Thursday 15 June 2017

For Frank #5

It's time for some more music reviews. Including an apparent 70s pastiche but not, a new album by an old favourite, a discussion of something that I am not sure that I am young enough to be allowed to understand (the clue's in the opening picture), and a redux of aural psychodrama.

Wolf People, Ruins

The cover of this album has the look of something by a Philippe Druillet or a James Cawthorn, the sort of thing you'd expect to have come out forty-five years ago with a title like Warrior at the Edge of Forever, and there's some of that feeling to the music: a bit of Hawkwind, a bit of – yes! – Jethro Tull, but also a bit of Fairport Convention (if Fairport had ever turned their amps up to 11), and a bit of whatever Spinal Tap spoofed with "Stonehenge", except it's really not at all, and most of the above is almost entirely wrong.

I'd put good money on at least one member of Wolf People owning a copy of Aqualung, but Ruins is a classic example of an artefact that makes your memory malfunction. Yes, it's easy enough to work out what music they like, but if you picked a song like "Rhine Sagas" and set it alongside a dozen songs from the era and asked someone who wasn't a skilled audiometallurgist which one was released in 2016, I doubt they'd have much trouble spotting it. See, for all that this (terrific) album fondly recalls 70s metal and prog, it evokes the idea of it rather than the actual thing.

And also, it's a very young album. Everything about it is Serious, and Sensitive, and Earnest. The first stanza of "Night Witch" goes:
I'd fly wherever I could
On wings of paper and wood
Delivering death wherever I go
As graceful and quiet as snow
As snow so heavy ceaselessly falls
I will bury you all
I am Night Witch
Night Witch
Night Witch
Which is, I'm told, about a female Russian bomber pilot in WWII, which makes sense, but that's some heady imagery there.

Irony isn't a thing in rich supply in this record, and when I think of how, aged 17, I clicked with the Levellers, I have no doubt that this would have quickly become a touchstone for me. Ruins has been on heavy rotation the last couple of months, and the aforementioned "Night Witch", while firmly in the "God, I wish I knew as much now as I did when I was 19" category, is as unironically great as it is unironic.

They know that "Kingfisher" is a great song – that's why they structure the whole album around it, reprising it twice over, and putting the first track of what, if this had been produced in an age of vinyl, would be Side Two.

But there's something in the shape of the music. Like how you can tell a science fiction or horror writer who reads poetry, you get the impression of a band born into an age that gave them more than rock to listen to, and the album is a lot better for it. It's rock, but it's not rockist.

I've thought that the 70s are coming back in ways other than disco and flares (and anyway, their revival was a good 20 years ago), but Ruins suggests that the revival isn't quite on those terms, that it's an emotional revival, a revival not so much of aesthetics as of fears and hopes and stories.

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock

Returning to the 70s, we come to Robyn Hitchcock, who was there and of course wrote the song "1974", which isn't as quite as prescient as it sounds, because the line "It feels like 1974/You could vote for Labour but you can't anymore" was true enough in the late 90s when it was written but probably needs updating.

Is liking Robyn Hitchcock an exercise in nostalgia? Would I be such a fan of his if I hadn't discovered his work as a 17 year old? I don't know but there's a lot of stuff I liked when I was 17 that I don't rate and don't listen to (see Levellers, above) and Hitchcock has been one of the stayers.

The man has a 40-year discography, and I've got pretty much all of it (bar the Dylan covers album, which is more a reflection on my opinion of Dylan than anything else). The easiest division of Hitchcock's albums is into the electric ones and the acoustic ones and the in-between ones, and this is one of the electric ones, its guitar work reminiscent in places of the Byrds (always a big influence) and late REM (and Peter Buck is a long-term collaborator).

This one is the first proper album just to carry the name Robyn Hitchcock, and there's something unvarnished about it, a "here I am" feeling. Aside from a whimsical paean to Julian Barrett's "Detective Mindhorn", it's very much a record about age and memory. "1970 in Aspic" is a gentle steel guitar driven piece about how we make our memories static. "Autumn Sunglasses" (the song I like best) again evokes age; "Virginia Woolf" in its skewed retelling of the stories of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath again speaks to mortality.

In "Sayonara Judge" Hitchcock sings:
I'm twirling my cane
Out on my own
I'm a loser
But I'm walking on air
The song feels the years. In "Raymond and the Wires" Hitchcock revisits his complicated relationship with his late father, something that's haunted his songs on and off for a good 25 years.

I suppose you could describe Robyn Hitchcock as less oblique than a lot of his previous albums but that would suggest that oblique has ever been a thing Hitchcock has ever done. He's always struck me as someone who's said what he's thinking in the most direct way, and if that looks a bit weird, that's not his problem. Going all the way back to albums like Black Snake Diamond Role and I Often Dream of Trains, his work has always had an underlying theme of "we're all mortal, but what the hell, you have to laugh." This is no different.

Is it good? Yes. It's honest, and humane, and sad. I like it. Is this his best work? Hell, no, but it's not trying to be. It's just itself, a "here is me, this is where I am" statement. I don't honestly know if it's designed to be a final release. It could be, and it would be a fine place to stop, if that in indeed the intention.

Poppy, 3:36 (Music to Sleep To)

From something that sounds like the 70s actually didn't and someone who remembers the 70s first time around, to the most 21st century thing imaginable. Poppy (sometimes That Poppy) is an artist from Nashville who adopts a fictionalised persona; she makes bubblegum pop music. But she also has this YouTube channel where she posts short videos most days (seriously, there are hundreds of them). Adopting a Barbie-doll expression, often staring into the oblique middle distance, Poppy the character speaks in a high-pitched monotone over an ambient backing track about things like celebrity, and friendship, and insecurity, and being in a cult, and addiction, and brainwashing, and sunglasses, and makeup.

And these videos are funny, and strange, absurd and really, really creepy, and they form a rough narrative. Although (That) Poppy's collaborator is Titanic Sinclair, whose own videos are like Poppy's and refer back to them, the only other character on Poppy's channel is Charlotte, a mannequin with a digitised computer voice, and Charlotte playacts drug addiction, hate, concern, but at the same time seems to be a vehicle of control. You get the impression that you can't trust the channel. It's blank and strange and probably a bit hipster. In a lot of ways Poppy is a bit like PC Music, only done by people who are, you know, clever and prepared to give the enterprise a bit of conviction. They're having fun with it and I think it serves as a testament to Poppy's work that conspiracy nuts are tying themselves in knots convincing themselves that Poppy is a tool of illuminati mind control (Google "Poppy mind control" if you want to fall into a bottomless hole). Poppy deliberately plays to that, so there's a bunch of illuminati stuff. She even starts one of the pop videos in the Baphomet pose in front of a big triangle. It's really blatant.

3:36 (Music to Sleep To) is not bubblegum pop, but instead is a collection of backing music to these strange, creepy videos. I suppose you could use it as an ASMR sort of thing, but partly the number 3:36 is a reference to a number Video!Poppy is obsessed with (in one video she complains about the time being 3:36 and her being late and then says that three and three are six, over, and over again), and the subtitle "Music to Sleep To" is about a sort of metaphorical sleep, the sleep of reason. The sleep of submission. There's something malevolent and unsettling to the music. It's all whistles and gliding synths and fear.

Poppy is an ersatz identity about identity, and is terrifying because there might be nothing underneath the mind-controlled doll.

Is that clever?

I don't know.

You can buy a book called The Gospel of Poppy. I wonder what's in it.

I like 3:36 (Music to Sleep To) a lot, because ambient malevolence is one of my favourite things.

OK, I'm scaring myself now.

Is that clever?

The Stone Tapes, Avebury (Extended Edition) 

Speaking of ambient malevolence.

I have reviewed Avebury already, but Hare's Breath Records (Matt Peach and Kat Beem's new record label) has recently reissued it on CD with a few extra tracks, and they very kindly sent me a promo (ahead of a planned interview). The important thing about Avebury is that although it has a constant background of grimy, gritty noise, the rumbles of sounds from the stones, it's actually more of an audio drama. You have to fill in the pictures yourself. Matt and Kat have, they claim, a neighbour called George Wilberforce, and George supposedly gave the band some electromagnetic tapes, tapes of recordings he made of various stone circles.

The rumbling echoes, waves of black noise from which emerge sounds that could be noises form a background to distorted phone calls between Kat and a retired vicar, readings from books of various kinds, and a sort of drama that you can see unfolding behind the lids of your eyes. The album hints at a pagan village conspiracy and "they" have found out what Kat is doing; the Vicar gets "taken". There is a ritual.

It feels like a sound recording of a lost BBC ghost story at times, given a sense of distance because of the aural grit the thing has; or at times it's like a scrapbook, a rough collection of torn ephemera, the joins in the sound quality organic, like the rough edges of ripped paper. It leaves you with a faint sense of unease.