Mute Swan(s)

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Mute Swan(s)

Michael Gira’s Swans have signed to Mute and the label will release the first fruits of this partnership in May.

At Whipsnade Zoo yesterday I caught a small exhibition of nature photographs. Seeing the words ‘Mute’ and ‘swan’ in the description of this piece made me smile.

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(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Big Deal – Chair (Mute Records single, 2011)

bigdeal_chair

mute artists | 7″/i mute459 | 05/09/2011

The sleeve to Big Deal‘s ‘Chair’, which was bizarrely released on the same day as the album Lights Out, features a portrait of a cat wearing a dunce’s hat. To me this looks distinctly like a sleeve that belongs in the Butthole Surfers / Blast First camp, but the hat at least serves as a decent reference point for the lyrics of this song – the bit about being put on a chair in the corner anyway. I can’t explain the cat. Unless where the lyrics refer to not being able to sit on the other person’s bed, KC Underwood and Alice Costelloe are actually singing about a cat. Who knows?

‘Chair’ sounds like a possible mid-point between thrashy punk and the classic rhythm guitar-driven rock ‘n roll of Buddy Holly. It’s quirky, confused, angsty teen-rock / pop, generally delivered in a cheerful style, although the torrents of over-amped guitar distortion threaten to destroy that mood. The generally polite way that the two voices overlap suggest a breeziness and lightness, but the lyrics seem to convey a sense of hurt, disappointment and distrust. It’s curt, intense, but rather beautiful.

Beautiful is also how I would describe the languid, pastoral blues guitars of B-side ‘Buzz Money’. ‘Does your mom still pack your lunch?‘ runs the enquiring lyric, anchoring this to hazy school days and problem-free innocence. ‘Someday I’m gonna pack your lunch for you,‘ is the retort, an odd but quintessentially youthful way of expressing love for a fellow kid. It feels like a fragment of a conversation turned into lyrics. I again feel like I’m too old to listen to this, but I get where this lovely little song is coming from. I think.

***

On Mothers Day 2013, I tweeted that I couldn’t think of any songs in the Mute Records back catalogue that were about mothers. Big Deal immediately tweeted back ‘you can’t get a song more about mother’s [sic] than this?’ and copied in a link to a YouTube non-video of ‘Lunch Money’, which appears to be a renamed ‘Buzz Money’. As I am re-posting this on Mothers Day 2014, I thought I’d include that. This post is for caring, lunch-preparing mothers everywhere.

Track listing:

7″/i:
A. / 1. Chair
B. / 2. Buzz Money

First published 2011; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mute Tote Bag (2011)

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Mute Tote Bag (2011)

Mute tote bag, purchased at Short Circuit in 2011.

Primary use: for carrying bagels from Brick Lane back home on the train.

Renegade Soundwave ‘Women Respond To Bass’ badge (1990)

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Renegade Soundwave 'Women Respond To Bass' badge (1990)

Email from Gary Asquith (Rema-Rema, Renegade Soundwave), 27 March 2014

Hello Mat,

I noticed on your pages somewhere that you had a memorabilia section. So……..

Here’s my Women Respond To Bass Badge and my World Cup Willie badge from the 1966 World Cup. I’m not too big on badges, but I have some punk rock bands and……..?

Willie was our lucky mascot for 1966, and the Women Respond badge was a giveaway at our American tour dates in 1990.

Later. G

Photo courtesy of Gary Asquith.

Martin L. Gore – Counterfeit (Mute Records, 1989)

Martin L. Gore 'Counterfeit' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd/c stumm67 | 06/1989

Counterfeit was Martin L. Gore‘s first solo release outside of Depeche Mode. A collection of six covers ranging from The Durutti Column to Sparks, Gore’s voice is here allowed to shine through rather than being relegated to backing vocals or only appearing on the more poignant ballads of the Depeche back catalogue that were less suited to nominal frontman Dave Gahan‘s vocal style. Counterfeit was produced by Gore and Rhythm King stalwart Rico Conning, and released by Mute in 1989 while Depeche Mode were on downtime between the Music For The Masses and Violator albums. Never a band to go for cover versions (off the top of my head I can only count three, including one Beethoven piece), hearing Gore delivering other people’s songs is something of a rare, and absorbing, proposition.

