Tagged: pop music

The Other Three: noise indie-pop with more kinetic energy and promise than kinetosis

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Carsick Cars, The Other 3, Maybe Mars, EP CD-R (2014?)

“Carsick Cars” is one of those band names that just seem so obvious and cute that you wonder why no-one ever claimed usage of it over the past 50 or so years of rock and pop before a Chinese indie-pop / noise group came along and made the name its own in 2007. This bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little EP was released (I think) to coincide with CSC’s recent tour of the United States and to accompany a full-length album called “3″, which explains the EP’s title. The EP features five short tracks that may have been singles in the past or are alternate rejigs of songs from previous releases: the first song is performed in Mandarin Chinese but the rest are sung in precisely intoned English.

The band have a very poppy sound which is jangly and which sometimes incorporates a darker, more contemplative mood along with the bounciness. Listening to the EP right through, I’m sometimes reminded of the legendary American new wave act Devo who could be very serious and witty as well as eccentric and fun. While the opening track is definitely sugar and spice and all things nice, subsequent songs showcase what CSC are really capable of: catchy melodic pieces that combine melancholy brooding with an almost defiantly optimistic attitude that no matter how down in the dumps you fall, you’ll eventually get back into the light. “Shelter” is a thoughtful and lengthy song while “15 Minutes Older” is a rough-edged rocking little galloper with buzzy guitars, woozy drone and a dreamy jewel-like jangle ambience. “She Will Wait” tends to be more low-key and gentle than the preceding, and the mood is even more wistful and mesmerising. A psychedelic touch comes with the bewitching lead guitar soloing.

While the music is very good and there is plenty of energy and zest throughout, there is a certain flat quality in the singing and it may be that CSC are still finding their way in singing in English and conveying emotion at the same time. The lyrics seem to be rushed and have a bit of a robotic quality. Apart from this detail, CSC have found a niche in dark jangle noise pop that could take them further into shoegazer and depressive rock pop territory if they’re prepared to take risks with their music.

Contact: Maybe Mars,  Carsick Cars

Vinyl Sevens Muster – 2 of 3

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From Norway, we have a single by Mummu which is a team-up between Skrap and Ich Bin N!ntendo. Skrap are the two women Anja Lauvdal and Heiða Jóhannesdóttir Mobeck who make quite a nice low-frequency and subtle drone music out of tuba and synth, while the trio of Nergaard, Winther and Heibo are capable of puking out a form of spiky high-energy noise-rock with their guitar-bass-drum setup that is appropriate to almost any musical situation, as their recording with Mats Gustafsson will testify. Both bands also have at least one CD album to their name on this label. On Mitt Ferieparadis (VA FONGOOL VAFLPS001), we have an A side ‘Feda Bru’ which is incredibly restrained, and a much more fiery B side ‘Logatunellen’. You might be more drawn to the riotous and anarchic free playing on ‘Logatunellen’, which is louder, thicker, and almost has a beat that you could frisk to, but somehow the energy feels neutered, blocked. There’s a lot more to be said for ‘Feda Bru’, even though it appears hesitant and uncertain at first spin. I would guess that Lauvdal and Mobeck are quietly dominating this session, while the three rockin’ guys are reining themselves in and acting on their best behaviour. It sometimes takes more discipline to play with this degree of restraint than it does to blast out an amplified blurt, and this does show up on the recording in the form of a seething tension that’s so sharp you could put it in a jamjar. The cover art was concocted by all five musicians with the help of Torstein L. Larsen; it looks like a primary school art mural, except it’s spiked with four-letter words, riddles, and slightly rude sexual images poking about in amongst all the incoherent dribbly visual anarchy. No idea when we got this one but it was released in 2013.

