japan (in a dishpan) and manafon

in between protracted bouts of newsom-swooning i've been cocking an ear to david sylvian's manafon. my first experience of mr batt was at a japan gig at folkestone's leas cliffe hall. this was around the time of their debut album, the charmingly titled 'adolescent sex'. they were glammed up in a kind of new york dolls stylee but played more like bowie or roxy. they did not go down with the regulars at the venue, who would flock there weekly for a diet of prog, reggae (there was a lot of reggae - the taxi gang would always stop off in folkestone on their way to europe) and, er, hawkwind. you had to go to canterbury to see anything punk or post punkish, which was kind of ironic. the headline act that week was, i think, er, jim capaldi. despite the many synth solos, the proggers were not keen on the lipstick and eyeliner which were clearly signs of having sold out to the teenage girl market. the few punks were not impressed with the band's musical virtuosity (or the eyeliner, come to think of it). a feeble but persistent drizzle of cans and bottles persisted pretty much throughout the last half hour of the set. i don't remember anything about jim capaldi.

the next time was on top of the pops a few years later, when it took me a while to figure out that it was the same band. and they were good - by this time i was deeply into eno, talking heads and the like, and mick karn's bass playing was very like that of my idol percy jones. but there was something deeply annoying about them as well. it was david sylvian. the bowie-esque faux cockney twang had gone to be replced by this honeyed existential croon and dreadful lyrics that hinted at significance but actually had as much as any of jon anderson's. i bought 'tin drum' anyway because i had decided that richard barbieri was brilliant; just like eno but with more technique.

i hate that video with a passion that surprises me even now, it must be said. i only remained at all interested in what dave did from then on because he always ended up working with people i liked. deep breath - jon hassell, holger czukay, danny thompson, jaki liebezeit, robert fripp, kenny wheeler, marc ribot, even percy jones (what you might call a sylvianian family). i bought a fair number of his records begrudgingly. i liked the instrumental ones best (sylvian's very good at atmospherics), because that voice, and those words....they would literally make me wince. mainly because i could hear every word pronounced immaculately, so none of his painfully crafted jean paul sartre or jean cocteau references could escape me. jon anderson never made that mistake.

a few years ago he made the really not very predictable move of hooking up with derek bailey for 'blemish'. manafon is the same kind of thing. sylvian sings over free improv, not with it and tinkers with it abit. it's recorded first and then he does his thing. which makes it kind of unique as far as i know, at least as a method you'd use for an entire album. the voice is huskier now and has a lived in quality which is hard not to warm to. it sounds more like a real person. and the words are great, much sparer, conversational, often dark. they're like a less playful peter blegvad at times; allusive and elusive at the same time.

so he's got a stellar cast of top notch improv/noisy types of various persuasions from sachiko m to fennesz to john tilbury to keith rowe to evan parker etc etc etc in various combinations. some of those combinations were made later using protools or whatever, but that doesn't matter. this isn't really about free improv as a process. these are stretched songs, none of which are particularly hummable, as if you hadn't guessed. that said, there are ghosts (sorry) of song structure from sylvian's electronics, synths and guitar. it errs towards the minimal, as you might expect from the cast.

i was about to waffle on about how much i'm sarting to like this record but i've just seen chris's rather positive appraisal, of it, which i think is pretty spot on.

damn. it seems i really like some records by david sylvian and joanna newsom.


Colin said...

I fear I'm doing the same as my response to Ms Newsom, but the elephant in the Sylvian's room is surely Scott Walker. Sylvian was part of the soundtrack to my teenage years - which probably says a lot... I even fell in love with a Finnish girl carrying Gentlemen Take Polaroids in Helsinki station. My favourite is probably Secrets of the Beehive for its beautiful elegance. I appreciate Manafon and Blemish, but find it hard to love them. Didn't we go to a Sylvian gig at the RFH? You've understandably chosen to forget that one as it was pretty dreadful! Oh and I always thought his voice was his great strength, particularly its intimacy.

Peter said...

:-) i'm not sure how i managed to get away without mentioning that particular elephant. it wasn't really deliberate, but i do think they're doing very different things. and i've never really got a handle on mr walker's recent work. this is something i'm sure you'd agree i should remedy. and yes, we did see him together. i remember it as unengaging at best and at times, horrifying (there was that 'let's all be nice to each other' song with projections of photos of happy smiling children from exotic locations). but the main issue was that blemish and manafon are kind of unperformable in any way that allows the audience to really engage with it. it was more like some kind of bizarre karaoke (even though steve jansen was there). i think the voice is now his greatest strength, and his lyrical powers seem to have grown exponentially in the last few years, which still remain the big issue for me in everything else he's done. and i love a lot of music that has awful lyrics...do you know 'the library' off secret rhythms 2? that's a perfect bit of, well, everything really, but the words are so good.

Colin said...

Yes, agree they're doing different things, but there are similarities - a degree of rigour/self discipline that's impressive, though Sylvian has a more uneven track record. I'm always interested to hear what Sylvian is up to. Both have really strong voices. I don't know whether, as a friend, I really should recommend late Scott to you! The Secret Rhythms 2 version of The Librarian is wonderful and much better than the version that appeared on the Nine Horses album.

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