Mixtape #16 : Vox Masculus (In Memoriam Ian Curtis)

by 5:4

Thirty years ago, Ian Curtis, lead singer and prime mover of Joy Division throughout its short-lived existence, took his own life. i can’t and won’t claim to have known anything about this at the time (being a mere six years old, my own musical journey had barely begun, let alone made it as far as the emerging post-punk scene), and i continued to know nothing of Joy Division until around 1982, when the combination of buying the 12″ vinyl of “Blue Monday” (on a whim; i liked the artwork) and my growing fondness for the more gothic end of the growing indie scene made me conscious of Joy Division’s significance. Undoubtedly worthy albums, Unknown Pleasures and the posthumous Closer only begin to hint at where the band might have gone next; whether it would have led down the same path as that taken by New Order is impossible to guess. The death of a celebrity interests people for all the wrong reasons; what matters is that Curtis was a fascinating creative individual, whose talents as a singer and a lyricist had only just begun to reach fruition. It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, to dedicate this new mixtape – focusing on male vocalists – to Ian Curtis’ memory.

The mix opens with my favourite track from Joy Division‘s first album. i love the strange contrast of the song’s listless, shuffling demeanour with the potent, flayling lyrics; it’s mirrored in Curtis’ delivery, wavering under the pressure of barely-restrained emotion. “What Will Give?” could be The Radio Dept.‘s homage to New Order, although it’s not quite a pastiche (vocally it’s entirely different, and there’s no trace of bass guitar); it’s just a very sweet little song. i’ve long been fond of Ulver, in part due to their wonderfully unpredictable output in recent years, fuelled by an earnest desire to experiment. “Blinded By Blood” is typically intense; a melody, determined to soar, finds itself above moody string chords that are content to meander in melancholic circles, while half-glimpsed choirs and bells chime in occasional embellishments. One of dance music’s true geniuses, Tim Exile‘s Listening Tree was a highlight of last year, a demonstration of both his imagination and sheer skill; “Fortress” is a simply superb concoction, bringing its diverse elements of electronica and high lyricism together with rare brilliance. Another group keen to explore pop’s heritage, I Was A Teenage Satan Worshipper‘s debut album Strange Lights was an unexpected delight earlier this year; “Whatcha Lookin’ At?”, is doggedly retro, but without the least hint of self-consciousness. The cassette releases of Gregory Whitehead are always thought-provoking, and his Display Wounds has haunted me from the first time i heard it; perhaps it was ruminating on Curtis’ suicide that brought my thoughts back to this piece, but a short snippet seemed not inappropriate. In All The Empty Houses by Epic45 was one of my favourite EPs of last year, and the title track is a heady affair, music as if from underwater (or perhaps underground), intoxicating and heartfelt.

Ministry‘s Psalm 69 is delightfully over-the-top, its anti-evangelical Christian sentiments taken to absurd levels; “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, however, is a carefree break from the tongue-in-cheek solemnity, turning Jerry Lee Lewis on his head and sending him spinning relentlessly. “No You Don’t” finds Trent Reznor in familiarly caustic mode, in a song (i seem to recall) aimed at Courtney Love; its movement between faster and slower concentric tempi suggests more than mere aggression and the final collapse into distorted overdrive is one of the most perfectly-judged endings of any song i’ve heard. “Funnel of Love” is one of the more inviting tracks on the new album from The Fall, an album that takes in a bewildering collection of styles and ideas, Mark E. Smith proving as unifying as ever; flecked with electronic smears, the song is especially arresting when a more fierce bass pattern briefly appears. Outstanding proof that The Faint are occasionally capable of really good things is “How Could I Forget”, an infectious, pulsating rock track littered with their trademark digital grit. Stetsasonic are one of a multitude of groups i first encountered via the legendary series of Electro compilations released by Street Sounds in the 1980s; this track featured on vol. 11, and is a glorious celebration of the posturing, narcissistic but ultimately irresistable brand of rap ubiquitous at the time—never has shouting been so musical.

