Thursday, 26 May 2016

A Certain Ratio - Early (2002)

I felt a bit sorry for A Certain Ratio being more or less reduced to a joke about fake tan in Michael Winterbottom's otherwise fine 24 Hour Party People, not least because any conversation banging on about the eternally seeping talent fistula of the Manchester music scene will almost certainly neglect A Certain Ratio whilst singing the praises of crappier entities who flogged more records; although it turns out that Martin Moscrop was musical supervisor for the film, so maybe that was just how it looked to me. I gather A Certain Ratio used to slap on the fake tan before taking the stage back in the early days. I assume it was simply an exercise in generating some distance between themselves and the ruthlessly pasty punky new wave environment of the time.

I don't for a second believe there was really anything inherently racist about punk or new wave at the end of the seventies, even if it was mostly a white thing, but at the same time it seems potentially significant that bands such as Skrewdriver were able to shift ideological gear without actually sounding any different; and then of course it occasionally seemed like there might be a bit of a subtext to the traditional punky hatred of disco. Anyway, I can see why A Certain Ratio might have felt inclined to get away from that, and from - I suppose - pale grey audiences of Joy Division fans crying into their chips. Never mind all that there's always been a dance element to our music, man bollocks, A Certain Ratio were a big, funky disco act which just happened to have emerged from the north of England rather than some New York club, and they were a big, funky disco act long before it was cool, and way before Cabaret Voltaire started slapping that bass whilst mumbling about James Brown. In fact, so far as I can tell, you might legitimately trace most of England's eighties white soul back to this lot, which probably means that Blue Rondo a la Turk and Spandau Ballet were sort of their fault, but never mind.

The thing which set them apart from many others was an understanding of their limitations and a willingness to work around them, which is why you might not even immediately recognise that sound as belonging to a big, funky disco act - because this is actual soul, dance, disco or whatever the hell you want to call it, rather than a bunch of white guys engaged in a Kenny Everett impersonation with unconvincing handclaps and whoops of get on up in a phoney American accent. At the same time, of course it's an experiment - as I suppose might seem implicit from the Eno reference in the name - but one with which they were fully engaged, as should be any musician doing anything other than just going through the motions and making the right noises; and this is why you get oddities like the misleadingly named All Night Party - as sunless an entity as ever was and which at least saves us the trouble of bothering to own Bauhaus records. Sometimes the horns don't quite get there, sounding like the brass equivalent of one of those school bands all sawing away on their strings, but the spirit of the enterprise as a whole keeps it together.

I'd say this band were magnificent but of course they're still going in some form or other, so I suppose the past tense is misleading, being a specific reference to the material collected on these two discs. With hindsight, this version of A Certain Ratio might represent the raw seam of sweaty goodness which others tapped for eventual transformation into all that was horrible, slick, devoid of soul, and gratifyingly annoying to Morrissey in the eighties. A Certain Ratio was what all those really shit bands were supposed to sound like, but they just didn't have what it takes.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Sneaker Pimps - Becoming X (1996)

Whilst I suppose it shows a certain sense of discernment to avoid letting oneself be swept along by the latest thing - which is why I never gave a shit about the Arctic Monkeys, for example - one probably shouldn't take it too far, refusing to listen to certain things purely on the grounds of their being new. This came out twenty years ago so is only new in a geological sense, but it's taken me that long to overcome my misgivings. This region of the nineties was, for me, characterised by lazy trip hop shite, an almost-genre to which I objected for numerous reasons.

Firstly, trip hop was sort of what myself and at least a few other cassette types had been doing in our own quiet way since the previous decade, and yet no music paper ever sent anyone around to suck my dick. I would have remembered something like that.

Secondly, it all sounded a bit too much like rooms full of students wearing jumpers with holes in, staring at each other's shoes, noshing hob nobs and rolling up the four millionth fat one of the day as preface to yet another telling of the hilarious anecdote about when they fed the dog some gear and, like, got it really blitzed, and hey - check it out, some well crucial sounds on this one, my man...

Thirdly, once you've heard one record with a squeaky voiced girl singing helium blues over a slowed down drum track, just how much more of the same fucking thing do you really need? Maybe it was just one record, but it seemed like all of them to me.

...and Sneaker Pimps always sounded like it was trying just a bit too hard, a name somehow redolent of stoned white kids quoting Samuel L. Jackson's lines from Pulp Fiction at each other whilst partaking, if you know what I'm saying, dude...

Well anyway, they broke down my resolve when Armand van Helden worked Spin Spin Sugar into one of the greatest garage tunes of all time, in my estimation, so when I saw this album for a few measly dollars I thought what the fuck - how bad could it really be?

