Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: O

O is for…

… Obsessive – Sidi Bou Said (Skif)

A great many bands fail to leave a decent epitaph. Rather they announce themselves in a blaze of hype or, for the greater many, put out an LP that has been several years in the making, capturing something of themselves that is perhaps lost once they’ve achieved that most wondrous of things, to record an LP of original material that has been well-received. In this instance, any follow-up is tainted by the pressure to keep up a standard.

This is why I guess I prefer those who operate relatively off-radar, and one of my favourites of the late 90s was Sidi Bou Said. Their association with Cardiacs never hurt them, for sure, and it is why I became aware of them but they were certainly their own band, creating some of the most beautiful, bendy, dramatic pop harmonies I’ve had the pleasure to hear.

The first time I saw them, at the Southampton Joiners in 1997, I only knew a couple of songs, it was a sparsely attended night and the magic didn’t hit me then. It’s not always an instant thing. However, once I got given a copy of their LP Obsessive to review for the University of Portsmouth mag Pugwash, I soon became overwhelmed by them.

The LP was subtitled “A game of death and paranoia for two to six players” and, as such, the sleeve folded out to create an elementary board game, had pieces to cut out and fold, while the side panel of the jewel case contained a mini dice. This was just garnish though.

The LP opens in strident fashion with the brimming title track attacking romantic possessiveness: “You’re so obsessive, can’t take you anywhere”. Throughout the LP, the coming together of the voices of lead singer / guitarist Claire Lemmon and drummer Mel Woods is a glorious burst of femininity that skirts around militant feminism (although ‘Bella’s aggression has greater impact for it being alone in its abrasiveness), instead displaying a kind of dainty femme-power. You’d call it Quiet Grrrl, if Gayl Harrison didn’t give the tunes such a weighty underbelly with her basstones.

Elsewhere there is the snaky hymn to low self-esteem ‘Funnybody’ while ‘Zazie (Dans Le Metro)’ and the great ‘Seams Undone’ are brisker and more direct. The two peaks of the LP though are ‘Bridge Song’ and ‘Twenty Thousand Horses’ which build slowly around orchestration from the KIF Quartet to showers of passionate vocal standard-bearing. Husband of bassist Gayl, and then Cardiac, Jon Poole produces with appropriate pizzazz and it is a magnificently complete set of songs.

Not that we knew it at the time but Obsessive turned out to be their final LP and it was a perfect way to go out in recorded format. There was also a farewell show at the Highbury Garage which I attended and it was everything you would hope such an event to be. There were tears. Some were mine.

Mel and Claire have worked together since; I have seen them as Tetra and Eva Lema, while apparently there was an untrumpeted one-off reunion late last year. The two of them can also usually be found providing backing vocals at the annual Cardiacs shows as well.

The song ‘Stopper’ from the LP concludes with a repeated roar of “I am not wanted / I am not preferred / I am not needed”. Well, they were by me.

… occupational hazards (Ben)

A career in music”. A phrase to raise my hackles, if ever there was one. I want to hear musicians say that they absolutely HAVE to make music. That, more than even a burning passion, it’s a compulsion. An obligation. There really is NO other course of action.

But the fact remains that, for many people, music is nothing but a career choice. An occupation. And a quick look at the official Occupational Hazards website (never let it be said that my research for these pieces isn't extensive and exhausting...) reveals that little if any consideration is given to the occupational hazards of being in a band. And make no mistake – rock ‘n’ roll is a dangerous business.

So allow me to play careers advisor. In the interests of health and safety, here’s a cut-out-‘n’-keep guide to the perils and pitfalls you might experience should you decide to go into “a career in music”…

1. You're starting out. That means the seemingly endless touring of toilets, where - appropriately enough - there might well be warm urine deliberately lobbed in your direction. Just hope that most of it falls out of the pint glass upon unsuspecting audience members en route to the stage. Utter indifference is a more likely response. You are forced to support shitty bands who think they're great. On these occasions, the sound mix is always geared towards the headliners, who are allocated twice as long to soundcheck. You must carry on trying to impress while sounding like a couple of cats fighting in a metal dustbin. Your guitar strings will break and your amps will cut out. Replacements? Pah. And that's not to mention the ever-present possibility of electrocution from dodgy wiring.

2. The meteoric rise to fame (NB it can happen to even the worst and most pathetically one-dimensional of bands, so best be prepared, eh?). The music press will write a lot of very complimentary things about you. Certain publications (eg NME, as Pete noted last week) will be hyperbolic in their estimation of your achievements and potential. This hype, together with the adulation of thousands of new recruits to your fan club (or MySpace page) and the inevitably burgeoning drug habit, will inflate your ego to enormous proportions. In short, you may well find yourself becoming an arrogant cunt.

3. More touring to cement your new-found fame. With playing every night, tinnitus may become an issue. Invest in a pair of earplugs - not luminous yellow ones, as they're very visible and make you look a bit old and sad and not the hip young gunslingers you obviously are. The combination of being away from home for long periods and the feverish attention of attractive young fans means that existing long-standing relationships are stretched to breaking point. If you're Matt Bellamy of Muse, this inspires you to wreak similar havoc with your friends' lives, urging them all to consort with prostitutes. If you're Phil Collins, this inspires you to dump your second wife by fax. Phil clearly would have benefitted from being told he'd become a cunt. (It's been announced in the last week that Phil has now split from his third wife Orianne, whom he married in 1999. Seven years. Phew. She must have a lot of patience. Either that, or an inexplicable passion for short, balding cunts.)

4. Things are on the slide. You've reached the peak - it's all downhill from here. You may have had snide and uncomprehending reviews in the past, but it's about to get much worse. No-one likes your new direction, not even your fans, who grin and bear it but at every opportunity clamour for that song you wrote five years ago that propelled you onto MTV but which you now loathe. Your turn to grin and bear it. Or to plumb the depths of bitterness and write a spiteful song about how spiteful people with the "wrong" opinion of your music are (see: Stereophonics). And, to make matters worse, you've contracted an STD from one of your groupies.

5. Further ignominy - you're dropped by your label. Strangely enough, their promise to support and sponsor your artistic endeavours and a positive review (even on influential internet weblogs like Silent Words Speak Loudest) counts for nothing when sales of your magnum opus fail to reach triple figures. The band collapses, and with it your friendships, your dreams, your future, your source of income. You might be able to make something out of this if you can convince a Kate Moss obsessed media that you're her beau, and a misguided genius and poet to boot. If not, the scrapheap and a job in Dixons beckons.

6. "Whoa there", I hear you say, "there are plenty of bands who never really experience stages four and five". True enough. But they still face occupational hazards. This might involve developing a messiah complex and thinking you can solve all the world's problems (see: Bono). It might involve burdening your child with a fucking stupid name (see: Chris Martin, Bob Geldof, Frank Zappa). Or it might involve developing repetitive strain injury by playing the same two or three chords repeatedly and subsequently being treated by Leicester City Football Club's physio (see: Status Quo's Rick Parfitt).

You have been warned.

… ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ and Will Oldham (Steve)

When I read a review in Melody Maker of Palace Brothers’ Drag City single ‘Ohio River Boat Song’, my interest was piqued by Everett True’s typically hyperbolic prose. Not even that prepared me for the experience of first playing the single when I finally got a copy. Right from the start, that song sets a fire of hairs standing on end that increases as the final verse takes hold.

And her dance was like the gleam of the sunlight on the stream / And the screeching bluejays seem…” – sung by unison vocals as the song almost imperceptibly increases in tempo and volume. The vocals split into broken and parched harmonies on “… to form her name when screaming…”, getting more impassioned for “But my heart is full of woe…”, by which point it’s game over and I’m a mess on the floor. Back to the start and play it again. And again.

It’s a song you feel you’ve known all your life, which seems to have grown out of the ground, natural as spring water – it could have been written any time over the previous 100 (200?) years.

The recording is suitably rough, ready and rustic, released in perfectly understated packaging – a list of thank you’s (“impossible without…”) with a dark black and white picture of men hunkered over instruments, one of them leaning back smiling to himself. Is he in rapture? Did he make a mistake? Perhaps some kind of private joke?

As anyone who has taken an interest in Will Oldham’s subsequent career will know, the answer is usually all of the above. A friend and I interviewed him over the phone once in those early days for a fanzine. As we knew next to nothing about the people who had made this music, we asked a dumb question about Slint and the music scene in Louisville, at which point he put the phone down, wandered around the office for what seemed like hours, before coming back and answering “Yes”. All subsequent responses were monosyllabic, until “click”.

I’ve followed Will Oldham’s work since 1993, in the hope of recapturing the feeling I got from ‘Ohio…’, mostly in vain. It’s not as if I don’t “believe” him anymore – right from the start, it was obvious that whoever was doing this was adopting a pose, telling a story, ACTING. If anything, Oldham is a great song-stylist, like Tom Waits he’s a great interpreter of American music – the fact that he’s not singing about his own pain or struggle doesn’t detract from the emotional connection and response that you have to the performance. But despite getting pretty close much of the time (especially with his Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona), I think Oldham nailed his “art” at that early attempt. I hope he proves me wrong!

… ohrwurm (Swiss Toni)

Have you ever had a tune that seems to be locked on a permanent loop in your brain? A melody so nagging that you catch yourself humming it over and over again? It could be the last song you heard in the car; it could be the theme to a TV programme; it could be the soundtrack to a computer game; it could be a mobile phone ringtone; it could be a jingle from the radio (and ‘Celebrity Tarzan’ is particularly guilty of this). In short, it could be anything.

If you have experienced this – and I’m sure that you must have – then you will already be familiar with the phenomenon. What you might not know is that this concept has a name: “Ohrwurm”. It’s a German word that literally translates into English as “earworm”, and refers to a song or tune that becomes lodged in one’s head. According to scientists, an earworm is a tune that creates a cognitive itch in the brain that can only be scratched through repetition. Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati College of Business Administration (and, I kid you not, an earworm researcher) reckons that between 97-99% of the population are susceptible to earworms, that women are more susceptible than men, and that musicians are more susceptible than non-musicians.

I don’t know about that, but I do know that I get earworms all time, and that they are highly infectious. Earworms are transmitted from person to person like wildfire – if you hear someone singing a song, the chances are that you will catch yourself singing the same song within minutes. I get hours of entertainment out of this at work: the guy who sits next to me is extremely earworm-sensitive, and all I have to do is to think of as ridiculous a song as I can, start to hum it, and usually he will have picked it up before I’ve got to the chorus. He’ll catch himself singing ‘Tragedy’ by the Bee Gees (or something), look confused and then start cursing me. Sadly he is now all too aware of the fact that this is a game that works both ways – I caught myself singing ‘Shaddapayaface’ this morning.

I suppose it could have been worse. My own personal earworm low point was when I was walking back to my halls of residence as a student and realised I was cheerfully singing ‘Heal The World’ by Michael Jackson. Loudly. This was followed by the realisation that I had been singing the same song all day. I was mortified. It was all I could do not to turn myself around and try to find everyone I had met during the course of the day to try to explain to them that it was just an earworm and that I wasn’t a fan….

So what are the world’s most earworm-y songs then? Well, everybody will be different, but here are the five songs that I catch myself singing most often (well, today anyway):

5. ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ – The Foundations
4. ‘Ain’t Got No. I Got Life’ – Nina Simone
3. ‘I Predict a Riot’ – The Kaiser Chiefs
2. The theme from ‘Jonny Briggs’ (I cannot escape this)
1. Anything. Absolutely bloody anything.

Still. It keeps life interesting, and is certainly better than silence.

What’s in your head?

… omnipresent (Jez)

I can hear music”, said Beach Boys. Brian Wilson was probably also hearing imaginary birds chirping, tiny bells tinkling and massive goats playing the then unborn Darkness’ whole ridiculous catalogue on pan pipes out of their arses. But if he was defrosted from his cryogenic state behind that piano I’d be able to wholeheartedly agree with him, because I can hear music too. Everywhere I bloody go.

