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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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)

Bob_Dylan_-_Shot_of_Love

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.

 

Chime: Acid house as folk music

…’Chime’ started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Whenever Paul Hartnoll indulges in the memory of composing what Simon Reynolds called ‘the British ‘Strings Of Life’’, the same image emerges – a sun-tinged summer’s day, where everything feels just right. If we think of it as the British ‘Strings Of Life’, then it is worth thinking about its Britishness not as an incidental detail to where it was created, but what about Britain defines the sound of the song. Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’, christened by Frankie Knuckles, connects with the American tradition of the dancefloor as an alternative spiritual space, for those from religious stock but barred from church membership on the grounds of their sexuality, where the combination of music, dancing, and drugs work towards a transcendent experience. ‘Chime’, on the other hand, takes some influences away from the dancefloor and closer to the ground usually claimed by folk music.

Bob Dylan was labelled as a Judas for talking folk electric. So what does that make you when you take folk electronic? Folktronica is well-established as a genre, even if it exists at the cross-section of artists experimenting along their own paths rather than being borne from a common location or identity group. Still, the aesthetic is vaguely definable, with a set of vaguely recognisable signifiers: the wonky guitar cut-ups of The Books, the dancefloor lullabies of Four Tet, or a more conceptual intersection of folk with technological environments, cf. Everyday Robots and Momus, a trailblazer in the field (pun intended), who sings about web coders and cassettes with the emotional resonance of seafaring heroes and battlefield roses.

‘Chime’ is folkic in a more abstract way. It is an amateur product, the result of a musician picking up an instrument without formal training and creating a sound on their own terms. A key feature of folk music is geographical specificity, and this seems to be a hole for such an interpretation to fall down: how can geographical specificity work with electronic dance music, powered by machines that have the same configuration in Germany, Japan, England, and Brazil? ‘Chime’ is a lesson as to how. No one would deny that local takes on house music have different sounds, but it would take a braver soul to argue that this new technology, instead of ripping up the rulebook with cybertechnic ideas, connects with older folk images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, reflections, and colours. It’s a particularly English type of cultural conservatism which might deter us from doing so.

The situation Paul Hartnoll was in while jamming ‘Chime’ is a scene which crops up repeatedly in British (or more specifically, English) art through the ages: a summer day drawing in, a particular interpretation of the pastoral mode which in music, drove Vaughan Williams and Delius at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems as if the unpredictable weather inherent to the UK ensures that such moments stick long in the memory and capture a large portion of our collective consciousness. Its place in literature is long-standing too; the titular ‘Chime’ recalls the opening of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’. The feeling of seasons turning in, of golden ages dissolving, of the flower of youth wilting, of death approaching, all of it heralded by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,

   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

       And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds…

The curfew bell, used in English towns since the Norman Conquest, is the initial aural impetus behind the poet’s ruminations on death and fame. There is also Keats’ ‘Ode To a Nightingale’:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self

The bell here is the vehicle rather than the tenor of a simile, but its sound is still placed against the nightingale which ‘singest of summer’. For a more authentically ‘folk’ example, there’s a ballad called ‘The Old Church Bell’, taken from a collection of 19th century broadsides. It comes in differing versions – with a darker tinge on occasion, but this is one which encapsulates how the bells of ‘Chime’ and their association with coming down from a trip to the rational, real world is in the same vein as Romantic flights of fancy, with the bell as a sonic marker of that:  

Oh! A mournful sound has the old church bell,

That swings in the belfry old;

How many a sad and merry knell

Has he rung from his turret bold!

The old grey-beard, and the peasant boy

Have listen’d to his chime,

As he chang’d his note from death to joy,

With the clanging hours of time;

Tolling on, with mournful knell,

A warning voice has the Old Church Bell.

Oh! His voice is clear as he gaily peals,

On a happy bridal morn,

But it mournfully to the fun’ral steals,

Ere the fading day is gone;

Impartial he makes his summons ring,

Unlike the courtier’s plan,

For he’ll wail no louder the death of a King,

Than he would of a poor old man;

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

He has seen the sire, and has seen the son

To the village church yard bend;

And the deep fond welcome shall still ring on,

Till time himself shall end,

And his loud old tongue, like a lonely bird,

Chimes with a sacred spell;

For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,

Must yield to the Old Church Bell.

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

Look at the final lines of the last stanza – ‘For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,/Must yield to the Old Church Bell’. That is the thematic progression of Orbital’s ‘Chime’, summed up in verse in a 19th century broadside. The bell may be used to ring in weddings, but its sound always leads in a downwards direction, as all things must, towards the grave.

