There are people who feel nothing when they read. There are people who do not see images in their minds’ eye; people for whom the very notion of ‘the minds’ eye’ is baffling. I load no judgement in those statements, but more than two decades of teaching have taught me that they are true. Instead I share the observation mainly to point out the difficulty, and, some might say, pointlessness of trying to explain the (for me) essential experience of listening to records. There is a distinct probability that if you are reading this at all then of course you are on broadly the same wavelength. You are in my (very, very small) echo chamber. For those who may not be, well, I can think of few ways of explaining the reasons for my record listening than by listening to this record:
It’s all there. Minor details are different (I was never remotely dumpy and was never a Goth), but essentially, this is it. This is how it feels. This is why it is important to me.
Now I have long felt Jof Owen, who leads the grandly (and sweetly, knowingly ironic) titled Legends of Country, to be a kindred spirit. When I was running my Tangents webzine (remember when we used that word? Remember when it felt like a word that was a harbinger of a bright, positive new age of enlightenment?) Jof sent me his first 7” singles as The Boy Least Likely To and they simply thrilled me with their infectious, sublimely sweet Pop instincts wrapped in a DIY suburban aesthetic. Later he wore one of my record labels’ Pipettes badges in a Boy Least Likely To video and that warmed my heart no end. Connections are what counts. Later still I heard Terry Wogan play one of his songs on the morning radio as my friend Emma gave me a lift into school. It was a delicious conflation of memory and moment, of then and now and forever, for Wogan was the voice of mornings in our house as we got ready for school and here he was again as I drifted through my own forties and he was playing my kind of music. Our kind of music. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I listen to The Legends of Country either, so inevitably I do both. This is probably as it should be, for Country at its core is heart and soul. Country at its core is magnificently manipulative and transparently opaque. Country at its core knows the essential myth of authenticity and gleefully plays the myth for all it is worth. The Legends of Country know this. So do The Legends of Country. Of course they do. Of course they do.
To turn back on ourselves then, ‘Turn To Dolly’ then is the song that explains the appeal of songs; is the song that conjures the magic held inside the act of listening to records and of reading (comic) books. Of watching films both on screen and inside your head. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that explains how it feels to be lonely; that explains the value of the connections we make to soothe ourselves and to make the days bearable. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that acknowledges the essential value of those self-curated and created connections to our youthful years, and the way in which we revisit that centre at vital points throughout our lives. The energy held at that core may dwindle over time, but it can still surprise us with the its power to move. It can still make tears twinkle in the corners of our eyes.
We ‘Turn To Dolly’. Of course we do. Of course we do.
I turn to Rachel Duckhouse’s 'St Lawrence Flow 2' daily. Sometimes it is a glimpse in passing. At other times it is a prolonged pause, a feet-apart, leaning-in stare of intensity. Always it brings pleasure. It helps, of course, that the etching happens to hang in our dining room, above the array of Speyside whiskies and beside the chair from which my morning coffee is consumed.
Of course this is a terribly privileged middle-class thing to be saying, and this makes me sad mostly because really Art should be something we can all afford and enjoy. It ought not to be an investment opportunity or a luxury afforded to those who need not worry about where their next meal is coming from. Indeed there are arguments to be made that say the qualities provided by art (in its myriad forms and mediums) are as important to us in the ‘pyramid of need’ as shelter. That the reality of our society is so far removed from this ideal would be depressing if it were not so laughable.
There is a flicker of guilt in my daily enjoyment of ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ then, but only the faintest, for whilst our purchases may perpetuate the capitalist structures our society is built on (or more accurately that it increasingly feels it is collapsing in on) then there is too the determination to operate as far outside of those systems as is feasibly possible (or, at least, as is physically comfortable, for which see the 2016 Unpopular Advent entry for day 11). Which means supporting artists as directly as possible, through systems as independent of corporate meddling as can be achieved. Conflict. Guilt. Contradictions. Wouldn’t life be dull without them?
