Randomising the record collection #12: Can – Ege Bamyasi

#9272 – Can – Ege Bamyasi
(CD, 1972) (Discogs tracklisting)

12- can ege

An old friend, who loves Can in a way that I seem unable to (we’ll come back to this later, I’m stalling for time), went to see them in 1973. Arriving at the venue early, he wandered into the dressing room, which had no security, and fell into conversation with the person nearest to his own age. It took him a while to get round to asking what connection this person had with the band. “Oh, I’m the singer”, was the casual reply. Later that year, Damo Suzuki – for it was he – left the band (for good) and the music industry (for ten years).

In 2002, just as Can’s classic albums were finally being added to the established rock canon, I went to see Damo Suzuki at a small venue in Nottingham, playing his first gig outside London in fifteen years. On stage for well in excess of two hours, his five-song set swung between transcendence and tedium. Towards the end of the show, while the band chundered on, he came down from the stage and hugged each audience member individually. “It was a lovely, big, warm, sincere, proper hug – if a little moist (especially in the hair department)“, I blogged.

A couple of years later, Can’s fourth album was remastered and re-released in the short-lived SACD format. K doesn’t buy many CDs – well, he hardly needs to – but he snapped this one up, mainly for in-car purposes. He still plays it in the car to this day. It’s one of those albums – like King Crimson’s Red, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans – which he keeps mostly to himself.

I’ve listened to Ege Bamyasi four times since its number came up on Friday, with steadily increasing degrees of concentration and frustration. Why the frustration? OK, perhaps it’s time to level with you; I’ve never had much of an ear for Krautrock. In theory, the genre represents a perfect triangulation of elements that should, by rights, be bang up my Straße. (Plus, fuck it, I studied German for four years at university; how much more context does a man need?) In practice, I rarely progress beyond polite appreciation, with a particular leaning towards the more metronomic, proto-dance end of the genre.

Ege Bamyasi doesn’t exactly have metronomic moments, but it does sport some tracks where the band establishes a steady, loping groove. I like these tracks best of all, particularly the two singles: “Vitamin C” and “Spoon”, the latter a Top Ten smash hit in Germany. But elsewhere, where the band spins off into far-out freak-outs, while Suzuki unintelligibly mumbles and/or squawks, I’m lost. Thus “Soup”, the longest track, parts company with me at the five-minute mark. I’d have chopped the tape there and then.

In his liner notes, David Stubbs gives me further cause for concern. “Guitarist […] Michael Karoli later complained that the sessions were frustrated by keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and vocalist Damo Suzuki’s playing chess obsessively day in, day out. He stated that completing recording became a frantic process, with some tracks having to be recorded practically in real time and the single “Spoon” added to make up for a shortfall in material.” Stubbs does goes on to counterbalance this with fulsome praise for the band’s “process of collective telekinesis”, but it’s an observation which I can’t quite get past.

So I’m handing this one back to K, and sticking henceforth with “I Want More”, the band’s sole UK hit from 1976. In fact, I’ll almost certainly be playing “I Want More” this coming Saturday, when I’ll be DJ-ing at a new monthly gig night, just up the road. There may be other Krautrock picks, too; it’s going to be that kind of night. But they won’t be coming from Ege Bamyasi.

Randomising the record collection #11: Mychael Danna/Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)

#3598 – Mychael Danna /Various Artists – Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack)
(CD, 2001) (Discogs tracklisting)

11 monsoon weddin

According to my spreadsheet, and why should it lie, there are 37 original soundtrack recordings in my collection (some home-taped, admittedly). I don’t make a habit of buying them, but they wander in from time to time, when the music in a movie has made a particularly strong impression.

And so it was with Monsoon Wedding, a film whose soundtrack is, so far as I can recall, notably integral to the action. I had hopes of watching it again last night – but alas, it wasn’t to be found on any of our telly’s three streaming services (so I’ve ordered the DVD instead, for a fiver). Its story centres around the preparations for a Punjabi Hindu wedding in Delhi, and the various complications that threaten it, climaxing with the joyous occasion itself.

