Shipping News: Three-Four

David Antrobus

Shipping News


Label: Quarterstick
US Release Date: 2003-02-18
UK Release Date: 2003-02-24

It's easy to be ambivalent toward Shipping News. The Louisville, Kentucky threesome (plus friends) have a decidedly math- (or post-, or noodle-, or wank-, take your pick) rock pedigree, which could be alienating to say the least. But, um, whatever. What might we discover if we left our prejudices at the door and honestly attempted to view this latest offering as context-free music, without the distorting lens of shadow-throwing predecessors Slint (or even, for that matter, Shipping News' direct antecedents Rodan, June of 44, and Rachels)? Well, let's find out, shall we?

First, the factoids: Three-Four collects the songs from all three RMSN Series EPs (Carrier, Sickening Bridge, and Variegated), mixes up the order, and adds three new songs. From a fan's perspective, despite it not being a genuine shiny-new Shipping News album, this release nonetheless makes a certain amount of sense, since the original Series was limited to only 1,000 copies, and the EPs have now gone out of print. And not only are the songs remastered and re-sequenced here, but (for the curious) there are those three new songs tacked to the end, too.

Now, the premise: off the bat, this is not easy music, or even easy music to like. It can be discordant, and dense, and jagged, and "clever" in an annoying way. It can be profundity-promised but surface bland. It can be just plain odd. And to be honest, downing all 68 minutes and 53 seconds of Three-Four in one big gulp would likely be harsh and unpleasant for most listeners. Not everything works here; the original conceit of each band member (Jeff Mueller, guitar, vocals; Jason Noble, bass, vocals; and Kyle Crabtree, drums) writing and recording (and playing all instruments on) their respective songs was a bold one, but it occasionally left blurry impressionistic versions of songs which might otherwise have truly soared.

Finally, the soundbites: what we have here are less "songs" than "moments"; emotive moments, in which barely-articulated yet complex feelings are hinted at, occasionally caught in a mesh of sound, only to flap pitifully before disintegrating like insects at dusk. The opener, "Sickening Bridge Versus Horrible Bed", demonstrates this perfectly. Initially, a deceptively safe acoustic guitar strum is overlaid with vaguely nonchalant, unremarkable vocals in a near alt-country parody -- "why do you think things will change now that you're free?" -- until simple truncated slide guitar bleats imperceptibly gain an uneasy urgency, and are echoed by a disquieting series of heartsick moans ("oh, oh, oh . . .") before everything fades out. The effect is subtly disturbing. More harrowing yet is "...Diamond Lined Star..." -- a kind of distant bastard cousin to "Sickening Bridge..." -- which sounds like a brutal crime taking place in real time "right before our [helpless] eyes." A strummed guitar over a funereal tempo builds slowly, never reaching its implied climax. As in a nightmare, this ill-defined emergency cannot be addressed, and the creepy understated moaning vocals lend a greater sense of fear and foreboding than histrionics ever could. At the end, the repetition of "your bones" and "choke hold" is blood-freezingly chilling.

But I don't want to imply this is nothing but dank slowcore atmospherics. There are songs here that rock, too. Although its overall feel remains dark, "Haymaker" nevertheless churns out a blocky, scratchy mélange of harmonic/atonal guitar contrasts and off-kilter drumming that is most definitely at the rock end of jazz-rock. Perhaps it is simply associations triggered by the title, but this hefty instrumental has a sense of those complex feelings I mentioned earlier; in this case, suggestive of a kind of bewildered defensive indiscriminate lashing out. And the surprising "Cock-a-doodle-do", with its ominous mid-tempo drum lurch alongside resonant elastic bass and subtle spare delayed guitar, suddenly morphs from a kind of fucked-up drug-sick Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" into a ringing guitar segment that dares your heart to soar for a moment. Is it a false promise? Will the room (or the world) really stop spinning? We never get to find out, as the song collapses into a babble of radio static and a strange sentimental answering machine message that feels less like crowing and chest beating than like somebody's desperate craving for the heartbeat of human connection.

The vocals are not the Shipping News' strength. They are generally muted and low in the mix, and the sung melodies are often flat and featureless as a midwestern plain. Even when Chris Higdon of the band Elliott lends guest singing to "We Start to Drift", the emotion is conveyed more by the instruments. However, when the voice does discover sporadic peaks and valleys, they seem to take on a greater significance. Math-rocky tendencies threaten to swamp this song until the repeated "a setting winter sun" over relentless bass and drums suddenly ambushes you and, with its abrupt sadness, clutches at your heart. A lengthy and speculatively ambient coda adds to the sense that, however sorrowful, the song has been rescued from the brink of a murky kind of disaster.

Other honourable mentions: "Variegated" begins with an almost Thom Yorke-like falsetto moan over picked acoustic guitar, promising something sweet but then slowly merging -- panicky, paranoid -- into atonal shrieks and neo-industrial dissonance, sounding now like hulking monstrous things are stirring somewhere close by and weighing up warlike options. Torn, staticky, short-wave scraps flutter from the ragged end of the song, the cacophony of our times. And "Non-Volant" tries to reconcile its mournful repetitive vocals with an odd time signature that somehow makes your skin crawl, it's so damn lonely a sound. The mad funhouse screech of alley-cat viola strings near the end sounds like the Cure's "Caterpillar Girl" with all the whimsy replaced by discordant (barely subdued) rage. The four-note keyboard refrain is inexplicably horrifying.

Of the three new songs, "The Architect in Hell" begins like a "normal" rock song (ha, you know what's coming now, don't you?), propelling itself along with punchy momentum and disquieting lyrics until, midway through, an erupting guitar shreds everything within range like a sonic cluster bomb. And "Wax Museum" begins pugnaciously, with strutting effects-laden guitars and madcap drumming, and ends up strangely pretty in a jagged, hypervigilant kind of way. The final song, "Everglades" is a disappointment; that by-now familiar slow deep elastic bass/drum synchronized pseudo-jazz rock, with a flurry of clashing, crashing cymbals, seems rudderless and alone at the end, with nothing extra to distinguish it.

Three-Four is a hunted record. There is something predatory and dreadful stirring somewhere beyond the margins. This ain't candy, it's more like tough meat; in fact, there's a significant amount of tough gristle, and consequently isn't for everybody. On the other hand, flirting dangerously with the overly cerebral, the Shipping News somehow manage to isolate (at least a part of) the traumatized heart of enough of these songs to make this collection worthwhile.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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