Slates was a crucial turning point because it defies working class stereotypes, specifically in relation to art. The Fall’s lyrics aren’t restricted to the usual kitchen sink realism in the vein of ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam. Rather than having a “woe is me” perspective on life, Smith liberates himself using working class intellectualism to reclaim art as a thing for the people, not academics. This teaches us a vital life-lesson: you don’t need to be privileged to be cultured. You can be into Ezra Pound and Philip K. Dick but also get shit-faced and neck a couple of double dippers on match-day afternoon. He created work that matches the smart intensity of his literary influences, but it’s still firmly grounded in Prestwich.
Listening After Months in Lockdown → In The Quietus, Daniel Dylan Wray (who claims to listen to five new albums a day) feels that 2020 deadened music’s healing power for him. As the months (and pandemic) dragged on, music only added to the deluge of information (“Pressing play sometimes felt like opening up Twitter …”), and silence was often preferable. Though Daniel still experienced euphoric music moments, a lot of music (or the act of listening to it) felt “draped in sadness.”
Daniel has a theory. His 2020 listening experiences are happening in a singular space — the same place where he’s locked down, living monotonous days, working from home, endlessly worrying. He’s not bonding with music in grungy nightclubs or record shops, or discovering new tunes with friends, or equating albums to time spent on road trips or in unfamiliar cities. Daniel explains:
The process of discovering and experiencing music is intrinsically linked to a sense of place. We all have indelible memories – from the profound to the prosaic – attached to where we were during a musical epiphany or awakening. This year that process has been hacked down to nothing more than sitting in front of a computer screen at home. … Music is a multi-sensory experience, from the sweat and pulse of a club to the stench of stagnant gig venue carpets, and from rifling through fusty charity shop records to perfectly programmed light shows that dazzle the eye as music tickles the ear and chugging smoke machines engulf you. 2020 has robbed music of these other senses.
He has a point. I do equate many of my favorite songs and albums with events, people, or places. And I don’t go out as much as I used to (even before COVID-times), which might be why I don’t have too many current songs with strong memetic connective tissue.
Music critic Ann Powers writes about similar feelings in her moving new essay Diary of a Fugue Year. Like Daniel, she refers to music as another layer of information to digest. But she also finds that her mindset toward music has transformed after months of lockdown, flavoring the act of listening with a strange intimacy:
Music makes me yearn for what feels lost: a whisper pushing breath onto my neck, a voice singing loud into a crowd yelling back at it. In my solitude, though, recordings become a lifeline. Spending time with music has never felt more private, a way of both sheltering from and mediating the noise from outside. At the same time, the sound always takes me somewhere; it’s often the only way I hear a stranger’s voice on any given day. See what I’m getting at? Nothing’s got just one meaning. In a year crowded with contradictions, music’s way of enhancing emotion can feel clarifying, or it can overwhelm. Like every other form of information, music is reaching people through static-filled channels, distorted, muffled, feeding back.
We know many new practices will linger after the pandemic: working from home, live-streamed concerts, and telemedicine, to name a few. We might also listen differently, our ears heightened to receive the emotion of the moment. At home, songs will continue to sound much more personal than before COVID-times. And in the wild, music discovery becomes a visceral experience like few others.
CBGB Virtual Tour → Experience the grime, grit, and magnificence of CBGB & OMFUG just before shutting its doors in 2006. I was lucky to visit the club in 1991 (Monster Magnet were playing — this was during CMJ Music Marathon), but I could only handle about five minutes as the place was so hot, tiny, and packed. I had a better time next door at the Gallery, where I watched Jad Fair stomp his feet and sing songs a cappella.1He mic’ed the floor so his foot stomps would be amplified. The bemused sound guy spent 10 minutes moving microphones around until Jad was satisfied with the sound of his stomps. This virtual tour is a trip, though. Don’t miss out on the infamous bathrooms. And Unsane were quite strategic with their band stickers, weren’t they? (h/t Joe Livingston)
Matthew Cardinal – Asterisms → If calming those pandemic nerves is the aim, then Asterisms is the game. Matthew Cardinal, a member of the Edmonton band nêhiyawak (described in the press release as ‘moccasingaze’), pleasingly layers tones and washes of sound throughout his solo debut’s enchanting 43 minutes. There are some things to decipher here — the song titles are dates without years, and it’s not clear if “Dec 31st” and “Jan 8th” are yet to happen or already passed. Maybe these are the days the tracks were recorded, or when best to listen. And the album’s title either references typography or astronomy, both realms where the term “asterism” exists. This fuzziness reflects the music, lost somewhere between past and future, between rigid text-space and intangible star fields. There are hints of melodies that fade in and out of each other, and occasionally a Schulze-esque synth sound will bubble up from the haze. And with nearly half the tracks clocking in at under three minutes, these aren’t elongated, drifty drones, but the shorties also don’t come off as unfinished snapshots. There’s enough variety here to imbue a thoughtful motion to the album, as recalling past days in our lives reveals different colors and fading experiences. Most importantly, Asterisms is a comforting listen, and I happily give in to its spell. Matthew Cardinal has confidently earned his gold star among the busy field of 2020’s ambient exporters. (P.S. Here’s a kaleidoscopic video for “Dec 4th.”)
Bandcamp’s Live Stream Platform → After some September trial runs with live online concerts from Mary Lattimore, Matmos, and Sarah Davachi, Bandcamp has announced a public launch of its live stream platform. This live stream feature is built from the foundation of a retail music site instead of a video networking tool adapted for music performance. And because the backend is Bandcamp — and pretty much every band has a Bandcamp presence — there’s a much lower barrier to entry than something like Dice.
Livestreams will incorporate many of Bandcamp’s existing tools, such as fan messaging and merch sales. An added feature is a live chat window, which includes notifications when fans buy merch items. Bands can sell tickets to their live stream concerts, with Bandcamp taking 10% of the revenue (and no Ticketmaster-ish hidden fees). Until the first of April 2021, Bandcamp will waive this fee.
I find the announcement exciting. It’s, at the same time, a natural next-step for Bandcamp and an outside-of-the-box move. All bets are on this live stream platform being a big hit, positioning Bandcamp as a contender in this field once the pandemic subsides. Live stream concerts aren’t going anywhere, folks.
I’d love to see Bandcamp continue developing the platform to add things like geofencing, which would allow bands to do virtual ‘tours.’ And maybe an option to chain bands together under a single ticket for festivals and opening slots. I also want to see the bands step things up — to use this in surprising and unusual ways, rather than simply livestreaming some musicians playing in a living room.
The Fall in 1980 → The beginning of this article on The Quietus posits that your favorite album by The Fall is the first one you’ve heard. They’ve got a kazillion albums, so I can see how difficult it is to choose a favorite objectively. The first one I heard was This Nation’s Saving Grace, rescued from a cut-out bin while I was in college. Yeah, it’s my favorite. But, man, I do like a lot of other Fall albums, too.
Angus Batey, the writer of this Quietus piece, is fascinated by Fall singer Mark E. Smith’s lyrics. I’d say that’s the case with all listeners of this often challenging band. But Batey alludes to connections and references I hadn’t realized, portraying Smith’s oeuvre as a self-contained musical wiki of sorts. The Fall exercised intricate and interconnected world-building through the band’s presentation, lyrics, and identifiable sound. What’s remarkable is that Smith latched on to this, nearly formed, at such a young age. Early Fall was more ramshackle, but it’s still The Fall we recognize years later. The essential bits were always in place.
Here’s Batey on the wiki-nature of Smith’s wordplay:
Where to begin? And at what point would you believe you’d finished figuring out what the hell was going on? Perhaps it’s better not to start, and just delight in how [Mark E.] Smith uses his brilliant band like a stage conjuror uses the cape and top hat – as a diversion and a distraction, cloaking the deception. It’s little wonder contemporary critics baffled by Grotesque thought Smith was hiding something. In many ways they were right. […] Anyone trying to critique and catalogue and contextualise this stuff as it came out was doomed to fail. It’s too deep, too densely packed, too rich in allusion and scope and too well-read and learned in its reference points, even in an era with so much more information so easily locatable as is the case in 21st-century internet-enabled present. Back in 1980, nobody really had a chance.
If you’re not familiar with The Fall, then I’m not sure if this article will pique your curiosity or drive you away. But The Fall were that kind of band, really. If it’s curiosity, then I’d start with This Nation’s Saving Grace — though, as it’s my first Fall album, I’m biased.
Steve Jansen – “The Extinct Suite” (video) → I randomly happened across this video for a song by Steve Jansen, ex-Japan drummer and otherwise storied musician and producer. The tune hails from 2017’s ambient solo album of the same name. “The Extinct Suite” — the only track on the album — is 56-minutes long, but we are treated to a nearly 5-minute excerpt for the video. This video is remarkable, created by German photographer and animator Anna Malina. Her Tumblr blog shows some of the original prints and their assembly for this dark, visual feast. I was intensely into photography while in college — my second nostalgic college reference in this post — but got bored after a few years. If I had the vision to stretch the medium’s possibilities as Malina does, I bet I would have kept at it.
The Quietus pointed out that Slowdive’s album Pygmalion is 25 years old. Pygmalion is one of those ignored-at-the-time albums that creeps up, virus-like, many years later in influence and reputation. If you know what Slowdive sounds like, but you haven’t heard Pygmalion, then you don’t know what Pygmalion sounds like. As Joe Banks expressively says in The Quietus piece, “If Slowdive had previously sculpted a Gaudí-esque edifice from their pedal boards, Pygmalion puts us inside its walls.”
For all of its beauty and tameness (and I don’t mean that as a dis), it’s wild that Pygmalion was considered ‘difficult’ in 1995. I have to admit — I’m not even sure if I ‘got it’ when it was released (I remember buying an expensive import of the CD because their US label passed on it). I mean, where are the drums?
Banks points out a direct line of influence from Talk Talk’s last two albums and Pygmalion. They’re treading similar soundscapes. Talk Talk had a bitter battle with EMI over the likewise ‘difficult’ The Spirit of Eden, eventually getting dropped from the label. Good thing this didn’t dissuade Slowdive as Pygmalion is a gorgeous statement that wouldn’t be out of place as a new release on a post-rock label’s 2020 release schedule. Oh, hurried world — this is the sound we need now.
As for not heeding Talk Talk’s downfall, Slowdive was dropped from Creation Records a week after Pygmalion‘s year-delayed release date. Let’s show Alan McGee who knows best — listen to Pygmalion here.
This post was adapted from the debut episode of my email newsletter Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. Click here to check out the full issue and subscribe.