One of the best things I’ve read recently about the trend for putting subcultural ephemera in gallery shows and picture books is a sprawling blog post from Jamie Thomson, a writer who was booked to play records at the launch in South Kensington, London, of a new book and exhibition of US hardcore record sleeves drawn from the collection of punk archivist Toby Mott. As the evening wears on, Thomson becomes more and more incensed at the posh punters ignoring his Reagan Youth and Angry Samoans tunes: “It was every punk’s nightmare: impotent rage being met with indifference, or worse, smug indulgence.” As some comments point out, he didn’t have to take the gig – and his defensive, punkier-than-thou attitude wears thin over the course of the post. But his criticisms of the book itself (American Hardcore, 1978–1990) are worth noting. It’s not just that the images are now separated from their musical context, reduced to just a visual aesthetic with little commentary. The book is just as shaky on history, listing later reissues as original release dates, thus skewing the genre’s chronology. More care seems to have been taken over Johan Kugelberg’s massive tome Enjoy The Experience, which gathers together sleeves of private press recordings, but in both cases, here are deeply individual records put together to make an easily absorbed, generalised experience.
Books of collected lyrics can have a similar deadening effect. Not only do they take the words away from the music, they also present them so that your sense of a lyricist’s style can be parsed in one sitting rather than built up over time. Lyrics need to be heard. And just as collections of sleeves as art privilege certain visual styles, so the collecting of lyrics as poetry privileges certain music over others. In his contribution to this issue’s Babble On! feature, David Keenan notes the over-analysis of, say, Bob Dylan or Jandek’s lyrics not only sidelines their musical innovations, it also contributes to a critical landscape where few writers are equipped to engage with the rogue tonalities of Noise. I’d argue that The Wire’s writers are more than happy to write about sonics, whether assessing Noise or House, but the mainstream music media certainly take what they see as complex and allusive songwriting more seriously than not only Noise, but also music with words about supposedly trivial things: fun, sex, dancing, taking the piss, getting messed up, everyday stuff.
That these decisions as to which lyrics (and subjects) are ‘important’ or poetic are not objective, but judgements based on all kinds of prejudices about education, class, race, gender and sexuality doesn’t need to be said. It’s not surprising that writers in The Wire often look away from words altogether, then, instead choosing to write eloquently about instrumental music, or about voice as texture, madeup languages, vocal sampling, and songs with lyrics in an unfamiliar language. Many of us are happier in sound’s fluid territory than we are with words (“If only it didn’t include a poem,” laments Phil Freeman, reviewing Nicole Allen’s Ice Crystals’ Aquarius in Soundcheck). But words are implicated in even our most abstract encounters with music. Beginning on page 24, our aforementioned Babble On! sprawl is a partial attempt to look at this relationship, not by separating text from sound but by trying to decipher how they work together.
Someone who has no problem mashing music, language and un-language is Chilean musician Matias Aguayo, whose new album The Visitor has been on my headphones this past week. In 2008, Aguayo had a pop at his austere, wordless Minimal Techno compadres with the Kompakt single “Minimal”, in which he verbally demands a more sensual experience (“This music got no groove, got no balls”); his records since have been stacked with words both in English and Spanish, and in tongues that seem to be neither, with voice used as percussion along with cowbells and snares. It’s easy to find him irritating – he basically never shuts up – but there’s something of the necessary irritant about Aguayo. He’s a reminder that words might codify music, but they can also mess it up, sully its textures and force it into new and absurd shapes. Frances Morgan
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Issue 352 June 2013 £4.50 ISSN 0952-0680
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Words Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Clive Bell, Abi Bliss, Marcus Boon, Michael Bracewell, Britt Brown, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Sam Davies, Brian Dillon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher, Phil Freeman, Rory Gibb, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Richard Henderson, Ken Hollings, Robin Howells, Hua Hsu, William Hutson, Matthew Ingram, David Keenan, Rahma Khazam, Biba Kopf, Jack Law, Tim Lawrence, Alan Licht, Dave Mandl, Marc Masters, Bill Meyer, Keith Moliné, Will Montgomery, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Andrew Nosnitsky, Louis Pattison, Ian Penman, Richard Pinnell, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Agata Pyzik, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Peter Shapiro, Chris Sharp, Philip Sherburne, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Joseph Stannard, David Stubbs, Greg Tate, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Zakia Uddin, Dan Warburton, Val Wilmer, Matt Wuethrich
Images Thomas Adank, Jon Baker, Maxime Ballesteros, Frank Bauer, Anthony Blasko, André Cepeda, Dusdin Condren, Tara Darby, Ronald Dick, Jason Evans, Jason Fulford, Mikael Gregorsky, Jamie Hawkesworth, Tom Hunter, Jak Kilby, Shane Lavalette, Jason Lazarus, Jeremy Liebman, Benjamin McMahon, Tom Medwell, Mark Peckmezian, Savage Pencil, Gérard Rouy, Jaap Scheeren, Michael Schmelling, Bryan Schutmaat, Bryan Sheﬃeld, Heji Shin, Chris Verene, Eva Vermandel, Kai von Rabenau, Olaf Unverzart, Jake Walters, Harry Watts, Jeremy & Claire Weiss, Val Wilmer