Paths Diverge: Alpine, Kitchen’s Floor, Ouch My Face And Blank Realm
By Miss Tiarney Miekus
Setting up Kitchen Floor’s Battle of Brisbane with Alpine’s Yuck would make for a lousy blind date. One is a party and one is a funeral, and I’m not convinced which is which. Yes, both are Australian releases (Alpine a few months ago, KF more recent), but they have little in common considering each album is an aesthetic rejection of the other. Add Blank Realm’s Illegals In Heaven and Ouch My Face’s Bunyip and you’re left with an ensemble who, albeit a few personal and aesthetic links, have only the common lifeline of the song.
In general tradition is seen as a ‘bad’ word; considering rock and popular music owes part of its virility to an aura of anti-tradition, it is especially unwanted. We expect popular music (in it’s broadest sense) to be consistently original in that famous Ezra Pound way: ‘make it new!’ The lust for newness is the cultural dominant and what emerges for artists is that horrible question: ‘what can I do that no one else has ever done before?’ It’s the search for an aesthetic without history: a zero-ground without reference, origin or precedent.
Does this ever really happen?
Regardless, neither Alpine, Kitchen’s Floor, Ouch My Face or Blank Realm are radically new in this way. They have histories, references, precedents, traditions – and honestly, who expects otherwise?
In Retromania Simon Reynolds makes an argument for the new. Essentially contemporary culture has no new. For the past twenty years or so we’ve had almost-zero stylistic innovation. We’re so obsessed with past music and past genres and replication and repetition that we’ve stopped looking toward the future. It’s interesting. The minuscule analysis is brilliant. It’s also a bit dramatic. It’s the more coherent and culturally supported version of Frederic Jameson’s argument twenty years beforehand when Jameson labeled all contemporary art “pastiche”.
So anyway, Reynolds is pessimistic (“2010 didn’t feel that different from 2009, or even 2004”). He doesn’t get the kids (“The attachment on the part of young people to genres that have been around for decades mystifies me”). He’s an idealist (“constant change and endless innovation”).
Is this what growth is? Invention on invention? Should the new always appear in rapid succession? Does Reynolds have his own nostalgia for a 1960s year-by-year series of evolutions and revolutions? Is he looking at the past to gain expectations for the future? And how do we configure Reynolds’ desire for originality with a contemporary world that uses originality for commercial validation? In a world obsessed with the ‘new’, where do you separate the ‘newness’ of someone like Madonna or Bowie from the market appeal of originality? Reynolds wants “realness”, and I think: “realness” as opposed to what? Realness (or soul, or heart, or whatever) is the message I hear from Ancient Greeks to the bloody shit Australian hip-hop I hear from my neighbours speakers. Is realness really real?
“And since when is monotony so taboo in rock & roll, anyway? Rock has been — some of the best of it too in large part monotonous from the beginning, hypnotically so, as rightwingers would say.”
– Lester Bangs. Review of Black Sabbath. 1971.
Reynolds has missed the cultural shift away from invention and the typically new. But that doesn’t necessitate a lapse into conformity and the end of the future; other concepts have taken over.
For Nick Croggan and James Parker (in a brilliant piece on Tiny Mix Tapes), it’s a case of discovery over invention. It’s now the interplay and conversation of artists from one work to the next, or what J.D. Salinger calls the “beautiful reciprocal arrangement”. Rather than having an ‘anxiety of influence’ it’s about Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Ecstasy of Influence’ and learning to enjoy and play with our past, our history and our influences. It’s less formal innovation and more uniqueness. It’s synthesis. It’s the play of history and tradition. And yes, maybe some pastiche.
So if tradition is somewhat inevitable, what do you do? Either regurgitate dominant aesthetic wisdom, or take matters into your own hands and refuse to suffer the slings of nostalgia, the boring, the cliche, the done. Here’s four answers: retreat into tradition (Alpine), uniquely invoke it (Kitchen’s Floor), dismantle and construct (Ouch My Face), or pick up the threads and move on (Blank Realm).
The retreat into tradition is timidity and blind adherence. It’s the rejection of anything even remotely experimental or unique and it’s what I hear when I listen to Alpine’s Yuck. Alpine is for people who want to feel part of a culture of difference, but deep down are content with joining pyramid schemes and voting for shit bastards. If Martin Amis quipped that the cliche in writing is just “heard language” (the heat was stifling, the woman rummaged through her bag), then Alpine is just “heard” sound. Listening to Yuck is simply the process of recognition and of being confronted with what we’ve come to know and expect from that blend of 2000s indie/electro-ish/rock-ish/pop-ish music (and in 2015!).
Even if the pressure on being consistently original has eased off, that still doesn’t give anyone the license to retreat into tradition. On this I would say Reynolds and I agree: you can’t expect to be conservative, to keep yourself only in history with nothing unique and no discovery, and get away with it.
• If Alpine are on Jimmy Kimmel then Kitchen’s Floor are on Weirdo With A Dictaphone.
• If Alpine is all shiny-vacant-party then Kitchen’s Floor is the indulgence of misery. It’s that transcendental paradox of aesthetically indulging in angry self-dislike and gaining redemption from those same feelings.
• It’s called Battle of Brisbane. The last few years in Brisbane have been a bit shit, haven’t they?
• I love ‘Down’. “I have nothing to give, but they won’t even think about me”. It’s actually very funny. Am I meant to be laughing?
