Friday, 5 July 2019

The Jesus And Mary Chain ‎– Darklands (1987)

Style: Alternative Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Warner Bros. Records, Blanco Y Negro, Rhyno Records

01.   Darklands
02.   Deep One Perfect Morning
03.   Happy When It Rains
04.   Down On Me
05.   Nine Million Rainy Days
06.   April Skies
07.   Fall
08.   Cherry Came Too
09.   On The Wall
10.   About You

Credits: Vocals – Jim Reid, William Reid Written-By – Jim Reid, William Reid Producer – Bill Price, John Loder, William Reid

The Jesus and Mary Chain (henceforth “JAMC”) was the musical project of Jim and William Reid, who were (a) Scottish, (b) brothers, and (c) the foremost technological and scientific innovators of the modern rock era. Before they came along, many people still assumed that in order to make aggressive, energetic noises, the members of rock bands had to actually move around, do guitar windmills, and look engaged. The JAMC did not like this situation, because those poses tended to be either uncool or boring, and often made one look like a complete twat. 
But after a brief scientific study of their equipment, it came to the JAMC’s attention that electric guitars, when paired with high amplifier volume and harmonic distortion, could create feedback, thereby producing aggressive noises mostly on their own, and freeing their actual players to stand around looking half dead, depressed, and generally too contemptuous and disgusted to really bother playing-- all of which seemed, in 1985 and in the particular case of the JAMC, totally super-awesome. 
Obviously the drummer for such a group couldn’t sit behind a big kit looking like he knew what he was doing, so the JAMC stood Bobby Gillespie (yes, that one) up behind only two drums-- a floor tom and a snare-- and had him bash away like he was pissed off at them but either too bored or too drunk to finish them off. A similar approach was taken to bass guitar and vocals. 
If the band had applied these tactics to knotty, difficult music, you would never have heard of them, and Dominique Leone would be reviewing these reissues. Luckily-- intuitively-- the JAMC wrote pop songs, basic three-chord rock’n’roll and all-hook melodies, vaguely in the style of early Beach Boys, girl groups, or the laid-back end of the Rolling Stones. played by lazy, spiteful, nearly hopeless people who didn’t care one way or the other and therefore covered the whole thing in screeching. (See also: the Velvet Underground.) 
Sometimes people tell you that a 20-year-old album “sounded like nothing else,” but when you listen with today’s ears, it seems rather quaint and unsurprising. Psychocandy is not one of those albums. Its noise isn’t the thick, tactile noise of the new millennium: It’s thin, trebly, and drowned in indistinct reverb, such that this record still sounds like it’s being played in the apartment across the street at staggering volume while someone intermittently runs glass through a table saw. The music stumbles its way from stoned, lazy beauty (“Just Like Honey”) to speed-freak noise (“Never Understand”) to almost-bouncy pop (“Taste of Cindy”). Jim Reid chants his melodies in the selfish, mostly monosyllabic vocabulary of rock’n’roll (“I’m in love with myself,” “I don’t want you to need me,” “oh yeah,”). And just about every song comes out ideal: You’d think they’d sound like jerks, or toughs, and yet it all comes off so vulnerable, so pretty. 
The UK loved it, and it’s worth asking why. One reason, I think, is that people in the stylish 80s were thrilled to see their own personal resurrection of the same rock’n’roll “cool” myth that runs through fellow heroin enthusiasts like the Stones, the Pistols, and Nirvana-- which is to say, a band that doesn’t seem to give a fuck about much, including pleasing its own audience, and thus lets that audience live out its own (sensibly unfulfilled) fantasies of alienated non-fuck-giving and antisocial moping. Psychocandy remains a perfect record for states of feeling so bratty, depressed, or disgusted that you actually start to enjoy it. Also, like with most heroin rock’n’roll bands, there’s an earnest, romantic belief in something beautiful and unattainable in the midst of it, which might be drug-related for them but doesn’t have to be for you. The many fun and pretty songs here still seem tired and hard-won, like the band’s grasping at beauty rather than just claiming it exists. 
The JAMC also sent a couple massively influential messages to everyone else. One was that-- as mentioned-- you could make big noises without being or acting big. The other was a reminder that the ethos of a band could be wrapped up not in the notes or the songs they played, but in the actual sound of their records; that stuff could be content, not style. These lessons, put together, account for a good 75% of the shoegazer scene that followed. 
With all of that accomplished, the JAMC’s next four albums were spent figuring out what in the world to do next. Decisions were made as follows:* 
Darklands (1987): With Gillespie gone and replaced by an unobtrusive drum machine, the band turns down the noise attitude and works on developing the back-to-basics pop songs that were always underneath. The singles (“Happy When it Rains”) are a joy, big hooks laced with just the right amount of vintage leather-and-shades cool. 
Automatic (1989): Conventional wisdom wrongly calls this the dud. With the band reduced to the brothers only, things go artificial: The drum machine is foregrounded, the bass is played on keyboards, the feedback’s on vacation. In that space, the Reids take their biggest shot at doing full-on pop, something that-- on a global alternative classic like the Pixies-covered “Head On”-- feels like a career peak. The rockier album cuts get pretty turgid, and both Reids start to feel like parodies of themselves, but at points they fall into a synthetic rock grind that’s almost industrial-- fascinating, in a time-capsule kind of way. 
Honey’s Dead (1992): Conventional wisdom wrongly calls this the return to form, mostly because they got a drummer and wrote some lively tunes. The problem is that the well-recorded feedback and effortful Jagger yowling here sound like two guys straining to be cool, the exact thing that Psychocandy evaded. It’s also their first fully contemporary grunge-era record, so if you wanted to hear a rock band try, you could just buy something current. 
Stoned and Dethroned (1994): Back to the beauty thing-- the band breaks out a few acoustic guitars and settles gracefully into a bunch of drawling Stones-type numbers. How convenient that William was dating Hope Sandoval, of popular acoustic drawlers Mazzy Star: Her duet with Jim on "Sometimes Always" really is a standout. 
There is only one warning that must go with them: Do not try this at home. Since the turn of the millennium, a staggering number of rock bands have put a staggering amount of effort into seeming like they don’t care. Some have studied the poses and sounds like engineers; others have reduced themselves to the point of intolerable blandness, all because actually trying something might leave them open to embarrassment, open to criticism. Don’t try this at home: These days we could use more of the opposite end of the 80s, the unembarrassed striving and the unselfconscious quirk. 
Nitsuh Abebe / Pitchfork

