sabato 26 febbraio 2011

Black Box Recorder "Facts Of Life"

Possiamo metterci in ginocchio e adorare il dio Luke Haines? Ancora una volta un disco superbo. (2001 Jetset Records)

We like the idea of writing songs for disturbing, disturbed people". So say ex-Auteurs frontman Luke Haines and Jesus and Mary Chain alumnus John Moore, the multi-instrumental backbone of Black Box Recorder.
The band's 1998 debut, England Made Me, provided ample evidence of a brilliantly unhealthy lyrical preoccupation with varieties of trauma, tragedy and damage as well as with the kinds of banal, quotidian woes and ennui that Morrissey put on the pop map. Having negotiated cheerful, inviting titles like "Girl Singing in the Wreckage", "Hated Sunday", and "It's Only the End of the World", listeners found themselves in a world of grim, kitchen-sink realism with an intelligent pop soundtrack.
Key to the formula were the emotionless, clinical vocals of Sarah Nixey, singing songs of dysfunction, death, boredom, despair and wife-swapping. The first single, "Child Psychology", contained the tough-love admonishment "Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it", and was promptly banned from UK airwaves.
The recipe is a familiar one on The Facts of Life. Suggesting a musical hybrid of Portishead, Air, Mono and Saint Etienne, Black Box Recorder continues to trawl the gloomier and seamier sides of life. The band's sensibility and attitude remain unmistakably English, its songs steeped in a tradition of comfortably ironic, darkly humorous, self-mocking misery.
The Facts of Life is the sound of post-war Britain-as-usual, bearing up and soldiering on after the bursting of the Cool Britannia bubble and the broken promise of New Labour.
Like England Made Me, The Facts of Life makes for compulsively uneasy listening, owing to its reliance on a simple, basic contrast: the breezy, addictive pop surface of the songs and Sarah Nixey's beautiful vocal melodies are generally at complete odds with the content of the lyrics, which is at times harrowing. (And therein lies the comic thrust of the album.)
The success of The Facts of Life hinges in large part on the contribution of Nixey, who comes across as the evil twin of Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell.
While her vocals are often breathy and honey-coated, she's also capable of the aloof iciness of Nico, frequently combining the two registers within the same song to sublime effect. Her most withering vocal deliveries seem to be directed at masculinity, in both its nascent and full-blown stages.
The best example can be heard on the standout title track, which bears an uncanny resemblance to All Saints' "Never Ever", albeit through a trip-hop filter. The choruses are rendered with exquisite, sugary vocals, but the body of the song is another story. Nixey appears be reading -- in exactingly proper, scientific tones -- from The Annotated Guide to Male Sexuality and Socialization (With Full Color Photographs).
As she methodically and dispassionately charts the horrors of puberty and adolescence, it's rather like listening to someone broadcast your cringe-inducing private memories to the world at large. On "The Art of Driving", she trades deadpan (automotively related) innuendo with Moore.
To the accompaniment of a sparse, echoing beat, she consistently cuts down his sexual advances. At the same time, she fleshes out the song in a voice that's nothing but sweetness and light.
Listening to tracks like "Weekend" and "May Queen", in particular, it's impossible not to draw comparisons with Saint Etienne. While Black Box Recorder builds a similar retro sound around rich melodies and female vocals, the likeness also manifests itself in the way that the band recycles British pop culture references.
Playfully nodding at Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the chorus of "Weekend", for instance, draws on precisely the kind of cultural coordinates that inform the music of Saint Etienne. Additionally, the subtly motorik "The English Motorway" -- Black Box Recorder's answer to "Autobahn" -- uses the thoroughfare in question as a metaphor in dissecting a failing relationship, much as Saint Etienne did on "Like a Motorway".
But of course, Black Box Recorder are not copyists and their sound is far from derivative. Haines, Moore and Nixey hold up a noir mirror to the sound of Wiggs, Stanley and Cracknell.
Although Black Box Recorder and Saint Etienne both specialize in pastiche renderings of British '60s girl-pop a la Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw through a contemporary lens, Black Box Recorder completely empty their version of any of the glamour associated with that model.
Black Box Recorder's variant differs markedly in that it conceals a wry, weary cynicism, its kitschy bittersweet songs leaving a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.
Sometimes that bad aftertaste comes simply from a focus on the brutally mundane.
With its title playfully alluding to Roxy Music's "Street Life", "Straight Life" concerns a milieu that's quite the antithesis of the hip, glam world of the early '70s chronicled by Bryan Ferry -- namely, grotesque middle-class domesticity and the repressed, dead-end existence of Philip-Larkin-type Englishness.
The insistence of a dull, metronomic drum-machine beat throughout the song perfectly translates the colorless monotony of its subject matter.
However, things get truly unsavory on "Gift Horse". Despite its wholly un-sinister floating melodies, it seems to deal with John Christie, one of the nation's most infamous mass murderers, who was hanged in 1953.
With its dreamy atmospherics, "The Deverell Twins" goes back even further in history as Sarah Nixey takes a swim with two boys who drowned in the River Thames in 1886.
Still, The Facts of Life isn't all gloom and doom. The Air-meets-Serge-Gainsbourg number, "French Rock 'n' Roll", is a heartwarming little song about the redeeming power of music. Sounding like Jane Birkin on "Je t'aime" -- especially during the chiming, la-la-la choruses -- Sarah Nixey tells the hilariously improbable tale of a woman brought back from the brink of suicide by, of all things, French rock 'n' roll.
Its Gallic flavor notwithstanding, The Facts of Life serves up a wonderful slice of traditional English miserablism.
Like Pulp and Blur, Black Box Recorder has mastered a pop culture aesthetic inextricably linked to the post-war decline, one that turns complaining about how dreadful everything is into a supremely ironic, comic art form. Even more ironically, Haines, Moore and Nixey may think they're critiquing the contemporary socio-cultural landscape, but what they're doing is absolutely symptomatic of it.
Insofar as its music displays that same ambivalent relationship with the horrors of everyday English life, the band perpetuates the very culture on which it purports to comment.
So, as Morrissey might ask, is that joke funny anymore? I still think it is. After all, England made me too. (

