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Delirious With Weird

Thursday, April 03, 2003  
Cocteau Twins; Treasure (4AD) 1984/2003
Junior Senior; D-don’t don’t stop the beat (Mercury) 2003
Soft Pink Truth; Do You Party? (Soundslike) 2003
Edan; Primitive Plus (Lewis Recordings) 2002
Cave In; Antenna (RCA) 2003
Medicine8; Ironstylings (Regal) 2002

It’s taken a long time but the 80s are slowly starting to be re-evaluated now, thanks to the prominence both on the internet and in print of a school of music writers who were fledglings in that era and who can now afford “the decade that taste forgot” some perspective and reasoned criticism away from the standard knee-jerk dismissal. Particular praise must go to Tom Ewing’s excellent Freakly Trigger webzine and Marcello Carlin’s ever-wonderful Church of Me. So it’s fitting that 4AD should be trawling through their own back-catalogue and remastering some stonking classics from that period between 13 and 23 years ago that’s about so much more than shoulder pads and the Thatcher/Reagan axis of capitalist self-interest (although to be honest we really have that self-same over-riding capitalist impetus to thank for the do-it-yourself ethos that fired independent music of that era). The start of this year saw Cocteau Twins’ early 4AD albums given the once-over by Robin Guthrie himself; never again, I hope, will we have to endure people who haven’t really listened to this band describing them as ‘ethereal’ or ‘gossamer’ now that their older output has been given the depth and clarity of sound that early 80s nascent digital recording and mastering systems denied them.

To my mind Treasure is the pick of the bunch of these Cocteau Twins’ albums, being a full and accomplished realisation of the promise of their early sound, and also perhaps marking the final point before they slipped out of the darkness and into an almost saccharine daylight. Fraser’s voice is, as well documented everywhere, astonishing, her wordless volleys of emotion simultaneously water and electricity, one moment balming and soothing, the next shocking and awakening. The challenge of semiotics is to unravel the sign-systems inherent in all human culture, but still Fraser’s impressionistic yelps, murmurs, sighs and moans defy analysis. Sure, here and there words or phrases teeter on the verge of comprehension; the exultantly utterance of “pompador” that she emits during opener Ivo, coupled with a stream of almost recognisable, joyously clipped whoops, leads you to believe that maybe, one day, given enough time and attention you might be able to understand the words. But really if you think that you’re fooling yourself. Like some post-punk Tower of Babel, Fraser’s adopted tongue needs no structural analysis and comprehension, but rather an empathic, pre-linguistic acceptance of feel; to take from Marshall McLuhan, the media is the message; intonation and expression take precedence over mere semantics here, rightly and richly so.

But beyond and behind Fraser’s voice, so often the focus of attention with Cocteau Twins, is Guthrie’s music. The reed-thin sound of early compact discs is perhaps to blame for the misconception of ethereality, because the remastered version of Treasure reveals some truly nasty sounding and aggressive guitar playing in amongst the dream-like textures. This is not just some listlessly ambient strumming; the guitar veers wildly from gentle acoustic minimalism to dark, hard and abrasive electric squalls, drones redolent of sitars or medieval chamber music, and blissful chimes. The tumult of scree that climaxes Ivo; the hazy whirr that begins and underpins Lorelei; the spacey shimmer of Pandora (Amelia; Aloysius; Cicely; each of the songs, for some reason, given a child’s name). The bass is not yet quite dub-inflected as it will become by Heaven Or Las Vegas, but the drum machine usage sits perfectly juxtaposed with the almost out-of-time quality of the rest of the overall sonic aesthetic; it’s the only sound that dates the record apart from the mastering itself, but it’s mechanistic relentlessness, replete with occasional Aphex-predicting outbursts of too-fast splurges of snare, gives it the air of an occasionally malevolent metronome. Between Treasure, Spirit Of Eden, Surfer Rosa and Loveless we have the formative gestation of what would come to be known as post-rock.

Even after two decades, Treasure is still what it’s name suggests, precious and powerful. There is something working within this album of extraordinary power; it’s present during the album’s gloriously epic closer, “Donimo”, wordless and yet anthemic, a feeling so definitely present within the music as to be palpably manifested as an impulsion to join Liz Fraser in her eloquent illiteracy, to sing along where there are no words to sing along too. Wonderful and beautiful and vibrant.

