There were several predictable bones to pick with this piece in which former editors of the New Musical Express select their most noteworthy covers. The feature leaves out a lot of the former Accordion Weekly’s history, notably anything prior to the late 1970s, but what struck me most about the covers chosen was the disparity between the first one and the last. Pennie Smith’s 1979 cover shot of the Slits, then a relatively obscure and resolutely uncommercial dub-punk girl-gang, mudlarking in the grounds of their Surrey recording studio, was part of a set which became a defining image of the band, notably through being used on the cover of their debut album Cut. This article looks briefly at the controversy generated by the images themselves, and how it relates to subsequent and current presentation of women in the UK music press. Continue reading
I’m loath to compare anything to a box of chocolates, but Amanda Palmer gigs do come close. The choice as to what you might get ranges from the likelihood of a soft-centred collaboration with her husband Neil Gaiman, to the slightly bitter aftertaste of something from 2010’s ill-advised Evelyn Evelyn project. Continue reading
Yeah, I’m still here, although increasingly writing elsewhere. Notably I wrote for BadRep on Why ‘Chav’ is a Feminist Issue.
Have some more songs.
Lupen Crook, Junk n Jubilee
This from oh, such a while back now. Seems like a whole other London. A cut-off video, which is all I could find, but do hear the proper version, which still makes me tense with the urge to put my fist through the window of the Hawley Arms:
Manic Street Preachers, A Design For Life
This from the band too weird to talk about when you talk about the 90s. Included half because I’ve just been back to the place I grew up (and for ‘grew up’, read ‘grew up a Manics fan’) and half because the song resonates with me right now, with reality topping dystopian visions at every turn almost faster than one can think them up:
Oh, and I went to an Amanda Palmer gig last Friday. Not to damn with faint praise or anything, but I liked her more than I did when I wrote this.
In music writing as elsewhere, shortened attention spans and a craving to be spoonfed have led to the unfortunate development of lazily reductive shorthand, enabling a user-friendly pitch of a particular artist even as it simplifies and undervalues their complexity. Hence Amanda Palmer’s pigeonholing as kooky cabaret diva, Nicki Minaj as cartoonish pocket Missy, and Shilpa Ray as whiskey-soaked wildwoman, when they’re all more interesting than that. Sure, Teenage & Torture, like 2009 debut A Fishhook An Open Eye, has the requisite blues-rock base and throat-shredding vocal superstructure to justify this stylistic categorisation, but the Mad Bad Girl tag is particularly pernicious. It’s a comforting label that makes sense of the discomforting, allowing, in this case, Ray’s rage-fuelled dissections of feminine ideals, sexual mores and consumer culture to be glossed as hysterical spectacle. The more we exoticise a performer as irrational and unfamiliar, the less valid and identifiable in our everyday surroundings we render her concerns and accusations.
I’m sorry to prick such a bubbly artistic conceit so early on in the game, but Evelyn Evelyn rejoice in not being real. This is the latest project from punk-cabaret diva Amanda Palmer, an album which has kicked up a predictable, and, no doubt, gratifying amount of controversy. Your enjoyment of it will ultimately hinge upon how edifying or entertaining you consider the concept of Palmer and co-conspirator Jason Webley playing ‘Evelyn Evelyn’, conjoined twin sisters, whose grim history and eventual redemption is recounted in this musical misery-memoir.
It’s hard to argue for this album on its musical merits. Evelyn Evelyn is a wearily familiar imitation of the Dresden Dolls at their most by-numbers: listlessly insistent piano and vocals that murmur and sigh broken confessions. It’s evocative enough in its drawing on imagery and music from turn-of-the-century music-halls and carnivals, creaky backwoods Americana and the shlocky horror of Todd Browning, but, aside from its retro-curiosity value, it contains little of musical substance. Maybe ‘Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?’ or ‘You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister’ will strike you as halfway amusing parodies of, respectively, rictus-grinned ragtime and maudlin country. Maybe you’ll find some shred of sympathy or wonder in the tripartite ‘The Tragic Events of September’, in which the sisters pick over their story so far in spoken-word that manages the remarkable feat of being harder to listen to for how cloyingly cutesy it is than for the morbid nature of what it describes. Maybe you’ll be charmed by the closing cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, even though it sounds like the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain without their comic panache. Or maybe, like the punters played to in ‘A Campaign of Shock and Awe’, you’re just happily, unironically here for the freakshow.
