Friday, October 31, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town"! (II)

I'm very far from being a fan of contemporary R'n'B, but the following song, which I first heard in London quite a few years ago and which still brings me right back to those days, is a genuine pleasure. I'm not that interested in anything else this group recorded, and I can't really put into words why this particular piece means so much to me, but why should I bother? I just think it's a wonderful, life-affirming piece of music, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Worth Seeking (III)

Jessica Rylan: Interior Designs (Important Records, 2007)
It's one of life's minor pleasures to arrive home and finding new music in the mailbox, so when I returned to my hovel from th'office recently, wrapped in a green and pallid miasma of exhaustion and fit to do naught but sit down and stare vacantly at the television, I was delighted to find that a CD I'd ordered from the US of A ages ago was lying on the carpet in front of the door: Jessica Rylan's Interior Designs (there was also a phone bill, but my joie de vivre woudn't be quashed by such a trifle). I must say that there's nothing like the appearance of a honking slab of cacophonous blare to put a new step in my stride, so I skipped lightly to the CD player and put it on very, very loud while I waited for my dinner to cook.
Ms. Rylan is a singer/songwriter, sound artist, and noise musician who usually operates under the nom-de-plume of Can't and also builds her own synthesisers (including the brilliantly named Battery Powered Noise Generator; boy, I wanna get me one of those!). You can view her website here (oddly enough, there's no mention of this album there that I can find). Based on a musical interpretation of Chaos Theory (although I find her liner notes a bit glib and uninformative; it would be more salient to get details on how the pieces were actually composed, or generated) it consists of four roughly ten-minute-long tracks:
'extraordinary', the opener, starts with a harsh metronomic pulse before suddenly disintegrating into an eruption of sonic indigestion: fifteen minutes of whining, blurping, and surging electronic spurts and gurgles - the sound of R2D2's stomach after way too much curry and tequila - which is quite fascinating due to the sheer variety, and unpleasantness, of the squelchy, flatulent sounds she produces from her synthesisers (this is where the liner notes' deficiencies become apparent: Were these tracks composed or improvised, or a mix of both? Were they simply generated like cellular automata, where from a simple set of programmed instructions the track emerges organically like mould spreading on a loaf of bread, with the composer having minimal control over the results? Are they complete in themselves, or merely the most interesting snippets from much longer takes?). One also gets the feeling that the composer takes a gleeful pleasure in the scatalogical overtones of the noises that she is pulling out of her boxes, which is entertaining in itself as humour is something that seems lacking from a lot of noise/electronica (that I've heard, anyway).
The second track, 'timeless', is for me the most interesting: Rylan conjures up a fuzzy, grainy, monochromatically ruinous landscape, a desolate, rainswept beach in November or a crumbling city in Siberia, seen intermittently through bursts of hurricane-induced static, punctuated and disrupted by ambiguous sonic hieroglyphics. A harsh electronic wind blows throughout this particular piece, and the increasingly loud and aggressive nature of the gale she evokes brings to mind an elemental landscape being etched by ferocious forces; if you were a sea-stack of the coast of northern Scotland, battered by storm and sea, this is what your world might sound like. Unlike the other tracks on the album, which to me are entertaining but not wildly original electronica, this track has real force and intensity.
'phantasia' conjures up an electronic landscape of twittering, scurrying pond life in a rock pool, over which another churning storm blows its course. This track, while interesting, somehow lacks the intensity and excitement of the previous two, however.
The title track is a bit of an odd-(wo)man-out, a drum machine and acoustic guitar duet which has a certain down-home charm (the sound of someone practising, strumming, just enjoying themselves) but seems a little out of place with its wilder synthesiser buddies, and gives the impression of being stuck in there to allow the album a respectable running time.
I suppose the problem with this music is that, while it's not at all bad - indeed, some of it is excellent - it lacks that certain quality of brilliance which would distinguish itself from the countless other practitioners in this field. One gets the feeling that Rylan is being a little too self-conscious and restrained, a little too respectful of tradition, to let loose with some of the tougher, more abrasive elements of this kind of music, and this lack of nerve (and inspiration) holds the pieces back from achieving their full potential. The video posted below (which sounds a little like 'extraordinary') is considerably more fierce, and the better for it, than anything on the album above. But it's very promising, and certainly good enough to make me seek out some of her work as Can't, including New Secret, a 2005 album which comes highly recommended by The Wire magazine (source of all that is wonderful in modern music! and which is where I found out about Rylan in the first place). Anyway, here she is in action:

