Music

Anne Dudley's 'Plays the Art of Noise' Is an Unexpected Triumph of Tunes Over Technology

Showcasing supreme piano versatility, a solo Anne Dudley proves that the instrumental gems she co-created in synthpop group Art of Noise can survive and even flourish without the car engine samples and robotic "dum-dum-dum" effects.

Plays the Art of Noise
Anne Dudley

Island

15 June 2018 (UK) 22 June 2018 (US)

It's a brave move indeed to attempt an unplugged version of Art of Noise track "Close (To the Edit)". Its heavy use of (what was) cutting-edge digital sampling technology made it one of the most electronically innovative singles to have come out of the mid-'80s. Surely, therefore, it depends upon the repeated sounds of a car engine stalling, a car engine restarting, a discarded drum riff from a Yes record, the Andrews Sisters singing "tra-la-la" and a woman shouting "hey!" The staccato treatment of these found sounds, interspersed with an apparent robot singing "dum-dum dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum", has got to be the whole point of the exercise, right? The reason for the record's existence? Well, maybe not.

On new album Plays the Art of Noise, Anne Dudley, a founder member of the eponymous English synthpop outfit, is audacious enough to demonstrate that "Close (To the Edit)" is as much to do with melody and composition as it is the samples that once signposted an entirely new form of music. She offers a stripped-down arrangement of the track that marries piano with beguiling percussive touches, rendering it strangely compelling through her nimble playing, crashing chords and mischievous tempo changes, ahead of a jazzy "diversion" into "World's Famous", a tune she originally recorded with Malcolm McClaren (for the hip-hop-centric album Duck Rock) in 1983. In the process, she somehow manages to retain the essence of "Close (To the Edit)" as she frees it from the computerized studio trickery that previously shackled it to 1984, and transforms it into something quite timeless.

Dudley performs a similar feat on a further 14 Art of Noise tracks on this album, where we get a clear sense of her setting the record straight over exactly what she contributed to the group. She joined Art of Noise as keyboardist and arranger in 1983 with the express purpose of supplying the melodies, yet her tunes were frequently overwhelmed by the high-concept techno-artistry administered by fellow founder-members Gary Langan (engineer/producer), JJ Jeczalik (programmer), Trevor Horn (producer) and Paul Morley (music journalist), with the aid, of course, of their newly acquired toy: the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) sampler.

For one thing, Dudley's compositions were obscured by the grand notion that Art of Noise was an "abstract" group, who wore masks and adorned their records with, let's say, enigmatic liner notes. For another, first single "Beat Box" found success on the back of the big beats underpinning its samples, by which it won an unlikely hip-hop audience in the States, just as debut-album opener "A Time for Fear (Who's Afraid)" thrived on a barrage of sampled orchestral stabs that punctuated excerpts of a Fidel Castro speech and a US army announcement from the time of the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Dudley's melodies were further subjugated during the second incarnation of Art of Noise (minus Horn and Morley) when a novelty factor crept into the group's increasingly commercial work. "Paranoimia", for instance, became a hit single in 1986 largely due to a computerized TV character, Max Headroom, stuttering all over it (you had to be there). Then there was the success of their idiosyncratic cover versions, one of which was the Henry Mancini-penned "Peter Gunn", in collaboration with King of Twang guitar legend Duane Eddy, which bagged them a Grammy Award. Another was the Prince-penned "Kiss", in collaboration with big-voiced 1960s favorite Tom Jones, which became an international hit in 1988.

Dudley actually appeared to gain more recognition for her melodic skills outside of the group, particularly as a string arranger for a host of notable British names dealing in sophisticated, often synthesized pop. She memorably notched up the drama on ABC's "The Look of Love" (1982) and brought an epic quality to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' "Rattlesnakes" (1984). She heightened the sense of romantic longing on Electronic's "Getting Away With It" (1991), and ramped up the sleaze factor on Pulp's "This Is Hardcore" (1998). Dudley further achieved fame by composing orchestral tunes for movies like The Full Monty (1997), for which she won an Oscar, and such shows as the BBC's Poldark (2015-18). Yet, despite the acclaim she has won in both these fields, she has continued to be rattled by a lack of kudos in connection with her old group, as she admitted to M Magazine last year: "I get quite annoyed when people think Art of Noise was just about computers and computer music." The reason, she added, was that: "there was a lot of playing about with sounds, really trying to get interesting chord sequences" (29 June 2017).

