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Alserkal: Art In Dubai

Dubai is the modern-day crossroads of East and West. An eight hour’s flight from two thirds of the globe, it is ideally situated to display a wealth of contemporary art from the Islamic diaspora, as well as Northern European artists. I have written elsewhere of the dichotomy at the heart of art curation in Qatar: a lot of money, but a lack of direction. Direction is thankfully not a problem in Dubai, as all points of the compass lead to this cross-continental city and its artistic enclave Alserkal.

Sited within what my brochure described as the city’s ‘gritty, industrial’ district of Al-Quoz, I reached Alserkal following a 35 minute walk from a brief diversion at the fairly unremarkable Meem Gallery elsewhere in the city. Dubai is not built for walking. Understandable, given the summer heat, when a car’s use is for mobile air conditioning as much as transport. Filled with wide-eyed, cod psychogeographic ideas about using the opportunity to walk between the galleries as an opportunity to experience ‘the real’ Dubai, I was unable to indulge my inner flaneur, focusing too much on leaping between sandbank sidewalks while the real Dubai drove past me in a cascade of battered 4x4s and water trucks. The smell of Al-Quoz was quite something. Walking along 8th street, roughly parallel to the Sheikh bin Zayed road, Dubai’s aorta, oil never left my nostrils. Oil in a host of flavours. Gasoline at filling stations. A tangy must escaping from print factories and bottling plants.

There was no gradual transition into urbanised grot about the space of Alserkal; it was just suddenly there, with the advertising posters and clean graphics on its outside the only real clue that it wasn’t another motor works facility. The block was a grid of warehouse and lock-up spaces which were variously used as galleries, office spaces for design agencies and upmarket, organic coffee stations. Shoreditch on the sand, if you will.

Farhad Ahrarnia – Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You @ Lawrie Shabibi

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Fahrad Ahrarnia. Something For The Touts, The Nuns, The Grocery Clerks And You, No. 17. 2015. Work on cardboard.

Having accumulated a good portion of sand in my shoes, and dodged litter blowing through the air along the road into Al-Quoz, the first gallery I visited appropriately had cardboard, and not canvas, as the medium. The press release heralded Farhard Ahrarnia’s pieces as a recollection of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard works, but they lacked Rauschenberg’s structural play, being mostly utilised as a two dimensional surface. Ahrarnia took discarded boxes from the urban centres of Iran and repurposed them as a backdrop for tazhib, a Persian form of gilding typically used to ornament books. Al-Quoz was an appropriate place for them to be displayed, being the engine of Dubai’s manufacturing and packaging. The second half of the exhibition drew upon a different craft; that of khatam, a micro-mosaic technique which requires a methodical collecting of filaments of different materials (ivory, copper, and brass are common) which are cut at the cross-section to reveal the underlying geometric complexity. In Ahrarnia’s version the strips are laid out in dynamic collages, which were often in deliberate homage to pieces by Lissitzky and Malevich. Ahrarnia was very open about his influence from the Russian Modernists, and to see Persian craftwork colluding with the Russian avant-garde was one of many pleasant surprises which Alserkal afforded.

Lawrie Shabibi, Al-Quoz 1, Al Serkal Avenue, Unit 21

Ramtin Zad – Retrospective @ Salsali Private Museum

The Salsali Private Museum was a terrific space, with immaculate lighting piercing through black walls and black ceiling to allow details like the impossibly radiant tail of an acrylic peacock to shine through. There was not a dull piece in this exhibition, with Zad commanding an impressive and consistently penetrative style through painting, drawing, and sculpture.

On the back wall were the most imperious pieces, large canvases with different scenes united by cornucopias of people writhing and melding in forms which approached the botanical. A constant throng shapeshifting from man to beast to flower. Crowds flew on the backs of eagles. Rabbits, bears, humans and deer danced and ate and fucked at the centre of dark woods. Canvases with dramatically flat perspectives sucked me in as vigorously as the intense landscapes of late Van Gogh or Kiefer. Thick brushstrokes depicted crowds of spectre-spectators, their flesh with the slippages of candle wax, all in a carnivalesque turn reminiscent of the recently exhibited James Ensor at the Royal Academy.

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Ramtin Zad, Magician. 200×150 cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Musuem.

The paintings touched on places and symbols from Persian folklore which would chime readily with a native viewer (the Damavand mountain, mythological symbol of Iranian pride and resistance, is namechecked in one piece), but less so with ignorant Westerners like myself. That soon, however, became irrelevant: Zad still provided overwhelming sights which packed a punch regardless of prior knowledge. As the press release described, Zad fused a private language of his unconscious with mythological archetypes – not knowing the man or his cultural language that well, I should have felt cut adrift. But I never felt alienated – in the city where simulacra towers rise out of dead ground, I felt alive.

Some paintings had a millennarian air, especially one which had a Moses figure cleaving apart the Red Sea, towering over one of Zad’s distinctive masses of figures. The painting’s title was given as ‘Return of Trump’. An enigmatic one, as the painting seems incredibly timely, though it was actually painted in 2012. I emailed the artist to try and get to the bottom of it, but without a reply my best guess is that the title is a later addition to the piece. Still, at a time when the new American president is keen to roll back rapprochement with Iran and paint it as the international enemy number one again, vibrant Iranian artists like Zad are needed to speak out for his country, and he did so with aplomb.

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Ramtin Zad, Peacock. 200x150cm. Acrylic on canvas. 2015. Courtesy the artist and Salsali Private Museum.

How does Zad see himself? A self-portrait at the end of the gallery held a clue, with the artist as a ‘Magician’, levitating from a chair in front of a crowd that mixed people with anthropomorphic animals, or maybe just people wearing masks. Irreverent yet self-confident, it was a profile fitting a man who paints so powerfully despite not being much past thirty.

Salsali Private Museum, Al-Quoz 1, Street 8, Al Serkal Avenue

Bernhard Buhmann – Modern Times @ Carbon 12

Bernhard Buhmann was another ringmaster, conjuring tricksters and jesters of his own, albeit on rigorously portioned canvases. Half of the pictures were figurative paintings constructed from 4×3 square grids. These were the stronger, and just about justified the artist’s claim that the pictures invoked the split of identity facilitated by social media. However, I felt that Buhmann was caught between continuing his usual character shapes and types, and engaging with post-internet art. For what it’s worth, I find Douglas Coupland’s pictures in the latter field to be similar, but much more effective.

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Bernhard Buhmann, Mister D. 200x130cm. Oil on canvas. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Carbon 12 gallery.

Likewise, though the abstract paintings which constituted the other half of Buhmann’s show weren’t bad, and were a commendable effort at trying on a different hat, they lacked the freewheeling charm of his early paintings. Buhmann’s art seems to be self-consciously receding to straighter and crisper lines, and I missed the steampunk world of aeronautics and harlequins and from his prior output. Modern Times treads much of the same territory as his previous show The Pretenders, but cannot say it as well as The Pretenders did, that show being the chrysalis of Buhmann’s career so far. Those paintings, loosely based on circus performers assembled out of bright colours and animal faces and disproportionate body parts, made the more nuanced, yet more impactful, statement on identity.

