Adam Curtis is a film-maker who has made his name by assembling disparate, incongruous, often dissonant, images, sounds and stories into palettes and pieces that lay claim to hidden realities and subterranean narratives that may or may not lie beneath the post-war, neo-liberal consensus. When his films are at their best, they bring together wildly divergent elements to illustrate the completely unexpected, in ways which may not otherwise have been directly approachable.
The use of music – surprising, cinematic, evocative, contrapuntal – has always been central to his work. He uses it to open up emotions, to manipulate mood and, in combination with often dizzying, disorienting film footage, to suggest what seem to be entirely new ways of seeing, hearing and interpreting the world.
And so, when he speaks haltingly, gushingly of an artist like Burial, as he did (see below) to Adam Buxton last year, it’s clear that he feels he has found a common spirit.
“I think Burial is the genius of our time… The most important Burial song to listen to, which will tell you everything about him, is Come Down to Us… Why it’s so incredible, because what Burial does is he takes what is essentially industrial noise – and songs – but fuses them together to create something that is epic and romantic, and sort of gives you a clue of the sort of thing that might be coming, culturally – which is a higher system, I think. And I think he’s there ahead of everyone. It’s so emotional; yet, at the same time, just noise. And, I don’t know, it’s just, I can’t – sorry, this is me being inarticulate – it’s just… wonderful… It takes you into another world.”
‘Come Down To Us’ is the third and final track of the ‘Rival Dealer’ EP. By the point of its release, Burial’s approach had shifted radically from his beginnings in rainswept garage and two-step, but which retained throughout a constant, imposing sense of the cinematic possibilities of urban existence, For Curtis to describe the music as ‘just noise’ is misleading. The EP’s 28 minutes bristles and sways with ambient atmospherics, underscored by vinyl crackles, metallic weapon clicks and the sub-sonic alien buzz of concrete. But the two counterpoints of the set, the 10 minute title track and the 13-minute ‘Come Down To Us’ are compelling pieces of music, first and foremost, not noise. ‘Rival Dealer’ bustles and sprints, stumbles and surges, a flurrying beat pulling the track through what feels like a hurried escape. ‘Come Down To Us’ is entirely different, a mesmeric, devotional head-nod, underscored by a heartbreakingly delicate melody and skated over by a yearning vocal. It’s intoxicating and incredibly affecting. The entire EP is spun through with spoken snatches dealing with identity and the closing sampled speech from transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski throws everything that has preceded it into a breathtaking new light.
“It’s just… wonderful… It takes you to another world.” And put together with the EPs that have followed in the 4 years since Rival Dealer, it really does seem as if Burial may have found a new way forward, and got there ahead of everyone.
On only one occasion as a young man did I sit down with my friends and try to make music. Only one of us could play, and he the guitar, but the rest of us had a go. I found myself noodling around on a keyboard finding simple melody lines to decorate a steady snare beat and repetitive, wannabe hypnotic, chords. It was no good, but we had an enjoyable afternoon. That’s probably the story of 95% of all bands, those that come together in the minds and back bedrooms of their so-briefly aligned members. The other 5% go on, and turn what rough clay they find in their hands into something more permanent. Probably 4% of those are awful too, but at least they’re trying, which really, genuinely is something.
Fuck Buttons are not like our band. They are, to my mind, a perfect creation, using complex palimpsests of sound to create music that is unnaturally direct and powerful. My mayflower-like musical efforts categorically were not perfect. However they come back to mind now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I think that had we had the spirit, talent, energy or time to go on, then this is the kind of music we may have felt we were trying to make, had we the imaginative capacity, which we almost certainly didn’t. Nonetheless, our approach had the basic germ. We started with one thing, a chord sequence, and then added to it gradually, a rhythm, a synthesizer, some words. Over the course of 20 minutes we built towards something.
Secondly, and crucially, I think about that afternoon because when I listen to Fuck Buttons, which I often do, I am always struck by how simple the proposition sounds – just start with one thing and then add more on top until you have something bigger, and bigger, and bigger – and just how startlingly difficult it must actually be to pull that trick off.
All three Fuck Buttons records have taken a similar approach, each using different sets of building blocks and achieving different ultimate outcomes. ‘Street Horrrsing’, still one of the more physically unbalancing records I own, built out from twinkling keyboards, human screams and the sound of an exterminating alien spacecraft to produce a soundscape for a post-human planet. ‘Tarot Sport’ dragged the sound through the doors of a warehouse party, creating hypnotic and crushing beats. ‘Slow Focus’ seems to me the richest, most satisfying record of the three. Each track starts with a simple element, a pounding piece of percussion or a choppy synth line, and adds more, steadily getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Each time a new element joins the picture it sounds to have become impossibly huge, and only after a few minutes more have passed do you realise just how much more massive the whole machine has grown since then.
