Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

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The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Rowland S. Howard – Pop Crimes (Liberation Music album, 2009)

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Listening, belatedly, to Pop Crimes, Rowland S. Howard‘s second solo album is hard to contemplate without considering that Howard was suffering with what would prove to be terminal liver cancer during its recording, passing away while promoting the LP. Nevertheless, that feeling of listening to a ghost aside, Pop Crimes stands as a strong final chapter in the musical career of an uncompromising musician whose work in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and beyond marked him out as an inventive guitarist and songwriter.

Pop Crimes contains six new Howard compositions, as well as covers of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin”. The album saw Howard working with JP Shilo (credited with guitar, violin and other general strangeness), bassist Brian Hooper (who also co-wrote the title track and appears on ‘Wayward Man’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’) and saw Howard reunited with former Boys Next Door / Birthday Party colleague Mick Harvey (here on drums and organ). Pop Crimes was produced by Lindsay Gravina.

In spite of his ailing health, Howard’s voice had rarely sounded so interesting, containing a gruff tenderness and the barest trace of a sneer at the very edge of his delivery, while his guitar playing drew on the same style of layered anti-playing – skeletal notes that descend into howling static – that made The Birthday Party’s axeman such a thrilling proposition. The two covers are cases in point. Covering Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s epic Eighties hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was always going to be a brave move, but Howard / Harvey / Shilo give it an added edge of grungy nihilism, stalking bass and droning organs augmenting a defiant, reflective but bitter Howard, the spaces in his vocal allowing his distinctive, subtle guitar riffs to feed through. As with all the best covers, Howard takes ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into new, uncharted territory, taking Talk Talk’s optimistic original and turning it into a darker, somewhat sinister paean to individualism. Meanwhile the cover of Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin” showcases Howard’s strangled vocal style, a world-weary but mysterious quality with doomed blues backing from Howard / Harvey / Shilo that sounds like a nag sluggishly bearing its rider back from unspeakable horrors.

Occasionally there are small moments of levity which leaves you with the impression that this LP isn’t uniformly misanthropic, even though it really is. Opener ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ is one. A duet with Jonnine Standish of Australian Blast First Petite band HTRK, ‘A Girl Called Jonny’ is an occasionally joyous, mostly dark Phil Spector-esque ballad with simple organ and drums, and gentle bass from HTRK’s Sean Stewart (who was found dead in the spring of 2010). Howard’s vocal weaves alongside Standish’s detached own while whining guitar drifts alongside. ‘Pop Crimes’ is another. The album’s title track consists of ponderous bass, guitarwork that straddles Howard’s punk-blues licks from ‘Nick The Stripper’ and the searing feedback / noise of ‘The Friendcatcher’ while Harvey’s drums contain a jazzy swing which has that effect of lightening the mood ever so slightly. I have no idea what the lyrics are on about, but it’s delivered with a sense of muted anger by Howard and so I guess he’s railing at the pop music industry somehow.

Elsewhere there is a sense of the personal drifting into the songwriting. ‘Wayward Man’, with its great wedges of metronomic bass and carefully-wrought feedback, has lyrics that find Howard resignedly accepting that he can’t be the wayward man whoever he’s singing to wants him to be. The whole thing hints at rage, at darkness, like an updating of Leonard Cohen’s sinister ‘I’m Your Man’. Likewise, ‘Ave Maria’, which is an introverted, quiet and sorrowful piece, all fragile percussion and gentle layers of guitar, organ and plucked bass. The piece has a filmic, emotional quality, marking it out as a low-key but tear-jerkingly moving highlight of Pop Crimes. As the music fades away, Howard closes the track with the words ‘we didn’t dance upon our wedding day’, singly the most regretful thing I’ve yet heard in a song. Then again, this is the man that wrote ‘Shivers’, perhaps the most beautifully depressing song ever written.

The album was supported posthumously by ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is a wry, apocalyptic piece that is strangely cynical at times; white hot feedback is draped laconically across and through an bleak, sparse backdrop. It’s hardly the most optimistic way to close out an album, but if you had terminal cancer, with no liver transplant on offer, I wonder how cheerful you would be.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mick Harvey & Christopher Richard Barker – The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War (Mute album, 2018)

“With each year that passes there are fewer and fewer of us who have a direct connection to those who lived through the two world wars.” Those were the words of our town mayor at this year’s Remembrance service in Woburn Sands, before he solemnly read out the names of those from here who had lost their lives, leaving an indelible mark on this small community with whole generations of family members eliminated.

