Lyrical Video Odyssey

September 16, 2006

People who know me well will recognise that whenever I find myself at the starting line of something new, I tend to look back, boring everyone in the process. I search for precedents, lessons. I need to understand how I got here, what went right and how I can do things better before I can move forward.

Nothing invokes a memory like some music you haven’t heard in a long time, a certain image or maybe even a smell. We don’t have a scent codec for QuickTime yet (thankfully) but we do have audio, video, images and words.

This explains, to some degree, the posts on this blog over the last week or so. I knew I would be incredibly busy and rather than leave the blog silent thought I could give a peep into my mood in a way that doesn’t require much effort on my part. Most of the posts I picked out the night before and scheduled to appear at some particular time either after I had gone to bed or while I was working so that I wouldn’t fret over them for too long.

This all started on the weekend when sifting through my iPhoto library, I saw some test shots Hans had taken on my camera before sending it to me. At the same time, Depeche Mode’s (aka “Depress Mode”) In Your Room was playing in my head. I’d started listening to them again last week because I was feeling down, burnt out and needed someone else’s misery to mask the sound of thoughts rattling around my head.

So, I was looking at these photos of Hans’s room, hearing this song and the lyrics resonated (to some degree) with our respective situations so I had to do something about that. It’s a little silly, I used to do those sorts of lyrical montages in Photoshop out of boredom years ago and the style was inspired by (read: ripping off) Tomato, the British design company connected to the progressive dance band, Underworld.

always here

From there, the rest unfolded. If looking for inspiration and originality that remains accessible, you can’t get a much better example than Björk, and this live performance of Desired Constellation from her album Medúlla seemed like an excellent example. Long story short, Medúlla was an vocal-only album but Desired Constellation is the track that sounded like it wasn’t. Björk explains:

Olivier Alary (Ensemble) had sent me a CD with a few sketches, and said “if you ever feel like using those, please do.” A year later, I wrote this melody and was singing it in a cabin by a lake here in Iceland in January 2004. That was like the first little trips away from my little girl – I would go three hours a day to this cabin by the lake and do whatever I could and then drive back to town. I would sing several versions of this melody, and then I would say “wait a minute, this is this thing that Olivier gave me a year ago” so then I sang it to that and it fitted perfect together, it was really incredible! Then when I came back from the tour and discovered that the whole album was gonna be a vocal album, I thought “what about this song here, I really like this song and it should be on the album”. So I started doing choir arrangements for it. I did a really complicated choir arrangement, for like a sixteen piece choir, and recorded it three times doing totally different things, and it was like 50 tracks of voices, but it just wasn’t right, so I kept editing it on and spent like days and weeks editing it, and it never was right. Then I emailed Olivier and said “Listen, I’ve tried everything with this track, but I can’t just be dogmatic about this album. At the end of the day, the best music’s gotta win. So I think I’m just gonna stick to your old version, because I think that’s still the best one.” And then he just said “Guess what! I made it out of your own voice!” So he actually took a voice of mine, saying “I’m not sure what to do with it” from Hidden Place and did a song out of that! And then he sent it it to me, and didn’t tell me, just in case I didn’t .. you know, whatever… it was just a secret!
– (Mixing It, 20aug04)

Björk was adamant that when she performed Medúlla live, she would use the same methods as the studio album. So, that’s why she sings into the mic before the backing track kicks off, and it provides a convenient way of transposing the key on a whim.

From Björk to Underworld, it’s actually not much of a jump. Underworld remixed a lot of Björk tracks back in the nineties, their lyrics are sublime, with William S Burroughs-inspired cut-ups, sometimes non-linear or nonsensical, but usually work amazing well when taken as a whole. I printed a small extract from JAL to Tokyo that demonstrates this admirably, I think.

Underworld are also very impressive live and what you don’t see in that heavily edited version of Rez/Cowgirl from their Everything Everything DVD (the DVD version is 11 minutes long) are the other two band-members working across a number of Macs frantically building up the track piece by piece, while motion graphics artists from Tomato produce the visuals you see on the screen in a live jam. No two Underworld performances are the same either to see or to hear.

The final video was Protection from Massive Attack, featuring Tracy Thorn from Everything But The Girl. I absolutely love this track; its gender/role-switching metaphor touches on an aspect of loving someone that seldom gets a mention in music, that of wanting to look after them, shield life’s knocks and shelter them from harm. It also hints at a crazy, fucked-up generation that I identify with strongly. We’re all grown-up now, obviously.

The video itself is quite stunning. A camera moves around the building in one seemingly continuous shot. There are cutaway walls, windows and all sorts of different things happening around the common theme of protection.

I think that Massive Attack’s Protection album and the work they did with Tracy Thorn was really when they were at their peak until Tricky left. You may already know that Tricky and Björk were rumoured to be an item at one point (although she says they were just friends) and both collaborated on each other’s albums. Curiously, another fave of mine, Neneh Cherry, was responsible for bringing Massive Attack to the public and therefore she had a profound influence on the entire 90s despite having only put out a couple of albums herself. But I digress.

My generation, like all generations, have their own identity that is probably influenced by contemporary culture at the time. Throughout the whole of the 90s the British music scene was overwhelmingly dominated by British artists, this certainly wasn’t the case in the 80s or now. The music was fresh, innovative but seldom superficial or conceited. I’m proud of that and want the influences to live on through everything I do rather than follow the pack. I haven’t been doing that the last few years. This is a resolution.

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