The bursting of Britpop’s bubble has left the UK’s rock scene in the doldrums. A&R’s and hacks alike twiddle thumbs, wondering why nothing’s happening. For one thing, Britpop’s make-it-big triumphalism has virtually obliterated the independent ideal. Another reason is that all the purely musical intellect around has entered the dance arena, leaving rock to those whose only virtuosity is auto-hype and the gift of gab.
Surfacing in this cultural void, Position Normal’s wondrous Stop Your Nonsense is a flashback to the far more formidable UK music culture of 1979–81—the postpunk ferment which spawned genuinely independent labels like Rough Trade and Fast, brainy but intensely musical bands like Pop Group and This Heat, and the countless one-off DIY flashes aired nightly by John Peel. Back then, bands still believed absolute novelty was absolutely possible.
Even though Nonsense is mostly sample-based, its homespun imprecision feels closer to hand-made tape loops than digital seamlessness; collage-wise, think Faust Tapes meets 3 Feet High and Rising. Only Nonsense‘s stoned-to-say-the-least aura locates the album in the post-rave ’90s—Position Normal’s Chris Bailiff is as attuned to the timbral colors of sound as Aphex Twin. His favorite production trick combines reverb and filtering to make instruments glint like they’ve been irradiated by a sudden shaft of sunlight. He EQ’s a Lotte Lenya soundalike until her voice crumbles into a billow of gold dust, gives an uncanny glisten to a pizzicato mandolin refrain, and reverbs stark piano chords so they sound as poignant as Erik Satie trapped in a dub dungeon. On “Bedside Manners,” a lustrous mirage of echoplexed guitar backdrops a surreal medical monologue perfectly capturing the condescending cadences of an English doctor.
Stop Your Nonsense comes off like a semi-conscious essay about Englishness and its inevitable evanescence. The album’s dream-drift haze is peopled with spectral echoes of all those eccentric relatives (Mark E. Smith, Ian Dury, John Cooper Clarke, Vini Reilly) written out of the will when Britpop pruned its family tree down to the straight-and-narrow:
Beatles —> Pistols —> Stone Roses —> Oasis. Perhaps because its samples are pulled off crackly vinyl platters and reel-to-reel tape spools foraged from thrift stores and garage sales, Nonsense plangently evokes the bygone crapness of Olde England—the quaint, musty parochialism banished by New Labour’s modernising policies and by the twin attrition of Americanisation/
Europeanisation. Some of Nonsense‘s most enchanting tracks aren’t really music, but melodious mosaics of speech expertly tiled from disparate, sepia-tinted sources. On “Hop Sa Sa” Bailiff varispeeds a kiddies’ choir singing about monkeys, interjects a middle-aged man’s quizzical “why not for donkeys?,” and then, for an inexplicably heart-
tugging coda, transforms the title’s nonsense phrase into an ostinato hanging in space.
Position Normal’s fondness for “found sound” interludes, like the patter of Cockney stallholders in a fruit’n’veg market, reminds me of Saint Etienne’s penchant for punctuating their early albums with movie dialogue and cafeteria chat eavesdropped onto a dictaphone. The trio started out as part of that superior early phase of Britpop that included World Of Twist, Denim, and pre-megastardom Pulp. Instead of later Britpop’s loutish laddism, the sensibility was mod—fervently English, but cosmopolitan, as open to 1960s French girl-pop, ’90s Italo-house, and A.R. Kane’s halcyon dub-noise as it was to Motown and Dusty Springfield. Trouble was, the trio’s futile fixation on scoring a UK Top Ten hit persuaded them to gradually iron out all their experimentalist excrescences. Reconvening in 1998 after a four-year sabbatical, Saint Etienne got sleeker and slicker still on Good Humour, abandoning sampling altogether for Swedish session-musicianship and a clean, crisp sound inspired by “Lovefool” Cardigans and Vince Guaraldi’s lite-jazz Charlie Brown music.
A pleasant surprise, then, to report that Saint Etienne’s six-track EP Places to Visit is an unexpected reversion to…everything that was ever any good about them. “Ivyhouse” is angel’s breath ethereal like they’ve not been since their debut album’s dubtastic “London Belongs To Me.” Produced by Sean O’Hagan of avant-MOR outfit The High Llamas, “52 Pilot” features sparkling vibes, an elastic heartstring bassline out of “Wichita Lineman,” and radical stereo separation (don’t try this one on headphones). And “Artieripp” is a tantalizing tone-and-texture poem as subtly daubed as anything by Mouse On Mars.
Drawing on diverse talents like O’Hagan and Chicago avant-gardist-for-hire Jim O’Rourke, Places resituates Saint Etienne among the sound-sculptor ranks. (Their next project is apparently a collaboration with German art-techno outfit To Rococo Rot). They’re aesthetes in love with Pop Song not for its expressive power but for the sheerly formal contours of its loveliness. Hopefully, Places to Visit will work like Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre did for Stereolab: as a rejuvenating sideline, a detour that parodoxically sets them back on a truer course.