Archive for July, 2010

Propaganda: A Secret Wish (ZTT)

Art of Noise: Influence (ZTT)

Emilie Simon: The Big Machine (Wrasse records)


I have so many memories of the 1980s and few of them are of the stereotypical view of big hair, flashy suits and garish clothing, cellphones the size of bricks, bad music and an obsession for money.

Much of the decade for Porky was spent penniless, dressing from cut-price shops and buying obscure vinyl records from independent record stores.

So the likes of Propaganda fitted nicely with my lifestyle, even if there was an element of absurdity and pomposity to them.

They were a product of their time: The early to mid-1980s were a revolutionary era in music, the synthesiser and other technical arrangements bringing new life to an industry still in shock after the 18-month barrage of ideas, independent thinking and rebelliousness that punk kindly delivered to a world in much need of them.

First came post-punk, a genre that used the energy of punk but left behind the naughty little child element. Eventually, all the gobishness behaviour of punk was ironed out into a scene your grandmothers and their teenage gay lovers could digest: New Romance. All designer haircuts, smart suites, chicks on boats and great pop songs. And once that fizzled out, well there was all sorts of things, and among those shoulder-charging their way toward the finish line were the bands on a label set up by Trevor Horn, Paul Morley and Jill Sinclair. It was known as ZTT, short for Zang Tumb Tumb, and included radical acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda and Art of Noise, composer Andrew Poppy and even Roy Orbison released one record on the label.

While Frankie had the controversy, number one hits and superstardom, for me the label was primarily about Propaganda. My copy of A Secret Wish has been much played, not to the worn out the needle cliché extent, but it was certainly a regular visitor to the turntable in the late 80s when I first purchased it.

It was dream-pop, it was agit-pop, it was electro-clash, it was a cohesion of sounds, symphonies and beautiful Teutonic accents. It was, and remains, a radical bastard of an album.

Propaganda came from Dusseldorf, but this album was sung entirely in English. Album curator Ian Peel has included the “refined” version, created months after the LP and cassette was released, for compact disk, a format that was then only just breaking out of the test-tube.

While three of the nine tracks remained untouched, others were given a decent retuning: There are snippets of German and both Jewel and Duel – essentially the same song but with different pace – are rougher, tougher, stroppier and several more minutes longer.

Full of orchestral symphonies, sparse but evocative vocals, driven rhythms and oblique references, A Secret Wish, remains a timeless classic, an album that was shaped by the era but still sounds fresh in 2010.

ZTT was renowned for beating the shit out of the records in a series of remixes, and some of these are included here, p:Machinery being one that positively invited it. Some of these could have been kept in the vaults, but I’m delighted to hear Do Well, a 20-minute medley of five elements of Duel that was released only on a cassette in 1985.

Propaganda split in 1986, having enjoyed their 15 minutes. This is their legacy.

Another release in the ZTT reissue series is Influence a compilation of “hits, singles, moments, treasures” from the Art of Noise.

Like Propaganda, the mysterious Art of Noise – the band was never shown in videos – were masters of new technology, but they were much more concerned with using samples, computer sounds, minimalist vocals and an unusual selection of songs they covered. Both Horn and Morley were involved and the influence is apparent, in Horn’s use of digital technology – he was one of the first people to develop the Fairlight CMI sampler – and Morley’s ideas and habit of throwing out slogans that would become song titles.

Unlike the Dusseldorf quartet, I never quite took to the Art of Noise although I love Beat Box and Close (to the Edit) – both good enough and accessible enough to get into the British pop charts. It was a productive time for music – the likes of The Smiths, New Order, The Pogues, The Waterboys, Redskins, et al led a vanguard of male-dominated indie bands while on the outskirts peering out were obscurities like I, Ludicrous, Half Man Half Biscuit, the Shop Assistants, Easterhouse and so many others. John Peel on Radio One late in the evening was the aural bible for all teenage music aficionados hungry for new sounds.

Art of Noise didn’t fit into any handy labelling, nor did they sound like any of the above. I never knew of anyone who was “in” to AoN, but I knew plenty of people who liked them in easy to digest bites. Hearing a new AoN single was always an interesting experience – it could be a old standard like Duane Eddy’s Peter Gunn or the Dragnet theme tune, it could be a mix-up of sounds, samples and rhythms and it could have a guest such as Max Headroom or Tom Jones involved. Sometimes, to be honest, it just didn’t work. But when it did it was a truly wonderful concoction.

If mass adulation never quite came their way, many acts at least owe much to them: The Prodigy sampled a part of Close (to the Edit), and the KLF took sampling to a whole new level.

With numerous albums, eps and theme tunes behind them compiling Influence can not have been a simple task. Ian Peel has gone for the obvious by putting the hits, non-hit singles, soundtracks and collaborations on the first disk, with some variations on the familiar, and by giving the second disk over to an array of unreleased experiments, some variations on the old, but some rarely heard before.

Emilie Simon is someone who probably wishes she was born in time to be a popstar in the 1980s.

She’s a Frenchwoman now living in New York, and The Big Machine is an observation of the Big Apple from a relative newcomer. All the tracks are sung in English and there’s definitely the essence of Kate Bush among the waves of electro-lite, notably on the big voice and dramatic lyrics of Nothing To Do With You.

I can’t help but feel that Simon is trying too hard to break the American market and that, maybe, the sound of her signing in her native language would be much more rewarding.

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Who? Merchandise

Title: For the Masses
Cityscape records
Tell me more:
It took Merchandise five years to record this, but their previous album, Lo-Tech Solutions to Hi-Tech Problems was far more rushed, taking four years. They are effectively a duo of Brad Wood and Conrad Astley, who are from Bolton, near Manchester and this was recorded, apparently, in a very “lo-fi organic fashion.”
The Lowdown:
Some commentators have suggested Merchandise are in the same boat as left-field psychedelics The Beta Band and the Super Furry Animals but I would opine that there’s more similarities here with Swedish pop bands. I enlighten you to Enemy, an extremely friendly, catchy track aching with beautiful melodies or to the twee Best Idea which starts with plenty of bah-bah-bahs and has innocent lyrics like “You’re like a favourite album that’s overplayed” sung a la Bobby Gillespie circa 1987 when Primal Scream were a Byrds tribute band. This is almost too nice to criticise and I wouldn’t do such a thing but it does rotate tunes and harmonies a little excessively.

Anything else? Cityscape records is their own label, with distribution by Universal.

Who? Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Title: Before Today
Tell me more:
Surprisingly, Ariel Pink has been recording for almost a decade. How come we don’t hear these people sooner? Perhaps that is because, according to the record label, Pink is a “reclusive pop surrealist whose corroded productions have led to a cult following.”
The Lowdown:
There’s a woman currently masquerading as a pop star. But, frankly, Ariel Rosenberg is the only Pink worth bothering about.
A cover that suggests it was designed in 1972 is a red herring. Before Today is a varied album, harking back to the 1980s on Fright Night, and then going a bit ’70s rock on Butt House Blondies, and with a title like that you won’t expect to be a thesis on the state of the world. With elements of 10cc, the theme tune to a late 70s science programme and Public Image Ltd’s post-punk grind, this is an album that draws influences from a wide variety of sources, but remains a unique, well-crafted record.

Anything else? Pink started writing songs about the age of 10 and estimates he has recorded more than 500 songs on hundreds of cassette tapes since.

Who? Reality Chant Productions presents ..

Title: King’s Highway
Reality Chant Productions
Tell me more:
Jamaica meets New Zealand, featuring reggae giants like Luciano, Jah Mason and Lutan Fyah …. and part of it was recorded in Aoteoroa, which is quite a coup for the label.
The Lowdown:
With dancehall becoming so ubiquitous this century it’s good to hear a music that harks back to glory days of reggae, of Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, and of course a certain Mr Marley. New Zealand has always had a strong connection with the sound, with artists like The Herbs back in the 1980s and nowadays with the likes of Katchafire and virtually every band that’s come out of Wellington. This album, featuring staple Rastafarian subjects such as Jah, Ethiopia, ganja and peace and justice, isn’t a revival of reggae but it updates it very well with elements of dancehall and rhythm and Blues.

Who? The Morning Benders

Title: Big Echo
Rough Trade
Tell me more:
Four-piece from Berkeley, California making their second album and touring with the likes of Grizzly Bear, The Flaming Lips and the Black Keys.
The Lowdown:
The Morning Benders veer toward San Francisco’s love of harmonious indie-pop though it isn’t until the fourth track, Cold War, that I feel confident enough to singalong. There’s an over-representation of easy-on-the-ear, Sunday-morning post-vodka hangover recovery music. Side B, as they describe the second clutch of tracks, has the album’s standouts, particularly the fuzzy, bass-heavy All Day Day Light that contains plenty of handclaps and samples.

Who? The Rough Guide to ….

Title: Scottish Folk
World Music Network
Tell me more:
An album of folk music …. recorded in Scotland. Also includes a bonus album by Maggie MacInnes, who performs folk music … and is from Scotland.
The Lowdown:
I have always associated Scottish music with the likes of Jimmy Shand, Kenneth McKellar and Jim McLeod. Now that generation has gone and new torchbearers have taken on the role of keeping alive Scotland’s proud music tradition. So, there’s no more Donald Where’s Your Troosers but there are plenty of harps, pipes, drums, and songs sung in Gaelic. It’s now peformed by people such as Karine Polwart, Ishbel MacAskill, Ossian and Bob Blair and reflects a changing Scotland, one that identifies with the past to forge it’s own identity but also looks to the future, one with more ideals and ambition than it had previously.

Anything else? Perhaps a reflection of the popularity of Scottish/ Celtic music around the world, the comprehensive sleevenotes are also translated into Spanish.

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The Phoenix Foundation are a six-piece from the capital of New Zealand, Wellington, who are one for the tuned-in.

They’re not the attention-grabbing, headline-making, hype-spinning band that the country sometimes produces and, unlike some of those particular acts – chose your own from the list – are capable of making some Damn Good Pop Music.

Buffalo (EMI) is the latest example of a sound that’s captivating with a thoughtful touch. Please take a trip through the city’s Town belt and hill suburb of Mt Victoria on the opening track, Eventually, and take your brolly with you.

Be enchanted by by the child-friendly Flock of Hearts, be invigorated by Pot and singalong like a mad thing to the wonderfully fruity lyrics of Orange & Mango.

Buffalo is a gloriously simple record, one that is very New Zealand in its themes, but also sounds like it could traverse traditional musical snobbery and parochialism, and appeal to, say, indie fans in Manchester.

It’s the fourth album from a band that’s been around since the late 90s, and is garnering positive reviews from the national press.

The ride began with the debut album Horse Power in 2003, progressing through Pegasus (2005), and Happy Ending (2007) which was given a decent run when released on limited scale in the UK.

Before a gig in Wellington, as part of their national tour, I caught up with frontman Samuel Scott in one of the city’s cozy wee cafes.

How’s the tour going?

The tour’s been going great. We’ve just had a show at the Powerstation in Auckland which sold out. That’s pretty cool as that’s probably the biggest venue we’ve ever played at, so it felt like we were stepping up another level.

After this tour I believe you’re going to London?

Later in the year, that’s the plan. We did a soft release of Happy Ending last year, putting it out on iTunes and doing limited runs at Rough Trade stores and other independent stores. On the back of that it got great reviews, such as in The Independent newspaper, so we felt we should go back there and capitalise on that. Hopefully, we’ll get a record deal over there soon.

Tell me about the recording of Buffalo, as it was done a little bit differently.

Yeah, we did some of the initial recording work at our own studio so we had more time to mull over the first set of ideas but we also worked from those initial recordings, so in a way we turned what were kind of demos into finished recordings. On previous records we fussed over things in the studio and over-worked them. On this one I think we got it just right. It was definitely an un-angsty album to make and I think it sounds like our least angsty album to date.

It seems to have worked as the reviews have been pretty good.

Well, people have been either calling it our best album or our worst one. Personally, I think it’s got qualities that weren’t on the last album. Happy Ending has that extra level of professionalism and big kind of big radio-friendly rock tunes but Buffalo has a humble quality to it which I relate back to Horse Power, our first record, so it’s more of a continuation of what we were doing six/ seven years ago, sort of bedroom recording music, low-key and intimate. It’s very close to our heart in terms of the music we want to be making.

And I guess doing things here in Wellington and New Zealand is very different from how you would do those things in London and Europe?

We have a lot more time in Wellington, like what I was saying about recording in our own studio here. But finding the same kind of kind of facilities is almost impossible in London, people are actually recording in their bedrooms because that’s the only place they have to do something. The two cities are so different in so many spheres. I like London, there’s always things happening there but I mainly enjoyed London as a travelling musician. I don’t think I could live there for too long, it’s too fast. I’ve lived in Wellington all my life and there’s so much more for me to enjoy here.

And there’s a bit of a Wellington influence on Buffalo, for example there’s a line in the opening track, Eventually, about Mt Victoria, which obviously would mean little to people in Christchurch and Auckland but clearly means a lot to yourself.

Yeah, that song’s about going for a walk in the Town Belt around Wellington during stormy days, something I enjoy quite a lot, going out in the worst-possible day and actually embracing the awful weather in this town, such as what we’re having today (it was raining heavily – ed). Wellington doesn’t always influence the way we write but it does creep in.

Are you benefitting from downloads or suffering because of them?

We do okay sales wise, every record feels like it’s getting us to more people. We’re not particularly concerned with the shrinking of the CD market because as long as you keep innovating, things will pick up in some way that no-one has picked up on yet. And vinyl sales have picked up over the last couple of years, they make up a really tiny proportion of the market but they’ve gone up quite a lot and they appeal to people who like us, to a slightly older audience who want that high sound quality. And if it’s a download, they want a decent sound not a crappy MP3 from a file-sharing site.

And what about solo projects, I know the band members like to do their own thing outwith the Phoenix Foundation, are there any plans on the horizon?

Not from me at the moment. I’m just focused on the Phoenix Foundation and ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to push Buffalo, and try and get it out there overseas. I’m already thinking of another Phoenix Foundation record before any solo project. I had a lot of fun doing those solo records and soundtracks but I’m really excited about the band again and being part of a group.

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