REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 2 – Nocturne Blue, Doldrums, We Are Kin, Swim Mountain, Ardamus

3 Feb

In the sensual slo-mo video for ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ a long-limbed, model-glossy woman rotates on a rope swing, or inside a net. Circus glamour, catwalk slink, passive heat – Nocturne Blue is clearly aiming for all of these things. The musical sideline of video artist Dutch Rail, it curves and strokes its own well-toned musical hips, a perfect solipsistic pearl. I don’t know whether to admire its sheen or to stay quiet and watch it stalk – slap-bang – straight into a doorframe.

Though it’s honed for club play, there’s a strong affinity for the more polished, aloof side of art-pop here – and despite Nocturne Blues’ Los Angeles origins, the project rapidly settles into a European home. All is textural – there’s a sultry, light-stepping beat; there’s bass rumble, silk-vapours and distant, tearing fuzz. Left to themselves, parts build and crystallise. A lone, calculated antique synth pyrographs a wheeling electronic line – a ‘70s nod to psychedelic German sequencing, or to Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’. There’s a little echo of centrozoon’s evasive, bumpy pop phase in here: appropriate, as Markus Reuter guests on stacked layers of touch guitar, building himself a stepped, dissolving tower of bluesy bass growls, ambient hums and looped Europop trills. There’s a pinch of Summer-and-Moroder disco trance, as well as a dash of Bowie’s Berlin.

‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ also bears a passing, slowed-down resemblance to ‘Only Baby’, no-man‘s criminally-ignored dance-floor symphony from 1993. Yet where no-man blazed with an urgent sexual heat beneath their violins-and-cream sophistication, Dutch prefers to sit alone crushing grapes against his palate and murmuring rapturously to us about the taste. Both songs sing about breath and imply transcendence; both involve a shadowy other around which to wrap emotion (in one of his purpler patches, Dutch asserts “the sweetest flowers bloom late at night / but you and I were born to break free into the light..”). Ultimately, however, the Nocturne Blue trail is a solo journey, with Dutch dreaming of an explosive transformation while describing slow, langorous circles around his own stalled obsession. “My eyes may never see the sun / Paper-thin, don’t know where I’ve been / Sleepwalking circles into what I might become,”, he murmurs.“My darkest deeds, my secret needs / A thousand fingers feeling every possibility. / I was crawling down, digging around, / diving deep to dreams within my dreams.” But he emotes so softly, with so much of an immaculate and poised façade, that he makes any dirt and frustration feel as smooth as patent leather.

* * * *

Doldrums are equally club-bound, but far more ostentatiously fucked-up. Their sound is twentieth-century pre-millennial angst of the kind that just won’t go away and get smoothed down – a Montreal hybrid of dirty warehouse techno, KAOSS pad tangents and the spattering, visual-art-inspired synth-pop of Grimes and co. ‘Hotfoot’ is a knocking bit of electronic rabble-rousing, filled with splurging ripped-speaker synth-bass, sundry distortions and barking vocals. A couple of tussling rhythm tracks battle it out in stop-time. The main riff sounds like a plastic bottle, tuned to baritone, being kicked around in an elevator. Rather than an elevating rush, the breakdown is a numbing blurt of hooting overload. In its dull, hopeless tyranny, it could be the klaxon announcing that another reactor has just hit meltdown.

Meanwhile, tousle-topped frontman/turntablist/sound-smearer Airick Woodhead drawls on about “keeping up an unnatural pace”, “sleeping in, in the age of unrest,” and “vampires who can’t compete.” Watch your back. While ‘Hotfoot’ does send you careening around the room in a wild spurt of dance energy, flailing your elbows and heels, it’s also manic and asocial. “If I can’t pull myself back up, I’m gonna go deeper down in the mud,” warns Airick, scribbling himself notes which he immediately shreds and tosses. “Hey problem, spin around. / Don’t stop smiling ’til you hit the ground.”

