1980s, 2009-10: Darkwave Creatures
Home Sweet Home is an unmarked basement bar on the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown near the Lower East Side. There are a few stuffed birds and rodents displayed in a glass case underneath the bar, as if the owner originally wanted a taxidermy-theme before leasing the bar out to the New York rock underground of the early 2000’s. Past the bar, the DJ deck overlooks a dancefloor alight with a disorienting discoball glow and hazy with automated fog. For a while there was a tacit understanding that after a certain hour you could smoke at the bottom of the entrance stairwell. Still, Home Sweet Home is too self aware to be considered actually grimy: you wouldn’t buy cocaine here, although if you already had some this would certainly be a place to do it. On the right night, first time patrons may very feel they have walked into a song from Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights.
Every Wednesday night, Wierd Records hosts Coldwave night with live music and dj sets. Coldwave refers to both a French born variant of darkwave as well as a new batch of Brooklyn based bands like Cold Cave, Light Asylum, Led Er Est, and Xeno and Oaklander among others (some of these band names hit the nail on the head a little too directly, I think). A scant eight or nine years after the great Joy Division/New Order boom that launched a million indie (as opposed to electronic) dance nights, it may seem strange to have such a blatant Ian Curtis vibe cycling back into vogue. You get the sense that the LES never really moved on, though, and Home Sweet Home certainly feels like an appropriate hub. Additionally, these bands are taking on the ole Factory Records sound with the contemporary approach of the Italo disco and lo-fi acts that have been rampant in popular DIY music for the past few years. Light Asylum, my favorite of the batch, have already cultivated a commanding live presence, and on the demo for “A Certain Person” (streaming on their myspace page) they make gloriously good on their promise to sound like “Ian and Grace making babies.” Grace Jones, that is. Just listen to that chorus.
Other times, the neo-coldwave sound doesn’t progress as far beyond its heavy-handed influences. “Just stop with the low budget Joy Division crap,” was my initital reaction to my friend who introduced me to this stuff. These bands are still in their early stages and are working through their growing pains on the stage. They already have a supportive scene and receptive audience, and I’m expecting to hear some interesting things. In the meantime though, here’s a few classics of the sound that I can’t really foresee being topped.
• Clan Of Xymox - Stranger
Like “Blue Monday” but more operatic and well, Dutch. Pretty much defines the Darkwave sound and points towards house music.
• A Certain Ratio – Do the Du (John Peel Session)
This song and band is admittedly outside the darkwave/coldwave domain, but “Do the Du” is a terrific example of how to inject the Ian Curtis vocal thing with some necessary levity. Splitting the difference betwen jangly post punk bands like Josef K and Orange Juice and starker Factory Records (which they were on) fare, the jouncy disco beat supplies the song with expressiveness by emphasizing the tonal shifts in singer Simon Topping’s low register. Soul Jazz re-issued this Peel Session rarity as a 7” in the early 2000s, memorably featuring a “hipside” and the “flipside.” The sleeve is pretty classic, with profiles of the five band members, four shirtless white yobs and a well dressed, sunglasses-sporting black gent.
KaS Product were a French electronic duo whose work from the early 80’s is the touchstone for the coldwave sound. Their track “So Young but So Cold” can be considered an anthem of sorts for the scene. In this video for “Never Come Back” they take the coldwave tag seriously and perform in an unheated warehouse (you can see singer Mina Soyoc’s breath!).
Finally, Stones Throw recently released The Minimal Wave Tapes, Vol. II, compiled by Peanut Butter Wolf and East Village radio personality Veronica Vasicka, and featuring the old, rare stuff. It’s pretty great and serves as a timely supplement to the rise of Wierd Records/new coldwave.
2008: 2 Foot Yard - Borrowed Arms
Any band with a name that looks like somebody’s email password instantly arouses my suspicions — probably because clunky alphanumerical strings seemingly composed of someones ‘porn’ name and the year they were born were irritatingly prevalent among pop and dance bands of the early 90s. The number 2 was a repeat offender. In 1993 a euro trash rave band called 2 Unlimited held up the airwaves with the hit “No Limits.” Then there were Boys II Men. There was 2Pac.
