“I remember in the early days of rock n roll, when everything sounded totally different, all amazing and blah blah blah. Now you can play me one second of any record from that time, and I'll say "1959" or "1961." I can hear precisely. It's like it has a huge date stamp on it. And I think we're all capable of doing that. You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time”
Brian Eno interviewed recently in Pitchfork
The further we move away from them, the more past eras appear to contract as the common denominators in the music of a variety of artists become more obvious. But in another way, some eras or sounds are also magnified by the turning of our attention to them, as we pore over and fetishise records that were largely subterranean at the time, examining minute distinctions as if we were looking very closely at the detail on one fingertip. It’s a process the Wierd label and its roster of artists are currently engaged in.
How far the Cold/Minimal Wave thing will open up is difficult to tell (apparently Mark Ronson has said that this album’s title track is “one of my favourite songs ever”) but we’ve gone from a couple of obscure-ish French compilations (Bippp, So Young But So Cold), raising some interest in a half-forgotten, post-punk sub-movement, to an album which originally sold about 50 copies when it was released in 1985 getting a ‘Anniversary Deluxe’ edition.
That’s not really a complaint – it’s great that this album has come to light, and the curiosity was inevitable since the tracks that had surfaced prior to this (‘Polaroïd/Roman/Photo’ on at least three comps including Angular’s ‘Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics’ and ‘Mots’ on ‘Des Jeunes Gens Modernes’; also the earlier song ‘Mon Pote’, which doesn’t feature on the record) seemed like standouts on those collections. But I wonder about excessive reverence crushing the life out of music where tentativeness and fragility are part of the appeal.
Maybe that’s not a problem as a far as ‘Polaroïd/Roman/Photo’ is concerned – there’s nothing icy or brittle about instrumental opener ‘Thriller’ (nowt to do with Michael Jackson) which pits rigid beats and phone samples against choppy, unpredictable rhythm guitar and frantic sax and violin. This is an album that runs both hot and cold; closing song ‘Je M’ennuies’ may be a brooding, ten-minute crawl through amorous neurosis and emotional frigidity but it’s just about balanced out by ‘Mabelle’, a slice of Fourth World funk in the vein of Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s Compass Point recordings.
But what seems clear is that the man behind Ruth, Thierry Müller, a photographer and graphic artist, was trying out different styles and approaches, inviting different vocalists and musicians depending on the songs, to the extent that it sounds like there are at least three different groups on the album. This is of course what’s most appealing about it – it’s an index of possibilities, a collection of experiments, some of which are carried off more successfully than others. That’s also the big difference between the 80s artists and the new wave they’ve inspired. With the originals there’s a genuine sense of risk, of trial and error, of people feeling their way in the dark, whereas the current artists offer consistency, clarity of vision and an adherence to principles, or even orthodoxy, that their predecessors were not necessarily interested in establishing. And, once the canon is set, the major works agreed on and the common signifiers absorbed, the field then shrinks again and the sense of previously closed off routes being reopened fades.
Essentially, the fact that ‘Polaroïd/Roman/Photo’ will get a wider audience is a good thing – just don’t call it a ‘classic’.