Friday, March 26, 2010

A big comfy bed with bumps – Angels of Light and ‘We Are Him’

I don’t know if there is such a thing a country post-punk but, if there is, I think I have been listening to a cracking good example of it today. I stumbled across today’s music only a couple of days ago, when I was, not surprisingly, browsing through an Einstürzende Neubauten forum, seeing what other EN fans were listening to, and discovered a clip of a bloke called Michael Gira singing a song called ‘My Brother’s Man’, and was fascinated by its gritty originality. I did some research and pretty soon learned that Michael Gira had been dubbed the Nick Cave of America, that he had led an interesting experimental rock band called Swans, and then a somewhat mellower, but no less interesting, one called Angels of Light and that the song I had just listened to was part of their 2007 album, We Are Him.

So I went out and bought it and, while it doesn’t sound really anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, I can see why a follower would want to listen to this, too.

The comparisons with Nick Cave are perhaps a bit misleading, but not entirely. Listen to the way the vocals howl to command in ‘Promise of Water’, for example, against an unrelenting, slow, steady beat, or to the disgruntled grunginess of ‘My Brother’s Man’, the song that got me here in the first place, with its rich yet ruthless layers of sound, electronic noise whirring against heavy pounding guitars, or to the sick, hypnotic lure of Gira’s dark, gravel-worn vocals in ‘Not Here/Not Now’, and you feel some of that same animalistic grotesquery that Nick Cave is so famous for.

But there are quieter moments here, too – moments that almost border on being tender, like in the first half of ‘Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You’ – and, even though you feel it’s with poisoned lips that the music is kissing you, and even though the gentle moments always give way to the harsh ones, it has a subtlety that, for me at least, Nick Cave never really seems (nor wants) to capture.

Within songs, even more than between them, the music alternates between passages of full, strapping sound, like in ‘The Man We Left Behind’, elaborately orchestrated with electrics and acoustics blending like family, and moments that are more sparse and empty, a voice singing an almost conventional country ballad against an acoustic guitar strumming a few almost conventional chords.

But nothing’s conventional here and the originality of this music lies in the “almost”. ‘The Man We Left Behind’ is, after all, a song about addictions that still hold you and its overstated simplicity is really just a deception to make you think that its message is benign.

What you notice all throughout this album are the ways – the little ways as much as the big ways – in which things divert from music’s more well-trodden paths. Listen, for example, to the way the title song gives a droning, haunted hue to what would otherwise sound almost like gospel music, or to the twisted sarcasm given to the jaunty, jolly banjo of ‘Good Bye Mary Lou’, partly by the heavy thud of the beat beneath it, partly by the uncompromising bitterness of the lyrics above it (“Paint your face and sharpen your teeth. Choke yourself on ancient meat. Mary Lou – Fuck you”).

‘Star Chaser’ closes the album, sad and elegiac for something that is lost but that leaves demons not yet fully exorcised, as Gira’s final words “You live on in me …” are sung over and over in music that builds and builds, searching for a climax that it never finds and instead dies suddenly away, its unresolved passion left lingering in you, long after Gira and his Angels of Light have moved on.

The music of We Are Him is not difficult to like but that doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward. If anything, it’s its accessibility that makes it so interesting, so unique – music that gives a new twist on the familiar; music that looks like a big comfy bed but turns out to have a whole lot of sharp and bumpy bits in it that never allow you to really rest.

It’s all told in the album’s cover – a cute, brightly coloured painting of a cuddly doggy in a shirt and tie, and of pussy cat in a police uniform, surrounded by little birds and cakes and a teddy bear: it’d all be sweet and adorable, were it not for the bones, the gravestones and the ominous black raven that are there, too.

This music is a great way of discovering that the cosiness of country and the punchiness of post-punk are not really that far apart after all and, just as you discover dark things hidden in the uneasy quiet of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Silence is Sexy (see 17th February) so, too, do you discover them here in the shifting changing moodiness of Angels of Light’s We Are Him.

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