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White Star Line (FARPOINT RECORDINGS fp042) – the label and artist would prefer it printed as White * Line – is a piece of sound art by the Irish electro-acoustic artist Danny McCarthy from Cork. He’s attempting to make some sort of statement about RMS Titanic and the White Star Line shipping company; since Cobh in Cork was the final port of call of the doomed ship, it has historical significance. McCarthy visited the harbour there and made some field recordings using hyrdophones (underwater microphones) from the very same pier trodden by the feet of passengers who originally made their way on board, before sailing off to meet their doom. If the cover photograph has any verisimilitude, said pier is now just a skeleton of decaying timbers. It doesn’t actually take a great deal of research to find this information out, and there’s a “historic experience” museum at Cobh which was established in January 2012 and is probably proving very popular as a school outing. McCarthy’s approach is to combine his watery field recordings with low-key electronic sounds, and I think there may be some post-processing on the finished work. What results is to my ears some rather dull process sound, a lot of static and whirr combined with little bubbles, and ultimately rather irritating sonically. However, there’s an added poignancy to the fact that he made the recordings on a date that coincides exactly with the centenary of the tragic event. And the cover images are strangely moving; the lone pigeon sitting there on the ruin of the pier in a rather forlorn stance is quite touching. And at least one listener claims to hear the voices of drowned souls in this record, or at least an imaginative suggestion of same. However, compared to Gavin Bryars’ grand-scale work The Sinking of the Titanic, this under-resourced and attenuated statement is not much more than a footnote. Arrived 3rd June 2013.

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I always enjoy the playful singles released by Jos Moers on his Belgian-Dutch Meeuw Muzak label. The one by Harry Merry, Australian Sun (MEEUW MUZAK 042), is no exception – and like others in the roster, it’s melodic, has a catchy beat, and is eccentric to the point of near-daftness. Merry was born in Rotterdam and professes his love of vinyl singles, attracted as much to the sensuous colours of the labels as he was to the music he heard when he was a child growing up in the 1970s. He’s a keyboard player and pianist, and while he usually plays a Roland synth, this particular record is instead accompanied by a Belgian barrel organ. There’s a small colour photo of this beast in the press release, and it’s a shame we couldn’t get a picture on the record sleeve. In design terms, it’s a truly ghastly piece of Mittel-European gingerbread. How was the jaunty, cornball music that emanates from its pipes put into service of this quirky piece of post-punk music, with its cryptical layered lyric about the threats to global ecology, and the stiffly mannered but irresistible singing voice of Harry Merry? The answer is, I think, that the music – originally composed by Harry Merry and Ilhem Sabih – had to be rendered into “book music”, a late Victorian storage system for mechanical organs, which comprises holes punched into thick pieces of card. The pieces of card are folded into a zig-zag book, and fed into the mechanical organ. Elbert Pluer assisted with the production of the “orgelboek”, while Adrie Vergeer provided the instrument, Tom Meijer did the arrangement, and Martin Luiten did the mix. The B side contains a delightful instrumental version, allowing you to hear the sheer craft that has gone into the production of the mechanical music. You can keep your Conlon Nancarrow…it’s about time for a revival of this near-obsolete music production method! The A side is a stroke of sheer genius. If nothing else, the fusion of the lyric’s cadences with the music is little short of incredible; the ungainly phrasing of the musical composition dovetails with the words in ways that are continually surprising, like a little miniature wooden cabinet with ingeniously hinged flaps and drawers. A meeting of the old and the new, the square and the hip. A brilliant piece of offbeat pop, and a tiny miracle enacted in just over three minutes. From 21 November 2012.

Pop Pain

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Personal Appeal (CARE IN THE COMMUNITY RECORDINGS CARE109CD) is a compilation of songs by R. Stevie Moore, mostly I think recorded in a period dating from 1973 to 1979. There was a time when Moore’s releases kept popping up for sale in the Recommended Records catalogue, in the 1980s when said catalogue was sent out in the mail, and writer / musician Chris Cutler, a known fan of all stripes of avant-pop music with an intellectual bent, would praise “pop genius” Moore. “Classic intelligent pop at its obscure & accessible toe-tapping best,” he wrote in Autumn 1986, “Stevie has more ideas per groove CM than anyone else in the pop field…recommended unequivocally”. While I never bought the records at the time, I was vaguely aware that the musician had an extensive back catalogue of home-released cassettes, and was highly regarded in the thriving tape world of the eighties; Robin James wrote about him in his Cassette Mythos book, noting that Moore had made his work available through his own Cassette Club label since 1971, mailing out orders from his home in New Jersey. This isn’t the first time his work has been compiled; there have been a few previous efforts, including the 2009 set Meet The R. Stevie Moore! on Cherry Red. Many of these comps stooped to concocting ironic variations on a “Greatest Hits” title – I say ironic, because this unsung genius of underground lo-fi pop music has never had a hit record. It clearly wasn’t for lack of skill, since there’s abundant evidence here of his songcraft, his overdubbing abilities and studio technique in support of his highly fluent multi-instrumental playing, and his flawless singing voice. Already I’m reaching for comparisons with the early records of Todd Rundgren, such as the double LP Something / Anything? where Todd wrote, sung and played the first three sides completely solo.

