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October 1996 – album reviews – Moonshake’s ‘Dirty and Divine’ (“like ghost trains – whistling and rattling across the room”)

10 Oct
Moonshake: 'Dirty And Divine'

Moonshake: ‘Dirty And Divine’

Even as a small chunk of mid-’90s London rediscovered how to swing and posed for Time Magazine, life carried on as usual for most of the rest of us. The weeks of quiet desperation, the litter in the corners, the urges and the grinds that don’t match up. While the Britpop scene whooped it up in the happening neighbourhoods, Moonshake were sitting up late with whitened knuckles in rented high-rise rooms, or prowling the mean streets spitting out stories.

Moonshake’s intensely visual songwriting and soundcraft always seemed born of hard-boiled cinematic overload. On 1994’s stunning ‘The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow’, lead ‘Shake Dave Callahan rubbed the unsparing urban soul-mining of The The up against The Young Gods’ overpowering walls of sampled sound, and beat both of them for sheer grit and presence. Determinedly guitar-free, taking their cornered-rat savagery from Callahan’s paint-stripping sneer and Raymond Dickaty’s ferocious arsenal of treated saxes and flutes, Moonshake’s harrowing street-literature songs were heavily sample-textured: but they travelled light and fast, drawing on tooth-rattling, uptight, Can-inflected dub grooves. They were twenty-first-century urban blues, as tough and unyielding as steel wire. Most importantly, sound was everywhere: cramming into the ears, surrounding the head with a blurred, terrifying out-of-scale world.

For some, the methodology of post-rock has served as an excuse to get lost, to unshackle yourself from precision, swallow your own guitar, womb yourself up in universal sonic tissue and drop out of language altogether. For Moonshake, it goes the other way. Callahan’s bitter, precise, dramatic language – shading his harsh sorties into hard-times lives with a poetic flair reminiscent of a punk Dickens, or of Brecht and Weill – is central. It’s just that rock instrumentation is too imprecise, too blunt to do it justice. Post-rock possibilities, and the overwhelming landscapes regurgitated by samplers is the only sensible framework for the way this band captures the world. Moonshake songs are like ghost trains – whistling and rattling across the room on forbidding, chilling loops of warped and mangled sampled sound, whirling you through a clatter of noise; dropping you into the thick of things; fucking with your sense of placement and angles, and thrusting gritty reality into your face.


 
‘Dirty And Divine’ is – at first hearing, anyway – more modest in its scope than ‘The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow’, That album lunged out of the speakers and went for your throat, both the epic stinking script and score for a vast, hideous film about the downside of the London experience. In comparison, ‘Dirty And Divine’ is more Mike Leigh to its predecessor’s Terry Gilliam. The ram-raided orchestra samples are pared back in favour of metallic whooshes and industrial-sump bubbling; Dickaty’s been given a free rein to mutate himself into an ensemble of mangled brass and breath. Centrally, Callahan’s songwriting emphasis has narrowed down. The clank and snap of Cranes sets the agenda, capturing the ebb and flow of a locked-down, clock-watching workforce in widescreen: “the builders are earning their daily bread / and they make sure they eat it every day at one o’clock… / The housewife’s dreams evaporate / as her husband’s nightshift ends at eight.”

Yet ‘Dirty And Divine’ also provides the backdrop for rebellions against the timeclock and the grind. Most of the album homes in on the stories of individuals. Where previous songs were a pageant of strain, entrapment and stagnation (a whore and her regulars, a protracted divorce) this record deals with what happens when frustration breaks out and escalates into quests for further, greater stimulation. The chance-addict of Gambler’s Blues gropes for a chance to be empowered, to face a challenge he can respect (“sometimes I pluck order out of the form – / I slack for a moment, the moment is gone”) but pays the price anyway: “I’m a gambler, and sometimes I lose, / but the kick’s in the playing, not paying the dues. / Always an offer I cannot refuse, / always a time-bomb I cannot defuse.”


 
In Exotic Siren Song, a young man hits the wide world for a perilous life of opium-dens, brothels and high stakes, keeping company with gun-runners and fraudsters, dodging pirates and police. Initially rejoicing at the chance to live by his wits, he ends up jaded, complaining “nothing now is really new.” The adrenalin-hooked petty crook on Up For Anything lives by his instincts and his appetites – “I’ll balance on the balcony, twenty-one floors high, / swinging from the vapour trails, ropes in the sky… / I can’t count the conquests and I can’t tell the time.” The buzz is still strong enough for him to dismiss the damage that will come, when “in ten year’s time I’ll be the boy with the mashed potato body. / All this champagne living on beer money, / out among the bumper-car people who never say sorry.” His counterpart, the elusive criminal in House On Fire (think Nine Inch Nails meets ‘Badlands’) has perfected the art of living on the edge. His wife may break under police questioning, his invisibility may evaporate and the law pounce on him, but he’s already working on plans for manipulating his fellow jailbirds.



 
He’s the exception – in most songs the downslide is never far away. Throughout the album, speed and appetite are portrayed as a drive that becomes a monkey on the back. Yet while it lasts it’s a hell of a ride. Another of Callahan’s savage stress-head characters snarls: “You’re too open, and you’re too easy. / When I’m out, I do as I damn well pleasey… / The only light I need sweeps through the window… / Keeping a monster comes in handy. / Hard candy…” To stop and think in this rolling, callous world is to invite despair.


 
To do him credit, Callahan unflinchingly represents this as well, offering up a couple of his most intimate songs. The make-or-break musings of Nothing But Time ponder the next step (“now I come to a fork in the road”) and weigh up possibilities: “Shall I cause some destruction that none shall understand, / undyke my finger and flood the whole land?… / I let you go and then you come back. / Shall I pick at your nature until you react?” Ultimately, plans are left perpetually hanging in weary, lonely resignation (“I’ve got my own design for something quite grand… / You can appreciate even if you don’t understand,”) all wrapped in rolling Arabian horns and the gonging sound of empty vessels.


 
Too late. The Taboo (swathed in flugelhorn and rippling harpstrings) surfaces at the end of the album: the last moment of awful drunken clarity before the final fall. It’s a lament for the loss of honesty – for the lost ability to be vulnerable and unveil the tender truth of yourself. Cards should be on the table, but no-one will make the move. “If I were to be really careful, / and take pride in everything I do, / I would show you what ‘really’ is – / and I can’t, ‘cos it’s taboo.” The seasick backing music swirls: vision flattens. The loved one recedes across the table, behind a wall of well- worn gambling chips and smeared shot-glasses. “If I were to show you how I feel, / would you call me blue? / If we could reach out and touch each other? / But we can’t, ‘cos it’s taboo.” Almost touching, but out of sight. House wins.


 
This album is a brutally compassionate mausoleum to burnout, made from raw words and cracked sinews. Lay those dusty dreams to rest.

Moonshake: ‘Dirty And Divine’
C/Z Records/World Domination Records, WDOM028CD (5032059002822)
CD-only album
Released: 4th October 1996

Buy it from:
Various suppliers, or second-hand.

Moonshake online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM

October 1996 – live reviews – The Blue Nile + Sinéad Lohan @ The Palladium, London, 8th October

10 Oct

Wait in any given place for a long time and reckon up the odds. Which are you more likely to see passing by – Bigfoot, Lord Lucan, or a member of The Blue Nile? The chances are about equal each way.

In a business that thrives and surfeits on over-exposure, The Blue Nile only sidle into view when they absolutely have to. In fourteen years of tenuous existence, this reclusive biz-shy Glaswegian trio has offered up no more than three short albums of exquisite ambient Celtic soul; stripping away the armour of the heart with cheap drum machines, breathing synths and skeletal guitars, and the scalded, mournful grace of Paul Buchanan’s desperately romantic deep-tenor voice, leaving us flat on the floor and then departing so quietly we don’t hear the door shut.

While they’ve had stiff competition from Kate Bush and Scott Walker in the stakes for lying quietly in the long grass, sometimes The Blue Nile are out of view for so long that they seem no more than the shadows of our own heartbreaks. Three phantoms whom we can fill with the overflow of our ruined, hopeless good intentions and the agonising rush of a love with nothing and nowhere to ground itself on. Every now and then, though, they surface – as they have tonight – put out a record, and those shadows take on flesh.

