petak, 30. kolovoza 2013.

Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis (1998)

Jedini solo album pjevača synth-pop benda Talk Talk.
Utišani jazz-ambient-folk.

Achingly gorgeous and hauntingly stark, Mark Hollis' self-titled debut picks up where he left off with Talk Talk's Laughing Stock seven years earlier, re-emerging at the nexus point where jazz, ambient, and folk music collide. It's quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made, each song cut to the bone for maximum emotional impact and every note carrying enormous meaning. Hollis paints his music in fine, exquisite strokes, with an uncanny mastery of atmosphere that's frequently devastating. And if anything, his singularly resonant voice has grown even more plaintive with the passage of time, which -- combined with the understated artistry and minimalist beauty of tracks like "The Colour of Spring" and "Watershed" -- makes Mark Hollis a truly unique and indelible listening experience. His obvious understanding of the power of silence aside, one prays he doesn't again wait for the seven-year itch to strike before returning.       

The 1980s don't have a great reputation, which is sometimes understandable when more obvious examples of the music released in it are cited. Sadly due to the popularity of the list based/Top Ten TV programmes since 1999, a certain version of the Eighties seems even more prevalent. Do I have to mention names?
But there was another side to that decade, plenty of great records - some of which are probably mentioned in Unsung or have a devotional following elsewhere (e.g. the 33 1/3 books on Daydream Nation & Let It Be). Several artists at one time located in the pop realm and a fixture in the charts decided to pursue other directions - our host Julian Cope, Soft Cell (when they decided they were more a Suicide/TG band), David Sylvian & Mark Hollis. I guess this was a rejection of being pop and an expression of where their heads were really at? A positive side of the loathed decade is that it sent people like that towards avant garde climes. I'm guessing MOR music like Coldplay and Travis will similarly send some folk to the peripheries - heck, even Bruce Springsteen has apparently started covering 'Dream Baby Dream' by Suicide!!
Hollis had many a hit with the band Talk Talk, who were kind of embarrassing when they arrived - due to a past history of a dodgy punk single Hollis composed with his late brother Ed (who also co-wrote 'Talk Talk') and more to do with the fact they supported Duran Duran and were tagged New Romantic (probably a good year or so after the tag had been coined). Debut LP 'The Party's Over' (1982) had some decent songs on it, though was marred by synths of the era and the kind of period production that you associate with A Flock of Seagulls - the kind that make 'Independence Day' by The Comsat Angels feel like a guilty pleasure (though I don't really do guilty pleasures...). The next LP saw Hollis team up with co-writer/producer Tim Friese-Greene for 'It's My Life' (1984), which had more melancholic material, with Hollis' trademark moan surfacing on 'Renee' and 'Tomorrow Started.' This is the moan that kind of stretches words infinitely, as if they don't have a meaning, it featured heavily on the records that followed - I guess it's probably fair to suggest it was influenced by Robert Wyatt, especially a record like 'Rock Bottom.'
This month's edition of The Wire closes with an interesting piece from Joseph Stannard on certain records by Steve Winwood - the main focus being the song 'Spanish Dancer' in relation to a certain type of "oceanic rock" (a term apparently coined by Simon Reynolds, but probably also not far from Steve Sutherland - both in relation to bands like AR Kane, Cocteau Twins, Hugo Largo, My Bloody Valentine). Stannard's piece generally centres on 'Spanish Dancer' and its parent LP 'Arc of a Diver', as well as pointing to Winwood's Moog contributions to 'One World' by John Martyn, and then pointing back to the roots of Winwood's oceanic approach with late period Traffic (the folky jazz fusions of 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys' & 'Shoot Out the Fantasy Factory'). In all this, Stannard points to the recent Panda Bear and also to Talk Talk - Hollis & co definitely taking an influence from these precursors, going as far as to feature Winwood on Talk Talk's transitional third LP 'The Colour of Spring' (1986). That record was the last time Talk Talk had hits, bar the dodgy remix/reissue once they left EMI, a horrendous local radio station would probably play 'Life's What You Make It'; but the way of the future would be more avant garde, ambient pieces like 'April 5th' and 'Chameleon Day.'
From those songs would stem 1988's 'Spirit of Eden' (the last album to feature Hollis and his original bandmates Harris and Webb, who would later form O'rang and Rustin' Man) and 'Laughing Stock' (1991), records further and further out there that put the nail in Talk Talk - a good piece in Mojo last year focused on this record (as well as a great one in Uncut in 1999, when they had longer reviews - it was in their equivalent of an Unsung section, now ditched for something corporate like Uncut Classics!). That Mojo article suggested some addictions and issues, recovery with aid of flotation tank and anti-depressants, and was probably the point when the union between Hollis and Friese-Greene ended, though it's all a bit vague. Add to that various business and legal related elements - I'm guessing the usual record company guff, Talk Talk's previous record label releasing remix compilations (Hollis apparently sued succesfully), more band/business/family stuff there are rumours of, & a libel case against an entry in an encylopaedia of rock music - which suggested Hollis was a heroin addict in the entry on Talk Talk (this was in relation to 'I Believe in You' - a song probably written around Hollis' late brother Ed, though who knows, I'm sure it was possible there were other addicts too - Hollis won again). Talk Talk were contracted by Polydor/Verve to release a second record, the compilation 'Missing Pieces' appeared in 1999 (largely alternate takes of 'Laughing Stock' material and appearing to emanate from those sessions), but there was meant to be a sixth Talk Talk album provisionally titled 'Mountains of the Moon.'