Let’s pause to acknowledge the name and cover art of this record, both helpful encapsulations of what the band do so exquisitely. ‘Slow Focus’, a sense of pulling out from, or in towards, an object, steadily to reveal an encapsulating super-structure, or zooming to uncover layers beneath layers beneath layers. And that adorning piece of jewellery that stares out from the sleeve: It starts with an apparently huge stone at its centre, which should have been enough by any measure, but its creator then added a setting, and then some decoration and then crenellations and some filigree until ultimately the whole piece is five times the size and weight it ever needed to be. And yet, somehow, where it should be gaudy and overloaded, it feels rich.
Throughout this album, Fuck Buttons consistently create a sense of ecstatic intensity, which is as beguiling as it is overwhelming, never repetitive, always physically consuming. It’s quite a trick.
Julian Cope turns 60 on 21st October 2017. The reaching of a milestone, you might say, along the leyline of life for the Archdrude, Krautrock, Japrock psychedelic traveller, rock-pop star and general mad dude. Mr Cope has been many things to many different people. I covered his time in the Teardrop Explodes at previous meeting, chronicling his descent into madness and general chaos. All the pre-solo shenanigans are detailed in his autobiography – Head On. Post-Tears breakup was hard on Julian. Dumped by most of whom he thought were friends, and exiled to his childhood home of Tamworth having been resident both in Liverpool and London, he finds himself in an artistic moment of enforced freedom. ‘Fried’ was his second solo album, having been preceded by ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ (which doesn’t contain the song of that name itself – that appears on St Julian). On ‘World…’ he retains much of the febrile high-tempo sounds found on Kilimanjaro. When that failed to stick, he went into the studio and recorded ‘Fried’. Much under the influence and striking a chord with his visions of himself within a mythological England the tracks on this album have a folksy quality about them, not a million miles from Syd Barrett’s solo ventures. You can draw a line from Barrett, through ‘Fried’ to Blur. On ‘Reynard the Fox’ he embodies himself (perhaps a reference to his shamanic spirit animal) in the folk character of a wise anthropomorphic animal who is outwitting his enemies. Being caught eventually he cuts his stomach open and “spills his guts out onto the stage”, again referring to an actual event in JC’s live performance where he did just that. The music itself is frenzied and despite its gory lyrics it’s a favourite of my children’s! ‘Bill Drummond Said’ is also a list of things that, well Mr Drummond is alleged to have said e.g. “If I pray enough my Christmas tree will die”. So outlandish are these sayings that it’s quite possible that they’re made up. But then it’s not clear that he couldn’t have said them, and so the legend goes. It’s a jolly little ditty, and Bill followed it up a few years later with a folk song riposte entitled “Julian Cope is Dead”.
On ‘Fried’ Julian is not scared of being completely experimental. Later on he would carve out his rock star persona, and have hits with “World Shut Your Mouth” and “Try Try Try”. So, this album is odd in that it diverts from both the successful pop of Teardrops, and his later more accessible work, and hints at an altogether artistically adventurous JC. Tracks from this album still survive as live favourites, such as ” Sunspots” and “Reynard the Fox”. His march into full on shamanic Druidry is attempted here in a less mature way on “O King of Chaos”. Religious ramblings abound on “Holy Love”
“Who’s that rolling in the hay
The baby Jesus or the cavalry?”
He deals with betrayal by his friends and the dropping of him by the record label (he was dropped again after this album) on ‘Laughing Boy’
“Oh no, don’t cast me out of here
Oh no, don’t cast me out of here
Oh no, don’t cast me out, I said “No”
I’ve got no place to go.”
and with the very fact that having success has changed him from the person he was, so much that he can’t go back (on ‘Me Singing’)
“I try my hand at work
Oh, work seems to be for an earlier person”
Musically the album is truly solo, with Cope often playing his own instruments. So, it is quite simplistic in composition, but nevertheless there’s plenty nice tunes here. Lyrically there’s a heavy dosage of pathos, emotion and introspection to take you into the inner workings of his mind. I find its autobiographical and yet legend-spinning approach to be quite refreshing and honest. It was certainly not well-received at the time, hardly selling any copies. Polydor dropped him after this, and perhaps the necessity of having to work to make ends meet he diverts from this style to something much more accessible. People focus too much on the front cover of this album, and are perhaps put-off from listening to it, thinking this is perhaps just the ramblings of a mad-man who got under a turtle shell on a rubbish mound. Much like Mr Cope and his very varied 60-year old CV, it’s much much more than that….He’s a legend, and dare I say it an English treasure. At 60 he ought to be honoured with more than just a free bus pass. Happy Birthday Mr Cope!
