Kindness – World, You Need a Change of Mind (Polydor 2012)

“Abed! Stop being meta, why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?” is one of the more self aware lines in hit (or is it?) sitcom ‘Community’. Abed is capable of communication only through pop culture references which isolate and confuse other characters but wink so frequently at the viewer you begin to think there’s a coded message in there. This meta tendency, this sense of fun, this sense of earnestness runs deep through Adam ‘Kindness’ Bainbridge’s debut. All of Bowie’s babies’ tricks are here, Prince licks and Vangelis synths kiss in what’s a mesh and mess of Lethal Weapon and Midnight Caller soundtracks with all the cool of a well intentioned cyber-punk Miami Vice. It’s immature enough to read Vice but thinks better of spending $90 to import what is ultimately a white tee shirt, it once laughed at a fire bucket ashtray in Urban Outfitters but didn’t need to spend the £15 to prove how bad at consumption it was. This is a smart, knowing music, it is disposable pop yet knowingly steeped like a cliff in a library.

I’m often infuriated by artists who are Byronic and serious up until the water touches their arm bands and then ‘it’s just pop music, it’s meant to be fun’, the ultimate get out, the ‘but I’m on den’ excuse. World, You Need a Change of Mind came into my life via this preposterously good video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI73NFINsyo A child which like the album that produced it is funny, biting, high concept, roughly refined, but sounds great, is enjoyable, has something to offer. It is an album which has it both ways, it is light and disposable yet faithful and generous in praise of what inspired it. Even the aching cool front portrait seems to be a simultaneous comment on fashion while also a homage to Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears.

As an album it is patchy, with four or so tracks of such strength that the good grace that’s built up is carried over through. Cyan, Gee Up, That’s Alright and the blondest highlight, Swinging Party satisfy in such a way that you don’t mind that Gee Whiz is a pointless pre-amble and Bombastic is in the main, fucking awful (a sung/spoken list of influences is like an audio version of the liner notes from Endtroducing, and is as much fun as that sounds). When it works it is like Spaced, crafted so that if you got the reference you laughed but contained such humour that if you didn’t get the reference, you laughed, that’s how this album succeeds. I didn’t find out that Swinging Party was a cover until weeks after hearing this, the original is awful containing none of the forlorn cool of the Kindness version. Anyone Can Fall in Love is a cover of that Eastenders lady song, and you know what? It’s good, again you laugh but as the chorus of ‘Anyone can fall in love, that’s the easy part, you must keep in going’ drifts by you forgot who originally sang it and the tune and the hair and who she’s married to and the lyrics are carved with a vital, cutting freshness. It has it all ways.

This referential nature brings us to the sampling, there’s been much in the way of contradiction over whether this album is entirely sampled or not, it was produced by half of Cassius and Bainbridge is often described as a bed-room producer so it is certainly a possibility, but even then the samples seem cheeky, the bass in the beautiful reaching Cyan always reminds me of the bass from ABBA’s Gimme, Gimme, Gimme in an is it/isn’t it way. While the use of sampling not being mentioned in the press release infuriated one reviewer from a site, let’s call it ‘Srownedindound’ (I hope they never find out about rap/hip hop) it seems central to the point of this record and what Kindness are trying to do. If it hadn’t sampled Trouble Funk and interpolated a vocal hook from The Escorts (which Srownedindound couldn’t hear/hadn’t heard from their high horse so had no issue with that) then it wouldn’t make sense, it would be a misguided attempt at making popping slap bass and orchestra hit keys sound good again. Instead it is clever context, clever expression, all ‘tune’.

And that’s why I started with Community, Abed is oh so meta but is often the shows heart, the one showing so little emotion on the surface but requiring it deeper down, the one that needs to be independent but fit, the one who recontextualises and decontextualises the situation and the subject, the tongue in the cheek and the tear in the eye. You should watch Community and you should buy World, You Need a Change of Heart, neither of them are the best in their field, neither is perfect but both have seen me revisit some of the most fun I’ve had all year.

