THEY THREW US ALL IN A TRENCH
AND STUCK A MONUMENT ON TOP
GENE CLARK (aka WHITE LIGHT)
THEY SAY that it's a life of surprises. Nothing, they say, is certain but death and taxes. Whoever 'they' are, they possess wretched conversational skills. They'll keep spouting cliches at you until they're blue in the face. Until the cows come home. Until the fat lady sings. Well, Alison Moyet has a new album out. Maybe they'll shut up now.
In fairness, and no doubt thanks to cheap cracks like the foregoing, Ms Moyet has returned looking uncommonly trim. The CD itself is more remarkable still. Hometime disengages Moyet from her customary position in the middle of the road, where she was becoming a hazard to traffic, and eases her into the genre formerly known as Trip Hop.
True, it's been seven years since every female arts student who fancied herself a bit of diva (or merely fancied herself) crowded into that particular smoky cellar. For most performers in 2002, it would hardly be a radical step. But this is Alison Moyet we're talking about. Next projected career stop: the cruise ships. Instead, she makes like a van driver on the M5 and turns into Portishead. In the process, she reminds us that she was once half of Yazoo, among the best avant-garde electropop acts of the benighted 80s. And also that she has a humdinger of a voice on her.
Hometime is quality stuff, in the sense that a good set of curtains is quality stuff. It's a nice thing to have in your home. It keeps the room warm, gives it a certain ambience and won't show you up if the neighbours drop by. The songs - double-stitched and cotton-backed, every last one of 'em - are what is referred to as 'well-crafted', which normally means deadly dull. But not in this instance. The best of them are quite special. Yesterday's Flame is a marvellous example of a style which might be dubbed Modern Torch, in which finesse is substituted for throbbing histrionics, while the production assumes a tastefully technoid quality. This category includes the title track, featuring understated bleeps; and Say It, which is composed in fluent Bjorkish, right down to the Army Of Me R&B beat which underpins it.
Despite this new-found proclivity for dinner-party electronica, Moyet hasn't abandoned cabaret balladeering. If You Don't Come Back To Me and Should I Feel That It's Over are defiantly and opulently of the old school. That goes double for Hometime's one genuinely left-field moment: an eerie, reverberating folk tune called Mary, Don't Keep Me Waiting.
Another thing 'they' say: it's extraordinary how potent cheap music is. 'They' are, of course, quoting Noel Coward, who knew a thing or two about cheap music. But Noel Coward never heard Toploader. And had he been obliged to hear Toploader, I suspect he would have throttled himself with his bow tie. That's what I tried to do, and I don't even own a bow tie.
Toploader are cheap, and they are nasty. Their bloodless brand of trad rock is so flimsy and tacky it would shame the night shift of a Taiwanese plastics factory. Not only is it intensely irritating, it is completely at odds with their self-image, in which they are gravelly, bluesy, 'authentic'. It would be bad enough if they succeeded at this, but as it is, they come off as whiny and posturing. The effect is that of an odious eight-year-old clumping around in his grandad's Hush Puppies and kicking grown-ups in the shin.
The new Toploader album, Magic Hotel, might pass for a lightweight 1973 opus by some clutch of long-forgotten, hair-encrusted teabags, were it not for the sterile hum of reverence wafting from it. Toploader's approach is part curatorial, part janitorial and entirely funereal. They stifle, bleach and mummify their influences - 60s Brit beat, blues-rock, northern soul - more rigorously than even their predecessors did. Magic Hotel is a feeble echo of an objectionable era. If you found Toploader's hit single, Dancing In The Moonlight, exhilarating and delightful, then you'll enjoy this too, and good luck to you.
I suspect I wouldn't like Liars quite as much if I hadn't played their record straight after Toploader's. With the exception of White Stripes, who are simply a great rock band, the American nouveau-punk tendency hasn't sent me scrambling, key in fluttering hand, to the strongbox full of superlatives. Still, if you have to copy someone, it's as well to choose such snarling, bloody-minded nonconformists as Lou Reed, Suicide and The Fall's Mark E Smith. Liars may be repellent, but at least that's the point of them. They want you to suffer for their art.
They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top is as unwieldy and ear-mangling a racket as you'd expect from the title. The more I listen to it, the less I can deny its weird and scabrous appeal. To finish with This Dust Makes That Mud, a savagely repetitive pulsebeat far longer than the rest of the album put together, is an act so outright contrary as to be worthy of applause.
Time to crack out those superlatives. The late Gene Clark, first and best songwriter of The Byrds, produced among his solo work two of the finest albums ever made. Neither has been available in the UK for years. At last his self-titled 1971 LP, better known as White Light, has been issued on CD. As a collection of songs, it showcases a rare talent; one which fascinated Bob Dylan, whose influence Clark absorbed and, here, transcended. As a recording, it is exquisite and deceptively plain-sounding. An entire movement, alt.country, is today devoted to attempting music this rich, emotive and beautifully tempered. White Light is a north star to that movement's compass, and Clark is finally being recognized as the virtuoso he was. Perhaps whoever holds the rights to Clark's second masterpiece, 1974's lavish and daring No Other, will now take the hint and re-release it.
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