Blur: “Bang” (Bang EP, 1991)

I’ve been listening to Blur for a long time, at least since their self-titled album came out, and I guess I was a little familiar with them before that. But I’ve never listened to their earliest records (everything before 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish) until last week. I don’t know why. I like all the other stuff to varying degrees, though the last two albums are my favorites.

Anyway, I’m loving this stuff, and kicking myself for not exploring it earlier. It has the shiny melodies of their Britpop classics, Parklife and The Great Escape, with the rougher edges of their self-titled album—it sounds like they were paying a lot of attention to what was happening up north in Manchester, too. 

"Bang" is the song I keep circling back to. It’s great, but it sounds so casual about it. I don’t know if that’s just Damon Albarn’s perpetual deadpan or what, but the songs I love best by this band almost always are the ones that sound like they just sort of fell out while the band was playing. I wish I’d realized there were a whole bunch of waiting for me to hear them sooner. 

Tags: Blur 1991 1990s UK

Gang of Four: “Satellite” (Mall, 1991)

In June, 1998, my wife, who at that point was still just a friend, and I were in Borders Books & Music in Manchester, Connecticut, getting ready for our upcoming radio show. I knew a guy who was the program director at WECS in Willimantic, which was the station of Eastern Connecticut State University. He gave me a program on Saturday morning because he needed to fill airtime, and depending on whether the guy who was scheduled after us showed up or not, we were on the air for two to four hours every weekend of the summer between high school and college (neither of us went to ECSU).

She worked at a horse barn and I’d been doing janitorial work on schoolnights, and we had money to burn on CDs—we took having that radio show not just as an excuse to play stuff we already liked, but also to find stuff we didn’t yet know we liked.  This was one of about six trips we took together to stock up. 

We each already had a handful of discs when we chanced upon the dollar bin. But, hey, who can resist a dollar bin? Or who could, I guess—the internet has taken quite a bit of the shine off of CD dollar bins. 

My brain is perversely wired to forget things like mowing the lawn and buying all the correct ingredients for something I want to make on the weekend but to remember things like this: she bought cut-outs of the Posies’ Frosting on the Beater, School of Fish’s debut, and something called Digital Orgasm—the album title was D.O. it. I bought the same Posies album (still my best dollar bin CD ever), and Gang of Four’s Mall.

Gang of Four is a legendary post-punk band. I had read about them somewhere, though I forget the context in which they were mentioned. But I knew they were a big deal to a lot of people, so a buck for one of their albums, which were supposed to be hard to find, seemed like a steal.

Thing is, Mall is not the Gang of Four that everyone holds up as one of the all-time great bands. It’s a reunion album featuring Jon King and Andy Gill without the rhythm section of Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham, and the brittle agit-funk of their great early albums is absent, replaced by synthy, political pop-rock with a slight r&b tinge. 

This album is pretty legendary in its own right. For being awful. I hadn’t listened to it in probably about twelve years until this weekend. The animal rescue I work with held a fundraising garage sale, and I went through the boxes of CDs that have been pushed off my shelves over the years and came across it, band-saw incision on the spine and all. Look at the album cover (yikes): 

Gang of Four - Mall abum cover 

By now, I’ve heard every note Gang of Four ever recorded, and I have the albums that cemented their legend. I bought a few of them as imports before they were reissued. I’ve written about the band’s most recent reunion. And through it all, Mall has lurked in the back of my mind. Back when I first heard it, I had no idea that its critical reputation was terrible, and that it wasn’t the album people were worked up about. 

So I approached it with an open mind. I liked this record. I didn’t love it, but there were a few songs I’d put on mixtapes, and I played at least “Cadillac” and “F.M.U.S.A.” on the radio. I knew “Soul Rebel” as a partially reunited Gang of Four song before I ever knew it as a Bob Marley song. I remember distinctly not getting what made the band so special that it had the reputation it did, but I thought, “hey, this is fine.”

Of course I had to play it when I dug it out this weekend. And… it’s not very good. But nor is it an unmitigated disaster. Vietnam War critique “F.M.U.S.A.” is exactly the kind of heavy-handed we tend to love in high school and recoil from as adults, but “Cadillac” is okay, and a couple songs I don’t remember rating at all back then, “Motel” and “Satellite” actually sound pretty great if you take the record on its own terms and don’t hold it to the standard of Entertainment! and Solid Gold

This goes against our critical impulses. Why wouldn’t you compare it to other things the band did when assessing it? Well, I suppose if I had to review it, and stack it up for people considering spending money on it, I would. But I don’t have to. All I’m doing now is seeing how I hear it differently now. It certainly strikes me how different the sense of dynamics and songwriting is from other Gang of Four, but I think I understand how this music’s earnestness spoke to me when I was 18 in a way it can’t now. 

