Monday, 3 December 2012

Beck - Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney's)

Beck Song Reader

Beck is releasing his new ‘album’, Song Reader, as sheet music.

As far as I can tell – I haven’t seen it but obviously that’s not going to stop me opining about it - the collection of song sheets will be beautifully designed, printed and packaged in perfect faux-antique/just-a-hint-of-a-wink-to-modernity style; a lovely, well-crafted object that will delight and amuse.

I’m ambivalent about this: viewing the world through sepia-tinted glasses isn’t my cup of Darjeeling and Beck’s choice of aesthetic only lends credence to those who think that the whole enterprise is horribly elitist/twee/smug/precious/backwards-looking and is more about gimmickry than experimentation.

It won’t help that it’s co-published by McSweeney's, the US literary quarterly/publishing company run by the writer Dave Eggers, Beck’s collaborator in this project. There’s a good case to be made that Eggers’ enthusiastic cottage industry of a magazine was the spark that set off the whole art-as-artefact, tweedgeek, retro-worship some years back; all that lauding of craftsmanship, quality, limited editions... none of which are bad things per se, obviously, but what it's led to isn't all good either, politically or aesthetically. Enough of fixed-gear bikes and wicker baskets: where did the future go? Is everyone settling for the pretence of a nebulous golden age rather than fighting to make a badly-needed new future? How does the fetishisation of marketable product - the limited print runs, the limited access – fit in a world of financially valueless, infinitely shareable digital files? Where’s the liberation, where’s the progress, where’s the shine? (Plus, isn’t this precisely one of those things white folk just love to do and write about as if nothing much else existed outside our bubble of cosy joy?)

Oh, who am I kidding?! I’d love to get my hands on a copy of Song Reader; I’ll get over my privileged discomfort. Sod reverse snobbery: mmm, pretty packaging!

According to a recent interview with The Guardian this was a seriously long-term project for Beck; he started thinking about it before the internet age, before MP3 were zipping across the globe, before the music industry as we know it juddered on its foundations with the realisation that the window of opportunity for making money from music by selling it on vinyl or plastic had begun and ended within the space of a century and a half. That particular paradigmatical ship had sunk. Of course, before then music could be sold on paper: back when every aspirational household had a piano to play rather than a radio or a record player if you wanted music, you played it yourself. And before the words cheap and mass-produced were pejoratives, intricately printed song sheets just like the Beck’s used to sell in their hundreds of thousands. Beautiful things don’t need to be small scale.

(There’s no point even trying to measure the relative moral, cultural or even goddamn psychological worth of the way music was consumed then and now; writing it, playing it, dancing to it, sharing it; concert-going or mix-tape-making or streaming or 7-inch shopping or humming it on yer paper-round: different ways and means of playing with music have their virtues and drawbacks. People were huffing and puffing just as much about the awfulness and moral turpitude of the gramophone - how it would kill music and ruin families - when it was first manufactured for home use, just as they did about home-taping not so long ago and do now about file-sharing… Change is inevitable but it certainly rattles cages, usually with solid financial reason.)

Beck Song Reader
Personalizing and even ignoring the arrangements is encouraged. Don’t feel beholden to what’s notated. Use any instrument you want to. Change the chords; rephrase the melodies. Keep only the lyrics, if desired. Play it fast or slow, swung or straight. Take a song and make it an instrumental or an a cappella. Play it for friends, or only for yourself. These arrangements are starting-off points; they don’t originate from any definitive recording or performance.” (Beck Hansen, Song Reader)
What Beck’s doing is lifting an old model and plonking it down in the 21st Century and seeing what happens, a kind of Borgesian experiment of form and consequence. What will it do to the songs? To the audience? To the industry? To the dissemination of the music? What is a song if it doesn’t appear as a finished package, with everything already in place? Who does it belong to?

If you publish a song as a blueprint, you can’t rely on tone, noise, interpretation, musicianship, arrangements, voice or presence to make it what it is; it has to be incredibly well-wrought, fit to survive the most execrable rendition. As Beck said in The Guardian, it “was a very disciplined process… It was like putting an X-ray or a magnifying glass on your own songwriting – it's right there, its weaknesses glaring”. You might be able to get a genius recording out of just feedback and howls but writing sheet music is a different art altogether.

Beck's contrariness is pretty appealing; whether it's enough to counter the argument that Song Reader is self-indulgent and elitist and will only sell to privileged aesthete-bores and those few (outside the classical world) who still know how to read music is another story.
Well, the internet changes the game entirely. It throws out a challenge to the whole world, opens that niche market wide, and, with PDFs of the pages already circulated for free, makes it a mass-participatory, exciting, collaborative, evolving global project. It's no longer limited to those people who buy the pretty package. The songs are already being recorded, shared, listened to; videos being made and uploaded and commented on. There are concerts planned, with chamber orchestras and ukulele bands. Versions are informing other versions, changing the way the songs are heard and are interpreted in a marvellous, unpredictable feedback loop of ideas. That, to my mind, is not retrogressive, despite my reservations about the craft-snob monster McSweeney's spawned.

