Saturday, October 27, 2007

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth & Collected Works (1980/2007)

I don't remember how I learned about Young Marble Giants. Maybe it was when I heard Belle & Sebastian's semi-obscure cover of "Final Day". Who knows. But recently, I heard that their entire recorded output (one album, one single, one EP, one Peel session, one compilation track, and one set of demos, although a couple demo tracks and a live recording are absent) was being released as a three-disc set at a decent price. Not having heard a single song, I went for it. It might be really minimalist and limited in appeal, but I think it's great.

Also, my apologies for the lack of reviews as of late. I think I might like this format a bit better, but I might still use the old here and there.

Artist: Young Marble Giants
Album: Colossal Youth & Collected Works
Released: February 1980, reissued 11 September 2007
Label: Rough Trade, reissued on Domino Recording Co.
Producer: Young Marble Giants & Dave Anderson (Disc 1), unknown (Disc 2), Dale Griffin (Disc 3)

Disc 1 (the original album):
01. Searching for Mr Right
02. Include Me Out
03. The Taxi
04. Eating Noddemix
05. Constantly Changing
06. N.I.T.A.
07. Colossal Youth
08. Music for Evenings
09. The Man Amplifier
10. Choci Loni
11. Wurlitzer Jukebox
12. Salad Days
13. Credit in the Straight World
14. Brand – New – Life
15. Wind in the Rigging

Disc 2 (from Salad Days, a set of demos recorded 1979 but released 2000, and other sources as labeled):
01. This Way [Testcard EP, 1981]
02. Posed by Models [Testcard EP, 1981]
03. The Clock [Testcard EP, 1981]
04. Clicktalk [Testcard EP, 1981]
05. Zebra Trucks [Testcard EP, 1981]
06. Sporting Life [Testcard EP, 1981]
07. Final Day [Single, 1980]
08. Radio Silents [Final Day b-side, 1980]
09. Cakewalking [Final Day b-side, 1980]
10. Ode to Booker T [Is the War Over? Compilation, 1979]
11. Have Your Toupee Ready
12. N.I.T.A.
13. Brand – New – Life
14. Zebra Trucks
15. Choci Loni
16. Wind in the Rigging
17. The Man Shares His Meal with His Beast
18. The Taxi
19. Constantly Changing
20. Music for Evenings
21. Credit in the Straight World
22. Eating Noddemix
23. Ode to Booker T
24. Radio Silents
25. Hayman
26. Loop the Loop

Disc 3 (from a Peel session recorded August 18, 1980):
1. Searching for Mr Right
2. Brand – New – Life
3. Final Day
4. N.I.T.A.
5. Posed by Models

If there's one thing you notice about the Young Marble Giants, it's how incredibly minimalist their music is. One guy (Philip Moxham) plays bass (and what a great bass he plays – he plays in the higher register and carries much of the melody, similar to Joy Division's Peter Hook; I wish I could write basslines that well). One girl (Alison Statton) sings. The other guy (Stuart Moxham) alternates between a very trebly, usually muted guitar and an organ, both of which he is quite proficient with. The only other sounds are simple drum machine rhythms, occasional extra noise provided by a friend, and the rare overdub.

Somehow, it all works. The stark clarity of each instrument stands out, and you can easily distinguish the few but perfectly interwoven parts. The music is quite well-composed. The guitar tends to play short chords while the bass winds around the chord changes. The few times the bass repeats a root note like a modern rock song's bassline, it feels nearly out of place, but even then, the tone is always trebly, prominent, and higher than a typical bass. In the songs with organ, the organ is usually played with both hands – meaning that there is a bass part on the organ, too. Usually, that part holds the root notes while the bass guitar goes on its merry way, filling out the chords with little flourishes. The singing, though, is plain, and admittedly done by an untrained singer.

Lyrically, many songs seem to deal with love lost or just general relationship woes, but it's all a bit removed and obscure. Rarely do the words come out a say the story directly, except perhaps the stand-out track "N.I.T.A." (also represented by a demo and Peel session version), where Stuart writes and Alison sings, "It's nice to hear you're having a good time / But it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine / This doesn't mean I possessed you / You're haunting me because I let you". The rest of the lyrics of that song are in sharp contrast rather abstract. "Eating Noddemix", referencing what is apparently a Swedish cereal bar, alternates discussing morning routines with various catastrophes.

Other songs are outright obscure with no hope of understanding, most notably "Choci Loni", a six-line piece about someone who eats through his house or something. "Salad Days" is a three line piece: "Think of salad days / They were folly and fun / They were good, they were young". Simple, but it tells it all (and lends its name to the demo compilation). YMG's one single, "Final Day", is an apocalyptic piece: "And the world lights up for the final day / We will all be poor having had our say".