i’m repeatedly surprised to see And One in my top 10 artists on Last.fm; clearly i listen to their music more than i think i do. In truth, Bodypop is the only album of theirs to maintain a consistently high standard. Hopefully it’s a sign of positive things to come; meanwhile, “Enjoy the Unknown” (always good advice) is a lovely song, highly melodic and with just a hint of ballad among all the EBM. This is the fifth time that the music of Ambrose Field has featured on a 5:4 mixtape, and the third time i’m drawn on his remarkable Being Dufay album; “Je Vous Pri” is yet another riveting slice of renaisstronica (i just made that up), one that takes John Potter’s mellifluous tenor into a strikingly high register, Field festooning the melody with yet more sheets of the most gorgeous electronic fabric. Ostensibly not dissimilar in vocal treatment is “Dtorumi”, from the utterly inscrutable SoiSong; although the voice is synthetic, i’ve included it here as it is clearly modelled on a male voice. xAj3z is a breathtaking album, accessible and baffling in equal measure, and this track is no exception, akin to the behaviour of an animatronic jazz ensemble. Some brief words from the late, great Raymond Scott lead to the highly-charged political polemic of The The. “Good Morning Beautiful” is the opening track from Mind Bomb, and from the outset Matt Johnson has his lip curled; his dismay at the state of the world slowly gives way to anger, the song developing a sympathetic sense of the apocalyptic.

Perhaps sounding a touch anodyne in contrast is Tor Lundvall, whose music has, i think, a rather more ominous tone than is at first apparent. Either way, Lundvall is clearly most at home during the night, and “Dark Roads” is just such a nocturne, circular and hypnotic. The Real Tuesday Weld is sometimes rather too playful for his own good, but the miniature “Deja Vu” is an exquisitely delicate and delightful amuse-bouche. After such an astonishing first album (one of the best of all time, no doubt), i didn’t expect Keane to be able to build on it, but Under the Iron Sea proved me wrong. A more mature, experimental affair, “Atlantic” is the perfect opening, familiar in appearance and yet structurally downright peculiar. It’s a truly great song, and makes it all the more sad that the band came off the rails so disastrously with their third album. Each member of Joy Division/New Order has at some time formed their own group, and Peter Hook’s was called Revenge. Their 1990 album One True Passion was a decidedly lacklustre affair, and Hook’s characteristic bass sound just seems wrong when separated from the music of New Order. However, one of their songs had me (forgive me) hooked; “The Trouble With Girls” was omitted from the album but i encountered it on a free cassette included with the now-defunct magazine Select. For years, i was forced to put up with a digital transfer of this (very hissy) tape, until in 2004, when an expanded, remastered version of One True Passion was released; they were never a great band, but this shows what they were capable of—which is, i guess, something-that-sounds-like-New-Order-but-isn’t.

i’ve listened to a vast amount of music by Hood, but for the life of me i’m not really sure why; they’re among the most consistently inconsistent groups i’ve come across, encompassing the dirtiest low-fi back-room rock and the most glittering electronic gestures. In truth, i like and dislike their work in equal measure, but when they get it right, the results are often excellent, as in this curious, sharp little miniature. Another foray back to my hip-hop-loving youth with Mantronix, the name acknowledging that it was Kurtis Mantronik who did the majority of the hard work behind M. C. Tee’s rather light and fluffy monologues. Mantronik’s beat patterns, which he frequently takes delight in scratching and generally pulling to shreds, are splendid and instantly recognisable; “Scream” is one of their more immediate, less brooding offerings. Nothing brooding about Neil Hannon’s The Divine Comedy, who too often seems to feel sarcasm is the most appropriate means of expression. Nonetheless, it doesn’t prevent Casanova being a brilliant album, and opener “Something for the Weekend” is one of the finest pop songs ever written; the oblique key-change at the middle 8 is simply divine. A man perhaps hanging on Hannon’s coat-tails is Patrick Wolf, often recommended to me, but who only made a significant impression with last year’s The Bachelor. “The Messenger” is the final track, and to some extent Wolf has saved the best for last; his singing is sublime, and the busy arrangement, seemingly at odds with the lyrical heart of the song, fits like a glove. Continuing in a more theatrical trajectory brings us to The Irrepressibles, whose debut album Mirror Mirror came out earlier this year. Rooted in cabaret, and with a vocal style just a hint more butch than Antony Hegarty, “Forget the Past” swings and waltzes, hurdling hemiolas and allowing for some lovely soft, intimate moments en route.

