Rowland S. Howard – Pop Crimes (Liberation Music album, 2009)

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Listening, belatedly, to Pop Crimes, Rowland S. Howard‘s second solo album is hard to contemplate without considering that Howard was suffering with what would prove to be terminal liver cancer during its recording, passing away while promoting the LP. Nevertheless, that feeling of listening to a ghost aside, Pop Crimes stands as a strong final chapter in the musical career of an uncompromising musician whose work in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and beyond marked him out as an inventive guitarist and songwriter.

Pop Crimes contains six new Howard compositions, as well as covers of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin”. The album saw Howard working with JP Shilo (credited with guitar, violin and other general strangeness), bassist Brian Hooper (who also co-wrote the title track and appears on ‘Wayward Man’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’) and saw Howard reunited with former Boys Next Door / Birthday Party colleague Mick Harvey (here on drums and organ). Pop Crimes was produced by Lindsay Gravina.

In spite of his ailing health, Howard’s voice had rarely sounded so interesting, containing a gruff tenderness and the barest trace of a sneer at the very edge of his delivery, while his guitar playing drew on the same style of layered anti-playing – skeletal notes that descend into howling static – that made The Birthday Party’s axeman such a thrilling proposition. The two covers are cases in point. Covering Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s epic Eighties hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was always going to be a brave move, but Howard / Harvey / Shilo give it an added edge of grungy nihilism, stalking bass and droning organs augmenting a defiant, reflective but bitter Howard, the spaces in his vocal allowing his distinctive, subtle guitar riffs to feed through. As with all the best covers, Howard takes ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into new, uncharted territory, taking Talk Talk’s optimistic original and turning it into a darker, somewhat sinister paean to individualism. Meanwhile the cover of Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin” showcases Howard’s strangled vocal style, a world-weary but mysterious quality with doomed blues backing from Howard / Harvey / Shilo that sounds like a nag sluggishly bearing its rider back from unspeakable horrors.

Occasionally there are small moments of levity which leaves you with the impression that this LP isn’t uniformly misanthropic, even though it really is. Opener ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ is one. A duet with Jonnine Standish of Australian Blast First Petite band HTRK, ‘A Girl Called Jonny’ is an occasionally joyous, mostly dark Phil Spector-esque ballad with simple organ and drums, and gentle bass from HTRK’s Sean Stewart (who was found dead in the spring of 2010). Howard’s vocal weaves alongside Standish’s detached own while whining guitar drifts alongside. ‘Pop Crimes’ is another. The album’s title track consists of ponderous bass, guitarwork that straddles Howard’s punk-blues licks from ‘Nick The Stripper’ and the searing feedback / noise of ‘The Friendcatcher’ while Harvey’s drums contain a jazzy swing which has that effect of lightening the mood ever so slightly. I have no idea what the lyrics are on about, but it’s delivered with a sense of muted anger by Howard and so I guess he’s railing at the pop music industry somehow.

Elsewhere there is a sense of the personal drifting into the songwriting. ‘Wayward Man’, with its great wedges of metronomic bass and carefully-wrought feedback, has lyrics that find Howard resignedly accepting that he can’t be the wayward man whoever he’s singing to wants him to be. The whole thing hints at rage, at darkness, like an updating of Leonard Cohen’s sinister ‘I’m Your Man’. Likewise, ‘Ave Maria’, which is an introverted, quiet and sorrowful piece, all fragile percussion and gentle layers of guitar, organ and plucked bass. The piece has a filmic, emotional quality, marking it out as a low-key but tear-jerkingly moving highlight of Pop Crimes. As the music fades away, Howard closes the track with the words ‘we didn’t dance upon our wedding day’, singly the most regretful thing I’ve yet heard in a song. Then again, this is the man that wrote ‘Shivers’, perhaps the most beautifully depressing song ever written.

