Wednesday, 14 March 2012

LaRM day 41 (Bikini Kill-Birthday Party)

Bikini Kill’s eponymous debut mini-LP from 1992 still slays me. It’s a terrible record really, but you can still hear how exciting it was at the time, and why it started a short-lived movement. The bluff of claiming that sloppy amateurishness was the point never washed, they simply couldn’t play, but unlike with most punk bands it really didn’t matter and weirdly, in amongst the low rent lo-fi punk rock stylings there are some genuinely great tunes (‘Carnival’ has a great melody for instance). I also still find the “revolution girl-style” nonsense that Kathleen Hanna spent years spouting to be really endearing (not the response she wanted I guess but there we go). Listening to Bikini Kill again for the first time in years, I still like it an awful lot more than I had anticipated. Likewise the follow-up mini-LP Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (1993), which was actually a split-LP with Huggy Bear, each band having one side of the album. Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah is more of the same stuff as Bikini Kill, ramshackle punkish rock with Hanna screeching and shouting over the top, and it ends with the killer one-two of ‘Rebel Girl’ and ‘Outta Me’. This period is perfectly summed up by the Peel Sessions bootleg 7” from 1993. Three of the four songs they recorded for Peel are from singles they had previously released, but their performances are fantastic, more fiery and gritty than the studio versions.

Then it’s the first full-length album, Pussy Whipped (1993). While Hanna’s delivery hadn’t developed or changed, the band had clearly been thinking about upping the ante and although the tunes are still pretty rudimentary they are more sophisticated than anything on the preceding releases. It’s a great album, full of fire and a lot of fledgling ideas and some solid tunes. In a way Pussy Whipped was the pinnacle of the Riot Grrrl movement, and after its release there wasn’t really anywhere else for the scene to go. None of the other Riot Grrrl bands in the US were nearly as good (or as smart) as Bikini Kill and in the UK the scene never genuinely took off despite blanket music mag coverage for a year. By the time their last album, Reject All American was released in 1996 the whole scene was all but dead and the album sounded weirdly like a missive out of time. If anything, the fact that the whole movement was born, thrived and died within four years proves that there wasn’t actually any substance to it. Rich kids shouting about politics in a void is a relatively pointless exercise at the best of times, but the proto-feminist message of the best Riot Grrrl bands should have made more of an impact really. Anyway, Reject All American is, in retrospect, a really fine album, showing that the band had both the ability and the intention to turn into a serious musical proposition as well as an agit-prop exercise.

Campbell Neale makes some fantastic bits of ambient drone and doom and under his Birchville Cat Motel moniker he puts out some of the more accessible parts of his work. Seventh Ruined Hex (2007) is one of the best that I’ve heard (I don’t know if he still does but he used to put out about 15 albums a year) but it does have some seriously challenging elements – the high end screech that lasts throughout the 10 minute ‘Iron Goddess o’ Mercy’ for instance. The opener, ‘Ghastly Star’ is a brilliant piece of feedback confusion, and throughout its 18 minute running time a lot happens. At first it seems like a load of random computerised feedback scree but throughout come waves of beautiful low drones and swooping, ghostly waves of sound, it’s fabulous stuff. The two shorter pieces are pretty decent bits of drone and the 17 minute closer, ‘Bee’, is absolutely superb, it’s unsettling, distracting but ultimately enlivening noise.

Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocrypha (2007) is an interesting and highly enjoyable bit of cerebral pop. There are some great, engaging songs here, and where Bird’s records can often be a bit of a chore this is a really endearing record. It’s not up to the standard of his earlier Mysterious Production of Eggs, but that is a phenomenal record. This is a little more mature, a bit more considered and more highly structured, but it’s no disservice to say it’s an adult piece of work and if anything it shows just how strong a songwriter he really is.

I love the first album by the Bird and the Bee (2007). I love the way that Inara George and Greg Kurstin have taken a kind of light-hearted bossa approach to slick pop music and made it sort of indie, sort of cutesy without being in any way twee. It’s a clever trick and they’re clever musicians, not surprising for the daughter of Lowell George and a long-time musical smart-arse. There’s something really charming about the whole set-up and while some of the songs don’t really work most of them are simply great, summertime charms.

Crusty old Jane Birkin had something of a critical renaissance in the early 2000’s and the second album from that period was 2004’s Rendez-vous. It’s a spare, spacious record with a very muted and open atmosphere which suits Birkin’s trademark breathy vocals really well. At this point a number of other people were keen/prepared to work with her and it’s a bizarre roll-call of guests on Rendez-vous from Brian Molko to Bryan Ferry by way of Francoise Hardy and Beth Gibbons. It’s an odd album but it’s also oddly successful, partly by virtue of its subdued, slightly sinister air. Interestingly it’s the kind of faintly claustrophobic atmosphere that Charlotte Gainsbourg has managed to utilise successfully on her recent albums too.

Finally it’s Junkyard (1982) by the Birthday Party. I’ve never really got the early part of Nick Cave’s career and the Birthday Party records leave me a bit cold. I know they’re supposed to be great, and I can hear how exciting it must have all sounded. All that heavy German industrial influence really makes itself felt and between Cave’s howling and yelling, Mick Harvey’s screeching sheet metal guitar and Barry Adamson’s brooding bass, it’s a pretty visceral sound. But the songs, the songs….I just don’t think the songs are nearly strong enough, and the album can’t get by on atmosphere alone. I know it’s a great record but I just don’t quite get it and to my mind Cave was to make much, much better records when they reformed as the Bad Seeds.

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