Friday, March 24, 2006

An Unnerving Calm

In Gut's House by Ut (1987)

If five stars seems excessive for an album of squeaks, yelps and scrapes, then consider this: beauty is not a well-defined concept. To ask someone, "Isn’t that beautiful?" is to invite them into a shared viewpoint, one they might not have previously considered. Yes, that person is not conventionally good-looking, yet there is something intensely moving about how he holds himself; a fragility which fascinates the viewer, and which his portrait has somehow captured. If you'll allow that feeling in. Many don’t, and who can blame them? Fear is a scary thing.

I loved the idea of Ut - three noisy women who swapped instruments and argued on stage - before I ever heard them play a note, but I had to learn to love them for real once I got over the disappointment of their not being as I'd imagined. Not all that noisy, actually. Not in a crushing, masculine way, at any rate. And not a Throwing Muses precursor, either, except perhaps in their best-known, misleading song, "Evangelist", which opens In Gut's House. Get the skew-pop over early, girls, then on with the show.

It's almost impossible to describe what you will find when you do allow yourself to enter these kaleidoscopic corridors, these labyrinths of unease. It is fairly easy to point to the New York No-Wave scene of the early 80s as the garden from which these fracturing sounds sprang; we can look at the freedom of rhythmic invention those times allowed, when every sub-beat was not micro-timed and synchronized, when pop's permitted patterns were yet to be fully described in terms of the histories of two monoliths called "Rock" and "Dance"; we might point to their deliberate relocation in the early 80s from the disco-bound US to an England which still permitted the perverse likes of The Fall to persist; we could try to describe Jacqui Ham's forlorn scat in terms of freed female contemporaries such as Gina Birch (The Raincoats) or Ari Up (The Slits); we could mention a subsequent lineage perhaps taking in Babes in Toyland, PJ Harvey, Huggy Bear, Coping Saw and Katastrophy Wife. These things get us somewhere close to what Ut sound like before our moment of surrender, but they are just circumstances. Every truly great band transcends their medium, and, like fellow No-Wave refugees and labelmates Sonic Youth, Ut were  - ultimately, completely, indelibly – themselves.

Ut is an invitation to do nothing less than re-hear music itself. Where noiseniks like Glenn Branca and Michael Gira embraced nihilism, Ut's art is closer to avant-gardists like Stockhausen and Cage who pointed towards the Zen stillness at the heart of life, while celebrating its chaos. The world according to Ham, Canal and Young is undeniably a restless place – witness 'ID''s jagged drums, the darting vocal and harmonica stabs on 'Mosquito Botticelli', guitar gravel scattered all over 'Swallow'. But over and above this there is an unnerving calm. Like one of the moving cities in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines saga, every song is an awe-striking leviathan, slow to wake but unstoppable in its crocodilian movements, accompanied by the rattling of Handre-teeth. The album reaches its stumbling peak on side three of what was originally packaged as a double twelve-inch: 'Homebled' is all rickety violin and soft guitar clawings under a plangent Ham monologue, while 'Shut Fog' is catacomb-dark and arachnophobic; both songs oozing such sweet, sweet resignation all that can be done is to hold on for life itself. The album ends, surprisingly perhaps, with a sunrise – 'Landscape''s interpenetrating ice-planes suddenly meltwater under a sustaining yellow crayon guitar sun.

While they went on to produce a more muscularly powerful record, Griller, which scored more points with the hip-watchers, it is In Gut's House – in all its sullen, cracked beauty – that will still be there a thousand years from now.

I happened to notice this album had no review on Amazon, and resolved to put that right. The next day I ran into Sally Young and Jacqui Ham in the street outside where I work. Coincidence? The piece I wrote for Amazon was far too long, so here's the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Kit in the sun Posted by Picasa

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Guilt-Edged Stock

I don’t often buy things from online shops, but a couple of days ago I had the urge to track down a CD copy of an album I've been enjoying for several years on MP3. I never expected there to be any guilt associated with this, but sometimes these things hit you sidelong.

