Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of The Soul (Emi)

There is a power in music. Something inexpressible and emotional. It has the ability to create whole new genres, though at its best perhaps even whole new worlds. Sparklehorse was a fragile melancholic window into Mark Linkous’ soul. There was beauty in his damaged eccentric phrasing and vulnerable wounded vocals, a weary world battered experimental countrified folk that could alternatively be tender or shrill, perhaps even violent. But with his suicide in March we realised that the dark edge was all too real. Held up for years in legal wrangling this is his last album.

It’s curious that someone who made such personal idiosyncratic music, would increasingly over successive albums thrive on collaboration and be willing to step aside vocally for the majority of these tunes. That said many of the vocalists are cyphers. Linkous’ phrasing lives in the majority of them. Except maybe Iggy Pop, who gets the one fuzzy aggressive act, or indie rocker James Mercer (The Shins), and Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) who provides lead vocals on the un Sparklehorse Little Girl. Despite a certain continuity of approach between the likes of Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips) and Jason Lytle (Grandaddy) who both appear and drop the jaw, the Linkous ghost is omnipresent, and more than welcome.

The earlier Sparklehorse albums have a personal bedroom feel, however more recently the Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley) influence has given Linkous a broadened widescreen almost symphonic grandeur. The beats really kick and the electronics are lasting. We’ve got Black Francis (Pixies), Vic Chesnuntt, who also wasn’t long for this world, Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals), even Suzanne Vega, but the real unexpected highlight is David Lynch’s vocals. His two songs are earnest sleazy lullabies, yet his nasal Jimmy Stewart drawl is simultaneously spooky, tragic, treated and genus. It’s all wrong. His photos which adorn the inner slick are of course the extremity of noir weirdness, but they highlight the desire of Linkous to extend his music beyond his world into a collective uncontrolled place of darkness and beauty. This is a raw and harrowing album, the hard won glimpses of beauty a fitting way for a great troubled talent to be remembered, mourned, but most of all celebrated.

A Band Called Life/ LCD – Sunshine and Grease

Sunshine and Grease is a gallery space and record store with a decidedly experimental bent. On this chilly thursday night we’re knee deep in the Melbourne underground, a place where weirdness and stupidity call home.

What’s so refreshing is that these two bands aren’t your earnest chin stroking experimental artists who treat their knob twiddling with the gravity of a UN tribunal on human rights. Instead both have a firm handle on the absurdity of their actions. And this makes it fun.

First up A Band Called Life, a duo, one masked, the other wearing a ‘pop it like it’s hot,’ t-shirt. They have a casio keyboard, cymbal, laptop, and cassette player and they use them scattered like medicated pre schoolers with syndromes. Over this mess they recite nonsensical poetry, often with different texts at the same time. “I’m really enjoying saying things into the microphone between songs,” offers the t-shirt as they trade in jokes with the audience. One exuberant lass telling the tale of her friend who dreamt she slept with her grandfather. “But it was only because he had just died.” The only time this band can make sense is when you’ve got the flu, you’re whole body aches, it’s 3am you’re desperate for sleep and your eyes hurt. They’re unbelievably terrible, but very very funny.

LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) are the best noise band in Melbourne. They’re ridiculous, with a table full of electronics, bowed electric guitar no input feeding back mixing board, a couple of synths, not to mention their mason cards and dice, this duo do absurdity with flair. Dressed in matching aprons and chipmunk punk LP covers on their heads they hand out propaganda pamphlets, and gesture importantly to each other over this bizarre creeping drone music that quietly ascends into difficult pitches and noisy madness. You get the sense that their interplay is nonsense and you hope it is, but you never know. It’s their 10th anniversary show. They haven’t played in 2 years. It’s a crime. Experimental music needs them.

