Monday, December 29, 2008

Simon Reynolds – ‘Bring the Noise’

The last Simon Reynolds book I read, Blissed Out, was a largely impenetrable critique of some of my favourite music. By applying literary theory to Throwing Muses, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and A. R. Kane (I never did get properly around to A. R. Kane), Reynolds investigated how music affects individuals and cultures, how sound works on people, how it affects their cognition, and how they use it as a palliative to the ills of society: as a way of feeling rebellious, without actually taking any political action. Dry as it was, I’ve never ready anything else like it. By contrast, Bring the Noise is a far more readable account of a whole load of music I have never heard, with a similar individual / culture sweep. Actually, I have heard quite a lot from the first half: this book is a collection of Reynolds’ journalism between 1985 – 2006, and early on he covers Morrissey (making the same Smiths / Throwing Muses connection as in Blissed Out) and some of the same late ’80s / early ’90s bands (Dinosaur Jr, for instance: ‘J: “My turtle... ran away. Very slowly, he ran away.”’ (p. 66)). In amongst chapters on Ragga, Hardcore Rave, Timbaland and Puff Daddy there sit Nirvana, Pulp, Manic Street Preachers. But the rockers get less and less frequent as Reynolds’ ear is drawn to the electronic, and to hip hop. Which is just not me at all, and I found that for the last 200 pages of this 400 page book, I was almost entirely without reference points.

It’s these pages which fascinate, though. It’s so easy, listening to the little pockets of music which carefully / randomly forged paths lead you to over the years, to assume that Pop Is Dead, at least in the ‘popular’ sense. And who cares, if there are still new sounds which leave you dazed in wonder, like the charts once did (1987, I think it was, for me)? To pass the slack time at work over Christmas, someone dug up some pop quizzes – lyrics from the ’80s and ’90s in spreadsheets, where you have to fill in the song title and artist. I was disturbed to find that Michael Bolton still lurked somewhere in my consciousness, and quite pleased to have forgotten which song ‘I live my life for the stars that shine / People say it’s just a waste of time’ comes from. I would probably have got no marks at all for a ’00s spreadsheet. Simon Reynolds, though, never lost sight of the ‘popular’ part of pop, and it is wonderful to read about it again as something that matters, which has a cultural and a populist weight as well as (or instead of) a pretty tune. He can convey so much of the pop experience that it isn’t strictly necessary to know the music to enjoy the writing. Even if it isn’t possible to imagine sounds purely from his descriptions (not accurately, at least), you do get a sense of the scale, intensity and success of the scenes which spawned them. The way US rap bestrides the globe, the way UK rap doesn’t (but strives to). The way grime came together from three or four distinct sources: ‘gabba-gangsta-garage’ (p. 347), he called it, before it got a proper name. The way Jamaican dancehall feeds into it. The lack of content in rap post-Public Enemy. Can that be true? Is it really just self aggrandising and dissing ‘playa haters’ (people who criticise others who have made it big, it says here)? All of it?

But Bring the Noise’s articles are rarely definitive in themselves: polemic in one direction is often matched by an equal and opposite force elsewhere in the book (I don’t have the quote, but Reynolds does praise US rap’s narrative inventiveness somewhere). Spontaneous reaction is more important here than the after-the-fact eulogising of Rip It Up and Start Again (or almost any other rock book). Appraisals after each piece provide a contemporary context, but they also create a context for each other, you can track enthusiasms as they wax and wane, Reynolds never less than immersed in some scene, trend, record, song. His defence of the Arctic Monkeys against kpunk is almost quaint, he invests so much in his own take on whether it is even possible for a rock band to have worth at this point in history. Of course, the piece isn’t just about his own liking for their record, at its core it is also about whether popular music can still be important. I had rather assumed not, but Reynolds makes a convincing case. ‘Against All Odds’, about grime’s ‘make-or-break’ year in 2005, attributes much of the genre’s power to ‘its expansionist drive, its extroversion, its sheer hunger’ (p. 386).

