Friday, 24 June 2011

Hidden gem: Voyager (A jouney into discoid funk) - Brian Bennett

Cliff Richard has arguably contributed much to the world of modern music but few recognise his role in the evolution of cosmic disco...

The Balearic disco sound has gained many followers in the last few decades, its fusion of dubby bass and electronic effects providing a natural progression from the chillout sound. Starting in the clubs of Northern Italy in the 1980's this sound has broken with the club community worldwide with Scandinavian producers in particular (Prins Thomas, Lindstrom etc) even providing new recordings to take the sound forward.

Quite what constitutes cosmic disco is open to interpretation. Some would argue that it needs to have an African or Latin dimension while others would argue that it has a rock element, most would argue it features both in some form. Whatever it is, it has provided the soundtrack for some of the world's cooler clubs and bars in recent years. The genre's revival has led to a picking over of songs that might previously have been dismissed as indulgent or electronic folly. The key records are generally regarded to have come from Italy and the southern Mediterranean but surprisingly a small number of British  library records are similar in feel.

One such record is Brian Bennett's Voyage (A journey into discoid funk). Bennett had started his career as a drummer, notably with Cliff in the Shadows, before moving into TV theme and soundtrack work. Voyage was recorded in 1977, the year of Star Wars when sci-fi was all the rage.Notable in its sound are the synthesizers which were played by Francis Monkman (Previously of the band Sky). The record manages to combine rock, funk, disco, prog and library sounds to create an out worldly adventure that manages to sound as if it was created thirty years later.

Voyage doesn't feature any vocals. Instead it uses the key analogue synthesizers of the day (such as the Prophet 5)  to lead the listener into outer space.  Opening interlude Voyage gives way to Solstice, one of the key tracks (famously sampled by Nas on Find your wealth). The start of the track builds suspense akin to something from the soundtracks of Close Encounters or Star Wars before huge drum rolls bring in an irresistible disco groove. Things slow down considerably for Chain Reaction. This is the sort of late night disco sleaze that sounds great post-club five am - think Twighlight by Maze if you know that track.... it really wouldn't surprise you if this had been made in the last five years. Phenomenal Handclap Band are just one act of recent years who sound a lot like this.

Pendulum Force (even the names of the tracks are ace) is another 7 minute voyage and by now you are realising that we aren't going to get much of a departure from spaced analogue synth and huge rolling drums but the fact is its such a great sound...the drums provide a virtual template for the 4/4 house beats that would become so omnipresent a decade later and the synths provide the funky feel of disco. Air Quake has a lighter touch but again the drums push it through to what is essentially an early downtempo dance track. Final track Ocean Glide takes longer to get going - essentially starting with a drum solo (this was the 1970's after all) before dirty discoid funk is well and truly delivered.

Voyage does one thing but does it exceptionally well - delivering a disco album with the dynamics of house music - little wonder its been picked up by many collectors in the know. Its not a particularly expensive record so if you see it you know what to do.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Album review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver (4AD)

There are many artists who have recieved a late career boost from a younger act citing their legacy. Issac Hayes probably got a good boost from Massive Attack's Blue Lines while Peter Gabriel undoubtedly restored some street cred when he was name checked on Vampire Weekend's debut. Few though would have anticipated the ressurection of Bruce Hornsby and the Range.

Much has been made of Beth/Rest the final track on Bon Iver's second album. Its unadshamedly 80's with drum machines, squealing guitar solos and acres of synths. Justin Vernon (for he is Bon Iver) happily accepts the debt he owes to Bruce and this is certainly one of the most unexpected new directions for an artist to take this year. The AOR influence on artists you might term 'alt-country' has undoubtedly been growing in the last couple of years. One of the stand out albums of last year, John Grant's Queen of Denmark also eagerly embraced the 1980's sound despite having Midlake as it's house band but Beth/Rest goes beyond an 80's 'feel' to a full embrace of 80's technology and approach. Its likely to alienate at least some fans who were charmed by his previous work.

Its the culmination of a fascinating journey undertaken by Vernon since his debut For Emma Forever Ago made considerable waves on its release in 2008. Let us not forget that this was a record made in a log cabin off the back of a painful break up. Unlike many of my peers, this album never really grabbed me, I found it rather one dimensional. It was only when I caught Bon Iver live (at the Green Man festival in 2009) that I 'got' it. The sound was much more expansive than on record, reminding me of Pink Floyd which is no bad thing at a festival. Since then Vernon has recorded with artists as diverse as Har Mar Superstar and Kanye West so to expect straight ahead Americana was probably pushing it this time round.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer variety of instrumentation. As well as guitar we get analogue synths, violins, piano, saxaphone and what sounds like a marching drum. This is certainly not a man resting on his laurels. His musical capability is certainly greater than it was just two years ago and the sound as a whole is much richer. This is oddly a record that could only have been made at this point in time - despite the debt it owes to the likes of the Band and Simon and Garfunkul there are clear hints of electronica and Sufjan Stevens as well as the aforementioned decade that taste forgot.