Sigur Rós ‎– Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Style: Ethereal, Post Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: PIAS] Recordings, Krúnk, FatCaRecordings, Smekkleysa

01.   Intro
02.   Svefn-g-englar
03.   Starálfur
04.   Flugufrelsarinn
05.   Ný Batterí
06.   Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)
07.   Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása
08.   Olsen Olsen
09.   Ágætis Byrjun
10.   Avalon

Performer – Sigur Rós
Producer – Ken Thomas
Strings – Szymon Kuran,

With their second album, Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós knew only that they wanted to make things bigger. Their first record, 1997’s Von, was dark and, by the standards of what they became famous for, positively screechy: Back then, they were inspired by the hurtling propulsion of Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine, bands that generated soothing textures from cacophony. Von sold 300 copies in Iceland. But the dismal showing left no seeming dent on young Jónsi Birgisson’s confidence. The singer posted a salvo on the band’s website prior to Agaetis’ release: “We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music.” 
It’s alarming to consider, from the vantage of 2019, the degree to which he seems to have accomplished his mission. If we now live in a world of small, soft drones, a pruned garden of “Lush Lofi” and “Ambient Chill” and “Ethereal Vibes” Spotify playlists, we can blame this condition, at least in part, on the impact of Ágætis byrjun. It is an album that has terraformed our landscape—so much of our lives now sounds like it, from Nissan commercials to “Planet Earth” documentaries to the long trail of ads that could not procure Sigur Rós’ approval and went about constructing benign replicas of Sigur Rós songs instead. 
Before Ágætis, post-rock was a niche concern, a tiny sub-sub-genre centered around a dozen or so bands in England and North America—Stereolab, Bark Psychosis and a few others in London; Tortoise and Gastr del Sol in Chicago; Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Montreal. After Ágætis, the sound—massive, surging, triumphal; melancholic and soothing and mostly major-key; wreathed in strings and horns and ripe with melodrama and headlocking you into transcendence—is a global phenomenon. They opened for Radiohead; they turned down a slot on “Letterman” because the host wouldn’t give them enough time. They even appeared on “The Simpsons.” Twenty years into their career, they tour arenas and command a massive following. They are a cultural institution.

