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.

Randomising the record collection #5: Whycliffe – Rough Side

#6847 – Whycliffe – Rough Side
(LP, 1991) (Discogs tracklisting)

05 whycliffe

It’s impossible to listen to Whycliffe’s first of two albums, both recorded for MCA in the early Nineties, without being aware of the shadow cast by the Nottingham singer-songwriter’s subsequent fall from grace. For the past fifteen years or so, you’ll have found him wandering the streets of his home town, a damaged and vulnerable figure, singing for coins.

“After Journeys of the Mind [his second album, 1994], I went into my own mind and deep into myself. I got ill. It’s hard to remember much of what happened, but it was a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of”, he told LeftLion magazine in 2005. “There was so much happening to me at such a young age that I couldn’t quite cope with it all.”

It could have worked out very differently. There were TV appearances (Live And Kicking, The Word), big shows (Hammersmith Odeon, support slots with James Brown at Wembley Arena and Birmingham NEC), not to mention a romance with Dannii Minogue, which Whycliffe talks about poignantly in that 2005 interview. And yet the hits never came: three minor chart entries from seven singles, the highest peaking at #56.

Rough Side is handsomely packaged, with photos by Peter Ashworth and Juergen Teller. Money has clearly been spent. Hopes are riding high. Whycliffe’s sleeve notes are full of optimism: “Hold tight, we’re going all the way!” / “To the rest of you spunky kids, don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Although the requisite pop sheen of the day has been added to the production, it doesn’t smother the songs, or dampen the performances; indeed, the record has aged a good deal better than Wednesday’s D-Influence album. Only two tracks are co-writes. There’s a pleasing variety of subject matter and mood. Stylistically, it follows in a straight line from Terence Trent D’Arby, Sidney Youngblood and Seal: commercial pop-soul, with a post-Soul II Soul percussive funkiness that doesn’t irritate by over-familiarity. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen, if short on stand-out cuts – although perhaps the closing song, “Love Speak Up”, could have been a hit if the wind had been blowing in the right direction.

Around the time of the album’s release, I saw Whycliffe and his band playing at the old Trent Poly. Earthier, funkier and sexier than on record, they put on an impressive show. He had charisma and vocal power. I thought we were in with a chance of that rarest of events in those dark, pre-Bugg days: a Nottingham breakthrough act, that would put the city on the map. But things like that just didn’t happen back then. We didn’t have the sort of supportive, nurturing scene that could have birthed and championed a homegrown talent.

Nottingham’s a kinder place for artists these days, but Whycliffe haunts it still: a punchline to an in-joke, an awful warning, a talent in irreversible retreat. This was a good album, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits – but perhaps that’s now too much to ask.

Randomising the record collection #4: Uncut Hard Drive: Uncut’s Pick Of The Hottest New Music

#4056 – Various Artists – Uncut Hard Drive: Uncut’s Pick Of The Hottest New Music
(CD, 2003) (Discogs tracklisting)

04 uncut hard drive

And on the fourth day, we come to the first of the magazine covermounts – of which there are hundreds, I’m warning you now. Why have I hung onto these? When am I ever going to play them out of choice, rather than self-imposed, random-number-generated necessity? Why didn’t I just chuck them all away?

You can put it down to some residual taboo, which still regards all items of physical music as sacred objects – yea, even unto the poxy magazine covermounts. And yet, I’ve done my share of chucking: an Observer chill-out CD was the first to go, after a single play revealed it as unlistenable, barrel-scraping tosh, and I also got rid of every covermount given away by The Word magazine (terrific publication, piggin’ AWFUL covermounts). But there, I think, the carnage ceased. And so I am left with practically a full set of Uncut compilations from 2000 to 2003, after which they dwindle to almost nothing.

(At least I got rid of the jewel cases. They’ve been slimmed down into plastic wallets, and squeezed into a separate space from the “proper” stuff. In the megalopolis of my music collection, the covermounts are the shanty town on the southern border.)