The album was supported posthumously by ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is a wry, apocalyptic piece that is strangely cynical at times; white hot feedback is draped laconically across and through an bleak, sparse backdrop. It’s hardly the most optimistic way to close out an album, but if you had terminal cancer, with no liver transplant on offer, I wonder how cheerful you would be.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Barry Adamson, Anita Lane & The Thought System Of Love – These Boots Were Made For Walking (Mute Records single, 1991)

Barry Adamsn, Anita Lane and The Thought System Of Love 'These Boots Were Made For Walking' artwork

mute records | mute119 | 1991

This version of Lee Hazlewood’s hit – made famous by Nancy Sinatra – is an absolute stone cold classic, as they may have said in the 1970s. On Terry Donovan’s 7″ mix, those immediately-recognisable descending bass notes that herald the original are here complimented by piano and a deep dub-inflected hip hop beat. Barry Adamson adds a string section and a funk guitar where the Sinatra version quickened the pace with a rather cheesy horn section. Anita Lane‘s vocal is typically excellent, archly naïve and seductive all at once, somehow colouring the sparse arrangement perfectly.

On the other remix front, Renegade Soundwave departee Karl Bonnie‘s ‘Bonnie Floats On Airwair’ mix – aided superbly by Holger Hiller with additional noises from then-Orb member and onetime Fortran 5 accomplice Kris ‘Thrash’ Weston – ratchets up the bass levels and adds some pulsating electro percussion, pushing this into heavy digital dub territory, with all the aplomb expected from the assembled trio. The mix also makes full use of some sterling slide guitar work from ex-Birthday Party man Rowland S. Howard. John Waddell adds all manner of new elements – a fragile synth melody and soulful sax – and in so doing turns the track into a blissed out groove somewhat reminiscent of The Beloved, recalling the chilled-out Balearic vibe of the time.

Adamson’s own ‘Go Johnny’ blends two strands of his distinctive style – spiralling orchestration and jazzy bop laced through with samples and abrasive noises. The track kicks off with some meditative organ lines before diving headlong into a Bernard Herrmann-esque chase theme with a beat that doesn’t know if it’s bop or rockers reggae. Both ‘Go Johnny’ and the original cover of ‘These Boots…’ feature on the celebrated Fine Line soundtrack to Delusion.

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – The Tyranny Of The Beat (The Grey Area Of Mute album, 1991)

Various Artists 'The Tyranny Of The Beat - Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area' CD artwork

the grey area of mute | cd agrey1 | 1991

The Tyranny Of The Beat – Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area was a 1991 compilation issued by Mute to showcase releases from its Grey Area sub-label. The Grey Area specialised in reissuing the back catalogues of Cabaret Voltaire (their Rough Trade releases), Can, Throbbing Gristle (plus various Industrial Records acolytes), Graeme Revell‘s SPK and many others. The label also became home to early albums by artists that had been signed to Mute, such as Nick Cave‘s pre-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door, D.A.F., Wire and Einstürzende Neubauten.

The reissue programme conducted by Mute through The Grey Area inevitably produced a varied counterpoint to the releases issued through the main Mute imprint, through Paul Smith‘s hugely diverse Blast First (which itself, at times, also reissued plenty of older material) and NovaMute. Alongside The Fine Line, specialising predominantly in soundtracks for TV, film and theatre, The Grey Area represented a hugely interesting opportunity to hear some out-of-print releases on CD for the first time.

There days, at least nominally, The Grey Area no longer exists. Can reissues have never officially carried the logo, and whilst Mute remains the custodian of the seminal Cologne unit’s back catalogue, it is done in partnership with Can’s own Spoon imprint; Cabaret Voltaire’s latest reissue programme through Mute is done through the main label and consequently all releases now carry stumm catalogue codes, and Throbbing Gristle effectively bought back their work to reopen the doors of Industrial Records. The opportunity to reinvigorate The Grey Area upon securing the opportunity to reissue the Swans back catalogue in 2014, alongside the Cabs programme, feels like something of a missed opportunity.

The Tyranny Of The Beat then serves as a useful overview of what The Grey Area were up to at this point in the early Nineties. A small four-page flyer inside the sleeve highlighted just how comprehensive the reissue programme undertaken by Mute was through the sub-label – after all, they were effectively re-releasing whole or sizeable elements of back catalogues, not sporadic releases. The flyer also included some items that were planned for releases but which have never materialised – chief among these was the Robert Rental / The Normal live album recorded at West Runton, which Rough Trade had released in 1980 as a one-sided LP.