The album 'Mountains of the Moon' by Talk Talk developed slowly, as the last two Talk Talk albums had, eventually becoming this eponymous debut released in 1998 - some, but not all the cast, survived to appear on this record. The last two Talk Talk albums shared more with the shoegazing scene or what became tagged post rock - blending Debussy with 'Astral Weeks', 'In a Silent Way', 'Rock Bottom', and 'Star Sailor.' Making more sense in the years that followed, settling well alongside Bark Psychosis or the more minimal Spiritualized material, while sharing a jazzy nature with someone like Tortoise ('Laughing Stock' sounds great followed by 'Millions Now Living Will Never Die'). The influence of those Talk Talk records seems even more apparent with certain records by Radiohead ('Pyramid Song', 'Sail to the Moon') and Sigur Ros. Those records were by a different band to those early Talk Talk songs, and their influence seems something that will get bigger and bigger. Hollis' mad methods and extended periods of recording, analogous to Kevin Shields' approach on 'Loveless', ended with some great material. The pain was his, the pleasure ours?
Hollis worked with others on this record, listening to 'Mark Hollis' now, it seems even more out there than the previous two records, and is the kind of record that Radio 3 would tout. Like 'The Marble Index' or the work of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, it is probably closest to classical music. Hollis hones down the approach of the last two Talk Talk albums to a more minimal state, sparse tracks which feature voice and piano and then sections that feature a jazz inflected woodwind orchestra and a completely jazz approach made towards bass and drums. Opener 'The Colour of Spring' may have a shared title with Talk Talk's third LP, but the sparse ambient piano piece sounds planets away from it - the spaces between stabs on the piano seeming like voids, as Hollis stretches those words towards infinity. This album is odd in that it prints the lyrics clearly in black on a white sleeve, though Hollis' voice stretches these words beyond comprehension and meaning often - as if disguising the words? Or moving beyond them - I guess it wouldn't be surprising if Hollis ended up making a classical piece, and not one in a crappy Costello/McCartney/Sting manner, but something that really kicks the Gorecki out of the Messiaen? Hollis, who has generally gone into hibernation since this album, did work on 2001's'Smiling and Waving' with Anja Garbarek (daughter of composer Jan), as well as on Allinson/Brown's minimalist 'AV1' in the same year as this album - so avant classical climes probably should be his (Hollis also appeared on the track 'Chaos' by UNKLE, though I can't remember a direct credit, more a 'thank you' on that album). His work rate is making Scott Walker look busy...
'Watershed' gives the album some mid-pace, spelling out the classical and jazz directions of the record, though avoiding anything that sounds like a traditional song - Hollis lost in a kind of repetition akin to Wyatt's bleating on 'Sea Song', always coming back to "Should have said so much...Makes it harder...The more you love..." 'Inside Looking Out' strips the album back again, extremely sparse piano and a minimal folky guitar, I'm pretty sure I read that Hollis' started studying certain instruments and classical approaches, evident in this song. 'Inside Looking Out's lyrics like the longest song here 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' have the least lyrics. There seems to be a Beckettian "Less is more" vibe here, and I'm sure "Fail better" is something Hollis lives by - the records sound that way...
'The gift' reintroduces jazzy bass and related percussion (feels more like percussion than drums), it should be noted that much of the album doesn't feature the lengthy cast of contributors - when Mark Feltham's harmonica makes an appearance, the relationship to 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' is made clearer. The songs feel like jams, Hollis' had cited Can and 'Tago Mago' at the time of 'Laughing Stock', and maybe that kind of approach towards strict classical/jazz music lead to this place? I don't know if Hollis' legendary mass recording/mass erasure approach was used here - though he missed a trick, an album of silence could have topped John Cage's legendary piece of silence and made 'Metal Machine Music' seem over-produced!
'The gift' just seems to vanish, into the long woodwind introduction of 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' - which is over eight-minutes long, though doesn't really seem to begin till about three minutes in. Hollis has cited the book 'Testament of Youth' as an influence on this song, though I'm sure he must have read other books on the First World War other than Vera Brittain's celebrated work - odd that a vast book like that gets a very long song with very few words. Those very few words are:
Dream cites freedom
Such suffering
Few certain

