Sunday, March 1, 2015

Smokelit Flashback II

"In a Half-Lit World"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

As I mentioned last time, the first two volumes of Smokelit Flashback were developed simultaneously.1  So in this volume we see lots more entries from the same 5 albums: Portishead, the two Lemon Jelly EPs, and the two Naomi albums.  However, we’re also already starting to see some important branching out.

First and foremost, we have two tracks from Falling You.  When some people say “darkwave,” they just mean “gothic.”  But I use the term in a very different way: oh, darkwave is very much gothic-derived, no doubt, but it’s also quite distinct in my eyes.  Siouxsie is gothic.  The Cure is gothic, as are Sisters of Mercy and the Swans and the Mission.  Gothic reaches its peak in bands like Mary My Hope and Fields of the Nephilim, who are so close to what would eventually become goth-metal that you could be forgiven for thinking they were just collections of the mellower songs from bands like Type O Negative and White Zombie.  But darkwave goes off in a different direction: through dream pop and flirting with trip-hop, before finally settling somewhere in a DIY √¶sthetic with strong electronica tendencies.  The first time I heard darkwave, it was Black Tape for a Blue Girl, and it was on Hearts of Space.2  Now I mentioned before that I was greatly influenced by HoS’s excellent mixes, but I also picked up a fondness for many new musical styles from that show, and darkwave was one.  Because, you see, Black Tape for a Blue Girl leads one to Sam Rosenthal3 and Sam Rosenthal leads one to Projekt.

Sometimes a particular label will come to focus on a genre or style to the point where it nearly defines that type of music.  Sun was rockabilly.  Sub Pop was grunge.  Blue Note was jazz.  Well, Projekt is darkwave.  It seems like any darkwave artist of any note ends up on Projekt sooner or later.  So perusing their stable of artists is a good way to discover the best of darkwave.  The funny thing is, despite the fact that Black Tape for a Blue Girl got me into darkwave, I don’t really like that band all that much.  There are a few BTfaBG tracks I like, of course, and one good album,4 but it was the bands I discovered through them that really excited me.  Lycia, and Love Spirals Downwards,5 and Autumn’s Grey Solace, and Unto Ashes.  And Falling You.

Falling You isn’t technically a Projekt artist, but the band has strong connections to the label.6  Like Black Tape for a Blue Girl, it’s essentially a one-man show, although John Michael Zorko doesn’t do any of his own singing.  He employs a number of very talented women with haunting, ethereal voices for that, and he provides the gothic wash of sound with the strong backbeat.   Falling You is, in my opinion, the best of the darkwave bands, and they are now appearing on a number of my mixes (including at least one track on every volume of Smokelit Flashback from here on out).

Just as Projekt is the darkwave label, so 4AD is the dream pop label.  The two biggest names in that field—the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance—had their home here, and I chose a track from each one for this volume.  Dream pop, with its glorious backwashes of swirling guitars and keyboards and its soaring, often celestial, occasionally eerie vocals, is a great match for this mix.

The Cocteau Twins—who, like the Thompson Twins, do not consist of two people—have an interesting history.  Like darkwave, they started in gothic (their first album, Garlands, is as dark as anything by Siouxsie or the Cure) and then transformed, but they stopped when they hit dream pop.  In fact, some would say they invented it.7  Certainly they define it in some way, just as Nirvana would forever define grunge, despite their not having invented it.8  If I need to explain to anyone what dream pop is, I just put on some Cocteau Twins.  They’ll get it.

I discovered Victorialand in 1986, shortly after it came out (although I didn’t know that at the time).  My record-collector father had a friend who ran a small record store in Chesapeake, Virginia, near my hometown.  Once while he was at the house visiting Dad, he told me I should drop by.  I told him I wasn’t into the 50’s and 60’s proto-rock that he and my dad were into.  He smiled and promised me he’d have music that would interest me.  He wasn’t kidding.  The small shop was called Unicorn Records, and it was there that I first heard Pleased to Meet Me by the Replacements, and Phantasmagoria by the Damned ... and Victorialand.  I had to buy an import because there was no American release yet—it may well be the highest price I’ve ever paid for an album that I bought myself.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  It was dreamy, and sonic, and only barely decipherable as English.9  It was too melodic to be ambient and too edgy to be new age and too dense to be electronica (also, electronica hadn’t been invented yet).  The best I could come up with to describe it was “angels singing in a pink fog,” which is what I told people for years when desperately trying to put the music into words.  Now, you may say, “how could you tell the fog was pink just from listening to it?”  To which I can only respond: “you obviously haven’t heard Victorialand.”  Ordinary white fog it ain’t.

Dead Can Dance is a slightly different story.  They’re still dream pop, definitely, but with a healthy dose of world, and an injection of Renn Faire to boot.  I’d heard the name kicked around, but I hadn’t heard any of their music when I fell in love with It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil.  TMC was a group with a rotating membership, composed nearly exclusively of 4AD bands.  I knew the Cocteau Twins, of course, and I knew Martin McCarrick from his work with Siouxsie, but the other musicians were from bands I’d mostly never heard of: Cindytalk, Colourbox, Xmal Deutschland, Wolfgang Press.10  And Dead Can Dance, which of course I had heard of.  I figured I liked the Cocteaus, and I liked This Mortal Coil, so I better pick up some of these other bands.  And I figured I should start with the one name I recognized.

The album I eventually bought was Aion, and it too would become one of my favorite albums (possibly even eclipsing the other two).  This trilogy (Victorialand, It’ll End in Tears, and Aion) comprise the perfect music to relax to, to fall asleep to, to mediate to, to just lose yourself in.  Aion differs from the others in having a strong medieval bent.  As such, a lot of the tunes (such as “Saltarello” or “Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book”) don’t really work for Smokelit Flashback.  But then you have “Black Sun,” which I’ve always thought is one of Brendan Perry’s strongest vocal performances.  There’s no doubt that Lisa Gerrard is the vocal powerhouse of the duo, but when Brendan is on, he’s on, and “Black Sun” is the perfect closer for this volume.

The volume title is a line from “Mourning Air” by Portishead.  The sense of mystery it conveys is perfect for this mix.

Smokelit Flashback II
    [In a Half-Lit World]

        “Cowboys” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “She Hangs Brightly” by Mazzy Star, off She Hangs Brightly
        “Mercy” by Falling You, off Mercy
        “The Thinner the Air” by Cocteau Twins, off Victorialand
        “Mourning Air” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “White” by Naomi, off Everyone Loves You
        “Experiment Number Six” by Lemon Jelly, off Lost Horizons
        “Sumeria” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “Syndicate” by Naomi, off Everyone Loves You
        “Humming” by Portishead, off Portishead
        “the art of possession (no escape)” by Falling You, off Touch
        “Ana” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “Black Sun” by Dead Can Dance, off Aion
Total:  13 tracks,  63:16

As I mentioned back in volume I, the other bridge off Transglobal Underground’s International Times (“Sumeria”) is here, as is “Ana,” a song which simmers but somehow never boils.

Rounding out the set is a single track off Mazzy Star‘s debut, She Hangs Brightly.  Mazzy Star is often described as dream pop as well, but I find it to be something a bit to the left of that.  Not harsh enough to be shoegaze yet too harsh to be proper psychedelia, with just a hint of country twang, it exists in a bizarre world mostly to itself, with only Tashaki Miyaki and a few of the mellower Sonic Youth cuts for company.11  Much of the Mazzy Star ouevre isn’t quite right for Smokelit Flashback, although it’s all tantalizingly close.  But “She Hangs Brightly” is just an eerie, haunting tune that fits in perfectly here.

For our next installment, we’ll leave Smokelit Flashback for some more upbeat pastures.


1 This is actually quite common.  Often when I decide I have enough tracks for a full volume, I end up having enough for two.

2 Specifically, program 250: “Liquid Desires.”

3 BTfaBG essentially consists of Rosenthal and whoever else he feels like, much like Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor and The The is Matt Johnson.

4 Specifically, The Scavenger Bride.

5 We’ll see them on Smokelit Flashback V, if we get that far.

6 For instance, perennial Falling You vocalists Suzanne Perry and Dru Allen are the regular singers for Projekt artists Love Spirals Downwards and This Ascension, respectively.

7 While others might say that honour should go to labelmates Dif Juz.

8 Nirvana formed in 1987, which puts them 4 years behind fellow Seattle natives the Melvins, and 3 behind seminal Boston grunge band Dinosaur Jr.

9 And I’m being generous when I say “barely.”  Many people listen to the Cocteau Twins for years before figuring out that it actually is English.  I know I did.

10 I would eventually procure Devils and Funky Little Demons as well.  Still have never picked up any Cindytalk or Colourbox though.

11 Well, I say “only,” but that only goes to show you that you should never use words like that when it comes to music.  I’ve recently discovered Beach House and Widowspeak, and both are very similar to Mazzy Star, especially the latter.  In fact, I suspect that you’ll be hearing from one or both bands in future volumes of this mix.

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