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I Kiss Holes for the Bullets
Scott Walker: Tilt
Part of the reason I write reviews is that I like discovering music that way myself. Hearing random songs on the radio, which used to be about the only way I ever discovered things, isn't a wholly bad method, especially if you haven't committed the bulk of your discretionary income to buying things you've never heard, like I have. The radio, though, precisely because it's mostly random, tends to just get you isolated music, albums whose existence in your life is accompanied by no particular legend. Of course, if the music is good enough, it can justify itself, but even when it can, I love having external connections for things. I love remembering that my sister got me interested in Big Country, at a time in our lives when we were just starting to share musical tastes after a long period of musical antagonism (reasonable on my part, I insist; those of you who remember Shaun Cassidy's albums will undoubtably empathize with me). Marillion will always remind me of my friend Matt, and the summer we lived together while writing a totally awful parody of Time magazine. Reviews, at least the kind I like best, are another form of this, sets of external associations for music that give it context, import, relevance. And, too, a part of me enjoys the conceit that it's possible to write about music, that one art form can be used to discuss another.
And frankly, it's pretty unlikely that I'd ever have come across Tilt through any method other than a written review. Indeed, if I'd had any idea who Scott Walker was, I probably would have skipped the Q review of this, his latest album. But I didn't, so I read it, and it sounded interesting, so I put it on the list of things for my now-ex-girlfriend to look for in London for me. She got it, which means I now owe both Q and her debts I will someday have to think how to repay.
Scott Walker, apparently, was in the Walker Brothers, a group I know nothing about (other than that none of them were actually named Walker), sometime around the turn of the century. After they dissolved, he made a bunch of solo albums that eventually devolved into him singing Jacques Brel songs, which hardly sounds like my sort of music. Since 1984, nothing had been heard from him, until Tilt. Now, having only a sketchy idea of what Jacques Brel songs are actually like, I really didn't have much clue what I was getting into. But the review compared him to Nine Inch Nails, and made the album seem arrestingly bizarre, and while it's been quite a while since an album lived up to this sort of billing (unless I'm overlooking something, the last album that genuinely shocked me was Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, and that came out in 1988), I am eternally optimistic.
"Arresting" isn't half of it. Like Spirit of Eden, this is an album that suddenly makes nearly every other minute of rock music seem almost hopelessly predictable and convention-bound. In a world where "alternative" usually means something about as unadventurous as the Lemonheads, it's hard to imagine what word still retains enough original meaning to express how this album relates to the rest of popular music. To call it rock at all seems like something of a disservice, but to call it not rock is to doom rock music to living within its existing boundaries, which is even less acceptable. (And, besides, this album would be even more incongruous in any other genre.)
Let me try to describe to you what this album is like. It's like being beaten up by a performance-art troupe, and you're not sure whether this is a performance or a simple assault, or whether there's a difference. It's like watching a painter at work, seeing him start to paint you into his scene, and suddenly feeling the touch of an invisible brush on your arm. It's like being waited on by a robot ballet. It's like being wired directly to the brain of a demented genius, but only receiving every six thousandth thought. It's like eating a delicate consomme of overcharged watch batteries. It's like landing on Mars and finding that somebody has sketched an incredibly detailed blueprint of your local grocery store on the surface, at twenty times actual scale, and annotated it with numerous suggested improvements for greater shopping efficiency. It's like a dream in which you find yourself playing Stratego against the Pope for the hand of his daughter, and the only things that seem unusual to you about this are that his half of the board seems to somehow have more squares than yours does, and every fourth move or so he frowns and has to lean down and pick up the box top to examine the rules again, which invariably causes his hat to fall off.
Perhaps, though, you would rather I try to describe what the album sounds like. It begins with Scott's voice, a measured near-operatic warble that would be more at home in a Philip Glass concept-aria than bouncing through "Eleanor Rigby". This picks its way carefully through a set of lyrics that sometimes seems to have been derived by etching a series of individually coherent stories onto a sheet of glass in a very small hand, smashing it, and then reading off sections of the resulting debris, and yet sometimes aligns into brief stretches of astonishing lucidity. The music that accompanies these elliptical texts varies from surging, almost comically ornate, string sections to bursts of industrial noise, from ghostly, almost incidental, synthesizer atmosphere, to a snare drum that seems to have been captured in clearer detail than an unaided human ear could ever have perceived. If you can imagine a Leonard Cohen clone force-fed Italian vocal training and Michael Nyman soundtracks while still in the vat, and then sent to an uninhabited island to stage audienceless dramatizations of John Ashbery poems, you've got enough mental instability that this album probably won't do that much more damage to you.
The combination of elements is, at least in my opinion, brilliant to close to the point of pain. Everything seems to obey rigorous logics that you just can't quite apprehend directly. It doesn't appear from the liner notes that this album was a one-person-locked-in-their-bedroom effort, in fact, but that's very much what it sounds like. The monomaniacal level of attention to detail evident here puts Walker instantly into the company of Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, Brian Eno, and other such consummate production control freaks. While it's often tempting, looking at the bulk of the music industry's output these days, to conclude that all the recent advances in musical technology haven't changed music itself appreciably, I consider Tilt to be a strong argument that technology has enabled music that would be impossible without it, not only directly, but also by changing the paradigm of what music consists of, of what its reach is. Tilt claims the territory of complete intent; it pushes music, albeit not for the first time, to a level of sophistication equivalent to literature or fine art, where even the smallest detail may be read as significant. I admit that I've only lived with this record for a few weeks yet, but life is too short to equivocate, so I'll go ahead and call this the most important work of art produced in musical form yet this year, and only the second album this decade I would be tempted to nominate for artistic immortality, independent of medium (the other, not to be coy, is Amazing Things, by Runrig). I'm more in awe of it every time I play it.
I also like it, though this doesn't necessarily follow from the other. I've seen import copies around, so you should be able to track one down if you put your mind to it. You don't have to buy it because of me, of course, but if you do, and we meet at the end of time, at least we'll have something to talk about.
Nine Inch Nails: Further Down the Spiral
Nine Inch Nails, frankly, seems pretty heavy-handed after Scott Walker, and Trent's idea of musical innovation strikes me as a whole lot less impressive than I used to think it was. Juxtaposed with anything else, though, Nine Inch Nails are still a pretty potent force, and while I have many artistic reservations about the sincerity and/or imagination evident in their contrived dance-nihilist aesthetic, I'd be among the first to aver that, musically, last year's The Downward Spiral was of the very first rank.
Because of this, I had mixed expectations for this eleven-track, sixty-four minute remix album. On the one hand, remixing could be presumed to focus attention on the sonic elements, away from the pigs and sex-as-weapon lyrical posturing. On the other hand, some of the best things about The Downward Spiral to me were its sense of space, its understanding of the usefulness of idle in a program of speeds, and its overall ebb and flow, and it seemed unlikely that individual-song-oriented remixing, in which production tends understandably to be obtrusive, would do anything but obliterate those particular qualities.
And sure enough, mostly it does. Although this looks like a remix album, it isn't, really. Of the twelve discreet remixings represented by these eleven tracks, two are by NIN, one is by Trent himself, one is by Rick Rubin, two are by Aphex Twin, two are by J.G. Thirlwell, and four are by the members of Coil, making this a remix collection, really, a sort of omnibus of what normally would have been a series of single b-sides. The CD shuffles the participants to keep things varied, but this doesn't give the disc any particular overarching logic, so you may find it more interesting to reprogram it such that the mixes progress by mixer. (I suggest: 1, 3, 9, 4, 6, 8, 11, 2, 10, 7, 5.)
Following my reordering, then: Rubin's "Piggy (Nothing Can Stop Me Now)" is a dense, revved up murk, fortified with some Dave Navarro guitar and rhythm by Kim Bullard. Thirlwell's "Self Destruction, Part Two" is a pretty typical dance-club reworking intended to insure that the song keeps up a functional beat throughout, but his "Self Destruction, Final" is a little more ambitious, stretching the song out into nearly ten minutes, while retaining much more of its original spirit. The Coil remixes ("The Downward Spiral (The Bottom)", "Eraser (Denial: Realization)", "Eraser (Polite)" and "Erased, Over, Out") are much more interesting, though, intricate, extended and adventurous collages often bearing no more than superficial resemblances to their source material. Coil's sonic palette makes Trent's original arrangements look like Blues-Traveler simplicity by comparison. Weird ambient noises are trucked in in bulk, dance club fitness is paid no conscious tribute, and the processing takes songs that already were about as tense as an in-progress suicide attempt, and escalate them to level of something really uneasy (the feeling I have in mind is the one you get from hearing a really loud squelching noise right behind you just after jokingly yelling "Cthulhu" at the top of your lungs).
The two full-band NIN revisits are to "The Art of Self Destruction, Part One", and the first half of "The Beauty of Being Numb". The first of these is a noisy, mangled track that sounds like the song had been molded in soft rubber and then left in the sun for a couple decades. The second is even more tortured, with ragged sub-second sample loops crescendoing menacingly right up to the point where Aphex Twin takes over. Richard James' two bits are only nominally related to NIN texts, which is reflected in their titles (neither "The Beauty of Being Numb" nor "At the Heart of It All" refer to songs from the album, and I don't see any good reason to try to track down exactly which ones the noises originate in). Calling them new songs "inspired by" The Downward Spiral is probably more accurate than calling them remixes of anything. "At the Heart of It All", with its ominous combination cello/tuba/barge-foghorn bass groans, is especially dramatic. The one solo remix credited to Trent is "Hurt (Quiet)", a rigidly paced mostly-acoustic rendition that is either the one used for the song's video, or else a close relative thereof. His voice is left nicely unprocessed for most of the song's length, and the instrumentation supports him, rather than distracting attention.
My favorites, in the end, are Trent's and Richard's, one at either extreme. "Hurt (Quiet)" shows the most fealty to the spirit of its original, and the two Aphex Twin tracks are the least constrained. All the mixes in between seem unresolved in varying degrees to me, unable to determine exactly how much divergence is allowed, or how much recognition is necessary, and so are at least partially frustrating at best. As for who will want this, it is absolutely not the place for somebody unversed in The Downward Spiral to begin, and even liking the album doesn't mean you need this that badly. It's being sold very cheaply, though, and contains a whole lot more than any one single would, so if you're curious about NIN remixes at all, this is definitely the place to begin.
Gary Numan: Sacrifice (Extended Mixes)
Of course, if what you want is an actual remix album, here's arguably the purest example in recent memory (or not-so-recent, even). Sacrifice came out last year in the UK, and for me marked the return to form of an artist who had been spiraling inward in a sort of own-tail-eating death spin for a number of years, living off of a captive, but inbred and dwindling, audience of avowed fans, making albums that nobody but them would buy, and that even they didn't like very much. Gary finally jettisoned the platoon of wailing background singers that had been clogging his output for many years, and got back to exploiting his true forte, which is dark, richly textured adventures in solipsistic electronic manipulation, against which his disconcertingly robotic vocal delivery and edgy guitar stand in stark contrast. The album was a fascinating combination of warm analog expressiveness (though I'm including Gary's singing in the warmth category here, so as usual things are relative) and cold mechanical structure. I maintain that Gary in his prime was one of the New Wave's most important progenitors, and it was thrilling to hear him having relocated his muse or, perhaps, finally debugged the thing out of some lamentable loop it had been stuck in.
It's been a long time since Gary was accused of being overly succinct, but Sacrifice was a pretty normal-length album, averaging around four or five minutes per song. This second version is, exactly as its subtitle implies, extended, rather than remixed, and comes in at slightly more than half again the original's length. Having heard the album this way, now, I really can't understand what the point was of releasing the shorter version. As convincing an artistic comeback as it is, it's hardly a remote candidate for commercial cross-over at any length. I fear that most people have either forgotten about Gary totally by now, or else have mentally relegated him to about the same entertainment level as midget bowling. His voice is certainly an acquired taste, and there are no novelty singles here, nothing with the pop gloss of "Cars", the New Wave shimmer of "Down in the Park", or the punk drive of "That's Too Bad". And perhaps most damningly, on a casual listen to Sacrifice, assuming anybody ever got such a thing without having paid for it beforehand, it would be easy to get the impression that every song on the album uses the exact same drum loop.
The album's prognosis for non-fans, then, was about as dismal as everything Gary has done since the early Eighties. For anybody that understands the appeal of his voice, appreciates the nuances of his songwriting, and is willing to study the songs enough to recognize that the drum loops on each of them really are distinct, though, longer is definitely better. When Gary hits a vein like this one, the best thing a fan can do is immerse themselves in the experience for as long as possible. This leaves, unless you can think of some market I've missed, no niche for the shorter version of this album at all. Anybody who would want it will like this one better. The subtitle could have easily been "Revised Version", especially since the packaging and liner notes are otherwise identical to the initial release. Perhaps Gary simply realized, the more he thought about the album, that it ought to have been much longer, and so went back to work and made it right.
Of course, there's a more cynical explanation that has a sadly plausible ring. The whole sequence may just have been a clever ploy to pry more revenue out of his small fan base, in his ongoing effort to compensate for the size of his audience by extracting far more money from each individual than most artists ever try to. There's good support for this idea, as Gary's release tactics of late have involved more compilations than K-Tel, enough live albums that bootlegging him would be an exercise in economic futility, and a worryingly thin series of often wholly redundant CD singles. God only knows how many different incarnations "Are 'Friends' Electric?" has had by now. Add in the fact that most of these have been available only as import here in the US, and you could spend the average non-compulsive CD buyer's annual music budget without ever leaving the Numan tab.
Gary Numan: Dark Light
But not only did I give Gary the benefit of the doubt, at least this once, for releasing two versions of the same record, I even broke down and bought this month's double live album, because I wanted to hear how the new material sounded in concert. And despite my reservations, and the apparent absurdity of directing casual fans to a $32 two-CD import, I'm going to recommend that if you're curious about what Gary's been up to, this live album is, honestly, the place to catch up with him.
Here's why I say that. One, this set is nearly a superset of Sacrifice (of the album's ten songs, only "You Walk in My Soul" and "The Seed of a Lie" don't appear here), and I think the live versions are even better than the studio ones in most cases, or more energetic anyway, which ought to make them more appealing to the non-fanatic. Two, the rest of the set offers an interesting time-machine journey into the distant past, visiting 1978's Tubeway Army (represented by the classics "Listen to the Sirens", "Friends", "Everyday I Die", "The Dream Police" (no, not the Cheap Trick song) and "Jo the Waiter") and The Plan ("Mean Street"), 1979's Replicas ("Are 'Friends' Electric?", "Praying to the Aliens" and "Replicas", and the b-side "Do You Need the Service?"), skipping The Pleasure Principle (that's right, no "Cars") to get to Telekon, from 1980 ("Remind Me to Smile", "I Die: You Die", "I'm an Agent", "I Dream of Wires"), and throwing in the 1981 single "Stormtrooper in Drag", the 1982 b-side "Noise Noise", and one track ("The Hunter") from 1984's Berserker. Not only are these some good songs to have, but the performances of them here are absolutely stunning. Listening to Gary and the band (and the crowd) rip into the older material, it's hard to believe that these songs are anything but some of rock's finest moments, resonating with a decade and a half of devotion, not neglect. Singing them, Gary shows not a trace of self-consciousness or regret, and the fans accompanying him sound for all the world like a delirious rock audience, not a bizarre cult. These are great songs, and you can hear in Gary's voice that he knows it, and for one evening, at least, that's enough. If you can listen to this concert and not abandon whatever Numan resistance still lurks in you, well, then I don't think there's anything else I can do to convince you, so I give up.
Until next week, anyway.
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