‘Look back’ is what music did in 2009. Pop music is held in the zombie grip of retro. In Britain, whingeing boys with guitars have given way to plastic soul sung by brats aping Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin (Adele, Duffy), or pushing watery cocktails of Grace Jones and Kate Bush (La Roux, Florence and The Machine), whilst the same old rock albums are re-released to the usual platitudinous fanfares. Yet new perspectives on forgotten material are the upside to this rear-mirror view.
Surprising amongst 2009’s reissues were Saint Etienne’s albums Foxbase Alpha (1991) and So Tough (1993). I was always fond of the way the band used irresistible reference points – 1960s British pop, acid house, the romance of London – but what’s striking is how their dubby atmospherics and samples prefigured by more than a decade the ‘hauntological’ sensibility typified by today’s Ghost Box and Mordant Music labels. Ghost Box’s own The Focus Group teamed up with Broadcast to produce Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age – surely the last word in spooky evocations of postwar Britain. Mordant Music moved on with SyMptoMs – and weirdly reminded me of The Human League’s Travelogue (1980).
In the US, the retro-goggles were turned on the shambling sound of 1980s British bands such as The Pastels and Tallulah Gosh. Everything Goes Wrong by the Vivian Girls and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut album are uncanny reproductions of music made 25 years ago, and depressing for the critical acclaim they won. Old sounds were put to more inventive use on Ghetto Sci-Fi by Ras G, who parlayed Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and B-movie samples into a hip-hop homage to afro-futurism. (Elsewhere in hip-hop, it was good to see Anti-Pop Consortium return with Fluorescent Black and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt.II.)
Ra and Sanders also appeared in Freedom, Rhythm and Sound: Revolutionary Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement, a beautifully illustrated book and compilation from Soul Jazz. Numero Group’s anthologies of obscure 1960s and ’70s soul and folk, Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace and Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes were also essential archival releases.
Was anyone forward-thinking in 2009? 5: Five Years of Hyperdub chronicled the life of dubstep label Hyperdub. Including tracks by Burial, Kode9 and Zomby, it features Joker’s stand-out track ‘Digidesign’. Dubstep has now exploded into myriad subgenres, grafting on elements of grime, garage and house – a great example being Deadboy’s EP U Cheated.
Ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound and Plus Minus continue to push contemporary music forward. Alarm Will Sound’s a/rhythmia explores rhythmic awkwardness in music spanning from the 14th century to now, and is fun listening. Plus Minus performed twice at London’s ICA; founding member Alex Waterman’s work as a composer and cellist is gathering momentum in both the new music and contemporary art worlds. Speaking of music and art, Mike Kelley’s Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #32, Plus, part of Performa 09 in New York, was hands down the best live event I saw in 2009; ‘Carrie’ meets ‘Grease’ meets US minimalist-era music and dance. It was also great to see the work of composer Ghédalia Tazartès resurface with reissues dating back to 1979.
Last year was the 45th anniversary of Terry Riley’s milestone composition In C, marked by the re-release of its first recording, a monograph by Robert Carl, and a celebratory concert at Carnegie Hall, New York. Written for any combination of instruments and number of performers, amateur or professional, no two versions of In C are ever the same. Performed across the world many times since its 1964 premiere, it is a work forever in the present tense.
Throbbing Gristle decided to do it with the lights on. By ‘it’, I mean playing at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple on 28 April 2009. Their first-ever New York appearance, three-plus decades in the making, had occurred 12 days earlier, and now they were back as old friends. The moment they took to the stage, all of the lights in the venue were switched on. My first thought was that the plug had been pulled – funny response, given the burst of light – and that the party was over. And yet, TG’s aim soon became clear. You came here looking for a freak show? You think Genesis P-Orridge and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson are something to gawk at? Perhaps you’d better take a look at one another – that’s also part of the entertainment (as pain). It was a simple idea, executed to great effect. Everyone spent most of the concert checking each other out. Why the punks, goths and college professors? Why so old, so young? It was an unlikely community, recognizing itself as such through the simple gesture of turning on the lights. Audience self-consciousness melted away, and the last 20 or so minutes of the show was a thrillingly ad hoc dance party to the throbs and swells and hectoring of their 1981 track ‘Discipline’.
My second most memorable encounter with music last year came courtesy of Luke Fowler’s films at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and at X Initiative in Manhattan. I was glad to revisit Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006), his portrait of Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra, but I was every bit as taken with An Abbey-view Film (2008), which puts images to Richard Youngs’ track ‘Warriors’ (2001) – or is it the other way around? – with a rich, resonant outcome. (The Richard Youngs performance that I saw in Paris in late 2008, with its long a cappella stretches, is still as fresh in my mind as if it had happened this afternoon.)
I recently attended a talk in which it was argued that an ideal situation for poetry would be one in which there were more books with fewer readers. This has already happened in music. Even aided and abetted by such speed-your-trip tools as digital downloads, audio archives, blogs and online record hunting, an eagle’s-eye view of the year in music appears ever more difficult to attain. Hence the following sprint through a personal 12-month canon: The award for sheer ludic exuberance in the service of indelible song goes to Trembling Bells for ‘Carbeth’ (Honest Jon’s). (Runner up: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s video for ‘I Am Goodbye’.) I’m a pushover when it comes to anything that Maher Shalal Hash Baz has to offer, and C’est La Dernière Chanson (K) offers 177 miniature songs spread across two discs. We’re 28 songs into the album before they lock into anything approaching two minutes in length or even their usual already-bare-bones sublimity.
What else did I love about 2009 in music? The greatly missed Luc Ferrari’s exhaustive, ten-disc L’oeuvre électronique (INA–GRM) as well as Ensemble Laorintus and eRikm’s Ferrari disc Et tournent les sons (Césaré); various Syliphone reissues of music from Guinea (Bembeya Jazz National, Balla et ses Balladins); the compilation Marvellous Boy: Calypso from West Africa (Honest Jon’s); UbuWeb’s posting of C.C. Hennix’s just-intonation improvisation ‘Electric Harpsichord No. 1’; Kevin Drumm’s soothingly uncharacteristic Imperial Horizon (Hospital Productions); and Triptych and Vice Versa, Etc… (Important), two archival releases of work from the 1970s by Eliane Radigue. I’m aware that this list is reissue-heavy.
My indie-rock sugar rush of the year came from Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’, from their début Album. It’s a Rickenbacker-driven, instant pop classic, but when did we run out of previously unused song and album titles and group names? In 2009?
First published in Issue 128