Occasionally, through the scenes and the smoke and the push and pull of black / white / US / UK, a description of a song will appear, and you’ll remember why it was you fell for rock writing in the first place:

On his remixes of St Germain’s ‘Alabama Blues’ and his own tracks like ‘Never Far From You’, New Jersey producer Todd Edwards developed a technique of cross-hatching brief snatches of vocals into a melodic-percussive honeycomb of blissful hiccups, so burstingly rapturous it’s almost painful to the ear. (p. 219)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stella Gibbons – ‘Cold Comfort Farm’

What with writing about other things, I almost forgot to write about this book. Which would be rather a shame, as it’s been sitting in my to-read pile ever since shortly after this, when the recently almost departed but thankfully not after all Patroclus recommended it over at Cultural Snow (leading to this post). So, a good 18 months ago. It turns out that Cold Comfort Farm is funny in much the same way that Patroclus’ blog is funny: asterisks all over the place, a self-aware mania for tidiness and good manners coming into frequent and fraught contact with disarray and tastelessness. In the book, asterisks are used to indicate ‘the finer passages’ (p. 9). The following merits two asterisks:

**Dawn crept over the downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. (p. 32)

These sections will leave the reader mildly nonplussed, but are as nothing to the three asterisk passages:

***The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman... Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and the cry of cows, the trampling bride-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his...

‘Will you have some bread and butter?’ asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea. ‘Oh, never mind your boots, Adam can sweep the mud up afterwards. Do come in.’ (p. 77)

Flora, a young woman recently bereaved of both parents, has decided against working for a living and, writing to all the relatives she can think of, ends up living with the Starkadders in Sussex (‘Sussex...” mused Mrs Smiling. “I don’t much like the sound of that. Do they live on a decaying farm?”’ (p. 16)). They take her in without accepting the money she offers, explaining that a great wrong was done to her father years ago, for which they must atone. The Starkadders are all rather in awe of this great wrong, though they refuse to say what it was, and persist in calling Flora ‘Robert Poste’s child’, which quickly becomes ridiculous. There is very little in the first three quarters of Cold Comfort Farm which isn’t ridiculous: octogenarian farm hand Adam with his cattle Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless; the bull, Big Business; child-of-the-earth Elfine (‘A pair of large blue eyes looked at her steadily above the green hand-woven hood. Flora pensively noted that they were fine eyes, and that the hood was the wrong green.’ (p. 61)); Seth with his simmering sexuality and his simmering porridge; Mr Mybug (or Meyerburg) with his book about how Branwell wrote all the Brontë novels, and only pretended to be an alcoholic so he could procure gin for his sisters; Aunt Ada Doom, who stays squirrelled away in an upstairs room, running the farm and using emotional blackmail to ensure that no-one ever leaves.

It is marvellous stuff. The earlier chapters almost hurt I was laughing so much. By the end I was enjoying it slightly less – the novel does what a novel has to do, it has characters develop and relationships form, which was mildly disappointing after the wild disconnect earlier on.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Helen Love – ‘It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To’

I always meant to write about Helen Love. Three years ago when the ‘Bubblegum Killers’ EP announced their return to total and unquestionable brilliance, I was busy belatedly discovering Heavenly (prompted partly by a reference in Helen Love’s ‘Rollercoasting’, partly by Everett True playing ‘Hearts and Crosses’ on the Plan B radio show), and planned a Tangents piece called ‘Heavenly vs. Helen Love’, which never happened because how was it ever going to live up to that title? Heavenly hit me just as hard as ‘Hearts and Crosses’ promised, and I had the luxury of discovering their whole catalogue over the course of a single year, falling in love over and over again. I was struck, though, at how similar the songs sounded to Helen Love’s. Not the lyrics, or the instrumentation, or even particularly the voice, but the tunes and the tempo. And, to be honest, I thought I was over them: after reaching a massive peak with ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom’ in 1997, their sound got bigger and their words less smart, and their ‘debut’ album Love and Glitter, Hot Days and Music (after the Radio Hits 1 & 2 collections) was a big let down. Now, to add insult to injury, it turned out they’d nicked their old sound from Heavenly! It was all too much. I am probably the only person in the world to have been outraged by Helen Love’s plagiarism, but it wasn’t the Ramones steals which bothered me.