Carbon 12, Unit 37, Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Safwan Dahoul – Miniatures @ Ayyam Gallery

A dark room away from the glare of the Dubai sun was the ideal setting for Safwan Dahoul’s haunting dream visions. A continuation of his long-running Dream series, Miniatures was a departure in form, transferring his pictures to a smaller scale. The gallery trumped up these miniatures as being like storyboards, and this was true to an extent, but the comparison faltered through giving too much preference to film. This wasn’t some incomplete or deficient work, waiting to be built up into something more. These were intimately rendered vignettes where the physical size of the pieces were crucial to their claustrophobic feel.

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Safwan Dahoul, Dream 139. 10x10cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016. Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Dahoul has stated that his Dreamer, though she is a woman, is a version of himself. But that undersells his ability to capture something inherent to female experience. One of the most affecting sights I saw in Alserkal was a triptych in the corner of this exhibition, focusing on the dreamer’s belly: first with a close-up of it, then a close-up which revealed a foetus inside, then finally the woman’s belly with her arms crossed in front of it. It could have been in protection, in enchantment, in memory, or something else entirely, but each interpretation held a new well of feeling. It’s the exhibition in microcosm: symbolic, elusive, and all the more powerful for it. With such small paintings, Dahoul left elusive and allusive pointers to what’s happening in his native Syria, like the triptych where his dream-protagonist appeared to dissolve before the viewer’s eyes. These miniatures were paintings as portholes,  with passing glimpses into portals of a female psyche. I felt distinctly like a voyeur, with the dreamer’s expression impassive through it all. Visually, Dahoul’s dreamer looked European, French even, with a close-cropped bob of black hair. But hung closely together, and with a distinct narrative edge making a viewer less likely to contemplate in front of them, the vignettes could have been a comment on the passage, upheaval and suffering of Syria’s refugees.

It is worth mentioning that while Dahoul is conversant with early 20th century artists’ investigation of dreams, and shares traits with Picasso in his manipulation of the female form, dreams are traditionally important in Arabic culture. Medieval Arab cultures composed volumes and volumes of ‘dreambooks’, encyclopedias designed to be used to unlock the symbolism of objects which presented themselves in dreams. And unlike the self-contained, diagnostic dreams of Freudian psychoanalysis, these dreambooks had a divinatory role, where they revealed something hidden yet imminent in the world, instead of the dreamer’s anxieties. For a series that is based around dreams and unreal worlds, it had an oblique yet incisive analysis of Dahoul’s native country, particularly since the Year Zero of 2011. Even on a purely conceptual basis, the questions loomed large: with the horror happening in Syria, who is to say that reality is less surreal than a dream? Are we collectively daydreaming through humanitarian crisis?

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Safwan Dahoul, Dream 120. 13x13cm. Acrylic on wood. 2016.

Having worked on his Dream series since 1987, Dahoul ought to be commended for having pursued a singular vision so successfully for so long. But he does so much more than that, weaving a subtle wider commentary throughout the works.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

Thaier Helal – Landmarks II @ Ayyam Gallery

Just over the other side of the road was an exhibition of Dahoul’s compatriot, Thaier Helal. For all that a Western observer might wring their hands about the difficulty at representing the chaos of the world, those problems pale in comparison to those faced by Syrian artists, who must try to come to terms with the displacement, devastation, and death incurred by the ongoing Civil War. Thaier Helel’s latest effort is more oblique than his 2012 exhibition In Army We Trust, which pilfered the iconography of the Syrian army. Helal looked deep within the earth for Landmarks II, representing the cartography of his native land through mixed media on canvas. His pieces were as much sculptural as they are pictorial, with layers of crust and sediment erupting from the canvas. Grit, glue, sand and salt layered with paint in a process depicted in an illuminating video on display at the exhibition, which hit the perfect middle ground between academic over-explanation and brevity.

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Thaier Helal, Sand. 190cm diameter. Mixed media on canvas. 2016.

The works were powerful, and not in a handwavy spiritual sense. They weren’t idly romantic visitations, in a way that English art at times of war very often is; they were hard, concrete, and did a solid job of deferring to nature as the supreme authority in Syria’s fate, the judge of what will emerge through decay or rebirth.

Ayyam Gallery, Units 11-12 Al Serkal Avenue, Street 8, Al-Quoz 1

 

Nick Brandt – Inherit The Dust @ Custot Gallery

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Nick Brandt, Underpass With Elephants. 2015. Photo credit: Nick Brandt. Courtesy Custot Gallery Dubai.

As with Safwan Dahoul, Nick Brandt presented a body of work which was part of a long-running series, but could still be enjoyed in its own right. Brandt took monumental photographs of animals he snapped for earlier projects, and cleverly choreographed enormous prints of those around the urban sprawl of East Africa. Elephants loomed out of factories and landfills; zebras stood on railway lines. They were all shaded with Brandt’s distinctive monochrome, a technique which made the pictures, and the people and animals within them, look like preemptive memorials.

The pictures were all the more effective from being shot on location, rather than edited in post-production, thanks to the chance encounters of elements in the photograph. So a family of elephants propped up beneath an underpass were viewed with awe by homeless children, and the zebra originally photographed by a lake had his surroundings seamlessly overlaid with those of a fetid waterway surrounding a factory. A chimpanzee appeared to mournfully examine the wreckage of a landfill.

When scale is so important, occasionally it can be difficult to appreciate finer details, particularly in the smaller works, having got used to large prints which aimed to impress a reaction upon the viewer instantaneously. But the smaller works had their charms too, like the photograph which showed a ranger crouching by two dispossessed elephant tusks so that his body shape resembled the elephant’s head. It’s always tempting to divorce aesthetic impact from social conscience, to think that the ivory tower of art is apolitical and amoral. But ivory is hardly apolitical, as Brandt’s tusks remind us. It was a mark of the exhibitions in Alserkal to marry those artistic and political tendencies, sometimes held as contradictory in Western art. Yet it is difficult to imagine that, if we were to undergo something as catastrophic as the Civil War which has afflicted Safwan Dahoul and Thaier Helal’s homeland, for example, we would feel the same way.

Custot Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Unit 84, Street 6A, Al-Quoz 1.

Abderrazzak Sahli – Tolerance And Peace

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory: Modern Art From North Africa @ Elmarsa Gallery

I technically entered Elmarsa in error, as the gallery was in the process of transitioning between exhibitions. But, true to Alserkal’s openness, the staff were perfectly happy for me to amble around their work-in-progress space and get almost two whole exhibitions for the price of one…which was still free, as all of these gallery spaces were.

Downstairs, a posthumous retrospective of Abderrazzak Sahli was being dismantled. As with Farhad Ahrarnia, the twin influences of Islamic abstract art and the Russian avant-garde were held in parallel. In contrast to the abrupt angles and shapes of Malevich and Lissitzky, Sahli’s canvases danced with fluid forms which were much more vibrant and cartoony. Think Miami, not Moscow. Some of the more neon shaded paintings could be screenshots from the intro credits to an early 1990s kids’ TV show. But the title of Tolerance And Peace alerted the viewer to Sahli’s high-minded intentions. He said that his work ‘[translated] diversity’ and that the ‘clutter of objects’ in it was ‘nothing but a representation of the crowd’. For Sahli the crowd is a heterogeneous dance, diverse underneath uniformity, like sand under a microscope. His later works vibrated and shimmered like the most aquatic Paul Klee paintings.

