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30 August 2017

Human Investment (Rotten Propaganda)

I didn't remember this was in my vinyl accumulation; ah, the glorious days of the late 90s punk/hardcore scene. I was always a fly on the wall here (or fly in the ointment?), discovering this subculture in my own hometown and finding it equally curious in terms of lifestyle/community as with the actual music. These people lived in big houses and spoke a shared language built around historically overlooked (by the mainstream music press) records from the 80s and had their own weird Xeroxed cookbooks and a whole code of ethics that was more inviting than intimidating. I remembered this being a long record of thick, dense songs that were almost prog-leaning in their duration and parts, but my memory was wrong. It's really a mini-LP, eight songs that are certainly dense and thick but not particularly long; there aren't any solos or long instrumental sections here, just hardcore delivered between mid-tempo and fast, and totally angry. Human Investment was a local 'supergroup' and this record is all they have left us; it was a side project for everyone involved, though they were popular and certainly had the pedigree. I know I saw them live once, but I can't remember where or when. I wish I remembered enough about the hardcore field of the time to be able to situate their musical stylings in relation to the other names of the time: Born Against, In/Humanity, Assfactor 4. Guitarist Dan Goldberg tends to favour minor interval riffs, and when he switches instruments with bassist Andy Wright, his bass playing takes an active, riffy element under Wright's more wall-of-noise guitar shredding. The dominating figure is vocalist Dave Trenga of Aus-Rotten, who wrote the majority of the lyrics and delivers them in that ridiculous-if-you-think-about-it hardcore delivery style, where they are mostly unintelligible without the accompanying lyric sheet. Trenga's approach is interesting, or perhaps quotidian - he's throaty and angry but it doesn't veer towards metal as so much hardcore is always tempted to. I would describe his approach to phrasing as 'whatever makes it fit', and while there's often rhyming couplets, the concept of metre is completely jettisoned. Do you like topical? Cause Human Investment tackles the death penalty, corporate media, the American two party system, imperialism, prescription drug addiction, hunger, nationalism, and veganism. I'm amazed at how there can be so many words without saying anything really concrete, just outrage and slogans. This isn't anything against Trenga personally, but a product of the genre; no one comes to records with artwork like this seeking nuance and introspection. There are samples from films or other media where appropriate (particularly chilling before 'Capital Punishment', under which the musicians improvise an apocalyptic soundscape before the song starts properly) which is another product of the time, and one that I sort of miss. I'll never understand why hardcore records from this time are recorded so poorly; this is an 8-track recording done by a competent engineer so it's probably as good as it could sound, but these records are always muddy and murky. I guess the genre is partially responsible - Human Investment, like many of their ilk, weren't exactly interested in creating space in their songs, and the mix is always loud and thick. I know for a fact that these guys used nice tube amplifiers, yet somehow it still sounds like scratchy solid state, the rich dynamic of a powerful band being somewhat dampened by the compression of the recording. The songs have hooks buried in them  ('A Life For Meat' is bouncy and almost sing-along) but like the artwork, forever black and white, there isn't enough colour in the songcraft. Still, it's more than a curiosity and was fun to revisit; maybe in a few years I'll try again and see if it ages like a fine wine.

23 August 2017

Howlin' Wolf (MCA/Chess)