There was a gap – a five year gap – during which the band must have picked up on these bad vibes from a once fervent fan (perhaps from several), and reconsidered their position. ‘Well, for one thing,’ they probably thought, ‘Heavenly didn’t have a monopoly on singing fast in a polite voice, you’re way off there’. ‘OK, but – the big pumping disco sound? The curtailed lyrics?’ ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ And as if by magic, in 2005 we got the old band back:

She met him 1980 in a school disco / He kissed her for the first time on the last bus home / He said ‘You be Debbie Harry, I’ll be Joey Ramone’ (from ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)

Not ‘She met him in 1980’ – that wouldn’t fit. ‘She met him 1980’. The words were falling over each other again, the excitement was back. Forget everything bad I said, they were just mourning Joey those lost years. Two other totally fab singles followed. I mean really impossibly fab. ‘Long Hot Summer’ is such a great idea for a single that it contains two totally different songs called ‘Long Hot Summer’. The first one starts like this:

Count ’em Dee Dee! / One two three four / Hey ho let’s go! / Hey ho let’s go! / I got ‘Here Comes the Summer’ by the Undertones / I got ‘Rockaway Beach’ by the Ramones / ’Cause it’s a heatwave baby and you know it’s true / I pop my bubblegum just for you

That takes us to 25 seconds. I think they are probably my favourite 25 seconds, on balance. Not of that song, just in general. ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ was what Love and Glitter should have sounded like, a free-er, lighter disco (with a lovely flute part to emphasise the fact), ideology intact: ‘I love this junk shop punk rock glam rock discotheque’.

Then there was a bit more silence, and this autumn I found that there had been an album out since February. Oh well, better late than never. ‘Debbie Loves Joey’ and ‘Junkshop Discotheque’ were present and correct, but they obviously felt that nothing but a single could contain ‘Long Hot Summer’. Quite right too. Putting together my Monorail list the other day, I knew that It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To had to be pretty high up there. It’s more than a throwback to past glories, much in the same way that Helen Love are more than a Ramones tribute band. They are about excitement and happiness and fandom and friendship, and their pop thrill is easily the match of the pop thrills they collage together to make their songs*. This album sees their references broaden out a bit (Wings’ ‘Jet’, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Debbie Harry – nothing past the 1970s), and the sound has changed too. I said we got the old band back, but actually the music is now far more subtle and layered than it was in the ’90s. This record could not have been made on a Casiotone, or at least not just on a Casiotone. Sometimes the drums even sound real, and the fuzzbox gritty. There’s a line in ‘Garageband’: ‘We got a Super Kay guitarist and a girl Hammond organist / Listen to her play all day’ – a Hammond organ isn’t something they’d have used in the old days. Not that this is some exercise in real rock (obviously), but there is a fullness to the sound that it never had before.

The record opens with what has to be the best leading question of all time: ‘Sugar candy candy how do you feel / With shooting stars and laser beams?’ Even if you feel rubbish to begin with, you’ll feel great by the time the question has finished. Definitely by the end of the song (‘It’s My Club...’ itself), which has about a million hooks, and is pretty much the equal of ‘Long Hot Summer’. The rest of the album is not short on them either. ‘Jet’ has another slew. ‘Rodney’s English Disco’ too. ‘Queen of the Disco Beat’ is insanely catchy, and vaguely reminiscent of the Rainbow theme tune. ‘Jet’ starts with some sampled dialogue, oddly reminiscent of Saint Etienne’s So Tough: ‘In the chocolate box of life the top layer’s already gone, and someone’s pinched the orange cream from the bottom – bloody hell’. Odd because of that line in ‘Shifty Disco Girl’ – ‘she’ll dance to anything but Saint Etienne’ (but then she is shifty, I suppose). ‘A New Squad Attacking Formation’ sounds like the second Go! Team album should have done, a clamour of cheerleading. In context, ‘Staying In’ sounds strangely contemporary – ‘I got broadband connection super fast / I can download songs and photographs’ (broadband? In the ’70s?), and provides the closest the album brings to a change of pace. It’s as fast as all the other songs, but Helen speaks portions of it, so it has a more relaxed feel. And, and, and. It’s all great. Don’t get me started on the artwork, we’ll be here for another 1,000 words. Helen Love were always a band about how brilliant it is to adore pop music, and I can’t tell you how brilliant it is to adore theirs once more.

*Apart, as previously noted, from ‘Baby, I Love You’. Nothing is the equal of that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monorail Poll 2008

Before heading over to the Captain’s Rest for the Vivian Girls last Saturday, Chris and I went to Monorail. He splurged on Tenniscoats-related releases, while I picked up the new Fennesz album and Frànçois’ ‘Brother’ EP. A double gatefold 7" with marbled vinyl and an illustrated lyric sheet for each disc, no less. He can sure do packaging. And songs. Stephen Pastel was in, and after politely declining to help Chris whittle down his large pile of CDs by pointing out the duff ones, he asked us if we’d like to contribute to the Monorail end of year poll. Yes, please!

