19/02/2010

TOO COOL, I THINK, FOR MORNING

Without some vulgarity there is no complete man.
- Raymond Chandler

He has the semblance of vast experience, or "wisdom". Tacit uncanny models, unseen and unfelt states events. He knows what you're made to pretend at (blazered kids cracking jokes about crack). I always suspected him of having written a long novel, some quiet greatness. Maybe seventy portraits of the same thing. Only way.

Babes In Toyland drink with Dowland, upskiller, J Dillazilla,
a local authority and a name. spiral shorthand. For
the postmodern had something to offer
though it took our time to sign up.



18/02/2010

ALBUM REVIEW: "Here's The Tender Coming" - The Unthanks

 

"My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about 30, the youngest is four...mother does nought but look after home...I go to pit at 5 o'clock in the morning...I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose...the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves...the boys take liberties with me sometimes, they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit...all the men are naked..."
- “Patience Kershaw”,
quoted in the "First Report of the Commission On the Employment of Children" (1842)


"This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such an one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon."
- Lord Ashley, philanthropist.


DISCLAIMER: This album is one of the more lovely things I've ever appraised. The Unthanks pull off well-worn melodies and unsurprising cadences and make them compelling, where they could easily have been cliched. They unearth the dark, trad.arr. horrors of certain folk tales and wrap them in melodious brogues, hoping strings and wry brass. And it's exactly this that conflicts; this is beautiful and abject, dreamy even as it is documentary. "Here's The Tender Coming" is a charming ride through miseries past.


The auld box opens up with a slightly leaden madrigal, "Because He Was A Bonnie Lad" - like Fleet Foxes if they'd been on the Brown Ale - but it sets the period well enough, placing us into thoughtful Victoriana. Folk gets timelessness automatically, since if it weaves in enough universals - love, lucklessness, laughter - of course you'll find the old-moded and the traditional resonating with your life.

Vocal lead is shared between Rachel and Becky, with Becky's deeper, jazz-soaked pipes turning her sides of "Sad February", "Annachie Gordon", "Lucky Gilchrist" into smooth dramas. (In fact, Becky's tones would fit very well in the calmer strains of trip-hop.) Rachel's breathy, rawer tone feels more honest, far more the contemporaneous village narrator.



The subject matter's mostly crushing - a fishing boat disaster; Romeos, Juliets, and economic marriage; dead friends; and miner's sicknesses. There's a general concern for plain and plaintive people that the historical record never bothered with. While the vocals' counterpoint sometimes makes these stories personable, often there's instead a tangle between content and form. Even where they sing first-person (embodying the stories) it can feel like reportage. In places you get the dischord that artistic war photography draws. Troubled by mastery, and by my reactions to it.

Wait; from the above you'll get the impression that The Unthanks are somehow madly, crassly contrasting the tragic and the jaunty. They don't. What I mean is that there's big, unsettled contrasts between the humble and the grand; the personal and the abstract; the tragic and the painless throughout. Half the songs - see tracks 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 - build up to intricate and sweeping refrains. I'm reading this as the intense emotions of the characters, but again feel the two sets of horns locking.

Perhaps what I hear as apposite jazz comes out of the album's precision - "Annachie Gordon" and, say, "Living By The Water" are the most polished folk you're ever likely to hear. The former is also the cutest portrait of star-cross'd heartbreak and death, xylophone and radiant guitar line sweeping us away unsuspecting. "Lucky Gilchrist", an Unthanks original written to eulogize a friend, is powerfully direct in its jazz, almost irreverent - he's said to be "not so lucky"; "camp and yet angry." I can't hold aught against its invention, or their expression. It's partly the strings' fault - alternately peaceful and sanguine, they comment on their songs: "Wasn't it dreadful back then, long, long ago...".

The epitome of the album, in persuasive beauty and story/presentation contrast, is "The Testimony of Patience Kershaw", an Unthanks setting of a 1970s ballad about a Victorian miner girl interviewed by a reformist.



"I say my prayers, but what's the use? / Tomorrow will be just the same."

It's stately and humble. It's fatalistic and hopeful. It's first-person - and deeply strange; after confessing her heartbreaking daily routine to us, Patience ends the song by looking a century ahead in time and giving us all the eye: she sees somewhere where men and women are at last "walking side by side." Well...

There's been a trend in all kinds of media recently to (finally) attend to the lives of those written out of History - which is mostly a story about bastards and saints, and few others. Folklore always took up the preservation and honouring of "ordinary" folk's experiences, in a semi-historical, archetypal memory. You might place the Unthanks in this trend and this tradition, particularly in the way they focalise women of the past, and make them speak as feminism has allowed moderns to speak; as agents, equals, desirers and, as in most of these songs, the oppressed. "Betsy Bell" totes this ideological stuff as well as being the most upbeat moment of the album; a comic, raucous country reel.

