Wednesday, February 27, 2008

That Difficult Second Album...

The Charlatans - Ignition
The Charlatans - Can't Even Be Bothered

The phrase 'difficult second album' has become something of a music journalism cliche over the years, but there are certain albums that definitely reinforce the theory. The Charlatans' 'Between 10th And 11th' is one such album. Following a swift and relatively painless rise to fame in 1990, sprawled in the back of the baggy bandwagon, humming their signature hit, 'The Only One I Know', the band suffered something of an identity crisis under a sudden press backlash to their retro-psychedelic sound, dominated by Rob Collins's signature, swirling Hammond organ.

Unfairly labelled as a poor man's Stone Roses (and much worse), the Charlatans suffered growing pains as they tried to develop their sound. Their guitarist, Jon Baker, left the band after the 'Over Rising' single in February 1991, and the bassist, founding member Martin Blunt, was hospitalised after being diagnosed with manic depression. Baker was replaced by Mark Collins, and Blunt's stay in hospital was thankfully short, but a black cloud had descended on the band, causing them to scrap sessions for their sophomore album with the producer Hugh Jones, that had already spawned the poorly received (but rather excellent) single 'Me. In Time' (released November 1991). Reconvening to the studio with genius producer Flood, best known for his work with U2, Depeche Mode and Erasure, the Charlatans recorded 'Between 10th And 11th'. The album was originally due to be called 'Anti Clockwise', but the band changed it at the last minute, opting to name it after the location in New York that housed the band's first US gig. It was released with little fanfare in March 1992, following the single, 'Weirdo', the previous month.

The chiming, discordant guitar on opener 'I Don't Want To See The Sights' sets out the album's stall from the get-go, with a marked absence of uplifting Hammond swirls, and singer Tim Burgess's bleak portrayal of a British life - "...dirty pictures plastered on the wall" and "A classic alcoholic argument" - reminiscent of the same worldview of early 1990's Britain Damon Albarn was documenting on Blur's 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' (another 'difficult' second album). In fact, Burgess's lyrics throughout were a marvel, revealing the floppy fringed optimist appeared to have morphed into something of a brooding, joyless figure, harbouring predominantly negative thoughts. The opening lines of many of the songs on the album make compelling reading -

Ignition: "The sick and complicated eyes are mine to find, a way inside"
Page One: "Physically I resemble a vulture"
Tremolo Song: "The birds don’t sing, they crush my skull, And I'm worthless"
Weirdo: "Most of the time you are happy, You're a weirdo"
Chewing Gum Weekend: "Don't ask me to socialise"

Not exactly laugh a minute... In 'The End Of Everything' you even had an anti-war song, with Burgess revealing, "There is no soldier in me, I want my guts where they are..." He also pilfered an enigmatic line from the poet e.e. cummings, “Not even the rain has such small hands” (from album closer '(No One) Not Even The Rain', which also contains the somewhat gloomy couplet, “And I don't like the air that I breathe, It can't escape from me”). Understandably, the band wanted the lyrics printed on the sleeve, but Burgess would only agree if the album's cover depicted an overripe bunch of bananas, as opposed to the cheesy band shot wanted by the label - a statement of sorts, perhaps, of how Burgess was determined to drastically alter the band's media image, or at the very least, bring everything in line with this bleaker outlook.

Musically, this is a dark, claustrophobic album, with Flood's sparse, spatial production allowing the band to experiment and create some thoroughly modern guitar pop. New boy Mark Collins would make a strong contribution to this musical about face, as 'Between 10th And 11th' showcased a guitar heavy sound, packed with slashing riffs on 'I Don't Want To See The Sights' and the funked up 'Page One', alongside ominous bursts of heavy distortion on 'Ignition' and 'The End Of Everything'. Namesake Rob Collins would also broaden his range, adding pumping, funky piano to the second single 'Tremolo Song', and atmospheric, ambient washes throughout 'Subtitle' and '(No One) Not Even The Rain'. The Hammond that had defined the band's previous output was still present, but far heavier, to compliment the guitars. The bass of Blunt pulsated in perfect compliment to Jon Brooke's terse, electronic drums - all part of Flood's brilliant production masterplan.

I was tempted to post the entire album - apparently, the band hate it, and are actually in the process of giving away their tenth studio album for free, so I don't suppose they'd mind. But no, that's not what this place is all about. I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere, but nothing can replicate the joy of buying it and pushing play or dropping the needle. I'm posting a couple of highlights instead - the aforementioned 'Ignition', along with 'Can't Even Be Bothered' - the Charlies own slacker anthem, demonstrating a solid understanding of Nirvana's quiet/loud dynamics, and even bearing a passing resemblance to 'Come As You Are' from 'Nevermind'. Or maybe that's just me... Two gems, plucked from an album full of doomy sparklers.

