Sunday 14 June 2015

Try to remain calm: rock and restraint

The latest Belle and Sebastian album was released in January this year. Thanks to the excellent Juliet Harris's marvellous 'Indie Wonderland' radio show (all relevant links below!), the first track I heard from it was the epic 'Play for Today', tucked away well into what, in old money, would be side two. Have a listen.

Like any self-respecting seven-minute anthem, you might expect it to build and build into a glorious, euphoric, climax - after all, that's what their much-earlier effort 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' - also a duet with a female singer outside the band - did so effectively. But things have changed, not least the guest's approach: Dee Dee Penny (whose main project is Dum Dum Girls) does not set the song ablaze with her roar, like Monica Queen. In fact, throughout, the two leads remain sublimely unruffled, delicately intoning the tune - and it's a strong melody - as if the words are just occurring to them.

What actually happens: the track does not build up with them, but behind them. The group stay reined in for the duration and never truly go for broke. The drums use a selection of fills, that repeat here and there, but never settle into a proper 'beat' with a regular snare. Brilliantly, the outro starts little more than half way through, as backing vocals - "Author! Author!" - begin in the distance but then gradually move forward in the mix, as if creeping up on the front couple. Then - just past the six-minute mark as Dee Dee casually emphasises her independence, the bass kicks in, just underlining the sonic threat, until the song closes.

I love this kind of attention to detail, the placing of particular sounds so they help tell the song's story, and it got me musing about 'restraint'. Not all kinds of restraint, of course: musicians can dial their sound down simply by deciding to record with just voice and acoustic guitar, say - sometimes this ends up being (ironically) self-indulgent, other times quite lovely. But that's not really what I mean here. I'm more interested in those situations where groups may well have a dizzying array of forces at their disposal - does a certain amount of decorum about how they deploy those forces lead to excellent work? I think I have ten more examples:

Elvis Costello & the Attractions: 'Beyond Belief'
Even for a Costello song, this is all about the lyrics, one stinging wordplay following another. But the Attractions were one of the finest backing bands ever - giving this track the feel of a coiled spring, again largely through the brilliant work of master drummer Pete Thomas, who seems to do everything except fall into a regular beat.

Roxy Music: 'Mother of Pearl'
This starts off like it might be one of the least restrained records ever. One and a half minutes of mayhem - possibly the remnants of another song re-shaped, who knows? - suddenly grinds to a halt. A lilting hook then begins, and never fundamentally changes for the rest of the song. What makes the song indelible - as if it wasn't catchy enough - is the time it takes to gently flesh itself out. Partly this is due to a really skilful turn from drummer Paul Thompson (spotting a theme here?) Listen to what he's doing at 1:45, and then at around 4.30 - without you really noticing, he's made more of a 'tattoo' from the rhythm and almost single-handedly turned the song funky (something that works through the friction with the unchanging anti-funk of Ferry's vocals and Manzanera's sheets of guitar). Also listen out for the once-only sound effects: Zarathustra's imperious claps, the favourita's castanets, the throwaway kisses... all fleeting moments, unlaboured, unrepeated.

Paul Simon: 'The Cool, Cool River'
As much I love 'Graceland', world music undercurrents lie beneath much of Simon's work and I think on several of his other records they're more successfully integrated: in particular 'The Rhythm of the Saints', which I still suspect has suffered in the public eye having to follow directly after the Big One. This track is a superb example of Simon just relying on little more than the rhythm to buoy up his trademark half-spoken vocals - even with the time-signature changes, the tickering hi-hat sometimes provides our only aural bridge from one bit of the song to the next; then, when at 3.30 or so, we get a blast of brass - almost everything else drops away - and the 'release' is over in seconds as the track fades. Bold in its bare bones.

Pixies: 'Silver'
Noise-monsters Pixies were/are not known for holding back, but on this song they tone down the screaming violence for a spacious eerieness. Significantly, this is the only track on the 'Doolittle' album with any input from Kim Deal, who liked a massive tune and a big riff with the best of them (she wrote one of their most tuneful classics, 'Gigantic'), but who must also have brought out this vein of more subtle darkness - I think you can draw a direct line between this track, for example, and the one-of-a-kind first Breeders album, 'Pod'. The production is a major factor here, too - it allows you to hear how little they play. Twice in the track they let loose a double volley of distorted notes, only to cut them dead on the following beat. As much as I love(d) them (today's Pixies are different, really, even when Kim came back and then went again), I wish they'd explored this avenue a bit further.

Ride: 'Sennen'
'Shoegaze', meanwhile, was restrained in one way (less ego, fewer solos) but staggeringly windy in others - by all means surrender to the elusive perfection of the epic chord... but that way leads to Kevin Shields and his seemingly-pathological quest to nail My Bloody Valentine's sound. (For the record, I like both 'Loveless' and the comeback album 'mbv', but to those of us with normal ears, surely 22 months - not years - could have separated them?) Ride had a swooping, swooning feel before they went on a more retro route (I was recently trying to describe this and came up with "VWROOOSSSHH!" - which possibly needs work). This terrific EP track - now handily available as a bonus on the first album - has a lovely "wait for it!" structure. At 30 seconds or so, you hear the song's key ear-worm - which, in true shoegaze style, is a layered chord with a slight 'turn' in the notes to suggest a hook, culminating in that off-beat strike. This is now nicely set up to be a regular figure, or even a wordless chorus. Instead: nothing. A verse. Then another verse. Then a third verse of sorts - or is it a chorus of some kind. Or what? Then, just after three minutes, it clicks: the final syllable of the lyric is written to chime in perfectly with the original hook, which plays the song out (and the end arrives faster than you might expect). An understated example of how to play one's cards close to one's chest - I almost always play this twice, just to keep hearing that hook a little longer.

Peter Gabriel: 'Only Us'
I sometimes wonder if 'Us' suffers in the way I've already described for 'Rhythm of the Saints'. It directly followed 'So' - although, this being PG, years later - but although it's a weirder and more mature affair, it imitates the earlier album's formula ('Steam', as a kind of 'Sledgehammer'-lite, and the more successful and utterly gorgeous duet, 'Blood of Eden', with Sinead O'Connor stepping in for 'Don't Give Up's Kate Bush). The strange corners of the album have their rewards, though. This track ticks my 'restraint' boxes, partly because I think it's one of the most unhurried songs I've ever heard - but also, for this peculiarity: for around the first four minutes, consider how hard it is to really hear anyone playing anything. I can detect a bit of bass. But the whole atmosphere of the track is abstract, layers of long, disconnected notes that are somehow perfectly harmonious. I can't work out how a musician - someone who knows scales, chords, etc - can start fashioning a song along these lines with barely any melody or propulsion and still make it catchy and addictive. Happy for it to stay that way!

Crowded House: 'Catherine Wheels'
A much-loved band who nevertheless revel in strangeness and unpredictability: even Crowded House's most-adored tunes that have 'connected' with millions - 'Don't Dream it's Over', 'Weather with You' - have a certain clipped detachment to them that it's difficult not to link with Neil Finn's occasional attempts to self-sabotage or fix things that don't always appear to be broken. 'Together Alone' is one of my all-time favourite albums, partly for sentimental reasons (it got me through my finals, and then a couple of years later was the tape I found in the glove compartment, the first time my wife-to-be gave me a lift). Mostly, though, it's the manic White-Album variety-pack track-listing, with their crunchiest rockers ('In My Command', 'Locked Out') next to yearning pop ('Distant Sun') and their loveliest slow tunes ('Private Universe')... all cloaked in a very new production for them, somehow deeper and warmer, more natural and without some of the earlier work's 'cleanliness'. This particular song - several times - pulls back from where you think it might take you. Never rising above a whisper - when the chorus could've easily been fashioned into an anthem - the first verse and chorus fall away, minor, taking you back to the start. Then second time round, the chorus leads into the quietest choral section you've ever (just about) heard - is this the start of a build up? No: more like a new song, with the snaking bass leading you into an entirely new section. Even when there are hints of bounce in the ensuing instrumental, it simply steps aside for a second 'new' verse, before the final fade. Although the various sections 'conclude', they can't be said to truly 'resolve': and this gives the song which, at face value, is simply gentle and beautiful, an unshakable sense of tension - you don't know where it's going, or when ... and why do I feel this way when it's so lovely?