And here I lay '
I'm not sure what other literature Hollis was exposed to, a poetic minimalism was here, though perhaps he felt that, again, less was more. Perhaps these vast themes could only be expressed in a few words, reading like an epitaph on a gravestone, or something a prisoner might scratch out on a wall or write in a final letter home. I was reading Jon Savage's excellent book 'Teenage' earlier and the section on the White Rose Movement seemed to link to this record, perhaps it was just the simple word the famous martyr scrawled on the back of her indictment sheet provided by the Gestapo:
The horrors of the two World Wars in the Twentieth Century somehow can be summed up in few words. In a previous review or two of this album, I've often compared 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, which was probably something to do with Rilke's key work being written in the same age as that war and its aftermath. Or, it might have been an unconsious, though now quite obvious, attempt at imitating Lester Bangs' great piece on 'Astral Weeks' that ends with the lyrics of the title track set against the poetry of Lorca. Hollis, like Rilke, seems to be stripping down the words, and for some reason, I've always thought of the closing lines of 'To Music' in relation to 'A Life (1895 - 1915)':
'where was is within surrounds us
as practised horizon, as other
side of the air,
no longer lived in.'
I could imagine Hollis singing that on this album.
'Westward Bound' takes the album into an acoustic direction, a sort of folk music, though maybe someone like Derek Bailey could probably be cited. The alien moan of Hollis dominates, the words unclear, though written on the lyric sheet. This drifts into another woodwind driven introduction, to the epic 'The daily planet', there is a notion that a writer ploughs the same furrow, and it could be seen that this seventh track is in many ways, a re-exploration of the lyrical themes of 1982's 'Have You Heard the News?' The woodwind dominates, the drums and bass come in, and this song is as close as we get to conventional rock music (...which it's still nowhere near...) The bass feels like that gorgeous alternate take of 'Flamenco Sketches', or maybe it's just the same feeling in my senses. Hollis sounds definite now, railing against something - "Come far/Compared to who/Scoop the life you leech/Immune to ruse or rape's heredity...News first, " getting more definite with, "Shall I grow no more than I'm bound?/Enough of the pain..." This feels like a mantra, these words being used to surmount or transcend its subject, which still feels vague, though perhaps is given away in the title. Like the last few Scott Walker records, the lyrics are both vague and exact enough to guess at - if it is the media world, say the coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, these words are even more important now. Watch Blair and Bush's abortion in the Middle East with the sound turned down and this song playing and I guess it becomes clear. Consider the media circuses over missing and murdered children, or helicopter shots of disasters - this world always summed up in JG Ballard's title, 'The Atrocity Exhibition.' Hollis isn't sure, but concludes the repeated mantra, "Shall I grow no more than I'm bound" with 'Hurts to see/Over undertone/Shame/Last to laugh/No."
The album concludes with 'A new Jerusalem', possibly the album's most sublime moment - Hollis' voice, acoustic guitar and a stripped piano drive this song. Childhood and seasons figure. Words don't sound like words, yet Hollis sings of 'wise words' and 'wild words.' These would be his last words though, 'Mark Hollis' his only solo album. A record that appeared in 1998, then seemed to vanish, and one not often cited alongside the last two Talk Talk albums which are kind of viewed as culty classics. I sometimes think I dreamt the existence of this album, but no, it's real - and feels like a travesty - such wonders at mid price! This record pushes another extreme, away from conventional pop or rock music - though I feel the progression from the third LP to albums four and five to this makes some sense (discourse around my previous Unsung review of this had some Unsung soul suggesting that this record makes more sense listened to between 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' - I haven't checked the effect of that personally). How did Mark Hollis get to this place? Will he ever come back from it? Does 'The Colour of Spring' somehow sum it all up with the lines:
'Soar the bridges
That I burnt before
One Song among us all'
? - maybe these are all just 'one song', maybe Mark Hollis said everything with 'Mark Hollis'? This record was the end of a trip began in the mid 1980s, a record that floors me each time I listen, and a record that will feel Unsung for a little while longer... -  by Jasonaparkes

