Tuesday, 31 May 2011


The latest edition of The Oxonian Review is a minor coup for the left-blogosphere, with reviews of 3 Zero books (one by Laurie Penny of Penny Red, one by Ivor Southwood of Screened Out, and one by Evan Calder Williams of Socialism and/or Barbarism), a review of Simon's Retromania by Adam Harper of Rouge's Foam, and a longish interview with Simon by me. Phew, talk about pulling people together towards a hub. That is some crazy linkage! Have I missed anything out? Oh, the Southwood review is by the splendid Tom May of Where Shingle Meets Raincoat and A Window on the World fame (his piece perhaps the most interesting of the lot).

Anyway, please check out some or all of the above if you can.

Obviously this is a review publication, so while I would have liked everyone to be wildly enthusiastic in the service of a good cause, the requirements of critical objectivity (combined, perhaps, with the sort of ego-value in criticising other people that Simon talks about in the interview) meant that some of the reviewers came down quite heavily on their subjects.

I thought Adam's critique of Retromania was half-fair. There is definitely an air of nostalgia and world-weariness about the whole thing, and Simon's commodity fetishism is sometimes difficult to explain away (I had to do a double-take when he said "I'm not a dissatisfied consumer" in the interview).

However, I'm not sure the accusation about "reactionary overreaction" quite sticks. The argument that goes something like "older people will inevitably be more pessimistic about things, and therefore their views should be discredited" can easily be turned on its head to discredit the optimism of younger people on similar grounds. Sure, there's a vague feeling of fogeyism about Simon's fear of technologically-induced "franticity", but his critique also comes with a wisdom and a wide-angle perspective that gives it perspicuity.

Moreover, I'm only 27 and I pretty much agree with the diagnosis of Retromania. It goes without saying that bemoaning the way things are isn't necessarily reactionary. In fact, of course, negative thinking is an essential constituent part of any radical political programme. Conversely, the default assumption that "progress is always taking place somewhere" is one of the defining tenets of market liberalism, the "whiggish view of history", if you like. Optimism is all very well, but isn't it the case that, without substantive political and economic reform, an increasingly atomised society will continue to prevent people from making any genuine collective steps forward, while the culture industry continues to repackage the fragments of a just-obsolescent past as the "latest thing", thus depriving people of a wider historical sense and a shared identity?

I guess I'm just saying, very simply, that these things are structural and political, and trying to posit some heroic micro instance of continuing innovation is beside the point. The point Retromania makes quite powerfully, I think, is that our ability to evolve collectively through an avant-garde music culture is severely hampered right now. Simon's book isn't a conservative jeremiad; it's a call to arms.

Monday, 30 May 2011


I've been listening to a lot of Wild Beasts lately. Partly this is because they have a new album out. But also it's a result of reading Carl's post about them a couple of months ago, which compelled me to download the first album (which is clearly better than the second as Carl points out, and probably also the third, though Lion's Share and Albatross are both true belters I think).

The whole thing underlined to me the importance of having a good taste arbiter, someone whose opinion you broadly trust, someone you will listen to and take seriously when they offer a passionate defence of an artist, tune, album, book, or whatever. This isn't a subjective impulse, I don't think, though it might seem so because it appears to rule out the possibility of an "objective standard" for aesthetic appreciation. Rather, when the objective standard is regulated by the market (via organs like NME, Zane Lowe, the Mercury Prize judges, even Pitchfork) you begin to lose faith in it, and finding alternative ways of measuring value becomes vitally imperative. You have to find something else to invest belief in. Even if you should always bring reserves of critical judgment along with you, you have to make this initial leap of faith, finding a person - or, even better, a group - to give a kind of spiritual grounding to the formulation of opinion.

There's a line from a John Donne poem that I'm becoming increasingly obsessed with:

Reason is our soul's left hand, faith her right;
By these we reach divinity.

I think this is what we're all looking for when we respond to a work of art - this combination of reasoning (which confirms our sense of self) and faith in someone else's ulterior perspective (which allows us to be transformed into something bigger and better than we were previously).

When I listen to Wild Beasts, I appreciate it because it's the kind of music I like (melodic but aberrantly so, hinterland surrealism with an experimental edge and some fiendishly clever lyrics). But then I first heard Wild Beasts three or four years ago, and was relatively non-plussed; they seemed nothing more than an above-average guitar band. I required something else to elevate a basic rational response (a sense that this band ticks my personal taste boxes) into a full-on appreciation, which ultimately has to incorporate an element of passion and belief, and which I found in Carl's impassioned (yet reasonable and carefully articulated) endorsement of the band. I used to experience this sort of transformative process fairly regularly, through the music press and John Peel, and I can't tell you how much it devastated me when these resources were removed from view in the last decade. So I suppose what I'm saying, in sum, is that it feels good to find something to believe in again. Sometimes I think the return of this very modest form of empowerment - this simple reinstatement of belief in other people - is what will save us all.


