Sunday, January 31, 2010


The streets of Paris have seen more revolutions and agitations than most, and after each one, the victors (the Jacobins in 1789, Cavaignac and the National Assembly in 1848, Thiers in 1871, the Gaullists in 1968) have re-built Paris to suit their political agenda. Haussman’s re-ordering of the city along the lines of political and capitalist power is the most notorious of these reconstructions, but in fact Haussmanisation continued well into the twentieth century, and is likely to exert itself again in the twenty-first.

Roger’s and Piano’s Centre Pompidou, built along the Rue Beaubourg, presents itself as a formal architectural exercise – a building turned inside-out, so that its skeleton (frame, joins, pipes etc) is exposed, and the distinction between its inner workings and outer facade becomes blurred. It is apparently as apolitical as the Eiffel Tower, and as supreme a feat of engineering (though altogether less awe-inspiring). Richard Rogers had come out earlier in the 1970s as embracing the non-ideological architecture of the USA, in contrast to the opaque theory of the European modernists and post-modernists.

But actually, the Pompidou is a conceit, both in its content and its context. First, the context. Following the shock of May 1968 to the political elite, successive governments and Mayoral Offices (most notably that of Jacques Chirac) looked to the urban fabric of Paris to see how it could be made less ripe for subversion and more amenable to the maintenance of state and corporate power. This was achieved via three principal methods: the gesture of ripping up the streets (the cobbles of the Latin Quarter, the paving stones under which the revolutionaries uncovered the beach, were paved over), the removal of unauthorised areas of assembly (such as the vegetable markets at Les Halles) and the construction of iconic buildings by big-name architects, which replaced real-life on the streets with a marvellous spectacle. Needless to say, the dispersal of undesirable people from the Fourth arrondissement to the banlieues naturally followed.

The sickly pocket of Beaubourg was sanitised in 1977 by the construction of the Centre Pompidou (a building which couldn’t be less Parisian if it tried). The Pompidou – the most iconic of buildings, by the biggest of big-named architects – could therefore never have been apolitical, and the decision to use the site as a cultural centre is highly significant.

And what of the content? Well, for all the hype of high technology, today it now looks bland and dated, like a very old, clunky IBM computer. Hi-tech is everywhere now – it is the genus of choice for the unimaginative constructor of offices and supermarkets all over the world. It is a superior example of the genre, granted, but its design was clearly chosen as a means of gentrification. It appears to have been flown into the Right Bank at random, a tokenistic nod to modernisation and globalisation (for there is little about the Pompidou that is in keeping with the local environment). Its concept, too, is shaky: those coloured tubes and elevators which seem to blast visitors upwards like atoms in the hadron collider are decorative rather than functional.

The Pompidou has succeeded in its main aims: of shifting dissent, drawing the masses into the Plateau Beaubourg, institutionalising culture, erasing the distinction between high and low culture (though, in so doing, replacing both with a smooth, smug middlebrow culture). Tourists come to look at the Pompidou (and no doubt the marketing men know for how long the average visitor stops to stare), and some venture inside (which we did not) to join others in an act of mass consumption. “What one comes to learn in a hypermarket – hyperreality of the commodity,” writes Baudrillard, “[...] is what one comes to learn at Beaubourg: the hyperreality of culture.”

One goes, one gazes, but one cannot make an imprint on the Pompidou (this is true of all cultural institutions). And since one cannot participate in such a space, the space ends up making its imprint on its visitors. “That,” says Baudrillard, “is mass production, not in the sense of a massive production for use by the masses, but the production of the masses. The masses as the final product of all sociality and, at the same time, as putting an end to sociality, because these masses that one wants us to believe are the social, are on the contrary the site of the implosion of the social.”

But this implies what Baudrillard describes as the “stockpiling of men” (analogous to a museum’s stockpiling of cultural artefacts), and it is in this inert assembly of bodies inside the Pompidou that he imagines its paradoxical downfall. The building will buckle if more than 30,000 people are inside at any one time, and this is the challenge that Baudrillard presents to the masses. “Make Beaubourg bend!” he demands. “If the masses magnetised by the structure become a destructive variable of the structure itself [...] then Beaubourg constitutes the most audacious object and the most successful happening of the century.”

Could even the canny Jacques Chirac ever have envisaged such an expression of people power?

Thursday, January 28, 2010


My only regret of a wonderfully, whistle-stoppish weekend in Paris (my first ever, DV's first in a very long while) is that we couldn't get a table at La Pomponette, a classic bistro in Montmartre, where they serve Rabbit in Aspic as a starter. We managed to find a very jolly place down the road, less busy and quite a bit less expensive, and I managed to try frogs' legs for the first time (to my tongue, they taste like bony supermarket chicken, only blander ... to complete this cliched little picture, DV had snails for a starter and then we both wolfed down steaks, digested with the aid of good red plonk). But alas, neither rabbit nor hare passed my lips all weekend.

