(… tumbleweed… ) The level of activity here of late could accurately be described as ‘comatose’ but this hopefully sees a return to more lively enterprise. But first some catch-up…

August – MIA : “Kala” (XL)

This post is several months late, and is somewhat moot given that I only heard a handful of new records in the month of August, but that shouldn’t detract from what is in my opinion an excellent album. MIA‘s first offering “Arular” was feted far and wide, no doubt helped by the controversy surrounding Maya Arulpragasam‘s familial links to the Tamil Tigers and her own mouthy militancy. I didn’t quite get the hype but still fell for the effective minimalism of the production, the beats sparse & punchy like well-aimed blows, and MIA’s words which brought to mind far-away places whilst being firmly rooted in inner city London. “Kala” succeeds in being an advancement – despite a fragmented & geographically far flung recording process, it is a more complete and consistent work.

MIA - Kala

What appeals to me about MIA is that it’s an appropriate soundtrack to the diverse yet interconnected clash that is the global village (or as she herself calls it, the “World Town”), a technologically-advanced global music (versus more historically-rooted ‘world music’), taking in London grime, Bollywood glitz, Rio clubland and Aboriginal hiphop, all delivered in a highly-tooled street slang. It can conjure vivid images of urban environments all over the world, from the hot & dusty to the cold & dark, from the mean streets of Lagos to the mean streets of Baltimore. From being kidnapped “in a Datsun from a street in Acton” to a Barbarella lookalike “dogging on the bonnet of ya red Honda”…

Sure, there are tracks on this album which don’t really appeal – the singles “Boyz” and “Jimmy” and the Timbaland-produced “Come Around” in particular – yet I still sometimes find myself somehow enjoying them against my natural instincts. The innovative cross-cultural sounds and Maya’s brash polemic win through, and when I connect with it I’m pulled right in. “Paper Planes” is brilliant, it’s feelgood ‘summer song’ vibe meshing with the darker themes of drug dealing, street robbery and murder (the use of the poignant keyboard intro to the Clash‘s “Straight To Hell” working successfully to focus thoughts on the urban condition and the wrongs that we inflict on the planet and each other). “20 Dollar” also pilfers recent alterno-rock classics (Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” & New Order’s “Blue Monday”) to appeal right to the sweet spot of the likes of me, but the song’s amazing production and lyrics that mix in African child soldiers, Islamic fundamentalism, and just plain old MC egotism (“I put people on the map that never seen a map”)  lifts it well clear from simply being a knowingly nostalgic wink to 30-something white males or an arch exercise in hip(hop) postmodernism.

Check out “Paper Planes” from the radio session MIA did on KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic in early August.

MIA – Paper Planes (live on KCRW)

September – Angels Of Light : “We Are Him” (Young God Records)

Michael Gira is one of those artists who I think worthy of (some sort of) worship. His body of work, from Swansself-titled EP in 1982 via self-released handmade home-recorded solo acoustic discs to this most recent Angels Of Light offering, is of consistently high quality and ploughs a unique furrow through post-punk’s landscape, spanning no-wave, industrial, gothic, and more recently americana, blues and avant folk. At a recent solo show in Amsterdam, Gira bemoaned that he would like to write “spiritual songs… but I don’t have any”. He shouldn’t worry – his past work has successfully managed to both plumb depraved depths and soar to spiritual highs, and he should be wary of the kind of ‘spiritual’ schmaltz that hitting a certain age and fatherhood can bring on in previously uncompromising songwriters (Nick Cave you know who you are).

As someone for whom Swans were an important part of my musical development, I’ve sometimes yearned for that old rage to surface in Gira’s Angels Of Light work (when it does, as in “My True Body” from the first album “New Mother”, the results are kickass). Hearing songs in their stripped-down (live) form highlights how the Angels Of Light ‘process’ smoothes the jagged edges and coats the vitriol in honey (compare the solo recording of “Destroyer” from “I Am Singing To You From My Room” to the ‘official’ version on “The Angels Of Light Sing ‘Other People’” to hear what I mean), and Gira’s solo readings of Swans classics like “Failure” and “God Damn The Sun” also show that his focus on the acoustic as opposed to pursuing a “Rock” sound needn’t mean that the monolithic weight of his earlier output can’t be delivered in the Angels Of Light format.

So I’m happy that “We Are Him” is Angels Of Light’s most Swans-like offering yet, right down to the album artwork by British artist Deryk Thomas, whose creepy bunnies graced the artwork of Swans’ early 90s albums “White Light From the Mouth Of Infinity“, “Love Of Life” and “Omniscience“. Swans alumni Bill Rieflin, Christoph Hahn and Phil Puleo also contribute (and as Gira himself said, helped give “the songs balls, or bowels in many instances, as well as occasionally lifting things up nach Himmel“). Early in, “Promise Of Water” is as gothically creepy as anything Gira’s done, and album highlight “Not Here/Not Now” is one of Gira’s finest songs, its looping droning rhythm slowly building, to then drop away to reveal the affecting vocal of Siobhan Duffy Gira, Michael’s wife.

All these Swans references are not meant to disrespect Gira’s more recent work (and he’s often stated he wants to draw a line under his previous band), in fact every album he has done has been different to the last, and “We Are Him” is another evolutionary step – but just one that is more comfortable with its past.

Listen to “Black River Song” and “We Are Him” on the Young God Records website here.

All Angels Of Light recordings, as well as Swans reissues, Michael Gira solo recordings and limited edition web-only exclusives, are available from Young God Records. Purchasing these directly from the great man himself means you’ll receive signed copies!