It’s not always a problem. If one of my few trusted sources is doing the choosing then things are absolutely fine. But what happens when I’m in a pub / restaurant / shopping centre etc can be completely nauseating.

I find much of it truly odious. A quiet Mormon church couldn’t be more offended if Burzum turned up on a Sunday morning and plugged in. If you think they’d be outraged you should hear me when I’m in a pub, taking my first welcome sip, and the opening bars to ‘Hot Legs’ dribble their way out of the speakers. Maybe it’s a conspiracy started by Sony and continued by Apple to simultaneously protect your brain and destroy your eardrums by forcing you to shove your earplugs in.

However, there is a shining beacon in the murk of background music. If that ramshackle load of bollocks who reckon ‘God Is A DJ’ are right, then He’s spinning the discs at my local Co-op. During my ten minute visit to pick up some milk today the Big Fella played Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere To Run’, The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’ and Edwin Starr’s ‘25 Miles’. Bloody marvellous. In fact, why don’t we have an A-Z party there? We can hang around the beer fridge gulping the stuff down before we’ve paid for it. What’s more, the crisps and nuts are in the adjoining aisle. The music’s great too.

(The Big G appears at the Co-op West Bridgford, Nottingham, Mon-Sat 8am to 10pm. Sundays he manages Burzum, for a giggle.)

… ‘Once More With Feeling’ (Caskared)

It may be deemed a touch geeky to like ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’. It may also be considered a teensy bit naff to enjoy karaoke. Some may posit that musicals are on the nerdier straits. But to all of that I say pah! I will play the musical episode of ‘Buffy’ with subtitles on to make it into a karaoke fest. I’m out and I’m proud: I love ‘Once More With Feeling’.

The rumours of a musical episode of ‘Buffy’ began six months before it was aired in 2002 on BBC2 in the UK. Me oh my what a delight it was from the opening title sequence with its strings, harp and glockenspiel accompanying smiling faces rostruming over the moon, to the operatic “Grrr, arg” of the mutant enemy monster at the close. Joss Whedon (‘Buffy’’s creator) wrote the music and lyrics over a summer on his four-track and brought demos in to be arranged by the show’s regular musical people Christophe Beck and Jesse Tobias. The music has always been a key aspect of the show, for example ‘Hush’ where the citizens of Sunnydale were silent due to voice-stealing meanies, and ‘Once More With Feeling’ took it in a whole new direction.

The premise is (and I’ll not give any spoilers for soft eyes) a demon is causing the townsfolk to express pent-up feelings through bursting into song and canny choreography, and occasionally flames. Cue ballads, counter duets, retro pastiches, runaway pop hits, rock outbursts, and it turns out that the devil does get all the best tunes with ‘What You Feel’ and some mean tap dancing by broadway star Hinton Battle.

The lyrics are hilarious and super-smart, and what’s more they scan beautifully. During a patrol in the graveyard a chorus of demons:

She does pretty well with fiends from hell / But lately, we can tell / That she's just going through the motions (Going through the motions) / Faking it some how / She's not even half the girl she – ow”.

Or the big band cameo sung by writer/producer David Fury in celebration of his dry cleaning:

They got, the mustard out (They got the mustard out)”.

Or in the duet between Xander and Anya:

(Anya) “When things get rough, he just hides behind his Buffy. / Now look, he's gettin' huffy. / Cuz he knows that I know”.
(Xander) “She clings, she's needy, she's also really greedy. / She never...
(Anya) “His eyes are beady!
(Xander) “This is my verse, hello? She...
(Anya) “Look at me, I’m dancing crazy!

And Dawn and Sweet the demon:

(Dawn) “What I mean / I’m fifteen / So this queen thing’s illegal”.
(Sweet) “I can bring whole cities to ruin / And still have time to get a soft-shoe in”.

