Archive for December, 2009

Inconvenient Music Club: Electric Café

Posted in music with tags , , on December 28, 2009 by richardblandford

Kraftwerk’s 1986 album, Electric Café, is where it’s widely considered to begin going wrong for the legendary electronic music group. After a run of classic, innovative albums from 1975’s Autobahn to Computer World in 1981, Electric Café was believed to reveal that the trailblazers had fallen behind the pack, overtaken by the very acts they influenced such as the Human League and New Order, and rendered redundant by the incorporation of their electro-industrial rhythms into hip-hop. Electric Café, perhaps, is the sound of a once-fearless group losing its confidence. For most music fans, this is where the story ends. In the world of Inconvenient Music, however, it’s exactly where we start paying attention.

Side one consists of a suite of three inter-related tracks, Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop, and Musique Non-Stop. Skeletally sparse, and not overly melodic, the tracks could be seen as a blueprint for much of the dance music of the following decade. Except that they never quite ‘kick in’ the way you assume they’re supposed to. There’s no real build and release of tension. They just sort of hover uncertainly, as if they know there’s something they should be doing, but can’t quite work out how to do it.

On one level, it’s just the sound of music not working, but on another it’s quite revealing. It’s as if Kraftwerk had indeed seen the future, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to sign up to it, at least, not yet. They would correct this ‘fault’ on their 1990 self-remix album The Mix, in which the three tracks were condensed into one mighty piece, Music Non-Stop, that does exactly what dance music’s supposed to do, thrillingly. It’s an improvement in that it’s ‘better’ music, but without the strange hesitating mood of the original elements, it’s perhaps less interesting.

Side two opens with the elegant pop of The Telephone Call, which could easily sit on the earlier Computer World, if it were not for the fact that whereas the songs on that album presented (albeit with typical Kraftwerkian irony) a world of harmony between man and device, in which social interaction is eased through developments in information technology, The Telephone Call depicts these as means of non-communication, with calls being redirected to the mocking sound of an answering machine message, and the physical distance of the relationship only too apparent.

The song that follows, Sex Object, is one of the more baffling entries in the Kraftwerk songbook. ‘I don’t want to be your sex object,’ sings main-man/machine Hutter, ‘Have some feeling and respect’. It verges on the laughable, with a group that had previously only concerned themselves with the love of machines suddenly turning their attention to physical relationships. The curiously nonsynthetic-sounding slap bass, meanwhile, suggests that they’d lost their bearings completely. The track’s ‘wrongness’, however, once again adds to its meaning. It’s the sound of a crack in a flawless surface, as a group who had until then sung in seeming praise of their eventual dehumanisation turn against the idea and make a plea for individuality.

The album ends with the title-track, Electric Café, a pleasing enough return to the streamlined electronic constructions of side one, leaving the listener in what sounds like a prediction of the existence of internet cafes. We now all live in the Electric Café, Kraftwerk seem to be suggesting, with social interaction simultaneously eased and obstructed by the devices we use to achieve it. The album’s re-branding as Techno Pop upon its rerelease earlier this year nearly deprives it of this layer of meaning.

Electric Cafe is the ultimate flawed gem, with the very things that stop it from working totally successfully being those which give it the depth and meaning that it does possess. Sometimes, imperfection is a work of art’s logical end-point.

Listen to Techno Pop (Electric Cafe) on Spotify.

The Mahābhārata

Posted in Books with tags , on December 27, 2009 by richardblandford

When Project: Well-ReadB4Dead (my randomised system for achieving a working knowledge of world literature before the age of ninety) threw up the ancient Indian epic The Mahābhārata, I found myself with a bit of a problem.  It’s long.  Very long.  So long, in fact, that if I were to read it in its entirety, I would have time for very little else before my ninetieth birthday.  Fortunately, the current Penguin Classics version, translated by John D. Smith, summarises a good two-thirds of the text so the reader can skip some of the less essential stuff and concentrate on the main story, leaving you with something that’s still very long, but not as long as some more recent Thomas Pynchon novels, and with probably less characters and a simpler story.

The epic tells of the battle between the heroic Pandavas, five not particularly-likable brothers with various superhuman attributes, and the hundred Kaurava brothers, who are the villains, and thus doomed to lose, despite there being a hundred of them.  Along the way, the story meanders this way and that, and encompasses many sub-stories that are told by various characters, as well as the spiritual instruction of the Bhagavadgītā.

Reading it is certainly a challenge.  There are long stretches where, even with the summarised sections, not an awful lot of interest happens.  Suddenly, however, the story will flare up in very imaginative ways indeed, with genders switching, gods revealing themselves in a fantastically trippy fashion, and mysterious rituals such as the Horse Sacrifice being performed.

What I find most interesting about works from this far back however (it is believed to have been written, and then added to, from the 8th C. BC to the 4th C. AD), is the way they swing from what could be called mythic storytelling, in which a people’s world and history is explained through narratives in a way that makes sense to them, and storytelling for its own sake, where deliberate use of tension and suspense is employed, sub-plots interact with the main story the way they’re meant to, and instead of things happening because they are the will of the gods, they occur because of human will and human action.

(This is the fundamental difference between The Iliad and The Odyssey, I think.  In the former, battles are often won or lost depending on whether a sacrifice pleased the gods.  In the latter, however, although Odysseus has help from Athena, much of the time he’s relying on his own wits.  Consequently, it feels a more ‘modern’ story.)

The Mahābhārata is explicitly concerned with this, as characters seek to understand what is ‘fate’ and must be, and what is the result of human desire.  Interestingly, and frustratingly, which events are determined as ‘fate’ aren’t consistent throughout the epic, and so a sinful action deserving of punishment in the afterlife halfway though the story is ‘what must be’ by the end.

Ultimately, the Mahābhārata pulls the modern reader in and pushes them away with about the same regularity as the more-famous ‘Bible’ by Moses, et al., but with less reasons provided for stoning people to death (There are also points of overlap, with a variant on the Noah story and that of Moses in the bull-rushes).  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating read if you’re even remotely interested in the development of narrative technique throughout the ages.  7/10!