Perfume Genius – ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’: Round 42 – Rob’s choice

perfume genius - put your back n 2 itFor me 2012 has been dominated and, to some extent book-ended, by two albums, ‘Mr M’ by Lambchop and ‘The Seer’ by Swans. Both are favourite artists of long-standing who have, after many, many years, produced career-defining records. Both albums manage to distill the essence of what has made their creators so important, to me at least, and still move their music on to yet another level of beauty, brutality, virtuosity and wonder (delete as appropriate). I saw both bands play devastatingly brilliant live shows this year. Kurt Wagner and Lambchop were exquisite, care-worn and heartbreakingly beautiful at the Bristol Fleece. Michael Gira and Swans were jaw-dropping, almost jaw-breaking, in their symphonic violence, a pulverising yet ultimately sublime experience which took days to recover from. I’m hopeless at remembering past gigs, but both these shows felt like they would fit comfortably within my top ten all-time list, if only I could recall the other 8.

I’ve already presented ‘Mr M’ to the Record Club and ‘The Seer’ is pretty much twice as long as the upper limit that DRC can tolerate. Which brings me for my record of the year choice, happily, to the second album by Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, which has also been on almost constant rotation this year. Superficially, there is little to bind this record to the other two. It’s a short album, just a little over half an hour, populated by 12 concise songs, most of which are simple sketches for piano and voice. However, Kurt Wagner would surely recognise the timeless delicacy of the songs and M. Gira would certainly appreciate the existential bleakness of the lyrics.

Hadreas has an incredible touch when it comes to melody. These are such simple, delicate, still songs but somehow he manages to breath a warm and fragile life into each. They are, in essence, torch songs, as memorable and beautiful as any, but meticulously drained of melodrama and sentimentality to leave brittle bones and reverberating husks. Within these he lays bare his passion, his self-loathing, his wounds and his desolate desires.

If this year has produced a lyric as bleakly poetic as ’17’ then i’ve yet to hear it. Almost laughable set down on the inner sleeve, in the context of the record it is horrifyingly direct and distressing. If this year has produced a song as heart-stopping as the 2 minutes of ‘Hood’, a moment more vertiginous than that when the drums swell in the middle of this track, then I don’t want to hear it for fear I may swoon clean away.

Hadreas is a rare, if tortured, talent. I have no idea where he may go from here, but ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’ is an album which approaches perfection. If Lambchop and Swans built the two major musical monuments of 2012, then Perfume Genius connected the two with a frozen river of votive songs.

Graham listened: I’ve left many a DRC meeting thinking about buying what someone else has brought along and gone on to do so. After listening to this I just knew I had to have  it, and with Christmas coming it went straight on my list. Simply astonishing.

Nick listened: Two for two. Emma and I saw Perfume Genius live (albeit very briefly) at ATP earlier this month, and also saw Owen Pallett follow him onstage and enthuse sincerely about how much Hadreas’ music means to him. On first exposure, in a Pontins discotheque, his piano-lead eulogies to youth, emotion, sensation, and regret didn’t come across that well (partly down to the very drunk girl puking on the carpet in front of us), but on record, Perfume Genius’ intimate talents were much more understandable. ‘Hood’, as Rob suggests, was worth the admission price alone. Suspecting that Emma would love the record’s bleak intimacy and simplicity, I bought her a copy last week in The Drift for Christmas. I’m looking forward to listening to it again myself.

Tom Listened: I was really glad that Rob brought Put Your Back In 2 It’ as his album of the year not least because I gave it to him for his birthday! I bought it with next to no knowledge of the band – I had read a few positive reviews and had a cursory listen in The Drift (how many plugs to they get from us nowadays? Surely it’s time to sort out some sort of commission…) to the first couple of tracks and, on hearing track 2 I came to the conclusion it sounded a bit like Will Oldham and would therefore nestle happily amongst the vinyl in Rob’s collection. It turned out that Rob already knew and liked Perfume Genius, that he had already played a track from the debut album at Record Club and, therefore, that I had shown supreme lack of imagination in making my choice of purchase. It also turns out that track 2 – the (ironically(?)) named Normal Song) is a red herring, being a couple of plucked strings on a guitar rather than the piano led torch songs that populate the rest of the album.

I liked the record – it sounded like a more honest, poignant and (much) less theatrical Anthony and the Johnsons (and I much preferred it to I Am A Bird Now, the one AATJ album I own) – but I wasn’t as blown away by it as I sensed Nick and Graham were…yet again I feel this is a record I would quickly grow to love if I spent some time with it, but I wish Hadreas had placed a more equal balance of guitar and piano on the record as I am a complete sucker for a parched acoustic guitar and a plaintive vocal (see the aforementioned Normal Song).

