Monday, June 29, 2015

Work

... set The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin , as described on its insert


JAKE

I came up with this theme, quite naturally, at work in my open plan office in Thorndon. Work, for me, is a white-collar affair, dominated by report writing, meetings, and quality assurance processes. I like my job, and had intended to find songs that reflect in some way on office life, and perhaps even put it in a positive light.

Probably those songs exist, but I couldn't think of them. Musicians, by and large, are not a people experienced in quasi-corporate environments. That doesn’t mean that there isn't music about work, of course. Much of the great popular music of the twentieth century comes out the working class, finds its audience in the working class, and is about the working class. Bruce Springsteen has over his career captured the American worker's experience through the long decline of the working class over the last third of the twentieth century, as factories shut down, small towns died, and ports atrophied. His 1980 double album The River deals in themes of working life, from the dashed dreams of characters in the title track to the dashed dreams of characters in Point Blank, the characters on this album are victims of an ailing economy. Out in the Street, by contrast, is a celebration of working life, the dignity of work and the self-possession of the worker in the world beyond his workplace.


At the end of the twentieth century, the recording industry received a major shock as digital technology made music transferable amongst consumers for free. Over the first decades of the 2000s a raft of justifications for music piracy -- a corrupt and out of touch industry was ripping off artists and fans alike, the industry needed to adapt to new technology and piracy would be a catalyst for change, artists could make money from selling t-shirts, etc. In the end, it's difficult to get away from the fact that, for the musician, music is work, and that large scale piracy undermines the dignity of that work.

Gillian Welch makes this point in Everything is Free, from 2001's Time (The Revelator). Everything Is Free asserts the value of Welch's music, not in abstract terms as art, but as a commodity. The artist is driven to do what she does, "is gonna do it anyway," but like Springsteen, Welch sees the dignity in work and in getting paid. "I've never minded working hard," she sings, "it's who I'm working for." In a final fuck you to those fans who don't see fit to pay for her work, Welch puts us on notice that "if there's something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself." Welch will always have her music, but if you want it, it's got to be worth something.

I think in the end it was this song that persuaded me against music piracy. I never stopped paying for music but it is fair to say that for a while I was developing a music library that was worth more than I was spending. This haunting, oblique statement is a reminder of what music means to its fans, the music is work.




CHRISTIAN

For many, work is a hand to mouth process that provides the bare essentials of life. For others, an addictive endorphin rush of remuneration, consumption and status anxiety. At either end of the scale we have dystopian views: One of marginalised beings in tattered rags recovering toxic metals from land fills, and the other; Fat cats planning the next financial instrument which will bamboozle economic fundamentals and collateralise the worlds remaining assets. Somewhere in the middle, an illusion of social mobility exists, where the masses are hypnotised by David Guetta's banal musical abilities while he sonically lobotomises the populace into servitude.  And, yes, there are also a lot of people providing essential and beneficial services, products and knowledge that truly enjoy what they do. So work in music has plenty of scope.


Angel Brothers, Bending and Picking:

My first selection is a moody marvel that aims squarely at the the downtrodden proletariat that slave away at menial tasks, trapped in a world of back breaking work for little recompense. These people are found in outsourced clothing and electronics factories, they are found on farms, they are found on road and construction sites, they are an exploitable underclass of hopefuls. The Angel Brothers hail from Yorkshire (Bradford, I think) and deal in a really nice mix of world music styles, covering Indian rhythms, flamenco guitar and some contemporary English folk (their first album being From Punjab to Pit Top). This track is from their opus, Forbidden Fruit, and is called Bending and Picking. And don't forget, '....the pay is crap'.


Watermelon Slim, Newspaper Reporter:

The second track is from Watermelon Slim. A workaholic musician who has probably indulged in other 'holic tendencies on his journey. He was a truck driver and named his most successful album The Wheel Man. Goddammit! his backing band are even called the Workers. It's a rollicking album of upbeat blues tunes where his distinctive Oklahoma drawl is matched by excellent slide guitar and even more dynamic mouthorgan playing. I have seen him twice in Wellington over the last few years and he is a absolute marvel live. The track I selected is an ode to a time when he took a career right turn into the soulless world of news media. Newspaper Reporter sees Mr Slim do what any normal being would do given the circumstance, and drink. However, drinking problems aside, it appears that old guy sure still has what it takes.