Does anyone else have any endorsements like Carl's of Wild Beasts?

One I'd like to offer is of a short-lived band from 2007-8 called British Expeditionary Force. This was a kind of collaborative side-project consisting of Justin Lockey (from Your Code Name Is: Milo) and Aid Burrows (from My Architects), two relatively small-scale indie outfits, both now defunct.

BEF only released one rather short album as far as I know, and having lost my CD copy, I can't find it on any torrent sites. There aren't any videos online to speak of, but thankfully the album is on Spotify, so I'd recommend going there if you're interested, or even (sharp intake of breath), actually buying the thing if you have a spare penny or two. There may be some stuff on the myspace page.

Anyway, the two tunes I feel really passionate about are Back of Your Hand and All Those Demons. As with Carl on Wild Beasts, I think partly I'm getting off on the North Country vibe: Burrows is from Warrington and Lockey from Doncaster/Newcastle, and it shows. Lockey's soundscapes are clearly indebted to Scandinavian post-rock (Mum and, especially, Efterklang), which I think is quite a Northern thing - looking across the North Sea and Atlantic instead of southwards to London. If the post-rock aspect sounds a tad dated at this particular moment in time, I think this is partly something that will remedied with a few more years of distance, and something that an intelligent man or woman will be able to "listen around".

So Lockey's production is unmistakably Northern, and so too are Burrows's vocal lines, which recall Ian Brown at his warm, nuanced best. Both All Those Demons and Back of Your Hand are sublime vocal performances. All Those Demons is a song of profound melancholy and resignation:

It's better the devil you know than all those demons
It's the devil who told you
It's better the life you know than all that dreaming
For one that you don't

While Back of Your Hand is more straightforwardly elegiac:

Someone new knows the fields I knew like the back of their hand.
Someone new knows the fields I knew like the back of their hand.
Seen through what was my window to the tarmac carpark below
On the sign was wrote out: no children allowed ...

Stuff like this moves me in a way that is beyond my powers of description to express. Listening to BEF, all the sadness and regret of my youth goes streaming through my head. I think of the deserted Pennines, and people struggling to get by and to be listened to. I think of failed dreams and people I no longer know, people that have died, musicians who should have been given the chance to flourish but instead came to abandon "all that dreaming". I think of an old, Northern kind of warmth that is the only variety of "Englishness" that I have any time for whatsoever.

Sorry, but I can't really say much more than that. You'll just have to believe me innit! Listen to British Expeditionary Force, and see if you can be transformed just a little bit.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


This shit is pretty old I know, but the de-fanged version (sans Biggie lyrics - called "Symphonies") is currently audible on a noxious advert for a multinational that I won't dignify with a mention, and this reminded me that I had some stuff to say about it.

Anyway, I'm not sure how much attention it got at the time (2008-9?), but it is a truly inspirational piece of music, and here's why ...

Firstly, let's get the negatives out of the way. Dan Black looks like a total cock: an American Apparel model with an unfortunate fetish for those RIDICULOUS scarves that blighted the West in the mid-to-late noughties, and which now, thankfully, seem to have passed into obsolescence. Symphonies itself - his rewrite after Biggie's estate denied him permission to use the lyrics from Hypnotize - is an utterly risible tune, a purgation of everything great in Hypntz, and an obvious stab at "breaking" Black as a mainstream popstar. Every other tune I can find on the net by Black is diabolical. Just looking at his lightly-ironic-hipsterly-contorted face makes me want to vomit.

But, in Hypntz, he (or whoever produced it) stumbled on something extraordinary.

The accidental is integral to the pop art form as a whole. The pop song is the ultimate artistic expression of democracy and (true) populism because it is always at its best an affirmation of arbitrariness. It offers a suggestion that, potentially, anyone can attain to power. This is why the best pop songs - She Loves You, Wuthering Heights, Teenage Kicks, Express Yourself, Don't You Want Me - have a palpable feeling of heroic accident, of a beleaguered person or people somehow lighting on a magic formula.

Hypntz achieves its magic formula in a manner that is both arbitrary and obvious, which is a part of its brilliance. The Umbrella break + Starman soundtrack + a beautiful melodic rendering of a gangsta rap staple: we know exactly what has been done here, and this is why it sounds so good. It makes us think that we should be doing this too, that we should be participating, creating new syntheses with the aid of technology and the internet, appropriating anything to hand as we look for a new praxis.

Along with this radical democratic aspect, the hopeful quality of Hypntz comes from the fact that it demonstrates how a number of awful cliched elements (schmaltzy Hollywood soundtrack, gangsta misogyny, Shoreditch hipster archness) can be set off against each other to produce a transcendent negative version of the way things are. "Biggie, Biggie can't you see?": is it just me or is this line loaded with pathos because it seems to be saying: "Biggie, what if your verbal and rhythmic genius had been used to aggrandize something more than the thug aesthetic?" The lyrical peak of the track comes around 2:05:

At last, someone rapping 'bout guns and broads
Tits and bras, menage a trois, sex, and expensive cars ...

Isn't this such a clinical and extreme reduction of neolib culture that it almost buries it? Consumerism is emphatically linked to violence and misogyny, so nakedly and absolutely that we are compelled to try to think beyond it (see Destinys Child's Independet Woman Pt.1 for another instance of this sort of blatant exposure of radical individualism). The ugliest of of ugly sentiments is disarmed by humour and formal flair, and somehow comes to sound like an emancipatory exclamation (At last ...)

Dan Black's tune - probably unwittingly - brings this utopian potential out. Through its bizarre juxtapositions it tempers hubris with melancholy, and exchanges dystopian cynicism for romantic idealism. It has a sense of imploration about it, a sense of straining for something above and beyond existing materials. It is, like all the best pop tunes, the result of an idiot in the gutter juggling with rubbish and somehow managing to point the way to the stars.   

Saturday, 21 May 2011


Birds giggle you
and fluttering chatter of
your feathers ruffles
muscles and ghosts my
heart up through the
shivering cup of the sky.

Friday, 20 May 2011


With the Retromania bomb about to drop, Simon Reynolds gestures at Borges as a prophet of "excess all areas" culture.

My own high-cultural penny'orth, however, is Eliot:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Famously, this is sorta bullshit. Try to parse these lines, and you quickly lose any thread of meaning you might think you pick up on. But that phrase: If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable - that resonates doesn't it?

Moving quickly into the realms of massive theologico-cultural conjecture, the whole retromanic thing seems to me to have something to with the occlusion of death in a modern technocratic society. Death has replaced sex as the great taboo. We just don't know what to do with death - the one thing a culture of pluralism and excess cannot find a space for: the absoluteness of an ending. Hence, things that are obsolete become weirdly fetishized. The sobering fact that the past is absolutely no more is replaced with a sort of adolescent inability to let go of childhood toys and move on.

I think if there's meaning in Eliot's Burnt Norton it's this - this basic religious sense that we only properly exist when we let go of the past and treat the extraordinary, tragic reality of dying as a means of defining what life is. That is what he means by "redemption".

I think.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Grant Edgeworth promises to put late-nineties tape culture through the tumble-dryer over at a tremendous new blog with a splendid name:

King Sonic Low Noise

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


A sort of poem-tune by me. I do love Bandcamp. It beats me why the record industry still wields such monolithic power when resources like this exist.

Monday, 9 May 2011


Thanks to Paul McGuire for this.

Sunday, 8 May 2011


"Already in the 1930s, the first generation of Frankfurt School theoreticians drew attention to how - at the very moment when global market relations began to exert their full domination, making the individual producer's success or failure dependent on market cycles totally beyond his control - the notion of a charismatic 'business genius' reasserted itself ... attributing the success or failure of a businessman to some mysterious je ne sais quoi he possessed. And does not the same hold true even more so today, as the abstraction of the market relations that govern our lives is pushed to an extreme point? The bookshops are overflowing with psychological manuals advising us on how to succeed, how to outdo our partner or competitor - in short, treating success as being dependent on a proper 'attitude'".

Saturday, 7 May 2011


Of Carl's White Diaspora, which I can't recommend highly enough. And it's free innit, so no excuses. I would urge people to print it out however - reading upside down pages on a laptop just doesn't work (although it is briefly hilarious to try).

Monday, 2 May 2011


A somewhat fustian review of mine in this week's Oxonian Review about a new book of essays on Kraftwerk.

What I didn't say in the review is that I'm in two minds about this sort of thing: on the one hand it's good to have a pop subject treated with this level of seriousness, but on the other there's the risk of calcification and institutionalization, of a kind of academic branding that is not so dissimilar to the fashionista-commodification I talk about in the review (and I realise that I'm totally complicit in this by throwing my own hat into the ring, although of course I didn't get paid for writing the piece, which as far as I'm concerned makes it just a slightly less self-indulgent, more detached form of blogging praxis).

Anyway, I hope it comes through that I tried to focus on what was meaningful in the message, man.

And actually part of the message is that the institution (the right sort) can be a redemptive force, right?

Title: "Exactly the sort of casual co-option of someone else's aesthetic I abhor" (or, I'm a twat).