Thursday, 27 April 2017

Devo - Something For Everybody (2010)


I've always found the idea that anybody could have a single all-time favourite music artist a little weird, but if pressed I'd have to say mine were Devo in so much as that whilst there have been months, perhaps even years, without them being much of a presence in my headphones, there has never been a time when I've stuck on a Devo record and found I wasn't really in the mood for it. Setting aside a pre-pubescent fixation with the Beatles, Devo were probably the first group I really got into as a teenager, and got into with sufficient fervour as to get me buying the records. They scared the living shit out of me when I first heard that debut album, a red vinyl copy lent to me by my best friend Graham, but once I got past my suspicion of this music as something weird, unwholesome and mutated - which of course it was - I was hooked, and apparently for life.

A couple of years later I was hanging out with a former Cravat and we were talking about Crass, of whom we were both fans. Ideally, we concluded, Crass should make records which sounded like the Human League or Roxy Music by which to smuggle their message into the hit parade and reach people who might genuinely benefit from their perspective on society; at which point of the conversation I realised it had already happened, and that's what Devo were. Of course, whilst Devo may not actually have much to say about anarcho-syndicalism, like Crass, they've never been shy in pointing out everything which is wrong with our society and our forever needing daddy to tell us what to do. The main difference is that you can dance to the Devo version because it's fundamentally stupid and fun, and even though it was born from Gerald Casale's outrage at witnessing cops shooting kids at Kent State, musically it's the Monster Mash as envisioned for a future designed by John Waters and Hugo Gernsback; and it's like this because it's a satire on culture, not something removed from it and living by its own laws in Epping Forest - which isn't a criticism of Crass, by the way, simply an acknowledgement of different strategies.

Something For Everybody will probably remain the final new Devo album given the passing of a Bob, and a couple of those left behind supposedly no longer on the greatest of terms. Continuing Devo's taking the piss out of society, the music industry, and themselves, the album was supposedly written by focus group in response to questionnaires asking what consumers would like to hear from Devo. I remember filling in one online, and that's supposedly why we have the blue energy dome on the cover, as opposed to any other hue of headgear. We also got to pick which tracks made it onto this album which, tellingly, makes for much better listening than the collection of rejects and leftovers which was later issued as Something Else For Everybody. I say much better listening, but what I actually probably mean to say is that this is an unequivocally perfect album, illustrating as it does why there can never be a musical institution greater than Devo.

Yes, I know, and I don't care. There are people who don't get Devo. I've met them on internet forums sniggering about how Devo is like totally gay LOL before returning to the thread discussing which Judas Priest albums rocked the hardest, which sort of proves that Devo were right about a few things.

With Devo, each song is a puzzle in so much as that there is either a directly progressive message, or one otherwise implicit in the form, and it's usually communicated in terms which combine the novelty of the Archies with the mind-expanding strangeness of the Residents; and unscrambling that puzzle, you arrive at a place wherein it becomes impossible to sustain ridiculous devolved ideas, or so my theory goes. What this means, or what I think it means, is that if you get Devo, then you're probably doing something right; and you've probably never stood outside Planned Parenthood wearing an NRA t-shirt and holding up a crucifix; and you almost certainly didn't vote for the Annoying Orange. The music of Devo improves our world by making us better people, and if you need proof - next time you get your heart broken, eschew the usual soundtrack of miserable fuckers in favour of almost anything by Devo. I promise, you'll notice the difference in a very short time.

So yes, this will most likely be the final Devo album, which is a shame but - Lord - what a finale! Musically it's almost a summary of their entire career - the sharp, irresistible pop of Freedom of Choice, the synthetic grandeur of Shout, and the faintly disturbing mutant novelty of their weird primal phase - Fountain of Filth, Buttered Beauties and the rest, not even omitting the occasional Popeye-style ethnic caricature switched on its head as happens with Cameo. Something For Everybody rocks hard and dresses like the Jetsons whilst still managing to squeeze out a tear of more genuine feeling than anything Sting ever did in a rain forest.

In the bigger scheme of things
We haven't been around here more than a moment.
And yet too many, it seems,
Believe we are creating a brand new world around us.
We are creating a brand new world without us.
Maybe it really is okay.
Although we're digging our own graves,
At this moment.

I could write about how no-one really took them seriously because they were scared of the truth about de-evolution, namely that it was never a marketing gimmick like Adam Ant pretending to be a pirate or whatever; but some of us did take them seriously, and I guess we've been proven right because we're now living in the world described in Don't Shoot (I'm a Man).