The soundtrack was compiled by director Mira Nair (previously Oscar-nominated for Salaam Bombay) and Mychael Danna, a Canadian composer married to an Indian (and subsequently the winner of a Best Original Score Oscar for his soundtrack to Life of Pi). Danna composed nine instrumental pieces, which are interspersed with seven selections from other artists. Three remixes complete the 19-track package.

In her liner notes, Nair describes the soundtrack as “my own intensely personal mosaic of music that mixes beloved love songs from Hindi films, classic Urdu ghazals my husband Mahmood sang to me in the heady days of our courtship, the bawdy celebration songs that routinely erupt at my family’s dining table.” And it’s that latter component which has stuck most clearly in my memory. “Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha”, sung by a large group of laughing women during the wedding’s mehndi ceremony, is a rambunctious call-and-response that includes, unless my ears deceive me, references to malt whiskey, disco dancing and Calvin Klein.

Earlier on, the movie’s theme tune, “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa (Today My Heart Desires)”, is sung in Punjabi by a voice that might sound familiar: Sukhwinder Singh, who supplied lead vocals for Slumdog Millionaire‘s international smash hit, “Jai Ho”. Other familiar names pop up elsewhere: there’s a qawwali from the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a dance track from the British-Indian producer Bally Sagoo, which adds a pinch of Goa trance to a burbling Eurodance rhythm. On “Fabric/Aaja Savariya”, Delhi’s MIDIval Punditz fuse a ghazal with a drum-and-bass breakbeat, while the three remixes at the end of the disc nudge into Talvin Singh/Nitin Sawhney territory (somewhat inessentially; the soundtrack proper ends with Sagoo’s piece).

Two songs are lifted from pre-existing Bollywood soundtracks. From 1973’s Loafer, there’s the romantic, string-laden old-school playback of Mohammed Rafi’s “Aaj Mausam Bada Beimann Hai (Today The Weather Plays Tricks On Me)”, and from 1999’s comedy Biwi No. 1, there’s the irresistibly lively and catchy “Chunari Chunari”, which fills the dancefloor at the wedding’s evening party.

This might all sound like a hodge-podge grab bag of conflicting styles, but it’s the diversity which makes this collection work. All I need to do now is re-match the tracks on the CD with the scenes on the DVD, and my experience will be complete. It was good to dig this out again. Props to the randomiser for forcing my hand.

Randomising the record collection #10: Actress – R.I.P.

#1757 – Actress – R.I.P.
(CD, 2012) (Discogs tracklisting)

10 actress

I’ve groaned at some of these selections: oh, must I listen to this and dredge up something to say? Not so with this one, which gave me a great deal of pleasure four years ago, and so excited me with the prospect of getting reacquainted.

Although abstract and instrumental, R.I.P. was never background music. I always gave it, if not full attention, as close to full attention as my flittering brain would allow. There were places where it worked best. In the car, I felt enveloped by its strange and unique sonic textures; there’s a distinct memory of hearing “Holy Water”, and feeling as if the interior was slowly being filled, water trickling and oozing in from right and left. In the cottage, where the same player was wired to three sets of speakers in three adjoining rooms, I preferred the smaller middle room, facing the garden. Here, the details came into clearer focus. Again, there was that remarkable three-dimensional effect, casting each track as a sculpture that I could examine from all angles.

I’ve been playing these records and CDs in the office below street level, where the turntable and laptop live. This time I moved upstairs, to use the same sound system that we brought from the cottage. The room, which looks out over the railway station, is rarely used during the day. I pre-warmed it and settled in, on the comfiest seating in the house. It’s the best room to listen closely to CDs. I should use it more.

Actress is the working name of Darren Cunningham, a British electronic artist who initially found favour with a more dance-angled sound. With this, his third of four albums to date, he moved away from beatmaking; only three of its fifteen tracks have any kind of pronounced backbeat, and you wouldn’t think to dance to any of them. Consequently, he fell out of favour with some of his previous admirers, who were left cold by the abstraction, and by the absence of much in the way of forward movement within each track. Typically, patterns are set in motion and left to hang there, with only subtle variations, or next to none.

