Happy Fourth of July. [NOTE: I've reshuffled the date of this post, as I was sick of seeing it at the top of the page.] Since it seems I won't be schlepping to the Sonic Youth / Feelies show today after all (and by "after all", I mean I should start attempting to pull things off before, rather than after, the fact), I'll light up a "sparkler" (new slang) and air out the archives a little — fingers crossed, against nitrate stock? No: in a mélo-tone, sillies. Here's some juvenilia I shat out five or six years back, commissioned, in the loosest sense of the term, by Repellent magazine. They (the pieces) are the living proof that pop-music criticism is almost entirely bullshit. Incidentally, the only value Basement Jaxx have ever added to my life came by way of the backdrop to a conversation with some insolent Italian girl positively besotted with henna in a squalid London nightclub c. 1999.
Dark-eyed inamorata as dope-assured Mother Mary, Egyptianized, Rastafarized, peeled off a kitsch Mexican votive. One hand holds a babe crowned with wildflowers, the other extends itself forward in an offer of ... what? I can’t say for sure, but the fingertips betray something involving blood; her lips, pursed, smack of The Passion.
I caught a sole split-second glimpse of the tableau sacrilège circa 1986, during a broadcast of The 700 Club devoted to “spotlight[ing] acid-rock.” Memory of this image and its aura of something fed me a thousand fantasies over the course of a decade and, in this same span of time, fed me questions, always the same, issuing forth from the back to the front of my mind: Who is the woman? If this turns out to be an album-cover, given the program’s “acid-rock” premise, then what is the music? An image of transgression, of diffuse sexual promise, not entirely inequatable in my mind to the image of semen floating in a fount. Thank you, 700 Club, but fuck you too, for this was all you had given me to muse upon, this single image, the (ostensible) music remaining a decade-long mystery…
I found Nina Hagen’s album Nunsexmonkrock at a Los Angeles record shop in 1996. Nina was the woman, this was the music: Everything I’d hoped something named Nunsexmonkrock, carrying that cover photo, could sound like — and from my vantage in 2003 I note that with each passing year Nina’s album has only grown more brilliant, more scarily in touch with the extra-dimensional, more relevant…
I’ll show you around Nina’s opus ’83. At the album’s lyrical center rests an amalgam of sexual adulation, demonic mystery, and Cold War agitation, all set against a backdrop of private prophecy and those cultic aberrations positioned at the taboo margins of New Age. But let it be clear: Ms. Hagen’s 1983 solo debut (prior to which she moonlit a slew of GDR-based acts and Nina Hagen Band) is no two-bit exercise in looney. Musically, Nunsexmonkrock resembles nothing less than the bilingual new-wave corollary of Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle. Bravura multi-tracked arrangements comprised of sinister/mystical synth-pulse, know-wave guitar intervals, and reverb-drenched vocals texture a sound-fresco that finds its definition in Nina’s mastery of the melodic line. This is pop without the repetitive verse-chorus boredom, polyphonic (and polymorphous) music embodying a profound sense of adventure, aurally and — importantly — lyrically.
The key stanza comes in album opener “Antiworld” — “The black hole of Einstein / Is a real thing / But without the real roots / It’s an abstracting.” In one masterstroke Nina expresses the whole conundrum of modern-age paranoia and scientific dread — whereas the nine songs on the rest of the record illuminate like mystic revelation all the ways we make sense of future-past’s black-hole ellipses by resorting, on one end of the invisible spectrum, to starry-eyed prayer, and on the other end (perhaps not so far removed), to the nihilism incarnate in narcotic terror. Pretty grim brackets, but it’s Hagen’s ignorance of her own warning and her decision to go ahead and divide by i anyway that makes for such glorious art.
A jarring leap in the middle of “Antiworld”, from the main verse to the song’s chorus, implicitly signifies a bridge (where a musical one fails to span and be counted) between Romany and UFO-launchcraft. How? This is what music explicates and print does not, so the observation ends there — regardless, a bitter will to live drives me to note that similar musical inexpressibles show up in the rock-solid connection drawn in “Born in Xixax” between Brezhnev and a fakir’s thrown-voice tricks; in the counter-operative equality of the Peter Gunn theme and the whole of ‘70s Krautrock during the five minutes of “Ikimaska” (sic for “Ikimasu ka,” Japanese in at least one way for “Are we going?”); and most ingeniously in the record’s second invocation of Hagen’s father, Hans Ivanovich, during “Dr. Art”, wherein we bear witness to the cosmic elevation of pater familias to the status of revolutionary, “the Chosen One”, “the Prophet”, lover — all these at once, and made possible by the speaking of tongues. “Dr. Art” stands, accordingly, as the album’s central track; hypnotic, cursed, melancholy; the flash-print of a thousand hopes for political and spiritual freedom hung constellatory in the void, channeled from light-years off down to no place more significant than an incense-filled back-room in Leipzig or Krakow.
“Earthquake in Los Angeles / Smoke alarm in Los Angeles.”
“No-one starts with two a day / But they all seem to end that way.”
“Love affairs are so exciting / When the star of dread love’s shining / Nobody does love affairs no more / Nunsexmonkrock / Nunsexmonkrock.”