You can find opposition in the title track too - it aestheticizes an ill - but it also shows how you might instead present such things in the event of my having a point; the cello drone underneath gives the song - a tale of a government conscription man come to a community - a fitting, powerful menace and balances out its raptures.

This album is wryly gorgeous. It sleeps through itself, and invites you to slumber with it. But maybe folk should leave dreams to pop and nightmares to metal. It's at least possible that the very worst way to be discounted is to be made nice.



ERRATA (IN WHICH I ARGUE WITH MYSELF)
0. You should have stopped this whole mess at the disclaimer, which is, not incidentally, the place where the music album review stops and the facile cultural critique begins.

1. Honest? True? What kind of preposterous purist are you, to make music, even folk music about "authenticity", of all things?

Folk is fantasy, the people's idea of the People filtered through dozens of "authors" and coming out wise by default. To demand accuracy or lucidity from it is missing the point. Moreover, most of these songs are indeed "archetypal"; no-one's memory is being impugned, you ass. Unless you worry about character assassination of fictions.


2. Appropriate? Who are you to say what emotion can and cannot be output?

(Response: The propriety of the thing comes, simply, from the subject matter. Here, this is the lives and sufferings of people a hundred or two years dead.

Respecting the dead is not at all a necessary principle - but we might refrain from rendering their experiences as objects of bliss. We could try to not aestheticize them out of consideration.

Contrasting form and content as they do is a great artistic flourish but bears heavy consequences in and above the device.)


3. I engage more with these ahistorical figures as a result of the Unthanks' towering musical "wrappings". I'm able to pay them respect and honour as a function of the beauty of the narrative in which they're placed.


4. I think you're confused about what folk can be.

Take, for barest e.g's sake, Half Man Half Biscuit; they are first-foremost a folk band, this despite their music being eclectic post-punk and their lyrical setting being British D-listers and sardonic postindustrial-street wit. The distance of time that "folk" happens to span, or even the genre it technically fits into, aren't central to what it is.

I suppose I'm attributing some weighty Cultural Continuity to "folk" here, and claiming that, as popular music has spread its claws, this can be and is done with any style of music. Yeah, that works.

It's surely soon enough that the 1953 North Sea flood; Gagarin; Tony Benn; Thatcher; Khomenei; Poll Tax nutters; and even the fucking blogosphere will be sewn into the distorted tapestry of folk. That is to say, into the weird, supermassive-artefact idea of "folk music" that I've talked myself into.

17/02/2010

INTERVIEW: Chuck Ragan


Hello Mr Ragan;
Hi [Interviewer];

Q1: The most common epithet I see thrown at your solo albums is "stripped-down." I get the feeling this comes from comparison to Hot Water Music's assaults, since there's loads of really impressive arrangements - "The Grove" and "Done and Done" spring to mind - and lots of anthems in all of your recent work.

Thank you. Alot of folks do say stripped down and that's most likley contributed to either the way this music was presented at first or the fact that most of the time that I'm playing live it's certainly stripped down and back to basics. To me if I have an idea or a shot to get some of my ridiculously talented friends on a track, I go for it. Especially if the songs feels like that's what it needs.

Q2: Is there an intentional aesthetic across your work? What is it about a Chuck Ragan song, whether hardcore or folk/country, that makes it a Chuck Ragan song?
To me my songs or songwriting in general have always been a form of therapy in my life. Since I was a kid, I used songwriting to lash out, rebel, speak my mind or just plain cry for help. Over the years it's become something in my life that I feel is more of a "must do" than a "want to" if that makes any sense to you. For me, my songs are in a way different pages of the book or journal entries of ways, methods, stories or expressions on how I or my loved ones hack life so to speak. So if anything, I'd say that I write to overcome obstacles, tell stories, document this life as I know it or to just put my head straight and get right.

Q3: You've been fairly prolific in this new mode of songwriting - from "Rumbleseat Is Dead" eventual release in 2005 up to now, at least 60 songs. Does folk - whisper it! - come more naturally to you?
Writing individually comes more naturally, of course. Especially since I have no one else to run anything by. Since that's the case, I'm able to write more freely with less ears and brains to run things by. HWM was always a collective in writing and though we wrote on our own, we'd bring each other our ideas, smash em up and put them back together as a group. Doing it that way is great as far as having a writing group but at the same time you're limited as far as your individual ideas. Sometimes that's a good thing though. Sometimes not. With my own writing, I've definitely been putting more focus on it but it's not much different than anything that I've always done. To me, it's all the same. Whatever you care to call it. I love the differences in both my own music as well as the rock and roll stuff with HWM. I love writing solo just as much as I love writing with my buddies. The styles in music may be different but every other aspect are on the same plane.
Q4: You've talked before about folk and punk sharing "an ethic", even saying that folk was a kind of clarification of punk's ideas. But there's a tension between the natural beauty that a song like "Gold Country" treats, and the brutal sides of reality which punk has always liked to stick to. When folk does its tough or political side - Dylan's "Hurricane" or Guthrie's "Ludlow Massacre" - does it need to horrify, need to avoid appropriating things by aestheticizing them?
I'm not sure exactly what you're asking there. I'd say that I believe most individuals and especially "free thinkers" have their own interpretation of folk and punk. Mine may not be the same as someone else and vice versa. That's why I've always been drawn to what I've been drawn to musically. I prefer music that let's you be you and me be me. However it gets filed, the parallels between the two I find more often than not. To me folk music is simple. As is punk. At least where I came from. Both forms of these music styles to me is simply music from the people for the people which can be telling the same story by either aestheticizing the topic at hand or horrifying it as you put it. Either way.