Opening with a cover of Joe Crow’s ‘Compulsion’, things start off in relatively upbeat territory. Sometime Nightingales member Crow’s solitary and pretty obscure Cherry Red 7″ is here delivered as an affirming, strident track, all upbeat pianos, pulsing percussion and melodica-style synths. I used to listen to this occasionally after disappointing events took place (usually getting dumped by a girl), the ‘got to move on sometime’ refrain and the gentle piano somehow allowing me to transcend whatever I was feeling miserable about. Nearly twenty years on from when I first bought this, it still never fails to work. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ was originally recorded by Tuxedomoon and appeared on their Holy Wars LP. Gore’s version includes a vaguely Latin rhythm in the style of Depeche Mode’s ‘To Have And To Hold’ from Music For The Masses, underpinned by a dark synth bass pulse. ‘In A Manner Of Speaking’ is filled with a theatrical drama, and to add to the mood Gore speaks his way through the final section, its elliptical lyric about telling someone everything by saying nothing making a level of sense on an emotional level.

The cover of Factory Records’ stalwart Vini Reilly’s ‘Smile In The Crowd’ again opts for a Latin-style arrangement, a thin, pondering guitar line running throughout most of the track. This cover of the Durutti Column song is perhaps the closest Counterfeit comes to the bleak, inward-looking balladry that Gore’s own performances on record tend to lean toward. Meanwhile ‘Gone’, originally delivered by The Comsat Angels, has a cloying urgency, mining the same vibe of danger and helplessness that powered ‘A Question Of Time’, riding forth on a pulsing beat marked by thick bass notes and industrial tension.

Gore’s cover of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ finds Gore taking Ron Mael’s beguiling, simple ode to the planet we live on and maintaining that sense of grace over a fragile, gentle backdrop of acoustic guitar and shimmering percussion. Tempted to make this plaintive song a whole lot darker though you might have expected Gore to be, instead the sense of wonderment of the Sparks original is maintained, Gore even having a decent crack at Russell Mael’s falsetto, highlighting the lead Depeche Mode songwriter’s strong vocal range. Gore saves the darkness for his take on the traditional song ‘Motherless Child’, here cast as a edgy jazz number, the dark swing of Gore’s introspective vocal delivered like an unused track from Cabaret.

Counterfeit is a relatively unassuming record, considering how big Depeche Mode had become by this point. Gore’s emotional outpourings have always been popular with fans (check out the deafening cheers after one of Gore’s solo performances in the middle of a Depeche Mode stadium show), and hearing his effortless ownership of these six songs is one of the genuine highlights of his body of vocal work. A follow-up to this EP would be released by Mute in 2003 containing more unexpected reworkings of other bands’ material.

Track listing:

lp/cd/c:
A1. / 1. Compulsion
A2. / 2. In A Manner Of Speaking
A3. / 3. Smile In The Crowd
B1. / 4. Gone
B2. / 5. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
B3. / 6. Motherless Child

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mick Harvey – Sketches From The Book Of The Dead (Mute Records album, 2011)

Mick Harvey 'Sketches From The Book Of The Dead' CD artwork

mute artists | lp+cd/cd stumm329 | 02/05/2011

Unbelievably, despite being in his fifth decade of making music, this is Mick Harvey‘s first album of totally self-penned songs. Time spent in the bands of Nick Cave, Simon Bonney and PJ Harvey, plus all that time devoted to poring over the Serge Gainsbourg legacy for two albums, has evidently paid off; Sketches From The Book Of The Dead is an accomplished, yet understated, collection of eleven songs, all of which ruminate on death. The album was produced by Mick, who also plays guitars, piano, organ, electric bass and percussion. Harvey was also joined by Rosie Westbrook (double bass), J.P. Shilo (accordion, violin, electric guitar) and Xanthe Waite on backing vocals.

According to my new best friend Wikipedia ‘the Book of the Dead is the modern name of an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BC) to around 50 BC.’ So now you know.

