13 November 2009

Beards per minute

Given their closer orbit to his normal spheres of listening, I'm surprised Simon missed a whole rash of beards beyond the fuzzy folk types discussed in this Guardian piece (and in his blissblog follow-up).

For starters, minimal techno does not mean minimal facial hair.

Particularly for the acknowledged master of the field.

This minimal-techno-dubstep spectrum clearly needs to be extended as minimal-techno-dubstep-beards, looking at this Perlon new boy:

Then there's Sam Shackleton's former Skull Disco colleague:

There may be a West Country thing going on here . . . Bristol is a pretty beardy town, and Bristol's the connection for Appleblim and Bass Clef:

But that's not all re dubstep:

And Hyperdub connects to:

From which you can go hauntological:

Or stay electro/synth-pop (note the double points scored here for beard plus Shoreditch Slug):

From whom the beard's importance to the post-punk electro disco revival is a step away:

Before you even consider random strands like space disco:

And assorted French hipsters like Sebastian Tellier or Justice who I can't be bothered to picture.

I just hope these oversights don't blow up in Simon's face . . . It can only be a matter of time before Joe Muggs pens a heartfelt screed on the narrowness of his initial folk-orientated Face Fuzz Continuum . . . its pernicious effects as a kind of canon formation; how badly it reveals his ignorance of the openness of the modern beard-wearer to a huge variety of influences beyond the Incredible String Band; etc.

03 November 2009

Crazy Rhythms

If I’d known that The Feelies were capable of sounding like Richard Thompson jamming with Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, I would have checked them out sooner. For years I had one unsourced phrase in my head in relation to the band: ‘Hoboken pop squirm’, although the core of the band actually grew up (and remained) in Haledon, New Jersey. I couldn’t even have told you what Hoboken pop squirm was; I assumed it meant weedy proto-indie, a kind of jangly forerunner of Weezer or They Might Be Giants, the wrong side of the river from the bare-knuckle sonic psychosis of post-No Wave downtown.

Crazy Rhythms (their first album) is totally wired though. The sound is like a featherweight boxer: not overpoweringly massive but practically quivering with tensile strength. Although the wiriness of the long-distance runner is probably a better comparison: according to this NY Rocker piece, the two guitarists, Glenn Mercer and Bill Millions would meet daily to go for 3-5 mile runs. Anton Fier, drummer for long enough to record this album but not much longer, must have been the real athlete though: some of these beats, especially ‘Forces at Work‘, the title track, ‘Moscow Nights’, ‘Loveless Love’, are so unerringly, unrelentingly propelled that the stories about him throwing up between songs, and bleeding from the mouth and ears (! flying and/or broken sticks presumably) are fully believable.

When Fier and the rest of the band are locked right in, punk becomes an inadequate reference point, and instead a kind of American motorik manifests itself, with the New Jersey Turnpike’s endless width -- 14 lanes at one point -- replacing the autobahn as the governing metaphor. (‘Forces at Work’: Haledon, Galledon.) That sense of flat width -- an inclination to the horizontal as an organizing principle -- follows through the whole record from the mixing and its separated stereo image to the cover image of the band, lined up from left to right against a pale blue ground. ‘Crazy Rhythms’ is so… flattened, with its beginning and end separated by a guitar-less instrumental break long enough to fit most punk songs into, but one that doesn’t attempt any shifts in dynamic range or solos, just a series of percussion bursts that come and go.

The whole record feels fascinatingly out of place: a Jersey band obsessed with Eno and Kraftwerk, playing on the downtown punk scene -- and released by a UK label (Stiff). Geographical dislocation recurs in the lyrics, from the unreliable out-of-body narration of ‘Boy with Perpetual Nervousness’ to ‘Moscow Nights’, a song arguably no less provocative to mainstream American culture than ‘God Save the Queen’ was to the UK, being a fantasy about defecting to Soviet Russia (on the cusp of the decade of Red October and Red Dawn):

When you smile and say,
‘I thought about it, it's the right time’
And I expect that
You're never returning to the USA
Well, I don't know
I think it's time for you to face it
You never felt right in our world
You never felt right about yourself
And I think about what it might be like
If I could go alone, if I could go at night
Would it be just like you know you said it would
Would it start the life aglow?

There’s also something oddly out of time about the record. It came out in 1980, making it more post-punk than punk, but the band were playing together downtown in 1976, when Terry Ork started to manage them, so the elements they share with Television (a paradoxical atmosphere: deadpan histrionics), Talking Heads (jittery, spasmodic, but plugged right in to the dancefloor), Jonathan Richman (the lightfooted AM pop of ‘Fa Ce La’) aren’t so much debts as parallel developments that went undocumented for four years.

It’s ahead of, as well as behind, its times. Their understanding of space, bass and percussion anticipates Liquid Liquid’s at points (that break on ‘Crazy Rhythms’, the slow-burn start of ‘Boy with Perpetual Nervousness’). They cut out crash cymbals to keep the to range of frequencies free for the guitars, then compensate with layers of extra shakers, woodblocks, etc that work as powerfully for being left out as when they’re in: dub’s positive use of negative space -- double hisses on the hi-hat that refuse to crowd every bar, rolling breaks on toms and cowbells. Listened to in conjunction with the massively underwhelming follow-up The Good Earth, you realize The Feelies pulled off the same uncommon trick as Pixies, making a first album which is better recorded, more intelligent, more developed, just better all round, than its successor, even down to the crisp, dry, force of the production, almost clinically clear and undistorted, where the second is mushier, messier, duller, more conventional. The Pixies had Steve Albini, The Feelies had their own ideas, developed in the long run-up to the sessions, which they then imposed on their engineer, Mark Abel. And also a certain amount of luck: unhappy with the sound of their amps, they tried plugging their guitars straight into the mixing desk, and then decided to stick with the unusually clean, cold sound that resulted. (Abel: 'That record was the culmination of four years of fantasizing about how they were going to record those songs... they couldn't understand anyone else's ideas... Frankly, I think they dug themselves into a hole, but that's the hole they want and they have a perfect right to sit in it.') It undercuts the garage-punk assumption that distortion equals sublime raging inferno. Glenn Mercer says ‘Stiff requested a demo for a second album. They didn't like it. We were doing a lot of home recording, even more in an Eno mode and less like a rock band.’ With Stiff’s misjudgment and Anton Fier leaving, I wonder if this second album that never happened is one of the great lost albums. The closest thing that exists to it is probably Sonic Youth’s debut EP from the following year, which shares some of that rigorously cool recording aesthetic, the chiming,* intertwined guitars and an accent on percussion. And, come to think of it, elements of the cover design.

* The Feelies are often described as ‘jangly’, but they’re not. They chime. Indie jangles; jingle bells jangle. Clocks, bells, Arvo Part and Steve Reich records chime. The Feelies chime.