A secluded valley in western China, and it’s there, only there, that a tree grows. As trees go there’s nothing remarkable about it. Little that’s distinctive – were you travelling through this rural valley, en route to elsewhere, you wouldn’t pause for thought beneath its spindly branches, or gaze in awe at its shape or colour. Except that once and once only, for a season and nothing more, each twig upon this tree erupts in a cacophony of blossom, and people come from far and wide to bear witness, for they know that once the blossom has fallen upon the stony ground, never more will this tree deign to flower…
Don’t mind me; that’s just my strained Contino Sessions metaphor. As in, for a while back there, the year of our lord 1999, this album bloomed. It flirted with our fickle, pre-millennial tension, stood resplendent like that Chinese valley tree, only to disappear from our turntables and jukeboxes a few months later, when a new shiny thing turn up to thrill.
Pre-millennial. There’s a whole clutch of records from the late ’90’s that fit that description. All angst and awkward angles, with a side order of foreboding thrown in for good measure – yeah, let’s get that old whore Osterberg to start squawking about serial killers. Which is another way of me trying to get excited about ‘Aisha’ (I turned it off half way through and went and stuck ‘Bad Girls’ by M.I.A. on the turntable instead; I’m such the ungrateful bastard).
This, of course, is dismissing Death In Vegas album #2 without troubling coherent argument. And for the record, let me state that I don’t dislike The Contino Sessions. I dig its fuzzy edges. That feeling that something of the night is lurking around the next corner. Distended electronica with a live rhythm section is a fertile landscape, whilst the restraint through which each strand of dark, motorik psychedelia function emphasises the fact that Richard Fearless knows his stuff. And then there’s album opener ‘Dirge’. A visceral statement (as well as a mainstay of my DJ set, back before I became a drunken, misanthropic hermit). Dot Allison’s wispy, ethereal vocal floating across a grinding, unsentimental four-bar framework; this is repetition at its most effective. Five minutes forty-four seconds that are over far too quickly.
But that’s the problem of hiding an LP’s strongest track in full view. Up top. At the beginning. It raises expectations. Implies that something bolder, perhaps even iconoclastic dwells within the substrate. And whilst the manic whimsy of end number ‘Neptune City’ forms, alongside ‘Dirge’, a neat set of sentinel bookends, elements in-between touch upon themes of musical intensity without ever exploring them in detail. Plenty of interesting ideas, but the Sturm und Drang ain’t there. Hence all that arboreal gibberish in the opening paragraph – we came to watch the tree flower, then went and threw our attentions at more urgent discs once the lustre wore off.
One more thing: four tracks feature human voice. The aforementioned Dot Allison lazily mouthing la-la-la (which I like; have I mentioned that?) is vital to the composition. The other three – Jim Reid on ‘Broken Little Sister’, his former bandmate Bobby Gillespie (‘Soul Auctioneer’), and Iggy Pop’s ‘Aisha’ – all carry the fatal flaw of featuring a vocal that bears, at best, a tenuous relationship with the formative noises making up the rest of the song. Now, Death In Vegas aren’t the first outfit to invite their celebrity mates round to write some lyrics, then mumble or snarl them into the microphone whilst a backing tape plays. It helps the sales, or so I’ve heard. But it also introduces competing (and not always complementary) forces into the song’s overarching impact, and as much as it was Gillespie. Osterberg and Reid, it could well have been Lulu, Charles Hawtrey and M.I.A – very different words and a completely different melodies – and the results would have been equally as cohesive.
In fact yes; that’s it. Re-record The Contino Sessions with Lulu, Maya Arulpragasam and the ghost of Charles Hawtrey on vox, and you’ll have a winner. Anyone got Fearless’ phone number?
Have a favourite or half-forgotten LP that requires a revisit? Let me know in the comments, or at @lazerguidedblog if you’re feeling sociable.
Death In Vegas / Dirge (Live)