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Abderrazzak Sahli, Untitled. 120x120cm. Acrylic on canvas. 1993. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Against the rainbows casting out across the gallery, some austere works stood out, consisting of white shapes against a black background which had the concentrated intensity of Matisse’s cut-outs. Without colour, the focus could switch to Sahli’s use of shape. As ever, the danger to read too much into abstract painting looms large, but the overwhelming impression, at least, was of tumbling leaves, crescent moons, and dynamic human forms, arms outstretched. It certainly felt crowded, even in the austere pieces, and it made an interesting counterpart to Ramtin Zad’s wild, fleshy brush strokes when painting his pile-ons of spectators, as Sahli came off as much more confident and celebratory of gatherings of things and people.

Though this exhibition focused on Sahli’s paintings, there was dialogue with his sculptural work, and some of his paintings communicated ideas which were also realised by him in three dimensions. The abundance of works which consisted of frames-within-frames evoked the image of the illuminated manuscript; the decorated word. Similarly, the cut-out style of the austere works made overtures to a specifically Arabic architectural form: Mashrabiya latticework. Used in windows and dressing screens, it’s a type of wood design where the wood is peppered with small holes which allow light and air pass through, but maintain privacy as one cannot be clearly seen through them. It’s often used in screens which would allow women to undress behind when indoors. Abstracted from a design context, and shot through with Sahli’s distinctive colours and rhythmic shapes, the door motif is, in the coloured works, made sexy with suggestions of glimpses and teases. In the austere ones, there is a more concentrated focus on illumination from darkness or ignorance, or freedom from tyranny.

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Nejib Belkhodja, Abstraction Numero 64. 99x64cm. Oil on canvas. 1964. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery.

Mashrabiya can be found all over the medina squares of North African cities, which was in turn the structural motif toyed with by Nejib Belkhodja in the group exhibition upstairs, Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory, a ‘greatest hits’ collection of post-War artists from the Maghreb. The clarity of line and colour in his work is staggering, especially considering it predated digital art – from a distance, you could mistake one of his paintings for a QR code. I had a sense that among the North African artists, there was a willingness to embrace structure and form within abstract expressionism which would be anathema to some of the more self-directed North Americans. I felt that the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, just finished at the Royal Academy, was striking enough, but even in a shed on the outskirts of Dubai, artists from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria et al more than held their own against Pollock and co in Burlington House’s grand halls. 

There is something of Franz Kline’s enigmatic calligraphy in Rachid Koraichi’s etchings and sculpture, but of course the latter artist has a solidified relationship with Arabic text and symbol, whereas Kline’s relies on vagueness in his brushstrokes. Not to say that Kline is a worse or less educated painter (far from it), but it’s worth pointing out that the African artists’ manipulation of text went beyond source material into something essential to their identity and self-expression. Nja Mahdaoui made pure art out of calligraphy; Khaled Ben Slimane fused it with pottery. At the other end of the scale, Aly Ben Salem’s Le Jardin d’Eden was an outpouring of Oriental life and colour to make Henri Rousseau’s head spin, depicting two alluring women spangled together in a torrent of flowers, reeds, birds, forged by daring tones of blue and black. To make another overwrought comparison to a Western artist, it was a painting which made Klimt look impoverished. It was sheer magic, and any attempt to make a weedy critical comment was dashed by the saucily insouciant expression in the central figures’ eyes.

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Aly Ben Salem, Le Jardin d’Eden. 74x52cm. Gouache on paper. 1950. Courtesy Elmarsa Gallery. Please note this picture has been unintentionally cropped.

The deep reds and oranges of Emna Masmoudi and Asma M’Naoaur burned with the Mediterranean sun, the Rothko to the Pollockian intensity of lines bedecking  Mahjoub Ben Bella’s art. Elmarsa should be applauded  for including Masmoudi and M’Naoaur, as they represented the more recent vanguard of women in North African painting. If there was one downside to the overall experience at Alserkal, the relative paucity of women was one. But then again, that’s a criticism which has been made of abstract expressionism all over the world: that it is, to put it bluntly, a load of cock waving.

Yesterday Is Tomorrow’s Memory dipped a toe in the water for a colourful, thoughtful, and still fertile art scene and has allowed me to uncover even more artists from Tunisia and countries north of the Sahara which were not represented, and find out their communication with artists from Arabia, the Levant and beyond. Viewing it in close proximity to the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show was a convenient coincidence, but the wealth of Maghreb art more than matched those lofty standards.

Elmarsa Gallery, Unit 23, Alserkal Avenue, Al-Quoz 1

After Elmarsa, I walked out of the last warehouse into a nondescript gravel car park, and my visit was over. Compared to Dubai’s more well-known (and more central) sights, Alserkal is modest and quiet. Yet the voices it contains needs to be heard. I visited Dubai the week that the new  American president signed an executive order limiting travel to his country from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It goes beyond saying how short-sighted, narrow-minded, and plain callous that was, and it is hard not to feel pessimistic about how the Arabic world at large will be demonised into super-villainy over the next four years. Cross-cultural communication with the Arabic world is now more vital than ever, and art has a role to play in that. It may be the case that the artists are barred from travelling to their own opening nights (as happened to Thaier Helal in London), but their work has the ability to talk to us when they are silenced.

 

Underexposed Albums #8: Nicolette – Now Is Early (1992)

Underexposed Albums is a series devoted to uncovering albums lost, neglected, or forgotten by the wider music community. Albums must have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm to qualify.

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Last.fm listeners as of 29th November 2016: 3,608

No Government (2:09)
Dove Song (4:55)
Single Minded (Vocal) 3:12
I Woke Up (5:46)
Waking Up (Remix) 4:55
O Si Nene (5:56)
It’s Only To Be Expected (5:38)
Wicked Mathematics (4:09)
A Single Ring (2:09)

Some albums are destined to become totemic. Bjork’s Debut is such a totem. Experimental yet accessible, it’s heralded as a fulcrum moment where electronic music crossed over with radio-friendly female singer pop, and – gosh! – instigated by a powerfully creative woman too. But what if, in appraising her wilful magpieing of early 90s club culture in the UK, we missed something which was already there?

Nicolette is the performing name of Nicolette Suwoton, who is probably best known for her guest vocals on two tracks on Massive Attack’s 1994 album Protection, ‘Sly’ and ‘Three’. But her involvement with Massive Attack came about after they heard, and were suitably impressed by, her Debut, 1992’s Now Is Early. She didn’t start out with the Bristol posse, but the protojungle breakbeat sounds coming out of Hackney in the early 1990s from the Shut Up And Dance stable, a band-cum-label-cum-management team consisting of Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson and Carl ‘Smiley’ Hyman, which released a clutch of singles of their own dealing in staggeringly brazen sample-heavy breakbeat, alongside some by The Ragga Twins and Rum & Black. Their sound was arrived at almost by accident, as they started out experimenting with Brit-rap, but with the breakbeats sped-up to match the dance environment of the East London soundsystems. But within PJ and Smiley’s stable Nicolette’s releases stand out, thanks to her Billie Holliday-like voice, and the strange dynamic it throws up when placed over the breakbeat that was PJ and Smiley’s meat and drink.

As such, Nicolette’s record lifted off its immediate dancefloor environment and has aged very well. Her voice stops the music from descending into drum-and-bass muscle flexing, but at the same time the instrumentals are hard enough so that it doesn’t slip into insipid acid jazz. Nicolette’s partnership with SUAD wasn’t a fluke; she also contributed vocals to ‘Extork’ on Plaid’s Not For Threes album (to which Bjork also contributed, on ‘Lillith’). The album opener ‘No Government’ has a shuffling percussive start, sampled from Lou Donaldson, not dissimilar from how ‘Human Behaviour’ barrels open the doors to Bjork’s Debut. She sings ‘if everybody knew what they wanted/there’d be nothing, nothing left/people would do what they wanted/and there’d be no government’, an ostensibly anarchic sentiment shot through with doubt by Nicolette’s wavering voice. Amidst the white heat of the anti-authority slogans of the rave counterculture (Shut Up And Dance’s first record was called ‘Dance Before The Police Come’) it strikes a cooler, more considered tone.