Jimmy Somerville‘s a cappella “Puit D’Amour” is a rare opportunity to hear his amazing voice unadorned. i knew from the outset that The Cure would have to feature here, although choosing a track was always going to be hard (“Primary” would have been rather too obvious, methinks). i’ve opted for one from my favourite album of theirs, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me; it’s arguably their most opulent release, and (along with “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep”) “One More Time” is filled with incense and soft cushions, Robert Smith’s vocals ravishingly beautiful, both strident and gasping at the sheer lusciousness of it all. Get Well Soon, about whom i wrote recently, are a new passion of mine; “Green Island Never Turns White” gradually moves from the trappings of a swaying ballad to something more forceful. The usual dark electronica that suffuse the music of Chris Corner’s IAMX are ejected entirely in the “Art Deco” version of his single “Tear Garden”. Already a powerful song, in this incredibly moving, late-night jazz trio rendering it’s (fittingly) hard to keep back the tears. Away from his somewhat grandiose Porcupine Tree project, Steven Wilson has shown in his solo work that he is among the most radical minds in 21st century rock; “Puncture Wound” is a self-confessed homage to The Cure’s “A Forest” (he admitted this to me last year, when i asked him about it); like the best kind of tribute, its retrospective exterior is merely the shell around fiercely original work, and as such this track is no different from the rest of Insurgentes, the work of an absolute master. Jamie Woon‘s rather humdrum rendition of the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” is taken to another plane in Burial‘s hands; while Burial’s own work seems to have a surprisingly short life-span (both his albums already sound dated and spent), what he does here is something timeless; Woon’s voice gains a more pleading sensibility in Burial’s suburban sonic landscape, a lament made more plangent by the perfectly-judged deep bass notes.

Only slightly less inscrutable than Hood but with a much greater melodic sense are Belle and Sebastian; 2006’s The Life Pursuit is a career high-point, of which “The Blues are Still Blue” is its most witty, insanely catchy episode. Zac Pennington’s Parenthetical Girls featured on mixtapes 8 and 9, and i keep finding more in their last album Entanglements; “Gut Symmetries” moves somewhat away from the theatre into an altogether more avant-garde territory, harmonies tripping over each other, above which Pennington’s vocals seem oblivious to the mayhem. My ambivalence about Radiohead‘s output doesn’t stop me finding Amnesiac a truly great album, and i’m especially fond of “Pyramid Song”; it keeps motioning as if to break out into something monumental, but is ultimately held hobbling in check by the weight of its own gentle gravitas. Nothing but carefree abandon prevails in the rarely-heard extended version of “Take on Me” by A-ha. Morten Harket’s voice is majestic and surprisingly agile, helping to make this one of the greatest pop songs of the ’80s and beyond. Light years away from pop is the towering figure of Scott Walker, whose 2006 The Drift may well be the finest album ever made; it’s certainly one of the most conceptually confrontational works of recent times, and i still shiver at the memory of witnessing these songs brought horrifyingly to life on stage at the Barbican in 2008. “Clara”, lengthy and convoluted to the point of almost becoming operatic, is jaw-dropping in its invention; despite occupying such grave subject matter, there are moments of remarkable beauty and tranquillity. But that’s hardly the point, and this amazing song (as with all Walker’s work since the ’80s) can only really be appreciated head-on, with desires and expectations left at the door. The collaboration of Jamie Lidell and Christian Vogel as Super_Collider resulted in a brace of albums whose attention to detail is almost exhausting to hear. It’s essentially funk put through the digital mincer, Lidell’s urgent vocals seemingly trapped but dauntlessly passionate regardless. This mixtape wouldn’t be complete without New Order, and while i initially thought of including early work (idiomatically closer to Joy Division) i’ve opted for a later song, “1963”; purportedly a twisted take on the JFK assassination, it’s New Order at their very best, the lyrical and dance elements working in perfect sympathy with neither predominating. And to finish, what else but Joy Division again, and my favourite track from Closer, “The Eternal”. It’s a song transfixed by its own ideas, the sonic equivalent of staring at the sun, drone-like, processional, and a powerful testament to Ian Curtis’ unforgettable voice.