Other fabulous moments include Anya’s bunny outburst in ‘I’ve Got A Theory’, the parking ticket, the dancing sweepers and the tinkling bell of the Magic Box not to forget how much they got away with at primetime through song. What is a Chumarsh tribe?

As the actors are just that, actors, and not necessarily singers, so there is a bit of manipulation in who has all the songs. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) makes do with a few strained supporting lines whereas her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head who had a stint in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’) lead the way. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) does admirably and it’s not obvious she hated every minute. Her pain was our gain!

… Ooberman (Pete)

Now and then, and especially when spring and summer approach, I get fed up with listening to indie miserablists and I need a dose of pure pop. Indie pop of course. None of yer bog-standard chart rubbish mind. More often than not, it will be the first St Etienne album, but sometimes I'll pick up Ooberman's debut as a refreshing alternative instead.

There was (and still is) always something endearing about Ooberman's intelligent but fun take on pop music. Fronted by Danny Popplewell and the possibly delectable Sophia Churney they contrived to come up with The Magic Treehouse, a collection of – as the name might suggest – happy-go-lucky, summery and occasionally slightly psychedelic tunes.

'Blossoms Falling' was the 2m 31s long (or short) single that first drew my attention to the Liverpool / Bradford fivepiece. A joyful ode to waking up to your loved one might well have been over almost as quickly as it started, but it stayed in my ears for a lot longer. They weren’t a perfect band by any means. Some songs were almost too earnest and a little too fey and naïve, but the occasional moments of wide-eyed musical innocence made the band even more endearing. To me at least.

A few tracks off the album did stick out though: 'Sur La Plage' was an excitable tale of escaping dreary Blighty for a summer of European travel, while 'Shorley Wall' was the lush, mournful but touching track that managed to get a bit of airplay on Radio 1.

It remained their only song to get any airplay too. Like so many bands, they never quite made it. Despite the debut album and the accompanying singles being well received by the critics, it was the usual tale of press acclaim not turning into sales (and how many times have we heard that clichéd sentence?). Dropped by their first label, they never recaptured their early form on their second album. Add to this the decaying relationship of the front pair and Ooberman finally bit the dust in May 2005.

I still occasionally kick myself for going for a pint instead of walking the long walk to my old student union to see them live (for free I should hasten to add). Not only did sod's law prevail and it turned out to be a cracking gig (probably the last decent one at Surrey University), but I never had another opportunity to see them again before they folded. Bugger.

… Beth Orton (Paul)

"Went down to a central reservation / In last night's red dress / And I can still smell you on my fingers /And taste you on my breath".

Taken from the title track of 1999's Central Reservation album, it takes Beth Orton four beautifully crafted lines to capture the sense of a lover reminiscing on her previous evening, and the time spent in the company of someone else.

The album itself is a wonderful collection of songs, all performed in her beautifully softly spoken voice and evoking feelings shared by young (and not so young) couples everywhere - from the sense of lingering memories in ‘Central Reservation’ to the forward looking ‘Sweetest Decline’:

"What's the use in regrets? / They're just things we haven't done yet / What are regrets? / They're just lessons we haven't learned yet".

Shameless romantic I may be (at times), but the sentiments echoed in the above songs, and others on the album, are ones in which I find a sense of hope, and a descriptive outpouring of emotions which I feel in relation to certain instances in my past, and people in my present.

Whilst I remain yet to be convinced that Orton's subsequent work has necessarily continued to meet the same standard, and having been disappointed when seeing her perform live, I still firmly hold Central Reservation up as a wonderful album containing songs that are guaranteed to see my eyes drift slightly out of focus, and a smile spread across my face. I may still have lessons to learn, but like Beth, I maintain that life would be infinitely less enjoyable if that wasn't the case.

… Otis Lee Crenshaw (drmigs)

Some people have issues with “comedy songs” but I think comedy and music are natural bedfellows. As the joke that just doesn't work in writing goes, the art of comedy i - timing - s good (or something like that). And music can provide the framework in which comedic timing can flourish. Now whilst I admit that all that Mockney ‘Knees Up Muvver Braan’, 'Have A Banana’ nonsense can be somewhat trying, there are also well-structured gems out there. Few are better executed and well crafted than the works of Otis Lee Crenshaw.