Dudley certainly lays bare the chord sequences on the minimalistic Plays the Art of Noise, in a concerted effort to mitigate these popular misconceptions concerning the group's oeuvre. That is not to say, however, that the new -- mainly piano -- arrangements constitute boring or sanitized versions of old favorites, with all the fun extracted. The cover design alone suggests otherwise, by mimicking that of the group's first, highly experimental EP, Into Battle With the Art of Noise, the image of the knight on horseback replaced by the semblance of a grand piano. A look inside the accompanying 12-page booklet further reveals that Dudley has chosen to emulate avant-garde composer John Cage on this album, through her use of a prepared grand piano. That accounts for the strange percussive sounds and vibrations on many of the tracks, as the prepared approach typically involves placing items such as nuts and bolts or pillows on or between the piano strings before playing, or simply plucking or thumping them, while maybe bashing the piano lid (whatever works!).

The most obvious outcome of the prepared-piano method on this album is that it is no longer possible to body pop to "Beat Box". Nor, indeed, any of the tracks. You can, on the other hand, sit and ponder some inventive and remarkably fresh-sounding melodies. "Close (To The Edit)" is probably the most surprising of the tracks in the way the myriad sampled noises of old have now become, well, musical notes, but there are revelations all over the place. "A Time for Fear (Who's Afraid)" is now devoid of the Castro speech but instead has a creepy piano motif that has been drawn out from the original, enough to give The Exorcist theme a run for its money. "Legs", also, is transformed from a so-so club-friendly affair into a track that motors along on an enthrallingly, erm, woodsy rhythm (is Anne taking a saw to her piano here?), before drifting off into dreamy melancholia. And "Beat Box" may lack the hip-hop beats from before, but it more than makes up for it with a glorious piano hook (plucked from the outro of the group's "Beat Box (Diversion One)") and some thunderous playing, together with some crashing percussive noises (and, no doubt, more damage to the poor piano).

"Moments in Love", meanwhile, is rendered here even more delicate than before, but it does suffer from overfamiliarity by having been remixed and re-recorded to death over the years and from having served as an all-too-frequent TV soundtrack to figure-skating routines and the like. It hardly matters, though, when all the other tracks sound so invigorated. "Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)", originally on Art of Noise's late-period concept album The Seduction of Claude Debussy (1999), actually benefits from the absence of John Hurt and an opera singer, by bringing a focus on some truly epic piano playing. "Backbeat", also, has a tremendous juddery urgency and big sound that you would hardly expect without the aid of additional instruments. On this note, however, it must be the case that Dudley is cheating a bit on "Paranoimia". There is a whiff of electronics here, for sure.

The overall absence of computers will take some getting used to for many, but there can be no doubt that Dudley has done an extraordinary job of reinventing the most iconic Art of Noise tracks on this album, adding enormously to the group's legacy. She succeeds in bringing to the limelight a wealth of previously underappreciated melodies, at a point when the art of sampling has long lost its edge within hip-hop and throughout pop music. But one wonders what impact the album might have in relation to those other sampling artists who flooded the charts in the wake of Art of Noise -- the likes of Bomb the Bass, S'Express and even, much later, the Avalanches. Might they attempt a similar project? Should we expect a piano-based version of the M/A/R/R/S hit "Pump Up the Volume"? There's a sobering thought.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Music

Becky Warren Shares "Good Luck" and Discusses Music and Depression (premiere + interview)

Becky Warren finds slivers of humor while addressing depression for the third time in as many solo concept albums, but now the daring artist is turning the focus on herself in a fight against a frightful foe.

Music

Fleet Foxes Take a Trip to the 'Shore'

On Shore, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way.

Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.