"I want to hear how far away they are from the original way they were written," Beck told The Guardian. "I can play them live, but I'm more interested to hear what people do with them.” Yes. Me too. I want to see dubstep versions, versions played on stylophones and on trumpets; I want kids to have a go, Mongolian throat singers and cellists and pop divas. Never mind the staff of the New Yorker playing 'Old Shanghai' surprisingly well, I want to hear Beck songs played by elephants and by wind sculptures and London taxi cabs. Make it so!

I think he’s done something beautiful. Generous. Trusting. Democratic. Humble (this is no way to make a fortune). I admire the fact he's letting his songs go out into the world and his remarkable lack of control-freakery: if he ever records those songs the resulting recordings will just be cover versions among cover versions. It’s exciting to imagine what the world will make of them when it gets its hands on them; I know the results will be peculiar and wonderful and silly and magnificent and unexpected and all kinds of extraordinary, because that’s what happens when artists (Björk, Amanda Palmer among plenty of others) do this kind of thing. Never mind how good his songs actually are: it’s in the nature of cover versions that whatever the raw material, something amazing can be created.

And I know, absolutely know, that a blossoming of creativity will be the inevitable result of setting those sheet music seeds. It makes me feel hugely warm towards humanity. Because when they aren’t fucking themselves up, shooting each other or despoiling their planet, accepting dares and making music together are some of the very best things that humans beings do.

Nice one, Beck.
Old Shanghai - Beck
Old Shanghai
I'm going to leave the last word to musician Chris Anderson, who had this to say in answer to accusations that publishing sheet music is elitist because so few people read it anymore:
"I don't get the whole attitude that regards sheet music as nostalgic, quaint, elitist etc. It is the only universal language there is and a fuck sight easier than learning so-called contemporary 'languages' like say Javascript or Python or whatever. Just because music teaching curricula often eschew simple music theory doesn't mean that trying to learn to read music is in any way backward looking. I'm rubbish at sight reading but with a little perseverance wonderful things can be achieved and like anything, the more you try the easier it becomes. Music is just a language which exceeds words. It speaks across continents, cultures, faiths and politics. It draws us all together where words chosen without care can undo these good things terribly. A badly chosen note on the other hand, if repeated may become the right note and become a Number One hit, as occurred in the main riff in Gary Numan's 'Are Friends Electric?' 

By learning to read music - which involves mainly being able to subdivide four or six (not elitist really) and know your ABC - you have combined elementary mathematics with elementary literacy to create any emotion you care to, and, if you love language so much, you can just add words into the recipe and hey presto, a song. By writing it down you share it in its purest form for anyone to interpret as they wish. Innit."
You can get Song Reader from the McSweeney's store.

