Posts Tagged ‘Spoken Word’

Moabit Music – 27th January 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

Despite having three previous albums to her credit, including one with Gudrun Gut, this is my first encounter with Canadian spoken word artist Myra Davies. I sometimes wonder, as an occasional spoken – or shouted – word performer myself why there aren’t more talkers putting out spoken word recordings. As a medium, spoken word is enjoying a surge in popularity, with both open mic and curated spoken word nights springing up all over, in addition to those longstanding ones which have survived, sometimes by virtue of being the only platform around for a form of entertainment which is, one could argue, the oldest of all.

There are a fair few big name authors who have extensive catalogues – Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Henry Rollins are among the first names which spring to mind – but apart from the odd clip on YouTube, it seems that very few writers who read aloud commit their voices to the recorded medium. Granted, some writers simply aren’t cut out to perform, and sadly, their readings to their material a disservice. But then, when done well, performance can bring a piece of writing to life and convey elements of the work not always immediately apparent to a reader. It’s all about the emphasis, the intonation. And there’s nothing to say spoken word recordings have to replicate the experience of those readings which take place in pubs and libraries: there is infinite scope to render the words very differently and to add myriad depths and dimensions – as Joe Hakim’s collaboration with Ashley Reaks and the recent album by The Eagertongue evidence – when done well, spoken word can be exciting and can reconfigure whatever perceptions one may have of the genre – which, of course, isn’t really a genre. Because spoken word can spill into so many other fields, and far beyond rap at that. Kate Tempest? C’mon, please! Her accessible, right-on doggerel may be well-meaning, but it’s little more than sixth-form poetry delivered in a hip-hop style without the beats.

On Sirens, Myra Davies brings the beats, thanks to her two musical collaborators, Beate Bartel and Gudrun Gut, who provide the backing to alternate tracks Despite this, Sirens demonstrates a remarkable cohesion, and doesn’t flip-flop between styles. Davies is a fantastic orator: she’s not only blessed with a cool, laconic tone, which benefits from her dry Canadian accent, but she’s also got a real sense of what works for narrating her own words. Sounds simple, but many writers lack this skill.

‘Armand Monroe’ sets the tone: sparse, angular, electropop with a funk groove, it’s cold yet fiery, as Davies spins out a succession of evocative imags. Jittery, tense robotix with propulsive, grinding synths abound, and wibbly loops and sumptuously spacey motoric beats dominate the album. ‘Golddress’ is a taut effort: listening through ‘phones, I find I have a racing pulse and my sense of anxiety increases as the track builds: it’s steely, detached tone is curiously out of kilter with real time and current space, it’s hard to let it simply pass.

Instead of sounding like a retro hash of futuristic music from the 80s – to which it does bear clear parallels – Sirens captures a sense of alienation, of otherness. It’s not simply in the weird doubling and echo-based effects on the vocals, or the treatments of the drums, or the twitchy, slowly warping effects of the synth backings – all of which contribute to Sirens being far more than a ‘spoken word’ album – but a combination of all of these factors, with the addition of something intangible. Perhaps it’s simply the restrained force and clinical focus of Davies’ delivery of words which are both gritty and discomforting. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Sirens is a superlative work of art. A hybrid of spoken word and electro-pop / coldwave / etc., it represents a perfect creative synthesis.

 

 

Myra Davies Music by Beate Bartel & Gudrun Gut – Sirens

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6th December 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

Some reviews are seemingly fated. This is one such review: I was slow to get started, and then, having spent several evenings working on a detailed critical analysis, exploring the album’s wild eclectism on a more or less track-by-track basis in a discourse of some eight hundred words, my laptop crashed and most of the work was lost, with the only available version being a collection of notes which were days old. How it happened, when my word processor is set to autosave every five minutes, I have no idea. Thanks Microsoft.

Still, this is an Ashley Reaks album, and a man who can produce three albums in a year – and continue to produce art, and to gig relentlessly, under difficult personal circumstances – deserves the same kind of unbowing attitude from a reviewer.