So what are you waiting for? Get thee to her website and do your bit to support the arts (and beat the recession blues) by purchasing some noise! Hell, buy a synthesiser and annoy your neighbours (their house will probably be repossessed anyway, or yours will, so either way it's not a long-term problem, and it'll take their mind off of their financial woes...)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (II)

The following is from History of Europe (Vol. II) by Sir Archibald Alison, first published in 1842. I've broken the text up into small paragraphs for easier digestion. Alison's 10-volume history is described here: "The general style is prolix, involved and vicious; mistakes of fact and false deductions are to be found in almost every page; and the constant repetition of trite moral reflections and egotistical references seriously detracts from its dignity. A more grave defect resulted from the author's strong political partisanship [he was a Tory], which entirely unfitted him for dealing with the problems of history in a philosophical spirit." Bear in mind that the edition I have (the ninth) was published in 1853, just after the Famine.)
Perhaps no two nations ever exhibited a more striking contrast in national qualities than the inhabitants of Great Britain and those of the genuine Hibernian race in the south and west of Ireland. Unlike their countrymen in Ulster, who are laborious, active, and steady as their progenitors of the Norman or Anglo-Saxon blood, their character is the very reverse of that of the British, and much more closely resembles that of the French, though with some important distinctions from them also.
Brave, both individually and collectively; kind, charitable, light-hearted, and grateful, they possess many virtues which, in private life, must command esteem or win affection. But they appear to be almost entirely destitute of those more commanding qualities which are necessary to success in the world, and which, for good or for evil, stamp a great destiny on nations.
Ever vehement, often impassioned, they yet want the regulated ardour which sustains great undertakings. Indolent and excitable, they seek gratification rather in taking vengeance on their enemies than in improving themselves. They are too short-sighted to see what is necessary to durable success - too volatile and inconsiderate to make the sacrifices necessary to attain it.
Ever since their conquest early in the twelfth century by Henry II, they have never ceased to nourish a feeling of hatred for the Saxons, which has frequently burst forth in frightful acts of violence; but they have never seen that it was only by adopting the arts and imitating the industry of the stranger, that they would be enabled to contend with him. Though possessing more than double the population, and quadruple the physical resources, of the northern neighbours of England, they were conquered with ease by eleven hundred English men-at-arms and two thousand archers, who followed the Plantagenet standard; while eighty thousand English soldiers have been repeatedly hurled back from the comparatively desolate and ill-peopled realm of Scotland.
They were for long after retained in subjection by so small a force, that even in the time of Elizabeth it only amounted to one thousand, and on emergencies to two thousand men. So true in every age has been the character given of them by Agricola: "I have often heard from [Agricola] that by a single legion and a few auxilaries Ireland might be conquered and retained in subjection." (Tacitus, Agricola, c. 24)
They have proved themselves as incapable of rivalling the British in peace as they were of resisting them in war. They have neither imitated their husbandry nor adopted their manufactures. Their noble natural harbours are desolate, their maginificent fisheries untouched, their rich mineral fields unexplored. Nay, so far has their animosity gone, that, like the American Indians, they repel or shun the approach of civilisation. If an English manufacturer, bringing bread to thousands, settles in their country, they burn down his factory; if a Scotch farmer appears, capable of quadrupling the produce of the soil, they shoot him through the head.
To maintain an idle and barbarous independence is their idea of freedom; to repel the first advances of industry their principle of patriotism. They have gained their object. Capital shuns their fertile and peopled shores; and the overflowing wealth of England seeks rather the risk of South American insolvency, or North American repudiation, than the certainty of Irish violence.
Equal, perhaps superior, to the English in genius, they have seldom directed it to any useful purpose; this want of steadiness in pursuit, this absence of a practical turn, has been their perpetual bane. Constantly complaining of evils, they have never suggested any efficient remedy for them; ever exclaiming against misgovernment, they have never given the remotest indication of a capacity to govern themselves. With the exception of numerous brave recruits which they have ever furnished for our armies, they have scarcely at any time contributed anything to the general support of the empire. Though treated with extraordinary, perhaps unmerited, indulgence in taxation, their national resources are hardly drawn forth; and the most fertile part of the British dominions is disgraced by two millions of paupers, in a land which might with ease maintain three times its present number.
A note on the above, which follows the comment on taxation, states in part: "In the famine of 1847, produced by the failure of the potato crop, ten millions sterling [author's italics] was given from the British treasury to relieve the distress in Ireland, with scarcely any prospect of repayment; while Scotland, albeit afflicted by a similar calamity, got nothing."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Amusement (II)