She is one of the few English singers whose voice sags with lived experiences – when she adopts the classic blues opening on ‘I Woke Up’ to her ‘north of London town’ setting, listening to her neighbours having sex next door, she is eminently believable, and yet all is shot through with a childlike innocence. That song is one of a handful which, like ‘No Government’, are closer to Massive Attack style downtempo, with woodblock percussion and a see-saw bass which precipitates with menace, occasionally punctuated by a synthesiser stab. Then, at the halfway point of the album, the breadth of sounds on it are writ large when ‘I Woke Up’ is followed by ‘Waking Up’, where she declares ‘I’d like to wake you up/I’d like to eat you up’ and in a swirl of delicate Quincy Jones samples, the sound is lush, inviting, communal, dancey. Get involved!

Beyond Bjork, a more sensible point of reference might be Neneh Cherry, who released her second album Homebrew in 1992 as well. But that is coloured by a Bristolian inclination towards a jazzier, smoother sound. ‘Waking Up’ has the benefit of Nicolette’s voice mingling comfortably with the backing elements, but on some of the album’s tracks, her stylings are a clash with the protojungle ammunition from PJ and Smiley. This isn’t unsuccessful; in fact, Nicolette’s ability to inflect each note is a match for a broader sense of discohesion. ‘Is this a mysterious way?’ she asks on ‘Dove Song’, before it lurches into dark territory, with a fraught sample of someone breathing, dub keyboards and sub-bass. On ‘O Si Nene’, amidst a backdrop of Janet Jackson laughs, acid squelches, and deep, whistling synths, she sounds almost dumb to her surroundings.  ‘Don’t try to go back to that room’, she warns, with the thousand yard stare of someone who’s peered into Super Hans’ hurt locker. On these songs, melody is minimal and it is percussion and effects which propels the song in its stead. Nicolette’s vocal melody doesn’t work around any core, and, as a listener (not as a dancer, admittedly) you’re emotionally subject to her little darts and melismas. ‘Wicked Mathematics’, for example, has an 8-bit style riff which anchors her vocal line much more securely, and lacks the same tension. Not that it’s a bad song, though the maths analogy in the lyrics occasionally lags. In this writer’s opinion, the most perfectly put together of tracks in this mould is ‘It’s Only To Be Expected’. The percussion is knitted together from different sources with an impressive variation in timbre and solid meta-beat constructed from them. There are sung verses with classical swoops, and spoken word choruses with an understated yet penetrated deep synth sample. A motley collection, but greater than the sum of its parts.

The Bjork comparison did not escape Melody Maker, who described Nicolette as her black equivalent at the time Now Is Early was released. The reasons to do so are as tempting as they are facile: female singer, electronic sounds, writes own material. Nevertheless, in comparing the two, it does make you wonder about their divergent paths since the early 90s, with Bjork becoming an international icon, and Nicolette fading into obscurity (though still putting out respectable albums, including The Infinitive which is due to be released before the end of 2016). This is not to diminish Bjork’s singular talent, or her achievements despite coming of age in a decade where the mainstream music press was keen to diminish her work in favour of the male producers she collaborated with. But the question remains – could a ‘black Bjork’ be allowed to exist, to record, to work with who she wished, and be taken as seriously?

Underexposed Albums #7: Dream 2 Science – Dream 2 Science

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Last.fm listeners as of 23rd November 2016: 734

 My Love Turns To Liquid (5:24)
Breathe Deep (5:35)
Mystery Of Love (5:17)
How Do I Love Thee (7:44)
Liquid (4:48)
Dream 2 Science (4:38)

Dream 2 Science is house music for the home. It’s music made in the bedroom, for the bedroom.

The mini-album’s creator is Ben Cenac, aka Cozmo D, formerly the brains behind the electro group Newcleus. A self-confessed free spirit of the house scene, in the late 1980s he recorded the song ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’ as an excuse to show off his wife Yvette’s previously neglected vocal stylings and, with the encouragement and collaboration of his friend Gregg Fore, he extended the theme into a full EP called Dream 2 Science.

Immediately obvious is the closeness out of which the project was created, as ’My Love Turns To Liquid’ is, in effect, a love letter from Cenac to his spouse, and it flows gently like drifts in and out of sleep with a bed-partner. All the necessary deep house boxes are ticked – unobtrusive, open chords, expansive stereo width, a bubbling bass line – but ‘Liquid’ has an unusually dominant vocal, more like R & B in fact, which takes it even further into soulfulness. Cenac had previous with this, as one of his first forays into making house music was with ‘I’m In Love’ for Sha’Lor, which span out of unsuccessful attempts to sell that group as an R & B outfit.

Anyone taken to a higher place by the enigmatic opening chords of Fingers Inc’s ‘Can You Feel It’ will find much to enjoy here. Though they have similarities, including sharing ‘Mystery Of Love’ as a song title, the live vocals distinguish the Dream 2 Science project from Larry Heard, with whom Cenac is frequently compared. Following ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’, ‘Breathe Deep’ has an opening which, with the right amount of overdrive, could have turned into an all-out banger. But it’s a tease, felt-covered, as with the album as a whole, the track is a push-pull of aggressive and laidback elements, all within a safe space of trust between two people.

Cenac commented in an interview with Test Pressing that his way of composing is to find a solid enough bass line, and build it outwards from there. In Cenac’s ‘Mystery Of Love’, the bass and melody lines are near mirror images of each other, just one of many instances on the EP where two musical elements have an intimate relationship. Even the album’s packaging works that way – the sides of the record are listed as ‘this side’ and ‘that side’, rather than ‘side A’ and ‘side B’.

‘That side’ kicks off with ‘Liquid’, a remix of the opening track which shows Cenac open his toolbox to show off the more spacey effects he employed with his earlier electrofuturist projects. ‘How Do I Love Thee’ has that give-and-take of aggressive and sensitive again but less successfully, as the song doesn’t really forge a clear identity for itself in its 8 minute running time. The closing track is called ‘Dream 2 Science’ as well (creating one of those fabled instances where the name of a song, artist and album are all the same), a title Cenac says was his estimate of the ratio involved in producing the album – 2 parts dream to 1 part science. And within that, there is the crux of deep house – using posthuman technology to create otherworldly experiences. The EP departs with the sound of Cenac playing jazzy solos with different keyboard timbres, a nuanced addition to a genre whose use of piano can tend to fall back on stabbed chords and riffs.

When listening to Dream 2 Science, it seems incredible to think that, while it influenced house luminaries like King Britt and Josh Wink, its limited pressing meant it that it slipped under the radar. Buying a copy online would cost you upwards of thirty pounds, until it was rereleased in 2012 by the Dutch imprint Rush Hour recordings. And none of this was the intention: Gregg Fore, Cenac’s collaborator, was badly burned when his distributors in Chicago and Los Angeles tanked. Dream 2 Science never had the wider release it deserved, and Cenac and Fore took an early retirement from the music industry off the back of it. In this age of renewed fetishism for physical media, it’s important to remember just how vexatious the vagaries of its production can be, and how prohibitive it can make accessing someone’s work.

Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol.1: Snap, Crackle And Pop

Transmissions from nowhere. Digests from the digital netherscape. They are trauma memories preserved in silicon and chrome. They are Chuck Person’s Eccojams.

Introductions done, now the exposition: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 is a cassette originally released in 2010, in a run of just 100 copies, by Daniel Lopatin, usually known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Now available via YouTube and whichever file sharing program you happen to indulge in, it contains a series of loops taken from pop songs released between 1967 (The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned) and 2006 (JoJo – Too Little Too Late), slowed down and dragged with delay and pitch-shifting, with further sound-bending effects added on top. I don’t think those dates were picked with any design in mind, but their integration into the aesthetic of the album is quite revealing. 1967 was the explosion year for popular music – Radio 1, the Monterey Pop Festival, Sgt. Pepper’s, the first Rolling Stone magazine – while September 2006 was the month in which Facebook became available to non-student users, and less than six months later Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone;

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Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone. (c) Barry Patterson / Wikimedia Commons

arguably the two most important events in our current technological landscape. So what does it matter? Lopatin picks from pop songs during a forty year epoch before the Internet became truly social and mobile, when music was represented by physical media which had to be loaded onto a device to be played, rather than bits of data downloaded, and latterly streamed, across different platforms. The convenience of it all makes it tempting to think it has always been so for those that cannot remember a state of affairs before it, but it is still all incredibly recent. The UK Singles chart did not include downloads until 2005, and the first song to top it from downloads alone, Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, did not come until a year later.

As any vinyl bore will tell you, records have a memory bound up with their physical product – a Spotify playlist can’t be rediscovered in an attic. Hence the cassette release of Eccojams; with no track listing provided, it is self-consciously in the tradition of the mixtape: a portable selection of hand-picked songs, designed to be passed on to an intimate audience. 2006 is the year in which, arguably, pop culture stopped being an institution controlled from the top down, and where a consumer-led model of curation and creation began to dominate. Let us not forget in 2006 Time Magazine nominated its person of the year as ‘You’. For music, instead of buying those CDs (and at that time it was for all intents and purposes just CDs) and consuming those products as they had been engineered, the new paradigm was to download songs from iTunes, or listen to them slyly through YouTube, from all time periods. The vaults of history were wide open to scroll through and consume, instead of being held back for reprints and reissues issued at a label’s whim. Eccojams is in some ways a response to the phenomenon of engaging with pop, with its sense of a permanent present, as something archaic, almost geologically old.

Eccojams is the best vaporwave release (a label that doesn’t really fit, as that movement coalesced after the release of this album) I know of to convincingly balance corporate anonymity with a softer, lyrical side. Distorted by technology they may be, but these decontextualized pop pieces gleam with feeling in Lopatin’s judicious selection of material. The intimacy that a cassette engenders is further suggested by the themes of love, loss, and missed communication which emerge from the mix. Two of the songs sampled talk about letters – like cassettes, another medium which has been technologically superseded, but in so doing has stripped away technological necessity, and revealed the emotional core inherent to it. To craft a hand-written letter now is inherently a thoughtful act because it will take longer to compose than the electronic messages we send the rest of the time.

The pop songs ebb in and out of a distorted span of time: these gleaming, once futuristic-sounding mixes are saturated with delay and slowed down, giving them a more legged, static quality which represents how obsolescence inevitably catches up with them. Eccojams feels more like a discovered artifact than it does an album. It begins with a fairly straightforward treatment of Toto’s ‘Africa’, concentrating on a spiral keyboard pattern which gives the impression of a curtain being revealed to the main entertainment, which starts with the next track; the one whose structure most resembles a three part pop song. This is the same song which featured on Sunset Corp’s ‘Angel’ video, its name taken from the Fleetwood Mac song which provides the sample. It begins with some extreme cut and pasting of the sample, creating a syncopated dance rhythm through the speed of the edits as different sections of the loop overlap with each other. The second part of the track possesses that same quality of ‘forcing’ different music from the loop, this time by creating a new melody by pitch shifting individual notes. The song fades into nothingness, before it is leapt upon by a snatch of JoJo, which in turn gives way to one of the more underrated jams, a loop of Ian Van Dahl’s ‘Castles In The Sky’. The original song is a quite brainless Euro house anthem. The jam sounds simple but each repetition contains nuanced developments in the delay. Chugging away underneath it all is a synthesiser pattern which sounds like it is constantly ascending, utilising the quality of a loop of an unresolved theme to bring forward a quality of incompletion and tension. The ‘castles in the sky’ are like purpled retrofuturist takes on a forgotten utopia. 

The next track takes just one word from Michael Jackson’s ‘Morphine’, but a pretty crucial one given the circumstances of his death: Demerol. This is another jam originally released via the Sunsetcorp channel, less than a month after Michael Jackson died. Some peace is granted by the next loop, the oldest on the tape, from ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’, where the sustain of Roger McGuinn’s guitar complements the reduced speed and delay which Lopatin uses all over Eccojams. As the Jackson and McGuinn examples show in particular, the expression ‘cratedigging’ is not appropriate to describe the acquisition of samples on this album: there is a sensitive artistic mind at work behind it, one which can hear beyond what sounds good or unusual, and one which is in tune with its predecessors. By magnifying lines like ‘I know that door/That shuts just before’ which wouldn’t be considered especially deep on a standard play through, and repeating them multiple times, they obtain a raw emotional potency.

Janet Jackson samples follow, ones which emphasise the ability Lopatin has to preserve a surprisingly sincere emotional core – the only audible words for this one are ‘lonely’, ‘feelings’, and ‘hold on’. The next sample, from Aphrodite’s Child’s ’The Four Horsemen’ is the closest thing to a misstep on the cassette, though it functions beautifully in the album’s overall structure by bridging the heavily distorted Janet Jackson samples to the closer of the tape’s first side, a virtuosic breakdown of a loop from the end of Marvin Gaye’s ‘My Love Is Waiting’. Gaye sings ‘baby, baby, when I make you mine/I’ll be fine’, but the confident resolution to this 80s pop number is left to keep on waiting by Lopatin, making the singer lose himself in a wall of echo, and synthesised orchestral flourishes

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The man himself. (c) user: transmediale / Flickr

ring in almost sarcastically. Lopatin keeps distorting and chopping it, in the one instance of the tape where it actually sounds like a mangled cassette rather than effects put through computer software. Somehow, within the space of a seconds long sample, Lopatin manages to turn a sexually confident R&B track into a paranoid descent into madness, while also using the technology he uses to accomplish this to undermine the nature of recording in the first instance. If physical media are the bulwarks of culture, then Lopatin is positing what happens when those media decay and corrupt; whether or not their artistic centre and ‘message’ can be preserved when the physical shell disintegrates. The first side closes with a descent into white noise, where transmissions threaten to pop in and out. The bookending of the tape sides with these walls of static is a useful tactic in conceptualising the pop loops as found objects, like something that has been dredged from the bottom of the sea.