This project would perhaps have been better received had Palmer in particular not spent so much of her career singing – far more convincingly and movingly – from the inside of the socio-cultural cages in which she now gleefully imprisons her protagonists. Palmer and Webley’s decision to play both ringmaster and self-styled circus freak; their thoroughly unexamined ability to step between the powerlessness of the controlled and the privilege of the controller; and their appropriation of objectification for what amounts to a sniggering cabaret turn rather than the deadly-serious lived experience it comprises for others, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Neither of them appears able to sing without smirking, but there’s little sense that their creations are there to be laughed with, rather than at.
The album tackles its chosen themes – disability, exploitation, sexual abuse – with an alarming mixture of the knowing and the mawkish. Its flaws are not that it goes too far in its attempts to épater le bourgeois, or that it pushes any boundaries worth pushing; it’s just self-satisfied and slightly – not even shockingly – distasteful. So in awe of its own edginess that it loses the necessary self-awareness to rein in self-indulgence, this album is as much a study of the vanishing of hipsterdom up its own fundament as it is a critique of performance, modernity or fame. For all the overblown horror and tawdry tragedy detailed in the story of Evelyn Evelyn, the spectacle you’re really rolling up for here is Amanda Palmer jumping the shark.
Saul Williams, ‘Black Stacey’ (2004)
In a just and rational world, the stunning and eminently quotable work of Saul Williams would have seen him hailed as the Messiah by now. ‘Black Stacey’ is part confessional memoir, part consciousness-raising rallying-cry, all righteous, fluid articulacy over flowing, portentous beats. Willliams’ cool, composed and self-possessed narration, refreshing as a slug of cold water, argues down braggadocio in favour of a clear-eyed self-respect. The song’s apotheosis is its languidly swaying chorus laid down over the steady piano-led pulse of an artist who knows where he’s from, where it’s at and where we should be heading. Someone get the man a pulpit and a personality cult.
Lupen Crook, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ (2006)
Reportedly recorded in Mr Crook’s hallway, presumably during one of his rare fixed-abode phases, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ is scene-savaging par excellence, flecked with spit and sarcasm. Its tune is built around a steely scrape and skitter that sounds like the malfunctioning of a music-box, and a spray of squealing laughter that makes you tense with the urge to put your fist through the window of the Hawley Arms. Lupen’s pinched-tight vocal squeezes itself through the gaps between, with all the disgusted Cassandrine despair of the only sober passenger on a nightbus home from Dalston.
Amanda Palmer, ‘Oasis’ (2008)
It’s the fag-end of the future’s first decade and, in the land of the free, darkness is spreading under the shadow of a right-wing fundamentalist ascendancy that threatens reproductive rights and freedom of information. Who you gonna call, if not Boston’s finest punk-cabaret force of nature? On ‘Oasis’, Amanda hammers out a relentlessly breezy Beach Boys clap-along, face set in a rictus grin as her teenage protagonist recounts My Rape and Consequent Abortion: the Panto Version. This satire on received expectations of feminine behaviour sees life’s little misadventures pale into dismissible insignificance before our heroine’s life-affirming receipt of a signed photograph from Oasis. And why not? Described by Palmer as ‘pro-choice but anti-stupid’, the song’s strength lies not in trivialising real and immediate horrors, but in rendering them absurd enough to laugh at, and by extension pointing up the equal absurdity of their treatment in the social and political sphere. In a predictable if appropriately head-desking twist, the song’s subject matter meant that both the single and its Palin-baiting video were subject to an airplay ban in the UK. God knows what the Gallaghers made of it, but ‘Oasis’ remains a jaw-dropping counterpunch for times when laughter is the most powerful weapon to hand.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
In an Islington pub for pre-gig drinks, I order that unpretentious student/goth classic, a snakebite-and-black. Because this pub has delusions of grandeur, the drink comes served in a goblet of engraved glass, an elegant setting belying the cheap and giddy good time that swirls in its velvety depths. As a stylish repackaging of the marginal and derided, it’s quite an Amanda Palmer way of doing things.
