1970: Nico - Desertshore
What does it say about a human being when her son tries to sell her leftover methadone at her funeral in order to finance a habit to which she introduced him? The encounter with Nico always has a quality of grimness and astonishment. It was her second solo album, The Marble Index, which announced her true intentions. When it arrived on the scene in 1967 audiences were nonplussed, and despite its slow progress to critical darlinghood, for the most part they have remained so.
Until that point, Nico had been best known for her role in Andy Warhol’s Factory – in particular, as the handpicked frontwoman for The Velvet Underground. Her first LP, Chelsea Girl (1967), was a mostly straightforward chamber-folk piece featuring tracks written by Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. There were a few omens of what was to come, though, in the dissonant, eight-minute experimental centrepiece “It Was A Pleasure Then” – and in Nico’s deep, Germanic, offkey intonation, an acquired taste for most. But the cold austerity, mythological and surrealist lyrics, and harmonium drones of The Marble Index were something alien indeed, particularly as the scungy realism of the Underground waned and hippy utopianism waxed. If Lou Reed’s Berlin was panned as too depressing, what kind of reception was a work like this to find?
Nico was always a little too strange for the strange crew, too much an enemy of her own beauty, too fucked up for fame. Unlike Marianne Faithfull (who wrote her a tribute song), she would never transmute her self-destructive lead into gold, never re-emerge to popular acclaim, never star in slightly off-color film vehicles. But her unjustly neglected later work, in which she experimented with synthesizers and Middle Eastern traditions, continues and extends the veins so deeply mined on the album in question here, Desertshore (1970). Her spectre lingers around the edges of critical sensibility and Id-dregging performance (most recently in Throbbing Gristle’s project to reinterpret the LP in its entirety).
There are artists whose oeuvre, though not devoid of influence, seems somehow to emerge from nowhere – as if they appeared, fully formed, from another civilization. Freud explored the idea of the Unheimliche, the un-home-ly or uncanny, as something closely resembling what we know, but alien enough to give rise to a sense of the deeply uncomfortable, even to fear. Nico’s music embodies this quality, but at the same time she engaged deeply with history, recent and mythological. She was notorious for performing the outlawed anthem of Germany under the Nazis, “Deutschlandlied” (which she dedicated to the notorious German left-revolutionary Andreas Baader), and she also drew upon Wagnerian mythology. But unlike the drug mania and obsession with evil that propelled similar explorations for figures like David Bowie, Nico was neither interested in shock for its own sake, nor concerned with evil as excitement. Her vision explored atrocity as a vital exercise – Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, flung backwards unseeing into the future – without any personal grandiosity. Her own father, Hermann, had sustained head injuries as a soldier, and died as an experimental medical subject in a Nazi concentration camp – and in that contrast we see another of the taut paradoxes which characterize the study of Nico.
An inveterate liar, she had early on stepped away from her identity as Christa Päffgen of Cologne. Desertshore exemplifies the way in which her music speaks of and to trauma; but not in the expected musical fashion, not in clichéd tales of angst or cryptic confessional moments. Rather, Desertshore is both deeply personal and eerily disconnected, closer in spirit to the brutal, beautiful horrors of pre-sanitised European folk tales than to Sylvia Plath or The Smiths. The Marble Index circumscribed its travails within a cold landscape reminiscent of the steppe of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a landscape dominated by the figure of cruel and icy mother, and by one’s own lack. But Desertshore traverses this terrain in order to imply some of the warmth of the sea as well as its impersonal qualities. “Le Petit Chevalier” is sung by her son Ari, Alain Delon’s unacknowledged child, who must have been all of three or four at the time, and “Afraid” reveals a fragile transcendence and melodic sensibility.
These elements perform a contrapunto to the complex dissonance and stony dissociation of “Janitor of Lunacy” or “Abschied.” Nico’s troubled identity as mother and child, her familial experience of her own loss and the loss that she imparted to others, are refracted through its intricacies.