Opening track Perth is a baffling statement of intent. It's gentle guitar soon gives way to military drumming which is in turn replaced with what can only be described as rock power riffs and trumpets. Its as odd as it sounds and immediately clear that what we are dealing with here is far more complex than a solo accoustic record. Minnesota, WI maintains this momentum bringing a saxaphone into play over beautifully plucked guitar. Things slow down for Holocene which is more akin to the For Emma era material. 'I can see for miles and miles and miles' Vernon wails over a floyd-esque backing track. It's quite possibly the loveliest thing he's yet recorded. Towers is more of an ensemble piece and is deeply rooted in the Americana tradition of the Band and more recently the likes of Vetiver. A number of the tracks from hereon in start as conventional songs but them disintegrate to enable different instruments and sounds to glide in and out of the mix. The alt-country tag is still relevant but there are also hints of 80's balladry and even free jazz. The 80's sound first emerges on the heavily stylised vocals of Hinnome, TX but really comes to the fore on Calgary which somehow made me think of Simple Mind's Belfast Child being relocated to the forests of Canada.

Lyrics as a whole are fairly difficult to define. Justin's falsetto vocal makes individual words hard to pick out and even when you can make out the words, the themes they convey seem fairly opaque. However, this is more an album of mood than specific tales and is a major step forward in ambition and sound from his previous long player. Overall a record that is nicely balanced - both traditional and contemporary, accoustic and electronic, emotional but effective. We might just see a surge in Bruce Hornsby sales yet...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Why David Cameron is the new Tipper Gore...

Amongst all the recent furore about the Government's clampdown on the sexualisation of young children (like who is going to disagree with that?!) few noticed the proposal to apply age restrictions to music videos. Reg Bailey of the Mother's Union (anyone denote the irony in that? A man fronting an organisation called Mother's union) claims that the Government should 'consult as a matter of priority on whether music videos should continue to be treated differently from other genres,.'

This proposal worries me on all sorts of levels and it is my strong suspicion that this is censorship via the back door. As a teenager during the 1980's I remember well the ridiculous posturing of Tipper Gore and the PMRC and their witch hunt against stars of heavy metal and hip hop - claiming that Judas Priest were inciting suicide, 2-Live Crew rape and Ozzy Osbourne satanism. Looking back now, these claims seem ridiculous and I think in years to come people will say the same about the likes of Rhianna and Nelly being seen to promote underage sex.

There are numerous reasons that this thinking is misguided. Firstly, by putting age restrictions on these videos you aren't necessarily going to stop young people seeing them. Far more effective would be a proposal to educate parents not to expose their children to sexualised imagery. Secondly, by making these videos restricted you are only going to increase the desire of young people to see them. Who hasn't got a story to tell about a time when they were a teenager trying to see an 18 movie? Thirdly, everyone has a different view about what is morally acceptable. Is Rhianna's crotch waving any more offensive than Eminem's aggression or Aphex Twin's disturbing imagery? As soon as you introduce a ratings system these decisions have to be made and its a moral minefield - someone also has to take on the role of regulator. Fourth, it will hit the record industry (already under the cosh) as mainstream stores refuse to stock particular product because its deemed offensive (see how Walmart have applied such policies in their stores in the USA).  Finally, its a slippery slope - once such restrictions are introduced the possibility of outright bans are so much more likely.

The reality is that the best judges of the impact of these videos are young people themselves. Its only a matter of time before the hip hop video of champagne, beamers and hos will become depressingly formalistic (if it hasn't already) and at that point youth culture will simply move onto a new genre or look that seems more engaging and exciting. Until then we are probably stuck with this nonsense but, in my opinion, its everyone's right to watch what they want to and if parents want to keep this material away from their kids then they should do just that - legislating against it simply won't help.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Hidden gem - Laughing Stock by Talk Talk (Written by Jim Caig)

I've known Jim Caig for well over a decade now. We rib Jim about being a mod because he's a sharp dresser and likes the Who but he is an all round great guy and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Many has been the time we've had a heated debate on acts as diverse as Fairport Convention, the Bee Gees and Primal Scream. It seems wholly appropriate therefore that Jim do the first ever guest post on Monobrow Sounds Off and tells us of his love of Hidden Gem by Talk Talk. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Gentleman Jim...

