Mavis's Dream Five


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Zita Swoon - Life = A Sexy Sanctuary

Mavis 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.

The 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 a holiday.

But 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.

However, 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.

And 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 it.

The Fall - Unutterable

Oh, 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.

And 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.

Standout 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 stuff.

Downsides, 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 pick.

Overall, 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 for quids.

matmos - '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.

However, 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.

But 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.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'Safe As Milk'

This 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 its salt.

And 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.

But 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… well, interesting….

'Plastic 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.

And 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.

But 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 warm.

However, 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.