This might be our very last chance. Let's not fuck it up.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sylvie & Babs - The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion (1985)




Yes, I'm well aware of it being Nurse With Wound, thank you very much, but I'm pretty sure it was listed as above when released, the reason being that Steve Stapleton regarded the Hi-Fi Companion as something quite separate and distinct from the Nurse With Wound canon, which it sort of is, or at least was. So I'm sticking with the original version of the story, plus I seem to recall the United Dairies mail order list had this down as something other than Nurse With Wound, and listed under comedy for what it may be worth - along with Hastings of Malawi, whatever the hell that was.

Of course, it's now difficult to get through a whole day without having to hear some cunt's aspirationally humorous plunderphonic deconstruction of existing bits of music, but back in 1985, 'twas not yet so overegged a pudding as it has become, and possibly because no-one had a sampler so it was harder. Sylvie & Babs were principally Stapleton and the gang making music with bits of other people's records, and - so I gather - making it the extraordinarily complicated way by splicing together inch thick strips of studio tape and so on in the spirit of Pierre Schaeffer and those guys as opposed to just sitting next to the radio with one finger on the pause button and then selling the end result to people with a photocopy of your knob on the cover like Hamilton Bohannon* would have done.

To start again at the beginning, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as industrial, then you're a fucking clown; you wear big red shoes; you have a bowler hat on your head with a giant flower coming out of it; and when you drive your car, you honk the horn twice every few yards and the doors have usually fallen off by the time you reach your destination, which will almost certainly be a clown shop which you're visiting in order to make purchase of clown supplies. This description also applies, albeit to a lesser extent, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as a noise group or - ugh - sound artists; although Nurse With Wound are very much about sound and the psychological and physiological effects it can have on the listener: so it's definitely music, but works more like a sonic analogy of the art of Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other Dadaist types than does music with tunes, verses, a chorus, or which is made using musical instruments. The next sound you hear on a Nurse With Wound record may often be the last sound you would expect to hear depending on whatever has gone before, which distinguishes them from those acts more obviously reliant on repetition. It can be hard work listening to Nurse With Wound, but also very rewarding because it's never quite like anything you will have heard before, possibly including previous Nurse With Wound albums. They're not something you can listen to all the time, but every so often, you'll find there's nothing better if the time is right.

Well, that's the theory anyway, and I haven't actually heard the last five-hundred or so records so for all I know he may be cranking out handbag house with Nick Griffin these days, but for the sake of argument, let's just pretend it's still 1985 and that I'm right. I failed to buy this at the time because there was other stuff I wanted, and Nurse With Wound were an acquired taste even by my standards; also, it wasn't that easy to get hold of their stuff. I had Insect & Individual Silenced, which was fucking great, but apparently not so great as to keep me from flogging it when I decided I really needed those first two albums by You've Got Foetus On Your Breath. Millions of years later, I find this on CD and notice that I actually know three of the people who appeared on here amongst the lengthy list of collaborators, which is weird. In fact, I've been in bands with two of them; and one of them was Andrew Cox who was my bestest buddy for a while, and who is no longer with us, and who I still miss like crazy; so I couldn't really not buy it.

I suspect all those bargain basement cassette versions of Nurse With Wound have spoiled the real thing for me over the years, because in 2017 Sylvie & Babs sound drearily familiar rather than weird and surprising, at least on first listen. The key seems to be getting past the point of trainspotting where it all came from - snatches of My Boomerang Won't Come Back and the like, which seem intrusive whilst they remain familiar, although maybe that was the point. After a few spins, it picks up - which again is the opposite of what I expect to get from a Nurse With Wound record given how they seem so often reliant on shock and surprise; but this eventually settles into a sort of musicality suggestive of narrative which is almost certainly in the ear of the beholder. I suppose this could be what differentiates Sylvie & Babs from Nurse With Wound - unless it's just my lugholes - namely that increasing familiarity with the material brings some sort of pleasure, just like you get from Sting and Coldplay, beyond which, one is drawn to focus on the bizarre acoustics at play. That made sense in my head when I thought it.

The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion is decent, and it's nice to hear Andrew's voice again - repeating the phrase it ain't necessarily so, in case anyone was wondering - but it isn't startling, and more than anything it makes me wish I'd found some other means of financing my purchase of those early Foetus discs. Time to get looking for another copy of Insect & Individual Silenced, I suppose.

