1996: Swans - “How They Suffer”
If you have a chance to piece your skull back together after hearing Swans’ The Seer, this older track from their two-and-a-half-hour 90s masterpiece Soundtracks for the Blind (even longer than The Seer) shows them at their most quiet and emotionally suffocating. It was unsettling when I first heard it, but over the years “How They Suffer” has become one of my very favorite songs to ever spring from Michael Gira’s skull. “Suffer” is a stitched together sound collage and sees Swans in one of their most abstract moods; it opens with a drone, shifts to an interview, moves into a gorgeous instrumental bridge, and then closes with a second interview.
The first recording features a man discussing in a very rambling way the issues that he has with his eyes. He stammers and forgets his place, but eventually gets to the point as he matter-of-factly says, “I am what they call… legally blind.” His explanations use medical terms he doesn’t sound like he fully understands, things that he probably knows just from hearing his doctor say it so many times. Yet when he bluntly gets to the point of the issue it resonates with an overwhelming sadness.
The second interview featuring an elderly woman continues in a similar fashion, where she explains her current health situations. She’s trying to eat everyday so that she can get stronger, but says so in a voice that has accepted that it won’t happen. This track’s use of interview recordings is done in such an understated way, and while many parts of Soundtracks get brutally heavy, it’s this whispered quiet moment that always shook me to the core.
1980, 2011: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry - The Return of Pipecock Jackxon
There have existed a gaggle of artists who for much or all of their careers traipsed the shaky tightrope between genius and insanity. Hell, it can be argued that all great artists do this in some regard. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry belongs to that significantly smaller yet still sizeable group who not only made the leap of faith into batshit insanity, but continued to release quality work afterward. Of course, audiences delight in the archetypal image of the crazy-eyed rock star and thus, through romanticization and revisionism, unfocused albums are often elevated to cult classic status. (Is Syd Barrett’s solo career really as remarkable as the psych-rock bloggerati would have us believe?) So, lest we devolve to a torch-wielding mob demanding human sacrifice, it’s important that when we listen to a record like The Return of Pipecock Jackxon we keep in mind that shit-smeared walls do not necessarily equate to high art.
Of course, sometimes they do.
Originally released in 1980 on Black Star Liner, The Return was re-issued in 2011 by Honest Jons Records. While I’m not aware of any difference in sound quality between the two issues, the latter (pictured above and spinning at my side as I type this article) comes packaged with some incredibly insightful liner notes that offer far better historic context than I ever could, explaining in some detail exactly what kind of shit was smeared on the walls of Perry’s backyard studio, Black Ark: “layers upon layers of paint and posters and book pages, a chronological history of Scratch’s mental state,” says photographer Bill Bradford. Quotes like that one and “the sonic index of Perry’s psychic unraveling” – used by liner notes author David Katz to describe the record – might lead one to believe that The Return is a particularly dark album. However, such is not the case.
While there are dashes of frustration and desperation whisked about, most if not all of them are tinctured with a lighter shade of introspective, absurdist humor. Scratch is indeed losing his mind here, but one would be shortsighted to assume that he isn’t fully aware of and embracing that fact. Think about those instances when the world around you seems so totally ass-backward that all you can do is laugh hysterically. That’s what this record sounds like to me.
From Perry’s spontaneous recital of all 26 letters of the alphabet in the epic opener “Bed Jammin” (a conversational dub response to Bob Marley’s “Jamming”?) to the backup vocal refrain of “koo koo” in “Who Killed the Chicken,” the absurdity of it all is acknowledged and thus tangible; lyrical flotsam drifting in a (mostly) smooth sea of psychedelic dub grooves. I say “mostly” because in spite of the bluesy guitar licks and hazy synths, there are some rough patches that welcomingly hark back to the badman vibes of Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. That being said, if the title “Babylon Cookie Jar a Crumble” isn’t enough to put a smile on your face, then Scratch’s cartoonish cackle at the end of that song probably won’t either.
There is much that can be written about this album’s other themes – the intermingling of Jamaican and European cultures, the eternal battles between love/good and hate/evil, and the humble pursuit of idyllic silence — but it is Lee’s ability and determination to find humor in dire circumstances that rings truest to me. Just under a year ago, I saw Scratch perform at B.B. King’s in Manhattan. He dropped many a gem that night (read more here), but without a doubt, the one that best informs how I hear The Return of Pipecock Jackxon is this: “I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke anymore. The only thing I have to keep me happy is craziness.”
1993: Ace of Base - “The Sign”
Basically, Ace of Base had a very obvious mission: to recreate ABBA. Picking a nonsensical name starting with an “A” and having two girls (a blonde and a burnette) and two guys (a pudgy one and a skinny one), the AoB team made their Frankenstein monster as close as possible to the massively successful group of the 70s, probably to reclaim Sweden’s supremacy on the pop charts. However, they didn’t go with the matching jumpsuits or the same sound. Also, the material was another matter entirely.
While ABBA could knock out instantly memorable catchy songs that ranged from dancefloor classics to tearjerkers for the masses, Ace of Base were spotty at best. Their singles “It’s a Beautiful Life” and “Happy Nation” are best left unmentioned. But when they managed to make a good song, it was great one. “The Sign” is a perfect example – the whole thing is a massive hook. The verses are set up with little vocal details that make you pay attention and then there’s the chorus, which doesn’t really explain what “the sign” is, but doesn’t stop you from singing along.
The Ace of Base secret weapon was simple: an electronic calypso beat that is relaxed and groovy at the same time. It’s incredibly effective, totally identifiable in their songs, and helped them make their biggest selling singles. It revitalized the Albert Hammond Sr.-penned “Don’t Turn Around” in such a way that the author himself now plays it with the same beat. And, more recently, it informed two Lady Gaga hits (“Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” and “Alejandro”).
Perhaps AoB put an incredible amount of work into a group that didn’t end up inheriting ABBA’s throne, but they can say something most of their contemporaries can’t: they introduced a sound to pop radio that, to this day, remains unique and completely their own. They became an influence in a world of faceless studio ensembles that plot to take over the world with a simple, annoying sound. In a way, they ended up transcending their time.
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.”