Over the years their short lives and contributions are reduced to an etching on a war memorial that few of us even notice other than at the annual Remembrance service. Upon the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War, the sacrifice of over a million British service personnel is – rightly – prominently back in focus, serving as a salutary reminder of war’s devastating consequences.

Edgar Bourchier didn’t serve his country in the First World War, at least not outside the imagination of author Christopher Richard Barker anyway. The poet and soldier Bourchier is a fictional character that Barker first created for his 2012 novella The Melancholy Haunting Of Nicholas Parkes, fabricating his Warwickshire birth and Passchendaele death and a vivid backstory of how his poetry took on an entire life of its own following his demise. That include a never-realised Weimar cabaret show, the re-discovery of his words during the turbulent Parisian revolution of the Sixties to ‘new’ realisations his (Barker’s) poetry with Mick Harvey. The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War is thus a conceptual tribute to the endeavours of an Unknown Soldier that never actually existed, but whom speaks for a whole generation of conscripted boys.

Harvey’s experience as a producer, vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist lends these songs the requisite sensitivity, drama and horror to evoke the realities of life in the trenches, all seen from the first-hand vantage point of a contemporary observer. Veering from wistful, mournful folk on tracks like ‘Listen In The Twilight Breeze’ to distorted, feisty rock on ‘The Last Bastard Son Of War’, this is an album inevitably loaded with dramatic, thought-provoking moments. Harvey leads an ensemble cast including his long-time collaborator JP Shilo, vocalists Jade Imagine, Alain Johannes and Simon Breed across fifteen stirring tracks written collaboratively with Barker. Through these songs we hear the hatred of the footsoldiers toward their stiff upper-lipped superiors and their natural reluctance at finding themselves defending their country in spite of the hollow promises of glory and prosperity.

‘Softly Spoken Bill’ observes a callow young soldier thrust into the role of unwilling cannon fodder, losing the plot as he legs it toward the enemy and ultimately getting sent back to Blighty suffering from an early, undiagnosed, wilfully ignored form of PTSD. That effect on these young men can be heard again on ‘The Expressionist Tell #1’ and ‘#2’, describing the numbing, hollowed-out impact that barrages of mustard gas and incessant mortar fire would have on even the most resolute of individuals, reducing them to ghostly human shields in the name of a greater peace.

To call this harrowing would be a pointless understatement, even as Bourchier’s narrative moves from a sort of forced jingoism to the terrifying, cloying sound art of ‘The Messenger’, in which we hear of the falsehoods of life on the frontline that were forbidden from being reported back home.

As time passes and collective memories fade, we need such honest, unflinching descriptions of the manmade hell-on-earth of war to lead us not into the temptations of conflict as our only means of resolving differences. At a time when ugly, incendiary rhetoric between nations is at an all-time high, as peacetime defence spending is increasing, and as Cold War treaties and agreements are unilaterally scrapped, we need the likes of Bourchier’s posthumous words more than ever – irrespective of their false providence – lest we forget.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call (Mute album, 1997)

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I was tempted to write this review with just one word. That word is ‘beautiful’. Written by Nick Cave at exactly the same time as Murder Ballads, these songs were written with simplicity in mind, and as such the majority of these superior compositions feature a stripped back Bad Seeds, and a heavy dose of piano. The contrast with Murder Ballads could not be greater, taking a deeply intimate, romantic and often spiritual tone. No one dies here, one may be relieved to know.

But maybe a little part of Nick Cave died in order to make a collection of songs; that part of him would be the preacher, the aggressor, the dervish spirit howling and caterwauling over a maelstrom of sensational music. It genuinely isn’t a criticism – I happen to think that this is among Cave’s finest work. Everything about The Boatman’s Call is black and white – the Johnny Cash-esque Anton Cobijn photo of a particularly harrowed Nick Cave on the front cover, through the predominance of the piano keys across the LP, through to the downright clarity of Cave’s songwriting. What’s most clear about The Boatman’s Call is the often obvious theme of these songs, for this is Nick Cave’s most directly personal collection of songs, from the post-PJ Harvey reflectiveness of the quirky folk leanings of ‘West Country Girl’ and ‘Black Hair’, through to his ruminations on his failed marriage on ‘People Just Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’.

