Zita Swoon - Life = A Sexy Sanctuary
fans may recall my past review of the previous Zita Swoon release,
a repellent art-wank affair titled 'Plage Tattoo/Circumstances',
by the end of which I was begging Stef Kamil Carlens (frontman
and general proprietor of Zita Swoon) to go away and write a
proper album like the debut, 'I Paint Pictures on a Wedding
Dress'. It appears a lot of other people must have felt the
same way, because lo and behold, here is their second album
proper, 'Life = A Sexy Sanctuary' which is a worthy follow-up
on the original in pretty much the same vein. Only this time
with a new twist - it's a very dark affair indeed, with the
mighty SKC almost hitting the depths of Ian Curtis-like paranoia
at times. Even the sleeve art features Mexican Day of the Dead-style
cartoon skeletons and ravening wolves.
opening track, 'Fun for Free', is a gorgeous psychedelica-tinged
song with a floating guitar riff, rockier than previous Zita
material with hardly a 70's reference in it at all, recalling
SKC's former career with the mother of all Belgian bands, dEUS,
in which he played the inevitable role of Blond Rawwwk God.
'Hot, Hotter, Hottest', the first single release from the album,
is more of a return to their former style, a disco workout in
the same groove as 'My bond with you and your planet: DISCO!'
from the first album, but less parodic, played straighter with
a beautiful vocal. Following on from this, 'People are like
slamming doors', sets the standard pretty much for the entire
album - not unlike 'Stamina' from the first album, funky and
deeply 70's, but far less cheerful and jaunty, a sense of real
depression and isolation from the rest of the human race clearly
expressed in Stef's lyrics, despite being written in that odd
Flemish-English which characterises all Swoon songs. 'My Heart
Belongs to Someone Else (I wish it was mine)' starts out as
a pretty little acoustic love song but gets all bitter and twisted
by the end. 'Teacher' is even darker still, featuring lyrics
like 'I screamed and curled and cracked and crawled'. A brilliant,
affecting, quasi-theatrical song. Yeeeow, clearly this man needs
in true Swoon style, just when you think you've got 'em pegged,
they turn around and come out with a fantastic song like 'BananaQueen'
where the black mood is lifted just for a few minutes, SKC wibbling
in engaging fashion about driving around Belgium in his underwear
(steady, ladies!) and dancing with monkeys and cats. Or something.
All over a cute, funky and thoroughly danceable soundtrack with
a sub-James Brown brass section, and probably a fairly solid
choice for the next single. Radio-friendly without being commercial,
a nice trick to play if you can do it.
though, it is 'Josiewitchgirl' which totally steals the show
on this album. Almost a throwback to days of yore when Zita
Swoon were still Moondog Jr. and made Dylanesque/Beefhearttian
albums with really fucked-up Spanish blues and mad art-rock
stuff. This is a song very much in the same style as 'The Rabbit
Field' from the first Swoon album, or if you want to hark right
back, 'Love is a Heavy Brick' from the Moondog Jr. album 'Every
day I wear a greasy black feather in my hat'. Strongly bluesy,
piano/guitar-driven, it's a gorgeous, yearning unrequited-love-song
with a truly inspired, exquisite middle section and one of the
most real and affecting vocal performances from Carlens in years.
Far and away the best song on the whole album.
it finishes on a great note with 'Moving Through Life as Prey',
which sums it all up very neatly - slow blues, bitter and lovely
lyrics, a beautiful melody and some inspired guitar lines. All
in all, probably the best album Stef has made since the first
Moondog Jr. album, deeper, darker and more intense than anything
they've made as Zita Swoon, and a great relief after the horror
of 'Plage Tattoo' which means we can all forgive and forget
the past and concentrate on their triumphant return to form.
Deserves to sell truckloads, but won't because it's Belgian.
<sigh> Do yourself a favour and buy this - you won't regret
Fall - Unutterable
great, well, excuse me if I don't get all excited by the prospect
of reviewing the 931st album by the Fall released this year
alone. Except, however, I do have a soft spot for the contrary
old grumpster Mark E. Smith and his bad temper. Even after I
went to see them live in Bristol a few years back - the band
didn't hit the stage until well after 1 a.m. (a mere 5 hours'
wait after the support band) due to every single band member
having been sacked by Smith ten minutes before they were due
onstage, including the drummer who was also sporting a fresh
black eye into the bargain.
clearly nothing much has changed in the following years - Smith
certainly hasn't cheered up any. Indeed, not even a bucket of
E's could persuade him to crack a smile (don't do it, kidz-uh!).
And that's just the way we like it round here. 'The Unutterable'
is the best - and angriest - Fall album in quite some while.
It has all the good old-fashioned elements in spades -angular,
stark, grinding guitars; synths sounding like buzzsaws on top
speed cutting though sheet aluminium; and Mr Smith barking-uh
and growling-uh largely incomprehensible vitriol over a vaguely
Teutonic industrial backing. And not a misguided ballad (see:
'Edinburgh Man' from 'Shift-Work', etc etc etc) in sight. Smith
is not in a crooning mood, one fears.
tracks in album order: 'Two Librans' (one of the singles, and
so catchy even MTV2 are showing the video on heavy-ish rotation!);
'Sons of Temperance', featuring a great Shout-Along-A-Smith
chorus which enables all us poor pub impersonators to growl
"SONS! OF! TEMPERANCE-UH!" after a few pints in a
poor attempt to impress our mates with our Alistair McGowan-like
skills; 'Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun', implausibly introduced by
a host of daft, irritating characters including, I kid you not,
"Hi! I'm Mr Spliffy! I like to lie on the floor!"
who you just know without a shadow of a doubt Smith is going
to rip into bits later on; 'Serum', a delicious, oddly trancey-techno
tinged track with hypertensive fuzz-overdrive-distorto guitar
riffage, tribal drums and clanking metal sounds; 'Unutterable',
duration approximately 20 seconds long with such great Smithisms
such as "Durch Sprung Technik - Horrible!" and "Dripping
Post-Seizure-uh!" (like I said, by and large incomprehensible
but really vicious-sounding) over bleak metal banging and taut
drums; and the wondrous 'Devolute' which features one of the
nastiest and funniest sets of lyrics I've heard in a long, long
time, vis: "Get lost! Yours sincerely! Get with food! Fat-Ass!",
which is worth £15 of anyone's money. Classic, classic
though - and there do have to be downsides, even if they are
scarce on this album - 'Pumpkin Soup and Mashed Potatoes', a
song so hideous even its own mother wouldn't love it. I mean,
come on now, the Fall do Jazz? It's a bit like S Club 7 saying,
"Oh yes, we've always had a Krautrock element to our music".
So horrible even the guy off Jazz Corner on the Fast Show wouldn't
say "Niiiice!" after this one. And just one other
niggle - 'Midwatch 1953', which Mavis and I fell out over -
Mave thinks it's so deranged it's brilliant, whereas I think
it's so deranged it's turned into a confused sprawl. Take your
though, a damn fine album - more of the same, only better. Much,
much better. Although if I was one of the band, I'd be getting
a little nervous by now, since (a) Mark E. Smith sounds even
more pissed-off than ever before, and (b) the cover art features
pictures of boxers and nothing else. I wouldn't be one of 'em
- 'a chance to cut is a chance to cure'
Whilst out with Mavis in Bristol buying this album last Saturday
(in Imperial Records on Park Street - gratuitous plug for a
fantastic record shop!), I was quizzed very nicely by the chap
behind the counter as to whether I actually knew what was on
this album. Which is, plainly speaking, primarily made of samples
taken from live plastic surgery operations. "Lots of drilling,"
he exclaimed brightly when I told him I was buying it for that
very same reason. So I took my new purchase home like the true
gorehound I am, expecting lots of horrible squelching ripping
sounds and screams of agony. Sadly, I was thoroughly disappointed
by the contents. For me, it hasn't really lived up to the hyperbole
and hype surrounding it. This album simply isn't horrific enough
- my problem with the surgical samples is that they are so cut-up-and-jumbled-around,
they could just have been invented and churned out on any old
sampling machine. Overall, I'd say it sounds not unlike two
senior science lecturers on the Open University with a joint
degree in pure mathematics and techno trying their hand at Dj'ing
for a bit of fun. An odd mixture of trancey beats, abstract
bleeps and slightly squishy-sounding samples, almost inoffensive
enough to be used as background music at a dinner party you've
invited your parents to.
that's not to say it doesn't have its genuinely eerie and flesh-crawling
moments, it's just they seem to be a little too few and far-between.
Take, for example, the unsettling slurping samples of human
fat being sucked up by a mini vacuum cleaner in 'lipostudio
and so on'. Not something to pop on the stereo while you're
munching a greasy fry-up. And the flat buzzing noises on 'l.a.s.i.k.'
which turn out to be some girl having her corneas burnt with
refractive lasers - however, this track works because they give
the sounds some context by featuring a sample of the surgeon's
comments to the unfortunate patient at the end of the track,
which is pretty creepy in itself. As for 'memento mori' - this
has to be about the best track on the whole album, and it is
composed entirely from samples of - wait for it - human skull,
goat spine and connective tissue (which provides a sound not
unlike one of those daft wooden guiro things we all had to scrape
with a drumstick at some time or another in primary school music
lessons, only much more
rattling) and the delightful clattering
of a box full of artificial teeth. This is truly unnerving stuff
- sparse, black and grating. You can almost feel your fillings
vibrating in sympathetic response to it. The last track on the
album, 'california rhinoplasty', works as well as its predecessor
because it cuts away from the digitized stuff about halfway
through to an actual clip of surgery - you can hear the scalpels,
the beep of the cardiac monitor, the buzz of the bone-saw. Add
to this the spectre of using breaking noses as percussion and
it could put you right off your dinner.
my major problem with this album is that, without the liner notes
in front of you, it makes very little sense. Out of context, the
samples are meaningless. And whilst it all sounds utterly fantastic
and phantasmagorical in the sleeve-notes, a lot of the actual
music is a bit samey and just doesn't cut it. So to speak. Great
in theory, not so great in practice. But, in places, still a very
fine and nerve-shredding record.
Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'Safe As Milk'
album is truly one of those rare things - an all-time great.
It stands up today as one of the most innovative and ageless
and, simply put, downright barking bonkers things ever recorded
- so Christ alone knows what on earth it must have sounded like
to the miniskirted masses on its release in late 1966. Whilst
the Beatles were burbling hypercutely about yellow submarines,
Mr Don Van Vliet aka the good Captain was gibbering about 10,000
miles away about big baboons and zig-zag wanderers. But then
again, he'd been doing exactly the same kind of material since
1957 (see 'The Legendary A&R Sessions' for positive proof),
which defies belief. Look, I'll put it this way: the legendary
guitarist Ry Cooder arranged some of the tracks on this album,
toured awhile as part of the Magic Band, then ran away very,
very fast, citing not the usual Stonehenge-worthy 'musical differences'
as his reason for leaving, but the fact that Captain Beefheart
was just too mad to work with. Now there's an accolade worth
what a pick'n'mix bag of nutty treats this official debut is.
The opening track 'Yellow Brick Road' sounds so innocuous and
sweet, with the Captain issuing a very 60's come on to a 'sunshine
girl' and luring her with the promise of "bags of tricks
and candy sticks" (which, on reflection, sounds a bit Gary
Glitter). It's very hard to tell if this is actually serious
or whether it's just the cap'n spoofing us, because he delivers
it as poker-facedly as if it were high art instead of rank old
hippies in tie-dye.
all of this cutesy summer-of-love stuff serves merely to lull
the listener into a false sense of security, because what does
Beefy follow it up with, exactly? Well, it ain't 'Yellow Submarine',
that's for damn sure. It's 'Abba Zaba', the Magic Band's homage
to big baboons and African drums, featuring one of the most
horrible bass solos ever to be saved from the editing suite
floor. And it is totally shot to pieces. It sounds not unlike
the big baboons have been drafted in to replace the band, issued
with instruments and allowed to get on with it. And that's when
things start to get
Factory' follows next, awash with warbling harmonica and those
bizarre vocals the Captain specialises in, which sound not unlike
an elephant in heat being electrocuted. Its spiritual brother,
'Dropout Boogie' pulls a very similar trick but is even more
bizarre, with Beefy growling about having to get a job to support
his woman over some fearsomely fuzzed-up guitar. Check the strung-out-Delta-blues-esque
'Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do', which evokes the bayou perfectly,
but is also funny and funky at the same time. 'Zig-Zag Wanderer'
is pretty similar, but delivered in a much straighter fashion.
there is also, of course, the completely berserk, Theremin-warped,
intense distortion of 'Electricity' to contend with, a track
which wouldn't have sounded out of place on his 1972 album 'Clear
Spot' (which, for my money, is the best of his albums to date).
Even creepier adenoidal wailing vocals grace this track, on
which I'm reasonably sure Beefheart was holding his nose while
singing. It almost sounds like his voice is being projected
out of his sinuses. Whatever, I don't care, it's sheer brilliance.
And, in the same deep blues vein, the deliciously syncopated
weirdness of 'Grown So Ugly' which carries an incongruous New
Orleans style middle section but fuses it perfectly into the
free abstract structure.
he still manages to slide sideways in an awesomely scary fashion,
into the freaked-out-fucked-up soul of 'I'm Glad', replete with
a frightening backing chorus of 50's falsetto. 'Where There's
a Woman' sets the standard for later albums such as 'Bluejeans
and Moonbeams', and is a lovely heavy blues workout, deep and
even the genius himself is allowed the occasional 'don't-go-there-at-gunpoint'
moment, and 'Autumn's Child' is the one true dud here, some
horribly mutated lovechild of Arthur Brown and the Moody Blues,
if you can imagine such a vile offspring. Sadly, this is the
last track on the album, which is not perhaps the way to close
such a masterpiece of madness. 'Safe as Milk' was truly, bafflingly
and awesomely ahead of its time, and manages to achieve the
best trick of all - it's still ahead of its time 25 years later.