Adam Hiles

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Burial – Untrue (Hyperdub – 2007)

Dubstep, don’t be scared, it is for you, you’re fine to like it, you don’t have to be ashamed when you say it as a word out loud.  It might be new but as with any music, it can’t be that new, its obvious roots are in dub reggae and 2-step garage, the collapsing of the immense low end dub bass with a 2-step garage beat, in which the bass drum predominantly hits twice in the bar, giving it the ‘two steps’. This jerky beat may be familiar, along with the bass sounds and general atmosphere which owe as much to hip-hop, trip-hop, jungle, house as either dub or 2-step, as with all electronic music, it is first and foremost electronic music. My point is that it is something which you are already familiar with, conditioned too, just in a slightly different form. Like a pie with the gravy and meat on the outside, this is just a new ordering of presentation.

Dubstep also seems to keep company in post-punk, the last great public exploration of dub before trip-hop (I know, ‘trip-hop, what was that about?’), more than a style it was seen as a movement of the times, complimentary themes and  sounds emerging unforced from separate pockets throughout the country, looking like it might finally break the mainstream consciousness. Burial’s nomination with Untrue for the Mercury Prize seemed as if were to be the moment. Aside from his music Burial had piqued interest as his/her/their (at the time, I can now freely refer to him as him) identity had not been revealed to the public. While this had previously been little more than an interesting aside to most, taking at face value any statements that were made by or on behalf of Burial, basically that he made tunes and couldn’t be bothered playing live or doing interviews, photo-shoots or even telling people what he did in his spare time.  This combination secret identity and success seemed annoy then The Sun Showbiz editor Dominic Mohan who was determined to unmask Burial prior to 2007’s Mercury announcement because it was something to do. He seemed to be pressing the question that everybody was not asking. This tabloid incursion mustn’t have sat well, in a bid to quash rumours that he was either Richard D. James or Norman Cook, Burial broke cover like Batman was going to do in the last Batman film before Harvey Dent confessed instead. It turned out he was a real person you’d never heard of in real life who wore a hat for the photo they released.

Burial’s fine (in the way the word used to mean) recent EP Kindred sparked something of a coo-fest from ever online publication with a ‘new releases’ section and rightly so, but Untrue was my first introduction to this sound. I heard one friend brag to another that they’d gotten it a whole three days early from a record shop in Germany, talking with an expressiveness more befitting Paul Gambaccini or some big city lawyer type. I listened to person two’s copy when it arrived in the post the following Monday. Untrue is immersive from the off,  sliding bass frequencies tilt past you as the two step beats spin like the internal mechanisms of an analogue pocket watch.  Vocals samples are pitch shifted and twisted beyond sense, the sense of the city after dark, the night bus home and fragments of conversations have become cliché when talking about Burial, but perhaps it is a cliché born of truth, it is hard not to envisage dim street lights, imposing compact housing and the mechanical monotony of a city transport system when listening to this record. Everything is filtered like it is heard beyond the headphones from the world outside.

The analogue watch workings metaphor seems apt (thanks), the parts seem to spin independently in their own foggy bubble and chime together at points across each track to achieve melody, wheels upon wheels of them, cogs turning round to urge the music forward, seconds tick by with the hi-hat as minutes pass with comforting synthetic bass swoops. The unnerving bustle and stop of the beat is misted by reverb and deep low end, the signature vocal loops have the fragility of gas dissipating in air, it is the heaviness and levity of modern life, the things you choose to take in, the things you choose to ignore and the things that still get through. Untrue has all of the excitement of early RZA productions, conventions abandoned at the expense of sound, in its own way as shocking and brutal as the Wu first were the first time you heard them.

