Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Anika - Anika (2010)

Do we live in a post-modern age of recombination? Apparently so, judging from a recent review which unfavourably contrasted one fresh-minted album with another – the failing of the first in contrast to the second was that, using the same set of influences, the musicians hadn’t managing to do anything which one might appreciate. But perhaps there’s nothing really so post-modern about recombination as an activity – it’s more that it’s now the acceptable face of a dominant paradigm. So for those of filled with ‘satiable cultural curiosity our task becomes not so much to distinguish, even in passing, what is original from what is unoriginal (or to distinguish between pleasurable and unpleasurable unoriginality), but to ask about process – about how recombinations take place, not only about the materials from which they are formed.

Unlike other new music where enjoyment lies in the faithfulness of its recreation, Anika assumes the work of recombination seriously, taking as its main elements a Nico-esque chanteuse; dry, dubby drum & bass (as in, the instruments, not the genre) employed with organic synth touches and an emphatic No Wave sensibility; and covers of sixties and seventies classics from Twinkle’s Terry to Bob Dylan’s Masters of War (plus a few originals, and a much-appreciated inclusion of a dub version of the latter). These elements turn out to be a much more likely match than one might consider – turning out pieces which, far from multi-genre novelty tracks, add a gravitas to the originals, and a sense of nihilism, of the end of history as farce not as triumph.

Of course, as a fan of dub reggae, no wave, Nico, and sixties pop, I’m biased, but this was far from an album I had ever previously envisaged (in contrast, say, to synthabilly, which I’m still waiting for – with the possible exception of the ill-fated Silicon Teens). We might speculate that the glue holding all of this together is the Beak production (Geoff Barrow of Portishead) and – although the connection isn’t immediately obvious – in the use of dub influences, in a certain sweetness (more usually provided by a creamy soulful voice, but here by the nature of many of the songs themselves), and in the adoption of the depressive position so in evidence upon Portishead’s self-titled album, we see a dark development of the signature elements of triphop – not in the more well-known dubstep direction spearheaded by the likes of Burial, but into something in quite a different tradition.

But while we’re with tradition and points of comparison, Nico’s criminally under-rated, John Cale-produced masterpiece Camera Obscura must be mentioned; and speaking of criminally under-rated work, for those who like any of the combinations of names and styles mentioned here, if you don't know them already Sally Strobelight and Judy Nylon are both points of reference. Finally, the darkness lurking behind renditions of folk-pop songs more usually associated with girlish wistfulness may evidence the skeleton of Shirley Collins lying unquietly in the closet.

There is a sense here of the dark side of the decades of socio-cultural rebellion, of the burn-outs that they would leave behind, of their failures and co-optation; echoes, also, of contemporary events, as in the moving soldier’s testament on Iraq which is sampled in the closing moments of Masters of War (and anti-systemic politics are also in evidence, though never heavy-handed, in the two originals). But we also experience a personal ennui, a more interior feeling of end times, in covers such as ‘End of the World,’ ‘Sadness Hides The Sun’ and ‘I Go To Sleep’ (made popular by Skeeter Davis, Greta Ann, and The Kinks respectively). There is a sense, too, of the crumbling saudade, the feeling of social claustrophobia but also of the dissatisfactoriness of the possibilities of empowerment, inherent in the British kitchen sink realism milieu, so beloved of Morrissey (another Twinkle fan).

The choice of covers (which also includes Yoko Ono’s ‘Yang Yang’) is inspired here – rather than songs which were brilliant but have become culturally ubiquitous (‘Tainted Love’ or ‘Hallelujah’), the choices on Anika are defamiliarising not only in performance, but also in selection. We are in territory which is purposefully but defiantly Unheimliche. Indeed, as with Nico, dislocation and liminality are very much the appropriate tropes: upon entering the environs of Anika, we find we are trapped in a desolate ennui which at the same time is both angry and melancholy – a landscape which is found not only internally, as is so often the case with much pop music, but in which particular constellations of internal emotions and external socio-political conditions reflect each other.