Over time Moore has attracted the attention of other underground luminaries such as Thurston Moore and Jad Fair; the latter even made a single with him. Life hasn’t always been happy for him though, and as recently as 2010 he left New Jersey to return to his Nashville home, apparently broke and homeless and in terrible physical shape, at the point of utter despair. This sad tale is related in the liner notes written by Irwin Chusid, that excellent writer, journalist and broadcaster who has for many years been a friend to “outsider music” of all kinds. He wrote about many such musicians 1 who fit his defined profile, including Jandek, Syd Barrett, and The Shaggs, in his volume Songs In The Key Of Z. He also wrote about Wesley Willis, a street musician who likewise has a formidable back catalogue of home-made tapes. As a prolific and determined self-publisher, it’s clearly about time a unique figure like R. Stevie Moore was reclaimed into today’s polymorphous culture. As I write it seems media rehabilitation has been well underway for this last twelvemonth; features or interviews in the NME, and even The Guardian. Would Chris Cutler feel at all vindicated now after some 28 years of trying to get people to listen?

The selection of songs here has been personally approved by the artist. Previous comps have tended to rehash the same, or very similar, selections, but Personal Appeal contains “hidden gem obscurities”. Fans of “classic” pop music will find, almost instantly, affinities with Beatles 2 and Beach Boys records that will give them a way in, but Moore is a clever pasticher of many genres, including country and western, folk, bluegrass, and surf music. His effortless vocal harmonies will cause many bobby-soxers to swoon, while fretboard students of the male persuasion will drool over his nifty guitar licks. But there’s clearly a darker side to Moore’s maze of a mind, a side which can’t help bubbling to the surface in spite of all the 1966 sunshine pop effects; it’s like a trickle of oil coming up from the ground below to spoil your picnic. At such moments, especially when the singing voice turns slightly sideways and the reverb device is working overtime, R. Stevie Moore notches up extra weirdness points that would earn him the runner-up prize at a Residents audition 3. Every so often there’s something borderline obsessive in a certain song; it may only be a few bars or 10 seconds of music, but it’s enough to turn the stomachs of a thousand David Gates fans. Part of this might be due to his insistent singing voice. It might also be the excess of verbiage; Moore outdoes Elvis Costello when it comes to packing in the clever lyric-writing, and while he’s not as prone to annoying wordplay as MacManus, he certainly stretches the pop verse form to its limits with his lines – and that’s not to mention the unusual subject matter. Not a single lyric here falls into the cliché trap, but it’s mainly because he evades obvious pop-song treatments with the ease of a greased-up pavement skater. Even when tackling a love song, Moore’s skewed and oblique approaches, as evidenced on ‘Structure of Love’, ‘Quarter Peep Show’ and ‘I’ve begun to fall in love’, will impress the literate listener, as much as they chill us with their bittersweet and plangent emotions. Each song packs a lot of layers, that’s for sure! The last one in my list not only does all the above, but somehow manages to turn in a spot-on Brian Wilson impersonation that’ll make grown men weep. Now, how many songs on your iPod can do all that?

As noted, these 15 cuts are separated by the distance of years, and after listening one end to the other I personally have found it almost impossible to get any sort of handle on the way this creator’s mind works; there’s not much of a thread or pattern, and each track is wildly different from its neighbour. “His formula is not a formula”, confirms Chusid. “His path is unfollowable”. It staggers the imagination to think how much of this material R. Stevie Moore has created in his lifetime, an achievement which I would imagine the world still has yet to come to terms with.

  1. And played their music on his radio show, I might add.
  2. There’s probably a lot more to be written about the Moore / Beatles imbroglio; at least one of his album sleeves, What’s The Point?!!, was a Beatles parody.
  3. If The Residents had any sense, they’d have recruited Moore into their touring band long ago. In like manner, The Beatles should have hired Neil Innes to produce ‘Free as a Bird’, not Jeff Lynne.

Nostalgic Pop

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Babi’s Botanical (NOBLE LABEL NBL-210) defies belief – a lovely album of immaculate “chamber pop” songs crafted with great compositional and studio skills. For starters, this is only her second LP – but it’s so accomplished and polished. The young composer and singer Babi is a child prodigy who apparently started learning the piano at age two and had her first composition written at age five. She learned the craft of multi-tracking at music college, and since then has been stacked out with commercial work, besides finding time for realising her own compositions. For this, a joint release on two labels, she’s done all the composing, singing and programming – it’s fundamentally a keyboard album – with guest musicians brought in to add strings and woodwinds. There’s a number of elements to praise and enjoy – the forthright assurance with which Babi proceeds is commendable, knowing exactly in her mind what the song is about and proceeding directly with a very clean performance, with not an ounce of waste. Then there’s the ultra-lean and lightweight sound, a superbly uncluttered studio production, aided by flawless arrangements with every instrument sitting in the perfect place. Additionally, the compositions themselves are these deceptively simple melodies, cunningly spiked with little twists and curlicues that lead the mind off down multiple pathways at once. The album was mixed and mastered by Toyoaki Mishima, who also works with Cornelius – another Japanese genius of quirkoid avant-pop. With ten short tracks of compressed loveliness, this album amounts to a near-perfect set of electro-pop miniatures, enriched with classical flourishes. Babi could almost be the Japanese Kate Bush, although since I don’t understand Japanese her lyrical content remains a mystery to me. I sense she might not be quite as dark and troubled as my beloved Kate, though, since there’s a generally upbeat tempo to the songs here, and Babi’s rather fluffy singing voice (a factor which might prove a barrier for some listeners) and occasional use of wacky sound effects suggest instead a child-like and fantastic view of the world, with bright colours and strange friendly monsters walking through imaginary landscapes, funfairs, and parks on summer afternoons. Be sure to watch the three-minute “trailer” she’s made for this album on YouTube, with suitably flowery animations. Besides Kate Bush, also recommended to listeners who enjoy Slapp Happy and Dagmar Krause, or Van Dyke Parks. Or that incredible Nora Guthrie single from 1967. Received 8th August 2013.

OhYoko

Not entirely unrelated to above, we have I Love You… (COOKIE 3) by Oh, Yoko released on the Normal Cookie label in Tokyo. This is also an album of pop tunes, but far less upbeat and bouncy than Babi, and aims from the get-go to beguile you with a strange nostalgic feeling. The duo of Rie Mitsutake and Will Long achieve this goal through their small and intimate sound; playing electronic and acoustic instruments together, in a syrupy and sensuous blend; keeping the arrangements simple, and playing everything in a gentle manner; and by filtering all the vocals through wispy pieces of gauze that float by on the breeze on a sunny day in September. Again, sung in Japanese, so specifics elude me, but the abiding emotional keynote here speaks volumes – lots of soppy and fuzzy sentiments, just bordering on the saccharine at times. Recording as Miko in a previous life, Rie did a couple of albums that we know of (Parade and Chandelier, the latter released by Lawrence English’s Room 40 label in Australia), and like Babi above she started out her musical life at a relatively young age – taking piano lessons from age five. Will Long might be remembered by some as Celer, a project which he used to do with his wife Chubby Wolf, and which has released over 100 records of ambient installation droney sound-art music, much of it self-issued. Oh, Yoko certainly work well together here and this a very pleasing combination of soft-focus instrumentation and whispery, heartfelt vocalising, occasionally supplemented by gorgeous background field recordings of crickets a-chirping (or maybe frogs a-croaking). “Something pure for a more simple life,” is their only stated goal with this music, and who can take issue with that ambition? Be sure to look for their 2012 release, Seashore. This one from 8th August 2013.

Honky Tonk Medusa: an unassuming gem of dark and bittersweet folk pop

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Donovan Quinn, Honky Tonk Medusa, Northern-Spy Records, NSCD 019 (2012)

The title of this album, the third solo full-lengther from Donovan Quinn since he left The Skygreen Leopards, suggests this work is going to feature light and dark in equal amounts. Certainly the tone throughout hints at melancholy and a slight sense of foreboding on what would otherwise be sunny and bright folk pop songs. There may be a theme dwelling on aspects of modern life in a post-industrial world where the American Dream is proving to be more nightmare than dream and people must struggle just to keep sane coping with the pressures of daily living.

