Far and away my favorite and most listened-to contemporary recording of 2021 - New Long Leg by Dry Cleaning.
Some disjointed thoughts:
Florence as a modern day singer-songwriter, although without much in the way of sing or song going on. As with the classic '70s female singer-songwriters, the backing band is all-male and the music lags a little, or a lot, behind the contemporary edge of mainstream pop. Back then the singer-songwriter template might draw on folk or country... here, today, the settled style is post-punk (40 years on, as fixed in its strictures as the blues).
One counter-critique to the retromania argument is that it fixates on sonic innovation – form rather than content. It doesn’t take into account the possibility that the innovation might occur in the domain of lyrics, emotional expression, persona, or other non-sonic aspects of the work, while the music itself might be relatively traditional. Dry Cleaning’s music contains familiar elements; as able or apt as the playing is, nothing really innovative happens there. What is new: Shaw's language, delivery, and the subjectivity, the portrait of self.
Pressed to characterise Florence's affect, I would go for the slightly old-fashioned English expression "browned off.” It's an affect that speaks to the blankness of the present – the feel of life in the Boring Dystopia (to use Mark Fisher's term). This blankness is different from the sort of emptiness that triggers the imagination and stirs daydreams; rather, it's a saturated blankness, crowded with trivia of the type that snuffs daydreaming in the cradle. The mental space of this record is insanitary with inanity. "Scratchcard Lanyard," then - a "Transmission" for an era in which vision-quest of the kind that Joy Division could undertake is no longer accessible.
Another Fisher notion - "depressive hedonism" – threads through New Long Leg. Small pleasures snatched, or snacked (a profusion of references to treats, fast food, artisanal goodies, splashing out on gourmet mushrooms, a favorite cafe you used to frequent). Comforts that don’t console (a different kind of full emptiness).
I’m not hugely au fait with the late Lauren Berlant’s work, but what I've gleaned seems to have applications. The emotional landscape of New Long Leg teems with bad attachments, hopes that impede flourishing, impasses, interpersonal skirmishes, a perpetual low-key state of ordinary crisis. So it's what Berlant might have called a new kind of affective realism. Part of that realism relates to the way the "songs" aren't stories, they don't resolve (often the track cycles back to the opening verse and ends with it). Each piece consists of an accretion of disjointed perceptions in shuffle mode. Listening, the overwhelming feeling you take away, beyond browned-off, is accuracy. This is the texture of everyday life today, this how the mind moves. Focused goal-oriented thinking or sustained feeling-flow constantly perforated by the relentless telemediated blip-blip-blip of alarming nonsense from outside one's immediate lived situation. Attention flickers back and forth across the battery of implanted aspirations, desire-triggers, ambient fears,, the tragic absurd and random grotesque.
"Emo dead stuff collector" is a great line: the artist casually defining her method. But Dry Cleaning is the opposite of emo – Shaw is a nondrama queen. The deadpan flatness tamps down the musical backing, which, left to its own devices, could easily take on the epic swell of a post-rock group as the term is currently (mis)understood: dramatic instrumental guitar music with quiet-loud dynamics.
Her intonation and inflection stir a kind of expatriate ecstasy in me. There's an exquisite nostalgic pull: "this is my people (for better or worse)". The songs clearly translate (loads of Americans love New Long Leg, and even some non-Anglophones) but I can’t quite believe that it does or that it should. Surely only someone born and bred in that septic isle could even pick up these emotional frequencies, feel the full richness of the meagreness, the mustn’t-grumble stolidity.
Emotions so opaque they’re like the point where colors mixed turn muddy. Like the percussively exhaled “ha” at the end of “Scratchcard Lanyard” - a mouth-snort of poisoned breath, equal parts derision, defiance, exasperation, indignation, hostility, exhaustion.
Or the “well well well well” in “Her Hippo”.
The actual Southern Mark Smith arrives, finally.
Sleaford Mods - if the place they wrote from wasn’t the Greggs and poundshop world of the lumpen-prole Midlands, but the aimless ennui of post-postgraduates whose fresher-year at uni occurred somewhere near the end of the Coalition. The well-fed fed-up.
eMMplekz / Baron Mordant – minus the electronics, the dyspeptic mise-en-scène shifted slightly, from petit-bourgeois to middle middle-class. “Simple pimple, stomach stab” could easily be a Baron line. And mordancy is one of the inflection flavours on NLL.
An inventory of irritating sensations (“raincoat sweat” ). A list of listlessness. A catalogue of intractabilities.
Rock poets, then and now. Half-a-century of contracted horizons captured in the shift from “we want the world and we want it now” to “just want to be liked.”
The heartbreaking mildness of “I like you… stay.”
I wrote here earlier about “every day is a dick” - about creative mishearings truer than the truth. Here's some other lines from New Long Leg (accuracy not guaranteed) that speak to me. Speak for me.
“Absolutely huge fuck-up”
“Sick of that shit”
“Thanks a lot”
“I don’t know, what’s the point”
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”
“So full of poisonous rage”
"Do everything and feel nothing"
“Too much to ask about, don’t ask”
“Time to get fed up”
"It's useless to live"
Far and away my favorite and most listened-to archival release of 2021 - Ann Southam's The Reprieve, the Emerging Ground.
At one point, over a decade ago, Creel Pone was supposed to be winding up - now, was that just a wind-up, or did they simply recover enthusiasm and/or come across further caches of esoteritronica? This past year in particular has seen a huge new surge of activity, an avalanche of releases, indicating the seeming will to push onwards, up to and beyond the #300 release point. There's also been a flood of reéditions of earlier releases with bonus material added to them - sometimes a whole second disc of new stuff. There's even been a series of prequels, releases apparently once intended to happen before the Creel project was properly conceived and started. Releases that have now emerged with catalogue numbers that go into the fractisimal space between 1 and zero, e.g. CP 000.10 for their deluxe unoffish-reish of the legendary Philips 21e Siecle box Electronic Panorama.
For a good while now - perhaps even as far back as the #100 mark - Creel output has been variable: a lot of the stuff files under "interesting", or it's curios so curious that you (meaning me) can't help craving them (musique concrete using langue d'oc - aka Lenga D'oc- also known as Occitan - i.e. the language of Medieval Provence; most recently a disc of tape and electro-acoustic music by Basque composers). There's been a fair few duds too. What keeps the Creelhead hanging in there loyally are the marvels that turn up regularly. And the one out of this year's copiousness that stands out as very special is this hard-to-find, hellish-expensive-if-you-do album by the Canadian composer Ann Southam, originally released in 1983..
Made for a dance piece, "The Reprieve" (1975) is less a unified 24-minute composition than a suite of texturescapes, a succession of spaces. The coherence comes from the techniques and the sound palette: even more than electronics, Southam's primary instruments here are reverb and delay. Listening, you feel like you're moving one by one through a grotto's chambers. Light from the headlamp flickers across nacreous walls and damply glistening ceilings; magnified sounds of distant dripping water bounce through the uncanny acoustics of the honeycombed underworld. "The Emerging Ground" (1983) - constructed according to a similar logic, nearly as wondrous - unfurls as serried ranks of pearly palimpsests, each pulse trailing a glimmering succession of after-images. The original 1983 album is expanded in this Creel edition with two other pieces composed for dance, "Seastill" and "Rewind" - plus an excerpt from 1974's "Walls and Passageways" - and these likewise get your mind's eye dancing with wraiths and rivulets, fronds like wavering perpendicular ribbons, looms of lustrous yarn....
You can buy The Reprieve, The Emerging Ground here - and if you hurry there's still 10 percent discount on Creel releases that applies until the year's end.
The late Southam is interviewed at length here.
Far and away my favorite and most listened-to piece of non-reissued old-music-new-to-me would be this mos' t'peculiar assemblage by mouth-music-maven Anton Bruhin. I've no real idea how he made this (it's non-digital, from 1981 - some kind of repurposed, fucked-with children's toy?) and I don't want to know really.
And then there were these too (with links to my scribbles about same)
PinkPantheress - “Break It Off”
Foodman - Yasuragi Land
Saint Etienne - I’ve Been Trying To Tell You
Oneohtrix Point Never featuring Elizabeth Fraser - “Tales From The Trash Stratum”
Proc Fiskal - Siren Spine Sysex
Dean Wareham - I Have Nothing To Say to the Mayor of L.A.
Wet Leg - “Chaise Longue”
Position Normal - various scraps (previews of promised-in-2022 EPs, one hopes) plus an actual single release "Lite Bites" . Oh and this, what I suppose must be a Christmas single, stumbled on while looking for "Lite Bites"
Archivally, there were also (with links to my scribbles about same)
Various - Creelpolation-2.2 (Singles 2)
Suburban Lawns – Suburban Lawns
Seefeel – Rupt and Flex (1994-96)
Janet Beat – Pioneering Knob Twiddler
The Stick Figures – Archeology
Beatriz Ferreyra – Canto+
Full Spectrum, Australian Digital Music (early 1980s release added to the 2021 reédition of Creel Pone's Electronic Music, University of Melbourne)