Beautiful angst: The Cure

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Back when life was all of a teenage, when the concept of “family” still held some substance for me, i was taken to spend a few days in the company of my “cousins” in London. There wasn’t much to do there, and i recall one particular day when i and “cousin-minor” were mooching in his room, reading, chatting, random stuff (mum, “aunt” and “cousin-major” were out, probably). All day, over and over, he played a single album, the music of which, at first, really chafed my ears (songs about arabs?). But as the hours trudged, i found myself listening more and more to the songs, looking forward to some, continuing to be irritated by others (enough with the arabs!), and i found myself really drawn to what this music—now fluffy and boistrous, now dark and brooding, filled with melancholy—could be.

The clues are there for sharp-witted readers: and i was to learn that this was The Cure, whose music i had hitherto only ever heard occasionally on the radio or in tapes swapped with friends. The album was Staring at the Sea, the compilation of all their earliest singles (and it was “Killing An Arab” that kept bugging me). It would be pushing it to say that this experience began a love affair with The Cure’s music; with virtually every other band (like every girl i’ve fallen for), this is what would have ensued (hmm, now there’s something to explore: how my relationships with different musics are similar to my relationships with the women i’ve loved). But it didn’t happen, and i still don’t know why; all i can think of is that i found something off-putting in the way their songs are so dichotomous, either incredibly up-beat and delirious, all popcorn and laughter (irritating) or deliciously dark and mellow, all velvet and bedrooms (wonderful). Perhaps i felt this to be too much at odds with how i felt within myself (hmm, now there’s something to explore: how my relationships with different musics relate to how i see myself), although it is actually rather like how i was in those ghastly 80s. More likely, i felt the darkest songs were so powerful, so true to what i thought and felt and knew, that i couldn’t stand to hear them do anything that seemed to go against that. Strangely, i have only ever acquired a single album by The Cure, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, and my ambivalence remains. For me, it is stopped from being one of the finest albums of all time by the (dareisayit) “happy” songs that crop up at intervals; aside from those, it contains some of the most mesmerisingly beautiful songs i’ve ever heard, and which continue to move me as much as ever; “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” is perhaps the most gorgeous song ever, while in “One More Time”, Robert Smith’s heart-breaking singing still brings tears to my eyes.

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Dancing (kind of) and drifting (ish): Stravinsky, Autechre, The Orb

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IDM is to dance music as Stravinsky is to instrumental music; discuss. Well, not exactly, but it strikes me there’s something of a similarity, particularly in the way that the underlying pulse is fragmented into irregular metres. This is probably why i love IDM (and Stravinsky) so much, although i’m more concerned in my own music to violate the underlying pulse itself (which few composers seem to want to do). For me, Autechre are the paradigm of this, deconstructing rhythm into its component parts and setting up weird, mutated versions that evolve into something else (often even stranger). Untilted—which i was listening to earlier in the car—has to be the IDM album par excellence, with the opening and closing tracks being arguably the best; “LCC” becomes weird and wonderful about 2-and-a-half minutes in; “Sublimit” becomes amazing around six-and-a-half minutes in; but they’re both brilliant throughout.

Over the last couple of days, during some much longer car journeys, i’ve been re-visiting an old classic: The Orb‘s Adventures In The Ultraworld. Back when i was a recalcitrant sixth-former, i used to spend my free periods at the record shop in town, and it was there i heard this album playing, back goodness knows when, and a friend and i bought a copy each. Goodness knows how many years later, i’m not sure how well it’s aged. My composition teacher during my degree told me “one doesn’t finish a composition, one just stops working on it”. While i fundamentally disagree with this, it kind of sums up how the conclusion to each half of this album sounds, dragged out for far too long, structure falling apart at the seams, meandering who knows where for who knows how long. i think when this came out (1991, i just checked), it was probably its novelty that saw it through; certainly, i’d never heard anything quite like it. There’s much about it i still really like, but now, i think something is lost.

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Music for Epiphany and more

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Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany, and it strikes me as strange that there is so little music written for Epiphanytide. Advent and Christmastide are overflowing with possibilities, but composers have clearly not been inspired by this season. It might be that it’s been somewhat vague until more recent times; certainly, the Anglican church has only got its structure and approach sorted in the last 5 years. But i think it’s an extremely powerful period of time, especially as it moves towards its conclusion with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on 2 February. My own Nunc dimittis was intended as an anthem for that occasion, rather than for regular weekday Evensongs, and thankfully it’s only ever been performed as such.

Yesterday’s listening was a return to an old favourite: John Oswald. i’ve been interested in him since my early 20s, when i heard a work of his performed by the Kronos Quartet at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (Mach i believe it was called). His “plunderphonic” style is remarkable, and when i first heard Plexure it produced a similar reaction to Venetian Snares: shock, amusement, bewilderment and exhilaration. But today i was listening to something from his very different, electroacoustic style: his 2003 work Aparenthesi. It’s difficult to believe it’s by the same composer; a gorgeous, intense, patient and rapturous meditation, similar to some of The Hafler Trio‘s work. The slowly-shifting soundscape is surprisingly engaging, and i found myself very moved by it.

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Merzbow and h³o

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Yesterday’s listening was confined to a single album, Merzbow‘s Door Open at 8am. Annoyingly, i felt distracted while listening, so i don’t feel i’ve engaged with it adequately; i’ll try again soon, perhaps as part of my journey into Masami Akita’s work. This morning i spent time with OM Electrique, the first of his 50-disc “Merzbox”, and it was a fascinating experience. i’m quite fond of journeying through an artist’s work chronologically, and beginning with this album, from 1979, i was aware it would be screaming “analogue” at me, and i’m sure this contributed to how abrasive was the start of the opening track. Fortunately, i’m made of sterner stuff, and after the (admittedly rather discomiting) first 10 minutes, the noise opened out into other areas. i’m already fascinated with the way that rhythmic pulses move in and out and evolve within Merzbow’s work; here, it seemed to be one of just a few layers of noise that dropped in and out at intervals; but when a layer drops out, it gives a startling new way of hearing the remaining layers. The four tracks are related in pairs, and the album’s a bit disjointed as a result; early days though.

Noise of a very different order this afternoon: The Hafler Trio‘s Hljóðmynd. How Andrew McKenzie creates his soundscapes i have no idea. It’s going to be an interesting week, since BBC4 is showing a number of programmes this week exploring aspects of popular music. Highlights: Monday has histories of The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops, Tuesday a review by Paul Morley (a genius, and one of my heroes) about the role of music on culture/identity, and on Wednesday Charles Hazlewood is exploring “How Pop Songs Work”…

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From the ridiculous (via noise) to the sublime

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When any series comes to an end, it’s an emotional experience, and so it was yesterday when the last two CDs in Andrew Liles‘ 12-CD Vortex Vault series dropped through my letterbox. Black Pool and Black End mark the conclusion of an amazingly prodigious cycle of discs, released once a month, beginning at the end of 2006. Andrew Liles’ music was one of my biggest discoveries from last year, recommended to me by the equally remarkable Matt Waldron (irr. app. (ext.)). There’s a fascinating mix of both the beautiful and the disturbing in his music, with highly evocative (and sometimes, very funny) titles, including “Bamboo Sheep”, “An Unspoken Narrative Regarding Institutional Abuse”, “Ghost Breath – A Lament For A Bear Cub Called Медвежонок”, “Taking Bumblebee to France for the Afternoon”, “36-23-33½” and “Matthew Doesn’t Like Bananas in his Ice Cream”. These titles are often frivolous, but sometimes rather more deliberate: “The Jean Michel and Vangelis Taboo Liaison”, for example, explores the kinds of sounds beloved of those two “composers”. He’s capable of real gravitas too, though, and the final piece on Black End is like an electroacoustic/symphonic finale to the series (quixotically broken up into 94 tracks!). Read more

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Irish Old and New

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There was an entirely accidental Irish connection to yesterday’s listening. Greatly enamoured as i am of Clodagh Simonds‘ gorgeous voice (she now records as Fovea Hex), i thought it would be interesting to listen to her earliest work, as part of the influential group Mellow Candle. Their 1972 album Swaddling Songs is something of a legendary work, marking the transition from 60s psychedelia to 70s progressive folk, and it’s surprising, over 25 years on, how fresh it sounds, with an eclectic mixture of instruments (the harpsichord twiddlings—to use proper musical terminology—are marvellous!), and delicate, almost naïve, vocals, that can occasionally become rapturously wild.

i admit i had high hopes for Clodagh Simonds’ compatriot Róisín Murphy, although little to go on. i was never very interested in her band Moloko, so was therefore unsure what to expect. But she disappointed me – i listened to her first album, Ruby Blue, which seems to be attempting to combine lazy lounge jazz with the glitches that annoyingly accompany so much electronica these days. When applied to her vocals, it was engaging and actually rather fascinating (particularly through headphones), but my interest soon wained, and i was glad when the album ended. i began to listen to her new album, Overpowered, but couldn’t bear more than two tracks; it sounds worryingly like she’s now trying to add the flavour of Goldfrapp into the mixture. Not for me, it seems.

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2007: memories and echoes; 2008: first sounds

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There were many, many musical highlights in 2007, but a lot of disappointments too, which i guess is unavoidable, considering the amount of music i listen to throughout the year. Probably the worst of the lowlights of the year was Avril Lavigne‘s The Best Damn Thing, an unfortunate title considering it was one of the most appalling things i’ve heard in a long time; it seems she’s not averse actually to steal musical ideas from other people these days (Peaches in particular). As for the highlights, the brightest and best were:

Andrew LilesVortex Vault series and New York Doll
irr. app. (ext.): Ozeanische Gefühle, Perekluchenie and Cosmic Superimposition
Joanna Newsom‘s Ys
Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy
The Hafler Trio‘s Hljóðmynd, How To Slice A Loaf Of Bread, The Explanation, The Discussion, An Answer and Whistling About Chickens
Belle and Sebastian‘s The Life Pursuit
Björk‘s Volta
Nine Inch NailsYear Zero
Orphan Fairytale‘s Whose Words Are My Words (with Mudboy) and Speaking Spooky
CocoRosie‘s Noah’s Ark and La maison de mon rêve
IAMX‘s The Alternative, and finally
Pan Sonic‘s Katodivaihe Read more

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