The second side opens calmly with a slick John Martyn sample, the glistening keyboards of which are fed back on themselves until they resemble a free jazz workout. Martyn sings about the ‘letters that you just don’t write’; more references to missed communication, compounded by technological fault. Segueing from that is one of the least manipulated samples on the album, and one which is the yang to the previous track’s yin. Samples are treated in two ways on this album: either degraded to artful destruction, or slowed down with minimal intervention, so that a single snippet of a pop song becomes a mantra whose profundity keeps hitting you like blows to the head. Kate Bush imploring ‘Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy’ is an example of the latter, punctuated as it is with the capital letter of a cool keyboard at the beginning of each iteration. Another burst of screwed noise follows, before Fleetwood Mac make their second appearance in the form of ‘Gypsy’, where Lopatin cleverly shifts the emphasis to build to the phrase ‘lightning strikes’ rather than the word ‘gypsy’. This track is given some of the classic treatment accorded to ‘chopped and screwed’ tunes, as pioneered by DJ Screw in the 1990s: an immensely slowed down beat, and rapid crossfading between the record and one played one beat behind, to give the impression of a track skipping forward at the same tempo. The difference is whereas Screw’s technique accentuated the beats in hip-hop songs by slowing them down so they were palpably different, Lopatin’s technique affords this snatch of a soft rock song an impossible grandeur; growing from jaunty folk-rock to something which, in its references to ‘night’ and ‘lightning’, portends something about the destiny of civilization itself.

One of the more immediately recognisable jams comes next, with a sample from ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, which lacks the punch of the rest of the album, though it does keep the momentum chugging along. The loop has a ‘sneezing’ quality, where the rhythm and completion of the loop is frustrated, without the benefits of danceable syncopation. The words – ‘just one more year and then we’ll be happy’ work well with some of the other dispossessed fragments on the cassette, but the whole package falls a bit flat. The momentum is picked back up straight away though for a glorious run to the end of the album. First Lopatin painstakingly re-assembles a sample one note a time, creating an otherwise nonexistent driving rhythm and pitch shifting up and down the frequencies, diving down before catapulting upwards into…Phil Collins. In a duet with Marilyn Martin no less, from the 1985 single ‘Separate Lives’. If you want to take it personally, there are hints of a heartbreak story hidden in this album, interrupted by these decaying transmissions, which is one of the reasons why it succeeds when a lot of anti-corporate vaporwave fails, as the artists don’t have the vision or ability to match personal and political threads.

The next jam is the most well-known, and could have a blog entry all on its own. It dates back to at least 2009, when Lopatin’s YouTube alter ego Sunset Corp uploaded a video titled ‘nobody here’, which features a continuous scrolling of a rainbow road type highway through an urban sky, all dimmed by a layer of video noise. The music is taken from Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’; the snippet of a chorus line ‘There’s nobody here…’ is extracted. Without the ‘…just you and me’ from the original song to bring it back to earth, the loop keeps on yearning and returning without resolve. Thanks to the waves of delay, the guitar possesses an anxious quality and the synthesiser sounds expansive and choral; the two in tandem paint the emptiness which DeBurgh sings about.

Following that drama, a chopped and screwed treatment of Tupac’s ‘Me Against The World’ feels a bit out of place, but demonstrates Lopatin’s sense of humour, if nothing else, to hear all the G-Funk tropes – sexualised female singer, swaggering synthesiser – have all their macho braggadocio sucked out the backside. Something Eccojams left as an influence on the nascent vaporwave scene was a penchant for treating samples with pitch shifting so that they sound much more androgynous. Talented producers like Macintosh Plus have developed this further.

What becomes apparent on the next jam, a rework of Heart’s ‘These Dreams’, is that using delay is not an artistic open goal, and sometimes the abundance of a particular sound creates phantom aural effects. Like the best artists, Lopatin uses this to his advantage, as the sibilance of ‘the sweetest song that I’ve heard is silence’ creates the sound image of rushing grass, with wind running through it; an astonishingly organic quality for something treated so abrasively through editing. ‘Silence’ is important – more indicators of missed communication. That’s a theme which is picked up in the final jam, a concise three part suite which opens with Jeff Lynne singing ‘Letter from…’ over and over, not saying ‘Letter from Spain’ as he does in the original ELO song of the same name. The letter’s sender is unknown, rubbed from history. Womack & Womack give us a jaunty bridge to the final sounds of the album, which come from ‘Woman In Chains’ by Tears For Fears. The last word on this album is one of the most plaintive on the whole cassette, and means that everything before it is qualified with that focus; hence my emphasis on the hidden love story suggested by many of these pieces.

That Eccojams remains difficult to classify exactly is a testament to its power and originality. I have even read opinion pieces which describe them as the peak of sampling as an artform. My view is that they present pop music, the forever dominant idiom, in photo negative: a style which relies upon sounding new, technologically innovative, and emotionally distinct, whittled down into a set of gnomic mantras of emotional ambiguity, all accompanied by a contextual point, arising after 2006, of how permeable and permanent pop music, transmitted as digital media, truly is.

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Underexposed Albums #6: Rapoon – Tin Of Drum

Underexposed Albums is a series devoted to uncovering albums lost, neglected, or forgotten by the wider music community. Albums must have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm to qualify.

1. Not The Time (8:06)
2. Where Were You (2:22)
3. Beneath The Sky (8:16)
4. Between The Hours (8:31)
5. Arguing The Theological Toss (3:37)
6. Southbound (30.57)

Last.fm listeners: 1,534

A few entries back in the Underexposed Albums series I wrote about Zoviet France’s A Flock Of Rotations, and this time around I’m focusing on a former member of the mysterious group: Robin Storey, aka Rapoon. The album is question is Tin Of Drum, his 1998 release on the Dutch label Staalplaat. The album’s liner notes refer to Storey’s affections for the American ‘deserts and the stars in the deserts’, and this is the immediate location conjured up by the sonic journeys on Tin Of Drum. This record is spacier than his other, more Orientalalised forays on The Kirghiz Light or Cidar; the ambient dread which bubbles to the surface is agoraphobic with the desert night, rather than oppressive with the heat haze and sand storms of the East.

Rapoon continues the Zoviet France trait of manipulating esoteric samples; a post-apocalyptic mood is given greater gravitas by mysterious spoken word references to the specific date of 4th January 1958, which is never explained. The only event of note I can find for that date is the re-entry of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Given that this album, in typical Rapoon fashion, is coloured by an aura of paranoia, that choice of date suggests the birth of the technoscape – 4th of January 1958 heralding the dawn of satellite surveillance, of constantly being watched, of a surrogate war, with the dread of the atomic bomb at the heart of it.

The album is a fragile centre between sonic forces. On one hand there is an ironic, corporate (and very 1990s) New Age vibe, as the album begins with a voice intoning ‘This is not the time for you to think about the past. Drift through your mind and away…” The same voice later repeatedly advises: “The longest journey starts with a single step”. The calm delivery is entirely at odds with the pitch-black, after-hours jungle rave backdrop, which momentarily lifts for the gorgeously ambient ‘Between The Hours’. The 90s vogue for the banally exotic (feng shui, anyone?) is undercut by a music which repeats with a violent intensity, subjugating you to its will.