Overt reference to the Book of the Dead, or at least Harvey’s version, comes in the lyrics of the opening track, ‘October Boy’, which was made available as a free mp3 a few months before the album was released. ‘If you’re writing a song for the Book of the Dead / Then write one, write one for me,‘ sings Harvey in the voice of the October Boy of the title, while a dark, filmic, almost Morricone-esque backdrop underpins the black tale of a man anointed with a ‘sonic gun‘ who takes ‘rock ‘n roll poison’; that October Boy is almost certainly Rowland S. Howard, departed to the afterlife in recent years, and whose birth month was October. It is an unopinionated obituary to one of Howard’s earliest musical allies, the writer of the haunting ‘Shivers’ and his co-creator of amazing sounds in The Birthday Party.

‘The Ballad Of Jay Givens’ will be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of Mute‘s Vorwärts compilation from earlier this year. This is Mick, with accompaniment from guitar, strings and organ, telling a dark tale of Givens, apparently his father’s best friend, a chap with a pretty dark and shady past. As a story set to music it’s absorbing and mysterious. ‘Two Paintings’ exists on a haunting musical tapestry of looping, often elegiac noise and mournful piano, depicting it seems, the separation from a loved one, featuring the descriptions of two paintings by Gustav Pillig. There are some truly moving moments in this song, particularly Mick’s wordless vocal harmonies at the very end. Pillig’s artwork adorns the sleeve and booklet, along with other paintings from Katy Beale.

‘Rhymeless’ is a clever, folksy piece whose verses are structured from fragments of well-known nursery rhymes. ‘All the songs that you never sang / To your little ones,‘ is a line which fills me with much regret. The song deals with children moving from being cherished to being effectively abandoned, neglected, deserted, forgotten, none of which I am remotely guilty of when it comes to my two wonderful daughters. But it does sadden me that my children seem to know the nursery rhymes that Harvey quotes from without me ever having once sung them those words. ‘Frankie T. & Frankie C.’ describes the love shared by the two characters of this song, a man and a woman both sharing the same first name; the way Harvey describes the spark shared between them reminds me of the way people of my grandparents’ generation might have described the first flushes of romance. Alas, the love of the two Frankies was to be short-lived, the death of Frankie C. leaving Frankie T. alone and mourning the loss of his beloved, finding himself spending his days longing after her and ultimately fading away in a bid to join her. While most of the backing has Harvey plucking elliptical patterns on his guitar over droning, carefully-sculpted sound, there are some fantastically heavy guitar crescendos at the end of the chorus.

In a neat play on words, ‘A Place Called Passion’ – a tale of someone lost during World War One – the front-line assault on Passchendaele and the word ‘passion’ are forced into an unhappy marriage, Harvey’s story of a relative who lost his life during the Great War evoked through the artefacts handed down to him – books bearing futile inscriptions from that relative’s parents pointing him toward a bright, but ultimately thwarted, future. This is the realities of conflict distilled into personal impact and significance. Like so many of the tracks on Sketches From The Book Of The Dead, ‘A Place Called Passion’ is extremely poignant. ‘To Each His Own’ is mysterious, a spoken-word poem of sorts over whining noise, with an intonation not unlike his former Bad Seeds bandmate Blixa Bargeld‘s spoken word pieces.

‘The Bells Never Rang’ is one of my personal favourite tracks, a ballad which takes us to Paris, rural Australia and Geneva over its three verses set to layers of strummed guitar that rise in intensity and urgency, only to drop away into a chorus of vocal harmonies and thin, reedy organ. This appears not to be a reflection on death of people per se, but on wasted opportunities, lost chances and relationships that fizzled out. ‘That’s All, Paul’ has a title that wouldn’t have gone amiss on one of Harvey’s Gainsbourg albums. Who Paul is we never know, but it would seem from the lyrics that young Paul, seemingly cut short in his prime, probably never really got to know himself either; Harvey is evidently bitter toward this pointless loss of life, which sounds as if it was caused by a single moment of recklessness. For that reason alone it reminds me of Rebel Without A Cause.

