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Where the Close-Up Camera Pans
Manic Street Preachers: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next #1
Part of the reason I was able (and/or willing) to absorb my massive (albeit relative) personal disappointment with the Manic Street Preachers' This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours without it affecting my fundamental confidence in the band is the sheer extent of my emotional investment in their musical lives. I know what they've survived, and haven't, and both sets of trials feel close enough to my own that stubborn empathy is now more or less my default reaction to whatever they do. If they sound a little at a loss, two albums into their recovery, then they've earned that right. Second steps, in phases just as in careers, can be the hardest ones, the triumph of the first step fading into the dull ache of ongoing survival. After the band got through The Holy Bible in a manner uncomfortably similar to the way a pig "gets through" a sausage grinder, Everything Must Go was a crisis record, and although crises test many things about you, they also supply adrenaline and short-term focus, and as a result some of the exigencies and even more of the effects of a crisis are often less solved than deferred. But given how much the Manic Street Preachers' music has done for me, I would happily excuse an album I hated, and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours was far from that.
The other part of the explanation is that I heard these singles before I heard the album, and I'm still playing them after hearing it. Singles, particularly advance singles, are usually supposed to promote an album, not apologize for it, but there's no element of natural law in the convention. Not only are "Prologue to History" and "Montana/Autumn/78", the two b-sides on the first of these singles, my two favorite songs, so far, from this MSP era, they are a totally different sort of song, it seems to me, from the ones on the album, ragged along the edges that the album polished, unselfconsciously furious where the album sublimates its rage, clattering and anxious where the album is paced and poised. Threads from the band's past, which were more sparsely woven through the album than I wanted, tangle into magnificent snarls in these two songs, drum machines dueling with punk crash, protest-song howl arching into anthemic rock release, hints of Manchester groove simmering under arena-metal lead-guitar flourishes. "Prologue to History", a seething blast of (I think) Welsh nationalism, lives up to a title and subject that almost have to be theirs with a pounding, EMF-ish piano oscillation, drum cascades like orchestrated ordnance, guitar squalls jagged enough to strip speaker wire, a bass line with the solidity and insistence of earthquake aftershocks, and Bradfield's indignant, syllable-mangling yelp. "Montana/Autumn/78" glides in on deceptive, buzzy synth arpeggios and telegraph-pulse guitar feedback before extruding talons and ripping into a tirade (about what, exactly, I admit I can't discern, but then I had no idea "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next" was about sending Welsh boys off to Spain to fight the fascists, either) that marries the structural confidence of "La Tristesse Durera" to the violent intensity of "Nat West - Barclays - Midlands - Lloyds" or "Another Invented Disease". I could, if I thought anything productive would come of it, let the idea that the Manic Street Preachers can make songs like this but chose to fill an album with any other kind reduce me to apoplexy. Alternately, I could hope the next album sounds like this throughout. But then, if just two songs can sustain me this well, I guess I don't really care which format they appear on.
Manic Street Preachers: If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next #2
For the sixth two-single set in a row (all four from Everything Must Go, plus "She Is Suffering" from The Holy Bible, as incredible as it now seems to me that The Holy Bible had singles), the extra tracks on part two are remixes. The Chemical Brothers and Stealth Sonic Orchestra provided the bulk of the reconstruction on the Everything Must Go singles, but with a new era comes new collaborators, and so the two remixes here (and for once there's not a third remix that amounts to a karaoke adaptation of the second one) are by Massive Attack and David Holmes. The entire Nineties have basically been a remix disaster, as far as my personal tastes for them go, but for the fifteen minutes that these two play, I can almost convince myself the next decade is going to be my idea of remix nirvana. Holmes' sprawling, eerie, ten-minute instrumental expansion manages to contort the material into a hybrid of Portishead, Trans Am and a touch of Pizzicato Five, but does so (and this is what makes the task difficult) in such a way that the resulting track still sounds identifiably like "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next". Somewhere there's a macabre time-lapse nature-short just waiting for this to be its soundtrack. My greatest tribute to it is that I can actually imagine that this was the first version, and the condensed one on the album was a later impulse. This achievement, however, pales next to Robert Del Naja and Neil Davidge's Massive Attack version, which I like, and I'm not sure I've ever said this about a remix, not only better than the original, but a lot better. The things I like best about the album version are Bradfield's elegant vocal and the scratchy swells of strings and Hammond organ in the chorus. I recognize, though, that the bombastic choruses are a cliché I just happen to enjoy, and the sonar-sounding guitar barbs and hippie bass/drums groove that make up the bulk of the rest of the song are filler to me, which I accept but don't concentrate on. Del Naja and Davidge must have heard a song underneath all that that I'm now appalled to have missed myself, because they peel away Bradfield's singing and set it aside for safekeeping, and then go at the music underneath with something Black and Decker would have made if they'd been employed by the Inquisition, ripping virtually every feature off of the surface of the original. What they find underneath these layers is a dry, steady drum-loop, a single-tone bass boom that you might get from ringing the Great Wall like a gong, some ghostly background atmosphere that sounds like the effects return from the harmonies for the original bled through onto an adjacent safety track, and a mercilessly-distorted guitar part that appears to have been rescued from a vat of acid at very nearly the last possible moment (and I'm not quite sure in which direction I mean "nearly"). On top of this flayed carcass they lay back down the vocal from the original, completely untouched. The effect is, to me, equal parts monstrous and brilliant. Bradfield's voice has nothing to cling to, and plunges repeatedly into gaps between guitar spasms, and it seems patently clear that we're hearing nuances he had no idea he was producing. The cacophonous, exposed-artery guitar is as bracing as Mecca Normal's David Lester in his most delirious transports. And where the choruses on the album version billow nervously around the words, as if they need to be either supported or distracted from, on this version the song marches into the choruses without the slightest flinch, as if it actually wants you to hear what is being said, as if the contours of emotion provide all the shape any chorus could require.
Massive Attack: Inertia Creeps
The Manic Street Preachers, uncharacteristically, return the remix favor on Massive Attack's single for "Inertia Creeps", from their album Mezzanine. The original, in this case, is a menacing mixture of skeletal drum-and-bass, gruff narration, sawing synth drones and sinuous Eastern warble. The Manic Street Preachers translate the rhythm parts into a more organic rock idiom, and then dispense with almost everything else, in favor of a few stray scraps of verse guitar they found somewhere, and a thrashing chorus from which Trent Reznor might quail. The original's muttering vocal is the side of Massive Attack I don't personally care for (the Mezzanine single I wish MSP had essayed was the glittering "Teardrop", with singing by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, but it's too late for that), but in this pounding context it seem to turns into a demented chant, and apparently I'm in favor of those. I wonder if the two bands could be persuaded, just for long enough to make an album or two, to merge?
Puressence: This Feeling #1
Puressence's idea of what their album songs should sound like, this time around, seems to accord closely with mine, so in their case the b-sides, not needing to offer consolation, revert to the more customary role of experiment. "Think of the Times", the first one on the first single for the surging "This Feeling", is oblique, lumbering and abstract, curving only tentatively into noisy swirls around the choruses. The taut "Walk on By", however, is more focused, and sounds something like the Stereophonics singing a bedtime lullaby to a chainsaw. The relative lack of a chorus melody means the song is mostly in the vein of the first Puressence album, not the second, but I liked that one, too.
Puressence: This Feeling #2
The band goes back to the debut album explicitly, on part two, with the demo version of the echo-y, U2-via-the-Chamleons-ish "Near Distance". With the dense production of the album version being its soul, to me, I'd have liked the demo to be much rawer, for contrast, but it doesn't actually sound that different. The second demo, in fact, "Northern Framing Company", which wasn't remade for either album, has exactly the character and texture I wanted, with blocks of noise guitar out of which the band hasn't yet learned to construct an entire wall, and a Mudriczki vocal over which that wall hasn't yet begun to loom. The succinct "London in the Rain", the third b-side, is the only song on this set that sounds like an out-take from Only Forever to me, something like a haunted, electrified, decelerated "That's Entertainment".
Puressence: It Doesn't Matter Anymore #1
Part one for "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" adds two more. The fond, gentle "Another Day Another Night" rumbles into legato rock choruses with an unusual (for Puressence) lack of noise, warmly overdriven instead of distortion-shredded. I like the blunt declaration "Knowing is much better / Than not knowing", although I wish the next lines weren't "The things that I've been knowing / Could bring down a Boeing". The brief, sketchy, solo-acoustic "Take a Ride" is intriguing for its arrangement, if nothing else, because I've been trained to associate waves of guitar noise with Mudriczki's voice so automatically that even after I've realized, intellectually, that this song doesn't have any other instruments, I keep expecting them, viscerally, to come blasting in at any moment.
