Talkhouse Contributing Writer Rick Moody is a member of the Wingdale Community Singers. He is also the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays called On Celestial Music. Since 2009, he has written music criticism at the Rumpus.
It is our job today to speak to the elusive vocal quality known as flow, and to attempt, as with other elusive musical terms such as swing or feel, to evaluate, with respect to flow, whether there is a therethere. Our example is a not entirely new recording of music by the English electronic/psychedelic amalgam known as the Orb in collaboration with Jamaican titan (producer, theorist, Svengali, vocalist) Lee “Scratch” Perry, the second of these collaborations after last year’s satisfying The Orbserver in the Star House. Now, it is generally true that this, the second album from the sessions is a less coherent affair, and the reason for this is obvious: the best songs have already been cherry-picked for the original release. In this case, where the collaboration is strangely hybridized at first blush (some of what makes Lee “Scratch” Perry galvanizing is instantaneity and impulsiveness and these are not always easy to corral into the rigid compositional framework of electronica), it would be reasonable to assume that more is less. The Orb, in fact, can be soporific when consumed in large doses, the cannabinoid fumes suffusing yet another unmelodic whoosh of synths not particularly doing anything new, not entirely suggesting a listening experience so much as suggesting a stasis of mitigated decision-making. This can be welcome on occasion, and it can also be bottled as a sleep aid. Moreover, Lee “Scratch” Perry, now in his later seventies, has proven, in his most recent decade, that he can collaborate with just about anyone, up to and including Andrew W. K. Almost any musical environment can be bent in the prism of Perry’s impulses, reformed by sharing the proscenium with a sort of Sprechgesang that is part lyric, part standup, part religious testimony, part newsflash. Some of this work is mere testament to Perry’s enduring qualities and/or evidence that he will not stop until he renounces the flesh. This is all to say: one approaches More Tales from the Orbservatory with a bit of… dread. Indeed, there are only six unreleased tracks with Perry on this album, after which the thing reverts to “instrumentals.” Those six tracks are good, and, in the case of “Africa,” they rise to the level of greatness, even when you consider that the entire musical register of the song is composed by middle-aged Europeans who are about as African as the Chinese-manufactured t-shirt I’m wearing right now. “Fussball” is easy on the ears, an extended metaphor about soccer that also seems to be about the endurance of Rastafarian culture, “I’ll pass you on the left hand side… Kick the ball… Kick the ball… We’re gonna win the game.” Another track, “Tight Interlude,” manages to avoid the tedious drum programming of much IDM (intelligent dance music, which will always be an oxymoron to me) while featuring a recording of Perry percussing on his own thighs. It also contains this lovely conjunction of the Old Testamentary and the up-to-the-minute: “I am who I am, and I’m Wall Street.” “Making Love in Dub,” meanwhile, is the clearest indication of the flow referred to here at the outset. Perry comes up the with rhymes, in “Making Love in Dub,” in a sort of fit of lateralness or adjacency (rhyme dictating the meaning of the line, not vice versa), in a way that reminds me precisely of the word salad of certain schizophrenics of my acquaintance. “Life injection/New infection/Life direction.” These new compositions on More Tales are not inferior to The Orbserver in the Star House, though they are sometimes a bit more skeletal. However, they also indicate a thread inherent in this collaboration, a thread of some interest: the influence of dub itself, and the kind of thinking about the studio that Perry once stood for. There are few purveyors of postwar music who have been as revolutionary: Phil Spector, Alan Lomax, Brian Eno, George Clinton, John Cage, Les Paul. Lee “Scratch” Perry is in this rarified community (along with that other architect of the “dub” sound, King Tubby). And it does turn out that even if your project is somewhat devoid of ideas (j’accuse ici Alex Paterson of the Orb), there is still that prismatic bending that inevitably comes with Lee “Scratch” Perry. On The Orbserver in the Star House, that gravitational tug of dub was somewhat less apparent. The best track there, “Golden Clouds,” a remake of the Orb’s one legitimate “hit,” viz., “Puffy Little Clouds,” with its gorgeous Steve Reich sample, is basically Perry classing up the joint (in place of Rickie Lee Jones), which he manages simply by virtue of flow. Elsewhere, the dub on the first album is hinted at more than recollected outright, even on the cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” More trace than thing-in-itself. We are used to the suppression of the two and the four in contemporary Jamaican music because of the influence of hip-hop and electronica, and this is the march of progress, even if it amounts to a default on what was interesting about reggae, a unique and localized rhythm with its own set of performative gestures. The same is true ofdubstep, incidentally, that at the outset it was meant to speak to the two and the four, the offbeats, but now it refers to anyone who can cause their laptop to mimic the sound of a vacuum cleaner. The Orb mute the beautiful sinuous Jamaican rhythm on their cover of “Police and Thieves” on the The Orbserver in the Star House, even if Perry’s flow is amusing and antediluvian. But: something interesting happens on the instrumental tracks on More Tales from the Observatory, namely that the Orb falls back on some kind of synthetic rendering of the delay and echo and phase-shifting of dub in order to say what they want to say. This faux-dub echo simulation makes the whole sound a bit more faithful to reggae and a bit less like theworldbeat of its predecessor. A frankly post-modern gesture, yes, to be sure. Because you can’t make dub in 2013 the same way that Perry once made it. His studio no longer exists, and you don’t need tape decks falling out of phase to create that sound, and there are no longer the kinds of players who abounded in Perry’s prime. There are lots of deejays and emcees with their synthesizers, their computers, their presets, and their inherited beats. The Orb, that is, are like the Stray Cats playing rockabilly long after its era, distorting the legacy, reducing it, while attempting to celebrate it. Perry agrees to participate in this simulation because he is still alive, and there is enough limbic activity remaining, and shrewdness, and strange metaphor-rich weirdness, for him to recognize the need to adapt, if music, for him, is going to continue to happen. Is this all likable or loveable? It is frequently somewhat funky, and occasionally sly and amusing, and whatever you may think about Lee “Scratch” Perry now, versus the Upsetters — to speak to one particularly glorious chapter of his output — there are still moments when a great and oracular mystery emerges from his person, and the inexplicable density of rhyme and flow forms into a snaky hard-to-interpret statement of the being of Rastafarian and Jamaican culture, and you get the uncanny shiver that indicates that musical experience is taking place. And, I must add, on More Tales from the Orbservatory, this happens occasionally even when Perry is not at the mic. I admit that this is hard to believe, that there is accomplishment here, and I did not expect it myself, but the logic of the flowis that there is no logic at all, only the promptings of the thing, and you must follow it, the flow, where it goes, and where it goes is paradoxical, contradictory, and even when all the tools you believed necessary for the flow are no longer at your command, when you are in reduced circumstances, there is the possibility that the flow can still gush forth, however fleetingly, and then when you look up above, all is blue skies, or golden, and everywhere above you the clouds.