The album, fittingly, closes with the rousing single ‘Famous Last Words’, but it is preceded by one of the most evocative, moving love songs I’ve ever heard, ‘How Would I Leave You?’. Accordion, dramatic but sparse drums, piano and strummed guitars underpin Harvey reflecting on his attempts to leave somewhere (home?), his decision, or indecision, influenced by the wondrous nature he sees all around him. It all sounds idyllic, pristine, Walden-like, Harvey laconically and benevolently forced into inaction by the world he sees enveloping him.

Track listing:

lp+cd / cd:
1. October Boy
2. The Ballad Of Jay Givens
3. Two Paintings
4. Rhymeless
5. Frankie T. & Frankie C.
6. A Place Called Passion
7. To Each His Own
8. The Bells Never Rang
9. That’s All, Paul
10. How Do I Leave You?
11. Famous Last Words

First published 2011; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Sun Ra – Out There A Minute (Blast First album, 1989)

Sun Ra 'Out There A Minute' LP artwork

blast first / mute records | lp/cd bffp42 | 1989

Surely the best thing about running a record label must be the opportunity to release music that you love. Such is the case with Blast First head Paul Smith‘s release of three Sun Ra records via his label in the late Eighties and Nineties. That trio of releases – the CD/VHS set Cosmic Visions (which includes the legendary Space Is The Place film), a live album of Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra recorded in London and the compilation Out There A Minute – were all made possible, first and foremost, by Smith being a fan of Sun Ra’s body of work. The other reason was a sense of exasperation and disbelief that there were people out there who bought all the prior Blast First releases. His aversion to being seen as some sort of Factory-style ‘cult’ label, or even being regarded as a record label at all, again led to a focus on bands and artists that Smith was personally interested in.

‘Hence the Sun Ra and Glenn Branca releases,’ explains Smith by email. ‘Both have a connection and influence on, say, the music of Sonic Youth, but both were maybe not so obvious to people at the time. Thurston [Moore, Sonic Youth guitarist] was, even then, a big collector of Ra, and I’d seen the Arkestra play years before in London. They made a real impact on me – and who would not want to meet an Angel, and one from Saturn to boot? Anyway we had about twenty people send these two records back asking for a refund, which we happily gave them. Mission accomplished.’

Sun Ra’s legacy as an outsider jazzman, band-leader, synth pioneer and visitor from another planet is huge, as is his body of work across a multitude of labels. Collecting Ra records can be a daunting and extremely expensive task, which is why compilations like Out There A Minute are useful introductions to Sun Ra’s complex body of music. If you believe the official biography, Sun Ra was born Herman Poole ‘Sonny’ Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1914 and by his early teens was an impressive pianist, able to transcribe full works by ear after witnessing performances of the many jazz legends that performed in Birmingham on the US jazz touring circuit. By the mid-Thirties, Blount was leading his own band, insisting on rigorous practice and creating a disciplined, Calvinistic, work ethic that allowed his band to adapt to a number of jazz styles with ease.

The ‘other’ biography is much more interesting, and likely of much greater influence on the music that was issued by Sun Ra. After a couple of years of limited success with his band, Blount claimed to have been surrounded by a white light, which he followed, and which magically transported him to Saturn where a form of Angel spoke to him of impending chaos on Earth, encouraging him to preach peace through music, and replacing his corporeal form with that of a Saturnine Angel. During the course of his onward career, Sun Ra – as he became known from 1952 having legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra – would focus on a form of Afrofuturism, his Arkestra would wear Egyptian costumes on stage and his music would take on an astral dimension.

Whilst liner notes are absent (something jazz fans are pretty intolerant of generally), we know that the tracks that form Out There A Minute were recorded in New York at the Arkestra’s base near 42nd Street, a communal living and performance space that the band were forced to adopt because of Manhattan’s sky-high rents. The band were residents in New York from 1961 through to 1968, during which time they adopted more of a free improv style, currying favour with the beat poets and fans of psychedelia, but also getting frustrated by hecklers and a more universal concern that Sun Ra and his band were a bit too ‘far out’ for the jazz fraternity.