On a personal level, 'Between 10th And 11th' is the soundtrack to the first time I realised that love hurts, and being in love could be a transitory feeling. I fought hard against this realisation, clinging on to previous good memories of a relationship and spending a futile and difficult period trying to win the girl back, and smoking prodigious amounts of dope and drinking more than was healthy. Eventually I succumbed, and allowed my heart to break in two. Shortly after, 'Between 10th And 11th' rarely left my stereo. I pulled it apart, lyrically and musically, relating everything to my situation. It was a perfect fit - it helped and it didn't. I wallowed and I eventually moved on. 'Between 10th And 11th' meant everything to me, and still has a very special place in my heart. When I interviewed Martin Carr for Spoilt Victorian Child, I told him how much I loved 'Everything's Alright Forever', the Boo Radleys' first album for Creation. He revealed that he didn't "understand" the album at all, and that it meant "nothing" to him. I feel this is probably the case with the Charlatans and 'Between 10th and 11th' - they don't understand their album either, and have decided to pretend it never happened. In fact, if it wasn't for 'Weirdo', nothing from this era of their career would have survived. Tim, Mark, Jon, Martin - life's too short. It's time you made your peace with this brilliant album. It deserves some love from its makers.

Buy 'Between 10th And 11th' from Amazon
The Charlatans official website
Full Charlatans discography


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Holy Fuck! Fuck Buttons Are Out There, Close To The Ruby Sun

Fuck Buttons - Colours Move

It feels weird to be talking about albums of the year in mid-February, but it’s going to take something astronomically incredible to knock Fuck Buttons from the top of my pile come the end of the year. ‘Street Horrrsing’ contains just six songs, but proceeds to pummel your synapses into a bloody pulp through a vast armoury of distorted, repetitive pulsing drones, a cacophony of sonic fuzz, tribal drums, church organs and what sounds like Satan himself broadcasting evil diatribes direct to your brainbox from a detuned, smashed-up radio at the bottom of a quarry. There’s even a deranged chimp kicking off during album closer ‘Colours Move’. Think Spacemen 3, think Swans, think Suicide, think Pan Sonic – just thank the fucking Lord that the Bristol duo of Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power still give a shit about taking risks and doing something different. ‘Street Horrrsing’ is a sonic breath of fresh air, if that breath was exhaled by a gigantic fire-breathing dragon that has just swallowed Antarctica.

‘Street Horrrsing’ is released by ATP/Recordings on 17th March 2008 – pre-order it from Norman Records
Fuck Buttons My Space
Fuck Buttons website
Fuck Buttons at ATP/Recordings

The Ruby Suns - Kenya Dig It?

Running Fuck Buttons pretty close come the end of the year, will be ‘Sea Lion’, the latest album from the Ruby Suns; brainchild of New Zealand-based Californian ex-pat Ryan McPhun. The last time I encountered McPhun, he had a healthy Brian Wilson obsession, which is still present and correct for ‘Sea Lion’, but the palate is now broader, with the net of influences spread wider. So this time it’s ‘Pet Sounds’ (the use of space echo and echoplex make these comparisons lazy, but inevitable) by way of ‘Graceland’, as the Ruby Suns follow Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, Beirut and erm, Damon Albarn, in adding elements of world music into the indie-pop mix. This time it’s Polynesian folk and Maori influences that come to the fore, rubbing shoulders with Animal Collective-esque experimental psychedelia, electro-pop and stuff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Disney soundtrack. The 24-year-old McPhun is a prodigious talent, and ‘Sea Lion’ bursts with the sunny delight that comes with boundary-free experimentation. Somebody buy the man a sandpit…

‘Sea Lion’ is released by Memphis Industries on March 4th 2008 in the UK, and on Sub Pop in the States. Pre-order the album from Norman Records
The Ruby Suns MySpace
The Ruby Suns at Memphis Industries

