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

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