Vorn Colgan has been New Zealand’s best-kept musical secret for so long now that it seems almost a shame to spoil it. He has been writing and releasing albums under the Vorn moniker to critical acclaim and commercial non-plussed-ness since 1999, as well as contributing to the work of indie legends such as Dangerpin, The Sproutts and Gold Medal Famous. He also makes up approximately 50% of the Wellington Sea Shanty Society. You can catch him on tour throughout the South Island in February, and you should. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
I read music reviews to find good new music to listen to. I find reviewers I trust, then I track down music they recommend. That’s what Reviews Are For, as far as I’m concerned. There’s nothing more pointless than the Mojo school of maudlin boomer reminiscence (This week! 50 more reasons why Hendrix was way better than anything you’ll ever like, whippersnapper! Plus one new band we approve of because they sound like Hendrix!) – unless it’s reading 18 different reviews of the album every publication in the world has decided to feature this week.
So I should use this opportunity to showcase five albums you’ve likely never heard of, but which would blow/rock your world/mind (delete wherever) if you did. But, fickle fate being the cruel mistress it is, my brief is to write about five albums that I’m loving right now, and in a particularly public and pathetic kind of mini-midlife crisis, I find that few of those five are either obscure or recent. In fact, the two albums I’m loving right now that are both obscure and recent, are projects I’m involved in, which is surely against some kind of reviewer law.
So basically, you get to hear me enthuse about some things which you’ve probably already heard, assuming you care in the first place. Why read the thing then? Buggered if I know, I wouldn’t if I were you. Why write it? Because it’s seldom enough I get asked to babble on, at length, in public, on my favourite subject, and I see no reason to pass up the opportunity just because I’d never read such an article myself. Consider yourself fully disclaimered.
1 – V/A, Nature’s Worst 3: In the last 20 years or so, we have seen the birth of an actual Music Industry in New Zealand, due to a combination of things like NZ On Air, the Smokefree Rockquest, NZ Music Month, and consequent increased interest from labels, mainstream radio, promoters, and the press. This has definitely had some good effects: the main one being, in my opinion, that nowadays if somebody tells you s/he is a musician, there is every chance they actually play music somewhere and receive money for it, rather than just being a barista with a large collection of effects pedals. But when your income is dependent on the goodwill of government departments, the big labels, breweries, and commercial radio stations, there’s a great deal of more or less invisible pressure to make your music…nice.
Back when you didn’t have the slightest chance of making a buck through music, the only reason to make music at all was because you damn well felt like it. You didn’t have to worry about who you’d offend: it was highly unlikely anyone was going to listen anyway. Let’s take reggae as a random example – in the 80s we had Herbs, actively joining protests against the Springbok tour (don’t kid yourself that being anti-tour was a popular standpoint – go watch Patu, now, and feel sad, angry and ashamed); penning songs decrying French nuclear testing in the Pacific; even the haunting Karanga at the opening of Long Ago would have been as shocking and exotic to the average white NZ music listener of the 80s as any amount of Rage-Against-the-Machine-y cussing.
A generation on, we have Fat Freddy’s Drop informing us that hope for our generation is just out of reach and/or sight, about 46 times; or Trinity Roots singing, in effect, that Aotearoa has very pretty scenery – a choice of subject which would be very useful indeed if buildings and cars in NZ didn’t have windows, and no one could, you know, walk outside. Both of these are probably correct assertions, but Christ, how bland.
Wait! Don’t get all angry, I’m not just hating here, I’m working towards a point. Both of these songs are very pretty, and nice, and there’s nothing wrong with writing nice, pretty songs. God knows if I could do such a thing, I’d spend a lot less time masturbating alone in the dark. But my deadly serious point, which I promise I have, is this: it is bad if all music is nice and pretty. On a societal level, if all the music you hear is nice and pretty, you live in a police state. At the level of an individual artist, if all the music they make is nice and pretty, there are two possibilities – either they are lying to you, or they really are criminally boring.
Listening to a song is putting on someone else’s brain, just for a little bit, and taking it for a test run. If someone only shows you the nice things in their brain, they are holding out on you. Every brain has dark and nasty little corners, full of backed-up gunk and unresolved ickiness. Why is your song-dealer pretending otherwise? Does he want you to buy a lemon? Sooner or later that brain you’re test driving is going to break down on the Desert Road, in the dark, and when you call the AA they’re not going to come – because you should have known this vehicle was Too Nice To Be True.