Next time we go back, I intend to find a restaurant that serves Lievre a la Royale, a truly absurd recipe devised by a Senator called Aristide Couteaux, and written up in his column in Le Temps in 1898 (the same year that Zola published "J'Accuse!" in defence of Alfred Dreyfus). It takes fully six and half hours to prepare cook, and is included in Elizabeth David's Book of Mediterranean Food.

In truth, it is less a recipe than a full-blown narrative, a travelogue around the hills of Poitou, a derive into the innards of a hare, and an expression of the excess and corruption of the Third Republic. It describes, in other words, a thoroughly immoral dish, which should be executed with merciless precision. If you have the stomach for it, there are pictures to accompany the excursion here:


'You require a male hare, with red fur, killed if possible in mountainous country; of French descent (characterised by the light nervous elegance of head and limbs), weighing from 5 to 6 pounds, that is to say older than a leveret but still adolescent. The important thing is that the hare should have been cleanly killed and so not have lost a drop of blood.

'The fat to cook it: 2 or 3 tablespoons of goose fat, 1/4 pound of fat bacon rashers; 1/4 pound of bacon in one piece.

'Liquid: 6 oz of good red wine vinegar. Two bottles of Macon or Medoc, whichever you please, but in any case not less than 2 years old.

'Utensils: A daubiere, or oblong stewing pan, of well-tinned copper, 8 inches high, 15 inches long, 8 inches wide and possessed of a hermetically closing cover; a small bowl in which to preserve the blood of the hare, and later to stir it when it comes to incorporating it in the sauce; a double-handled vegetable chopper; a large shallow serving dish; a sieve; a small wooden pestle.

'The wine to serve: Preferably a St Julien or Moulin a Vent.

'Preliminary preparations:

'Skin and clean the hare. Keep aside the heart, the liver, and the lungs. Keep aside also and with great care the blood.

'In the usual way prepare a medium-sized carrot, cut into four; 4 medium onions each stuck with a clove; 20 cloves of garlic; 40 shallots; a bouquet garni, composed of a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and some pieces of parsley.

'Get ready some charcoal, in large pieces, which you will presently be needing, burning fast.

'First Operation (from half-past twelve until four o'clock):

'At 12.30 coat the bottom and sides of the stewpan with the goose fat; then at the bottom of the pan arrange a bed of rashers of bacon.

'Cut off the head and neck of the hare: leaving only the back and the legs. Then place the hare at full length on the bed of bacon, on its back. Cover it with another layer of bacon. Now all your bacon rashers are used up.

'Now add the carrot; the onions; the 20 cloves of garlic; the 40 shallots; the bouquet garni.

'Pour over the hare (i) the 6 oz of red wine vinegar, and (ii) a bottle and a half of 2-year-old Macon or Medoc.

'Season with pepper and salt in reasonable quantity.

'At one o'clock. The daubiere being thus arranged, put on the lid and set the fire going (either a gas stove or an ordinary range). On the top of the lid place 3 or 4 large pieces of charcoal in an incandescent state, well alight and glowing.

'Regulate your heat so that the hare may cook for 3 hours, over a gentle and regular fire, continuously.

'Second Operation (to be carried out during the first cooking of the hare):

'First chop exceedingly finely the four following ingredients, chopping each one separately: (i) 1/4 lb of bacon, (ii) the heart, liver and lungs of the hare, (iii) 10 cloves of garlic, (iv) 20 shallots.

'The chopping of the garlic and the shallots must be so fine that each of them attain as nearly as possible a molecular state.

'This is one of the first conditions of success of this marvellous dish, in which the multiple and diverse perfumes and aromas melt into a whole so harmonious that neither one dominates, nor discloses its particular origin, and so arouse some preconceived prejudice, however regrettable.

'The bacon, the insides of the hare, the garlic, and shallots being chopped very fine, and separately, blend them all together thoroughly, so as to obtain an absolutely perfect mixture. keep this mixture aside.

'Third Operation (from four o'clock until a quarter to seven):

'At four o'clock. Remove the stewpan from the fire. Take the hare out very delicately; put it on a dish. Then remove all the debris of the bacon, carrot, onions, garlic, shallot, which may be clinging to it; return these debris to the pan.

'The Sauce. Now take a large deep dish and a sieve. Empty the contents of the pan into the sieve, which you have placed over the dish; with a small wooden pestle pound the contents of the sieve, extracting all the juice, which forms a coulis in the dish.

'Mixing the coulis and the hachis (the chopped mixture). Now comes the moment to make use of the mixture which was the subject of the second operation. Incorporate this into the coulis.

'Heat the half bottle of wine left over from the first operation. Pour this hot wine into the mixture of coulis and hachis and stir the whole together.

'At half past four. Return to the stewpan (i) the mixture of coulis and hachis, (ii) the hare, together with any of the bones which may be become detached during the cooking.

