Bow Down to the Exit Sign
I've always been fascinated by cities. They almost seem like these huge organisms, living, breathing entities all of their own, unaffected by the people who live in and pass through their streets and buildings. I can't really explain it; there's just something dangerous and alluring about wandering at random through the downtown center of any city (and yes, that includes Houston's). You always seem to catch strange glimpses of this other life going on all around, with no real connection to your own: a man dancing and rapping into a cell-phone on a street corner; another man, middle-aged and dressed in running clothes, sobbing hysterically in a bank plaza; snatches of random conversation through swinging restaurant doors...the life of the city confronts you with the fact that you're NOT the center of the universe, and that you can't ever hope to understand it all.
Living out in the suburbs, everyone's got their own distinctly separate lives; hell, you can go for literally years without even encountering your neighbors, if you do it right. But living in the city, you're bound by different rules -- you have to live a certain way, drive a certain way, and interact with your fellow city-dwellers (unless you just opt to never leave your apartment, that is). The city owns you, not the other way 'round. And producer/musician/"electronica" genius David Holmes knows this full well, I think, judging solely from the conquering demand of his latest album, Bow Down to the Exit Sign.
Documenting the living history of the city isn't anything new for Holmes. The Belfast native's previous work, Let's Get Killed, was recorded/conceptualized during an scary-sounding dive into NYC's seamy underbelly, and was constructed from samples and recordings of city sounds and the tirades and poetry of its denizens. Bow Down takes a different tack on the same subject, shifting from breakbeats and street recordings to real-live songs and opting to make what's basically a rock album, for all intents and purposes, but keeping the focus and feel distinctly urban. People seem to forget that hip-hop isn't the only "urban music"; some of the finest rock-n-roll ever emerged from the dark, industrial heart of this country. Folks like the Velvet Underground, The MC5, and Iggy Pop define the urban sound as much as N.W.A. and Run DMC's ghetto lyricism, and the same goes here, too -- the whole thing's as gritty and raw as a cold night on a Bowery street corner.
Bow Down is also apparently a play of sorts; it was "developed alongside a feature film script entitled Living Room," according to his bio, and came out of his previous soundtrack work (on several TV shows and the films Out Of Sight and Resurrection Man). The liner notes provide the visuals to go along with the sound, creating a composite movie, but I have no clue what it's about, really; the end result is kind of like what Shaft might sound like if turned into radio theater. It's more of a feeling thing, I think, where you try to kind of piece together characters and events from a few lines of dialogue. What it reminds me of most is watching Mike Figgis' Time Code a little while back -- most of the time, I couldn't follow the conversations and had no real clue what was going on in any of the four screens, but I could get the gist of things from the context and expressions on people's faces. The Living Room script, at any rate, is apparently where a lot of the dialogue bookending the musical tracks comes from, some of it even performed by Pi's Sean Gullette...
As for the music, the closest musical relative would probably be to Primal Scream's XTRMNTR, a similarity furthered by Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie contributing vocals and lyrics to "Sick City" and "Slip Your Skin." The music is rough-edged stuff, a la old-school Rolling Stones or Royal Trux's noisy rock, but also incorporating Soul Coughing's urban funk. Along with Gillespie, Jon Spencer shows up, as well, on the murky, sexual "Bad Thing," howling "I wear the clothes of dead people!" like he really means it. Acclaimed NY poet Carl Hancock Rux provides vocals for the opening desperate soul-jam "Compared To What," which melds electronics and James Brown in a way only P-Funk master George Clinton's even really attempted before now, and for the robotically rhythmic Last Poets-esque slam of "Living Room." "Outrun" showcases the sultry voice of Martina Toppley-Bird, and sounds almost like a warning of things to come; the clanging-bell percussion makes me think of a lighthouse that's hidden in the fog, yet still getting nearer and nearer.
"69 Police" is one of only two real "bright" spots on here, dissolving from sampled voices and electronic into sunny, almost joyful synth-rock, a bit reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers' latest. The other "bright" track, "Lisa," finishes off the album on a hopeful note, carefully building keys, strings and echo-y guitars to Spiritualized-style majesty. The song's climax seems to wash away the despair and blight of the previous fourteen tracks in a blissful haze, like the morning sun rising over the sleepy streets. This is the sound of the heart of the city put to wax. (JH)
(1500 Records -- 9151 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA. 90069; http://www.1500records.com/; David Holmes -- http://www.davidholmes.tv/)
I have no idea, really, how to begin to describe this album. Local pop weirdo Jody Hughes has managed to assimilate all the Kraftwerkian sensibilities of the '70s, mix them all up with almost Crystal Method-like electronic noise, embellished it with some Peter Frampton touches (think "vocoder"), and create something totally bizarre. I can't claim that it's something new, mind you, mostly because Hughes seems to revel in the retro-ness of the whole thing, both in the music and the artwork. "Superman" is almost a tongue-in-cheek sendup of Laurie Anderson's 1982 opus "O Superman"...except that I think Hughes is completely serious, and that takes it from silly to just plain terrifying.
And y'know, I'm loving this. The overamped, almost crunchy synths, the robotic voice, the just-this-side-of-"lost it" lyrics, the pop culture references -- after the first bewildered listen, I've come to realize that this is fucking genius. The album builds steadily to its beautiful peak, the freaky fairy tale of "Walrus," which sounds like it could be Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard with a serious Darth Vader fixation. Just slightly less incredible is "Coca Cola (Daisy)," which transposes children's rhymes and an old folk song with gloomy electronic noodling and distorted vocals. The non-vocal tracks shine, as well, particularly "Torpedo Boat Destroyer" and "Nexuance" (the track that veers closest to Underworld of everything on here, by the way), even though several of them ("Truck," "Car," etc.) don't last long enough to make an impression.
To top it all off, about halfway through Hughes decides to have fun with other people's songs, as well: "Black Abba" turns Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath into Gary Numan; "Home Sweet Home" is a hopeful, steadily-quickening technological reworking of, yes, the Mötley Crüe "classic"; and "Dirty Boots" and "Kool Thing" are both Sonic Youth songs, redone to fit Hughes' twisted vision and seeming almost better for the transformation, if you can believe it (note, by the way, that I'm not a dedicated SY-head, so diehards, your mileage may vary). Final word: it's the sound of apocalypse, circa 1984. (JH)
(Jody Hughes -- email@example.com)