Which is where Nature’s Worst comes in. Modeled on the deeply unnatural Nature’s Best compilations, Nature’s Worst‘s brief is to find and collate songs which celebrate the less-than-100%-pure side of NZ culture and music. Members of the official NZ Music canon (Robert Scott, Alistair Gailbraith, me) rub surprisingly comfortable shoulders with genuine underground outsider artists – (The Dick Fucks, Lame-a-Tron – okay I admit it – me); genres are mashed and mismatched, production values vary wildly, Scowlin Wolf’s liner notes (remember liner notes?) run the gamut of rage from incandescent to incoherent, the cover art (remember cover art?) gives the 4-square dude a frighteningly convincing crack makeover, and a cracking good time is had by all. The overall feel of this series takes me back to my first encounters with NZ music, AK 79ish compilations of unemployable losers penning ballads to hypertrophied labia or giving unnecessarily specific suicide instructions; an over-riding sense that no one gives a shit about your shitty band, and that Apathy Will Set You Free. No one approves. You need not seek approval. Play what you like.
And you know what? Some of the songs are actually kind of nice.
2 – Aesop Rock, Labor Days: Hip Hop is just the most frustrating of genres. I mean, for starters, it was the best thing to happen to music last century. Yes, I include you, jazz. Hip Hop ate you. Deal with it. The relentless focus on beat and bass stripped popular music back to its essentials just when it was getting bloated, sampling and scratching turned everything ever recorded into a palette to draw from, and best of all, you didn’t even have to sing anymore.
Melody, of course, is a beautiful thing. But Shakespeare was dead wrong when he claimed that that which is too silly to be said can be sung. Actually, the number of words which can be sung convincingly is a tiny, tiny subset of the words which can be said convincingly. If you don’t believe me, here is a take-home exercise – write a line, which works, in which you can sing the word testicular. Now try including the same word in a rap. See? English is chock full of short vowels and dental consonants, and not a single one of those bastards sings nicely. But when spoken, they make a music all of their own – cf Beck (read this out loud for full effect) “Hot silk, mmm tweak my nipple, champagne and ripple shamans go cripple/ my sales go triple/ we drop lobotomy beats/ evaporated meats on the hi-tech streets” – it forces the tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips into a kind of combined face-dance/involuntary beatbox. There is just no way you could sing all those very silly words with the same impact.
So Hip Hop has it all – the best grooves, a world of harmony to choose from, total verbal freedom – and what has Hip Hop done with its birthright? Well, mostly talked about killing and fucking. And money. Oh, and how much better rapper X is than rapper Y. Honestly, it shits me to tears. And for, aw, like, 20 years, if you wanted to escape the 5-year-old-boys’-pissing-contest that was gangster rap, you were forced into the gentrified ghetto of A Tribe Called De La Development Rap White People Like.
So hearing Aesop Rock is like encountering Muhammad Ali in a league of Tysons. His music is a perfect storm of all that makes Hip Hop awesome –manic wordplay, a total mastery of scansion, and grooves to chew your left arm off for. Even when indulging in standard hip-hop badassery, Aesop Rock oozes style – where Tupac considered ‘I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker’ something of a witticism, A-Rock offers sound advice – ‘Maybe she didn’t feel y’all shared any similar interests’; Tupac does menacing like this: ‘Cut your young ass up, see you in pieces/Now be deceased’ (which is nearly a sentence, well done!), Aesop offers ‘You won’t be laughing when the buzzards drag your brothers’ flags to rags/You won’t be laughing when your front lawn’s spangled with epitaphs’. Here is a man who would only bother to pop a cap in you if it offered the opportunity for multiple internal rhymes and some freakish sound symbolism.
But it’s away from the quotidian trash-talk that Rock’s lyrics really shine – he does the world’s meanest line in high speed beat poetry – lines that flash by at throwaway pace but show an uncanny ability to evoke bizarre images. “I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent/ While the triple-sixers’ lassos keep angels roped in the basement/I walk the block with a halo on a stick poking your patience…” Formidable.
And the beats shine too – tracks like Daylight (quoted above) do classic Hip-Hop with a flair that borders on scorn, running a Beastie Boys loop over a chunky-thighed jazz bassline; but elsewhere we find splashes of fuzzed-out rock guitars, tinkly glockenspiels, and sub-psychedelic synthesisers. Labor Days does what every Aesop Rock album does, and so few other Hip Hop albums do – creates a sonic world that is simultaneously coherent and boundary-pushing.