Burial has received the type of praise normally reserved for The Wire, whether demanding to or not it seems to be taken seriously but again like artists in hip-hop and punk/post-punk it is not clear whether this perceived musical intelligence is deliberate innovation or a happy accident of taste, is this an attempt to change the sonic landscape or the after effect of a bedroom producer trying to make what they want to hear?  Is this the work of a student of music, steeped in theory and history or pure untrained genius, a natural talent? Natural talent are the best kind aren’t they?  They are the true ones.  If you’ve ever learned anything ever and been successful you’ve cheated.  All this seems like little more than a ([ever so] slightly) more high-brow distraction than Bizarre’s secret identity search but Burial can’t be talked about enough, you can’t be encouraged to listen to Burial enough, if you would prefer a more familiar form of introduction (and by proxy, recommendation) try and find his releases with Four Tet and Four Tet & Thom Yorke.

Adam Hiles

1981

Kraftwerk – Computer World (Kling Klang)

Even by 1981 Kraftwerk’s influence was assured but Computer World saw them further embedded into consciousness of virtually everything that would follow it.  The themes of technological advancement, supremacy and isolation are prominent throughout, which begs the question as to whether Hutter et al where psychic or whether nothing has changed in the intervening 30 years.  Away from lyrical concerns their compact approach to electronic music has become a filter that all music is now heard through, every keyboard, drum machine or sequencer that is ever used evolved from their work, whether it is stylistically or technological, all dance, synth-pop and electronic is here but it is this album’s influence on hip-hop that makes it singular. Effortless, innovative, profound and fun, it is not only a part of the canon but a work that impacted on all its subsequent members.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5UfJA2evY

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)

Perhaps Kraftwerk’s only ommission was not to fully predict, pre-empt and define sampling culture, thankfully Eno & Byrne decided to take time out after ‘Remain in Light’ and record future music.  Rhythm tracks and layered improvisation was then topped with found vocal sounds in lieu of ‘actual’ singing, while Byrne’s vocals had recently been taking Talking Heads to new heights here his voice is silent, instead the altered voices of politicians handling criticism or loops of an exorcism take the centre ground.  The result is an intense eerie space of cold funk, as rhythmic as it is ambient, still as fresh and unparalleled today as it must have been 30 years ago.  I once read that this was Terminator X’s favourite album and to be honest if the words ‘David Byrne’, ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Terminator X’ in that context don’t get you excited then you should go and use Google to find something else to read as this blog may not be of use to you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NWtm3LE-x4

ABBA – The Visitors (Polar)

To dislike ABBA is to wilfully dislike joy, their ability to fuse the radical and familiar in a hummable form and be HUGE may not have been seen since, and they also seem to have been the first to do so, since The Beatles.  While their last album may only feature one track that made an appearance on the omnipresent uber-work that is ABBA Gold this has no shortage of genuine hooks found in surprising places.  While The Beatles saw out their time under that trading name in increasingly separate spaces ABBA stayed ABBA.  Recording on ‘The Visitors’ started only weeks after Benny and Frida’s divorce in a mist of synths, an air of introspection and melancholy which has none of the euphoric disco of their earlier works, instead the weave of arpeggiated keys and singing in the round instil a sense of loss and longing that cannot help but draw attention to the circumstances that went into its creation.  Evidently as emotionally as they are musically mature, this is a dignified and precise detailing of heartbreak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2dCvoext0

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (EMI)

Some years ago another writer from this blog had drag me away from a young man who had dared to suggest that fashion was more important than politics. I stand by that (although I may have made a better job of expressing myself at the time) however it is sad that today’s pop music has nothing that can even hold a candle to DD. Aside from the Scissor Sisters, think of a modern pop act that has gained any modicum of success off its own back without being manufactured in some way? You can’t can you. Positive, well made, middle class popular music is dead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gudEttJlw3s

Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)

Claire Grogan. Mmmm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40K2S0-5Xo0

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizzare)

