hackedepicciotto – The Current

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I have three experiences of Blackpool, the town in which the ever-wandering duo of Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke recorded The Current.

The first is, I am told, a brief trip there as a child in the way home from Scotland, of which I remember absolutely nothing. My mother advises me that I was eighteen months old. The only memento I have of this is a small black and white photo-booth strip.

Then, almost thirty years later I watched an episode of a show called The Hotel Inspector, one of several programmes scheduled in the wake of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in which some egotistical know-it-all pokes around in an establishment, shows just how utterly disgusting it is, and then comprises a strategy for how they will radically improve it. The thing that stuck with me about this show was not a very dubious establishment managed by a very colourful character, but the statistic that the average room rate for one of the 1800 hotels in Blackpool was £20 – and lest we forget that an average suggests there were many rooms available for substantially less. Hotel room rates act as a barometer for the economic prospects of a location, and on that measure alone, Blackpool was woeful. I mean, I’ve paid more than that for an hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska and that place didn’t have a ballroom, tower or a beach to improve its appeal.

Finally, maybe around the same time as that, I hauled myself up to Blackpool at some ungodly hour in the morning to support a colleague who was presenting at one of the significantly more expensive hotels in the town. As he came off the stage and legged it to the exit, he whipped off his microphone and whispered to me, ‘Get me the fuck out of here – this town makes me want to kill myself.’

But some of this is precisely why de Picciotto and Hacke chose to move to Blackpool for The Current. It is a town, as they put it, left behind by gentrification, a forgotten relic of Victorian-era tourism, a place dominated by sickly, E-number-heavy boiled sweets, faded seaside grandeur and an unlikely landmark – the Tower – forever destined to be unfairly seen as a poor architectural cousin to M. Eiffel’s more famous example, despite being arguably almost as impressive.

All of this, plus the presence of the Irish Sea the couple could see from their window, gives tracks like ‘Petty Silver’ – replete with its creepy melodic tones reminiscent of ‘The Carny’ by The Bad Seeds, grubby, fuzzy electronic rhythm and sub-bass slowed down to a unnerving prowl – an unexpected, if turbulent and utterly skewed, symphonic edge. It would be glib to say that such a track carries a sense of mystery as Danielle de Picciotto intones an especially bleak poetry, but there is nevertheless a sinister, Old Testament good vs evil thing going on here.

Elsewhere, opening track ‘Defiance’ is nudged onward by a gloomy bluesy guitar, bass and violin formation that might as well have blown in from the sand of a sun-bleached Nevadan desert rather than the brown sand of Blackpool. Here we find overheard voices, strangely celebratory and yet weirdly affecting when taken outside of their context, bells, snarling electronics and a vocal from de Picciotto that emphasises we are all made equal despite Blackpool’s economic fortunes suggesting that this is anything but the case.

It is an effect that plays out across The Current, in a fashion not wholly dissimilar to the sound of the Detroit-centred Crime & The City Solution album American Twilight (2013) that both contributed to. On the standout ‘Onwards’, that manifests itself as a violin section that is enough to cause claustrophobia and panic, the beautiful harmonies between Hacke and de Picciotto never quite offsetting the churning urgency of the strings, sounding not unlike the end of the world as we know it. The album’s title track begins with a soundfield of unplaceable, hissing, droning sounds evoking comparisons with Hacke’s role in Einstürzende Neubauten, though even that band never quite managed to sound this bleak; ‘The Banishing’ carries a strained, muted edge courtesy of a rich, undulating, thunderous rhythm, chanted vocals and vaguely optimistic strings; ‘Third From The Sun’ begins with rich otherworldly sounds intended to remind us that our very existence owes itself to accidents and astral coincidence, before descending into a ominous wall of beautiful, ugly sound laced with psychedelic motifs.

This is not an album for the faint-hearted. By the time you reach the mournful ‘Upon Departure’, with its proggy, thick Violinksi tonalities, insistent strings and impenetrably savage drums, or the damning social commentary of ‘The Black Pool’, you might be forgiven for wanting to say, like my former colleague, ‘Get me the fuck out of here.’ Break through the gloom and a strangely human, hopeful, elegiac dimension appears. It is the sound of an unexpected optimism and a spirit of unity and of being in this together in spite of the state we’re in.

That de Picciotto and Hacke were able to freely up sticks and pitch up in Blackpool, with an album released on the very day where the UK is expected to sever its ties from Europe, and where such freedom of movement will be once again restricted, is perhaps the most overtly political statement of all those enshrined in The Current.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

SavFrost – Cuckoo Head Cool Dog

Cuckoo Head Cool Dog by SavFrost is a unique collaboration between long-standing friends Barbara Frost and Savage Pencil (Edwin Pouncey), issued by The Tapeworm’s Bookworm offshoot in two editions – ‘Germolene Pink’ and ‘Papal Purple’ – and described by The Tapeworm’s Philip Marshall as nothing less than a “bodice-ripping page-turner”.

Neither Frost or Pouncey will be unfamiliar to Mute collectors, Frost through her association with partner Frank Tovey / Fad Gadget as songwriter, singer, photographer, tour manager and occasional book-keeper, and SavX through his distinctive sleeve illustrations for Sonic Youth, Big Black and many other Blast First releases.

The volume consists of twenty visceral and engaging short pieces by Frost, each one written in a single draft in direct response to an image supplied in an email from Savage Pencil the night before. The image would remain unopened until Frost was ready to start writing the following day, beginning the process of developing either a short story, poem, collection of haikus or some other written reaction to Pouncey’s distinctive (and generally unfathomable, often disturbing) illustrations by accumulating ‘word banks’, clusters of words that occurred to her as she looked at what had been supplied. Those word banks, and Pouncey’s drawings, are all included in the book, and it’s illuminating to see precisely Frost’s responses as they were developing, the word banks being necessarily individualistic, spontaneous gestures that often appear only tangentially linked to the drawing and the written piece that would then be formed.

The results are predictably unpredictable, and frequently dark. One piece (Reap What You Sow) appears to document the quotidian ministrations of a garden-obsessed pensioner, only to unfold into something much more sinister; New Neighbour begins by detailing the interactions between a resident of a maisonette and her new upstairs neighbour, all of which begin with somewhat overbearing pleasantries before opening out into a jaw-dropping tale of extreme and nauseating criminality.

Other stories concern themselves with sleepless nights, fumbled romance and macabre goings on in dolls houses orchestrated by a disturbed young girl, and the inner turmoil of the Beast from Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête (definitely Cocteau; not Disney). The poetic gestures throughout the book are similarly oblique, ranging from naturalistic moments to outpourings of adoration to more harrowing concerns, each one deployed with an unvarnished economy of language and a raw emotional directness.

Cuckoo Head Cool Dog by SavFrost was issued by The Bookworm on September 27 2019 in a limited edition of 250 copies (125 pink, 125 purple). Copies can be purchased from The Tapeworm’s Bandcamp page.

Thanks to Barbara, Philip, Fortitude, Sagar and Café Below.

Related:

Interview with Philip Marshall from The Tapeworm about the label’s formation, ethos and ongoing exploration of the cassette format over at my other blog, Further.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

FITTED – First Fits

FITTED is a spontaneously-established quartet of Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms from the current Wire line-up, Minutemen’s Mike Watt and Bob Lee from Fearless Leader. The group came together during the LA date at The Echo on Wire’s DRILL 2017 festival tour, rehearsed just once and then took to the stage for a blistering performance loosely based on Dome’s ‘Jasz’, which, after several iterations in the studio, emerges on the group’s debut album as the biographical ‘The Legend Of Lydmar Lucia’.

That track acts as a logical centrepoint to a collection of six tracks that operate on a unique pathway between spacey, acid-fried grooves, the upstart urgency of punk and art-rock. ‘The Legend Of Lydmar Lucia’ finds Lewis intoning a diaristic spoken-word recollection of a particularly vivid art happening at Santa Lucia’s Lydmar Gallery, his delivery carrying the kind of oblique, unfathomable wordplay that is highly familiar from his occasional lead vocals with Wire. The unfamiliar aspect of this track is the swirling, turgid, many-layered bed of sound upon which his vocal rests; murky, impenetrable, thrilling and restless, the sonic stew created by the four musician’s is a breathtakingly complex listen, and a perfect foil for Lewis’s intonation.

Something similar happens on the ultimately incendiary and boisterous opening track, ‘Plug In The Jug’, with lead vocals from Mike Watt. ‘Plug In The Jug’ starts out in tentative, atmospheric territory, sound washing in and out but building, building, building toward something initially unclear but finally coalescing into a groove somewhere between The Doors at their most focussed and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley at his Krautrocking, cyclical drumming best.

Elsewhere, ‘The Chunk That Got Chewed’ is a sprawling, beautiful mess of a track with Watt sounding a lot like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, while closing track ‘The First Fit’ is a mesmerisingly deep piece led by an especially emotional Lewis augmented by wandering, languid jazz rock fluidity buried under treacly reverb.

It’s not clear yet whether FITTED is a one-off project or the start of something that the group will return to whenever schedules allow. What’s immediately clear from the symbiosis of these four talented minds on the six tracks here is that their capacity to produce interesting, engaging, surprising music is probably limitless.

