20/10/20 This week I have been mostly listening to…

  • The Brian Jonestown Massacre
  • Boards of Canada
  • The Auteurs

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Third World Pyramid (2016). For a long time The Brian Jonestown Massacre ran like a run-away train: carriages would detach and new ones join, they would veer towards commercial success and a major label deal before suddenly carooming off sharply down a new path. All the while steered by mercurial frontman Anton Newcombe: musical genius and creative lightning rod, at the mercy of his own personal demons, liable to boot off any passengers who disagreed with his all-encompassing vision.  

The train finally seemed as if it had settled onto a steady track with the release of 2014’s Revelation. The first Brian Jonestown Massacre album to be fully recorded and produced in Newcombe’s studio in Berlin – where he now lives with his wife, having reportedly tamed the drug and alcohol addictions that once plagued him – it’s a triumphant tour through lushly deailed psych-pop and cinematic atmospherics.

If Revelation marked a new chapter in the career of Anton Newcombe and a creative renewal of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s sound, then 2016’s Third World Pyramid shows the band locking further into their new-found groove, eschewing pop sensibilities in favour of deeper explorations of the various leftfield influences they’ve combined to weave their rich psychedelic tapestry. 

The centrepiece of the album (or the tip of the pyramid, if you like) is the sprawling Assignment Song: a weary shimmering epic that layers countless guitars, cosmic synth sound effects, woodwind instruments and gospel-like vocals. It’s the kind of track that opens in unassuming fashion and once you’re in it, it’s hard to orientate yourself. The layers build up subtly and rather than going for the cliched crescendo, the track gradually disassembles itself as elegantly as it began.

Elsewhere, the aptly titled Lunar Surf Graveyard sounds exactly as you’d expect and to try and describe it further would be a disservice to such an illustrative title. The haunting Oh Bother is like a Western soundtrack, evoking images of horsemen riding through a canyon at dusk. Even more haunting is opening track Good Mourning, which has a sombre Medieval vibe reminiscent of All Tomorrow’s Parties. It features Newcombe’s wife Katy on vocals and the lyrics can only be heard as a lament of her lover’s addictions: ‘First you’re happy, then you’re ill’ and a plea not to let them overwhelm him: ‘There’s more to life than trying to die’. It was an exceptionally bold choice to open the album and will certainly deter any uncommitted listeners.

Third World Pyramid sounds very much like the sound of a band in control, and overall that is surely a good thing (for Anton and everyone else’s mental health, if nothing else). But it does mean there is none of the riotous energy of earlier albums like Take it from the Man! and Give it Back!. For all his flaws, Anton Newcombe has never been an artist to shy away from bearing his soul and on early albums you can hear the naked fragility in his voice on songs like This is why you love me.

That sense of vulnerability does appear on the track, Like Describing Colours to a Blind Man on Acid, which sounds like a metaphor for attemping to do something very difficult. Aside from the more professional production, it could be straight off Give it Back! – in fact it does sound uncannily like This is why you love me. But hey, when you’ve recorded more than 20 albums it’s not surprising some of the songs bear some similarities.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013). What an album this is. Boards of Canada’s first two albums, Music has the Right to Children and Geogaddi both hold legendary status in electronic music circles but for my money, Tomorrow’s Harvest is equally deserving of such status.

The sound here is more polished than any of their previous work –  having listened to MHTRTC for the first time in years recently I was struck by how scratchy and raw it sounded in comparison to this album. Tomorrow’s Harvest is probably also Boards’ most ‘electronic’ sounding album – Campfire Headphase notoriously featured actual guitars, but there’s also an earthiness to MHTRTC  and Geogaddi which is largely missing here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also their darkest release. Much was made at the time of how dark an album Geogaddi was: the Wiccan overtones, hidden satanic messages and sinister symbolism. While it has been confirmed by Boards of Canada themselves that they encode symbols and patterns in their tracks – though they’re based more in mathematics than trying to communicate some evil purpose – I never really found Geogaddi a particularly dark album. Melancholy and nostalgic obviously, and maybe somewhat unsettling in places. But this album has a definite air of foreboding; the track titles alone give you a clue that tomorrow’s harvest is not going to be fruitful: Cold Earth, Sick Times, Reach for the Dead – you get the idea.

As always with Boards of Canada, there is an element of retro-ism and nostalgia and many influences here stem from film soundtracks of the 70s and 80s, (incorporating in their own words, a ‘video-nasty’ element). Given this album’s implied subject matter – worldwide societal collapse – that period may have provided a clear reference point given the widespread concern at the time about nuclear war and the global winter that would follow. Given world events in 2020 – pandemic, climate change, nuclear tensions, take your pick – the themes of Tomorrow’s Harvest have never sounded more relevant. And nor has an album heralding the end of civilisation sounded so damn good.

The Auteurs – Now I’m a Cowboy (1994). Of the huge proliferation of guitar bands that exploded in the mid-90s, the majority have been consigned to the record shop bargain bin of history – some fairly and some not so fairly. The Auteurs are one of those who unjustly seem to have been largely forgotten; I barely see them mentioned anywhere (even among the endless nostalgia lists and ‘Can you believe it’s been 25 years since such-and-such milestone’ clickbait articles doing the rounds) and never hear their tracks played. Maybe I need to listen to Heart 90s Radio more often.

Anyway, unlike the hordes of derivative bands that jumped on the Britpop bandwagon, The Auteurs are part of a long lineage of British songsmiths who combine a bleak sense of humour and cutting social observations with melodic guitar-driven pop. The songs on Now I’m a Cowboy are full of withering put-downs and cryptic metaphors, and lead singer Luke Haines’ delivery tends to alternate between whisper and snarl depending on the level of venom injected into the lyrics. The line between observation, character study and which yarns are spun from his own personal experience is delightfully blurred.

Life Classes/Life Model is a dark tale of voyeurism and domestic abuse: ‘Bruises from your head to your toe, There are marks all over you, There’s no place for you to hide, Since they painted you black and blue’. Upper Classes is a bitter screed from a lover rejected by a social climber, ‘Some of your friends, From your other life just don’t belong, They’re crude and they’re plain, It’s not their fault, it’s the world they’re from’. The lyrics are ambiguous as to who is taking advantage of whom, whether life in a ‘house behind trees’ is better than formative years spent shoplifting clothes. And you wonder the lengths they might go to to earn their prize, ‘There’s nothing wrong with inherited wealth, If you melt the silver – yourself.’

As a songwriter, one obvious comparison would be with famed social observer and skewerer of British social mores, Jarvis Cocker. Another would be fellow auteur, Stephen Jones (who records solo as Baby Bird – not to be confused with his band Babybird, of You’re Gorgeous fame). Also an artist unappreciated by the mainstream – perhaps because of his tendency to plum the darkest depths of human experience in pursuit of his vision of twisted pop music. 

Despite the unashamed intellectualism of some of the lyrics, the tunes on Now I’m a Cowboy are all 90s indie bangers. Lenny Valentino imagines the comedian Lenny Bruce being reborn into the body of silent moviestar Rudolph Valentino on the day of the actor’s funeral – all packed into two minutes of cocksure scuzzy glam that combines the sophistication of Pulp, the swagger of Blur and the glammed up grittiness of Suede.

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