Monday, December 22, 2008

Laughing Stock

As long as I'm pointing out the maligned OMD, I'll go a step further and sing the praises of the ignored.

Talk Talk, new wave's most musically travelled, flew through a decade producing 5 albums along the way - each different from the other, each progressing further from their hair band roots and into something deeper, more fantastical and ultimately uncategorizable. Their last album achieved a pinnacle of artistry that no other new wave popsters ever approached (and even fewer of their brethren understood).

Dumped by their record company for producing nothing remotely commercial with their fourth album, Talk Talk signed to Polydor for that last outing. Polydor, in an act of deep respect for the work actually revived the retired jazz imprint, Verve, for the album's release.

The lyrics are mumbled and muddled - even the liner notes are illegible - but they all allude to deep and personal battles of spirituality and the tragic struggle that entails. There are moments of shocking awareness where we feel uncomfortably close to the essence of another's soul and its fragility is terrifying.

From allmusic of the track, After The Flood:

It's not until a minute and 45 seconds in that it reaches its full momentum. The song is like a free jazz quilt with an experimental pop bent. It's hard to say if it's Mark Hollis or Tim Friese-Greene who's responsible for the meditative organ that holds the song together, but it's definitely the percussion of Martin Ditcham and the drums of Lee Harris that give the song its throbbing energy.

For a ten-minute song that actually relies on a verse-chorus-verse structure, Mark Hollis barely seems to sing at all, as long instrumental passages with all players weaving in and out of each other's notes and sounds rule the song. But when he delivers the devastating "Shake my head, turn my face to the floor, dead to respect, to respect to be born, lest we forget who lay" the song takes on a tangible and powerful, if cryptic meaning. That Hollis pours so much passion into "After the Flood" makes it one of the true highlights of Laughing Stock.

It might take repeat listens for some people to appreciate "After the Flood"'s subtle grace, but this necessity is a testament to the song's and the album's daunting complexity.

And of the track, Ascension Day:

Wailing, scratching violas tear at the song's walls. Mark Hollis goes back and forth between pristine guitar notes and epic electric storms, all the while offering stream of conscious, nonsensical vocals like "Farewell fare well/Mother numb to and devout to/Reckon luck sees us the same." It's as if he's rediscovering his sense of humanity and knowledge of language at the same time, while accepting that he'll "burn on judgment day."

Martin Ditcham adds some levity via harmonica, but even then, his contribution packs more disturbing feelings into the song's growling belly. The track's shockingly abrupt ending, as if all the recording equipment has suddenly lost power, is a stunning act of defiance and a refusal to adhere to traditional musical structures. Uplifting, yet creepy, "Ascension Day" sounds like an abstract film score transformed into a glorious rock movement.

Sadly, the album came out at a moment when musical tastes changed suddenly and profoundly. Around the time of its release another little album was released as well - Nirvana's Nevermind - and the tidal wave of grunge and DIY and lo-fi that followed drowned out this masterpiece.

Post-rock music would not exist as we know it were it not for Laughing Stock. Its mix of jazz, classical, and experimental atmospherics has few precedents. Though it should take nothing more than the distorted and lengthy single-note guitar solo on After The Flood to convince anyone, in my opinion, no recording of the last twenty years has been more unjustly ignored.

From allmusic:

Laughing Stock continues to grow in stature and influence by leaps and bounds...

...A work of staggering complexity and immense beauty, Laughing Stock remains an under-recognized masterpiece, and its echoes can be heard throughout much of the finest experimental music issued in its wake.

That a band which was once lumped into the dance-oriented new wave scene was able to create a career-capper of an album as challenging and sparse as Laughing Stock and do so in such a staggering, uncompromising manner is further testament to its genius.

If you've never heard it, indulge. If you have, revisit.
Hear it.


Baywatch said...

dude. lovely. why aren't you on Froxx?

Dan Reneer said...

Those last 3 Talk Talk releases are really something special. It's no surprise that no one has tried to recreate what Talk Talk did in those albums-- trends are typically focused on styles that are easily replicated.

It's not uncommon for me to hear a new song by a new band and notice that the "hook" is actually something that Talk Talk delivered with a firehose 15 years ago.

As a side note, it's sad to see bands that showed Talk Talk influence (Catherine Wheel) fade into obscurity. Sad but not surprising.

As for OMD, just last week some friends and I were discussing how so many of the early songs are more viable today than ever and have actually aged better than their more popular contemporaries. Of course, those of us early OMD fans knew that would be the case, didn't we?!