Because it’s an Ashley Reaks album, anything can happen. And it will. And it does. Following on from Reaks’ ‘punk album’ This is Planet Grot (and a remarkable credible and impressive punk album at that), Growth Spurts, on the one hand, could be considered a return to more familiar territories. But then, on the other, it could justifiably be tagged his ‘jazz album’. The familiar elements of reggae and post-punk inspired dub are present and correct, but this collaboration-based collection of tunes also brings in some wild jazz stylings. The collaborative element is also key here, not only to appreciating Growth Spurts, but to understanding Reaks as an artist, at least as much as it’s possible to grasp such an idiosyncratic and singular individual.

Like his collage artwork, his music is a mish-mash of elements drawn from here, there and everywhere, often bolted together at weird angles and demonstrating incompatible proportions and lines of perspective. He has very much his own slant on things, and his approach is also very much his own: Reaks is one of the few artists who consistently produces work which has the capacity to surprise, to confound, and, occasionally, confuse – which is a healthy response to something which is so staunchly unconventional. You get the impression that Reaks’ raison d’être is to produce art which surprises and confounds himself, as much as any notional audience. His mindset appears to be that if it’s not fresh, unexpected, and if it’s not sincere, then it’s worthless. Collaboration, when done right, yields an output which is greater than the sum of its parts, and draws out facets of each contributor which may not otherwise be known.

As such, Growth Spurts is a world away from his previous collaborative effort, Cultural Thrift (2015) with poet Joe Hakim, on which Reaks stepped toward the rear portion of the stage to provide a background accompaniment (which in itself was a departure given Reaks’ propensity for dizzying soundclashes). Five of the ten pieces – it would be wrong to refer to this as a collection of songs, given that they feature spoken word and poetry – feature writers and poets from a broad and diverse range of backgrounds. They’re disparate characters, as varied as Reaks’ own sources of input, hand-picked to contribute to the album.

The result is dizzying, a rollercoaster journey through a vast swathe of cultural terrain. Each of the collaborative pieces is distinct and different, and finds Reaks attentive to the style of the different speakers. And as the strange, strangles vocal cacophony which introduces the album’s first track, the oddly ominous prog-dub drum‘n’bass neoclassical jazz mixup that is ‘Divorced from the Body’ shows, he’s digging deep to locate new and unexpected hybrids. And yet, amidst the chaos, he still whips up some killer hooks – something so many experimental / genre-smashing artists completely overlook in their quest to innovate, to dazzle with their imagination and technical prowess.

‘The Gentle Art of Ignoring’ with Sylvie Hill is the most outright jazz track on the album, and her sassy vocal delivery and confident Canadian accent brings another sharp dimension to an album which displays almost infinite dimensions, but there’s just so much to take in. But if you need a pointer for where to start, start with the basslines. The crashing jazz-influenced drum ‘n’ bass drumming, the wild brass, the myriad perspectives of the different vocalists all slot into place over those low-down basslines that stroll and groove and leap and boogie. Get on down.

 

Ashley Reaks - Growth Spurts

Unsounds – 54U

Christopher Nosnibor

This is one of many releases I’ve been sitting on – figuratively speaking – for a long time without getting round to playing. I tend to listen to CDs while at work in my day-job, and digital promos at home (because I can’t stream or download on work systems), and while I can stuff a bunch of regular CDs into a jiffy and carry them to and from the office, the packaging of this release made it simply impractical. That, and the fact I had to battle long and hard with myself to resist the urge to burn the thing.

It’s not that I have any kind of objection to any of the artists in this three-way collaboration, or take issue with its premise, namely a series of portraits of radical heretical figures from across history, spanning Caravaggio and the Marquis de Sade, to William Burroughs and Johnny Rotten. In fact, it’s a concept I can get on board with, and for months I’ve looked at the magnificent packaging, a box-type affair which folds out to reveal a CD, a DVD and a book containing all of the words to the tracks – some in French, some in English, some in a combination of the two – forming a rich linguistic tapestry. Published in an edition of just 1,000 copies, including 26 lettered copies, it’s a work of art, not a disposable piece of trash. But the box is a giant flip-front matchbook. The front cover is made of fine sandpaper, and glued inside the flap, on its own, stark and inviting is a match, a full fore inches long. What would be more in keeping with the spirit of the project than burning it without hearing so much as a note, and reviewing the sound of the fire taking hold and the rustle of art burning, the colour of the dancing flames and the texture of the ash? It would hardly be Watch the KLF Burn a Million Quid, but nevertheless… I’m a pussy. I was also too curious to explore the contents of the package. And having heard the album and watched the film, there was no way I could even pretend to burn it. I’m weak. I’m no heretic.

Chaton, Moor and Moore are no heretics, either: they’re artists who appreciate heretics. It’s not always obvious to whom each piece relates, and perhaps a priori knowledge of the individual heretical figures is beneficial, as is an ability to translate French. ‘The Things that belong to William’ does not mention Burroughs by name. However, the bilingual text, in referencing ‘a Paregoric Kid’, ‘Pontopon Rose’, ‘Joselito’, ‘Bradley the Buyer’ and a host of characters and scenes from Naked Lunch and beyond, the connection is clear – to those versed in the author’s work. ‘Poetry Must Me Made By All’ is, then, presumably, a dedication to Comte de Lautreamont, pro-plagiaristic precursor of the Surrealists, Situationists and Neoists, as well as the cut-up technique of Burroughs and Gysin.

Textually – these are texts and not lyrics, delivered in a spoken word / narrative form – it’s an erudite work, researched, intertextual, referential. Sonically, it’s no more immediate. Oblique, obtuse, challenging: these are the first descriptors which volunteer their services in untangling Heretics.

‘Casino Rabelaisien’ is a tense effort, with angular guitar clanging perpendicular to a gritty, awkward bass grind. Chatton remains nonchalant and monotone amidst the chaotic no-wave cacophony. ‘Dull Jack’ begins with Thurston’s voice alone, before churning guitars slither in. There are no regular rhythmic signatures here, no ‘tunes’, no hooks or melodies: instead, this is a set which uses instruments in a more abstract way, conjuring uneasy atmosphere and often simply attacking the senses.

With the guitars of Moor and Moore duelling, playing across one another as much as with one another, the effect is jarring, uncomfortable. Both players employ atonality and discord within their performances, and when discordant passages collide, it’s a brain-bending experience.

Heretics is a work which delivers on its promise and conveys the spirit of the outré, unconventional artists who inspired it. It is, in addition, a true work of art. Don’t burn it.

Heretics

6th October 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

How exactly does one locate the work of The Eagertongue? The vehicle of Glaswegian artist Graham Macmillan-Mason, who describes his mode of work style as ‘spoken punk’, there’s nothing remotely Kate Tempest about the gritty poetics of The Eagertongue. There are no limp appropriations of hip-hop stylings for a start, no elongated vowels to intimate a sense of beat, no couplets, no doggerel – no rhymes, in fact – and there’s no pretence of speaking to or for the masses with high-minded socio-political thematics, either. But he does have an undeniable sense of rhythm which carries the pieces along nicely, and arguably, his straight-talking vignettes are far more real slices of life than the more commercially viable Tempest. No BRIT School priming here: the only privilege informing the work is the privilege of life lived as a means of gathering material, which provides instead, a first-hand grasp of the grubby day-to-day. Coupled with Macmillan-Mason’s knack for narrative, it makes for pieces which are vital and ultimately credible. But he’s not John Cooper-Clarke, either. I love JCC’s pithy poems and rapidfire delivery, but Macmillan-Mason’s brand of social commentary is darker, starker, harsher, and he isn’t out for laughs.

I referred to the material as gritty: Graham raps and raves about bodily fluids with a superabundance of cumstains and saliva and a moderate proliferation of vomit streaking his narratives. The characters who populate these insalubrious spaces are three-dimensional, believable, and presented warts and all. “She would always protest it was difficult to speak with a penis inside of her mouth,” he recounts on ‘Jesse’.

MacMillan-Mason has a remarkably calm, almost affable delivery, which is in some ways at odds with some of the dingier, grainier lines. But it’s this calm, measured approach (and that isn’t to say there’s no passion in his voice: there is, as well as a tangible sense of soul) which renders the words most effective: they’re enunciated with crystal clarity and stand out above the murky droning soundscapes – a mangling mix of guitars and amorphous electronic hum – which provide an appropriately unsettling backdrop.

Sharp, direct and unflinching, The Voices in Your Coma Sleep finds The Eagertongue bringing weight to the idea that literature was the original rock ‘n’ roll, and that literature is the new rock ‘n’ roll, too.

 

The Eager Tongue - Voices in Your Coma Sleep

Ernest Jenning Record Co/Khannibalism – 15th July 2016

Edward S. Robinson

Fans of William S. Burroughs rejoice! An album containing new recordings of classic material gets to see the light of day, only fractionally short of 20 years after it was recorded.

If my proclamation appears tinged with sarcasm, it’s only slightly so. I am as enthused as any Burroughs enthusiast over the release of Let Me Hang You. How could I fail to be excited in the face of new audio work from the seminal author? On his death in August 1997, Burroughs left an immense gap beyond literature. Often imitated and even more often referenced and invoked, no-one else could really write like Burroughs. Despite his imploring other writers to adopt the cut-up method in the 1960s, Burroughs’ work remained distinctive because it was produced by Burroughs. To write like Burroughs required Burroughs’ mind, and if history has proven anything, it’s that Burroughs was unique a one-off.

Because this is Burroughs, an author whose biography subject to the same intense scrutiny as his major texts, the origin and evolution of this album is worth quoting from the official press release here:

‘Shortly before his death in 1997, William S. Burroughs was recorded reading some of the most shocking yet outrageously funny sections of Naked Lunch, his powerful fever dream of a novel.’

It’s perhaps not the place to comment here on the extent to which this feels exploitative or like an exercise in recycling, not least of all because Burroughs spent his career recycling material and it’s clear from the now legendary spoken word performances he gave in the 1980s when promoting his final trilogy that he was keenly aware of the enduring appeal of Naked Lunch, the book to which he essentially owed is subsequent career. As such, recordings of selected highlights from his career-defining (if not necessarily definitive) novel seem to provide a fitting sign-off, and its’s a shame we have all had to wait so long for them to surface.

The press release renders the account that producer Hal Willner (who has worked with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, and perhaps more significantly, worked on Allen Ginsberg’s The Lion For Real and two previous Burroughs albums in the shape of Dead City Radio (1990) and Spare Ass Annie and Other Stories with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (1996) and Burroughs’ manager James Grauerholz also recruited a team of world class musicians including Grammy winning guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist/keyboard player Wayne Horvitz and violist Eyvind Kang to add a touch of their experimental genius over the course of several sessions. Given his avant-garde credentials, Kang was, I would say, a particularly inspired choice.

The blurb continues: “Subsequently abandoned, these recordings collected dust on a musty shelf as forgotten as a piece of rancid ectoplasm on a peepshow floor. However, in 2015 Willner re-examined this unfinished masterpiece and sought additional help from King Khan, the eccentric Canadian punk/soul frontman that he and Lou Reed had befriended in 2010 following an incendiary performance by his The King Khan & BBQ Show at Sydney Opera House as part of a Lou Reed/Laurie Anderson curated festival. Willner sent Khan the recordings and asked him to add his gris gris to this already extremely perverted gumbo.

Khan in turn contacted vocalist/composer M Lamar (creator of the Negrogothic manifesto and the identical twin brother of transgender actress Laverne Cox) and Australian psych/punk act The Frowning Clouds for help with contributions that further heightened the unsettling mood of Burroughs’ narration.’”

Here we see new strands of the Burroughs legend in the making, and to what extent the recordings were subsequently adjusted is unclear (and indeed anyone’s guess. Perhaps in another 20 years’ time we’ll hear the ‘unmixed’ version, a Burroughs equivalent of Let it Be stripped of all of its Phil Spector intrusions). In many ways, the extent of any alteration made later matters little. After all, as the author himself said in an interview in 1974:

The past only exists in some record of it. There are no facts. We don’t know how much of history is completely fiction… There’s no record this conversation ever took place or what was said, except what is [recorded]. If the recordings were lost, or they got near a magnet and were wiped out, there would be no recordings whatever. So what are the actual facts? What was actually said here? There are no actual facts.

So, it’s 2016. There is nothing here now but the recordings. And, it must be acknowledged, these recordings are exceptional. The clarity is striking particularly against classic albums like Call Me Burroughs.

Anyone who has heard Burroughs reading before will know what I mean when I refer to that voice. Delicately picked strings drift in before that voice starts up. As ever, familiar yet alien, dry and detached. Given how late in the author’s life the recordings were made, and given how frail he became in his later years (although given that he survived decades of heroin addiction and a triple heart bypass in 1991), what’s most striking about these recordings is just how strong Burroughs sounds. Of course, frailty is relative, and Burroughs clearly had the constitution not of a proverbial ox, but something beyond human or even biological in origin. And so what’s perhaps most striking ‘They call me The Exterminator,’ he croaks as the album’s opening line. And it feels like some kind of homecoming.

Evaluating an album of this type is incredibly difficult, particularly on account of the level of personal investment so many Burroughs fans – myself included – have in is work. By this, I mean that everyone has their own version of Burroughs and their own personal appreciation of Burroughs and his work. Better just stick to the facts here.

The musical backing to ‘Manhattan Serenade’ (AJ’s Annual Party?) Purple-assed baboon… climbs up a woman…runs up and down the bar) evokes the Joujouka players and the exotic mysticism of Tangiers, where much of the manuscript that would ultimately become Naked Lunch was written. But this is intertwined with chimes and dissonant industrial drones. Burroughs’ ability to adopt high-pitched ‘shrieking posh woman’ voice is magnificently incongruous, and very funny indeed.

As much as he’s renowned as a satirist, Burroughs’ skills as an entertaining and extremely humourous spoken-word performer are often overlooked. On Let Me Hang You, Burroughs demonstrates a keen sense of delivery and timing.

‘This you gotta hear…’ is how the begins ‘This You Gotta Hear’, and proceeds to spin a yarn about a boy who follows his father’s instructions to ‘get a piece of ass’ literally. Because while the mosaic-nature of Naked Lunch and the cut-up method which would become his signature in the 60s and inform his subsequent work position Burroughs as one of the greatest innovators in narrative form of the 20th Century, he was also a master storyteller. ‘son, here’s $20… go get a good piece of ass.’ Against a skewed, barren country backdrop, Burroughs delivered a typical routine – brief, pithy, fantastical and darkly funny, and with a bone-dry delivery.

‘Disciplinary Procedure’, one of the album’s longest tracks, is a passage which represents the kind of horrors that Burroughs’ reputation was based, an expletive-filled scatological explosion, with the refrain ‘shit on the floor’ echoing out over one of the most overtly ‘rock’ backings I’ve heard Burroughs’ voice put to, sounding musically more like 80s John Giorno Band than Burroughs. For all that, it works well, and provides contrast, not least of all against the haunting experimentalism of ‘Lief the Unlucky’, on which Burroughs recounts the character’s misfortunes with ass-fuckings and Sani flush enemas galore.

‘AJ’s Annual Party’ stands, along with the Talking Asshole as one of Burroughs’ definitive and most notorious routines. Presented here as ‘Let Me Hang You’, it’s unquestionably one of the album’s high points. Discordant guitar scrapes and dissonant noise accompany a collage of endless hangings, jockstracks, spurting cocks and jissom. There are numerous other recordings of key passages from Naked Lunch, including those gathered on Disc One of the Best of Giorno Poetry Systems four-CD box set and the triple-CD audiobook of Naked Lunch, but this one arguably has the edge and could yet stand as a definitive recording.

There’s more skewed blues / country behind ‘Clem Snide’, and while it may not be the type of musical backdrop most commonly associated with Burroughs, it does work, and in truth the idea of Burroughs set to jazz or industrial tape loops has always seemed like a forced history. And so, in context… why not? Wouldn’t you?

 

Burroughs - Let Me Hang You