The Heliocentrics - Distant Star

When the next generation of MCs are on the rob for killer breaks to loop up and rap over, they need look no further than The Heliocentrics’ ‘Out There’ LP. The Heliocentrics are lead by part robot / part human drummer extraordinaire Malcolm Catto. Always metronomically bang on the beat, but with a rhythmic, funky warmth, Catto is the man DJ Shadow turns to when he performs live, or when his fingers tire of digging in the crates. Of the 20-plus tracks, a selection are short interludes or skits, but there is much to be said for the longer, meatier tracks. Catto has assembled a band so accomplished and tight you get the impression they wouldn’t slip out of synch even under the influence of a monster dose of LSD. With the exception of a handful of vocal samples, ‘Out There’ is an instrumental opus, packed with Eastern influences – a sci-fi concept album of sorts, documenting an imaginary voyage into space. All that's missing is Kool Keith to pop up and drop some of his crazed science all over one of the tracks, and this could have been an album worthy of the tag ‘vintage Mo Wax’. As it stands, it’s a fine fusion of hip-hop, funk, jazz and all things psychedelic – a brilliant fusion of Sun Ra, Axelrod and Morricone, driven into outer space by Catto’s exemplary stickmanship.

‘Out There’ is out now on Stones Throw offshoot Now-Again. Buy it from Norman Records
The Heliocentrics at Now-Again Records

Holy Fuck - The Pulse

One of my greatest fears as a music obsessive is that I'll miss something brilliant. Of course, it's inevitable that this will happen - there's so much music out there, and my ears aren't capable of hearing every single second. It's a bit like trying to catch an entire shoal of fish with just a float, line and bit of cheese on the end of a hook. So that's why it's great when something that almost slipped through the net (or ignored the cheesy hook, to continue that rather poor analogy) is brought to your attention. This is the case with Holy Fuck. I've seen the name around a bit, but made no effort to find out what they sounded like. Then, a colleague leant me a CD of their latest self-titled album, which came out on Young Turks/XL Recordings in October last year. Thank fuck - I love Holy Fuck. I still don't know that much about them - they're Canadian and they're aiming to recreate modern electronic music without using any modern equipment, like laptops. So as it says on their MySpace page: "Find something in the trash... plug it in!" This is a fairly good summation of what they do, but it doesn't quite do justice to the incredible racket they concoct. Bendy, throbbing, pulsating instrumental electro rock; like a more organic and funksome Add N To X. From the propulsive, krauty opener 'Super Inuit' (recorded live), the relentless pounding doesn't cease until the 9 track album comes to a rousing climax with the metallic thrash-jazz of 'Choppers'. Along the way 'Milkshake' digs out an 808 for an old-school electro inspired thrash out, while 'The Pulse' kicks off with bleeps and develops into a wigged out, frenzied post rocker with an octopus on the drums, bashing the crap out of anything he can whack with his sticks. 'Lovely Allen' is euphoric space rock, and sounds like that Sigur Ros track popularised by the BBC ident being savaged by wolves. Magic. I'm off to find out more - I suggest you do the same.

Buy Holy Fuck from Norman Records
Holy Fuck MySpace
Holy Fuck website


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three The Hard Way

3rd Bass - The Cactus
3rd Bass - Sons Of 3rd Bass
3rd Bass - Wordz Of Wisdom (Club Mix)
3rd Bass - Wordz Of Wisdom (Death In The Afternoon)

‘The Cactus’ by 3rd Bass is my 11th favourite hip-hop album of all time. Now before you accuse me of damning it with faint praise, first remember what an absolute old school hip-hop nutjob I am, and then consider the strength of the competition – Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, EPMD, Gang Starr, anything produced by Kurtis Mantronik or Marley Marl… there’s a formidable list of competitors out there, and to be my 11th favourite album, you’d have to be pretty fucking great - ‘The Cactus’ is certainly that. The Brooklyn, NYC duo of MC Serch and the baseball-obsessive Pete Nice came together in 1987 when producer Sam Sever suggested the duo work together. Serch had already released a couple of 12s for Warlock and Idlers (original home of the Jungle Brothers) in 1986, but these had largely gone unnoticed. Together, as 3rd Bass, they would make a huge impression on the late 80s/early 90s hip-hop scene – ‘The Cactus’ went gold in the US – but despite this commercial success, they still don’t get enough recognition.

