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Still Single
Musical history essentially begins, as far as I'm concerned, about 1978. There are a handful of things in my collection from earlier (mostly back-filled early albums by Rush, Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath), but mostly my life with rock music began with Toto, Double Vision, Don't Look Back, and that Steve Miller band greatest hits album with the horse on the cover (or was it a car?). It took me yet a little longer to make my way out of the depths of the FM-rock mainstream, and I still remember one of my parents saying, apprehensively, something like "This isn't the sort of music you usually play" as the glorious strains of The Golden Age of Wireless and Pleasure Victim first swirled gingerly into our house one afternoon.
1980, then, is a key band-beginning year for me, as new artists from then were both identifiably part of the "new" music I came to gravitate towards, and also established enough by the time I got heavily involved for me to take their presences for granted. Killing Joke, Hüsker Dü, the Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Simple Minds all date from about then, and so I feel, writing about new music from them (or successors) nearly fifteen years later, like older reviewers must feel discussing new albums by Neil Young, the Stones or Aerosmith. These are the elders of my musical world. They aren't my favorite five bands, necessarily, but they're probably as representative of what I think of as my musical generation as any such set would be.
And, because doing two things at once is usually more interesting than doing just one, I'm here going to assess the continued health of the cohort by way of also investigating the current state of the single, a format both sadly bereft of critical attention in recent days, and one facing an artistic and commercial identity crisis of its own into the bargain.
Killing Joke: Millennium
There are few bands whom it is more surprising to find alive and well in 1995 than Killing Joke. It's of no little wonder that the band's members are still alive today, let alone making music together. They've had their share of personal crises, personnel crises, comebacks and slumps, but here they are. And, ironically, their singles find them not much farther from the cutting edge today than they were at their inception.
Circa 1995, there are basically three schools of thought as to how one should construct singles. The first school, traditionalist in nature, fleshes out a single with "b-sides", a term that has already slipped into delicious anachronism, which now means only "songs that only appear on a single whose title track they aren't". This approach creates singles that are usually of interest to both casual fans who just want "the song", and to deranged completists like me. The second school, mercenary in attitude, regards singles only as opportunities to bleed a little cash out of people who wouldn't shell out for an entire album, and so tends to put out singles that are simply tiny subsets of the albums that they would rather you'd have bought. The last faction, holdovers from the also-odd days of "12-inch singles", considers the proper population of a single to involve primarily "remixes" of the band's material, which can mean anything from literally just mixing a song a different way, to disassembling it into parts, and then using them to build a terrorist device, a series of children's toys, or possibly a kitchen appliance with a built-in intruder alarm.
Killing Joke are devoted adherents of the last school. This single has no less than six alternate versions of "Millennium", and, for variety, one remix of "Exorcism", another track from their 1994 album Pandemonium. At 44 minutes, this "single" is longer than many of Killing Joke's albums. Why would anybody want to listen to the same song for nearly an hour? (Or, for Deadheads: "Why would the band need to stop five times in the middle of a song?") I don't know, but that's not what this single feels like.
The first version, "Aotearoa Mix", is the closest thing here to a literal remix. It shifts the tonal emphasis of the album version out of the depths of the bass, and brings the largely-submerged keyboards, acoustic guitar and hi-hats closer to the foreground. It is the most normal-sounding of the versions here, and so makes an appropriate beginning. From examining the single credits, which list no "remix" information for track 1 at all, and the album credits, which list additional remixing for this song there, I am guessing that this version was actually the "original". While this is sonically plausible, I have no further idea whether there's any truth to the guess.
The second version, "Cybersank Edit", is a slightly shortened version of the track that ended up on the album. If "Aotearoa" is the normal sounding one, this one is the one that sounds like "remixed to kill". The bass and the low, percussive guitar parts, are brutal, and the distorted vocals and other assorted noises drip menace. Having established the song with two relatively faithful versions, the single then veers into new territory with "Back to Orion Mix", a techno dance reworking by Juno Reactor that junks the vocal, replaces the drum track, and spreads most of the other elements out so that you only hear a couple of them at once, rather than all of them. If you hadn't just heard the song twice, you might well not recognize it in this form, but in context here the careful piece-wise reconstruction strikes me as fascinating, and much more interesting to listen to than I usually find dance music.