*: Name changed so as to protect the annoying.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water (2000)


Outside of this album, I find it really difficult to get past the off-putting impression of Limp Bizkit as having been a bunch of jocks - essentially what happens when members of the football team start writing poetry because someone told them it was a great way to up one's pussy-getting average. I also have Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, their debut album, and I've tried to listen to the thing but it only seems to reinforce the aforementioned off-putting impression of dudes emptying cans of beer over their own heads whilst bellowing awesome! Maybe I need to give it a few more spins. I don't know.

So what's different here? Why does this one sound so good?

I wasn't going to buy the thing. I looked at their pictures in Melody Maker and understood them to be nu-metal - which sounded like a pile of wank to me, sort of like metal apologising for itself. I'd encountered Slipknot fans in Southend-on-Sea with their ludicrous black flares and eyeliner, the most harshly commodified rebellion I had ever seen - boutique punk rock at its most comical. I wasn't going to buy the thing, but I was curious at DMX apparently having turned up on one track, and there was some sort of poorly defined association with Eminem; and then my girlfriend's little sister gave me a freebie because she was working at the record company.

I've never quite taken the view of rap metal being inherently worthless - although most of it clearly is - or that white guys can't rap, but Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water falters on both counts and the strength of the album is paradoxically that it works because of that. It isn't that Fred Durst couldn't rap, but he was never anything amazing in that department, and this whole thing would have sounded fucking ridiculous as a rap record with samples or whatever replacing the guitars. Durst's rhymes are mostly average and with that whiny upper register delivery he sounds like an eight-year old kid who just had his gameboy taken away from him, which itself accentuates the absurdity of all the homeboy schtick about Limp Bizkit being in da house and picking a fight with Trent Reznor for some innocuous comment or other; and it's because what is basically an American Walter the Softy crying into his ruined homework contrasts so starkly with the crushing riffs that we get a sound much greater than the sum of its parts. The beats are hard with a deep pensive bass and Wes Borland's guitar alternating between sharply gated walls of fuzz and something sounding surprisingly close to U2 without the bluster; all of which is pulled together as would be a hip-hop production yet without the end result sounding even like it's considered the possibility of calling itself rap. A few tweaks here and there and it could have turned out like one of those horrible whiny teenpunk bands, Green Day or Sum 41 or whatever, but the big difference is how that stuff parades its angst as a selling point, whilst all Durst's dirty laundry sounds so awkward and horribly personal - and with a bizarre mix of bragging and self-recrimination - it comes closer to the vengeful shit muttered under your breath when you're absolutely certain of no-one else being able to hear you. So despite everything, it's pretty intense stuff, like the volcanically impotent rage of the bullied kid who half feels that his muscular nemesis might even be right about some of that stuff. I should probably also point out that Durst sports a half-decent moody rock croon when he's actually singing.

That's why it works for me, and because the music is great.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bernadette Cremin & Paul Mex - Guilty Fist (2015)


Just to get the customary objections out in the open, whilst it isn't strictly true that I hate poetry, I probably hate enough of it to render the assertion more or less accurate; although, to break it down a little further, the specific sort of thing which brings me out in hives is poetry which knows that it is poetry and which introduces itself as such with either a wry Stilgoe-esque smirk or the sort of studied glacial nonchalance that can only be perfected by many hours spent gazing either into a mirror or up its own bumhole. It's the teenager who has somehow managed to have seen it all before and who understands just how shocking his words must seem to the audience at the - ugh - poetry slam, enunciating cock like the word might be new to us. It's my former housemate Steve poeting about how fucking her is like escaping from a drowning helicopter, when we all know he never even got close, and that the unlucky lady in question had more sense than to let that passive-aggressive little misanthrope anywhere near her ha'penny.

On the other hand, I very much like Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and others whose work I tend to think of just as writing, because that's what it is. So my criteria seems to rest upon how much the work is involved in the mythology of its own self-importance. In other words I like writing which just gets on with the communication without having to tell us what form it's going to take; and getting at last to the point, the writing of Bernadette Cremin, whoever she may be, very much belongs in this second category.

On the face of it, Guilty Fist is someone reading poetry to the accompaniment of suitably atmospheric music, except it's nothing so mannered as the description might suggest. Bernadette Cremin speaks her own words with the sort of gravity which demands you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention, and her testimony is spot on - clear and straight to the heart of the matter with chilling precision, neither showboating anything too ostentatiously shocking nor necessarily reducing everything to its lowest common denominator. She gets the balance exactly right, perfectly blending the narrative with the mood of the music, dispelling the suggestion of either being mere accompaniment; and this syncretism is further achieved when she slips into song and turns out to have a pretty decent bluesy voice.

