There are still all kinds of possibilities for combining voice and sound in new ways. Rap was the last major form to popularize a use of the voice that was not singing, but the field is wide open, as these two new albums from eMMplekz and Dolly Dolly prove.
The first temptation with these records is to hear them as ‘spoken word’—with the musicality subordinated to a voice that is literary, conversational, comedic. However, what makes these two albums so unique is the way that musicality here infests and inflects the voice, the way that the sound refuses to stay (in the) background. Both albums take much of their inspiration from the very English tradition of Nonsense, which includes Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, and more recently, Chris Morris. It was on account of Carroll that André Breton reputedly said that the English had no need of surrealism. Here, eMMplekz and Dolly Dolly proffer different versions of twenty-first century English sonic surrealism.
With eMMplekz, a collaboration between Ekoplekz and Mordant Music’s Baron Mordant, the precursors that first come to mind are certain moments in post-punk—Cabaret Voltaire’s “Photophobia”, Throbbing Gristle, The Fall—yet eMMplekz don’t sound quite like any of these. From its title on in, Your Crate Has Changed, the Baron’s punconscious wordplay has a very contemporary focus.
If Drake and Kanye West expose the sadness and madness deep within the cyber-pleasuredome—the sound of depressed superstars as hypercommodities—then eMMplekz observe the malaises and pathologies of capitalist cyberspace from outside the digital matrix. Instead of the seamless-slick, depthless pixellation to which always-on digitality has habituated us, Ekoplekz’s analog electronics seethe and hiss, gathering and dispersing like a steam and mist. These synthesizer sketches function like impressionist sound paintings of what Ken Hollings has called the “digital regime”, and it’s as if, like users coming down from a psychotropic, we are finally seeing it for what it is.
“I’ve got to take this…” Baron Mordant has a schizoanalytic ear for how the digital regime reveals itself through the phrases it induces to casually utter. Doesn’t this phrase—so often repeated, so little thought about—capture all too accurately our fatalism in respect of communicative capitalism? “I’ve got to take this”—I’ve got to let it, accept it, I can’t escape, there’s nothing I can do… There’s no way out, there’s no release from the frenzied inertia of all those cyberspatial urgencies, these alerts. “Tethered to my hotspot, tethered to my hotspot…” Constant anxiety about staying connected, constant worry about holding onto the equipment that allows us to stay connected. “Can you watch my laptop?” We’re all sick of this now… we’re all sick because of this now… “Sorry for your Lossy…” What is all this digital compression costing us, and when do we ever get to count the cost? (The first thing we do in the morning is grope for our smartphones—straight from sleep into the somnambulance of capitalist cyberspace. “Unsubscribe from Soviet time”—maybe we did that too soon, and now it’s business o’clock, forever…)
Your Crate Has Changed is like an English take on Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of Post-Alpha Generation. Berardi persuasively argues that the interlock between precarious work and capitalist communications technology has produced a population whose nervous systems are overloaded with stimuli. Mordant gives voice to weary old digital migrants whose middle-aged flesh is too saggy and grey to be made-over—people deprived of security, forced to keep on hustling even though they are too old for the game, bone-weary. No rest for the precarious, no chance to tune into anything except the imperatives of business. “Invoices in my head… invoices in my head …”
Invoices in my head, and too much spam and random cyber-noise to hear anything else. But I don’t think there’s been anyone since Mark E. Smith at his telepathic peak in the late seventies / early eighties who has managed to tune into the rogue frequencies of England’s schizo-babble as effectively as the Baron does here. Mordant finds all the clandestine signals hidden in jingles and classified ads. He channels the voices of the lonely, the desperate, all the weirdos and the saddoes; ourselves, perhaps, but the secret selves we keep stuffed behind our Facebook walls. Yet there are still avenues of escape—on a couple of tracks, an infant’s babbling offers an alternative Nonsense to capital’s infantilized huckster-speak.
A surface joviality—a different kind of humor, much less mordant—separates Dolly Dolly from eMMplekz. Yet it’s the slippages of tone and genre, from light pastiche to intimations of mortality, the sliding of persona from gone-to-seed raconteur to charity shop mystic, from short story-teller to preening bard, that make Antimacasser such an odd jewel of a record, and Dolly so singular a performer.
The opening track, “Wattle and Daub”—a collaboration with Position Normal—is more than worth the admission price alone. Over a lysergically-smeary detuned piano (or maybe guitar), Dolly Dolly dolefully declaims a Nonsense-Shakespearean state of the nation address. “England my England… the cold mist of your fibrous trolleys stifles the sun… half-strangled uncles stuffed with crisps… your sky full of plump chintz cushions…” It’s like Tony Hancock’s melancholia has been dream-conflated with his mockery of thespian and playwright pretensions. Yet the Nonsense is disarming: “Wattle and Daub” gives us nothing less than a psychedelic-surrealist portrait of a country deprived of psychedelia and surrealism. A world without surprise, an entirely domesticated universe, banality as cosmology: “Let’s colonize the other planets, fill them with bitter and dry roasted peanuts, pigeons and oven chips.” The dead world of middle-aged Britain’s living rooms; the cheery veneer of advertising’s ever-smiling, glowing-faced families turned inside out. “I’m sick of being a man,” moans the character who narrates the closing track. Aren’t we all? But Antimacasser finds all sort of disused or temporarily abandoned doorways into other worlds, all kinds of rabbit holes in which we can escape from being a sad human animal. Old New English Library paperbacks become occult manuals, full of esoteric philosophy. It’s still possible to transform ourselves, to transport ourselves, and Dolly Dolly shows us how. ~