X – Wild Gift: Round 67 – Tom’s Selection

0008dk0hWhilst I’ve written before about the influence of Spin’s Guide to Alternative Music on my development as a consumer/ purchaser/ fan of (relatively) modern music, I’m going to do so again. You see, the one single band it gave me that had the greatest impact was X. As a list man (I know that’s not very cool) I was drawn to the Top Ten albums lists that punctuated the book every so often. Primarily lists by musicians, many of whom happened to be favourites of mine at the time, I was intrigued at how frequently X’s second album, Wild Gift, cropped up.  Frankly, despite following the ‘alternative’ music press for many years, I had never heard of X before acquiring my beloved (and now long lost) tome. So I quickly (and surprisingly easily) availed myself of some X LPs.

Funnily enough, although I think all of X’s first four albums are wonderful, wonderful things, I am not at all surprised that they had remained (lurking malevolently) in the shadows during this time. Thinking about it, they have, by and large, stayed there ever since – a distant reminder of a simpler era, their explosively concise brand of punkabilly representing the grand but slightly delapidated mansion at the end of the musical cul-de-sac that began with sturdy foundations from Link Wray, Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran and then mixed in the dark energy of The Clash at their breeziest with lashings of The Ramones at their punkiest. But, as far as I am aware, X’s discography operates pretty much as its own genre and, hence, their influence on what has come since has been minimal. That, for me, is part of the attraction – there are no pale facsimiles to tarnish their sound, there was no bandwagon to jump on; whatever X tribute acts exist have not yet made it to rural Devon and I have never heard them played on BBC6 Music or any other radio station for that matter. X exploded (musically at least) out of Los Angeles in 1980 with the release of their debut album ‘Los Angeles’, produced three more classic records in the space of the next three years(!) and then slunk away for a while, returning to make a few more albums of, apparently, lesser fare.

My infatuation with X stopped at album 4 – More Fun In The New World. All are fantastic but, for me, Wild Gift (brilliantly fitting Nick’s birthday theme I thought) is just that little bit better than the others – the melodies are a bit stronger, the riffs a bit more natural, the palate a little broader. A misleading album on first acquaintance, its energy and brevity providing a sheen of fun that obscures its dark heart – X state they are desperate and, sure enough, familiarity reveals an record of domestic abuse, messy, dysfunctional relationships and urban desolation. With the exception of a couple of throwaway tracks (I’m Coming Over, Beyond and Back), Wild Gift is consistently strong throughout but the first four tracks are on another level and represent the zenith of X’s discography – if you don’t like these songs, I don’t think you’ll like X. Stall setter The Once Over Twice storms into punk anthem We’re Desperate. The pace slows a little for the (almost) white reggae of Adult Books which is followed by the blistering guitar work of Universal Corner which at four and a half minutes is the album’s longest track by some distance. There are other pearls throughout the album and on every track Billy Zoom’s guitar playing is breathtaking whether it’s riffing away in the background or centre stage as it lacerates another song through its heart.

As out of step now as they were in their heyday, X’s music stands as proud as it ever did, alone and defiant in its lonely little group of one – the best and (quite possibly) worst punkabilly group the world has ever seen.

PS I would be very happy to be corrected if the sweeping and completely unsubstantiated claim made in the paragraph above happens (as is more than likely) to be codswallop.

Rob listened: X must top the charts for bands most referenced and least heard. Or some such. I’m saying I used to see them name checked all the time but never heard anyone playing their stuff, or even, so far as I can remember, saw any of their records knocking about, okay? I can hear how Tom might hold them as the best thing ever, and the sounds in general and these songs in particular are appealing and fun. I think that you may have had to be there, however. I’m pretty sure that if i’d come across this record pre-1988 then I would still be clasping it to my busom today. As it is, it’s tough for me to hear it and rate it more than very enjoyable, no matter how much the sound of Talking Heads plating acoustic covers of Dead Kennedys numbers ought to appeal to me.

Nick listened: I should have responded to this earlier, because I can barely remember anything about it now, except quite enjoying it, and feeling that it must’ve been pretty directly influential on Dismemberment Plan.