BARRY

'Pussy Willow'. Jethro Tull, 'Broadsword and the Beast' (1982).

When this came out I had a really shitty part time job, so I empathised with the subject of this song. You can dream all you want about winning the lottery, hooking up with someone rich, or running away from it all. But what you'll really do is scramble when the alarm clock rings so you don't miss your train. (I am blessed to have had very few shitty jobs in my life, so the empathy was actually too precious, and the lyrics are hardly prize-winning.)

This is from the band's brief synth-heavy run of albums, which I think are underappreciated. ('A' is superb, imo.) Catchy melody, simple story, flute embellishments that complement the melody. I'm rather a fan of the clunky, heavy piano breaks too, though judging from giggles in the room it seems I might have been the only one! Instrumentation and arrangement also preserve a bit of the English folk music base from their earlier records.



'Artists Only'. Talking Heads, 'More Songs about Buildings and Food' (1978).

Does making art count as work? Long ago this came up in a wine-driven chat to an artist I knew. According to him, it isn't art if the artist doesn't work at it. Suffering not required, contrary to the tortured artist myth, but it doesn't happen by magic. I had thought the yelping vocals on this song were a bit of a joke, but thought about them differently after this chat.

Almost a funk groove underneath, with the rhythm section front and centre in the mix. Toe tapping for sure, strong pulse that doesn't rush, concise and frenetic guitar solo. Yum. The version on their live record is also excellent, and has even wackier vocal tics. Guess I should have played that one, but you can find it here:



TIM

I work in Justice, which theme infuses Kendrick Lamar's latest album To Pimp A Butterfly. It is a terrific distillate of much of black America's finest musical and political history, as if Malcolm X, Tupac, John Coltrane, Prince and George Clinton had made an album together.

Kendrick has clearly thought long about what it takes to act justly as someone living in a society that treats you unjustly. There is a terrific moral urgency to the entire work. I chose his song These Walls, which is a very public act of revenge on a man serving a life sentence for killing one of Kendrick Lamar's friends. In the third verse Kendrick asks the prisoner to reflect on the first two verses, which detail Kendrick's relationship with the mother of the prisoner's child, 'fucking on a famous rapper'. In the context of the album, this song is also filled with conflicting emotions about his choice to seek that revenge, a choice that those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up in Compton or its global equivalents hardly ever have to make.


The arc of To Pimp a Butterfly ends in Kendrick's embrace of afro-positivism, and a call to a radical rejection of the materialism of mainstream rap and ghetto culture that Kendrick feels serves only to further the injustices of black America. This theme resonates for me in the Justice sector, where there are often debates about the corrosive effects of gang culture on young Maori, the power of which I observed first hand as a young social work assistant in a youth justice team. Afro-positivism is not the same as tikanga of course, but the need to reinforce positive cultural alternatives to gang culture is no less urgent for many young Maori than it is for many young black Americans.

The theme of afro-positivism is shared by Kamasi Washington, who played sax on To Pimp a Butterfly. For my second track I chose Final Thought, one of the instrumental tracks on Kamasi's recent album The Epic, which is introducing a new generation to the rich vein of jazz as an alternative cultural focus to the fairly nihilistic, misogynistic, gangsterish mainstream of rap.




LIAM

Both my choices didn't have maybe the most direct link to work in the general sense, but I made them work, I think!

Working in IT, and coming across this band while working, I was baffled as to why a band would call their album after two elements of programming I deal with on a daily basis, Source Tags and Codes. Despite the fact I thought the band had a stupid name and was baffled by the album name, this Austin, Texas band really grew on me and the album stayed with me for years. If it wasn't for our Club host on the night, Jake, I might never have thought more about where the album title came from - he reckons it's potentially related to the metadata attributes associated to digital music files, which were becoming very prevalent when the album was released in 2002. I chose the title track from Source Tag and Codes.


Similarly, my second choice is from a programming-related album title - one could wonder if I got the theme wrong entirely! if_then_else by The Netherland's The Gathering is one of many great albums by this female-fronted rock group. Despite what many of these type of bands are link, The Gathering are definitely a song-writing and performing powerhouse as they're fronted by an incredible lady in Anneke Van Giersbergen. if_then_else is a programming fundamental construct-type with underscores being regularly used to separate words. And furthermore, Wikipedia tells us that the song I've chosen, Colorado Incident, is also work-related - about the band having to cancel a gig in Colorado due to overbooking and exhaustion.