It’s not just his punky sneer which gives the song its edge. It’s the death-disco sentiments: a party gone sour, nihilistic, borderline cannibalistic as Airick spits “my best friends all see me drown / my best friends all – c’mon – talk about it.” Halfway through, he’ll implore “Lady, won’t you come and swallow me?”, as if he’s courting Death for a final blowjob. Certainly he seems resigned to the fatal gravity well he’s worked himself into. “Guess I can’t pull myself back up, / I couldn’t grow deeper down any further / Fit right in, make some friends…/ fall asleep in the deep end.” He’s going to go down dancing, or nodding, or with some kind of hopeless swagger.

* * * *

After that, it’s something of a relief to change gears with some elegant Manchester progressive rock, courtesy of We Are Kin. Though it’s easier to be prog now than it used to be, those bad old off-the-peg snarkings about adolescent hang-ups on fairies and hobbits still sometimes hang around like a bad smell. I’d argue that what prog (especially British prog) actually tends to get hung up on is Victoriana. Shuddering flamboyantly on the cusp of romanticism and modernism, it often lolls back into the former, taking comfort in or shape from the trappings of an industrious imperial world in which even the mass-produced now seems to have to hearkened back to hand-craftsmanship, and in which running your hand over an antique street railing in the here-and-now triggers a kind of time-travel.

We Are Kin seem to fit into the same latterday Britprog school as Big Big Train – nostalgic for a history drawn from dips into books and museums and bits of folk history while quietly assembling its meaning on their own; building flesh around paper skeletons and guide pamphlets and tales handed down from elderly relatives. This isn’t as immediately credible as rattling history’s cage with upfront arguments about the present, but although it’s a gentler approach it’s not automatically naïve. Emblems and preoccupations of Victorian times still wash back and forth through the Western psyche in slicks of gold leaf or grime – empires of one kind or another, ideas about the deserving or unworthy poor, innovations and the turnover of new elites.

Prog musicians, like novelists, sometime lie on the wash of this wave and see where it takes them. ‘Home Sweet Home’ seems to be an overture to just this kind of journey. We Are Kin’s superstructure might be 1970s antique (a stately, tuneful Genesis sway of velvet-curtain Mellotrons, small bridges of jazz chording, the bowed and angular interplay of shifting time signatures and guitar escapements) but their intent might not be. Over three brief, lilting verses, singer Hannah Cotterill and lyricist Dan Zambas are describe three settlements – plains village, sea town, valley city – each with its own character and rhythm, its own buildings and way of life. In another sense, they might be describing the same place, or at least the same culture, swelling as history passes. Its buildings grow larger, casting greedy looming shadows. The ease of sustainable trade metastasises into a grotesque over-stimulated scrabble.

All right, the language is, ever-so-slightly, fairytale Gothic – but fairytales and fables work because they pare down the vital into simple, memorable lines. Through the fountains and courtyards (and the stone houses, with their “dwellers”) you can still see us, you can still see now, rocked by the same currents and the same shocks. If twenty-first century austerity really is 1930s repression revisited, and we’re sleepwalking back into repeating old history, prog’s retrofitted antiquarian stylings might have a place in telling the old stories and delivering the new warnings. If this is a taste of a longer tale, I’d like to hear more of it.

* * * *

London/Angeleno good-time band Swim Mountain also retrofit, but in an easier, breezier way. They cover Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’ like someone flirting under a blanket, musical lines and instrumental parts wriggling under the surface like coy, excited limbs. As he showed on the debut Swim Mountain EP last autumn, head Swimmer Tom Skyrme is very good at disguising fairly limited resources under a swelling, lucid-dream production style. He claims to have put this one together on a whim, belatedly falling in love with the song’s bravura modulations and ‘80s-inspired peppiness.

Personally, the Beyoncé diva-juggernaut leaves me cold. Despite her well-honed skills and precision vocals, much of what I see is branded, sub-Madonna acquisition and media powder-puffing (if she is the twenty-first century Madonna, we’ve all gone beige) so it’s interesting to hear the song outside her wind-tunnel of glamour. Tom’s lightly buttered, lysergic popcorn-soul take makes no attempt to match the ceiling-bumping, helium balloon assertiveness of the original. The pace is agreeable ‘70s midtempo; the wah-guitar plays peekaboo; the boinking bass comes sheathed in a tight reverb. The phaser button adds a gentle, sexy yawn; Tom’s warm nasal drawl (just on the likeable side of bland) dawdles amiably on the swooping paths Beyoncé cut, making no attempt to match her commanding calisthenics. A cloudy puff of keyboards fills the gaps, like a lazy pink smoke-bomb.