The sleeve also features liner notes from Biba Kopf, famed NME journalist and currently (under his real name Chris Bohn) the editor of The Wire. Kopf also wrote the copy for the Documentary Evidence brochure which inspired this site.

The breadth of music included in sampler form on The Tyranny Of The Beat is impressive, taking in the grubby pulse of TG’s live track ‘See You Are’, their Industrial signees Monte Cazazza with the truly horrible ‘Candyman’, a bit of early electro from the Cabs, the detached punk of Swell Maps‘ brilliant ‘Midget Submarines’, the similarly aquatic ‘Our Swimmer’ by Wire (still one of their best Seventies pieces), a truly ethereal piece by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert / Graham Lewis as Dome with A.C. Marias and the still-devastating Rowland S. Howard-penned ‘Shivers’ by The Boys Next Door. Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’ – one of Daniel Miller‘s personal favourite tracks – provides a rhythmic counterweight to the urgent mechanical production-line beats of Neubauten’s ‘Tanz Debil’ and Die Krupps‘s ‘Wahre Arbeit, Whare Lohn’. Dark relief comes in the form of SPK’s ‘In Flagrante Delicto’, a track which suggests Graeme Revell was always destined to compose the scores for spooky, suspense-filled films like The Craft.

Like a lot of sampler albums, The Tyranny Of The Beat can sound a little uneven, and whilst a lot of these bands were part of common scenes – industrial, punk, the terribly-named Krautrock – it would have been a pretty weird festival if this was the line-up.

Kopf’s liner notes deserve a mention, if only for the way that he positions the concept of a grey area as a place that people run to for escape or as a means of consciously assaulting musical norms, a place that both acted as a reaction against the regimentation of beats and simultaneously gave birth to the repetitive rhythms of techno. ‘In The Grey Area you get the sense of limits being pushed up against and breached,’ he says, and even now, listening to Genesis P. Orridge deliver a maniacal vocal over corruscating waves of sinister noise from a distance of thirty-five years, or Monte Cazazza’s detached multi-channel reportage of a serial killer’s victims and the nauseatingly vivid listing of the savagery he put those victims through, you can see exactly where Kopf was coming from.

Track listing:

cd:
1. SPK ‘In Flagrante Delicto’
2. Throbbing Gristle ‘See You Are (Live, The Factory July 1979)’
3. Cabaret Voltaire ‘Automotivation’
4. Chris Carter ‘Solidit (Edit)’
5. Die Krupps ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahre Lohn’
6. D.A.F. ‘Co Co Pina’
7. Einstürzende Neubauten ‘Tanz Debil’
8. NON ‘Cruenta Voluptas’
9. Can ‘Oh Yeah’
10. Wire ‘Our Swimmer (Live, Notre Dame Hall July 1979)’
11. Swell Maps ‘Midget Submarines’
12. The Boys Next Door ‘Shivers’
13. Dome ‘Cruel When Complete’
14. Monte Cazazza ‘Candyman’
15. The Hafler Trio ‘A Thirsty Fish / The Dirty Fire’

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Anita Lane – Dirty Pearl (Mute Records album, 1993)

Anita Lane 'Dirty Pearl' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd stumm81 | 10/1993

Dirty Pearl is a rag-bag collection of newly-recorded Anita Lane tracks produced by Mick Harvey as well as older material, the entire Dirty Sings EP and collaborations with Die Haut, Einstürzende Neubauten, Barry Adamson and The Birthday Party. The album is as much a collection of Lane’s work as it is a showcase for the seemingly unlikely cross-pollination of scenes that emerged when The Birthday Party moved from Australia to the UK, followed by a brief and fortuitous sojourn in Berlin; that productive Kreuzberg stop-over was responsible for Nick Cave‘s Bad Seeds being swelled by the likes of Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld and Die Haut’s Thomas Wydler, as well as some of Cave’s most inventive and inspired early musical work.

