Barry Adamson – Oedipus Schmoedipus (Mute Records album, 1996)

mute records | lp/cd stumm134 | 1996

The title could be a New York slang dismissal of the famous Freudian concept while its cover seems strangely maudlin and serious for an artist not normally renowned for being so. The diversity of contextualisations available between the concepts in the title and on the sleeve – the throwaway and the earnest – is a fairly good guide to the typically disparate themes and shapes that populate this 1996 Barry Adamson album.

Featuring collaborations with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis’), Nick Cave (‘The Sweetest Embrace’) and Billy Mackenzie (‘Achieved In The Valley Of Dolls’), here we find Adamson traversing fluidly across genres – turbulent electronic compositions, be-bop, Memphis disco rock, spoken word and big band themes – all in little over an hour. It has always amazed me as to how an artist can competently have his finger in so many stylistic pies at once, but Adamson (uniquely) proves how to pull it off, time after time after time.

Over a pounding rock-disco groove (built, it seems, around a sampled snare beat from Primal Scream’s seminal ‘Rocks’), Jarvis Cocker squirms, shakes and squeals his way through ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis’; buoyed by folkish violins and gospel vocals urging to be saved from one’s own wandering hands, Jarvis is here cast as some sort of desperate, sex-hungry voyeur. ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ gives a writing credit to Massive Attack (presumably for a sample, although it is not detailed), and sees Adamson cutting a soulful, downtempo groove.

Starting with some polite audience applause, ‘The Vibes Ain’t Nothin’ But The Vibes’ is a sparse vibes, percussion and bass laidback jazz outing that benefits from a slow percussion break and some synthetic-sounding drums. In a close-mic’d whisper, Adamson describes a sort of humorous frisson between two lovers, although I don’t recall when it became fashionable to namedrop Dunkin’ Donuts as a ‘cool’ place to head for dates. Some heavy phasing creates a spatial, otherworldly atmosphere toward the end, appropriately setting the tone for ‘It’s Business As Usual’, an electronically-processed composition that is claustrophobic and threatening. A relentless bassloop and eerie noises offset distorted, manic answerphone messages, from what appears to be a female stalker.

In comparison, the cover of Miles Davis’ hardbop-era ‘Miles’ is light and airy, deploying vibes where Davis’ trumpet once stalked so effervescently; piano and what appears to be a simply-programmed drum beat offset the traditional brushed cymbals and trumpet, offering a reverential take on the Davis classic. In a yet greater contrast, ‘Dirty Barry’ is built totally around echoing loops and textures with watery, processed horns and ghostly atmospherics invoking a dusty Clive Barker horror soundtrack atmosphere, its tribal bass drums merely reinforcing the cavernous edge. ‘In A Moment Of Clarity’ pushes back into downtempo jazz territory, a Parisian melodramatic piece with so much cymbal-brushing that it sounds like an old 78. No extreme improv here, thank God, just well-studied and careful mood jazz.

‘Achieved In The Valley Of The Dolls’ recalls the sound of Soul II Soul, with scratches, hip-hop beats and soulful vocals from the late Billy Mackenzie. With Adamson’s vocal collaborations, one gets the impression that the smaller canvas of pop music-esque songs actually encourages Adamson to be more precise and layered in his musical accompaniment. ‘Achieved…’ and the later track ‘Sweetest Embrace’ both contain a certain textural completeness, full of mood and imbued with emotion that simply provides the vocals with the respectful setting these excellent vocalists have always deserved.

Arriving at a time when Cave’s curiosity was piqued more by pastoral balladry than the wretched devil gospel of some of his earlier works ‘The Sweetest Embrace’ is a perfect example of sensual, emotional songwriting. In contrast to the verses which are delivered in a warm, confiding whisper, the chorus soars with a Scott Walker or Tony Bennett quality, while Adamson’s rich accompaniment is full of organs, synths and harpsichords over a slow, skipping rhythm, appropriately loaded with the same intimate atmosphere.

The Jackanory-esque ‘Vermillion Kisses’, a twisted fairy tale read with customary over the top inflection above Adamson’s theatrical accompaniment, segues perfectly into ‘The Big Bamboozle’, a big band track recalling the larg-scale ensembles of, say, Glenn Miller. Except, unlike Miller’s boogie-woogie feel-good songs, this exciting track is dark and menacing, like the incidental music to a Twenties gangster movie laced with some very British Sixties harpsichord and guitar. ‘State Of Contraction’ is a simple piano song, filled with beautiful harmonies and melodies, quiet strings giving this a regretful atmosphere.

Oedipus Schmoedipus ends with a reprise of the raucous ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’, which in a way is a shame, particularly since it follows ‘The Sweetest Embrace’. ‘Set The Controls…’ while upbeat and fun, is not Adamson’s finest hour, and its not the best track here. The album could have easily closed without it.

Track listing:

A1. / 1. Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis
A2. / 2. Something Wicked This Way Comes
A3. / 3. The Vibes Ain’t Nothin’ But The Vibes
A4. / 4. It’s Business As Usual
A5. / 5. Miles
—- / 6. Dirty Barry [CD bonus track]
B1. / 7. In A Moment Of Clarity
B2. / 8. Achieved In The Valley Of Dolls
B3. / 9. Vermillion Kisses
B4. / 10. The Big Bamboozle
B5. / 11. State Of Contraction
B6. / 12. The Sweetest Embrace
B7. / 13. Set The Controls Again

First published 2003; edited 2014.

(c) 2003 -2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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