Next is "Cybersank Extended Remix". I haven't done a close A-B comparison, but if this isn't the version used on the album, it's close enough. After "Back to Orion", this could be meant to reestablish the base song in your mind. Things then start getting really weird. "23 Minutes to Midnight Mix" is Drum Club's stab at an extended techno transmogrification. This one spreads out and isolates the song's elements even more than "Back to Orion" did, and floats in an occasional vocal passage, as well. The emphasis is largely on beepy and atmospheric motifs that can drift in over a steady dance rhythm. I'm not as interested in this one for its own sake, but as dance-club fodder I suspect it's quite functional. The last "Millennium" remix, and the longest (at 9:18) and strangest, is "Dissolving Particles Reaction Mix", a cinematic reconstruction by Youth, the band's bassist and the album's producer, that turns the song into a sinister near-ambient soundtrack for odd bits of dialog and strange atmospheric effects. The single then concludes with a short Johann Bley remix of the song "Exorcism", whose title ("A Germanic Interpretation - Unification Catastrophe Mandra Gora Remix Edit"), is frankly more interesting than it. Coming after two extremely abstract "Millennium" versions, though, it's almost as if "Millennium" has been taken apart and put back together such that "Exorcism" is the result. This is a cool effect, and helps give the single a feeling of completion, of being a real artistic unit, that singles often don't have.
Killing Joke: The Pandemonium Single
There are even more remixes of "Pandemonium" than there are of "Millennium", but they are spread over two singles. This part is the all-"Pandemonium" half-an-hour, containing "Cybersank Edit", "Original Mix", "Waxworth Industries Mix", "Cybersank Extended Remix" and "The Dragonfly Mix".
The original and the two "Cybersank" remixes are very similar in treatment to the corresponding versions of "Millennium". "Waxworth Industries" is the most standard techno version, and is my least favorite of all this batch of Killing Joke remixes, as it saps the song of its manic energy without replacing that energy with anything that interests me, and leaves it feeling, to me, limp and essentially lifeless. "The Dragonfly Mix", conversely, is one of my favorites, a mostly instrumental remix that uses crowd noise and a deliberate rationing of musical elements to give the song an uneasy dance urgency that complements the original's brutal inexorability nicely.
Killing Joke: Pandemonium in Dub
The second single adds two more versions done by Youth and Greg Hunter, "A Thread of Steel in the Suspension Bridge of Time and Space Mix" and "Nu-Clear Shredded Fibres Mix". The former of these is a long, metallic version whose cheesy reggae beat drives me quickly crazy, and I almost never manage to listen to the whole track. The latter is a shorter, more minimal version of the same basic approach, with about the same basic result on my part.
The other track on the single is "Requiem (A Floating Leaf Always Reaches the Sea Mix)", an eleven-minute ambient remix of a song from their very first album, Killing Joke. This must be making an encore appearance here, as it appears on the 1993 ambient compilation 152 Minutes 33 Seconds: A Brief History of Ambient, Volume 1, where it is credited as originating on the Change EP. It has a definite dub feel that makes it fit in well enough with the two "Pandemonium" remixes, but for some reason I like it a lot more. In fact, this one track is largely responsible for spurring my sudden current interest in ambient music. My girlfriend might question whether this is a good thing. Either way, the "Pandemonium" singles don't impress me quite as much as the "Millennium" one.
Killing Joke: Jana
The two singles for "Jana" form a hybrid of the single schools. This one starts out with two remixes of "Jana", but the remaining six songs on the two singles are live recordings from an October 19, 1994 show at the London Forum.
The two "Jana" remixes are very interesting. On the album, "Jana" is just another track, part seven of a ten-part exercise in noisy rage. I liked it okay, but it didn't mean anything special. The first remix here, though ("Youth Mix"), tones down the industrial bombast considerably, and lets the actual song some through. To my surprise, this reveals a reasonably subtle, emotional song about a woman who discovers that she has tested positive for AIDS. Or perhaps she's waiting to hear her results and just fearing that she'll test positive. Or perhaps the fear is killing her so surely that it doesn't even matter whether she literally has the disease. It's kind of hard to tell. It's a pretty remarkable song, though, and to discover it only emerging from its gaudy costume through this remix was entirely unexpected.
The second version, another "Dragonfly Mix", is a bouncy dance remake that doesn't bother trying to communicate any of the sentiments of the song. In fact, the one vocal phrase repeated frequently, "Jana sighed", sounds like "Genocide" out of context, which is a typical, if somewhat disturbing, example of the sort of sound-bite atmosphere that seems to be techno's only real use for vocals. The two versions of "Jana", though, by separating the two urges that war in the original version of the song (toward sense and toward surge), end up both being more successful, to me, than the album version. If I were in the band, I'd recommend that Youth and Simon Posford (who does the "Dragonfly" mixes) be entrusted with all future remixes, as not only are they my favorites of those used here, but their approaches complement each other perfectly.
The two live songs here are "Love Like Blood", originally on the 1985 album Night Time, and the Pandemonium track "Whiteout". "Love Like Blood" sounds terrific, the re-energized band giving it a powerful ten-year-on second life. "Whiteout" is completely crazed, and it's pretty alarming to realize that Killing Joke can still manage this much menace in person, without an arsenal of studio tricks, at whatever age they are.
Killing Joke: Jana -- Live EP
The second Jana single has live versions of "Jana" itself, "Wardance" (from their debut), "Exorcism" and "Kings and Queens" (not sure when this originally appeared). It's unusual for a single to not contain the album version of its title song, but neither of these two has the album mix of "Jana".
The live version of "Jana" does decent justice to the song's content, Jaz Coleman adding a prefatory "I believe in a cure for AIDS" just to make sure people don't miss the point. "Wardance" sounds kind of strange, as if the band has realized that they don't quite sound like they did when "Wardance" was new, but haven't yet figured out how the song should now sound different. The listing on the case shows "Wardance" as lasting 6:43, but the actual track is less than four minutes long, making me wonder whether the band didn't have a last-minute crisis of confidence in the performance. "Exorcism" is well-played, but comes off a little better on the album, I think. Live, its atmosphere isn't quite as thick, and the thick atmosphere is what makes the song, for me, especially since there's very little melody or rhythmic variation to speak of. "Kings and Queens" is okay, but finally, at the end of five Killing Joke singles, constituting well over two hours of Killing Joke with an enormous amount of technical repetition, everything is starting to sound a little the same to me, and I can't escape the feeling that "Kings and Queens" is basically the vocals from "Wardance" sung over the music from "Exorcism".
And in a way this is both the best and worst thing I have to say about Killing Joke. On the one hand, I wouldn't give them a great deal of credit for versatility. They do what they do, and they've now done it with astonishing persistence for a good long time (ten albums? eleven?). On the other hand, their sound has managed to stay current quite well, and taken in anything like normal doses (say, an album or two at a time), it can be disturbing and oppressive, but rarely wearying. Not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of misanthropic borderline psychopaths.
And you can even dance to it.
Sugar: Your Favorite Thing
Husker Du passed on years ago, Bob Mould spent some time solo, and eventually the urge to be in a band again led him to form Sugar. File Under: Easy Listening, Sugar's two-and-a-halfth album, was heralded by some as Mould's "first happy album", which makes me think those people either weren't listening to it closely enough, or weren't listening to Mould's other albums closely enough.
On the other hand, if you use a song like "Your Favorite Thing" as your lead-off single, you have to expect some critical misunderstanding. "Your Favorite Thing"'s lyrics, examined closely, speak of obsession that may well have passed into an unhealthy intensity, but under any less-careful scrutiny the song is a giddy pop gem. The guitars ring, harmony soars, the hi-hats tick along cheerfully, and the chorus cries "I wouldn't mind" with what sounds like an honest indifference.
Sugar are b-side traditionalists, so we here get three more otherwise unreleased songs. "Mind Is an Island" is faster and rougher than "Your Favorite Thing", a paranoid blast of guitar noise that recalls late Hüsker Dü quite clearly. "Frustration", in an odd returned-favor of influences, reminds me of Sloan, who in turn probably owe some debts (whether direct or indirect) to Mould. Bassist David Barbe sings this one, and it drifts along somewhat dreamily on an unremitting wash of guitar noise. It doesn't have nearly the punch of most Sugar songs, but as an opportunity to see another side of the band's personality, it's worth hearing. The last song, "And You Tell Me (TV Mix)", is an instrumental (though what "TV Mix" refers to I couldn't tell you) that is heavily reminiscent of the Pixies, complete with mournful guitar feedback and those points in the Pixies songs when both guitarists would suddenly leap as high in the air as they could and come down on the their distortion boxes with all their weight (turning them on and then, in repeat manoeuvres some time later, off again just as abruptly, hoping I guess that if they break they at least break at a point where the intent is to turn them off).
Sugar: Believe What You're Saying
"Believe What You're Saying", is an even prettier song than "Your Favorite Thing", with chiming acoustic guitars slipping at times into almost country-esque twang. Mould's voice is presented more dryly and clearly than usual, and while both the lyrics and the tone of the song are somewhat mournful, the tune is undeniably catchy, and the arrangement is uncharacteristically devoid of the noisy elements that usually kept mainstream listeners at a distance from Mould's otherwise-attractive songwriting.
The second track here (there are three, as with Your Favorite Thing), "Going Home", punches the electric guitar howl back in, though, and the band slams through a sub-three minute pop sprint in classic Mould form. Even at speed, though, there's an exuberant good-naturedness that seems to creep into Mould's voice at times, and you're forced to wonder whether he hasn't sneakily been enjoying this stuff all along.
Following the song pattern of the previous single, the third song is another of Barbe's, "In the Eyes of My Friends". This one is shorter and catchier than "Frustration", though, and feels less out of place on a Sugar disc. Still sounds a bit like Sloan, though. And really following the mold of the first single, the fourth track here is again "And You Tell Me", albeit with vocals this time. Oddly, this song seems to work well both ways. The music holds its own alone, but seems to work equally well as backdrop for a song about schizophrenic self-destruction.
Sugar: Gee Angel
If Sugar wanted to try to dispel the perception that their new album was "cheerful", they've blithely passed up three good chances to do so. "Gee Angel", from the boyish title onwards, was the catchiest, giddiest moment on File Under: Easy Listening for me, and I really wouldn't have expected them to use it as a single. It's got some pounding Hüsker Dü-ish drive to it, but with the lilting chorus round it's pretty much impossible to consider it anything other than infectious punk-pop. Is Rykodisc eyeing Green Day's sales figures? Has Mould finally gotten good and sick of so many other bands making so much money off of ideas they basically swiped from him over the years, while he labors in relative obscurity? Whatever the motivation, it's a glorious song.
The three b-sides here are live recordings from a November 2, 1994, Minneapolis show. The second track listed is "Explode and Make Up", a track from File Under: Easy Listening. A few moments into this I find myself frowning, thinking "Wow, this is really different from the album version. Wasn't this song originally kind of slow and quiet?" A quick check, however, reveals that the running order on the disc doesn't match that on the packaging and liner, and this loud, fast song is actually "After All the Roads Have Led to Nowhere", a new song. It's good.
"Explode and Make Up" comes along third, and the live version is even rawer and more harrowing than the album version, which was already on the edgy side, dispelling any doubts that "Gee Angel" might have engendered about Mould getting soft in his older age. The last song, "The Slim", is listed with a 1992 copyright, so I suspect it originated as a b-side to Sugar's first album, Copper Blue. It's long, depressing, alternately becalmed and crazed, intense, tortured, and all the other things that always made Mould's work so gripping in any setting.
People tell me I look like him. Okay.
Love Spit Love: Am I Wrong
If I look like Bob Mould, I've always thought I sing like Richard Butler. Or, at least, like how Richard Butler used to sing, back when he mostly couldn't. These days, at the vocal helm of his new band, Love Spit Love, whose album featured prominently in my 1994 top ten list (at, to be precise, #4), he sounds a whole lot better than he used to. To be fair, I think I do, too.
Imago, Love Spit Love's record company, has shown abundant evidence that they do not understand the first thing about singles. All the Imago acts I've followed (Aimee Mann, Paula Cole, Baby Animals) have had truly pitiful singles released for them, singles with little or nothing of interest to a fan, and not much to hook a potential convert, either. This is perhaps the most pathetic a single could get without actually just duplicating album tracks (which Imago isn't at all above, mind you). Clocking in at an anemic 8:30, this disc contains one (1) album version of "Am I Wrong", and one (1) "acoustic" version of "Codeine", the full version of which is on the album. Is it worth the price of a single to you to hear "Codeine" in its campfire incarnation? Well, I guess it was for me, but I think I bought this at some absurd sale price (like $2.44, or $1.82; silly, not just low). It is a cool version, but then again, so is the version on the album.
Love Spit Love: Change in the Weather
The second Love Spit Love single is fractionally less miserly. In addition to "Change in the Weather", and another acoustic version ("Wake Up", this time), this single has a third song! Yes! An unreleased one! At that!
How appropriate, though, that the track Imago comes up with for such rare beneficence is one for which the band can't even muster a real title: "Song". If there's a clearer indication of "throwaway" than "Song (acoustic version)", it escapes me. The song isn't actually half-bad, but it doesn't erase my general scorn toward Imago. Of course, I've heard several vague rumors recently that Imago either went belly-up or, perhaps, lost some key distribution deal, and that would be unfortunate. They put out good albums. It's just singles they can't seem to figure out...
Electrafixion: Zephyr
While we're on the subject of seasoned veterans starting over again, sort of, Electrafixion marks the reunion of Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant, whose last collaboration, abandoned in disgust some years ago by McCulloch in favor of a solo career, was Echo and the Bunnymen, one of the pillars of early-eighties weirdly-named post-punk British neo-psychedelic atmospheric pop strangeness, and a band that ought, in my opinion, to have made all the money that the Cure ended up absconding with. Sergeant had kept the Echo banner fluttering faintly without McCulloch, so I presume a new name was a political prerequisite for the renewed musical acquaintance.
McCulloch and Sergeant, too, find themselves in a much different world from the one they first emerged into. Pretty much every style they passed through the first time around has been recycled ad nauseam by others. Sergeant can't even play what used to be more or less his own unique guitar style, or people would accuse him of ripping off the Edge. To make a fresh start, they need a new sound, a new approach, something new.
At least on this first single (an album is either imminent or out in the UK, but I've seen no sign of it here yet), they don't quite seem to find anything workably unique. Ian's singing sounds distended, as if he can't quite make it to the ends of words as quickly as he once could. Sergeant's guitar playing is depressingly ordinary, sludgy power-chords that just about anybody could manage. The rhythm section is merely functional. There are four songs here, and I couldn't hum a bar of any of them for you. I'll still probably buy their album, assuming they make one, for old time's sake, but I certainly won't expect much from it.
Simple Minds: She's a River
And, one last single before I conclude this somewhat bloated issue, here's yet another turn-of-last-decade alumnus stubbornly refusing to expire. I was a big Simple Minds fan back in, oh, 1984, when they put out Sparkle in the Rain, an inspiringly wonderful album that found them hitting a sweet spot on their way from early-days art weirdness to their subsequent stadium-pomp fixation. The last Simple Minds album I bought was ten years ago, 1985's Once Upon a Time. That album exhausted my patience with the band's painfully obvious aspirations to out-U2 U2, to play ever more grandiose songs to ever huger arenas, with increasingly little humanity to be heard in them.
But, in case this hasn't previously been made obvious, I'm nostalgic by nature, and in the current musical climate of gritty 70's groove revivalism, low-fi grunge and slinky hip-hop, there's a distinct lack of big, slightly dumb, irritatingly eager, bounding, unabashed non-roots-conscious rock music like the sort that the mid-eighties were overflowing with. Music that, if it were a dog, would be Clifford; you know, friendly to children, loyal, happy, and able to rescue people from the upper stories of burning buildings by having them climb out onto its furry head, but liable to crush parked cars accidentally, and a monumental hassle to feed or bathe. So, when I saw a new Simple Minds album on the release lists, I made a note to myself to check and see if it wasn't time to give them a second chance.
It definitely was, but I'll leave the detailed explanation for when I get around to reviewing the album, Good News from the Next World, which won't be for a few weeks. In the meantime, though, knowing I was about to write a single roundup, I grabbed this.
The British usually get a much better deal on singles than we do here in the US. Singles are significantly cheaper there, in proportion to album prices (and somewhat cheaper in absolute terms, for that matter), and the two-part single, a practice that annoys some people but does generally result in more music being released, hasn't yet made its way to domestic singles. The economics of importing mean that the once these singles make it to import bins here in the US, they cost nearly as much as whole domestic albums, and inevitably a coveted part two will simply never show up at all. They are thus drains of both money and attention, and so it is with great glee that I embrace the occasional moment of American single superiority.
This single is such a case. The UK equivalent was a two-part release, each part containing the album track, one alternate version of the same song, and one additional song. Virgin in the US, though, tossed the album version, the edit, the "duo mix", and the two UK b-sides, onto one US single, saving me both about $12 and a CD-shelf and -changer space. Admittedly, this is an extreme case of low single yield for the UK, but still.
In fact, even so, it's not an especially impressive single, quantity-wise. The "edit" is just the album version with a minute carved out of it somewhere. The "duo mix" is the lowest-cost sort of remix, one where the engineer basically hits mute on a few of the usual tracks and reruns the thing otherwise unaltered. And the two b-sides are both instrumentals, the second of which feels to me like it really wanted to have vocals added to it before going out in public.
The saving grace, though, is the other instrumental, an unassuming little piece just called "E55". Whether anybody but me will react as strongly to it I'm unsure, but I can't stop listening to it. It's resolutely mechanical, and simultaneously epic, in sort of the way Vangelis's Chariots of Fire theme was. It's completely synthetic, and largely repetitive, but it's got this great little trebly synth-piano hook, echoed sporadically in huge sweeping guitar strokes, and it reminds me somehow of one of my other favorite pop instrumentals, an obscure Vince Clarke b-side called "Stop/Start" from a single called "Never Never" that he and Feargal Sharkey did under the name The Assembly during the time between the demise of Yaz and the birth of Erasure. It's ("E55", I mean, not "Stop/Start") simple and unassuming, but I find it completely charming. I've never put an instrumental on a year-end top-ten list, and it's still very early in the year to be speculating about the constituents of the 1995 edition, but if the year ended right now I'd at least have a #1 I could enthusiastically support.
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