Retro Album Review: The Selecter-Too Much Pressure (1980, 2 Tone Records)

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In a twisted way, some blues enthusiasts could be mistakenly interpreted as masochists. Just realizing that one is in fact distilling sonic pleasure from painful experiences, with only the emotional range to sympathize not empathize with the struggles of the people who felt, wrote, and must keep plodding through with the daily blues. On that far-off wavelength, the same alternative lens could be placed on much of classical music – simply contextualize Mozart’s keyboard pieces not as high culture touchstones but the onion, mustard, and relish that dresses the weiner and franks of ritualized Prussian aristocratic courtship. Try to flush that scene down the toilet the next time you cue up a piano sonata.

The 1.5 year drought of hotdogs and other essentials (definitely not ketchup) has clearly clouded something.

Ska, then, is really a lighter, more upbeat, skankable Jamaican take hiding behind the same root issues as the blues – making it easier to jump and dance to one’s blues lightens but does not dilute them.

The Selecter are a ska band from the working class backdrop of Coventry. The American rust belt took after the universality of the blues. After their own similarly rapid and prolonged decline from manufacturing glory, ska was evolved in English West Midlands to become the (societally) preferred outlet to such “raging angst”. Let’s just say that having an identity and community produces an extremely comforting anchor, and is probably the more placid and productive group activity relative to soccer hooliganism and revolution.

The aesthetics of 2-tone albums were apparently standardized by the few record labels, and reminds me of the dicing tartan on police hats of the UK and oddly, Chicago. Perhaps somewhere, someone had mistaken 2-tone for halftone, and was not half-unpleased with the results? But I digress.

Too Much Pressure is in fact the Selecter’s first of two albums before breaking up officially in 1982 (though they’ve since reformed). I was surprised at the amount of worthwhile numbers in this one album, which for me includes “Missing Words”, “Time Hard”, “They Make Me Mad”, and “Out On The Streets”. These are particularly brilliant, descriptive, and melodically attentive. I might have presumed there would be something that could accompany the intervening panoramic shots for Death In Paradise. Clearing that musical low bar obviously wasn’t even a question, and I should not have prepared to be dismissive and then feigned such “surprise”. This music clearly has staying power. Although imagining it being performed in tuxedo and tailcoats of 400 years into the future is an exercise equally interesting as re-creating 1980s Coventry. I’m sure it’s not hard to find a MET opera that screams “MURDER!!!”

The special edition of The Selecter’s ‘Too Much Pressure’ out now via Chrysalis Records.

Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade (2021, Rough Trade)

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Does anyone ever wonder if the authors of Cole’s Notes read themselves in old age to marvel at how beautifully complex, deep, and in-tune with all manifest faculties they once were?

Whether chanting (“Diamond Stuff”), traversing alternate pasts (“Marlene Dietrich”), or narrating a seemingly terrifying future a la Hieronymus Bosch (“John L”), black midi disembodies itself from space-time, climbs the throne of objective observer, describes its perspective back to you in the metaphoric language of the French opera cakes, and asks you to stay Zen and not attempt to understand.

Post-punk Buddhist monks might be a suitable descriptor. For what it’s worth, in the absence of those potential metaphors, the delivery vehicle that is Cavalcade still sounds like the soundtrack to a quasi-meta-movie called Being Johnny Cash-ovich. A thickly rhotic, faux American accent might have intended to cultivate an exuberant art deco ambiance to contrast the frenzied, post-post wouldn’t-give-a-rats-tail about traditions and forms instrumentation. Yet both still follow a stream of consciousness style that bend and stretch together. I observe that except for the middle 5/6, every even number on the album is softer and every odd number, odd and harshly dissonant. But in a sequence of less than 10, that hypothesis might well have a p-value of 1.0.

The album seems pleased with itself and stands in proud extroversion like a white-hot thermite covered highway billboard for modern-day Freemasonry – as if the album cover ever cast a shadow of a doubt. But the many elements of the album were continually pleasant to discover. The guitar hooks, the propulsive percussion and arrangements are always decisively clever. But I can do without the vocals and the lyrics that lend a layer of unnecessary sleaze, like some brownish organic ooze that interferes with the otherwise well-honed precision of the instrumental play. Cavalcade is merely mysterious and never incoherent, always perfectly able to paint a vivid picture. It is the clear results of careful craftsmanship, even though it carries the appearance of a rummaging mess of a jam session.

On repeated listening, however, the album is slower and harder than most to savour and digest in whole. You will either like it, have little opinion of it, or must reflect and then perform your decision on either of the two options when asked. In that sense, it’s built to be a museum piece that confronts. It attracts moths and critics to its ghostly flames without ever causing a stir with bees and plebeians. And when an album ends itself with an extracurricular multi-instrumental major key crescendo, that aim and aptitude for critical consumption is so patently conspicuous as to be circular. It is not built for a lazy, afternoon couch listening with your neighbor’s 2-year-old stomping opposite your ceiling. Unless that kid learns how to tap dance like Gene Kelly only to listen to this album in 70 years time and metaphorically lament his youth. Little Punk.

Album Review: Vanishing Twin-Ookii Gekkou (2021, Fire Records)

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I cannot even begin to write about the ironically apropos and prescient title of Vanishing Twin’s second album. At least not with a straight face. Somewhere a masonic temple’s granite eyeball finial must have been struck by black-and-white lightning and gained access into a colorfully rich, well-marbled dimensions.

Given their well known habits for experimentation, I think I could be similarly excused in such synesthesia. Co-mingling ready-made genres and samples into beautiful Frankensteins is, after all, air and water to Vanishing Twin. Coming on the heels of that 2019 album The Age of Immunology, their third such exploration switches from French to Japanese kookiness. Ookii Gekkou starts with an ostensibly odd but oddly-working merger between ’60s/’70s movie soundtrack and full lyrical song.

Busier, more vocal (not just in voice but tone) and more esoteric in comparison to Age of Immunology, Ookii Gekkou resembles a circus freak show in the best positive meaning of that term. With less thematic cohesion, the tracks have individual personalities like they busted out of a soundtrack from an Italian psycho movie on schizophrenia. I kid of course, about the country of origins for the brand of weirdness – the band is based in London. But if we are after a dose of stereotypical minor key hijinks, “In Cucina” does have that and some. Together with the album’s namesake “Big Moonlight”, it bookends a first phase of the album that has fresh, propulsive notes. Ookii then offers a more familiar imprint from Age seemingly designed to please previous fans, and almost as if on-cue, submerges into more electronica territory thereafter. While never trite, it is also never predictable. It is delightful to discover that genuinely enjoyable, not just artsy-fartsy, music can erupt this way.

On the notes of “Phase One Million”, then, I will be glad to return to my insouciant and carefree stroll (indoors) while chewing on marbled beef tacos de ojo, however ill-advised that might be. And on the fact that both this and the other album reviewed this week featured pink covers, I have no comment.

Album Review: Teenage Fanclub-Endless Arcade (2021, Merge Records)

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For the first time in 19 months, it is again time to introduce you, kind readers, to my total bald-faced ignorance of a band that should have been right up my alley (please do not substitute other nouns). Although truth be told, if ignorance deterred opinion, the subject of this review might not need to exist.

Teenage Fanclub formed in 1989 and without C14 dating myself, they are a contemporary band that I confess to be a bit ashamed to have lived without. But from the opening cord of “Home” onward, Teenage Fanclub’s latest album, Endless Arcade, proved a brightly-lit collection that seems to radiate into a dimly-aware black-hole of a world spinning out of self-control. To counteract its miraculous escape from under the hellhole of an inertia from 2020, Teenage Fanclub seemed to wear a beaming veneer with just a bit more shine than they might have previously. It is then ironically and self-referentially circular to hear their lyrics still ruminate the cuds of personal conflicts, nostalgia, self-doubt, and falling apart, not the least by including a chipper number called “Everything is Falling Apart” with four-part harmony.

I cannot explain whatever reasons might have justified my expecting otherwise, really. Billy Connolly famously quipped about the ironic mystery of how he became a comedian with “We are a miserable lot. When the Sun comes out, we’d offer to pay for it”. Commiserations, then. Now the whole world knows intimately what it’s like to be tucked indoors because it’s shit both outside and in, while the only stability one has is between the ears, and even that wavers between alcohol and valium.

In an era when some view the scavenging and rhyming of “bottles”, “models”, and “poison arrows” from the OED before it is translated into BTS-ese as the pinnacle of their achievements, it is truly the mark of a purposefully universal dreamscape when the only definitive, non-transposable nouns used in an album appears to be Dionysus, and “in a deadly decline” at that. Is that a long enough sentence to draw the ire of our resident grammarian? I don’t know. While the whole album can be taken as one continuous entity, singling out “The Sun Won’t Shine”, “In Our Dreams”, “Back in the Day”, and “I’m More Inclined” is a simple task, but that’s just because of my melodic preferences.

Had this album not been waved in front of my face in a Zoom chat one Friday night, prompting a search for “pink green record”, I might have lived the rest of my life without being a Teenage fanboy. I don’t know how this highly appreciated happy accident put the universe on the track it is now. But just drop the needle somewhere and while you recline, Dionysus will show the way.