Delusionists – Lost Girl (hip-hop)
Beats Laying About, 2011, DD single, 1m 40s
A thin-sounding electric guitar (maybe a Telecaster), an electric piano, filtered through the glitchy sound of dusty vinyl, and looped in incomplete gestures that sound like a needle jumping. It’s the sound of nostalgia, the sound of distance from a desired space that the imagination is better equipped to apprehend than the senses. The uppercut combinations of the kick, when it enters, are located firmly in the here and now. That’s the heartbeat of the subject, the locus of the act of remembering. Such a simple psychodrama between so few musical elements seems a shaky scaffold to hang anything off, but when the female voice enters, breathy, frost-bitten and fragile, it’s impossible to locate it in either space. Somewhere between memory, and the act of remembering, hers is the intervention that lifts this tiny beat into a complexity and ambiguity of meaning that engages and holds the listener’s attention. And then, well under two minutes in from the get-go, it’s done, koan-like in its brevity and simplicity.
Jessie Shaffer – Pulling at My Skirts (avant-folk)
self released, 2011, DD album, 25m 9s
$name your price
So, from the shortest release I’ve ever reviewed, to one that’s near my upper limit for classifying something an EP, not an album (and yes, I go purely by length, which is why I list hip-hop mixtapes as albums). Like the previous piece, this is one that engages with discourses of memory and nostalgia, but it does so in quite different ways (although, having said that, its production values also evoke a certain sense of distance). Here, a relationship to history, and to artistic tradition, is a central factor in the way the music means. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily about those things, but Shaffer chooses to employ a well established, ‘folk’ creative lexicon. She combines its signifiers according to a grammar of her own making, however, one of a decidedly modern, culturally self-aware cast. This applies equally to her musical materials, her performances and her lyrical content. She plays mandolin, some violin, a friend blesses one track with his ’bone, and she sings; stylistically, it is clearly located in a folksong tradition, but it’s a curiously mid-Atlantic one. There are obvious elements of Americana, but a lot more than a nod to European sounds, and there is a gleeful affinity for the expressive potential of dissonance (as in the keening ‘Keen’). Her words are mysterious, delicately balanced possibilities of meaning, often clearly yearning in character, but also disturbing (‘I lost my limbs/ while you were sleeping’), and not without humour (‘Keeping my bloomers on for now’). ‘Pinwheel’ applies cut and paste techniques to Shaffer’s materials, in a brief outbreak of experimental folktronica. For me though, the creative highlight is ‘Gnarled’, where a simple, austere, unaccompanied vocal arrangement is shot through with astringent harmonies that remind me of the arresting opening to Rose Kemp’s Golden Shroud (although it’s a lot less mental, unsurprisingly). This is a lovely, thought-provoking set of recordings.
Doll Fight! – Revolution Doll Style Now (punk)
self released, 2011, DD/ cassette EP, 15m 52s
$3+ DD, $? cassette
Revolution. It’s an appealing idea, especially to those who, like myself, think our political system is irredeemably fucked, and object to slimy, corrupt, overpaid wankers in suits strutting around, acting like their ability to win at the utterly meaningless game of electoral politics gives them some kind of moral authority to tell us, real people, what to do. The results of revolution have been mixed, historically, with an unfortunate predominance of tragedy and repression in their wake, but the most successful examples have been those, like most of the late 1980s transformations in Eastern and central Europe, that were genuinely mass movements, with generalised aims, rather than those led by specific groups with detailed agendas. Doll Fight! definitely have an agenda, but their idea of revolution seems to be all about people taking charge of their own identity and determination. ‘Plastic Revolution’ reminds us of just how much cultural repression still constrains women’s lives in the supposedly liberated developed world. These women are having none of it though, and in ‘While Egypt Was Burning’ they state their allegiances: ‘we stand in solidarity…’ This is what political music has lost: in recent years, for the most part, it’s been so busy being ironic, witty, nuanced and analytical that it’s lost its direct, barricade-building potency, its heart. Well, like the heart standing in for a clenched fist on the cover, Doll Fight! are putting the heart back in. Musically, this EP is not a revolution, but it is very creative, and a lot more clever than it appears on its guitar-punk surface: ‘Jealousy’ is a slow, churning grind of ominous minor seconds that reminds me of Black Flag; ‘Eris is Anarchy’ has an edgy incoherence that befits its Discordian stance; the excellent vocal performances exploit the full expressive potential of anger, challenging stereotypical gendered responses with a sometimes hectoring tone, as if daring the unreflecting listener to label them ‘shrill’. This is direct action in a noise. Revolution Doll Style Now is an intelligent piece of work, and a great listen. There’s a real sense of growth from their accomplished first release, and a sense that they’ve taken their own advice, to ‘be the art you want to see’.