A Doubtful Egg is now on holidays and is going abroad. I can't imagine that, in between sightseeing, stuffing my face, and lounging about like a mottled slug, I'll have any time to get to a computer, so I won't be posting for a week or two. Feel free to root around in the archive and, if you like or dislike anything therein, please leave a comment. In the meantime, here's something interesting:

One of Those "No Way!" Moments (I)

[This was written a few months ago, then forgotten about until I unearthed it recently, and therefore doesn't refer to this month's issue of Mixmag.]
Every now and again an unaccountable urge seizes me as I loll by my fireside. For reasons that lie submerged deep in the disused basement of my junkyard mind (just underneath the damp, cobwebbed boxes of seldom visited school memories) I am driven to perambulate into town and buy a copy of Mixmag. It must be five years since I set foot in a nightclub, or “disco”, as my attempts at dancing brought tears to the eyes of strong men and I was much too shy and withdrawn to make any attempt at “chatting up” women who, in any case, strutted off in contempt at my awful clothes and complete lack of “cool”. Besides, seeing as my ideal woman is a sexy librarian who knows the date Constantinople fell to the Turks, it was clear that the local dish-co (as they say down the country) would not be furnishing me with such a person save in the most unlikely of circumstances. I do like dance music, but I don’t purchase enough to make it worth my while buying a magazine devoted solely to the subject (and the culture attendant upon it). It must be the free CD (even though this month’s looked, and turned out to be, dreadful), or perhaps it’s all those pictures of pretty young people a-dancin’ and a-laughin’, having a jolly old time in funky nightspots, that appeals to a sour, anti-social old freak like me, but whatever the reason, last Wednesday saw me slouched at my kitchen table with a mug of strong coffee, munching my way through a packet of caramel slices while flipping through my newly-purchased copy.
An article contained therein filled me with a sense of outrage and disgust, as it describes what I feel to be an affront to human decency. There’s a club for the super-rich in London called Movida, whose claim to fame is that it serves the world’s priciest drink, a concoction that costs £35,000. Yes, that's 35 with three zeroes following it! It has edible gold leaf included in its recipe and comes with an 11-carat diamond ring thrown in (presumably the waiters are trained in the Heimlich manoeuvre in case one of the more intellectually challenged celebs in residence swallows this particular item). The first thought that popped into my head was that this drink costs more than I, in common with two-thirds of the Irish population, earns in a year, and the second which quickly followed was whether the gold leaf is actually digested into your system, or does it emerge from the other end intact? I suppose if you’re rich enough to afford one of these drinks you probably aren’t the sort who’ll be evacuating onto a clean plate the next day and picking through your own excrement with a tweezers and a diamond cutter’s lens, shining a torch to pick out those tell-tale glimmers. That’s what your entourage is there for! It’s could be a 21st century form of panhandling; after a trip to Movida, the personal staff of the rich are kept on standby in the morning, waiting for the gold rush to start… As Douglas Adams once put it, such a tipple seems to exist for the singular purpose of allowing rich idiots to impress other rich idiots, but there is something pretty despicable about squandering so much money on a cocktail when there are people grinding their way through lives of misery and hardship over debts a fraction of that drink’s cost. At the best of times I always find it risible, contemptible even, to hear rich people (like Bono) gassing on about making poverty history, but it’s an absolute certainty that as long as people are wealthy enough, and callous enough, to waste their fortunes on a luxury such as this while others can barely afford to put food on their tables, poverty will always be with us, and indeed will flourish like a poisonous weed.
(There was also an advert warning of the perils of STDs - a picture of a naked woman’s back with a label stitched onto it bearing the legend 'chlamydia' - which I found strangely erotic. Does this make me a pervert? It’s not a whole lot different from a tattoo, to be honest! It could be a whole new form of advertising; having actual messages sewn onto your skin which you can display as you strut around the beach (or wherever you feel the compulsion to strut…))

