Ben Winch's Album Reviews
For someone like me, who grew up with the Cure’s Faith and Joy Division’s Closer, Double Negative is like going full circle. Not that it’s dated or retrograde, but like those eighties classics it takes minimalism to near-unheard-of levels, dispensing with all but the skeleton of rock. And the mood is DOWN: slow, sad, funereal. None of which is a surprise, maybe, coming from Low, the so-called inventors of slowcore. But what is a thrilling and mindbending surprise is the production. The sound is—truly—awe-inspiring. I’d namedrop Pink Floyd if that didn’t suggest a David Gilmour guitar solo every few minutes. There’s not one solo here; the few brief guitar-parts are incredibly subtle, pure texture. The transitions, the soundscape, the sense of a journey—these are Floydian. But the tools used are more suited to a glitch/downtempo outfit than a rock band. And brilliantly, these tools are deployed over the whole band, including the vocals, leading in places to a sound I don’t think I’ve ever quite heard before. The opener, “Quorum”, for eg, is a MBV-esque four minutes of apparently constant imminent dissolution which tempts the listener to question the integrity of her playback equipment. Never have I heard such a bold—not to say suicidal—vocal treatment. The whole track heaves and breathes like swelling static. It’s powerful, arresting. They mean business, that much is clear. As to what follows, “Fly” is the lone hit, an eerie/enchanting neo-torch song sung to delicate perfection by Mimi Parker over the sparest of deconstructed grooves; when the bass starts after the first verse it’s both the most rhythmically infectious and the most “played” moment on the record—almost a solo—even though there’s not a drum-part in earshot. How did they arrive at this sound? Was there a rock album—a standard Low album—that they deconstructed? A “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” technique, maybe? Because I don’t mind admitting, I think the old Low template was in bad need of deconstruction. Presumably, given the tentative nature of previous album Threes and Sixes, producer B. J. Burton had to sell them on, or they had to trust him before embarking on, such a potentially self-destructive makeover. And the truth is (in “Always Trying to Work it Out” and “Disarray”) the old Low of sometimes-pedestrian quasi-Neil-Young-isms sometimes still rears its head. But somehow an ironic distance (the ghostly sprinkling of pitch-shifting on the vocals, the bubbling saturation) helps give everything a new sense of depth. And then a left-hook like “Poor Sucker” or “Rome (Always in the Dark)” knocks us off our feet. They said it themselves: “Before it falls into total disarray / You’ll have to learn to live a different way”. On Double Negative, Low practise what they preach.
I’ve got no time for people who say rap is dead, or rock for that matter. The good stuff’s out there, it’s all about finding it. Without the help of a friend on social media, I wouldn’t have found Lojii. Unlike Nas, Pac, Biggy or any of that golden age stuff that naysayers are always comparing rappers to, Lojii doesn’t have a big promotional budget, and maybe won’t have one anytime soon. But Lofeye has a golden-age-like proportion of stone-cold classics: “Lo in the Jungle” (mindlowing beat, reminds me of Tricky circa Nearly God), “Bananos” (“Hatred ain’t nothing to me / You won’t get it back if you put it in front of me”), the electro-ish “Dutti”, the hard-hitting “Reignfall” (“Punk in my veins, jazz in my soul / Elvis was a troll / I’m so rock ’n’ roll”)—all are great, sparse, dark, off-kilter productions, graced by the smoothest of subtle, unshowy raps. Beats have so little rhythmic information it seems as if the vocals are all that holds them together. Swing is set to unsettle. No r ’n’ b choruses, no guest vocalists, no desperate attempts to convince, no bluster. As he says in “Cause and Effect”, “I don’t need no manifesto, I just manifest”. True, over the length of its fourteen cuts Lofeye lags in places, but only barely, and album-closer “Reignfall” is a masterpiece. “Blood on the walls I made banging”—a horror-rap, viscerally real, without a trace of cartoonishness, it paints Lojii or his protagonist as a kind of gangsta Lady Macbeth, haunted and desperate to scrub off the blood. This is heavy, heavy stuff, and anyone who bemoans modern rap’s gangsta posturing but still digs its dark smouldering groove should pay attention. First line of the first track here is “Dirty dishes on the kitchen stove”. That’s how real Lojii is. “I’m a go-go-go bananos”—you’d best take him at his word. Pop hooks and major label or not, Lojii is the business.
