109. BRIAN ENO & HAROLD BUDD – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980)

Occasionally, very occasionally, music delivers a transitory release from the things in life that we find perplexing or unbearable. In an instant it can make the world look and feel a very different place.     Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror by Brian Eno and Harold Budd is one of those records. Unremarkable to many, perhaps as much for the contrast it provides with Eno’s more immediately gratifying post-Roxy output as for its sonically supine disposition (try hearing it out after a hard day’s graft), Plateaux Of Mirror is one of the few records I know of which has the capacity to utterly transport me – not simply to some soporific place of refuge, but to a subconscious realm of half-forgotten memories and fragments of dreams never lived. 

    By 1979, Eno had already demonstrated unmistakable signs of disaffection with staid rock conventions, firstly in his work with Cluster, and in particular, with his inaugural foray into ‘ambient’, Music For Airports. Eno’s recorded output was prolific during this period, yet still struggled to keep pace with his inherently inexhaustible appetite for experimentation with treated and textured sound. Just prior to recording Plateaux Of Mirror in late ’79, he had collaborated on a second album with Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius and made Music For Films. Before the latter was finished, he was already hatching plans to work alongside Laraaji and Jon Hassell for future releases in his Ambient series. 

    By then Harold Budd had developed a reputation as a highly respected avant-garde pianist and composer. On Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno offered him full range of expression in his utilisation of electric and acoustic piano, while he himself constructed a backdrop of minimalist soundscapes within which Budd could improvise. Together they produced a miraculous minimalist classic, characterised by short pieces such as ‘Steal Away’ – washed out, dissolving in its own timorous flightlessness, and lengthier pieces which to some may sound monotonous upon first hearing, but patiently reveal marvellously disorienting little secrets. For instance, on the album opener ‘First Light’, it takes the best part of six minutes before Budd’s impressionistic sonata cedes to a wash of ascending synth, almost as if suddenly, and very discretely, a trifling little celestial drama has unfolded somewhere in the heavens. It and its reprise ‘Failing Light’ (the closer), have a steady tempo, whereas the gaps in ‘Above Chiangmai’ are wider, the harmonics looser, the playing irregular, creating an atmospheric stillness that is taut and unsettling. It makes Erik Satie sound like Fats Domino. 

Meanwhile ‘An Arc Of Doves’ resembles something from Eno’s Another Green World, but Budd’s playing is pretty and optimistic.

    The title track, ‘Plateaux Of Mirror’ possesses these unbearably poignant melodic shifts which – much like the music on Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins (future Budd collaborators) – bring you face to face with childhood memories, real or imagined, the faces of loved ones past and present, beautiful landscapes once observed or perhaps not. Here, it’s capacity to extract from the deep well of the subconscious parallels the work of Boards Of Canada, if not musically, then certainly spiritually.

    A little incongruous upon first listen is ‘Not Yet Remembered’ – a voiced consonant amongst ariated vowels, it’s sudden increase in volume and utilisation of choral synth make it the most human and earthbound thing on the album. It contrasts sharply with something like ‘The Chill Air’, which barely seems to exist, leading us to doubt whether these sounds are the work of human hands at all. Instead they sound like a strange balancing act of nature.

     The other day I passed a woman struggling up a steep hill with her pet on a lead. It wasn’t a dog she was dragging along, but a ferret. A young girl cycled past her, pedalling on the wrong side of the road. Her protective headgear looked like a WW2 Nazi helmet and she had a big old leather rucksack tied precariously to the back of her seat. It was stuffed full of plastic bags. Then a car came thundering down the road with its exhaust hanging off, making a dreadful noise. I turned round and noticed a van parked in front of someone’s driveway. It had tasteless heavy metal style signage on its carcass, although I can’t recall what it said. I did however notice that behind the windscreen sat an ugly toy gorilla. The gorilla looked imperious, holding his Flying V guitar. How strange this life is, I thought to myself. And then a gust of wind came along and it blew hundreds of tiny little cherry blossom petals in my face. I looked up and the sight and sound of the wind breathing through the oak trees almost made my heart burst with joy. In a moment the world was transformed. (JJ)

 

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86. BEACH HOUSE – DEVOTION (2008)

  
In the mid-1980s it would have been obvious to most – particularly to those with unwieldy stockpiles of vinyl – that it was only a matter of time before we were carrying our record collections around on a small portable device. A marginally less reasonable expectation of mine was that, without being troubled by having to make an awkward selection, I could instantly be dispatched the music my heart and soul desired. A telepathic transmitter (we’ll say app) would process neurological data, consult my hungry eardrums, and, bingo, the perfect musical recipe would materialise instantly. Alas, if this idea is ever fully realised, it will serve scant purpose. Nine times out of ten, the dial will point to Beach House.

