YOUR HEA RT OUT LISTENIN G PROJECT :
YHO39 | PRESENTIMENT
Much has been said and written about the label Mo‟Wax and the records it released. But what do people think of now whenever Mo‟Wax is mentioned? Personally I tend to think of compact discs when there is mention of Mo‟Wax. That may seem a little perverse, as the imprint is implicitly associated with a culture of branded record bags, dusty 7”s and limited edition 12”s. But the blossoming of Mo‟Wax coincided with a time when I gave in and started buying and listening to CDs. And maybe Mo‟Wax did more than any other label to make compact discs desirable objects. I like a lot of things about James Lavelle, the beating heart behind Mo‟Wax. Of course, he and his label could be incredibly erratic, and the thinking was frequently flawed. It could all be fabulously frustrating, and gloriously inconsistent. But it got a lot of things wonderfully right. James was an enthusiast, and particularly good at making things happen. He got things done. He had a nice way of seeming to say: “Yeah, let‟s give it a go, and see what happens”. That‟s a good trait to have. One of Lavelle‟s strengths was the way he involved others in making Mo‟Wax such a success. Notably he recruited photographer Will Bankhead, fresh from Slam City Skates (an important cultural link for the Mo‟Wax milieu). And it was Bankhead and close comrade Ben Drury that became largely responsible for the remarkable way the Mo‟Wax compact discs looked. CDs are particularly prone to plainness, but to this day it‟s a treat to spread a selection of Mo‟Wax CDs out and savour the absurdity, adventurousness, and audacity of some of the designs. There‟s fun to be had with folding bits, tabs, inserts, plastics, and other intricate detail. And if some of the sleeves soon became damaged and dog-eared I guess the vulnerability adds to the attractiveness. Sometimes it‟s good to be impractical. Mo‟Wax probably put out something like 40 full-length releases on compact discs over its ten-or-so years of existence. This listening project focuses on the ten greatest CDs the label released. And, yes, these releases were beautifully presented, but it is the music captured on these records that remains the most striking. Collectively and individually these particular CDs cover a lot of ground, and it is perfect territory to explore and consider in some detail.
MARK’’S KEYBOARD REPAIR | MONEY MARK This lovely compact disc still has the ability to surprise. It seems absurd that so many gorgeous melodies could be thrown together in such a seemingly nonchalant, almost disdainful way. There are songs on this CD that ooze the melodic warmth of, say, Nilsson Schmilsson, Shuggie Otis, Sly or Something/Anything?-era Todd Rundgren. The big deal about Mark‟s Keyboard Repair seemed to be that it was a set of home recordings, the work of an enthusiastic amateur over a period of time, as opposed to the contractual obligation LPs so often are. Part of the record‟s charm was that these perfect pop creations were nestling alongside what could be called sketches: brief keyboard-led instrumental interludes which are in their own right perfect works. These often had the feel of early „70s library or soundtrack pieces. This endearing fragmentary feel now makes me think of Mark‟s Keyboard Repair in the same context as Embrace The Herd by The Gist. The unvarnished feel of both these classic records adds to the enduring appeal. The sense is of inventive composers working away at home on ideas in a seemingly casual manner. Both LPs are brimming over with magically melodious moments. There is, too, a shared undercurrent of jazz-funk, easy listening and reggae-related themes. The environment suggested by Mark‟s Keyboard Repair is of the creator surrounded by salvaged equipment, bits and bobs of old instruments and vintage synths, trailing wires, soldering irons, battered cassette players, teak cabinets, TEAC reel-to-reel tape recorders, chairs missing under piles of old books, catalogues, manuals and magazines. It just may have been like that.
I guess it has to be acknowledged that one of the main reasons Mark‟s Keyboard Repair appeared on Mo‟Wax was to do with the role Mark RamosNishita or Money Mark had as an honorary member of the Beastie Boys. The whole Beastie Boys/Grand Royal aesthetic was assimilated by James Lavelle and the Mo‟Wax organisation very neatly, so much so that the label almost became the U.K. arm of Grand Royal. Mo‟Wax and Grand Royal even jointly released the great Liquid Liquid anthology in 1997. The series of Grand Royal magazines that was published in the 1990s perhaps best defines what that aesthetic was. These were lovely items, and one of my greatest regrets in life is that I never bought, or even saw, the first issue. But the other five issues are treasured possessions, and often revisited. The catholic contents cover all sorts of things from Lee Perry to theremins and moogs, Thurston Moore on free jazz and Dave Tompkins on Miami Bass, The Fabulous Stains and funky drummers, old turntables and basketball players, an old Viv Albertine interview from an ancient fanzine by the Luscious Jackson crew and a piece on Evel Knievel‟s art. There‟s been nothing like it since. There‟s not really anything quite like Mark‟s Keyboard Repair, either. I love what Mark said about the record in Grand Royal: “One person said my record is really good for cleaning the house and washing the dishes. I think it‟s a function of the music. That‟s why people leave the TV on and go about their business. They‟re not really hearing the text. It‟s just massaging their subconscious. If I‟m going to talk about my record, that‟s what it does for me. It‟s not right here – in your face – it‟s somewhere else. You gotta either look for it – or just let it happen.” “Headphone music” was how Mark described what he was doing, and that idea became very much a part of the Mo‟Wax experience. Their releases were often ideal for private moments, and in many ways they were promoting personal, unsocial soundtracks, complementary to the communal club experience. Stuart Moxham has also spoken about The Gist LP, and how it grew out of ideas about creating soundtracks for city walks just as Sony Walkman personal cassette players were catching on.
One of the great things about Mark‟s Keyboard Repair is the absence of irony, the distance is keeps from kitsch, campness and pastiche. A record Mo‟Wax later licensed, Contacto Espacial Con El Tercer Sexo by Sukia, had all these things in abundance, and it worked, wonderfully. But that‟s the exception. And there would be many fans of Mark‟s Keyboard Repair who would spend the rest of the „90s doing their best never to hear a Beck record. There was no need to be ironic when you could capture tunes as wonderfully as Money Mark. Two of the highlights from the compact disc were released on a 7” single: Insects Are All Around Us/Cry. These two songs are perfect examples of the melodic brilliance of the whole CD. Insects may be bookended by an amusing scientific sample, but at its heart is a vignette of mood music so exquisite in its brevity that it could easily be something from the KPM catalogue. Cry, meanwhile, has such an achingly lovely tune that it would make Prince cry, and oh it‟s as enchanting as Shuggie Otis‟ Aht Uh Mi Hed. There have been other Money Mark records. All of them have a lot going for them. He even had a couple of minor hits in the UK in 1998. But there is something about Mark‟s Keyboard Repair that feels just right.
