2002-2011: Malcolm Middleton
Malcolm Middleton was slow to become a comforting listening habit. I couldn’t really imagine a time when I wouldn’t find Arab Strap a gratingly relentless downer. That didn’t mean I didn’t absolutely respect Malcolm and the gang’s uncompromisingly miserable outlook. Think of that other Malcolm, Malcolm Tucker from the political satire “In the Loop.” The fact that he’s a bloodshot-eyed psycho, spasming with expletives – fuckity BYE – is applaudable, as he’s a Scotsman.
You may be aware that Scotland is quite far North. To me it’s perfectly understandable that Northerners would fight back against the misery of living through days of darkness and rain by adopting a hard-drinking, hard-ranting comic rage that would get them through the winter months. Having some eff and blind in you is a sign that you’re still fighting, which means at least that you’re not weeping in the corner.
As Morrissey once said of the British, “you wonder how we’ve survived so long.” Well, the answer is with a healthy dose of “Tourette’s”. I’m not talking about the real, often misunderstood syndrome, but the common idea of it which involves copious declamatory swearing.
Just for a second imagine the Malcolm Tucker endorsed “Tourette’s” as a cheap cigarette brand:
“He handed me a pack of “Tourette’s” – you know, the kind that old people smoke, the kind that suddenly made you wonder if you’d become hoarse and terrifying like them one day.”
Right there you have my own interpretation of a typical lyric from the Middleton universe. And if you’re game you also have a mechanism for survival: paint yourself as black (or as nicotine colored) as your surroundings, with excessive declamatory swearing and abusive self-deprecation.
Over the course of the eight albums Middleton has released since Arab Strap – nearly as many as he has with them – he has been engaged in a seemingly inevitable verbal bar-fight with his darker side. Malcolm Middleton records are hardly less mellow than Arab Strap ones, but over time it seems this process of dissecting his own misery has made him less of a ranter and more of a metaphysical poet of life’s shoddier choices (chicken or beef; cigarettes or beer; hangover or depression). This struggle may seem self-absorbed, but it’s apparent that it breeds humor in titles like Mad for Sadness, A Quarter Past Shite, and “You’re Gonna Die Alone” (a breezy number). Middleton’s darkside is so prevalent that it’s become acceptable – just like the messy, grandiose flatmate who wanders in and out through a sitcom kitchen. Also mercifully for his audiences, in musical terms Middleton refuses to be just a miserable songwriter with a guitar. He can move between the sparest laments, upbeat rock, dancier moments, and haunting piano interludes.
I won’t lie, every time I switch on a Middleton album I still brace myself for a bleak listening experience akin to the type of sky you see over power plants. But each time, the slightly dampened mood is worth it for throwaway examples of miserablism like the following: “I can’t even cook a meal without falling into stress/ It only takes some pasta to remind me of the total depths of my unworthiness” (from Sleight of Heart). If you can find drama and humor in such moments, though you may feel a little cursed at times, you’ll never be bored, you’ll never be satisfied, and neither will your listeners. And that’s what a positive attitude is really: a strategy for keeping on keeping on, no matter how shite it gets.
1996: Flying Saucer Attack - In Search of Spaces
The name “Flying Saucer Attack” is loaded with signifiers of space. It’s something founder Dave Pearce often felt ire towards — sure, his music was laced with cresting waves of droning feedback and grainy atmosphere, but it didn’t often evoke thoughts of aimlessly traversing the universe so much as patiently admiring it from the ground. The vaguely pastoral elements of FSA’s sound suggest a more observant style of cosmic contemplation; one more content to figuratively sit upon a hill and watch the clouds be replaced with stars than to actually evoke psychedelic explorations, or anything not rooted somehow to the physical realm. This is partly why In Search of Spaces sounds comparatively more “otherworldly” than any of FSA’s studio records, though the literal hands of others also have much to do with this.