So many of the things I love about music – the listless two chord purity of the ballads of The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, those swirling somniferous waltzes of Spiritualized, the empyreal sojourns of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Hugo Largo, the spooky toy town keyboards of early Fall, the pagan folksiness of Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, not to mention Brian Wilson’s blessed gift for melody (his left ear has been left here, believe me!) – are manifest in the glorious six album harvest reaped by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand over the last decade.

From the very beginning, on their self-titled debut album, Beach House orbited a universe of blurry memories and hazy dreams. Nebulous narratives alluded to fractured relationships, but everything in that low-fi reverie lacked definition and precision. Four years later the duo had transformed themselves into sophisto-dreampop auteurs, their third album Teen Dream, a purring dislocated pop classic, universally recognised as one of the decade’s landmark albums.

In between those two, they released Devotion in February 2008. It marks the precise moment where the confidence is surging but the ambition still held in check by a mushrooming adventurousness sufficient in itself to procure its own reward. The music at this point is still facing inwards, basking in its own glow; after Devotion it would reach outwards. No harm in that at all of course – it deserved a wider audience, and the subsequent albums are of consistently high quality – but something of the charming amateurishness was lost as the production became progressively more assured. The Suicide-al drones may have remained, but a little less would be heard of that primitive programming (those Casio-style rhythms and beats) or those yearning Wicker Man folk stylings. Scally’s guitar is often buried lower in the mix than it would be on the later albums – here it often sounds unobtrusive – fuddled pedal steel, frilly licks – and is certainly of secondary importance to the organ. Along with Legrand’s velvety Nicoisms, balanced with that magical childlike imagery, the versatility of the organ – equal parts Sale Of The Century game show, spooked out Munsters moongazing, and Cale-ist celeste à la ‘Northern Sky’ – is as integral to the sound here as it is on say The Doors or Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

‘Wedding Bell’ rolls along jauntily with a kooky harpsichord riff – Alex mixes up the guitar lines with a burst of garage fuzz, followed by backwards psych. In spite of the lyrical ambiguities, ‘You Came To Me’ is a gorgeously haunting slice of chamber pop; it’s choppy oriental rhythm resembles something explored previously on ‘Tokyo Witch’ and anticipates the epic ‘Take Care’ from Teen Dream. But here the magick lies in Legrand’s irresistible delivery, particularly on these swooning lines: “you came to me/in my dreams/and you spo-o-o-o-o-oke of everything/sweeter than the days/ that I was breathing.”



‘Gila’ has a knockout off-kilter melody – the bass hits its bottom note in a fleeting but jarring collision with the sparkling organ while Scally plays out a simple repetitive sonar rhythm and the phantasmagorical harmonies threaten to disintegrate completely… it’s the sort of song that books into your cranium for an extended vacation. Like a good host you welcome it warmly, but a warning: it may not check out on schedule. 

The languorous melancholia of ‘Turtle Island’ suggests a loneliness beyond repair: “By the dock of the pond, Turtle Island/I will wait for you there, creeping/Silently, I can’t keep you/Right behind me/All my days in the sun...” Likewise, on first hearing ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ may be noticeable only for its brevity. However, the evocative lyric (by Daniel Johnston) hints at desperate heartache. As with the greatest love songs, it is what is left unsaid rather than what is voiced that matters. Beach House know this all too well and there is rarely anything explicit in what is being communicated. They simply intimate, we duly evaporate. I have found myself at times, eyes tightly shut, singing along to the words of the twinkling ‘Astronaut’ as if they had fallen out of the pages of a William Blake anthology, where, on paper, they are absurdly childlike. But the music is so ravishing they are afforded an uncommon poignancy. 