From the opening rhythm of the syth that builds like a toy steam engine revving up, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love remains a pure joy and as with Duran Duran’s overtly middle class preening it’s hard to see any modern pop band getting away with releasing an album with such overtly homo-erotic content (Scissor Sisters excepted). The final track Say Hello Wave Goodbye proves that electronic music can be both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time; Marc Almond’s half spoken vocals somehow managing to simultaneously convey feelings of hope and remorse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbEOgfq3CNc

The Clash – Sandinista! (Epic)

‘Sandinista!’ is a glorious failure, arguably the worst of the first five proper albums The Clash and for all that maybe the most intriguing for it. The grand folly of the double album is something which has plagued the plagued every credible ‘artist’ since The Beatles unleashed the ever so slightly self-indulgent nonsense of ‘The White Album’, but The Clash’s decision to trump their relatively focused ‘London Calling’ with a triple beast showed such scant regard for quality control, that the brainstorm of ideas that swamped its audience deserved attention for its sheer ambition and desire to play with genres about a million miles away from the easily dismissed ‘garage band’ of five years previous. The reggae and dub influences of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mikey Dread are to the forefront of the album with levels of echo only previously embraced in straight rock songs during the week that Phil Spector had a particularly nasty bout of tinnitus, while the fledgling genre of rap is heard through ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months and making real claims to be the first white rap record, which considering much of what followed is in itself quite a dubious claim to fame. The album cemented mainstream success in America while drawing disapproving looks at home its self-indulgence and UK critics did of course have a point, but for glorious ambition and a desire to share every grand design with their public, ‘Sandinista!’ must be applauded at least as a catalyst for the experimentation with world music that followed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijiazWlawUY

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Trust (F-Beat)

Like all great artists of a certain age, Elvis Costello has been working hard for many a year to piss away his legacy with sentimental tosh punctuated with a brief glimpses of what made him great in the first place, prompting earnest declarations of that most terrifying phrase, namely the ‘return to form.’ Back in 1981, Costello’s fifth album and one of two that year with the country covers album ‘Almost Blue’ following it, ‘Trust’ was Declan McManus at the peak of his game, with spiky new wave melodies branching out into blue eyed soul and cataloguing tensions within his marriage and band. ‘Clubland’ has all the urgency of earlier works, while ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ evokes The Pretenders and ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’, a duet with Squeeze’s Chris Difford provides a joyous contrast between Costello’s rasp and Difford’s poppy croon. Ironically, the album was a relative commercial flop in comparison with the covers which followed, but this was Costello at his poetic best and an undervalued gem amongst more revered albums of this Nick Lowe produced period.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbasuu1gCDs

Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming (Epic)

It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, which is true of most things in life, but absolutely true when it comes to pop music. Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni almost certainly didn’t change the world musically, but they did have enough ludicrous vision to present an utterly grand a ridiculous view of the world which has been ideologically imitated but never bettered with regards to creating a grand, fanciful design. When examined closely, the title track, replete with an aging Diana Dors in the video exclaiming ‘Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ to a tango seems such improbable number one single material, but there it is as much a triumph of style as anything the Sex Pistols ever managed. Will we ever see a better single about a highwayman than ‘Stand and Deliver’? I think not. Can you refrain from singing and at least partially dancing along? Almost certainly not. ‘Ant Rap’, which was the final single to be taken from the album is, in retrospect, utter tosh, but in the context of rap’s first fledgling steps, it strangely has the album ham-fistedly surfing the zeitgeist. Aside from the singles, ‘Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios’ has quirky new wave charm and even the faintly ludicrous ‘S.E.X’ foresees Damon Albarn’s attempts at capturing a very British sensuality. The album is far from a masterpiece, but it seems nigh on impossible that mainstream pop music could be quite so willingly dandy ever again and the world is poorer for it.

PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

We are legally obliged to include this album in any list.