I understand the frustration, but I don’t share it. By paring down the shifts, Cunningham has given the listener space to dig right into the inner workings of his constructions. As I say, it’s like looking at sculptures in a gallery. You have to cross that line between first, fleeting impressions and the deeper appreciation which only emerges when you give the pieces time, thought and concentrated focus. But many still won’t click, and that’s also fine.

The album’s narrative arc is reportedly inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the track titles bear this out: Jardin, Serpent, Tree Of Knowledge. You don’t have to pay attention to this, but if you do – and today, I did so for the first time – it can unlock an extra dimension. Milton’s framing of the Adam and Eve story extends further than the basic Old Testament text, casting back to Satan’s banishment from Heaven and reaching forward to an angelic revelation to a fallen Adam, showing him what lay ahead: the great flood, a hint of the Second Coming.

This helps to explain why the album starts in such a dank, murky fashion – casual dippers-in might never make it past the first few tracks – before introducing different moods and textures. Jardin marks a big shift, as we exit the warring cosmos and find ourselves in an earthly paradise. Or is it? The initially charming pastoral mood is extended so far – it’s the longest track on the album – that it starts to cloy and pall, suggesting that in the absence of wisdom, naivety is no place to be forever stuck.

There is no big, dramatic “and lo, the Lord did banish the wretched pair from Eden” moment here. We skip past its expected place, to Adam’s vision of Noah’s raven being sent from the ark, to see whether the floods were subsiding. It’s a vignette of hope. And by the penultimate track, N.E.W. – a beatific swirl, like a fugue of melted church organs – there’s a sense that the so-called Fall of Man has instead led us to a place of greater enlightenment. Or, if you want to skip all the chewy stuff, there’s at least a realisation that you have travelled from darkness into light.

That’s a hell of a lot of potential meaning to extract from nearly an hour’s worth of glitchy, uneasy and peculiar instrumental electronica, which many would dismiss out of hand as boring, weird, discomforting or difficult. As for me, I found returning to this album absorbing, thought-provoking and uplifting. I got stuff out of it that I’d never got out of it before. It’s days like these that make writing this series feel justified.

Randomising the record collection #9: E.U. – Da Butt

#472 – E.U. – Da Butt
(7-inch single, 1988) (Discogs tracklisting)

09 eu da butt

– “I’m here with film director Spike Lee. Spike, why did you decide to make your film, School Daze?”
– “I’m glad you asked that question. I created School Daze so I could create a dance.”
– “And do tell, what dance is that?”
– “What dance is it? The name of the dance is called The Butt. The Butt. Playback!”

In the UK, Washington D.C. go-go music – a percussion-heavy, jam-based derivative of funk – enjoyed a window of fashionability that lasted almost exactly two years. It broke through in early 1985 with Little Benny & The Masters’ “Who Comes To Boogie”, ushering in a spate of reissues from bands such as Trouble Funk, who became the scene’s de facto leaders. But by early 1987, the genre’s limited supply of records had all been compiled and played to death, and with nothing much hitting the new release racks, interest waned as sharply as it had begun.

None of this passing UK interest had been matched in the States, where go-go remained confined to its home neighbourhoods in D.C. But the genre had a spark of life left in it yet.

In 1988, E.U. (Experience Unlimited), whose “E.U. Freeze” had been one of the bigger go-go tracks in the UK, were given a track co-written by Marcus Miller (best known for his work with Luther Vandross) and Mark Stevens, the brother of Chaka Khan. Miller also produced the track, aided by Robert Clivilles and David Cole, later of C&C Music factory. Thanks to its placement on Spike Lee’s School Daze soundtrack, “Da Butt” went Top 40 on the Billboard chart, and reached Number One on the US R&B chart, giving go-go its biggest hit by far (albeit posthumously, in jaded UK fashionista terms).