The holy fire of the solemnly gothic ‘Heart Of Chambers’ adds dark layers of density to proceedings. After momentarily threatening to mutate into ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ it recovers with its very own anthemic finale (“In our beds we’re the lucky ones/filled with the sun/In our beds we’re the lucky ones/fill us with the sun”) – this would become a Beach House trademark – the splicing together of two different song ideas into one, the second part a protracted coda, an unexpected left turn, the Beach House twist on the perfect pop song.

I can’t even begin to describe ‘Home Again’, the album’s closing track. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I am transported back in time: 26 years to be precise – 18 years before this song was even dreamt of! I realise this is illogical at best and can only imagine the song’s atmospheric sweep must resemble something I listened to once, as a young man, at a time when anything was possible. It possesses the power, the resonance to resurrect that daydreaming youthfulness, long ceded to the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps that time was my true ‘home’, the time when everything was simpler, more spontaneous, more free. And perhaps my love affair with Beach House is indicative of an onrushing midlife crisis as I long for a return to those lazy days. But, oh to have heard these wonderful songs when I was nineteen…

“Home Again/Constant heart of my devotion/Must be you, the door to open/Home again, be here, be with him/Will I swim out of your ocean?”
(JJ)

69. JULEE CRUISE – FLOATING INTO THE NIGHT (1989)

In Heaven Everything Is Fine   

I recall during a particularly acrimonious musical discussion, eliciting an incredulous response when I compared Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night’ to Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Stay with me here… This isn’t one of those ‘odd one out’ rounds on ‘Have I Got News For You’ where the most tenuous link can be constructed between, say for instance Donald Trump and Germaine Greer. Neither does it originate from the simple yet excruciatingly uninteresting fact of both albums being permanent fixtures in my all-time top ten, for by that criterion alone, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ would rather absurdly, have less in common with ‘Safe As Milk’ than it does with ‘Floating Into The Night’. So what might the two possibly share in common? It may be harder to imagine two albums which sound so completely different, that are so utterly incongruous: one a primitive, abrasive, angular, chaotic cacophony; the other one whispers it’s cotton wool lullabies so bashfully that it almost isn’t there at all. Indeed one might take the latter as a medicinal antidote after swallowing too much of the former. Playing the albums back to back may prove to be the ultimate aural speedball.

David Lynch. He might understand where I’m coming from. And not simply because ‘Trout Mask Replica’ is reputedly the great man’s very own favourite LP. That is not the answer to the puzzle either, although there is really no puzzle to solve. This isn’t ‘Mulholland Drive’ after all (we all have our own answers to that particular puzzle, but you’re welcome to enlighten me with yours – answers on a postcard please). Here’s the deal. There are genuinely few albums I can think of which have ‘Floating Into The Night’s untainted singularity of mind. ‘Trans Europe Express’? For sure. ‘Ramones’? Without question. Perhaps only one or two others, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ for example. ‘Floating…‘ creates it’s own sound world, possesses it’s own authentically unique atmosphere and timbre, but ultimately, its genius lies in its economy and purity of vision. It stands oblivious to the world around it, completely at odds with the prevailing zeitgeist, and is the work of obsessive perfectionists. And that’s a description equally fitting of ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

Those obsessive perfectionists were of course Lynch himself and Angelo Badalamenti. The fruit of their first collaboration was the soundtrack to ‘Blue Velvet’ which featured ‘Mysteries Of Love’ by the then largely unknown singer Julee Cruise. The timbre of that song – in common with other Lynch soundtracks, hinted at the existence of a dark underbelly beneath the respectable wholesome veneer of small town America. But it is an even earlier Lynchian incarnation which provides a clearer indication of what he intended to accomplish more fully on ‘FITN’: in the 1976 experimental film ‘Eraserhead’, a petite woman with a bizarre facial deformity sings a song – the song is ‘In Heaven Everything Is Fine’. It is also known as ‘The Lady In The Radiator Song’, and is the archetype for the ballads Julee Cruise would sing so beautifully on ‘FITN.’ Of course by 1988-89, Lynch was working on the ‘Twin Peaks’ project (film and TV series) which yielded as it’s main theme ‘Falling’ also included on ‘FITN’. Lynch’s genius as a director has been to match beautifully unsettling images with gorgeously transcendent music, the innocence of which is instantly perverted by its often disturbing visual accompaniment. His capacity to surprise viewer and listener by uncovering the more sinister dreams and desires in human nature is what makes his work so distinctive. As a consequence, the unspoken fear that all may not be well hangs like a pall throughout this recording too.

