In America, the term “think tank” has connotations with the hard right. The words “conservative think tank ___” often preface a sobering news story about why it’s such a great idea to cut taxes on the 1% or keep the minimum wage well below $15 USD
I don’t know why Blur – not an American band, certainly – chose to entitle its 2003 collection of world music and nervous breakdown freak-outs Think Tank, but to this American, it has delicious irony. In track 0 (I’ll explain in a minute), guest Phil Daniels even says: “This is England, this ain’t America for fuck’s sake.”
The Iraq War had just started when Think Tank was released. Blur’s Damon Albarn had worked with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and others to protest against UK involvement. The songs on Think Tank obviously predate the conflict, although they came to life in the geopolitcally tense years of 2001 and 2002, when Afghanistan was under siege and planning for Iraq was underway.
Blur also lost guitarist Graham Coxon during this time, and rather than replace him they continued on a trio. In light of the band’s growing directionlessness on 1999’s 13 and its forgettable “Music is my Radar” from 2000’s Best of Blur, though, the change was welcome. Blur could finally stop trying to be Pavement or the anti-Oasis.
Think Tank is nothing like the rest of Blur’s catalog. It has Moroccan instrumentation, sax all over the place, two of the longest songs the group ever recorded, and only minimal guitar. Nothing on it seems like a single, from a band that once released a whole box set of them.
I remember Think Tank as the last album that mattered to me as physical item, for two reasons. First, its artwork, done by Banksy, was a pleasure to hold and look it. Second, its U.S. CD version also had a pregap track – a song hidden before track 1, that could only be discovered by rewinding the CD from the very start. It took me 3 months to figure out it was there. We’ve lost a lot in the transition from LPs and CDs to MP3s and Spotify.
That track, “Me, White Noise” changes the entire album’s flow and message. Rather than start with the squelching “Ambulance,” the journey begins with some sneaky, not-quite-house rhythms and the surprisingly cynical commentary of Phil Daniels, who 9 years earlier had provided the classic narration on “Parklife,” one of Blur’s most memorable songs.
It’s one of the only Blur songs to contain profanity, and it’s stuffed with lyrical gems, including “so you look at the wall and what does the wall say? ‘i ain’t a mirror, fuck off!'” It slinks and snakes through almost 7 minutes, rising to an echoey, multitracked, frenetic chorus (“You’re boring!”), and then retreats into the opening squalor of “Ambulance,” only after Albarn has been reduced to ranting and Daniels to talking about how he’d use a gun if he could get one.
The rest of the songs aren’t nearly so aggressive, although “Crazy Beat” (the weakest number by far – almost an alternative take of “Song 2”) and the delightfully desertified “We’ve Got a File on You” stand out for their upfront mixes. Most of the tunes are subdued, but their subtlety shouldn’t be mistaken for sameness. Blur touch upon African-influenced pop (“Caravan,” “Out of Time”), free jazz (“Jets”), funk (“Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”), trip-hop (“On My Way to the Club”), and Primal Scream-esque tails (“Brothers & Sisters”). There’s also “Good Song” and “Sweet Song,” both of which live up to their titles by snaking through various chord and arrangement changes.
Overall, Think Tank feels like a dream of peace intermittently interrupted by flashes of nightmare, from the NSA/GCHQ paranoia of “We’ve Got a File on You” to the post-everything wasteland of “Me, White Noise.” Even the roughness of “Crazy Beat” and the haze of “Jets” show a creeping panic at the edges of the album.
By the time it all ends with Coxon’s lone contribution on “Battery in Your Leg,” you’ve probably forgotten that Blur made it through the previous 13 tracks without him. The song’s interplay of Fripp-like guitar textures and piano is quintessential 70s and as such in step with the album’s other Bowie/Eno/Clash touchpoints.
But it’s Think Tank’s awkward flow that endures. Its transitions from quiet to loud, from commercialism to introspection, and from one genre exercise to the next, is unified by its desert atmosphere and strange anxiety. That makes Think Tank quintessentially 00s and as good a representation as any of the the Iraq War’s impact beyond the battlefield and on culture.
Primal Scream once entitled a song “Bomb the Pentagon,” before 9/11 happened. By 2002, it had morphed into a mediocre stomper called “Rise,” and the legendary Scottish band was never the same.
See, from 1999 to 2001, Primal Scream were angry and politically prescient. That’s a rare combination, a glass of ice water in a hell of Rage Against the Machines.