Rob listened: I have great affection for Julian Cope. Back in the mid to late 80s when I was exploring the idea of being an ‘alternative’, Saint Julian was one of the first dozen or so albums I really got to grips with. I had it on cassette. I really liked it, but never quite felt as if I connected properly with it. I used to see ‘Fried’ and ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ kicking about on vinyl, but although I did go heavily for ‘Peggy Suicide’ and ‘Jehovakill’ (via ‘My Nation Underground’ which was easily ignored), I never went backwards. Hearing ‘Fried’ now for the first time I found it a little difficult to get to grips with. I felt it needed a close listen and, ideally, as deep an immersion in Cope lore as Steve has. Still, lots of surprising sounds and words, all quite a marked contrast with the album that would follow it, and clearly the work of a national treasure in the making.
“Phenomenologically beautiful” is a phrase I use with alarming frequency (probably more than anyone else who has ever lived, I imagine), particularly at record club, where I deservedly receive a ribbing for it every time. (In fact, if you google the phrase, most of the results are me being an idiot. I’ve probably upset some philosophers by mangling what they think it means.) Sometimes it’s really appropriate, though.
It’s really appropriate for this Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith record, her sixth in six years, because A Kid is beautiful: the direct moment of experiencing it, shorn of context or analysis or discussion or wider epistemological considerations, is physically beautiful, on a sensory level of consciousness.
It achieves a similar goal to the James Holden record I played last time we met, but from a different direction and by different means. They both head for sublimation, that experience of forgetting who you are, feeling your own insignificance in the face of the universe. They both kind of get there through sensory overload, but instead of the energy and edge-of-chaos, dancing-uncontrollably-in-a-forest hysteria of The Animal Spirits, A Kid gets there by being… nebulous, difficult to touch, extraordinarily pretty, calm.
Excuse my guff at the start, though, because Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith makes the kind of music that inspires people to delve into breathless hyperbole; in fact there’s an entire, mealy-mouthed, patriarchal, joy-shaming thread on I Love Music dedicated to the things people wrote on the forum about her previous record.
And some of the phrases polled are pretty ridiculous, taken out of context, but they’re also brilliant, and my favourites are also the ones with the most votes:
“superoxygenated synth fantasias”
“we looked at each other and wondered aloud how we were going to put on another album after this one.”
“a cornucopia of wondrous sound, and i’m excited to have it accompany my life in these next few spring and summer months.”
“I’m going to have to download this and go and sit quietly in a forest with it for a while.”
Far from being shamed, the authors of these lines should be pleased that they’ve
inspired other people to go out and listen to this music, because they have.
Some bio in case you can’t be bothered to google for her wiki page: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is from Orcas Island, an isolated part of the Pacific North West, and studied composition and sound engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston (not Berkley in California, as I’ve seen referenced in a couple of locations), before moving back to Orcas Island and discovering synthesizers, especially the Buchla, which she does most of her work on. From pictures on the internet, Orcas Island looks like the kind of place where a creative kid would grow up with an appreciation of the vastness of nature and the insignificance of the self.
Her last album, 2016’s Ears (the one that people were so unreasonably shamed for enjoying on that thread), was on my list last year of things to buy if I ever saw it anywhere, but I never saw it anywhere. So I’ve ordered it (and the preceding Euclid) from Norman now, and hopefully will soon be able to bask in its pleasures.
She recently did a Baker’s Dozen for The Quietus, and there were a couple of key quotes about other people’s records that I thought could be used to describe her own rather well:
“music that… confuses the listener in a way that they can just relax and listen…”
“I love music that I can just play like that, where it can continue going and my brain won’t hold onto it too much…”
So what does it sound actually like? Who or what might be the frames of reference or comparison points or “like that? Try these” pointers that will make you go “ahhhh” and want to listen to this wonderful record?
Well, imagine if Julia Holter’s Ekstasis had evaporated, or Panda Bear’s Person Pitch had dissolved. Make Anna Meredith’s Varmints really vague.
But really she sounds like someone with a phalanx of synths, a universe of ideas, and a belief that music can and (sometimes) ought to be exceptionally beautiful. Her music is.
I found this quite beguiling and would like to listen a little more closely. It felt it could be good mood music. I would agree that it’s music that my brain didn’t hold on to much and so I would probably listen again and again having forgotten what it was that intrigued me. There was a rich texture to it and many layers that would allow you to explore more and more. I’ve not yet hit the “buy” button but I may keep it in reserve.
