Dusty Curtain Face Records, 2011, DD album, 51m 28s
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp put a pissoir in a gallery: unfortunately, nearly a century later, many people still don’t get it. Those people will have trouble with the presentation of something as deliberately shambolic as Cockdaughter’s eponymous debut as a finished artwork; but it’s precisely to challenge that sense of the polished and refined as the exclusive token of an utterance’s validity that music like this is needed. The trouble is that turds are all too receptive to polishing, and a music that may seem shockingly transgressive one decade is quite likely to be reduced to a set of professionally reproducible stylistic conventions the next: hence the current rash of plastic pop-punk bands singing nice melodies, with dull lyrics about girl trouble and going to the beach to drink some shit beer. It’s something I prefer not to think about, but they are the inheritors of The Ramones. Cockdaughter is an album that celebrates the continuing subversive and obnoxious potential of guitar music.
This album sounds like the space it was recorded in: I don’t know what that space was, but it wasn’t very big and it had a boxy reverb that leaves its mark on every track. The effect is to make the music as much a record of a specific time and place as it is an autonomous art object: as with Duchamp’s readymade, it is the context as much as the content that determines its potential to signify. If this seems to imply that Cockdaughter have simply recorded some random noises and packaged them as a piece of conceptual sound art, I apologise: instrumental competence is not the central thrust of this album, but there’s some excellent playing on here, from both participants.
The music meanders from idea to idea in a seemingly random fashion, like a conversation between two erudite but completely hammered people. Visits are made to many dynamic levels, and there are a great variety of textures: the principal voices are Dave Jago’s drums and Paul Rhodes’ grinding bass guitar, but both also contribute some shouting or moaning, and Rhodes overdubs a variety of guitars and keyboards. Much of the music is rhythmically complex, using displacements, odd times or fluent repurposings of the basic pulse, and gives the (possibly misleading) impression of having been worked out in advance; but the general sense is of a more or less free improvisation with some overdubs, and minimal editing. Tonality is skirted: Rhodes does not make any great effort to avoid suggesting key centres, but there is little sense of harmony, and the modalities by which other notes are related to a tonic are unstable and highly chromatic.
The recording is ‘lo-fi’, but to call it ‘low fidelity’ is to miss the point really. Fidelity to what? Fidelity to the potential of recording equipment to make slick sounds from the output of rock instruments, perhaps, but this is not a reproduction of anything. This music never actually happened as presented here, at least not until it was mixed, and the artifacts of the recording process are as much a part of it as the overdubs, or indeed the original jam session. Rhodes has shown elsewhere, through his work recording others, that he understands the nature of a recording as a constructed work, a realisation of the material rather than a document of its performance: the pervasive hiss, as well as the occasional hard crackles, as heard on ‘Track 21’, carry musical meanings just as the basslines and drumbeats do.
There’s a lot to like about this album. It is certainly ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’, and you may have to go some way to meet it, but if you are not one of the people who is instantly turned off by it, it has a number of virtues: structural unpredictability; timbral variety; musical creativity and complexity; some great playing; and the artistic clarity that enabled its authors to present it in this form, in despite of prevailing tastes and conventions. This is an excellent piece of work.