b) Why it is so lauded.

So I was really pleased to have the chance to hear it again in a different context and thought that maybe a proper listen with a bit of heft and concentration would do the trick. But there is something about Emergency & I that I just don’t like…and I have found it nigh on impossible to pin down just what that is. Whilst I was deep in thought on this matter, I considered that it ticks pretty much all the right boxes for me and maybe this is the problem…it feels to me as though The Dismemberment Plan are trying to cast their net as wide as possible (as Nick has stated, it’s a much more varied and colourful beast than Jawbox’s album) and in so doing feel to me as though their music comes from the head not the heart – too clinical and calculated for my taste. But I could be wrong on this one as I am still really confuzzled and this is just a hunch.

Rob listened: I too have sort-of-worried about the Dismemberment Plan. We’ve talked about them before, quite a bit, and as Nick advocates so strongly I checked this album out and just couldn’t find anything attractive. I tried it a few times. Nothing. And then, of all things, after a long lay-off, I thought it sounded great this evening. I started to wonder what the hell i’d been hearing instead of this brimming collection of perky, spiky dork rock. I started to think I may have been… wrong.

Then I listened to it again the week following, and nah, nothing. As you were.

My conclusion as to why ‘Emergency’ and I don’t click? It’s an age thing. It sounds exactly like I imagined the descendants of the post-hardcore I loved would sound after they had, in my imagination, sucked out the rage, the life force, the will to be, the uncontainable verve from the music and replaced it with technical proficiency. I think this is my problem, not theirs. I’m sure Dismemberment Plan are committed and passionate musicians. I’ve seen nothing to gainsay that assumption. It just doesn’t sound like the bands I love. If I was ten years younger, i’m sure i’d be getting the same charge from this as I actually did from Fugazi, Circus Lupus, Shudder to Think. If I were ten years older, i’m sure I would have found those bands weak and watered down compared to Bad Religion, Descendants and Black Flag.

Darkside – Psychic: Round 55, Nick’s choice

DARKSIDE-PSYCHICOnce again without a theme I was free to choose whatever the hell I liked. Two factors made me pick this super-current release, which had only come out two days before: the fact that Rob, when confronted with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon for the first time ever the other week, claimed it sounded like “half the stuff in Nick’s record collection” despite my prolonged dislike of all things Floyd; and the fact that I’d arranged to review this record for The Quietus, and was planning on writing it up the next night so needed to get some serious listens and cogitation in!

If you’re unaware, Darkside is Nicolas Jaar, who’s debut solo album I played here a couple of years ago, plus Dave Harrington, a jazz guitarist college friend from their only-just-finished student days at Brown University. This is not, though, just a Nicolas Jaar album with some guitar over the top; Harrington plays as wide an array of instruments as Jaar, and shares writing and production credits with him equally too.

Psychic is every bit as, ahem, phenomenologically beautiful as Space Is Only Noise (and probably less, um, non-diegetic, on the whole), but there’s something a bit more linear, consumable, and compelling about it, perhaps. Maybe it’s the guitars, but I’m not sure they’re quite as important as some people are suggesting; Harrington’s playing on Psychic is a long, long way from John Squire’s on Second Coming, for example. It’s a krautrock linearity rather than a jam band linearity, and thus much more palatable to people who find the idea of Phish offensive, but who can fully accept 20-minute freak-outs if the singer is Japanese and the musicians are German. There’s nothing like festishisation of the ‘other’ to bring out the music fan’s inner hypocrite?

This has arguably been a stonking year for records that sit somewhere in that weird genre-less area that one might call post-dance the same way we called Bark Psychosis post-rock; Holden, The Knife, Boards Of Canada, The Field, Four Tet, Brandt Brauer Frick, Pantha Du Prince, Jon Hopkins, Fuck Buttons, Atoms For Peace if I’m feeling generous. Maybe even stuff like These New Puritans, Melt Yourself Down, and Sons Of Kemet kind of counts on there, too; they certainly all share headspace in my esteem. Darkside have made an album every bit as good as anyone else in that list.

Rob listened: I’d heard this before the meeting, having read a review on Pi***f**k. I liked it. It sounded nice. I’m intrigued by Nicholas Jaar and found his solo album pleasantly enveloping. I wish I felt more drawn to this stuff, as I always seem to enjoy it, but the fact is I don’t. Of Nick’s list above I’m familiar with three or four and  those which draw me back are always the ones which at some level deliver a punch to the solar plexus, i.e. Fuck Buttons or The Knife. There’s something academic about Jaar, Pantha du Prince, Jon Hopkins, or at least I impress that upon them, which puts distance between us. I guess there’s also something around close-listening. These are all lean-in records and I think I prefer to sway back as if dodging a knock-out punch. Perhaps ultimately this is my problem. I sometimes feel slightly inadequate for preferring the music which goes for the throat rather than the brain. I should get over that. It’s completely stupid.