Re-released posthumously after his death, this second Howlin' Wolf record is one of those classics that has the iconic cover and the iconic sound, and I'm not sure what I can write here that would really do the record justice. If this project is in many ways about my personal feelings on a record and my relationship to it (which is certainly more interesting than hearing someone write about how great Pet Sounds is for the 60000th time, I hope) then I have little to say here. Every time I have ever played this record, which is culled from a bunch of disparately recorded singles between 1957 and 1961, I've enjoyed it immensely. And that's all I can really say about it - I like Howlin' Wolf, really who doesn't? - but he's never been someone I made a personal connection to. His voice was always what I latched onto, but listening today I'm really appreciating the space in the recordings and how, for 'electric blues', they really take their time to get places. 'The Red Rooster' is barely there, shuffling along with guitar bursts only as Mr. Wolf seemed to feel like it; it's Hubert Sumlin who I think does the really sharp leads on most of this record, and some of them are pretty fucking cutting. 'Wang-Dang Doodle' is the obligatory dirty sex entendre that all late 50s blues records have (well, that and 'Back Door Man' and probably all of the other cuts too), and on this the repetition of the rhythm section is remarkable, as they seem to hang back from the 12 bar progression or at least give it a pleasantly monotonous feel. 'Spoonful' has a real trashcan sound, again quite spacious and the surface noise from this repress might as well be part of the mix, as I couldn't imagine this without it. Surely for as much as I'm a fan of Captain Beefheart I must recognise Wolf's influence on him vocally - there's parts on this record where his vibrato is so extreme that it sounds like he must be singing into a piece of waxed paper. I'm also really into the piano playing on this record, which is noodly, all upper register, and sometimes just a series of trills punctuating between the 12 bars. It's true that this is definitively 'urban' in comparison to the 'country blues'/pre-war sound that is so collectible, and I don't think it's just because the instruments are electrified - there's something about the feel, like you can imagine the hot city air when it was recorded, and maybe it's just the group nature as opposed to a solo artist. So yeah, I've just done the exact thing I said I wouldn't do - blandly described this record instead of trying to find a personal connection to it. My father's record collection is all either classical music or blues from this style/era, though I'm not sure if he's a Howlin' Wolf fan or not. I guess there's a feeling of some sort of connection to him when listening to this, though it's a grasp, to be honest. Actually, listening to this makes me think of Little Howlin' Wolf, whose music has little to do with this besides the name but is truly indescribable and (I think) inspiring - but we're still a looooong way from the Ls. And by the way, this is the 500th post!

The Housemartins - 'London 0 Hull 4' (Go Discs)

When I lived in the UK (about a decade ago), Kingston-upon-Hull was the punchline of the entire country, a once-respectable Yorkshire city that had fallen into such decline that it had become synonymous with the idea of hopeless post-Thatcher devastation. One could apparently buy a flat in the city centre for as low as £20,000, and I often suggested that it should be colonised by weirdo artist types since it was affordable and (I assumed, probably incorrectly) somewhat lawless. I didn't know what I was talking about then, so Hull became some sort of symbol to me. I understand that things have picked up somewhat since then, making Hull if not exactly a hotspot of Northern culture certainly an option for people looking to set out and create their own universe. I'd be curious to visit now, as I've only ever driven through the city en route to Zeebrugge (by ferry) and it looked like an interesting place. Certainly it's produced a fair share of notable musicians over the years - Throbbing Gristle, Mick Ronson, Luke Poot, Aby Vulliamy - and of course the Housemartins. Now I suspect they're almost forgotten, just a footnote to the career of bassist Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim aka a million other things, or the precursor to the Beautiful South, a band I never listened to but always imagined were pretty good. This is 1986, the year of the famous C-86 compilation which the Housemartins are not on, but could be. This is indie music with a folky, white soul edge, and the band was aggressively independent and aggressively socialist. The inner sleeve contains some handwritten words to inspire the masses, with 'Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope' at the bottom, and these are the majority of the lyrical themes. 'Flag Day' is the most memorable song, an anti-patriotic ballad which stretches Paul Heaton's voice to its most emotive, drawn over it's slow pace. It's probably the classic cut from the album but it's not my favourite - I prefer the Housemartins when they're more uptempo, such as 'We're Not Deep' or 'Get Up Off Our Knees'; the latter is a stomping attack on the ruling class, with the necessary inspirational chorus that makes pop music great. The Housemartins lyrics are a little bit superficial, but thats not really a problem - it's probably one of the reasons this record ages so well. And maybe that's what 'We're Not Deep' is about, but the anger is cut with a healthy dose of sunshine (and some ba-ba-bas). London 0 Hull 4 (a great title, though illogical, since there is no football team just called 'London', and the score would be more accurately written as 'London 0 - 4 Hull' anyway, a nice away win for Hull City A.F.C, unless it just refers to the number of musicians from Hull vs the number from London) definitely sounds like it's from the 80s, but the decay of the North is felt more than explicitly discussed, and there's a driving optimism throughout. 'Happy Hour', which bears a bit of resemblance to 'Sheep' (and each start the two sides of the record), is another unforgettable pop song, though over the years I've enjoyed it (about 20 now) I never have been clear what it's about - a female immigrant bartender putting up with sexual harassment is my best guess. A cover of 'Lean on Me' (but not the Bill Withers tune, another one) and 'Flag Day' are the only two really slow songs, and thus where the soul aspect comes out the most, and these white Northerners are pretty convincing. The piano playing on 'Lean on Me' particularly exemplifies this, as it leans into the dramatic builds and Heaton's soaring voice reveals a depth not often found in late 80s British jangle-pop. There's not a dud on London 0 Hull 4 and I always think this surpassed their followup album, with the brilliant name The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, though weirdly I've never found a cheap copy of that so we'll have to move past it.

21 August 2017

Hotlegs ‎– 'You Didn't Like It Because You Didn't Think Of It' (Philips)

I think it was 10cc we started this whole thing with, way back in 2008, but Hotlegs is where 10cc started and I've always loved this collection, in whichever form it might be packaged. I'm not completely clear on the recording lineage, and if this is everything recorded under the Hotlegs name or these are alternate versions or whatnot. I know the proper album release had the amazing title Hotlegs Thinks School Stinks and, come to think of it, Hotlegs is an amazing band name, but so was Frabjoy and the Runcible Spoon and they never really made it out of the gates. You can totally hear the early genius of these guys here, and just because they can master pop-rock production and songwriting with heavy traces of irony doesn't make them a novelty act. I mean, sure, 'Neanderthal Man' is the classic example of the British one-hit wonder generated by a studio team, but 'Fly Away' actually touches me and 'How Many Times' was the followup single that should have even been a bigger hit. I'm not a diehard Godley/Creme fan (and let's not discount Stewart who was also equal partners here and in 10cc) but I know spatterings of their career and there's so much joy here, as in How Dare You, as in L. Some of the songs here are less memorable - not exactly throwaway, but more like genre romps with a weird twist ('The Loser' and 'Desperate Dan' for example) – and of course it's a long way from the experimentation that Godley and Creme specifically would get into later (I've never braved Consequences but maybe I should try it). I'm a sucker for power pop made by weird nerdy white guys (which I guess is all power pop) and Hotlegs has it in spades. Hotlegs, even more than 10cc, loved the thick acoustic guitar strum with soaring vocals overtop, and the three-song 'Suite F.A.' which closes this record makes great use of that technique. This is not about the English Football Association (sadly) but some epic quest story of someone going off somewhere and then returning. It's all done vaguely enough that you could read anything into it, so maybe we could imagine it to be about the football FA if we think it's about a young centre-half off to get his first cap for his country and then going back to play for his second division side after. Oh, I'll even defend 'Neanderthal Man', because you can hear how it was made by fucking around in a studio one night with a leftover drum beat; it's the 'Rock and Roll (part 2)' of its day but I don't feel icky hearing it because it wasn't made by padeophiles (as far as I know). Great, great stuff; proof one can indulge in irony without the resulting product being an empty shell of phoniness, without being a joke. 

19 August 2017

The Hospitals - 'Hairdryer Peace' (no label)

Sonic Youth already released an album called Washing Machine, but that's a more apt household appliance than a hairdryer for reflecting the music of the Hospitals. The floor tom is the most prominently used drum and it's used in a way that sounds like when you accidentally put a shoe in your washing machine and it bangs around on every rotation; it's not quite the same as Moe Tucker, as it's usually supporting a thick wall of mid-range distortion, which I guess could describe White Light/White Heat which is definitely an antecedent, but, no, it sounds like something else. I don't know anything about these guys but vaguely remembered this record getting a bit of buzz when it came out, so I grabbed a secondhand copy for a few bucks when I saw it and don't think I ever listened to it until now. I'm not sure if the Hospitals were connected to the American noise underground or the garage underground, as the sound is halfway in-between. The fidelity is terrible, but there's a commitment to that terribleness that is somehow admirable and it makes this a compelling listen - well, that and that there are some well above-average song structures behind it all. It took a few songs to emerge - at first I thought this was the missing link between Wolf Eyes and the Not Not Fun/Night People style of homemade lo-fi psych. But then 'Rules For Being Alive' came on, a prominently surf-influenced song that made me guess a few things right - that they're a west coast band (hard not to be when you sound like this), that they might have some connection to Sic Alps (Discogs tells me that Mike Donovan was once a member), and that this record was made far more carefully than it might sound at first listen. The lyrics are clear and audible in places and seem to usually describe getting high, fear, or other states of altered consciousness. Everything else is really buried but it's a pleasure to pick things out; these guys step on the DOD pedals always a bit too early and there's some great vocal sea/sweeps, like if Phil Spector blew his budget on rancid tacos and had to make do with what he could. This is so obviously made for a cassette release which makes the vinyl pressing beautiful and ridiculous at the same time, and there's some really catchy songs ('Scan the Floor for Food', 'BPPV') if you can strain through it. Somehow while listening to this I smelled burnt charcoal, felt a musty wind, and kept thinking of The Bachs. Yet the ragged nature keeps this from being a retro trip, and like many great records it feels like an amalgamation of many underground rock currents circa 2008, when this was recorded. I'm not saying it's the Deceit of its day, but it's an exemplary case of white Dionysia of the time and I think it will stand up to future scrutiny.

Hugh Hopper - 'Hopper Tunity Box' (Compendium)

The catalogue number on this record is 'FIDARDO 7', what does that mean? A few years after 1984 we find Hopper leading a band through a number of compositions that much more closely resemble the jazz-rock fusion which Soft Machine was known for– especially at this point in time (1977). There's still elements of the warbly, underwater vibe of 1984 here, especially on the second half. The high point is a cover of 'Lonely Woman', which is undercut with an uncertain echo - a real beauty of a track, and the main reason I hold onto this record. There's even a reprise of 'Miniluv', the opening cut from 1984, though it doesn't resemble the original in any way, thanks to the fleshed out band - Gary Windo, Mike Travis on drums, a little Mark Charig (but not enough!), fellow Soft Machiner Elton Dean on sax, and some hot piano/organ playing by Dave Stewart or Frank Roberts, depending on the track. The fusion numbers aren't amazing but they're fine, which is how I feel about post-Third Soft Machine for the most part. Dean and Charig play nice together when they're there; 'The Lonely Sea and the Sky' is a lovely composition with a nice, rolling vibe. 'Gnat Prong' is a hard rocker, akin to Area at their most bombastic. No vocals, and good production, so it's a nice example of the era, while being somewhat forgotten against the bigger names and main projects from this scene. I somehow ended up with a lot of records that have this style/sound, far more than anyone should own, and while I like progressive rock (in theory) I far prefer the tracks here that use 'progressive rock' as a starting point rather than an example. I think there's a reason people will hunt down copies of 1984 but there's not much interest in Hopper Tunity Box.

2 August 2017

Hugh Hopper - '1984' (CBS)

'This is a very angry record,' starts the liner notes, though I don't really hear it - I hear something exploratory, cautious, and with great moments of drama. Maybe Hopper's found a way to process anger, to work with it and churn it into something beyond piercing bile. Hopper's the bassist from Soft Machine and on this first solo record he really goes into the outer limits, taking the (then-)sci-fi theme of 1984 as a starting point and really running off to create something otherworldly. There's a lot to be said about CBS releasing a record this experimental in 1973 - all of this from the corporation who would later bring you Kevin Can Wait! Hopper spends most of this record attacking his bass guitar from a gestalt angle, generating soundscapes with additional percussion and something called a mellophone. The long, moody opener 'Miniluv' sets the tone, consisting of deep bass drones that slowly explore the available space - it's a track very rooted in physical existence, reminding me of Maryanne Amacher's drone installation pieces, or something that would be on the French Futura label in the same decade. The second side's 'Miniplenty', also a long one at 18 minutes, picks up where this leaves off and incorporates some weird percussive sounds. There was an occasional twitchy, staticky sound that kept making me jump, mixed in a way suggesting that there's something happening on the other side of my flat and not in the record itself. It's a great effect and it adds to the nervousness of the buildup, which eventually gets resolved at the end of the record in a cacophony of sounds. There's some thick synth riffs, sound a bit like square waves, and other parts that you swear could be lifted from a Wolf Eyes cd-r circa 2004. There's only one track which stops this from being a total new age, dark psychedelic abstraction from start to finish, and that's 'Minipax I', which resembles a bit of a jazz-rock thing. It's not bad and has some sharp soprano saxophone playing by Lol Coxhill, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. I don't know if this was pressure from CBS to make something that would be more palatable to Soft Machine fans (and could actually be played on the radio) or if Hopper really wanted to include this - the same band works out more extended techniques later. And I suppose the only thing that makes it so identifiably 'jazz-rock' is that the instruments sound like the traditional instruments they are, and not like a Heldon outtake; as a composition I guess you could say it fits the mood of the record, with crunchy guitar chords and a slightly motorik beat. It's a minor quibble; 1984 is a great fucking record and doesn't really need those few extra minutes but they're not without their pleasures.