self released, 2012, DD album, 47m 7s
£name your price
It’s very hard to know where to start talking about this record. Do I begin by describing its sound? The words I would use would have a hard job to distinguish these sounds from other, entirely less interesting music. I could tell you that it sounds like some kind of funk, but that might give you the impression that, like most funk, this music’s central purpose is to be funky. I usually begin by sketching my general approach, based on my sense of how the music works, and that is indeed what I’m doing right now, but I’ll say this: One is a very slippery fish, and Churn Milk Joan are not going out of their way to adopt any established practices that might make it easy for us to get a handle on them. These are things that I like. The stylistic materials of this confection are not unusual or challenging, but the music demands close listening: ‘this’, it says, ‘is not your regular listen, and if you want to know what we’re getting at, you’ll need to pay attention.’ It says this not by using excessively abrasive noises, or any bizarrely transgressive musical language, but in a way that grabs the ear and intrigues it, like a novel with an enigmatic and well written opening chapter. Churn Milk Joan are a collaboration between Colin Robinson of Big Block 454 and Richard Knutson of Plum Flower Embroidery: both men have a history of obliquity, absurdity, and avant-garde experimentation.
The sound is like funk, in that it is largely built on an open framework of groove, where both bass and drum machine phrase as much with their rests as with their notes. At times it is also like funk in being funky, but at other times it is kinetic without being particularly danceable; the use of a drum machine sometimes gives the music a mechanistic feel, but at other times the beats are surprisingly organic. Guitar is a prominent voice, which washes atmospheric textures over the groove, only rarely locking into it, and there are synthesiser sounds which, while sometimes providing melody, tend to act as sound effects, but without drawing undue attention to themselves. The whole thing apparently grew out of a series of studio jams, and on one level it sounds improvised, but at the same time it sounds quite tightly orchestrated. It has a very coherent sound, and each of its components seems a natural part of the whole. It has moments when it reminds me of the funk based collaborations of David Byrne and Brian Eno, but mostly it sounds like nothing but itself. The vocals and lyrics are very peculiar.
I wouldn’t like to guess what they’re getting at lyrically; heights of ambiguity like this have a distinctive effect on the listener, however, even if the literal meanings remain obscure. The part played by the standing stone that appears on the cover, and from which the project takes its name, is mysterious. Knutson is responsible for the vocals, and his delivery varies between wavering experimentalism and absurdist declamation; there’s a certain diffidence to the sound, which is never particularly intense or aggressive, but there is also a sense of deliberation and control. However strange these sounds might be, they always sound as though they are exactly the sounds the band intended to make. The artistic intention behind One is clearly humorous, but it has a serious creative agenda nevertheless. Like Dada, Churn Milk Joan’s absurdities call into question the applicability of conventional keys to the meanings of art, and by generalising from the particular, they question it everywhere. Wherever the meaning of this music is to be found, it’s not in the same place as a Bruce Springsteen record, and by implication, nor is Springsteen’s.
Artistic meaning, and the experience of hearing music, are altogether more complex things than the ideologically normalised valuations offered by conventional work would have us believe; Churn Milk Joan’s creative practice playfully insists that we acknowledge that complexity. Bearing in mind that conventional notions of aesthetics and artistic meaning are the foundation stones of a commercial hegemony, then Churn Milk Joan are ‘speaking truth to power’, just as much as any more overtly political band. The music is very odd, but also quite accessible, and although it might take some adjustment, it’s easy enough to get yourself into their aesthetic zone, and enjoy it. The grooves are deep, and the textures full of weird beauty. One achieves a rare synthesis (although one to be found in both its creators’ other work) of the fun, and the thought-provoking. The world needs more music like this.