Monthly Archives: April 2013

Phoenix – Alphabetical (2004) / Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)

phoenixWhen I reviewed Alphabetical for Stylus a decade ago (a decade!) I littered the piece with references to Guy Debord; Situationist, Marxist, and author of the revolutionary 60s text The Society of the Spectacle, which basically posits the idea that society is going to hell in a handbasket because authentic social life has been replaced with its own representation, because relationships between commodities have replaced relationships between people, because of “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”. As a third year undergraduate studying postmodern theory and writing essays about online communications I found it scintillating, terrifying, and prescient.

13 years from first encountering them, and every day in every way I feel like Debord’s ideas are being born out more and more. God knows what he’d have made of the internet. Imagine how he’d react to Buzzfeed. It doesn’t matter what you are, or even what you do; it only matters what people think they see you do. Online, it doesn’t even matter that people see you do anything; they only need to come across the digital ripples in your wake.

Where the hell does a French indiepop band fit into this?

I’m not entirely sure. I like Phoenix, a lot, but they walk a tightrope and occasionally fall of it for various reasons. I love their pointillist arrangements and non-sequiturs, their breezy lightheadedness, machine-tooled precision, English-as-a-second-language sense of ‘otherness’, and hook-friendly, sophistipop approach to songwriting.

I don’t like Phoenix when they’re trying to be an indie band and chugging at guitars, when they mix and master their records aggressively and end up sounding dreadful. It’s Never Been Like That isn’t on this list because the opening track pumps the guitars out of the way like a Daft Punk record, and sounds dreadful for it, and the deliberately sloppy approach to the rest of the album really does not suit them. Bankrupt! almost certainly wont end up on the ‘noughteenies’ equivalent of this list because it rams all the synths into the red for no reason. United doesn’t get onto this list because it’s simply too inconsistent; two great singles, a lovely ballad, and various stylistic deviations which go nowhere fast.

Thankfully, though Alphabetical and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix don’t exactly sound like Scott Walker records in terms of the pure sonics, they both deploy arrangements that seem to make the most of what they’re doing. If I was to try and assign a USP to Alphabetical to differentiate it from other Phoenix albums, I might say it’s their R&B album; it’s certainly the record where they seem most informed by early 00s hip hop and R&B sounds and techniques, and as such it’s loud but bearable like a Neptunes production; each element has oodles of space around it temporally, if not spacially.

As a result it sounds experimental in the same way as the first side of Low by Bowie does; i.e. that the songs are still ‘pop’ songs, built of hooks, catchy, singable, hummable, but they also sound like the result of experiments; asking “can we do this?” and seeing what comes out of the other end. The question asked may have been “can we run an indiepop song through a filter of R&B shapes, sounds, and precision”, and if it was, I’m glad. It’s got signifiers of delicacy and urgency, intimacy and encompassing reach, and it works amazingly well.

Likewise Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix keeps arrangements incredibly taut and hooks almost unbearably tightly packed. And what hooks; from the opening seconds it’s a barrage of blinking riffs and catchy choruses. If I was assigning USPs again, then it’s their *pop* record. Except that all their records are *pop*, of course.

Back to Debord: if there’s a nagging doubt about Phoenix it’s that they’re all surface, no feeling, as the Manic Street Preachers might put it. A whole bunch of signifiers and no signified. The short-sighted sonic approach to some of their records, despite their seeming perfectionism, weighs as evidence as far as I’m concerned. They work with fashion designers, marry moviemakers, literally sing in a language that isn’t their own, and (when it comes to drummers, at the least) bring in session musicians to do the actual work while they take the credit. But they’re so good to listen to, to sing along with mindlessly as you cruise down the sun-drenched highway. Debord would have a field day with them.


Bows – Cassidy (2001)

bows-cassidyLong Fin Killie are, to me at least, the great lost band of the 90s. Supple, subtle, and progressive, the Scottish post-rockers fired out three glorious records in three short years during the mid-90s, and then disintegrated. Bows was the next musical project embarked upon by their leader, Luke Sutherland, who sadly probably remains most famous for occasionally playing violin and guitar with Mogwai; his own bands are far more musically interesting to me. (He’s also written three novels, as if he didn’t have enough creative talent already.)

Where Long Fin Killie were a definite band in the classic four-piece mould – guitar, bass, drums, voice – even if what they did with those ingredients was well outside the spectrum of most guitar rock, Bows were something else; a loose collective, perhaps, an entity that people pass through and contribute to, Sutherland and friends experimenting and creating together, calling on whomever could help realise an idea best.

So Bows features singers Signe Høirup Wille-Jørgensen and Ruth Emond, former Long Fin Killie bassist Colin Greig, Duncan Brown (briefly of Stereolab), drummers Pete Flood and Howard Monk (from Billie Mahoney), and guitarist Debbie Smith (Curve, Echobelly, Snowpony) as well as Sutherland himself, who is credited as playing guitar, violin, 808, ‘Gizmo’, and ‘Machines’, whatever those last two mean.

