Jackson And His Computer Band – Smash (Warp)
I was initially turned off this album because of the first song. Not that it was a bad first song, but rather because I’m sure it’s from an advert. And not a particularly good one either; I picture a long camera shot with suited people walking into glass-fronted office buildings. Glass buildings, while a Warp artist plays. It’s like a hyper-modernist vision of the future. In 1995. Damn, between this and the last Forrest review, you would be forgiven for thinking I dislike Warp Records or something. I don’t. In fact, they’re really good (I got three 12”s off them last week). It’s just a coincidence.
Anyway, I reckon the opening track, ‘Utopia’, is from an ad. It is a shame that’s my primary association for it, because the track itself is brilliant. All undulating electronic bass sounds, softened Autechre scrape-drums and what I’m going to call Prefuse Vocal Chopping (even though it’s essentially the kind of cutting up people have been doing since the days of tapes and turntables), you do understand why it got picked up for an ad. I’ve just done a bit of ‘research’, and it turns out the song is from an O2 advert. OK, no office workers, but it’s got a bubble bouncing over skyscrapers.
What makes this album stand out from the majority of Warp releases since, ooh, about 1997 or so, is the sense of fun. And I don’t mean that aforementioned Aphexpusher sarcastic (again, not a diss. One of those records I got was Squarepusher. Big Loada, to be precise) pranky ‘fun’, but actual fun. The album is enjoyable to listen to, as opposed to Confield’s maths lecturing, Drukqs’s needle in a haystack search for gold or just the nerve ending-shatteringly mediocre Maximo Park.
Back to ‘Utopia’, anyway. I was about to write something to the smarmy effect of it being the lesser ‘Utopia’ of this decade – the other being the Goldfrapp entry. But as I write – and listen – my belief in that sentiment erodes. There was, rather excitingly, a moment of clarity involved. While the majority of the song is concerned with, as I mentioned, Prefuse Vocal Chopping (PVC? Hey…), there appears a ray of divine light, peering through the glitchtronic clouds and, as it retreats back into the heavens as the song ends, it takes me with it, into the domain of electronic bliss. And why? Because that ray of light is the full vocal line that slips into the song un-chopped.
‘Have you really thought about Utopia’ sneaks through, after initial production attempts to stifle it. And the density of the track clears for a second in a smooth, harmonised ‘ooooh…’ I Google and find myriad references to this one line, too, so it turns out I’m not special after all. Interestingly, what I had thought was an old, hidden treasure of a sample was actually Jackson’s mother, Paula Moore. Something new every day.
While ‘Rock On’ is more PVC-a-go go, something like ‘Minidoux’ sounds like Mario Bros (NES version) played on a Rhodes. It’s a delightful little tune that leads straight into ‘Oh Boy’, a kiddie-voice monologue set to military drumming and synths that sound like a Come to Daddy b-side. And I love that EP. What is interesting to me is that this batch of songs, including the following ‘TV Dogs’ flow sonically free of any PVC-style restrictions. Dare I say they are unbound from rhythmic bondage? Gone is the stop-start and the Max Headroomism, replaced by rolling rhythms, rippling melody, and verse!
It seems, therefore, that such difference is totally intentional. Jackson obviously pays a lot of attention to detail in the recording and arrangement of each track, so it stands to reason the same level of care would be afforded the sequencing of the album. ‘Utopia’ and the (ironically christened, perhaps) ‘Rock On’ are almost in aural straitjacket, by the time we get to ‘Hard Tits’, the music is flowing like disco-flavoured water.
The album really picks up after the halfway point, with ‘Teen Beat Ocean’; nods to the Crayola explosion of a Tigerbeat6 aside, this song really sounds like nothing else I hear these days. There are hints of retro about the wobbly synth sounds (as if you half expect to be asked by a man not to push him, for he is close to the edge – we’d all rather he not lose his head), but the hard beats and dense layering anchor it firmly in the now. My idea about the albums concept being the gradual freedom of the music from rhythmic shackles takes a hit with ‘Tropical Metal’ stuttering onto the scene. It wasn’t such a great theory anyway. It’s a fun sort of stuttering; less like the music is being emergency stopped than it does so of its own volition. It’s like the beat is struggling to breathe while randomness happens all around it.
‘Headache’ is more in the stop-start vein, and a tad fittingly named, so I don’t know what’s going on any more. ‘Fast Life’, conversely, is a lovely little song. Chopped up string samples and female vocals combined with spoken word and disco-tinged basslines makes me a happy little throughsilver. Much like that island of song earlier in the album, the change of pace is welcome, but also serves to highlight the quality of what preceded, if that makes any sense; retro-active freshening. Maybe it takes the free flowing sounds to provide an Other against which the PVC stuff can be compared. Two sides of the same coin existing in symbiosis because, without one, the other shines less brightly.
Actually, I was walking through the railway station today when ‘Arpeggio’ came on. I enjoyed one of those moments when you become far cooler than everyone else in there by virtue of what’s pouring into your ears at that point in time. My walk changed, I blew the mind of the ticket checker with my audacious presentation of my ticket (not really, but it’s the sort of thing Jez from Peep Show might have thought), and I was well and truly feeling the love. Maybe that should be my new mode of listening: traipsing round Leeds station. Maybe not.
In fact, the listening experience got even better when I was walking home from the station. On came ‘Cold Herds Travel’ by Birchville Cat Motel, and its gradually-building drone blew my mind. That said, some of the accessory sounds made me a little paranoid, as though a demonic pram was rattling along behind me. I don’t actually think it was, in hindsight. Anyway, Smash is a quality album, but I am more excited by the prospect of this young talent growing, and delivering better records, in the very near future.
POSTSCRIPT: Woebot reviewed this album when it was newer. Read it, because it’s really good.