There is conflict in ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ too and this is surely one of the reasons I love it. In the ’St Lawrence Flow’ work Duckhouse takes the notion of organic wave forms and water flows and wraps them in a container that is forcibly, unflinchingly geometric. It is this contrast that makes the work so appealing. Indeed it is what appeals to me most about landscapes in general, for I admit that on the whole I am largely unmoved by the supposed grandeur and magnificence of nature. Often it is only when human intervention enters the picture that my interest is really piqued. Think electricity pylons marching down the Culm valley. Think concrete dams holding back Alpine rivers to create vast reservoirs. Think china-clay pits as photographed by Jem Southam and the attendant brutalist containers that once lined the road into Kingsteington. They no doubt line the road still, but, tragically, progress has since led to this industrial complex being by-passed and I admit I miss seeing those mounds of clay dust contained by angular forms and shadows in summer sun as I cycled past (not to mention the brilliant contrast of tanned legs against the white dusted road surface, but that’s another matter entirely).
‘St Lawrence Flow’ then puts me in mind of our ultimately vain yet magnificently vainglorious attempts to contain nature. It puts me in mind of harbour walls and managed water ways and this is all to the good. It reminds me too of experiments in Physics class with shallow plastic bowls of water. Refraction, reflection, interference and something or other. The magic of science laboriously hacked away to the mind-numbing facts. It looks beautiful, so who cares how it’s made? Who cares about understanding it? Can’t we just enjoy it? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Perhaps it is the same for art. Perhaps it is the same for ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’. As an Art teacher of course I understand how Duckhouse has made this etching. I even feign an understanding of the creative processes that may have led to the form the work has taken. But does this matter? Does this increase my enjoyment when looking into its depths? Of course not. Of course not.
Hymn on the 45 - Allo Darlin' (the farewell single. Bandcamp) Mulligan - The Pooches (from 'The Pooches' LP. Bandcamp) Spanish Song (Don't Go) - Strawberry Switchblade (from 1982 4 piece demo. Bandcamp) Stars - The Clean (from 'Getaway' LP. YouTube) Antlers - The Bats (from 'The Deep Set' LP. Bandcamp) Dead Tree! Dead Tree! - The Blue Aeroplanes (from 'Welcome Stranger' LP) Plastic World - Candy Maps (from 'Plastic World' EP. Bandcamp) Emily - The Eversons (from 'Stuck In New Zealand' LP. Bandcamp) Same Place - Peaness (from 7" single. Bandcamp) In The Morning - Gloria (from 'Gloria In Excelsis Stereo' LP. Bandcamp) 50/50 (Better Stop Now) - Starry Eyed and Laughing (available on 'To Try For The Sun' LP) Western Splits (After Lear) - Year Of Birds (from 'White Death To Alan Power' LP. Bandcamp) BODY2BODY (A CERTAIN RATIO DO THE DU ZU MIX) - NO ZU (12" single. Bandcamp) Eudamonia - Them Are Us Too (from 'Remain' LP. Bandcamp. R.I.P. Cash Askew) Overnite - Loch Ness Mouse (yes, it is a Scritti Politti cover) Some Nights - The Corner Laughers (from charity single. Bandcamp) St Nicholas Vicarage - Papernut Cambridge (from 'Love The Things Your Lover Loves' LP. Bandcamp) Don't Be A Dick At Christmas - Niagara Balls (feat Matt Moskal) (from 'A Very Cherry Christmas Vol 11. Bandcamp) Christmas Is a Time For Giving - Girlsville (from 'Christmas' EP. Bandcamp) The Moment Your Heart Would Say Goodbye - THE YEARNING (from 'Evening Souvenirs' LP. Bandcamp) Save What You Can - The Triffids (from 'Calenture' LP. YouTube)
Anastasia Taylor-Lind - 'Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square'
Withered Hand - ‘Fall Apart'
Was it Soul aficionado Dave Godin who was fond of saying that context is everything? I’m sure he wouldn’t have been the first to say as much and he certainly won’t be the last, but was he correct? Is it really? Is it always?
Does one need an understanding of the specific context underpinning the photographs of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s ‘Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square’ to appreciate them? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly in as much as these photographs were made within a specific time and place, surrounded and informed by specific events, then that context is vital. Now I admit that my mind was largely elsewhere as 2013 ended and 2014 began, so the news of the protests in Ukraine largely passed me by. Conflict between protestors and police in Kiev during February 2014 registered only fleetingly on my mind; the political and social reasons behind the conflict vaguer still. Taylor-Lind’s photographs then were certainly the catalyst for my finding out more about recent history, but even so I admit that it was the aesthetic qualities of the images that had the biggest impact. It remains so, for they are intriguing and elegant photographs.