A platter of Babel, with a lot of something to say, to be sure, but I still flash to the album’s cover image when I think of the music. If the record is, for me, a soundtrack to an image, is the closest thing in moviedom to Nunsexmonkrock the on-rush flux of Personal History in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, or the paranoiac breakdown of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre? This question concerns me and probably me alone — I certainly don’t expect it to concern many other listeners — but I’m satisfied enough to remark that the two films help me understand Nina Hagen’s album a little better than I would otherwise, and have led me to see in Nunsexmonkrock what is effectively: (a) an alternative ethnography that pits prophet versus Politiker; (b) a spectrograph that charts religious fervor at the close of decades, never mind millennia; and (c) a coded shadow that lurks singularly in the cadences of post-détente history and outlines the “truth” of the modern predicament precisely, in much the same way the Bayeux Tapestry or a wall of hieroglyphs do their part to “be precise.”
What came to pass after the Wall crumbled? or after the Towers fell? I suppose what I’m asking is whether we lie in the path of one artist’s prophetic Anschauung still to come; in any case the “vibes” captured with Nunsexmonkrock's creation in 1983 don’t seem in any way contrary to the static in the air in 2003 — a sign that’s both troubling and consoling. This is music for when every day’s wane leaves us more unsure of our motivations and our history than the day before; this is music that is at once everything and nothing, antiworld at home in the world.
“Between 6th Street/ And 7th Street / And back to Main Street / You are not alone.”
The second release from Michigan-based trio A Thousand Times Yes is a quintessentially American piece of work, which isn’t to say that it sounds like Sonic Youth, or X, but that it emerges from the same fabric of autumnal small-town myth that permeated the first several seasons of Roseanne.
Let me jump to an appraisal of the album’s fourth song, “My Heart Is in Atlanta”, to give some sense of the record’s geography: The way riot-slurring Sparx (“the girl”) completes the chorus, we discover her heart is there, yes — “although [she’s] never been there.” Why not? Because she’s in Michigan. Likewise, “The Well Dressed Culprit” has all three members intoning, “If they knew who we were, they’d let us in,” and: “Give us Madison.” I can’t help keeping all the place-names and spatial ephemera scattered across the record’s lyrics in mind, and given the tone of the guitars (which, let’s make no mistake, recalls Yo La Tengo at their gentle best — that is, when they exhibit gentleness and momentum) and the generally lovely production (from which we can tell that the engineer wasn’t an asshole), I’m apt to e-mail the TRL screen-crawl, offering the thought that there’s really no reason this shouldn’t be the national popular music — the early-‘90s sound en masse would finish what the Barlow/Cobain Years had promised (this is not mere nostalgia, but the germination of grass-roots) — an “early ‘90s” all over again, like when one could turn on the television and find Lanford, IL — America at the dawn of the Clinton era actual and current — captured with painstaking accuracy every week on Ms. Barr’s series. Although there are no cameras at work, Michigan also gives form to neighborhood-watch and the small-business loan.
I mentioned the lyrics earlier and, to be sure, ATTY’s lyrics aren’t great, but their song titles are. Take “Rhythm, South Dakota”, or “Momma Had Doubts”, for example, in which Sparx gives flight to a sexy voice sent satisfyingly enough into the sort of paroxysms that stand in, I suppose, for whatever is the emo equivalent of sex. Sure, there’s a counterpoint-duet here of the “Trying trying trying trying to hold on to our hearts” sort, but it’s Sparx’s voice that circles the pop myth square. As the terms of pop music find the loneliest prettiest souls vying to architect our hearts (spoiler: the Midwestern girl with the dream wins the commission), the men with voices indistinguishable from each other’s must take their places in the back of the room, doomed to all-nighters in the bowels of Rand Hall — what this means is that they should be mixed very low on the track. Not the case on this record, but Sparx’s vocals are up front so often that I should be equally upfront in expressing my admiration for this quintessentially American album — delicate, fragile, honest, and melodic enough.
When Basement Jaxx emerged from the weather-it system of Hurricane Two-Step in 1999, they seemed to those interested in tracking the trends a duo who had arrived at last to overtake the all-pervasive but over-ripe big-beat sound — the one blueprinted for big-time cross-appeal by the first two albums from the lordly Chemical Brothers. After all, London loves an ever-refreshed new-guard of everything “pop,” and throughout 1999 Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe steadily proved their mettle at fusing the synco-scatter rhythms of the garage sound with something like pop sensibility on a string of wicked-infectious singles that enjoyed much success on UK dance-floors and charts alike: “Red Alert”; “Rendez-Vu”; “Bingo Bango”. Two years after this triad’s major-market release on début LP Remedy, the Jaxx let loose another scorcher — albeit this time in the sense of the fart whose neon Rorschach sends your mates in peals, but only after six steady hours of Red Bull and vodka. Despite containing an interesting-enough first single (“Romeo”), the foolishly-titled Rooty applied metric-tonnes of sickeningly syrup-slick production to some of the most warbling, vocal-besmirched dance “anthems” ever conceived, then packaged the collection behind one of the most heinous cover images of all time: an albino space-gorilla sticky-tacked by its back-fur to a découpage of lunch-box art. To make matters worse, the record contained “Where’s Your Head At” which, with its fake-metal guitars and insipidly wheezable chorus, went huge in America and thus became planetarily inescapable.