Four Tet: 'This Unfolds'
This has the 'unhurried' feel I get from 'Only Us', but channelled through electronics. As far away from any kind of techno, or even dance, feel - this is head(phones) music. One thing at a time. The beat is your security. For the first two minutes the circling guitar-sound allows you to settle - then it takes a more or less inaudible back seat, as the 'chime' tune takes over. Stunningly, this tune doesn't just start - it coalesces. You can't hear all the pieces at once, until gradually, all the constituent parts are there. Once that's locked, he plays with the beat, removing it, dampening it, not to return until six or minutes are up. You have one continuity thread to follow for most of the tune, but what that might be keeps changing. You don't truly hear the whole 'picture' until the final minute - upon which it all falls away apart from the chime, almost immediately. Machine precision but with the soulfulness of a shy, careful human.

Kate Bush: 'How To Be Invisible'
I'll try not to say too much about this track, as I think it weaves a certain spell. Presumably no-one is more aware of Kate Bush's 'trademarks' than Kate Bush (in summary: she likes to 'let rip' a bit vocally, and her most active period was in parallel with the 80s of big synthy productions) - to me, this song seems to react against those traits deliberately. A confident high note or too appears at the start, and they resurface for a rally near the end. But listen how, over a sly, unfussy backing track, most of this is in Bush's lower register, at times more of a breath. Much of the tune is on a note or two, with even the odd venture up the scale carried out in a muted murmur, the melody seemingly written to suggest her receding, as the title suggests, into the track. Often the song wins: a drum obscuring a syllable, one drop-dead cut, and a final assertive rise from the guitar.

(Handsome Family photo copyright Jason Creps, from the band's website.)

The Handsome Family: 'The Bottomless Hole'
To finish, some terror. The Handsome Family are a married couple, Brett and Rennie Sparks, who - in the songwriting at least - have almost a total division of labour: Rennie writes the words, Brett sets them to music. Rennie, however, is an accomplished short-story writer as well as lyricist, and fashions darkly eerie tales to create a kind of 'Handsome Family Universe' where both Roald Dahl and H.P. Lovecraft would be equally at home. Brett gives these chillers a slow-cooked folk/country setting, underlining the feeling that these fearful stories could have been around forever, awaiting discovery - were it not for the unsettling modern details Rennie sometimes includes. What gives the songs much of their power, however, and the reason they are in this list - is their detachment. A seemingly throwaway line at the start - 'My name I don't remember...' - is gone in seconds, until you suddenly think - 'What would lead to THAT? How's this going to end?' When you eventually realise what's going on - it's not so much what the title gives away, as how the protagonist discovers it - it's an authentically spooky moment that would work purely in a story - let alone the fact it's a song. Sonically, the track refuses to make a fuss, its steady but unrelenting pace crying out doom without giving way. In fact, Handsome Family songs almost never 'build' - no matter what horrors lie within, the music is purely there as an anchor for the words and Brett's voice to work their magic, with an authentic nod to the back-to-basics delivery of old-time ballads. There is one sound effect: it's all you need for the spell to be total. Listen out for it.

* * *
If you can, listen to Juliet Harris's 'Indie Wonderland' show for 2 hours each week of superb tunes - it's a great mix of 'indie greats' back from Peel days, alongside loads of new stuff that I know I'd never get to find out about otherwise.

Home station is Barricade Radio, where Juliet broadcasts the show live from 8-10pm on Wednesday evenings. If you can't listen live, there are two ways to catch up: each show is archived:

(Also worth pointing out that both sites allow you to catch up with Juliet's fortnightly 'Saturday Soulcial' show, too. Wordsmiths among you will note the type of music it features!)

Warmly recommended.

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