ANDREA PARKER | KISS MY ARP If Mo‟Wax had issued no other records than Andrea Parker‟s Kiss My Arp it would still qualify as one of the greatest labels ever. This 1999 release makes for one of the most rewarding compact disc listening experiences ever. 67-minutes with nothing wasted. It‟s tough techno noir and twisted torch songs combined in a way that has not been bettered. The mood of Kiss My Arp is very sombre and sinister. It feels full of foreboding, more portentous than Portishead. There is a melodic heart to the record though, making it immediately accessible. The beats are measured, the bass is sonorous, the strings (often Andrea on cello) are sorrowful. But it‟s got a twinkle in its eye, with a hint of suburban Southern gothic melodrama, in the tradition of Siouxsie‟s A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. Was anyone else doing what Andrea was doing at the time? What other young electronic producers were singing their own compositions? There seemed to be plenty of collectives at work, and there were plenty of vocalists enlisted to sing on an assortment of tracks. Even something that was of the same vintage, in the same spirit, as Kiss My Arp, Like Weather by Leila (Arab) on Rephlex, featured a few different singers on the CD. The other thing was that when electronic acts tried to venture into recording fully developed songs the effect was often hollow. Andrea, on the other hand, proved on Kiss My Arp that she was spectacularly adept at composing great songs. The Unknown is the perfect example of what she could come up with, when she wanted to. It‟s a mournful ballad, with the right amount of tension and tunefulness, which could easily be the theme for a thriller. Wil Malone provides the string arrangement, which is a bold move, instantly invoking Massive Attack‟s Unfinished Sympathy, which had become the yardstick for any contemporary deep soul creation. But The Unknown soars and swirls spectacularly.
Andrea Parker remains one of the great mysteries of modern times. For years before Kiss My Arp appeared she was tipped as one most likely to succeed. She was from Kent originally, and knew the classical avant garde, could DJ and create the best techno, electro, hip hop, and just about anything. She could sing with the best of them, and had the looks and presence of a star. Mo‟Wax and its brand of catholicism seemed the ideal home for her, and a couple of singles on the label hinted at great things. By the time Kiss My Arp appeared Andrea had endured the debilitating experience of waiting kicking her heels and grinding her teeth while Mo‟Wax got lost in a legal maze when its patron A&M folded and parent company Polygram tangled the label‟s activities up protractedly. And James Lavelle and co. did not seem to know how to sell Andrea‟s art, despite Kiss My Arp getting genuinely positive reviews. I suppose it is Andrea‟s elusiveness that makes her work particularly appealing. She can rub shoulders with the classical avant-garde elite and get down dirty with the roughest bass sounds around. In fact she got Miami Bass producer DJ Magic Mike in to do a remix of In Two Minds, one of the tracks on Kiss My Arp. Mo‟Wax itself would in 2000 release a superb Magic Mike compilation, alongside a companion set from Detroit bass producer DJ Assault. Most of the tracks on Kiss My Arp were written and recorded with David Morley, Andrea‟s long-time collaborator and co-conspirator. They had been encouraged to work together by the people behind R&S, recorded as Two Sandwiches Short of a Lunchbox, and made Angular Art together, an EP for Infonet, the excellent Creation subsidiary. David‟s own work is absurdly underrated, and around the time that Kiss My Arp appeared he released his own excellent full-length CD, Tilted, on Apollo/R&S. It covers a lot of the same ground as Angela‟s CD, but is fully instrumental and provides a perfect electronic ambient soundtrack for a wide range of activities. Many artists attempted to produce recordings of a similar nature, but failed dismally.
David Morley is a collector of vintage synths and related analogue equipment. And it was this collection that Andrea used when making Kiss My Arp in, I believe, the Bavarian studio where David was based. He is on record saying that Andrea pushed him and his old instruments to the limit when creating the tracks on the LP. There is an instrumental version of Kiss My Arp which perhaps provides a starker insight into the startling sounds they produced. Andrea herself is known to be a passionate collector of old avant-garde library LPs, sound effects recordings and film soundtracks, particularly those coming from a pioneering electronic perspective. This seems a vital reference point. There are too many people working in any field of music that have very limited interest beyond their own immediate circle. Then there are those that use interests and influences in such a dry curatorial way. But Kiss My Arp is a great example of how to use ingredients in a way that takes you somewhere the music‟s not been before. Since Kiss My Arp Andrea has persistently avoided doing the expected. For several years she ran the tenacious Touchin‟ Bass label, whose output included an invaluable collection of Andrea‟s work, Here‟s One I Made Earlier, and the classic electro/bass track Freaky Bitches by Andrea with DJ Assault and DJ Godfather. Much of her activity, like that of her close friend Mira Calix, has taken place outside of the normal cycle of record releases. But she is now running the Aperture label, where the catalogue includes the Private Dreams and Public Nightmares set she recorded with Daz Quayle, a concept album “which re-works and re-interprets original, unheard sounds from the Daphne Oram archives”. There is something about Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, a sense of unease and adventure, which connects directly to Kiss My Arp. But then Kiss My Arp, in the same way as Daphne Oram‟s experiments in sound, still feels like the future. Just have a listen to some of the recent (very excellent) titles from Hyperdub, and it‟s easy to get a sense of how Kiss My Arp could fit in perfectly with the best releases of current times.
FORCE WEST | 93-97
One of the enduring Mo‟Wax images is of James Lavelle in a limited edition t-shirt by A Bathing Ape. I think it‟s fair to say Mo‟Wax had a certain fondness for aspects of Japanese popular culture. And that the feeling was reciprocated. Several Mo‟Wax releases were Japanese in origin, and of these it is the compilation Major Force West 93-97 that remains the most fascinating. Major Force were a Japanese hip-hop collective, with Masayuki Kudo and Toshio Nakanishi at the heart of activities. The 93-97 CD gathers together a series of their recordings made outside of Japan. An earlier Mo‟Wax boxed set elaborately collected up a series of the team‟s productions under various aliases and in numerous guises. Particularly appealing are the tracks by The Orchids, which are like a Japanese take on E.S.G. meet Salt „n‟ Pepa. The Orchids‟ tracks feature among the vocalists Chica Sato, who had been in The Plastics with Major Force‟s Tosh. The Plastics are legendary within Japanese pop culture, and were a massive influence on the Shibuya-kei acts of the „90s, including Cornelius and Pizzicato 5. In the West The Plastics were regarded with affection as a kooky B-52s/Rezillos act, and filed alongside other Japanese techno-pop acts of the early „80s, like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sandii & the Sunsetz, and Susan. But time has revealed how smart and strange they were. Everyone involved seemed to be primarily artists or designers, rather than musicians. And closer analysis of their songs reveals they were sending up or deconstructing modern pop culture pretty waspishly. It‟s no coincidence they appear in Downtown 81. The Major Force West collection is a pretty strange affair. It‟s predominantly instrumental hip-hop, but it is more overtly psychedelic in its approach than most of the records it might be associated with. There‟s an old Andrea Parker interview where the Major Force duo have a walk-on part, and get described as looking like a couple of old rockers. That may just be appropriate when taking into account the progressive sounds prevalent on the 93-97 set.
Beyond the beat, one way and another, there is a lot of guitar on this compact disc. Some of it is bluesy. There‟s some sitar, banjo, and Hawaiian steel, too. There seems to be a real Ry Cooder feel to proceedings. A lot of old Ry Cooder records were being listened to at the time. The first Tortoise LP really reflects that. Years later I was reminded of this Major Force collection when I finally heard Howard Roberts‟ incredible Impulse! LP Antelope Freeway, from 1971, produced by Bill Szymczyk and Ed Michel where the great L.A. session guitarist fully immersed himself in the madness, providing some great electric bluesy, jazzy instrumental passages which were mixed up with all sorts of odd collages of traffic noise, truckers talking, random sidewalk conversations, and so on. The Major Force West tracks are at their best when they are extended stoned soul soundscapes. Instrumental hip-hop worked most effectively as segments of imaginary soundtracks. The irony is that this form of music later became something of a default setting for commercials and films. Elements of exotica and the mood music tradition that feature on 93-97 are not voguish „outernational‟ opportunism, as the Major Force guys are well-versed in the style. At times the collection visits similar territory to the Skylab #1 set where I first came across the names of Tosh and Kudo. This was in collaboration with Howie B. and Mat Ducasse on an LP released in 1994. Although the Skylab set strangely drifts towards new age/meditation sounds, suggestive of whale song and flotation tanks, it does feature some of the most evocative ambient hiphop/electronica tracks, particularly the sequence of Seashell/Depart/Next. It is, along with, Spacetime Continuum‟s Emit Ecaps one of the more enduringly fascinating records of that era. A couple of the tracks on the Major Force West compilation were recorded at Mario Caldato‟s studio in L.A. and feature Money Mark on keyboards. These two songs feature writing credits for Mark and Tim Goldsworthy, one of the Mo‟Wax founders, who would later become part of the DFA organisation.
Tim and James Lavelle had recruited Tosh and Kudo from Major Force to work with them on the first U.N.K.L.E. LP. I have to confess I have never (knowingly) heard an U.N.K.L.E. record, and know very little about DFA activities, apart from the first Prinzhorn Dance School LP, L.C.D.‟s Losing My Edge, and Days of Mars, the beautiful Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom LP, and in particular the Carl Craig remix of their track Relevee. By the time the Major Force West compilation appeared instrumental hip-hop had become something of a clichéd form. There were far too many conservative, conveyor-belt chill-out sounds, using the same old samples, the same beats. The progressive tendencies of Major Force West provided some welcome relief from all that cosiness. I think particular credit has to be given for the way Kyoichi Shiino‟s drums are used on some of the tracks, particularly on Heavy Loaded Head and the two Sonic Scale for Percussion numbers, which is the most outright experimental or abstract material on the compact disc. For the more party-minded listener there is a mix CD, originally a Mo‟Wax promo, of Major Force vs Ronin, with 23 Skidoo‟s Alex Turnbull at the controls. Somehow that sentence seems to capture something quite perfectly.
BLACKALICIOUS | NIA The great Mo‟Wax sleeve design is for Nia by Blackalicious. Ironically, this gorgeous cover concept was not put together by Will Bankhead or Ben Drury. It was instead the work of Brent Rollins, who was also responsible for the cover of another of the great fin-de-siècle hip-hop sets, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. Those two CDs had a huge effect on me at the time, though I feel slightly awkward saying that as an occasional or casual consumer of hip-hop product. Brent‟s cover is a montage of photos of kids surrounded by old hi-fi, recording and mixing equipment, with piles of vinyl very deliberately arranged here and there. Among that vinyl can be seen, symbolically, copies of DJ Shadow‟s Endtroducing ... and Latyrx The Album, classic releases by Blackalicious‟ SoleSides/Quannum colleagues. I have to declare an interest here: I was very much taken with the whole SoleSides thing as it developed in the „90s. I guess Mo‟Wax may not have amounted to much without the success of DJ Shadow, but the circular argument is that James Lavelle was canny enough to pick-up on Shadow/SoleSides at a very early stage. I don‟t get the impression people were exactly queuing up to put out In/Flux, either here or in the U.S. Those early Shadow singles, What Does Your Soul Look Like, Midnight in a Perfect World, were wonderful. I loved Melodica by Blackalicious. I got Latyrx The Album on import. I liked the connections to Dan The Automator via The Glue Factory, and bought his A Better Tomorrow on import, expensively. I saw Shadow spinning and mixing records, blindly, in the basement of the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden, and nodded to The Automator. I loved the Quannum/Spectrum collection. And felt sad when SoleSides Greatest Bumps came out on Ninja Tune because it felt like the end of something, though Jeff Chang‟s sleevenotes made up for this, and I still hope one day he writes a book about his time as DJ Zen, cratedigging with the SoleSides crew.
Now Endtroducing ... feels like a museum item, something to be admired from afar. It is easy to acknowledge its importance, but it doesn‟t seem like a record that I would want to play. The same happened to me with Joy Division records. Nia, on the other hand, is something I keep returning to, and always get something new out of. It‟s a record that captures two gentlemen at the peak of their powers, like Gang Starr at the other end of the decade. I guess I have to say this: what I really like about Nia is its accessibility. The compact disc, as a whole, is as catchy as hell. The melodies are memorable. Snippets of songs stick in the mind. I‟m not sure that actually counts as cuttingedge criticism. But it is testimony to Chief Xcel‟s production skills and The Gift of Gab‟s way with words. And special mention must be given to the contribution of Erinn Anova, whose singing on some of the tracks provides a nice balance to Gab‟s rapping. I guess if I had to pick out one track that captures what is so great about Nia it would be As The World Turns. Xcel keeps the production nice and simple, without trying to be too clever. Erinn adds a lovely refrain, harmonising, while Gab does his Gil Scott-Heron wise old seer thing, observing life, talking about growing-up, wondering who‟s well-off really, trying to express his inner-self. There is an underlying melancholy to this track, a sort of detached fatalism, that appears on the LP now and then. The following track Sleep is almost a ballad, with piano and flute to the fore, which features Gab doing that sing-song rap thing he does so well, and features some lovely lyrical imagery about the day drawing to a close, the light fading outside, “almost done with a book but eyelids too heavy to read it”. Being able to capture such vivid scenes is something of an art form. I often get the feel listening to records that so-and-so is not in love with music. That‟s not necessarily a bad thing. But I do have a certain empathy with people whose love for the medium shines through. It‟s seems clear listening to Nia that Xcel and Gab are truly in love with hip-hop, the challenge of putting together beats, collages of sounds and lyrics, and even some of the form‟s rituals. That doesn‟t make Blackalicious great, but it does endear them to me.