This is not a record characterised by passionate performances; Cruise’s gentle but bewitching delivery alongside it’s phantasmagorical little brushes with doo-wop (the wonderful ‘Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart’) and rockabilly are almost ironic. One senses the record’s grooves like human veins have been invaded, each drop of its blood extracted, sacrificed. On only two occasions (‘I Remember’ and ‘Into The Night’) is there an unexpected twist (a disarming little change of tempo), or anything overtly soulful in the musicianship (a blast or two of brass). Elsewhere the music is characterised by an almost stoic reverie, but underneath, always an air of unease, uncertainty. The penultimate track ‘The Swan’ typifies this. Over Badalamenti’s achingly hypnotic melody, Julee’s enchantingly mysterious vocal is mournful, almost funereal. [‘You made the tears of love /Flow like they did when I saw /The dying swan…Then your smile died/On the water/It was only a reflection/Dying with the swan’] 

Best of all is ‘The World Spins’ – the solemn eternal slow motion circular dance of the Universe unfolding. We gaze at the stars. What little we see of life’s mystery has become fleetingly clear, but angels are weeping for who knows what tomorrow might bring. But for this moment at least, on this, the last day of another year, everything is fine. (JJ)

15. COCTEAU TWINS – TREASURE (1984) / (A) COCTEAU TWINS – BLUE BELL KNOLL (1988)

TREASURE

There can hardly be a word in the English language more precisely defined, yet more persistently misused, than unique. It’s really not complicated – it simply means something is one of a kind, nothing more, nothing less. Yet more often than not, it’s used when the word that’s really required is distinctive or unusual. It’s rarely that something truly is unique and this means that the word shouldn’t be bandied about like it belongs in a chat about the weather – we should treasure things that genuinely are unique and, however frequently and hamfistedly they’ve been imitated, I contend that the Cocteaus were, and remain, among them.

You can detect the fingerprints of Siouxsie and the Banshees and, to a lesser extent, Joy Division on their first album, Garlands, but by the time of its follow-up, Head Over Heels, they’d grown to a point where it was hard to divine any obvious influences at all. Robin Guthrie was arguably reinventing the guitar even more thoroughly than Kevin Shields would half a decade later, creating labyrynthine textures from what very soon ceased to sound like guitars. Meanwhile, Liz Fraser sang like she had no choice and, as is well known, literally invented a new language as she strove to express the inexpressible. Even their drum machine was more versatile and dextrous than many of its peers – human or mechanical – and wasn’t there simply because it drank less and took up less room.

Treasure came at the end of a year which had seen the vast Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops – where Guthrie’s guitars are transformed into bagpipes playing a pibroch worthy of Culloden – give them a top 40 hit. Guthrie later furiously denounced the album but I’ve always heard it as the most fully-realised and downright beautiful thing they’d done up to that point, despite a tracklist composed entirely of quaint names that could double for a Hampstead school register.

Beatrix has a music-box sound that’s always put me in mind of cloisters, while Otterley plumbs depths of mystery that you’d need Sonar to penetrate and the almost Californian tinge to Pandora is an unexpected yet completely fitting counterpoint to Fraser’s voice tiptoeing up a spiral staircase.

At the risk of heresy, better versions of some songs were done elsewhere – opener Ivo, which had all the conditions for another hit, on an EP given away by the NME, Lorelei on Whistle Test and Beatrix, under the unrepentantly Scottish working title Wheesht, on a Peel session. But none of this dilutes the majesty of Treasure – they’re complementary to it and a reminder that a band who play a song the same way every time will be a very bored band and it will show.

I was 16 when Treasure came out, restless to move on from school and see more of the world. This didn’t necessarily mean far-off lands and was as much about people as place, people I knew nothing of who could be in towns just a few miles away – the Cocteaus’ native Grangemouth, for example. Their music was one of the foremost soundtracks to these times and that’s at least my perception of it – like your perception of it and like the music itself, it’s unique (PG)

(A) BLUE BELL KNOLL

Conventional wisdom identifies two distinct camps of Cocteaus fans. There are those who reckon Treasure their finest moment, and those who prefer Heaven or Las Vegas. Sandwiched between these two undoubted creative peaks are a couple of oft overlooked gems – which for a minority third camp, might well represent the summit of their achievements.