Tom Listened: Last meeting was a strange one. William Basinski’s 5 seconds of music (that lasted an hour – that’s about 720 loops by my calculations…and it felt like it) overwhelmed proceedings to such an extent that the other records played on the night quickly became lost in the ether. The other meeting that felt similar to me was when we played Zaireeka – everything else seemed far too conventional and consequently a bit flat after that record too. However, the two other records from Zaireeka-gate went on to be my albums of the year (Apocalypse and Smoke Ring for My Halo) and if my recollection of the way I felt about the Darkside record (I can’t actually remember what it sounds like, just how I felt when it was being played) was that it sounded phenomenologically beautiful – God it feels great to write that! – and not really all that similar to Pink Floyd. I also remember thinking at the time ‘I might go out and buy this’ but then I thought about all those Smog albums I need to have and recalled that I don’t have any money and then also considered that it sounded possibly just a teensy bit too nice on first listen to really have sticking power and so, for now, I might have to ask that nice Mr Southall for a lend instead.

John Martyn – Grace and Danger: Round 55 – Tom’s Selection

376b9_0011bfb6_mediumDespite being critically lauded throughout his first decade and a half in the music industry, John Martyn never REALLY caught on. Admittedly he had a sniff of more widespread popularity when his 1973 offering, Solid Air, was released but its success was fleeting and subsequent albums failed to make the same (less then minimal) commercial impact. And, unlike his good friend Nick Drake (for whom the song Solid Air was written), it appears that, at least for the time being, a posthumous resurgence of interest – Martyn died in 2009 at the tender age of 60 – is yet to gather much momentum. Which is a shame, as Martyn’s music has so much to offer.

Martyn started out writing fairly standard folk tinged acoustic guitar fodder but upon being signed to Chris Blackwell’s predominently reggae based Island Records, he quickly developed his sound into a much meatier beast, experimenting with other styles of music and introducing the Echoplex guitar device (which can be heard to great effect on Solid Air’s noisier offerings). The icing on the cake was Martyn’s voice, strong and smoky, soulful and yet somehow capable of doing enraged and vulnerable simulataneously. By the time Martyn was releasing Solid Air the assurance he had in his own song-writing allowed him to play with style and sound to produce records that, in their own way, provide a kind of folky mirror to the mid 70s experimentation of Cale, Eno or Bowie. Martyn was brimful of confidence and was ready to take (on) the World.

But, of course, it couldn’t last. And somewhat predictably it’s the point at which it all begins to fall apart that I am particularly drawn to. Grace and Danger is as raw a record as any I possess. It documents a time of great upheavel in Martyn’s life; alcoholic since the mid 70s, Martyn and wife Beverley were in the process of getting divorced at the time Grace and Danger was recorded. The pain is palpable, especially on the second side of the record – song titles ‘Hurt in Your Heart’, ‘Baby Please Come Home’, ‘Our Love’ and ‘Lookin’ On’ leave little to the imagination as to the song’s lyrical content and their melancholy arrangements, plaintive melodies and Martyn’s devastatingly beautiful (to my ears anyway) vocals leave the listener in no doubt that he was well and truly going through the mill at this time. Martyn’s attempts at lightening the mood on Grace and Danger are unconvincing – although slightly more uptempo, songs like Save Some, Grace and Danger and the reggae inflected Johnny Too Bad are still much closer in atmosphere to Joy Division’s Atmosphere than Russ Abbot’s more upbeat version of the same song.

But whilst Grace and Danger is by no means an easy listen, it’s the sheer beauty of the songs that carry the listener through – for me, Grace and Danger is always a treat, possibly the best record that Phil Collins (I kid you not) ever played on and testament to a talent has never really had the recognition I think he deserves. The time to start the posthumous redressing of the balance is now, people!

Rob listened: I guess I have to disagree with Tom on this being not an easy listen. Far from it, it’s a smooth, mellifluous affair, the slippery 80s stylings squirming away beneath Martyn’s dark voice, the whole thing coming off like a rich yet refined confection. I’ve listened to it six or seven times since our get together, usually in back to back plays, and have yet to get a glimpse of its nasty side. I’m sure the payload is there somewhere but perhaps I have a tin ear when it comes to John Martyn’s lyrics. A painful memory returns to me of my mum, reduced almost to tears by my repeated playing of ‘Solid Air’, wherein ‘May You Never’, a song I had only considered beautiful and sweet, struck her like a knife to the heart, years after my dad had passed away. I thought ‘Grace and Danger’ was magnificent, but for now I’m happy skating on its surface.

Nick listened: It’s a while ago now, and, as Tom said under the Darkside post, William Basinski overshadowed everything else we played by sheer force of ideology and aesthetic and discussion thereof. I own Solid Air, because of the Nick Drake connection, but have only listened to it a couple of times. I remember almost nothing about this, except that it was very pleasant. Bloody Basinski.

William Basinski – ‘The Disintegration Loops’: Round 55 – Rob’s choice

William Basinski - The Disintegration LoopsAll songs and all records have stories. Some arrive preceded by them, either by artificial hype, by personal testimony or by the weight of historical significance. Some music comes to us completely fresh but within seconds we begin to weave a tapestry of our own tales and experiences into their fabric, helping us to make our own sense of them.

William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’, a set of works which span 5 albums, has a story. As we listened to it this evening, the subject of whether the music and the story could or should be separated worried us like no other I can remember in our preceding 50+ meetings.

If you’ve never heard the pieces before, you may choose to seek them out and hear them free from their associations, their assumed and imposed meanings. I’ll add a link to a YouTube clip of ‘d|p 1.1 below, but you’ll want to avert your eyes and use only your ears if you want a completely association-free experience. Certainly this was one of the possibilities we struggled with when we listened. Tom hadn’t heard the origin story before and we couldn’t help feeling that we’d somehow blighted his experience by allowing the myth to precede the music. But then, who but Basinski and a few of his friends has ever heard this music without the story?

To be accurate, ‘Disintegration Loops’ has two stories. One concerns the way it was made. The other concerns the way it was used. Both stories are told here in a long interview with Basinski by John Doran of The Quietus.

It seems inappropriate, somehow disrespectful, to describe this monumental work as a product of luck. Would that be good luck? Even worse perhaps. And yet without happenstance, fortune, unplanned calamity, it would not exist and without yet more serendipity, coincidence, unplanned connection, it would not have gained such resonance and meaning. 

In large part, it is the beauty in unplanned occurrence, and specifically the uncontrollable, unpredictable march of decay, which this work captures intrinsically and has come to symbolise extrinsically. That the work – a series of repeating, slowly changing loops – when shorn of its accompanying backstory and the palimpsest of meaning which it has since has accrued, remains as powerful, moving and beautiful as it is, is perhaps the real miracle. It does seems to me that even freed from what we come to know about the pieces, this is heart-stopping music. But then, I can never truly know.

And yet, and yet, even from this simple flow and ebb of sound, amidst all these noble and humane reactions, new meanings emerge each time I listen. Tonight I find myself contemplating trust, of all things, because, and whisper this, there’s 0.1% of me as listener that can’t quite accept that this ever actually happened, that this work was ever produced as the story would have us believe. Some of the detail doesn’t quite seem to add up and, ultimately, I find myself wanting to know more and more about the minutiae of its production, more in fact than I have wanted to know about any other record I can remember. Ironic, knowing that conscious thought and ‘production’ in the sense of the deliberate act of making, was apparently not so big a factor.

Perhaps the reason this music ties in so perfectly with what it has been asked to symbolise is that in their own unimaginable ways they each tell us that sometimes the fantastical, the impossible, really does happen. In fact, they say, look around you. It’s happening all the time.

And on we go. We debate the story and we debate the context and we debate the manufacture and we debate the impact and we find so many ways to question and praise and doubt and affirm the work but ultimately that seems so much piffle. The work transcends.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYOr8TlnqsY%5D

Nick listened: Rob’s done a very good job of not actually revealing any of the backstory to this record, so (despite my reputation for spoilers) I’ll endeavor to do the same.

I’ve been wanting to hear this for literally years; Stylus was one of the first and most vocal places to praise it way back when (don’t click that if you don’t want the backstory) but it seemed almost impossible to get hold of and inordinately expensive, so for some reason I never got round to hearing it. I pretty much squealed with delight when Rob pulled it out, and enthusiastically joined in imparting the whole context and narrative that goes alongside it.

It’s hard if not impossible to disentangle the music from its context, and any description of the music sans context sounds prosaic to say the least, if not downright dull; it is, essentially, just slowly, minutely changing ambient loops that go on for a long time and, somehow, seem loaded with sadness and profundity. Sonically, aesthetically, it’s not a million miles away from Stars Of The Lid, or Aether by The Necks, or Discreet Music by Eno, or a Buddha Machine, or a dozen and then some other minimal drone loops that exist. Is it better? Is it more mystical, more profound? The context is, to be blasphemously cynical for a moment, an amazing marketing gimmick.

I borrowed this from Rob and played it at Emma a couple of days later, sans context. She said she found it comforting and familiar, and that it felt more part of an art installation than a piece of music-qua-music, even more so than some other ambient stuff we own. When I explained the context, though, she felt immediately that it was somehow perfectly connected to it, that she somehow knew this already, and wondered whether we’d already seen the above video somewhere, somehow. Maybe we have, or maybe it really is a piece of serendipity.

Tom Listened: Emperor’s new clothes or a brilliant innovation…or a bit of both? I have no idea and have given up trying to work it out!