The band is usually uptempo, keeping pace with a steady but moving drum machine at all times. Some pieces have simply fantastic instrumental work – not by virtue of virtuosity, but just in how the instruments interact. I love "N.I.T.A." and the instrumental "Wind in the Ragging" (featuring a great bit of counterpoint between organ and bass). No song exceeds much more than three a half minutes (only a couple come close, but two demos do reach four and a half). Their ideas are comparatively short but still wonderful.

The Testcard EP, released around a year after the album, features six instrumentals. "The Clock" features what sounds like an acoustic guitar that actually strums fuller chords and picks a few notes out, but the dancey "Clicktalk" is my favorite of those six, with a great hummed sort of baritone line. The demos aren't all that amazing; they're mostly just lower-fi versions of tracks from the rest of the output, but a few are subtly different, and four tracks are unique to the demos. The Peel session is likewise not particularly revelatory but mildly interesting to hear the band semi-live.

I think this album stands as a great example of post-punk radicalism. Instead of loud guitars or a wall of sound, the band chooses precise, clean, and clear tones to distinguish each part and let the gaps speak for themselves. It's a bit arty, slightly pretentious, and very unmarketable... or so I would think.

Score: A

Monday, October 8, 2007

David J - Embrace Your Dysfunction (2003)

As I said before, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to purchase a copy of David J's Embrace Your Dysfunction, actually credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro (meaning "dark cabaret" as well as I understand... but I don't speak Spanish). The album was originally released as a limited edition bonus to Estranged, but despite the low price ($10) and cheap container and liner notes (a mere paperboard sleeve), it stands on its own well enough as an album, especially considering the hour-long running time (when including the video track). The album contains two remakes of classic J songs, two remasters of recent EP tracks, four covers, three new originals, and one live take of an Estranged "song". Somehow it all works together fairly well.

I wish I knew more about Cabaret Oscuro, but it's rather hard to come by information about them. It hard to say if they are more of a side project or a backing band for J. Best as I can tell, the main collaborative force is Joyce Rooks on cello (and other instruments), but a few others seem to show up a lot, such as guitarist Mark Miller and percussionist Kris Krull. J, as per normal, provides vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, samples, and some synthesizer. Again, as far as I can ascertain, Cabaret Oscuro is a more recent assemblage – I think these songs were written and recorded after Estranged even though they found release at the same time. The band played along the West Coast quite a bit, and I think they are still active in some regard.. I could be very wrong about that.

Artist: David J's Cabaret Oscuro
Album: Embrace Your Dysfunction
Release Date: 9 September 2003
Label: Heyday
Producer: Unlisted, but undoubtedly David J

01. Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)
02. Ten Little Beauty Queens [Live]
03. Mexican Drugstore [Remastered] [With Roberto Mendoza] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
04. Goth Girls in Southern California [Remastered] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
05. Dress Sexy at My Funeral [Smog cover]
06. My Life in Art [KXLU Radio Session 2002] [Mojave 3 cover]
07. By the Time I Get to Phoenix [Jimmy Webb cover]
08. Streets of Berlin [Ute Lemper cover]
09. Tell Me, Henry Kissinger
10. Life in Laralay [Originally by Love & Rockets]
11. Embrace Your Dysfunction [Live]
12. The Trees in Silence Sing [Video]

Embrace Your Dysfunction begins with the ten-minute, jam-ish, electronic noise-laden "Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)", a piece that never really changes and keeps the same steady sound the whole time. I think the piece is a bit long, but I like that instruments drift in and out through the measures, and J sings the whole while about a murdered girl and the motion lights built to prevent another similar incident.

The next song is a live rendition of J's "Ten Little Beauty Queens", originally released on 1992's Urban Urbane. This version is dominated by eerie sounds, an electronic drumbeat, and Joyce Rooks' cello. The original version features prominent guitar, but this version seems intentionally darker and strange. This version's music matches the disturbing lyrical content about a creepy dude who dressed up girls and took pictures of them in nooses until one died in an accident and was convicted for murder. The other remake on the album, "Life in Laralay" is similarly significantly changed in sound from the original version, released on Love & Rockets' second album, 1986's Express. This version follows the original's structure, but the only instruments are Rooks' cello, J's vocals, and some backing vocals. The spareness treats the song well, mostly because the arrangement was cleverly put together. The lyrical indictment of Hollywood still holds true.