The songs all have quite a distinct flavour though I can detect the influence of Bob Dylan in Quinn’s style of singing. (I’m not familiar with the history of American folk music from the 1960s on so readers will have to forgive me for my sketchy knowledge.) “Night Shift” is an early highlight for its deep droning near-industrial rhythms and the use of spoken word recordings in the background that reference the busyness of modern urban life. “My Wife” is a dream-like wistful piece, forlorn and sounding a bit nostalgic in its mood, with a sinister darkness at its core. (The song references the Who song of the same name and David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks”.) “Dying City” comes across as a gentle, sorrowful elegy. “Love in an Evil World” is the most poppy-sounding track with its catchy melodies, slow though they are, and its unexpected twists that capture perfectly a sense of uncertainty and passive acceptance of whatever hardships may come.

The music can be challenging in its ambiguity and its attitude of seeming resignation and observational distance. Although Quinn is a good song-writer, there is something lacking in these songs: they seem so introspective that they don’t reach out to their audience and the listener must try to find a way into Quinn’s world and concerns. Of course, whether Quinn is interested in making a direct emotional connection with his audience is another thing; he’d certainly sell more records and become famous but he may not want the attention, expectations and pressures that fame would bring. Honky Tonk Medusa is a very unassuming little gem of bittersweet quality that with time may gather its own small group of devoted fans.

Tribute Acts

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Home Body
In Real Life
USA FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR-102 LP (2013)

Bringing to bear a deft, understated lyricism that immediately recalls Pierre Menard’s rewriting of ‘Don Quixote’ in its inspired repetitions of its hitherto inimitable phrasings amid landscapes foreign, Home Body’s Hayley Morgan uses mantra to masterfully seduce the listener with polysemous couplets such as “I hustle bustle and I hustle bustle” proving particularly enticing. Careful listeners will observe the sly injection of Home Body’s initials in this novel recasting of two collocated, rhyming nouns into an energetic new verb. Elsewhere, she outdoes the Bard himself, with indelible epithets such as “I can’t live without you. I can’t sleep without you” and “Toodle-loo, I’m sorry but this has gone too far”. It’s as though Bjork, Kate Bush and Roisin Murphy were at once reborn as the same Tesco checkout girl with a penchant for quicksilver haiku, but delivered in a withering monotone that actively interrogates the very virtue of melodicism. Brilliant!

The duo pose in white overalls on the inlay sheet, standing robotically aloof of a riot of coloured fur that represents the contrivance and gaudiness of so much ‘industry sound’. The commentary is subtle, quite sublime, and probably all-too-easily overlooked. The music is a similarly sly bag of synthesized jingles, jangles, whoops born of Eric Hnatow‘s Korg collection; and on the ‘darker, weirder songs, like “Hunt It”’ – there’s a touch of hair-metal rock-out. It all shifts effortlessly underfoot, like rug pulled from underfoot the unwary intruder in this private world of playful linguistic and musical frippery. Essentially, it’s a first class send-up of the kind of bedwetting indie pop that gets Pitchfork readers frothy on a daily basis. In the group’s own words: “outside of time or style, these pieces hew to Home Body’s own standards of canonical pop re-imagination”. Amen.
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Ignatz
Can I Go Home Now?
FINLAND FONAL RECORDS FR-91 CD (2013)

What a shame. It turns out I’ve just missed an Ignatz show, as he played a few UK dates in January. Bother. I rather wish I’d heard this a little earlier. It’s a fairly simple set of songs with a country/blues fanboy thing happening; not my usual cup of tea, but it should be a tidy enough offering by anyone’s estimation. Songs bounce along at a calm canter, notes flicked cleanly from flinty fingers, lyrics – apparently pertaining to the human condition – more or less indecipherable mumbling, and a rather contrived lo-fi sound reduction that sounds a little too clean to me to be attributable to tape corrosion. Though seemingly improvised in parts, it sounds to me like there’s a bit of overdubbing – either that or he DOES have lightning fingers; it’s perfectly plausible. Make no mistake: Ignatz offers no new twists or innovations in his designated style, nor any kind of cosmetic wizardry. However, his honest take on country blues is as devoted and unpretentious as the dog that adorns the cover. It’s a warm and inviting sound: that of a serendipitous evening in a nice venue on a dark January evening. At least, I imagine so.