Time was Brett Sova would have had a major label deal and “Eyes Have It” would be a hit, so long as Sova was content to let a big-name producer smooth its quirks and a session drummer make it swing a bit. Well it’s 2018. Sova releases records through Kill Shaman, Richie and Drag City, has a few thousand listens on Soundcloud and a few hundred on YouTube, and despite that he enlisted a bassist and second guitarist for Motor Earth he may be churning out choogle like this precisely because he’s calling the shots—no label to second-guess him, no drummer to get bored during the solos. Motor Earth is resolutely underground, warm and uncynical. Sure it’s ragged in places but it rocks. Songs are perfunctory but inspired. There’s no shortage of riffs, some great. I like his voice too, or what I can hear of it. And anyone who can make something even slightly new from a Telecaster and a Keith Richards obsession is all right by me. As to the drum machine, it’s mixed low, and its robotic groove may well be the modern component required to offset the nostalgia. In a way it’s almost shoegaze, this wall-of-guitars grind with hidden melody, though Kevin Shields would never have let himself sound so classic. It reminds me a little of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Barbed Wire Kisses (their b-sides album). Maybe if the Mary Chain had never signed to Polydor they would have done something similar. Less guitar heroics, of course, but that same classic almost-throwaway vibe that seems so easy but is in fact so rare. Other highlights: “Violent Yellow”, “Like an Intruder” “Emoticog”. One to watch.
A strange thing happened in the early “noughties” and it haunts me to this day. A bunch of people—including people I knew, mostly (like me at the time) in their early thirties—started worrying that rock was dead. Of course I thought they were crazy: I lived in Melbourne then, and you could walk to just about any corner pub in the inner suburbs and find proof to the contrary. But people were scared and depressed, just enough so that when the Strokes came along they felt like celebrating, and by the time Turn on the Bright Lights broke through they were born again. Now me, as a longtime Joy Division fan I never gave much creedence to the soundalike accusations. To me Interpol sound more like U2, with that all-downstroke high-on-the-neck delay-driven guitar work that, in the wrong hands, can sound so monotonous. But that didn’t much bother me, since let’s face it, so many bands sound like that. Nor did I really mind the hamfisted two-chord songwriting or even my visceral negative reaction to the singer: I could ignore it if I wanted to, right? No, what really killed me was the number of people who recommended this band to me knowing I was a Joy Division fan. THERE IS NO COMPARISON. The crime is not that Interpol failed to build on their influences, but that they built their brand on the strength of them. For me, their emergence was one of those Twilight Zone moments, when it feels like the whole world’s gone crazy. My theory? It wasn’t the music that was ailing, it was the industry. There must have been a thousand bands that could have done the job as well or better, but no-one had the resources to find and market them. And in those mostly pre-internet days I guess the punters didn’t know where to look either. A turkey.
