Monday, January 11, 2010


Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (2004)

"Imagine Bare Trees-era Fleetwood Mac jamming with Jealous Again-era Black Flag," announced Sonic Youth upon the release of their 19th album, and the comparison holds up pretty well. Although nominally the third in SY's NYC trilogy, Sonic Nurse is altogether more bucolic: loose, rumbling and (for them) unassumingly artless. It cuts back on the feedback and the elongated guitar work-outs, it references BB King and Johnny Winter (no beatniks here), and it's something of a relief to report to no song lasts more than seven-and-half minutes. The best track is the shortest, "Unmade Bed," a somnolent ballad by Thurston Moore which boasts three "All allong the watchtower"-type guitar solos. This straightforward, rockist path came at a price: SY's follow-ups have gone further down it, and are two of the least inspiring records they have released. But this is the best of their major label records, Dirty included.

Streets, Original Pirate Material (2002)

I'm with Woebot - Skinner works better when there's some distance between him and what he's saying. The blank delivery of "Turn the page" and "Has it come to this" is what this record's all about - "bravery in the face of defeat." He became overlooked when that defeat turned to success (the follow-up was largely horrible; I didn't bother with 3 and 4) - bravery in the face of success is rarely an edifying prospect, and never when the success becomes a Nuts pin-up boy. But that line about the Underground ("from Mile End to Ealing, from Brixton to Bounds Green") still sends a warm quiver down my spine. As with other journeys in my life, I made that one back-to-front - but when I did live in Bounds Green, that line made me feel like I belonged.

Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson & D.O.E., "The way I are" (2007)

Romance ain't dead! More bravery in the face of defeat here - "I don't got a huge ol' house, I rent a room in a house ... I ain't got a motorboat but I can float your boat" - but with the conclusion that love'll find a way, which sounds like a victory to me. Especially love the gender-stereotype challenge in the chorus.

Tricky, "Bacative," "Council estate" (2008)

Stand by what I wrote last year: "the jaded voice of Rodigan blankly recalling a night of violence in the casino, the inaudible croak of Tricky choking and echoing into nothing, an untouchable girl’s voice chanting 'There’s no exit, I can’t stand still, keep on running'" + "an ecstatic portrayal of the vicious circle of life of a kid born into an estate". The rest of the album - not so sure. But these two are keepers.

Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering (2005)

Instantly takes me back to the wyrdness of a rural childhood, circa 1987 - the knowing boy, losing himself in gardens where lime trees have fallen and tiles have slid from the roofs. Even the plucked nylon-string guitars recall a post-hippie primary school. A sublime British folk album, as good as any I can think of.

Vybz Kartel, "Sweet to the belly" (2003)

I read about Vybz Kartel / Adidja Palmer in a review; he has made one song which I enjoyed at the time and remain utterly seduced by; and I shall probably never hear anything by again. I'm glad dancehall exists of course, and reggaeton too, but they are genres which are destined to sink beneath the glut of other genres I'm slightly more interested in. But still, "Sweet to de belly" is pretty special. Palmer shares his shtick with R Kelly, so teeming with testesterone and bravado that it's very difficult to get offended by it (except when the egotism of sleeping with as many men's women as possible steps over into rampant homophobia, as I understand happens elsewhere). But it's the music that accompanies this comic bullshit that really grabs the attention: ambient, miasmic, sinewy like Aaliyah's "We need a resolution," with a formlessness that is only bent into any sort of structure by Palmer's forthright, perfectly timed delivery.

Warrior Queen + Heatwave, "Things change" (2008)

It's apt that this ended up on An England Story, Soul Jazz's round-up of how Jamaican people and styles have shaped British music, for this fantastically lively and clever track is nothing less than the 21st century resurrection of "Cockney Translation," a track which confirms that multiracialism is at heart of Britain's musical (not to mention lyrical) vitality. The piano riff which Warrior Queen (aka Wendy Culture - a relative of Smiley?) toasts over sounds made for this track, but in fact it has been expertly scalpeled from a prog-soul track, Courtial's "Losing You," lost from the 70s (and has that heavy synth riff at the end been pinched from 2 Unlimited?). Torn between the poverty of her old new and the struggle of her new home ("London no bed a' rose"), Warrior Queen tells a story which sounds as English as anything ever could.

Wiley, Treddin' on thin ice (2004)

The rest of the world became thoroughly and uncomfortably globalised in the Noughties - tabloids and politicians celebrated the debt-financed growth generated by the exploitation of cheap labour overseas, and slammed anybody who dared to move to the UK for a better life. But amidst this breaking down of borders, grime took the opposite path. Localised to the point of being postcode-based, its sounds and concerns reflected microcosms of life on a particular street or estate: a minigenre created in E3 would be at odds with another in E1. Wiley was the Don of the movement, creating "eskibeat" as a minimalist soundtrack to life in the abandoned East End. Although released a year after "Boy in da Corner," this contains all the elements that made grime (albeit intermittently) the scene of the decade, at least in London: the avant-gardely stark beats, the barely melodic shards and stabs of keyboards that made up grime's riff, the extreme pop nous ("Special Girl," liable to be overlooked among other, "realer" tracks, turns SWV's "That's what I need" into a thing of spectral clarity) and the philosophy of standing tall, refusing to be beaten down. As a lyricist and MC, Wiley is Dizzee's inferior, but musically he is the pioneer, and one of the most important artists of the Noughties.

The XX, The XX (2009)

Neither passive, aggressive nor passive-aggressive, this debut from colleagues of Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet is the indie album of the decade because it disavows the overwrought conformism of that lumpen mass-movement. The last verse of "Crystallised," where Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim plead with each other in such subtly different voices that you fear the impasse in their relationship can never be broken, is a revelation. The bounce and click of "Islands" is near-perfect. Both shy and combative, their concerns with the dialectic of the interior and exterior, the mind and the body, are drenched in an amniotic sound of stop-start rhythm tracks and geometrically precise guitar equations which help their hesitant, claustrophobic stories to breathe.

Yo Majesty, "Club action" (2008)

Standard Christian-lesbian-Alanis-Morrisette-loving crunk fare - until about 1 minute in, that is, when the intermittent springy slapbass and cheap bouncy keyboards turn it into the lovechild of Liquid Liquid and ESG. People call it punk, but if so, it's punk like ATV - a flash in the pan, amateurish, apolitical, refusing to get with the programme. Their debut LP is flimsy, their live show in London this year a non-event. But watch the video for "Club action," and all is forgiven.

Zomby, Where were U in '92? (2008)

Zomby evokes rave by highlighting its signifiers (klaxons, hi-NRG diva vocals, samples of Cappella and Bizarre Inc), but this is no mere crash-course in a defunct genre. He approaches rave through the eyes of its offspring in the present, which shares much of the anonymised collectivity of the early 80s. The throbbing, insistent "Need ur lovin'" is texturally influenced by dubstep and two-step, and "Pillz" is a glitchy tribute to the Ying Yang Twins. But the highlight, where the past folds in on the present, is the album's closing track, where voices and effects from Super Street Fighter II Turbo are overlaid onto a sleepily-recalled sample of Baby D's "Let me be your fantasy" (itself a crucial turning point in the hardcore continuum, with the commercial imperative of massive, blissed out pianos and a hands-in-the-air chorus jar with an ultra-deep middle section). All that's missing is Zombie's true masterpiece, the Rustie remix of "Spliff Dub", which you can find on Youtube.


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