Micachu and the Shapes @ Coalition, Brighton, 13th Oct

The great thing about seeing a band play live rather than hearing their music through yer own solipsistic headphones is that you get context. When Micachu & the Shapes play here at Coalition, down on Brighton beach on a dark damp Saturday night, under the Victorian brick arches of the venue’s cavernous insides, you get a whole world of context.
At most gigs a band’s particular generic style is clearly echoed in its audience: I’ve almost drowned in beard’n’flannel when watching Americana acts and the stripy tops going in and out of phase at hipster indie shows can cause hypnosis in susceptible beings. It’s a bit of a surprise to see such an oddball as Mica Levi mirrored in her audience but here she is, in the baseball caps and androgyny of the friendly teenage-Grimester-to-middle-aged-indie-kid crowd in front of the stage. [At one point a boy, here with his dad, all of 13 in his cut-off Joy Div tee and cap, is greeted with great delight by the similarly-attired but older and queerer Micachu fanbase.] It’s good to see in practice who it is that loves this quirky stuff: overwhelmingly positive reviews from the faceless critics [especially those of The Shapes’ edging-into-avant-garde-territory collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, at whose concerts apparently the audience didn’t applaud between songs] aren’t necessarily translated into actual bodies dancing in a nightclub under Brighton’s promenade.
And dance they do. We’d love to see a film made of someone pulling shapes to Micachu music; perhaps, a la Thom Yorke in ‘Lotus Flower’, it’d be all gawky slink and sway, with no time for the dancer to get into a groove before another shift of tempo or tune, a constant morphing of pattern and colour, the aural equivalent of an unfolding Jacob’s Ladder. It’d be good, whatever. It’s good here, because while the foundations of a Micachu song tend to have a crash-bang simplicity about them, there’s that drummer, knocking out precise reggae rhythms or hip-swinging ska beats or relentless Fall-ish sycopations over the top of a foursquare playschool -simple riff, turning it into a remarkably funky – if still kitchen sink clattery – beast.
The three members of the band stand on the stage in their co-ordinating shirts, each printed with a different shape [square, triangle, circle] like toddler shape-sorter boxes. Square pegs, round holes. Does this lot fit in? Well, perhaps, if you care to go looking you could find progenitors and peers [The RaincoatsBush Tetras,CocoRosie, PramTricky’s Nearly God project; bands which tend to attract epithets such as quirky, amateur, off-kilter, dissonant, wilful, shoddy… ] but the fact remains that Micachu and The Shapes won’t easily fit into any box. They don’t sound that much like anything else. They certainly don’t sound like the past, which is a rarer thing than you’d imagine. I found myself thinking of Throwing Muses [another band which sounded like itself if not actually something utterly alien] while watching them, not least because Mica Levi’s face – clear, youthful, unprettified – has certain similarities with Kristin Hersh’s, which is also often to be seen twisted into a grimace of, what? Anxiety? Wry amusement? Concentration?
We get to hear much of Never, in all its short sharp stabby funny sweet ramshackle noisy maximalist glory. We dance along, not exactly gracefully, not exactly with groove, but certainly with huge amounts of cheer. It becomes clear that MatS are resolutely anti-twee; there’s not a hint of cupcake about them. They’re robust, angular, strong, self-aware and witty without having to resort to the dreaded detachment of the terminally ironic. There’s not a hint of machismo either, not until a hefty and frowning security guard prowls on stage to kick aside the bra that someone’s thrown at Mica, causing peals of laughter from audience and band alike. The exhilaration is obvious: there’s even something immensely pleasing and telling about the incongruity of a shiny laptop perched on a stool next to a zither played with a travelcard…
Micachu’s shapes might be contrary and twisted but they have charm in buckets. Get yer gawk on!

Another letter to the poor sods at Uncool magazine...

Mumford & Sons - Grammys

Mumford & Sons’ singular importance in rock’s current moment cannot be underestimated,” is not a sentence I ever imagined I’d read.

Especially not in the debut article deployed by a potential music webzine as a Kickstarter carrot, and especially not one which trumpets itself as offering A NEW KIND OF MUSIC JOURNALISM.

And extra especially doubly definitely not in one which has just come under articulate fire for its lack of diversity/ambition.

Mumford & Sons! Seriously?

Look, here’s the thing, Uncool: Mumford & Sons have become the embodiment of the kind of privilege-blindness you’ve just been accused of; why on Earth would you write a feature focusing on their apparently glorious, genre-spawning ascent at all, let alone this week?

Maybe it didn’t cross the water, all the righteous furore about them and their nu-folk compadres, the privately-educated kids with guitars hijacking rock’s avant cool and using their boorish mass to de-claw its fury at the exact same point in history when the working class is being battered by cuts and joblessness. (Here's an overview of the debate; unfortunately Simon Price's fantastic article in The Word which sparked it off is not available online.) Maybe it hasn’t bitten the blogging rock writers of America how fucking frustrating it is that people who are top of the heap privilege-wise (I’m thinking specifically of the frontman of M&S pals Noah And The Whale, Charlie "I don't think where we come from really comes into it Fink) can dismiss class as way of analysing music. Or that they can refute so easily the idea that someone’s sociocultural location might contribute to the content/sound/reception of their music in ways worth dissecting. Maybe this particular Brit-crit seethe, the reason why the band is referred to the length and breadth of Facebook GB as Bumford & Cunts, has escaped the editors of Uncool?
Which, OK. Whatever. You’re missing it because they’re missing it because you’re both from the same particular dominant demographic in the indierockverse. As Dorian Lynskey says in his perceptive blog post on rich kids in rock, it’s not a coincidence. That’s the way the kyriarchy works. (He also says this: “Entitlement and complacency – the sense of going through life without touching the sides – are the enemy of good art, and I hear them in a lot of young bands” which is a crucial consideration if you’re not just going to be slagging off posh boys for being posh boys, fun though that might be.)

If kyriarchy’s a new one on you, I’d advise you to stop what you’re doing, click and learn and come back when you know what the hell I’m talking about. You’re welcome; here to help. It’s all about who you are (in terms of your race, sexuality, gender, physical ability, age, financial security, cisbodiedness, education, class etc) and how where you’re caught in those complex intersectional webs of dominance/oppression affect what you understand of the world and what you project out into it.