Rob listened: Nick, in his attempt at evocative dissembly, has mostly nailed this one. I came across Kaityln Aurelia Smith the previous year, and ‘Ears’ was one of my favourite records of 2016. Luckily I didn’t bring it to DRC or I would undoubtedly have been caught in Nick’s Hall of Hyperbolic Shame. I did just love the way it sounded though and, as chronicled tediously across many of my posts to this archive, I am increasingly attached to apparently formless musics like this. I also loved, when I first heard her introduced by Lars Gotrich on ‘All Songs Considered’, the description of Smith as someone who had found and become virtuosic on one old synthesiser, the aforementioned Buchla 100. It gives me great pleasure to think of her as the Colin Stetson of this box of knobs, able to twist and regenerate it into endlessly fascinating forms, each of which, so far, it also gives me great pleasure to listen to.
Before acquiring Pirates a couple of years ago, all I knew of Rickie Lee Jones was that she was the voice of The Orb’s magnificent Little Fluffy Clouds. I guess it must be pretty galling to be an esteemed singer-songwriter of yore and yet have swathes of an entire generation of music lovers whose only connection is a sample of a snatch of conversation of a promotional CD for one of your albums, even if that sample becomes one of the most recognisible, iconic samples of all time! Of course, I also knew the song Chuck E’s In Love, but never knew who sung it until I bought Pirates and started to do the obligatory on-line research.
So I really had no idea what to expect when I first played Pirates. And I guess that by the time that first play had ended, I still wasn’t sure what to make of the record; its mellifluous, jazzy soundscapes and Springsteenesque storytelling being at odds with what I would normally look for in a purchase.
But, with a little help from my daughter (who immediately clicked with the album, unencumbered as she is with the weight of musical prejudice) it, quite slowly admittedly, dawned on me that Pirates is a keeper, one of those records that reveals more with each listen, where the things that put you off in the first place become distant memories as the listening experience becomes more and more immersive and encompassing. I have loads of records that have pulled this trick in my collection (Forever Changes, Clear Spot, Pet Sounds, every American Music Club album ever, The Chills’ Brave Words) and have written about it in the blog many times over, yet it still never ceases to amaze me – how the songs obviously don’t alter at all, yet my relationship with them transforms them from anathema to essential with just familiarity, a little bit of close listening and an open mind.
At record club, however, I was caught somewhere in between; the fact that there were two newbies listening for the first time brought back memories of my own experiences of first fetting to know the album. So, whilst the unimpeachable magnificence of opener We Belong Together remained untarnished, some of the other, more challenging numbers reverted, for the night at least, back to being…challenging, Skeletons vaguely musical theatre like qualities, for example, becoming unavoidable when listening in the presence of my esteemed and experienced fellow clubbers. Funny thing is, on my own or in the company of my family (all of whom are fans) I don’t really hear it like that at all!
I played Pirates again this evening for the first time since record club and it all sounded fabulous again. It’s of its time, of course, and very much in the Springsteen/Waits (early years) mould of third person storytelling. Musically it harks back to some of Joni Mitchell’s more complex, jazz inflected mid 70s fare and forward to, say, Jane Siberry’s The Walking – maintaining that balance between the complex and the accessible; hooks abound but are rarely repeated, songs writhe around never really falling into a recognisible verse/chorus/verse structure whilst never veering too far away from that either. Many of the songs are exercises in delayed or unfulfilled release, We Belong Together being a case in point as it threatens on a number of occasions to explode into a Born To Run style rocker, but Jones reigns it in almost immediately lest it should become too predictable.
I have no idea where Pirates sits within the pantheon, I still feel that it is a bit of an outlier in my collection and I know that my 25 year old self would have mocked me for even entertaining the idea of putting it on the record player. But for a 48 year old man (or a 15 year old daughter), Pirates works just fine and has brought many hours of unexpected aural pleasure over the past couple of years.
Rob listened: Well, it’s good to know that by the sheer gravitational force of our dense stupidity, Record Club attendees are able to warp the very sounds of a record around us, until it no longer seems the same. Sorry Tom. Glad it straightened back out.
I liked ‘Pirates’. Since Tom brought ‘Hejira’ to us a couple of years ago, I’ve spent lots of time going back to listen to Joni Mitchell, and, although I don’t think we talked all that much about her on the night, I can hear the connection now. It’s somewhere in a music that respects boundaries and form just enough to know when it’s wilfully over-running them.
And yes, there is Springsteen in the sometimes tumbling sing-speak story-telling, and perhaps a dash of Waits in the character portraits of lost nighthawks. But ultimately Rickie Lee Jones was a contemporary of these artists, not necessarily an acolyte, and so the credit for this intriguing and lovely record belongs to her.