Seamlessly woven together by the Dead C’s Bruce Russell from a collection of audience-captured FSA live recordings, the unbroken fifty minutes of In Search of Spaces is as much the result of others as Pearce himself. This tapestry of live occurrences doesn’t present songs so much as the smeared accounts of live FSA sightings, abstracted by multiplicity yet given a sense of focus by Russell’s tape arrangements. Though largely characterized by the blurring of drones and ever-present feedback, vaguely guiding beacons of sound emerge from the dense fog of tape hiss — sounds like unrecognizable snippets of voice, occasional drums that fade in and out of audibility, and guitar feedback emanating as if it were bellowed from the depths of a cave. The overall effect is not unlike coming across a dossier of damaged recollections, which tempts me to link In Search of Spaces to the Flying Saucer Attack name in the sense of UFO sightings — that is, abstracted by the vague subjectivity of multiple sources without an objective or empirical standard of comparison. And with each source recalling live occurrences with degraded memory, the collage of In Search of Spaces could be approached as the FSA experience documented from a fragmented other, as blurred and intangible as the sightings one might associate with the project’s name.
1975: Ghanaian Postal Workers - “Cancelled Stamps”
Part of the magic of field recordings is how something can be originally performed with a specific intention and then re-contextualized as something completely different. Take this famous field recording of workers at the University of Ghana post office by James Koetting. Originally recorded in 1975, it is best described by Koetting: “These men are working, not putting on a musical show.” It may not be intended as a “musical show,” yet it is hard not to be impressed by this recording which has now even popped up on NPR’s Hearing Voices.
“Cancelled Stamps” is not really a performance and the “musicians” don’t acknowledge it as making music. It is simply a work song in a tradition too old to trace back to its origin. These four Ghanaian postal workers are doing the daily task cancelling certain documents, they’re doing their jobs, and making a song out of it surely makes that less dull. Traditionally, work songs are used throughout history and cultures to help keep everyone working in an efficient rhythm. Taken out of the context of its setting, “Cancelled Stamps” becomes a stunning piece of music. The easy, laid back melody, provided by a worker’s whistling, perfectly floats over the complex poly-rhythm of the thudding stamps while another worker’s scissors click against the established beat. People chat somewhere in the background.
In some ways this transformation into music from mundane origins brings the works of people such as Matmos to mind. On 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel took recordings (in this case less mundane, more grisly) of various surgeries and made pop music out of them. Whether it is the warped nose-breaking techno of Matmos’ “California Rhinoplasty” or the thumping beats of “Cancelled Stamps,” the act of recording frames raw sound into a sharper focus; it makes it something far greater than its parts.
1972: Syreeta - Syreeta
Syreeta Wright started out at Motown records as a receptionist in 1965. By 1966, (like Martha Reeves from the Vandellas) Wright was a secretary for legendary producer Mickey Stevenson. By the end of the 60s she was recording demos for the Supremes. She was even considered to replace Diana Ross when Ross left the Supremes, though Mary Wilson/Berry Gordy chose to go with Jean Tyrell instead.
Wright’s relationship with Stevie Wonder was much more pronounced, as she was one of his backup singers and co-writers during his late 60s run of jazzier soul-funk. She co-wrote The Spinners’ hit “It’s a Shame” with Wonder and co-wrote/sang backup on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” as well. After being married for eighteen months, the two divorced, but Wonder still handled production duties for Syreeta, Wright’s shamefully out of print self-titled LP.
The song that keeps me coming back to Syreeta is her reworked cover of Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You.” It’s gorgeous, lush, playful, and overwhelmingly more fun than the original. Wonder has a few backup vocals but Syreeta’s voice steals the show. Her staccato vocal lines during the chorus make the signature funk clav a distant backdrop.
Besides Wonder, Wright’s take on the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” features a talkbox and you can take it or leave it, more or less, depending on how you feel about a talkboxes in the 70s. Her rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “What Love Has Joined Together” is spectacular though, enlivening the original with a much smoother vocal take.
The rest of the songs were written by Wright alone or with Stevie Wonder. It’s an interesting mix because it seems like Wright’s solo songs (“Happiness,” “Black Maybe”) hint at more of a subdued Northern soul sound instead of the Philly soul numbers that Stevie and the rest of the Motown label would veer off into during the 70s. It makes sense that Syreeta gained a lot of acclaim in the UK. It’s a shame that the hits eluded her in the US though, because she did put out a bunch of really good albums throughout the 70s and 80s. You get the feeling that 72’s Syreeta was her chance to establish herself. She never reached Diana Ross status. But after listening to her solo debut LP, it’s impossible to ignore her talent.