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Hoofus
Several Wolves
UK EXOTIC PYLON EP21 CD (2013)

Dear Lord! What is this bent-circuit apocalypse you have seen fit to visit upon me? Hoofus is the nominated harbinger of this specific bout of frenzied audio paintballing: unleashing on environment and audience the rampaging bastard child of a bank of senile machines and sporting more colours than one finds in the visible spectrum. Supposedly inspired by the ‘restless feral yearning’ of ramshackle life in the rural wilds, one quickly discerns that this shag-haired ruffian’s governing mandate is a total aversion to structure – as evidenced by his rapid dismissal of the slightest hint of a drum beat – and the coercing of every whim to its logical limit. In live performances, he twiddles knobs with one hand, bangs a drumstick with the other and is presumably rather adept at clearing rooms with the resulting cacophony. Similar results might be expected here. Sounds range from skin-grazing blasts of guitar to more sentimental dulcimer-type dallying as favoured on occasion by Kid606, whose Tigerbeat6 label would have granted warm berth to this electronic pen pal of psychosis. Truth be told, the very same ‘enfant terrible’ of the noughties offers the best all-round audio comparison I can think of. Anyway, there’s an interesting piece that sounds like a blindfolded man stumbling around precariously inside a pinball machine, but I can’t seem to find it now. Oh well.

Modern Ghanaians: a compilation of fusion Ghanaian / Western pop music genres

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King Ayisoba, Modern Ghanaians, Netherlands, Makkum Records, CD MR8 (2013)

Apparently this album is a compilation made after 2006 of King Ayisoba’s most popular songs from other recordings released on the Pidgen Music label, which would explain why the music is relentlessly upbeat and doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary for me. This is very highly rhythmic music with a lot of call-and-response singing from a solo singer and a chorus, and it’s very light in its instrumentation. Several instruments may be playing at once but all are usually following the same melody and rhythms; they can hardly be said to be in harmony (European-style, anyway). The music lends itself easily to dancing; of course a lot of people would say, well, it’s Ghanaian pop music, it’s rhythmic, so it should be dance music, shouldn’t it? – but I have heard some (though not much) African pop music that is undanceable, so I never jump to conclusions about something simply because it comes from one particular region of the world.

The best tracks on the album are those that feature instruments unique to northern Ghana where King Ayisoba hails from: “Don’t joke to your father” features an acoustic stringed instrument (I think it’s called the kologo) which has a quality rather like a plucked violin that doesn’t resonate well but sounds a bit on the raw side – it lends itself to very intense emotive singing. On the next track, “Baaba poore”, the kologo again figures and there is another instrument providing some muted rhythm (it sounds as if someone is rubbing something to produce a sound like a muted barking dog). The singing on these songs verges on raucous but is usually restrained; it rarely breaks out into spontaneous chaotic celebration.

Other songs on the album are a mix of Western pop styles from different time periods which might be a bit disconcerting for those of us who think we’ve seen and heard everything there is to see and hear, and that old styles of popular music no longer hold much creative potential. Think again, folks: melodies and rhythms that might have sprung from the disco or reggae scenes a hundred years in the 1970s undergo sudden rejuvenation when juxtaposed with West African styles of singing and rhythms, and local instruments. The style of music featured is referred to as hip life which features hip hop and dancehall elements (and which should not be confused with hi-life which is an older style of pop music from West Africa). Lyrics are often in English (though delivered in Ghanaian accents) and refer to topics and social issues relevant to Ghanaians in their daily lives: for one, families pleading for the return of their fathers (“I want to see you my father”) who are enjoying themselves with mistresses at the expense of their children. Of these more Western-oriented songs, the best is “Don’t do the bad thing” which has a strong driving bass-heavy rhythm against which more delicate instruments such as flute and a stringed instrument flutter.

I must confess that after hearing Congolese bands like Konono No 1 with their blend of folk music traditions, electrified instruments made from scrap and junk materials and hypnotic beats and rhythms, this album does very little for me. I have the impression though that King Ayisoba’s music might be representative of an emerging style of music stripped right down to its basics to appeal to a wide urban Ghanaian audience whose origins are extremely mixed and who have particular needs and demands of popular music: a style of music drawing inspiration from traditional music forms and the latest overseas imports.

Endless Autumn

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Kilo
The Wildernis
EXPERIMENTAL STUDIO BRIGITTENAU EXB 002 CD + DVD (2012)

With exceptions, the few friends I have know me to have precious little time for ‘happy’ music, and – as is my wont – to disparage it with canyon-sized generalisations, finding it too distracted by its own joie de vivre to deliver substance. Indie pop? With a vocal spectrum that stretches from post-Beach Boy falsetto to wimpy whine? It animates me with an aggressive lust for hateful black metal.

