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.


Anonymous Andrea said...

What a marvelous post about Ut.

And hi! I've been meaning to drop you a note for a couple of weeks now, ever since Sally told me she'd run into you! Talk about coincidences...

Thursday, April 13, 2006 9:41:00 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Excellent post. Griller is a favorite of mine but I'll be sure to check out In Gut's House.

What are the women of Ut doing now?

Sunday, May 14, 2006 10:52:00 PM  

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