It starts with what sounds like some tape hiss, then a strummed chord. Sounds more like warming up than a statement of intent, to be honest. What follows is five minutes of music so stately, so graceful, it almost feels like it isn't moving. Strings don't so much swell or stir, or even decorate. They find a plane and they stay there. A jazz double bass lazily finds some kind of rhythm. A piano glacially tiptoes towards some kind of melody. The singer exclaims, half intelligibly, some lines that may or may not be a verse or a chorus. Less a song, more a 'piece', the challenge to find a pattern, some sense of place, is soon forgotten. You're happy just to drift along in its apparently aimless wake.

Myrrhman is the opener to Talk Talk's final album, which is titled Laughing Stock. If it is supposed to be funny, then perhaps the band really did go out on as perverse a note as they intended. The song, and the album as a whole is decidedly, professionally, 'serious'. This simply wasn't how a pop group behaved in 1991. By then, though, you wouldn't have blamed them for having thoroughly lost their sense of humour. Misguidedly promoted as some sort of intelligent Duran Duran in the early 80s, they got moody very quickly. The titles of their big hits - It's My Life and Life's What You Make It - may sound like hymns to the go-getting, empowered, Thatcherite spirit of the decade that produced them, but the records themselves resist that label. Instead they sound like charged, miserablist refusal of the conformist agenda of the times.

After the mid-80s epic The Colour Of Spring, Talk Talk turned even more inward. The beatific, complicated masterpiece Spirit Of Eden sold terribly, but it was, and remains, awe-inspiring. Religious emotions run high, songs stretch out for 8 minutes at a go, the music peaks and crashes and swells and breaks and surges and cries. The musician credits are fastidiously multi-instrumentalist, and read like something from a particularly far-out Spiritualized album.

Laughing Stock picks up where Spirit Of Eden left off. It's generally quieter - only Lambchop make records this quiet with so much musicality in them - and even more insular, more even perhaps, and sometimes more resigned. The vocals are hard to make out. The meditative guitars and delicate piano contrast with the occasional hymnal surge of a church organ. Brushed drums are jazz-tinged and skittish, if they're there at all. It is hypnotic, beautiful and strange post-rock.

Once Myrrhman has eked to a close, Ascension Day, perhaps the most conventional thing here, arrives. The double bass flurries and flows; the rhythm is urgent and focused - a strung-out kind of gospel blues.

The biblical allusions continue with Laughing Stock's nine-minute centre-piece, After The Flood. Built on a cushioned Can beat, its meditative mood slowly circles, swelled by gospel organ, backward-sounding loops and incantatory singing. When it fades, a hushed blues riff augurs the segue into Taphead, whose long, controlled, contemplative intro makes it the moment that most compares with Spirit Of Eden. The song best illustrates how Talk Talk carefully but effectively alter the mood of the listener. The quiet certainty of After The Flood is gone, replaced by an eerie feeling that all is not quite as it should be. The controlled shifts in emphasis mean you're always leaning in, rather than sitting back. The overall impression is of a religious faith that is as painful and questioning as it is celebratory.

The redemptive and shimmering New Grass is next, with kind-of-blue drums, hymnal organ and guitar. If an album can have two centre-pieces, then this is the other: long, slow, patient. The closing Runeii is even more glacial than Myrrhman, such is its ruminative sense of home-coming.

With that Laughing Stock, and Talk Talk's recording career, is over. The record got lost at the time, partly because it was competing with the band's label reissuing those 80s classics and seeing them chart big-time. The songs here couldn't help but sound weird next to that, or anything else being released at the time. It didn't exactly fit with Madchester.

The band's pioneer spirit does warrant comparisons with another band, though, just starting out in the early 90s. Like Radiohead, they fled the expectations of others. Their pioneer spirit was single-mindedly indulgent, in the best sense of that word. They both rejected the norms of the record industry, even fighting with their record label for custody of their own music. And, ultimately, they both crafted a singular style of post-rock that completely reinvented what bands should consider within their remit. That Laughing Stock should have come 11th in Pitchfork’s list of the 1990s hundred best albums tells you something of the regard in which they should be held.

Radiohead are perhaps the group that benefited most from the way Talk Talk defined what cerebral rock might do with the possibilities of the 1980s electronic music revolution. They may not have received the same sort of universal acclaim, but history should prove that neither were they any kind of laughing stock.

Jim Caig, June 2011