Bob Baker Fish

Fragmented Films July 2010

Cinema has a perverse hard on for portraying grueling descents into madness, but they’ve never been as maliciously evil as White Lightin (Madman), a white trash horror show masquerading as a biopic, offering the words ‘based on a true story,’ which in cinematic speak means ‘we made this shit up.’ Jesco White is a tap dancing hillbilly psychopath with a penchant for huffing (chroming) lighter fluid. He dances to keep the devil at bay, but Jesco has psychosis running through his veins, and even a puffy white trash Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as his older love interest can’t save this tortured butterfly. Filmed with an abundance of style and blessed with an amazing gothic backwoods soundtrack, it’s equally revolting and hysterical, dark, bleak and wrong.

Our next ‘true’ story is German lunatic Werner Herzog’s 1981 Invincible (Aztec), an English language film set in 1930’s Berlin during the ascension of the Nazi party. Herzog populates his film with non actors like a concert pianist, a Finish bodybuilder who was once the world’s strongest man, yet also Tim Roth as a malevolent and spooky stage clairvoyant and Fragmented Films favourite Udo Kier who fails to suppress his own innate malevolence and spookiness. It’s the folkloric tale of a Polish Jew who become a sensation in a blond wig as a symbol of Aryan strength. In Herzog’s hands strongman Jouka Ahola’s Schwartzeneggeresque performance reads as a kind of earthy holiness, whilst Roth is at his smarmy best. Although this typically bizarre Herzogian tale of confidence tricksters and doomed prophets twists and turns in some truly unexpected ways, it is a little, dare I say it, self indulgent – even for Herzog, a man who eats self indulgence for breakfast.

Next up cross your fingers, close your eyes and hope to hell it’s not true. In The Loop (Madman) is an hysterically funny potty mouth trawl through the back-rooms of UK and US political power brokers on the eve of war in the middle east and reveals, well, a bunch of naive incompetent self important fools. Forget weapons of mass destruction, it’s all about ego, as seemingly innocuous comments from a bumbling British MP create a domino effect that leads the world to the brink. It’s achingly painful, the Office with the savage bite of Dr Strangelove.

Blatant lies and laughingly inaccurate facts populate these desperately earnest tales of teenagers in the evil clutches of drug addiction in Hooked (Rocket). Perhaps the genius of this collection and also the second volume, which contains the infamous Reefer Madness, is that these educational films haven’t been re-mastered, there are blotches, the film and soundtrack skips, often to laughingly ridiculous results. They should be illegal themselves. Instead they just make you want to take drugs.

Finally we catch Bjork’s squeeze in Matthew Barney: No Restraint (Arthouse Films) where we see this polarising artist creating giant moulds of petroleum jelly on the deck of a Japanese whaling boat. Of course no one understands what the hell he’s doing but that’s nothing new, his art is dense and precocious. A highlight is Bjork discussing the sub bass symphony she composed for the work.

Fragmented Frequencies July 2010

Hal Hartley’s 1992 Simple Men (Aztec) is blessed with one of the most lasting scenes in independent cinema. A highly agitated Martin Donovan (Weeds) pulls to the side of a rural stretch, rips off his cap, kicks it and screams “I can’t stand the quiet.” Cut to everyone dancing wonkily to Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a scene that connects with our need to fill the void with useless chatter, with music, sound, noise, anything to keep the most horrible thing in the world at bay. Ourself.

So it’s interesting when someone has the opposite experience. Standing on a subway platform in Manhattan George Michelson Foy was suddenly overcome by the intense noise of his city. It’s an experience that changed his life. Purchasing a decibel meter he went looking for some peace and quiet. He chronicles his obsessive quest from Paris to Cananda to Minnesota in Zero Decibels: The Quest For Absolute Silence (Simon and Schuster). It’s a detective story of sorts as he valiantly attempts to not only locate objective silence but determine if it even exists. What’s interesting is how much of our daily lives we shut out. “The human mind is a masterful piece of equipment and is able to block out so much information as a means of making sense of the environment,” Australian sound artist Lawrence English once offered in an interview with Fragmented Frequencies, before listing the hum of the fridge, the tick of the clock, the whir of the air conditioner. Once armed with his meter and newfound obsession Foy’s ears likewise were suddenly tuned into his surroundings. Even the slightest vibrations. The early part of his journey consists of attempting to locate an elusive omnipresent sub frequency rumble that he eventually terms, the monsters breath, the sound of New York. He quickly moves beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characterisations and becomes fascinated by the diversity and subtlty of sound. Analysing everything, he discovers that most sounds possess at least two layers of tone, elasticity, and depth. He is becoming a sound conniesuer. He also calculates that New Yorkers on average are subjected to 50db every waking minute. A dangerous volume that according to some studies can lead to increased heart troubles. Foy goes in search of the anechoic chamber at Harvard that supposedly inspired John Cage’s 4’33, and delves into notions of silence in composition by artists as diverse as Walter Marchetti, Yoko Ono and Tom Johnson who used silence as a tool to draw upon the imagination of the listener as a compositional device.