It is with their latest release that Basement Jaxx accomplish in three albums what previously reigning dance-duo The Chemical Brothers could only pull off in four: recording their Come with Me. Bucking what I’d assumed to be a trend while recalling the names of previous Jaxx records, Buxton and Ratcliffe have bafflingly chosen to entitle their new album Kish Kash rather than Risible; for it is on this record that the pair push their music so intensely forward, the British pronunciation of “garage” becomes fully indistinguishable from “garish.”
My fairness is absolute. The songs that comprise Kish Kash come off like the overwrought sonic equivalents of modern Hollywood action pics: Digital effects gooed on gratuitously, to no effect but that of busying up the tableau; intended show-stoppers with lyrics so unlyrical they’re like bad dialogue; and running-times that all bleed on at lengths 30% beyond their primes. Considered as a dance-record rather than an opus, one can say that the beats are stale, in addition to being meaningless.
Across one-and-a-half tracks, however, Kish Kash offers up stunning examples of the modern popular music. “Lucky Star” is the inspired first-single that highlights not so much the rhymes as the “Oo-kah / OO-GOW! / EEEEEEEEEE-OO!”s of esteemed XL labelmate Dizzee Rascal, placing his yelps against a delicate and supposedly timely Arabian riff and that chopped-up vocal-thing that appeared on a fair number of electroclash records three years ago. Porn-breathing too. So, one can say that while “Lucky Star” isn’t stuffed with ideas, it does manage to put a selection of “greatest memes” to able effect. Academically speaking, it’s among the most perfect things Basement Jaxx have ever done. Then there’s album-opener “Good Luck”, the soundtrack to the most perfect music-video never made (quick and varied montage of the faces of people standing on a Brooklyn sidewalk on a sunny-day): its thrilling swoop-string disco glissandi and epic syncopated quality make the entire world seem like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sandbox for three whole minutes.
But Hopkins has no place in a disco, and by the time “Good Luck” reaches the four-and-a-half minute mark we recall all the delusions of the great poet’s christendom. As previously intimated, “one to one-and-a-half-minutes too long” is prime among the major problems marring the bulk of the twelve tracks left on this disc. That was one of the problems with Rooty, too; and so was this: there’s fucking singing everywhere. Bad singing. The kind of singing that always gets thrown on dance records when their creators deem it more important to shift units than to zone-out a listener properly and replicate the club/drug thing (which of course is the most exciting aspect of dance music as a whole, in addition to its sheer instantaneity’s implied cat-calls to mass amnesia). It doesn’t help that in “Good Luck”, the vocals come courtesy of Lisa Kekaula, who sounds like a man.
The prosecutable evidence against Kish Kash, in sum. Bad singing, for sure — take Meshell Ndegeocello (nobody’s favorite) on “Right Here’s the Spot” and “Feels Like Home”, as two examples. The former track suffers in addition to the vocals from a veritable logorrhea of the banal in such lyrics as, “Delirious / Right here on the spot,” and “I wanna make you dance / Everythang.” Taken in light of a one-minute over-length and a chorus like rat-poison, this track represents the nadir of dance music: it is charmless and utterly safe. Yet perhaps nadirs are spoken of too soon, for “Feels Like Home”, the album closer, is a seven-and-a-half minute “cosmic” chill-out/come-down, as though one even needed such an aid after having encountered tracks like the Felix Jaxx vocalized “If I Ever Recover”, for which one wishes the refrain had been: “I won’t bother getting in touch.” No such luck. The listener is instead provided the opportunity to sit through the London Session Orchestra (their real name) plodding through a progression of string chords that could just as well have been arranged for a Taylor Dane hit of yesteryear. Worse yet, “Tonight” takes the chord progression from Cat Power’s “Free” (and I mean, wholesale), but in place of Chan Marshall’s sublime vocal presence, we get someone named Phoebe doing an impersonation of Eartha Kitt at her lowest.
By the time we reach the Siouxsie Sioux-helmed “Cish Cash”, we have already come to brain-blows with three idiotically named [inter-]ludes (the titular precedent for which had been established on Remedy): “Benjilude” (ten seconds of nothing), “Petrilude” (ten seconds of toss), and “Cosmolude” (fifty seconds of dance Jandek). It is understandable then if the listener brings a certain antagonism rather than open-mindedness to experiencing the title track; but could even the most patient soul endure this polished and neutered take on the descending eighth-notes of Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”? or its subject-matter of money’s intoxicating appeal? “They say it makes the world spin around,” sings Siouxsie. No shit. Just ask Simon and Felix.
I don’t even need to tell you she ends up rhyming “cish cash” with “splish-splash” — do I?
And, as it so happens, Richard Normandy has released a new recording. —
(To download, ctrl-click (or right-click) the file name and "save.")
Normandy responds to the pundits and myriad Internetniks. (20 minutes, 33 seconds / 5.88 MB)