"Satellite" is a song this band couldn’t have done at any other point in its fitful career, not even King and Gill’s second reunion, when they made 1995’s decidedly gnarlier Shrinkwrapped. The band’s usual focus on the lurid and consumerist elements of our culture is missing, their politics present only in the brief “empires falling down like ninepins” line in verse two. And Jon King can actually sing—there is no declamatory detachment here. It’s a love song, a sort of inverse of XTC’s “Another Satellite.” 

It’s not a lost gem or anything, but I’m glad I took one more listen to Mall. Creative lives are complicated, and rarely go in the kinds of straight narrative lines that we’d like them to. There’s almost always a Mall in the mix somewhere, and there’s often as much fascination in an artist’s failings as there is in the triumphs. This album is among the most fascinating of failures.

Billy Bragg: “Accident Waiting To Happen” (Don’t Try This At Home, 1991)

So the thing that has dominated my week is a car accident. I was out for groceries on Monday when another driver sideswiped me. No one got hurt, and it was clearly her fault (she got a ticket to that effect and everything), but there is still a mountain of hassle to climb, dealing with insurance and body shops and rental cars. Plus, there’s all the thinking about the accident (“If I’d just remembered to return that video, I wouldn’t have been in the intersection when she pulled out without looking,” etc.). And this wasn’t a bad accident—things are going to be fine. I can see how truly traumatizing events must stick with people. I hope to continue avoiding those.

So this is I suppose a sort of dedication to the girl who hit me. She did not admit it, but it was obvious she was in the process of composing a text message when she slammed into me. I didn’t push the issue or mention it to the officer, because she already felt horrible enough (she must have had a really bad evening, too), but seriously, accident waiting to happen.

Don’t take the mock dedication any further than the title, though. I rather doubt that this poor girl was a “dedicated swallower of fascism,” which now that I think of it is kind of a sly Kinks reference. Billy Bragg is one of those guys whose songs I know here and there and who I’ve been meaning to investigate further for ages but haven’t gotten to. You know how that goes in the age of endless omnivorous music consumption.

Interesting guy, though—I had no idea you could buy your way out of the British Army, but he did that. He also loaded a lot of his records in the 80s with references to communism and Eastern Bloc regimes that don’t exist anymore that now read as faintly embarrassing. In fact there’s one of those references in this song, which is one of my favorites of the ones I’ve heard—“You’re giving me grief about the DDR.” Curious what he was thinking when he wrote that one, because I can’t think of too many things to defend about the government of East Germany, especially in 1991. Perhaps the unnamed antagonist is ribbing him that communism didn’t quite work out there?

Anyway, anachronistic politics aside, this is a pretty wonderful song. That’s some guy named named J.F.T. Hood playing drums—never heard of him before, but man he sounds good here. Bragg’s melody is no natural it sounds like it just fell out of him, and I love the line that opens the bridge: “My sins are so unoriginal.” I love the idea that your transgressions aren’t creative enough as a thought.

If anyone wants to point me to a Billy Bragg starter album, feel free. He’s high on my list of artists to get serious about this year.

Anouar Brahem: “Parfum De Gitane” (Barzakh, 1991)

It’s been quite a month in Tunisia. I’m not sure congratulations are in order yet for the popular uprising that sent President Ben Ali packing last week, because we still don’t know quite how this is going to turn out, but it’s still a moment filled with promise if the new government will work to fulfill it.

Jasmine Revolution aside, Tunisia has for the most part been a relative haven in the Arab world for diversity of thought, women’s rights and protection of religious minorities. A few of Tunisia’s greatest singers, including Raoul Journo and El Khalaoui, were members of the country’s sizable Sephardic Jewish community.

Anouar Brahem is not from that community, though. He’s a striking and skilled oud player who bridges the worlds of Arab music and jazz. Barzakh was his debut album and was primarily a solo recording, though several tracks feature violinist Bechir Selmi and/or percussionist Lassad Hosni. Both can be heard here, engaging in spirited interplay with Brahem’s oud.

The Jigsaw Seen: “My Name Is Tom” (My Name Is Tom EP, 1991)

Dennis Davison got his start playing in Baltimore’s United States of Existence, but his finest moment came nearly a decade after he left that band, when he was living across the country in L.A., leading a band called the Jigsaw Seen. He was a few years late for L.A. psych: the city’s early-to-mid-80s Paisley Underground scene was mostly dead, its constituents out of music or dispersed to other bands (the best known Paisley Underground successor band is Mazzy Star).

In 1990, the Seen released Shortcut Through Clown Alley, an enjoyable post-psych album with a lot of organ and unison vocals that sometimes approached a funhouse feel. While it’s good, it barely qualifies as an appetizer for the title track of the EP they released the following year.

"My Name Is Tom" falls a little short of the classic Lenny Kaye definition of a nugget ("the one good song on an album with only one good song"), because the rest of the band’s output isn’t bad. It fits too, though, because it stands so tall above even their best other songs. Rhino Records and Alec Palao agree, apparently, because they included it on their Children of Nuggets box.

Shortcut Through Clown Alley hints at the vaguely Eastern keyboard lines and rhythmic drive of “My Name Is Tom,” but nothing on that record is nearly as intense, dissonant or impressive. This song is a psychedelic rocket, and an overlooked gem of the early 90s, when much bigger shifts in the pop landscape overshadowed unassuming psych bands writing weird, pulse-quickening songs about peeping Toms.

Coil: “Windowpane” (Love’s Secret Domain, 1991)

Still catching up from a five-day internet break around the Thanksgiving holiday, I just found out about the death of Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson. Christopherson was a major figure in industrial music, darkwave and acid house, having been a founding member of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and Coil, the last of which he and John Balance kept going from 1982 until Balance’s death in 2004. Christopherson packed up and moved to Thailand after Balance died and continued to make music on his own.

He’s one of those people for whom the old cliche “I don’t know what music would sound like today without his contributions” is apt. For instance, when they were members of Throbbing Gristle, he and Chris Carter were among the very first musicians to make extensive use of samplers before the Fairlight was even available in Britain.

"Windowpane" represents perhaps the peak of Christopherson’s visibility outside the niche musical circles he typically found himself in. He directed the video for it, and the band’s embrace of acid house aesthetics on Love’s Secret Domain helped make it one of their most widely heard albums, as well as something of a break from the darker albums that preceded it.

The video quality isn’t great, but you get the idea—Christopherson seems to have been trying to build a visual complement to the song’s very open endorsement of LSD use to expand consciousness (the album title Love’s Secret Domain abbreviates to LSD intentionally). It’s funny how far this kind of thing had come since the 60s, when a similar endorsement of mind expansion might have been more flowery and centered around the concept of universal love, where this is more introspective and uneasy.

Christopherson’s nickname may have been Sleazy (and he apparently embraced the nickname), but he seems to have been a decent man, well-liked among his peers and of course well-respected by those he influenced. And there were many he influenced.

Henryk Górecki: Quasi una Fantasia: String Quartet No. 2, Op.64: IV. Allegro—Sempre Con Grand (composed 1991, played by Kronos Quartet in 1993)

Polish composer Henryk Górecki passed away yesterday at the age of 76. He survived World War II as it destroyed his homeland when he was a child and in the 1950s began a composing career that was fairly conventional for its time, exploring serialism and other mid-century avant garde techniques, but as he got older he drastically simplified his approach. In the 1970s he made the switch, if you like, to minimalism.

In 1976, he composed his 3rd Symphony, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as he sometimes referred to it, which was to become his most famous work. In 1991, a recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, was released and went on to sell over a million copies. This is a rare feat in classical music, and it also ensured that bits and pieces of the symphony would be used for the rest of the decade to score trailers to sad films.

Even with all that exposure, though, it’s still an immensely powerful piece of music.

This is the final movement of his second string quartet, as recorded by the Kronos Quartet. While much of the quartet is exceedingly quiet and fits with the holy minimalism Gorecki built his late career on, this last movement is a relative outburst, leaping away from the pause after the third movement with a lockup of repeating figures in tense, static harmony. It’s quite startling to hear after listening to the rest of the quartet.

News of Gorecki’s death is less startling. He’d been in declining health for some time, though he did recently complete a fourth symphony that to my knowledge has yet to be performed. He will be missed.

Henryk Gorecki

Pitchfork 90s list omission #7:

American Music Club: “Sick Of Food” (Everclear, 1991)

Everclear was once listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most alcoholic drink. Guinness no longer features alcohol-related entries in its book, but Everclear’s 190-proof is still the most liver-blasting thing you can buy—in the places where it’s even legal to buy it, that is.

Everclear was American Music Club’s fifth album, and by the time of its release, Mark Eitzel, the band’s singer and primary songwriter, had a reputation for drunken excess during the band’s live performances, and in that respect the album title is pretty in-your face. It’s a strange record, pulling simultaneously in two directions, one heading toward a more rocking, radio-ready sound, and the other further into the personal darkness and desperation that Eitzel had made his stock in trade.

Eitzel liked to tell interviewers at the time that the album wasn’t about him—according to Seán Body’s band bio, Wish The World Away, he was sick of how blurred his personal and professional lives had become and eager to dump the confessional tag his songwriting was often labeled with. But it was about him, and the songs brim with the pain of love unfound and unreturned, the seductive power of alcohol, and the San Francisco band’s many friends who were claimed by the AIDS epidemic.

The album’s only single, “Rise,” was written for a dying friend who preferred Streisand to Eitzel’s eternally dark poetics—the friend passed away when his insurance ran out and he could no longer afford treatment. The band made every small hurt majestic and widescreen, and if there’s an album that proves AMC was more than just Eitzel’s backing band, Everclear is it.

"Sick of Food" is one of a few songs I could have chosen to highlight, but it’s probably the one that most clearly elucidates where Eitzel was in his life at that point. He was addicted to alcohol and looking for a way out. The couplet "I’m sick of drink/so why am I so thirsty?" announces this quite plainly, and the fatigue of hangovers and behavior you can’t control are plainly evident in the heartbreaking lines that follow:

I just called to ask you what I said last night

I just called to ask you what I did last night

It’s a haunting, gorgeous, gut-punch of a song, one of the band’s crowning moments.

Even with the shinier production, Everclear failed to be AMC’s breakthrough. Critics loved it (it made Rolling Stone’s top 5 that year, and the reception in the UK was outright rapturous), but nobody bought it—critics get and often deserve a lot of crap, but sometimes we are right about these things. The biggest problem for the band was one they’d dealt with their whole career: Alias Records simply didn’t have the distribution and promotional muscle to give them a chance at crossing over. By the time they signed to a major for 1993’s excellent Mercury, it was probably too late.

AMC released two more albums before splitting, but they’ve been back together now for about seven years and released good albums in 2004 and 2008. Eitzel quit drinking just prior to the Everclear support tour.

Everclear is still in print.

Pitchfork 90s list omissions #3:

Paul Simon: “The Obvious Child” (Rhythm of the Saints, 1990)

Unlike the first two 90s omissions, this song really doesn’t say much about the 90s. It’s strangely out of time, perhaps because it’s vital, creative work by a guy whose career was already three decades old. Paul Simon by this point likely didn’t even know what the trends of the day were, much less did he try to ride any of their coattails.

And yet we talked about this song quite a bit before we got down to the business of voting. It holds a place in a lot of our minds, and it’s just so purely “good” that it’s hard to overlook completely (and it was afforded an honorable mention).

I think the song’s greatness begins with the way Simon’s vocal makes this very precise, poetic song sound completely tossed off, like he’s just coming up with it as he goes along, or maybe he’s finding it already in the air and channeling it.

It’s ostensibly a melancholy gloss over the lives of a father and his son (Sonny). We’re in the father’s head as he reflects, then we go to a distant, camera-lens view of the son, then back and forth and back again. In just three lines, Sonny goes from a baby born at a good time in his parents’ lives to being a father himself, with bills to pay. When we return to him, it seems to be at a time in his life when his own children have moved on, and we get this verse, one of my favorite ever:

Sonny sits by the window and thinks to himself

How it’s strange that some rooms are like cages

Sonny’s yearbook from high school is down from the shelf

And he idly thumbs through the pages

Some have died

Some have fled from themselves

Or struggled from here to get there

Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls

Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair

And that’s it—this scene is never completed. And suddenly, we have not just Sonny’s story, but the story of everyone he knew when he was young, and by extension, our story. If played with a heavier hand, it would be downright depressing. But it’s not. Simon sets this against the ebullient drumming of the Olodum cultural group of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, recorded live in Pelourinho Square and sings it fluidly, melodically, without judgment. It has a racing pulse.

And so the song isn’t some navel-gazing rumination or downbeat complaint that our lives are difficult and short—it’s a celebration of life as a journey. The older I get, the more it resonates with me. When I was a kid and my father played his cassette of Rhythm of the Saints, I just liked the drums, but 20 years on, everything about it rings true.

In Simon’s view, the journey seems to lead somewhere—the exchange “some people say the sky is just the sky/but I say why deny the obvious child” implies a god or something beyond this life, a belief I don’t share. But I do know that, whatever other layer there might be to this life, the sky is in fact not just the sky, but merely the window to an infinite universe. And an infinite universe means infinite possibility. Within those possibilities, there is room for both Simon’s belief and my own.

This song, to me, is an affirmation of the singular power of pop music to concisely say all the things we think and fear in a form we can love and return to over and over again. We can sing along at the top of our lungs, and perhaps it helps us cope with the pressure and the struggle. Perhaps it even helps us celebrate the unevenness of life. Play it loud and you’ll see what I mean.