You’ve just projected Mumford & Sons. This see above is not a coincidence.
So when people respectfully suggest that you take a long hard look at the way your own privilege and sense of entitlement gives you cultural and political tunnel vision the last thing I’d suggest you do is run your first article about a band infamous for epitomising just that.

And, furthermore, don’t use that old chestnut, the Death of Rock, as leverage to give your new-minted genre oomph. Because if you think “festivalcore’s ascent has sacrificed some nuances upon the altar of mass appeal” and then go on to say, “So be it: let them die so rock may live on among EDM and hip-hop and pop” then that’s its appeal stone cold dead for me. (Dampening nuance for mass appeal is meant to be a good thing?! Since when where those things necessarily at odds anyway? Who the hell are you writing for? And why?)

Plus, of course, anyone who says, “And it might be the last hope for the future of rock music” about ANYTHING, even the most sparky, eccentric, outsider strain of pots’n’pans girlcore gloriousness, let alone heard-it-all-before, happy clappy nu-folk waistcoatery, has not a single clue about history. We have no idea at all what marvels will unfold before us but the ever-mutating, ever-evolving, curve-ball-chucking glittershow that is rock music keeps on rolling on. (Lord help us if its only salvation were really in the kind of meh music even the author of the piece says doesn’t move him unless he’s watching it at sunset with his mates at Coachella. Fucksake. The only people who think rock’s dead are those who are mourning the death of their own youth. Rock does not belong to one generation. Write that out a hundred times and go listen to some Micachu.)

Which brings me to (yet) another gripe; this festivalcore you want to get instated as newbie genre on the block seems to me to be very clearly more a consequence of timeplacedrugsfriends than the particular music being played.

Festivals are big business; yes, there’re all those American beardy anthemic dudes hanging about the place but I’d say that their presence is due more to the play-it-safe bookings policy of the US indie-centric festival managers or the cultural preferences and influence of a certain tranche of the music world who go to and report on those events than the birth of a specific kind of music that comes into its own outdoors, at dusk and in front of a sea of thousands of sun-pink smiley faces. Any kind of big music suits festivals, and new(ish) bands booked to play a good early evening slot who tap into the hand-wavy feel-good vibe can find their star ascendant, but to focus only on the bands which fulfil those criteria within the already narrow milieu of indie rock and then dub them festivalcore is missing the rest of the picture. All the other non-indie bands who play rousing sets at festivals and all the other non-indie-focused festivals, for a start. The electronica-heads, the jit jivers, the big beats boys, the riot grrls, the rappers, the multi-platinum mega popstars, the punks, the taiko drummers, the old dogs game for a second chance, all of the virtual roof-raisers of festivals around the world... how come they're not festivalcore too? Why they don't count?

My festival-going this year has mostly been limited to party festivals with solidly rabble-rousing DJs at night and the kind of hybrid gypsy-folk-ska-funk-hip-hop that can get a mashed crowd jigging happily but aren’t necessarily known outside the circuit (there’s a surprising number of them; I’d coin a genre to accommodate this fact if I could be arsed). But I can tell you that last year at Bestival – perhaps UK’s closest equivalent to Coachella? – the acts which stood out by creating a storm of communal up-rush were none of them beardy nor white boy nor bland. I saw Bjork with her finely (ahem) nuanced polyrhthymic confections, extraordinary custom-made instruments, dancers, choirs and head-spinning visuals. I saw PJ Harvey sending shivers down massed spines with her dark, pretty, disconcerting, despairing meditations on war and nationhood. I saw Public Enemy - 20 years on from their heyday as a fiercely political, ragingly zeitgeisty proposition - light up a hillside with the force and thrill of their music; thousands of fists raised en masse, a whole valley of bouncing monied middle-class kids (never mind the false eyelashes, the glitter or the tiger onesies) shouting along. FIGHT THE POWER! FIGHT THE POWER! (You are the fucking power, you twats. Party on.)

I saw The Village People too. They were fucking phenomenal.

Here's a nice quote from an article from last year about the UK version of the phenomenon:
The historical trajectory of British pop's bourgeoisification can be traced most clearly in what Karl Marx sadly never got around to calling "the UK power-ballad nexus". Picture yourself in a series of large Glastonbury crowds over the 10 years from 1994 onwards, singing along to a wilfully vague lyric cunningly designed to promote sensations of mass emotional uplift. Now look at the stage and note the incremental increase in poshness from Oasis to Embrace to Travis to Coldplay to Keane.
This isn't just about Coachella and beards.

So the idea that Mumford & Sons are the start of something new, are the saviours of rock, are significant in any way other than as a happy glow in the avaricious mind of the music industry’s end-of-year financial reports or in the bellies of a bunch of kids who’ve timed their drop to bring them up as the sun goes down is both repellent and nonsensical. They don’t fit in any grand narrative I can be bothered with. I do not see the outsider allure you refer to: M&S mainline mainstream. They’re about as counter-cultural as a Bourbon biscuit. They wouldn’t know outsider art if it shat in their nice cup of tea.

