Elaborate conceptual underpinnings shore up the musics of this month’s two central features. Opening a two-part examination of Detroit Techno duo Drexciya, Derek Walmsley talks to Anjalika Sagar and The Wire contributor Kodwo Eshun, of The Otolith Group, about their new Drexciya film (Cross Platform, page 28), and in The Primer (page 32), Stephen Rennicks, the writer behind drexciyaresearchlab. blogspot, weighs up the recorded legacy of the duo’s James Stinson and Gerald Donald. Between 1992–2002, they constructed an extraordinary “speculative sonic fiction” about a Black Atlantean civilisation that evolved out of the horror of pregnant slaves thrown overboard on the trade routes between Africa and America. In our cover story, meanwhile, the hive-mind of Irish flesh-and-blood composer Jennifer Walshe (page 44) houses the Grúpat art collective, which consists of nine composers, four of them male, four female and one drag queen. “It’s all very equal opportunities,” she quips to Philip Clark.
In both Drexciya and Jennifer Walshe, the edifices built around them would crumble soon enough if their music failed to withstand scrutiny. Music and idea are of a piece, for sure, but it’s not the Drexciyan concept everyone was dancing to in the 1990s. Similarly, when Walshe, also a vocalist with a considerable extended technique, steps out with Tony Conrad as Ma La Pert, like any other improvisor she will live or die in the moment, and no amount of Grúpat-think will help her through it.
Forgive me if that last statement sounds like I’m advocating cutting off the head from the heart at the neck. Far from it. Here’s to whatever it takes to keep the nervous system ticking over, whether it’s the crosswired synapses firing up thoughts that get the heart thumping again; or something as direct as the standout track of my record of the month. The album is Five Finger Discount by Japanese singer Phew, the track her version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender”.
Sung straight, Phew’s deep, dark voice painstakingly enunciates every English word, not like she’s afraid of stumbling over them – she started out in 1978 ripping through Ramones and Tommy James songs with her punk group Aunt Sally, since when she has mostly sung in Japanese – but in order to re-invest them with the depth of feeling she evidently hears in the song. Adapted from an undeniably sentimental ditty popular during the American Civil War, “Love Me Tender” stands on the sincerity the singer invests in lyrical commonplaces already crying out to be lampooned back in the 19th century, never mind in post-everything 21st century Tokyo, large zones of which teem with teenage girls who have bought wholesale into Japan’s grotesque culture of kawaii-cute dolldom. Going counter to the local predilection among underground singers and pop idols alike to squeak, icklegurl style, Phew has always pitched her voice low, vocal cords stretched whiplash-taut.
Singular and unwavering, her voice was the organising principle directing Novo Tono, the group she shared with Otomo Yoshihide. She later appeared on Otomo’s New Jazz Ensemble song disc, Dreams, which closes with a version of “Eureka” by Jim O’Rourke. Now O’Rourke plays bass and synthesizer on Phew’s Five Finger Discount, in a group that also includes her regular guitarists Seiichi Yamamoto and Hisato Yamamoto, and pianist Eiko Ishibashi. A ‘covers’ album ranging across some Japanese rockers, theatre songs by JA Seazer and Shuji Terayama, and the angular tea-dance modernism of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Thatness And Thereness”, the set tugs her voice into places it has never been before. But it’s the Presley song that melts time. The strummed acoustic intro holds true to Elvis 56. Then Phew sings…Later you might notice Seiichi’s ‘reverberant guitar’, the odd wrinkling of the song’s surfaces and some discreet, fluted feedback. But it’s Phew’s voice, unadorned and unshakable in its belief in the song, that redeems the emotional force from the sentimental cholesterol clogging its heart. Chris Bohn
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Images Thomas Adank,Sébastien Agnetti, Shinya Aizawa, Will Bankhead,Leon Chew,Tara Darby, Roger Deckker, Sean Dooley, Glen Erler, Aaron Farley, Marcelo Gomes, Nicholas Haggard, Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao, Brad Harris, Pieter Hugo,Tom Hunter, Jak Kilby, Philippe Lebruman,Mark Mahaney,Joss McKinley, Tom Medwell, Donald Milne, Chris Mottalini, Niall O’Brien, Fergus Padel, Leonie Purchas, Szymon Roginski, Gérard Rouy, Savage Pencil, Michael Schmelling, Na Seung,Bryan Sheﬃeld,Will Sweeney,Olaf Unverzart, Daniëlle van Ark, Eva Vermandel,Muir Vidler, Kai von Rabenau, Henry Roy, Jake Walters, Jeremy & Claire Weiss, Henk Wildschut, Winni Wintermeyer, Mattia Zoppellaro “A magically bleak, fantastically original record. And, possibly the first masterpiece of the 2010s” ★★★★★ The Daily Telegraph
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and probably being amazed at how many records it inspired” ★★★★★ The Observer
“Genuinely surprising, beautifully wrought and announces TNP as one of the most powerful artistic forces in Britain today.” 9/10 NME
“An adventurous, challenging and futuristic recording” ★★★★ Mojo “Difficult to pin down, Hidden is even harder to forget” ★★★★ Uncut “There are more ideas here than most bands manage in an entire career” ★★★★ The Times “There’s a keen intelligence at work: while fiercely odd, it’s frequently electrifying too” ★★★★ Q “A dark, deliciously disorienting work which positions TNP as possibly our most intellectually challenging group”
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