Her subject matter seems to be highly personal and quite intense, so listening is a profoundly psychological experience. The music, mostly arranged by Mex, takes a downtempo direction with bluesy, jazzy, even occasionally pseudo-classical inflections. I'd say it reminds me a little of Portishead, except I never really liked them that much, and this is better. At times I'm reminded of In the Nursery when they were slapping marble columns on the covers of their records and pretending to be French, or maybe even Cranes, if anyone remembers them. Certainly there's a gothic element, gothic as in reading Mary Shelley with a glass of whine rather than dressing up like Nosferatu. Anyway, whatever it is, it's very powerful.

Treat yo'self!

Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)


The only reason for my failing to have nabbed this when it came out nearly thirty years ago that I've been able to come up with is that I was never a tool who based my record buying habits on whether or not a band was from Seattle and might thus be friends with that hunky Kurt with his dreamy blue eyes; plus it's not like I was short of stuff I wanted to buy that year. Mudhoney sounded like they might be the kind of thing I liked, not least because almost everything I played in the Dovers - the band of which I was a member at the time - was played through the same Electro-Harmonix pedal after which this was named, or at least after which the original six-track EP was named. This version also includes the preceding singles.

Still, better late than never seeing as this turned up in my usual store and there didn't seem like any good reason to not buy it. Nothing really stands out for the first couple of plays, but it quickly gains ground third or fourth time around. Mudhoney, as I now appreciate, were pretty much a slightly hairy garage punk band in the general vein of Iggy & the Stooges, wild but tuneful, and sounding very much like they'd be a blast live. The fact of their having been fans of Billy Childish isn't difficult to understand. In fact - if you'll pardon the supreme wankiness of such a digression, dear reader - they kind of remind me of the aforementioned Dovers, which is curious. I suppose we should have capitalised on having occasionally stood in the same room as Billy Childish, but never mind.

Providing they haven't turned into Supertramp in the intervening years without my knowing - which is possible given that I've only just realised they had albums other than this one - Mudhoney lacked the musical sophistication of Seattle favourites Tad, who I suppose might be characterised as a concrete mixer rendering expertly played Led Zeppelin covers; but on the other hand they sound a shitload more fun than Nirvana ever did, and I realise that view is probably mainly just me and no-one else. It's self-loathing and booze through a fuzz pedal cranked up far too loud, and yet you can sort of tell it wants you to have an air-punchingly good time; so there are none of those songs about only wanting cool people at their shows. I really wish I'd bought this at the time instead of that shitty Revolting Cocks record.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004)


This is one of those albums where I've had to forcibly extricate myself from all the irritation generated by everyone else who liked it before I'm properly able to appreciate the thing. I didn't bother buying it at the time mainly due to having got a bit bored of Mike Skinner's face looming out at me from every other page of newspapers I probably shouldn't have bothered reading in the first place. The Grauniad in particular couldn't get enough of the fucker, the most excruciating case of which I seem to recall being a twenty page illustrated feature based around Mike explaining his philosophy whilst playing board games in some local pub with his parents - and no I haven't made that up; I expect Dynasty Crew were busy that day, or maybe they were just too scary and nobody ever compared Bare Face What to Squeeze or other civilised songsmiths specialising in bitter-sweet kitchen sink balladry. Whilst not having anything against Skinner personally, and having enjoyed some of the beats he recorded for others, and at least recognising him as a force for good by some description, I just couldn't get past the Streets being rap for people who don't like rap - Stephen H. Morris for example, who in his musical history of the Medway towns compares Kids Unique to the Streets, presumably because that's what he's heard on Jo Whiley sandwiched between tracks by the Kaiser Chiefs, Editors, and all those other unlistenable indie wankers. It's rap for people who don't like rap because of all those black people sexist rappers singing about drugs and guns, like they do.

The irony is, I suppose, that I'm not sure the Streets quite count as rap, at least not unless we're adding Ian Dury, Bernard Cribbins, and George Formby to the canon. It's certainly urban in so much as that the influence of rap, hip-hop, garage and the rest are obvious, but that isn't quite the same thing.