But first we have Sinéad Lohan; a Cork lass with beaded hair, a salving murmur of a voice, and the composure of a marble Madonna figurine. From out of nowhere to the grandiosity of the Palladium, and still she’s not batting an eyelid as she delivers her soft thrumming folky songs to a warm reception. She even invites questions, and gets them. She has that atmosphere that some quietly private people have, the stillness that invites fascination.

From up here her eyes seem sleepy, focussed inwards, and her songs are the same, ripples of feeling reflected in still pools that make you feel like a privileged eavesdropper. All of this and the quietness makes her seem like an Irish Tanita Tikaram without the air of lazy resentment. After she’s left the stage, I realise I can’t actually remember what any of the songs were about, but the impressions of the emotions involved remain etched lightly on my imagination. She’s as subtle and strong a carver as smooth river water.

After seven years out of the public eye, most bands would return to the stage in a blaze of glory. The Blue Nile don’t even turn the lights out properly first as they slope onstage like reluctant supply teachers. I mistake them for roadies until I recognise Paul Buchanan’s pained, elegant features among the men fumbling to pick up the instruments, all but flinching at the applause and the eyes trained on them. But it’s something they’ll have to deal with.

For all of their heart-stricken loneliness, The Blue Nile carry a very special feeling of empathy and homecoming around with them. Literally, in some respects: tonight’s audience ripples with the voices of Glaswegian emigres. And when one Scots voice, brought to a pitch of excitement, calls out “Glasgow Celtic!” it’s followed as fast as a counterpunch by a Rangers fan’s disgusted “fuck off!” Rather than a slit face, this results in a ripple of laughter and recognition around the auditorium. There are wry, self-conscious chuckles from the band as they finally launch into the Van Morrison-gone-synth-pop chug’n’whoop of Body and Soul.

All of this civility (and this nod to a respectable musical touchstone) prompts the question. Have The Blue Nile, for all their cult status, ended up as another branch of hoary pop tradition for the impeccably adult? Certainly they shy away from sarky pop irony, and they’ve a sheepish but determined commitment to presenting their songs unvarnished by gimmicks. Don’t even try looking for Pet Shop Boys cleverness here.

And then there’s the impeccable cleanliness of their sound – the clipped white-gold ring of it, the slow stretch of the falling-evening keyboards, even the live drums compressed to stiff Linn thuds… Or, on the other hand, the occasional hints of country in the songs from the new ‘Peace At Last’ album and how Stay’s heartbroken synth pointillism develops from a Scottish electro-pop lament to a finale with suspicious hints of rockabilly or hoedown. And, of course, there’s the way Paul’s huge voice draws from Frank Sinatra’s warm cocooning sound, rather than any from any obvious rock source.

Sinatra, though, never sounded this touched; this blown through by overpowering feelings. Even behind the theatrics of his saddest songs there was a man preening in his power; the guy who was laughing now; the honorary Mob capo whose very tone was a muscle. Behind these songs are a man who winces; who knows the scuffed concrete in the buildings he walks past will outlive him. Who’s haunted by the moments where decisions rest before they fall into becoming facts, and who’s never short of melody but is often stripped of words. And who, on this occasion, is swigging Lemsip by the gallon to beat off a vicious cold. It brings the vulnerability of The Blue Nile’s songs into sharper focus.

But then they’ve never suggested that the business of being adult is supposed to be easy, or even make much sense. ‘Peace At Last’ made that as explicit as anything ever is in the Blue Nile universe – a middle-aged album (Paul Buchanan turned forty while recording it) which showed youthful, domestic and spiritual certainties past their flush and breaking down into a unflattering mirror of doubts and shaky illusions. A new testing ground after their landscapes of young men’s fears had slipped away back into the years. While The Blue Nile don’t go so far as to drag middle-aged trappings – such as chipped crucifixes or well-dusted-yet-unloved three-piece suites – onstage with them, they wouldn’t need them. The words to these songs swim to the surface in flashes; brief snatches and sketches of anguished images that settle into the heart’s eye as if their places had been waiting for them forever.

