Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

 
Released November 22, 2011
 
Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims
  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan

Maybe it’s just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I’ve relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already–I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There’s no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don’t know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I’ve known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there’s nothing true in either–I’ve never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I’d chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.


I don’t really know what it is. I’ve got “hooks” if you will–I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa’s book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (…almost…) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them–though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe–how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience–how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn’t make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend–after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I’ve had with others–Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef “milking” my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike’s quiet and humble (!–if you’ve heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak’s appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger’s shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP…and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is–something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It’s hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It’s harder still with a group of artists who’ve shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn’t struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It’s a solid fanbase, but they aren’t Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you’ll find P.O.S.’s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don’t like rap, or think they don’t like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I’ll suggest to anyone upon finding they “don’t like rap”. I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album’s release in 2011, there were 2 “crew albums” that appeared–one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of “demonstration” recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they’ve since noted was more about trying to balance everyone’s appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group’s talents as a group. It feels to me–however right or wrong–like the penultimate track on Sims’ Lights Out Paris, “No Homeowners” was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled “Renter’s Rebate” and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length “devotional” to the group.

“No Way” kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the “additional guitar” contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil’s hook begins to fade in: “We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we’re weilding will react when we’re feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we’re on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy.” Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm (“You’re so vain/You probably think it’s about you/Well it is and it ain’t/And it ain’t, but it is…”), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently (“Light the rag on your cocktail”–how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group’s prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he’d follow this one with, We Don’t Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to “Bolt Cutter” leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef’s hook brings with it (“My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it’s gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them…”). It’s a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: “They said couldn’t have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that’s that”), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa’s ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, “You know, I’ve seen a little glory/And your trinket isn’t it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era’s over, but we’ll rise and fall again,” picking up Sims’ lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: “This ain’t Kansas, show of hands/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis.” And it’s the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: “The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us.” Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, “We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go.”

It’s strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but “Bangarang” proves that it happened². It’s a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was “Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne” in “No Homeowners”). Mike’s hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group–“Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang”. Tying in to their logo–a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in “Traveling Dunk Tank” on that 12th False Hopes–there it is again!–with the lines “I’m tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth”, which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group’s core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: “Buy I got ya’ll when I see y’all/And I keep ya’ll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here.” And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: “But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That’s up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like–whew.” (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren’t listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above–all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), “Beacon” is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil’s hook calms it all–“I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don’t go there, go there/She knows the way home”. He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him–“You know your way home? You gonna be all right?”–and then drops the song’s title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us “Punch Out”, lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of “Beacon”‘s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in–and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan’s mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It’s just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that–they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

“Little Mercy” gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it’s not a found recording, of course. Cecil’s hook is lengthy but brilliant: “Now the candle’s in the window and it’s open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It’s the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning”. It’s another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa’s on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words (“We’re so thirsty…”) and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to “The Grand Experiment” (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album’s release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil’s hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it’s nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef’s hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don’t sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman’s pitch–a snake oil salesman, that is (“But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that’s respectable/It’s cheap and it’s ethical…well, it’s ethical…well, it’s magical really.”) Mictlan carries the track’s thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

“String Theory” is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style–the kind we’d hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as “The Wren” is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to “Team the Best Team” on sound as if we’ve reached the final, triumphant track of the album–but we aren’t there yet. There’s a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps–not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect–hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn’t to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in “Gimme the Go” may or may not be Stef’s responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak’s or Cecil’s (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There’s a vocal sample in “Own Yours” that has a light touch to it, and it’s allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef’s words and the clap and clatter of the beat’s hardest points. His verse as well as Sims’, Cecil’s and Mike’s all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else–the specifics aren’t important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak’s hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: “And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go”–it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there’s something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike’s flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: “But the long and short is…/We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel”. These struggles are fuel.

After “No Homeowners” it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, “Fresh New Trash”, but it’s not a mess of those varied styles, it’s cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words (“Hey, all right, okay…”). There’s even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef’s hook: “Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don’t hold back/Understand it’s over before you know…” the beat changes entirely when Stef’s verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa’s proud words (“I’ve been boom/I’ve been bust/I rep Doom/Til I’m dust”), but it’s Mictlan’s verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: “This isn’t indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that’s brought us here/It’s written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/”It’s win, lose or tie”/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won’t Save You/Sell ’em absolution with a verse.” We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There’s no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There’s a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad.

