Le Tigre: Le Tigre (1999)
Looking into the reasons Kathleen Hanna had for taking this particular excursion from Bikini Kill is illuminating, but it doesn’t capture what it was about Le Tigre that grabbed me. Hanna had reached her thirties when this was released, but it sounds exactly like the kind of album a bunch of uni girls would make in their first flush of feminism and political engagement. It’s not only the instrumentation, which was deliberately lo-fi and cheaply made; nor the chant-along lyrics; and not even the music, a back-to-basics reaction to the sophistication and proficiency that had engulfed alternative music. It’s the giddiness of it, the relish with which all the members of Le Tigre took to this simplicity and crudeness. They sound like they’d just discovered a trove of old girl group records, and doo-wop and early-Eighties new wave, and just decided to have a go at it. Le Tigre is certainly dirtied-up and primal, but it’s riff-happy, melody-driven and upbeat as well. There’s no question of Hanna deserting the stance she’d taken all her career, but there is a sense of her becoming aware of the threat of the Bikini Kill approach becoming tired. The cheap-electro approach is just a different way of doing it – as if saying ‘Fuck you’ has a more subversive effect on its targets if they can dance to it. The lyrics – except where they’re really simple and repetitive – aren’t immediately clear, but the sound of it goes straight to your nerve centre, especially on tracks like “Deceptacon” and “My My Metrocard”. Le Tigre (band and album) may well be a response to the Riot Grrrl message losing its efficacy – dressing it up in new wave pop is a better way to sell it.
My My Metrocard
Tom Waits: Mule Variations (1999)
Mule Variations carries a vastly different significance for the casual listener than it would for a Waits afficionado. Those who found the Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs period a life-changing experience tend to be critical of a Waits album with less experimentation about it, and less cohesion overall. 1992’s Bone Machine had its own gritty integrity, and after such a long wait for this one, a lack of sharp left-turns may seem a let-down. But for mine, I can’t see how Mule Variations can be seen as anything less than a triumphant return to form. It’s accessible, it’s bluesy, it has some stunning balladry in songs like “Hold On” (he’s channelling Springsteen here, surely), “Georgia Lee” and “Pony”. It has the same impact as Neil Young’s Freedom in 1989, that sense of “What happened to him, where’s he gone, oh there he is, back and better than ever!” When Waits sloughed off his gin-soaked barfly persona in the early Eighties, it was for a Brechtian style, kind of a Southern Gothic cabaret turn. It was liberating for his muse, but it had to go somewhere, and the best way to put it is that he slowly wriggled out of that outfit to reveal much more naked sounds. Some of the stuff here is simple, pure, stark blues, melodies bashed into a lumpy shape and shoved out into the light. Songs like “Low Side of the Road”, “Cold Water”, “Eyeball Kid” and the clump-along closer “Come on Up to the House” hit their marks instantly and terminally. Maybe Waits suffers a bit from expectations; in that Statements are perpetually required of him. Because there’s nothing else this album lacks, it’s as strong a set of songs as he’s ever put together in one place.
House Where Nobody Lives
Filipino Spring Box Hog
Fiona Apple: Tidal (1996)
If you were ever in any doubt that Fiona Apple is a Survivor (and a cursory listen to Tidal should probably be enough to clue you in), read the back-story to her early career. It’s full of moments that might have crushed anyone with fewer inner resources. The one that hit me the hardest was that of her sitting in the recording studio thinking that, “they were all really pissed off to have to be there with me… because I was a stupid little kid and they were real musicians.” Working through that feeling of inferiority, at just 18, takes some real courage. But there it is, Apple is painfully honest, most of all with herself. Perhaps at times this album leans a little hard on standard lines and commonplace sentiments, but that doesn’t make it any less honest and forthright. And it marks Apple out as someone not interested in ‘making it’ for whatever reasons young artists chase fame, but as an individual intent on explaining herself through song. Her voice is full and soulful, the backing cool and jazzy, and it could pass for a pleasant enough listen on first acquaintance. Tracks such as “Sleep to Dream”, “Shadowboxer” and “Criminal” jump out at you immediately, and they do in a way tell you all you need to know about her. But listen to “Slow Like Honey” – it reaches back to some of the classic Nina Simone/Sarah Vaughan songs, and very nearly matches them, carried by mood and vocal approach alone. Fiona Apple’s journey from here was a strange, winding one; she travelled down the back-paths to maturity, and fought to retain her identity in the face of backlash and criticism at every stage. This, her first statement, presaged what was to come, and as such it’s where you need to start with her.