As a title, Desertshore speaks to the liminality of Nico’s life, and of her work. Her father was Yugoslavian while she was born in Budapest, and from Cologne to Paris and on to New York and London, she was an early global citizen – yet always also a forlorn wanderer, a nomad. This is apparent in her music. Continuing from the pattern she laid down on The Marble Index, Desertshore featured harmonium drones prominently, bringing an Indian sensibility to her Nordic roots. Marble Index had been named for Wordsworth; Desertshore was named, perhaps, for William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion:
At entrance Theotormon sits, wearing the threshold hard
With secret tears; beneath him sound like waves on a desert shore
The voice of slaves beneath the sun, and children bought with money,
That shiver in religious caves beneath the burning fires
Of lust, that belch incessant from the summits of the earth.
The album was produced in a traumatic milieu. Nico’s long-estranged mother Grete had recently died, Ari had been sent away, and, alongside then-partner Philippe Garrel (whom many blamed for her decline), she had begun mainlining heroin. With John Cale at the helm, Nico chose to construct the album in allied keys, moving toward the relative minor as in a traditional German song cycle, while Cale’s instrumentation echoed Mahler and German romanticism. Rolling Stone described it as ‘Gothick’ and referenced H. P. Lovecraft, while the NME’s reviewer called it “one of the most miserable records I’ve ever heard.”
But they had missed the centre of the music; neither purple-prosaic nor schlocky, Desertshore hinted at bottomless depths of angst beneath cool surfaces which gave nothing away. Nico’s evocation of the past was not for the sake of Sturm und Drang pastiche, but in itself created the distance, the quality of being a mask, which her music paradoxically needed in order to operate at a visceral level. As Jean Baudrillard put it, “Nico seemed so beautiful only because her femininity appeared so completely put on… that perfection that belongs to artifice alone. Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex, and it commands the higher price.” The price paid by Nico, and by others around her, would be all too high.
1990: Julee Cruise - Falling
Even folks who know nothing of Special Agent Dale Cooper can usually identify Julee Cruise’s “Falling” as “that Twin Peaks song” after just a few bars. Paired with a montage of an idealized Northwestern Americana and a gaudy green font, the song makes up one of the most iconic sequences in David Lynch’s overture – an especially impressive feat, considering the rest of that overture includes characters like Frank Booth and screaming dinosaur babies. A lot of the opening’s appeal comes from its complete avoidance of typical credit sequence trope; there’s no upbeat jingle, no characters mugging at the camera, no bottle recap of the story. Instead we get shots of rivers and sawmills set to the airy vocals of Cruise.
Even in the early 90s alternative scene, Julee Cruise never became wildly popular outside the show. Which is weird, given that her work with Angelo Badalamenti for the Twin Peaks soundtrack stands up just as well when cut away from the cinematography and plot. And it’s not like there wasn’t an audience for retro sounds and airy female vocals – around the same time Sinéad O’Connor was topping the charts with her wispy anthems and Chris Isaak was melting hearts with “Wicked Game” and a slick pompadour. So why a song as effective as “Nightingale” didn’t end up on a thousand mixtapes in 1990 is really beyond me.
Two decades on, it appears like Badalamenti and Cruise may have finally had an impact. From Windy & Carl to Beach House to Grouper, touches of the duo’s atmospheric production and mournful vocal delivery can be heard throughout the late resurgence of dream pop. The lethargic guitar reverb and slow melody on “Nightingale” even anticipates the work of Real Estate, Ducktails, and Lower Dens if you’re listening for it. With its slow-and low-bass and longing vocals, “Candy Girl” by the London-based Trailer Trash Tracys may as well be an homage to the the pair’s work. Of course, you can’t call Cruise the patient-zero for the proliferation of this genre – the Cocteau Twins did exist, after all – but the Cruise-Badalamenti collaboration should really be more than an odd footnote in network TV history.
2001: Steve Roden - Forms of Paper
Officially, lowercase is a decade old. That is, lowercase as a popular genre marker identifying a certain brand of minimalism is a decade old. The project of lowercase is to take barely audible or sometimes inaudible sounds – a computer powering down, the hiss of a blank tape – and amplify, loop, and otherwise manipulate them to create music. 2002’s lowercase-sound2002 was the genre’s official coming out party; it collected tracks from the stars of the burgeoning scene (Taylor Deupree, Stephan Mathieu, Toshimaru Nakamura) and acted as a primer for those interested. And there were an increasing number of interested people, due in part to an article from Wired Magazine called “Whisper the Songs of Silence” that appeared the same year.