While not quite notorious, Black Box Recorder earned at least a tad of infamy when a song of theirs was banned from UK radio in 1998. Their first single, "Child Psychology," cooed wisdom in its chorus: "Life is unfair; kill yourself or get over it." Sure, they were just being wry and British, but it didn't matter to the powers-that-be; apparently, kidding or not, telling people to commit suicide was far too scandalous.
It's important to note that our own MTV Yank also refused to air the video until the line was edited. And so it was. The video was aired, like, once on "120 Minutes" (naturally), and Black Box Recorder slipped into the typical obscurity British bands can come to expect in America.
It didn't really matter though, because their debut, England Made Me, was an unremarkable bit of pretentious moroseness that pleased itself more than it could possibly please most listeners.
The Facts of Life isn't necessarily a conscious move to keep censors and listeners happy, but it's bound to do both much more successfully than its predecessor. With this record, the Black Box Recorder crew-- John Moore, ex-Auteur Luke Haines, and vocalist Sarah Nixey-- trade straight-faced, desert-arid humor for genuine grins.
Musically, the album is more finely crafted than England Made Me, even if it follows the same minimalist, laconic approach to pop music. But this time out, the bare-bones approach is more lush and rich, paradoxically proving that "minimal" does not necessarily have to mean "sparse."
The album's opener, "The Art of Driving," is a majestic, sweeping number that uses an echo-laden beat, sodden bass, and lightly strummed guitar to create a pillow of sound. The chorus of "French Rock 'N' Roll" is graced with a searing guitar hook that intensifies the canned drums and xylophone twinkling. "Straight Life" is as subdued as the rest of the record, though buried is a perfect midtempo, subdued electro beat.
It's all extremely pretty, and without seeming completely manipulative or cloying. Black Box Recorder, however, are still a bit dopey when it comes to lyrics.
True, they're no longer fretting over the end of the world and all things maudlin. Instead, they exhibit a preoccupation with transit, on tunes like the aforementioned "The Art of Driving" and "The English Motorway System." Vocalist Sarah Nixey still sounds faulty in her cleverness and smugness.
The male-female spoken banter on "The Art of Driving" plays like a British answer to Mad magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" as Nixey is asked "Do you believe in love at first sight?/ Do you believe in fate?" Her terribly silly answer is: "I believe that good things only come to those who wait."
The lyrics fare no better when the subject turns to sex, as it often does. The title track sports a lite reggae beat and melody that sounds all too similar to Dido's "Thank You." We find Nixey staccato, nearly rapping during the verses when she takes the role of a fifth grade health teacher: "When boys are just 11/ They begin to grow in height/ At a faster rate than they have done before/ They develop curiosity/ And start to fantasize/ About the things they've never thought of doing before."
Similarly "naughty" (or at least, they seem to think so) is "Sex Life," which tries its hand at being provocative with lines like "Girl on girl/ In your dreams/ Girl's on top/ In between/ Girls together/ Girls alone/ In your dreams/ In your dreams." She goes on to substitute girl with "boy," which is obviously not enough to make the lyrics any less laughable. Plus, Blur beat them to the punch with "Girls and Boys."
But Nixey isn't utterly at fault since she's merely a mouthpiece. She doesn't write any of the lyrics (or music, for that matter) that she sings, which may account for her sleepy delivery.
When she's not merely speaking and opens her pipes to really sing, she proves herself a righteous puppet. Her delicate, melismatic approach is often gorgeous and perfectly suited by the music the boys lay under her.
Her voice is uncannily similar to Olivia Newton-John's and what's even scarier is that it works.
The Facts of Life, contrived bawdiness and all, probably won't cause the stir of "controversy" that the first record did, and Black Box Recorder sound all the better for it. Still, there's no telling what the UK or our great nation may deem inappropriate; even Newton-John's "Physical" was banned from a few radio stations in Utah.
Apparently, some Mormons even frown on euphemism. No matter, because the question here isn't so much, "Have you never been mellow?" as it is, "When have you not been mellow?" For Black Box Recorder, it's been a long time. Let's hope they find themselves even more chill when it comes time to write lyrics for the next album. (Richard M. Juzwiak -