There’s something amazing about tracks like “Fresh New Trash” and “Prizefight” (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and “No Homeowners” and “Crew” (from Dessa’s Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There’s something absolute and real, something that doesn’t fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there’s something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don’t operate themselves–and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be–perhaps it isn’t and couldn’t be for them, but it is that to me. It’s cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone–even if you don’t like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa’s material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that’s a frustration–I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference ‘the golden era’ in the same sense, but in different ways, in “Bolt Cutter”–or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don’t Even Live Here with “Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action” and the line “Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck”. It’s a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it’s probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in–just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won’t get the full effect (at least, I certainly can’t ever read things like lyrics–or poetry–and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there’s not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: “This world’s gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore”–in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that “world” anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That’s a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex’s, of course. More people know that one because he’s more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being “stolen” which I stupidly participated in, until we’d both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway–not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.

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Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth (1984)

 Capitol Records ■ ST-12309

Released February, 1984

Produced by Thomas Dolby
Engineered by Dan Lacksman
Mixed by Mike Shipley (“Hyperactive!” mixed by Alan Douglas)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  1. White City
  2. Mulu the Rain Forest
  3. I Scare Myself
  4. Hyperactive!

Oddly, I’d never really heard “She Blinded Me with Science”, nor have I (really) even now, though it was a big hit in the decade I’ve spent my life unabashedly enjoying the resulting pop music from. I bought this LP as well as the Blinded by Science 12″ EP/mini-album simply because I saw them for a low enough price. I’m honestly not sure at this point if they pre-dated or followed my father stuffing a copy of 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics on CD into my hand while visiting a used music store. It’s entirely possible they followed it–“I Love You Goodbye” is a stupendous song, on a really great album. I’d still only heard the clips of that biggest of singles though, on the commercials for 80s compilations, or on any show that was referencing it as indicative of the decade.

When I had the poll up (due to the absence of votes, I simply removed it), a single vote appeared and then disappeared, for the Blinded by Science mini-album, which I decided to sit down and listen to first. While I naturally couldn’t recognize the original, I strongly suspected the version of “She Blinded Me with Science” was a 12″ extended mix, and I later confirmed it was just that. Those things are difficult to pull off and it rarely happened with much success. The hooks are either beaten into the ground or so severely cropped or inverted as to become thoroughly un-catchy. This wasn’t much an exception, so I didn’t feel much like trying to write about not only a mini-album that was an attempt to capitalize on the now rather confused release history Dolby had built up (in his native U.K., The Golden Age of Wireless did not contain that enormous single, though the original U.S. did not either–it was initially released, instead, with tracks omitted and replaced with b-sides, in typical U.S. fashion for U.K. releases–though I still don’t much understand a lot of the reasons this was and is done) but one that contained one of those mixes.


So, instead, I took out The Flat Earth and decided to let a complete album (his second, left alone for its U.S. release) represent him here as I attempt to translate the disparate elements of my record collection to all souls brave enough to tromp through them.

While I truly cannot remember whether his later album or these two records entered my hands first, I can state unequivocally that I heard Astronauts and Heretics many times, and listened to neither of these more than a handful of times after purchasing them. While I wanted to hear more of this artist I’d heard good things about, the notion that this sample-heavy semi-novelty hit was what he was known for and no album names, singles, or anything else seemed to get mentioned, I didn’t have much of a hook to dive in any deeper, and guessed there was both a more “flamboyant” and a more brazenly pop bent to his earlier work that didn’t immediately encourage my explorations with any great urgency.

“Dissidents” quickly erased this notion–or at least tempered it. A semi-funky bassline from Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman and sharply ringing guitars from Kevin Armstrong back a pseudo-paranoid, bizarre and confused set of lyrics. Dolby’s voice is sliding and smooth in the verse, but as he sings “Hold it, wait a minute…” and backing singer Adele Bertei joins him, a tense edge and sharper, shorter syllables chop the song down rhythmically to match the interwoven sound of a mechanical typewriter. Twanging synth noises sound like coiled springs and keep the song wound itself, the computerized drums of Cliff Bridgen openly synthesized. It’s all weird angles and pointy bits, curious and interesting, and rather catchy (indeed, later a single!).