He questions people deaf since birth now given hearing with the aid of technology, discovers how fish obtained their hearing, observes differing cultural meanings of silence and travels two miles down a mine shaft in Ontario. There’s a dalliance with weaponised sound, and an attempt to win a case of Guiness by staying for over 40 minutes in the quietest place on earth, an anechoic chamber in the Midwest rated at -9.4db. No one has succeeded before, like Donovan in Simple Men they can’t stand the quiet. Far from wanting to snub out sound, his research gives him a newfound appreciation of reducing the clatter and allowing the simplicity of the minute sounds to peek through. It also gives him an appreciation of the pockets of silence that he is able to snatch, though attempts to integrate his new theories and sensitivities into his daily family life is a struggle. Like all detective stories it’s a complex multi layered journey filled with dead ends and red herrings. When one avenue closes another opens up as he sifts through the noisy layers of debris that constitute modern life in the search of his own private sonic nirvana.

Whilst the Oscar winning documentary on the slaughter of Dolphins in a small Japanese fishing village is enough to get even the most ardent carnivore outraged, The Cove (Madman) features an amazing feat of guerilla field recording. It’s cloak and dagger stuff as the team plant hydrophones underwater and capture some of the most harrowing and repulsive sounds you will ever hear. Even if animal cruelty doesn’t give you the horn these sounds will blow your mind. It’s devastating.

Finally if film sound is your thing, Radio National’s Into the Music recently presented a journey through sound editing with Peckinpah, Kubrick and Roeg sound editor Rodney Holland. Holland discusses his surprising decisions in real time on Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Kubricks Barry Lyndon and Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. It’s fascinating and archived at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/intothemusic.

Konono No1 – Assume Crash Position (Crammed Discs/ Planet Company)

It’s rare, but sometimes music appears that is so different, so strange, so removed from your musical experience, yet so jaw dropping that it stops you dead in your tracks. Konono No 1’s debut album 2004’s Congotronics 1 was a raw hypnotic electronic trance music that was as rickety as it was beguiling. It seemed to reference everything from Krautrock to Calypso music to electro acoustic experimentation, all approached with a joyous and infectious abandon. Of course it referenced nothing of the sort because its participants had never heard these genres, rather Konono No1 who hail from Congo, close to the border with Angola were attempting to play traditional Bazombo trance music. Their unique sound stemmed from their desire to amplify their likembe’s (thumb piano), using homemade microphones plugged into shitty amplifiers. It distorted everything, offering a warm layer of fuzz to their sounds.

Since then they’ve toured the world, released a live album and guested on Bjork’s last album. Pretty good for a band that began 44 years ago. Assume Crash Position is their second studio album, and sees some changes. Not only is the percussion much more developed, pushed further out front, so too are the call and response vocals often from guest musicians and there’s even some guitar courtesy of their much more scattered compatriots Kasai Allstars. It’s seems the band are really trying to demonstrate some development from their debut, and they’ve succeeded. However this more familiar instrumentation whilst increasing the diversity of approaches has to some extent reduced the freak factor, a very attractive element of Konono No1’s appeal. Yet ultimately the sheer exuberance of their music dispels these concerns. It’s still a pumping buzzing vibrant album with plenty of their trademark off kilter jams, yet they’ll also dip down into quieter more intimate passages, and it’s with these developments that the new rewards come. It’ll still drop your jaw, just in different ways.

Bob Baker Fish