Out There A Minute comprises thirteen tracks from the end of the Arkestra’s New York period, personally compiled by Sun Ra from an archive of rare recordings. The recordings range from straight-up big band bop like ‘Dark Clouds With Silver Linings’ or ‘Lights Of A Satellite’, which showed that Sun Ra was still prepared to tap into more traditional (and more popular) jazz forms, through to some of the more intensely alien pieces. The Sun Ra Moog sound is here not quite developed, though some of the tracks have some distinctive and inventive early synth musings; predominantly Sun Ra deploys piano or organ lines here, nestled among John Gilmour‘s tenor sax and Marshall Allen‘s alto. In the jazz genre, it perhaps doesn’t feel quite so adventurous as the idea itself today, but these pieces undoubtedly have an otherworldly quality when compared with other music being wrought at the time. Tracks veer from polite, romantic musings such as the genteel but noisy ‘When Angels Speak Of Love’ to the scratchy whine of ‘Cosmo Enticement’ or ‘Next Stop Mars’. The playful, wobbly echoes of ‘Song Of Tree And Forest’ sounds like something that wouldn’t have gone amiss on the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey if Kubrick hadn’t decided to go all highbrow with his use of Ligeti. ‘Other Worlds’ is cloying, manic skronking, hammered pianos and wild percussion, truly out there playing with a playful, expansive reach.

Smith recalls meeting Ra and his band several times. ‘I even got to visit them in their commune in Philly, and once took him shopping on London’s Denmark Street where he picked up a “Heavy Metal” guitar pedal. Sunny had no idea about the musical genre, he just liked the name and started talking about the different physics on the home planet.’

‘I organised some dates, especially in the UK where he’d sort of lost his place with the jazz fraternity at that time,’ Smith recalls. ‘Sun Ra playing at The Mean Fiddler is what showed Vince Power that Camden Jazz Cafe could work! Sunny was a truly lovely soul. A fantastic and mischievous twinkle in his eyes all the time, and a lovely giggle. He was very anti-drug, and very strict with his band members. I remember introducing Thurston Moore to Sunny at the Bottom Line jazz club in New York – it was one of the few times I’ve seen him look freaked out at meeting someone.’

Sun Ra rejoined his Saturnine people in 1993, handing the baton to Marshall Allen, who leads the Arkestra to this day. Only a few of the original members survive, and Allen himself will turn ninety in a couple of years, but the unique band that Ra created continue to tour, the perfect living tribute to one of jazz music’s most celebrated but misunderstood geniuses.

On a personal level, there were two things that formed my still-developing interest and love of jazz. The first was a guy called Brian, a friend of the middle-aged couple that I lived with during my final year at university in Colchester in 1998. Brian was a big man, who I forever imagine now to look like Peter Brötzmann, and he absolutely loved jazz. Every summer he’d take himself off to european jazz festivals, and the few times he and I spoke, he enthused about the genre so much that it cemented in me a need to explore jazz much as I’d been drawn into punk two years earlier. Sadly Brian passed away that year and never managed to give me the recommendations he’d always intended to. The other influence was seeing this Sun Ra compilation listed in the Documentary Evidence pamphlet that ultimately inspired this site. At the time (1991), I had no idea who or what Ra was, and it wasn’t until I read a review of John F. Szwed’s book in The Wire around a year after Brian’s death that I began to appreciate his importance and also the sheer eclecticism of Smith’s label. It took me a few years to build up to delving into Ra’s back catalogue, but it didn’t disappoint when I finally did.

Thanks to Paul Smith.

Track listing:

lp/cd:
A1. / 1. Love In Outer Space
A2. / 2. Somewhere In Space
A3. / 3. Dark Clouds With Silver Linings
A4. / 4. Jazz And Romantic Sounds
A5. / 5. When Angels Speak Of Love
A6. / 6. Cosmo Enticement
B1. / 7. Song Of Tree And Forest
B2. / 8. Other Worlds
B3. / 9. Journey Outward
B4. / 10. Lights Of A Satellite
B5. / 11. Starships And Solar Boats
B6. / 12. Out There A Minute
13. Next Stop Mars (CD bonus track)

First published 2012; edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence