Archive for April, 2011
Of course, I should have realised the NME was full of shit a long time before, in 2001, they declared Andrew WK to be “the saviour of music!” (that’s their exclamation mark, the bloody idiots). But we all have our blind spots, and I had persisted with reading the NME for a few years (mostly for free in WH Smiths, naturally), expecting to see something meaningful and informative.
And then they went and published this. It must have been an issue I bought, and come with a free CD, because I can’t think how I would otherwise have had the misfortune to hear Party Hard. As soon as I heard it I realised it was utterly awful (even for 2001): pretendy-loud guitars, produced to within an inch of its life, and lyrics which could have been entered into a spoof ‘angry teenager song-writing’ contest.
Best/worst of all, the NME’s “saviour of music!” nonsense was pretty much deadly serious, and sincerely put him forward as an anti-establishment musical force of innovation (although obviously they were self-satisfied with their tongue-in-cheek Beatles-aping “bigger than Jesus!” (another bloody exclamation mark) tagline on the cover).
I’ve said enough. I’ve listened too much. I need to wash my ears out.
Tony: Are you familiar with use cases?
Colleague: Er… no.
Tony: Business scenarios?
Tony: Object-orientated systems?
Colleague: [blank look]
Tony: [pause, blank look]
This is the upstart younger brother of the Pont de Tancarville that I was talking about. It opened in 1995, and is over 2km long. This photo gives some sense of the rollercoaster-esque experience which is crossing this bridge (indeed there’s a smaller ‘pre-bridge bridge’ just out of shot which is itself quite something).
I spent a year in France just east of these two bridges (in a flat, that is. I wasn’t living rough). Despite Normandy’s outstanding natural beauty I wound up in a very small town, nothing too grim in itself, but situated right in the middle of the petro-chemical heartland downstream from Le Havre. (The town in question, Lillebonne, is shown here; the Pont de Normandie is the more westerly crossing over the Seine, marked as the N1029; the Pont de Tancarville is marked as the N182).
It really hit home when a fellow teacher was driving us both to a larger town one evening (I forget where now, but somewhere east, in the general direction of Rouen. This is the same teacher/route that got me into Mister Eddy). Not long after setting off, I looked out of my window, and, in the dark, saw a number of lights.
“C’est quelle ville là-bas?” (What town’s that over there?) I asked, hopeful that there was somewhere close by with a little more of that certain special, um, ‘je ne sais quoi’ than Lillebonne itself.
“Euh, non… Ce n’est pas une ville, c’est une usine pétro-chimique” came the reply: “That’s not a town, it’s a petro-chemical refinery”.
You know that line in That’s Entertainment, “opening the windows and breathing in petrol”? I started my day that way more than once. That said, as well as being home to air-borne petrol, Lillebonne also housed a certain second-hand bookshop, so it certainly wasn’t all bad.
This bridge, the 1,400 metre-long Pont de Tancarville, was opened in 1959 and reigned supreme until its upstart younger brother came along nearly 40 years later.
Ah. Turns out the next Young Knives’ single isn’t Everything Falls Into Place (which it ruddy should be), it’s Human Again. Which is here:
Yes, it’s my inevitable review of the Young Knives’ new LP, Ornaments From The Silver Arcade (they were seeking a mysterious, fairy tale-sounding title, and ended up getting inspiration from a Leicester shopping centre).
This is quite a departure from their previous albums, both of which (as I have contemplated before) feature cheeky angst, misanthropy, and spiky indie guitars by the shed-load. This time round, they have taken a conscious decision to be more accessible, poppier, and a touch more optimistic: it was at first disconcerting to find myself mentally referencing bands such as Space, Supergrass, The Killers, Duran Duran, and Kaiser Chiefs while listening to this.
The addition of elements of funk, hand-claps, keyboards, female backing vocals, a bit of brass, and 80s pop-eque production does occasionally veer worryingly close to white-boys-do-jazz/funk-lite. But it certainly achieves that ease of access they say they were looking for – I can see something off this album being a relatively big mainstream hit: pushed, I’d go for Everything Falls Into Place (an infectiously, defiantly upbeat take on life’s mundane worries – just hinting, of course, at their early works’ bleaker outlook on life).
By contrast, on Woman (an ode to transvestism. Or maybe transgenderism. Anyway, it’s deeply sexual), and Vision In Rags, they seem to go too far musically and end up sounding, well, poppily normal (which is the last thing this band should ever try to be).
Similarly, the lack of any explicit rage or contempt at society in general leaves the lyrics feeling uncomfortably watery at times (such as Running From A Standing Start: “There’s a new dance called the sway low / You can do it how you please / Lunchtime Lucy likes to watch me / Do the coochie on my knees”). Sister Frideswide, on the other hand, sees us back on more familiar territory, contemplating a sexually-tempted nun (not a sentence I’ve ever written before).
As always, though, these things are about balance. And with the back-to-back Go To Ground, Silver Tongue, and Storm Clouds, they get it just about right, striking a happy medium between light and dark. The first of these is pained and heartfelt; the next mixes self-deprecation, self-loathing and self-awareness; the last is a brooding affair with menacing, apocalyptic guitars.
Overall, the album doesn’t fully represent Young Knives’ work to date. But I suspect that’s half their point; in breaking out of their norm, they may be heading down a new path. Hopefully one which continues to tread the line between pop and Wicker Man.
To mark the end of the latest theme week, allow me to indulge myself a little more in something else Mozzerian.
Facebook, for all its faults (no, I don’t want to help you build a farm, or further your Mafia empire, and I don’t care about your thoughts on the weather – I didn’t really like you at school in the first place, to be honest), occasionally sparkles. A friend recently posted a video of The Smiths playing Handsome Devil live in concert in Spain, the kind of unexpected exposure to a song which made me remember just how utterly fantastic it is.
One of their earliest tracks, and best captured as part of their ever-productive sessions with John Peel, it bursts into life with an explosion of drums and guitar, setting the tone for a stripped-down sound which nevertheless squeezes every drop of aural impact out of an arresting 2 minutes 44 seconds.
Morrissey himself is on strident, lustful form, addressing matters of the flesh in a strikingly direct way. His lyrics are full of ambiguity and suggestion around the gender, age, and reciprocation of the object of his affections. Talk of mammary glands, boys in the bush, swallowing in scholarly rooms, and getting onto the conjugal bed is somehow both explicit and equivocal at the same time: this is Morrissey at his polemic best, inevitably inviting all kinds of questions to be raised, and the odd article of outrage to be included in the early-to-mid-80s tabloids too.
This is of the era where it seemed every line Morrissey sang was instantly memorable (or possibly just memorised from one of Shelagh Delaney’s works, but anyway…), including most of this song, but especially the following, one of my all-time favourites:
“There’s more to life than books, you know / But not much more”
What this heady mix of tight, fraught instrumentation, and provocative, intriguing lyrics gives us is a song that is as thrilling as it is enthralling. It also gives the listener is an early example of Morrissey’s et ceterisation (which, thanks to Gavin Hopps, I now completely understand), as he sings “Oh, let me get my hands on your mammary glands / And let me get your head on the conjugal bed / I say, I say, I sa-a-a-y” – a glorious mix of Kenneth Williams’ faux-outrage and music-hall joke intro. As if tired of his elaborate allusions, Morrissey ends with a yelped “ow!” of, depending on your interpretation, pain, pleasure, or damned frustration.
“‘November Spawned A Monster’ lies at the imaginative centre of Morrissey’s writing. ‘It was a pinnacle’, he has said. ‘In its invasion of the mind of a “poor twisted child, so ugly”, trapped and unloveable in its wheelchair, it expresses me most accurately. It’s the record I have striven to make’. Why is the song central to Morrissey’s work and what is it about the song that ‘expresses [him] most accurately’?
Monstrosity is the other of normality, and in its various senses is one of the most persistent subjects in Morrissey’s lyrics. One sense of ‘monstrous’ is ‘a huge or outrageous thing’. Typically, of course, it is understood in a physical sense (Frankenstein’s monster, it will be recalled, is a being of ‘gigantic stature’, whose ‘yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath’). But it clearly applies to nonphysical ‘things’ too, such as feelings or affection. (The real tragedy of Frankenstein, to stay with this example, is that ‘monstrous’ ballooning of the creature’s emotions that results from their lack of reciprocation.) And Morrissey, more than anyone in pop music, is the chronicler of ‘oversized’ feelings – of emotions that exceed articulation but defy containment, and overwhelm the experiencing subject; of feelings, as in Frankenstein, that find no response and as a result swell gigantically to fill the space of the absent object; of embarrassing feelings that make their audience flinch and squirm, and are a scandal to ‘polite’ discourse.”
“Earlier in the chapter, a distinction was made between ‘unmarked’ and ‘marked’ interruption – that is, between utterances which are simply abandoned and etceterising gestures which describe this abandonment. Such etceterising gestures are common in Morrissey’s work: ‘I could say more / but you get the general idea’; ‘And there is no point saying this again’; ‘from difficult child / to spectral hand / to Claude Brasseur/ blah, blah, blah, blah’.
Usually, as in the foregoing examples, they play a fairly minor part in the song, ironising the song’s subject, the singer’s own practice, or the conventions of the medium. In ‘Dagenham Dave’, for example, the obviousness – which is emphasised by the singer’s litotes – belongs to the subject of the song (Dave), whose unreflective predictability is communicated by the interruption of his description. (Commentators on the song tend to criticise it for its lightness or vacuity – having first of all assumed that lightness is a fault. Rogan, for instance, characterises it as ‘tired’ and ‘insubstantial’. However, it seems to me, firstly, that the song’s foregrounded vacuity – witness the degeneration of its outro-chorus into a playground chant of Dave’s name – effectively and amusingly conveys the character of its subject; and, secondly, that this is quite an achievement. It is hard to write about things that lack depth; yet they also have their place in the world. And it is to Morrissey’s credit – and a sign of the breadth of his sympathy – that he wishes with affectionate irony to document their existence too.)
In ‘At Last I Am Born’, on the other hand, the singer’s etceterisation – ‘ blah, blah, blah, blah’ – seems to be at his own expense and a yawn at the familiarity of his own story. But, as in ‘You Have Killed Me’, it also appears to involve a metafictional dimension as well; that is to say, its yawn is partly directed towards the act of narration as such (in ‘You Have Killed Me’, this is more obvious, and ironic rather than weary, in that during the final chorus – conventionally a space of repetition – Morrissey sings (and indeed repeats) ‘there is no point saying this again’).”
“To call the singer’s use of flowers parodic is to recognise that it is no longer innocent. And how could it be? For it doesn’t only come after Wilde, it comes after the parody of Wilde (one thinks of The Green Carnation by Robert Hitchens, George Du Maurier’s sketches in Punch or the famous lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience: ‘Though the philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, / If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand’).
His back-pocket buttonhole additionally follows on from Baudelaire’s famous association of flowers with ‘le Mal’ – which the singer seems comically to reperform, in having flowers appear to sporut out of his backside. Morrissey’s ironic posture may also owe something to Dame Edna Everage, who used to encourage interaction with the gladiolus.”