The title track begins the run of tracks Dolby wrote alone, which continues for almost the entirety of the album, stopped only for a single track. “The Flat Earth” was actually a solid bridge to the album that would come after follow up Aliens Ate My Buick–that second follower being Astronauts and Heretics. A number of tracks on the album marry texture and atmosphere to more clear pop song backings, and “The Flat Earth” really sets that tone. Anticipatory percussion, bass-y keys and scatters of synthetic noise propose the backdrop for the thick bass tones Seligman begins to build with Bridgen’s percussive tracks, Armstrong’s guitar coming out through a strangled single stroke, Dolby’s own keys (an acoustic piano) are free and light, though firm and clear by comparison to the others. It’s a full minute and a half of introduction before Bertei returns with the added voice of Lesley Fairbairn, singing “Hold me, baby, love me, darling, believe me, honey…” in loops behind Dolby’s passionate lead vocal, which clings less firmly to the rhythm of the track, spreading across it as the words and performance dictate instead. The song takes off down its own organic path, determined largely by the contrast between Seligman’s rubbery bassline and Dolby’s sadness-tinged piano, coming out something like a successful melding of soul ballad and dance track in a very strange way–perfectly realized by the way Dolby’s voice progresses down through the line “And maybe why for me the earth is flat…” which drops downward on the latter half, but plateaus and rescues the line from being maudlin. Honestly, this may easily be my favourite track on the album. The underlying vibraphone-style percussion rounds and smooths it all out in a wonderful way that expands the whole thing past even that bass-y nudge toward movement and the piano and vocal movement toward melancholy.

“Screen Kiss”, appropriate to its lyrical content, does not attempt to “rescue” itself from the tone “Flat Earth” seems to pull up from at the last moment. There’s a nostalgic sort of sense to it, but it all leads somewhat inexorably toward sadness, dreams and plans dashed and lost, but not at any great speed so much as slowly leeched away. Seligman hits those piercingly bright, high notes on bass that seem to elicit the sense of a film “jazz club”–the vocal kind, and the kind not overly familiar with jazz. Guitar and synths wax and wane over the track, all acting as a sort of smooth but internally marbled surface over which Dolby lays his ever-intense vocalization–never so much melodramatic as intent. The song fades on a fuzz of overlapping recordings of women speaking and a heartbeat, dissipating as it does so fade.

Having left the first side with a mere three tracks, the second opens with the dramatic burblings of “White City” which rapidly turn to the pounding rhythms and sharp tones indicative of much of the new wave’s more popular and familiar segments, layered with a sort of sci-fi synth line. An interesting fade carries off briefly before Dolby opens the verse, thick bottom end moving the song forward at a pace that feels fast after the first half, but is also noticeably deliberate. Seligman manages some great touches here and there, little fills from the bass. Dolby is less commanding of attention with his voice, the implied drug-fueled fantasy and personal isolation matched by that lockstep marching of coke-fueled energy the song conveys. Seligman’s former bandmate Robyn Hitchcock appears, though, and begins to ramble madly, though in his inimitable style, quietly rumbling along beneath the track, left as the only thing to accompany a sustained note from synthesized strings.

Unusual and unique for the album–if not in general–“Mulu the Rain Forest” elicits the tone it aims to immediately. A synthesized melody is backed by insects chirping and joined by hand-drumming and the kind of woodwinds so readily associated with rainforests (accurately or not). It’s lush though it is spare, carrying a sort of jungle-esque mugginess in its lethargy, thick with only quiet noises and the silent spaces somehow. It’s all atmosphere, a track added up from a clear lead vocal and backing music that never seems interested into building itself into a distinctly recognizable tune or melody, nor even establishing a clear rhythm–in the sense that ambient music does, I mean. It’s fascinating, and starts to dig itself in more thoroughly toward the end, when a synthesizer begins to contribute more concrete melodic lines to back the spasms of Seligman’s bass playing warps.

“I Scare Myself” is the lone exception on the album to Dolby’s writing credits–Armstrong and Seligman co-wrote the music to “Dissdents” with him, but the rest of the album was his. Dan Hicks’ song, though, is pure cover. Like “Dissidents” and closer “Hyperactive!” it did see a single release. Something like a Central or South American flavour (toward the salsa end of things) composes the backing track’s guitar flourishes and thrumming bass, a drumstick against a snare rim acting as much of the rhythmic accent. There’s a shot of tension running through Dolby’s piano that contradicts the clean and comfortable instruments around him. Appropriate, perhaps, in that he scares himself, I suppose! Armstrong also throws in a muted trumpet that crests the track as it builds into a more rapid pace and a more full composition that is left to fade off, never released from its underlying tensions.

I often confused myself reading the title of Dolby’s major single from the album (major in his homeland, anyway), “Hyperactive!” I often find myself thinking, instead, of Robert Palmer’s shockingly non-single track from 1985’s Riptide of the same name (sans punctuation), which has been a long time favourite anyway. This one, though, is built on a trombone lick from Peter Thoms, which drones out bemusedly behind Dolby’s duet with the returned Adele Bertei. It nudges back more toward the sensibilities of “Dissidents” than anything else, rhythmic and energetic after the relaxed tones of the tracks that come between (barring “White City”, anyway). It’s catchy and somewhat peculiar, paranoid and kinetic. It’s a strange sort of song, yet understable as a single. Bertei carries the song on to its outro describing the rather complete set of circumstances under which Dolby is “hyperactive”.

Finding that some of the album reminded me of the (admittedly later) Astronauts and Heretics and particularly the parts about it I enjoyed, as well as the discovery that the more uptempo songs were rather off-kilter was a pleasant surprise. I’m inclined to look further into the man’s work for certain, and will need to track down a more reasonably tracklisted version of his debut–one that doesn’t jam itself up with all those U.S. label modifications.

Dolby’s a fascinating character outside his music, as a sidebar–he’s involved in plenty of synthetic music creation, up to and including a rendering of Nokia’s cell ringtone, as well as the tech side and creations therein, even giving TED talks, sometimes. His name, of course, is not indicative of a connection to the audio company responsible for many audio standards, though it did result in some minor legal knots between them–it’s not even his real name, which is Robertson.

In any case, so long as you don’t have that immediate allergy some do to electronic-based pop music, this is a really great record, I’ve found. Interesting as a curious exception to a lot of standing rules of the sounds that surround it, rather than being just a strong example of them.

There Is More to Come

I’m currently settling into a new job and working more hours than I have been for nearly a year, and it’s cropping down a lot of my time for both record listening and writing, and much of the time I have has been spent on adjacent activities (like buying more records!) and whittling down so far that I’m left in too great a crunch to take the time I think anyone who stops to read here deserves.

Being at the spot in the alphabet I am has also not helped, as it has left me on an artist I didn’t feel in the right place to write about, but with the option to sidle over to a few other options if I reconsider how I treat alphabetization of things like initalizations (that is, I could, instead of hitting Thomas Dolby, hit upon D.O.A. and get into the issue of hardcore punk again, with its very namesake release).

That said, I am about to settle into a more consistent schedule, and it will mean a plan for distinct, weekly entries on Fridays, each week.

If the time occurs, I’ll slip a few more in, but look forward to Fridays for records you may know and love, some you may have heard whispers about, and others you’ll question my sanity for listening to, let alone owning (perhaps).

Dire Straits – Communiqué (1979)

 Warner Bros. Records ■ HS 3330

Released June 15, 1979

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett
Engineered by Jack Nuber
Mixing Engineered by Gregg Hamm
Mastered by Bobby Hata



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Once Upon a Time in the West
  2. News
  3. Where Do You Think You’re Going?
  4. Communiqué
  1. Lady Writer
  2. Angel of Mercy
  3. Portobello Belle
  4. Single-Handed Sailor
  5. Follow Me Home

If I’m going to talk about Dire Straits, which, in this case, I obviously am, the starting point is simple: Mark Knopfler is, stylistically, my favourite guitarist, bar none. Like many, I spent part of high school spewing obvious names for “best guitarist ever”, but have long since abandoned this for two simple reasons: first, none of us knows all the guitarists, not even all the guitarists in popular music, nor what performances are comfortable for them versus extreme work, and second, I’m not a player myself, so how could I really judge such a thing? What I can do, though, is establish a sound that I personally like–and, of course, that is not a singular sound in all honesty. I’ve (more privately) expressed appreciation for the tone Jeff Beck achieved on his peculiar, semi-electronic records from the early ’00s. Eric Johnson, too, is noted particularly for his tone. Andy Gill of Gang of Four has a wonderfully clangy, abrasive style, so on and so forth. But, given the option,  I choose Knopfler consistently, because I like the way he plays in-and-of itself, rather than as appropriate for a style, for virtuosity, or because it ends up with clear and pretty sounds–it does those, but is unmistakably a guy playing guitar at the same time.


When I asked for a Dire Straits selection from my 3 LPs (I actually have every album on CD), I noted that I don’t listen to Communiqué much and never have, my brain having rather haphazardly categorized it as the most “bland” Dire Straits record. Really, that judgment is purely personal and internal, and reflects only the absence of songs I know and love (think the big singles, of course), as well as the absence of curiosities like Love Over Gold‘s “Telegraph Road” (a 14-minute long track, wildly out of character in the band’s studio oeuvre, normally maxing out at a bit over 8 minutes in rare exceptions, but largely hovering in the 4-6 minute range). Making Movies has my favourite Dire Straits song (“Romeo and Juliet”) while Love Over Gold has the aforementioned expanded travel of “Telegraph Road”. What does Communiqué have to pop up immediately in my memory?

Of course, I dropped the needle and was reminded–oops. I always think, for some reason, that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is on their 1978 eponymous debut, but that actually starts with “Down to the Waterline”–a solid opener, but no “Once Upon a Time in the West”. As someone who also loves movies, and started branching out into both movies and music at the same time, I’ve forever associated Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon a Time in the West to us English speakers) with this song, humming or singing it to myself any time I stumbled into a physical copy of the movie. Lyrically, it makes no sense, but the dry way Mark has always sung, seemingly with just a tinge of the droll, made a strange kind of sense to me, despite the contrasting lushness of Morricone’s score for the film¹ and the expansive, cinematic eye of Leone’s films. I liked to imagine it was at least a jumping-off-point for the song, but it’s highly unlikely. Still, it’s a fantastic track–a piercing lead that’s backed by a pretty set of chords, before turning to a plodding groove of a track, Mark’s lead carrying on less sharply, working a wonderful bend of a lead over the semi-reggae rhythms of John Illsey’s bass and Pick Withers’ drumming. Mark and his brother David work in half-muted chords that also imply reggae origins.

The whole first side of the album is a bit more on the easy, breezy side–“News” is gentle and simple, the melody and playing style, as well as the steel implying the kind that would show up on their next album in the form of, well, “Romeo and Juliet”, actually, though there’s a greater sadness, and no real move to the kind of crescendo that track experiences. Even when Withers’ drums assert themselves more clearly, and Mark’s lead takes off, it stays restrained in overall atmosphere, though that lead presses firmly at those restraints. It makes clear, though, that interesting contrast that often occurs with Mark’s more emotive playing and his semi-gruff, often “huffed” lyrics, which seem to be pushed out through his voice, natural, but sort of forced, in a good way–a rough edged, less sarcastic than masked, guarded contrast to the clean, clear notes he elicits.

“Where Do You Think You’re Going?” broods and simmers menacingly, though I find myself unsure why exactly, lyrically. Some have suggested it’s about domestic abuse (though I’m not at all convinced by these explanations, and numerous lines don’t seem to fit that well), but there’s certainly some kind of hidden threat here–whether it’s from the character Mark sings as, or from where the “girl” he’s singing to plans to go. It takes off into a more energetic pace with a rapid beat from Pick that starts moving the track along. But Mark, ever the leader, manages to soften and slow the song around that beat, his leads matching the tempo but so smooth and curved that it keeps that hidden threat from becoming obvious or overbearing–just slinking along in the shadows instead.

The title track is perhaps the most uptempo track on the whole of the first side, and exhibits the firm fingerpicking that characterize a lot of his work. It swings with the kind of swampy groove of a Dr. John song almost, but then sways at the bridge on top of B. Bear’s piano and turns a bit more familiar as a Dire Straits song then. But the next verse, naturally, reclaims that slinky, swerving groove, so nicely punctuated by the plucked strings. Handclaps shade a solo that sounds at least partly improvisational, the song turning briefly to a kind of “jam” on the back of Withers’ now “pea-soup” drumbeat.

There was only one single on the album, and it was “Lady Writer”, by far the most uptempo track on the album, and a pretty logical choice for a single as a result. Mark’s lead is somewhat reminiscent of their breakout hit, “Sultans of Swing”, but the track itself is a little friendlier overall, in keeping with the relaxed tone of the whole album. While it smokes its way through the verse, it breaks into sunny waves on the chorus, Mark’s lead and vocal sort of fading into the distance as it ends. The backing vocals of David and Illsey are apparent throughout the track, but the high point is doubtless the searing solo that flies out of Mark’s fingers straight through the song’s fadeout–a wild burst of showmanship that shows the peculiar restraint his style tends to exhibit: whatever fancy flares he adds, it never seems overbearing or overly showy.