My list first:


  1. Anne Bacheley – Headquarters
  2. Helen Love – It’s My Club And I’ll Play What I Want To
  3. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
  4. Days – Downhill
  5. The Notwist – The Devil, You + Me
  6. Ai Aso – The Chamomile Pool
  7. Momus – Joemus
  8. American Music Club – The Golden Age
  9. Bare Knees and Ray Rumours – Songs To Play At Sleepovers
  10. Air France – No Way Down

Plush – Fed


  1. Sexy Kids – Sisters Are Forever
  2. Ray Rumours and Frànçois – Mr. Bear and Swimmers / Drifters
  3. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You
  4. Kings Have Long Arms (featuring Candie Payne) – Big Umbrella
  5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Digg!!!

And Chris’:


  1. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night
  2. Ai Aso – The Chamomile Pool
  3. Times New Viking – Rip It Off
  4. Tenniscoats & Secai – Tenniscoats & Secai
  5. Vivian Girls – Vivian Girls
  6. Remember Remember – Remember Remember
  7. Anne Bacheley – Headquarters
  8. Momus – Joemus
  9. Robert Forster – The Evangelist
  10. Sic Alps – U.S. EZ


African Scream Contest


  1. Planet Sunflower – The Escarpment EP
  2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You
  3. Tenniscoats / Tape – Lutie Lutie / Come Maddalena
  4. The Gummy Stumps – Hightower
  5. Taken By Trees – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Wildhouse, Balcony Bar, Dundee, & Vivian Girls, Captain’s Rest, Glasgow, 5th & 6th December

Visually, The Wildhouse are an odd mix. A stand up female drummer flanked by two male guitarists, one in a black leather jacket with a big black guitar, singing occasionally, fairly static; the other, conspicuously younger than his band mates, spending most of his time facing the back wall or peering into his effects pedals, moonwalking this way and that, transported with the squalling racket he caresses from his guitar. When he does turn around, a Sonic Youth sticker is visible, and the word ‘EVOL’ has been painted on to the strap. He must be the Lee Renaldo of the band. The drummer is clearly their Moe Tucker, but did Moe ever swing to the beat like that? I find it hard to imagine. She fair belts out the simple Velvet Underground / Beat Happening rhythms, singing too, half the time. There’s so much energy in this basic, glorious noise. Thump thump thump. Screeeeeeeeee... . Did I mention the Mary Chain yet? One song is a dead ringer for ‘In A Hole’, but that’s fine. It’s more than fine, it’s exhilarating, it’s driving fast along Interstate whatever (a California one) wearing shades, possibly under bat attack like in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But it is pop too, and I am left wondering with Manic Pop Thrills how come I never heard them before he put them on at Hustlers a fortnight ago.

Vivian Girls come on giggling, with no obvious aesthetic or age differences. They seem like they maybe just graduated from high school and were going to have a gap year or two travelling Europe, then thought, what the hell, let’s throw together a few songs and make a tour out of this. This kind of unstudied approach would be the icing on the cake of a brilliant set of songs, of course (‘we weren’t even trying!’), but I’m not quite convinced that their album cuts it. For a week I was mortally offended by how much it owed to Tiger Trap, then that wore off and it just sounded like a more concise Slumber Party. Who are another band I never quite got – occasionally they would attain the dreamy drowsiness of their name, but too often they just sounded tired. It’s the singing, I think – there is a distance to it, where it could be direct. That quality in a singing voice that draws you immediately in as though to a conversation (listening to Momus’ new album, I noticed that he has this – and you can be sure he knows it). But it’s exactly this kind of subtlety which is bound to matter less at a gig than on record, and so it proves. Vivian Girls are not quite as primal as The Wildhouse, but it’s a close thing, and they cram more tunes in too. Their Mary Chain song of choice is ‘Taste The Floor’ (recycled as ‘Tell The World’), and ‘All The Time’ is vastly more exciting given a live kick. Late in the set they cover The Beach Boys’ ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ (big cheer at the announcement, ‘Oh, you’ve heard of them?’), which is obvious and obviously lovely. The banter is good too – the guitarist and bassist do some telepathy, asking an audience member to whisper the name of a US celebrity to the guitarist, who then wiggles her fingers in the air until the bassist proclaims that it is Lindsay Lohan. There is a gasp from the audience member. ‘Do you think they’ve worked out that Lindsay Lohan is the only US celebrity we’ve heard of over here?’ wonders Chris afterwards. A fun show.

Update: an odd visual mix.

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