However, aside from a fair amount of openness from our tortured songsmith, The Boatman’s Call also features two generally beautiful love songs – ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Brompton Oratory’. Like much of the album, these have a musical accompaniment from The Bad Seeds that is directly informed by subtle jazz but the latter also features a perfectly twee Casio rhythm that sounds like it survived from Cave’s original demo. The latter describes a trip made by Cave to Kensington’s famous, and imposing, landmark, and finds Cave wishing he were one of the stone apostles therein, just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his muse’s intense beauty. It perfectly captures the intensity of romance’s first flourishes, that feeling of not being able to cope anymore. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is just mystical and beautiful, its waterside setting making me think of Murder Ballads‘ ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, with all the same romantic longings, just none of the death; an alternative ending, perhaps?

The album features the full Bad Seeds line-up (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, the late Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), albeit in controlled doses, and benefits from an unusually restrained production job from Flood, who also produced the oft-slated U2 album Pop the same year. The style of production is subtle and delicate, and Cave’s vocal is dominant in the mix, casting a personal, intimate shadow over proceedings. It feels like a one-to-one connection between the narrator and sympathetic listener. Warren Ellis’ violin is also an important element here, receiving greater space in the mix than it had been given previously, bestowing the gypsy folk of ‘West Country Girl’ with a rabidly maudlin edge. His work on ‘Idiot Prayer’, perhaps the track closest to a classic Bad Seeds ballad sees his violin overtaking Blix’s fuzzy guitar as lead instrument, a sign of the sea change that was to come.

I have my own, highly personal reasons, for counting this among my favourite albums of all time. Suffice it to say, many years on, it’s the more miserable tracks here – like ‘Far From Me’ – that I find myself reflecting on when I think of that period in my life. ‘Can’t you find somebody else / That you can ring and tell?’, Cave sings on that penultimate, delicately poignant song. Wise words that I wish my younger self had heeded.

First published 2004; edited 2018.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mick Harvey – Intoxicated Women (Mute album, 2017)

“Does much to alter the misconception that Gainsbourg was little more than a louche, womanising so-and-so only capable of producing kitsch-y songs dominated by sex and decadence.” – Clash

Mute stalwart Mick Harvey has released the fourth and final album in his project to translate the work of Serge Gainsbourg, this time focussing largely on the songs Gainsbourg wrote for female collaborators.

I reviewed the album for Clash. My review can be found here.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Mick Harvey – Delirium Tremens (Mute album, 2016)


I reviewed the third instalment of Mute stalwart Mick Harvey‘s project to translate the songs of Serge Gainsbourg from their native French to English, Delirium Tremens, which was released back in June.

Since this finally got published after a lengthy delay, Mute have announced details on the fourth volume, Intoxicated Woman – not bad going considering the twenty year gap between the second and third chapters.

You can read my Clash review here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Anita Lane – Do That Thing (Mute Records single, 2002)

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I actually felt quite embarrassed listening to this second single from Anita Lane‘s appallingly-titled Sex O’Clock. Not because it’s a terrible track, far from it, but because the lyrics are so overtly sexual (example lyric: ‘Call me up on the erogenous zone / All night kundalini telephone.‘) – it is a bit like how uncomfortable you felt as a teenager when the passion levels rose a bit too high in a film you were watching with your parents. Or maybe that was just me.

No two ways about it, Lane here is feeling horny, many of the lyrics delivered as if midway through a hazy passionate clinch. Repeated choruses with Mick Harvey of ‘Do that thing / That thing that you do.‘ urge the sexual momentum forward. Musically, Harvey has constructed a song of considerable beauty, a classic soul groove with a host of Motown strings and percussion-driven beat; think Marvin Gaye duetting with Serge Gainsbourg. Classy, subversive, blatant – perfect.

The solitary B-side ‘Look At The Sun’, co-written and produced by Johnny Klimek, is a countrified ballad, a thing of remarkable beauty. Lane’s vocal is perfect for the track, which really draws out the emotional quality of the song. In fact, the song could have been delivered just as successfully by her former beau Nick Cave.

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence