Thinking Plague – In This Life reissue (avant-rock)
Cuneiform Records RUNE407 2015, DD & CD album, 47m 21s
$10+ DD $16.50+ CD
This album, originally released in 1989, was for a long time the definitive answer to the question ‘what do Thinking Plague sound like?’ It was ten years before In Extremis presented a new line-up and a changing sound to the record-buying public (sans legendary founder-member Bob Drake) – and let’s face it, bands as daring and un-commercial as this tend to communicate with their audience more by the medium of recordings than by live performance. Cuneiform Records, with whom Thinking Plague have been since that follow-up, characterise this album as the band’s ‘stylistic coming of age’, and that certainly seems a fair assessment, inasmuch as any truly creative project can be limited to a specific set of idiomatic characteristics. If I think of Thinking Plague, then I think of a particular combination of avant-garde harmonies, precisely coordinated musicianship, rock and folk textures, and tense, ominous atmospheres, a recipe which is cooked to perfection on In This Life. The music is texturally rooted in the underground rock tradition by its kit drums, sometimes grinding bass, and penetrating electric guitar, but the materials from which it is constructed are more indebted to the histories of twentieth century Classical music than to any popular music inheritance (aside from the obscure and forbidding currents of its Rock in Opposition antecedents). This is not just a question of harmonies and modalities, but of rigorous compositional strategies, where any sense of strophic repetition seems to derive as much from the return to dynamic or affective positions as from the reprise of any specific themes or grooves; the pieces are not strictly through-composed, but when material returns, like the low-key driving percussion sections in ‘Organism (Version II)’, it is transformed, remodelled and re-purposed, demanding continued close attention from the listener. Lyrically I’ve rarely gotten to grips with Thinking Plague, as I become so immersed in their soundworld that I usually forget to listen to the words. ‘Love’ is a disturbing take on the most generic of pop-music tropes, and is texturally the prettiest of these recordings, although its lack of a stable tonal centre precludes any aesthetic banalities. ‘Organism (Version II)’, a complex, multi-part piece, which at 11m 48s forms a kind of centrepiece for the album, may describe the progress of some organism through the human circulatory system, but it’s hard to be sure… If it was easy to say what the songs were about, I’d be pretty disappointed however: ambiguity is a key component of the meanings I’m able to read out of In This Life. Is its touchstone rock, or some kind of central European acoustic bad trip? If you let it make you feel the things that the world of conventional popular music has prepared you to hear in it, you will simply dislike it, and for me a big part of the pleasure in such music is the exploration of affective possibility. What do they intend I should feel? What is it possible to feel when I give myself up to this music? What if I decide to feel safe in its ostensibly warped and disorientating embrace? The answer is indeterminate, obviously, but when a recording’s aesthetic and affective offering is not pre-packaged and pre-digested, the potential rewards are, for me, far greater. After eschewing resolution for forty minutes, the concluding ‘Fountain Of All Tears’, which is as melancholy as its title suggests, caps the album with an unexpected outbreak of recognisable tonality, but this grim, lumbering ballad is hardly a lullaby. This superb record is an important document in the development of a truly extraordinary band, and well worthy of re-release.
Robin Elliott – Green Ginger Wine (acoustic roots)
Textbook Records TEXT001 2015, DD CD & 12” EP, 24m 39s
£5+ DD CD £10+ LP (Nowhere in Particular on B side)
I should start by pointing out that to me, at twenty-four minutes, this is long enough for an album – a format that was only ever quantitatively limited by the medium of 12” vinyl, and which creatively implies, let’s say, some combination of thematic consistency and substantive artistic ambition. In other words, if it has something more to say than ‘here’s a small number of my songs’, then it has every right to call itself an album, and Green Ginger Wine is a weightier exposition than many releases three times as long. Robin Elliott is a purveyor of Americana, roughly speaking: acoustic folksong, stylistically grounded in that ecology of interacting practices on which much of modern Western music is founded. Blues, country and western, bluegrass, Appalachian folk: all are present here, filtered through the prism of their treatment in the great mid-century folk revival, where their musical materials became grist to the mill of literary, auto-biographical song-craft. In Elliott’s hands those materials are handled with delicacy and strength, spacious and rhythmically exact performances from all players interlocking in lambent, mellifluous arrangements that glimmer with restraint. His band matches his careful attention to dynamics (the mark, in my view, of the self-aware musician), and outlines deep, compelling grooves in the barest of gestures. I don’t write the kind of review that methodically names and comments on each player in turn, but I will spare a mention for the gorgeous, warm double bass tone of Mao Yamada, who seems to crop up regularly in review submissions for some mysterious reason. Elliott’s songwriting is firmly situated in the tradition I described above, presenting keenly intelligent insights deftly leavened with observational detail, locking the general or the resonant securely into the irreducibly particular (where it’s safe from the sentimental and banal). He has a taste for language, with a cool, aesthetically engaged approach to assonance that matches the crisp delicacy of his music, and a dry sense of humour that comfortably bridges the profound and the quotidian – ‘the stars are spinning circles in the sky/ my friends and I smoke spliff and chat shit/ lying on the lawn’ he sings in ‘Gentle Chunks’. Tying all of this together is a calm, husky voice, a powerfully expressive instrument without recourse either to bombast or mannered slurring – I’d be the last person to complain of poor diction in music, but the clarity of Robin Elliott’s vocal delivery is in total accord with the creative whole of Green Ginger Wine. This is a beautifully realised, insightfully conceived, and aesthetically penetrating piece of work, a gorgeous, entertaining and thought-provoking twenty-four minutes that disappoints only by its judicious brevity.