As with most of Rapoon’s output, you shouldn’t listen expecting anything quicker than glacial progression in these tunes. But that doesn’t mean ethno-ambient noodling of the kind which people in Native American headdresses peddle to you on the High Street. It is easy to cobble Rapoon together with soundscapists and droners who lack the talent or know-how to use rhythm, but this would overlook his control over it which was evident as early as Fallen Gods. Tin Of Drum is a knowing pun, as its tracks rely so much on percussion. Kraftwerk’s ‘Metall Auf Metall’ is channelled via some ingenious ‘banging’ samples in ‘Arguing The Theological Toss’ – a show of strength from a hammer and sickle against the almighty dollar perhaps – and the 8 minutes plus durations of ‘Not The Time’ and ‘Beneath The Sky’ pass by in a flash as they are driven so propulsively. Both of those feature a steady crescendo of tribal drums and incantatory singing, like an uprising from the jungles of Guatemala, through the Sonoran desert, to the American heartland the liner notes evoke. Elsewhere in those notes Storey rails against how in revisiting the American landscape he found it more ‘homogenised’; his reclamation of homogeneity is a fusion of pan-American identity, drawing on the mystery of its land, its buried civilisations and religions.

The last track is the half hour long ‘Southbound’, a tour de force of Storey’s skills in sampling percussion. From echoic drums at the start, through woodblocks blowing up from the forest floor, to the tinny train track percussion at the climax (very reminiscent of the close of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘East Hastings’), ‘Southbound’ is reminiscent of Kraftwerk again, this time ‘Autobahn’, in its feeling of a journey underscored by devious sliding between different tempos and timbres. If I had one criticism of it, it would be that the beginning and are so strong that the middle sags a little, as if figuring out where to go.

Rapoon’s hybrid of world music, (dark) ambient, drum and bass, and the possibly nonsensical genre of ‘Isolationism’ is difficult to describe, let alone sell. So if you’re new to this game, try it. What you will be rewarded with is sound unlike anything you’ve ever heard, a much stronger sense of place than any other form of music, and one which is content to remain mysterious and defy easy explanation. I came to similar conclusions with Zoviet France’s A Flock Of Rotations, but it is worth repeating: in a globalised world (quasi-exceptional rainy islands like my own notwithstanding), where a Spotify user by the name of Kellz Charisma can hook me up with a playlist of the hottest Zambian jams, Rapoon is one of the few artists who preserves the essential mystery of geography through a sonic medium.

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What cats tell you about Thom Yorke’s soul: A Moon Shaped Pool lyric analysis

Since 2003, Radiohead have found their soul. It seems improbable for a band to spend so long looking for it, but it is only since leaving their former record label EMI that their music has felt comfortable in its own skin rather than a prickly, vicious, beast to be wrestled with every few years. Think about cats: on 2003’s ‘Myxomatosis’ we’re dealing with a shaggy, ‘mongrel’ bastard, with fresh food in its mouth. The natural world on Radiohead’s first six albums is usually described either in relation to death and decay (‘cracked eggs, dead birds’), food (‘frozen food and battery hens’), or as cartoonish, Animal Farm-style satires (‘Gucci little piggy’/‘hammer-headed sharks’/the ‘wolf at the door’). They’re always sketched as part of much bigger systems, rather than having qualities of their own worth exploring. After the EMI period, something changed. There’s still the skeleton of Yorke’s fondness for cliche I’ve written about before, but he’s more happy to talk about felines outside of that conceit of nature as a mechanical, murderous cycle. So in ‘The Eraser’, the addressee is ‘like a kitten with a ball of wool’, on ‘15 Step’ he asks ‘Did the cat get your tongue?’, and on ‘Lotus Flower’, it’s not even you or I any more but a collective, ‘We will shrink and we’ll be quiet as mice/And while the cat is away/Do what we want’. What is there on A Moon Shaped Pool? A straight-up metaphor, the enigmatic ‘crazy kitten smile’ of ‘True Love Waits’.

A few caveats. One can never be too confident assigning dates to Radiohead songs as, by the band’s own admission, they can float around as ideas long before they are committed to tape. ‘True Love Waits’ goes back to before The Bends, but given how much the band sweat over the tracks they include on each album and how they order them, it’s not outlandish to think about their date of publishing, rather than composition. ‘True Love Waits’ hasn’t been included on any studio album previously because it is far too lyrical and personal to fit in with the worldly, angsty subject matter of their back catalogue. In any case, the inclusion of tracks from all points of their history on A Moon Shaped Pool offers some intriguing compare and contrast studies within Yorke’s lyrical progression.

Burn The Witch’ dates from the Kid A period and is vintage turn-of-the-century Yorke, with the song’s lyrics effectively a list of cliches: the title being one, ‘we know where you live’ and ‘avoid all eye contact’ being others. ‘Decks Dark’ carries several echoes of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, not least the third track position on their respective albums. Still, there are developments. The ‘spaceship’ in the earlier song is definitely just a spaceship. It’s used as a vehicle (pun semi-intended) to offer a vantage point on the Earth, as part of OK Computer era Yorke’s global eye. ‘Decks Dark’ gives us a ‘spacecraft’ instead. The shift from ‘ship’ to ‘craft’ is itself quite revealing; a ‘ship’ is a form of transport, whereas a ‘craft’ could be anything – a satellite, space junk, a machine of war. It is  evocative, yet vague. The juxtaposition of that eerie chorus with much more personal verses (‘It was just a laugh/’it was just a lie’) suggests a metaphor at work. It helps that the song carries the band’s harmonic signature: chords which float ambiguously between major and minor (in this case D). Consequently, you’re never sure where the centre of the song is – an intergalactic battle or something more personal? Do the verses serve the chorus or vice versa? Or both? Radiohead creating an uncertain mood through their choice of chord pattern is not unusual, but to see it working in tandem with lyrics eliding from Big Things to Little Things, is.

As with cats, trains have been a recurrent motif for Yorke. Particularly when you watch Meeting People Is Easy, you understand how they fit in with the band’s aesthetic: vast arteries moving people from place to place in metal cylinders which they have no active control of. Yorke described his inspiration for ‘Backdrifts’ as images of snow through the window of a stranded bullet train in Japan. Furthermore, his solo effort ‘Black Swan’ commands ‘Buy a ticket and get on the train’; an invocation of the classic heads-down, commuting transport system. So when ‘Glass Eyes’ opens with ‘Hey it’s me/I just got off the train’ the whole thing is turned on its head as the train is no longer of central importance: it’s delivering the singer to a person, it’s not anonymous transit any more. Yorke described his lyrical approach in 1997 as ‘taking Polaroids of things happening at high speed’; there is much more stillness to the music and words of A Moon Shaped Pool

A 2008 article in Mojo detailing the pained genesis of In Rainbows offers some clues as to why Yorke’s lyrics became more soulful around that time. The man himself identified the increased time spent with his children as crucial in getting him out of his head space, and ‘switching off’. He also pinpointed something which happened during the creation of his solo album, The Eraser. Working with Nigel Godrich, it became apparent that his voice was what provided the anchor to the song fragments he created, and was what allowed others to enter into the sonic world he had in his head. Subsequently, he garnered a newfound confidence in his voice and didn’t shirk from its ‘feminine’ qualities. The logical pattern follows that as if was more willing to be fluid with his vocal melodies, then his lyrics would be more supple as well.

One of the few faults I have with the lyrics on A Moon Shaped Pool is the overuse of the verb ‘mess’, as in ‘you really messed up everything’/’truth will mess you up’ (Ful Stop) and ‘messing me around’ (Identikit). It works very powerfully as part of that aching R ‘n’ B style chorus in the latter song (does anyone else hear Mario Winans?), but the fact that it has already been used several times in ‘Ful Stop’ means the impact is dulled. It comes across as a bit of a duff Americanism. Still, it allows you to see how it is different from the ‘messing’ done by the Karma Police and the Wolf at Thom Yorke’s door at the close of Hail To The Thief. In those cases the mess-age is a threat: don’t bother trying to fight against a system. On A Moon Shaped Pool the messing is done by ‘truth’ and ‘you’; again, very personal origins. On ‘Ful Stop’, it’s not clear whether that opening ‘You really messed up everything’ is directed by the singer towards himself, or someone else. If you take the first view, then, with respect to the chorus, it offers a more self-excoriating analysis. Yorke uses a chiding, slang sense of the verb ‘mess’ before the chorus returns to that more conventional, systematic, headfuck definition.

