[27 June 2002]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Manchester artist Jon Brooks, AKA King of Woolworths, can easily be construed as Just Another Underground Techno Geek, another in what’s rapidly becoming a long line of new electronic artists. For yours truly, anyway, it’s getting harder and harder to sift through the mediocre and the ordinary, in search of electronic music that’s of any quality. What I always look for is some semblance of humanity, of soul, lurking underneath the artificial sounds. After all, what’s the point of all the knob-twiddling and turntabling if there’s no feeling? Well, in Brooks’s case, his new album, Ming Star, is one of those diamond-in-a-haystack discoveries, one that resounds with emotion.
The last techno album that really blew me away was Air’s leisurely, languid score for the film The Virgin Suicides, and Ming Star bears many similarities to the French duo. However, what Brooks does is take Air’s sleepy, walk-in-the-park sound a few steps further, adding some really dark clouds, and a few creepy strangers hiding behind the bushes. The result is an album that alternates between the pastoral and the phantasmagoric with surprising ease.
Ming Star, in fact, has a cinematic feel to it, as if Brooks is scoring a yet-to-be-made movie of his own, a look back at the innocence and wide-eyed wonder of childhood, with a side journey into some completely opposite territory. “Kentish Town” serves as a bit of a prelude, as layers of synths fade in, evolving into a simple, two-note, bassline. A simple, innocent synth melody then comes in, sounding as nonchalant as someone idly whistling on the street. Three minutes in, the song shifts into a more threatening feel, as those clouds swoop in, and the skies burst, as layers of distorted drums thunder in, their cacophony trying to drown out the synth melody. But like an isolated thundershower, the noise goes away, and the simple tune carries on as if nothing happened. Which leads us to “Bakerloo (Main Titles)”, in which Brooks combines a sample from the High Llamas’ “Cut the Dummy Loose” with that smooth, Air-like bass and drum machine I alluded to.
The short segue piece “Where Fleas Hide” signals the album’s turn toward the more menacing, and the mesmerizing “Stalker Song” begins with a vocoder-enhanced sample of a police interrogation regarding an assault in a woman’s home that sounds lifted from Cops: “Has he been stalking you? / Yeah”. A monstrous, heavy synth beat then explodes, evoking feelings of impending doom and horror. One of the most disturbing tracks I’ve heard in a long time, it’s also one of the most compelling, as it closes with the rest of the police conversation: “You’ve got to be careful, this isn’t over with yet. You’ve got to start documenting this or you’re going to end up dead.” “Colcannon” sounds like a continuation of the Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation, with a very danceable, yet sinister melody. The comically-titled “To the Devil a Donut” is as dark, but lighter in tone, Brooks’s own tribute to the old Hammer horror films. Brooks composes his own horror movie score, while interweaving excerpts from the Hammer film To the Devil a Daughter; over an infectious, funky beat, you hear Christopher Lee and Richard Widmark recite some funny B-Movie, Rosemary’s Baby rip-off dialogue, while a young Nastassja Kinski moans in the background.
But like emerging from out of the woods after taking a dreadfully wrong turn, you’re led back into the sunlight, rubbing your eyes, as “Kite Hill” plays. Combining Angelo Badalamenti-styled string orchestration with the same easy-going rhythm section that backed up the first two tracks, you hear Brooks at his best as a composer. Think Air meets Mulholland Drive meets Goldfrapp. It’s wondrous stuff, and Ming Star‘s best track. The delicate “The Watchmaker’s Hands”, with its simple music box melody (which brings to mind fellow Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy), and the ambient, reflective feel of “Theydon” continue the lighter theme. The aptly-titled album closer “Bakerloo (End Credits)”, reprises the wonderful melody from earlier on, giving you the feeling of leaving a neighborhood you’ve spent some both pleasant and harrowing time in. It looks cheerful enough, but now you’re more aware of the real nastiness lying beneath.
It’s got to be extremely difficult to break through the narrow opening between obscurity and commercial success that plagues electronic artists, and while we’re currently hearing “Moby” this and “DJ Shadow” that, King of Woolworths deserves to garner similar attention. His music is accessible, catchy, and completely original, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Ming Star is his debut album. Ming Star has been out for almost a year in the UK and Canada, and Brooks has already released an excellent follow-up UK single (the gorgeous “This Is Radio Theydon”), so this is a chance for American audience to get to know the King, and hopefully give him more of the attention he deserves. Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to resort to TV commercials to break through; the music found on Ming Star has a visual quality all its own, and works very well for listeners. We might not know the specifics of the big, freaky movie in Jon Brooks’s mind, but we have a really good idea with Ming Star, and frankly, I can’t wait for the sequel.