Thus, to my great surprise, I find my apprehension melt away in earshot of the latest work of the laptop pop duo, Kilo (comprising Kompakt alumni Florian Bogner and Markus Urban), with the startling serendipity of an unpretentiously simple set of songs. It may just be that this crisp, sunny autumn day has engendered in me a feeling of false optimism, but this is exactly what I want to hear right now. Though lacking the sheen and budget that sold the summer to Daft Punk, Kilo’s songs smoulder with inner warmth, which is revealed by the layer to careful listeners. And the nondescript, monotone (even banal) vocals are my new fair-weather friend.

‘The Wildernis’ is a hazy hybrid of mildly glitch-gilded, GASeous pop sensibilities shot through with an array of distilled musical gestures from synthetic chamber to shoegaze, though the press release boasts of a more distinct and eclectic set of styles (including ‘rock, jazz, contemporary music and free improvisation’) than I am equipped to identify. In any event, such influences are atomised and wormholed into a dazed and distorted dimension of muted exuberance, casting the record in the same neverwhere light as that which illuminates Fennesz’ Endless Summer. Think of a brighter Tujiko Noriko, a less complex Cornelius or one of Kompakt’s ‘Pop Ambient’ stable and you’re in the ballpark.

Opener ‘For Those Who Go Away’ bounces along at a pace: cheery phrases ping from rubberised guitar strings while phantom syllables sweep the horizon. Maintaining a mightier clip, ‘Masken’ is all handclaps, kick drums and synth swells, marching like animated animals into an endless foreground (though its triumphant tone better befits an album closer). Another highlight in the haze, ‘Melody’ collects chromatic climbing and dispassionate harmonies, rubbery bass and tight (if swerving) kick-drum whooshed by red-arrow layers of neon synth; it is (im)pared-down electro-pop that stands firm, halfway in, undone by a lysergic, lilting flute and rebuilt from scratch amidst perpetual collapse. The harmonious blend of elements synthesized and acoustic, beneath a fuzzy blanket – if clumsy at times – renders the hapless song writing all the more endearing.

A ghostly sense of summer days and nights, idealised and invented, veins every track, including more downbeat numbers such as ‘Shivering’, with its world-weary entreaty to ‘feel my body shivering’ over a slurred, string-weltered backdrop. Its transition into a more crepuscular climate marks an emotional sea change for the album, while eroding the first few tracks’ sense of purpose, to no overall detriment albeit. Woozy instrumental interludes such as ‘Integrals’, ‘Wildernis’ and ‘Langdeep’ perpetuate the directional indifference – possibly to the loss of more impatient listeners – though enhancing the sense of scrapbook scrawl, captured well by the near-ubiquitous, sudden stop/start structure, as one halcyon moment after another gets hastily Prit-stuck for posterity. This approach is expounded upon in the nine-minute ‘Dickicht’ which descends like a cryogenic coma, haunted by the ghost of 1970s Miles Davis: a ponderous Fender Rhodes heaves over 4/4 drum machine and low, melodic mumbles – all elements exercising their right to capricious entrances and exits.

Often ambiguous and ambivalent, over time these deceptively simple songs reveal moods and textures that capture the emotional complexity of autumn mornings and other transitional times. ‘The Wildernis’ is a refreshing and disarming collection of songs, worth the time it takes to befriend.

In addition, the CD is complimented by a DVD, which contains visual analogues of all of the songs, in case the images in your head prove to be insufficient; special mention going to Adnan Popovic’s psychedelic Sesame Street visualisation of ‘Melody’. The films – many topographical in content – are well coordinated with the music, and would serve well as a backdrop to a live AV show, or to the home playback should a projector be available.

The Lost Entrance of the Just: soft and pretty black metal pop with an ominous, brooding edge

Official sleeve image from handmadebirds.com
Official sleeve image from handmadebirds.com

Circle of Ouroborus, The Lost Entrance of the Just, Handmade Birds Records, HB-020 (vinyl release 2012, CD release 2013)

Originally released on vinyl in 2012, this was one of two full-length recordings put out that year by the idiosyncratic Finnish black metal / post-rock / shoegazer pop duo. These guys can always be relied on to deliver something, usually a few EPs and one or two albums, each year and 2012 was no exception. Compared with previous recordings of theirs that I’ve heard, this album seems softer and fuzzier, and the lyrics seem less melancholy, even appearing to aspire to hope and positive emotion. The feeling that CoO may have mellowed and adopted a more settled, more accepting and less angry attitude is never far away.