Friday, October 3, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (III)

Knuckles O'Toole Goes South of the Border (Grand Award Records, undated, prob. 1950s)
What image pops into your mind when you hear the name Knuckles O'Toole? Almost certainly, I would wager, it is a boxer, and not a very reputable one at that; a scarred, bullet-headed, broken-nosed lump of a man, mumbling about how he "coulda been a contendah" while dreaming about that one last shot at the big time. Or it's a gangster in a Damon Runyon story: the description, "a big wide guy with two large hard hands and a great deal of very bad disposition" could follow the name as surely as nausea follows Abrakebabra. This is largely because, with the exception of pummelling the pudding out of other people, there are no careers available in which the knuckles play a central role. So why a pianist, even a honky-tonk pianist such as Mr. O'Toole, would take on such an appellation is a little perplexing. Obviously, without knuckles the pianist couldn't bend his fingers and would be reduced to pounding the keyboard like a seal using his flipper, but it is the fingers which are primarily responsible for the sweet, sweet music that entrances us (or, in the case of Phil Coulter, makes us vomit). After all, other parts of the hand and arm play a part in the performance of music, but one can't imagine any instrumentalist, even America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man (as the record jacket boldly proclaims), going by the name of, say, "Elbows" O'Toole. Perhaps he had a reputation for battering critics who questioned his skills? It will probably remain a mystery (unless I bother to do an internet search and find out anything about him, something I'm far too lazy to attempt).
Of course, I had reasons other than the performer's peculiar name for buying this particular LP (not, of course, that I would have needed more), related to the record's design. The first thing you'll notice about the jacket is that down each side is written 'Grand Award: World's Greatest Music'. This, of course, will instantly pique the curiosity of any connoisseur; those of a madly impulsive nature may, before they know it, find themselves outside the shop with the purchased LP in their hands, desperate to hear the aural magnificence which deserved said award. A more sober individual will, before purchasing, flip the record over and discover that Grand Award is not an honour, but the name of the record company which issued the LP (and a cynic might see in this the same principle which motivates a couple of guys in a trailer, with a single camera and no money, to call themselves the Stupendously Colossal Film Company). But it's on the back of the LP that the hard sell begins in earnest.
The headline at the top trumpets "Grand Award: Acclaimed by Music Critics! Approved by Music Educators! Treasured by Music Lovers!" (I added a few exclamation marks to get into the spirit of the pronouncement.) But it's not just the World's Greatest Music by America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man, according to the copious liner notes; we are also being treated to the World's Greatest Art! I can feel my aesthetic fuses beginning to reach overload as this surge of sensory pleasure assaults it, and I haven't even listened to the goddamn record yet. The 'Art' referred to is the cover painting, an illustration by a gentleman called David Stone (of whom I know nothing bar what the liner notes tell me, and which aren't worth the bother of transcribing). It's pleasant and inoffensive, I suppose - one can easily see it for sale in Tijuana gift shops as a poster - but it hardly fits with Grand Award's description, "an authentic reproduction of the world's most famous art masterpieces, originals of [which] are on exhibit in leading Art Museums throughout the world." Somehow, I don't think that Willem de Kooning or Jasper Johns were measuring their excellence by a yardstick set by David Stone ...