First Fits by FITTED is released November 8 2019 by ORG Music.

Catref: ORGM-2147
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Joséphine Michel & Mika Vainio – The Heat Equation

An equation requires both sides of an expression, no matter how complex the operations, to be precisely matched. It is what gives mathematics, and by extension, science, its essential logicality and precision. It is the quintessence of balance and predictability, allowing clarity and certainty even in the most chaotic and unpredictable of scenarios.

On face value, it might be hard to see what it is about French photographer Joséphine Michel’s subdued imagery and the sounds of the sorely-missed Icelandic avant garde electronic musician Mika Vainio that gives The Heat Equation that necessary sense of balance. The pair were collaborators (Halfway To White, 2015) and had discussed another symbiotic project in 2017 just prior to Vainio’s untimely death. The Heat Equation is not necessarily that project, but it could have been, taking the form of a book and accompanying CD and featuring an essay on music by Jeremy Millar.

Michel’s earnest photography, presented in harsh monochrome hues, concerns itself principally with nature and science. We see images of birds flying above a shore so dark that it looks like the interior seams of a coal mine, plaintive shots of solitary figures against the backdrop of harsh, barren terrain, and other, less easy to determine things: the amorphous aftereffects of moving lights, looking for all the world like live cultures writhing under a microscope. These photographs exist without explanation, with no narrative, no timeline, just the barest of footnotes from their curator. In a world where we are obsessed with geotagging out every move and using locational data as a means of expressing our passage through life (the inference being that if you didn’t put it on Instagram, it didn’t happen), such absence is initially hard to understand, before taking on a comforting ambiguity.

Vainio’s absence is, perhaps, harder to make sense of. Since his formative years with Panasonic / Pan Sonic, Vainio had operated at the vanguard of a form of electronic music that relied on subtle impulse and an almost heavy metal approach to sound design. Arriving at a time when the syncopated rhythms of dance music had been dissected and shattered into a sound field of seemingly randomised pulses, glitches and white noise, Pan Sonic dealt in a coldness that was less about their Finnish roots and more about the starkness of their electronic noise.

The hour-long CD hidden in The Heat Equation’s luxuriant art book exterior is audio evidence of Vainio’s performance at Ramsgate’s Contra Pop Festival in August 2016. In part, the music is resolutely familiar as a Vainio suite in its palette of sources – the glitches, the nagging bass drones, the snatches of found sound and muted overheard voices. These vignettes were intended for Vainio’s next release for the venerable Touch label, but were stalled and considered entirely lost following his death in April 2017. Whether they were completed pieces or simply a document of Vainio working on new ideas is, like Michel’s photographs, devoid of specific explanation.

What emerges, strangely, is a not a coldness per se, nor a warmth – after all, it would be hard to ever conceive of Mika Vainio ever producing music that gave you a fuzzy feeling of contentment and security. Sure, there are moments where the only melodic input comes from carefully-controlled white noise, existing in a no man’s land of jarring distortion and grainy texture and beats that are merely beats because they provide a vague sense of forward momentum and order, but there are also moments of ambience and a less frantic approach to his essential glitchiness. Many of the pieces progress on a strangely delicate path, one segment thirty-six minutes in sounding like a haunting take on The Nutcracker wherein familiar melodic gestures are fractalized into razor sharp splinters.

It would be easy to regard The Heat Equation as an epitaph, a eulogy or a full stop. Instead it acts as a multi-disciplinary project that resides in an artistic hinterland where music and imagery both complement and rally against one another. The essential ingredient of an equation is the equals sign that balances either side; in the case of The Heat Equation, that sign is a haunting postcard of Vainio shot by Michel, the only true collaborative moment in a project created across the distance of life and absent friends.

The Heat Equation by Joséphine Michel and Mika Vainio is released November 1 2019 by Touch.

Catref: codex2
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Piney Gir – You Are Here

The choice of a title for a record can materially influence how you expect it to sound. In the case of the new LP from Piney Gir, the working title was It’s Been A Shit Year For Everyone. Had she stuck with that, the ten pop songs here would have sounded brooding and sullen, sloping their way through the album with a world-weary miserablism and mopey outlook. Fortunately, Piney pivoted and opted for the much more ambiguous You Are Here, its cover finding her draped in white, against a white background, holding a white guitar: it seems to say, ‘Yep, you’re here, it ain’t great but you can at least make something good out of it – if you want to.’

The album was trailed by the fine single ‘Great Pretender’, carrying a dreamy, vaguely surreal popness thanks to its inspiration coming from a weird party at Rick Rubin’s Hollywood pad. A similarly wonky obliqueness can be heard across You Are Here, it’s songs being easy on the ear but hard on the mind if you listen closely enough. Here we find Piney playing with styles ranging from the gentle balladry of ‘Variety Show’ (a duet with Sweet Baboo) to the spiky tenderness of ‘Puppy Love’, via the Fifties slow motion rock ‘n’ roll embrace of the standout ‘Peanut Butter Malt Shop Heartthrob’ – replete with finger clicks and saxophone beamed in from Vince Fontaine’s National Bandstand in Grease – and concluding with the impassioned, gauzy exotica of final track ‘Evensong’.

Piney’s voice has always had the capacity to have a cutesy sweetness, a bubblegum charm, which is why it’s hard to find her chewing over themes of missing out and being unlucky in love on the buzzing ‘Careaway’ or the careworn, embittered ‘Admiral Fleets’ that opens the record. The alien, unresolved tonalities of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and the languid, louche detachment of vintage Roxy Music provide the textural fabric of these pieces, lacing many of the songs here with an uncertainty that makes them less pop than they first seem.

The album’s most towering moment arrives in the ‘We’ll Always Have Paris’. Here we find Piney taking a wistful, regretful look back through a tragic love story, its diaristic lyrics offering an insight into a relationship that suggests its individuals were doomed from the very start, the memory of Paris the only bright spot in an ill-suited pairing full of opposite viewpoints and never quite arriving at the same point on a map.

We have become accustomed to Piney Gir’s restless stylistic eclecticism, and You Are Here clings to that ‘anything goes’ ethos faithfully. Amid the album’s rich, broadminded musical accompaniment it is Piney’s plaintive, delicate, fragile voice that steals the show, drawing you in time after time and once again highlighting her idiosyncratic, honed form of evocative and often heart-wrenching storytelling.

You Are Here by Piney Gir is released November 1 2019 by STRS Records

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Minimal Compact – Creation Is Perfect

Not exactly a Best Of Minimal Compact album in the truest sense of the word, Creation Is Perfect contains seven tracks from the catalogue of this enduring post-punk quintet, each one updated and re-recorded with shiny new production nous from Wire’s Colin Newman.

Between their formation in in Amsterdam in 1980 and their cessation of activities in 1988, Minimal Compact released five albums and a live document, their approach to what issued forth from punk’s messy entrails being highly individualist, fusing the solid rhythm section of bassist / vocalist Malka Spigel and drummer Max Franken with Middle Eastern melodies and the purring vocal of Samy Birnbach. Augmented by Berry Sakharof and Rami Fortis’s guitars and electronics, Minimal Compact was a stylistic force to be reckoned with, even among an era that produced far more important groups than punk ever could.

Colin Newman is no stranger to Minimal Compact. He produced their 1985 commercially successful album Raging Souls, which yielded two of the songs included here, the emphatic and insistent title track of their third album and the hypnotic and wistful ‘My Will’. He’s also toured as a jobbing member of the group, and his marriage to Malka Spigel has also yielded many collaborations between two like-minded creatives, including the recently-reactived Immersion and the group Githead, which also included Max Franken on drums.

The genesis behind Creation Is Perfect is not dissimilar to the thought process behind Wire’s IBTABA, namely that their recorded output lacked the same sort of visceral impact as their live shows. Less about updating the back catalogue pieces for today’s ear, this album is about capturing that live energy, beginning with the urgent, gleeful and spiky punk-funk of ‘Statik Dancing’ and carrying on through other stellar moments like the chiming guitars and menacing motorik foundations of ‘Nada’. The result is an evenness, a precisely-executed delivery encased within rich, layered studio smoothness but also a certain rawness as the five musicians collide and overlap along paths which are uniquely their own.

The collection concludes with a new track,’Holy Roller’. Beginning with fairground melodies, the track characteristically progresses along a grubby, low-slung bassline offset by layers of whining synths, shimmering melodies and an emphatic, detached vocal. Slow-building and dramatic, the track is the summation of everything that Minimal Compact ever set out to achieve, its skeletal, rattling guitar interplay sounding as beautifully nihilistic as it did at the start of the 1980s.

Creation Is Perfect by Minimal Compact is released October 25 2019 by Minimal Compact.

Catref: mc01
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Yeasayer (Clash feature, 2019)

Yeasayer‘s fifth album, Erotic Reruns, was released today via their own Yeasayer Records. The LP saw the trio of Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder returning to the live compositional style of their earliest releases, taking their inspiration from 70s MOR, personal relationships and the prevailing US political environment.

To coincide with the release, I spoke to the band’s Anand Wilder for Clash about the genesis of the album, leaving the comfort blanket of record labels behind and the necessary tensions within this enduring New York group.

Read the Clash interview here.

Buy Erotic Reruns from Yeasayer’s website.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash.