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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

Bing Tha Ruckus

Derek Walmsley

My recent Invisible Jukebox with Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA (featured in The Wire 292, which has just hit the streets) involved a train spotter's paradise of sample-spotting and internet researching as I looked into the building blocks of the great Wu-Tang albums of the mid-90s. One sample I missed, sadly, was that "Ice Water" from the RZA-produced Raekwon album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx featured a vocal sample from none other than Bing Crosby, singing "White Christmas". The langorous, grandfatherly "I'm...." from the first line is cut off just before the second syllable, leaving only a deep voice and wide vibrato that sounds like it's emanating from the depths of the pyramids. It's one of the most gothic moments in the whole of hiphop, using good ol' Bing's disembodied tones as an unearthly, weirdly non-gendered siren call.

It's odd to think of a sample fiend like The RZA getting a kick out of Bing's voice, but dig deeper and there's a strange kinship between the pair. The RZA recently invested a large amount of his own money in vinyl-to-digital scratch technology; Bing Crosby was instrumental in developing early tape technology, by investing $50,000 in the fledgling Ampex company.


Theo Parrish

Derek Walmsley

It's hard in the internet era to recreate that excitement of the unknown when you encounter a dusty, entirely mysterious artifact in a record shop. There's no such thing as a rare record these days, with the advent of eBay, and music available in digital forms is so extensively propagated around the internet that it's rare to encounter something you don't know at least something about (even if you haven't encountered it, you can often guess what it's like by a process of elimination.... "ah! so this must be that Scandinavian skwee stuff, as its not on one of the usual Swedish labels...").

However, Detroit producer Theo Parrish (whose Sound Sculptures Volume 1 was reviewed recently in The Wire 291) makes a fair stab at preserving that sensation in a manner that's neither drearily nostalgic nor hermetically self-referential. He's prolific but publicity shy, fiercely pro-vinyl, and shuns all genre terms. Nevertheless, you get the unerring sense in listening to his music that it could be from either the past or the future (or both). It's always familiar, interpolating disco, soul, funk and jazz, but carries only the feel of these musics - the sense of interplay, of elements engaging with each other - rarely the sort of obvious contours that distinguish each of these genres from each other.

It makes the mini-epiphany I had while watching him discuss his work online as part of the Red Bull Music Academy lectures (a strange hybrid of industry self-celebration and occasionally enlightening musician insider talk, which you can watch here) all the more pertinent. Parrish discussed James Brown's "Gonna Have A Funky Good Time (Doing It To Death)", and the track sounds startlingly like a blueprint for his entire oeuvre - elements fade in and out, a crescendo is never quite reached, but there's perpetual motion, perpetual funk. It's very much not the paradigm of a JB track, but instead the kind of thing his band played in concert when marking time – a vamp, basically.

Parrish's music has perfected this sense of always becoming, but never quite being, something fixed, defined. It's why his music has barely changed in 15 years, but when you return to it it seems to have some strange, almost chemical potential in the beats, a volatility that's not quite been resolved, like gunpowder still miraculously potent decades after it was made. Even so, it was a minor revelation to hear "Gonna Have A Funky Good Time (Doing It To Death)" next to his music: the resemblance is startling, as if he's taken the James Brown track and rearranged it for sequencer, synth and drum machine, a timeless variant of the endless vamp.



Derek Walmsley

The recent Soul Jazz An England Story compilation, from some of the people behind London club night Heatwave, reminded me of some of the excellent 7"s these guys have released over the years. In particular, this ragga refix of Kelis' "Trick Me" (already an astonishingly funky track, with its rhythm that lurks somewhere between technofied R&B; and dust-caked ska), which I found while looking for records to DJ with in Brussels as part of The Wire soundsystem the other day.

The precise, gritty ruff-age of the vocals immediately raises the energy levels of the track. This melding of ragga vocals and R&B; is like that of old school rapping and disco on Soul Jazz's fairly recent Big Apple Rapping - when the rough and smooth go together so well, what's not to like? Anyway, I have such fond memories of this 7" that I actually found myself running back to the hotel to get it mid-set, and anyone who's fallen for the UK/JA crossover of An England Story should surely seek this out.


Namings As Portals

Mark Fisher

Speaking of postpunk autodidacticism, Owen Hatherley picks up on what I too thought was of the most interesting lines in Mark Sinker's Sight & Sound review of Grant Gee's Joy Division film:

Curtis' own writing was a teen scrapbook of anti-pop titles and sensibilities ('Interzone', 'Atrocity Exhibition', 'Colony', 'Dead Souls', invoke Burroughs, Ballard, Kafka and Gogol respectively, the effect dismissable only if you decide not to see such namings as portals).