According to Steve Roden, however, the issue is much more complicated than this. Roden, who coined the term and popularized the form, has been using the term “lowercase” as a way to describe his art since the mid-80s. In 1997 he described his work this way to The Wire’s Rob Young. By 2001, the term had entered into use among a group of intensely devoted musicians and fans on an online discussion forum called “lowercase-sound.” It had been, for some 15 years, a descriptive term used to communicate an aesthetic element in his own art, an indicator of his vision for what his art could do. And then it transformed into a set of rules that were being defined and redefined by a group of loosely related international artists.
Roden’s 2001 album Forms of Paper became, for many, the exemplary lowercase record. And it does seem to fulfill Roden’s own definition as well: “Lowercase resembles what Rilke called ‘inconsiderable things’ – the things that one would not ordinarily pay attention to, the details, the subtleties.” Forms of Paper was commissioned by the Los Angeles Public Library system as an installation in its Hollywood branch. Roden used contact mics to record himself manipulating paper in various ways, then effected these recordings and played them through a series of speakers so that they would subtly infiltrate the surrounding space.
Unfortunately, as he explains in the press release for last year’s re-release of the record, Roden was unable to listen to the mastered version of the recording before it was sent to the CD manufacturers. The original sound installation had to be made much louder in order to be played on a conventional CD, which made certain sounds audible that Roden himself could not hear in his own mixes. Forms of Paper, then, really is the exemplary lowercase record, not by virtue of its dedication to a set of generic conventions, but because its dissemination was wrested from Roden’s control just as the term “lowercase” itself was, and then made to mean something quite different. That the record still means so much for its listeners more than ten years after its release attests to the importance of Roden’s work. And he eventually came around as well – the liner notes to the re-release end with his confession that “remarkably — with all of the distance between us — this piece of mine and me, seemed to feel as if we might finally be able to get along.”
2006: The Goslings - Grandeur of Hair
The balance between dissonance and beauty is a trait present in nearly every type of music. It’s one of those elements revealed when you cut to the very core of what makes music so fascinating. We crave that dichotomy; the ugliness that makes the melodic parts even prettier and the prettiness that makes atonality so gratifying. When a band can master this the sense of satisfaction is practically intoxicating. The Goslings, which consists of husband and wife guitar duo Leslie and Max Soren, did this effortlessly within a style of music (the noisiest doomiest metal you ever did hear) where attributes like “beauty” and “fragility” don’t often come up.
This will be the legacy of Grandeur of Hair, an album so pretty you won’t mind the inevitable tinnitus it causes. Though it did get some coverage (including a 5/5 review from us) it still seemed to fall under the radar for most people. While still not considered anything of a classic, it has enjoyed a very steady rise in popularity since its 2006 release, and deservedly so because the music on here is fucking incredible.
It’s not that Grandeur of Hair was anything overwhelmingly original (you can easily hear the main influences: Earth, Sunn O))), and My Bloody Valentine), but what Goslings do so incredibly well, and on this album better than nearly anyone, is push their music to a near-chaotic breaking point while always being in complete control. When you least expect it some gorgeous melody will develop in the haze of feedback, easing into your consciousness as if it were always there. These are truly songs too, and every time you think they will break into formlessness, the Sorens pull themselves back into tight focus. One of the great moments on this record comes from the monolithic “Croatan.” The noise on the track seems uncontrollable and right at the songs peak when the guitars, drums, and Leslie’s vocals are all going at full force the entire sound seems to bend into one crushingly muscular guitar hook. The song is like a musical bungee jump.
One of the record’s great surprises comes from the dynamics that Goslings play with, exemplified on “Golden Stair,” a relatively quiet song that picks the perfect moment to become brutally loud. But the biggest surprise on this album comes from Leslie Soren’s voice which is as dynamic as the guitar work. She manages to move from ethereal airy vocals to a sneering growl with ease throughout, though the album ends where it should with “Dinah,” her most beautiful vocal track – for the first time her voice sounds vulnerable.