Astonishingly, as music it's about a million times better than Sneaker Pimps ever was as the name of a band, and probably because Becoming X does indeed genuinely sound like the work of a band rather than just stoners pissing about in a studio - a problem blighting much of that which has no problem allowing itself to be labelled trip hop. The girl one is as squeaky as you might have anticipated from the singles, but over the space of an album your ears get used to it, and you notice she has a pretty decent bluesy voice, albeit one at the Minnie Mouse end of the scale. Furthermore, once we're over the novelty of wobbly sine waves as bass and all that sort of thing, the songs suggest a band existing at no fixed point in time - Post-Modern Sleaze could have been early Jethro Tull, and then there's the grunge of Low Place Like Home, all capped off with a very pleasant version of that song from The Wicker Man. Weirdly, this is one of the blusiest, most whole-foody organic sounding things I've heard in a while despite half of the music having been played by Cylons. I therefore consider myself duly re-edumacated.

The Arctic Monkeys can still fuck off though. Not interested.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

G-Unit - 50 Cent is the Future (2006)

Well, it seems he wasn't the future after all, at least not in the way they meant it. The problem with 50 Cent was not that he destroyed quality rap and ushered in a new age of men reading out their bank statements over a Marvin Gaye sample, but that you couldn't get away from the fucker. He was everywhere. He even presented Gardener's Question Time at one point. Ain't that some shit.

50 Cent rose to infamy with How To Rob on which he named names and threatened to take dinner money from more or less every other rapper going. It was an entertaining list which happened to rhyme and served to piss off enough people - mostly those identified - to garner some attention; then he got shot in the face, took a year or so out to get his act back together, and returned to the spotlight when Eminem needed someone scary to be seen stood next to. That probably wasn't quite how it happened, but it was how it looked. Suddenly he was everywhere, both solo and with G-Unit, turning up on everybody else's records, not quite acting in some seriously shitty films, interviews in magazines, on the box, photographed grinning whilst doing a poo into a toilet so molded as to resemble Ja Rule's face...

The backlash was inevitable, kicking off when that bloke out of Made Men, having failed to achieve fame either by his own records or shares in The Source magazine, decided to go after Eminem as an easy and newsworthy target, by association also drawing 50 Cent and Dr. Dre into the line of fire. They were selling too many records to the wrong sort of people, the argument ran, and their records were too crap, and the fact of Ray Benzino owning the magazine from which the loudest complaints were issued was just a coincidence. Genuine rap was not, it was suggested, some macho bullshit about blow jobs and ostentatiously spending a ton of money in the pub; and those who thought otherwise were destroying our culture, something from which Eminem should be expelled because he once made a record about some black bitches - his terms - which crossed lines of taste and judgement which had been sacrosanct up to that point. You'd never catch a true hip-hop artist making that sort of ditty. No sir.

So, it was difficult to really get any kind of impression of 50 Cent's actual worth - assuming for the sake of argument that he had any - what with all the shouting and the hype, and his bloody awful records. Well, maybe not all of them, but The Massacre was mostly shite, seeming almost like an attempt to make the album described in the very worst reviews of the previous one - which personally I thought was fairly listenable, all things considered. The appeal of 50 Cent is admittedly thin, and mostly to be found in the way he tells 'em rather than the thrust of what is said. He was never an amazing lyricist, but his delivery is good and he can be very funny, and this comes through much better on the stuff which appeared outside of the usual record company channels, mix-tapes such as this one for example.

It's a G-Unit album, but I guess they had no illusions as to which name was getting bums on seats, so it's mostly himself. Lloyd Banks is enough of a presence to maintain variety, not least because he's the one with some serious verbal dexterity, and then there's Tony Yayo presumably on here somewhere. Subjectwise, we're sticking to the kind of thing you'll probably be happy to hear if you're buying a 50 Cent album, much of which may cause frowning amongst those who never really liked rap in the first place, but then the record probably wasn't meant for them. What matters is that 50 Cent is the Future is a fucking great album regardless, in so much as that you slap it on and it comes out of the speakers and it sounds good. The beats are tight, summery and soulful with just enough of a scowl to keep it from dropping into the whole food store to pick up mung beans; and it sounds like something coming out of a radio on a hot day when you're feeling good. The lyrics are a chortle, or at least they are to me - guns, hoes, crack and all the usual of course, but not really as lifestyle advice, more like stories told, and even when you know it's complete bullshit, you can still appreciate the tale, even feel good for those involved in the telling. The parts may not look like much on paper, but the whole is much greater than the sum.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Jesus & Mary Chain - Psychocandy (1985)

Returning to the individual who once told me that New Musical Express was an anagram of Manchester Evening Post, during a more recent phone call we were discussing some record or other in terms which led him to reveal how his girlfriend had told him, 'that's so typical of you - preferring the song that's on the b-side.' I can't even remember what the subject was, but it came across as my friend congratulating himself for being always ahead of the curve, thinking outside of the box, taking the road less travelled and so on. It was as though he'd thrown on a beret, tapped the shades a little way down the bridge of his nose and cast me a look to say, you know, the thing I really dig about Miles...