Something ‘Identitkit’ has which is very unusual is Thom turning to address a large audience, represented in the music by a choir, with the line ‘Broken hearts/make it rain’. Previously rain has been used by Yorke as a metaphor for apocalypse, with the parallels to Noah’s Ark on the first half of Hail To The Thief, the Canute story on The Eraser, and some sort of Waste Land-style purging on ‘Paranoid Android’. Here it seems like – whisper it – rain equates with tears, provoked as they are by ‘broken hearts’. It might still be apocalyptic, but it’s a personal apocalypse, just as ‘Decks Dark’ has a spacecraft which only the singer can detect. Even here though Yorke maintains a delicious ambiguity: it’s not clear if the line is descriptive, or imperative. In other words, is he describing how broken hearts make it rain, or is he asking them to do so? He’s not going to step out from behind the curtain for us so easily. (There is also the lesser spotted third interpretation: he could be asking the broken hearts to shower strippers in bank notes as they gyrate in the club).

In some respects Thom Yorke’s lyrics haven’t changed that much, because part of Radiohead’s popularity is his ability to write words which straddle the personal and political, and that lingers on A Moon Shaped Pool, with its allusions to ragdolls, spacecraft, and crucially; control. You could apply them to a partner, or to a political structure. If you feel estranged from one or the other – or both – the lyrics will appeal. But on A Moon Shaped Pool there are hallmarks of Thom Yorke’s early career style, resettled in a more personal, organic, emotional home. Maybe Yorke’s historically obsessive self-analysis has been muted, and he trusts the words that he writes more. There’s less of an inclination to summarise the world, and think of language, in terms of systems, and in so doing dismiss introspection as I’ve detailed elsewhere. In its stead is a propensity to explore language and the natural world in a more symbolic way. It’s as if the ‘transport, motorways, and tramlines’ of ‘Let Down’ reach an hour long hush for this album to blossom. The lyrics to ‘Tinker Tailor…’ are some of Yorke’s strongest and are the most apt comparison in this case, as they speak about a hive of activity, but it is amongst the ‘birds’ and the ‘fishes’, with elusive references to insects and wild animals which is all very fluid and a bit…sexy.

Underappreciated Albums #4: Bob Dylan – Shot Of Love (1981)

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2.83 on Rate Your Music (Artist average = 3.56)

Allmusic: ⅖

Entertainment Weekly: B-

1. Shot Of Love (4:18)
2. Heart Of Mine (4:29)
3. Property Of Jesus (4:33)
4. Lenny Bruce (4:32)
5. Watered-Down Love (4:10)
6. The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar (4:03)
7. Dead Man, Dead Man (3:58)
8. In The Summertime (3:34)
9. Trouble (4:32)
10. Every Grain Of Sand (6:12)

Is there a more uncool chapter of an artist’s discography than Bob Dylan’s born-again Christianity era? Even Radiohead’s ‘Pop Is Dead’ aberration and David Bowie’s wilderness years with Tin Machine have achieved a measure of naff charm by now, but the conventional trio (or should that be trinity?) of albums that mark Dylan’s fascination with evangelism – Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love – are rarely listened to, or even recognised any more. We’d rather leave them in the cupboard and forget about them entirely. For the first two of those albums, that’s not an unfair evaluation – they are embarrassing given the great man’s high standards.

Shot Of Love at least has a rootsy rock and roll sound, rather than the affectatious gospel of Slow Train Coming and Saved. In those albums the backing vocalists, led by his second wife Carolyn Dennis, sound completely out of place as Dylan does his worst imitations of Baptist singing. For Shot Of Love there is a change of studio – from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to Clover in Los Angeles – and, counterintuitively, the move returns Dylan to something approaching the rawness of Blood On The Tracks or Desire; in contrast to the staid, middling sound recorded on the first two born-again albums.

That change is most obvious in the title track, which bristles with an astonishingly live sound. Speaking from a European perspective, extended religious metaphors and pop music for me are by and large incompatible. In a recent chat between Ed O’Brien and Dave Okumu recorded for the Ninjatune podcast, O’Brien recalled a conversation he’d had with Kanye West where the rapper was astonished to find out that, in O’Brien’s estimation, 95% of British musicians would dismiss belief in God out of hand. That said, ‘Shot Of Love’ is one song which, with a powerful gutsy sound working hand in hand with an innovative lyric  – comparing a divine shot of love to shots of heroin, codeine, whisky and coffee. It’s no wonder PJ Harvey covered it.

Whether you view the album as religious conduit or a more secular enjoyment, the songs undeniably have more impact in their structure and their mixing: ‘Heart Of Stone’ has a wonderfully focused chorus, with sweeping chords and changes of pace, and while ‘Trouble’ is a relatively lukewarm 80s protest against signs o’ the times, the guitar and drums have a delicious backstreet vibe to them, as if played by street performers.

Still, though the opening track is strong because Dylan releases a genuine sounding plea from an existential swamp, too many of the songs on here raise him to a pulpit which grates very quickly. The songs are, on average, better than what he churned out for the previous two, but ‘Watered-Down Love’ can’t be redeemed with its plodding exposition of how sorely Dylan’s audience need to be saved. While Shot Of Love’s lyrics can’t compete with the dazzling heights of his mid-60s peak, there is at least an interesting sense of perspective at work on much of the album, as they represent more of an internal monologue for a man who needs belief in the absence of anything else, particularly any sense of self-worth. This allows some of Dylan’s typically enigmatic metaphors to co-exist with Biblical language which, by this point, he is more comfortable with. ‘I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand’ is a standout from the closing track, with ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ showing a more interesting approach to Biblical materials compared to the more mindless clutches of Bible foisted upon you on Slow Train Coming, which has song titles like ‘Man Gives Names To All The Animals’ and ‘Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)’.

The addition of one track in particular to this album grants it an artistic depth which ensures I keep coming back to it, beyond any prettiness to Dylan’s words or thrillingly engineered sound; track number 4, ‘Lenny Bruce’. Composed in 1980, 14 years after Bruce died, its very inclusion raises a whole host of questions, none of which have an easy answer. Does that make Lenny Bruce like Jesus Christ? Was the writing of the song influenced by the murder of John Lennon during the album’s composition? Why did Dylan write about someone who, as the song has it, he only shared a taxi ride with? Why did he write about another Jewish cultural figure who turned his back on his institutional religion? Paul Nelson’s original review for Rolling Stone helps crystallise an alternative suggestion: that Dylan presents himself as a sacrificial Christ-like figure on the album, and his oddly bathetic overtures to Bruce are part of that portrayal.

Dylan is at his best when he presents, across a song or an album, a series of mysterious signs and lines, like a tarot card deck, which offer an array of interpretations. By the same rule, he is weak when he communicates through evangelised religion, which offers the same answer to every sign. ‘Lenny Bruce’, and Shot Of Love as a whole, are the closest Dylan comes to recapturing such form within his Christian period and, as such, deserve to be re-appraised.