• Battles everywhere: acknowledging dissociation from life, but not being totally on board with solipsism; accepting the shit state-of-things but possibly holding out for transcendence.
• ‘Observer’. “How did I let this happen to me?” I know I know I think to myself. It’s all E.M. Forster’s muddle: “Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror.”
• In modern culture you’re not supposed to be depressed about the world or about yourself. We have pharmaceuticals, Oprah and Dr. Phil for redemptive and coping purposes. We’re a culture weeding out melancholy and KF shows us melancholy’s necessity in perceiving the world.
• “The wine has done its job, finally I won’t think about this”. The perpetual escape of emotion. And only if you have emotion, and a lot of it, do you understand what escape means.
• ‘Resident Dregs’. How do you make a song (lyrically and musically) so angry and so overt and so self-hating and still avoid the cliche? And I feel horribly uncool saying, “Oh yeah, the recording really captures the spirit and essence of everything they’re about” but it’s true! It’s true! I saw the song live and it’s so fucking fierce and unnerving. On the album it sounds so fucking fierce and unnerving.
• KF are like nobody else. Imagine being that singular in a world that strives to make everything so universal.
Ouch My Face.
Is taking mess to its limits and reining it back. Cured Pink quip their new album
Pure deconstruction is rather embarrassing now: it’s lost its conceptual, intellectual and novel appeal. It’s also equally embarrassing to retreat into boring pretty songs. So Ouch My Face do both: Bunyip is that clear synthesis between the deconstructive and zany rolled into harmony and accessibility. The entire aesthetic is quirky from the transport-chime introducing the album, to the artwork, to the blend of vocal sounds, yells, steady beats, genre mishmash and intruding synths. Ouch My Face call it ‘punk-art’ and I suppose that’s what it is. But what gives the album stratospheric intensity is Celeste Potter’s vocals and the centred-offness of the aural adventure.
It’s like entering the consciousness of a child in which disorientation and incoherency reign in the onslaught of competing stimuli. It’s uncontrived, indulgent but innocent and enjoys the fun of it all.
BTW: ‘Creep Heart’ and ‘Rejection’ are the golden tickets.
If I imagine the history of music, I visualize a series of long tassels on a rug arranged in a near infinite row. One tassel is a genre, another a style, an innovation, an experimentation, an instrument, a sound and so on. The tassels are just waiting to picked up, to be arranged in harmonious and awkward ways. Everyone’s just running around collecting tassels and some tassel collections are just better then others. BL have the best collection.
Illegals In Heaven: rule-breaking. Being undeserving but taking it anyway. Being somewhere too good to be true. Aiming to regain the paradise lost, while knowing it can’t really be regained. Blank Realm have created a metaphor for the experience of listening to their own album.
From the beginning I’m caught in the immediacy of ‘No Views’. If excitement is the only criteria for rock music (which I actually think is quite plausible), then Blank Realm have it. Next comes the Big Lead Single ‘River of Longing’ and the two ideas that conceptually hold Illegals in Heaven together: naivety and desire.
As Daniel Spencer sings, “Meet you on the other side and we’ll make up for stolen time” and we’ll say “So long, to the river of longing”. A simultaneous desire for the other and the naivety in believing that fulfilling desire will overcome longing.
‘Dream Date’ is all overt desire and immediacy with a slow eeriness that only heightens the anticipation. It’s the counterpart to Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’. The song makes me confront my own sentimentality and embarrassment when lines like “And when we get married we’ll drink coconut rum. And when we get married, I won’t carry my gun” actually hit me as being quite sweet. While Bunyip may have tapped into the disorientation of consciousness, it lacks the necessary naivety. It’s the difference between listening to Bunyip and thinking “this sounds childlike” and listening to Blank Realm and actually feeling childlike.
But of course the dream turns beautifully sour on ‘Flowers In Mind’: “You can waste a whole day or waste a whole life, chasing fragments of dreams out in the night” and what’s hopeful and melodic turns to frustration when “the one that you love stops callin’”.
And finally on ‘Too Late Now’: “It’s much too late now for you to ever come back it’s much too late now they just don’t write ‘em like that”. No one’s completely naive anymore; we know what desire is; children grow up and the haze of the revelation is overwhelming. Is that what happened to Blank Realm on the ten-year trajectory from improv to a proper studio? The trick is to wise up but not really, you know, ‘grow up’.
A side note: ’Gold’ is the winner on the album and I think we’re all after more Sarah vocals. [this editor certainly is – LA]
So try and pick apart the BIG influences and I’m left with Go-Betweens and The Church and the two embarrassing fallacies of trying to know the artist and turning a review into a biography of influences. But then again I’ve always treated albums, novels, reviews, films etc. like my own house to do whatever I want. No, the problem with influences and Illegals in Heaven is that there’s such a parade, but also eclipse of influence, that I feel like I’m trying to shove Blank Realm into holes they’re too diverse for: it’s that fine temperament of using from tradition and yet mirroring nothing.
Everett True already wigged out and said Blank Realm are the best live band in Australia and he’s perhaps right. But I want to wig out and say they’re the best band in Australia. It’s hard to push across my sincerity when some music site is always declaring so-and-so as the best band of millennium. Of the century. Of 2015. Of this week. Since lunch. The whole album is so virile, self-affirming, just so ‘THERE’ and the-thing-I’ve-been-waiting-for, that I don’t know if it’s transcendent or bittersweet.
The pretenses of the past are a way of regaining the future and the means of discovery is to be found in the culture of the present.