The sound Bows make could be read, and dismissed, pretty easily as nothing more than post-trip-hop, with the shared, sensual sumptuous male-female vocals and dance-derived beats. But there’s an intense musicality and deep intelligence here, as there was with Long Fin Killie, which makes whatever it is they’re doing worth considerably more to my ears. The songs are impressionistic, eschewing easy choruses and obvious beats, instead favouring long builds and luxurious releases, swirling half-grooves that displace you and tease your senses.

“Cuban Welterweight Rumbles Hidden Hitmen” is nothing more than Signe’s voice and licks of Sutherland’s guitar, whilst “B Boy Blunt” takes a slew of DJ Shadow-esque beats and breathy, distracted vocals, and pulverises them beneath huge crunches of guitar. “Luftsang”, “Ali 4 Onassis” and “Man Fat” are luscious, brooding concoctions, with stabs of deep bass, waves of shimmering guitars, string loops and drums that could almost be jazz. “Wonderland” is almost a dub take on shoegaze, endlessly subdued rolls and shimmering horizons decorated with quasi-drum’n’bass fills.

I came to Bows through Cassidy after being obsessed with Long Fin Killie in the early 00s; like so many records I discovered at that time it was via fleeting mentions on I Love Music and follow-up research at AllMusic; I’d read up on things during quiet moments in the library during the morning, then rush into town and buy them during my lunchbreak, or download them in the evening if they were hard to find. I have little sense of what opinion is regarding Bows, or Cassidy in particular, in the outside world, and I don’t much care.

Cassidy is an incredibly indulgent, enveloping record. If some music is made for dancing, some for rioting, some for listening closely to and yet some more for singing along in the car with or doing the dishes to, then it’s quite possible that Bows made music for making love to. It certainly seems, like My Bloody Valentine, to capture a certain type of distracted sensuality. I don’t play it when I’m in the company of anybody but my wife.

Margaret Thatcher RIP

I know next to nothing about my dad’s parents; it’s only in the last few years that I’ve learnt what my granddad did for a job – he made tools in a Sheffield steel factory. This sits at odds with what I know about my dad, and what I understand about politics, because in the late 80s and early 90s my dad was a Tory councillor. We’d moved south to Devon as a family a couple of years before I was born (just days after Thatcher came into power), and my dad worked in sales; initially he sold caravans, but in the early 90s during the recession he was made redundant. I remember, as an 11 or 12 year old, how odd it seemed when my dad started walking me to the school bus in the mornings rather than driving himself to work. I didn’t really understand what was going on, I don’t think.

A few months later he got a new job, managing sales accounts with a clay company. We’ve never properly discussed politics, but I’ve always felt, intrinsically, that the Tories were just wrong, that Thatcher was uncaring and dangerous, and I didn’t understand how my dad was one of them. I assume the fact that we moved south was an aspirational thing, wanting a better life for your family, and in the 70s, during high inflation and the winter of discontent and strikes, if you wanted better for your family, you were a Tory, perhaps.

In early May 1997 I remember James, Matt and I running to the newsagent one Friday morning and buying all the papers, and rejoicing that we had a new government, because we could remember nothing else. 16 years later we all own our own homes (or the mortgages on them, at any rate), we’re all married, we’ve all been to university, we’ve all done OK for ourselves, one way and another. We thought it was a new world order. We thought things would be brilliant. None of us can complain about the way our lives have gone, and yet…

I was the first person at work to hear about Thatcher dying, and I went down the corridor and told people. Most people seemed faintly pleased. One seemed very pleased. I work at a university, after all. I always used to vote Liberal Democrat, tactically, because Labour wasn’t an option where I lived and we desperately wanted the Tories out. I remember being jealous of people who were two weeks older than me and so could vote in 1997 and be a part of getting her legacy out.

I’m not celebrating Thatcher’s passing. As my wife said in an email earlier today, “It kind of doesn’t matter whether she’s alive or dead. She did the damage many years ago.” And, actually, Cameron and Osborne and Duncan-Smith and Boris and the rest of them are still doing damage, wreaking havoc on public services, dismantling the NHS without people realising, letting the markets run free whilst encouraging people to hate the poor. People who are better writers and thinkers than me have covered this in far more lucid detail and reason than I am here; as usual I’m just solipsistically splurging feelings. I feel that Thatcher helped to make this country a worse place in many, many ways. I’m sure she must have done some good, somewhere, for some people. Shakespeare wrote “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is often interred with their bones.” The media seldom lets the good be interred with the bones when public figures of Thatcher’s stature die; Jimmy Savile is a lone public figure to have been thoroughly excoriated in death, and deservedly so. Let’s not forget that Thatcher and Savile were allies. Ken Livingstone was thrown off Sky News today for daring to blame her for some of this country’s current ills.

The overriding emotion I have regarding Thatcher’s death is one of paranoia, that people will see her death as symbolic of something, a changing of times, a death of an ethos, and that the current government will continue with their work, which is in many ways, it seems to me, Thatcher’s legacy (as was Blair’s work, by and large, which is why the 17-years-and-355-days-year-old me from May 1997 feels cheated and lied to). There is no point wasting energy dancing abut Thatcher’s demise whilst Britain is dismantled for the sake of the rich and powerful.