Are You Earthed?
I have to admit that this is my first Appliance record and thus, I don't have a lot of leverage for stating where I think they are in terms of their progression as a group. The only reason I start by mentioning this is that somehow I get the feeling of a development. Like this all must be new to them too.
My first thought about Are You Earthed is the opening songs present a dark, drugged-out, electronified update of songs like Charlatans' 'The Only One I Know' or Fatboy Slim's 'Praise You.' Going with this instinct, it occurs to me that this was the type of thing that would have gone over well at one of the 'mod-nights' in Boston of a couple years back, where fans of pop music who wanted to avoid the discos could really dance and expect to hear just about anything British.
Not U2 though, granted. They would be considered entirely too uncool and overplayed to be spun at one of these nights, despite the fact that the a lot of the music on Achtung Baby, like 'Mysterious Ways' for instance, would certainly fit in with the kind of stuff I've listed. It's not just the beat apparently, it's the issue of style. And where do Appliance fit in this vision? For one, singer James Brooks sounds like the U2 singer when the U2 singer is trying to be breathy and sexy, which he often was around that Achtung-era. Putting myself in this setting, I'm sure I can hear the second track off of Are You Earthed, 'Go Native' in one of these mod nights visions. It's got the beat, the attitude, and the retro organ all the way to the point of making me want to unbutton my shirt and pass out maracas. But would the kids be ready for the quizzically titled lead-off track, 'Tuesday is Almost Over?'
I'm trying to picture what that would be like, hearing the first strains of the song. A prepared piano from Eno's Another Green World or the Velvet Underground's 'All Tomorrow's Parties.' A dubbed-out bass guitar enters, then a skittery bass drum, a ring modulation from the left speaker, one at a time. A digital musical saw, a motor, a reversed melody, a thrush of drones from above, an out-of phase sitar. No, these sounds are all probably poor descriptions and might sound offensive to the guys in the band themselves--but I simply don't know what instruments they are playing or even what they're doing (as you may know, Appliance makes some of their own sound generators). I'm not even sure that this is a rock band I'm describing.
What I do know is that they are trying to build something slowly. Brooks sings: 'Eyes accustomed to the light/ accustomed to seeing which way the water flows. Now taken by the hands/ and shown which way to go. Your words can destroy/ but your words do comfort me.' Somehow passionate, and somehow uncomfortable. Not too far from Radiohead's Thom Yorke singing 'yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon.' Not as painfully misanthropic, but a signal of distress nonetheless.
Perhaps Appliance are more influenced by experimental music then electronic music, although I'm pretty sure that these two opening songs are meant to be looked at from the perspective of the disco floor. Even if that is a tentative perspective, or somehow self-negating, like you don't want to be there, or you loathe everyone there, or you love the metronomic calculation of the beat, and wish that it had never occurred to people that they could congregate and act like fools bobbing-up and down to it. It would be more surprising to hear Can on the disco floor than to hear Appliance's 'Tuesday is Almost Over,' but neither should really be that surprising. Then again, maybe this is just the wrong setting to describe this album in. The people at this club need to feel sexy, and is this music is sexy, so why do I feel such a great turning inward?
Now I'm picturing that I'm at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I've paid my twelve bucks to see Appliance. I don't know if I paid much attention to the opening act, maybe they were just OK, as they generally are. I just want to see how Appliance do it.
I imagine three stations of synthesizers and various machines, guitar, and bass amplifiers, and a drum set. The three guys come out with their guitars and take their stations. They push some buttons and pull some levers quickly, put a finger in their ear, don headphones, one says something to the next, a burst of static begins over the PA system, the singer with his guitar says into the microphone, 'sorry about that folks,' to a round of laughter. The bass player is functioning two keyboards that begin to sound like the drone and whirr of twice as many, as the drummer has programmed quickly a spitfire pulse-the guitarist begins to whine and grumble, as the drummer begins a real beat with a kick drum. The bass player manipulates some high frequencies with a foot pedal while he begins an enormous bass riff which he loops over the guitar riff (which has since been set to an infinite decaying repeat with a foot pedal). Meanwhile, the singer begins his grind into the microphone, guitar hung free and ringing feedback around his neck, whilst he manipulates two sequencers. How do they do it? Rock band? Electronic outfit? Or purely 'commercial experimentation' (is this a style that we even have yet, in so many words). It sounds sexy but it's also a lot of work!
I stand transfixed among my peer group holding a cup of beer. Everyone with their left hand in their pocket, beverage in left, nodding heads in heavy syncopation. There sure is a lot to take in. In, 'Fruits of the Sea,' Brooks sings, 'Cause if you wanna jump/ lets jump together.' The music has become a shade darker and electronic beats have dissipated to a wah-wah'd snaking chicka-chicka, leaving space for a certain purveyance of loneliness. A presence of guitar greater than what is usually acceptable in electronic music relays an affection for the impressionism of both Can and even Durutti Column. At no point during this album do I really feel that this band has lost a nerve, like many pre-existing Joy Division comparisons suggest. There might be a young girl in the front row contemplating the sanctity of the double suicide pact suggested in the lyrics. Let's hope the room has heated up by now.
Track four, the futuristic surf-eque soundtrack 'Mountains I' shows the classic trio of bass, drums, and guitar emerging from discoveries of the previous tracks. Oh, there are keyboards and synths galore, don't get me wrong, but at least at this moment, the audience begin to connect with the band. This progression continues with the lovely 'As far as I can see;' one of the albums truest moments and an exploration into the drone of Neu!'s guitars and pulsing shards of sound. The sound of the band has actually deconstructs as they indulge their rock side more. Another track, 'The Blue Rider,' is evocative of the rhythm of another difficult band, Suicide.
Was there ever really the possibility for Can, Neu!, or Suicide to be commercial? And has that changed in today's musical climate? I wonder what the people in this audience really think. Would they have liked those bands when those bands were current? What they really think about the way this music makes them feel. Or how they feel about the singer, and what he really has to say.
It's easy to compare things to Appliance, but hard to really describe them. I will say this though. Don't think about objects with cords that you plug into the wall. Think about applying layers and layers of paint to a canvas. This is the appliance. You know what the pictures basically look like, but you have no idea what colors are on the palette, or how they're mixed. This music could either apply to fans of rock clubs, or discotheques, or neither. Or if you're like me, this music will appeal to people who wear headphones and really have no way of relating.
I won't play this album much, simply because of the way that it makes me feel, which is overcome at first by sensation, but ultimately empty. Like a walk through the Red Light District. The only way this album can really be taken is as a whole; as an experience. For the greater part, these aren't really songs that you can pick and choose from. These are not entries from a unified consciousness. There is an intact and foreign place that you enter that belongs to these guys when you put the headphones on. Switch on the gravity, I have to leave, but I'll be back.
© 2003 Jonathan Donaldson