Jets To Brazil were a band I completely missed when they were alive and kicking butt – never even heard of them. But, during my WinMX days, cruising endlessly for new thrills, I happened to download a couple of random tunes of theirs alongside dozens of other bands I'd never heard of. So "Starry Configurations" and "I Typed For Miles" ended up on the CD-R equivalent of a mix tape (you can easily get a hundred songs onto a CD; an MP3-capable CD Walkman makes a pretty good low-budget jukebox). After a few days or possibly even months of random play, I started to notice how those two tracks stood out. "I Typed For Miles", particularly, is a doozy: In a Naked Lunch/Shining-type scenario the poor bastard protagonist has holed himself up in a hotel room, labouring under the belief that "I must keep writing if I'm to be better than everyone else", his ankles wired to the table legs so that literally all he can do is type. It seethes with barely suppressed rage ("They're playing love songs on your radio tonight/ I don’t get those songs on mine"), and rocks like a horse.

So of course I downloaded the rest of the album – Orange Rhyming Dictionary – and found I'd unearthed not a lost or forgotten treasure, but a treasure I hadn’t even suspected existed: a subtle, supple, but almost completely straightforward Rock album bent out of shape by devlishly clever lyrics. The songs mainly touched on subjects close to my heart, other than prose-related self-validation of course: repression, revolution and failed relationships ("Take my name off of the lease/ You can even keep the name/ It never suited me" – 'Sea Anemone'). The closest comparisons I can offer are the first Bear album, Disneytime, and Radiohead's The Bends (another record I failed to check out til later – I spent most of 1995 wondering whether I really liked Caspar Brötzmann or not). If it sounds like I'm selling it to you, you're right. It has to do with the guilt.

It struck me this morning on my way to work. Ordering that CD was totally selfish of me. While I get the benefit of slightly improved sound quality (especially the opening track, which I never could find at a decent bitrate), and being able to look at the artwork, quote lyrics without having to Google them, and most importantly of all file it under 'J' in my collection, the band will get practically, or more likely absolutely, nothing. (I don’t mean to single out Jade Tree, the Jets' label, particularly; it's just the way the system works. The people who didn’t pay me for records I made were nice guys, too.)

There is no guilt in enjoying music you haven’t paid for, or none that I've experienced. I like Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out Of My Head" although I've never even downloaded it, let alone bought it; it's a famous song, it gets sprung at you often enough in shops or on the radio, what would be the point in paying for it? Just enjoy it and move on.

But now I know that there is indeed guilt, tons of it, in buying music by bands you really love. What if Blake Schwarzenbach, who wrote all those songs I adore, is down on his luck somewhere, struggling to make ends meet, or just trying to finance his next project? What if he's right now having to choose which of his children gets to go to college? Or which he'll have to give up for adoption? The tenner I gave to some Amazon wannabes could have gone straight to him. It might have made all the difference. Instead, I blew it on my own vanity, on wanting to have a plastic disk in my hand for a couple of minutes before I put it on a shelf. There'll be no smug satisfaction in doing that, now. I feel a fool.

I'm sorry, Blake. I will track you down and next time I have some spare money it's going straight into your Paypal account. For now, the best I can offer is to make a really superb rip of that CD when it arrives, and put it somewhere for all to hear.

This article appeared under a different title on p2pnet

Friday, March 03, 2006

Top Totty

(Why is it okay to rent people?)

Anyone who thinks that strip clubs are nothing to be embarrassed about should be obliged to drop into their next ten conversations the title of this piece, which is the name of a table dancing club in Brighton. Aside from its demeaning vibe, who actually uses the word "totty"? The only person I can think of is Tim Nice-But-Dim, the hapless Harry Enfield toff. And isn't that precisely the point? The sex industry flatters its customers, or at least it imagines that's what it's doing, by trying to associate itself with Aristocracy. High Society, Mayfair, the phrase "Gentleman's Club"... anywhere a woman has her tits out you'll find some grubby bloke trying to pass it off as Lord Lichfield.

