Listen to this track by former pop synthesists turned minimalist orchestral art rock concern Talk Talk. It’s “Ascension Day”, the second track from the band’s last (to date, although I wouldn’t hold your breath, kids) album Laughing Stock released in the autumn of 1991.
The record was the final gasp from a band who were on a unique artistic parabola thanks to their critically acclaimed (well, eventually) but not-well-purchased 1988 masterpiece Spirit Of Eden. That album was a work that was a dramatic departure from their pop music origins, led by singer Mark Hollis and collaborator Tim Friese-Green. Since its creation and in the aftermath of its release, they lost bass player Paul Webb and their contract with EMI with whom they were in some conflict over the “not well purchased” point regarding said masterppiece.
So after pursuing their art and following the muse against the slings and arrows of outrageous record companies, you’d think they would make a more mainstream-friendly record to reset the balance, right? Well, no.
But, what they did do is create yet another masterpiece, well represented by this track. But, it was a harrowing ride. Read more
Listen to this track by former Talk Talk creative honcho and minimalist composer Mark Hollis. It’s “A Life (1895-1915)”, what he considered to be the centerpiece of his only solo album, Mark Hollis. The record was released in 1998 without much fanfare, since its author asserted that “fanfare” of any kind didn’t really match with the material on the record. That meant no gigs. It would be an entity of the studio only, a one-shot deal.
The approach wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary for Hollis, who wasn’t your standard frontman in a not-your-standard band in Talk Talk. One-off records by former frontmen are often associated with contractual obligation, particularly when there’s no follow-up. But here, there is a definite sense of artistic continuity. Like his work under the Talk Talk creative umbrella, the use of space plays a pretty big role on his solo record and in this piece. And to Hollis’ point, it would be hard to really take this music in while in a live setting. Imagine how many intrusive conversations, clinking glasses, and inebriated guffawing it would have to cut through.
Another aspect of this is the sources where this material is derived. To my ears, the first one that leaps to mind is late ’50s Gil Evans. Minimalist composition in a classical context also seems to be the general sonic neighbourhood here. But, despite my feeling that it’s hard to attach the word “song” to this piece of music, it really is one. But, what is it about? Read more
Here’s a clip of Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons in her collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (billed here as ‘Rustin Man’) performing a key track ‘Tom the Model’ from their one-off album together Out of Seasonfrom 2002.
Beth Gibbons and Paul Webb were friends before the former joined and began recording with Portishead. And in keeping in touch, it made sense for the two to collaborate, especially since Portishead aren’t known for a whirlwind schedule of recordings and tours. Besides that, it makes sense for the two of them to make a record together, since brittle, atmospheric music is an area of expertise they both share. And for Gibbons, it was a chance to explore the world of songwriting, as well as expanding on what she is able to accomplish as a vocalist.
Her voice has the description ‘evocative’ permanently attached to it, and here it does what you expect it to do. And similar to her work with Portishead, the evocation of the soundtracks of 60s cinema, with requisite John Barry and Lalo Schifrin influence, is well in place. But a good deal of the album shows that this is only one texture that she has at her disposal. Even though a lot of what she’s doing with her voice adds a lot of dark and spooky atmosphere to the material, on a couple of occasions it sounds downright innocent, as if she’s accessed a tonally emotive area that is more Sandy Denny than Eartha Kitt (see the opening track ‘Mysteries’), even ifKitt remains to be a vocal reference point (see the track “Romance” to see what I mean).
In Portishead, Gibbons’ voice is like a living sampler, able to reproduce the feel of a time gone by. But, here on this record and on this song, her voice is warmer, a bit less distant on most tracks, and is very much the instrument of a performer and songwriter who is very much in the present, even if the material has a certain retro feel. In many ways, it should be world’s apart from Portishead in many more respects. For instance, this is almost an exclusively acoustic record, as opposed to Portishead’s world of samples and technology. Yet, the effect here is similar. Maybe the moods, the melodies, the lyrical themes, are the things which make Gibbons’ work distinctive rather than the tools she and her collaborators have used to get the sound.
For me, this is a great track off of a very intense album, an album I can’t just put on casually. I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful and burdensome at the same time, and this record is a great example. There is something very heavy about it. It’s as if the pair had poured some of their suffering into it, as well as their enthusiasm. There are a lot of contrived albums based around this approach, with a lot of overemoting, and faux-angst sentiment. But, the songs and the overall feel on this record are so subtle, and there are so many little sonic details which demand a listener’s attention, that it’s sometimes pretty exhausting, just because it feels so real. Yet when you’re in it, it’s pretty awe inspiring too.
The skill that Gibbons’ seems to have is the ability to turn her voice into an instrument which goes beyond conveying lyrics and melody at face value. She somehow makes her performance into something more like a special effect in a movie. She creates an illusion, a real sense of location somehow, in a way that I’ve never experienced in the work of another singer. And the aural landscape she creates isn’t always safe, either. Sometimes, it’s downright threatening, but not in a crass or overt way. It’s the subtlety she’s able to employ that makes this track, and the other songs on the album, totally compelling and real – which is why it sometimes gives way to some beautifully chilling music. Perhaps tellingly, there hasn’t been a follow-up to this album.
Beth Gibbons recently released another album with Portishead, Third. Paul Webb continues to work as a producer, most recently on James Yorkston’s The Year of the Leopard.
The first time I heard Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”, taken from their 1986 album The Colour of Spring, I was in a hotel room in Perth, Ontario. I was going to attend a wedding nearby the next day, and I was watching the video. Before this, I knew of Talk Talk mostly through another video and song of theirs – “It’s My Life”. But, I was fascinated by this song and its accompanying video too. The song is built on a simple, central rhythm track as played on the piano, accompanied by a tenacious back beat. The heavy left-hand chords that are the engine of the song – plodding, yet also compelling – providing an unlikely hook. It’s like a song that is ready to start, to kick off into a torrent of rage, yet never does. The tension of that is extremely powerful. This was the direction that singer Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Green were moving in at the time; creating music which incorporates a sense of space, moving away from the agendas of pop music. The two would go on to craft what is considered to be their masterpiece under the Talk Talk moniker, the 1988 album The Spirit of Eden, which was even more minimalist in approach.
Also, I am always struck by the guitar riff in this song, played by hotshot session guy David Rhodes, who among other items on his resume had built a pretty impressive track record while playing with another one of my heroes, Peter Gabriel. I can never decide on how to describe the riff; it’s both jagged and ferocious, as well as being kind of ethereal and echoey. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why it is so compelling – it’s both.
The lyrics, if taken literally, can be seen as a truncated motivational speech. Yet you get the impression that there are levels of irony at work here, perhaps down to Hollis’ mournful-yet-desperate delivery. There is darkness and pain to be mined here, below the surface of the key phrase which, in the end, is not really defined as being positive or negative. You get the impression that because of this, there is a certain emotional numbness at work here, that understanding that life’s what you make it, doesn’t necessarily mean that the energy is there to make it something good.
This remains to be one of my favourite songs by anyone, built as it is on some very basic fundamentals of the best in pop music – texture, distinctiveness, and with several levels of emotional connection emanating from some mysterious place which seem to be operating all at once.