Across the street on the forecourt of the Union Chapel, a man with the dress and demeanour of a Victorian undertaker is peddling on a contraption of polished wood that might be a piano, might be a hearse. Slightly too-large-for-comfort sockpuppets are carried by men in black. The circus is in town, gloriously, and chancing across a beauty parlour full of sailors wouldn’t come as any great surprise. On the rows of wooden pews inside the venue, clusters of Palmerettes bloom like a thousand flowers: dark-eyed, candyfloss-haired, irrepressible and remarkably dressed. Amanda Palmer gigs are no bad place for the self-conscious, though; from the moment our hostess takes to the stage, resplendent this evening in a full-length swathe of black and white stripes, you can be fairly confident that no one’s looking at you. Although the evening features question-and-answer sessions and the auctioning of a painting completed during the show, this is less the Amanda and Friends Musical Cabaret that other of her gigs are more accurately billed as. Both the setting and her performance tonight ensure that the spotlight can barely drag itself away from her.
I often forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. In this respect Palmer’s playing is a revelation, a hammering out of powerful, authoritative notes that drill her words into your hindbrain. As a vocalist, she deserves superlatives that haven’t been invented yet; ‘Brechtian’ doesn’t come close, and neither does ‘punk’ or ‘cabaret’. Her voice tolls like a church bell, its dramatic depth and texture punctuated by the lightning-quick criss-cross of her hands on the keys. Her delivery of the songs tonight veers between imperious intensity (the stabbing staccato of ‘Runs in the Family’, or her nigh-on terrifying, breakneck cover of Jason Webley’s ‘Icarus’), and a yearning vocal caress which lights up ‘Boston’ and contrasts with the lyrical violence of ‘Delilah’. And then there are extraordinary, almost uncapturable moments, like her Struwwelpeter cover or the piece of Bach she plays after a typically nervy and self-effacing introduction. Her revelling in music is infectious and, like all too few artists, she concentrates on giving back as much enjoyment and enthusiasm as she inspires.
(There’s a lot to be said about whether it matters, and how much and why, that Palmer is a female artist. Talking before, during and afterwards with starry-eyed provincial girls who’ve made a pilgrimage to London for this gig, hearing them freestyle her Palin-baiting lyrics and indulging in unashamed pansexuality – of course it matters. When I was the age and in the dire smalltown straits of some of this crowd, there was no one comparable in the public eye to entertain, affirm or inspire. I had no one to nail the absurdity of street harassment with the crucifying accuracy of ‘Ampersand’, and nothing approaching ‘Bank of Boston Beauty Queen’ and its wry dissection of the rewards of self-actualisation. And so, as a female and a music fan, I’m grateful for her. But in many other ways, Palmer is a transcendent, liberatory force of nature, and the media she chooses matter less than the message.)
Back to tonight. The incongruous candlelit venue is ripe for subversion, and she takes great pleasure in having her charming companion deliver Derek and Clive’s profanity-ridden parody hymn. Later, the magnificent ‘Oasis’ becomes a sacrilegious sing-along, complete with happy-clapping and exuberant shouts of ‘CRACKWHORE’ from the congregation. The encore, however, sees her stand stock-still, hands clasped before her like she’s ready to recite at Sunday-school, and perform an astonishing unaccompanied cover of Tori Amos’ ‘Me and a Gun’. Clear-eyed and spine-chilling, it’s a no-but-seriously flipside to ‘Oasis’ that makes the crowd collectively catch our breath. The crystalline version of ‘The Point of it All’ which follows, heartwrenching enough on its own terms, seems more affecting for being something of a conduit for the emotions held in check throughout the previous song. A subdued but stunningly powerful final note, it sends me back onto the still-unreclaimed street rejoicing in faith reaffirmed. Praise be.