197X: Gloria Ann Taylor - “Love Is A Hurting Thing”
Just like vintage psych-rock, disco has its share of marginalized outsiders, regional indies, vanity press hopefuls, and talented nobodies. However, unlike psych, which has been exhaustively picked-over, reassessed, curated and reissued by generations of collectors, disco remains a relatively unspoiled frontier. Other than Arthur Russell, it’s hard to think of an obscure disco artist who has gotten posthumous due recently. And Russell had so many credentials beyond his disco sides that it almost feels as if he shouldn’t count.
So allow me to nominate producer Walter Whisenhunt and his wife, vocalist Gloria Taylor, for critical reassessment. Whisenhunt was a producer who worked with James Brown in the 1960s, and Taylor was an expressive soul singer whose voice was likened to Dolly Parton early in her career. They released a handful of tracks in the 60s and 70s, mostly Northern Soul 45s on imprints such as Silver Fox and SSS International (both owned and operated by mad genius Shelby S. Singleton), with just a few making it onto the majors. One such record was a gorgeous, haunting, deep-soul side entitled “World That’s Not Real,” released in 1973 on Columbia and failing to ignite any further major label interest. The track is serious goosebumps material:
Sensing that the majors were not going to foster their talent, Whisenhunt started his own label, calling it Selector Sound, and started getting serious about making disco music. This resulted in one of the most amazing slabs of vinyl you will never be able to afford, a limited promo pressing of a 12” entitled Deep Inside You, featuring a generic cover (with no year), credited to “Gloria Ann Taylor and Walter Whisenhunt’s Orchestra.” The disc features three stellar cuts, transposing the reverb-soaked, melismatic otherness of “World That’s Not Real” into the realm of hedonistic club music. The centerpiece is the seven-minute tour de force “Love Is A Hurting Thing.” I could talk for hours about the off-kilter, ravishing beauty of this track, but it’s best to just listen to it in its entirety and commence your own obsession.
Whisenhunt released another fantastically odd disco single with the long-winded title “I Am Saluting You For Your Love (And Understanding Ways)”, a track which does not feature Gloria, on an imprint bearing his own name. Again, the year of this release is unknown, so it’s hard to speculate whether this is evidence that the relationship ended. So much is unknown. I’ll leave it to a future archivist with greater resources at his disposal to locate the heirs to the Whisenhunt estate, sort out the mysteries, and release a 180 gram audiophile double-gatefold vinyl reissue of all the tracks plus more from the archives. Usually I would be worried that having answers to questions would somehow dispel the power of this kind of music, but “Love Is A Hurting Thing” is powerful beyond any enigmas which may surround it.
2004: Converge - “Last Light”
Boston’s finest group of earth-scorchers named their 2006 album No Heroes because they felt that there were more cowards than noble, admirable people nowadays; they especially felt that hardcore music had turned into the land of sheep who wouldn’t dare raise their voices and express a different opinion than the majority.
During the 90s, when Converge first emerged, hardcore bands took hard stances concerning their ideas, be it straight edge, veganism, animal rights, religion, liberty, and so forth. They would dedicate their entire oeuvre to these subjects because they believed fervently in them. They would play benefits for the causes of their choice and talk about them incessantly in interviews and between songs to the point of being accused of “preaching.”
Converge are not really known to have a particular cause they defend in their lyrics. The band members are straight edge but they hardly mention it; in fact, you can’t really tell what their lives and beliefs are from a cursory listen. Reading their lyrics about sorrow, regret, and broken feelings brings to mind themes that are more common in emotionally based bands, yet a song like “Last Light” shows that, while their politics are personal, they certainly take a stand that tries to reach the listener and get him or her involved in what they are saying: to be honest and sensible with yourself and have that honesty rule your world to make it better; to accept love as an anchor; to live life the best you can and to confront negativity, never to wallow in it.
This is why they are a hardcore band and the reason the crowds sing along with Jacob Bannon, pointing their fingers, blood curdling over their vocal chords. It’s the most basic of causes that they defend, the cause of one self.