You see, it’s hard to talk about 3rd Bass without mentioning the fact that Serch and Pete Nice were white, making them the first successful interracial rap group (the third member of 3rd Bass was black DJ Richie Rich). It shouldn’t really be a big deal – they’re quality MC’s - awesome, intelligent lyricists; the production is tough and innovative, and they signed to the massively influential Def Jam label – all the ingredients are there, but they were two-thirds white and I often wonder if this is why they don’t receive the plaudits they deserve. You could argue that the Beastie Boys managed to have a long and fruitful career, but they weren’t really taken seriously early on (and with good reason: the popularity of their dumbed-down party frat boy rap/rock with a predominantly white college crowd often overshadowed the fact that they were great rappers, and they had to totally reinvent themselves in the early 1990s). 3rd Bass actually signed to Def Jam just after the Beasties defected to Capitol Records, so were seen by many as a direct replacement for them – one novelty white rap act, replaced by another. Wrong.

To me, the album I would most compare ‘The Cactus’ to, is De La Soul’s ‘3 Feet High and Rising’. This may seem like a strange comparison to make, as the 3rd Bass style was far removed from the idealistic self-styled ‘daisy age’ hippy outlook of the De La crew. Both Serch and Pete Nice were New York natives, and their lyrics were far more hard-hitting and realistic; concerned with traditional hip-hop themes and language – brags, big-ups of themselves and their crew, name-dropping cars, bad-mouthing women and dissing other rappers (they had beef with MC Hammer and the Beasties, vocalised throughout ‘The Cactus’). There is one obvious similarity – the Prince Paul produced ‘The Gas Face’ (which featured an appearance from Zev Love X from KMD, the original moniker of MF Doom), which inevitably has a De La feel, both musically and lyrically. The main similarities I see are a definite sense of humour. Neither acts took themselves too seriously and were, first and foremost, entertainers. The tracks on ‘The Cactus’ are all linked together by short musical skits and in-jokes – not a cohesive theme like the mock quiz show of ‘3 Feet High & Rising’, but it has a similar feel in the way it is structured. ‘Flippin’ Off The Wall Like Lucy Ball’ finds one of the MC’s doing a fine impression of a 1930s Count Basie figure, over a jazz/blues backing. Title track ‘The Cactus’ (which samples The Doors’ ‘Peace Frog’) appears to be a companion piece to the Jungle Brothers’ ‘Jimbrowski’ and De La Soul’s ‘Buddy’, which are all about mythically massive male genitalia.

It’s a truly classic album, which also featured Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad, on a couple of tracks. My favourite 3rd Bass track of all time is ‘Wordz Of Wisdom’, which was the last track on ‘The Cactus’, and was later released in an extended 'Club Mix' form on the flip side of ‘The Gas Face’ 12”. Producer Sam Sever utilises the classic Amen break alongside tough beats of his own and samples from Gary Wright, The Commodores and Steely Dan, as Serch and Pete Nice drop some of their most ferocious rhymes. There was also an incredible ‘Death In The Afternoon’ remix that sampled Depeche Mode’s ‘Never Let Me Down Again’. I was a huge Mode fan at the time this came out and it completely blew me away that somebody could sample them on a hip-hop record to such devastating effect. I’ve posted both these tracks, along with ‘The Cactus’ and ‘Sons Of 3rd Bass’, with its sample of Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, awesome scratching from Richie Rich and scathing Beastie Boys dis –

You know about that silver spoon havin’
Buckshot acne showin’, L.A. weak-ass sell-out
Non-legitimate, tip-doggin’, jethro pseudo intellectual
Dust-smokin’, pretty boy playwright posin’
Folks wiggin’, whinin’ annoyin’ Def Jam reject devil
White bread no money havin’ slum village people clonin’
Step children!

Just as it seemed that 3rd Bass were making some headway with getting white rap music accepted as an equivalent art form to that being produced by their black contemporaries, along came Vanilla Ice and blew the whole thing apart. The success of his 1990 single, ‘Ice Ice Baby’, turned white rap into a safe, corporate way of making money and nobody gave a shit about acts like 3rd Bass and their hard-won credibility – credibility didn’t make money. Their second album, ‘Derelicts Of Dialect’ was pretty much one long dis of Vanilla Ice, and I think it suffered because of this. Of course, their target was a righteous one, but I think they should have just stuck to their guns and continued on their own path. Maybe it is this obsession with Vanilla Ice and the group's own craving for credibility that have ruined the positive epitaph 3rd Bass so richly deserve. Either way, just listen to the quality of the music on ‘The Cactus’ and savour the flavours of the 11th best hip-hop album of all time!