Plus, despite their name, The Primal Scream (as they were dubbed on records from this period) weren’t/aren’t always a noisy band. Prior to the 2000s, they were most famous for an LP called Screamadelica, which was chock-full of gospel rockers and slight synth plinking. I never got into it, but it was a seminal record in the UK house scene and it set the stage for Britpop’s subtle mixture of rock and dance. The group followed it up with a terrible, Stones-y album of boogie rock with the Confederate battle flag on the cover (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up).
XTRMNTR was the anti-Screamdelica. Just look at that opener – “Kill All Hippies.” The moment when the synths finally kick in after the sample dialogue intro is one of those Album Moments (like the first drums on Nevermind, or the opening notes of “Come Together” on Abbey Road) when you know that something good is underway. It’s loud, it’s ballsy, and it sounds good, without the excessive dynamic range compression that makes so much music unbearable.
I got XTRMNTR in the mail on a rainy day in early 2003, when I came home from school after vomiting in the hallway outside history class. So I got listen to Bobby Gillespie shout “sick, sick, fuck” at the end of “Pills” for the first time while actually sick. This album will always be with me, having engrained itself so vividly into my mind and my body on that January day.
11 years later, what sticks with me about XTRMNTR is how it manages to be both catchy as hell and, improbably, a proper assimilation of jazz (one that’s not stuffy or rambling at all). “Swastika Eyes” has a melody and bassline that cannot be forgotten (and that production! Jagz Kooner pulls his best saber of paradise for this cut) – try going around humming it some day and see what kinds of reactions you get (it’s an anti-fascist song, but easily misunderstood out of context). It’s only minutes separated from “Blood Money,” which is just about as good as a rock band can do in getting to 1970s Miles Davis. Then there’s MBV Arkestra, a jazzed-up remake of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” from 1997’s Vanishing Point.
What kind of band could make “autosuggestion psychology/elimination policy” a hummable couplet with first-rate musical backing? One with a first-rate cast. In addition to the core members, Primal Scream assembled a who’s who of 80s and 90s rock and electronica – Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Gary Mounfield (The Stone Roses), The Chemical Brothers, half of the Two Lone Swordsmen (Keith Tenniswood).
XTRMNTR has its foot on the pedal the whole way through, except for the peaceful respite “Keep Your Dreams,” which is easily the most gorgeous song they’ve come up with. It’s anger, but versatile anger – in addition to the aforementioned edgy jazz, there’s scuzzy distortion rock (“Accelerator”), bass-driven nightmares (“Exterminator,” “Insect Royalty”), angry faux hip-hop (“Pills”) and something that defies all categorization (the awesomely futuristic “Shoot Speed Kill Light”).
Even though I’m a writer by trade, I often give lyrics a pass when I review music. But here, Primal Scream does real work with its words. Look at “Exterminator”:
Gun metal skies
Exterminate the underclass
Exterminate the telepaths
No civil disobedience
This album came out at the height of the U.S. dot-com boom (early 2000) and on the eve of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and its lyric sheet can be read as a compelling document signifying that the blissful 1990s were finally over in the West.
I didn’t place it in that context since I didn’t listen to it at all until 2003, but looking at it now I can see it as not only a commentary on the violent currents running beneath the peace and prosperity of the 90s, but as a predictor of the recent age of inequality. “Exterminate the underclass” has been the implicit goal of years of policy on both sides of the Atlantic, while “no civil disobedience” is the unwritten slogan of an era in which politics are brushed under the rug of subtly normative concepts like “innovation,” “solutions,” and “disruption.” Even the seemingly throwaway “English high-rise” has economic undertones, plus added weight in light of the growing movement for Scottish independence.
Later in 2000, fellow Britons (for now) Radiohead released Kid A, which topped numerous best of the 00s albums lists and was heralded as the Last Real Album (I think this claim is hard to quantify). I didn’t hear Kid A until after I had spun XTRMNTR countless times, and Radiohead’s “masterpiece” sounded so slight in comparison.
It wasn’t just the sound quality and production and songwriting, either – it was the entire approach. Kid A has been lauded for its commentary on pre-millennial angst and the vague “computer age” (picking up the torch from 1997’s OK Computer), but it’s basically a blank canvas that isn’t political in any discernible fashion. XTRMNTR isn’t specific enough to seem dated, yet still not so generalist that it ends up meaning all things to all people. If we’re discussing the scarier implications of an age of robots, automation, surveillance, advanced AI, and big data, it’s worth it to look at them as political creations, with human authors seeking fame and money, rather than immutable forces that just materialized out of the ether.