Perhaps it’s just me, but 2 Foot Yard also has the whiff of a working title, like a loose confederation of Dutch DJs who got together for a couple of albums. But while they may be an ‘outfit’ of sorts, a vehicle for the talents of Marika Hughes (Charming Hostess, Vienna Teng), Shahzad Ismaily (too many to mention) and Carla Kihlstedt, they are no stuffed shirt. To name but a few of Ms Kihlstedt’s projects: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (Mr. Bungle with violins), The Book of Knots (responsible for a compilation of scary portraits of rotten industrial towns), and a song cycle for the stage based around Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. The last is particularly impressive when you consider the influence of another famous musical menagerie: Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals - which, while being the source of as many radio friendly soundbites as any pop album, is experimental, cacophonous in parts.
If I may extend the analogy to 2 Foot Yard themselves, the eponymous “Borrowed Arms” is the radio friendly equivalent of the Carnival’s ‘swan’ (song), a perfect gem of chamber pop that would be unpleasant only to someone in a really bad mood. On the other hand the album throws up tracks like “Crisis”, which is shouty and abrasive. Overall though, Borrowed Arms and 2 Foot Yard are an experiment within the parameters of pop. Carla Kihlstedt implied as much in an interview after a gig in Amsterdam (the home of techno I might add). The band’s tiny 2 Foot Yard was that limited space in which the artists were hanging their work, leaning their stepladders, paint cans and so on. Although the sound was lush, the band members were few, and the arrangements were for songs of pop length, which could be reproduced easily on stage without the whole of Polyphonic Spree in tow.
The series of live videos with interviews (see link below) are perhaps a more accurate glimpse of what the band can do than the album itself. But this is not to say Borrowed Arms isn’t great, it’s just so clearly created on the white paper that neutral ‘space’ estate agents and gallery attendants are so fond of pointing their clipboards at. It’s as if the record can never be more than a brochure for the live performance. Perhaps chamber pop is faulty anyway in its attempt marry the incompatible — a bold sketch of a pop song and something consummately ‘finished’. Is it a fundamentally pointless exercise? Or is the genre like classical music — put down on record for convenience, while it’s taken for granted that most music buffs would rather go to their church, the concert hall.
Despite all that’s been said though, 2 Foot Yard do transmit a rough and readiness, and even a kind of wartime bawdiness (see the provocative “Red-rag & Pink-flag”, based on E. E. Cummings’ poem) which appears to be born out of a life lived permanently on the road. Carla Kihlstedt is described on her myspace as “a wayward waif wandering the wide world, happily lost somewhere between the music conservatory, the arboretum, and the road house.” This excursion into fancy has the potential to be irritating, but it’s self deprecating enough to be endearing. In the Dutch interview, Carla seemed rueful about her tendency to end up with a band flanking her. I imagine her idea of normality must be pretty strange, but her talk of popping up in various projects as if she were a circus brat continually — but unsuccessfully trying to strike out on her own — seemed to make deliberate light of her prolific achievements. Anyway, what came across clearly was that the work of creating and recording music was more important to the members of 2 Foot Yard than where it originated.
Indeed there’s a touch of old fashioned socialism about the band, exemplified in the way they come on stage wearing workaday gear. Musicians, after all, must sweat a lot under those lights. 2 Foot Yard are old hands, ‘comrades’ skillful enough to make the best of any limitations imposed on them, even by themselves. They have the reliability of classically trained musicians and the rakishness of rock entertainers. Their accomplished album may not represent the full warmth of their live sound, but its influences (Klezmer and European Jazz) and its concerns (the restless heart, the cabaret bar, the sadness of settled life) record their trek through music, glamorous or world weary, and sometimes a bit of both.