Two of the most developed songs on the album are actually remastered versions of songs that appeared on the Mess Up EP. "Mexican Drugstore", done together with Roberto Mendoza, is a sort of Mexican electronic song. The song sounds fairly light, and a variety of instruments make for an interesting sound. (My only qualm is the tone of the lead electric guitar, which sounds too close to an elevator music tone for comfort.) The lyrics simply concern the variety of people that go to the Mexican drugstore to "take away our pain". Apparently, "we all got the same prescription", as J sings over an extended relaxed-sounding outro. "Goth Girls in Southern California", made up mostly of guitar, cello, and drums, goes through every cliché of the goth subculture. The lyrics are fairly witty, not failing to reference Peter Murphy. A great choppy middle section breaks up the feel a bit, and at the end, a harpsichord enters to changes things up, and it works well. Despite running through all the stereotypes, J concludes with "oh, leave them alone!". It would be fairly hard for someone who (like it or not) was in one of the original goth rock bands to not defend the subculture he helped define, even if it has changed over the years.

The middle of Embrace Your Dysfunction is full of covers, all of which make for interesting choices. The first, "Dress Sexy at My Funeral", originally by Smog, is rather humorous. The semi-standard guitar and cello combo appears, as it does in a cover of Mojave 3's "My Life in Art", which also features some drums and backing vocals. The song is fairly slow, but I really like the sort of nostalgic sound to it all. The chorus of "Tell me 'bout your life in art / tell me 'bout the boulevards / because Europe always seemed so far" is just great. J's next cover choice is the Jimmy Webb song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", a classic-sounding slow and sad song about leaving a lover, but the most inventive cover is his interpretation of Philip Glass and Martin Sherman's "Streets of Berlin". The song has a definite cabaret feel, which is perfect for J's recent sound, and the electronics and cello fit right in. The song laments leaving Berlin, but seems more clearly about the harshness of the city and the streets.

"Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a biting piece about the eponymous person. Most of the instrumentation is just a few picked chords and a few reverb-drenched drum clashes, but organ, a snare reminiscent of J's V for Vendetta EP, and other instruments appear. The last song on the regular CD is "Embrace Your Dysfunction", a live version of the segue track found at the end of "Bright in Your Absence" on Estranged. It sounds nearly identical except for the crowd cheers.

The final part of the album is an accompanying video on the CD for "Trees in Silence Sing", a sort of tribute written after 9/11. I really like the lyrics, which lament that cassettes aren't allowed in Afghanistan and are ripped apart and strewn across trees. The song has a clear warning against extremism and also seems to indicate an anti-war sentiment. The video (and really the song too) are a bit over-dramatic, but I like them anyway.

Most of Embrace Your Dysfunction is a mix between a sort of dark electronica and an acoustic feel with cello. Really, cello just pervades the album all over, which perhaps is appropriate for a man who plays bass in two other bands. It's a rather different feeling than the general feel of Estranged, the album it accompanies. I don't really think the two are really supposed to be related – outside of the two remastered EP tracks and the live version of the title track, the two share little in common. I think the two deserve to be considered separate units (hence my reviewing them separately). Estranged has a certain theme of moving past a relationship, but this album has a variety of themes, mostly tied together under the general adjective "dark" (perhaps in part due to the prominence of the cello).

I haven't heard the rest of the Mess Up and Guitar Man EPs, so I don't really know what those songs sound like (although I've heard a radio session version of "The Auteur"), but the two remasters from the Mess Up EP presented here are both of high quality. They sound like outtakes from Estranged that just didn't fit the mood or theme. The covers are mostly simple arrangements, but they all work well, and they fit with J's personality, wit, and style well. The remakes are both interesting alternate takes of classic J songs. The new songs are a little bit weaker on average, just because "Sorrow Sleeps at Night" goes on a bit too long and "Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a bit too dark and biting without remorse (although that isn't necessarily a bad thing). "Trees in Silence Sing", though, is a great dedication to 9/11 without getting too heroic or sappy, and I really like the imagery of musical reference parts.

Embrace Your Dysfunction is considered just a limited edition bonus album to Estranged, but I think it's nearly as good and stands well on it's own, especially since it has its own sound (and is even credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro instead of just David J). Since J recently found an unsold box of the album, I recommend purchasing one while supplies last (go to and click on "store merchandise"); they're only $10 (plus shipping). And while you're at it, go to J's Myspace page every month to listen to his "Tracks from the Attic", old outtakes and demos that have never found release. There's usually three a month, one of which can be downloaded. I think he should gather them all together and release them officially, but hey, a dream's a dream and I know it took a lot of effort for J to release Estranged and Embrace Your Dysfunction. [Edit 2014.06.18: Physical copies of Embrace Your Dysfunction are long since unavailable, but the album can be downloaded digitally from Bandcamp. Also note that the Tracks from the Attic were discontinued long ago and are now apparently forgotten and unavailable.]

Score: B+