Deliberately obtuse comparisons with poetry are one thing, but conjecturing sensory experiences are quite another – still, that’s what I’m going to do. Church bells were used as samples in other tracks of the acid house era, though more so from chillout – the two best examples being 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Both songs are peppered with naturalistic samples like crickets, birds, and New Age, melismatic vocals. These might be mere signifiers in isolation, but the bells which tie those songs with ‘Chime’ imply at least a recognition of sounds which might be heard as the sun goes down or comes up on a rave, like chattering birds or insects. ‘Ultraworld’ and its parent album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld are like an aural patchwork of an English midsummer’s day from dawn to twilight, as the album commences with a sample of John Waite intoning: “Over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise…”. In essence, the outdoor experience of the rave, and the accompanying MDMA’s shamanistic effect on making the user feel more connected with nature, contrive to give the music an added sensitivity to the sounds of the natural world which might accompany wandering back from a field, coming down, in the early hours of summer. Is it really too much to think that this is an addition to a long-standing English tradition? Was ecstasy not to acid house in the 1980s what opium was to Romantic verse in the early 19th century?

What’s more, English folk songs are usually irreverently anti-establishment: think of the Lincolnshire Poacher, who goes from serving his master to trapping hares on his land, or the Old Church Bell from earlier which chimed for both the ‘King’ and the ‘poor old man’. Raves were (and still are, though in greatly reduced numbers since the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) hosted on unclaimed or unused land, often with placards protesting for the right to freedom of assembly. Following the Second Summer of Love, the music scene and the squatting/hippie community combined with mutual interests, coming to a head at the Spiral Tribe-organised Castlemorton Common Festival. Spiral Tribe in particular drew on a medieval, folkic tradition for their parties, with sound systems that had ‘Circus’ in their name, drug sellers peddling their wares in what Simon Reynolds compared to a bazaar, and ‘terra-technic’ music. This music is not removed from folk because it’s made from machines, quite the opposite: the cheapness and availability of those machines emancipated musicians from needing lessons, a recording studio, producer, engineer – it could be made from the proverbial bedroom. ‘Chime’ was knocked up in a cupboard under the stairs which was converted to Paul Hartnoll’s studio space. As a sound and as a phenomenon in its infancy, acid house recaptured that sense of figuring tunes out, of getting to grips with tools needed to produce melodic, danceable sounds.

All of this is fine, but what about the actual song? ‘Chime’ kicks off with an insistent one-note ostinato which is so bright, it just feels solar. Very precise synthesised string hits are layered with delay which give it a lingering effect like the sun’s rays over the horizon, and it anchors the song like a pulse. The bass line palpitates with a bravery which marks Orbital out from their peers: the second bar of the bass pattern has brief entrances into higher notes, but tinged with pathos when it comes back down, recognising the inevitability of a sober end. The song is in the key of E Flat Major, which makes it suited to the big-arena-hands-in-the-air mode; a key Beethoven, Holst, and Richard Strauss knew was well suited to heroics when they employed it in the Eroica symphony, the ‘Jupiter’ suite of The Planets, and the tone poem ‘A Hero’s Life’ respectively. Those are big, boisterous pieces of nationhood and ‘Chime’ wears its cultural heritage on its sleeve as well.

When the piano kicks in, the piece develops the style which will govern it for its duration: six elements cutting and fading in and out, with the delay on the melodic parts creating phantom patterns as notes play over and across each other. It sounds denser and more complex than it is, which helps feed the sense that the song is the product of a community, one that it is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the political edge of such a new type of folk music: encouraging togetherness and love in post-industrial, Thatcherite Britain where freedom is defined by the rolling back of the state and the liberalisation of markets to allow, in theory, a class of worker-entrepreneurs to flourish. As we now know though, this competition chips away at qualities like solidarity and community. Acid house music and its associated gatherings were therefore a political act to reclaim those qualities, an act made more strident when hosted in a privately owned space, as most of the United Kingdom is.

After 7 minutes the one-note pulse engages in call-and-response with the ‘chime’ sample which gives the song its title. This is a confrontational back-and-forth, between (almost perversely, given the machinery involved) the sun symbol at the heart of the song, and the clock which, as the literary examples showed us, is the more measured, artificial way of measuring time rather than rising and setting with nature. The 303 elements, shifting in pitch to get higher and higher towards the end increasingly resemble birdsong – the muddy birdsong you might actually hear from a chaffinch or swallow in an English tree or hedgerow, instead of the steely chirruping in ‘Pacific State’. The battle is won at this point of the song, but the war is lost by the end as the song fades out the the synthesised bells looping.  The song is an ongoing battle against life, against death, against ‘business’ and rationality – it has a Romantic heart, and a folk body.

Why It Works: Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.

The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.

‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.

The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.

The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.

Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.