In which ways are Hot Water Music beautiful or even folksy? Where is the Blank Generation, the No Wave in your "Rotterdam"?



The friendship over anything else to be honest. To me the beauty stands with the bonds of the four of us, the friends and the labels that made HWM what it is today. If it wasn't for any of that, we'd never had continued. As far as it being folksy.. Well, we started HWM sitting in circles on our porches in Gainesville writing songs on acoustics, telling stories and writing music. Whatever you'd like to call that, call it what you will. As far as your other question, "Rotterdam" is a love song. That's it. A very simple love song. I've never owned a Blank Generation record and was also raised in the south far away from NYC and the "No Wave" scene. So you most likely won't find any of that anywhere in my songs unless it came from something or someone else.

Q5: Are you still working as a carpenter-contractor when not touring? With the increased acclaim and international interest for "Gold Country" - I get 246,000 results for ya on google - do you see this changing or is the work more than just an economic concern?I'm doing work but mostly on my own home which is a dream come true. Slowly but surely and whenever possible. We're doing the best we can to generate enough to keep our little mom and pop shop record label alive as well as keep the Revival Tour running. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's a tough way to make a living any which way you slice it. I think that goes for anyone who is self employed in most any field. I'm not sure what your asking exactly on your second part of the question. I'm not sure what you mean by changing or if you mean for better or for worse. Either way I can't complain one bit.

Q6: Your cover of [Leatherface's] "Trenchfoot" on The Blueprint Sessions is charming as all hell. Have you been keeping up with Frankie Stubbs, either as fan or friend? What was it about Leatherface that so sparked your mind way back then?

Thanks. I don't see em all enough. Just missed them in Canada. For me it was "Cherry Knowle." What sparked my mind early on was a band and a voice with words that told stories, sang poetry, had a drive that I needed and would horrify and aestheticize everything!

Q7: Your first solo album and "The Blueprints" came out on Gainesville's No Idea Records. Your solo music is very much about roots; how important is it that you keep the ties to them, or to your other influences and personal ties?"The Blueprint Sessions" it was. I have a lot of respect for many friends and folks who we've worked with over the years and would love to keep in touch with most of them. As far as working with everyone again, some of them we may, some most likely not. The tough thing about keeping up and in touch with everyone along the way while living a road driven lifestyle, you never stop putting down roots (if you ever put em down to begin with.) You also never stop finding more influences and inspirations. Meeting new friends, new communities, labels, artists, you name it is what keeps me in touch. Keeping ties is just as important to me as keeping our friends and loved ones close. But the older I get and the more I realize how much I've sacrificed to live the life that I've wanted to live, the more I see how much time has escaped from growing up with my immediate family. There's a fine line between living free and doing what you want, and being selfish by neglecting (consciously or subconsciously) the ones who truly love and care for you and the ones who you love and care for the most.

Q8: Sorry to indict you again with things you've said in the past, but you once said that the decision to break up was the best Hot Water Music ever made. (Though you've also rejected the idea of permanently dissolving anything that worked as well as HWM does...)
What I was referring to with HWM, is that breaking up in the beginning solidified our friendship and our own purpose as a group before a band. We came to the realization that it was way more important to stay friends than a band and when that happened, it was no question to let go. It's what has kept us strong and close as a group. Therefore, to me it was the smartest thing we'd ever done and one of my favorite memories of the old days.

Was this because it refreshed things? The Draft, for all their very real fire and sound, were maybe only keeping the HWM formula warm.
I think you're referring to the second hiatus here. Not sure. Maybe you were taking what I had said in that interview you referenced as my response to the second hiatus rather than the first break-up. Either way, I'm a little confused by your questions so I'll do my best! As for our first break up in 98 I believe it was, yes, to me it was the smartest thing we'd ever done as a band and one of my favorite memories with the boys. As for the hiatus in 2004 or 2005, not sure when really, again it was something very nessessary for us to do. I was the one who innitiated it but I felt we were driving ourselves into the ground. You can only run a machine so long before it needs maintennce or before it just plain breaks down for good. I came to a point where I felt like my heart was pulling me elsewhere. I could go on and on about the whys and the where's and all that but I've said all that over and again. To speak plainly, I felt if I continued on the path that I was on, that I would just be fooling myself and everyone else around me. Our own lyrics started ringing in my head more clearly than ever and it became apparent that I wasn't where I was supposed to be and that I needed to live my heart and not follow what everyone wanted and expected. We'd all sacrificed more than we could imagine and to me it would have been a lie to continue. I have a trade, so that made it easier to step out after I'd given a year or more notice to the boys. The fellas started the Draft immediately and just kept going on and tearing it up the best they could. As far as the formula, I think we've all kept it warm. The four of us always wanted to play again and have been having a blast doing so the past couple years. Again, making those decisions has been what has kept us close as pals and true to each other and our fans as a group. Even if it was a step down. In all honesty, I wouldn't change anything and I wouldn't want it any other way.


Q9: You're bringing the Revival Tour to Australia soon. What kind of response did the 2008 shows get? Again, were people open-minded or was the crowd too drawn by "...of Hot Water Music"?

The Revival Tour in 2008 was amazing. That was the first year. The response was unreal and completely open-minded and diverse in so many ways. Last years Revival Tour in 2009 was unreal as well. We had more diverse artists last year and found an even more diverse crowd in terms of age groups as the year before. It just keeps getting better and we're enjoying bringing music in a grassroots fashion to the people. The Australian Revival Tour will be the first one overseas. We're all fired up as can be about it and are looking forward to more down the road.
Q10: With that, the HWM reunion (that is, the proper-end-of-the-break?) and your regular show-treks with Frank Turner and Tim Barry, are you keeping yourself solid? Can't have the man who wrote "Glory" getting fragmented, now.

I'm as solid as I can be my friend. The day I don't feel that is the day it's done.

Thanks for your headspace and good luck with all three and everything,

02/02/2010

Assignations

Lévi-Strauss

no pedestals for anyone -
totema!

I am a neolithic man!
and my science is well put.

I hear in every language
a universal echo!

as universal as you
get with humans, anyway.

Marx of myth,
I ran rings round menhir and potter's ground.

You'll note patterns in
your very bones if you only

drop some airs.



I'LL HILL YOUR HEAD

Ascendent through light pollution.

Canopy of youth snug in subzero.
River runneth rare: brook the world's
bright drunk snowmelt
intermixing and tributary.
Tropic o' th' North,
a manifest quality found there.
Movement in the undergrowth.

Descend by skyhook and bitten tongue.




A PHILOSOPHE AMIDST POSTMODERNS

Thought ourselves clever,
etched worth on our skin
by idea alone.

There are these
very sparkling minds,
devoted to inglory.

They are the
weight of grain in diamonds
amongst worse things.

Their Work
- Unearned if good,
Unsurprising if not -

takes regular tolls;
a taxing ignorance paid in irritation.
And the fruits of the work are interdicted.

*

In any case there's
gottabe one answer, one
spiel to spike them all!

If I'd been thinking
I'd've asked Body,
who is too simple to deceive.

She has air-raid sirens in her every nook;
you're invader no more
(Did the payloads expire?)

Consider Pyrrho, the mad dog
in love with everything
he seemed to see.

*

I cannot reveal myself; I'm not there.
But I'll get in the gaps, e.g. between
creditor's knock and bailiff's ram:

I'm aiming for truth, you see,
A town twinned with Insane, Ohio.

What is it you rail with, right over the Reichenbachs?









ADVISORY

By grace of angst,
For the love of ill,
throw away happiness when it comes,
get in the way of yourself;
hate,
and heartily recommend hatred;
dramatize, nostalgize;
expect too much
while disparaging hope in others;
unmake, criticize
those who bed down in
rationalised serenity;
appear eager in your reserve;
progressive while defensive;
lie whenever feasible
- it'll slow everyone up nicely;
when with others, think
always how to utilise them;
objectify all things; love
only what you are certain
cannot reciprocate or benefit
from your attention.

these are seeds of good life, my child;
wheedle, snipe and smile.







BESTRIDETH

I cannot intellectually justify any course of action. - the actual Skeptic

Aha!

That is not absolute universal ultimate truth
that's a pineapple, a trolley-car, the now-king of France,
your project.

We had lifeboats synthetic, but
you speared the one you stood in; ours took
your example.

The tides of doubt, the enormity,
the enormity and
your terror.

you claimed living a nebula of perhaps
that none of us sees is a drowning question.
your courtesy.

why doubt? because you don't want to
know, I can't know; because none of it might matter.
your great slight.

Maybe you can bend light; perhaps
you're a figment. But something does lurk there.
I know you like one knows of pain.

and the sun'll come up, after all. it always does.