Sometimes the names condensed more than one reference: 'Colony' invoked Conrad as much as Kafka's 'Strike Kolony'. Sometimes the references were unintentional misdirections; 'Atrocity Exhibition' is surely one of the least Ballardian tracks that Joy Division produced. In any case, construing these allusions as 'portals' that led somewhere – rather than as citations in a seamless postmodern circuit – is highly suggestive. Such portals could take the listener into formal education, but were also doorways beyond the school and the university, an alternative curriculum.

(Also well worth looking at on Owen's site: this essay on Neu!, published in honour of the recently deceased Klaus Dinger.)


Designer Despair

Mark Fisher

Rousing praise for Portishead's latest amidst Simon Reynolds's latest bumper pack of reflections on Blissblog. I find Simon's enthusiasm for the LP a little perplexing, although, I must confess, I've never been that enraptured by Portishead. I became quickly fatigued wading through the gloopy designer despair of their debut, and had all but lost interest by the time of the follow up. The combination of kitchen sink torch singing, vinyl crepitation, sweeping film samples and brokeback hiphop beats possessed a certain stylishness, but the appeal quickly palled. It was the 'stylishness' that was the problem, actually. Even though I don't doubt the personal sincerity of either Gibbons or Barrow, formally it all sounded a little pat, a little too cleverly contrived, a little too comfortably at home in This Life 90s Style culture. Gibbons's gloom always struck me as being more like illegible grumbling than the oblique bleakness it wanted to be. As for the new album, it screams out lack of ideas: devoid of the vinyl crackle that might have given it some relation to the 'hauntological now' of Burial or Philip Jeck, I can only hear it as clapped out coffee table miserabilism ten years past its sell-by date.

(Meanwhile, I can't help feeling that Geoff Barrow and arch smugonaut Mark Ronson are right about each other.)


Weird coincidences...

Mark Fisher

Further to Derek's observations on Villalobos's 'Enfants', below ... Even though the sample is taken from a Christian Vander track, when I first heard 'Enfants' it reminded me of nothing so much as the piano on Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman'. It seems that I'm not the only one to make the association ... If the similarity between the tracks is eerie, then this only adds to the strangeness of Simone's already intensely uncanny song, which acquired even more weirdness last year when it was used by both David Lynch (in INLAND EMPIRE) and Timbaland (on the first track of his Shock Value LP).


Nu-linguistic programming

Mark Fisher

Infinite Thought's diatribe against artspeak raises all kinds of issues. The soporifically ubiquitous language against which she rails is part of the reassuring background noise in what passes now for high culture. It is the institutional artworld's revenge on Duchamp and Dada's idea that nonsense could be revolutionary. But the problem with this language is its oversignfication as much as its lack of content, the excess of meaning with which it freights objects and shows, fixing them into a pre-defined cultural place via the use of a laudatory linguistic muzak that combines portentous gravitas with vapid weightlessness: all those notions that are negotiated with, those boundaries that are blurred, and everything, of course, is radical... This is the soundtrack to the postmodern conversion of events into exhibits, a process so total, so relentless, that it has become invisible, presupposed. An old story: those who sought the destruction of the art space and its prestige find themselves the objects of the latest retrospective ... And just wait for all those May 68 commemorations next month...

This 'nu-language' is more than a matter of institutional inertia. It is an expression of an interlock – a synergy – between art, business and promotion. At the End of History, all language tends to the condition of PR . And lurking not far behind all this is the spider bureaucracy, now rebranded as 'administration', since funding bodies require artists – practitioners - to themselves internalise and proliferate nu-language. This can't be attacked at the level of discourse alone – as IT suggests, nu-language itself puts into practice the occlusion of objects under referent-free discourse – but, by keeping faith with the events of the past and anticipating events yet-to-come, criticism can surely play a part in the attack on nu-linguistic programming.


new build music

Derek Walmsley

Walking out of Kode9's DJ set at the recent BLOC weekender in Norfolk, all of us there in The Wire's chalet were saying more or less the same thing- noone else plays the kind of music Kode9 currently plays out. There's very little of anything approaching dubstep in his sets: instead, there's what sounds like speeded up crunk, Southern hiphop reedited into ever sharper shards, all kinds of ghetto funk given technofied refixes, neo-soul taken at breakneck pace.

Both Kode9 and Hyperdub seem to be going in the opposite direction to what you might associate with dubstep: the music is getting quicker, sharper, more synthetic and fractured. Watching his set, I wasn't sure whether to dance or to just marvel at the way he's able to splice these musical genres together. The breadth of music traversed was enough of a rush on its own.

It strikes me that few artists are able to speed music up and retain the funk when they're remixing; it's much more common to slow beats down, to straighten them out and explore the spaces within (think of screwed and chopped hiphop, triphop etc.) It's a much more difficult feat to speed music up and yet find a way to still make it successfully mesh with other styles, to engage the body. To do so is like trying to tinker with an engine while with someone stepping on the accelerator. Perhaps understandably, remix culture is more about breaking music down than building it up. It's perhaps only Kode9 and Surgeon who've I've really felt they we able to do this the other way round.

As Kode9 himself has suggested, the relationship between dance genres (and their tempos) and the body is a deep and complex one (think of how techno and house have subtly different emphases despite fairly similar tempos, and yet they seem to 'work' entirely differently). Splicing the DNA of dance genres is a bit like playing Frankenstein. I'm still seriously impressed that it ends up creating something so graceful and exhilarating, rather than some disfunctional mutant that only a drugged-up crowd would enjoy.



Lisa Blanning

The other night I saw Velvet Goldmine for the first time. I seem to recall that when it came out ten years ago, it looked quite cool, but folks who had seen it hadn't been too positive about it. I hadn't thought much about it in the interim, but not too long ago I came home and my flatmate was watching it. I caught the part where Ewan MacGregor plays Iggy Pop on stage and was immediately interested. Ewan is fully convincing and his screen character Curt Wild (geddit?) has even more extreme added twisted back story (one can only hope that Iggy didn't have it so bad, but maybe if I ever get round to reading his biography, I'll find out just how close it is). It made me want to see the rest of the film and when I found out that writer/director Todd Haynes had done this movie I made it a priority. I'd recently seen Haynes's Dylan 'biopic' I'm Not There and found it flawed, but really brave and very good. That plus Time Out some months ago had a cover feature of their top 50 rock flicks (or something like that) and Haynes's barbie-casted Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story had come out on top. Synchronicity!

Today, having watched Superstar on the internet (the only way to see the short film, as its distribution suffered after Richard Carpenter sued), I can now say I've seen Haynes's music-inspired films (all within two months of each other) and it's an interesting trajectory. Superstar (which is Haynes's second film released in 1987) is certainly the most straightforward, even with the barbies. It's an easy narrative punctuated by ominous foreshadowing and illuminatingly preachy text concerning anorexia. Given the primary device, it can't help but be tongue-in-cheek ("No, we can't eat at The Source! hahaha"), but I found it a sympathetic portrayal of Karen's self-cancellation. One might assume (as Richard Carpenter probably did) that by using dolls Haynes was making fun what must have been a tragic and difficult situation, and while it may have actually been borne of financial necessity, it makes for some tender homage in a form similar to children at play. The love of children is not usually duplicitous, and similarly that affection is revealed, as in the lovingly rendered barbie-sized sets and costumes.

With Velvet Goldmine (1998), the on-screen rock stars aren't at all veiled mirrors of their real life counterparts, but in this case Haynes makes his own story using real characters instead of relying overly on their real-life stories, as so many young children are given readymade characters (like Barbie and GI Joe) complete with a look and a backstory to make their own adventures with. My main beef with this vastly entertaining and rather beautiful film is Haynes still felt the need to retain lip service to an overarching plot, which plods along between the lavish set-pieces that are full of wit and insight not least because of constant references to and quotes from Oscar Wilde, which in itself ties the set-pieces together better than the 'plot'. One short scene of Curt Wild and Brian Slade (David Bowie) musing on their love is acted by dolls in one child's voice and intentionally cliched dialogue making it an oddly touching and innocent portrayal of such a moment: gay hedonist rock star love.

Ten years later and Bob Dylan becomes the fetishised pop star in I'm Not There, made up of vignettes close and inspired to his life, the viewer's knowledge of which making the lynchpin that allows the film to roam plot free. Losing that structure seems to release even more ideas from an already imaginative director and perhaps obsessive fan. The life of Dylan is such a rich tapestry to draw from and Haynes really does that justice. He keeps a few stylistic choices (making some scenes deliberately stiffly acted, which can be a bit jarring when it's not done humourously), but it's an incredibly engaging way to tell a story and kind of makes you feel as though you're learning something about the subject as well – getting a sense of that elusive charisma that made them something special in the first place.

Turns out Haynes's first film is actually about Rimbaud, who is a poet I had recently decided to investigate. Synchronicity has dictated my next foray.