At the instrumental level Mouse Drawn Cart is not massively transgressive. There are some heavy guitars, chainsaw distorted bass, some metal riffing, some industrial-lite beats reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails (‘I’m Not Scared Of You’); there is a very dark and sophisticated approach to texture, and its arrangement into a narrative structure; and there’s some great playing. It’s the songs and the vocal performances that really set this apart; or rather, it’s the whole, but it’s the particular combination of sounds and material that makes this music so unique and disturbing.
I’ll call these pop songs, largely because they’re not rock songs, or folk songs, or Balinese wedding songs, but that doesn’t really cover it. These are literate, witty, intelligent and playful songs, and they are pop songs in the same way that Art Spiegelman’s Maus (to pick an utterly inappropriate example at lazy random) is a comic book, or Zaha Hadid’s Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion is a building: because they are, but not because they conform to any of the prejudices you may harbour regarding that extraordinarily broad church.
The big news this week is the return of the legendary Oliver Arditi to the world of regular music news posting. Okay, that’s bollocks. I don’t know what the big news is, because I haven’t been paying much attention, but here’s some links I found what you might find interesting.
Stillness In The Mirror is an album that effectively fuses a mechanical, or automatic sonic sensibility with a very organic, human one. That’s an interesting strategy in and of itself, but I don’t get the impression that this conceptual framework is the point of the music: the sounds on this album signify in a complex way, with verbally poetic, tonally musical, and concretely sonic discourses interacting with one another on a variety of levels; the dialectic of organic and synthetic sound is another such interaction, and to my ear it is employed as a means to an end.
Paul Littlewood has a signature arrangement style, a way of doing songs. Simple, syncopated guitar parts are layered with glitchy electronic percussion, combinations of short repeated phrases accumulating into complex textures. There are dynamic variations, but over a limited range, for the most part, textural density is proportional to emotional intensity, and that’s about it. No fancy tricks, no strings, no choirs, no clever harmonic substitutions, no production wizardry: just subtly changing low-key textures and a voice.
Some songwriters tell it how it is, laying their raw emotion directly on the line with simple language and an impassioned delivery; others burnish their lyrics with so much metaphor and wordplay that we feel an ironic distance from their subjects, irrespective of the ostensible pathos they may describe; some give every impression of writing autobiographically (although as listeners we can never really tell); and others adopt overtly narrative strategies, putting distinct fictional characters into each song.
Stoner rock, when it is unequivocally metal, is usually doom or sludge. Those styles seem somehow appropriate to the haze of disassociated impressions that characterise the world of the dope fiend, with their mushy layers of distortion, their often slow tempos, and their obliteration of detail in the sheer rumbling savagery of their sonic impact. Death metal is an altogether different proposition, with its focussed intensity, its brutal precision and its considerable technical demands.
Long songs (by the standards of popular music) are often casually referred to as epics: obviously the idea of an epic refers to more than duration, and although such commonplace coinages pretend to nothing more than a disposable shorthand, I think it’s worth examining that idea in relation to V Column, an album the best part of which is occupied by three tracks in excess of seven minutes. In critical theory the ‘epic’ is distinguished from ‘narrative’ and ‘lyric’ forms, all of which are given meanings somewhat different from those usually ascribed to them…
Robb Appleton is a harmonica player, and his diatonic harps are a prominent voice on this album, but The Wood doesn’t sound like a harmonica album. In fact, it sounds more like an album made by someone who decided to get a harp player in because they wanted that sound. Instrumentalists have to play to their strengths when they record an album as leader, but rarely do they assemble a production to which their voice sounds such a natural and integrated complement.
Once when I was making my first, abortive attempt at getting a degree, I was sitting in a seminar discussing H.G. Wells’ The History Of Mr. Polly. It was stated, quite forcefully, by the tutor, that because it didn’t articulate a clear alternative, the book’s critique of Edwardian petit-bourgeois life was flawed and incomplete: I objected to this on two grounds. Firstly, the book’s central character simply goes off and does something he finds more rewarding, that attracts less status, and that is an alternative (that’s what I’ve done with my own life) …