Monday, May 26, 2008

Infantjoy - Where The Night Goes (2005)

Infantjoy is the creation of James Banbury (of The Auteurs) and British music journalist Paul Morley. Where The Night Goes is definitely a cerebral album, but one which is never pretentious, and which is also eminently listenable. These qualities echo those of its inspiration (whose work is heard 'haunting' the album), Erik Satie.

Musically, the album is - well - I'd say downbeat electronica if that didn't sound like something you'd play in a trendy cafe, which this work is emphatically not. There are glitch influences, occasional elements of a harsher, semi-industrial sound, and also, among the other non-vocal tracks, a cover of Japan's Ghosts (a song which also makes an appearance on another favourite album of mine, Tricky's Maxinquaye). Atmospherically, the music is reminiscent of Japan - dark (or, perhaps, 'grey' in the very bet sense) and understated without being melodramatic or angst-ridden. Satie is here, too, in the nature of the music, in its complexity and elements of the experimental without being 'difficult'; with a concern for form, for loops, repetition and return, for motifs and themes; and in the way in which it lends itself equally to close listening or to being played as 'incidental' or 'ambient' music. A soundtrack to late afternoon, on a rainy day, reading snatches of theory in between drifting in and out of sleep...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Grace Jones - Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions (1998)

I've been familiar with Pull Up To The Bumper and Warm Leatherette for a long time, but it had somehow escaped my notice that the fabulous Ms. Jones (star of such films as Conan The Destroyer and the chronically under-recognised eighties bloodsucker flick Vamp) had an entire art-pop oeuvre which placed her well apart from her contemporaries.

Private Life, a double-disc set, encompasses most of the tracks from the three definitive albums that Jones recorded with the legendary Sly and Robbie at the Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas - namely, Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982) (for those who aren't familiar with Jones' oeuvre, the first two consist chiefly of covers, from The Normal to Roxy Music to the Pretenders and Iggy Pop). I'm a big roots reggae fan (if you can stomach the dancehall homophobia), and also a fan of what we might term alt-disco and of eighties synth beats and eighties electrominimalism. So this album, on which the three combine, had me salivating from the first time I played it.

The tracks range through the above genres, adding some soul and funk ; the emotional palette ranges from cold and disconnected, the epitome of knowing, sexualised eighties veneer, to quietly intense, to joyfully psychotic. All of the three albums mentioned above are great, although I prefer the first two, but for some reason this album comes together in a way that none of them do.

The tracks are mostly extended versions and/or dub versions (apparently these are all played live, rather than extended remixes), which really bring something out of the tracks which extends and deepens them and allows them to create an overall soundscape of fragment and repetition, running tracks into each other in a way, unusual for a compilation, which makes the album an experience as a whole rather than a bunch of songs that stand or fall on their individual merits. Even the tracks that I'm not quite so enamoured of fit perfectly into the aesthetic and the listening experience. The mastering itself is crystal clear (necessary for this kind of beaty, extended endeavour where the sound quality is make or break) and foregrounds the breathtaking art of Sly & Robbie.

Particular highlights are the long and dub versions of The Pretenders' Private Life, and of Joy Division's She's Lost Control; long version of Roxy Music's Love Is The Drug; a demo of the Cash classic Ring of Fire; and a soul-inflected cover of the Motown hit The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game (which i'm also, incidentally enamoured of in the version by the underappreciated Mary Wells). Overall, though, the album is an experience which drags you into Grace Jones' twisted, genrebending world and doesn't let go 'til you're grooving your art out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arthur Russell - Calling Out of Context

Arthur Russell is one of those musicians who I came across only recently, and couldn't imagine why I hadn't encountered years ago. Frequently name-checked in lists of music by eccentrics and outsiders, Russell (1952-1992) was known as a disco musician and also a cellist who collaborated with such countercultural giants as Philip Glass, David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg. In February, a documentary film on Russell, Wild Combination, was released.

Calling Out Of Context, a 2004 compilation of Russell's more dance-oriented work, is the first of his albums that I've come across, and I'm absolutely addicted to it. I was surprised to find that it was a compilation, given the way in which it hangs together perfectly as an album, both musically and in terms of emotional palette.

The album consist of synthy, dance-beat-oriented, reverb-drenched eighties art-pop melancholia. A reviewer's description, 'New Order meets Nick Drake,' isn't too far off the mark (given the general inadequacy of shorthand description by comparison). Though there's a definite pop flavour, and echoes of more pop-oriented eighties acts like New Order or even the more introspective moments of Jimmy Somerville's work, the songs are not pop songs as such; rather than traditional verse-chorus structures the listener is presented with sometimes-inaudible, haunting phrases drifting in and out of a musical landscape. Indeed, rather than a collection of songs, it's a landscape that's created here, or perhaps a marine-scape (given the frequent references to water and the feeling of the liminal, of surface and depth); a place in which one finds oneself adrift...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Michael Pollan - In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasure of Eating (2008)

Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This advice is the gist of Michael Pollan's new book. Pollan argues that the Western diet - concerned with quantity and speed (both of production and consumption) above any other values - exemplified in the United States but fast being adopted everywhere else, brings with it a huge host of lethal diseases, including cancer and diabetes (among many others), which Westerners have come to accept as an inevitable lottery.

Pollan argues, essentially, that the scientific response to nutritional health has been what he terms 'nutritionism' - the reductivist view, related both to capitalism and to the methods of scientific enquiry, that we can isolate particular nutrients, rather than particular foods or particular diets, which promote wellbeing or cause illness. The calling into question of the Western diet itself, or even of any particular food (with its associated lobby group) has become entirely verboten. Meanwhile, the scientifically-proven 'good' and 'bad' nutrients shift constantly, and in the entire period of scientific nutritionism the population has become healthier only in the sense that medical science has become better at prolonging life; but by any other measure, health has declined.

In the modern era, supermarkets are stocked, not with food, but with 'foodlike substances'. Meanwhile, there doesn't seem to be any common denominator, in terms of foodstuffs or nutrition, between traditional diets which kept people healthy, ranging from diets based only on blood and milk, to those entirely based on vegetables, to the well-known 'paradoxes' of the health of the French and Mediterranean peoples whose diets contradict received science.

Given the state of things, it's easy to throw one's hands up and say, all the advice is contradictory and untrustworthy - I give up. In response, Pollan gives some simple, and at times amusing, guidelines as to how to eat, expanded from those mentioned above. For example: don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than five in number. Eat meals, slowly, at a table.

The overall picture is not necessarily original news to those of us interested in contemporary diet and health; but Pollan's style is easy and captivating, while not being didactic or 'dumbing down' his subject matter, and even for those of us who've put some thought into this issue it reveals (or at least it did for me) areas where I still wasn't questioning my assumptions. Ultimately, this book is not so much condemnatory as an impassioned plea for Westerners to re-enjoy food; to invest an effort, and reap the many rewards, of the whole communal process of growing, shopping, cooking and eating.