1982: Interference - Interference
Unlike the vast number of deluxe reissues pouring out of the bigger labels these days, the self-titled Interference album never saw a proper release when it was recorded in 1982. That makes it truly unique when compared to items like Universal-Island’s reissue of the early U2 albums and Hip-O’s recent versions of the first few Elvis Costello discs. Still, it’s tempting to place this in the context of those and find it wanting. After all, many of those albums are familiar and comfortably worn, but Interference has more in common with Rhino’s 2007 Collector’s Edition of Joy Division’s Closer and Mute’s 2009 reissue of the first three Nick Cave albums than any of those more heralded reissues.
Like Cave and Joy Division, Interference were more content pursuing calculated nuance than revisiting scripted pop formulas, and like Ian Curtis and similar-minded artists, they chose to do so out of the limelight. During their far too brief two-year lifespan, Interference consisted of David Linton, Anne DeMarinis, and Michael Brown. Both Linton and DeMarinis were chums with Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, while Brown and Linton had played with Rhys Chatham. Owing to their heavy downtown New York connections, any similarities to Sonic Youth or early-80s work by Chatham would be expected.
What’s striking however, is how well Interference incorporate their European influences like Joy Division, Wire, and This Heat. Opening track “Excerpt #1”’s replication of Joy Division’s staccato basslines and hyper percussion is uncanny, and “Contempt” finds the group channeling Wire’s peculiar version of angular punk while celebrating their penchant for bizarre lyrics: “Live in the climate/ Make decorations.” The droning “Interludes” that bracket the track could have been pulled from any of Bruce Gilbert’s post-Wire work, but it’s hard to call any of these artists influences when, in fact, they were closer to contemporaries.
As for true contemporaries, Interference seem to look no further than fellow New Yorkers Sonic Youth for a pattern. Much of this album mirrors Confusion is Sex in its ambition and terrific expanses of mesmerizing noise. Oddly enough, Interference was recorded almost a year before. Still, “She Said Destroy”’s lyrics, repeated with only subtle variations, evoke Kim Gordon’s gauche, yet brilliant poetic delivery: “She said now/ She said here/ She said right/ She said then/ She said destroy.”
While the decision to include remixes of nearly all the album tracks is neither original nor, for that matter, necessary, Linton’s connections in the New York underground provide for remixes that at least prove interesting. In particular, QPE’s dub mix (“QPE #5 Dub Remix”) and Toshio Kajiwara’s Bingsang remix of non-album track “Globalization Report” are standouts.
Originally intended for Glenn Branca’s Neutral records, Interference seems to have suffered from an ill-fated combination of unfortunate timing and regrettable financial concerns, evading awareness for over two decades — given the current economy, it’s ironic that it appears now. After 27 years of waiting, to say that its arrival is a tour de force would border on hyperbole. Referring to it as anything less than exceptional, on the other hand, would be a grievous understatement.
1969: Dave Bixby - Ode To Quetzalcoatl
Dave Bixby found god one evening in the late 60s — an experience that would deeply influence his life and music thereafter. Looking to attain some form of purity, Bixby renounced taking LSD and all other drugs. His friends, feeling estranged from his newfound sober and piteous identity, abandoned him. Even the local Christian group failed to recognize his personal encounter with god. Overcome with utter isolation, Bixby began to think more personally of god; he wrote Ode To Quetzalcoatl (recently re-released on Guerssen) as a result. Unsurprisingly, the album is dripping with references to god and heaven, though given Bixby’s desolate situation during the late 60s, the whole of Quetzalcoatl is profoundly morose.
Opener “Drug Song” is a downer if there ever was one. “Life used to be good/ now look what I’ve done/ I’ve ruined my temple with drugs/ my mind is stunned,” laments the recently enlightened Bixby. It’s oddly pretty though — Bixby’s vocals do well to channel his solitude; his guitar is soft, yet overwhelmingly emotional at times. Lyrically speaking, Bixby may be singing about god, but his expression is immersed with loneliness rather than faith. Ignorant of his intention, Dave Bixby’s Ode To Quetzalcoatl says more about secluded introspection than it does newfound Christianity. And for that reason alone, I don’t think Quetzalcoatl could be any more beautiful.