Wherefore art thou Mark Hollis?

The story of Hollis and his band Talk Talk has to be one of the more interesting of the synth pop era

Wherefore art thou Mark Hollis? The story of Hollis and his band Talk Talk has to be one of the more interesting of the synth pop era. Initially hailed in the music press as a poor man's Duran Duran (they shared the same producer, a similar name and toured with their new romantic counterparts), they took Neil Young's comment about travelling off of the middle of the road straight to the ditch more to heart than their peers.
At the time when the pop interview consisted of total inanity, Hollis veered towards insanity. Instead of being preoccupied by synths, haircuts and cocaine, he told everyone who listened that his favourite singer was Otis Redding, his favourite songwriter Burt Bacharach and his favourite band Can. Hollis immediately got a reputation as a misery guts, but didn't care. He was entirely focused on the music.
It's My Life, recorded in 1984 (complete with video originally mocking lip-synching by a dour Hollis, which when reshot at EMI's request became a total piss-take of lip-synching) established Talk Talk as a massive band in Europe. In 1986, Talk Talk's album The Colour of Spring gave them their first bona-fide UK hit with Life's What You Make It, a circular piano riff influenced by Can's Tago Mago, stapled onto a Steve Winwood-style organ. The hit provided EMI with money and they in turn gave Hollis total financial freedom to pursue whichever artistic avenues he wished.
With that in mind and an unlimited studio budget, Hollis proceeded to record his masterpiece Spirit of Eden. Released in 1988, it was purely improvised and took a year and a half to record. Musicians would come in and jam for hours at a time in a darkened studio lit with incense and candles. Phil Brown, the engineer who would later produce Hollis' solo album, was hired on the strength of one sentence. When asked what was his favourite memory of engineering he responded: "Recording Dear Mr Fantasy, one o'clock in the morning, November 1967." They recreated that memory 20 years on.
Spirit of Eden has not dated; it's remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, the Verve and Radiohead. It's the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious. EMI responded by suing Hollis for being wilfully obscure and un-commercial, much as when David Geffen sued Neil Young for not sounding Neil Young enough. This ridiculous case was eventually thrown out of court yet it had a long lasting impact on the music industry. The lawsuit set the precedent for the clause that a band's recordings have to be of a commercially satisfactory nature.
With tensions between EMI and Talk Talk at an all time high, Hollis left and signed with Polydor. EMI responded by re-releasing It's My Life, which not only became an absurdly big hit but won a Brit award, at a time when Talk Talk were moving light years beyond that particular sound. EMI then put out a remix album of the band's material called Natural History Revisited. Hollis retaliated by suing EMI; the album was pulled and the remaining copies were destroyed.
I find the whole story of one man against the system in a bid to maintain creative control incredibly heartening. After the EMI debacle, Talk Talk took up with Polydor who revived the jazz label Verve to put out Laughing Stock, which was even more loose and experimental than Spirit of Eden. Yet the band ceased soon after its release. No particularly reason was given for the split. Stories of hedonistic, opium-laced sessions did the rounds though nothing was ever proven.
Hollis released one solo album in 1998 and then retired from music, only briefly reappearing to play piano on the Unkle track Chaos from the 1998 offering Psyence Fiction and providing musical accompaniment to Anja Garbarek's 2001 album Smiling and Waving. It's a shame that there was no real fanfare for his retirement, but that's probably the way he liked it. With a legacy that includes Spirit of Eden, perhaps there was nothing more he had to prove.


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