Arvo Pärt – Te Deum / Swans – Avatar (from The Seer): Round 40, Nick’s choices

I’d half-heartedly set the theme of “moving house, or home, or furniture, or newness” at the end of our last meeting, as round 40 was to be the first DRC at my new house, but without really thinking about what this might mean. I’ve already played the Fever Ray album, which could be a contender, didn’t want to pick (half of) Aerial by Kate Bush, and couldn’t think of any snappily-house-related-titled bands or albums.

So I ignored the theme, pretty much, and plumped for something I’ve been thinking about playing for a while. I explained it as being a completely new type of music for DRC to listen to at a completely new venue, but no one was biting.

I know next to nothing about classical music, and even less about modern classical music, despite the best efforts of our old neighbour (from before we moved). I recall being recommended, or intrigued by something written about, Te Deum by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt some years ago, and buying a copy as a result. I have, I believe, only listened to it once: classical is not my go-to music, and Pärt’s Te Deum is an intense, involved, enveloping listen; it’s not something you can just throw on the do the dishes to. I’ve been intrigued since we started DRC to see how we respond to something classical and unfamiliar, that we have little or no frame of reference for.

Some context, drawn shameless from the Wikipedia page because I know not what I talk about: Pärt is just one of many composers to set the verses of Te Deum, which dates from AD 387, to music. He composed his version in the 80s, and the recording I have, on the ECM label, is from 1993. It is scored for three choirs (women’s choir, men’s choir, and mixed choir), prepared piano, divisi strings, and wind harp. To my ears, it’s a predominantly choral piece which slowly swells from literally nothing into huge, almost overwhelming rolls of voices, strings, and surreptitious drones. I don’t understand it, but it does move me.

Pärt has said that the original text Te Deum contains “immutable truths,” reminding him of the “immeasurable serenity imparted by a mountain panorama”, and that it seeks to communicate a mood “that could be infinite in time—out of the flow of infinity. I had to draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.” That pretty much sums it up.

This is a translation of the original verses of Te Deum:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :
the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud :
the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim :
continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy :
Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty :
of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world :
doth acknowledge thee;
The Father : of an infinite Majesty;
Thine honourable, true : and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost : the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory : O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son : of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man :
thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death :
thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God : in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come : to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants :
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints : in glory everlasting.

As a counterpart, and because Te Deum lasts for only 29 minutes, I played Avatar by Swans from their current album The Seer, which has a similarly intense, devout atmosphere, but creates this ethos in a very different way, with strikingly different tools, and heading in a very different direction.

Tom Listened: Although Nick is spot on when he said in his response to Rob’s offering from this meeting (Home by Casper Brötzmann Massaker) that Te Deum complemented it well, for some reason it did not elicit the same reaction from me despite sharing many atmospheric (if not sonic) similarities. I was already vaguely familiar with the work of Arvo Part as my parents own a few of his CDs and I have always found them pleasantly interesting whilst also being somewhat perplexed by them.  There are, for me, many paradoxes contained in his music…it’s modern yet sounds like it’s hundreds of years old, it drifts by without making much of a fuss yet it demands attention, it’s not unsettling yet it isn’t without its unsettling moments, it’s VERY quiet and then VERY loud…music for cars it most definitely is not! Unsurprisingly, I’m not really sure what I thought of it but I certainly wouldn’t be against another listen.

Rob listened: We have an Arvo Pärt record which i’m reasonably familiar with. My Mother-in-Law bought it for us. It’s the only record we both like, as far as I know, although I do recall her commenting favourably on hearing portions of Low’s ‘A Lifetime of Temporary Relief’. Our album is called, pretty definitively, ‘The Best of Arvo Pärt’ and this piece is not on it, therefore it must be one of his shitter numbers. I really enjoyed it though. What a glib sentence to write about music written with the single intention of stirring the soul and offering humble praise to a divine being. I did enjoy it though, really.

Swans have been one of my favourite bands since I reviewed ‘The Great Annihilator’ in 1995 and ‘The Seer’ does genuinely seem to be, as Michael Gira has claimed, “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Coincidentally, as we met for DRC on a Wednesday evening, my ears were still ringing, not yet fully recovered from seeing this very band play in Manchester four days earlier in a pulverising, devastating, transcendental performance which, as it happened, achieved for me the pure holy intensity that Mrs Pärt’s lad was aiming for with ‘Te Deum’.