In 2000, Uncut’s CDs were bloody great, each one containing more than enough gems to balance out the duds. I first discovered Ryan Adams this way; Jackie Leven, too. But by 2003 – the year I stopped reading the magazine regularly – our paths had diverged. I had tired of their roster of adult-oriented singer-songwriters and stunning-returns-to-form-that-manifestly-weren’t, and my fling with New Americana, which Uncut had championed in the UK, was all but over.

The tracklisting for Hard Drive fills me not so much with dread, more with weary indifference. I’m going take this one slowly, spreading it over the day. Deep breath – we’re going in.

1. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3 – Amphetamine
Massively enjoyable high-octane, full-throttle, southern-boogie-goes-to-CBGB-in-1975 ramalama epic. As Mrs. Thatcher once said of the Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning kids’ TV: I liked the electric guitars. 8/10

2. Lucinda Williams – Ventura
I’ve always been allergic to her voice, and this is precisely the sort of bleak mope that I was expecting to dominate the CD. She starts by making soup, and she ends by throwing up into the toilet – which I suppose is a narrative trajectory of sorts. A couple of pleasantly twangy guitar breaks provide the only respite. 4/10

3. Ian McCulloch – High Wires
Gormless swagger, pitched at the Gallagher/Ashcroft constituency. 1/10

4. My Morning Jacket – Death Is The Easy Way
Our second bleak mope: funereally paced and wanly intoned, in that particular kind of post-Neil Young whine which always gets my goat. Good Lord, man, at least Lucinda Williams had the gumption to heat up some soup. 2/10

5. Evan Dando – Hard Drive
Lilting, country/campfire-styled compendium of the singer’s immediate present-day reality (in which almost every line starts with “this is” or “these are”), whose slightness is redeemed by the residual attractiveness of Dando’s vocal tone. 5/10

6. Johnny Marr & The Healers – Need It
As with the McCulloch track, you’re reminded of the long shadow cast by late Britpop’s reclaiming of the classic rock aesthetic. A spirited yet ultimately static “train-kept-a-rollin'” rattle, weakly sung, enlivened by an all-too-brief guitar break that cuts through the fog. 4/10

7. Songdog – Days Of Armageddon
Anguished dirge, lifted by flashes of dark, surreal wit, but lacking any sense of progression. I’d have added a slow-building instrumental freak-out coda, but I’m corny like that. 3/10

8. Richard Thompson – I’ll Tag Along
I much prefer solo acoustic Thompson to full-band Thompson, of which this is a workmanlike example. Best guitar work since the opening track, as you’d expect. 6/10

9. Ed Harcourt – The Birds Will Sing For Us
Sounding like it was mastered from a 128k MP3, we are back in the anguished-troubadour-bleats-about-death zone, in which this CD seems determined to wallow. Save us, Sleepy Jackson! 3/10

10. The Sleepy Jackson – Miniskirt
Imagine a country-rock Lemonheads, and you’re most of the way there. Ten songs in, and I find myself craving the simple inauthenticity of the synthesiser. 4/10

11. Peter Bruntnell – Downtown
I lack the synonyms to describe this in fresh language. All of its ideas have been used in earlier tracks – the soft twang, the doleful strum, the bleating mope – and I’m beginning to feel suffocated by the cumulative defeatism on display. 1/10

12. Dan Bern & The IJBC – Crow
Stylistically, it’s 1978 punk-pop sung by 1977 Elvis Costello: clenched, bitter, resentful. Lyrically, it’s a defiant kiss-off to a shit boss. There have been days in my professional past where this song could have played an active therapeutic role. 7/10

13. The Go-Betweens – Mrs Morgan
I have no idea what they were trying to do here. As far as I can tell, the titular protagonist has been a bit of a blabbermouth – but then there’s other stuff, about rain and sand, which doesn’t work as a metaphor for anything. 2/10

14. Calexico – Not Even Stevie Nicks
Man drives car off cliff, despite best efforts of scarf-twirling AOR icon. Blogger showing early signs of Dour Americana Stockholm Syndrome. 3/10

15. The ‘Burn – Enlightening
Verve/Shack-aping Johnny Come Latelies (from Blackburn) rock up five years too late. They once opened for Oasis, you know. Yeah, that figures. 1/10