Sleep To Dream
KLF: The White Room (1991)
Transcentral, mythologised as the spiritual centre of the Mu Mu people, the heart of the entire KLF mythology, was in reality the name given to the squalid recording studio cum apartment Jimmy Cauty occupied for twelve years because he couldn’t afford anything better. That, in essence, is your entire KLF ethos. It’s the elevation of the trials and vicissitudes of life into something beautiful, affirmative and endless. They spent their entire career coming up with grandiose ideas, watching them crash into flames, and picking through the ashes to see what survived. The KLF – starting out as the Timelords and the JAMs (Justified Ancients of Mu Mu) – began by pilfering samples and constructing songs from them. “Doctoring the Tardis” kicked off, and they immediately looked to finance a full-length movie. Various projects designed to raise funds dissolved into financial disasters, and all they had left was a few songs. Out of those Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond forged a rethinking of hip-hop and house music into Stadium House, a musical trend that took off and led to this wonderful, off-kilter album. The White Room is crafted around those songs; “Last Train to Transcentral”, “What Time is Love”, “3am Eternal” and “Justified and Ancient”. The rest of the album is not so much filler as enablers, bridges built between the sonic rush of the more expansive tracks. I don’t think there’s any real mythology here, it’s just a mash-up of ideas and wide-scale visions. But it is catchy and it does have its own seductiveness. If there’s any message, it’s probably: stick to your dreams, follow them through, and don’t forget to dream big. It all worked out for them, the album sounds magnificent. But they chucked it all away anyway soon after, moving on to a sort of art terrorism.
Last Train to Transcentral
Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
There’s almost too much to absorb in this package of deceptively simple electronica. They’ve already had me chasing up a Japanese experimental film of the same title, and I’ve just tracked down a French psychedelic track from 1967 by the name of “Les Yper-Sound” to find out what the Stereolab track of the same name is all about. Not to mention brushing up on the goddess Cybele. And I feel as if I’ve just begun. This much I think I’ve established: the Japanese avant-garde film ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ deals with a situation where the children have taken over and are running the world by their anarchic rules. That sensibility informs this album, which spends a lot of time looking at the world from a child’s angle, damning the capitalist-exploitative system we live under, and regretting the jaded viewpoint of the adult. Opening track “Metronomic Underground”, hypnotic in its repetitive hip-hoppy groove, quotes from the Tao Te Ching regarding the unknowability of existence. It more or less cedes the arena to “Cybele’s Reverie”, which floats on lush orchestration as Laetitia Sadler pines for childhood’s magic and immediacy. You can pick up the same thematic direction in the scudding Sixties lounge of “Percoator”. These three opening songs create diverse moods, which sets the tone for the eclecticism of the whole album; that said, it never loses its poppy sheen, and you can quite happily enjoy it without suspecting the first thing about Marxist theory or the avant-garde. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a album both complex and direct, accessible and vast in its reach. I still haven’t discovered what the title “OLV 26” means, though the song does sound a lot like Suicide.
The Fall: The Marshall Suite (1999)
This is how it works: if you can manage to love one Fall album, eventually you’re going to love all of them (at latest count there’s 31 studio albums). The hard part is getting started. At first listen it just sounds like some guy down the pub unburdening his rambling gripes to electro-rockabilly accompaniment. And I guess that’s not too far from the truth in its own way, though it’s done with more planning and variety than that. There’s also not a lot of point singling any one of the Fall’s albums out; by the time you’re ready to learn about the differences, you’ll already know enough to identify them yourself. Let’s just say each of them has its own character, but the quality is about even. So, take this is a representative example of their late-nineties output. At this point Mark E Smith had begun experimenting with styles and abstract pieces. The Marshall Suite isn’t as diffuse as previous release Levitate, so it’s a touch more accessible. It’s surprising there’s any continuity at all, as almost the entire band had changed over the past couple of years and Smith had put a big black texta mark through his life for a year or so. But he sounds quite energised here, with the psychobilly stomp of the first two tracks segueing nicely into the more oddball stuff that follows. “Bound” chuggs along nicely, with the keys shifting up and up toward the end. The Saints cover is typically shambolic. My favourite track is “Inevitable” with it’s lovely electronic riffage. But ultimately there is no entry point for The Fall. You just have to keep listening until you get bitten by the bug. It’s worth it, I can assure you. The Marshall Suite is merely one of a large pile of Fall albums, all of which you’ll want to hear once you’re inducted.
(Jung Nev’s) Antidotes
Cypress Hill: Cypress Hill (1991)
The commercial breakthrough for Cypress Hill came in 1993 with singles “Insane in the Brain” and “Hits from the Bong”. Those songs sounded like pot-related novelty numbers, a little cheeky and sassy and a lot of fun. They were starting to think about crossover appeal and marketability by then. But not here. Here they sound fucking dangerous. I still get a chill listening to B-Real chanting “You get a hole in your head, in your mother-fucking head” like some morality-free victim-baiting teen with a gun. The music on Cypress Hill is dope-slurred, sluggish, harking back to Sly Stone in 1971, but it also sounds a lot like what was just about to happen to LA rap under Dr Dre, with a funky lope driving it. The lyrics are razor-sharp though, and they’re sung with a kind of insouciant menace. Cypress Hill not only popularised Latino rap, they also redirected the whole rap genre – here’s where it no longer sounded angry, where it gave the message that the rappers were now running the joint and everyone else better look out. One of their great strengths is that they really know their way around a catchy chorus – especially early in the album, they’ll have you singing along with their exuberantly violent catchprases like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” or “I’m the Phunky Feel One”. And unlike the West Coast rap that was to follow, there’s very little ‘bitches’ style sexism on display here (well, there’s a little bit but it’s usually more about their sexual prowess). Generally they’re advocating for marijuana or, you know, pointing guns at people. Look, this sounds exactly like a pot party with a lot of cockstrutting going on, and that’s just fine with me.