A couple of songs from 1989’s peerlessly lovelorn ‘Hats’ album illustrate this – Over The Hillside fumbles through the burden of day-to-day failure and the pull away from home; Headlights On The Parade sees Paul lose himself in night-haunted reverie, borne on by the serpentine romantic curve of the melody over the mechanistic drumming. Tonight’s rendition of Happiness, a song already riven by doubt (“Now that I’ve found peace at last, / tell me, Jesus, / will it last?”) has to replace the soaring black gospel chorus that boosts it on record with three uneasy white men murmuring into shared mikes. You wouldn’t have thought that it could reach the same hymnal level, but it does, albeit becoming more of a private prayer.

Another ‘Hats’ classic, The Downtown Lights, has the transcending, unresolved journey-feel of a crying fit; heart-stricken keyboard swells giving way to beautifully sad reflection and back again, rising to a frantic crescendo of loss. The atmospheric abstractions of A Walk Across The Rooftops don’t give away much in the way of clues, but they do give a night-time stroll a tint of darkest foreboding.

And Family Life just overwhelms – a mid-life crisis set to song. Echoes of Tom Waits, Randy Newman and crumbling Hollywood Christmases coming together in the heartbroken drunken pleas of a man whose marriage is unravelling, whose boyhood innocence is rising to ask bewildered questions. Paul, singing like a man suddenly and shockingly shrunken, plays the role to the hilt. But there’s no storytelling, no plot; just feelings and the alcohol dissolving reasoning down to more questions and a blurred, blundering comprehension. “Say, you know, / no honeymoons, / just separate chairs in separate rooms. / Jesus, please, / make us happy sometime – / no more shout, / no more fight…” As the last scraps of piano dissolve in the hush, the frenzied applause seems to spray tears of recognition and relief.

It’s still as un-showbiz as you can get. All of these emotions are being let off on a very tight leash. The magisterial Robert Bell doesn’t crack his stern kirkman’s expression all evening, whether he’s forcing compelling crabbed funk lines out of a bass, keening his rare backing vocals into Buchanan’s mike, or crouched cross-legged onstage beating out patterns from the tiny synth in his lap. Over on stage right, P.J. Moore plays with an abstracted serenity as the Blue Nile’s bare, effective colorations flood out from his keyboards. The supplemental three on drums, guitar and synths play with their heads slightly bowed – more quiet men. So it’s the hunched, embarrassed Buchanan that’s the reluctant centre of attention; muttering wry Glasgow “let’s-get-this-over-with” asides between the songs, but singing his heart out of his chest and punching it up at the sky every time the music rises.

I guess that even with embarrassment weighing at his coat-tails, he can’t help it. There’s often a desperate strand of hope-against-hope in The Blue Nile. The near-delirious Sentimental Man ascends out of a jumble of chippy funk facets to hit gospelly heights; the intently energised strum of Tomorrow Morning rushes towards the light as if Buchanan was trying to beat the pain off by hurtling towards hope. Tinseltown in the Rain – which belts along as if it was the peak of some uncompleted Glaswegian street-opera – bursts up to a plateau of emotion, aggressive certainty struggling with a sense of doom. (“do I love you? Yes, I love you! / Will we always be happy-go- lucky?… / But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go. / All this talking – / talking is only bravado”) before exploding in a carillon of stammering, tear-jerking guitar.

And on Saturday Night you can feel the blessed surge of relief at a simple romance – “an ordinary girl” hymned with a incredulous delight, an everyday date turned into a haven from the wracked, exhausting, damn-near-religious romantic angst of the Nile songbook – turning out right for once. As the last swooning joyous chimes mount the air, I hear a ecstatic voice screaming “Yes!”. It’s my own. I can’t help it either.

Later, Bell and Moore take up positions at the synths on each side of the stage, waiting to play Easter Parade. White-clad, calmly watching each other for the cue, they have the assured and tranquil air of surgeons waiting to lay on the hands and bring out the pain. Then the song comes – plangent clutchings of piano, gushes of night-breeze synth and Buchanan singing of being alone in a rapt crowd, carried along like a solitary bubble in their exhilaration. And the empathy is summoned up and floods through us like medicine.

They can still touch the pressure points of the soul like no-one else. In another few months they’ll be hiding from us again, but that touch is going to stay with us until they feel able to venture out into the world again, blinking with trepidation at the looming feelings waiting to catch them.

The Blue Nile online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

Sinéad Lohan online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

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