Three hours in celebration of male singers, that (i hope) pay a small tribute to one of indie music’s most enduring figures. Low- and high-resolution artwork is included; the cover image is taken from the film Control. Here’s the tracklisting in full:

Joy Division – She’s Lost Control (from Unknown Pleasures)
The Radio Dept. – What Will Give? (from Pet Grief)
Ulver – Blinded By Blood (from Blood Inside)
Tim Exile – Fortress (from Listening Tree)
I Was A Teenage Satan Worshipper – Whatcha Lookin’ At? (from Strange Lights)
Gregory Whitehead – Display Wounds [excerpt] (from Display Wounds)
Epic45 – In All The Empty Houses (from In All The Empty Houses)
Ministry – Jesus Built My Hotrod (from Psalm 69)
Nine Inch Nails – No You Don’t (from The Fragile)
The Fall – Funnel Of Love (from Our Future Your Clutter)
The Faint – How Could I Forget (from Wet From Birth)
Stetsasonic – Just Say Stet (from On Fire)
And One – Enjoy The Unknown (from Bodypop)
Ambrose Field – Je Vous Pri (from Being Dufay)
SoiSong – Dtorumi (from xAj3z)
Raymond Scott – Auto Lite: Wheels [excerpt] (from Manhattan Research Inc.)
The The – Good Morning Beautiful (from Mind Bomb)
Tor Lundvall – Dark Roads (from Sleeping and Hiding)
The Real Tuesday Weld – Deja Vu (from Where Psyche Meets Cupid)
Keane – Atlantic (from Under the Iron Sea)
Revenge – The Trouble With Girls (from One True Passion V2.0)
Hood – Resonant 1942 (from Silent ’88)
Mantronix – Scream (Remix) (from The Best Of (1986-1988))
The Divine Comedy – Something for the Weekend (from Casanova)
Patrick Wolf – The Messenger (from The Bachelor)
The Irrepressibles – Forget the Past (from Mirror Mirror)
Jimmy Somerville – Puit D’Amour (from The Age of Consent)
The Cure – One More Time (from Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me)
Get Well Soon – Green Island Never Turns White (from Songs Against the Glaciation)
IAMX – Tear Garden (Art Deco Version) (from Tear Garden)
Steven Wilson – Puncture Wound (from Insurgentes)
Jamie Woon – Wayfaring Stranger (Burial Remix) (from Wayfaring Stranger)
Belle and Sebastian – The Blues Are Still Blue (from The Life Pursuit)
Parenthetical Girls – Gut Symmetries (from Entanglements)
Radiohead – Pyramid Song (from Amnesiac)
A-ha – Take On Me (Extended Version) (from 45 R.P.M. Club)
Scott Walker – Clara (from The Drift)
Super_Collider – Cut The Phone (from Head On)
New Order – 1963 (from Substance)
Joy Division – The Eternal (from Closer)

postscript Incidentally, my off-air recording of the episode of Radio 4’s Great Lives devoted to Ian Curtis, is still available.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Click here to respond and leave a commentx