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang – 1977)

Aged 17 I was listening to Underworld and Led Zeppelin.  I was in a band who wanted to cover ‘One’ by U2.  I heard U2 for the first time purposefully through some pirate best of which concentrated on their later career.  Numb and Lemon stood out.  I bought Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop.  I bought the Popmart video.  During Discotheque Bono added ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mud Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now’.  My eldest brother’s Sand in the Vaseline two CD best of Talking Heads.  Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, Cross-eyed and Painless stood out.  U2 and Talking Heads credits, Underworld interviews, all saying Eno.  I buy More Blank Than Frank, last track 1/1, I buy Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks.  I buy David Bowie’s Low and ‘Heroes’.  V-2 Schneider.  If I like this so much then I may like the thing they are paying reverence to.  Kraftwerk.  I would soon own every CD they had (and hadn’t) released.  I would be 28 before I saw them live, literally in 3D with my other brother, at Manchester Velodrome.  By that point I had bought their entire back catalogue for a second time, though re-mastered and with German vocals.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, in it I learned of what became known as the Bucha Effect. “Why are helicopters falling out of the sky?” asked the mid-1970s military. Investigating scientists found that the strobing light from the rotors was at a frequency near that of human brainwaves which has an effect; in this case it was the pilot’s passing out.  It is with this type of repetitive interruption of the silence that ‘Europe Endless’ starts.  It unfurls as an arpeggio in G, falling into itself like the Mandelbrot set.  The bass and drum tracks are precise, each emphasising exactly what it should and more.  A perfectly efficient machine is working.  In it you can feel the intelligence and patience that went into its making.  Even before the vocal has entered you are more than aware of the aesthetic for the album; sparse layering and rhythmic interplay, both exquisitely judged.  Though not yet at the title track are already aboard TEE we are already in motion.  ‘Parks, hotels and palaces (Europe Endless)’, Europe is all becoming one during this journey as boundaries blur and nations disappear in parallax.  Vocals are reserved and optimistic.  Clean vocal, vocoder vocal, clean vocal, vocoder vocal. Lulling and enthralling to the extent that when the song ends its nine minutes plus you immediately miss that little arpeggio, you are soon uncomfortable in its absence.

‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Showroom Dummies’ move on to themes of the vacuous nature of modern European society and the music takes a music darker turn.  Over minor drones Hutter tells us that “Even the greatest star, find themselves in the looking glass” in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a comment on vanity and celebrity also empty and throwaway, a ‘placebo profundity’ as I once heard it put.  They move as close to a shout as Kraftwerk would ever get in announcing “We are showroom dummies”, the latter of these two quotes is the most interesting, and being as it is both a comment on Western society’s ultimately pointless obsession with defining ourselves through fashion and a rebuttal to critics of Kraftwerk’s understated live performances.  By responding to the accusation that ‘they just stood there’ in song they winked at those who knew they were doing so much more but seemed to say to everyone else, “YOU’RE showroom dummies”.

By the time of the title track you are firmly centred in Kraftwerk’s European vision.  It’s main melody sounding like a continental anthem, one filled with the drive and capital of Western Europe and mournfully aware of the sacrifice for the greater good over to the Communist East.  Travelling by rail may have been an obvious and easy step post-Autobahn given its success and the possibilities available representing the sounds of sleepers and points etc. but it is executed with aplomb.  Kraftwerk’s knack for subtlety ensures our carriage is safe, what could have easily turned into tawdry pastiche is instead treated with awe and respect.  They replicate both the train and what it embodies.  Frontiers are wider, travel and communication between them is quicker, possibilities are greater, possibilities are endless, Europe is endless as it spreads across the world.

This spread of technology bringing with it a more homogenised Western culture would see Kraftwerk propelled along with it.  Their effect on all electronic music is unquestionable.  Their influence on hip-hop well documented.  It is one of my greatest my greatest musical disappointments that Kraftwerk are often considered by others as being pioneers in the sense that they are unlistenable, intelligent in a way that they satisfied only the brain,  that their vocals are to be laughed at, that they are considered boring.  The fact is much Kraftwerk’s enduring success lies in their ability to write joyous small songs of such detail and scale.