Skinner spins a decent story once we've got over that thing he does of self-consciously meting out one syllable per beat, like it's some kind of reading exercise during school activities week. It sounds like he's drawing attention to his own shortcomings so as to let us know he's not taking himself too seriously and he won't be twisting his fingers into funny shapes like those rappers do, at least not unless he needs to make air quotes around any of those spicy words which kids on the street are always using; but yeah - once we're over that hump, A Grand Don't Come for Free is a highly listenable album. It's also a concept album, although the story is difficult to follow - something about splitting up with his girlfriend, having a shit day, renewing the TV licence, then finding that the missing thousand pounds was down the back of the telly all along, although where it came from in the first place is never quite clear. As belching working class concept albums go, A Grand is nothing like so rounded or satisfying as Sham 69's That's Life - and yes, I really did just write that sentence - but has some wonderfully tender moments, notably Could Well Be In, Blinded By the Lights, and Dry Your Eyes, none of which do anything which would startle Paul McCartney. The beats, as you might expect, are great, seamlessly working soft soulful acoustics together with the buzzing and bleeps of grime and the like - never cluttered, always clear and with a very much human pulse. It's a very good album aspiring to be a great album, but never quite getting there because the narrative just isn't as compelling as it thinks it is, and Skinner's voice isn't sufficiently interesting to keep it all rolling along for the duration; and it's only a great rap album if it's the only one you've heard; which is still a thumbs up, roughly speaking.

Front 242 - 06:21:03:11 Up Evil / 05:22:09:12 Off (1993)


Dammit - I used to love me some Front 242. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off - the second of these paired albums - when it came out, despite the alarm bells which went off when I noticed them subject to full page advertisements in various Vertigo comics of the time. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off when it came out and never fully warmed to it, which is why I didn't bother buying the other one. It sounded like half a record, something incomplete, which I guess is exactly what it was as I now realise. These two were originally meant to be a double CD, two halves of the same thing, roughly speaking a concept album about good and evil...

I suppose I could leave the review at that.




Front 242 were the greatest thing ever, at least for a short time, at least for most of the period beginning with Official Version and concluding with Tyranny > For You <, providing you don't hang around too long in the general vicinity of Front by Front. Sadly, 1993 seems to be the point at which they lost sight of what made them great in the first place, the moment where those lesser artists upon whom they'd had such a massive influence started to make the better records. Richard 23 didn't have a whole lot to do with either of these albums so I assume his input was in some way crucial, even if it was just telling the other two when something was crap. This was the point at which they turned up in Melody Maker wearing tracksuits and baseball caps and with a rapper now in the band.

So I already had 05:22:09:12 Off on vinyl, but I saw the two CDs for ten bucks which seemed like a good buy, potentially. It turns out that the two discs actually feature slightly different line-ups of the crumbling band, so I suppose the division is justified. 06:21:03:11 Up Evil features collaborative work with members of Parade Ground, whom I vaguely recall as being one of a million EBM also-rans perpetually clogging up nineties compilation albums with grunting tracks about working, obeying, stomping, marching, wearing Doc Martens and being really strong. Consequently the album is mostly generic techno of the kind made by people who don't actually dance - overproduced, too much going on, and with an excess of reverb invoking the same mood as is featured on every other cunt's record. It misses the point of what made Front 242 so special, namely that it wasn't the repetition. Unlike all those other aviator-goggled clowns, Front 242 worked because their music was composed along lines closer to the classical and orchestral than to the traditionally dance-orientated. There's repetition, but beyond the repetition there'll be some new element entering the picture with almost every bar, often details occurring just once during the track; so whilst it's nevertheless all very much programmed, it's a highly individual approach to programming. By contrast 06:21:03:11 Up Evil is mostly just your bog standard thump thump thump thump pulse pulse pulse rumble rumble obey my commands, weaklings goth chord goth chord and back to thump thump thump... It lacks variety.

05:22:09:12 Off is marginally the better record with the grammatically dubious Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed recalling the majestic solemnity of Tyranny > For You <; except once you get past those two and dispense with the underwhelming rapping of Animal, you could still be listening to the first record. So we have two cracking tunes and the rest of it may as well be that scene from The Matrix where Samuel L. Jackson takes Neil to his underground kingdom of totally awesome tattooed crusties and they all listen to really loud rave music. There's also a Foetus remix of one of the tracks, I suppose, but the most that can be said about it is that it answers the question of what Front 242 would sound like if remixed by Foetus. This really didn't need to be two discs where a 12" of Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed would have done just as well.