This was hardly the first time, and this mannered, self-conscious edginess is clearly something which still matters to him. He just has to be stood at the window as you enter the room, affecting surprise as he is discovered studying the sleeve of the record now playing. Oh hi - I was just checking out some Basset Hound Fudgecicle - what do you think of their new album? - knowing full well you've never heard of the cunts. It goes all the way back to when we were at school, meeting Steve Harris crying with laughter because he'd just come from the house of our mutual friend, and our mutual friend had been wearing his mod suit.

'You could shave with the creases in his trousers,' Steve howled, even though I don't think any of us had started shaving at that point.

At the time I was myself no stranger to musical obscurities, having acquired quite a fanzine habit, but the difference between us was - so I hoped - that my discoveries weren't the most cock obvious shite that fucking everyone was listening to because it had been all over the NME for the past three months, and I couldn't have given a shit about being seen listening to it at an interesting angle, my treasured Matfield & the Pond cassette casually positioned on the coffee table in the movie set of my fascinating life.

The Sisters of Mercy were pretty big for those months during which the lad took to wearing black clothes and an array of beads. I discovered said Sisters about ten years later by accident, having long suspected they wouldn't be my sort of thing at all - quite wrongly as it turned out. The Sisters of Mercy were soon usurped by the Jesus and Mary Chain as my acquaintance revealed how he'd never liked the Sisters of Mercy, and in fact he wasn't even sure whether he'd ever heard anything by them. So this was one aspect of what I already disliked about the Jesus and Mary Chain, namely their stupid fucking fans.

I always hated that whole Creation Records thing of which the Jesus and Mary Chain were a significant part. It seemed like the return of some of the worst aspects of rock, not least the rock star as some guy in black leather trousers enjoying a series of blow jobs and expecting you to be impressed. It was a confession that punk and that which came after had all been a bit embarrassing, but now it was safe to listen to the Rolling Stones again. It was safe to go on about just how amaaaaaaazing the sixties had been even if you'd only been five at the time. It was safe to pepper your speech with words like gear, cat, fab, and dig and to know that you were amongst friends who would neither laugh at you nor call you names. It felt sort of like a betrayal, although of what I'm not entirely sure, but a betrayal nevertheless - a backtracking, a cop-out, a return to statements of the bleeding obvious made in the knowledge that the bestselling brand was really just what everyone had wanted all along.

Anyway, I'd seen Whitehouse live - which was quite an experience, although not necessarily a good one - and here were this new band who similarly played in front of a wall of feedback. Naturally I was curious, and my friend - the one who had never liked the Sisters of Mercy - sold me a copy of Upside Down, the record everyone was talking about. He had two because he'd bought a copy and then it was reissued with a picture sleeve, which he had to have. The pounding drums sounded pretty good, but otherwise it felt like some badly recorded sixties record, the Beach Boys played too fast on a shitty radio in the next room. It was okay, just nothing startling. It seemed like it was attempting to evoke the experience of stumbling around half-pissed with your hair in your eyes, just noise and distortion and adrenaline. The Ramones had already done it and were still at that time engaged in doing it about a million times better so far as I was concerned.

Then I surprised even myself by buying this album, most likely because there was nothing else in the shop which I wanted at the time, and also because I wanted to feel like I was in touch with what was happening and going down, or at least like I wasn't missing out. I played it a load, but now I can only hear these fourteen not-quite-songs filtered through subsequent interviews with the Reid brothers telling everyone how great they were, how hard they worked to produce such classic material, and how nothing was ever the same again after this record. As Velvet Underground tribute acts go, it has some decent tunes - mostly variations on the same one: E then B... Joy Division Joy Division Joy Division, E then B again and maybe A in there somewhere, mumble mumble, attempted American accent, candy, drugs reference, candy - that most commonly used of Scottish words - moan moan, pound pound, something that sounds a bit like Good Vibrations played backwards and end at just under two minutes. Job done.

Pardon Me.

As I was saying, decent tunes but it's really just a collage of every record the Reid brothers ever liked enough to stick on the pub jukebox, or every record the Reid brothers ever liked enough to make sure you discover them listening to it - Oh hi - we were just checking out some Big Star - what do you think of their third album?; and it does the same unremarkable thing over and over for about forty minutes, and this was the one that somehow changed everything. It makes Status Quo sound like fucking Schoenberg.

Psychocandy my arse.