A Hiles

Fever Ray (Rabid – 2009)

This is definitely a product of the Northern Hemisphere.  European.  Grey clouds are commonplace.  There are forests and hill tops.  It’s partly in this landscape that you see it is Europe, northern Europe.  It’s the trees.  Evergreen.  Never aging.  Never young.  There is dew.  There is fog.  In this place there is some trace of humanity and something even older.  A wide space where the opportunity for shelter is welcome for out here, there are elements. While days occur, the dusk, night and dawn are when this area is truly active.  This landscape formed over eons.

Either if it’s The Knife or Fever Ray, it is still her voice that has singular resonance.  Varied pitch and phrasing, technologically twisted altered breath, these are all things we have heard from her before but that doesn’t make them any more familiar.  Why Fever Ray and not the Knife?  This doesn’t matter.  As a single album, and Karin Dreier Andersson has stated in interviews this will be the only Fever Ray record, it has few siblings.  Seemingly an album of pure frequency rather than instrumentation, it’s pacing and stylistic dynamism allow each song an existence entirely individual whilst also being consistent enough that the album hangs together.

As ‘If I Had a Heart’ starts with a lagged loop akin to John Carpenter dystopia theme, the voice, the chant enters.  Everything is in that fog, early morning mist ahead of a grey day. Her voice is octaves lower than it should be.  In this fog it is the music not the voice that is most starkly contrasted against The Knife.  Any sound you might recognise is filtered and pitch bent, separated, realigned, staggered in a new way. Many thin sounds replace what could’ve been drums.  The acoustic guitar in ‘When I Grow Up’ starts out as flourish that becomes a hook and ends as a navigational point amongst some kind of synthesised glockenspiel call and response spread across a number of bars, disorientating you by resetting independently, like wind chimes in a gentle storm.  An unnaturally gentle storm.

Fever Ray/The Knife has been cited as an influence on the emerging, possible scene termed ‘Witch House’.  While this scene and its aesthetics are of no concern here, the term itself is an interesting way into this album.  Some kind of super/preternatural occurrence and state is being reflected. Something unobserved by science.  This sounds like some sort of aching witchcraft either being cast or endured.     She sings in ‘I’m Not Done’, “Some do magic/some do harm”, this power we’re hearing, this strange fairy music, may be fantastic, it may lead us to our deaths. She goes on “Who is the Alpha? How do you say you’re sorry when there’s nothing to be afraid of?”  Genuinely disquietening sounds are layered with references to nature; streams and moss, motherhood, empty streets.  Anesthetic.  Slipping out.  Slipping in.  Twin Peaks has become a cipher for everything ‘weird’, but within Fever Ray you believe it when they say ‘There’s something dark in those woods’.  Simultaneously comforting, lulling and reassuringly melancholic… sleep, be careful, you know what happens when you fall asleep. You’re enjoying chocolate that you just removed from the side of house with Hansel and Gretel. You’re watching from afar and you’re involved.  Is any of this state natural?

Ambient music has become a metaphor for bland.  Trip-hop the byword for dull. Electronica a way to give dance music credibility with academics.  This fits none of these genres.  AOR?  Perhaps.  In the way that ‘Hounds of Love’ is adult orientated rock.  (Not since ‘world music’ has a term been so general).  While Kate Bush comparisons have been easy for some (Fiercely musical? Yes. Latent, subtle pop sensibility? Yes.  By Jove is she a woman too?) The better touchstone would be Peter Gabriel.  The listener’s immediate awareness of the author’s intellect. The rhythms.  The whisper. The layering of the voice. The harmony.  The chorus that just went by and wasn’t a chorus.  This is Solisbury Hill over The Passion.  Melody and disconcertion.

Adam Hiles