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 #2: Zoviet France – A Flock Of Rotations (1987)

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Io! (0:26)
Drive (6:26)
Skritha (0:31)
Slide (2:42)
Drifan (1:32)
Mandrel (2:55)
Skratte (3:53)
Irken (0:33)
Ions Collis (6:16)
Luh (4:10)
Luh Windan (2:52)
Dream Hole (4:23)

Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 851

Zoviet France make industrial music for the third world. Whereas Throbbing Gristle or EInsturzende Neubaten will place music atop the apex of mechanisation, echoing their live music with wails of machinery and steel, Zoviet France compose collages woven with wood, hessian, raw materials – and then they package their albums in them. 2014 was the recent peak for a trend of recording albums that imagine an alternative geography, usually a specific island. This covers a multitude of climates – look at Loscil’s icy Sea Island, Mark Barrott’s tropical Sketches From An Island and the exuberant Tayi Bebba by Clap! Clap! for examples of this phenomenon. Such albums are always an alluring listen but Zoviet France’s experiments from the 1980s are not just ahead of their time, but much darker and sharper. The materials of recording are inescapable in their output. Instead of painting a wide canvas of an imaginary locale, their settings come in fits and spurts through obscure samples, often severely compressed. The recent set of ‘island albums’ are a credible attempt to eschew conventions of nationalism – particularly relevant given the posturing by Putin and ISIS – into a pan-global, semi-fictional music (though Loscil’s album is more cold and survivalist, a reduction to essentials). Zoviet France concentrate on the frailty of the message, however, and it’s a theme which is just as applicable now as it was in 1987. Playing A Flock Of Rotations means letting spikes of Orientalism pierce through your speakers that infer a general otherness, snatches of sound; market patter, bizarre tapes from markets, a muezzin’s call.

The entire album is smothered by a cassette decay effect, and the template for the album, such as it is one, is an insistent, woody rhythm underpinning tortured samples of vaguely ethnic sounding instruments – what sounds like an ‘oud here, a tabla there.

As with one of my previous entries in this series, Hot In The Airport, the opening track, ‘IO!’ is jarringly uncomfortable – a call to arms or a call for help, untranslatable in any case – and therefore the best preparation for what follows. ‘Drive’ is the longest track on the album and lays the foundations for motifs to be picked up later on. A veritable bazaar of sounds collaged together, it leans on the edge of plunging into pure noise but always retains some semblance of melody and rhythm. ‘Slide’ is the fourth track and provides the first opportunity to take a breath and get some respite from the onslaught, though it forebodes a tone of imminent dread that is qualified when the second half of the album begins. Before that is an indication of the album’s emphasis on miscommunication across cultures as ‘Drifan’ is, in its title, a poorly echoed translation of ‘Drive’, completing the first of a handful of paired tracks which have names that exist in floating languages that cannot be coherently united. ‘Mandrel’ closes out the first side and gives the first example of something more populous on the second side; namely instruments that sound like instruments. The reversed melody matches the ironic theme of ‘Drive’ and driving – the promise of direction that is wholly incongruous. This is another facet of the album which makes it a good fit for our patronising perception of the Middle East in recent history, assuming it is progressing out of the Dark Ages that Europe abandoned in the 16th century. ‘Skratte’ sounds like the rantings of a psychotic prisoner, rocking back and forth in their stone cell. ‘Ions Collis’ is the most fear-inducing track on the album, an unbearably slow creeper at 6 minutes which steadily piles on echoic drum samples that hang around the stereo mix like chittering insects and invoke impending doom. ‘Luh’ arrives afterwards like a breath of fresh air, with (gasp) clean guitar playing, rather John Fahey-like, backed by initially pleasant reverb which is eventually dragged down into the oppressive dark ambient quagmire. ‘Luh Windan’ serves as a reprise from ‘Drive’ before the album closes with ‘Dream Hole’, which is like a soundtrack for the most horrifying film you’ve never seen. Given the ethnic flexibility the album possesses, it seems ironically apposite that it should end with a track based upon keyboard sample, the daddy of all instruments, the instrument capable of taking on any identity.

I can remember when I first listened to this album – it was an evening after having watched Egyptians mass in Tahrir Square during a free period at school with some friends. It instantly struck a chord as the album’s impenetrable mystery, with its sourceless samples, predicted the collapse of the Arab Spring and emergence of civil strife which subverted the expectation of peaceful liberal uprising along the lines of Western tradition(™). A Flock Of Rotations lacks the polish of Zoviet France’s later albums Shouting At The Ground and Look Into Me, but this is not an album about cleanness; it’s about muddied communication. It puts the ‘orient’ into ‘disorientation’.