Previous Swim Mountain stylings have mostly recalled the stoned, sleeting Byrds guitar of ‘Five Miles High’: this one sounds like what Arnold Layne might have become if Syd Barrett had drunk deep on Memphis soul before he rolled another one, or like a more nappy-headed tie-dyed version of the Clarke/Duke Project. It’s all a little throwaway (despite the unexpected ending, which scrambles down an unexpected dip and clunks like a plastic lyre) but it’s lovingly crafted throwaway; a sugar basket which takes less time to eat than it does to admire. Plus I do like the way that Tom’s mix rolls out individual delicate moments for our attention, as if his faders were the sliding drawers in a jeweller’s desk.

* * * *

Sex raps are integral to hip hop: another part of that expressing-yourself-over-a-beat ethos, and a good way to keep a live and restless audience onside. Unless you’ve got a broad sense of humour, they can be touchy areas – too louche, or (at their worst) channels for power-posturing, misogyny and spite. Happily, Ardamus might bitch a bit – and might even settle a few minor scores on the side – but he doesn’t really hold grudges. ‘At Least I Got Laid’ could have been so damn nasty – a wheedler’s boast. Instead, it’s a shrug and a counting-of-blessings from a late-30s Washington rapper, thumbing through his temporary dating and mating memories for a piece that’s not so much bump-and-grind as bump-and-fall-off-the-couch.

Most of the endearing low-budget video (earthily-mimed rom-com looking like it’s been shot on the flickering, selective colour stock of memory) actually takes place on a couch, but what we see isn’t really love action. It’s the bits in between. The getting-to-know you exercises, the different books and the telling eye-rolls. The separate laptop and TV watching; the bumbling between what two different people want. The sulks and the missed tell-tales; the irritating or opportunistic friends. Eventually and inevitably, it’s the get-outs, fall-outs or peter-outs. (Heh. No pun intended). Yes, it’s a bloke’s record and a man’s-eye view. There’s annoyance and relief (“the divorce and the wedding would have been shotgun”; “if you want headaches then, shit, you can have her”) and Ardamus does delivers a superb low blow in the battle of the sexes when he complains about how “a tampon now becomes puppet strings.”

Still, it seems that Ardamus’ concerns aren’t about who stays on top, but how things are played out (“you can’t play games like that / and not expect to get called on it”). Rather than being coldly profane, he’s endearingly filthy – there’s some marriage-proposal wordplay which is well worth a spin or two. (Hint: it’s all about going down. And exactly where you put the ring. Veil optional.) When he’s not going for double-takes and horse-laughs, he’s also pretty good at pinpointing the sorry farce of how things go wrong (“the small talk that you want to step over: / pushed away at the table – you a leftover,”) and the mutual clinging (“getting mouldy, make-believe it / you need each other, so now trade diseases.”) He knows how two can screw up. The summery light of Soulful’s production textures – bass Rhodes figures and wobbly wipes of soul voice samples, like a cuddlier Wu-Tang sprawling back on a picnic rug – draws out any venom. Whatever had been said and done – if you’d been Ardamus’ girlfriend, I think at least he’d shake your hand at the end of it.

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’
Nocturne Blue (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’
Sub Pop Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download/stream single (released 13th January 2015)

We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’
Bad Elephant Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’
Swim Mountain (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 7th January 2015)

Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’
Ardamus (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 13th January 2015)

Get them from:

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ – Bandcamp or iTunes.
Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’ – Bandcamp; stream-only audio at Soundcloud, stream-only video at YouTube; or order from Sub Pop as part of ‘The Air Conditioned Nightmare’ album.
We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download).
Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’ – stream-only at Soundcloud.
Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download), or buy as part of the ‘I Can’t Replace Me Part 1 Improve’ EP.

Nocturne Blue online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp YouTube

Doldrums online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM

We Are Kin online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

Swim Mountain online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

Ardamus online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

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