“Angel of Mercy” sees the return of the low swing that typifies the Dire Straits sound, or at least most of it. David and John’s backing vocals are full and clear again, while Mark’s burn right over the top aggressively. The choral feeling that comes from the three of them singing together through the chorus and the meandering lead Mark lays over the whole thing gives it a nicely contrasting flavour from the rest of the album, one that manages to hit the highs and the lows, while not straying too far from the breezy, low tide of the album’s overall tone. Mark exits the track with another solo, but this one just slides right into place confidently and comfortably, rather than sizzling like he did at the end of “Lady Writer”.

There’s a very light touch to “Portobello Belle”, Mark’s voice and an acoustic alone at open. Illsey, Withers and Bear join, and it’s clear this is one of the songs that will focus on Mark’s songwriting rather than his playing. It’s actually extraordinarily prescient, as it resembles the work Mark would do as a solo artist thirty years later on Kill to Get Crimson in particular (though shades of this style echo through a lot of his solo albums). It’s a simple tune, largely, and it’s the buoyant, sharply bright acoustic that really defines the track, as well as the light touch of keys from Bear behind it. Illsey’s bass is perhaps its most upfront, similarly cheerful, and it makes for an appropriate but unique track for the record.

There’s a lot folded into “Single Handed Sailor”, as Mark returns to electric, his fingers active but subtle in their constant motion. Illsey makes his voice known most clearly here–his instrumental one, that is. A very full bass-line that shifts it under the tightly fingerpicked rhythm track. While it also avoids abandoning the lazy tone of the record, those two instruments really keep it moving a lot more than much of the rest of the album. Taking another chance to wander around instrumentally, the latter portion of the track is another exhibit for Mark’s cool tones and swaggering guitar lead, covering a lot of ground but continuing to avoid fireworks and explosions, in favour of a kind of displayed subtlety.

The breezy tidal feel of the album is made blatant as “Follow Me Home” opens, the sound of small waves crashing on a shore balanced on the light touch of hand drums. Mark’s voice is languorous, matching the swaying rhythm guitar, and his own crying lead. It’s vaguely hypnotic, island-y, like a seductive hymn from beside a beach’s bonfire. Mark’s solo sparks and flits upward at moments, but doesn’t quite take off on its own. Rather than clearly echoing or harmonizing words, David and John on backing vocals widen the sound of Mark’s voice. The track doesn’t build up to a huge moment, or even a hint of one. It just sways back and forth with that slow burn, perhaps best thought of as a culmination of the album’s tone as a whole: it maintains the breezy tone, while turning a moment that implies endings and rest, it instead points toward further activity, acting as both fade-out and hint of what’s to come.

Communiqué was the last album to feature David Knopfler, who has also gone on to solo work, though it is largely unheard, unlistened, and unmentioned. Word is, he doesn’t like to talk about his brother at all, and one can only guess that a split so severe and so early in a band’s life does not bode well for their relationship. Of course, it may say something that Mark was writing all of the songs already, and it was the age-old concern about getting a voice heard. Whatever it may have been, this has remained a clearly voiced vehicle for Mark’s songs, playing, and writing–fair, unfair, or otherwise.

I can’t really complain about that, and found this album was not quite so “slight” as I remembered (or, really–imagined) it to be. I can’t say it moved too far up the ranks in terms of my favourite albums by the band, but I’ve often favoured the earlier works of the bands that rocketed to stardom in the ’80s after solid starts in the ’70s (similarly, as they will not come up later here, I favour Zenyatta Mondatta or Regatta de Blanc over Synchronicity without reservation).

If you do only know the band for their singles, I strongly recommend expanding that experience, as Knopfler’s work is superb in a sense that lends itself less to dropped jaws and applauded virtuosity than just being damn fine sounds. And that phrase is one that might be best to describe what appeals to me in music, I think–nothing technically descriptive or specific, but emphatic and distinct enough to have a kind of identity–though, admittedly, one that requires expansion to be understood.

Which is, of course, what this writing is here to do.

¹While I do have an imported copy of that score on CD, I only have a 2xLP compilation of Morricone themes and the score to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) on vinyl.