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

R-7612706-1475334023-8975.jpeg

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

Advertisements

Various Artists – The Vox Spring Collection (covermount album, 1999)

Various Artists 'The Spring Collection' CD artwork

vox | cd sc99 | 06/1999

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention Mute acts appearing on covermount cassettes or CDs on this blog unless a track was an exclusive mix or edit, or if the compilation itself was Mute-focussed. However, whilst clearing out old CDs recently I came upon this one, which I’ve always loathed because of its sleeve, and inside the sleeve I found two clippings from the issue of the long-defunct Vox that this came with (June 1999).

The clippings were taken from the customary page in the magazine that described the tracks, and included explanatory comments from Nick Cave and Barry Adamson on the songs that were included on the album (‘Red Right Hand’ from Cave’s best-of, and ‘Jazz Devil’ from Adamson’s As Above, So Below). These have been reproduced below, mainly because I thought they were quite useful to retain. Also reproduced are the comments from the liner notes to the CD itself.

The CD also includes ‘Suzy Parker’ by The Hybirds, Richard Warren‘s pre-Echoboy band who had just released their debut album on Heavenly. The liner notes for that have also been reproduced (one wonders what the band made of the ‘dadrock’ comment), but as I had no idea that Warren would metamorphose into Mute’s Echoboy, I never bothered to keep the magazine notes on this song. The inclusion of The Hybirds on this CD in turn prompts the recollection that I caught the tail end of a live set by the band at Colchester Arts Centre on 16 February 1997. The band were supporting Beth Orton, who at the time was my then-girlfriend’s favourite singer. A bunch of us went to watch Orton at our local music venue; it was supposed to be our first Valentine’s weekend together, but instead we seemed to spend most of that weekend either apart or in the company of sundry friends of hers. Consequently I approached the Orton gig, and the Hybirds songs I heard, with a degree of disdain and over-critical resentment.

Nick Cave ‘Red Right Hand’

Sleeve: Originally from Let Love In, perhaps Cave’s finest LP, this also (rather bizarrely) appeared on the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack. ‘You’re just a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan‘ moans Old Nick in this semi-comically melodramatic take on Stephen King’s The Stand.

Magazine: ‘I had a really wild band then, the best I’d ever had. They could all play, but they were ragged and raw, too. With The Birthday Party there was blues, soul and country, but it was all exploded, there was no kind of respect for anything. It was a machine that was whirling in its own direction and nobody knew what was happening really. The same musical influences are there, but now we respect then more, hold then truer.’

Barry Adamson ‘Jazz Devil’

Sleeve: He played with Magazine, Pete Shelley, and with Nick Cave in The Bad Seeds. Then he went solo to delve deeper into blues / soul / torch / pop / pretty much everything else and somehow remained cool throughout. This is as new as it gets.

Magazine: ‘People talk about the devil as some trickster, a cunning little devil. As far as the darker stuff on the album [As Above, So Below] goes, I wanted to be completely bleak and then relieve it with a humorous look at the dark side with this character that is destined to always be on earth.’

The Hybirds ‘Suzy Parker’

Sleeve: A crazy stream-of-consciouness tribute to the 60s model, and a prime cut from this increasingly popular, thrillingly realist Mansfield band’s eponymously-titled *****-rated debut LP. Dadrock simmering in youthful bile.

(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

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)

Image

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