Sunday, April 27, 2014
I missed this at the time. Naturally I knew of the Australian collective Cut Copy but did not listen to a full album until I was assigned to review Zonoscope in 2011. That was a lovely Monday morning indeed -- Modular sent me a promo CD and I took it on my then-unusually long commute with me; the heat in my car wasn't working, but soon enough I couldn't even tell anymore. I was smitten with that album and, as I generally tried to, I took a listen to the band's prior work before I sent in my piece, but neither of their previous albums made nearly such a big impression on me. I've enjoyed In Ghost Colours off and on since then but my hunch was always that it was a dry run despite its reputation -- just to ensure I wasn't bullshitting, I've spent time lately also with Zonoscope and the bizarrely ignored Free Your Mind and yes, they've improved enormously since then.
Some of this is down to a question of mood -- the band's, that is, not ours. The two Cut Copy albums from our present decade are moodier, druggier, more tempered in even messages and longings that are probably jokes (no one says "free your mind" in 2013 and means it, right?), while In Ghost Colours is so blatantly sweet and cheery it could give you a toothache. One of the things I like about Cut Copy is their earnestness -- not only do they seem warm and approachable, in contrast to even good bands operating in a similar vein (like Hot Chip or WhoMadeWho) they do not seem particularly self-aware. Dan Whitford sings his heart out, and as composers and producers (here with James Murphy associate Tim Goldsworthy) they're refreshingly direct in both their laying bare of influences and their unguarded emotion, less psychodrama than all-embracing bliss.
That brings us to the other thing that appeals to me most about the group: with each chapter in their narrative, they have edged closer to dispensing with every outside notion of what band they're supposed to be, having been billed in their brief time with Interscope in the U.S. as a breezy hybrid of the dance club and the rock show. By Free Your Mind, the guitars are basically gone. Colours, though, captures them in a transitional moment. For long stretches, you almost can't even make any disco dreams of this. It's really quite a straightforward group of anthemic pop songs, sometimes resembling (of all things) Ian Broudie's Lightning Seeds thanks largely to Whitford's incessant good mood.
"Feel the Love" -- another readily adopted hippie buzzphrase -- feels as fresh as a jump out into mountain air, and while it's afraid to shed its rawk orientation, this is one of two cuts that suggests the way forward for the band and wouldn't sound terribly out of place on their subsequent albums. The roller-rink synthpop peaks with a vocoder hook on the bridge, but it's not so much an electronic detour as an homage to early '80s power pop like the Cars. "Hearts on Fire," one of the album's signature cuts, bears the most explicit resemblance to the writing and production ideas on Zonoscope but is less potent, and winds down into a rather weak chorus.
Candy-O didn't have anything like "Out There on the Ice," which hits an odd and intriguing dichotomy of Whitford and the band's psychedelic doo wop vocal arrangement and what amounts to a strong, classic house beat circa 1989 or so. The band can't get its head around how to make this work quite yet, and the result feels too deadpan -- it's fun but it never lifts off into unforced hedonistic joy, which if you know this band is what you expect. A lot of the most pleasing moments afterward are fleeting, like the keyboard breakdown on "So Haunted," pure pop with just a little touch of windswept techno flourish. The most they ever really cut loose for a full song is on the band's biggest hit thus far, "Lights & Music," the Cut Copy song I most clearly remember hearing around the time of its release. It's a great piece of fast-paced, synth-filled joy but it's still not quite dance music. Notice the way that, on the bridge, everything drops out except the guitar, as though it's '97 and we're listening to alternative rock radio again.
Most of In Ghost Colours settles into kind of a holding pattern with this stuff: happy, indistinct, straight rock with big peaks and some little stabs of keyboard, usually hitting a half-chorus followed by a dramatic dropout then big, bass-heavy explosive return. "Unforgettable Season" sets the pattern, strongly suggesting the Alarm or even Midnight Oil, and what's strange is it's not even really in Whitford's vocal range.
We keep harping on dance music because Cut Copy are great at making addictive, explosive and ecstatic dance-pop with massive beats and unforgettable melodies, like a much more domestically placid Depeche Mode, and eventually they would become one of the more fearless rock bands from their time in regard to wholly shedding the rock part. In Ghost Colours is an enjoyable record and might have worked best for me had I discovered it in its moment.
Now I keep wanting to hear the later records, and indeed, there are more hooks and better sustained ones in just the first few minutes of "Need You Now" than on most of this entire album, and the flair for drama has improved (that particular song sustains its tension for an incredibly long time without trying patience), the rampant sunny positivity seems more carefully earned, and not that it's hugely important but the lyrics are much stronger. The same for how "Free Your Mind" gurgles its way in two albums later. It's not that the group have just shed elements to become somebody else, they've honed their craft and found their ideal niche. The pure bliss on the bridge of "Corner of the Sky," that irresistible otherworldly melody on "Dark Corners & Mountain Tops," or the blissed-out red-light rampage of "Sun God" all have their origins here. Maybe the highest compliment for this breakthrough record is that it's hard to let it pass into quiet without replacing it on the speakers with one of the two sequels.
Free Your Mind (2013)
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
The dispute over how much of rock & roll is image and how much is music lingered long before and after Horses was released, but there may never have been such a perfect case study in the utopian notion that it's equal parts of both: gaze for a time at that iconic cover image and you realize that here, it's all true. Maybe more than any other album cover ever shot or designed, it seems like if you never had any idea who or what Patti Smith was, that image would be reason enough to buy or listen to the record. Smith is a fully uncompromised nonconformist, whose gaze outward from a sun-dappled corner in lord knows what nowhere invites us in but only on her own terms. Her "Group" does not appear, for her own neuroses and the complete reality of her character are the subject and the complete world of this music. So along with the bold balance of talent and impression, we have the perfect contradiction: an image-conscious, unremettingly original portrait of a woman inviting us to be seduced by the cool, steely purpose of a damn good and damn hip experience only to then be drawn into, yeah, a damn good and damn hip exploration of the darkest edges of popular music by a person who is hiding nothing. Smith is there on the front because the record is all her, fully bared, and free of excuses or tempered fear. You're either coming along for this or you aren't, and more's the pity for your own life and enrichment if you aren't.
Describing Smith's music to one who hasn't heard it seems almost inevitably reductive. Smith is a writer, a rock & roller, a poet, all of the above. She relights a flame that had been blown out somewhere around 1970 when the Velvet Underground ended their association with Lou Reed. You can draw a straight line from Reed to this, detouring a bit with the first two records by the New York Dolls, but that association is more instinctive. In general this is raw rock & roll but it's literary, like Reed, like Chuck Berry; it's no more personal than an Al Green or LaBelle album of the same period. No smarter or rawer than Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club. But it speaks that language in Smith's firmly, singularly analytical fashion. Her major trait is she adores rock & roll. It is her lifeblood. And the lifeblood of this music is New York, the crumb-infested stage of CBGBs, the liberating grunge outside. The seamy, slimy New York of the '70s flows through it in all of its glorious blood, gore and sleaze.
But who was Patti Smith? Who is Patti Smith now is another matter. In 1975, Smith had already wandered in and out of Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and Blue Oyster Cult's orbit, and she embodied an almost perfect ideal of both the New York art and rock & roll lifestyles. She wrote music criticism for Creem, as did her friend and guitarist Lenny Kaye, and played far-out, artful, oddball, semi-spoken word shows at CBGB and the Mudd Club. Her muse was the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, who snapped the cover photo of Horses. Smith and Kaye formed the nucleus of what would become the Patti Smith Group and issued the instantly game-changing single "Piss Factory" b/w "Hey Joe," inspired by the liberation of poetry -- specifically nineteenth century, vampiric proto-punker Rimbaud -- and rock & roll wrought upon the working stiff Smith had become to pay her rent. The rest of the band consisted of bassist Ivan Kral, the late pianist Richard Sohl and the drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. This was the Group signed by Clive Davis to record for Arista in 1975.
But Horses -- produced under fraught circumstances by John Cale, idol, legend, rock genius poet and at one time the co-leader of the Velvet Underground -- remains Smith's statement above all. It's a culmination of a twisting, some would say a queering, that had lurked in the rock subculture since before the '60s burned out. Smith was and remains a child of the most idealistic properties of '60s counterculture, and Horses more than perhaps any other punk album means to pick up with the passionate liberalism and artful sense of progress that was briefly so integral to even mainstream popular music. Smith is no flower child, but she understands the earnest yearning of the flower child. She understands more than anything, as demonstrated in her brilliant live b-side cover of "My Generation," the outrage at the center of the rock odyssey, and does so some years ahead of Johnny Rotten. She is no passive receiver of the baggage of being misunderstood. She intends to allow us to make no mistake about who she is, what she believes, where she stands, whose world we are entering.
And so it goes: "Jesus died for somebody's sins / But not mine." This is emitted from her ashen throat after a stark tolling of the piano not much less naked or grim than the first moments of John Lennon's "Mother." It's the introduction to one of the key moments in punk rock, but that needn't be the extent of it. "Gloria" is a phenomenal peak of emotional rock music. Ostensibly a cover of Them's garage classic, it undercuts, comments upon and joyously expands it but not with the irony-overload of so many punk deconstructions of classic rock. (Check, for instance, the recorded output of Devo and the Diodes.) "Gloria" doesn't swallow itself up with reverence for its source but it does respect it, and the point is that in this dramatic, tense exploration of a raw, sexual groove Smith finds an absolute, bloody liberation. She and her band raise the stakes as highly as they can and teeter on some sort of mad precipice. At the right bits, they plunge downward but only for a moment. And through it all, Smith's singing guides us, introduces us with profound, unadulterated pleasure to the one walkin' down the street and this crazy feeling that she's gonna uh-uh make her mine.
"Gloria" is merely a prelude to the more heart-stopping expansion of a rock & roll masterpiece later on the record, the nearly unrecognizable cover of "Land of 1000 Dances," but it acts conveniently as a massive, booming bookend. The shorter, calmer selections are no less powerful and absorbing. "Redondo Beach" might be Smith's best composition, an invigoratingly catchy reggae dilution that hides for the first several listens its harrowing subject matter -- of negligent motherhood, of a public drowning, of another swallowed-up plunge into darkness. "Free Money" is a reversal of sorts, cataloging with naked honesty the -- almost supernatural -- need to provide for a loved one. The nine-minute "Birdland" is a stark, freeform moment that thrives on subtle atmosphere as much as on Smith's magical performance tics and the eclectic virtuosity of her band. It may take longer to appreciate "Kimberly" and "Break It Up," but both are crucial, the latter for its forecasting of Television's Marquee Moon (it was cowritten with Tom Verlaine, who also features on the recording), the former for its strangely calming peace, warmth, pure beauty. On repeated exposure, nearly every moment of Horses is bound to find the listener rapt with attention, longing to be in front of the band, longing to dance with them, and imagining almost tangibly Smith staring right into them.
And then the other shoe drops. The ten-minute odyssey that is "Land" is scary, demented, dangerous, one of the most dramatic and furious recordings of rock music ever released. The band seems barely to have a hold on itself, as though the track threatens to leap off and fly away taking you with it. But Cale would readily tell you, as would Smith, that crafting this indelible illusion required nearly infinite patience and calculation. It is in fact a few performances being manipulated to create one, no more unnatural an act than what Les Paul and Mary Ford were already doing circa "Lover," but it is such a magnificent and singular experience you can get delirious enough to declare it maybe the reason we invented multitrack recording. There's just little description that can do it justice -- Smith opens by speaking in a normal tone of voice and the first-timer might think nothing is amiss. But for anyone who has gone down this road before, the mere words "Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea" are enough to lead you to sit up straight, to pay attention, to go quiet and prepare yourself.
In part as a result of the intricate multi-tracking of her voice, Smith punches certain phrases with a ready, enticing fervor -- "the boy looked at Johnny"; "he merged perfectly... with the hallway" -- while others seem too passionate, too upset to be so firmly prefabricated: the repetition of "started smashin' his head against the locker" comes across as genuinely unhinged. There's a real scene unfolding here, a scene of rape and murder on one end, of sensuality and music on the other, merged eerily as one into a poetic, violent conflation of emotions that nevertheless comes to us under the most direct and unfettered purpose. Johnny Rotten would approach all this a few times on some of the Sex Pistols' singles, when he would lift the curtain behind his wild threat and reveal only more threat still. But Smith is twice as scary, twice as alluring because the more crazed she seems, the more real she gets to us. Her character Johnny gets it driven into him by an unchecked male force hard to define -- and as the drama increases, as the tension becomes so great we can hardly stand it, Johnny lifts himself up and tears off his leather jacket and answers the question of whether he can't give us nothin' but surrender. It's all sudden, everything that happens here. "Suddenly / Johnny..." and the band goes as manic as Smith -- as either of the two maybe three Smiths -- in the background, and you don't think it can get any more intense and unbearable and then it does, and what happens then?
What happens this is dancing -- absurd, glorious, every bit of progressive dross and singer-songwriterly wank washed away until all we're left with is rock & roll, a drumbeat elevated into the godlike stature it deserves. The pure, fuck-bomb filthy goddamn shit that made all of the pop culture worth caring about happen in the first fucking place. Don't care if Smith's poetry busies it up because all she's doing is aligning herself with it, and she's the show here. Do ya know how to pony / like boney maroney? Oh, it's beautiful, and how it swells into erotic oblivion then caresses its way back and back and folding back until, yeah, just a little drumbeat, just a dance... to a simple... rock & roll song. Oh, it's the kind of moment when whatever else is happening in the world is superfluous. Even "Elegie," the last song. I'm sure it's a lovely song. I've heard it a hundred times probably. Can't remember a thing about it. All I remember is my jaw still agape from the thousandth time through all thousand dances. All I can think to do is point to the previous track and say "we built it, let's take it over."
I have nothing firsthand to offer you with regard to how Horses changed anything. It's clearly a moment that bred much of what we now regard as punk and new wave, but it's harsher, less accessible than the Ramones or Blondie or Talking Heads or even, overseas, the Damned or the Clash. It feels like part of no real moment, like a moment unto itself, and it seems almost gauche to attach all of these outer events to it. One thing I can say personally is that of all the albums I owned when I was a teenager -- and it's one I bought chiefly because of the bands who named it as a great influence, so many thanks to them -- it is maybe the one that annoyed my parents the most. And it is here, even beyond Smith's sensitivity, her band's perfect assemblance of groove, punching precision and atmosphere, and the lyricism and grace of it all, that Horses still seems like a truly great achievement, one that does everything it meant to: leather jackets and simple beats and that odd, insistent, constant propulsion of New York in those days -- it is so god damn young, a pure rock & roll experience, one of the best we can have, and it is a thrill and a pleasure to live in a world in which it was once possible.