16. Black Box Recorder – Andrew Ridgley
But hark, is that the sweet strain of the synthesiser, beckoning us out of the slough of despond and into the sunlit uplands of arch post-modernist Concept Pop, where flaxen-haired Saint Etiennes frolic with wryly poker-faced Boys from the Shop of Pets? The light, it fair blinds me! Pinch my cheeks and call me Kimmy! 7/10

17. Tom McRae – Ghost Of A Shark
“Tell me now, is there difference between a shark and the ghost of a shark? Cause all I have are secrets, and memories of the dark. Oh, rip away the skin, burn my heart.” Yeah, it couldn’t last. This time around, I’m pairing “doleful” with “mope”. Doleful mope! Nearly there! 1/10

18. Buzzcocks – Useless Situation
From doleful mope to nihilistic thrash: “Life’s full of disappointments, wonder where the good times went. Craving for recognition rather than accomplishment. Nobody cares what your name is, and it’s gonna stay that way. Everything is off the record; face it, there’s nothing to say. Life’s only temporary, and then you fuckin’ die.” 4/10, docked a point for burying the vocals in the mix. A Buzzcock should ever be clean, and never be murky.

And so this most joyless of compilations sputters to a close, leaving me wondering if I should place it back in the shanty town, between Uncut’s White Riot Vol 2: A Tribute to The Clash and Uncut’s Sensation Nation (Richard Ashcroft, Interpol, Spoon, Ash, The Black Crowes, The Boggs), or toss it in the bin (hey, catalogue.xls will renumber itself, no sweat on the librarian front).

No, back to the shanty town it goes, saved from destruction by Steve Wynn, Richard Thompson, Dan Bern and Black Box Recorder.

If tomorrow’s randomiser plucks a Mixmag hard house covermount from the southern reaches of my megalopolis, I might just pull a sickie.

Randomising the record collection #3: D-Influence – Prayer 4 Unity

#2163 – D-Influence – Prayer 4 Unity
(CD, 1995) (Discogs tracklisting)

03 d-influence

It’s my 54th birthday, which means that age-wise, I am now equidistant from the millennium and my seventieth birthday. Why must I do these appalling sums in my head?

This morning, K gave me my first of three presents: a subscription to Wax & Stamp, who will be mailing me a surprise vinyl album and 12-inch single every month for the next year, chosen by the two-man team and a guest curator. Looking at their previous shipments, I find that their choices are pleasingly cross-genre, and largely unknown to me; there are only three or four names that I even recognise. This morning’s batch comprised a 10-inch EP from  Tuff Love – Glaswegian C86/dreampop janglers – and Mo Kolours, a UK hip hop/soul/jazz cut-up merchant whose approach equates to Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and the whole Los Angeles new school. Before hitting the randomise button, I played and enjoyed both.

All of this excitement left me in quite the wrong headspace for D-Influence’s mid-Nineties acid jazz smoothness. I bought a lot of acid jazz back then, and am rarely minded to return to it. To my 2015 ears, it sounds politely constrained by its boundaries, seemingly striving to perfect a specific type of sound at the expense of individuality and risk.

And so, while the 56-minute album tootled blandly along, I kept myself amused by playing Killer Sudoku on the iPad, almost completing the Guardian quick crossword, and keeping abreast of birthday greetings on social media. It was background music then, and it’s background music now. There was little to latch onto; everything slid by in a tasteful wash. It sounded exactly like the Brand New Heavies. It reminded me of untucked, neatly pressed, mono-colour Ralph Lauren shirts. The first four tracks sounded familiar, the rest not at all. That was probably as long as my attention span lasted in 1995, too.

When track 10 turned out to be a sixteen-second interlude, sourced from a Brazilian radio show, I heaved a sigh of relief: just two more to go. It led into the only track that I could imagine playing again: “Afrojam”, an instrumental workout of significantly heightened liveliness and spirit, augmented by harmonica and Brazilian percussion. Gilles Peterson probably liked it.

D-Influence once backed Bjork on Later, in a reworking of “Aeroplane” from her debut album. It remains their most interesting moment. Let’s remember them that way.