So okay I have a crush. Next…
3 – Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: Yup, it’s from 1998. But I’m loving it right now, and besides, I wrote a disclaimer at the top of this thing. Write your own article if you don’t like it.
I have a soft spot for a voice that divides popular opinion. In a world where any variance from the radio-standard-vocal norm is crushed under the iron heel of 48 hours a day of talent shows, corporate pop factories, and ubiquitous auto-tuning, there’s an irresistible charm to a singer whose voice can offend by timbre alone. David Byrne, Stephen Malkmus, Mo Tucker, Bjork, Jonathan Richman, Wayne Coyne – each and every one would have been ejected summarily from their first vocal-coaching session. Thank God.
And Jeff Mangum’s is definitely one of those voices. Let’s not kid ourselves; the dude inhabits the twilight zone between gravel, 1920s microphones, and excessive glottal snot. I once had a visitor to my house turn this album off. Without asking. While I was listening to it. I can’t think of a better testament to the uniqueness of the man’s instrument.
And it’s not just the voice that’s unique – this album is a study in one-of-a-kind-ism. It has a sound all of its own. This is my favourite thing about lo-fi recordings: using gear and techniques which fall outside the industry standard makes the work instantly unmistakeable. From the first chords of King Of Carrot Flowers this album sucks you into a perfectly constructed sonic micro-world of peach-fuzzed wall-of-compression guitar antics, slightly crazed horn sections, marching-band oompah drums and shitty overdriven Yamaha organs. And what sounds like an electric bagpipe solo. Choice.
This is supposedly a concept album, based on the Diary of Anne Frank, though it’s hard to imagine you would ever guess that based on a straight reading of the lyrics. The relationship between Aeroplane and Anne Frank is more like that between Joyce’s Ulysses and The Odyssey – if you’re the kind of hopelessly obsessive nerd who’s willing to pore over a work endlessly in search of oblique correspondences, there’s a lifetime’s worth of geeking off herein enclosed; otherwise the concept serves mainly as a way of binding together what would otherwise be a ragtag collection of imagery; and just like with Joyce, I prefer to ignore the high-concept stuff and just bathe vaguely in the showers of best-possible words put in best-possible orders.
Whether or not it qualifies as a ‘real’ concept album, it’s definitely a prime example of a song cycle – the songs bleed into each other, make sneaky cross-references, and are designed and planned to be played all together, one after the other, in one particular order. This is one of those albums you cannot start listening to unless you intend to hear it out to the end; and by the end, the spell is so completely woven that when Mangum intones ‘…God is a place you will wait for the rest of your liife…’ you don’t have to believe in God (or know what the devil the man is on about) to yell ‘Fuck Yeah!’
4 – Bugge Wesseltoft & Henrik Schwarz, Duo: I like this album mostly because it was able to convince me to like it, despite being composed almost entirely of things I generally despise. What this is, is a minimalist-electro-jazz album. In which a talented jazz pianist and a laptop musician collaborate to make ambient instrumentals.
I can’t begin to tell you how many of the words in the above paragraph fill me with fear and loathing. Let’s start with jazz. I can’t fucking stand jazz. I should clarify here – there are jazz musicians I idolise (Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong); and jazz albums I couldn’t be without (A Love Supreme, Kind of Blue); and as a slavish Vonnegut fan I am forced to agree with him that jazz is probably the only unequivocal gift America has ever given the world. But but but
It’s the lies I can’t stand. The fucking lies.
1) “Jazz is total musical freedom. You can play anything you like – and it’s jazz”. Bullshit. If I formed a five-piece Jazz ensemble and recorded a note-for-note reproduction of Metallica’s Black Album, nobody would acknowledge it as a jazz masterpiece. You can’t play anything you like and call it jazz. If you want your music to be called jazz, you have to play things that are jazzy. A loosely defined term is not the same thing as total freedom. Obscenity is a loosely defined term too. But like the judge said – you know it when you see it. Some things are obscene, and some aren’t. Some things are jazz, and some aren’t. Yup, it’s subjective. Subjectivity is not the same thing as freedom.
2) “Jazz is never the same twice”. This isn’t strictly a lie; it’s just true of everything, and thus not particularly special. Nothing is ever the same twice. If you play the same mp3, through the same sound system, in the same room, two times in a row, you still have two different experiences – the first listen and the second listen. So what are we celebrating here? You play the same song multiple times but you vary the melody according to mood and use different notes in the solo sections? Everyone does that. Jazz doesn’t get to claim that as its own. Or what, you change every single note in the song, and the time signature, and the chord progression, every time you play it? That’s playing a bunch of different songs. Everyone does that too.