1983: Talking Heads - Speaking in Tongues
To witness someone speak in tongues is a surreal experience. In a rapturous state, an individual will mumble, burble, or make some otherworldly sounds, seemingly divined from unknown forces. For the speaker, the vocal incarnations are an unconscious gift. Faith channels mystic forces and the believer becomes a holy mouthpiece. However, for the unenlightened, this phenomenon defies reason and credibility. Daily life conditions us to seek cause from effect, so when we are confronted with an unmoved mover, logic is thrown into disarray. Sound is incongruent with meaning.
For David Byrne, the act of speaking in tongues was an inspiration. The title of Talking Heads’ fifth studio album, according to Byrne, was an artifact of his fascination with preachers. “When people go into trances, they garble in a strange language… I’ve seen it in movies; I’ve seen it face to face as well. It was a woman in a church, and she was talking in a fairly excited tone of voice, and all of a sudden these phrases came out of her.”
“I think my words make about that much sense sometimes,” he joked during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. “Well, they make sense, but not if you try and figure them out.”
After Talking Heads’ sonically adventurous album Remain in Light, the group went on a two-year hiatus, pursuing separate projects. Byrne made The Catherine Wheel, a soundtrack for a ballet by his choreographer girlfriend Twyla Tharp, bassist Tina Weymouth and her husband/drummer Chris Frantz released their first album as Tom Tom Club, and guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison released his first solo album, The Red And The Black. Tensions were reportedly high during the band’s stint with producer Brian Eno on Remain in Light. The band produced the next Talking Heads album with all songs credited to David Byrne/Chris Frantz/Jerry Harrison/Tina Weymouth. In the book Talking Heads by David Gans, Frantz explains that, “[On Speaking in Tongues] we [didn’t] have the extra aggravation of Eno always trying to make something weird or saying, ‘That’s too ordinary. We have to do it this way to make it weirder.’”
From its album cover to the music, Speaking in Tongues presents itself as a looser and more fun record than its predecessors. Limited-edition copies of the album featured plastic envelope packaging with clear discs designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg while the standard edition was painted by Byrne. Painted onto old white sleeves from test pressings, Byrne’s design is a whimsical swirl of pastels with four photographs of what he called a “drunk chair.”
Once the listener opens the packaging and plays the record, the true experience of Speaking in Tongues is revealed. The opening track, “Burning Down The House,” drifts in from silence and declares Talking Heads’ commanding presence. Seeing as the album was the band’s commercial breakthrough, it is fitting that it begins with their first and only American top 10 hit. The song inspires letting go, while a curious mix of synthesizers and guitars make it both strange and appealing. It is also the premier funk crossover song for suburbia. Byrne lifted the chant from Parliament Funkadelic and with it came the “Tear the Roof off the Mother Sucker” attitude.
The rest of Speaking in Tongue’s first side builds off of the energy of “Burning Down The House.” The preeminently silly “Making Flippy Floppy” and slippery “Girlfriend Is Better” infuse more distinct synthesizers and characteristically new wave solos. Byrne’s distinct vocals carry fractured melodies with style and swagger — it’s difficult to hear the lyrics “stop making sense” without envisioning Byrne’s slender frame enveloped in a giant white suite. However, on “Slippery People,” Byrne shares vocal duties with The Staple Singers, who play the roll of congregation for a gospel-style call and response. “What’s the matter with him?” Byrne demands over and over. If, at this point, it feels like madness is beginning to swallow the record, the choruses’ promise that “He’s all right” may offer comfort.
On Side Two, the songs are more varied and, ultimately, more comforting. The album closes with “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” a beautifully simple yet effective love song. The title’s origin refers to the fact that everyone apart from Frantz plays instruments on which they’re not proficient, repeating a “naïve” melody. Though it lacks a cohesive narrative, isolated lines are poignantly intimate and honest. It is touching to hear Byrne croon, “Home – is where I want to be/ but I guess I’m already there.”
Between fits of ecstasy and moments of reflection, Speaking in Tongues lives up to its name. One can ruminate on the album’s lyrics, but ultimately the group matches mode and function to make an impression. And as far as the music is concerned, Talking Heads’ expansion on new wave and funk is as inventive and catchy as anything in their catalogue. To dissect specific meaning from Speaking in Tongues is to separate the album from its inherent message: stop making sense and start listening.
1992: Kitchens of Distinction - “On Tooting Broadway Station”
Who needs chemicals when you have Julian Swales in your band? If you want to infuse your music with “emotional or cosmic uplift and depth” — the stated aim of Kitchens of Distinction’s existence, according to the liner notes in the Capsule compilation — it helps to enlist a guy who can sculpt a sound that does not solely dazzle with gloss and ornamentation.
Swales not only knows how to connect his effect pedals, he manipulates them compellingly — the listener won’t just have mental impressions of, say, riding on a sparkling pinwheel as it sinks into the Challenger Deep, but might actually feel like he or she were doing so. (The aforementioned sensation struck me while listening to “Blue Pedal.” And yes, I’m aware that it could seem cheesy to you, so feel free to listen to it on your own time and see if you can conjure up something better.) Or, like on “Hammer,” the listener might feel flogged, lacerated, vivisected, or outright flayed alive by Swales’ closing two-minute-plus feedback squall, before two last screeches slam the remains of the listener into a wall, a great metallic wall as long as the Large Hadron Collider, where it reverberates from the collision for a full 30 seconds. (Torture and particle accelerators? That’s practically the basis for a Howard Brenton play. Suck on that!)
As for the track above, “On Tooting Broadway Station,” we have bassist and frontman Patrick Fitzgerald kneeling down and weeping like Elizabeth Smart (the author/journalist revered by Morrissey, not the Utah abductee) in the titular South London tube stop over a gentle melody from Swales and a steady mid-tempo beat from Dan Goodwin. Fitzgerald punches “the concrete floor/ until my fingers bled” and later on takes time to note that his fingers have been bandaged up. He swears to cut his estranged lover out of his heart and admits a few lines later that he has done so, but soon makes it obvious that he’s not over the man in question at all. Fitzgerald suggests that the man’s clothes be burnt along with “everything he owned and the empty chamber left” and pouts that he’ll carry on without the man “as this hollowness that drags in my voice.” He then vows to “burn it all” in a “benedictory fire” and demands, “Give me his charred heart/ And give me his fillings/ And God, give me God to forgive me!” before ultimately dismissing (or rather, celebrating) his lover as his “John of Arc.”
Julian Swales compounds these declarations with a succession of notes, chords, and assorted atmospherics that swoop skyward, careen back down, and then swoop even higher than before. The resultant wave of sound evokes a towering wall of fire. The gentle opening melody and first chorus amount to mere kindling compared to the conflagration underway; when Fitzgerald sings about wanting his lover’s charred heart, it feels almost like Swales has single-handedly restarted the 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires. Once Fitzgerald stops singing, the volume increases and the song itself morphs into a firestorm. And what does that mad fool Swales do? He casts the listener deeper into the firestorm that Fitzgerald started. Upon being engulfed, a crescendo ensues, and it’s obvious that he aims to incinerate the skies. There’s little point in razing the world to the ground when that happens. (Bakuninites, take note.) No mortal should have that sort of power, but Mr. Swales tries his damnedest to remake the world into something akin to Canberra in 2003 with his guitar. And as the song starts to fade out — on the studio version, not the live take above — you can hear Swales begin to scorch the stratosphere.
I’m hard-pressed to think of anything that could have a greater cathartic impact on the mind than such an impression. If it was emotional uplift they wanted, Kitchens of Distinction succeeded in ways that hardly anyone has matched before or since, and they not only achieved it here, but also in the dozens of other songs scattered throughout their discography.