Hand on the Pump
The Phunky Feel One
Ron Sexsmith: Ron Sexsmith (1995)
I was thinking of starting by mentioning some of the influences I heard in Sexsmith’s style. But it appears everyone who reviews him has a stab at that, and most of them bring up names I just can’t hear in this album, so I don’t know that it’s such a good idea. He’s definitely got his head in the singer-songwriters of the Seventies, but he’s brought something else to it that’s all his own. As to why Sexsmith never became a star, I think that’s fairly easily answered by listening to the music. To be a star, you need to need your audience, to demand their attention; sometimes exhibitionism does it, and sometimes just nakedly appealing to them is employed. Sexsmith does neither of those; he just presents the songs on a take-them-or-leave-them basis. Getting them right seems to exhaust his ambitions. Nick Drake had some of that too. Fame is a marriage between talent and image, and some artists of incredible talent just don’t do the image thing. That’s what keeps Ron Sexsmith a hidden gem. The playing and singing isn’t unassuming, it’s unadorned. There’s very little that’s personal/confessional here, but his observations are detailed, precise and heartfelt. The first few songs give the album a strong start, but “Speaking With the Angel” is the real sleeper, quite captivating in the effectiveness of its simple structure and quiet lyricism. All through the album there are pieces of evidence indicating he’s holding his talents in check in order to let the songs do the speaking. He can shift tone and reach notes with effortless ease, but he does it sparingly. This album teaches that production and ‘personality’ are unnecessary – in fact, distractions – if the songwriting itself is strong enough.
Speaking With the Angel
Ministry: Psalm 69 (1992)
The idea of metal, industrial, hard rock, turns me off. I think maybe it’s the relentless masculinity of it, or it could be that it gets caught up in technicalities and proficiency, that it glorifies a dexterity beyond the reach of most mortal guitarists. I always get the feeling that it’s happening over there, that it’s for worshippers not compadres, that it alienates more than it communicates. But there’s no way to deny this band or this album. This is just brilliant. It’s 45 minutes of pure industrial metal hellfire, and it hauls you in whether you want to go there or not. The title is a clever little joke – the reference is to Aleister Crowley and the biblical overtones are misleading as it actually alludes to oral sex. Now, everyone has different opinions about which tracks are key to the album and they’ll love them for diverse reasons, but for mine the two everything revolves around are parked in the centre. “Jesus Built My Hotrod” is about as loose and fun as Ministry get, with superhyped guitar attack propelling Gibby Haynes (from the Butthole Surfers) onto giddy drunken gibberish. It’s a clattering accessible riot. It’s followed by “Scare Crow”, right off at the austere end as they riff on Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” (and squeeze in a reference to “Immigrant Song” as well). Up against the bluesy roll of Led Zeppelin, this is intense, claustrophobic and most of all metronomic. You can lose yourself in the twists and turns of “When the Levee Breaks”; here, you’re trapped. All the other tracks fall somewhere in between, with the possible exception of closer “Grace”, a bleak apocalyptic collage that seems to shut the door on both humanity and hope.
Jesus Built My Hotrod
The Orb: The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991)
‘Ambient House’ isn’t all that effective a description of this music – it’s accurate, but it doesn’t convey the charm and the immersiveness of the sound. When you slow house music down, the rhythm and pulse that initially drove it come to the fore; it doesn’t sound so jangly and convivial, it’s more stately and calming. House grew out of disco, disco grew out of soul and funk,and if you add a bit of dub and reggae in, you’ve basically got the strain of house music the Orb drew on. It’s a great pedigree, and you can hear those sorts of influences all over The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. The tracks here are long – after the first track, “Fluffy Little Clouds” (attractive poppy technobubble with a bit of Steve Reich thrown in), nothing is shorter than eight minutes. And it’s all soundscape, which you need to know before you go in,because otherwise it’s just going to wash over you. Taken on its own terms, it’s masterful, flowing with a hypnotic pulse and energy all its own. References to other ambient artists, while tempting, are unhelpful. But it does help to buy into the premise, which is a cosmic trip from Earth to the outer reaches of space and dimensions and ultimately into the heart of the Ultraworld. The first half becomes progressively more spacious and sparse, substituting shimmering sounds and pulses for music as it goes. Just as you’re abandoned in the vastness of the Universe, the second half pulls you across the dimensions into a kind of reggae jam, before it closes in on a vast, magisterial realm – the Ultraworld, with its huge pulsating brain. Don’t question any of it, just turn the lights out, lie back and let the music do its work. It’s quite a trip.
Fluffy Little Clouds