Junior Senior are the polar opposite of Cocteau Twins in many ways, but their lyrics, while audible, are equally incomprehensible nonsense. Coming on strong out of Denmark like A.R. Kane weaned on amphetamines and shorn of the dub-shoegazer thing, they’re treading a path of defiantly dancefloor-focused pop, welding indie vocals to punk riffs, house energy and a vibrant 80s pop sensibility. And doing so, seemingly, without writing anything other than choruses and hooks (which makes them, YES!, the anti-(The)Verve, who traded exclusively for two albums in nothing but middle eights, extended verses and codas). You’ve heard Move Your Feet, Michael Jackson gone gloriously hi-NRG disco, incessant as fuck and all over the radio, and I imagine you either love or hate it; either way, you can’t ignore it.

Junior being a little straight guy and Senior being a big gay guy, D-don’t don’t stop the beat is as camp as they come and then some; Chicks And Dicks (yes, you read correctly) sees Junior hollering after the attention of attractive young girls and complaining that it’s only ever gay guys that fancy him, whilst Senior hollers after the attention of attractive young men and complains that it’s only ever straight girls who fancy him. Add lyrics such as “shake your coconuts until the milk comes out” into the equation, and you have a Freudian field day.

You can talk till you’re blue in the face about where Junior Senior sit in terms of genre, but really this is just insanely upbeat pop music, and you’d be much better off saving your breath for dancing.

Soft Pink Truth are much easier to define though; Do You Party? is straight-ahead micro-house for maxi people, sexy rhythms and glitchy hooks tied together by cut-ups of old-style house vocals; the overall affect is of a gorgeously camp DJ set in which the best track is scratched to funk and skips with a sense of blissful, ass-shaking serendipity. Since I was 18 I’ve been fascinated by the idea of people cutting random noise into tiny slices and rebuilding it into melodies by pasting on existing rhythms; now it seems that people are doing it. Matmos’ Drew Daniel may not be quite as sublimely abstract as Akufen, based as he is around much more straight camp-disco territory, but Do You Party? is just as danceable as My Way and probably more diverse to boot. There’s little substance, but the style is exquisite.

And if all this high-camp is too much, Boston’s Edan offers us some (ironic) misogyny on Run That Shit!, one of the standout cuts from Primitive Plus. A leftfield hip hop producer/rapper/DJ who’s very much mining his own seam, Edan’s managed to come up with a minor masterpiece here, the melting point between futurism and the old skool. Scuzzy funk-derived basslines rub shoulders with irreverent raps about everything from daylight robbery to smoking aluminium to battle rhymes intended to do nothing other than “sound pretty”. Mr Lif returns a favour by guesting on one track, Ultramagnetic MCs are paid tribute, and the whole thing crackles with surreal humour and the fizz-pop of ancient dusty vinyl. From the evidence presented here and in his work on Mr Lif’s excellent I Phantom, it looks as if Edan might just reveal himself over time to be brilliant.

Antenna by Cave In has been talked up in some circles as being the heavy metal, post-hardcore offspring of Radiohead and King Crimson, all swirling guitar soundscapes, odd time-signatures and punishing angular riffs. It’s not; it’s shit, and shockingly shit at that. It’s Creed gone prog without the Cobain-desecrating holler, and I cannot imagine anything worse. Like The Shining last year, this is a record made by serious men who want to rock hard and intelligent, but who are sorely lacking in the imagination and intellect to do so. Apparently all you have to do these days to concoct a soundscape is have one song in the middle of the album that ends in 4 minutes of train-noises and badly phased riffs. On the plus side, Cave In’s lyrics and vocal melodies are so blandly predictable and characterless that they afford quite a good chuckle on about three occasions; “a vase of wilted flowers / for those who’ve lost their powers” being bettered only by “whatever you exhale I’m breathing in the air / you offer me a seat in your electric chair”. Put the rhyming dictionary down boys, please.

Thank god then for Medicine8 and Ironstylings; 11 tracks of underground house that’s anything but micro, put together by brothers Liam and Luke May. The sleeve features pencil drawings of naked fat men, the credits reveal samples from luminaries such as Isaac Hayes, Lou Reed and Afrika Bambaataa, and the sublime, mechanical grooves occasionally recall Kraftwerk. The best track is called Capital Rocka, and (YESYESYES!!!) sounds like The Clash gone house, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Listening (or indeed dancing) to this, you’d never know that clubbing was dying on its feet in the UK right now after years of over-saturation by the likes of Ministry Of Sound and the perpetual, malignant mainstream dominance of school-of-88 DJs who are holding on to their 1210s for dear life and won’t allow new blood to take over.

4/03/2003 11:56:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005