I’m not a jazz guy, far from it. And I’ll own that what, I imagine, most impresses some listeners about John Coltrane is the part I find least interesting: the wild solos, the near-manic virtuosity. Me, I like my virtuosity more considered. But on Crescent Coltrane’s got that too. The opener, “Wise One”, justifies him entirely in my eyes (or ears): the delicate playing, the haunting-asymmetric melody, the way pianist McCoy Tyner, previously buried in the mix, breaks out after the 3-minute mark, at first tentatively but soon taking flight, and somehow rendering his whole solo with a Major-inflection unhinted at in Coltrane’s heavy, dirge-like intro. The tone of the ride cymbal—how 2-3 soft taps at the start seem to fill the right speaker. And even Coltrane’s solo, much like a mathematical equation as it comes to sound at about 7 minutes, never gets crazy; just as it seems about to it pulls back to rueful self-questioning, while the cymbals swell. Piano could be higher, drums softer, but I love the panning, the spaciousness, the room-sound. Abrupt transition to “Bessie’s Blues” doesn’t do it for me—seems to undercut the gravity—and despite some tasty piano I generally skip it. “Lonnie’s Lament”, now that is beautiful—like Miles Davis’s “Circle”, it’s chamber music, virtually, might as well not be called jazz at all but for the instrumentation. Coltrane’s in his element: the slightest deft touch—the hint of a trill—seems to make the simple melody glow. The way Tyner uses chords to make a solo, again like a scribbled equation, like a mindgame, but with feeling. Yeah some of Tyner’s licks get a little too “Secret Squirrel” for me, and those flourishes are pure cocktail-lounge. Then again when Coltrane comes back in he’s on fire, if I can use that term for work of this much restraint: it’s like he’s been burned, he’s almost spent, but he can’t resist the most poignant meditations in the gaps in the melody. And “Drum Thing”—that is great! One-note bass, tom-hits like near-distant retorts ’Trane’s sax like a soldier whistling/humming as he surveys the empty battlefield. Then the drummer (Elvin Jones) cuts loose. Like I’m not a jazz man, I’m not one for drum solos, but something about this one keeps it from offending me: for one thing the reverb, like I’m listening through an open window as I walk by; and it stays panned right, rises up briefly but never takes over. You can almost see Coltrane and bassist Jimmy Garrison waiting, watching. Blends back to toms so smoothly too, and one-note bass, and ’Trane humming his elegy. In a way it’s the most timeless track here: a postpunk drone, if Adrian Belew had done it, or Rhys Chatham. Verdict: classic, no doubt. Not quite my style, but I bow before the discipline, the technique, the revelation of what you can do with 3-4 instruments.
They tell me Earth is metal. If so, metal has changed. Hibernaculum, in its own subtle, seamless way, is virtually a genre mash-up, with its blues inflexions, organ lines, piano and soft-minimal drumming; there’s even a touch of country in there! “Post-metal”, then? Because, don’t get me wrong, I hear the metal in it, in the “eastern” Dorian-like scales and chugging guitar-parts and fat distortion pedals (though again, these are subtle, in places turned down about as far as they could be without disappearing altogether). Not one guitar solo either, and track #4 (“A Plague of Angels”) is 15 minutes long! That’s some kind of achievement. But maybe just as important in the genre-bending stakes is the mood. It’s dark, but virtually without aggression, which to me opens up new territory in the field of metal. Not to mention the absence of vocals—what a revelation! You can lose yourself to it: write, meditate, wash the dishes, make love, and—now and again—glimpse the light. To me, Earth transcends metal, like Slint transcends punk. I file them together under rare experiments with guitars, bass and drums. Hibernaculum came out in 2007; Dylan Carlson is (as of late 2017) 49 years old and founded Earth in 1989; but this, to me, is new, a small but significant clue toward a possible future of rock.