Each of the individual ‘Portraits from the Black Square’ give the illusion of being studio portraits, yet in reality they were shot in a street close to the centre of violent upheaval. By visually isolating her subjects from the immediate physical context Taylor-Lind lends the work a tension between what is suggested and what is real, between what is Political and what is human. So are Taylor-Lind’s photographs Political photographs? Is there sympathy with the subjects’ stances? If there is a Political line drawn in the sand, which side of it does Taylor-Lind choose to stand? Is she with us or against us? And who is ‘us’ anyway?
Certainly if Taylor-Lind does make a stance through her photography then you would surely argue that it is from a humanist perspective. A common thread throughout her work is an empathy with the subject that is powerful enough to reach out from the image. It is an empathy rooted in the very simple desire to know people, however fleetingly, and to make connections. A desire to seek the threads that bind us, perhaps. This empathy is difficult to achieve and is, I think, one of the reasons I admire Taylor-Lind's work so much. I know I could not do it myself.
Empathy with a subject is one of the most difficult things to teach when you teach photography. Indeed, unlike the technical aspects of the art form, I think it is something that cannot be taught. I am not even sure it can be learned. Not really. Not beyond a conceptual understanding and acknowledgement. For I believe you either have it or you do not. Me, I think I am too much of a misanthropist at heart, but there you are.
So Taylor-Lind reaches out to people and makes photographs that allow them to give something of themselves to her, and hence to us. It is an act that subverts the ancient fear of the camera stealing one’s soul; is an act that turns fear into love, that turns science into magic. And ultimately it is an act that, for me, makes me crucially question the value of context. Is it always everything? Perhaps not.
In recent years it has been my habit to compile an Unpopular advent series, documenting my favourite records of the year. Perhaps you are reading this in the midst of the 2016 version. Perhaps not. Whatever, the advent activity helps fulfil my need to organise and categorise; to tabulate and to rationalise. Some might suggest that this kind of activity place me ‘on the spectrum’ and I have no problem acknowledging that. I acknowledge too that the temptation has been great to simply recycle the top record from each of these past few years for this series, but the truth is that would be too easy, and anyway the world of records and songs and memories and preferences does not work that way. Except for 2014, where it certainly does work that way, for my favourite record of that year cannot fail to offer up the song of choice.
You may wish to follow the connections and the links and read what I wrote about Withered Hand’s glorious ’New Gods’ LP back in 2014 or you may not. In the depths of those words I suggest that in the record "we glimpsed the ghosts of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons sharing a bourbon in an LA Airport lounge whilst daydreaming of peat fires and Sauchiehall Street.” I suggest too that it was "an echo of James Hackett sidling up to Van Dyke Parks and suggesting they make a record about airplane rides, fading photographs and missing heartbeats.” Those are words that I stand by. They are words and allusions that I still rather like, and they are allusions that are assuredly there in ‘Fall Apart’, touched lightly as it is with a dusting of translucent Pop magic. For ‘Fall Apart’ is nothing if not Pop; is nothing if not magic. It forces you to believe. There is no other option. Come on, come on.
‘Fall Apart’ soars and aches in equal measure. The salve it offers is to the wounds it opens; its heart is on its sleeve and its sleeve is tattered from its own oscillating perpetual assault of self-doubt and self-belief. ‘Fall Apart’ is, like many of the songs in this series of articles, one that simultaneously does this and does that. It is a song that underpins its epic simplicity with a complexity that rewards multiple listens. Just as well then it is also a song that insists on repetition. Come on, come on.
Those who know know the value of repetition. Those who know know the key.
‘Fall Apart’ falls in and over itself, wraps itself in its arms and devours its heart to keep itself warm. Nostalgia gives way to regret; regret gives way to salvation; salvation softly returns to nostalgia and we start all over again. Loops and harmonies intertwined. Words masquerading as ghosts and ghosts slinking away to kiss under the mistletoe. Well why not?
‘Fall Apart’ does this and it does that. It is a song about everything and nothing. It is a song that recognises futility whilst celebrating hope. It is a song that knows its heritage and it is a song that knows that heritage counts for nothing in the long run. Everyone knows this is nowhere, after all, don’t they? Well don’t they? Come on, come on.
“You and I dancing by the light of every dead star”? Of course. Of course. Always. Forever. Come on, come on.