Blackalicious‟ love of hip-hop is one of the themes of Nia. The Gift of Gab lays his cards on the table: there were certain things about fin-de-siècle hip-hop that he did not like. On Deception, with its absurdly catchy hook and refrain of “don‟t let money change you”, Gab tells the story of a young rap star who signs a major record label contract and becomes a huge star, falls in love with the celebrity lifestyle of money, cars and girls, but loses perspective and his inner hunger. Of course there soon came a time when his rhymes weren‟t appealing, his records weren‟t selling, and he was back where he started, except his old friends didn‟t want to know. Be true to yourself and stay humble, advises Gab, and he knows about such things.. On the stupendous Shallow Days Gab contemplates the state of hip-hop, explaining why he doesn‟t go in for the gangsta form, or something similar that just might sell. Now if you are going to set yourself up in opposition to prevailing trends, you need to make sure you‟re doing something special yourself. And Blackalicious do carry off the critical angle wonderfully well. It‟s like when Dexys were doing Let‟s Make This Precious. It‟s happened more recently with Georgia Anne Muldrow. They could criticise, because they could demonstrate they were a better alternative. Another thing I love about Nia specifically, and Blackalicious generally, is the evident love of words Gab in particular has, how they can be used and the sounds they can make. His „alphabetical aerobics‟ show this literally, but pretty much any track makes the case. And then there‟s the inclusion of Erinn Anova reading Nikki Giovanni‟s Ego Trip, to show where Blackalicious stand in this thing called life. What Blackalicious were doing on Nia was great: providing entertainment and enlightenment, reflecting something of a spiritual quest, contemplating rather than being confrontational. Sure, it had its roots in an earlier era of hiphop: Freestyle Fellowship, Souls of Mischief, and so on. But it provided a very welcome relief to the sort of rap sounds that were selling millions: Dr Dre, Eminem, Jay-Z, Snoop, etc. It may have been part of an updated variation on the conscious reggae vs. dancehall slackness debate. It may just be about personal taste. But Nia is a very special record, one that lives up to the title‟s translated meaning: purpose.
ATTICA BLUES | ATTICA BLUES Symbolically, at the end of February 1991, Unfinished Sympathy by Massive (Attack) and Apparently Nothin‟ by the Young Disciples reached the UK singles chart at the same time. They are two of the most remarkable and moving songs in the history of popular music, and are generally considered to be incredibly influential. But what did they inspire? One of the few records that does meet the challenge set by Unfinished Sympathy and Apparently Nothin is the Attica Blues CD that came out on Mo‟Wax in 1997-ish. It is a radical record for its time in that it creates and then sustains a specific mood over the course of the 70-odd minute set. There are no guests or remixes. There is no genre-hopping to demonstrate diversity. This is in stark contrast to Blue Lines or Road to Freedom. The default setting on the Attica Blues CD is one of moody, reflective ballads in dramatic, often orchestral, settings, with startling hip-hop beats and electronic colouration. In this they were hardly working in isolation, but Attica Blues succeeded spectacularly where their colourless contemporaries couldn‟t. One reason the Attica Blues CD continues to delight is the singing of Roba ElEssawy, the only voice on the record. She has, at times, something of the sultry, smoky intimacy of the great jazz torch singers. The way her voice is used on this record, in that setting, suggests that period in the late-„60s where cabaret singers started to tackle more adventurous pop material and arrangers got hip, adding the sort of funky drums that would later prove to be so invaluable to hip-hop producers/DJs in search of the perfect beats/breaks. Another reason the Attica Blues CD works so well is the strength of the material. There are so many records that are made with the oh-so-right ingredients but which fail to rise. The Attica Blues songs stand up. In fact, I love the way they arrogantly place their signature tune, Blueprint, at the very start of the CD, confident that the rest of the material is strong enough.
Attica Blues started as a collaboration between D‟Afro (Charlie Dark) and Tony Nwachukwu. I think James Lavelle had met Charlie and encouraged him to make some tracks, and he‟d then got together with Tony to try to make some of the ideas he had in his head come to life on tape. The first Mo‟Wax release was the Vibes, Scribes & Dusty 45s EP, which was very much in the abstract/instrumental hip-hop tradition, and in no way prepared the listener for the remarkable leap to Blueprint a couple of years later, with Roba‟s vocals to the fore. Blueprint, itself, came out as an elaborately-packaged CD single, with remixes by Photek, Alex Reece and Richie Hawtin, making it a lovely snapshot of a moment in time. There were also a number of artists around at the time that benefited from Attica Blues remixes.
I sometimes wonder if the name Attica Blues has worked against the group in more recent times. Naming yourself after the great Archie Shepp record is a bold move. You can almost sense the sneering, suggesting Attica Blues don‟t play real jazz, don‟t make fire music, etc. But I suspect the Archie Shepp LP was not universally welcomed by the jazz community after it was recorded in 1972. Some would have thought it too pop, and I bet plenty of people were uncomfortable about its use of beautifully melodic soul/gospel stylings. And,
yeah, if you listen to Doug Carn and the output of Black Jazz then Attica Blues the group do belong in the jazz tradition, if that matters. Archie Shepp‟s Attica Blues was named very specifically after a particular event in 20th century American history, and another track was named in honour of George Jackson, the Black Panthers‟ leader. Attica Blues the group were not explicitly political in the same way. Their songs, however, were political in a very personal sense, exuding a sense of self-sufficiency, selfdetermination, and self-expression. By their very nature Attica Blues were political, making their own art in London, surviving somehow, stubborn as hell. I‟ve been trying to think who else succeeded using a similar „blueprint‟ or approach to Attica Blues. The only name I can come up with is Ollano, the French collective, led by Xavier Jamaux and Marc Collin, who put together an exquisite LP in 1998 for Shadow Records. There is certainly some common ground in the way they created gorgeous, smouldering jazzy ballads underpinned by hip-hop beats. I got into the habit of calling Ollano‟s sound triste-hop, but I‟m not sure the phrase caught on. While it takes a hard-hearted soul to resist the Paris Texas tribute, starring Helena Noguerra, in the video for Latitudes, the other vocals on the Ollano LP are performed by Sandra Nkake whose voice is as mesmerising as Roba‟s. As an aside, among the musicians‟ credits on the Ollano LP is the name of Bertrand Burgalat. And among the tracks is La Couleur, which had featured on the Source Lab 2 compilation when the French new wave/disko sounds were beginning to capture our imaginations. On that record Ollano had memorably cited their inspirations as Mwandishi, Stockhausen and Julie London. It has to be acknowledged that it was Mo‟Wax that stimulated interest in the new French sounds by picking up on La Funk Mob‟s activities and then releasing Air‟s exquisite soundtrack snippet Modulor as a single.
DIVINE STYLER | WORDPOWER2: DIRECTRIX The Quannum Spectrum CD I thought was a wonderful thing when it came out on Mo‟Wax at the turn of the millennium. Somewhere along the line SoleSides had evolved into Quannum, and this CD package which was beautifully designed by Brent Rollins featured Blackalicious, Latyrx and DJ Shadow in various permutations. There were also a number of people featured who were close to the Quannum camp, like Joyo Velarde, Erinn Anova and Mack B-Dog. And there some special guest appearances from kindred spirits Jurassic 5, Souls of Mischief, Poets of Rhythm, Divine Styler, and El-P of Company Flow. There are some terrific tracks on Spectrum, but the one that hit me hardest at the time was Divine Styler & DJ Shadow doing Divine Intervention. It still does, come to that. I have to admit part of the appeal then and now was the use of the “red alert” sample from Basement 5‟s always astonishing Omega Man which joined a few dots together perfectly for me. I think in terms of production this is the finest thing Shadow‟s been involved in. I didn‟t have a clue what Divine Styler was rapping about on the track, with the Martin Hannett-style Basement 5 dub-echo drums and Cabs-style distortion droning away in the background. But it sounded significant and magnificent. And James Lavelle must have thought so too, as he invited Divine Styler to go on to make a full-length set for Mo‟Wax. I again got the sense that this was something of considerable significance, not a common-place commission. I remember playing the Divine Styler/Mo‟Wax CD a lot, and as a piece of finde-siècle/new millennium hip-hop I would put it up there with the Company Flow Presents Little Johnny from the Hospital set and The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. What I remember really liking about Directrix was the precarious balance between outright experimentation and an obvious love for the roots of hip-hop. And for some reason I kept thinking of Mark E. Smith. These post-punk reference points date me, I know, and show which direction I approached hip-hop from. But there is something in it. One of the great things about The Fall early on was that they were doing something no-one else had done before, but at the heart of it was a right old rickety rockabilly racket,
because Mark was in love with the r‟n‟r dream, r‟n‟r as primal scream. And it‟s the same with Divine Styler and hip-hop, I guess. Listening to Directrix now it is striking that Divine Styler‟s playing, production and delivery, as well as the themes, strikes a balance between new technology and ancient wisdom. There‟s something too in the use of distortion and words. I always loved it when Mark E. Smith was practically swallowing the mic and the words were wonderfully distorted, almost indistinguishable. Divine Styler does something similar with his voice and lyrics at times. Both M.E.S and D.S. could spit out torrents of words in an intoxicating way. The impression may be of stream of consciousness, particularly when language and syntax seem mangled, but it‟s more to do with a love of words and making your very own sense out of something. I often haven‟t a clue what they are on about, but it really doesn‟t matter. More recently I‟ve read about the techniques Divine Styler used when recording Directrix. “I would put things on cassette, and sample from that to keep that dirt, which emphasizes the noise and hiss and I would try and EQ out as much as I could. It was hell trying to mix that stuff,” he told Urban Smarts. That interview is worth seeking out. It‟s particularly useful for getting an insight into where Divine Styler was in terms of religion, and his Islamic faith. There were enough clues on Directrix about Divine Styler‟s beliefs, although the opening, I believe, Islamic prayer does have echoes of old Cabaret Voltaire records and the way they used samples. The superb Hajji reflects D.S.‟s spiritual journey, and is perhaps the LP‟s highlight. And in a funny kind of way the Islamic interludes add a welcome sense of disorientation. There are not too many guests disrupting proceedings on Directrix. Cockni O‟Dire features, doing his ragga/fast chatting thing. His is a name I most closely identify with the great producer The Angel and her 60 Channels project. The Angel also was part of Jaz Klash with the Bristol-based More Rockers guys, making the classic Thru The Haze jazz/d&b LP, which is still very much my cup of tea. The Angel also made recordings with Divine Styler, including for part of her Boiler Room film soundtrack.
Without making a big deal about it Divine Styler‟s musical palette on Directrix is more varied than most of his hip-hop contemporaries. There is, for instance, a credit for John Tejada, a name more readily associated with electronica of different varieties. D.S. later featured on John‟s Daydreams in Cold Weather, rapping in a beautifully restrained way over some glacial electronica on The Silence of Us on Plug Research. And that certainly wasn‟t the only track they collaborated on, but it is in its way the ultimate spirit of Mo‟Wax song. With so much information instantly available to us now it‟s amusing to look back and consider how little I knew about Divine Styler when I was playing Directrix on a regular basis. I was aware of a mystical/mythical figure whom I suppose in hip-hop seemed something of an eccentric Captain Beefhearttype enigma. But I didn‟t really know why this was. And in many ways I think that was a great situation to be in. It would be a good few years before, by chance, I heard Divine Styler‟s earlier LPs, and I can understand in particular why Spiral Walls is revered. I don‟t know if there has ever been anything quite like it. It scares the hell out of me, at times, and you could lose yourself in it forever. But I don‟t know what difference it would have made if I had heard Divine Styler‟s records in the right order.
AS ONE | PLANETARY FOLKLORE Shackleton is one of the few contemporary artists I genuinely take an interest in. I really like what he has been doing with Skull Disco and beyond. So I got quite excited reading about his Music for the Quiet Hour set. Even so, I did a double-take when I saw that he was collaborating with Kingsuk Biswas, a name that instantly conjures up a golden age of UK electronica in the mid„90s. Kingsuk‟s work as Bedouin Ascent was among the most inventive and thrilling of that era. His Music for Particles LP I called the best record of 1995. From the Old to the New by Stasis I said was the best record of 1996. And I suggested the two LPs released by As One in 1997 might be contenders for that year‟s best. One of those As One titles was Planetary Folklore, which came out on Mo‟Wax in late 1997. Listening to it now it feels like the culmination of something something non-specific - a peculiarly percussive take on electronica, which deliberately defies cosy categorisation, part of a network of shifting identities and evolving sounds supported by savvy shops and labels. Earlier in 1997 As One had released the excellent CD In With Their Arps, and Moogs, and Jazz and Things, on the Clear label. The title gives a pretty good indication of where As One was coming from, as did track titles like The Message in Herbie‟s Shirts. Jazz, one way and another, had been percolating away as a massive influence on electronica in the UK for some years, to the delight of some and deep despair of others. Indeed, it could be argued jazz had always been at the heart of electronica, and it‟s no coincidence that people were making explicit reference to old Herbie Hancock/Mwandishi titles. On Planetary Folklore jazz is the underpinning element, and there are some lovely brass/woodwind embellishments to reinforce this. But it still feels curiously like a futuristic creation. Where incorporating jazz often led to flaccid
fusion, on Planetary Folklore it seems to sharpen things up and add some spice to proceedings. The percussion is particularly lively and sprightly, and contrasts perfectly with the melodic invention at work on each track. It‟s testament to the strength of the compositions and production that the record does not sound at all dated now. In many ways it was perfect that Planetary Folklore came out on Mo‟Wax as it was so elusive and difficult to pin-down. As One is one of the personas used by Kirk Degiorgio, and I tend to think of him being part of a very particular electronic music tradition/scene, one that takes in B12, Black Dog, Steve Pickton, Dave Hill, Mark Broom, Fat Cat, Rephlex, and so on. This was a very loose coterie which had its roots in Detroit techno but was musically open-minded, reaching out to different areas and different eras, such as jazz/fusion, funk, Brazilian sounds, ambient, electro, dub, breakbeat, hip-hop, classical, and on and on and on. It is a tradition that Mo‟Wax tapped into with its Excursions series which featured a number of specially commissioned 12”s of electronic music, with some of the tracks later collected together for a 2CD compilation. Included in this series were terrific tracks by Stasis (Steve Pickton), Midnight Funk Association (Mark Broom & Dave Hill) and Twig Bud (Baby Ford). Stasis or Steve Pickton also recorded as Paul W. Teebrooke, and under that alias released the superb Connections CD on Kirk Degiorgio‟s Op-Art label, which was an extension of his earlier ART (Applied Rhythmic Technology) imprint. Photek had one of his great tracks on Op-Art, too, the gorgeous TRaenon. Kirk Degiorgio and Rupert Parkes had something more in common than a shared sense of adventure: they were both from the same part of Suffolk. That region, the East of England, had an impressively strong tradition of electronic music, from The Black Dog and DeGiorgio through Photek, E-Z Rollers, Flytronix, and P.F.M. Another character who migrated from Suffolk to London was the DJ Patrick Forge, who wrote the sleevenotes for Planetary Folklore, very much in the manner of an old Blue Note LP. I‟m not sure how Patrick is viewed now, but he will always have a tremendous amount of respect from me for the Kiss FM
shows he quietly hosted for many years, playing all sorts of jazz-dance sounds, hip-hop tracks, and what he would call „cosmic jams‟. I seem to have very fond memories of his Sunday evening shows, which were followed by Joey Jay‟s reggae show, Word Sound & Power. For some reason the Disciples‟ Prowling Lion is a tune that sticks in my mind from that time, correctly or not. Apart from the Suffolk link there was something that connects Patrick and Kirk in terms of simultaneously foraging through sounds from the past for fresh inspiration and hankering after the latest „new thing‟. It is this which keeps Planetary Folklore so stimulating: the jazz-inspired melodic magic colliding with the clattering beats which stop proceedings from becoming too comfortable. On one song, Away From All Of This, Degiorgio is joined by Luca Santucci singing quite beautifully. It would have been lovely to hear more As One songs with vocals. Luca, incidentally, is an intriguing character, and I really only know him from singing on the fantastic records by Leila (Arab), including the Rephlex debut Like Weather which must have come out around the same sort of time as Planetary Folklore. Oddly, liking Planetary Folklore so much, I seemed to then lose track of what Kirk Degiorgio was doing musically. I think the same could be said of Steve Pickton too, until a brilliant EP he made for Soul Jazz under the name Soul 223 appeared in 2006-ish. The same is true for Dave Hill & Mark Broom, apart from Coffee Shop Rules, a superb CD that unexpectedly appeared on Domino in 2002 under the MFA (Midnight Funk Association) name. One piece of Kirk Degiorgio related activity that did register with me, and which I still have, is one of the volumes of The Soul of Science, which Kirk compiled with Ian O‟Brien, who played some guitar on Planetary Folklore and created some beautiful jazz/electronica records of his own around that time, including the full-length Desert Scores and Gigantic Days. The Soul of Science collections featured a mixture of old and new electronic sounds, and most importantly alerted me to Annette Peacock‟s I‟m The One and Cesar Mariano‟s Brazilian fusion sounds which I guess so influenced Planetary Folklore.
URBAN TRIBE | THE COLLAPSE OF MODERN CULTURE Curiously I didn‟t realise until recently that Planetary Folklore, the title, was an explicit nod in the direction of Victor Vasarely, the Hungarian op-art pioneer, and that Ben Drury‟s cover design was a reworking of one of Vaserely‟s Planetary Folklore „participations‟ I find myself smiling now, thinking about Carl Craig playing an ARP synth on the closing track, Mind Filter, an after-hours techno jazz jam, which also features Ian O‟Brien on guitar. Given that Carl had his wonderful LP, More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art, out around that time, (featuring Sarah Gregory, ex-Marine/Allez Allez on vocals, perfectly), I imagine Carl and Kirk sitting in the studio, deep in discussion about this artist or that painter. There is something about the stories of Kirk Degiorgio and his coterie, at the start of the „90s, heavily into their Detroit techno, that has echoes of modernist traditions: following the latest sounds of young Black America, getting as obscure as possible. You could go further and equate Kirk‟s first visit to Detroit to meet the people making the revolutionary music with the one made by Dave Godin to Motown‟s headquarters nearly 30 years earlier. Take the analogies further, and you could argue that what Kirk, B12, The Black Dog, etc. were doing made them modern equivalents of the Stones, Yardbirds, etc. Like pretty much anyone in the 1990s who loved progressive music Mo‟Wax had its Detroit moments. Carl Craig did a classic 10-minutes plus remix of La Funk Mob‟s Ravers Suck Our Sound, and his Spoon mix (a Can reference?) of Rob D‟s Clubbed To Death is the one that‟s still listenable. Then in 1996 James Lavelle released Carl‟s Innerzone Orchestra masterpiece Bug in the Bassbin in a beautiful outsize op-art thick cardboard sleeve. The track itself had been around a few years by then, and had acquired a sort of mythical status, influencing many on the jungle and techno scenes. It‟s easy to see how it was such a significant track, with its jazzy, clattering beats, swathes of synths and string-bass sound. I think the live jazz mix also gave a lot of people on the electronic scene ideas about where to go next.
On one of its second Headz compilations Mo‟Wax also picked up on another jazzy Detroit classic that had been around a few years. This was Covert Action by Urban Tribe, which I think first appeared on a Reinforced compilation which also featured Carl Craig‟s gorgeous As Time Goes By (Sitting Under A Tree), with Sarah Gregory on vocals. A single by Urban Tribe also appeared on Mo‟Wax in 1996. This was a pretty low-key affair, but it is considered rightly to be one of the hidden gems in the label‟s catalogue. The lead track Eastward was a gorgeous slice of downbeat electronica/instrumental hip-hop, something pretty prevalent at the time but this was way ahead of the pack with its jazzy flourishes and dubby features. And it benefited enormously from seeming to be a fairly mysterious production, though the mixing credit for Carl Craig suggested Detroit origins. Beyond Eastward there really was some great music being made in that particular area of jazzy, dubby, downbeat electronica/instrumental hip-hop. Bristol‟s Cup of Tea label built up a particularly impressive catalogue. And there were other labels putting out some great stuff, like Sherman‟s Cloak and Dagger who put out classic sets from The Woodshed and released The Disciples‟ Resonations digidub set. Another classic overlap between the UK dub tradition and instrumental hip-hop/downbeat electronica is the Manasseh spin-off Spectre with its melodically menacing set The Missing Two Weeks (Covert Dubs). A full-length Urban Tribe CD appeared on Mo‟Wax in 1998-ish called The Collapse of Modern Culture. There wasn‟t much in the way of fanfare when it came out, but I would suggest it‟s quietly become the label‟s most influential release. Alongside the Andrea Parker CD I would say it‟s the best thing that Mo‟Wax put out. And, certainly, the aura of mystery surrounding the record helped. While it was apparent Urban Tribe was one Sherard Ingram, and that on this CD he was assisted by Detroit big-guns Carl Craig, Kenny Dixon Jr. and Anthony Shakir, there wasn‟t a lot of other information out there. What‟s so great about The Collapse of Modern Culture is that it creates and sustains a particular mood over the course of 70-odd minutes. On one level,
yeah, it‟s perfect background mood music, an ideal soundtrack to relax to while on a journey, with the beats slowed down deliberately, the subterranean bass lines, and the beautiful synth-etched melodic motifs. But listen to it while you‟re out and about and odd things start to happen: the music merges with environmental sounds, like footsteps, traffic noises and snippets of conversation, and the record gradually becomes more and more sinister and disorientating. The idea of imaginary soundtracks was a bit of a cliché at the time, but The Collapse of Modern Culture is a great example of where the concept works. It‟s easy to create your own plot around this record: a high-tech thriller with a whistle-blower on the run from renegade scientists with shady links to governmental departments and unscrupulous conglomerates. There is at times a sense of danger creeping up, seeping, oozing. At other times there is a sense of stillness, suspended animation, a blurring into the environment, waiting, watching, with a sense of redemption at the climax. As a suite of music it has a certain air of stealth, or drama. This is something it shared at the time with works by Photek, such as The Hidden Camera and TRaenon. In more recent times, there seem to be echoes of The Collapse of Modern Culture in music by the likes of Kromestar, Digital Mystikz, Pinch, and so on. That could just be me, only partially interested in modern music, keen to make connections between the more intriguing of the new sounds and personal favourites from earlier times. In the same way that first Urban Tribe had the antiseptic air and very emotional engagement of the best ECM titles. Sherard Ingram and Urban Tribe seemed to disappear until 2006, when two new LPs appeared in quick succession on Rephlex. He also emerged as DJ Stingray, with Drexciya credentials. It‟s interesting hearing Sherard talk now about how daunting it was to make that first LP for Mo‟Wax, when he was relatively inexperienced. And the obverse of that is that James Lavelle and no-one else had the vision to get Sherard to make that first Urban Tribe record.
DAVID AXELROD | DAVID AXELROD There are so many things to love about the idea of a David Axelrod CD on Mo‟Wax. It‟s perfect, really. And there‟s such a great story behind it. But is it a great record, or does sentimentality play a part in its appeal? Well, it‟s always a thorny issue when legendary artists put out a new record, but on this occasion the David Axelrod CD that Mo‟Wax put out in 2001 is pretty special. It‟s a CD I dig out and play on a fairly regular basis. I think it benefits from being just 35-minutes long: the proper length for any LP. The funny thing is that I was a bit sceptical when it first came out, feeling slightly awkward, only just being in the course of catching up with some of the classic Axelrod sets which were beginning to emerge on CD, and I didn‟t want to get my futures and pasts too disarranged. And I was a little uneasy about „returns‟: the reactivated 23 Skidoo was a little lacking, and so on, and so on. So those 35-minutes: the core part of those is a suite of seven songs, and it is these songs which the rhythm parts were recorded for back in 1968-ish, and preserved solely on one carefully-kept and completely forgotten about acetate. These tracks have all the hallmarks of the classic Capitol Axelrod LP: the pronounced electric bass of Carol Kaye, the dynamic drums of Earl Palmer, the elegiac piano playing of Don Randi, the stinging guitar solos of Howard Roberts. And then there are the strings. When I think of Axelrod records, I think of the orchestral arrangements. The swooping, sweeping strings that can build and build and then fade away to almost nothing: that‟s my Axelrod speciality. The orchestral settings that on this occasion are apparently inspired by Schoenberg were part of the contemporary embellishments, added to the rhythm section recordings salvaged from the preserved acetate. Maybe they are not as lush and as dense as they would have been if recorded in the late „60s, but whew those were different times and record company executives kept less of an eye on budgets. What I love about the Mo‟Wax CD and Axelrod‟s work in general is the juxtaposition between classical grandeur and jazz expression, where the sax or
the trumpet or trombone takes off, in defiance of protocol. Specific solos by George Bohanon on trombone and Oscar Brashaer on trumpet are definitely worth listening out for. And I have to confess I am always swept away on a wave of emotion when hearing the Joe Zawinul-style soul-jazz piano refrain at the start of For Land‟s Sake. But the great thing about this 2001 Axelrod set is that the opening and closing tracks are the best, and these are the ones he built from scratch at the time. The opener, The Little Children, begins beautifully with strings and bass, as the choir joins proceedings. This part of the CD comes closest to the astonishing record Axelrod released in 1993, Requiem: The Holocaust. There‟s quite a bit of overlap too in terms of personnel, I think. It‟s funny: Requiem was one of the few Axelrod CDs in circulation in the early years of the new millennium, but it was quite a shock for those of us seeking beats „n‟ breaks „n‟ bass. Now I think it‟s the best, most moving, most startling thing Axelrod‟s composed and produced, up there with the best of Mikis Theodorakis‟ work. Loved Boy, the closing song, has to be at the end of the record. It opens with a mournful trumpet involuntary, like Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity if he was channelling Albert Ayler. The song itself is David‟s tribute to his son whom he lost so horribly young. Lou Rawls, David‟s old friend, sings the words, and if his voice sounds a little cracked, wracked with pain, that‟s the bit that makes it so special. The music is a mix of stately dirge and atonal beauty, and each time I hear it I ache inside for someone loved and lost. As Lou sings: “Here lies a man‟s best work”. The Little Children features a rap from Ras Kass, serving to remind us that it was hip-hop that pretty much reactivated Axelrod‟s career. Read any article about Axelrod now, and there will be a reference to his beats and breaks being sampled by this producer or that DJ. There‟s no point in asking me about such things, as I can rarely recognise source material. It‟s interesting that Axelrod‟s name came up quite so often in hip-hop circles at the time. I suspect the general scarcity of his records and his commitment to L.A. made his story more appealing to the likes of DJ Shadow and the SoleSides collective.
Pretty central to the story of how a new David Axelrod record appeared on Mo‟Wax is photographer Brian Cross, better known perhaps as B+, and it‟s apt that he has a track named in his honour. It was B+ that heard the acetate while on an assignment to shoot some photos of David, and got really excited about what he heard. As a consequence David approached James Lavelle, and finally the LP was released in 2001. There were connections between B+ and Mo‟Wax through SoleSides, and he took the great Endtroducing ... cover shot, etc. But the Axelrod link was there too, after James approached the legend to do a remix for U.N.K.L.E. That‟s the strange part: all those talking about Axelrod‟s work, sampling his stuff, but who else took the trouble to get him in to do a new mix? Brian Cross or B+ pops up in some fascinating places, from photography for Freestyle Fellowship‟s Inner City Griots to THAT photo used for the cover of Georgia Anne Muldrow‟s Olesi: Fragments of an Earth. He‟s been contributing photography editor for Wax Poetics, made some fascinating films, and been behind the Timeless series of „dream‟ concerts that were staged in L.A. in 2009 and later released on DVD. David Axelrod was to have taken part, but had to withdraw through ill-health. The three concerts that did take place were Mulatu Astatke, Arthur Verocai and Suite For Ma Dukes, the stunning orchestral J. Dilla tribute that grew from an idea Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Nino came up with. This series is one of those rare occasions in modern times where I dearly wish I could have been present at a live show. The Arthur Verocai event was a unique performance of his 1972 LP, which again has become a favourite among progressive hip-hop „headz‟ and other open-minded musical adventurers. Ironically, like David Axelrod, renewed interest in his work led to an opportunity to record new material. So, after 35years Arthur had the beautiful „Encore‟ CD set released on Farout Recordings, another London label that like Mo‟Wax has roots in the jazz-dance scene. “There are so many things to love about the idea of ... “. And round and round we go ...
PARSLEY SOUND | PARSLEY SOUNDS There is a very strong case for Mo‟Wax being at its most interesting when things got messy and the label was supposedly past its best-before-date. Several of the CDs featured here are from that later period: the Andrea Parker, Major Force West, Blackalicious, Divine Styler, Urban Tribe, and David Axelrod titles all come from 1999-ish and beyond. There are some other great tiles from those latter years. The excellent DJ Assault and DJ Magic Mike bass collections came out at the turn of the millennium. And on a related bass theme there was the wonderful Now Thing collection in 2001 featuring 15 Jamaican dancehall instrumentals or digital dub productions, and the Moments in Dub CD from Chicago house producer Jordan Fields. I am also very fond of the Tommy Guerrero titles Mo‟ Wax put out, particularly Soul Food Taqueria, which is like the easy listening missing link between Tortoise-style activity and all the Prefuse 73 stuff. I confess I wasn‟t necessarily paying close attention though, and admit there are Mo‟ Wax CDs from Malcolm Catto, Nigo and South I have never actually heard. I think the last Mo‟Wax release, or certainly the last one I am aware of is the Parsley Sound collection, Parsley Sounds, which I believe came out in the autumn of 2003. And it is in its own special way right up there with the very best CDs the label put out. It also sort of brings us full circle to Mark‟s Keyboard Repair, which it perfectly complements. The opening track on Parsley Sounds, the aptly named Ease Yourself and Glide, still makes me think of Sam Prekop, which is about as good as it gets. I think Sam, through The Sea and Cake and his solo work, is just about the best thing ever in pop. I have to say Coldplay‟s Yellow also makes me think of The Sea and Cake, but only in a way that makes me wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, terrified about the damage done whenever odd fluidity is replaced by plain solidity. But Ease Yourself and Glide has the loping loveliness and cock-eyed charm of TS&C‟s wonderful variations on a theme of Doug Yule singing cracked Velvets ballads.
Like Mark‟s Keyboard Repair, Parsley Sounds is a collection of recordings made over a period of time. I have been trying to recall some contemporary context for where Parsley Sound might have fitted in with what else was happening over that period. With the blend of exquisite sun-dappled harmonies, folk music inspired melancholia, funky interludes and electronic colouration, I find myself thinking of the Fence collective when it was still issuing gorgeous little CDRs with hand-made covers, and the Boards of Canada with their tentacles reaching out hither and thither. The lovely Tommy Guerrero CDs on Mo‟Wax had some of the same elements, too. To this day, I still know very little about Parsley Sound. Even the duo‟s names of Preston Mead and Danny Sargassa seem to be assumed identities. I do know that Parsley Sound started out as Slum, releasing a limited edition 7” on Warp in 1999, before James Lavelle whisked them away to Mo‟Wax. But beyond that, there‟s not a lot I can add. I like that. Mo‟Wax could be pretty smart at maintaining mystery, whether by accident or design. So, for example, the invaluable Liquid Liquid compilation it put out in 1997 brilliantly came without any accompanying sleeve notes at all. There are a couple of tracks on Parsley Sounds, particularly Platonic Rate and Ocean House which suggest a very specific English tradition of psychedelia, all that strange beauty, from Donovan and Syd Barrett to Michael Head and The Coral. At other times, on Templechurchmansions especially, they recall an allied tradition demonstrated on early EPs by Red Snapper and parts of Beth Orton‟s Trailer Park, particularly Tangent and Touch Me With Your Love. And, and, and ... if we are talking about The Sea and Cake, I think it‟s worth mentioning that when I first started listening to their records, and this would have been from when Nassau came out, their CDs nestled nicely next to titles from Warp, Moving Shadow, Rephlex and Mo‟Wax, next to Füxa‟s Very Well Organised and Labradford‟s A Stable Reference, next to titles from Luscious Jackson and Moonshake, a Can reissue or two, some Wu-Tang activity, a Make-Up session, Cluster‟s Zuckerzeit, a Blood & Fire dub comp. with a Soul Jazz Brazilian collection, On-U Sound archives and an Alice Coltrane Impulse! title, plus a CD of Miles Davis‟ In a Silent Way and a Terry Callier compilation.
That is how the 1990s really were, and perhaps belatedly the Parsley Sounds collection captured that open-mindedness. The Parsley Sound track Spring‟s Near seems to hit the nail on the head and nail this specific aesthetic peculiarly well, with its Jah Wobble-style opening bass line, its Future Days-style melodic magnificence, and stray suggestions of very early electric Miles. I love this Parsley Sounds collection because you can have a track like Stevie, which sounds like an outtake from Music Has the Right to Children, and the preceding track, Find The Heat, which sort of sounds close to something the Leaf label might have put out around that time (Murcof, Colleen, Efterklang), nice and glitchy and crackly, but with a melodic air that wouldn‟t be out of place on The Magical World of The Strands. Then after Stevie it‟s into Platonic Rate, with its pure Michael Head (again) refrain of “take a seat and fall asleep and sing my little song carry on”. Oh all this casual beauty so disdainfully lobbed into the lake: such a lovely quixotic way to end things.
Written and produced October 2012. Dedicated to James Lavelle, Will Goldsworthy, and all at Mo’’Wax.
Cover design by Per-Christian Hille – with an affectionate nod in the direction of Ben Drury, Gareth Bayliss & Ben Chatfield.
1. Money Mark Markâ€™s Keyboard Repair 2. Andrea Parker Kiss My Arp 3. Major Force West 93-97 4. Blackalicious Nia 5. Attica Blues Attica Blues 6. Divine Styler Wordpower 2: Directrix 7. As One Planetary Folklore 8. Urban Tribe The Collapse Of Modern Culture 9. David Axelrod David Axelrod 10. Parsley Sound Parsley Sounds