self released 2015, DD & CD album, 33m 58s
£7+ DD £? CD
Ashley Reaks has a good way with lyrics himself, but there’s a strong synergy to his collaborations with spoken word artist Joe Hakim, such as ‘I Want To Get A Celebrity Pregnant’ from Before Koresh. Hakim is a social observer, a curator of experience who speaks sometimes from a lived subjectivity, and sometimes from a presumably imagined one, often in successive lines, articulating marginalities and bearing witness to acts of unconscious resistance. As such his concerns are distinct from those to be found on the Ashley Reaks albums from which he is absent, such as the satirical character portraits and serial-killer aesthetics of Compassion Fatigue. The locus of Hakim’s speech is closer to the gutter, and his dramas are found in the prosaic daily struggles of the underclass, but his words seem as well-suited to Reaks’ expansive modal grooves as do the composer’s own. There is a real distinction, however, between the lyrics of a song, words animated by and subordinated to the tonal and rhythmic exigencies of a musical context, and a spoken text in dialogue with a piece of music. Reaks’ settings are not marked by any obvious sonic signature of the underground, but his music is quite emphatically located there, if only by dint of its refusal of other identities, and its trance-like intimations of solidarity in alterity; in this tranquil otherness, with its inclusive but particular aesthetics, Hakim’s voice finds a hospitable site for its explorations of the urban social hinterland.
When Reaks writes songs, although they are strophic, usually having at least a repeated refrain to which they return, they are mostly constructed on a continuity of groove, mode and atmosphere – on a jam, in other words, although it is always an impeccably economical and well-constructed jam, and never sounds remotely ad hoc. More or less the same procedures apply to his settings for Hakim. These are sectional compositions, containing episodes where the density of the words’ support shifts for dramatic effect, or where a powerfully corporeal and expressive melodic statement on voice, sax or guitar seems to comment on the verbal content that has preceded it, but the groove and unchanging mode that underlies all the sections feels as dependable as the measured unfolding of entropy, and exceeds, by implication, each piece’s extent in time. Certain elements recur: a dub aesthetic, in the shapes thrown by the bass, and in the discrete reverberant spaces of the production; the multi-tracked vocal riffing and extraordinary wordless improvisations of Maria Jardardottir; ensemble scoring of (any combination of) saxophone, melodica, accordion (all played by Dave Kemp), guitar and synth, moving together in thickly orchestrated harmonised riffs; and an expressive contrast between the frequently dysphoric verbal content and the heartfelt lyricism of the improvised melodies. What might be unexpected from the above description, with its emphasis on the underground character of the creative agenda, is the unashamed joy that is taken in the expressive power of instrumental facility: Kemp’s saxophone curlicues and extended improvisations, the jazz guitar solo that follows the spoken text in ‘Special Brew Blues’, or the more aggressive and textural one in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, that resembles nothing so much as Adrian Belew’s work on Bowie’s Scary Monsters or Talking Heads’ Remain In Light – I don’t know whether the guitar solos are Reaks’ work or Nick Dunne’s, but they display a keen awareness of the affective specificities of melody and timbre. There are players at work here, and their expressive powers offer articulations of subjectivity where the words run out, standing in for the irreducible and unspeakable particularity of individual experience in generic social contexts.
There is also, I suppose, a sense in which the music makes Hakim’s accounts bearable: the harshness of the light he casts, and the grim aspect of the ground he casts it on, are the vehicles of a necessary truth, but in a bare verbal form the value of their affect would risk an audience preferring to efface them in the always available technical language of sociology. Put simply, the inner life of someone whose horizon is marked by the next gold tin or dog-end rollie is an experience most would sooner take as read, and given the choice we will understand it as the symptom of a political condition, or of an economic process, rather than the subjective reality of a person like ourselves. The function of the collaborations on Cultural Thrift is to both sweeten the pill, and to slip their potent affective cargo in via the back door. The music is more than a vehicle for the verbal meanings, however, and there is something both consoling and terrifying in the unity of Reaks’ affective generosity with the simple wounding truths to which Hakim bears witness. I don’t intend to give the impression that the verbal texts are unremittingly grim, however: there is a great deal of light and shade, and a modicum of well-buffered deadpan humour.
‘It’s better to be a cautious freak/ than a pleasant mug’, Hakim offers in the straightforwardly titled ‘The Principles of Paranoia’, and this is clearly a credo he lives by, although it is not so much paranoia as a critical scepticism that he evinces, one that never seems delusional – but perhaps his point is that such an awareness always appears paranoiac in the sites of social legitimacy. His voice is usually that of one talking to many, in a considered reversal of media power relations, his subjects speaking to ‘you lot out there’, rather than being subjected by the individual voice of power that imposes homogeneity on them in its demand that they buy standardised products or seek standardised employment. The only time his speech seems situated within, rather than emerging out of a social context, is in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, in which he clearly addresses a type, the phoney poet that thinks themselves ‘up there/ with someone like Joe Strummer/ or John Cooper Clarke’. Although his work never refers overtly to the other set of practices in which ‘spoken word’ is a cultural figure, this seems like an oblique reference to rap (what mixtape is complete without an attack on ‘whack emcees’?), particularly Hakim’s parting observation that his subjects are ‘a bunch of snivelling snitches/ so far up each other’s arse you’re practically/ prison bitches’. In ‘To Let’ he gives us a catalogue of experience, that seems to unite, as much as anything could, the variety of his commitment to the irreducible value of the particular, and it is the only place he explicitly generalises: ‘We are all as transitory as furniture – gathering dust/ we just occupy a space until/ we are replaced by something else’. The rooms we live in are placed at the centre of experience, and our subjectivities summarised as activities within them: ‘rooms in which dreams have decayed’, ‘rooms where I’ve lost my mind’, ‘rooms where limits have been pushed’, and perhaps most importantly, ‘rooms in which my story will be told.’ As an exercise in storytelling, this is clearly the work of two masters.