The brilliant video for ‘The Gas Face’, featuring a guest appearance from Flavor Flav –

3rd Bass website - with loads more songs to download
Search eBay for 3rd Bass
3rd Bass wikipedia entry
3rd Bass discography
Sam Sever website


Friday, February 08, 2008

Surf's Up

Polygon Window - If It Really Is Me
Polygon Window - Quoth (Wooden Thump Mix)
Soft Ballet - Sand Lowe (The Polygon Window Remix)

Though I reserve the right to change my mind whenever I feel like it, today, Polygon Window is my favourite of Richard D. James's many musical aliases. 'Surfing On Sine Waves' is a phenomenal album, and I get vexed when I read Aphex FAQ's where he says there's another entire album's worth of material from the Polygon Window sessions that he can't be arsed to release. "Probably when I'm dead, they'll find it," he morbidly stated. When Warp came to remaster and rerelease 'SOSW' to celebrate the opening of their US office in 2001, the label asked Richard for some extra tracks to make it special. He obliged, although the story goes that he just gave them the first two tracks from the DAT of unreleased Polygon Window material. He's a wilful bugger, but I guess that's why we all love him and why there is so much webspace given over to discussing the finer points of his music and myth.

'SOSW' has a certain mood, depth and ambience that makes it totally unique. His use of delays, effects and homemade synths meant it sounded like nowt else on the planet. Apparently it was recorded between 1986 and 1989, which makes it even more staggering, as he was still a teenager, working from his own blueprint for electronic music, though he was definitely influenced by electro and early techno recordings by the likes of Kraftwerk and Cybotron. I was (still am) completely mesmerised by the album when I first bought it, listening to it over and over again, stoned off my face on Mark's snorkel bong in my tiny box room in Halls. It's moody and as magnificently brooding as the granite cliffs of Cornwall that informed all RDJ's early output. In fact, more so than any of his other albums, I think it's this one that most evokes the Cornish landscape and sea. Perhaps it's just that sepia-tinged cover image of Porthtowan beach, but there's more to it than that I'm sure. I've got Cornish roots, and 'SOSW' always transports me back to there - specifically, to the Lizard peninsula where I spent so much time as a child, with its ancient fern-packed hedgerows; the stark and often desolate vistas, coloured purple, brown and grey; the crumbling towers of the abandoned tin mines; the futuristic alienness of the Goonhilly Earth Station; the seemingly neverending beach at Kennack Sands... I always believed there was mystery lurking around every corner, and 'SOSW' is the soundtrack to this magical time and place.

'SOSW' was the first artist album in Warp's 'Artifical Intelligence' series, and probably the only one to sample Julie Andrews, blending tweaking acid, soothing synth sounds and old school TR606 drums. It's hard to pinpoint a favourite track, as it's the album as a whole that I love, though 'Quoth' (also released as a single) is a stunning demonstration of powerhouse drum programming. Unusually structured and allegedly featuring sounds Richard sampled from his job as a tunnel digger, 'Quoth' is a jackhammering monster of a tune. I also love 'If It Really Is Me', with it's beautifully simple piano melody and sampled snatches of dialogue. Simply gorgeous - and bizarrely pops on the occasional generic Ibiza 'chill-out' classics album. Very un-Aphex. It's perhaps not surprising that these two tracks stand out - legend has it that Richard spilt orange juice on the master tapes containing 'Quoth' and 'IIRIM', and they had to be partially rerecorded. Perhaps this story is really a cover for the fact that they were brand new tracks, not recorded during the 86-89 sessions. As always, I would encourage those of you who don't already, to go out and purchase this album. I was happy to buy the remastered 2001 version of the CD, to accompany the original CD and luvverly clear vinyl, gatefold edition already nestling in my collection. How many different formats I own of a particular record is usually a pretty good guide of how much I like it. I like this one an awful lot.

I'm posting 'If It Really Is Me', the slightly tweaked 'Wooden Thump Mix' of 'Quoth' from the single release, along with a remix RDJ did under the Polygon Window alias for the Japanese industrial synthpop outfit Soft Ballet. I hadn't come across this remix until recently, when a kind soul sent me an mp3 of it. It was taken from an album of remixes of Soft Ballet tracks entitled 'Twist & Turn'. Released in 1994, it also featured remixes from Orbital, Higher Intelligence Agency, Adamski, Pop Will Eat Itself and EMF. The Polygon Window remix was the last thing Richard ever recorded under the pseudonym, though to me, it sounds closer to his material of the same period under the Aphex Twin name - the drums in particular are very reminiscent of 'On'. Anyway, it's a brilliant remix, weaving atmospheric synths and buried vocal samples in and out of the thunking industrial drums.

Buy 'Surfing On Sine Waves' from Warpmart
Search eBay for Polygon Window
Polygon Window discography