That line between the hideous and the beautiful is where such interesting music lies. Just look at the album artwork above (which from a distance has a gentle smooth quality to it, but upon closer inspection seems scrawled out); it is both pretty and ugly. The Goslings blurred these lines with such masterful ease and Grandeur of Hair remains the best proof of that.
1985?: Orchestre Tout Pussaint Likembe Konono No. 1 - Mungua Muanga
I originally heard about Konono No. 1 through the local Philly radio station XPN. They’d mentioned the typical bio about the band being a “world music punk” group, and even though that doesn’t quite describe the music in the right way, I was still interested. When I heard that the likembe (thumb piano) was heavily featured, I was more intrigued. Then when I heard that their amplifiers were crafted together from car parts, I was enraptured enough to not only go see them but bring friends. Needless to say, their live show was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed.
The part I didn’t hear about Konono No. 1 in their bio was their long history. After recently reading a post on the Ngoma Sound blog about Congolese footwork and Mbira rap, I found my way to a Vincent Kenis interview (the producer of the Congotronics CDs and founder of Crammed Discs) in which he discussed the Mungua Muanga cassette and the origins of Konono No. 1.
First off, the cassette was released on the famed and now-defunct France Culture radio label Ocora. Founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1954, the label started with an African focus based on a pretext that the rise of radio would jeopardize the musical traditions of African villages. Over the years, it spread to Eastern countries and eventually the rest of the world. From an ethnomusicology standpoint, it’s most likely the closest precursor to the modern Sublime Frequencies label, even if Ocora didn’t primarily focus on psych-rock/Western-influenced bands.
Vince Kenis heard the Konono musicians for the first time on this French radio broadcast in 1979, and was so fascinated by the band’s sound that he recorded the performance. Then by chance the broadcast was released officially by Ocora in 1987 as Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa. By 1989, ten years after he’d first heard the band, Kenis went to Kinshasa to seek out Konono No. 1 and another band from the cassette – of course, he couldn’t find either band. When he went back another time in the mid-90’s, he heard that the Konono musicians had dispersed and stopped playing. It wasn’t until 2000 when the president of the group’s fan club alerted Kenis that they were expected to return. Kenis recalls:
In July Le Tout Puissant Likembe Konono No. 1 was ready for an audition, complete with 3 electric likembes, a drumkit made of hub caps, and a PA system made of two “lance-voix” (“voice-throwers,” i.e. megaphones used by the Belgian colonizers before independence to diffuse radio broadcasts in the streets) which were probably the same ones featured on the 1978 recordings.
Kenis recorded the band soon after and the album was eventually released to rave reviews in 2004, with European and Western audiences and critics especially hyping up the noisy/punk/electronic aspects of the record. Besides bringing the excellent live show around the world and showcasing other artists and the scene surrounding the Congotronics sound, the album has been name checked in the ongoing think-piece-friendly critical debate concerning world music, otherness, post-colonialism, etc. (see also: David Byrne, Paul Simon, Vampire Weekend).
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of interesting modes of thought in that discussion, but in the age of instant access to media through BitTorrent, Mediafire, YouTube, what have you, I think my favorite part of the Konono No. 1 story is how it’s also really the story of one man’s pursuit of a band in the hopes of spreading their music – to give others the same feeling he felt when he listened to this 1970’s broadcast and had to have a recording. Vince Kenis’ dedication seems just as relevant as talking about the band’s instruments or their role in some larger geopolitical ethnomusicological debate. His story is why we even have a section like this on the website.