I have started to wonder what genuine Aristocrats think of this. How do residents of Mayfair feel about the eponymous mag? As embarrassed as I would if there were a porn mag called Bakers' Bottoms? Possibly not. To the bourgeoisie, getting people to do whatever you want them to by flinging a bit of wonga at them is the principle around which the world revolves. It is no less absurd to get into someone's panties through a bit of casual wad-waving than it is to offer them a living in exchange for driving your car, managing your investment portfolio, or sitting behind the till in one of your supermarkets. Let's face it, these people invented exploitation in the name of freedom – although, even as I write the ‘e’ word, which makes me feel like a ranting lunatic just committing it to silicon, I wonder what it means exactly. Is it only exploitation if you’re doing something other people disapprove of? Or something you wouldn’t otherwise be doing? Or is it exploitation whenever somebody else is creaming off the value of your work, even if you’re having the time of your life?

We all know that owning people is wrong, and there are laws against it. So why is renting people okay?

I suppose because it's hard to imagine what a world would be like without it. Money has its own inexorable logic, as we know; reducing to an act of exchange every human activity, from food production to sex to art. It dehumanises us all, but we seem stuck with it. The only alternative that ever seems to get offered is a return to barter, which is going backwards in a rocket. Barter may seem harmless and Earth-loving, cutting out all the financial bullshit, but there is a good reason why money was invented in the first place, and which won’t go away: its generality. I can only barter with you if we both have a commodity* the other wants. With money, the exchange becomes transferable - so while I might not have something you want, the money I pay you can be swapped with someone who does. And even barter has a whiff of "I'm renting you" about it: "Hungry Nude Girls! Hot lapdance for a hot meal!" So there really can be no going back.

What the hell do we do?

I would strongly argue that, left to our own devices, we mainly do the things we love to do. Anyone who has ever worked for the love of it knows what that feels like: not a burden, not a chore, but a thrill. Something other than work, in fact. This feeling lies behind the urge to play in bands, upload movies to newsgroups, write blogs, develop open source software, do other people’s washing up, encourage children, make fanfic, invent gecko-boots, edit fanzines, help the aged, .... All the things that make life meaningful, in fact. Without money, think of all the bankers, stockbrokers, cashiers, tax inspectors and accountants free to fly kites, make Firefox extensions, become pirate DJs, customize cars, write plays,...

I have heard it said by some imaginative but misguided thinkers that money is love incarnate. I couldn’t agree less. If I had to sum up the spiritual meaning of money in one word it would be “distrust“. Being paid is demeaning. Remuneration is a daily reminder of the lack of trust, the threat, upon which Capitalist society is founded – do what I want or starve! – an unequal exchange we're brought up to see as equal. Only by freely giving our talents, with love in our hearts, would we truly earn the fruits of our fellow beings’ labours.

To me most of what I’ve written here is obvious. We all know that work feels uncomfortable compared to giving. We know – unless of course we’re one of those oblivious residents of Centerfoldville, who already feel the world’s bounty is theirs for the taking – the horrible gut-twist of financial compulsion in some aspects (if we’re lucky), or all (if we're not), of our lives. The fear of losing your job; of not being able to pay the rent. Yep, that's right: the girl gyrating on your table really does want you to like her body, ‘cause – like everyone you know – she's worried about being thrown out of her house onto the street. Does that turn you on?

Perhaps it's even obvious that we can’t go on like this, that barter is an impossible backward step, and that sharing the value of the work each person loves to do would not only lift the horrid spiritual millstone of wage-slavery but actually function well as a social structure. Perhaps. But what is far from obvious is how the hell we get from here to there.

I don’t want to fall into despair over this, because amid what can look like a downward spiral into miserable selfishness some positive things are happening. The Freecycle movement, for example, is a healthy alternative to eBaying all your unwanted stuff. And, in Brighton at least, we have the beginnings of a sane car policy where you can sign up for a community car, to use when you need. The prospect of an end to all those unused cars clogging up the street injects a little happiness into my step whenever I pass one. And need I mention filesharing?

These developments are quite encouraging, but I don't want us to sleepwalk into the future. This is rebel stuff, albeit in a low key, slackerish way. Let's read up on Communism, Anarchism, the past's failed attempts to "imagine all the people, sharing all the world". And do it right this time.

*Of course work is a commodity too.