Primal Scream did that in a way that Radiohead didn’t. But that’s the least of XTRMNTR‘s merits. Listening to it again yesterday for the first time in years, it seemed fresh, and angry in an evergreen way that so much angry music – which is almost always exhausting – isn’t. Keeping the dream (alive), indeed.
Kentucky is blue, and not just because of the countless shirts, caps and jackets adorned with the colors of the University of Kentucky. The grass is blue in select parts of the Bluegrass State. Down along the EST/CST divide near Greensburg, the sky over its knobs is azure well into the night.
La Roux means The Red in the English. I first heard both of The Red’s albums in The Bluest of states, Kentucky, five years apart in different towns.
La Roux’s 2009 debut was a labored nod to the 1980s, an attempt to bow politely in spite of one’s rogue quiff and stiff suit. Its “Bulletproof” improbably blared out of the blue on the speakers of a Lexington bar, while I drank Old Rasputin and chatted with two mathematicians. My blonde hair stood up just like ton the album cover.
Its hooks got under the skin, but aside from opener “In the Kill” and the pouting “I’m Not Your Toy,” no other song on the self-titled LP registered. Listening to it sober was no different than hearing it inebriated; one long, sub-Working for a Nuclear Free City haze, the Reagan/Thatcher years filtered through the “Flashdance” soundtrack rather than The Stone Roses or Grace Jones.
It was the typical 2009 pop record given that just like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (remember “Bad Romance”?) it was basically one monster sleek single, surrounded by material that was consciously retro. Just as Gaga mined Queen, La Roux excavated deep Eurythmics and Duran Duran album tracks.
While on vacation in Kentucky last week, I sat down and listened to La Roux’s belated follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, in one sitting, which I hadn’t sadly done with any other album in more than a month (the last being Deadmau5’s spectacular While 1 2). The sky was clear, there were clinking bottles or talk of real analysis in a crowded room; down home sapphire paradise gave Paradise a rapt audience of one.
The first thing you notice about La Roux’s sophomore effort is the guitar. The rhythm playing on “Uptight Downtown,” by Elly Jackson herself (now the sole proprietor of the La Roux enterprise,) imparts a muscularity that would have seemed gauche 5 years ago, amid all those cold, maudlin synth lines on La Roux. The six-string is a mainstay throughout, and Jackson’s scratchy rhythm playing is sometimes complemented by intricate picking.
Its momentum, started by the opening guitar work, never subsides. The production is open and spacious, with ample room for echoey Caribbean tones and full-bodied guitar, bass and drums. It’s a bit more 1970s than 1980s, with shades of Van Dyke Parks’ silly Discover America in particular and an AOR vibe in general – even the deep cuts are hooky. This is Rumours for synthpop.
“Kiss and Not Tell” (are you getting the clever titles yet?) throws a ton of shit into the mix – piano runs, synth-like guitar, guitar-like synth, prominent bass, multi-tracked vocals (Jackson’s voice is much better utilized here than on La Roux), and yet it never sounds dense. There’s room galore for all that Caribbean (Hawaiian? oh yeah, “Hawaiian breeze” – there it is on “Paradise is You”) air. The music is tight yet there’s space all around.
With the first two tracks so taut and thrilling, the third track, “Cruel Sexuality,” swoops in to loosen things up. For a while, anyway. It takes a left turn into a catchy chant midway through and then slowly weaves the original hook – also memorable – back into the mix. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night?” could be a sentiment for the album’s song structure transitions and balance of breeze and bravado.
There is some sameness throughout, which Pitchfork noted in its somewhat negative review. “Sexotheque” (again with the titles!) uses the rhythm guitar + synth + tropicalia formula from “Kiss and Not Tell,” but it has its own fantastic hook (the same goes for the epic “Silent Partner,” which one-ups Flock of Seagulls). Jackson’s vocal hooks help differentiate these songs. She even dredges up a Grace Jones sample to give extra smokiness to the already sultry “Tropical Chancer” (my favorite of the album’s wordplay titles).
And look at that: there are a mere 9 tracks on this album, with no Best Buy/iTunes/digital exclusives, remixes, or bonus discs. It clocks in at only 41 minutes; it could be an LP! There are two tracks more than 5 minutes long, with one over 7 minutes long. This is a classicist album from an artist who half a decade ago seemed like just another post-album singles act. I hope the next one isn’t five years off.