Victorialand is in some ways a transitional album – while it retains some of Treasure’s icy nerve (as on the closer The Thinner The Air) the listener is no longer made to feel like a worm stuck in a glacier. However, Victorialand, the Cocteau’s aural perestroika, was merely paving the way for the majesty of Blue Bell Knoll.

Blue Bell Knoll contains everything you need in a Cocteaus album. And you do need at least one. The song titles have reached new supra-semantic heights: Spooning Good Singing Gum; A Kissed Out Red Floatboat; Ella Megalast Burls Forever. The music itself is dense, playful, exultant. There is a vibrancy about it that sounds a million miles away from their dour gothic beginnings.

The album has a glowing heart. The outer sleeve with its blurry image of cold grey fingertips opens to reveal the same picture burning gently within. And that’s no accident. The one frosty moment – The Icy Glowbo Blow – transforms itself in a gloriously chiming finale. Everywhere else, the ice has melted. On Phoebe Still A Baby, with its beautiful marimba accompaniment and Cico Buff, Liz is at her ecstatic best – while she recalls recording sessions for BBK as being particularly exhausting, the fruits of her efforts are plain for us to hear. On the magnificent single, Carolyn’s Fingers, and the aforementioned A Kissed Out Red Floatboat in particular, things come together in spectacular style. The latter features a remarkable keyboard part that strangely conjures images of a fluttering locomotive on its way to another solar system.

For some, Robin Guthrie is really more of a producer than a great guitarist. But here even the sumptuous trademark reverb cannot disguise his masterful playing. For me, this is Liz is at her absolute peak and words simply cannot do her performances justice. Indeed when it comes down to it, what do words matter? So if the opportunity to use the familiar adjectives (celestial, ethereal etc) seems wasted, it is only because Blue Bell Knoll transcends these cliches to feel like a meeting with God Himself. (JJ)

1. HUGO LARGO – METTLE (1989)

Melody Maker famously called 1988 ‘rock’s greatest year’ – perhaps with some justification. Across the Atlantic there was a proliferation of post-hardcore experimentation in guitar noise (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Pixies, Butthole Surfers etc) while at home, others (AR Kane, MBV) absorbed some of that inspiration to create something even more ravishingly beautiful and radical. If the apex of this first ‘blissed out’ generation was AR Kane’s aptly titled  ‘Up Home!’ EP (which Simon Reynolds memorably described as ‘rock’s Antarctica…it’s final petrifying spell – the sound of a million icicles’) …then Hugo Largo’s ‘Mettle’ was stretching the limits in the opposite direction. Their only full-length album was released on Eno’s Land label, but the crucial rule here was not to remain on terra firma. As if Brian would sanction that. If the likes of MBV were rocketing through the sonic stratosphere, then it was only natural that their visionary (distant) cousins should aim to go back down again, down as far as one could go, even into the womb – to the warm blue belly of a new aquatic Eden.

Their singer Mimi Goese probably believed in new age crystals. She sang about turtles and Native American  philosophy. She threw a few words of Japanese into the mix. All in the name of art you see. Pretentious? Perhaps. Don’t you know it’s dangerous to play with knives girl? But did it matter? Not a bit. The band broke all the rock rules. No guitar in sight. Hearing and seeing them for the first time in 1988 (supporting That Petrol Emotion bizarrely!) that seemed strange enough, but it took me a bit longer to realise that the drummer hadn’t simply been given the night off. Instead the soundtrack was provided by two bass guitars and a solitary violin. You might think there’d be something missing from the sound, but no, it surrounded and enveloped the listener like a velvet glove.

Hahn Rowe’s undulating violin tugs like the undertow around the rippling melodic lines of the brace of bass. The songs are strong, the melodies soporific yet full of surprises. Mettle may not be a post-rock blueprint (AR Kane’s ’69’ has a greater claim to that title) but it is a post-rawk blueprint. It is also the bluest album ever made, and by that I mean azure, the colour of the ocean, rather than morose. In fact it’s quite the opposite of blue in that sense. ‘Try taking off your noisy head; rest it on a pillow soaked in melting wax’ Mimi sings with almost evangelical zeal on ‘Hot Day’. Quite. (JJ)