Opening track “Cast in Clay” suggests this new outlook with its softened though slightly ominous clouds of guitar blur through which lazy percussion and Antti Klemi’s vocals emerge and proceed at a loping pace. “Black Hole Womb” might just be a return to the CoO of old with its sharp, arch sound and mood and an extended section with angry spoken word against a backdrop of rising and falling sea-waves. But there’s a jauntiness in the music that suggests a relaxed attitude of going with the flow of the universe, absorbing what it offers or deals out, treating everything as part of one’s journey through life and beyond.

Throughout the album there are a lot of very pretty tunes and even Klemi’s famously individual style of awkward, seemingly off-key singing and occasional shouty declamations doesn’t detract from the warm glow that emanates from the muddied melodies and easy-going drumming. The music serves as a vehicle for the lyrics and to create a highly immersive atmosphere so it tends towards minimalism and loose structure. Melodies and riffs exist in an almost formless way and slower songs like “Mirror Universe” are on the verge of falling apart from drunkenness. The album ends with the only Finnish-language track “Toivosta Syntynyt” (roughly translating as “Hope born” – I hope, I’m only using Google Translate!), a darkly edgy piece with an air of wariness whose meaning and place as closing track must be wondered at.

This is a poppy album with good if not distinct melodies, riffs and rhythms though with a dark and sometimes menacing atmosphere. The music is not one of the band’s best but makes up for the lack of aggression and energy by being a heavy, almost formless and brooding presence. The emphasis on repetition and monotony has a trance-like effect on listeners. This is the kind of recording that grows on listeners over time.

The vinyl issue run is already sold out – CoO fans are nothing if not loyal.

Zombie Skin: black metal kiddie pop debut on mainstream talent television show

Aaralyn and Izzy, Zombie Skin, America’s Got Talent auditions (Season 8, Episode 4), New York, recorded 25 June 2013

Waaal, blow me down, for once that TV show “America’s Got Talent” lived up to its name and featured some real talent! Brother-sister duo Aaralyn (aged 6 years) and Izzy (aged 9 years) performed their sweet little track “Zombie Skin” before the four judges at the show’s New York audtions. While Izzy provided steady support with his drum-work, Aaralyn, togged out in black top, a monochrome polka-dot skirt and pink stockings, and with a solemn expression on her innocent wide-eyed angel face, belted out a shrieky tirade in full grim black metal vocal style. All four judges were blown away – though it has to be said two were blown in the opposite direction from the other two – and the audience (in particular the ladies) jumped to their feet, whistled, made horned-devil signs with their fingers and cheered on the little girl.

Admittedly the song was nothing out of the ordinary but Aaralyn roared into the microphone as if her life depended on it, all the while standing motionless as though bolted to the floor and her face expressionless throughout the song while it lasted.

Unfortunately the performance was cut short by one of the judges who feared for the little one’s throat, though she did assure him that screaming didn’t hurt her tonsils at all. Mel Brown aka Scary Spice admitted to being scared for once in her life and the other female judge Heidi Klum seemed unsure as to what to do. The two male judges Howard Stern and Howie Mandel loved the performance and immediately voted to send the kids on to Las Vegas. Klum also voted in favour of the children wowing the punters in that multi-casino parlour if only because she was curious to hear more of the youngsters’ material, in particular “Lullaby Crash”. Gotta wonder what Klum expects from that song: a hit-and-run collision between “Rock-a-bye Baby” and David Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car”?

Proud Dad, aw-shucks bashful and surprised at the overwhelming reactions of the audience and the judges, was brought out of the wings onto the stage to acknowledge Stern’s fulsome praise. It sure says a lot about how our society has progressed that in the past, children were nurtured in mischievous forms of social rebellion by their uncles (usually the younger, more wayward black-sheep-of-the-family brothers of their strait-laced fathers); these days it’s the dads themselves who bond with their offspring in this way. Needless to say, Mom was nowhere to be found.

The future of USBM is looking good in the capable hands and voices of America’s young generation with children like Aaralyn and Izzy.

Catch Aaralyn and Izzy’s performance on Youtube at this link.