The collection covers the period 1982 to 1993 and presents the tracks in reverse chronological order. Overall, the compilation shows just how integral Lane was to the whole scene that formed between London and Berlin in the mid-Eighties, with characters such as Chrislo Haas and Adamson appearing on various tracks. As Nick Cave’s girlfriend and muse, Lane co-wrote a number of The Birthday Party’s songs, including the likes of ‘Dead Joe’, and was credited as a founding member of Cave’s subsequent Bad Seeds though her participation in the group was never exactly clear. What’s also immediately apparent from this collection is just how little music Lane has herself released – over half of Dirty Pearl was already released by the time this compilation was released, and Lane would only come to release her first (and to date only) ‘proper’ LP in 2002 with Sex O’Clock. Whilst Dirty Pearl provides a comprehensive overview of Lane’s music, one notable omission is 1991’s collaboration with Adamson on the excellent cover of Lee Hazlewood’s ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’ which Adamson crafted for his Delusion soundtrack.

Opening track (and therefore most recent) ‘Jesus Almost Got Me’ is a countrified, Triffids-esque song of drunkenness, cruel love and regret, beautifully carried forward on Harvey’s sensitive drumming and ‘Evil’ Graham Lee’s genteel slide guitar. Immersed in the background are spirals of grainy feedback and some lovely vocal harmonies from Harvey. ‘Jesus Almost Got Me’ has a tired, resigned quality to it. In contrast, ‘The Groovy Guru’ is a funky, psychedelic trip, filled with wild face-melting guitar and wayward organ creating a vibe that felt about twenty-five years old too late, the lyrics describing a sort of pervy Cassanova character with a number of Satanic traits.

The cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ was produced by Mick Harvey with artist Johannes Beck and Sven Röhrig, finding Lane cooing girlishly over a sick, phasing breakbeat, shimmering vibes from Barry Adamson and some leaden (and less-than-romantic) backing vocals from Beck and Moritz Wolpert. At times Lane sings with a strained needfulness that can feel quite uncomfortable at times, but it’s quite hard to think of this as being too serious. Both ‘Blume’ (from Neubauten’s Tabula Rasa LP) and ‘Subterranean World (How Long…?)’ (from Die Haut’s Head On) highlight how well Lane’s voice matches Blixa Bargeld’s distinctive own. Bargeld’s transition from the howling, shredded vocal style displayed on Neubaten’s earliest material to the sensitive, half-spoken, almost Scott Walker-esque voice of their later material is continually surprising, and that softer side shines through on these two songs. ‘Subterranean World’, with its duet chorus of ‘How long have we known each other now?‘ brings to mind those clips in romantic films where couples explain to camera how long they have been together, except that by the end of this darkly humorous song Lane and Bargeld decide that they’ve never actually met before.

‘Picture Of Mary’ is an atmospheric piece written with Bargeld, dominated by Lane’s ghostly singing and a backdrop of dramatic piano, mournful violin and jangly Latin guitars (from Blixa) which threaten to swell up in the mix but never quite do. The only thing that lets this track down is Lane’s vaguely tuneless musings which bring to mind some of Nico’s material, but that is more than made up for by the intricate backdrop. Latin guitars and strings also colour the maudlin ‘Stories Of Your Dreams’, which possesses a strong narrative and theatrical mood. The song was co-written with Neubuaten’s Alexander Hacke, who also plays guitars on the song, while Crime And The City Solution founding member Bronwyn Adams plays violin.

The CD release of Dirty Pearl also includes ‘A Prison In The Desert’ by Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Bargeld, taken from their soundtrack to Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead. The piece sees Lane mostly wordlessly singing over a backdrop of droning strings, industrial sounds and high-pitched noises, her voice providing a gentle counterpoint to what is otherwise a reasonably harrowing piece of music, a bit like a Graeme Revell soundtrack.

Eschewing all the released tracks from The Birthday Party canon that Lane contributed to, Dirty Pearl instead offers ‘The Fullness Of His Coming’, an unreleased track which features Lane on lead vocals, serving as strong reminder of why The Birthday Party were a musical force to be reckoned with at the start of the Eighties. The song is dominated by grinding guitar riffs from Rowland S. Howard that sounds like they might have been fed through an organ, Tracy Pew‘s ludicrously prominent bass and insistent and quickening drums from Mick Harvey. Lane murmurs and squirms provocatively through the track, particularly as the pace begins to quicken, the assembled Party members providing a nasty mantra of the track’s title while Lane writhes rapturously in the foreground.

Track listing:

lp/cd:
A1. / 1. Jesus Almost Got Me
A2. / 2. The Groovy Guru
A3. / 3. Sexual Healing
A4. / 4. Blume (Einstürzende Neubauten feat. Anita Lane)
B1. / 5. Subterranean World (How Long…?) (Die Haut feat. Anita Lane)
B2 / 6. Picture Of Mary
B3. / 7. The World’s A Girl
B4. / 8. Stories Of Your Dreams
9. A Prison In The Desert (Nick Cave / Mick Harvey / Blixa Bargeld feat. Anita Lane) – CD bonus track
10. If I Should Die – CD bonus track
11. I’m A Believer – CD bonus track
12. Lost In Music – CD bonus track
13. Sugar In A Hurricane – CD bonus track
B5. / 14. The Fullness Of His Coming (The Birthday Party feat. Anita Lane)

First published 2012; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The Birthday Party – Mutiny / The Bad Seed EP (4AD EP, 1983)

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4ad | cd cad301cd | 1983

I’ve always been of the opinion that if an artist or band is going to make a final statement, then it should be well-executed and tightly-delivered. This holds true for The Birthday Party’s final two EPs, which are collected together onto this single CD by 4AD. The Bad Seed (originally released as a 12″ on the band’s UK home of many years, 4AD) and Mutiny (originally released on Mute) were both recorded at the famous Hansa Studios in Berlin and produced by the band themselves, with uncredited assistance from Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld.

By now the erstwhile drummer Phil Calvert was long disposed with in favour of Mick Harvey; Rowland S. Howard became the sole guitarist and the creative dynamic had shifted toward the writing partnership of Nick Cave and Harvey (with the exception of the opener, ‘Sonny’s Burning’, the last track written by all four members of the group). The sound is raw and urgent, but well-honed and less prone to excess, while still retaining enough of the rough edge that set The Birthday Party apart from their contemporaries.

‘Wild World’ stands out as a highlight, blessed by its sludgy blues ethic and restrained vocal performance from Cave, whose vocal has become more direct and confident throughout this awesome collection. Tracy Pew’s bass is close-mic’d to allow the resonant twang of the strings to be heard. Elsewhere, Howard’s guitar is fed through numerous effects boxes, in particular deploying his famous ‘infinite reverb’ on several tracks, which allowed cycles of feedback to spiral, ebb and flow. While recorded no doubt at the height if the band’s drug abuse, the collection is markedly more controlled than Junkyard, as if recorded in a brief moment of lucidity. Nothing is more true of this approach than the final track, ‘Mutiny In Heaven’ (featuring Bargeld on guitar), which sees the band playing with studio effects with Cave’s vocal lines overlapping and multi-tracked, while the guitars are processed into ringing bells of sound. ‘If this is heaven I’m bailing out,‘ sings Cave. The Party was nearly over, and Cave thus signalled that the last guest should leave. ‘Mutiny In Heaven’ deals with the concept of euphoric God-like feelings following a hit of smack, but I’m not clear on whether it glorifies or condemns it. More extreme than the Velvet Underground’s opium hymn, ‘Heroin’, ‘Mutiny In Heaven’ has an edge that is as marvellous as it is malevolent.

Two previously-unreleased demos from the Mutiny sessions are included on the CD – ‘The Six Strings That Drew Blood’ (a totally different track from that which later appeared on Cave’s The Firstborn Is Dead) and ‘Avalanche Of Sound’, both of which are stripped and raw and perfect even as unfinished works.

Although a year away, Bargeld’s appearance on the final track heralded the approach of The Bad Seeds, the band Cave formed around Bargeld and Harvey. As final statements go, this stacks up very higly indeed, leaving you unsure as to whether it’s enough as it is or whether you’re in need of more.

Track listing:

cd:
1. Sonny’s Burning
2. Wildworld
3. Fears Of Gun
4. Deep In The Woods
5. Jennifer’s Veil
6. Six Strings That Drew Blood
7. Say A Spell
8. Swampland
9. Pleasure Avalanche
10. Mutiny In Heaven

First published 2004; edited 2012; re-edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence