31. THE RAINCOATS – ODYSHAPE (1981)

“We want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.”

The Raincoats interviewed by Greil Marcus

The Raincoats initially formed after Gina Birch, inspired by the chaotic energy of The Slits, teamed up with guitarist Ana Da Silva in 1977. An all-female line up was completed the following year with classically trained violinist Vicky Aspinall, and drummer Palmolive jumped ship from The Slits. It was this line up that recorded the ramshackle and scratchy debut album for Rough Trade. However, following its release, Palmolive left, forcing the band to write songs for the next album without a drummer. Just as losing a drummer allowed Spacemen 3 to make the minimalist masterpiece that is Play With Fire, this seems to have freed up their sound, and coupled with the purchase of a bunch of exotic instruments from a visit to New York, and the punk practice of swapping instruments helped to push their songwriting into uncharted territory.

In Simon Reynolds excellent Rip It Up And Start Again, Gina Birch is quoted saying “You couldn’t find a band that rehearsed more than we did, but we always fell apart. We always pushed ourselves a little bit beyond where we were capable of playing”. Listening to Odyshape now, 34 years after it was released and 18 years after I first heard it, just makes me wonder why more bands can’t or won’t push themselves that far, when reaching beyond their abilities resulted in a record that is sparse and spiritual, and almost completely uncategorisable. At the time the NME bemoaned the fact that there were no musical comparisons to be made, not even to their previous album. The Raincoats were now walking through a different musical terrain.

The influence of everything from folk, punk, reggae, krautrock (Can circa Ege Bamyasi) to all  kinds of ethnic music can be heard throughout, but each sound is woven into the fabric of The Raincoats music so perfectly it never sounds like genre tourism that occasionally  plagues music post eighties. Everything here sounds like Raincoats music, just not the Raincoats that had played on the first album. The use of such un-rock instruments as sruti box(?), claves, kalimba, timpani, balafon, ektare and finger symbols sets this record apart from many of its contemporaries and closer to the wyrd atmosphere of records like Dr Johns’s spook-fest Gris Gris or Tim Buckley’s free folk’n’jazz Lorca. Perhaps the appearance of Rough Trade label mate Robert Wyatt on a couple of tracks should give us a clue to the difference in sound from the first album. Maybe Gina Birchs involvement alongside Swell Maps Epic Soundtracks in the Red Crayola was an influence.

So is there any point in trying to describe an album that is as difficult to pigeon hole as this? I think there is.

Shouting Out Loud is a frantic Countess From Hong Kong, bass and drums circling like crows around intense passages of violin and guitar duels. The lack of drums on Family Treet allows the instruments to push and pull at the tempo as its tale of very english melancholy unfolds. Only Loved At Night builds verses around a killer scratchy guitar riff and chorus around kalimba. The epic Dancing In My Head (“Long, long way to go”) always made me think of Debra Keese’s Travelling without sounding much like it. The opening verse sounds like it’s heaving under a heavy weight while the chorus (“My spirit is dancing in my head and in my heart”) with great piano playing from Vicky Aspinall lifts you somewhere completely out of yourself. I would love to hear Joanna Newsom sing this.

The title track kicks off with a circular chiming guitar riffs around a lyric dealing with body image in magazines. The benefits of writing without a drummer seems most pronounced on And Then It’s Ok where the tempo refuses to settle in one place for too long, the guitar switching from a frantic Feelies strum to almost Dark Star Live Dead picking. Baby Song is Congoman put through Can’s Future Days filter, all shimmering rhythms and heat haze harmonies. There’s an almost Cajun flavour to the violin at the start of Red Shoes. Go Away closes the album in fine punky style even as the violin echoes Kashmir.

Odyshape is as classic as anything released during one of the most fertile periods for British music.  Despite people like John Lydon, Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain heaping praise on the band, it rarely gets mentioned alongside Metal Box or Unknown Pleasures, never mind making those Greatest Records Of All Time lists. Perhaps this is down to its un-rock leanings, or possibly it is down to its influence being harder to trace. I can hear reflections of Vicky Aspinalls violin in Hahn Rowe’s work in Hugo Largo, in P J Harvey at her most English. It doesn’t sound out of place amongst the post 2000 music dubbed New Weird America or freak folk. Whatever. Kim Gordon called their music “defiant in its spirituality without being corny” and that pretty much sums this record up. (TT)

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