It’s hard to know if Ágætis byrjun catalyzed the massive shifts that unfolded in its wake, or if those shifts were already brewing, in search of a seaworthy vessel to carry us wherever it was going. Today, Sigur Rós’ career seems like a natural and desirable trajectory: Get your music into the ears of some important people (in Sigur Rós’ case, it was celebrities like Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow); from there, your music might shoot outward into some large-scale and modestly experimental commercial film (Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky); and then it can rain down into dozens and dozens of television shows via the diligent work of music supervisors. But when it all happened to Sigur Rós, it was all pretty new, and it was all happening to the music industry at the same time. 
To make the album itself, they recruited a keyboardist named Kjartan Sveinsson, who knew a lot more than they did about the things they were interested in—arrangements, composition, songs that sounded like cavernous day spas. They enlisted producer Ken Thomas, who started out as an assistant working on Queen albums before moving on to early industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten. He also mixed the first record by Björk’s early band the Sugarcubes, which is what led him to Sigur Rós. 
With Thomas, they built a record that felt like being stuck inside a church bell. Their enormous sound came not from size, but from scale. The distance between the quietest noises—the little cymbals ticking the eight notes on “Svefn-g-englar,” Birgisson’s falsetto—and the loudest ones—say, the drums and organ that land like Thor’s hammer about six minutes into the same track—feels measurable only in miles. It is a long, liquid sound, devoid of sharp points: Even the most massive dynamic shifts happen with rounded edges. The drums are nested inside so much reverb that you can nearly hear the air gathering around the snare head before impact. Birgisson played his electric guitar with a cello bow, which offered the sonorous tones of feedback without the disturbance of picks. It is thunderous and dreamy, soothing and stirring—a big, frosted wedding cake of mallet percussion and pianos and strings and piping, cooing vocals. It is a sound designed to overwhelm, and it does, which is probably how British critics ended up gasping that the music was “like God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” Music of this scale is never kind on the higher faculties. 
The album is a triumph, above all, of arrangement and engineering. When the piano kicks in on “Starálfur” (the same one that accompanies the discovery of the mythical jaguar shark in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), I still have to suppress a delighted giggle of wonder. It’s like watching an invasion of CGI superheroes, or (I imagine) revving a high-performance car and watching the speedometer float. It isn’t so much a sound as a special effect, and it communicates with your brain solely in dopamine floods.
If you are inclined to sniff suspiciously around grandiose music, examining it for kitsch, you probably reeled away staggering from Sigur Rós, who proudly stink of it. This was another part of their appeal and their strength: The music is texturally complex, for sure, but the emotional framework is deliberately simple and clear. They are gloriously unafraid of blast-off. The piping melody that ends “Olsen Olsen,” doubled up with horns and a choir, is straight out of a Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album. 
Live, they maintained this communal feeling without sacrificing clarity. You can hear this in the live recording included in a generous and fulsome new 20th-anniversary reissue. The gig was June 12, 1999 at Reykjavík’s Íslenska Óperan—an album-release celebration. They were brand new to this material, but somehow they sounded as commanding then as they do now. The box set also includes reams of demos and half-finished versions of Ágætis byrjun—they provide a nice glimpse into the band’s working method, which was open-ended and involved multiple versions of the same song, some with or without vocals or at different speeds. Spending time with all of these raw tracks is a bit like opening up a “version history” in Google Docs—you learn a little bit about how the final product came to be, but it only serves to heighten your appreciation that you were spared the editing process. 
Parsing the re-release, I was drawn back to the album itself again. It doesn’t really require elaboration, or added context. It’s entire appeal lay in the sense that it dropped, immaculate and mysterious, from the sky. Unless you were Icelandic, you didn’t know what they were saying—and often not even then. On Ágætis, Birgisson famously dabbled in an invented language called Hopelandic—some on “Olsen Olsen,” and some lightly sprinkled throughout. This might have spurred some listeners on to discover “what he was saying,” but for most of us, he was saying whatever we heard. His words were not messages, they were bird calls. The single most indelible word Birgisson has ever sung—“tju”—is a gibberish syllable, a refrain from “Svefn-g-nglar” that sounded then and will always sound just like “It’s you.” There were no other meanings within to parse or contemplate—just a pretty sound. We heard ourselves in it. 
Jayson Greene / Pitchfork

Virginia Astley ‎– Hope In A Darkened Heart (1986)

Style: Abstract, Minimal, Ambient, Synth-pop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: WEA, Geffen Records, Hayabusa Landings

01.   Some Small Hope
02.   A Father
03.   So Like Dorian
04.   I'm Sorry
05.   Tree Top Club
06.   Charm
07.   Love's A Lonely Place To Be
08.   A Summer Long Since Passed
09.   Darkness Has Reached Its End
10.   Le Song (A Day, A Night)

Programmed By – Masaki Sekijima
Written-By – Virginia Astley
Arranged By, Keyboards – Ryuichi Sakamoto
Producer, Mixed By – Ryuichi Sakamoto

Tuneful, delicate, often charming, occasionally cutesy songs, mostly produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also plays keyboards). The swirling synthesizers and spare classical touches paint a dreamy canvas at their best, making one regret that Astley has not had a chance to build upon this effort in the nearly ten years that have passed without a follow-up.
Richie Unterberger / AllMusic