1998: Scaramanga - Seven Eyes, Seven Horns
The emergence of Action Bronson and subsequent comparisons between his elephant tusk ivory style and the “cold like Eskimo” flow of Ghostface Killah have got me thinking about another rapper who was once accused of biting the essentially inimitable Ghostdeini: Scaramanga aka Sir Menelik. While that second moniker might ring a bell to Dr. Octagon devotees (Chewbacca Uncircumcised, anyone?), the name Scaramanga Shallah has never really traveled that far beyond the circles of a relatively small but intensely loyal cult following — essentially, ‘90s NY underground hip-hop enthusiasts. The reason his records haven’t yet been embraced by a wider audience are too numerous to list, but for many of those who match the aforementioned description (myself included), Scaramanga’s magnum opus, Seven Eyes, Seven Horns, remains a bona fide classic.
There are two versions of the album: the 12-track double LP and the 16-track CD. I’m not going to take the purist stance and say don’t get the longer version. Of the four additional tracks, I dig three of them: “S.I.R.,” “Face It,” and “7XL” featuring Sadat X and Grand Puba. That being said, I prefer the LP simply because it’s much more cohesive, with each of its four sides labeled as a three-song act, and for my money, ACT 2 is easily one of the best sides of its era.
“Sugar 99” was the first Scaramanga song I ever heard. If I remember correctly, I was shown the song under a pretense like, “This guy is biting Ghostface.” The similarities are apparent from the jump, but when you add to Scara’s seemingly breathless delivery and seamlessly shifting cadences the fact that, like Ghostface, Camp Lo, or Aesop Rock, his weird word choice and obscure reference points are enough to constitute a distinct vernacular, the whole “this sounds like this” point is rendered moot. Combine those three qualities and what you have before you is an admittedly demanding listen, but one that most definitely pays dividends in replay value.
And when I say “demanding,” don’t get me wrong; from beatsmith Scholarwise’s precisely sliced samples and dusty drum patterns to Scara’s cipher-like rhyme schemes and free-flowing word association, there is plenty on the surface to appreciate. No matter how complex the songs get, they always remain raw and rooted in mid-school fundamentals. “Sugar 99” is the perfect example of this; even though many of the lines remain impenetrable after first, second, and third listens, the syllabic cascade and contagious head-nod appeal are immediately accessible. The song’s remix by Godfather Don (the other one of the four extra songs on the CD), while decent enough, simply cannot compare to Scholarwise’s treatment of The Heath Brothers’ oft-flipped Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II.
Scholarwise doesn’t only shine behind the boards, he also has a smooth but hype everyman-type voice, kind of like that of Kid Capri. This is put to good use in several places, including his (possibly freestyled) verses on “Sun Large Promo,” as well as the chorus on “Alphabetic Hammer.” Here, Scaramanaga completely blacks out, combining graf-writer lingo with God knows what else. At one point he spits something like “Omni duos flex on the metroplex/ text on oblivion worth a billion resilient/ fuck illyin’, third pavilion flirt cotillion.” Of course, that transcription cannot be confirmed without Scara’s input, but I’m willing to wager it’s a lot closer than what’s available via OHHLA and Rap Genius, which give the next song, “Seven Eyes, Seven Horns,” what can only be described as the “Louie Louie” treatment.
It’s on the title cut that Scholar and Scara are most synchronized, with Upsetter seventh chords and anvil-heavy kick drums providing an ideal backdrop to antediluvian tales of gaffling, gun-running, and government goonism. Shallah Magnetic flashes from one vivid scene to the next like a viewfinder disk of HD photographs: “Son crashed the incense-scented rented/ Entered five months at HDM for the ATM blast/ the public defender wasn’t defending shit, fucking Benedict/ In the pen it’s blood or crip, what a script/ The government never meant or intend on me growing up a gentleman/ White collar cake cinnamon Entenmann.”
A few bars later, infamous stickup kid exploits are juxtaposed with the rise of Trump Tower, offering an incendiary dichotomy made all the more potent by the speaker’s specificity. Furthermore, a plethora of proper nouns (Fila, Bally the loafer, Bally the gymnasium, Hardaways, Tina Turner, Judge Wapner, Benz – to name a few) and one oddly cogent sequence bridging “Polo Wimbledon Hilfiger” to Israelites and the NOI flag via “futuristic symbols in the front like halogen fluorescent,” suggest that this piece is as much a meditation on symbology, semiotics, and brand identity as it is an erudite MC’s spin on a passage from the Book of Revelation.