'Return the pan to the stove, with the same gentle and regular fire underneath and on the top, for another 1 1/2 hours' cooking.

'At six o'clock. As the excess of fat, issuing from the necessary quantity of bacon, will prevent you from judging the state of the sauce, you must now proceed to operate a first removal of the fat. Your work will not actually be completed until the sauce has become sufficiently amalgamated to attain a consistence approximating to that of a puree of potatoes; not quite, however, for if you tried to make it too thick, you would end by so reducing it that there would not be sufficient to moisten the flesh (by nature dry) of the hare.

'Your hare having therefore had the fat removed, can continue to cook, still on a very slow fire, until the moment comes for you to add the blood which you have reserved with the utmost care as has already been instructed.

'Fourth Operation (quarter of an hour before serving):

'At quarter to seven. The amalgamation of the sauce proceeding successfully, a fourth and last operation will finally and rapidly bring it to completion.

'Addition of blood to the hare. With the addition of the blood, not only will you hasten the amalgamation of the sauce but also give it a fine brown colour; the darker it is the more appetising. This addition of the blood should not be made more than 30 minutes before serving; it must also be preceded by a second removal of the fat.

'Therefore, effectively remove the fat; after which, without losing a minute, turn to the operation of adding the blood.

'(i) Whip the blood with a fork, until, if any of it has become curdled, it is smooth again.

'(ii) Pour the blood into the sauce, taking care to stir the contents of the pan from top to bottom and from right to left, so that the blood will penetrate into every corner of the pan.

'Now taste; add pepper and salt if necessary. A little later (45 minutes at a maximum) get ready to serve.

'Arrangements for serving:

'At seven o'clock. Remove from the pan your hare, whose volume by this time has naturally somewhat shrunk.

'At any rate, in the centre of the serving dish, place all that still has the consistency of meat, the bones, entirely denuded, and now useless, being thrown away, and now finally around this hare en compote pour the admirable sauce which has been so carefully created.'

Elizabeth David, following the senator's advice, notes that "to use a knife to serve the hare would be a sacrilege. A spoon alone is amply sufficient."


From Jorn's Modifications series, in which he detourned bad paintings he found in basements or flea markets with swirls and spatters and daubings of thick paint. The spectre hovering above the man's head is rather like those childish figures in paintings like Untitled, or in the Art Brut paintings of his CoBrA colleagues Constant and Appel. But as Claire Gilman points out in an essay about Jorn, whereas they took old paintings and completely covered them with paint, erasing the original image in the process, Jorn's swirls are more like notes in the margin of a book - commenting on the original, trying to deface it or add to it or improve on it, but ultimately "testifying to the impenetrability of the mute canvas and the failure of immanent deconstructive strategies."

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Just over a year ago, four hurricanes hit Haiti in 30 days. 800 people died. Yet, when the same storms passed over Cuba and hit just as hard, only 4 people died. Earthquakes of a similar magnitude to the one that has just devastated Haiti have hit other cities over the years, but none has been annihilated like Port-au-Prince has. How can this be? Its infrastructure may have become more fragile as a result of earlier storms and quakes, but make no mistake: this is not some unavoidable consequence of nature: the dire situation in Haiti is man-made.

Peter Hallward describes how the international community has blocked the UN from having anything other than a military role since the coup that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004. 75% of the electorate had voted for Aristide, but he was considered too much of a threat by Haiti's tiny but all-powerful elite and was forced from power. Haitians are now angry, and desperately poor - more than half the population live on less than a dollar a day. Their economy and infrastructure has been decimated by structural adjustment. As Hallward says, "the city's basic infrastructure - running water, electricity, roads etc - remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government's ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil."

As k-punk says, the responses to Hallward's article suggest that talking about Haiti's history is Marxist, not to mention immoral. Some construct a false, straw man argument that accuses anybody who doubts the international community's intentions of refusing to give to the Disaster Relief Fund. Well, fuck 'em - these people are clearly poisonous. Even though one has no real idea whether one's contribution will ever get to Port-au-Prince (Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki-Moon can get in, but food packages apparently cannot), one should surely cross one's fingers and give anyway.

Peter Hallward interviewed Aristide in 2006, a couple of years after the coup that forced him out. It is fascinating, especially his insights on working with international partners who are racist ("There is a psychological legacy of slavery: to lie for the white man isn't really lying at all, since white men don't lie") and who still see his country as a colony ("the Americans demanded that I dismiss these senators, what was I supposed to do? What would happen if a foreign government insisted that the US President dismiss an elected senator? It's absurd. The whole situation is simply racist.")

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"It has long been said that the desert is monotheistic. Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de la Arbalete conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?"

Off to Paris tomorrow, so we will find out if Guy was right!

Monday, January 18, 2010


On Saturday - a very dark, wet, leaden Saturday - we drove to Dungeness from Rye. The contrast couldn't have been starker. Rye is the destination of choice for tourists in search of cobbled streets, cake shops and windows full of antiques - a picturesque former coastal town which, over the years, has steadily receded away from the sea. Dungeness is a coastal headland, a dumping-ground for shingle, and home to two of Britain's biggest nuclear power-stations.

DV thought it felt like a border-town, a wild, dangerous place whose inhabitants carry shotguns and hold up unsuspecting drivers. The village of Dungeness, such that it is, is composed of shacks, prefabs, huts and a few brick houses, strewn randomly across the spit, each one apparently as far away as possible from its neighbour. There are two pubs, a couple of shops battered by the salt air, two lighthouses (once there were five), a railway and - of course - those two gigantic reactors.

And she's right - it does feel like a border town. But a border between where and where? Between the East Sussex coast and the sea I suppose, but it's more otherwordly than that, like a non-place, somewhere extraterrestrial like an Yves Tanguy landscape. Both spatially and temporally, one feels like one is about to step off the end of the world.

But for all this, Dungeness has become a peculiarly desirable residence. Houses and shacks sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds; it is a haunt for the bohemians in nearby Hastings. Derek Jarman once owned a house here - a tidy little place made of jet-black timber with bright-yellow window-frames - and his serene garden is still open to the public.

Not much else in Dungeness feels public, or in any way hospitable. Tours around the power stations - only one of which now generates power - have been stopped for security reasons, and ecologists fear that the unique ecosystem which is a result of the by-products of nuclear power (rare birds thrive in the warm waters that are pumped into the sea from Dungeness B, and a third of all the species of plant native to Britain can be found on the headland) will be washed away by climate change, including the stations themselves.

The sound mirrors built at Greatstone, just along the coast, to detect First World War airplanes before the days of radar can also no longer be visited, except by arrangement. Designed to pick up and absorb sound waves from approaching aircraft, it was claimed that one could also hear trains leaving Paris if one stood close by. They have been saved - underpinned and repaired - by more than half a million pounds worth of investment from English Heritage and the local county and district Councils. But they are now stranded on an island, isolated by a man-made lagune, and are inaccessible to the trespasser. Nevertheless, they are beautiful and ghostly - relics of a science that has been consigned to history - and the match of anything to be found on my very favourite of Nesses.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse (2004)

"Imagine Bare Trees-era Fleetwood Mac jamming with Jealous Again-era Black Flag," announced Sonic Youth upon the release of their 19th album, and the comparison holds up pretty well. Although nominally the third in SY's NYC trilogy, Sonic Nurse is altogether more bucolic: loose, rumbling and (for them) unassumingly artless. It cuts back on the feedback and the elongated guitar work-outs, it references BB King and Johnny Winter (no beatniks here), and it's something of a relief to report to no song lasts more than seven-and-half minutes. The best track is the shortest, "Unmade Bed," a somnolent ballad by Thurston Moore which boasts three "All allong the watchtower"-type guitar solos. This straightforward, rockist path came at a price: SY's follow-ups have gone further down it, and are two of the least inspiring records they have released. But this is the best of their major label records, Dirty included.

Streets, Original Pirate Material (2002)

I'm with Woebot - Skinner works better when there's some distance between him and what he's saying. The blank delivery of "Turn the page" and "Has it come to this" is what this record's all about - "bravery in the face of defeat." He became overlooked when that defeat turned to success (the follow-up was largely horrible; I didn't bother with 3 and 4) - bravery in the face of success is rarely an edifying prospect, and never when the success becomes a Nuts pin-up boy. But that line about the Underground ("from Mile End to Ealing, from Brixton to Bounds Green") still sends a warm quiver down my spine. As with other journeys in my life, I made that one back-to-front - but when I did live in Bounds Green, that line made me feel like I belonged.

Timbaland featuring Keri Hilson & D.O.E., "The way I are" (2007)

Romance ain't dead! More bravery in the face of defeat here - "I don't got a huge ol' house, I rent a room in a house ... I ain't got a motorboat but I can float your boat" - but with the conclusion that love'll find a way, which sounds like a victory to me. Especially love the gender-stereotype challenge in the chorus.

Tricky, "Bacative," "Council estate" (2008)

Stand by what I wrote last year: "the jaded voice of Rodigan blankly recalling a night of violence in the casino, the inaudible croak of Tricky choking and echoing into nothing, an untouchable girl’s voice chanting 'There’s no exit, I can’t stand still, keep on running'" + "an ecstatic portrayal of the vicious circle of life of a kid born into an estate". The rest of the album - not so sure. But these two are keepers.

Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering (2005)

Instantly takes me back to the wyrdness of a rural childhood, circa 1987 - the knowing boy, losing himself in gardens where lime trees have fallen and tiles have slid from the roofs. Even the plucked nylon-string guitars recall a post-hippie primary school. A sublime British folk album, as good as any I can think of.

Vybz Kartel, "Sweet to the belly" (2003)

I read about Vybz Kartel / Adidja Palmer in a review; he has made one song which I enjoyed at the time and remain utterly seduced by; and I shall probably never hear anything by again. I'm glad dancehall exists of course, and reggaeton too, but they are genres which are destined to sink beneath the glut of other genres I'm slightly more interested in. But still, "Sweet to de belly" is pretty special. Palmer shares his shtick with R Kelly, so teeming with testesterone and bravado that it's very difficult to get offended by it (except when the egotism of sleeping with as many men's women as possible steps over into rampant homophobia, as I understand happens elsewhere). But it's the music that accompanies this comic bullshit that really grabs the attention: ambient, miasmic, sinewy like Aaliyah's "We need a resolution," with a formlessness that is only bent into any sort of structure by Palmer's forthright, perfectly timed delivery.

Warrior Queen + Heatwave, "Things change" (2008)

It's apt that this ended up on An England Story, Soul Jazz's round-up of how Jamaican people and styles have shaped British music, for this fantastically lively and clever track is nothing less than the 21st century resurrection of "Cockney Translation," a track which confirms that multiracialism is at heart of Britain's musical (not to mention lyrical) vitality. The piano riff which Warrior Queen (aka Wendy Culture - a relative of Smiley?) toasts over sounds made for this track, but in fact it has been expertly scalpeled from a prog-soul track, Courtial's "Losing You," lost from the 70s (and has that heavy synth riff at the end been pinched from 2 Unlimited?). Torn between the poverty of her old new and the struggle of her new home ("London no bed a' rose"), Warrior Queen tells a story which sounds as English as anything ever could.

Wiley, Treddin' on thin ice (2004)

The rest of the world became thoroughly and uncomfortably globalised in the Noughties - tabloids and politicians celebrated the debt-financed growth generated by the exploitation of cheap labour overseas, and slammed anybody who dared to move to the UK for a better life. But amidst this breaking down of borders, grime took the opposite path. Localised to the point of being postcode-based, its sounds and concerns reflected microcosms of life on a particular street or estate: a minigenre created in E3 would be at odds with another in E1. Wiley was the Don of the movement, creating "eskibeat" as a minimalist soundtrack to life in the abandoned East End. Although released a year after "Boy in da Corner," this contains all the elements that made grime (albeit intermittently) the scene of the decade, at least in London: the avant-gardely stark beats, the barely melodic shards and stabs of keyboards that made up grime's riff, the extreme pop nous ("Special Girl," liable to be overlooked among other, "realer" tracks, turns SWV's "That's what I need" into a thing of spectral clarity) and the philosophy of standing tall, refusing to be beaten down. As a lyricist and MC, Wiley is Dizzee's inferior, but musically he is the pioneer, and one of the most important artists of the Noughties.

The XX, The XX (2009)

Neither passive, aggressive nor passive-aggressive, this debut from colleagues of Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet is the indie album of the decade because it disavows the overwrought conformism of that lumpen mass-movement. The last verse of "Crystallised," where Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim plead with each other in such subtly different voices that you fear the impasse in their relationship can never be broken, is a revelation. The bounce and click of "Islands" is near-perfect. Both shy and combative, their concerns with the dialectic of the interior and exterior, the mind and the body, are drenched in an amniotic sound of stop-start rhythm tracks and geometrically precise guitar equations which help their hesitant, claustrophobic stories to breathe.

Yo Majesty, "Club action" (2008)

Standard Christian-lesbian-Alanis-Morrisette-loving crunk fare - until about 1 minute in, that is, when the intermittent springy slapbass and cheap bouncy keyboards turn it into the lovechild of Liquid Liquid and ESG. People call it punk, but if so, it's punk like ATV - a flash in the pan, amateurish, apolitical, refusing to get with the programme. Their debut LP is flimsy, their live show in London this year a non-event. But watch the video for "Club action," and all is forgiven.

Zomby, Where were U in '92? (2008)

Zomby evokes rave by highlighting its signifiers (klaxons, hi-NRG diva vocals, samples of Cappella and Bizarre Inc), but this is no mere crash-course in a defunct genre. He approaches rave through the eyes of its offspring in the present, which shares much of the anonymised collectivity of the early 80s. The throbbing, insistent "Need ur lovin'" is texturally influenced by dubstep and two-step, and "Pillz" is a glitchy tribute to the Ying Yang Twins. But the highlight, where the past folds in on the present, is the album's closing track, where voices and effects from Super Street Fighter II Turbo are overlaid onto a sleepily-recalled sample of Baby D's "Let me be your fantasy" (itself a crucial turning point in the hardcore continuum, with the commercial imperative of massive, blissed out pianos and a hands-in-the-air chorus jar with an ultra-deep middle section). All that's missing is Zombie's true masterpiece, the Rustie remix of "Spliff Dub", which you can find on Youtube.

Monday, January 04, 2010


Micachu, Jewellery (2009)

I don't hear a washboard, or a tea-chest bass, but I do hear a vacuum cleaner and plenty of bottles, which tells me that the long-awaited British skiffle revival has finally arrived! The Shapes play like a jugband doing a rock 'n' roll set on Rinse FM (the riff on "Calculator" is even pinched from "Tequila"). Those who say this is chaotic or unlistenable must live sheltered lives - there are riffs and melodies here which a particular adventurous postman might whistle, and though Jewellery's fourteen songs (some of which last less than two minutes, and most of which contains multiple songs-within-songs) always make you hang on for your life, they never seem in any danger of falling apart.

Mr Lif, I Phantom (2002)

It's so rare to find a hip-hop album that unpeels the spectacular layers of everyday life, and dispenses with the idea that the pugilistic accumulation of wealth is the only heroic mission left to man, that one is almost tempted to describe this album as a revolutionary critique. It's a concept album for sure, with liner notes telling you what each song means, and a storyline that starts with a heist and ends with a holocaust. But in fact, it's just a regular guy who's lost his place in a world of advertising images, the money system and alienated labour ("Ads are dads, sitcoms are moms, Dollars are our legs and arms, and our heart is a bomb. Detonate if you hesitate to slave or matriculate, You'd better participate, survivals your interest rate.") Or put that another way: the guy knows his place - it's at the bottom, right where he belongs, right where his parents belonged, right where his kids will belong ("Daddy had a name tag that said, 'Busy Working', Mommy had a milk carton that said, 'Missing Person'"). Is hip-hop his route of escape, or just another business where he must meet the prerequisite?

Neil Young, Fork in the Road (2009)

Arriving only weeks after the Federal Reserve saved the banks ("there's a bail-out coming but it's not for you"), this hastily banged out journey into a battery-powered future is rusty, clunky and glorious - his best since Ragged Glory, if not earlier. And if you've ever wondered what Lou Reed would sound like with Crazy Horse as his back-up band, listen to the title track and weep.

Rachel Stevens, "I will be there" (2005)

I haven't heard Come and Get It (which, remarkably, made the Guardian's 1000-albums-to-hear-before-you-die list a couple of years back), but by all accounts this shivery, shadowy, blankly-sung track (one of my very favourite pop songs of the decade) is typical. No matter - it bombed at number 28, and Stevens the pop star was never heard of again.

Ricardo Villalobos, "Dexter" (2003)

An undisputed genius of the decade, and virtually a one-man genre. See also his Fabric mix, and "Minimoonstar" with Shackleton.

Rihanna featuring Jay-Z, "Umbrella" (2007)

Her real breakthrough single, "Umbrella" is the flipside to 2006's "Unfaithful" - where the earlier ballad was an anxious but confidently expressed admission of her inability to commit to the man she was with (and her culpability in hurting him), "Umbrella" is an impassioned expression of mutual care and support set to an almost nu-metal background of pounding drums and grinding keyboards. The way she sings "Because" after the middle-eight is electrifying, an unbreakable declaration of fidelity that signalled the greatest single of the year, if not the decade.

Robert Wyatt, Cuckooland (2003)

We have all tried to subvert the pipe-and-slippers complacency of the pub ambience by Wyatting (the act of playing a song of sedition, hidden deep within the untapped bowels of the jukebox, such as Robert Wyatt's cover of the Red Flag) - so what would you pick here? Would those cheeky saxophones that riff at the end of "Old Europe," a vignette about Miles Davis and Juliette Greco in black and white Paris, get the punters moving? Might lovers' eyes well up at the sound of Jobim and Moraes's "Insensatez"? What about "Lullaby for Hamza" and "La Ahada Yalam," two horrifically muted cradlesongs to the dead in Iraq? Would they resurrect the "heroes of today ... making the headlines for a few seconds, only to vanish without a trace in the current of another day's events"? But no, I think I'd plump for "Life is Sheep," an ambient ballad featuring Karen Mantler (daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler), and a companion piece to his 1982 piece "Pigs... (in there)": "If you live on a farm, instead of names, the animals all have numbers so you won't get too attached." Yes, that'll get the gastros sobbing over their lamb shanks...

Rufus Wainwright, "Poses;" "I don't know what it is" (2001; 2003)

Included only because (a) "IDKWII" is my favourite song to holler in the kitchen, and (b) after much practice in the early part of the decade, I learned that singing along to "Poses" requires more control of one's breathing than any other song I know of - and I mastered it. He's an pop-opera man-machine for sure, but there's nobody quite like him, and he's kinda loveable.

Sally Shapiro, "Moonlight dance" (2009)

This track, from My Guilty Pleasure, is nothing like as engaging as the best bits of Disco Romance, but it does take Shapiro and Johan Agebjorn's meticulous MO to its logical extreme. The composition is trite ("We go out tonight in the moonlight so bright" indeed!), the cocktail-style arrangement fastidious, and the singing almost squeamish (ev-er-y syll-a-ble is e-nun-ci-a-ted like a Lesson 1 Anglophone tape). But it reminds me of Scritti's Provision - it's cold and frothy, but something about its maladjusted execution makes you feel all the more human. Speaking of which...

Scritti Politti, White Bread Black Beer (2006)

Casual listeners to the autumnal guitars, 4/4 beats and seemingly confessional lyrics that adorn White Bread, Black Beer misconstrued it as representing an acquiescence to rockist authenticity. Old ears harked back to the honeyed harmonies of the Beatles and the Zombies, heard a new maturity from this most entryist of subversives, and welcomed Green into Club MOJO.

But (of course) WBBB perpetually questions the very notion of authenticity. Indeed, Green's lyrics are riven with questions and doubts of all kinds - the medium, with its painstaking arrangements (as Owen Hatherley said at the time, even the "hold my fucking hand" off "Cooking" is a premeditated attack) and Green's extraordinary, foregrounded voice, is utterly at odds with the indecision of its message. Please let the possible be still, he sings. There'll be something good about me soon. I can't find a stand to take. If you don't have the wherewithal, you don't need the why. I was waiting for the time it takes for someone to forget, I was standing on the corner of the road to no regret... By his own admission, "The Boom Boom Bap," the Run DMC-enthralled opener, is a song about the thin line "between being in love with something and being unhealthily addicted to it".

A wish for time to stop for a moment, to step into reverse, to allow him to rectify mistakes made in the past, is etched all over this record. Even the single reference to continental philosophy - Hegel's celebration of the Owl of Minerva - is instructive, for the owl perceives a situation most sharply precisely at the point that it has faded away. To say that this is Green's most personal, while probably true, is simplistic - but he does seem to have reached a more comfortable synthesis between the radicalism and deconstruction of the past and life as he lives it today.

Whatever - it came out four years ago, and it's still growing on me. I doubt there's a record I've played more all decade.

Friday, January 01, 2010


Jay-Z, The Blueprint (2001)

Safe to say this is the most power-poppin', hooky, and conspicuously BIG-sounding record this side of The College Dropout or Funeral. It's faultless, which is not quite to say it's perfect (The Doors can't get me interested in his spat with Nas, and his schtick is indulgent by definition). But Kanye West, Timbaland, David Ruffin, Bobby Blue Bland and the Jacksons are all his equals and together they don't let up over 64 minutes.

Joker, "Digidesign" (2009)

Those who think dubstep hovers too much in the gloaming, sepia-tinged half-light may reconsider upon hearing this for the first time. Joker's multi-coloured music is dazzling - it unguardedly promises something brighter, and this utopianism comes from the fact that it doesn't sound like anything that's gone before. The promised land that Joker shows us may seem out of reach, like the seemingly impossible higher levels of a computer game we've only just begun playing (fellow Bristolian DJ Pinch describes Joker's sound as "somewhere between Roll Deep's productions, Low Deep, the Neptunes, and Super Mario Cart"), but the surreal, serene things we see and hear there make the journey all the more seductive.

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now (2000)

Strange concept: waspish, self-important former genius stops re-writing Yeats and hectoring about loose morals for a minute and decides instead to go back to her singer-songwriter roots and do a Blood on the Tracks, a song-cycle about a doomed relationship. Only, 30 years on she can hardly sing anymore and would prefer not to write any more songs. So she recycles two of her own, dusts down ten golden oldies, and revs them all up with orchestras and big bands. And waddya know, you can't tell Joni's from Billie's or Etta's or Ella's - "When love congeals, it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals" ; "You're in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet, oh I could drink a case of you." See what I mean?

Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

Sounds oddly prophetic now, Kanye as overachieving underachiever, neurotic, backing himself up all the way, getting drunk and goofing around and telling us that Dubya don't care about black people, and that Taylor Swift shouldn't've won Best Video LIKE IT'S HIS PLACE TO TELL US THESE THINGS (least, that's the inference I'm picking up here...). Highlights: "Jesus walks," "Through the wire," "Slow jamz," and the 12-minute closer "Last call," which tells the story of Kanye's rise to the top via this neat metaphor: "My money was thinner than Sean Paul's goatee hair / Now Jean Paul Gaultier cologne fill the air".

Kate Bush, Aerial (2005)

Split into two distinct discs (“Sea of Honey” and “Sky of Honey”), Aerial is a deeply Romantic elegy to the claustrophobia of the British interior and the expansive panorama of the British landscape. The songs on the first disc have no immediate theme linking them – one is about Elvis and Orson Welles, another about a gentle man who finds solace in the irrationality of pi, a third a woman’s distressed recollection of a disturbance in her home.

But even if “Sea of Honey” does not operate as a cycle, we are certainly confined to an anxious, phobic world of the home, the place which tricks and traps us into seeing the outside world as a dangerous, delimited place. It is, in the words of the prologue to an MR James ghost story, “a story of solitude and terror ... and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.”

“Sky of Honey” immediately opens the door to reveal the iridescence of outside. It begins with washes of synthesized strings, the cooing of winter nesting birds, the chatter of birdsong, and the voice of Bush’s son Bertie, who incarnates the sweeping, creative, illuminating power of the Sun.

As he rises, breathes life into the earth, causes blues and reds and yellows to course into one other, and sets into the sea, you realise that this is the sound of a mother who has found a divine communion with her son. She is bewitched and romanced by him, in awe of the hectic, shimmering thing she has created, and at the inadvertence of it all (“That bit there, it was an accident, But he's so pleased, It's the best mistake he could make, And it's my favourite piece, It's just great”).

This is British progressive rock music, reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Harvest Records (it even features Gary Brooker and Lol Creme), with its roots in the pre-Enlightenment folk tradition of untamed nature and birdsong. But as Mark Fisher wrote in his review of Aerial in 2005, it is also Deleuzian rock – it bears out Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion in A Thousand Plateaus that birds create song by taking the rhythms and sounds of everyday activity (eating, sleeping, mating) and lacing them together into something purely aesthetic. In From the Canyons to the Stars, Olivier Messaien made music out of the flight of birds, the formations of canyons and the pulses of the heavens. Kate Bush does something similar, taking the rays of the afternoon sun, the somewhere-in-between of twilight and the infinity of the sea at night out of the cosmos and into the studio.

Aerial’s timelessness (a horribly overused word, but appropriate here) comes from its disavowal of any effort to order the cosmos. Soft piano chords bubble into washes of radiant, shimmering keyboards, over drum-rolls which spill and crash like waves on a beach. “Sky of Honey” is the most sublime music produced this decade; as a critic once wrote of Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending,” “it dreams itself along”.

Kleerup + Robyn, "With every heartbeat" (2007)

In 2007, three brilliant, sumptuously romantic pop songs in a row got to number 1 in the singles charts. This was the last of the three, a comeback for a musician who had last troubled the UK top 10 in 1997. Avoiding the sub-zero ironies of some Scandinavian electropop and dispensing with anything as hackneyed as a chorus, "With every heartbeat" generates tension via its slow build-up from wafting synths and cooed vocals to a middle-8 of full-blown strings and staccatoid vocals. The video is a triumph too: a tribute to Oskar Fischinger's Komposition in Blau, it pans out halfway through to reveal Robyn as a plaything of an obsessive puppeteer who crushes her under a building made of coloured bricks.

kode9 + Spaceape, "Backward" (2006)

A righteous skank through the Romance melody from Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" - or is that just me?? Over an open cymbal and a marching bassline, the prophet Spaceape peels back layers of deceit and wickedness to reveal an incorruptible message: "The truth lies somewhere between a lie and a fiction."

Lady Sovereign, "Ch-ching (Cheque 1 2)" (2004)

I feared this would be as good as she'd get - it's got one-hit wonder stamped all over it. An instrumental as stark and Arctic as anything dreamt up by Wiley, but what's she singing over the top? "My dad had slept on an old mattress, good job I don't smell like cat's piss, cuz I don't have a cat, it died, understandably I just cried." I mean, how do you top that? The answer, in her case, was Jigsaw, an inconclusive sophomore whose tales of class warfare in the student union bar and foreplay with quarter-pounders with cheese bewilder the listener as to where she'll go next.

Lil Mama, "Lip gloss" (2007)

A bass drum that sounds like the side of an articulated lorry being beaten; some handclaps; a double-tracked playground rap ... and that's it - barely a song at all. "Lip gloss" makes Cabaret Voltaire sounds maximalist and Kelis sound just tame; it recalls the days of Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte, except that where the latter was hardcore-yet-tender, "Lip gloss" is pop-but-alienated. Lil Mama has no use for any ruffnecks - how could they possibly compare to the cherry and vanilla of Mac and L'Oreal? Or maybe - and this is just a hunch - the song isn't about lip gloss at all...

M.I.A., Kala (2008) is rarely terribly enlightening but, hitting a brick wall in trying to describe this exhausting record, I looked up MIA, and there on AMG I found the perfect comparison: MIA is the 21st century Lizzy Mercier Descloux! And then I listened again to Kala and realised how superficial the comparison is. Whereas Descloux was part of the Fourth World movement, Kala is defiantly One World, where the usually ignored take centre stage - it's like the soundtrack to Mike Davis's Planet of Slums. Sampling punk, Tamil, Bollywood, New Wave, hip-hop, and incorporating dancehall, Aboriginal rap, grime and Afrobeat, it risks fetishising the world - and maybe it is all a bit much (there is so much to listen here - so many stories, themes, beats, scrapes, rattles, guns, cash registers). But it's impossible to be cynical about this record - it sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert, in the wardrobes of steamy hotel rooms, in the streets of Port of Spain - and some of it was. Whatever your misgivings, it's compulsive listening, and whatever you think you know about music will get turned upside down.