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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Review: Noughties Niceness compilation from Tummy Touch Records

I have to admit to a possible journalistic bias: I did spend some time in Cambridge with the (then beardless) boss of Tummy Touch Records, improvising verbal psychedelic jazz performances in public parks in the middle of the night (without any audience), wearing an orange jumpsuit. However, I should continue this disclaimer by admitting that I fail as a music journalist, and was unable to exploit this high level industry contact: I sent Tim a message on Facebook to request some background on the compilation, but he either didn’t get it or doesn’t wish to encourage stalkers. Oh well, his loss: my blog is obviously so widely read he could have finally taken his label to the big time. No, wait, I seem to be reviewing it anyway…
[This is now completely untrue, Tim did get back to me, and said ‘Erm, how did I choose them? Quickly would be the honest answer. But I guess they're faves from the last few years.’ But it makes for a much more amusing story if I say he didn’t.]
I’m going to attack this track by track, since it’s a compilation, and I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Tummy Touch roster, so I’ll do a bit of research, but basically I’ll be telling it how I find it (which is all good, incidentally). First though, I should say that it does have a certain coherence as an album, despite the disparate stylistic proclivities of the artists represented.
Noughties Niceness kicks off with a minimalist funk tune by Zook, titled ‘Bastinado’. I really like this. It is an object lesson in simplicity as vehicle for a sophisticated musicality: memory is probably my weakest area as a musician, but by the time I’d listened to this once I knew how to play every note in the bass and guitar parts, without needing to pick up an instrument to check. That’s how simple this is. It’s like ‘Green Onions’ (a record with nothing extraneous in it) with all the fat trimmed: in fact it makes Booker T And The MGs sound like self-indulgent prog noodlers. ‘Bastinado’ means ‘a sound beating with a stick or cudgel’ … no, I don’t know either.
Next up is UR Mummy from Niyi, but if you think you know what Niyi sounds like, you’re wrong. This is completely daft. It is far less of an obvious floor filler than most of what he puts out, far less commercially produced, and it has an infantile, suggestive lyric so silly it borders on genius. The beat is the kind of bare bones electro you might expect to find lurking on a Miss Kittin album, and the chanted vocal hilariously celebrates it’s own inarticulacy with lines like ‘I think inter-generational love/ is frowned upon/ far too much today/ … / so if I’m wrong/ well, I’m just wrong’. This is actually a clever, witty piece of music when you start to think about it, very danceable, and even sexy (‘I’d like to wipe her worksurfaces down’!)
Coco Electrik’s remix of The Phenomenal Handclap Band follows, ‘Dim The Lights’. This is a brutally shuffling fusion of electro-pop with 60s rock, garnished with some stuttery, heavily processed vocals, and there’s not much point describing it any further except to say it’s eminently listenable and curiously danceable.
Quad Throw Salchow have the least comprehensible name of any act on the compilation, but there are other reasons to like them too: the music for example. An overdriven bass single-mindedly hammers out a two note riff, while a synthesizer sparsely decorates it with a small palette of textures, and hoarse, intense but controlled vocals deliver a message that is as ominous as it is obscure. ‘Fate will Find You’.
More overdriven bass follows, though not to the point of distortion. Tim ‘Love’ Lee contributes a remix of a song called ‘No Search’ by a band called Striplight. Striplight purvey spiky, arty post-punk with declamatory vocals, which in this song tell a tale of self-destructive devotion not unrelated to Depeche Mode’s ‘Stripped’.  Which is to say it uses flaying as a metaphor for undressing.
And by now it’s surely becoming apparent that I’m an incorrigible geek for bass sounds… Crazy Girl’s ‘Regs’ is animated by a rapid fire pickstyle bass riff that sounds like it was recorded by micing an (overdriven) Ampeg SVT, but that’s not really interesting so I’ll tell you about the song instead. ‘Regs’ is a vitriolic, stream of consciousness rant against the mediocrity of the socially aspirational. The bass dominates the mix, but there’s guitar there too, also with the sound of a vintage amp, pushed hard through a twangy spring reverb, later joined by an equally vintage sounding electric piano: it’s hard to put a finger on the musical style, which is a modern take on the late 60s underground, but you could maybe call it psychedelic surf-garage (if a high syllable count doesn’t bother you). There’s something unhinged about this, in a very good way.
Patrick and Eugene contribute a cockney novelty song celebrating the gentle side of English drinking culture, a very likeable ditty with a twist in the tail, called ‘Saturday Night’.
So far the quality of everything on this compilation has been extremely high, but it’s saved some of the best until last. Before we go any further, I should point out that I definitely don’t tend to favour wordy, literate songs over more dance focussed offerings: in fact most of my favourite music doesn’t even have vocals. So let’s be clear, I’m not rating these tracks highly because I prefer a nice song: of the last four tracks, three are vocal tunes, and all three strike that perfect balance between lyrics, melody, style and all the other elements, where everything works in unity to express the meaning of the song.
Sargasso Trio’s ‘Heels On Fire’ is probably not a love song, but it’s an appreciation song, a song about the chemistry of the dancefloor. Not the dancefloor of some industrial scale club, all huge sub stacks and robotic lights; I imagined an upstairs room in a house with the windows open on a moonlit summer night, and the turntable skipping as drunken happy people bounce the floorboards. It’s pointless for me to try and paraphrase, or even to really describe a song like this. I can only express my admiration: for the way it avoids the obvious verbal route; for the way it is sexy without being overtly sexual; for the way it conveys a sense of the very specific value of an individual; for the way the groove is a part of the poetry, rather than simply a setting for it. This became one of my desert island discs by the third or fourth listen.
Turner Cody is a latter day beat poet: this plays both for and against him, as the beat poets were also a major influence on someone he sounds very like on ‘Corner Of My Room’, namely Uncle Bob. I know a little of Turner Cody’s work (although I’m not generally a big follower of singer songwriters), and although that influence is always present, there’s something about the vocal delivery on this track that makes it sound like an overt homage to, or even a pastiche of Bob Dylan. Which is not to say I’m accusing him of being a mere imitator: this is very much his performance of his words, it’s just that there is a clear relationship in his choice of words, and in his very clear enunciation of articles (definite and indefinite). Some of his verbal imagery is absolutely staggering, audacious even, and I won’t steal any thunder by putting spoilers in this review: you need to hear this track.

The next artist, Circuits, play new wave rock with a streak of reggae running through it, sometimes sounding like a more earnest version of The Police. The track included here is a dub (‘Fully Bearded Dub’), which accentuates that influence. It sounds as though someone set out deliberately to make a dub tune with no compound meters in it: even when the delays interfere with each other they don’t make triplets! It’s a really cool sound — and I don’t know why so many tracks on this compilation have such a fantastic bass sound, it’s like a masterclass in recording bass! — which breaks down into a bass led punk outro.
And as the last notes of The Circuits die away, the most enigmatic of this album’s offerings gently and unassumingly begins. I have no idea why Tara Busch chose to invent the name ‘Pilfershire Lane’ for this tune, as there’s nothing I can detect here that has anything to do with pilfering. Ambiguity is a good thing in a lyric as far as I’m concerned, however, so no matter. Busch is an excellent melodist, and does a nice line in chord sequences of the sort that pivot key changes on a tierce de Picardie. ‘Pilfershire Lane’ is a long and complex number, with a lot of sections: lyrically it seems to be someone in old age expressing nostalgia for the idyll of their childhood, and clinging onto their memories as a talisman against an uncertain future. It’s clearly set in the future as they are looking back to 1970, which is when I was born, and I’m not ‘old and grey’ yet. Stylistically it moves from a simple piano accompaniment, to an old style prog feel (like early Floyd) and back again, before an extended atmospheric outro, with church bells, choral vocals and background noises. Clearly I’m struggling to describe this, it’s far too complex to paraphrase, so I’ll say this: it never comes off as sentimental, it remains robustly ambiguous throughout, it is sonically and musically extremely sophisticated, and also very soulful in a curious way, and I like it a lot. I still have the impression there’s a lot I don’t get about Tara Busch’s work though!
Obviously this compilation doesn’t present the sonic consistency an album does when it’s the product of a single set of recording and mixing sessions; and the types of song and arrangement presented are incredibly diverse; but these tracks all display some kind of uncompromised artistic integrity. There is a certain commitment to pursuing a set of creative aims, a certain unwillingness to be bound by convention or fashion, that has obviously informed the decisions to sign these acts and to include them on this collection. It all comes across somehow as though there’s a single brain behind it. A big, and clever brain, whose past and future activities it would be worth taking an interest in.

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