We have a lengthy description of what makes this record so wonderful, of course ("a most exciting blending of Latin American rhythms with the swinging, riotous style of the honky-tonk piano"), which I'm rather dubious about; after all, it's a truism that any record entitled [Insert Name Here] Goes To [Insert Exotic Destination Here] is more than likely to be a cheap, shoddy rip-off featuring a talented musician sleepwalking his way through watered-down versions of hits in a particular theme, designed for people who know nothing about music except what they hear on the radio, are terrified of anything even slightly unfamiliar, and buy about two records a year (a modern equivalent would be the Best [Insert Genre Here] Album in the World Ever). At no point do the notes explain how Knuckles got his name, the only thing that interests me about him. They also inform me that this music is performed by O'Toole and his orchestra, but only lists four guys. Personally, I think you need to break into double figures before your band becomes an orchestra, but that's just me. Hell, by that logic, Simon and Garfunkel are practically an orchestra ...
(Everything on the back of this record strongly suggests that a door-to-door salesman went tramping around the endless suburbs of middle America with these LPs, using the liner notes as his sales pitch to bored housewives: "It's "an important addition to both your music collection ... and your art collection, providing you and your family [with] the undeniable advantage of possessing an eminent selection of fine music and great art"! Would the good people at Grand Award even think of selling you a shoddy product? It's made "under the supervision of Grand Award Research"! They "inspected and passed" it. It'll increase the value of your house! Now, you look like a smart young lady ... " and so forth.)
Of course all of the above, read as I stood amidst the mountain of worthless junk which the car-boot salesman had left in heaps around his battered old vehicle, filled me with a frenzy of enthusiasm and so, after palming the gentleman's hand with a princely €1.50, the LP was mine. I tore home, donned my huge sombrero and poncho, dug out my enormous fake moustache, grabbed a bottle of tequila, arranged some Mehican delicacies on a plate, and prepared to be transported to a sultry and raucous world of Latino extravagance. I slid the vinyl out of the thin, surprisingly papery sleeve (the Grand Award company would scarcely condone the use of second-rate paper for their inner sleeves, would they?), put it on the turntable, and placed the needle on the record. What emerged, unfortunately, wasn't muy picante at all; in fact, it was decidedly Gallic. I pulled it off and discovered to my shock that, while the jacket said Knuckles was going South of the Border, the actual record was Knuckles Goes To Paris! ¡Dios mio! Let this be a lesson for all vinyl hunters: always make sure the jacket has the right bloody record inside!
Once I'd overcome my disappointment, changed into a beret and a stripey jumper, replaced my huge moustache with a pencil-thin one, and my tequila with red wine, I put on the LP again. And after all that, is it no surprise to say that it was entirely bland and uninteresting? The sound of the honky-tonk piano, tinny and slightly percussive, is the only distinguishing feature of a record so artistically empty that it makes John Cage's 4'33" (the silent piece) seem dramatic and full of incident. The problem is that it's impossible to match the (admittedly pleasant) easy-listening fluff that one hears to the almost lunatic hyperbole of the liner notes (and yes, I'm aware that the notes are referring to a different record, but I imagine the principle was probably carried across all the label's releases). That being said, it is a mildly soporific background noise, has a strange Parisian ambience in the same way that a plastic Eiffel Tower on the dashboard of a tractor does, and thus is more tolerable than, say, a similar record by James Last. And I'm cheered by the thought that somewhere out there is someone with the jacket of Knuckles Goes To Paris and the actual vinyl of South of the Border (and if he/she reads this, I'm willing to take it off your hands and return these long-separated LPs to their proper homes).
You can read more about Knuckles here. In fairness to him, he was an accomplished ragtime pianist, as is demonstrated here, which gives the impression that the above record may have had more to do with paying bills than musical expression:

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Worth Seeking (II)

Dialing In: Cows in Lye (Pseudo Arcana, 2006)
One of the most delightful aspects of the Internet (more than just a global pornography network, as Lisa Simpson once said) is how it allows the individual searching for more esoteric musical experiences the opportunity of connecting directly with small labels which specialise in such things. Or, to put it another way, it is a pathway to labels run by creative and intelligent individuals who release interesting, exciting, and imaginative music, as opposed to the mainstream's (more often than not) mass-produced pablum, recorded by worthless egotists (whose primary goal in life is to swan about in limos and have closets filled with designer shoes) and slurried out by major labels. One such specialist label is Pseudo Arcana, set up by a musician named Antony Milton and dealing primarily in what could loosely be described as noise, drone, and experimental, featuring artists such as Birchville Cat Motel, seht, Dead Raven Choir, Glory Fckn Sun, and Sunken (you can check them out here and here). They are also responsible for releasing Cows in Lye, the second album from the mysterious Dialing In, and one of the best I've heard (by a hitherto unknown-to-me artist) in quite some time.
Dialing In is the nom-de-plume of Reita Piecuch, a sound artist from Seattle who works in a record shop. This practically all that I know about her. The record label's blurb is short on detail bar a basic description of how the six tracks were created and a pretty accurate summation of the album's sound (an "ecstatic roaring psychedelic drone project"). She has no website or MySpace page, and there's no statement of work or interviews available (that I could locate) which inform us of her thoughts on life, art, music, George W. Bush, etcetera. Such reclusiveness is both admirable in our age of talentless media whores (and I use the phrase in a gender-free sense) and in keeping with the bleak and beautiful atmosphere of her music, where looped motifs (a piano phrase, a vocal fragment) hover over a blaring, turbulent wall of fluid noise which at times threatens to swamp and obliterate them, creating a sonic environment of hypnotic, unsettling mystery and wonder.
Some clues to her intent: her chosen name, Dialing In, suggests reportage; messages being phoned in from a place of anxiety and uncertainty, signals received through a coagulated sediment of interference, as well as an enforced distance from the person transmitting the signals, the source. The album's title (and cover, a close-up of a flayed animal's jawbone) provides more suggestions; lye is a corrosive substance used to dissolve animal fats in order to create soap, an interesting allegory to what the artist does in her creative work (taking natural sounds and rendering them into walls of clotted noise) but also leading to speculation about the artist's intended message. Organic matter broken down by harsh, destructive chemicals in order to create something purifying? The callousness of a process whereby, in an age where synthetic soaps can be easily manufactured, chunks of slaughtered animals are still used in this fashion? Such ambiguity is in keeping with this music, which is allusive, suggestive, sublimely atmospheric, and utterly brilliant.
Like any drone project (which, I believe, have their origins in non-Western forms of music where the goal of the performer is to transport the listener into a transcendental, ecstatic state of mind), these six tracks initially come across as deceptively simple. Create a thick wall of noise, generate a few looped motifs to hover on top of it, and just let it run for a while. But it's a bit more tricky than that! The first thing to state is that Ms. Piecuch, through her method of recording and re-recording real sounds until they're practically unrecognisable, buried under an accretion of hiss and distortion, conjures up a huge, almost overwhelming density of sound on each of these tracks, especially when played as I'm sure is intended (extremely loud). Against a turbulent, at times chaotic, carpet of howling, indistinct blare, often mournful and elegiac musical phrases repeat insistently, creating a mesmerising, almost oneiric soundscape that carries the attentive listener away and into a dark, desolate, and haunting world. As the compositions envelop you, one becomes attuned to the slightest changes within the initially indistinct, almost impermeable, knots of noise; echoes of melody, ghosts of barely-heard instruments, are glimpsed briefly in the tumult before disappearing. Although the tracks are actually quite short, they give the impression that they could continue indefinitely, working their subtle magic for hours at a stretch. They encompass a wide range of invention and emotion, giving lie to the (ill-informed) notion that drone need be dull or repetitive; one can choose from the melancholic 'In The Mojave' or the blistering 'Thorazine Eclipse'; the huge, forceful bass tone of 'Landfill' or the seething, Middle-Eastern-tinged tumult of 'He Just Fused Your Mind'; from the rushing, turbid mass of 'City of Dogs' or the very strange 'Diamante's Call to Prayer', which features a guy called Herb Diamante reciting in a stilted, Olde Englishe accent over an ebbing, uncertain blare backdrop with insistent loops, a bit like the soundtrack to a post-industrial noise remake of The Canterbury Tales. Throughout, Diamante repeats the phrase "what ails thee?" like a medieval preacher; if the answer is the post-millenial blues, brought on by the fact that the world's going down the tubes and there's not a damn thing we can do about it, the best way to combat the symptoms is to take this album at least once a day, at top volume, like vitamins (as Lester Bangs suggested that you do with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music). Cows in Lye faces the muck and horror of the world we've created for ourselves and wrings beauty, hard-won and demanding but there nonetheless, out of it. And, fundamentally, that's what all good music is for, right?