Puressence: It Doesn't Matter Anymore #2
The verses of "The Drone", b-side one on part two, have some bloopy, psychedelic guitar noises I'd have advised against, if asked, like the band was going through a momentary regret that people in paisley shirts never put any of their songs on party mix-tapes. The choruses are back in form, although the descending stair-step bass line is hardly an innovation to trumpet, and probably reduce the song to a throwaway in a sober assessment. The stretched, spacey instrumental "Deathtrap", though, with its carefully modulated dynamics and ethereal production, is a side of the band's personality the albums don't elaborate on much, and while I wouldn't want an hour of it, there are many things I'm fascinated to peer inside, but want to cover up again, afterwards.
Kenickie: I Would Fix You #1
Kenickie have relegated some significant songs to b-sides, I think, "Skateboard Song" and their cover of Gary Numan's "I'm an Agent" two of my favorite, but where At the Club was largely assembled from singles, Get In had them extracted, and this reversal seems to catch the band relatively unprepared to supply more songs for b-sides. If you ignore the radio edit and the cheesy "Mint Royale" remix of "I Would Fix You" here, as I'm inclined to, all that's left is "Packed In". It's a fair exchange nonetheless, in my opinion, as "Packed In" is a joyous throwback to the Kenickie old days, goofy gang-vocals, wiry guitars, synth beeps and all, like "My Boyfriend's Back" recast as a preamble to kicking his ass for not calling. Which proves, I think, although I don't know why anybody would doubt it, that Get In not sounding like this was intentional.
Kenickie: I Would Fix You #2
The similarly parsimonious part two adds a distended "DJ Downfall Mix" of "I Would Fix You" that I have even less use for than "Mint Royale". "Rough Girls & Modern Girls", the other song here, tries to be halting and dramatic, but it seems torn, to me, between the urge to accelerate and the fleeting notion that it might be another "Life in a Northern Town", and in the end just never gathers any momentum.
Kenickie: Stay in the Sun #1
I'd toss the "Fridge Remix" of "Stay in the Sun", which seems determined to cram the song into the structures of a series of lame Casio rhythm presets, into the scrap bin with the remixes of "I Would Fix You". Once again, though, the third track is a gem, a blaring trifle called "Hooray for Everything", performed in a dangerously loose approximation of sync, and mixed at a seemingly random array of levels that work right for only parts of it. If punk is sloppy enough, it doesn't have to be fast.
Kenickie: Stay in the Sun #2
The "Maxwell Implosion Influenza Mix" of "Stay in the Sun" is the most adventurous of the set, at least, a lovingly reconstructed disco strut, but the few bits of "Stay in the Sun" left feel like they're in the way of the period piece, to me, and if I wanted to hear earnest disco, I'd put on the soundtrack to The Last Days of Disco again. The cover of "Save Your Kisses for Me", the b-side on this part, is performed in girl-group deadpan right up to final syllable, which the group suddenly breaks character to shout. I can't decide whether this is a punch line, or a last-second failure of nerve, which is the same confusion, come to think of it, that I have about Kenickie breaking up.
theaudience: I Got the Wherewithal
I liked theaudience's debut well enough, all by itself, but the thrill is amplified by the discovery that theaudience are one of those bands, and it's been a while since I latched onto a new one, who seem to have such an endless supply of songs that they cram handfuls onto singles just to get them out of the way somehow. "I Got the Wherewithal", their first UK single, from 1997 (not to be confused with the 1998 US I Got the Wherewithal EP, which actually has some of the b-sides from later UK singles), backs up the spectral title track with two alternate versions and one new song. The new one, "Je Suis Content" (theaudience share Linoleum's penchant for singing b-sides in French), is somewhere between Gary Numan and the English Beat, sliding from spare, thumping verses to gales of guitar noise on the bridges. "Outside; Out of Space" is a guitar-and-voice demo version of the album track "Running Out of Space", performed on the street outside the studio, and punctuated oddly by footsteps, a passing helicopter (or a train with a flat tire), birds, assorted equipment-shifting noises and what sounds like at least one RAF training jet. "Helen and Polly", despite the unrelated name, is a dreamy, mostly-strings instrumental version of "I Got the Wherewithal" that works surprisingly well as a short modern-classical piece.
theaudience: If You Can't Do It When You're Young; When Can You Do It?
"If You Can't Do It When You're Young; When Can You Do It?" was redone for the album, so all four of the songs on this single are unique to it. The single's version of the title track is mostly just rougher than the album's, but there are a couple interesting holes where the strings show through, which got covered over in the remake. Jacobs and Casey's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is done in graceful show-tune style, with appropriately restrained synth-and-strings backing, although Sophie Ellis-Bextor's voice is probably too intimate for a real stage career. "You and Me on the Run", the first of the two new originals, is an atypical digression, a growling punk bass line and scything synthesizers herding Sophie through an unceremonious scramble, with hints of Wire and Penetration that I don't think I detect anywhere else in the band's repertoire. The epic "The Beginning, the Middle and the End", eight minutes of what sounds, in rotation, like Hope Sandoval fronting the Feelies, fragments of a lost etude from Rush's 2112, ambient noodling, post-rock and the Doors, is only a little less foreign.
theaudience: A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed #1
"Ne Jamais Déccedil;u" is an acoustic demo of "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" sung in French, but the other two tracks on part one for the jangly "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" are new. The impish "Penis Size and Cars", propped on a solid standard-issue rhythm (most reminiscent, to me, of U2's "Angel of Harlem", although I suspect every listener would think of a different referent), has some nice group harmonies to augment the novelty appeal of the refrain. The brief, glassy synthesizer instrumental "I Miss Leo" must be an in-joke of some sort.
theaudience: A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed #2
Given theaudience's titling style, I'm mildly surprised to find that "Ten Minutes Which Improved My Life" is, at least in terms of duration, literal. I'm guessing there was a three- or four-minute song at the core of this piece, at one point, but it was involved in a hideous industrial accident that left it scored with LP-surface noise and splintered, like it's been simultaneously remade for drum-and-bass and dug out of a musty tomb. If the Manic Street Preachers could get a remix gig, surely this track will garner theaudience a couple. "Never Gonna Give It to You" is back in pop-song mode, spiky and Elastica-ish, with a charmingly game attempt to rhyme "make out you're modern" with "uplift the downtrodden". And "I'm Always Ready" sounds like the B-52s performing "House of the Rising Sun" over a bad telephone connection.
theaudience: I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough) #1
The band hits a rare production lull around the first single for "I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough)", and is forced to pad this part out with the album track "Harry Don't Fetch the Water" (here listed, in a semantically ill-timed burst of over-enthusiasm for title punctuation, as "Harry, Don't Fetch the Water"), and a lamentable seven-minute disco remix of the title song.
theaudience: I Know Enough (I Don't Get Enough) #2
The machine isn't back up to full speed by part two, either, but it is operating. "Boutique in My Backyard" is springy and fuzzed, a robot blues for vicarious glamour. "The Last Seven Minutes With You", although it's really only six minutes, is a clear sequel to "Ten Minutes Which Improved My Life", building from short, fitful, free-jazz drum loops to galloping house. I probably could have done without either half of this last pair, musically, but the six singles and the album are very nicely designed as a set, and the row of jewel-case spines wouldn't have looked right without the green ones.
Astrid: Hozanna
And just to remind me, one more time, that quantity and quality don't necessarily correlate, even on singles, Astrid's single for "Hozanna" offers only an acoustic mix of the title track and one new song. The new song, though, "Far", is one of Astrid's more ambitious compositions, rising from pastoral acoustic guitars and calm piano to throbbing synthesizers and jerky, rattling drum loops, with vocal twists that remind me in passing of both Björk and Veda Hille. The "acoustic" version of "Hozanna", however, is the prize, with muted piano accompanying a sumptuous gospel choir assembled on multi-track out of several Astrids and a few Dominique Plaisants. The original was already high on my list of the year's great moments, but this one, as quietly beautiful as the lithe, synth-heavy album version is effervescent and infectious, is more stirring still, and makes it even clearer that the song's sympathy for the evangelist's weariness is genuine. As rare as songs are that can operate as pop confection and pensive hymn with equanimity, and as unsurprising as it would have been to find this version tacked onto the end of Boy for You as a bonus, a part of me regrets that only the most casual or the most dedicated fans will come across it here. But then what would we draw treasure maps to, if nobody ever buried anything good?
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