Music

Nightmares on Wax: In a Space Outta Sound

Neither a full reappraisal of the soul homage of Mind Elevation or a return to the lush sound of Carboot Soul -- rather, the middle ground between the two.


Nightmares on Wax

In a Space Outta Sound

Label: Warp
US Release Date: 2006-03-07
UK Release Date: 2006-03-20
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I awaited the release of the new Nightmares on Wax album with a tentative feeling of apprehension similar, but not entirely contiguous, to dread. Although albums such as Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul remain well-respected touchstones in the world of downtempo electronic music, 2002's Mind Elevation represented something of a departure. Although not a total shift in terms of mood, the album nonetheless represented a significant change in the producer's methodology. It was in essence a step backwards, away from the lushly-produced, borderline cinematic hip-hop compositions of his mid-period (to say nothing of the acid house of his early years) and in the direction of what could most charitably described as old-school jazz and soul pastiche.

Nightmares on Wax, the nom de guerre of DJ George Evelyn, essentially followed the same path as California-based DJ and producer Greyboy, by almost entirely stepping away from the popular downtempo and trip-hop -- or, acid jazz -- he had helped to popularize. Those in the electronic music scene had watched with some consternation as the nascent genre was hijacked by the same cosmopolitan scenesters who can be depended on to suck every last bit of cool from a trend. But it is somewhat perverse, not to mention downright churlish, that some of the most popular practitioners of the acid jazz sound have so thoroughly repudiated the scene they helped create. Those of us who remembered the dynamic languor of Carboot Soul could only scratch our heads in wonder at the lifeless and sterile somnolence of Mind Elevation. Sure, the endless procession of coffee-table trip-hop bands was a drag, but this was an overreaction in the wrong direction.

On the one hand, I can certainly understand why a certain breed of producers are fascinated by and drawn to the vintage soul, funk and jazz recordings of the '50s, '60s and '70s. But how is it, on the other hand, that such knowledgeable and talented producers are unable to pay direct homage to these periods without producing music that is, quite simply, about as compelling as watching paint dry? Funk and soul are not museum pieces, and approaching them with such a studied and respectful conscientiousness almost inevitably succeeds in draining every ounce of life from them. There were those who disliked Mind Elevation simply because it wasn't Carboot Soul II, but I wasn't one of them. I disliked Mind Elevation because it was an enervated and overly-mannered failure. A noble, well-intentioned failure, perhaps, but a failure nonetheless.

In a Space Outta Sound is neither a full reappraisal of the soul homage of Mind Elevation or a return to the lush sound of Carboot Soul. Rather, it strikes a convincing note in the middle ground somewhere between the two approaches. It still carries a strong taste of the previous album's ascetic distance, but there's enough verve present to push it out of the realm of total listlessness.

Nightmares on Wax albums usually begin with slow-building introductory tracks, and so In a Space Outta Sound begins with "Passion" -- ironically, perhaps the least passionate track here. When I heard the track's lackadaisical mix of discrete hip-hop beats and subdued Hammond organ, I gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst. But thankfully, "The Sweetest" came forward with a funky dub-reggae beat and slightly menacing bassline -- (very) modestly reminiscent of mid-era Massive Attack in its mixture of dub's moody atmosphere and hip-hop's sample-based brio.

The dub motif continues throughout the album, showing up in the dancehall-esque "Flip Ya Lid" and, later in the album, the sleepy anthem "Me!" "Flip Ya Lid" in particular is an extremely able updating of the vintage dancehall sound, complete with vintage '60s guitar licks and what sounds like genuine analog echo (but which is almost certainly the clever digital approximation of same). "Pudpots" is an instrumental track constructed around a series of horn flourishes and jazzy breakbeats. The construction is similar to many of Evelyn's past compositions in terms of elegantly simple structure and execution, even if the results are deceptively busy. Unlike many producers who fill their compositions with multiple lines of thought, Evelyn tends to keep his ideas focused and almost elementary. When he's off, the results can be pedantic and cloying -- but when it works, the results can be eloquent and surprisingly rich.

The conflicting sides of Evelyn's production acumen can be seen on "Damn" and "You Wish". "Damn" is almost a textbook example of an insufficiently developed idea, a seven-and-a-half-minute ballad built on a dry rhythmic framework that shuffles along for the entirety of the song without so much as a hint of tension. "You Wish" is half as long, but it's twice as satisfying a track because it manages to produce a ready evocation of tension in the form of the kind of slow, languorous guitar work that could have -- and probably did -- come straight off a '60s funk record. Somehow the mixture clicks on "You Wish", whereas "Damn" flops around in an unsatisfactory shamble.

Thankfully, he knows enough to pick up the tempo in the album's second half. "Deepdown" is downright funky, a subdued but still quietly riotous examination of bongo breaks offset by jazz samples and odd, vaguely Latin melodic touches. "Me!" almost sounds like a DJ Shadow composition, containing the same distinctive mixture of '70s sounds -- dub, rock and light jazz -- that Shadow brought to many tracks on The Private Press. The ballad vocals don't necessarily work as well, but they are fairly innocuous.

But for every misstep early in the album, the final tracks deliver a compelling argument in favor of Evelyn's continued creative relevance. "I Am You" is everything "Damn" wanted to be -- an epic soul balled built on the backbone of an incredibly funky rhythm section and developed into a massive, sustained exercise in dynamic tension. You get the very strong feeling that this is what Evelyn has been working for during the last album and a half worth of his output -- something tasteful and reserved in keeping with his previous style, and yet still passionate, able and willing to express more than merely just sterile craftsmanship.

"Soul Purpose" is an odd hybrid of '70s soul-pop -- think the Chi-Lites -- and an electro breakdancing jam. Somehow, it manages to hang together. But the best song on the album is probably the last, "African Pirates". More than any other track here, this has energy and life to it. More than merely the sum total of the samples involved, this manages to add elements of every phase of Evelyn's career. A dense, sample-oriented hip-hop construction evokes memories of early acid house as well as Latin dance. It swings and swaggers with a confidence that just wasn't present for much of the album, or indeed, the entirety of Mind Elevation.

And just when you think In a Space Outta Sound is just starting to build some momentum, it's over. This is slightly frustrating, especially for those of us who have been waiting a while to hear Nightmares on Wax regain the poise lost on their previous release. It's possible now to look at parts of this album and see what he was heading the whole time, and see where the sound can go in the future. While it would be presumptuous to call the album a definite return to form -- there are still too many mistakes and tentative missteps -- it can be classified as a step in the right direction. At this rate, with the confidence he's regained and the valuable insight into the mechanics of the soul and funk records he idolizes, Evelyn's next release should be one to watch.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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