AC/DC man! Their genius is so close to idiocy it’s amazing. Malcolm Young especially—he’s got the lizard-mind. Maybe intellectually his riffs are nothing special, but backed by Phil Rudd and Cliff Burton or George Young they’re incendiary. To be fair, Powerage is the smartest album of AC/DC’s career. “Down Payment Blues” is a minimalist epic, probably Malcolm’s finest five minutes, along with the incredible adrenalin-fuelled “Riff Raff” and the abstract “What’s Next to the Moon”, whose open-string arpeggio is so simple and beautiful you wonder how no-one else thought of it. Ditto “Gimme a Bullet”—now that is mindless, but pump-your-fists-in-the-air perfect, and not a guitar solo in earshot. (It doesn’t need one: George’s walking bass takes the lead, with once-in-a-career results.) “Sin City” ain’t half bad neither, and it’s where Bon Scott comes to the fore: “Bring on the dancing girls and put the champagne on ice.” (Though it’s “Down Payment Blues” that’s the message song, one of Bon’s most heartfelt moments: “No I ain’t doin’ much but doin’ nothing means a lot to me.”) If ever a band was more than the sum of its parts it was AC/DC: isolate any one of these performances—Malcolm’s blunt power-chords, Cliff’s droning bass, Phil’s utilitarian four-on-the-floor, Bon’s three-note melodies—and listeners could well be mystified. Of course there’s Angus, a stone-cold virtuoso, but those who think AC/DC is his show are missing the point. He’s the gravy. Malcolm and the boys are the meat. “Gone Shootin’”, now that is genius, the kind of groove you just know Keith Richards’d love to muscle in on. Oh, and “Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation”—about as Stonesy as they ever got. Apparently it was added last when the record company said there were no hits on the album, and it ain’t bad: great sound, even if the riff’s a little tired. But make no mistake, “Riff Raff” is the hit here. If a shuttle gets sent to space with an AC/DC song onboard and it ain’t “Riff Raff” I’m going after it. 100% brutal full-blooded groove rock’n’roll. Powerage is a dream you don’t wake up from. Career-defining genius. Pure gold.
What is there to say about Loveless that hasn’t already been said? It never seemed, in the early nineties, that it would ever be so talked about. But the truth is I tuned out on the MBV talk long ago, even though in 1998 when a Bowie freak and an Elvis freak asked me which artist’s albums I’d take to a desert island I said My Bloody Valentine’s (all two of them). Well, I was still mourning a lost love—the pivotal point of my young life—which had been born amid a Loveless and LSD haze. My girlfriend and I would sing along (or hum, since we couldn’t hear the words) while we made love, woman and man accorded equal spotlight on MBV’s stage. Back then I had no idea what MBV looked like: I saw them (men and women both) waif-thin in sheer satin, silk or leather. And I would have been happy to persist in that illusion: the pink guitar was all the imagery I needed. Of course soon enough I discovered Isn’t Anything (with its band photo), and the early EPs. All are great—in some ways better (or more wildly inventive) than Loveless, but not as easy to get lost in. Given Kevin Shields himself seems to think Loveless was a misfire, I can see the flaws: its kind of flat, one-dimensional, lacking light and shade; it’s what it suggests that’s most powerful. Still, what a suggestion! To a degree, despite the copycats, I doubt there’s been a more futuristic record in rock, at least in this vein. And on reflection I don’t think it’s all about guitar technique. (After all, Brian Eno did the synoptic whammy-bar trick on Here Come the Warm Jets in 1973.) What was MBV’s secret weapon? Ingenuous as it may sound, the songs—the off-kilter melodies, beguiling chord-changes, sweet-and-sour disposition. (“You Never Should”, from Isn’t Anything, always struck me as their breakthrough, and I’d love to have heard it Loveless-ised.) Oh yeah, and of course the delicate balance of the sexes: the future of rock, after all, is part-female. There are caveats: Shields turned demagogue, and squeezed Loveless of band dynamics. (On the other hand, Colm Ó Cíosóig’s jerky garage-band drumming could never have cut through on this level.) From what I gather (I’ve barely listened to it), the 20-years-in-the-making M B V continues the trend. Me, I’ve got no time for an MBV that doesn’t reinvent the sound, and relegates the melodies to a supporting role. Truth is I rarely even spin Loveless these days—it’s too wound up in those days. But I know it to be solid gold. Along with Slint’s Spiderland, probably the last time guitar music truly blew me away. The sound of sensual overload. And one of four or five records that changed my life.
I’ve always distrusted Blood on the Tracks, ever since I first heard it in my late teens. At first I didn’t know why, I just knew it didn’t grab me, not like Bringing it all Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited. Now, 25 years later, I can say it definitively: I just don’t like it. I think it’s overblown, insipid. I find its sacred-cow status baffling. “Tangled Up in Blue” sets the tone. An earworm almost as toxic as the most blatant pop nursery rhymes, its celebrated first verse starts: “Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed / Wondering if she’d changed at all, if her hair was still red.” I mean, huh?! If her hair was RED?!! Am I missing one of Dylan’s fabled “codes” here? Wondering if she was still in the Communist Party, maybe? Cos if there’s nothing more to it that is one dull way to set a scene. Who gives a **** what colour her hair is? To me, it just sounds like lazy rhyming, and it makes me distrust that he really means anything at all, which might be fine except that he delivers the song with such gravitas, as if he’s pouring out his soul. It’s there again in “Simple Twist of Fate”: the overdramatic shouted line—“He wished that he’d gone str-a-a-a-ight”—followed by the too-smooth warbled refrain, which makes a mockery of the shout. (Also “People tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within” sounds like some defensive teenager to me—and critics call this mature?! Pure saccharine.) And by the time of “You’re a Big Girl Now” (patronising title—aside from that I can’t digest this song; it flies right by me without a trace) and “Idiot Wind” (I register the line about Italy—it’s kinda nice—but the rest is just so much garbled over-emoted nonsense to me) I’ve tuned out to the point that it’s all sonic wallpaper. Dude can string words together, granted. Ever heard the saying “more is less” though? That’s why “Girl From the North Country” breaks my heart, whereas “If You See Her Say Hello” seems empty, prosaic. But really, what galls me is the self-mythologising. How the narrator in “Tangled” is a drifter who works on a fishing boat and abandons his car out west and how the stripper in the topless place falls for him. I mean, fine, I accept that it’s not autobiography, but why does the fantasy have to be so macho, such a cliché? (Speaking of which, there are many clichés: “A saxophone someplace far off played”, “She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones”.) “Revolution in the air”? Maybe so Bob, maybe so, but this whole air of sentimental nostalgia for something you only ever imagined in the first place makes me wonder. Reviewers exalt the polished craft of this album, and it certainly has that. Nice acoustic guitar sound too. But you’ve heard of albums (or films, commonly) that are “so bad they’re good”. It could be Blood on the Tracks is so good it’s bad.
J Dilla is everything I love about hip-hop. Dilla reminds us: anyone with a thorough knowledge of black American music in the 20th century has a great education in music. A golden age, which hip-hop, by recognising and celebrating it as such, manages to repurpose and perpetuate. Donuts is a genius curation: 1-2 minute potent edits, exquisite in themselves, that (a) suggest a future, and (b) send us back to the past. At it’s best (“Stop”, “People”, “Mash”, “Time: The Donut of the Heart”, “Lightworks”, “One Eleven”, “Two Can Win”, “Last Donut of the Night”) it’s thrilling, heartbreaking, exhilerating. This happened—the grassroots uprising of soulful virtuosity that brought us jazz, blues, soul, funk—it flourished and passed. But Donuts, a time machine, gives it back. I’ll admit to getting into Donuts kind of late. In England in 2010, someone I loved recommended it, but I never quite settled into it. Maybe my life was too slow; I preferred to luxuriate in Coltrane’s Crescent or Company Flow or outtakes from Bitches’ Brew on the endless-seeming busrides through suburban Wythenshawe to my job at Manchester Airport. But now, with new relationship, three stepkids, studies, writing, music all bubbling at once on the stove of my attention, the one- and two-minute salvos of Donuts suit me to the ground—little shots of love and adrenalin and wide-eyed possibility that, maybe, could only have come from a guy about to be dead. Check his plethora of other instrumentals, mostly released since his death, and see if you can find anything that breaks the rules like this does. It’s a bag of seeds, barely cultivated, whatever he could gather in a hurry, but worked with skilful vigor so it suggests near-infinite outgrowths. Composed for the most part—so legend has it—in a hospital bed with a turntable, a sampler and some 45s gifted by his friends, Donuts is state-of-the-art love of music and community. Dilla, Detroit son of an opera singer and a jazz bassist, with perfect pitch at two and his own turntable at four, is a musical appreciator of genius. Why did Dilla make Donuts? Love of music, plain and simple. A more authentic work of love, reverence and respect I doubt you’ll find.