Brakes - ‘Ancient Mysteries'
Thomas Demand Hal Foster - Daily #9 from ‘The Dailies'
There are few records that have ever hit me with more unexpected delight and excitement than Brakes’ ‘Give Blood’ set. Unexpected, for I had been far from a fan of Tom and Alex White’s group Electric Soft Parade, but sometimes expectations are there to be exploded.
Brakes were certainly explosive, especially on that incendiary debut, and especially as a live act. In 2005 I called them a great Soul act and I stand by that, especially since as they progressed through the gorgeous ‘Beatific Visions’ album and onto 2009’s swansong ‘Touchdown’ they tempered their yelps and howls and gave more free reign to a fascination with Country and Backwoods darkness. Their songs were never less than marvellous, from the splenetic ‘Heard About Your Band’ through the frankly haunting and beautiful ‘No Return’ to the jaunty ‘Worry About It Later’. Perhaps strange then for me to choose a cover version as my song of choice from ‘Touchdown’ to document 2009 (the only cover version in this entire 50/50 series), but here is my simple reasoning: From when I first span ‘Touchdown’ to this day, ‘Ancient Mysteries’ is the song I immediately want to hear again as soon as it has finished. What more basic criteria can there be for judging the success of a Pop song after all?
Brakes’ take on ‘Ancient Mysteries’ is also one of those occasions when the cover is better than the original, although it must be said that Charles Douglas’ take from his 2001 ‘Statecraft’ set is a proper peach and certainly worth tracking down. At a shade under two minutes ‘Ancient Mysteries' is over before you know it, winking as it ends as if to encourage you to hit ‘repeat’ or to lift the needle to the start again. Indeed brevity could be the touchstone for Brakes’ entire recorded output. You could line up their three studio albums and be done in the time it used to take to watch a classic movie. Forty songs in a shade over an hour and a half. That’s Pop.
But Pop, like brevity, needs a tune to make a success of a song, and like ‘Velocity Girl’ ‘Ancient Mysteries’ knows just where to place the killer melody such that it sticks in your head forever. It’s remarkable too just how much of a narrative ‘Ancient Mysteries’ squeezes into it’s one minute fifty seven seconds (one second longer than the original, which Brakes magically manage whilst making the song faster). Douglas’ writing opens by cleverly shortcutting the story of ‘little Julia’ from her inception to an abusive relationship with her “future husband Michael”, simultaneously highlighting and using the age difference between the protagonists. The story is itself a neat nod to recurring threads of Rock’n’Roll history of course, and surely the reference to Julia being 13 is no randomly chosen age but rather a wink at Big Star. I mean, to repeat the recurring theme of this series, perhaps, perhaps not, but the tapestry of Rock’s mythology is rich and this is one tiny thread that I like to play with. So Douglas’ protagonists zip forwards in time, drenched in the seedy underbelly of America’s underclass. These are like characters from an Emmett Grogan or a Jim Dodge novel, which prehaps is entirely apt since Douglas went on to write successfully under the name of Alex McAulay. Douglas even finds the time to slip some delicious details into the narrative, notably Michael’s tattoo of “a little panda bear escaping from the zoo”. It’s that chorus that really binds and drives the song though: “Sitting in an ashram in the Poconos” is a great line and a great hook. It suggests a writer for whom words are important for their sounds as much as anything, and Brakes’ singer Eamon Hamilton clearly relishes the poetry as he sings them over guitars that jab, stab, shimmy and shake.
‘Ancient Mysteries’ is a song that gleefully subverts Pop by aligning melodic sweetness with the deviant and the dubious and as such it is like Linda Scott on ‘Mulholland Drive’. And when Hamilton sings Douglas’ words about how “The swami explains ancient mysteries that no-one knows but everyone wants to” you cannot help but think about the mediated, consciously constructed nature of the whole scenario: We wrap these experiences in narratives and seek out mysteries but perhaps, just perhaps, there is no mystery at all. Perhaps it really all is as easy as a feeling. “Did you like it? Do you want to do it again?”
To which the answer here assuredly is Yes. Yes I do.
I first saw a couple of Thomas Demand’s ‘The Dailies’ photographs whilst researching artists who do work based on ‘series’ or time constrained projects. Given the nature of this very 50/50 series and of some of my own artistic endeavours over the years this should come as no surprise. It did take me some time however to grasp the fact that what I was looking at in Demand’s photographs was not what I at first thought. For whilst the work is rooted in photographs of everyday details and asides it is also transformational, process-driven and wittily illusory. Demand’s ‘Dailies’ are in fact card and paper (re)constructions that are photographed such that they look like the original references. Not that we ever see these references, which leads us to ask perhaps if Demand is playing on the very nature of the ‘found’ as opposed to the ‘constructed’. Nothing, he may be saying, is entirely accidental. It’s a fair point.
Time, effort and expertise as a model maker may be key to the success of the constructions themsleves but they are only a part of the work. What is inescapable is that ‘The Dailies’ are exquisitely constructed, composed and illuminated photographs. The time, effort and expertise taken to (re)construct the fleeting moment of simple magic that passes us by seems to insist that we question that very simplicity. Are these things are simple and forgettable as they appear? Perhaps, perhaps not.
It is certainly worth tracking down Hal Foster’s ‘Dailiness’ text that accompanies and punctuates MACK's 2015 publication of ‘The Dailies’. As a text it is equally informative and provocative. Perhaps it is one of those texts which you read and which prompts you to say “you think too much”, or perhaps not. Your response may depend upon your age, your interest, your shared frame of reference and the amount of time you might have at your disposal. Me, I think it is worth making the time.
One key point in Foster’s text picks up on Demand’s own description of ‘The Dailies’ as being like haikus. Foster goes on to reference William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrow before immediately going on to name drop Baudelaire. “Can everyday things still prompt epiphanic insights in an administered world?” asks Foster. It’s a great questions. Does the answer depend upon the individual’s ability to break from that mediated or administered world? Or is even that an illusory freedom based simply on a macro-level of administered reference? It brings us back to the illusion of authenticity (you may recognise this as another theme that threads through this series) and the way in which all feeling might be mediated through the connections we make or choose not to make. How ‘real’ is this? Does it matter?
Perhaps in the end it really all is as easy and as complex as a feeling. “Did you like it? Do you want to do it again?”
And do I like ‘The Dailies’? Do I want to look back on them again and again? Yes. Yes I do.
There is no mystery.