Look, if you’re gonna coin a genre, make it one you LOVE! (Or HATE to the bone.) Where is the passion in this flagship piece? You’ve set up your premise and you’ve pushed it off into the choppy chippy waters of the internet but you’ve forgotten the wind to puff out its sails. Bangs - as my overwrought editor is fond of saying and with good fucking reason - wept. Seriously, who gives a fuck about “singular importance” if there’s nothing special about the music that a pill and an open sky couldn’t do for any band? You could (they did) put the bloody Wurzels on at Glastonbury and you’d get people claiming epiphanic moments and heartlifting bliss.

These things matter. Music matters. Critical thinking matters. Yes, M&S are the easiest targets on the wall, and yes, this is about much wider issues than a promising new music magazine (and yesyesyes, before you say it, I'm probably just jealous). On one level this is horribly unfair to you. I love the idea of a music journal publishing think pieces and paying its writers, I really do. Best of luck with that. I liked your point about rock being moulded by its means of dissemination: a material analysis of the industry is fine by me. Observing then describing a new genre: all good stuff. Please take this as constructive criticism because if Uncool pulls off uploading one decent, articulate, captivating, debate-generating article about music a week that would be a truly marvellous thing. This just may not be the most judicious starting point. On this showing, anyone interested in a new kind of music journalism is going to have to look elsewhere. Luckily the musical world is chock full of amaze right at this minute and there are a thousand reasons to make a stand for the innovative and the exciting. And, while you're at it, have a hand in dismantling the soul-destroying establishment.




(Note for the fuming webby hordes: check your privilege before you start frothing at the mouth. Don’t be offended if you’re in the demographic I’m calling out for entitlement-blindness or if you love M&S; just consider that where you stand might be affecting who you are and how you read the world, which bands you listen to, which writing you approve of. This is not an attack on you personally, this is a critique of a phenomenon. Man up.)

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Fat Possum)

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Fat Possum)

Art can do what the hell it likes.

Art can mock and ridicule. Art can stomp over precious tropes with its big fat arty boots. Art can steal and appropriate and recast. Art can trash tradition and deify trash. Art can shock and horror and razzle and dazzle. Art can use violence and misery to its own ends, be those ends high or low. Art can be Grand Canyon magnificent in its righteousness or as shallow and plastic as Cher Lloyd’s reedy voice and still be Art and fuck any thoughts of what is or is not "proper". (There’s no real, there’s no fake! Simulacra upon simulacra! Rock on, Monsieur Baudrillard!) Art can glorify or sully or spend its whole day in its knickers making mud pies out of your memories. Art can stick its tongue out at the bourgeois and piss on the vicar’s flowerbeds. Art can fire canons at pettiness or ridicule your dreams.

Art has no responsibility. Not to you, not to me and not to the starving children of Africa.

Because Art has LICENCE.

Bully for art.

Spiritualized have made another album. Their Art (it flaunts its capital, that one) is no mischievous Clockwork Alex spitting in the faces of pensioners; there’s no glee or gunfire here: Spiritualized’s Art is both slavish and somehow vicious despite its languor and shine. It feathers its nest with other people’s words (Sweet Heart Sweet Light? Seriously?!), snaffles glitter from other eras, takes Instagrams of cool and props them up among the rubble of stylistic jetsam that approximate a coherent style; less a Frankenstein’s monster of rock’s reanimated corpses than a pop-cultural Mr Potatohead. I’m too fucking appalled by this endeavour apparently being wholeheartedly earnest and not some kind of cunning Situationist jape that I’m not even going to bother matching the signifiers to their original begetters, identifying who the stoned drawl belonged to, whose those drones are, which genre’s choirs it has bribed to cross over to the Dark Side, whose lyrics (but if you see Lou Reed point him in this direction). It’s even more enervating than poking fun at Primal Scream for their look-back boredom.

The new album sounds like Spiritualized. Which means it sounds like Cool Old American Stuff. It’s well produced. It knows how to pimp out its dynamics. It can layer up the harmonies and polish shimmering chords like there’s no tomorrow (there’s only yesterday). It’s canny in its distillation of retro-chic sound. It’s not real but it knows a man who is.

I don’t give a shit about notions of authenticity. I’m not riled because Spiritualized deal in the old and think colouring cool by numbers means it gets to rub off on them in some great spiritual whoosh rather than conjure the revelatory out of their own tiny British heads. There’s nothing new anyway; even the very best, the most extraordinary, is to some extent rehashed. Art, take what you want and make it your own. I don’t care.

But if a middle-aged white man from Rugby, trailing his privilege and his money and his production vales behind him like old school ties, appropriates the experience and style and musical tropes of the vulnerable and the oppressed he had better tread extremely carefully. Yup, it’s Art-legal but is it wise? Does ripping off Gospel and Blues and liberating them casually from the weight of their history and context to use as stripped-down signifiers of someone else’s ecstatic experience just make you a douche?

The truth is that I cannot bring myself to listen to this album with equitable ears. I am not suitable, I am not qualified. Sue me. It’s not just the years of Pierce and his compatriots playing with drug and booze references as if the reality of those things was hazy sunshine and endless sex with God rather than gutters and indignity and the possibility of death in your forties, because of course the great unspoken truth about drugs is that people just do them because they make 'em feel good. He can have that one if he must, although it makes him look a twat. (Fun isn’t the same as cool and early death is neither.) No, this time it’s the video for the new single which I loathe with a passion and which has irrevocably tainted my listening of any further output, despite the massed fawning of music writers the world over who obviously have a stronger constitution than me.

‘Hey Jane’ wears its NSFW like a smug little badge and is a 10 minute long micro-film about a black transvestite prostitute with a small and frightened child who ends up beaten to a bloody pulp by a repressed and shamed white trick. It is repellent and upsetting and I don’t care what Art is allowed to do, I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that every fist fall, every crunch of boot on facial bones, is filmed in detail and at length. I don’t like what it appears to be saying about people. I don’t like that said whiney, white, self-pitying, copyist, imagination-free, privilege-flaunting cisman from England has used this story and these characters from waaaaaaaaaaay outside his experience, knowledge or culture as entertainment, however much Art has given him a hall pass to do so. That he thinks he can harvest grit by association. That he has licence to use such sad and graphic images of others’ sexuality and poverty and lifestyle and even death to imply his own hipness/toughness.

Hell, I don’t even like the fact that the name "Jane" has been co-opted for its associations.
Watching that video made me nauseous. I watched the last bit through clenched fists and only because I suddenly, urgently, needed to write about it. What the fuck gives an extended drone-out love song the right to use such explicit imagery to sell itself? It's pain porn for white boys. To depict the vulnerable as worthless violence-magnets? To capitalise on the representations of other people’s misery in order to appropriate "cool"? Jesus, how many more oppressed groups do you want to exploit, guys? This video feels like is an insult to every trans person who has been punched or killed for ruffling the order of things; to every sex worker who has lived with the threat of violence in order to feed themselves or their family; to every person of colour or single parent whose lives Spiritualized think are fair game to poach or parody for a pop video.
Jason Pierce and Art have some explaining to do.

M. Jean "Everything Goes" Baudrillard might have been yawning along to Spiritualized when he said that that, "Perhaps the world's second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore" but he was wrong. The worst crime is fostering inhumanity to our fellow beings. While Spiritualized obviously aren’t as worthy targets as Nick Clegg or Mitt Romney the callousness with which they kick pain around as if it were cans in the yard repulses me.

Fuck it, Art: your licence is revoked. And Pierce: you’re a cunt.

22 Songs I Have Loved in the First Half of 2012

What is slightly peculiar about this collection of some of my favourite songs of the year so far is how tangentially it reflects the nowness of now... yes, I love them all (and I'm certain to have missed out even better ones through ignorance or forgetfulness) but I don't know if anyone casting an ear down this list would know for certain what an odd moment in history they were spawned in. Except for Plan B and M.I.A., which are immediately recognisable as the offspring of the current historical situation, most of these songs are apparently politically neutral, which obviously says as much about who and where I am as some general zeistgeisty truth about how music relates to historical events, but... I wonder if a similar list drawn up by a similar person in 1968 or 1977 would've been so unconsious of its significance to posterity. And I wonder whether the rest of the year will be any different.
I'm still waiting for the click...

Chairlift – Met Before
Love the spangly crunch of the guitars and the way the vocals gasp and soar. A full-on golden rush of a song about that archetypically pop moment of giddiness at first glance "among the buzzing of billions" (lovely image!) mirrored in the archetypically pop "bah bah bahs" and "ooh ooh oohs" of the backing vocalists. Look out for an understated but brilliant flute solo.

The Shins – Simple Song
Songs about songs that are songs about love, part 12,003. Is a pop song the ultimate love gift? Does music operate on the same resonant frequency as love? Can it conjure the same lift of the heart, the same ache, with sympathetic harmonics of chords, heartstrings and groin? Maybe, maybe not, but this song certanly knows a trick or two.
My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff/You brought me a great big flood and you gave me a lift/Girl, what a gift./You tell me with your tongue/And your breath was in my lungs/And we float up over the rift...

Here We Go Magic – How Do I Know?
Only a simple song… but there’s something about the rolling relentlessness of that riff, the way it chang-chang-changs on determinedly below the cascading vocals which hang on over the edge of bars like pooling water before being reeled back on track. Works for me.

Poliça – Lay Your Cards Out
I happen to know how irritating some people find her autotuned-to-distorted-fuck vocals, but I like the way they slide into alien shimmers at the end of phrases, how they slip like quicksilver over the notes, how the rhythm track batters away in the background like a gathering storm and how the restlessness depicted in the lyrics is echoed in electric buzzes, skitters and whirrs; it’s like someone on a too-hot night caught between flushed finger-tapping and languid lolling…

Beach House – Myth
It’s on the very edge of being too sweet (I got to the point where I could no longer listen to BH’s ‘Zebra’ after falling for its prettiness last year) but there’s a buttery androgynous grain to Victoria Legrand’s vocals that I find myself unable to resist. Ideally this'd be listened to this at dusk, lying on the grass, under a gently erupting volcano.

Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built
Sparky, desperate, rough-edged, delirium-fuelled, defiant, shouty boy pop. There’s a place for it, you know.

Plan B
Plan B - Ill Manors
Song of the year. So, it didn’t stomp over the country like Godzilla in the way it shoulda done, upsetting applecarts and stirring up shit but still… it is perfect rage-pop. You think there aren’t any protest songs outside the crusty folk-singer at student demos? You need to listen to this. Its darkness and sharpness and violence and clattery messes and satisfyingly meaty hooks. This sounds like now, not like some simultaneously over-optimistic and under-ambitious conjuring up of the spirit of long-dead 60s rebellion. Course, it's uncomfortable to be that middle-class Guardian-reading oldie who loves a call-to-arms for youth which is out on Megacorps Records and is whole-heartedly feted by the meeja establishment, but there you go; it’s what there is.
I wish there were more songs like this. I wish that the music world would respond with an almighty roar to the creeping horror of reactionary rule, which is flicking out the switches on civil liberties and extinguishing the life of our best national institutions like a kid throwing stones at light bulbs. They are scum. They are all scum, whichever country you're reading this in. There should be a FLOOD of noise about it. A deluge.

SoKo – We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow
A fragile thing, this, with its flickers of strings and faraway keening, minimal percussion and a guitar motif you wouldn’t notice in a crowd… but it’s the perfect wrapping for SoKo’s aching plea for her lover to give in and give it up. Echoes of Marvell’s time’s winged chariot; life’s too short, love’s too desperate: "Let’s love fully and let’s love loud, let’s love now; cos soon enough we’ll die, cos soon enough we’ll die… "

Metric – Youth Without Youth
A big red synthy sneer, Emily Haines sounding fierce and righteous, a almighty glam racket beneath her breathy drawl. Shiny shiny.

Santigold – Big Mouth
I wasn’t sure if I was gonna fall for Santigold’s new stuff as hard as I did for about a third of her bright and beautiful debut but 'Big Mouth' is a rousing chaotic triumph, a rattlingly sharp collage of sounds, styles, samples that manages to cram more inventiveness and verve into its three minutes that most albums do over 45.

AK/DK – Lost: Eric
This track came out last year and I missed it. But then I saw AK/DK twice in a week, once backing Damo Suzuki (along with Add N to X’s Ann Shenton on rock’n’roll theramin) for an hour and a half of unrehearsed awesome, and once at an impro-avant free all-dayer where they got the nodding floor-sitters up and bouncing. Two men both playing drum kits and keyboards (a nicely symmetrical band!) they’ve got the driving clank, the electronic hit, the shit hot tumble of Holy Fuck or Three Trapped Tigers. Live you get a pinch of LCD Soundsystem to add to the mix but on this track it’s all about the rush. It kinda makes you want to do maths and lick scientist’s faces. Kinda.

Shrag – Show Us Your Canines
I saw Shrag a couple of times on their crazy double-headed tour with Tunabunny and loved this song at first chorus. It’s a nicely judged combination of desperation and threat, with Helen’s spidery vocals creeping all over the indie-funk guitar chuntering. Plus there’s that killer hookline. Feral is the way to go. RAH!

M.I.A. – Bad Girls
When this video was posted on Stereogum there followed a stream of barely literate dismissive grunts from their (apparently almost entirely male) Facebook followers. M.I.A. was a stirring self-publicising bitch, the song was unoriginal, the lyrics were shit, how could Stereogum stoop to give it coverage? Etc. It baffled me because this is clearly a great pop song. The deadpan vocals, the itchy/sweet flutters of flute, the percussive drive, heavy and flat and slinky, all the hip-swung swagger and attitude… The lyrics pull off the trick of being ostensibly dumbass rock’n’roll simple ("Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well") while making reference to the fact that M.I.A. is playing (in both song and the utterly glorious video) with images of freedom and rebellion and commenting on the lot of women in the Middle East, where transgressive women ("bad girls") put their lives in danger, sometimes just for the freedom of being able to drive.
I can only conclude that the existence of an outspoken, anti-Imperialist, confusingly successful, politically-active woman of colour who makes smart pop music is too much for some people to handle and they have to reduce all the confusion and complexity and subtlety she represents to the level of their own base stupidity.

Spoek Mathambo – Control
Another one from last year that only caught up with me in this one but is more than worthy of inclusion for being such an extraordinary cover of such an iconic song. Rooted up and repotted in fresh soil, this Control is both more jittery and more spacious than its progenitor; you gotta relish the fact that South African producer/musician Spoek Mathambo has managed to recast a song that has long been held precious as a canonical white boy post-punk anthem as clattery electro dance (‘township tech’, apparently). Kudos for that.
And the video is brilliant.
And he has a new album out this year.

Human Don’t Be Angry – Asklipiio
Malcolm Middleton’s new project, Human Don’t Be Angry, is based on largely-instrumental Roy Montgomeryesque (if that name doesn’t mean anything to you look it up) effects-soaked guitar scintillations. This track, which meanders over seven languorous minutes, has Middleton’s usual way with words and all the hazy torpor of a too-hot holiday afternoon spent in bed, all daydreams and memories and promises and sticky sensuality. Here's a live version which isn't quite as lush as that on the record but does at least a third again as much sprawling...

Death Grips – Hustle Bones
Yes, I know everyone’s been going on about them. Well, they have a point, don’t they? Fast, furious, switchback thrilling, this is the sound of driving games at the arcade and too much Tizer. Scary good.

THEESatisfaction – Deeper
Seeing these two women in a small sweaty room above a pub was a highpoint of my spring. Although it was disappointing that they sang to a backing track - the sound they made should’ve been bigger, should’ve been overwhelming, should’ve blasted our ears clean off – they certainly had the moves. This track is reminiscent of the hugely over-looked (but newly reformed) Luscious Jackson, that same brilliantly nonchalant combo of sass and swing, deft beats and sweetly odd harmonies.

US Girls – The Boy Is Mine
Distorto-magick cover from the end of last year. Much dirty warped noise behind a gorgeous sepia voice that seems to have come, quavering and wailing, through a portal from the Sixties. Irresistible.

Miike Snow Lykke Li
Riz MC (ft Plan B & Aruba Red) – All Of You
Ah, Riz! Sigh. OK, so my Riz-crush is fuelled by admiration for his acting smarts (Four Lions, Road To Guantanamo, iLL Manors) but this sharp-witted track from his new album is unquestionably superb. It oozes disquiet with every sleazy beat, ripping the covers off the nastiness, the power-plays, the hot cruel greediness of lust. Uncomfortable, unbalanced and unkind, not a song you’d really be advised to accept a drink off but with which you'd be sorely tempted to lose a grimy weekend or two.

Berangere Maximin – Knitting In The Air
Here’s a strange beauty, a witchery of noise. Maximin, who works with Fred Frith and Rhys Chatham, weaves an uncomfortable quilt from drones and static, chilly vocals and tiny scraps of colourful prettiness. Like EMA all grown-up and mindful of her mess.

Dirty Projectors – Gun Has No Trigger
I’m with Wallace on this one. Can’t resist the sound of those voices. The fucking NOISE they make! WAAAAH!

Miike Snow (ft Lykke Li) - Black Tin Box
More chilliness, this time from Miike Snow. It’s got some of the pomp of a Genesis number (all those echoey vocals and portentiousness) which might get my goat good and proper if it weren’t for the addition of Lykke Li’s whispery slink and some really rather lovely electronica pop.

BoA – Hurricane Venus
This is REALLY old. Like from waaay back in 2010. I don’t care if I’m late to the K-Pop party, I got there in the end. This titan of a song is all shiny and tinny; you’ll probably hate it. It prowls and spits and sprinkles words like ‘supersonic’ and ‘bionic’ and ‘automatic’ around to mark its territory. It’s got the Guetta-ish full-throated Metallic Overwhelm fader up to max. And at precisely two mins in it has a strange little off-beat break that judders down your spine, bouncing notes and words like so many tennis balls pattering down the stairs to trip you up. It’s awesome. And it does that remarkable thing once and once only and then ploughs relentlessly, mercilessly, magnificently on. The pop-est pop in the universe.

Here's a Spotify playlist for those that use that kind of thing.

Originally published on Collapse Board.