3) “Jazz is spontaneous. It’s all about improvisation”. Jazz is spontaneous? I guess jazz musicians don’t write set lists then. And the thing about improvisation is that Nothing On Earth Requires More Practice Than Improvisation. To be a great improviser, you have to practice constantly. You have to overlearn a practically infinite number of scales, licks, modes, and keys, until your brain hurts like a warehouse and there is no room to spare. Improvisation in music is the opposite of spontaneity – it’s not making stuff up as you go along; it’s presenting the results of years of in-depth knowledge and technical mastery. Jazz musicians are like magicians: they practice an impossible trick till it happens so smoothly you can’t tell how they could possibly do it. Then they go ‘Hey! How did that happen? Magic!!!’ Nope. Not Magic. Practice. Which is fine, and awesome, and admirable. And the polar opposite of spontaneous.
…so I hate Jazz, because it lies. And I hate minimalism, because I fear it. If less is more, then 4′ 33” is the most. And if that’s true, then I’ve wasted a disproportionate amount of my life making noises when I should have been not making noises. That’s scary.
And then there’s the laptop musician. I don’t hate laptop musicians. We are all laptop musicians now, except for the privileged few whose record label or trust fund is generous enough to fork out for studio time. But we all know, because we are all laptop musicians now, that the laptop is a great way to be lazy, if you care to be lazy.
So the lazy laptop musician and the lying jazz pianist are making frightening minimalist music. Could this be worse? Yes indeedy: it’s kind of ambient too! Ambient music, unlike jazz, is reassuringly easy to define – its creator defined it as music that is ‘as interesting as it is ignorable’. That just makes me sick. Of course music should be interesting; how low can you set your expectations? And I don’t have space here to tell you why music shouldn’t be ignored, or ignorable. it Let me reduce 10,000 words to 10. If you want to ignore the music turn it off
So by any logical measure I should utterly loathe this album. But I love it, right now, because it’s just a bunch of excellent ideas, executed excellently. Duo, you made me love you. I didn’t want to do it. (That is a quote from a jazz song, and thus free and spontaneous.)
5 – JP Young, Anniversary Day: Full disclosure – while I was not involved in the writing and recording of this album, I do play in the JP Young live band occasionally. But surely a man can Love This Album Right Now, even if he’s been known to take some of the tunes out of the house of a weekend.
Anniversary Day is that most common of things – a Hidden New Zealand Classic. If I told you I’d been listening to a concept album based on the story of Wellington’s only recorded fatal shark attack, you would probably treat me to some combination of polite nodding and glaze-eyed smiling. But this unassuming monster succeeds with aplomb where Neutral Milk Hotel did a brilliant job of something rather different.
The balancing act in writing a pop concept album is that every song has to be a worthy stand-alone pop tune, while still clinging tenaciously to the Concept. The temptation to slip in a thoroughly banging tune which is completely off-topic is only outweighed by the possibility of writing a total clanger in order to flesh out the story. And here we have twelve songs which build to a coherent story while still having enough bone structure and sinew to be great tunes in their own right. It’s a feat.
There’s more though. In choosing a historical topic and giving it the pop treatment, Young asks and answers some big questions about songwriting in the 21st century. For the last 50 years or so, musicians and writers alike have been urged to ‘write from life’, to ‘write what you know’. And because most musicians start writing early in life, when they don’t know much, we are treated to millions of songs about being a confused teenager. About trying to make sense of life, the universe, and everything. About riding around in a van playing gigs. About getting and spending, loving and losing, trying and failing. About (o god this is the worst) trying to find things to write songs about.
But as Tom Wolfe points out in his kick-arse preface to Bonfire of the Vanities, writing from life needn’t mean writing exclusively about your shitty life; writing what you know needn’t mean displaying your ignorance – you can learn stuff, about the world outside your mouldy practice-room, and you can write about that. If you’re good enough.
So it’s not just twelve great songs, which move and inspire all by themselves. And it’s not just twelve great songs that fit together into a great story. It’s also a kind of manifesto – a demonstration of what pop songwriting can be, if we’re good enough, and we try hard enough. A suggestion that The Album can still be a worthwhile conceit, even in this age when no one actually buys Albums any more. In short: Genius. Bastard.
If you got this far, I thank you for reading! And thanks to Simon for having me.