Otis Lee Crenshaw aka Rich Hall's Confederate felon alter-ego performs dark country music. It isn't jazz: "Jazz ain't nothing but when you throw a blues quartet down a long flight of stairs". It's true to the genre, and it's also damn fine comedy; no lyric not thought out – for both comedic and emotive content. There's a particular genius in the ability to weave surprise into a song with a caustic lyric, and a cunning rhyme. And his songs are littered with throw away one-liners that seamlessly appear from the natural meter and rhythm, and catch you unaware. Forgive me for listing (yes, I know I've done it before), but it's easiest to make the point by giving examples. Take the following:

From 'Drunk':

"These boring Mormons / They don't have hormones / They just exist".

From 'Women Call It Stalking':

"When I see her there'll be tears down my face / It might be love and it might be mace".

From 'Trailerland':

"We thought he was retarded / Just turns out that his pants were too tight".

I don't want to ruin all the songs for you, so I'll leave it at that. But whilst you might not be comfortable with the blackness of the material, you get the point; lyrics can be funny within the framework of a song without disrupting flow. For me, this type of comedic song writing only really works when it's done by comedians who are also songwriters. As glib as Rowan Atkinson's song about the women leaving the fields to fight the fascists is:

We're the women leaving the fields to fight the fascist / Oh yes indeed it is a lovely day / We're strong, we're free, we're women / Oh and we're also Nicaraguan by the way”.

It is missing the essential element that is the crafting of a song that works as well musically as it does lyrically. There are countless examples of comedic songs that stand up on their own both musically and lyrically, from Tom Lehrer's politically astute 'It Makes A Fellow To Be A Soldier' to the stunningly well performed musical pastiche 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' by Monty Python. And taken as a collective, they simply add a different perspective to music. As such, they should be equally appreciated alongside more mainstream offerings, not looked down upon as a cheapening of the art form.

* * * * *

Thanks to Skif, Steve, Swiss Toni, Jez, Caskared, Pete, Paul and drmigs for their contributions this week.

Unfortunately, circumstances are going to make an A-Z feature for next week impossible, so it'll be back in a fortnight's time. With a vengeance (whatever that means).


Blogger Ben said...

Swiss Toni: I chuckled at the idea of infecting people with earworms and you getting "infected" by 'Shaddapayaface'... As for halls of residence earworms, I made sure I only had good ones - that first day I blasted out Dinosaur Jr's Where You Been and some Sonic Youth to avoid any embarrassment.

drmigs: Also laughed about Otis Lee Crenshaw's line about mace. Seen Rich Hall on TV plenty of times, but you've made me want to see him do the Crenshaw stuff.

Skif: Have you seen any live Crenshaw material?

Jez: I'm loving the idea of an A-Z party. Perhaps it should be saved for the end of the feature. Then we'll all convene in the West Bridgford Co-op (the big one, not the little one nearest to Trent Bridge) and enjoy God DJing before moving on to a pub or two. I can be there easily, so can Paul, Swiss Toni and (I think) Steve - what about the rest of you?

1:54 am  
Blogger skif said...

Ben, yes I've briefly seen Rich Hall doing Otis as part of late night bill in Edinburgh, but never a full show (aside from the DVD).

I always liked his tune which has a chorus of "If humans evolved from the monkeys, how come there's still monkeys".

More experienced with Rich Hall's stand-up of which one joke I always come back to is his thing about the thin line between madness and genius. Something along the lines of:

Bob Dylan picks up a guitar and plays a harmonica at the same time and we call him a genius.

Yet if he had made that extra effort to tie a set of cymbals to his knees…

Maybe I should have made 'madness' my entry for 'M'. Next time, eh.

8:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I reckon I'm familiar with that look on you drmigs, hope you've found a suitable window for it up there in the other place.

3:55 pm  

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