The first Black Box Recorder album, 1998's England Made Me, was originally conceived by Auteurs and Baader Meinhof frontman Luke Haines as a typically baleful response to the cultural and political hysteria--respectively, Britpop and Tony Blair--then gripping Britain. Recorded with the help of former Jesus & Mary Chain drummer John Moore and singer Sarah Nixey, it did for Britpop roughly what the film Carrie did for the senior prom.
The Facts Of Life, the follow-up, maintains the withering glare, but fixes it this time on the personal.
The songs here obsess with unnerving clarity and mordant wit on the banal, cruel details of human relationships, and are narrated perfectly by Nixey. Where her perfectly English-accented whisper infused England Made Me with the air of a bored aristocrat finding contemptuous amusement in the misery of others, on The Facts Of Life she has located an edge of taunting viciousness all the more diabolical for being so understated.
The tunes, as ever, are sweet and insidious, perhaps best thought of as Saint Etienne turned feral. Highlights on an album full of them are "English Motorway" and "The Art Of Driving"--BBR triumphantly reclaiming the American rock & roll prerogative of the road song for their damp, claustrophobic homeland.
The Facts Of Life is a masterpiece. (Andrew Mueller -

- The Art Of Driving
- Weekend
- The English Motorway System
- May Queen
- Sex Life
- French Rock'N'Roll
- The Facts Of Life
- Straight Life
- Gift Horse
- The Deverell Twins
- Goodnight Kiss


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