Fun Lovin’ Criminals – Come Find Yourself reissue (rap rock)
Edsel Records CFYBOX20 2016, 3CD 10” 12” & DVD
£49.99 box set
Come Find Yourself is, for many people of roughly my age, an era-defining album. It stood out from the crowd stylistically, and came correct with laid-back, feelgood grooves that ensured it stayed on heavy rotation whatever else was going on, these two factors ensuring that, for me at least, it pervades my memories of the late 90s. It was far from being the first crossover between rock and rap, but most earlier fusions had been considerably more in-your-face, and rather than seeming like a collision of styles, this felt like rock musicians completely assimilating hip-hop to their practice. For me it was the moment at which it became apparent that hip-hop was so deeply engrained in musical culture that it was going to ooze out between the cracks whichever way you sliced it. Rather than being an exercise in style over substance, Fun Lovin’ Criminals produced an essay in style as substance, a witty and erudite exploration of just what it is that nebulous quantity contributes to culture and identity. This was quite simply one of the coolest utterances of the nineties, mashing up jazz, rap, punk, lounge, surf and the indefatigable romance of the New York streets into an hour of atmospheres assembled the same way Quentin Tarantino makes movies – and in their grab bag of smartly curated materials, very much the same way he programs soundtracks. Aside from the obvious downside (it makes me feel old), the twentieth anniversary of this record’s release is well worth celebrating, and Demon Records’ imprint Edsel has reissued it in the kind of deluxe multi-disc gift-box that people who were in their twenties at the time may now be able to afford. I have to confess that I don’t really go for extravagant box sets: if something needs reissuing, then I generally prefer a well engineered remaster without any additional tracks. A big mess of extra material serves mainly to obscure the original artistic statement – or it does if you’re old fashioned enough to think of an album as a creative whole, rather than an arbitrary agglomeration of individual tracks. However, the heart of this party-pack is the original album, on CD, exactly as is (there’s nothing in the blah to suggest it’s been remastered), with the other elements neatly separated. There’s another CD of alternate mixes, one of BBC sessions, a picture-disc LP of instrumental versions (straight from the stems as far as I can tell from my cursory listening), a 10” vinyl EP of more BBC sessions, and a DVD of various promo videos and TV appearances. I may have been sent links to the last, but I wasn’t paying attention, so I can’t comment on that, but the rest of the material is a lot of fun. I mean, only a true obsessive will want to listen straight through to five consecutive cuts of ‘Scooby Snacks’, but it’s certainly a pleasure to hear some variations on these much loved themes, and some of the remixes are dancefloor ready slabs of funk that I’ll definitely be playing the next time I’m responsible for tunes at a party. It’s pretty obvious that at the price listed above this release is for the hardcore enthusiast only, but if you’re new to Fun Lovin’ Criminals, or if it’s a long time since you revisited them, you should definitely treat your ears to a taste of Come Find Yourself.
The Chevron – The Smell of Love (dance rock)
self released 2016, DD album, 4m 46s
There’s something about ‘Indian Wife’, the opening track and first single released from this album – its combination of clean, fat beats and saturated guitars that drop abruptly in and out of the texture – that puts me in mind of noted theatrical electro-punks Sigue Sigue Sputnik. It’s not a comparison I’d want to labour, but that cut-and-paste sound had its inheritors in the nineties, and there is a distinctly nineties vibe to The Smell of Love, to my ears. The album is a humorous smorgasbord of stylistic materials, mashed together with gleeful disregard, most of which can be dated to historical moments the far side of the collapse of international Communism, although there is also a strong whiff of 90s underground dance music. Funky grooves abound, ranging in feel from clattery big-beat to well-oiled disco (and points in between), supporting well-judged, expertly crafted textures. The harmonic landscape is mostly pretty simple, its chord sequences forming refrains without disrupting the prevailing modality, and the arrangements are predominantly riff-based, these factors combining to reinforce a clear EDM aesthetic. This is dancefloor music, and any one of these tunes would lend itself readily to remixing, or to inclusion in a DJ set at the right tempo – ‘It Ain’t Love’ is the most obvious candidate, but nearly every track offers the requisite combination of steady pulse, episodic structure and laminar texture (the title track is a hilarious take on the funk ballad, and has a traditional song structure, but it’s the exception). So, an entertaining record, and an amusing one, with lyrical conceits that include daft space-rock science-fiction (‘Quantum Foam’), a stalker’s lament (‘Sucker’), romantic olfactory emissions (‘The Smell of Love’) and other equally serious-minded concerns; but it is also a serious piece of music making, and the places that The Chevron’s creative energies are primarily focussed seem to be groove and production. The man that’s hiding behind that name is an accomplished bass player, and his skills are much in evidence here, with deep, sometimes slippery (c.f. ‘Vesuvius’) and consistently solid grooves that breathe and bounce as they only can when articulation and note length are bang on the money. The arrangements show a comfortable command of affect, as with the all-ascending, tension-building figures of ‘Superparanoia’, for example, but there is always a buffer of irony to soak up any emotional impact that might detract from the music’s entertainment value – if hearts on sleeves are your thing, you’ll need to look elsewhere. This is an artistic statement of limited ambition, then, its aims precisely circumscribed but rigorously pursued. Its focus is narrow, and as a consequence its aims are both clear to the listener and thoroughly achieved. It’s an infectious, uplifting set of dance tunes, it’s always funny and it’s sometimes hilarious – but it is also an essay in aesthetic discipline and technical excellence. Much of the music I review will appeal to a very limited audience, but nearly everyone will love The Smell of Love. This is quite simply top-whack malarkey.