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.

nicolette-nowisearly.jpg

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?

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Introducing my take on underrated albums, and a recommendation

Music blogs and websites are never fully agreed on what underrated should mean – does it mean underexposed (which is true of most alternative music by definition), or underappreciated (e.g. saying that, god forbid, Beatles For Sale is the best Beatles album)? What I hope to do with a new series is split the two definitions in two and create a parallel series of recommendations: one of albums that are not as widely heard as they could be, and those that have been heard frequently, but are not considered ‘great’, particularly in relation to an artist’s other material.. This brings me to the other issue: how to measure it, as too frequently music blogs take on a subjective barometer which means they often end up preaching to the choir. I therefore propose that:

Underexposed = albums with less than 5000 listeners on Last.fm as of 9th February 2015

Underappreciated = average review score is lower than a certain mark, OR that average mark is much lower than a band’s mean average (so an album rated as a 5 when a band averages 8, for example). The protean nature of music magazines means it’s impossible to set a standard metric for this, so it will be dependent upon each album, though Metacritic will be used as a starting point.

So without further ado, here’s the first from my Underexposed albums series…

Underexposed Albums #1: Y Bhekhirst – Hot In The Airport (1986…probably)

Y Bhekhirst - Hot In The Airport

Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 319

We get so much insight into the lives of public figures at this moment that it comes as a real shock to find people like Tommy Wiseau or Y. Bhekhirst, whose past and even nationality is a genuine mystery. It’s not known how many people played on this album, whether it was a full band or one person with overdubs. The Wiseau resemblance is an uncanny one, given that if the theory that Y Bhekhirst is a Peruvian man called Jose Hugo Diaz Guzman holds water, then both men seem to have made a business importing clothes at some point in their lives.

The album is an utter shambles. ‘Dalmar’ is one of the least comfortable album openers, sounding like a hangover from some indistinct night before. There is never really a safe moment on the album because each instrument seems to be one step out of sync with the others, while Bhekhirst’s lyrics, such as they are, narrate experiences that seem clear to him but offer no explanation to an outsider. He keeps inviting someone to dance. It appears to be raining a lot. There are so few concrete references in the lyrics that it feels like being trapped in the singer’s head. When none of the instruments function together, there is no sense that anything connects to anything. Whenever he uses the 2nd person address in his lyrics it always feels like an interior monologue, caught raw before it has the chance to be constructed properly.

Yet within this, the songs carve their own rhythms – ‘Time Passing’ having about 4 going on at once. ‘I Run My Car’ has the most assertive bass on the album, chugging along like a backfiring engine. ‘Rain In Summer’ is the most rhythmically effective, with dispassionate cymbal action, a double-tracked guitar that falls with the chaos of precipitation, and a bass that doesn’t walk so much as it stalks. The centrepiece of the album is the title track, which features a drum machine and dance music stylings that, in its introduction, make it sound like a RickRoll for Blue Monday. The presence of the drum machine means the song is the only one with any sort of rhythmic anchor, helped by the restraint of the guitar in playing repetitive chords. The mysteries still pervade though. Why on earth would anyone go to the airport at night to party? The only guess I can hazard is something to do with the 1981 Air Traffic Controller’s Strike, but in the imagination of Y. Bhekhirst, there is every chance the phrase was just invented as a half-rhyming mantra. ‘Freshing Air’ is like ‘Rain In Summer’ in the way that its title and music give the idea of a pastoral ideal that has been warped somewhere, as the guitar tries to remember a coherent melody line. Is there an influence here from Bhekhirst’s obvious foreignness within New York? ‘You Dance’ continues the vein of humour from the title track (whether it is intentional or not is impossible to tell – yet another mystery to add to the mix) as Bhekhirst sings:

‘If you like, listen to this music’.

Which sums up the whole ‘Airport’ project: an attempt to make a clean pop record that is churned out as something far more rough and pockmarked, where notes and beats rarely follow each other smoothly.

‘I Will Sing’ bizarrely predicts Meatloaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’, which was released years later. ‘Everytime I’ is a strangely affecting closer, with some extra treatment on the guitar and a sense of things being stretched out, instead of nervously ticking along as they do on the rest of the record. It really brings out the untrained crooning quality of Bhekhirst’s voice, putting him up there with plaintive minstrels like Hank Williams and Harry Nilsson.

Many of the things I’ve suggested here come back to the idea of intention: if Bhekhirst is as amateurish as he sounds, can he really have meant it all? If he was such a great artist, why haven’t we heard from him again? Here, then, is a great case study to show how chasing after artistic intention is often futile. It is unlikely anyone will be able to track Bhekhirst down, much less correspond with him. The only thing that survives is this album. We won’t get a statement from Bhekhirst saying that I hired out a recording studio for a day and played some songs I didn’t rehearse and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. The first impression you get from this album is the hypnotic power lurking underneath the initially impenetrable mix. When music hits you in that way, it deserves to have an afterlife that the artist does not. Music is not there to be ‘explained’ by the artist, or anyone else for that matter. It matters as much, and means as much, as the listener is willing to put into it. And I’m desperate to tell you, if you haven’t got that impression already, that this is an album deserving of your attention.

Hot In The Airport has been gradually sneaking its way into my affections for a couple of years now, and deserves to be considered as one of the landmark albums of the 1980s along with Remain In Light, Daydream Nation et al. In fact, it is probably the ultimate in 1980s DIY/underground recording; more incoherent than The Fall, more cryptic than R.E.M and even more curious in its affective power than The Replacements. It’s easy to get caught in a wormhole of ‘shabbier-than-thou’ which decrees that the only authentic underground music is Steve Albini recording himself hitting trashcan lids with vinyl copies of Songs The Lord Taught Us while locked in the basement of an abandoned car factory, but little is going to beat a man of uncertain nationality wandering around New York record shops, handing over his cassette, never to be seen again. So enjoy the pièce de résistance, and I’ll meet you at the airport tonight. Toniiiiiiiight….