Despite the presence of so many collaborators from the mainstream R&B industry, who hadn’t previously been linked to the scene, “Da Butt” sounds more or less authentic. The key elements are present and correct – that percussion sound, call-and-response chants, a live feel – and the track hasn’t been over-produced (as long as you steer clear of its gimmicky “B Boy Dub” on the flip side). It’s no classic, but it’s no disgrace either.

Randomising the record collection #8: Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue

#2733 – Róisín Murphy – Ruby Blue
(CD, 2005) (Discogs tracklisting)

08 roisin murphy

Róisín Murphy’s third album, Hairless Toys – her first in eight years – was one of my absolute favourites of 2015. Fluid, elegant and beguiling (and fully deserving of its Mercury Prize nomination, which makes a nice change), it sported the most consistently strong songwriting of her post-Moloko solo career.

I hadn’t expected to fall for it so hard. In my mind, Murphy was one of those doughty troupers of leftfield pop: always worthy of respect, but never quite in the top drawer either. I had forgotten that I owned her first two albums, and so was surprised, when trawling through my old blog archives (which I’m slowly transferring to this site, in spare moments), to find that Ruby Blue, her debut solo release, had reached the dizzy heights of Number 14 in my Albums of 2005 countdown.

My pulse wasn’t exactly quickened when scanning the liner notes, and finding that this was a collaboration with Matthew Herbert; he and Murphy co-wrote and co-produced all twelve tracks. I used to find Herbert’s approach an interesting one – he set himself rigorous guidelines for music-making, including a ban on drum machines, presets and samples of other artists’ work – but for me, the results rarely seemed to live up to the ideals.

Although it went Top Ten in Belgium, Ruby Blue sold poorly elsewhere, compared to the sustained commercial success that Murphy had enjoyed with Moloko. It’s easy to understand why. Making no concessions to the expectations of daytime radio playlist committees, it marks a determined shift away from pop, and the adoption of a more overtly experimental approach, in terms of songwriting, arrangement and production.

Opening with one of its most obtuse, arid and melodically tricky tracks, “Leaving The City”, the album lays down its gauntlet straight away. But by the third track, “Night Of The Dancing Flame”, it starts to ease up, adding Twenties Flapper Jazz flavours that lighten the mood. This is a recurring stylistic theme, conveyed by a three-piece brass section that features on almost every song.

“Through Time” is gently yearning, an extended swoon whose melodic sweetness is undercut by blasts of static noise in the coda. “Sow Into You” was a doomed choice of single; perhaps it should have been “Dear Diary” instead, with its funky horns and more groove-based feel. Meanwhile, in a fleeting throwback to Moloko days, “If We’re In Love”, the other single, boasts Ruby Blue‘s sole conventional pop refrain. It’s the only passage on the album which I could sing back to you now.

The songwriting throughout is recognisably from the same hand that penned Hairless Toys, which leads me to assume that Murphy supplied the bare-bone compositions, while Herbert worked more on the arrangements. Lyrically, it feels as if she’s describing a state of uncertain flux, as a relationship draws to an end; the sentiments are open-ended and self-questioning. Production-wise, there’s a fidgety quality, and a novel approach to sonic design: typically for Herbert, a range of everyday objects are sampled, lending the electronics a more organic, less artificial tone.

The penultimate track, reduced to a 52-second instrumental “prelude” on the CD, has been front-sliced from a longer composition, whose lyrics are printed in full in the booklet – but you’d have had to wait for the release of “Sow Into You” as a single, four months later, to hear the full song. Was this teaser marketing, or did Murphy decide the song wasn’t up to scratch? Whatever the reason, it sets a false trail for the final track, “The Closing Of The Doors”, which strips away all the clutter, leaving a steady Bacharach piano and an intermittent, elegiac flugel horn to carry Murphy’s understated balladeering.

You can’t really do this record full justice, on the basis of two plays after a ten year gap. There’s just too much to digest. And so, for the first time since this series began, I won’t be putting this one straight back on the shelf. I had underestimated it, and now I want to take the time to get properly re-acquainted.

Randomising the record collection #7: 808 State – Bombadin

#4804 – 808 State – Bombadin
(CD single, 1994) (Discogs tracklisting)

07 808 state

Millennials might find this hard to grasp, but in pre-internet days, the easiest way of listening to a lot of new music was simply to buy it. I’m therefore guessing that a goodly chunk of this single’s first week sales came from punters finding it on the new release racks at their local chain store – probably at a promotional discount price – and thinking: hmm, wonder what the new 808 State sounds like. That would have been enough to push it into the charts at 67, from where it dropped to 85 before disappearing into the void (and the bargain bins thereafter).

Neither “Bombadin” nor “Marathon” sound remotely like anything I remember 808 State recording before, or since. There’s nothing to link them to the outfit’s best remembered hits: “Pacific”, “Cubik”, “In Yer Face”. You could see this either a sign of strength (flexibility, willingness to try out new ideas), or weakness (lack of character, susceptibility to prevailing trends).

The music does sounds like 1994, though. The radio-length Barta Edit immediately puts me in mind of The Grid’s “Swamp Thing” and “Texas Cowboys” from the same year: a dinky piece of fluff, surprisingly lightweight by 808 State’s standards, with a daft little chant that sticks in the memory after the first listen. Its ideas are put to more satisfying use on the Original Quica mix, whose rhythms feel more Latino, possibly inspired by Jingo’s “Candido” from 1979.

“Marathon” mines similar territory, but with more relentless intensity; there’s a wobbly acidic didgeridoo, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Leftfield or Underworld track, coupled with muffled background shrieks. It’s all a bit too thickly piled on, though, at the expense of light, shade and progression. This gets more problematic on the Original 2/4 Pub Mix, which doubles up the drumbeats, as its title suggests. Frankly, it was a slog to get through on a Monday afternoon. I shouldn’t have started clock-watching the CD display; it only prolonged the discomfort.

Even on a Monday afternoon, it doesn’t usually take much for dance music to make me wiggle, twitch and grin – but this single left me motionless and poker-faced. Back into the racks it goes, then.

Randomising the record collection #6: Wayne G ft Stewart Who? – Twisted

#6350 – Wayne G ft Stewart Who? – Twisted
(12-inch single, 1997) (Discogs tracklisting)

06 wayne g

Excuse me. Do you fuck as well as you dance? Are you as hot in the bedroom as you are on the dance floor? Oh really? See ya. Later.

As I recall, Wayne G was the Saturday night main room DJ at Heaven, while Stewart Who? wrote acerbically about the London gay scene for QX Magazine. Thus they were in prime positions to observe, document and satirise the pumped-up, drugged-up, sexed-up Bacchanalia which surrounded them every weekend, as gay London club culture approached some sort of apex of freewheeling, devil-may-care mayhem and excess, before the laws of diminishing returns started kicking in towards the back end of the decade.

Unlike any other records that it would have been mixed into at the time, almost all of which were lyric-free, “Twisted” has a story to tell. The title of the main mix places the action at a specific time and place – 6am at Warriors, the none-more-hardcore Sunday night/Monday morning successor to the legendary FF sessions at Turnmills in Clerkenwell – but in reality, it could have taken place at any one of more than a dozen regular club nights.

Above Wayne’s generically banging hard trance backing track, Stewart intones, with lethal accuracy, the deadpan internal monologue of a wasted, greedy, narcissistic, superior, misanthropic and ultimately lost soul, shirtlessly spinning beneath the lasers at peak time, his only priorities in life pared down to sex, drugs and dancing.

The effect is both comic and unsettling. Comic, because those of us on the scene at that time – and I was absolutely one of them – could recognise this character instantly. Unsettling, because his thought processes veered rather too closely to our own, at our worst moments. If the most effective satire holds up a mirror, then this wasn’t a mirror that anyone would want to stare into for too long.

Or, as the back sleeve chirpily put it, in big bold type: “Once In A While, A Track Comes Along That Everyone Can Relate To… This Is It!”

Completing the original 12-inch package, there’s an accapella, an instrumental and a wholly reworked remix of considerably lesser impact.