Samuel Otis – Shocked As Hell (hip-hop)
Killamari, 2011, DD single, 2m 44s
Precisely trimmed reverb tails deepen the funk of this straightforward but infectious beat, built on a relentless, crisp acoustic drumkit. A vocal sample (‘shocked as hell/ when I heard Samu-el’) and some vinyl-scratchy rhythms complete a simple, spacious, but irresistible setting, and then there’s Mr. Otis himself, alumnus of the Southwest crew lowercase, and bull goose of this particular asylum (to steal a coinage from Ken Kesey). His rounded Bristolian intonation is curiously reminiscent of the more widely exposed (in hip-hop at any rate) accents of the US West Coast, but he doesn’t drawl and slop his words out like the new school; this rap is an object lesson in the kind of rhythmic intricacy that leaves you a little bit dazed, but mainly just makes you need to get up and dance. ‘lowercase is the little letters/ but when we spit it/ best believe the shit is big and clever’. Big and clever indeed; I mean, it’s been done before, but rarely as well, and there’s a current in the UK underground that is turning this kind of relatively traditionalist hip-hop into something it hasn’t been before. Distinctively British, with everything that implies about humour, irony and social awareness. Shocked As Hell is a fine example.
PAAN – sounds like Chewbacca is taking a shit (punk/ screamo)
Lala Schallplatten, 2011, one sided 12” vinyl EP, 17m 25s
This is clearly humorous, but sadly, as I don’t speak German, the jokes are lost on me, and the lyrics in English doesn’t seem to aimed at getting laughs. I certainly can’t say that this EP sounds like Chewbacca is taking a shit, although I can imagine that as a conservative knee-jerk response to the hoarse, shouty singing style. I will say this though: reviewing a release with this title is enough to amuse me immensely, mature as I am. So, clearly, the lyrics are an important part of this music’s meaning, one on which i can’t really comment, but what does the rest of it add up to? A hell of a good sound, I’m glad to say. The MP3s I received for review came tagged with the genre as ‘punk’, but this is a complex affair, of intricate interlocking rhythms, and carefully crafted textures. The overall tenor of the arrangements, the vocal delivery, and the beautifully clear-yet-raw production all put me in mind of another Lala Schallplatten act I’ve reviewed, Käfer K. However, this is distinctively PAAN’s sound, an altogether noisier, less considered affair, fairly exploding with kinetic energy and furiously committed performances. It’s no mean feat, to harness that kind of energy to the wagon of the studio without killing it, but this is actually a very impressive recording, put together with great attention to detail. Every instrument is recorded with a perfect tone, and the joy of listening to it is as much in the actual, physical sound as in the melodic content. High energy, anarchic punk music, played with tons of feeling, then, but also an exercise in care and precision, and a very accomplished piece of music making.
mio – jedes wort eine lüge (screamo)
self released, 2012, DD single, 4m 43s
A gently strummed electric guitar sets out a simple, melancholy chord sequence, marked with unassuming regularity by the drums. Then a banshee wail, a scream of vitriol and rage cuts across the soundstage, and soon the guitars, unable to resist this incitement, respond in kind. There’s an engaging melodicism to this band, but it all comes from the guitar; the central focus for most listeners will be the vocals, and those are steadfastly confrontational. The arrangement is surprisingly involved, moving between sections which vary widely in dynamic, pace, complexity and harmonic colour; the vocal is treated as an equal part of that arrangement, remaining silent for extended periods, before exploding in moments of profound rupture. Guitar, drums and a voice represents a more limited palette than most bands permit themselves, and given that the studio permits all kinds of options in orchestration, it shows an almost ruthless constraint, and a distinct creative agenda, to stick to those sound sources alone. Again, I’m at a linguistic disadvantage, and I can’t take the obvious route to saying what this music is ‘about’, but I’ll say this: it is intriguing, complex, powerful, and a real treat to listen to.