“Technology” is a problematic term. Like “problematic,” it has a specific Greek etymology that, when scrutinized (a pastime of mine), reveals it to be distressingly vague in its meaning. Anything that is artful or crafted (techné) can be “technological.” So why limit this blog to the “traditional” (I really should cut back on the scare-marks in this blog) space of gadgets and apps, when there’s a whole world out there waiting to come under the “technological” (oops) lens of scrutiny? And what better to analyze than The Knife’s long-awaited triple/double album, Shaking the Habitual? Since it comes in a handy 3xLP/2xCD package (in Europe, if you’re lucky), it even bridges the divide between the digital and analog worlds (even such “worlds” even exist) while unfurling over an hour and a half of new original content.
But it’s more fascinating as an artifact from a cutting-edge (heh) band who have tapped one of the hoariest formats of music’s yesteryear (the gatefold double album) to contend with and combat, if even unintentionally (as if intent matters, but whatever), the current business models of music, which gives less reward for more work. In doing so, they use their enormous, obvious effort (a double album! seven years in the making!) to highlight, both implicitly and explicitly, Europe’s own ongoing issues with labor and shared currency.
The Knife are (this British noun/verb agreement structure seems appropriate here) an enormously accomplished band, and, really, their success could hardly have been more surprising. Aesthetically, the Swedish twins traffic in a brand of frenzied yet strangely introverted techno. At its heart is Karin Dreijer Andersson’s protean voice and the way it floats unsettlingly over the duo’s electronic stew, which seems to occupy the precise boundary at which fairytale-grade Scandinavian forest meets (obscure) nightclub: earnestly rustic, yet hipster, too.
As such, The Knife are a curious case-study for the notion of “technological progress,” since they simultaneously seem to excavate some indelibly vague set of older folk musics and notions of the album as a form (not to mention the work of Yoko Ono, whose work may now reasonably elicit a response of “She’s still alive?”) while also attracting the keen attention of the hyper-hip current music press and clubgoers alike. Other than the impending release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories next month, there probably won’t be a bigger event in “indie” music (i.e., covered by websites with fancy CSS) this year. And speaking of Daft Punk, Shaking the Habitual is very much The Knife’s answer to that band’s dense, intellectual Human After All.
But The Knife aren’t just aestheticians; they’re political activists, which raises the stakes that accompany each of their projects. Their Venetian masks, insistences of privacy, and reluctance to perform live are delightfully anachronistic, if one’s idea of “–chronism” is the always-on/you have no privacy bullshit mantras of Eric Schmidt, Jeff Jarvis, and the general cult of Google (I love Google’s products – this is an Android blog, after all – but I don’t romanticize it as an organization). They’ve assaulted notions of gender via their approach to vocals, and they reprise their assault here in “Full of Fire,” which contains the Salt-N-Pepa referencing lyric “let’s talk about gender, baby / let’s talk about you and me.” And now, they’ve made a project bigger and more politically overwhelming than anything else in their repertoire, an album which uses both form and content to wedge itself uncomfortably against the political, musical, and social status quo.
Speaking of “bigger,” this is a huge album. Almost 100 minutes of new material. And to make it even harder to down than a rum-and-(Diet) Coke that was mixed, unfinished, and then rerefrigerated, it’s almost stridently idealistic in its politics. Translated, this means that it makes no compromises in terms of run times (tracks go upward of 10 minutes in length) and often broaches topics like the Euro’s slow-motion demise, as on “Stay Out There,” or the self-explanatory “Fracking Fluid Injection.” And is that PSY on the cover (probably not, but it would be topically appropriate)?
In their 1997 song “Bigger Than England,” Long Fin Killie bemoaned “waiting here for days, and still no hint of a thrill,” in the context of gently satirizing British rock music’s history of constantly changing genre labels (“let the post-punk dash left you behind…the morning dogs who protest retro rock n’ roll”). Shaking the Habitual, as its title suggests, takes a similar tack, that of a bored/skeptical onlooker who wants real change rather than the superficial changes and labels that surround them. It does this against the backdrop of major wealth redistribution thanks to the Euro and the proliferation of electronica into the awareness of average indie and pop listeners. “Bigger Than England”? Shaking the Habitual may as well be “Bigger Than Europe.”
Since many listeners now hear electronica simply by turning on any heavy rotation station, The Knife have reconfigured even their own already-abrasive musical language to be more far-out (and I mean that not simply generically, but with specific weight to the late 1960s music scene – more on that later). The stair-step synths from their 2004 masterpiece Deep Cuts and the murky atmospherics of Silent Shout anticipated the mainstreaming of indietronica and dubstep, respectively, so what’s next? Shaking the Habitual is a super-cohesive work: its songs share an homogenous sound that is shot-thru with cheap-sounding drum machines and synths. “Networking” recalls a more cynical Drexciya, while the Egyptian pipes of “Raging Lung” play like an elongated reprise of “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” from Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray solo album, while also mysteriously quoting Fugazi (“what a difference a little difference would make”). Nothing sounds like “the future” (and what does something that doesn’t exist yet sound like, anyway?), but I think that’s the point: the only way for The Knife to make a cutting point here is to dig into “the past,” for music presumed dead but which is actually very much still with us.
This approach is most liberally pursued on “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized,” a 19-minute tone poem that stays true to its title by never really firing into action but instead lingering in the background, often inaudible. As the cynical exclamation on a difficult statement, it rivals The Mothers of Invention’s “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a similarly mysterious stretch of near-silence that capped their 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money. The latter has often received epithets like “Most Lousy Song on a Great Album,” which I’m sure will be recycled in approaching “Old Dreams…” and how it fits into the otherwise fairly digestible Shaking the Habitual. Yes, for all of its difficulty, this album is a smooth listen, driven by Dreijer Andersson’s cheeky lyrics and androgynous vocals, not to mention more than a few vocal hooks, such as on “Raging Lung” and the delightfully droning “Cherry on the Top.”
The album’s surprising appeal – I’ve since spun it three more times – made me recall a recent missive from the musician Terre Thaemlitz. In the PDF liner notes to his unprecedented Soulnessless album (which I hope he won’t begrudge me quoting here) has written eloquently of how most high-profile projects inevitably surrender to prevalent norms about music:
“Our obsession for career compliancy with the mechanisms of the marketplace, even when producing “culturally critical” projects, betrays an underlying aspiration to the status quo. It also exposes a crippling religious faith in our labor only gaining true audibility through dominant notions of audience and visibility. The marketplace demands that we develop products aspiring to universality and mass appeal, with no concern for the detrimental aspects of homogenization. And even in our most sincere attempts at non-compliance, we magically seem to comply.”
The aforementioned homogenous sound of the album seems to indicate the same phenomenon occurring on Shaking the Habitual. But it complies in an odd way, by referencing the older double-album format (what is a “double album,” anyway, in an era in which so much music has no physical form?) and its various distinctive traits like very long tracks and short, palate-cleansing interludes, seen here in the Margaret Atwood-referencing “Oryx” and “Crake” songs, both of which clock in at under a minute. This plays more like The White Album, or one of The Mothers Of Invention’s more far-strung 1960s works (the double-disc Uncle Meat, for example) than any more recent double-album. In other words, The Knife are well-versed in the particular vocabulary of the album, and they have delivered a Big Statement of sorts by electing to release such a long-form work in an era defined by single-song downloads and streaming.
Or have they? Thaemlitz, in that same essay, also remarks:
“The album, as a compositional formation derived from those media durations, is dead in the wake of infinite single-track downloads. While there is a desire to celebrate audio recording’s liberation from the arbitrary time restrictions of archaic media formats, technological and corporately devised limitations of the MP3 format make any such celebration premature. Throughout the CD era, record labels have come to demand audio producers make projects that fill the longer digital media capacities. So much so that consumers now feel disappointment and even trickery when purchasing shorter albums. Yet all the while labels are paying lower advances and royalties. ”
Paradoxically, the era of seemingly short attention spans and discrete individual tracks has also given rise to huge, never-ending albums, keeping the old format in rather rude health. The long, overstuffed Shaking the Habitual, as such, is an amazingly poignant work for 2013, and this poignancy makes its venom all the more potent. It appears to lash out against environmental abuse and the “short century” caused by the Euro crisis. It’s a work that has the residue of recent economic crises all over it, as evinced by the “End Extreme Wealth” mantra on the vinyl edition’s cover.
But it makes an even more subtle point simply by way it marries seemingly archaic form with a consistent knack for pop. Even Pitchfork, in reviewing the pair’s contributions to the Tomorrow, in a Year opera, said that The Knife have always been a pop band at heart. And it’s this pop sensibility that reveals the band seemingly grappling with how to make a difficult Big Statement (on politics, on art) while subconsciously “complying” (to use Thaemlitz’s terminology) with pop norms in a way that only they can. In 2004, on “Listen Now,” they declared: “We seek and we will find/Reason to stay alive/The price has never been this low.” In 2013, amidst shrinking musical royalties and increasing inequality in Europe and the West, they have made good on that promise, staying alive thru the sheer weight and power of Shaking the Habitual.
-The ScreenGrab Team