Advertisements

The Pop Group – ‘Y’: Round 67 – Rob’s choice

The Pop Group - YNick set a theme for the evening. Reminding us that the meeting date coincided with his birthday he batted his eyelashes and modestly declared himself the subject. “Birthdays, beards anything,” he clarified. Ladies and gentlemen let me tell you, sometimes it’s hard to resist temptation. But resist we must.

If my maths are correct ‘Y’, the debut album by Bristol’s The Pop Group, was released roughly 3 weeks before Nick was born, meaning that when he did eventually make his first appearance it was at the point at which the plucky five-piece were beginning to accept that they were not going to storm the Top 40 after all. Whilst it might not have made an impact on the pop charts, this record has banged, clanged and hollered down the years ever since.

We’re fond, some of us, of trotting out the worn-smooth line that in the late 70s punk rock changed everything, creating a Year Zero after which culture could be rebuilt, better. The evidence taken in the round speaks against such a clearing of the decks but it’s undeniable that for some it genuinely was a starting point at which preconceptions could be destroyed and from which new and radical art could follow. Those who went on to make the absolute most of this opportunity did so largely by ignoring the two-chord rallying cry of what we now call ‘punk rock’ and instead adopted the ‘do anything but do something’ artistic template, striking out towards new noises, ignoring constraints and displaying rampaging disregard for the rules, expectations and requirements of rock music.

One of the earliest and most committed of these were Bristol’s The Pop Group who combined jagged funk, slashing guitars, dubby bass lines, exploratory noise and vocals so wild and vitriolic they sounded at times as if they were physically bursting out from frontman Mark Stewart, who was part street corner leaflet pusher, part pulpit thrashing preacher, screaming in tongues, whispering in panic. ‘Y’ was the first of their two albums.

One way or another we speak a lot here about influence, discovery, sequence, timing, originality. It’s impossible for someone as slapdash as me to start to put together a roadmap for a band like The Pop Group. Instead here is a facile observation: ‘Y’, a lacerating musical cluster bomb of control-and-release aggression, came out just 9 years after the Beatles broke up. I’ll accept that this is meaningless if you’ll accept that it makes you sit back and think “holy crap the Seventies must have been quite a decade”.

35 years later ‘Y’ still delivers a significant shock. It’s disorienting and electrifying from the moment it starts, impossible to ignore throughout and almost unimaginable in its scope and composition until you’ve let it work its way into your system and begin to live there. It sounds every bit the revolution its creators were attempting to foment.

Picking back through rock music to find progenitors for this feels like a fruitless task. Sure there’s some of the wild danger of Beefheart at his most blindly instinctive, along with a dash of the Magic Band’s primeval blues. The influence of dub reggae, which runs through much of the most challenging and groundbreaking music to come out of punk, is here, presumably from the same sources that would flow through the Slits, with whom The Pop Group shared a drummer for a while. And there is funk throughout, deployed as an agent of change. But where James Brown may have created funk to get people moving their feet, dancing together towards freedom, The Pop Group use it as a means to propel us towards the barricades, molotov cocktails in our hands.

You have to turn towards improvisational jazz to attempt to explain or trace sources for much of what’s happening here. Rock and pop may not boast antecedents for The Pop Group but presumably Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus would have recognised much in the stabbing, visceral guitars, searching, fractured rhythms and Mark Stewart’s possessed vocal performances. Almost every track on the album just goes off at some point, dissipating, searching, fragmenting, often destroying a killer groove for two minutes of angry, echoing space. Through it all runs an incredibly deft rhythm section who, you begin to realise, are subtly underpinning the whole thing, bringing back even the most far-flung exploration to the bedrock pulse. Throughout, the playing is exceptional. They may have striven for primitivism in some of their sounds, but the skills they used to create them sound highly sophisticated.

Elsewhere there are slashed up voices and processed sounds which begin to hint at the industrial soundclash approach Mark Stewart would go on to explore with the Maffia, Tackhead and On-U Sound System. There is ‘Don’t Sell Your Dreams’ a dying monster made of collapsing dub which spends 6 minutes trying to decide whether to live or die and can’t. It could and should be unbearable but again there is something, some tiny thread, some lifeforce flowing which brings the piece together into something quite compelling. There’s even a throwaway instrumental B-side bonus track on the CD reissue, ‘3.38’, which seems to casually contain the genetic code for the next 15 years’ worth of hip-hop.

Few were able to follow the scorched trail this band left behind. One group who certainly recognised the breakthrough that had made were nascent The Birthday Party. According to this clip, Nick Cave and his bandmates were utterly enervated and transformed by an early Pop Group performance shortly after arriving in London.

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUC2GmzJpGY%5D

Whilst it’s hard to find many genuine predecessors of this unholy, incredible noise within rock music, hearing it now it’s impossible to ignore how many artists, starting with Cave and co, pushed their way through the breach that this Bristol quartet made back when Nick was a nipper.

Sometimes when you reach back to influential records from the past, it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes or headphones of the original listeners and to feel the visceral excitement they must have felt. Sometimes that’s because the original context can’t readily be conjoured. Sometimes it’s because the artistic legacy has been so thoroughly plundered in the years following as to leave the original source drained. Either way, these records often sound flat, played out even if you haven’t actually heard them before (seeing as we’re in 1979, I’m looking at you Gang of Four). Not so with ‘Y’. If released today it would be utterly thrilling and having come to it properly so late, it’s my favourite album of 2014 so far.

It’s a record in protest at life full of songs in revolt against themselves. It’s unbelievably good, utterly without compromise. It contains the blueprints for a hundred brilliant records, only a few dozen of which have yet been made.

Tom listened: The Pop Group are a band I have wanted to hear for a long, long, time and now that I have, I have to say that about two thirds of the record was worth the wait. Rob primed us before playing Y (funny that I brought an album by X…where was the Z?) that we would have to go with it a bit; that, at times, it would be just a bit too tricky to appreciate on a first listen. ‘Right’, I thought, ‘I’ll show you Mitchell…I’m going to like it all, right from the off’. But, of course, he was right. Whilst the majority of the record was pretty much spellbinding, the other bits simply sounded like self-indulgent proggy nonsense to me, which I find particularly ironic considering this album’s release date and obvious post-punk leanings. So..the jury’s out as far as I am concerned, and I guess that only repeated exposure to the album and familiarity would tell as to whether the less structured side of the record would reveal its true worth…or not.

Nick listened: I’ll echo Tom; this was a confusing record, wherein bits of it seemed like absolute genius, and other parts felt like indulgent dross. Repeat listens would probably unpack the dross and make you appreciate it more.

New Order – Technique: Round 66, Nick’s choice

NewOrderTechniqueFor some reason I have never – well, until very recently – owned a New Order record. Not one. I have no idea why; I love many of their singles and must’ve picked up Substance a hundred times in record shops, only to put it down again each time, before I got to the counter.

There are, of course, plenty of artists – or authors, or directors, or TV programs – who I’ve made a subconscious (or conscious) decision not to delve into despite almost overwhelming acclaim and clear obviousness of tase-matching. As I’ve said before, you simply can’t investigate every potentially fruitful lead, because there isn’t enough time; I like riding bikes and playing football and doing other stuff too, as well as listening to records. It’s just a coping mechanism for the huge surplus there is of culture out there.

But sometimes circumstances, or fate, or whatever, aligns a little bit, and you end up deciding that now is the right time to finally investigate something. And now is the right time for me to investigate New Order. Embrace’s new record owing such a sonic debt to New Order (all those high, melodic basslines, synth oscillations and electronic drum pads) is just one catalyst among several.

Deciding I’d finally take the plunge, I asked Twitter where to dive, and the overwhelming vote was for Power, Corruption and Lies, which I duly bought and enjoyed thoroughly (especially “Your Silent Face” and, of course, the bonus non-album singles on the second disc of the remaster). Suitably impressed, I bought a copy of Technique about a week later (at the same time as I bought a CD copy of the Embrace album, actually). The very next day we had record club, so I took it with me, and so this was my first all-the-way-through listen to it (I’d put it on for about 20 minutes the night before, too), having never knowingly heard anything other than the singles previously (and not really remembering them).

So I don’t really have anything to say about Technique, because I’ve only listened to it a couple more times since. It’s certainly far more ‘Ibiza’ than PCL, and a little lacking in the (seemingly accidental) pathos and detached emotionalism they’re so good at as a consequence; I enjoyed it almost as much, though.

New Order are such a weird band; they seem to be comprised of (two, at least) unpleasant idiots who can neither play their instruments nor sing, and yet they’ve somehow managed to create some of the most emotional and beautiful music to ever emerge from Manchester (or anywhere else, for that matter). So tell me, where should I go next?

Tom listened: Over the course of the last six months it seems as though the others have conspired to give me a tour through the old and long lost TDK C90s that I used to own. Technique is another one of those – an album I always liked well enough but, much like most of New Order’s output, never really captivated me enough to entice me to part with my hard earned money. And so it was on the evening – really enjoyable, but musical ephemera  as far as I am concerned – something to do with Sumner’s vocals and the lack of warmth and emotion contained within the (admittedly) finely crafted and executed pop songs on the album. My guess is the closer (get it?) we get to Joy Division, the more I’ll connect with the music of New Order, but my instinct is that unless he has a Future Islands on Letterman moment, Bernard’s vocals will always be a sticking point for me.

Rob listened: A couple of answers and a couple of questions for you Nick. Firstly, go to Substance next. It’s as good a singles comp as any band could muster in the post-punk era, brimming with distinctive, inventive and intoxicating songs. Then Low Life followed by Brotherhood. Stop there, I reckon. You might like some of the stuff from Republic but the returns are diminishing by then. Movement is great, but perhaps a little too proto for your liking.

Questions: where on earth do you get the idea that any of New Order are unpleasant or idiots? I’ve interviewed three of them and they were warm, generous and thoughtful about their music. The fourth, Peter Hook, seems similar from what I can gather. They may have fallen out with each other, but I’m unaware of anything they’ve said and done that merits those descriptors above any other average rock star.

Secondly: where do you get the idea that they can’t play or sing? They are, all four of them, innovative and groundbreaking and they did what they did by playing their own instruments. You might find some of their technique (lol) rudimentary, but then such is rock and roll, where the emotion is often found wrung from the space between an artists reach and their grasp. Bernard Sumner’s voice is an absolute case in point. Hooky’s bass playing is distinctive and really pretty wonderful. If you’re levelling some sort of ‘they just pushed a few buttons’ charge at them, and I’m pretty sure you’re not, then I look forward to you saying the same about Orbital and Four Tet. Sorry Nick, but I think that’s lazy.

As for the album, I like Technique a lot, but not as much as the four that preceded it. It signalled the point where New Order made their last great contribution to the development of our music, their third if you count what they did as Joy Division. It’s also the point at which their direction started to diverge from where I was going (ie they went to Ibiza, I went to the Hacienda on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday). Nonetheless, they stepped ahead of the rest once more, which is pretty remarkable, and the record they made still stands up today.

Nick responds to Rob: I absolutely don’t mean “they’re just pushing buttons on synthesisers” when I say they seem like they can’t play their instruments, far from it: as Rob notes, I love lots of music that’s produced by people clicking a mouse or pressing a button rather than by stroking a harp or whatever. I mean that what they do play – the bass and guitar parts, and the drums (which are often off a machine rather than a kit, obviously) – often seems so simple and perfunctory as to seem amateurish or childlike; there feels like little freedom, improvisation, or melodic development. Of course, if there was freedom, improvisation, or melodic development, then the emotional heft that they achieve would be obliterated; it comes from the mechanistic, uncomfortable repetition, from the simplicity of the patterns being produced. Barney’s singing – flat and monotone and struggling with both range and sustain – adds to this sense I have that they’re almost just lucking it out somehow. But it’s what makes them brilliant.

As for them seeming unpleasant, again thats just a vague impression taken from a distance. They don’t seem to like each other much.

Minutemen – Double Nickels On The Dime: Round 66 – Tom’s Selection

minutemen-568-lIf blog posts had to mirror the album they featured, this blog post would be 2000 words long, as dense as Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, simultaneously concise and sprawling, playful, irreverant, angry, political and downright brilliant. Unfortunately, I am writing it so it will be devoid of pretty much all these things, unless sprawling can be interpreted as waffly! When I introduced Double Nickels to the others at record club I stated that of all my records this is the one I would pull from the fire. Nick later paraphrased this as an admission that this is my favourite album. But in my mind they are not the same thing at all. My favourite albums (many of which have featured already at Record Club) would soon become irritating if they were all I had. But I relish the idea of having nothing other than Double Nickels to listen to – there is so much to explore in it, so many little wonders hidden away that I feel I am only just beginning to know (having owned the album for about 20 years now). Heck, I still don’t know the song titles; I can’t anticipate what is coming next as one songs ends and another begins; I don’t even know which side certain songs belong on if played in isolation. This is a million miles away from where I am with most of my collection – I like to really know an album, as in KNOW an album, get it all worked out, not because the end result is so attractive but because the journey to that point is so enjoyable. And that’s why Double Nickels is such an attractive proposition to me. I must have listened to it hundreds of times already over the years but I am still deep in the process of getting to know it. A few more pieces of the jigsaw fell into place during the run in to our evening but, to be honest, I am miles away from getting to that point where all is familiar and there are no surprises left to discover. As Rob said in his response to Slint’s Spiderland – he’s not sure he ever wants to work it out. Well, I have pored over Spiderland and I am pretty much there with that record…but the Minutemen’s amazing third album has a multitude of gems that still need to be unearthed by me, so many facets left to explore.

Initally I wasn’t all that predisposed to the idea of the Minutemen. At the time I was a big Husker Du fan and, knowing they were rivals of sorts, led me to place myself firmly in the Husker camp. It turns out the two bands had about as much in common as Blur and Oasis or The Beatles and The Stones – rivals for a similar demographic but musically a million miles apart. Expecting a Bob Mould style guitar onslaught coupled with pop hooks and harmonies, imagine my surprise when the first bars of Anxious Mo Fo lurched out of the speakers, all awkward and lean and shouty (not screamy!)…and nothing at all like New Day Rising!

In fact it is quite remarkable given the breadth of the musical vision that D Boon and Mike Watt demonstrate on the record that at no point in the 75 minutes of Double Nickels (all sorts of rules were broken at the club this evening) do they sound remotely like any of Husker Du’s output. As musical comparisons go, this one is the most crimson of all herrings.

So what does Double Nickels sound like? Practically impossible to sum up…but the overriding surprise to me on my first listen was just how groovy the album is – Mike Watt’s bass playing being nimble and inventive throughout and placing the music in a very different musical setting to much of the US underground around at the time. Another shock is how much space there is within the songs – guitars are spiky, individual notes discernible and clipped. Meanwhile Daniel Boon’s vocals and lyrics are never less than captivating, veering from mundane to political to heartfelt and poignant often in the course of one two minute song. And if, for some reason, you’re not keen on the current track, don’t worry – the next one will be around in the blink of an eye.

Admittedly, navigating a myriad ideas in the course of an hour and a quarter can be exhausting for a listener, particularly on a first listen or ten and, even after twenty years, a pause half way through does no harm. However, once the songs start to reveal themselves there really is no going back – as addictive records go, this is just about top of the tree for me. Unsurprisingly, this is the only Minutemen record I own – after all, with 45 songs of unimpeachable quality which are still evolving with each new listen, I feel that more Minutemen material would just be overwhelming. I am not claiming that Double Nickels is the perfect record but, for me, its imperfections make it all the more captivating. So do yourselves a favour and get yourselves a copy – you never know when the house may go up in flames!

Rob listened: I loved lots of the bands that learned from Minutemen, but it’s only in the last year or so that i’ve finally caught up with ‘Double Nickels’ and realised just how rich and influential this source material was. When I was living my life to the taut rhythms of Fugazi and NoMeansNo and Mudhoney and Nirvana and Sebadoh there were other bands, other names that hung in the background, just a little before my bands, just a little out of reach. Of those, I did go back for Husker Du but others, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, The Replacements, Black Flag, were left behind. Nowadays that just wouldn’t be possible but back then you had to know someone who could lend or tape you stuff, or to take a chance on a name half=remembered from an interview in an old edition of Sounds.

Now, when I finally get there, finally realise just how heavily the bloodlines of the records I did fall in love with at the time flow directly down from the spiky, lurching, free-ranging, tight, joyful, unafraid, funny, intoxicating, herky-jerky jumble of a record, it’s like one of those dreams where you find a record shop you never knew existed which stocks racks full of records you never knew existed by all your favourite artists.

It’s good, in other words. I think it’s really good.

Nick listened: I’m just gonna echo Rob – although this was massive and difficult to consume, it was also excellent and clearly very influential, albeit to a slightly different school of bands for me as for Rob; I certainly heard Fugazi’s DNA being formed here, but I also heard a lot of the Dismemberment Plan. Really enjoyable.